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Lancelot And Odysseus Essay, Research Paper
Lancelot and Odysseus
“Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; cling to what is
good (Romans 12:9).” This principal seems to be markedly evident as one closely
examines the actions and thoughts behind the character of Sir Lancelot in The
Knight of the Cart. When one encounters the adventures of Odysseus in The
Odyssey, however, the values of a completely different and slightly opposing
culture present themselves. In the medieval times of Sir Lancelot, an ideal man
would tend to follow the teachings of the Bible and live a relatively mild-
mannered life. On the other hand, in the culture of the Ancient Greeks, the
“perfect” role-model for life would be Odysseus and his perspicacious adventures
involving grandiose plots against him and his crew. The ideals exemplified by
Lancelot and Odysseus greatly and eloquently reflect the morals and aspirations
evident in the literature of their respective time periods. This idea is
demonstrated when one examines the similarities between Lancelot and Odysseus,
their differences, and the consequences of their actions on their lives.
Although Lancelot and Odysseus lived in completely different and
somewhat opposing time periods, their heroic and “larger than life”
personalities share some quite distinguishing characteristics. I say that their
time periods were somewhat opposing because the views of the culture regarding
the afterlife and any supernatural occurrence represent the conflict present
between monotheism and polytheism. One mutual characteristic of Lancelot and
Odysseus is their physical prowess present when they do battle against anyone
opposing their divine quest. Odysseus tends to take a more militaristic and
pitiless attitude toward this combat as shown during his battle with the suitors.
Not only does Odysseus slay the entire lot of suitors, but he kills any servant
or maid that has been unfaithful to him in his absence. Lancelot, on the other
hand, pursues his ultimate goal with an undying diligence while trying, more
often than not, to take pity on the individuals that he must combat. This is
best demonstrated in The Knight of the Cart when Lancelot fights the knight
that repeatedly taunts him about riding in the cart. Although he initially
shows this knight mercy by giving him another chance to fight against him, this
compassion is revoked as Lancelot wins for a second time and beheads the knight.
Lancelot reveals, by this action, a desire to be just to all; he wants to be
generous to the girl while showing compassion to the defeated knight. Another
shared feature in the personalities of Lancelot and Odysseus is their
interminable desire to follow through on their quest to which they have devoted
a large portion of their lives. Even though, in the case of Odysseus, this
quest is not one that is embarked upon voluntarily, he pursues it with a passion
so rich and intense that it can hardly go unnoticed to the attentive reader.
This is also the case with Lancelot and his continuous efforts at attaining the
fleetlingly elusive love of Guinevere. This is illustrated at the numerous
points in the story when Lancelot sacrifices himself or his own needs to satiate
those of the queen. This passion shared by both Lancelot and Odysseus is a
common thread between the two and represents at least one similarity between the
viewpoints of the Greeks and the medieval Europeans.
The cultures of the medieval Europeans and the Greeks do, in fact, share
many similarities; however as one probes deeper into the characters represented
in their literature, it usually appears that the converse is true. Although
both men represent the heroic ideal, this ideal is quite different to Greek
society than it was in the twelfth-century Europe. For instance, the way that
the hero views himself varies exceptionally between the two cultures. Odysseus
commits the terrible sin of hubris on numerous occasions in The Odyssey. For
instance, when Odysseus and his crew must pass the sirens to return to Ithaca,
Odysseus insists that he be tied to the front of the boat with his ears plugged
so he can accomplish the feat that no other man before him could do. The
opposite is true for Lancelot as is evident at numerous points in the story.
One example of Lancelot’s selflessness is during the contest when Guinevere
tells him to do his worst. Because of Lancelot’s devotion to his love and her
every word, he deliberately embarrasses himself in every event to prove his
undying faithfulness. The issue of loyalty is another pronounced difference in
the characters of Odysseus of Lancelot. To Odysseus, loyalty apparently did not
mean faithfulness to his loving and persevering wife, Penelope. This is shown
when Odysseus has sex with Calypso and Circe obviously for his own pleasure and
in no way for the sake of his wife. On the other hand, Lancelot agrees to sleep
with the girl who offers him lodging only after pleading with her not to make
him sleep with her. He did this not because the girl was unattractive for he
states, “Many men would have thanked her five hundred times for such an offer
(219).” He agrees to this act only because he believes that he needs the
lodging to rest himself so he can dutifully continue his quest for Guinevere.
The cause of this difference between Lancelot and Odysseus apparently goes much
deeper than the surface actions of the characters. This idea rests on the
individual principals of the two men and how they see themselves in relation to
others around them. Odysseus sees himself as better than other men while
Lancelot tends to take a more humble attitude much like that of Christ. These
attitudes, I believe, represent the viewpoints or ideals held by the general
people during the time periods of these two men.
One effective mean of judging the actions of a person is by looking at
the consequences or results of the actions after which that person has chosen to
model his or her life. For both Lancelot and Odysseus, the actions they choose
lead to their ultimate goal, but the effects along the way are quite different.
In the case of Odysseus, his numerous trespasses against Poseidon cause a
considerable amount of hardships against him and his crew. For instance, every
time the ships of Odysseus approach Ithaca, Poseidon, either directly or
indirectly, manages to reroute their course to a place much less desirable.
Another aspect worth mentioning is the vicious cycle in which Odysseus seems to
be caught at the end of the epic. The family of Antinous seeks revenge for his
death and Zeus is the only one, in the end, who can stop this cycle. When the
events that occur in the adventures of Lancelot are closely analyzed, however,
there seems to appear a substantially happier existence. Lancelot is so
overjoyed at one point in the story that he slices his hands on the iron bars
attempting to reach Guinevere and does not even realize his own lacerations. He
also, throughout his adventures, tries to the best of his ability to live a life
like Christ. Even though some might argue that Christ would hardly kill another
man, I believe that Lancelot, like every man since the dawn of time, has flaws
that are inherent, due to the original sin of Adam and Eve, and does the best
that he can to live up to the standards set by his role-model, Jesus Christ. In
addition, Lancelot, at the end of the story, retains his dignity as an
upstanding man that possesses all of the above described qualities. Although
this can be said, to some extent, about Odysseus, he would not be judged by the
standards we hold today to be an upstanding man of moral integrity. This is not
to say that we should enforce the ideals and values that we hold as a culture
down upon a civilization that did not live by the same values that we do today.
It is only to state that the actions of these characters reflect the natural
laws that are always present around us; therefore, the consequences or rewards
of life reflect those actions.
The literature produced by both the medieval Europeans and the ancient
Greeks provides an informative glance into the ethics and archetypical standards
by which they lived. The literature in the time of Odysseus presents the heroic
ideal as one of extreme physical prowess but seems to be relentless in his
constant pursuit of those who wrong him or are in any way unjust to him and his
family. When one looks at The Knight of the Cart, Lancelot appears to have this
same brawn; however Lancelot generally restrains himself and at least tries to
look compassionately at those with whom he must do combat. Although each of
these time periods is quite different from the other in many ways, this is not
to say that one culture has supremacy over the other or is any more valuable to
the Western thought of today. Each civilization has donated much which governs
the way we think today and should be regarded with the utmost respect as a truly
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