The knight that brought about the downfall of King Arthur’s Camelot is arguably one of most famous of the Round Table. The fabled Sir Lancelot (also known as Lancelot du Lac, Launcelot, Lanzelet, Lancilotto, Lanceloet) is most noted in three very well-known texts in which he is cast as the main character and hero: Le Chevalier de la Charrete by Chrétien de Troyes, Lanzelet by Ulrich von Zatzikhoven, and the French Prose Lancelot by Anonymous (Lacy 269). These texts are undeniably linked by similar themes that trace back to archaic Celtic legends of Arthur (Lacy 269-270).
Lancelot is first introduced with a torrid love triangle between him, Queen Guinevere, and King Arthur around 1177 AD in Chrétien’s Le Chevalier de la Charrete (or The Knight of the Cart, or Lancelot) (Walters xiii). As the story goes, the wicked Meleagant kidnaps King Arthur’s Guinevere and takes her away to the land of Gorre. After failure on Sir Kay’s behalf, Lancelot (who was raised by a fairy, according to this romance) and Gawain are sent to save her. Lancelot crosses paths with a dwarf in a cart, and the dwarf offers to help in the rescue of Guinevere if Lancelot stepped into the cart. However, there is shame for a knight to be in a cart – Lancelot briefly considers this, but then decides that his love for the Queen is stronger than his own pride. While Gawain takes an alternate route to save Guinevere, Lancelot takes this cart, saves her, and then experiences the first of numerous adulterous encounters with her (Lacy 269). This early French romance was sponsored by Marie de Champagne (daughter of King Louis VII) who presumably pulled the story from Welsh traditions of the sixth through ninth centuries AD (Duggan 225-230).
A parallel theme of Lancelot’s upbringing by women can also found in Ulrich von Zatzikhoven’s Lanzelet (c. 1194-1204 AD). According to this text, Lancelot was taken away by a mermaid who raised him with women until he turned fifteen. Unbeknownst to the hero that he is of royal lineage, Lancelot then sought for a place at King Arthur’s Round Table, and won it. Later, he crushes Iweret and is rewarded with the knowledge of his true name and kinship. Despite no mentioning of a cart or love affair with Guinevere, Lancelot does manage to attract three other women in the story (Lacy 269).
The anonymous French Prose Lancelot (c. 1210-1225) appears to be a combination of the two aforementioned romances. After the death of his father, Lancelot is brought up by the Lady of the Lake (also known as the fairy Niniane) (Lacy 270). At eighteen, he is taken to King Arthur to be knighted; it is not Arthur who knights him with the sword, but Guinevere, “so that he [Lancelot] may be considered to be her knight, rather than Arthur’s” (White 275). Similar to Lanzelet, Lancelot also learns the truth of his past by conquering a villain (Lacy 270). Then, Lancelot befriends Galehot (also Galehaut or Galahalt), an enemy of Arthur, after defeating him in battle (Lacy 174). According to this prose, it was Galehot who arranged the first secret rendezvous between Lancelot and Guinevere where they first kissed (White 275).
Furthermore, as told by Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur (1469-1470), Lancelot and Guinevere’s love affair destroys chivalry and acts as the catalyst to the crumbling of the Round Table (Pearsall 103). Although Lancelot sends Guinevere back to Arthur (as requested by the Pope), Camelot still falls after Arthur discovers the affair (Pearsall 108). Despite the many interpretations of these Welsh stories, Lancelot’s “heroism” is ultimately debatable. What knight of Arthur could commit such a crime against his king? While Lancelot may have defeated many villains in his numerous quests, his affair still set off the fall of Camelot.
Duggan, Joseph J. Afterword. Lancelot: The Knight of the Cart. By Chrétien de Troyes. New Haven: Yale, 1997, 225-230.
Lacy, Norris J., ed. The New Arthurian Encyclopedia. New York: Garland, 1991.
Pearsall, Derek. Arthurian Romance: A Short Introduction. Malden: Blackwell, 2003.
Walters, Lori J., ed. Introduction. Lancelot and Guinevere: A Casebook. New York: Routledge, 1996. xiii.
White, Richard, ed. King Arthur in Legend and History. New York: Routledge, 1998.