The Literary Alchemy of “The Knight in the Cart”

"Literary alchemy" is a phrase used by John Granger, scholar, writer and blogger, to describe the process by which one can undergo personal transformation by engaging with literature, notably Harry Potter. Indeed, literature provides a mythic metaphorical framework for personal development by being a vessel for our projections and is subject to personal interpretation rather than to a universal collective understanding. This is what makes the hero’s journey as outlined by Joseph Campbell and popularized by Christopher Voegler significant: that through this outlined process, not only can a storyteller tell a compelling story, but the reader is transported to new worlds through the power of the imagination and can become the hero. With the hero, the reader suffers, laughs and cries, and fights the bad guy to earn the boon. While Granger discusses literary alchemy in conjunction with Harry Potter without psychological implications, this process can be applied to any story or archetype that induces mythic and psychic transformation. The prima materia is the individual and the lapis, or Philosopher’s Stone, is the desired outcome.

Much has been explored and discussed about the psychological metaphor of Arthurian Romances and the quest for the Holy Grail. In his book, He: Understanding Masculine Psychology, Robert Johnson notes that the Grail myth functions as both the model for understanding masculine psychology in both men and women and the prescription for curing the psychological ailment of modern society characterized in literature by the lost and abandoned hero (x, 11, 7). Joseph Campbell suggests that the Grail “is a topic that can serve to guide us from the general universal themes of myth into the material that is specifically of the European consciousness that we inherit” (Transformations 209).

The Grail has taken on various images in the different versions of the Grail stories. Traditionally, the Grail is identified with the Arc of the Covenant, and an elaborate collection of legends exists about the Knights Templar and their mission to guard it. Other interpretations include Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzifal, which imagines the Grail as a slab, Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code, which imagines the Grail to be the bloodline begun by Christ and Mary Magdalene, and the Disney film, National Treasure, imagines it to be the entirety of Templar and Masonic treasure housed underneath Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

The Grail symbol is parallel to the symbol of the Philosopher’s Stone, and the quest for it is the same as for the boon of the Self. Like the psychological wholeness pursued in Jung’s individuation process, the Grail is long sought and rarely found in the course of a knight’s lifetime. The two changes Parzifal received to enter the Grail castle are more exception than the norm. The romances stress that one only has one opportunity to win the Grail in the knight’s lifetime. This interpretation, however, can lead to a misunderstanding about the Grail/Self quest as a linear, one-time process. To find the Grail is the ultimate quest, but it is regarded in lieu of all the little adventures that occur along the way. Even Parzifal diminishes the meaning of his adventures because of his desire to return to the Grail castle. An alchemical reading of Arthurian romance reminds the reader that the Grail can be found at the end of all quests, because it manifests in the form needed by the psyche when the time is right. Chrétien de Troyes’ story, "Lancelot" or "The Knight in the Cart" is a clear example of the alchemical process at work in Arthurian romance. Lancelot’s quest is not for the Holy Grail, per se, but, rather, for his personal Grail in Guinevere.

The alchemical process is a convenient alternative to both the Jungian process of individuation and Campbell’s model for the hero myth. All three processes involve a transformation from one substance, the prima materia, into another, the lapis or Philosopher’s Stone. The alchemical process concentrates on manipulating a substance to transform it into another, onto which the alchemist can project his psychic wanderings. The hero cycle applies mostly to a recurrent theme in various forms of literature, onto which the reader can project his or her own psychic energies. The process of individuation is a psychic, unconscious transformation that helps bring a person closer to inner wholeness. Because of the unconscious nature of individuation, one has to be guided through a manifestation of it by experiencing myth in order to live it properly. From this perspective, alchemy and the monomyth are fundamentally the same, giving two different languages and perspectives for this transformative process, while individuation is the actual transformation in the physical world. That said, literary alchemy bridges the three perspectives to establish a common language. The thing onto which the reader projects is the literary text, offered as the substance and equipment of the work. The mythic nature of literature links it actively to the reader’s psyches. The power of Harry Potter, for example, is based on the substances and the equipment Rowling provides and the powerful archetypes that tickle the reader’s imagination. Through an alchemical reading, the myth is internalized and acts as a catalyst for or a guide through the individuation process. Literary alchemy transforms the mythic metaphor into something tangible and personally relevant to the reader. Otherwise, literary analysis has no personal meaning.

Chrétien begins Lancelot’s adventure in “The Knight in the Cart” after the abduction of Guinevere and Kay. Gawain initially rides to rescue them, but is joined by Lancelot when Lancelot’s horse collapses from too much intense riding. Desperate to continue on his quest, and without any other available option, Lancelot jumps into the back of a passing cart driven by a dwarf. When Lancelot jumps into the back of the dwarf’s cart, he begins his nigredo phase. Though he is not literally blackened, his reputation is tarnished because the cart is the ride for prisoners and criminals, not knights of the Round Table. Like Lancelot, this phase is necessary for all heroes who embark upon an adventure. The blackening phase is when the prima materia is burnt and is transformed by fire, losing its original luster. Transformation by fire has different affects on different substances: a liquid will be transformed into a gas, or a solid can be transformed either destructively, as in the case of wood, or constructively, as in the case of clay into pottery. In Lancelot’s case, and the case of literary alchemy, the blackening is one of construction. Even though his reputation is tarnished by his actions, the potential remains for redemption, salvation and a personal transformation that will void his actions. Like in the model of Campbell’s monomyth, this is akin to the separation, the threshold crossing through which the hero is plunged into the unknown. It is though Lancelot, the great knight, is dead to the community.

Of the ordeals Lancelot then endures before his sacred (re-)union with Guinevere, the sword bridge stands out among the rest. This would be the rubedo, a metaphorical red death in preparation for the sacred union. On his quest, Lancelot faces the challenge of needing to cross one of two bridges: he can either cross the Sword Bridge, or he can cross the Water Bridge. Advised that crossing the Water Bridge is slightly less dangerous, Gawain chooses that route, forcing Lancelot to take the Sword Bridge. Lancelot accepts this because he is feverish in his desire to rescue Guinevere. The bridge is pictured to be “a polished, gleaming sword… as long as two lances” crossing a “black and turbid” river “as horrid and terrifying as if it were the Devil’s river” (225). Two lions guard the other side. To cross the river, Lancelot crawls over the bridge, cutting his hands and legs on the edges of the sword. He crosses fully into the inner sphere of the underworld. The implications for the reader are those of a combination of unconscious psychic energy with the life force of the realm of pure consciousness. It is in this inner sphere that the final transformation takes place, the final series of vessels through with the substance will pass.

Maleagant, Guinevere and Kay’s captor, welcomes Lancelot’s arrival into the kingdom with combat. Lancelot is further injured in the combat, compounding the injuries he sustained while crossing the bridge. After the combat, Lancelot must re-earn his lady’s good favor, signified by a sacred, forbidden union with Guinevere. Because of his injuries, Lancelot bleeds all over the union bed, which is covered in white. The result of the union is a bed that is both red and white, representing the union between the Red King and the White Queen. Grail romances are mixed on the treatment of their affair. Earlier romances praise their relentless pursuit of their love, while later romances blame her infidelity for the break up of the Round Table.

Hans Zimmer describes Lancelot as "an incarnation of the idea for manhood that exists, not in the world of masculine social action, but in the hopes and fancies of the feminine imagination" (133). Guinevere represents the feminine imagination. If Lancelot is the feminine ideal and Arthur is the social ideal, as suggested by Johnson, then Guinevere’s split between love and duty is admirable, and paralleled in feminine literature and the other Grail romances. For example, this is the debate experienced by Elizabeth Bennet in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. She is in pursuit of love, but society demands that she marry for money while her class makes it difficult for her to marry well. The case of Elizabeth Bennet is unique, and has fuelled the femnine psyche since its publication. In the end, Elizabeth does not have to choose. She finds both her ideal and a wealthy social ideal in Mr. Darcy. Furthermore, she won his love by being herself and willing to challenge his class-based behaviors, rather than treated as an object of negotiation by her father. Guinevere’s position is not so fortunate. According to Tennyson, Arthur won her hand and she was thus socially obliged to him. Her true love, however, is Lancelot. An improper union is said to produce a homunculus in the alchemical tradition. The homocunlus is a human-like creature not created by a traditional union (alchemical chemistry). In the practice of literary alchemy, this homunculus can be symbolized as coming from an improper union between two people, a bastard with no genuine, clear father. Guinevere’s son, Modred, is credited as being sired by Arthur, but is suspected to be Lancelot’s son. Since his parentage is called into question, he represents the result of Guinevere’s improper union. Because Modred is conflicted about his birth, he plots and fights against Arthur. Tennyson suggests that if Guinevere and Lancelot had remained loyal to Arthur and respected the royal marriage vows, the Round Table would have continued into future generations.

The other interpretation of Lancelot’s and Guinevere’s union is a symbol of pure, embodied love. Joseph Campbell attributes the rise of AMOR with the rise of the Grail romances. This is when troubadours began to sing of the power of love over the power of duty, exploring the “mystic theme of individual experience in depth, opposed to the sacramental claim” (Campbell, Occidental 509). From the reader’s perspective, this positive outcome of their union is the more transformative. Whether the reader is male and identifies with Lancelot, female and identifies with Guinevere, or cross-gendered and identifies with either one, this reading of the romances is on of a union between ego with either animus or anima, the psychological non-shadow counterpart to the ego. The sacred union is the most crucial aspect of the transformation into the Philosopher’s Stone. After the prima materia is blackened and purified, a new substance must be introduced to it to make it into something else, for example, the introduction of sulfur to lead to make gold. Furthermore, as the new substance is added, the distinction between the inner substance and the end result blurs:

Thus the Philosopher’s Stone, the end result of the process, has the same multiplicity in unity as does the original stuff at the beginning. The difference is that it is now a Stone, i.e., concrete, indestructible reality. … It suggests that a cycle is completed, the end is a new beginning in the eternal circulatio, and that the Stone, like Christ, is both Alpha and Omega. (Edinger 294)

Psychologically, the leaden nature of the prima materia represents the nature of the person as he or she stands at the beginning of the work. The transformation is a purification and cleansing process, bringing all of the elements within one’s psyche to the surface, and thus awakening the Philosopher’s Stone from within the prima materia.

Following Lancelot’s union is a period of isolation, a period of percolating while the effects of the transformation come to be. He is kept captive in a tower by Maleagant. Captivity in the tower forces Lancelot to reflect and to heal from his injuries. Through the course of the hero cycle, the hero must, at some point, heal from his or her injuries in order to be fully prepared to enter into the final battle. Maleagant represents Lancelot’s nemesis and his psychological shadow. Engaging in a literary battle allows the reader to acknowledge and thus satiate the shadow before it boils to the surface and causes potential damage. Like Lancelot, he has declared love for Guinevere and is willing to fight to keep her. Conquering Maleagant is the final step before Lancelot’s Philosopher’s Stone can rise to the surface. This union is a union between sun and shadow and is distinct from the sacred union between Red King and White Queen, or sun and moon (Fabricius 194). Without this union, Lancelot would always have to fear extra competition other than Arthur for Guinevere. The light from the sun is only so bright when it has darkness to provide contrast. The boon Lancelot receives from Maleagant makes him more complete, and thus more symbolically heroic.

The literary alchemical tradition laid out by the Grail romances continues through the subsequent generations of literature. Some works directly explore the Holy Grail as the central goal of the quest, others explore the hero as chivalarous questor in search of a something Grail-like though not necessarily the Grail itself, and others explore the romance, AMOR, as seeking to experience either new, true or forbidden love. For the modern Western reader, these are crucial, vital methods for making sense of his or her place in the universe because of the distance now placed between the reader and sacred traditions. Stories in the Grail tradition connect a reader with the unconscious, personal and collective. Alchemy is about transformation. Sacred traditions incited transformation through rituals. With the separation from sacred tradition comes the loss of community. Some might claim that this coincides with the death of myth, or more appropriately, its own alchemical transformation from sacred to profane. This is why modern myth can be understood as any outlet that communicates to a person, usually within literature and film or television, and is more psychologically driven. An alchemical reading of a literary text, such as “Lancelot,” helps the reader internalize myth by connecting with it on a personal level.

Works cited

  • Campbell, Joseph. The Masks of God: Occidental Mythology. New York: Penguin Compass, 1964.
  • —–. Transformations of Myth Through Time. New York: HarperPerennial, 1999.
  • Edinger, Edward F. Ego and Archetype: Individuation and the Religious Function of the Psyche. Boston: Shambhala, 1992.
  • Fabricius, Johannes. Alchemy: The Medieval Alchemists and their Royal Art. London: Diamond Books, 1994.
  • Johnson, Robert A. He: Understanding Masculine Psychology. New York: Harper & Row, 1989.
  • Tennyson, Lord Alfred. Idylls of the King and a Selection of Poems. New York: Signey, 2003.
  • de Troyes, Chrétien. “Lancelot.” Arthurian Romances. Trans. D. D. R. Owen. London: Everyman, 1993.
  • Zimmer, Hans. The King and the Corpse: Tales of the Soul’s Conquest of Evil. Ed. Joseph Campbell. Princeton: Princeton U P, 1975.