The Old Talks series: “Losing Oneself, Being Found, and Finding One’s Own Way: Lancelot’s Adventurous Travel Without Maps”

38th Annual Medieval Workshop, UBC
Vancouver, 2009

The theme: “Writing the World”


“Geography is the writing of the earth.” What happens when “writing” is moved into the subject position in this sentence?

This paper looks at a novel approach to “writing the world” in Chrétien de Troyes’s Lancelot ou le Chevalier de la charrette, with some further reference to continuations in the non-cyclic Prose Lancelot and the cyclic Lancelot-Graal.

Here, rather than being written, the world is being unwritten – sometimes to be rewritten but more often not – while we follow Lancelot in his various quests for identity, and observe parallels between the romances’ representations of travels external and internal, and allusions of that of writing. The paper will focus on movement into and out of an unreal irréaliste world, with particular attention to passages of transition, to show how romance offers mapping options beyond the reach of more conventional or expected approaches to cartography.

[This is part of work in progress on changes occurring in French romance over the course of the 13th c., and centred on the idea of courtesy. The project continues my doctoral work’s attempts to figure out the late 13th c. Occitan Romance of Flamenca: how odd it is, why it’s odd, what that oddness means, and its literary and literary-critical implications. The talk itself was somewhat whimsical; I should add that I myself like wandering around in a meandering ambling way, but I mainly enjoy traveling with maps (at least a mental one) and purpose, where the purpose is food / a pub / the next whisky bar. A picnic often works as a compromise.]


Beginning at the beginning, with the Prologue to Lancelot. Underpinning as it does the whole romance, and providing us with auctorial intention, it also works as a tightly-knit representation – a figurative mini work within the work – and presage of the romance to come. And how it does it is, I think, central to understanding how Lancelot works as a romance of adventure, that’s also a metaphorical work about the questing of writing and reading, and especially in its looking at their contraries: unmapping, unwriting, not getting there, and the contraries to attaining the quest, of – depending on the version – being lost, getting lost, or losing oneself.

This paper looks at one of several instances of the connection between fonds and forme in a Chrétien de Troyes romance. The connection between sign and signifier, where the role of the reader (any reader…) is to find the meaning in the gap between the two: so as to make sense of the work. I’m going to call this textual person the reader, even though at the time this position will be occupied by various other people too, from what amounts to private reading by copyists as part of their compositional process, through to audiences to which the work is being read, recited, otherwise performed. But I digress: this talk isn’t about the nature of contemporary performances and performative intent. It’s about Lancelot. And so, back to our text.

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The Countess provides matiere et san – note the distinction but connection – and Chrétien promises to think, and to add in nothing but his work and intellectual effort, with an “intentionality” of antancion especially when connected here at the rhyme to reison. Note that this rhyme is absent in the Guiot ms, but in Garrett – as Guiot’s been the version most often used in editions, many readers will have lost this aspect of a Chrétien with intention and reason.

Note also that Chrétien promises to do something, using a future tense, and tied to a hypothetical construction – here’s the kind of flattery, of erroneous additions, that others might use but that I won’t. Working backwards, the end of this passage brings together and turns around two previous ones:

– immediately before, the statement that the Countess’s commandment “does more work” in this work (with a nice early bit of classic Chrétien adnominatio) than does the other contribution, Chrétien’s sans en painne; both which terms are picked up again at the end of the whole prologue.

– and returning back to the very beginning: the Countess wanted me to undertake the making of a romance – explanation of the present work’s raison d’être, in the past tense – which I shall now do – in the future. With a cluster of an– based words, mostly verbs, with some adnominatio, and again picked up at the end of the Prologue: anpraigne, anprendrai, antiers, antremettre, an cest oevre, antremet, antancion.

There’s three core elements to point out here.

Firstly: that we have matiere, and sans, and then panser et antancion. This is one of the senses picked up in the bele conjointure in the prologue to Erec et Enide. Play on the double sans or “sense” will continue through this romance.

Secondly: the use of promise and intention – but with an uncertainty attached. The writing, and reading, are an adventure in themselves. It remains to be seen how the reader will participate – apart from the obvious finding of meaning as their quest.

Thirdly: that this will be a journey that – contrary to appearances – won’t go in a straight line (and, indeed, be a clear one and easy to follow), but that will twist and turn and return, where finding sense necessitates reading backwards, retracing one’s steps, and returning to previous signs along the way. See, for example, the use of adnominatio: like all punning devices, it’s dependent on retrospection – but, as in my previous point, also on looking forwards.

This will be particularly evident in the episode of the discovery of the blood-stains in the Queen’s bed-chamber; preceded and followed by a trail of bloody footprints, with a build-up to the crucial moment that starts when Lancelot crosses the sword bridge (as though that wasn’t already crux enough in its own right).

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But we’re not there yet.

Staying with that idea of retracing one’s steps: rereading Lancelot in the light of the Workshop’s theme of “writing the world”, and of mapping: here are the general traits I found.


Chrétien’s Lancelot is poetically spare but allusive, as concerns landscape. There is even less to see when one is travelling. Journeys tend to be down a dreit chemin, moving between one place and another without looking around. Which is of course sensible, if you’re an- adventuring and moving fast. But makes a curious conjunction with the whole adventuring motif, of the journey rather than its destination, and focus on quest, transformation, movement.

There are a couple of striking examples, where we see some more description.

– fight scenes involving neutral landscape and transitional zones – misty fords, high heaths,  gué, lande – and movement, lots of twisting and turning around, so that in following the action, one is disorientated. With possibilities of resuming the journey facing the wrong way.
Chrétien plays with this: Lancelot fights facing backwards, so as to watch the Queen.

– the final battle, with a well-laid-out field, fountain, and tree.

Two kinds of mapping emerge: first, a mapping of a location or event – a mimetic representation. Secondly, a sort of more diegetic mapping, one involving movement spatial and temporal: of tracing, tracking, following. When signs in the landscape are read, in the pursuit of the quest. These signs may already be present in the land – the perfect field for a fight, the two bridges – or they may be a change to it, rewriting the world: Guinevere’s hair on the comb on a stone, those blood-stains.


and the hesitation, and Lancelot’s reparation of his sin. Steps in very slow motion. Followed closely.


Transition and passage; and of course Lancelot’s own name, “spears the water”. There’s been plenty done on water symbolism in Lancelot, and on the symbolism of water plain and simple. What’s worth noting here, in the context of mapping and writing, is that water washes away – including washing away stains. It removes traces, unwriting. It can also confuse and confound one’s sense of direction: for instance, in the damsel’s castle, surrounded by waters; and if fighting in a gué, one of the numerous fords to be passed. If whirling and swirling, as is the case of the waters under the Bridge of the Sword, there’s an additional sense of vertigo and of potential loss of self in the maelstrom.


– and reversals of who’s following whom
– and additional episodes on this in the Prose.


This is actually where the paper started out: the very first work I did on Lancelot, in conjunction with the Charrette Project, was on the use of grammatical and lexical elements in the construction and development of this character. Slightly later, Lancelot came up again in work I was doing on trobar – in 12th and 13th c. Occitan lyric and French romance, the multiple “finding” of poetic composition, love, adventure, and further adventures metaphysical and epistemological.  This talk is a shorter version of a larger work in progress, on medieval French literary evidence for concepts that, in modern terms, will be called “imagination” and “fiction.” And that’s what I’ll be looking at today, principally in Chrétien de Troyes’ Lancelot ou le Chevalier de la charrette. There will be some mention of the Prose Lancelot, to draw some comparisons and show what is happening in Chrétien. (The larger version of this work includes several late twelfth and early thirteenth century French works, such as Marie de France’s Lais, other works by Chrétien de Troyes, the Bel Inconnu, Fergus, Tristan and Perceval and their prose continuations, romances by Gerbert de Montreuil, Jean Renart, and Raoul de Houdenc’s Meraugis de Portlesguez.)

The more evident things first:
We have an unnamed Knight of the Cart

Who appears, ghost-like, and undergoes a journey to another world, complete with lady guide at one point – and the parallels to Dante’s Beatrice in Auerbach’s “Figura” essay were quite striking – a journey involving travel over and through water, with possible further detrimental effects on memory.

All indications as to his identity, for some time, are future portents (what people say, the one who will release us, the words on his tomb – even the clumsy fez cil chi ornera towards the end, in reference to a Lancelot who now knows who he is, but disguises himself as the Red Knight).

For most of the romance, his presence is built up by such portents and hearsay and other indirectness: never do we have a cookie-cutter description of the perfect hero, mapped out from toes to head, nor the recounting of his past history, upbringing, and genealogy. Verbs associated with him tend to be people speaking about him, or him having things done to him: although once Lancelot has regained his name, using passive constructions is a good way to place his name at the start of a line, his grammatical passivity runs through the whole of the Chrétien part of the narrative. Even his movement is passive: much of it is indirect, such as by ignominious cart.

The start of Lancelot’s quest is vague. Not only do we not know who he is – which might provide some indications as to purpose and intent – but we don’t know why he’s in such a hurry, or following Keu’s bloody horse.

We find out a little more about Lancelot – before his naming – when we are first introduced to the magical ring given him by the fairy-lady. Once the knight of the cart falls in love with Guenevere at first sight, of course, everything can move on: he can have the requisite moment of losing himself, of falling into unknowing, a larger-scale narrativization of the same phenomenon in lyric – the same sort of “writ large” that will recur in the Guillaume de Lorris Roman de la Rose. So was Lancelot already lost? or back from a previous trip to other worlds? Although that odd first entrance of his suggests he had met Keu, the Queen, and Meleagant – and therefore would surely have fallen in love with the Queen.

But at any rate, the middle portion of the romance’s amourous sub-plot means that Lancelot can then be found, by the Queen, by her naming of him. Once again, a passive Lancelot, having things come to him – even on the field of combat. This is of course another side to the greatest knight in the world: that he doesn’t need to overdo things.

It’s interesting to note that, despite a shift in the middle portion of this romance to the adventure of the amorous individual, Lancelot doesn’t become any the less grammatically passive afterwards, nor does he stop being moved by others, rather than moving along himself.

What we do find, though, is that that first insight into Lancelot in love permits shifts in focalization, including the lengthy amorous soliloquies. From that first night of love between the lovers onwards we move from a position with the mysterious knight, but with little insight – to occasional internal focalization. In this middle section of the text, there is a correspondence between situation in the other-worldly Gorre, the amorous idyll, and stasis.


Lancelot finding Guinevere, love, and his name is not the end of our story. What happens next is much more interesting from a mapping point of view. For now, we come to

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[the bloody chamber]

Tracing, tracking, mapping. Signs and their significance.
From here onwards, we move back into questing-mode, and to following people: from searching for the Queen to searching for Lancelot, and from following alongside Lancelot, to following in his footsteps, to tracking him down, using signs – the blood, the disguise as Red Knight – to chart his movements. Narrative progress is punctuated by “voices off” making declarations of prophecy and prophecy foretold, whilst reader and protagonists alike are on a quest to find Lancelot: a trial run for the Grail. Our passive Lancelot, who still needs to be found by others; trapped by subterfuge by yet another dwarf, imprisoned, rescued by a damsel just in time to fight Meleagant when the allotted year is up, and controlled by Guinevere, in a recognition scene that mirrors the identification-scene in Gorre.


I’m not going to go into the prose version in any great detail – doing very much at all even with the non-cyclical Prose Lancelot alone would be ambitious within the parameters of a twenty-minute talk. What I’d like to do here is show how the sort of non-linear reading that Chrétien’s work necessitates can be carried over into reading the prose reworking and continuation as a later mapping of the verse romance.

The formal difference means that certain stylistic elements don’t translate: the use of the passive – partly as part of Chrétien’s virtuoso play with word order – and many of the rhetorical and poetic devices – rich rhyme, chiasmus, adnominatio, and so on. So something has to be substituted.

The extant manuscripts of the verse romance have very few full miniatures or historiated capitals, though they do have a fair number of decorated capitals. Manuscripts of the prose lancelot, however, are well provided with nice illuminations – including good use of illuminations outside their immediate context, to remind the reader of a connection to a previous passage, or herald one to come. (This is from those manuscripts I’ve seen – BNF and BL – though I don’t have slides; there are some on the Lancelot-Grail Project site.)

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The most obvious addition in the Prose Lancelot is the back-story: no beaten-up mysterious stranger in media res here, but Lancelot’s prehistory, upbringing by the Lady of the Lake, and much attention to his not wanting to know his true identity, but – even then, so young – being big-hearted, noble-hearted, and wanting to be judged by his deeds, to “make himself” through the expression of nobility of heart, rather than through noble genealogy and given name.

Lancelot’s rejection of given identity reappears later, as Chrétien’s episode of the disguised Red Knight is greatly expanded – maybe over-expanded, maybe to comic proportions – with Lancelot adopting several disguises and shields so as to reinforce the point. We also have, as elsewhere in the Cycle, the infusion of elements from others of Chrétien’s romances: here, an addition from the mad/lost Yvain ou le Chevalier au lion, and suggestions of Tristan (bearing in mind that there may be a lost Chrétien Tristan)

As in the latter portion of the Chrétien version, the quest becomes one for Lancelot, accompanied by a move to more straight-up chivalric adventure. A key difference between the Chrétien verse version, and the prose continuation, would be the move from identification with individual protagonist, to positioning with a collective person: court, Arthur’s knights. There is also a move to external knowledge: an addition of past history, knowledge from all points of view, and the total knowledge of all facts available; some distance from Chrétien’s Prologue, and moving with him, in a conjoined adventure into the unknown of writing and reading.

We gain physical descriptions – of places and persons – but lose the literary advantages of the verse Lancelot’s lack of description of location, with its effects of dislocation – as in other “irrealist” romances – and of a blurring of boundaries between internal and external, of boundaries between worlds. This is of crucial importance, of course, to the composition of an “adventure” in the larger sense – to include the adventures of writing, reading, and being and becoming. That feature being there in the first place is plainer when returning to the verse Lancelot after reading the prose version: one appreciates the more this sparse, allusive style, and the way that working harder to follow the san of signs and bloody tracks brings the attentive reader – qui s’i antremet a anprendre avec antancion – to a finer understanding of travel, and mapping, precisely through doing so without maps.

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So how does this Lancelot business fit with our workshop theme? Our workshop is on writing the world. From the programme, participants are taking quite a range of approaches to this theme. I’ve been looking at an example of its contrary: writing other worlds, and unwriting the world. *

I’d have liked to have used “Undone” as a title, but that’s already been done, alas.

I’m not a cartographer, or even a historian, but primarily a literary critic, albeit a philologically-trained one; so this work is a flat-footed return to primary sources, working things out from first principles. That having been said, I am still looking at ideas of representation, and purposes of writing and reading, and how they work. Indeed, it will be interesting to see how more metaphorical and abstracted kinds of “mapping” come to light over these next two days.** As for this present paper, its next stage is work in progress on ethical writing and modal realism, but that’s for another day …

* This paper’s premises are:
1. that there is such a thing as the real world, aka concrete reality. (I’m not that critical on the literary front). Humans make artefacts. Whose purpose may be the figurative representation of reality. Representation may be in different forms, or techniques, or materials. In this case, we’re looking at written text, for various sorts of subsequent audience consumption/appreciation: from solitary private readership (in which one might include copyists and other scribes), through to public performance.
2. Second premise: that there is such a thing as the imagination. (see Carruthers)
3. Third premise: that there are multiple possible worlds (David Lewis’s “modal realism”); whether these are seen as distinctly other worlds – as in speculative fictions, from (one reading of) Marie de France to Ursula Le Guin – or a connected mythical world – or as a part of a universal continuum, in the sense that Heaven and Hell are part of the same universe, but different realms. Whatever one’s stance on the matter, and however that stance is culturally and temporally determined, there is some perception of distinction, of drawing a line, between THIS HERE CONCRETE REALITY and SOMETHING ELSE.

** On the relative realism of the external narrative reality, and conflations in 12th c. matière de Rome and matière de Bretagne French (inc. Anglo-Norman) romance: see David Rollo. On irrealism: Payen. Lancelot does curious things with writing the world, and himself. Its contraries. Redoing it. This romance plays with idea of mapping (representation, realities, figurative work), and in so doing, tells us something worth knowing about what romance and adventure are. It shows an awareness of different realities, and plays with it, and shows it through playing with it. Particularly when the narrative moves from one reality to another. On another movement out of the writable world, see also, and further: Sylvia Huot’s recent work on madness, and Sarah Kay work in progress on melancholy. More, for basic starters: first, of course, read Chrétien de Troyes. Secondary, classic works:
Jane Burns
Peter Haidu
Sylvia Huot
David Kelly
Norris Lacy
Lacy, Kelly, & Busby (1987-88), The Legacy of CdeT
Gaston Paris
Rupert Pickens
Karl D. Uitti


  • Le non-dit in Flamenca: language, courtliness, and languages of courtliness”
    International Courtly Literature Society Triennial Congress
    Montréal, 2010
  • “The Trobairitz and Flamenca
    47th International Congress on Medieval Studies
    Kalamazoo, 2012
  • “La Consolation de l’amitié poétique au féminin dans le Roman de Flamenca
    Colloque SATOR
    University of Victoria, 2012
  • “Chat-up lines: the expression of feminine ingenuity in some Occitan hagiography”
    46th International Congress on Medieval Studies
    Kalamazoo, 2011
  • “The 13th-century Occitan Flamenca: a mere curiosity or a larger literary conundrum?”
    FHIS departmental research seminar
    UBC Vancouver, 2009

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