Lancelot, chief knight of the Round Table, was a creation of mediaeval romancers, who found material for their tales in Celtic mythology. The oldest existing romance of Lancelot is Chrétien de Troyes Knight of the Cart, composed about 1170, but as this tells only one part of the hero's long history some complete story must have been known before. The early thirteenth-century French prose romance of Lancelot was the source for most of the later versions. It begins with Lancelot's early life, but its central motive is his love for Guenevere.

The opening chapters of the prose romance tell of Lancelot's childhood, which Malory neglects entirely. The child's mother, weeping over the body of her husband, King Ban, left her little son by the shore of a lake that "had been named from the days of the pagans the Lake of Diana." Returning, she saw a damsel playing with the child, who "was the fairest babe in all the world." As the queen drew near, the damsel "rose with the child in her arms, and she went speedily down to the lake, and she put her feet together, and she sprang there- into."

"Now the story saith that the damsel that carried Lancelot into the lake was a fay. In those days all maidens that knew enchantments or charms were called fays, and there were many of them at this time, and more in Great Britain than in other lands." So powerful a fay was this damsel that the lake itself "was naught but enchantment. . . . In the part where the lake seemed widest and deepest the Lady had many fair and noble dwellings. . . . And her abode was so hidden that none might find it, for the semblance of the lake covered it." There Lancelot dwelt with the Lady of the Lake and her maidens until he was eighteen, and from this dwelling he got the name Lancelot of the Lake. The Lady had the boy taught all the arts of courtly life, but she

The Lady of the Lake stealing the infant Lancelot. Manuscript illumination, XV century, from a French prose romance of Lancelot. In the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, Fr. 13, fol. 156

could not make him a knight, and she knew that "if she kept him from knighthood after the proper age, she would commit a mortal sin." So she took him to Arthur's court at Camelot, and there "both the king and the queen came to meet him, and they took him each by the hand." Lancelot "marvelled greatly whence so great beauty might come as he saw in her," and "when he felt her touch him, he trembled even as if he awoke from sleep. . . . And then the queen perceived that he was abashed and full of thought, but she ne'er believed that it was for her sake, and none the less she suspected it somewhat, and she left him be." Arthur knighted the young squire, but forgot to gird on the knightly sword. Thereupon Lancelot rode away upon his first adventure, but the queen sent after him "a right good sword with a richly wrought scabbard and girdle" and Lancelot declared "that now, thanks to God and his lady, he was a knight." So the romancer made the hero Guenevere's special knight.

The knighting of Lancelot is a perfect introduction to the theme of love as twelfth-century court poets portrayed it. Their idea of love was natural in a time when the marriages of high-born ladies were arranged with little or no regard for love. To counterbalance this lack there grew up the code known as courtly love, in which a knight vowed his lifelong devotion to a noble lady, usually married and often older than he, and sought glory and renown for her sake. Judging from the courtly writings of the time, no fair and noble lady could be without such a knight. In the chronicles the traitor Mordred had been Guenevere's lover, but such a villain was unworthy in the eyes of the romancers, and Lancelot was created to fill the role. In describing the lovers' emotions twelfth-century court poets were influenced by the sophisticated, pagan love poems of Ovid, one of the Latin authors most widely read in the Middle Ages. But there were conflicts in the mediaeval world unknown to Ovid's day--conflicts between the great loyalties of chivalry, to God, to overlord, and to lady. Even the ideal courtly love story of Lancelot and Guenevere could not remain untouched by such contradictory ties. Lancelot's love was a violation of his obligations to Arthur as his king, and helped to destroy the fellowship of the Round Table; it was a violation of God's law, and cost him his chance of achieving the Grail, the symbol of spiritual satisfaction--for of the three loyalties he could be wholly true to only one, love for his lady.

In the happy springtime of this love Lancelot left Camelot to seek renown for Guenevere's sake. Soon he


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About the Round Table
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page 1
  • Introduction - The Growth of the Arthurian Legends 3
  • Castles Painted with Arthurian Scenes 10
  • King Arthur and His Court 18
  • Tristan and Iseult 40
  • Lancelot and Guenevere 52
  • The Holy Grail 64
  • Romancers and Chroniclers Mentioned in the Text 78
  • Books Suggested for Further Reading 79


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