Both the English and French cycles of Arthurian Legend are dominated by three inter-related themes:
• The fellowship of the knights of the Round Table
• The quests for the Holy Grail (the Sangreal)
• The Arthur/Guinevere/Lancelot love-triangle
Throughout, Lancelot is arguably as important a figure as Arthur himself. In French versions of the legend more attention is focused on Sir Lancelot than on King Arthur, and the French - compared to their English counterparts - appeared to be interested in the balance between the spiritual dimension and the earthly. The character of Lancelot fitted the bill more readily than did the King, but ultimately, for all his 'noble chevalry', Lancelot remains a figure of tragic failure.
In summary: Sir Lancelot is regarded as the first and greatest of King Arthur's legendary knights. Son of King Ban of Benoic (anglicized as Benwick) and Queen Elaine, he is known as Lancelot of the Lake (or Lancelot du Lac) because he was raised by Vivien, the Lady of the Lake. His knightly adventures include the rescue of Queen Guinevere from the evil Méléagant, a failed quest for the Holy Grail, and a further rescue of Guinevere after she is condemned to be burned at the stake for adultery (with him). Lancelot is also loved by Elaine of Astolat (the daughter of King Pelles) who dies of grief because her love is unrequited. Another Elaine (Elaine of Corbenic) tricks him - apparently he thought she was Guinevere - into sleeping with her (and begetting Galahad). His long relationship with the real Guinevere ultimately brings about the destruction of King Arthur's realm.
Sir Lancelot first appears in Arthurian legend in 'Le Chevalier de la Charrette', one of a set of five Arthurian romances written by the French poet Chrétien de Troyes (completed by Godefroy de Lagny) as a large collection of verses, c.1180 to 1240. Lancelot is characterised alongside other knights, notably Gawain, Kay, and Méléagant (or Meliagaunce) - a consistent rival and parallel anti-hero against Lancelot - and is already heavily involved in his legendary romance with Guinevere, King Arthur's queen.
The dual role of (i) superb knight-at-arms and (ii) enduring, courtly lover defines Lancelot's legendary gallantry. The incongruous notion of the super-hero resorting to a 'charrette' (cart) arises when Guinevere was abducted by Méléagant (the son of King Bagdemagus). Lancelot - hesitatingly at first, to Guinevere's later disgust - pursued him in a cart driven by a dwarf. The episode culminates in Lancelot's 'crossing of the Sword Bridge': a bridge consisting from end to end of a sharply honed blade. Ultimately it is Lancelot's character - the epitome of constancy and obedience to love - which is the key to his defeat of Méléagant and the self-love, treachery, and cruelty which he personified.
During the ensuing combat between Lancelot and Méléagant (which Lancelot came close to losing because he could not stop gazing upon her - he collected himself just in time) King Bagdemagus successfully pleaded with Guinevere to stop the fight so his son's life could be spared. Lancelot was forced to defend her honour a second time, when Méléagant later accused her of an affair with Kay, and once again Bagdemagus successfully pleaded for his son. Lancelot finally slew Méléagant in combat at King Arthur's court, and his literary reputation as chivalric hero and arch-exemplar of 'saver-of-damsels-from-distress' was sealed.
Chrétien de Troyes composed 'Le Chevalier de la Charrette' at the request of the Countess Marie de Champagne, daughter of Louis VII of France and Eleanor of Aquitaine, then later the wife of Henry II of England. It was apparently written to foster the notion of the 'Courts of Love' as the principal settings for (adulterous) social relations rather than the spontaneous passion typified by the story of Tristan and Iseult. Like other courtly ladies of the day, Guinevere required a lover, and the literary Lancelot - a convenient and suitable hero - was pressed into service.
'Lancelot en Prose' - The Vulgate Cycle - is a comprehensive trilogy ('Lancelot Propre', 'La Queste del Saint Graal', and 'La Mort de Roi Artu'), believed to have been compiled by Cistercian monks between 1215 and 1235 and which mark the transition between verse and prose versions of the Arthurian legend.
The authors contrasted earthly chivalry with spiritual chivalry idealized in the Quest for the Sangreal. Sir Lancelot is 'the best knight in the world' but cannot succeed in that quest, which is eventually achieved by his son, the virgin knight Sir Galahad. The blame for the destruction of the Round Table is placed firmly on Lancelot and his affair with Guinevere - which started with a kiss and is supposedly the story which, in 'Dante's Inferno', Francesca tells Dante that she and her lover Paolo were reading when they exchanged their first kiss: "That day we read no further".
In 'Lancelot en Prose' the affair between Lancelot and Guinevere began through a series of stories culminating in his knighting at Arthur's court and his falling secretly in love with the queen. Guinevere knows of his love but the affair is not consummated until Galehaut, King of the Long Isles and Lord of Surluse, makes war on Arthur - who would have lost his kingdom except for the feats of arms of an unknown knight in black armour who comes to Arthur's aid at the last moment. Galehaut is so impressed by the Black Knight that he befriends him and at the knight's request agrees to make peace with Arthur. Because the knight is often red-eyed from sadness, Galehaut discovers the secret of his love for Arthur's queen, and out of friendship for the (still un-named) knight he arranges a meeting between him and Guinevere.
According to a translation by Carleton W. Carroll, Galehaut says "My lady, I ask that you give (the knight) your love, and that you take him as your knight forevermore, and become his loyal lady for all the days of your life, and you will have made him richer than if you had given him the whole world."
The Queen replied, "In that case, I grant that he should be entirely mine and I entirely his..." and at Galehaut's behest she gave Lancelot a prolonged kiss. Galehaut then asked her for the Black Knight's companionship.
"Indeed," she replied, "if you didn't have that, then you would have profited little by the great sacrifice you made for him." Then she took the knight by the right hand and said, "Galehaut, I give you this knight forevermore, except for what I have previously had of him. And you," she said to the knight, "give your solemn word on this." And the Lancelot did so. "Now do you know," she said to Galehaut, "whom I have given you?"
"My lady, I do not."
"I have given you Lancelot of the Lake, the son of King Ban of Benoic."
Guinevere had finally revealed Lancelot's identity to Galehaut, whose joy was "the greatest he had ever known" for he had heard many rumours that this was Lancelot of the Lake and that he was the finest knight in the world, though landless, and he knew that King Ban had been a very noble man.
In the Vulgate Cycle's 'La Mort de Roi Artu' Arthur's army lays siege to Lancelot in his castle Joyous Garde, inspired by Gawain's desire for revenge for the slaying of his brothers in Lancelot's rescue of Guinevere. The subsequent combat between Lancelot and Gawain is one of the most dramatic in Arthurian Legend and signifies pure blood revenge rather than the notion of the romantic duel. In contrast, Lancelot's reluctance to dispatch his old friend remains firmly in the chivalric tradition.
The Vulgate Cycle was an important source for Sir Thomas Malory in his Le Morte d'Arthur (1485) and which he refered to as "the French book".
Malory frees Lancelot (which he spells as "Launcelot") from much of the spiritual passion seen in the Vulgate Cycle - instead he emphasizes Lancelot's relative success, not his ultimate failure, and the passion between the two erstwhile lovers is restrained.
Le Morte d'Arthur was published by William Caxton as 21 books; Sir Lancelot first appears, briefly, in Book II, when the wizard Merlin prophesies that "Here in this place (editor's note: a church near Camelot) shall be the greatest battle between two knights that there ever was or ever shall be, and yet the truest lovers, neither shall slay the other" and (editor's note: written by Merlin on the pommel of the dead Balin's sword) "No man shall handle this sword except the best knight in the world, and that will be Sir Launcelot or else Galahad his son, and with it Launcelot shall slay the man he loved best in the world, and that will be Sir Gawain."
Lancelot is gradually aggrandised by Malory up to 'The Noble Tale of Sir Launcelot du Lake' (Book VI) in which he declares his love for Guinevere (spelt by Malory as "Gwenyvere"). Thereafter (very briefly): he dubs Gareth knight (Book VII - 'The Tale of Sir Gareth of Orkney'). In 'The Tale of Sir Tristram de Liones' (Book VIII) Lancelot suffers calumny from King Mark because of his friendship with Tristram, and rescues Gawain. He befriends La Cote Male Taile, rescues him, and establishes him Lord of Pendragon (Book IX), then jousts with Tristram and Palomides. Later (Book XI), Lancelot is tricked and drugged into sleeping with Elaine (de Corbenic), thinking her Guinevere, and begets Galahad. Guinevere is angry but he finds himself with Elaine again, who is sent away and he goes mad.
A now insane Lancelot (Book XII) attacks a knight and scares his lady in the pavilion, but the knight, Bliant, takes the sleeping Lancelot to his castle to cure him. Healed by the Saint Grail, Lancelot returns with Elaine to her father's castle. Later he is persuaded by Ector to return to Arthur's court. Lancelot dubs his son Galahad knight (Book XIII). The knights go on a quest of the Sangreal but Lancelot confesses sin. He has a vision (Book XV) in which he joins the black (sinful) knights against the white (pure) knights. He falls into his old adulterous ways with Guinevere (Book XVIII) who is accused of poisoning a knight at a feast. Lancelot returns to defend her, wearing the sleeve of Elaine of Astolat (much to Guinevere's annoyance). He is wounded and Elaine dies for love of him.
Meliagaunt (Méléagant) abducts Guinevere (Book XIX), Lancelot gives succour, lies with her, and is trapped. He cures King Urre. Then he and Guinevere are discovered "in flagrante" (Book XX), after which he slays a number of knights, (including Agravain who betrayed him). Lancelot and friends rescue the queen from the stake. Gawain and knights make war on Lancelot who slays Gareth. Finally (Book XI) he and Guinevere part for the very last time, then he goes to Glastonbury and becomes a monk.
[ See also a summary of Le Morte d'Arthur ]
The Lancelot who occupies Malory's stage is "the fyrste knyght that the Frey[n]sh booke makyth me[n]cion of aftir kynge Arthure com from Rome." He is no longer the romantic hero characterised in forgoing French versions of Arthurian Legend - his excellence springs from his fighting prowess and noble deeds. Far from needing to prove himself to a Guinevere whom he already loves, he reveres her above all others only in response to her admiration and honouring of his matchless proficiency as a knight. Throughout most of Malory's tale Lancelot consistently denies that he and she are lovers: not exactly the stuff of high romance.
Tournaments, battles, and adventures remain at the forefront of Lancelot's priorities, necessitating a single state rather than the married one which would be bound to thwart the pursuit of an adventurous knighthood. Through the persona of Lancelot (and indeed through the foundation and eventual decline of the noble fellowship of the Round Table, not to mention the metaphorical passing of the seasons) Malory contrasts the prized medieval virtues of constancy and steadfastness with the inevitable rise and fall of the stable order of things. Lancelot, in particular, appears to symbolise on the one hand - in his innocence - the achievement of a certain kind of order, and on the other - in his ultimate sufferings - the tragic real-world truth that all good things come to an end.
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