These creatures make frequent appearances in Arthurian texts. Generally, like dragons, they are monsters to be slain. They are often pets of malevolent lords. Although the animal (Panthera leo) is unknown in Britain, Boece – a historian who lived in Scotland in the sixteenth century – claims that lions once existed in Scotland.
In an early Welsh poem, Arthur recounts how Cei (Kay) went to the island of Anglesey to destroy lions. Cei contends here with the fearsome Cath Palug, which appears in other Arthurian texts and seems to be a demonic form of lion.
In Chrétien de Troyes’s Perceval and related texts, a lion is one of the perils faced by the knight (generally Gawain) who braves the adventure of the Perilous Bed in the Castle of Marvels. In Ulrich von Zatzikhoven’s Lanzelet, Lancelot must kill two lions at the house of Lord Linier. In the Second Continuation of Chrétien’s Perceval, Perceval slays two ferocious lions belonging to a knight named Abrioris. In Perlesvaus, Melot of Logres has a pet lion that inhabits the Field of the Lion. This lion is killed by Sir Clamadoz of the Shadows, prompting Melot to take vengeance against Clamadoz. In the same romance, Perceval kills the pet lion of the Red Knight of the Deep Forest.
The romance of Tyolet has Tyolet fighting lions and receiving injury at their claws. According to Lancelot do Lac, Sir Lionel, the cousin of Lancelot of the Lake, was born with a lion-shaped birthmark. This mark disappeared when Lionel fought and killed the Crowned Lion of Libya at Arthur’s court, presenting its skin to Yvain. In the Vulgate Lancelot, Sir Hector of the Fens rescues Angale from a pair of lions owned by Lord Marigart in the castle of Raguidel. In the Welsh story of Peredur, Peredur slays a lion that guards the Circular Valley.
In Les Merveilles de Rigomer, the evil Mal Ostagier owns four lions, and the creatures also inhabit the dangerous Male Gaudine. Lancelot slays a panther in this forest. In the Prose Tristan, Brunor the Black (the Knight of the Ill-Fitting Coat) kills a lion that has escaped from Arthur’s menagerie and is menacing Guinevere. In Sir Gawain and the Carl of Carlisle, the Carl has several pet lions.
On the other side, some of the most significant appearances of lions in Arthurian literature feature them as protectors or loyal companions of knights. This is the case in Chrétien de Troyes’s Yvain. Yvain, traveling through a forest, finds
a lion, and a serpent which held him by the tail, burning his hind-quarters with flame of fire.
Deciding the serpent the evil of the two creatures, Yvain kills it and thus saves the lion. The grateful lion becomes Yvain’s constant companion and fierce protector throughout the rest of his adventures, earning Yvain the nickname “The Knight with the Lion,” and the story of Androcles and the Lion may have been an influence here.
We find a similar story in the Vulgate Queste del Saint Graal: During the Grail Quest, Perceval finds himself on an island populated by wild beasts. He witnesses a serpent carrying away a lion cub. The cub’s mother arrives in swift pursuit and engages the serpent in combat. Perceval, regarding the lion
as being the more natural animal and of a nobler order than the serpent,
kills the snake. The thankful lion stays with Perceval for the rest of the day.
King Label of Persia was converted to Christianity by Celidoine. Not long after Label was baptised, he died. His men, who had refused to convert, put Celidoine out to sea in a small boat with a hungry lion, which he survived.
Lions often represent kings or royalty in classical mythology (cf. the Crowned Lion of Libya), but the examples of the lion as a “protector” suggest a symbolism for Christ, who is called “the Lion of the tribe of Judah” in Revelations 5:5. These appearances also echo Aulus Gellius’s first-century tale of Androcles, a Roman slave who assisted a lion by drawing a thorn from its paw.
Androcles and the Lion | Wikipedia.org
Pa gur yv y porthaur | Poem 31 of the Black Book of Carmarthen, probably c. 1100
Yvain, or Le Chevalier au Lion | Chrétien de Troyes, late 12th century
Perceval, or Le Conte del Graal | Chrétien de Troyes, late 12th century
Second Continuation of Chrétien’s Perceval | Attributed to Wauchier of Denain, c. 1200
Perlesvaus | Early 13th century
Tyolet | Late 12th century
Lancelot do Lac | 1215-1220
Vulgate Lancelot | 1215-1230
Vulgate Queste del Saint Graal | 1215-1230
Peredur | 13th century
Prose Tristan | 1230-1240
Les Merveilles de Rigomer | Jehan, mid to late 13th century
Syre Gawene and the Carle of Carlyle | c. 1400
The Faerie Queene | Edmund Spenser, 1570-1599