Lancelot of the Lake

Ancalot, Galahad, Galahos, Lanç, Lançarote, Lanceloet, Lancelos del Lac, Lancelott, Lancelus, Lanchelot, Lancilotto, Lancillotto, Lançolot, Lanseloit, Lanselos, Lanselot, Lanselotos, Lanslate, Lanslod, Lansselos, Lantsloot, Lanzelet, Lanzelot, Lanzilet, Lanziloto; Launcelot du Lake, – du Lac; Launselake, Lawnslot, Llancalot

Lancelot, probably the most famous of all Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table, was the most illustrious of an illustrious family which included King Ban of Benwick his father, King Bors his uncle, Sirs Lionel and Bors de Ganis his cousins, and Sir Ector de Maris his bastard British-born half-brother.

He plays a part in many of Arthur’s victories, but Arthur’s eventual downfall is also brought about in part by Lancelot, whose affair with Arthur’s wife Guenevere destroys the unity of Arthur’s court.

Lancelot is a popular character, and has been the subject of many poems, stories, plays, and films as a famous figure in the Arthurian cycle of romances.

To the great majority of English readers the name of no knight of King Arthur’s court is so familiar as is that of Sir Lancelot. The mention of Arthur and the Round Table at once brings him to mind to moderns as the most valiant member of that brotherhood and the secret lover of the Queen.

Lancelot, however, is not an original member of the cycle, and the development of his story is still a source of considerable disagreement between scholars.

Launcelot

Blow, weary wind,
The golden rod scarce chiding;
Sir Launcelot is riding
By shady wood-paths pleasant
To fields of yellow corn.
He starts a whirring pheasant,
And clearly winds his horn.
The Queen’s Tower gleams mid distant hills;
A thought like joyous sunshine thrills,
“My love grows kind.”

Blow, weary wind,
O’er lakes, o’er dead swamps crying,
Amid the gray stumps sighing
While slow, and cold, and sullen,
The waves splash on the shore.
O’er wastes of bush and mullen,
Dull crows flap, evermore.
The Autumn day is chill and drear
As you knight, thinking Guenevere
Proves almost unkind.

Sinclair Lewis, 1904


Childhood and Becoming a Knight | The Love of Lancelot and Guenevere | To the Rescue | Lancelot and His Virgin Love | “… the two most unfortunate knights…” | Lancelot – the Mad Man | The Grail Adventures | Arthur’s and Lancelot’s Deaths | Another Version | Lancelot’s Family and Retainers | Lancelot – The Character


Childhood and Becoming a Knight

Lancelot, then called by his christened name of Galahad, was the son of King Ban of Benwick, the young King Arthur’s staunchest supporters, and his queen, Elaine of Benwick. King Ban became involved in a war with the neighboring kingdom of King Claudas.

Lancelot was an infant when his parents fled their city with a few retainers. When King Ban looked back and saw his castle burning, he suffered a seizure of some kind, possibly a heart attack. Queen Elaine, hurrying to him, left her son alone for a few moments.

It was then that Viviane, the French Damsel of the Lake, took him, brought him to her rich city in the illusory magical Lake at Bois en Val, and rasied him, renaming him Lancelot. The widowed Elaine remained nearby, building the Royal Minster on the hill where Ban had died. Lancelot’s cousins Lionel and Bors, with their mentors, were eventually welcomed into Viviane’s Lake with Lancelot to finish their knightly education.

While growing up among the company of women and faery-like mermen of the Lady of the Lake’s palace, Lancelot quickly developed his great strength and skill in arms. When Lancelot reached 18 years of age and was itching to become a knight, Viviane gave him a last lecture on the history and duties of that state of life; provided him with a sword of proven worth, a snow-white horse, and the rest of his outfit, all in white and silver; and brought him, accompanied by Lionel, Bors, Seraide, and others, to Arthur’s court, where the King dubbed him on Saint John’s Day.

He may have become a member of the Queen’s Knights at this time; before officially settling down at Arthur’s court, however, he spent some time wandering in knight errantry, beginning when he left to succor the Lady of Nohaut – his first rivalry with Kay seems to have been over which of them would serve as her companion.


The Love of Guenevere and Lancelot

In some versions of the legend, one of Lancelot’s first tasks as a knight was to fetch Arthur’s bride, Guenevere, to Camelot for their wedding. During this journey, Guenevere and Lancelot fell in love. In other stories, Guenevere was already established at court when Lancelot arrived, and he soon became one of the Queen’s Knights, a sub-order of the Round Table of which young, aspiring knights belonged before they had fully proven themselves. Lancelot quickly established himself as the greatest knight of all time after successfully completing several quests.

During this period Lancelot won La Dolorous Garde, which became his own castle of Joyous Garde. Here the court joined him for a time, and Dagonet found him one day allowing his horse to wander wherever it would while he gazed in a fond trance at Guenevere. Leaving Joyous Garde, he became the prisoner of the Lady of Malohaut, who held him for the death of her seneschal’s son, but allowed him to leave on parole to fight in tournament and fell in love with him when he returned. During this period he also conquered Duke Galeholt, winning the Duke’s allegiance for Arthur and his friendship for Lancelot himself.

Meanwhile, Viviane had been softening Guenevere, and when next Lancelot joined the court for a time, he and Guenevere declared their love, with Galeholt and the Lady of Malohaut for go-betweens. This time, when Lancelot left again, he inspired perhaps the first of what was to become a standard activity – a party of Arthur’s knights, including Gawaine and Kay, went out searching for him.

Lancelot next joined Arthur at the siege of Camille’s fortress of La Roche, where he fought in one battle wearing Arthur’s arms and carrying Arthur’s sword Sequence.

After joining the ranks of Knights of the Round Table, Lancelot helped Arthur put down the rebellion of Galeholt the Haut Prince, who surrendered to Arthur after observing Lancelot’s chivalry and prowess in battle. Afterwards, Galeholt became Lancelot’s closest friend and acted as a secret go-between Lancelot and Guenevere. The pair also took refuge in Galehaut’s kingdom of Sorelois when Guinevere the False (Genievre) took the queen’s place at court. After the deception was discovered, Lancelot restored the queen to Arthur, but by this time Lancelot and Guinevere were irrevocably in love.

The love of Lancelot and Guenevere is more fully described under Guenevere. Genievre’s second, and temporarily successful, attempt to supplant Guenevere followed sometime after the defeat of Camille, and after literally saving Guenevere’s skin, Lancelot retired with her to Galeholt’s kingdom of Sorelois. They only returned to their places at court – Guenevere to her throne, Lancelot to his seat at the Round Table – after Genievre’s death, while Galeholt let them go despite a prophecy that he could prolong his own life by keeping Lancelot with him.


To the Rescue

Immediately following the celebrations of Guenevere’s return, Carados of the Dolorous Tower abducted Gawaine. Setting out to rescue him, Galeshin and Lancelot came to Morgan’s Val sans retour. As a true lover, Lancelot was able to free Morgan’s prisoners here, but she succeeded in kidnapping him in return. She let him go long enough to kill Carados and free Gawaine, but then, by a ruse, sent Lancelot’s ring (a ring from Guenevere) back to court with a pretended message from the knight that he would never return. This drove Lancelot mad until the Damsel of the Lake found him wandering in Cornwall and cured him.

Meanwhile, however, Duke Galeholt had gotten a false report of Lancelot’s death, which caused his own. Before Lancelot’s return to court, Meliagrant (Meliagaunce), son of King Bagdemagus, succeeded in abducting Guenevere, also taking Kay prisoner; Lancelot pursued him in a cart (a humble mode of conveyance in which the knight was reluctant to travel) and had to cross a Sword Bridge to reach the castle in, freeing not only Guenevere and Kay but also the occupants of Gore’s “Terre Foraine“. The two fought, but Bagdemagus pleaded with Guenevere that his son’s life would be spared, so their combat was stopped, to be taken up again in a year’s time. Later, Meliagaunce accused Guenevere of adultery with Kay. Lancelot fought the accuser as her champion and, once again, Bagdemagus had to plead for his son’s life. Eventually, Lancelot slew Meliagaunce in combat at Arthur’s court.

Some time later, traveling on other adventures, Lancelot found Duke Galeholt’s grave and almost killed himself in grief, but was prevented by Seraide, at whose direction he had his friend’s body taken to Joyous Garde for reburial.

Lancelot was gone so long on his adventures that Gawaine and other knights went out searching for him again, while Guenevere, distraught, sent Elyzabel to France to summon Viviane. After her departure, a damsel whom Lancelot had succored arrived at court with the news that he was still alive, which was so welcome that Arthur gave the messenger her choice of castles (she chose Leverzep).


Lancelot and His Virgin Love

Lancelot, meanwhile, met his virgin love, Amable. Lancelot was found at last by his cousin Lionel, only to be separated again when Lionel went off to pursue and be captured by Sir Terican (Turquine) while Lancelot was napping. Lancelot was captured while asleep by Morgan and her cohorts, but escaped through the help of Duke Rochedon’s daughter, succored Meliagrant’s sister, and visited Carbonek, where he engendered Galahad on Pellam’s daughter Elaine of Carbonek.

After this he visited the Forest Perilous, repaid Duke Rochedon’s daughter by saving her from an unwanted marriage and forcing Morgan’s friend the Queen of Sorestan to restore her inhertiance, and finally rejoined the court at a tournament in Camelot, which Amable also attended and where Guenevere accepted her platonic relationship with Lancelot. After the tournament, Lancelot, BorsGareth, and Bagdemagus went out looking for Lionel and Ector de Maris and saved Mordred from Maten’s men at the Castel de la Blanche Espine; Lancelot eventually killed Terican and freed Lionel and the other prisoners.

Suffering from a guilty conscience, Lancelot pursued quest after quest in order to be away from Guinevere. Lancelot visted King Pelles the Grail Guardian and saved his daughter, Elaine of Corbenic, from a tub of boiling water in which she had been imprisoned by enchantment for several years. Brisen, her nurse, arranged for Lancelot to think Elaine was Guinevere and he slept with her. As a result, Galahad was conceived.


“… the most unfortunate knights who ever lived.”

After a few other adventures, Lancelot fell again into Morgan’s hands, who tricked him into her castle, drugged him with wine and a powder blown into his nose, and held him for two winters and a summer; during this time, Lancelot painted his own history, including his love for Guenevere, on his bedroom walls. Inspired by a spring horse that reminded him of the Queen, he finally broke the iron bars of his window and escaped.

He then rescued Lionel again, this time from a trumped-up charge of treason in King Vagor’s country, fought Bors at Le Tertre Deuee, visited the site of his grandfather’s death in the Forest of the Boiling Well, killed Merlan le Dyable, and rescued Mordred at the castle of Fontaine des Deux Sycamores. Mordred at this time was still a promising young knight, who won Lancelot’s praise as they traveled together and who saw with him the mystic stag and four lions in the forest moonlight.

Lancelot witnessed the revelation in the woods near Peningues that marked the turning point in Mordred’s life and parted company with him after the tournament of Peningues. Lancelot had been included in the priest’s prophetic greeting of them as “the two most unfortunate knights who ever lived”, and he was much shaken when Mordred slew the prophet before the latter had time to predict his – Lancelot’s – fate. It was after the Peningues tournament that Lancelot rescued Kay from attacking knights and then left in hte morning with Kay’s horse and armor.


Lancelot – The Mad Man

Lancelot returned to court in time to witness the attempt of Sir Brumant l’Orguilleus to sit in the Siege Perilous. By now it had been learned the Dame Elyzabel was being held prisoner by King Claudas and Arthur and Guenevere went to war, finally defeating Claudas and driving him into exile. After Claudas’ defeat, Queen Elaine of Benwick came to visit her son and other male relatives at Gannes.

After Arthur’s return from the Continent, Elaine of Carbonek visited the victory celebration, tricked Lancelot into her bed once again, Guenevere discovered the pair in flagrante and sent Lancelot away from Camelot who went mad. He wandered for up to two years and finally ended at Carbonek, where he was recognized, restored to sanity by exposure to the Grail, and given Joyous Isle to live in with Elaine.

Under the self-imposed impression that he could never again return to Arthur’s court, he called himself “Le Chevaler Mal Fet” and guarded the island against all challengers. Eventually Ector de Maris and Percivale found him here and persuaded him to return.


The Grail Adventures

During the Grail AdventuresLancelot suffered unaccustomed defeats and humiliation at arms, as well as experiencing a few visions and semivisions of his own. He had visions of the Grail and finally found the door to the chapel where the holy vessel was kept. He was prevented from entering by an angelic presence and fell into a trance which lasted for several weeks. During this time, it was made clear to him this quest was at an end and his failure was due to his love for Guenevere, which exceeded his love for God. After meeting and adventuring for a time with his son Galahad in the vessel with Amide’s body, he arrived at Carbonek. Here, having resolved to amend his life of his adulterous love for Guenevere, he had a Grail vision of his own – not the full experience of Galahad and his companions, but one which put Lancelot into a swoon for nearly a month, from which he awakened filled with the ineffable marvels he had seen.

Returning from the Grail Quest, however, Lancelot soon relapsed into his old love, but became more careless about secresy. Then followed more stormy episodes between the lovers, including the incident of the poisoning of Sir Patrice of Ireland and the passion and death of Elaine of Astolat. Eventually trapped alone with Guenevere by Agravaine and Mordred, Lancelot fought his way free, leaving the Queen behind with reluctance and returning to rescue her from the stake with great slaughter of Arthur’s men, including Lancelot’s old favorite Gareth.

Arthur and Gawaine, who had always until now been counted one of Lancelot’s dearest friends, first besieged Lancelot, his kinsmen and supporters, and Guenevere in Joyous Garde. At the Pope’s invervention, Lancelot restored Guenevere to Arthur, who took her back and pardoned her, but exiled her lover. Lancelot returned to his lands in France, where he parcelled out the territories and titles among his kinsmen and followers. Arthur and Gawaine pursued Lancelot across the Channel and besieged him in Gannes. Lancelot met Gawaine in single combat, but with the utmost reluctance; as always, when Lancelot won, he refused to kill Gawaine.

When Lancelot and Guenevere were discovered together in her chamber by Mordred, just when they had decided to end their love affair, Lancelot fled and Guenevere was sentenced to burn at the stake. Lancelot returned to rescue her, accidently killing Agravaine, and Gawaine’s brothers, Gaheris and Gareth in the process. War between Lancelot and Arthur ensued, but was broken off when Arthur had to return to Camelot to deal with Mordred’s rebellion.


The Deaths of Arthur and Lancelot

Hearing of this, Lancelot returned to aid Arthur but arrived too late to save him from a mortal wound. Gawaine, dying at Dover, wrote a plea to Lancelot to return and aid Arthur, but, thanks to the famous premature battle at Salisbury, Lancelot and his men arrived too late; Mordred and virtually all the men of both armies were dead, and Arhur had passed. Lancelot was able, however, to mop up the last of the rebellion, which was being kept alive by Mordred’s two sons.

After the war, Lancelot visited Guenevere one last time in a nunnery at Almesbury and then put aside his weapons and armor to become a hermit, which was how he lived out the rest of his life together with another hermit. The Archbishop of Canterbury and a cousin to Lancelot joined him, including many of his kinsmen. For four years he stayed there. Here the great king died, in Tennyson’s words, “a holy man”. His body was taken to Joyous Garde and buried beside that of Duke Galeholt.

At the same time as he died the Archbishop had a vision about Lancelot’s soul being brought to the heaven by angels. He was buried at Joyous Guard, and Sir Ector, the last of the original Knights of the Round Table delivered the following eulogy:

Ah Lancelot, thou are head of all Christian knights, and now I dare say, thou Sir Lancelot, there thou liest, that thou was never matched of earthly knights. And thou were the courteous knight that ever bare shield. And thou were the truest friend to thy lover that ever bestrad horse. And thou were the truest lover of a sinful man that ever loved woman. And thou were the kindest man that ever struck with sword. And thou were the goodliest person that ever came among press of knights. And thou was the meekest man and the gentlest that ever ate in hall among ladies. And thou were the sternest knight to they mortal foe that ever put spear in the rest.

– Sir Ector

Another Version

The version of Lancelot’s adventures, found in French sources and Malory, differs markedly from that of Ulrich von Zarzikhoven, who says he was the son of King Pant of Gennewis and his wife, Clarine. Pant was killed in a rebellion and Lancelot was stolen by a fairy and raised in Maidenland. The fairy would not tell him his name until he had fought Iweret of Beforet.

Johfrit de Liez trained him as a knight and in the use of all manner of weapons and he married the daughter of Galagandreiz. The fairy’s son, Mabuz, a wizard, was having his territory raided by Iweret. Lancelot fought and killed Iweret, thus learning his name. He married Iweret’s daughter Iblis, with whom he had four children. He eventually won back his father’s kingdom, Pant.

The appearance of Mabuz, who is thought to have originated in the Celtic god Mabon, certainly indicates that Lancelot had a Celtic origin. Parts of this story are common with the more normal story of Lancelot as related in French and German sources, as well as by Sir Thomas Malory.


Lancelot’s Family and Retainers

Father
King Ban of Benwick

Mother
Queen Elaine of Benwick

Mentor-Guardian (self-appointed)
Viviane

Half-brother
Ector de Maris

Cousins
Lionel, Bors de Ganis, ‘Iblis’, Oruale de Guindoel

Lover
Queen Guenevere

Virgin Lady
Amable

Paramour
??

Would-be-paramours
Elaine of Carbonek

Son (by Elaine of Carbonek)
Galahad

Grandfather of son
King Pellam

Squires
Angis, Kanahins

Protégés
Lavaine, Nerovens de Lile and Urre of Hungary

Special Friends
Duke Galeholt

Dearest Foe?
Morgan Le Fay

Insistent Guide
‘Ornagrine’


Lancelot – The Character

According to Malory, the only “wordly” knight who could conceivably have beaten Lancelot in single combat (except during the Grail Adventures or perhaps in Lancelot’s first few years of knighthood) was Tristram; their big battle, however, ended in a draw, each surrendering to the other on learning one another’s identity. Coupled with this strength, skill, and prowess was an unfortunate tendency to blood-lust in battle; the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, while hardly a reliable general picture of Arthur’s court and reign, seems to have caught this facet of Lancelot’s character to near perfection.

One of his unluckiest habits was that of going to sleep in somebody else’s pavilion without the owner’s knowledge, which usually led to bloodshed and not infrequently to somebody’s death. Another of his habits was that of taking off secretly on unannounced adventures:

And when Sir Lancelot was thus missed they marvelled where he was become; and then the queen and many of them deemed that he was departed as he was wont to do, suddenly.

This, coupled with his absences on fits of madness, must have kept him very much away from court. Nevertheless, he attained great political influence; his “will was law throughout the kingdom of Logres.” Eventually jealousy of Lancelot grew among the other knights of the Round Table, cased in part by Arthur’s praise.

When Morgan and her cohorts kidnaped Lancelot, Morgan did not recognize him because he had short hair, his hair and nails falling out during the sickness from which Amable cured him, and his hair not having fully grown back, At some point in this career, he acquired a wound on his cheek; it was by this scar that the hermit Baudwin recognized him after the Winchester tournament at which he carried Elaine of Astolat’s token. Lancelot had an inconvenient habit of talking in his sleep of his love for Guenevere.

His relationship with his son Galahad seems to have been very good, friendly and loving on both sides. With Morgan he seems to have had a curious relationship – she varied between hating him and trying to seduce him.

The Origin of Lancelot

When and how did Lancelot make his way into the Arthurian cycle? According to D.D.R. Owen, the appearance of Lancelot’s name in the list of Arthur’s champions beginning line 1691 of Erec & Enide, considered Chrétien de Troyes’ earliest surviving Arthurian romance (though to have been composed ca. 1170), is the first known mention of this famous knight. Phyllis Ann Karr, finds it difficult, on internal evidence alone, to belive that Lancelot actually sprang into being at this point in Chrétien’s creative process.

Chrétien names him as third best of Arthur’s knights – a high position for a newly introduced character with no other role to play in the romance in question. (The well established champion Gawaine comes first in this list, and Erec himself second, as befits a titular hero; the place of “third best” ough surely to have gone to another knight already widely known, if not in Arthurian tales, then in other stories of chivalry.) Again, in Chrétien’s second romance, we find Lancelot prominent among Arthur’s knights; but his one dramatic function here is to open the second day of the Oxford tournament by jousting with and being defeated by the youthful titular hero.

One might argue that Chrétien already had it in mind when he wrote Erec & Enide to make Lancelot the hero of another romance; yet when this Lancelot romance finally materialized, in “The Knight of the Cart“, Chrétien himself credited a patroness with proposing the subject matter, which scholarly opinion considers to have been personally distasteful to him, and which apparently engaged his interest so insufficiently that he left it for another clerk to finish.

The evidence Phyllis Ann Karr have so far in favor of the theory that Lancelot’s direct original can be found in ancient Welsh myth seems to boil down to wishful thinking fastened around the “L”, “n”, and “s”(?) sounds in the name Llwch Lleminawc / Llenlleawc, which does not convince her. At the same time, Chrétien must have used a character already popular by 1170. It would be nice to know more about the actual date of Ulrich von Zatzikhoven’s Lanzelet, and what traditions or sources he may have used.

In any event, Chrétien’s Lancelot (alias The Knight of the Cart), would seem to be the earliest known extant treatment of this particular story featuring Lancelot as its hero. While longer and more detailed, Chrétien’s account is essentially close enough to those of the Vulgate and of Malory to make it plausible that they ultimately took it from him. Allusions in Chrétien’s Yvain identify part of its hero’s adventures as running simultaneously with events in Lancelot, which might be of interest to anyone trying to pin down where, exactly, the Meliagrant affair figures in Arthurian chronology.

Did Lancelot originate in Celtic imagination or was he a Continental invention? It is popularly supposed that he has no Celtic counterpart. His name is generally thought to be a double diminutive of the German word Land; but R.S. Loomis has argued that Lancelot is the same character as the one called Llwch Lleminawc in Preiddeu Annwfn, in which he accompanies Arthur to the Otherworld. This expedition may be the same as the one to Ireland in Culhwch in which Llenlleawc, an Irishman, aids Arthur to steal the cauldron belonging to Diwrnach.

The identification of Lancelot with Llwch Lleminawc/Llenlleawc is opposed by R. Bromwich who argues that neither of these forms was used to translate Lancelot from other languages into Welsh; for this purpose the names Lanslod and Lawnslot were employed. However, this may not be so severe an objection as it might appear. It is possible that the Continentals could have translated Lleminawc/Llenlleawc into the similar-sounding Lancelot but, when Welsh writers came on this form, they may have failed to realize it represented an original Welsh name and retranslated it as Lanslod/Lawnslot. Certainly the presence of Mabuz, who is probably the Celtic god Mabon, indicates a Celtic origin for Ulrich’s story. It is thought that the basic saga of Lancelot may have dealt with the fairy captivity episode which is common to French and German sources.


See also
Belleus | The Legend of King Arthur
Fairy | The Legend of King Arthur
Meliagrant | The Legend of King Arthur
Colgrevance | The Legend of King Arthur
Ille Estrange | The Legend of King Arthur
Twenty-Four Knights | The Legend of King Arthur
Mermaids and Mermen | Myths and Legends