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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

great culture.

331


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