Lancelot's Wives

By Cooper, Helen | Arthuriana, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Lancelot's Wives


Cooper, Helen, Arthuriana


In a German romance of Anglo-Norman origin, a fifteenth-century chronicle and a sixteenth-century potboiler, Lancelot takes the role not of adulterous lover but of suitor and husband. (HC)

'Lancelot's wives' sounds like a contradiction in terms. That he loved someone else's wife usually defines his life: remove that, and one would expect there to be no reason left for his fictional existence, and he has no alternative 'historical' life within the tradition of Geoffrey of Monmouth. Lancelot without adultery would seem to be as impossible as Robin Hood without outlawry, or Captain Ahab without the whale. Yet at least three texts turn Lancelot into the adoring lover of a woman to whom he can be happily married. Disparate in their cultural background, origin and purpose, they were written independently of each other. Only the earliest of them seems to have gained any significant currency, and its story lived on in happy coexistence with his better-known biography.

'Lancelot and Iblis' seem to have been a pair of names to conjure with, at least in German-speaking areas, in the manner accorded to Floris and Blancheflor.1 Ulrich von Zatzikhoven's Lanzelet appears a deeply anomalous work in the Arthurian tradition, but it may well record a version of the legend of Lancelot as it existed before Chrétien made him the lover of the Queen. Writing probably between 1195 and 1200, Ulrich claims, like Geoffrey in the Historia and Chrétien in the Conte du Graal, to have a written source; but his own statement is unusually specific. He worked, he says, from a Frenchlanguage romance that had been brought to Germany by Hugh de Morville when he came as a hostage for the ransom payment for Richard Coeur de Lion in 1194.* There are various problems with the details of this, but the central point, that his work is drawn from a French or Anglo-Norman original, seems likely to be true. If such a source did indeed predate the Chevalier de la Charrette, it would explain why Chrétien can make such casual mention of Lancelot's byname 'Du Lac' and of the fairy who raised him, and explain too the evident rationalization in the prose Lancelotofuie Lady of the Lake from a water-fairy. The Lanzelet also presents a Ginover of unquestioned chastity, and a Lanzelet whose sexual adventures are tamed by love for a faithful wife. If Ulrich does indeed preserve the earliest version of his biography, then Chrétien refashioned a married Lancelot into the adulterous lover.

In addition to having a couple of affairs (both of which nonetheless involve his killing of the men to whom the women are heiresses, and the promise to him of their lands), Ulrich's Lanzelet is married twice: once to the faithful Iblis, and shortly afterwards, bigamously, to the queen of Pluris. All four women pursue Lancelot with undisguised desire, Iblis as a consequence of having dreamed of him before she sees him. She is the only one whose love he fully reciprocates. No wedding ceremony is ever mentioned, but they swear faith to each other; their sexual union is blessed by precious gifts from the water-fairy and the revelation to Lanzelet of his name, and Iblis is recurrently referred to as his wîp, or, less ambiguously, wîp von rehte, 'rightfully wife/ lady" (e.g. 4461, 4582-83, 8695). His desire for adventure being greater than his love for Iblis, however, he sneaks away to pursue the adventure of the castle of Pluris, where, having duly overcome a hundred knights in unbroken sequence, he is rewarded with the hand of the queen. This time there are grand marriage celebrations lasting twenty days, but the queen suspects that her husband is not a man to be trusted and has him constantly guarded. He escapes back to Iblis only after Gawain and others arrive as a rescue party, and he gets her permission to joust with them after swearing that he will return to her once he has done so; in fact, he simply rides up to them and they all gallop off together to Arthur's court, so allowing him both to keep his oath and to cheat his new wife. …

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