Victories foretelling disgrace: judicial duels in the prose Lancelot

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Author: David S. King
Date: Summer 2016
From: South Atlantic Review(Vol. 81, Issue 2)
Publisher: South Atlantic Modern Language Association
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 7,825 words

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Much of the thirteenth-century French Prose Lancelot glorifies the love between Lancelot and Guenevere. On that point, critics agree. In the early twentieth century, scholars saw the final third of the romance, the Agravain, as denigrating that love and turning toward the ascetic concerns of the next installment in the Lancelot-Grail Cycle, La Queste del Saint Graal. (1) In 1986, Elspeth Kennedy, informed by her work as editor and translator of the non-cyclic version of the romance, Lancelot do Lac, proposed an earlier moment of transition in the cyclic romance. She notes a "major change in direction" beginning halfway through the narrative that "helps prepare the way for the very different attitude towards the moral value of Lancelot and Guenevere's love to be found later in the cycle" (257). In a more recent volume, Annie Combes concurs, indicating the same juncture as the beginning of Lancelot's "stagnation ethique et guerriere, que ne boulverse pas meme son passage au chateau du Graal" 'ethical and martial stagnation that even his visit to the Grail castle does not perturb' (366). But some have questioned whether there is any meaningful transition at all. Carol Dover downplays the importance of the "denunciations of the hero" that "come from monastic or hermit figures" (67). The latest to weigh in on the debate, David F. Hult, claims that even in the Agravain, "l'amour est exalte par-dessus tout" 'love is exalted above all else' (62). Other recent scholarship has done little to alleviate these doubts. Those addressing the harmony of spirit between the two romances focus their attention on overt references to the Grail adventure of the sort that Dover and Hult dismiss as interpolations alien to the concerns of the original author(s) of the Prose Lancelot. (2) Demonstrating a "change in direction" integral to the romance requires instead an examination of elements in the narrative with no apparent connection to the Grail story.

The romance's judicial duels provide just such material, and a careful reading of them affirms Combes's and Kennedy's judgment about the moment of transition. As in other medieval romances, the narrator suggests and characters assume divine participation in these duels, provided certain procedures are followed. Lancelot serves as champion in five of the romance's eleven trials by combat, yet only one of his duels conforms to the tradition of oaths and pledges. In that instance, the romance's last judicial contest, Lancelot defends a knight falsely accused of attempting the very transgression he himself commits--sleeping with another man's wife. The acquittal bears the imprimatur of immanent justice, while the facts of the case draw attention to Lancelot's sin with the queen. His four other duels, the first of which takes place at the romance's midpoint, either involve Guenevere directly or arise from his protection of her. Although the causes are dubious, he emerges victorious in each contest. However, these results suggest neither a failure of the judicium Dei nor divine sanction for the lovers' adultery. Because the trials deviate from customary procedures, the narrative annuls...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A455406091