Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
This entry was adapted from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
In Arthurian legend, Sir Lancelot (Lancelot du Lac, or Lancelot of the Lake; also Launcelot) is one of the Knights of the Round Table. In most of the French prose romances and works dependent on them he is characterized as the greatest and most trusted of Arthur's knights, and 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 Guinevere 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.
Lancelot in the Arthurian Legend
It is interesting to note that Lancelot does not appear in the earliest existing versions of the Arthurian legends. (See Geoffrey of Monmouth for an example of one who doesn't mention Lancelot, and Chretien de Troyes for one who does.) The name Lancelot is not obviously Celtic, though attempts have been made to find a possible Celtic origin that might have been corrupted into Lancelot (such as "Lance ap Lot," meaning Lance, son of Lot).
Early Prose and Poetry
Briefly summarized, the outline of his career, as given in the German Lanzelet and the French prose Lancelot, is as follows:
Lancelot was the only child of King Ban (Pant) of Benoic (Genewis) and his queen Helaine (Clarine). While yet an infant, his father was driven from his kingdom, either by a revolt of his subjects, caused by his own harshness (Lanzelet), or by the action of his enemy Claudas de la Deserte (Lancelot). King and queen fly, carrying the child with them, and while the wife is tending her husband, who dies of a broken heart on his flight, the infant is carried off by a friendly water-fay, the Lady of the Lake, who brings the boy up in her mysterious kingdom. In the German poem this is a veritable “Isle of Maidens ,” where no man ever enters, and where it is perpetual spring. In the prose Lancelot, on the other hand, the Lake is but a mirage, and the Lady's court does not lack its complement of gallant knights; moreover the boy has the companionship of his cousins, Lionel and Bohort (sons of his father's young brother Bohort), who, like himself, have been driven from their kingdom by Claudas. When he reaches the customary age (fifteen or eighteen by different texts and calculations), the young Lancelot, suitably equipped, is sent out into the world. In both versions his name and parentage are unknown to him. In the Lanzelet he also lacks of all knightly accomplishments (not unnatural when we remember he has here been brought up entirely by women) and his inability to handle a steed are insisted upon. Here he rides forth in search of what adventure may bring. In the prose Lancelot he goes with a fitting escort and equipment to Arthur's court where the Lady of the Lake asks that he be knighted.
The subsequent adventures differ widely, but in both tales he rides about the land accompanied by a woman who later abandons him and in both he eventually learns his true name and lineage. In both he eventually regains his rightful heritage peaceably because none dares stand against him. But in the Prose Lancelot the tale is stretched out by a war of Claudas against the Knights of the Round Table in which neither side gains the upper hand until word comes that Arthur and Lancelot themselves are coming with reinforcements. Claudas immediately flees alone into exile.
In Lanzelet the hero then reigns in peace over a land inherited though his wife Iblis (while King Ban's kingdom his ruled by an uncle) and both Lancelot and his wife live to see their children's children, and dying on the same day, in good old fairy-tale fashion. In fact, the whole of Lanzelet has much more the character of folklore than that of a knightly romance.
In the prose version, Lancelot, from his first appearance at court, conceives a passion for the queen, who is very considerably his senior, his birth taking place some time after her marriage to Arthur. This infatuation colours all his later career. He frees her from imprisonment in the castle of Meleagant, who kidnapped her against her will — (a similar adventure is related in Lanzelet, where he fits a dual against a would-be abductor Valerin, but when Valerin later succeeds in taking the queen Lanzelet is not the rescuer). Although he recovers his kingdom from Claudas, he prefers to remain a simple knight of Arthur's court along with his cousins and illegitimate half-brother Ector who also refuse to retire from knighthood to take on lordship. Tricked into a liaison with the Fisher King's daughter (called Elaine in a few later texts), he becomes the father of Galahad, the Grail winner, and, as a result of the queen's jealous anger at his relations with the lady, goes mad (for the third time), and remains an exile from the court for some years. He takes part, fruitlessly, in the Grail quest, being granted only a fleeting glimpse of the sacred Vessel, which, however, is sufficient to cast him into unconsciousness, in which he remains for as many days as he has spent years in sin. Finally, his relations with Guenevere are revealed to Arthur by the sons of King Lot, Gawain and Gaheriet (in Malory Gawayne and Gareth) taking no part in the disclosure. Surprised together with the queen, Lancelot escapes, and the queen is condemned to be burnt alive. As the sentence is about to be carried into execution Lancelot and his kinsmen come to her rescue, but in the fight that ensues many of Arthur's knights, including three of Gawain's brothers, are slain. Thus converted into an enemy, Gawain urges his uncle to make war on Lancelot, and there follows a desperate struggle between Arthur and the race of Ban. This is interrupted by an invasion of Gaul by the Romans. But no sooner has Arthur defeated the Romans then there comes tidings of Mordred's treachery. Lancelot, taking no part in the last fatal conflict, outlives both king and queen, and the downfall of the Round Table. Finally, retiring to a hermitage, he ends his days in the odour of sanctity.
The process whereby the independent hero of the Lanzelel (who, though his mother is Arthur's sister, has but the slightest connection with the British king), the faithful husband of Iblis, became converted into the principal ornament of Arthur's court, and the devoted lover of the queen, is by no means easy to follow, nor do other works of the cycle explain the transformation. In the pseudo-chronicles, the Historia of Geoffrey and the translations by Robert Wace and Layamon, Lancelot does not appear at all; the queen's lover, whose guilty passion is fully returned as far as are told, is Mordred.
Chrétien de Troyes' treatment of Lancelot is contradictory; in the Erec , his earliest extant poem, Lancelot's name appears as third on the list of the knights of Arthur's court. (Of course the hero of the tale, Erec, is first and Gawain naturally is second, so third position indicates Lancelot's general high status.) In Cligés Lancelot again ranks as third, just behind the hero of the poem and Gawain. In Le Chevalier de la Charrette , however, which followed Cligés, Lancelot is the hero of the poem and so now of course the best knight of the court and also lover of the queen, This is precisely in the position he occupies in the prose romance, where, indeed, the section dealing with this adventure is, as Gaston Paris clearly proved, an almost literal adaptation of Chrétien's poem. The subject of the poem is the rescue of the queen from her abductor Meleagant; and what makes the matter more perplexing is that Chrétien handles the situation as one with which his hearers are already familiar; it is Lancelot, and not Arthur or another, to whom the office of rescuer naturally belongs. In Perceval, Chrétien's last work, he does not appear at all, and yet much of the action passes at Arthur's court.
In the continuations added at various times to Chrétien's unfinished work the role assigned to Lancelot is equally modest. Among the fifteen knights selected by Arthur to accompany him to Chastel Orguellous he only ranks ninth. In a Tristran episode inserted by Gerbert in his Perceval, Lancelot is just one of the knights publicly overthrown and shamed by Tristan.
Nowhere outside of Le Chevalier de la Charette is Lancelot treated with anything approaching the importance assigned to him in the prose romances. Welsh tradition does not know him; early Italian records, which have preserved the names of Arthur and Gawain, have no reference to Lancelot. What appears to be the most probable solution is that Lancelot was the hero of an independent and widely diffused folk-tale, which, owing to certain special circumstances, was brought into contact with, and incorporated in, the Arthurian tradition. This much has been proved certain of the adventures recounted in the Lanzelet; the theft of an infant by a water-fairy; the appearance of the hero three consecutive days, in three different disguises, at a tournament; the rescue of a queen, or princess, from an Other-World prison, all belong to one well known and widely-spread folk-tale, variants of which are found in almost every land, and of which numerous examples have been collected alike by Mr Cosquin in his Contes Lorrains, and by Mr J.F. Campbell in his Tales of the West Highlands.
The story of the loves of Lancelot and Guenevere, as related by Chrétien, has about it nothing spontaneous and genuine; in no way can it be compared with the story of Tristan and Iseult . It is the exposition of a relation governed by artificial and arbitrary rules, to which the principal actors in the drama must perforce conform. Chrétien states that he composed the poem (which he left to be completed by Godefroi de Leigni ) at the request of the countess Marie de Champagne, who provided him with matière et san. Marie was the daughter of Louis VII of France and of Eleanor of Aquitaine, subsequently wife of Henry II of Anjou and England. It is a matter of history that both mother and daughter were active agents in fostering that view of the social relations of the sexes which found its most famous expression in the “Courts of Love,” and which was responsible for the dictum that love between husband and wife was impossible. The logical conclusion appears to be that the Charrette poem is a Tendenz-Schrift, composed under certain special conditions, in response to a special demand. The story of Tristan and Iseult, immensely popular as it was, was too genuine to satisfy the taste of the court for which Chrétien was writing. Moreover, the Arthurian story was the popular story of the day, and Tristan did not belong to the magic circle, though he was ultimately introduced, within its bounds. The Arthurian cycle must have its own love-tale; Guenevere, the leading lady of that cycle, could not be behind the courtly ladies of the day and lack a lover; one had to be found for her. Lancelot, already popular hero of a tale in which an adventure parallel to that of the Charrette figured prominently, was pressed into the service. Mordred, Guenevere's earlier lover, being too unsympathetic a character; moreover, was required for the final role of traitor.
But to whom is the story to be assigned? Here we must distinguish between the Lancelot proper and the Lancelot/Guenevere versions; so far as the latter are concerned, we cannot get behind the version of Chrétien. Nowhere, prior to the composition of the Chevalier de la Charrette is there any evidence of the existence of such a story. Yet Chrétien does not claim to have invented the situation. Did it spring from the fertile brain of some court lady, Marie, or another? The authorship of the Lancelot proper, on the other hand, is invariably ascribed to Walter Map, the chancellor of Henry II, but so also are the majority of the Arthurian prose romances. Some therefore accept Map as the possible author of a Lancelot romance, which formed the basis for later developments, and there is a growing tendency to identify this hypothetical original Lancelot with the source of the German Lanzelet. The author, Ulrich von Zatzikhoven , tells us that he translated his poem from a French (welsches) book in the possession of Hugo de Morville , one of the English hostages, who, in 1194, replaced Richard Coeur de Lion in the prison of Leopold V of Austria. Further evidence on the point is, unfortunately, not at present forthcoming.
To the student of the earliest medieval Arthurian romances Lancelot is an infinitely less interesting hero than Gawain, Perceval or Tristan, each of whom possesses a well-marked personality, and is the center of what we may call individual adventures. Saving and excepting the incident of his being stolen and brought up by a water-fairy (from a Lai relating which adventure the whole story probably started), there is absolutely nothing much in the material common to the French and German tales to distinguish him from any other romantic hero of the period.
But in the Perlesvaus , possibly the earliest French prose Arthurian romance, Lancelot's love affair with Guenevere suddenly re-emerges and Lancelot plays a part in this Grail romance almost equal to that of Perceval the hero and Gawain. But Lancelot in this romance, unlike Perceval, Gawain and Arthur, never sees the Grail.
The language of the prose Lancelot itself is good, easy and graceful, but except for the earlier sections involving Lancelot and his friend Galehot, most of Lancelot's own adventures lack originality and interest. Situations repeat themselves in a most wearisome manner. English readers, who know the story only through the medium of Malory's noble prose and Tennyson's melodious verse, carry away an impression entirely foreign to that produced by a study of the original literature as they are familiar with some of the better episodes. The Lancelot story, in its rise and development, belongs exclusively to the later stage of Arthurian romance; it was a story for the court, not for the folk, and it lacks alike the dramatic force and human appeal of the genuine “popular” tale.
The prose Lancelot was frequently printed; J.C. Brunet chronicles editions of 1488, 1494, 1513, 1520 and 1533; of this last date there are two, one published by Jehan Petit, the other by Philippe Lenoire, this last by far the better, being printed from a much fuller manuscript. There is no critical edition, and the only version available for the general reader is the modernized and abridged text published by Paulin Paris in vols. iii. to v. of Romans de la Table Rondè . A Dutch verse translation of the 13th century was published by M. W. J.A. Jonckbloet in 1850, under the title of Roman van Lanceleet . This only begins with what Paulin Paris terms the Agravain section , all the part previous which contained Guenevere's rescue from Meleagant having been lost; but the text is an excellent one, agreeing closely with the Lenoire edition of 1533. The Books devoted by Malory to Lancelot are also drawn from this latter section of the romance; there is no sign that the English translator had any of the earlier part before him. Malory's version of the Charrette adventure differs in many respects from any other extant form, and the source of this special section of his work is still a question of debate among scholars.
In the modern world interpretations of Lancelot have varied with him most stereotypically being portrayed in novels and film as a near perfect warrior, skilled, handsome, and charismatic. T.H. White's Once and Future King retelling of the Arthurian legends portrays him very differently. In White's work Lancelot is introverted and has difficulty dealing with people. He is also described as being immensely ugly.
In Popular Media
- Cod. Pal. germ. 371: Ulrich von Zatzikhoven, Lanzelet (The Lanzelet manuscript.)
- The Charette Project (Variant texts of Chrétien's poem.)
- Lancelot, or the Knight of the Cart (Comfort's translation of Chrétien's poem.)
- Lancelot, or the Knight of the Cart (Comfort's translation of Chrétien's poem.)
- The High History of the Holy Grail (An English translation of the Perlesvaus grail romance in which Lancelot figures prominently and Lancelot's love for Guenevere is a major theme.)
- Lancelot of the Laik (A Middle English adaptation of part of the French Prose Lancelot.)
- Stanzaic Morte Arthure (A Middle English adaptation of the Mort Artu romance in the French prose Lancelot cycle.)
- Vulgate Cycle (A modern summary of the French prose Lancelot cycle.)
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