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.

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See also
Belleus | 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