Academic journal article The Romanic Review

The Love That Dares Not Speak Its Name: Displacing and Silencing the Shame of Adultery in le Chevalier De la Charrete

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

The Love That Dares Not Speak Its Name: Displacing and Silencing the Shame of Adultery in le Chevalier De la Charrete

Article excerpt

For some, Lancelot, the hero of Chretien de Troy's Chevalier de la Charrete, is a noble lover, a fin amant performing deeds of valor inspired by his amour courtois, (1) but for many other readers, including some of the earliest, Lancelot is an adulterer and a traitor, who is violating his bond to his liege lord. (2) The issue remains central to much of the recent scholarship and criticism on Chretien's most famous romance, but is it a valid issue? Should we concern ourselves with a value judgment of Lancelot and of his love, and is it inherent in the text itself? Not surprisingly, given the variety of opinions on this romance, on even the question of whether there is a question we get equivocal answers. While the text never puts the issue so explicitly or in such clear and black-and-white terms as I just have, the narrator does report varied and conflicting views of Lancelot. On the one hand, while Lancelot wins much honor and fame for his chivalric deeds, he is never praised for his love (courtly or otherwise) for the queen. On the other hand, even his courage and prowess are not infrequently called into question: he is often mocked, insulted, and scorned, and not just by his enemies. Moreover, Lancelot's outstanding act of chivalry, the valorous freeing of the queen, receives less than its just due: Guinevere's initial response is to refuse to speak to him, and King Arthur and his court try to give the credit to Gawain, whom they welcome proclaiming that he "la reine a ramenee / et mainte dame escheitevee / et maint prison nos a randu" ["rescued the queen and many other captive ladies / and returned many prisoners to us"] (5317-19; trans. Staines 235). (3)

Many of us have long accepted that Lancelot is King Arthur's best knight or, in the 1995 movie's terms the "first knight" (although in the medieval tradition Gawain would seem more deserving of this epithet), (4) and we have often viewed Lancelot's love for the queen as noble and ennobling. What we have done less frequently is to confront the inherent contradiction in these judgments--how the king's best knight can also be his cuckolder; and what has, as far as I can tell, never been addressed is the startling fact that Chretien de Troyes never deals directly with the conflict either. (5) Yet surely this is a central issue in the romance, not just for us today, but even for the earliest readings and retellings of Lancelot's story. If we can neither simply exalt Lancelot for his valor and his unswerving love nor wholeheartedly condemn him for traitorous adultery, then at the very least it should be legitimate to point to the contradiction in these two views. In fact, the issue and the conflict are embedded in Chretien de Troyes' romance, although the compulsion to resolve the contradiction lies primarily outside the text and runs counter to what takes place within the narrative of Le Chevalier de la Charrete. (6) Unlike the more rationalized later views of the love affair, neither Chretien de Troyes nor his putative continuator, Godefroy de Leigni, shows us Lancelot regretting his affair, let alone abjuring it. How the narrative manages to avoid any explicit engagement with the problem of a valorous knight in love with his liege's queen and at the same time can keep reminding us of the insoluble ethical problem of Lancelot's behavior is what I will address in this essay.

Chretien's principal strategy for both showing and avoiding Lancelot's dishonorable behavior is displacement. As Matilda Bruckner points out Chretien "displaces and relocates through displacement" the way adultery constitutes "treason to the King" (Shaping Romance 96). We can therefore read the romance's silence on the subject as a deliberate suppression, a suppression that Chretien underscores in several ways: by displacing the shame of adultery onto other actions and other characters; by drawing attention to the suppression through various strategies, such as narrative inconsistencies and gaps; and by adducing and displacing allusions to other legendary adulterers known to his audience. …

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