|Matter of Britain character|
|First appearance||Erec and Enide|
|Created by||Possibly Chrétien de Troyes|
|Occupation||Knight of the Round Table|
|Family||Ban, Elaine of Benoic, Lady of the Lake, Hector de Maris, Bleoberis, Blamore, among others|
|Significant||Guinevere, Elaine of Corbenic, possibly Galehaut|
Lancelot du Lac (meaning Lancelot of the Lake), also written as Launcelot and other spellings, is one of the Knights of the Round Table in the Arthurian legend. He typically features as King Arthur's greatest companion, the lord of Joyous Gard and the greatest swordsman and jouster of the age - until his adulterous affair with Queen Guinevere is discovered, causing a civil war which is exploited by Mordred and brings about the end of Arthur's kingdom.
His first appearance as a main character is in Chrétien de Troyes' poem Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart, written in the 12th century. Later, his exploits were expanded upon in the Prose Lancelot, which was further expanded for the vast Lancelot-Grail cycle. There, his and Lady Elaine's son, Galahad, becomes an even more perfect knight and achieves the Holy Grail.
Roger Sherman Loomis suggested that Lancelot is related to either the character Llenlleog (Llenlleawg) the Irishman from Culhwch and Olwen (which associates him with the "headland of Gan(i)on") or the Welsh hero named Llwch Llawwynnauc (probably a version of the euhemerised Irish deity Lugh Lonbemnech, with "Llwch" meaning "Lake" in Welsh), possibly via a now-forgotten epithet like "Lamhcalad". Traditional scholars thought that they are the same figure due to the fact that their names are similar and that they both wield a sword and fight for a cauldron in Preiddeu Annwn and in Culhwch.
Modern scholars are less certain, as the name may have been just an invention by the 12th-century French poet Chrétien de Troyes. Another theory is that the name may have been derived from Geoffrey of Monmouth's Anguselaus. Lancelot may be also a variant of the name Lancelin. Lancelot or Lancelin may instead have been the hero of an independent folk tale which had contact with and was ultimately absorbed into the Arthurian tradition. The theft of an infant by a water fairy, the appearance of the hero at a tournament on three consecutive days in three different disguises, and the rescue of a queen or princess from an Otherworld prison are all features of a well-known and widespread tale, variants of which are found in numerous examples collected by Theodore Hersart de la Villemarqué in his Barzaz Breiz, by Emmanuel Cosquin in his Contes Lorrains, and by John Francis Campbell in his Tales of the West Highlands.
Lancelot's name appears as third on a list of knights at King Arthur's court in the earliest known work by Chrétien de Troyes, Erec and Enide (1170). The fact that his name follows Gawain and Erec indicates the presumed importance of the knight at court, even though he did not figure prominently in Chrétien's tale. Lancelot reappears in Chrétien's Cligès, in which he takes a more important role as one of the knights that Cligès must overcome in his quest. It is not until Chrétien's poem Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart (Le Chevalier de la Charrette), however, that Lancelot becomes the protagonist. It is also Chrétien who first gives Lancelot the name Lancelot du Lac (Lancelot of the Lake), which was later picked up by the French authors of the Lancelot-Grail and then by Thomas Malory.
The forbidden love affair between Lancelot and Arthur's wife Guinevere can be seen as parallel to that of Tristan and Iseult, with him ultimately identified with the tragedy of chance and human failing that is responsible for the downfall of the Round Table. However, Lancelot's adulterous passion for Guinevere is entirely absent from another early work, Lanzelet, a Middle High German epic poem by Ulrich von Zatzikhoven dating from the very end of the 12th century (no earlier than 1194). Ulrich asserts that his poem is a translation from an earlier French work, the provenance of which is given and which must have differed markedly in several points from Chrétien's story. In Lanzelet, the abductor of Ginover (Guinevere) is named as King Valerin, whose name (unlike that of Chrétien's Meliagant) does not appear to derive from the Welsh Melwas. Furthermore, her rescuer is not Lancelot, who instead ends by finding happiness in marriage with the fairy princess Iblis. It has been suggested that Lancelot was originally the hero of a story independent of the adulterous love triangle and perhaps very similar to Ulrich's version. If this is true, then the motif of adultery might either have been invented by Chrétien for his Chevalier de la Charrette or been present in the (now lost) source provided him by his patroness, Marie de Champagne, a lady well known for her keen interest in matters relating to courtly love.
Lancelot is constantly tied to the Christian themes within Arthurian legend. Lancelot's quest for Guinevere in Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart is similar to Christ's quest for the human soul. His adventure among the tombs is described in terms that suggest Christ's harrowing of Hell and resurrection: he effortlessly lifts the lid off the sarcophagus, which bears an inscription foretelling his freeing of the captives. Lancelot would later become one of the chief knights associated with the Holy Grail, but Chrétien does not include him at all in his final romance Perceval, le Conte du Graal, the story that introduced the motif into medieval literature. Perceval is the sole seeker of the Grail in Chrétien's treatment; Lancelot's involvement in the Grail Quest is first recorded in the romance Perlesvaus written between 1200 and 1210.
Lancelot's character is perhaps most fully developed during the 13th century in the Old French prose romance Vulgate Cycle, where he appears prominently in the later parts, known as the Prose Lancelot (or Lancelot du Lac) and the Queste del Saint Graal (The Quest for the Holy Grail) respectively. Gaston Paris argued that the Guinevere-Meleagant episode of the Prose Lancelot is an almost literal adaptation of Chrétien's poem, though it can be seen as a considerable amplification. Chrétien treats Lancelot as if his audience were already familiar with the character's background, yet most of the exploits that are today associated with Lancelot are first mentioned here (e.g. Lancelot's parentage; Lancelot and the Grail; Lancelot, Guinevere and the fall of Camelot).
Much of the Lancelot material from the Vulgate Cycle has been later removed in the rewriting known as the Post-Vulgate Cycle, with the surviving parts being reworked and attached to the other parts of this cycle. The Middle Dutch so-called Lancelot Compilation contains seven Arthurian romances folded into the three parts of the cycle. Lanceloet en het hert met het witte voet ("Lancelot and the hart with the white foot") is an original romance in which Lancelot fights seven lions to get the white foot from a hart (deer) which will allow him to marry a princess. The creation of a new story indicates Lancelot's widespread popularity.
In the Vulgate Cycle, Lancelot, birth name Galahad (originally written Galaad or Galaaz, not to be confused with his own son of the same name), is born in Gaul as the son of the Gallo-Roman King Ban of Benwick (or Benoic), which is overrun by their Frankish enemy, King Claudas. Ban and his wife Queen Elaine flee the destruction of their final stronghold, carrying the infant child with them. As Elaine is tending to her dying husband, Lancelot is carried off by Merlin's former lover, the enchantress known as the Lady of the Lake, who then raises the child in her magical realm while Elaine becomes a nun. It is from this upbringing that Lancelot earns the surname du Lac ("of the Lake"). Lancelot's double-cousins Lionel and Bors, sons of King Bors of Gaul and Elaine of Benoic's sister Evaine, are first taken by a knight of Claudas and later spirited away to the Lady of the Lake to become Lancelot's junior companions.
Initially known only as the nameless White Knight (Blanc Chevalier), clad in silver steel on a white horse, Lancelot arrives in Arthur's kingdom of Logres with the Lady of the Lake to be knighted by the king at her behest. She gives him a powerful magic ring able to dispel any enchantment, as his anonymous fairy foster mother also does in Chrétien's version, and later she and her damsels keep aiding him in various ways through the Vulgate Lancelot. In the Vulgate, the White Knight later takes the name of his grandfather, King Lancelot, upon discovering his identity. In the Post-Vulgate, where Lancelot is no longer the central protagonist, he comes to Arthur's court alone and eventually becomes a knight after having released Gawain from enemy captivity, having almost defeated Arthur himself when the king dueled Lancelot without being known (Arthur's sword Caliburn, emitted light that helped the king defeat Lancelot, but the sword then broke since the sword in the stone was meant to be used only for the sake of the kingdom and justice). Almost immediately upon his arrival, Lancelot falls in love with Queen Guinevere, and one of his very first adventures is saving her from abduction by Arthur's enemy Maleagant. The exact timing and sequence of events varies from one source to another, and some details are found only in certain sources. For example, in Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, the adulterous relationship is postponed for several years, as Lancelot's rescue of the Queen from Meleagant (during which, as Malory wrote, "Sir Launcelot wente to bedde with the Quene and toke no force of his hurte honed, but toke his plesaunce and hys lyknge untyll hit was the dawning of the day" after breaking through into her chamber) takes place following the Grail Quest.
Early on, Lancelot wins his own castle in Britain, known as Joyous Gard (a former Dolorous Gard), where he learns his real name and heritage. His early knight-errant adventures from the Vulgate Cycle that have survived the transition to the Post-Vulgate, and were subsequently included in Malory's compilation, range from proving victorious in a tournament fighting on behalf of King Bagdemagus, slaying the mighty Turquine who had been holding several of Arthur's knights prisoner, to overcoming a damsel's betrayal to defend himself unarmed against Phelot. Eventually, with the help of King Arthur, Lancelot defeats Claudas (and his allied Romans in the Vulgate) and recovers his father's kingdom. However, he again decides to remain at Camelot with his cousins Bors and Lionel and his illegitimate half-brother Ector de Maris (Hector). His great deeds in the adventures exclusive to the Vulgate Lancelot include slaying multiple dragons and having a decisive role in the war against the Saxons in Scotland when he again rescues Arthur and Gawain (as he does on different occasions) and forces the Saxon witch-princess to surrender. Lancelot dedicates his deeds to his lady Guinevere, acting in her name as her knight. At one point, he goes mad when led to believe that Guinevere doubts his love, until he is found and healed by the Lady of the Lake. The motif of his recurring madness and suicidal tendencies (usually relating to the false or real news of the death of either Gawain or Galehaut) returns often through the Vulgate and sometimes also other versions.
Lancelot, incognito as the Black Knight (on another occasion he disguises himself as the Red Knight as well), also plays a decisive role in a war between Arthur and Galehaut (Galahaut). Galahaut is Arthur's enemy and poised to become the victor, but he is taken by Lancelot's amazing battlefield performance and offers him a boon in return for the privilege of one night's company in the bivouac. Lancelot accepts and uses his boon to demand that Galehaut surrender peacefully to Arthur. At first, Lancelot continues to serve Galehaut in his home country Sorelois, where Guinevere joins him in refuge after Lancelot saves her from the bewitched Arthur during the "False Guinevere" episode. Eventually Arthur invites Lancelot to become a member of the Round Table, and Galahaut as well. In spite of this happy outcome, Galahaut is the one who convinces Guinevere that she may return Lancelot's affection, an action that at least partially will result in the fall of Camelot. In the Prose Tristan and its adaptations, including the account in the Post-Vulgate, Lancelot gives refuge to the fugitive lovers Tristan and Iseult as they flee from the evil King Mark of Cornwall.
Lancelot has become one of the most famous Knights of the Round Table (even attested as the best knight in the world in Malory's episode of Sir Urry of Hungary) and an object of desire by many ladies, beginning with the Lady of Malehaut when he is her captive already early on in the Vulgate Lancelot. Faithful to Queen Guinevere, he refuses the forceful advances of Queen Morgan le Fay, Arthur's enchantress sister. Morgan constantly attempts to seduce Lancelot, whom she at once greatly loves and hates. She even kidnaps him repeatedly, once with her coven of fellow magical queens including Sebile. On one occasion (as told in the Prose Lancelot), Morgan agrees to let Lancelot go save Gawain if he will return to her immediately afterwards, and then sets him free on promise that he will not spend any time with either Guinevere or Galehaut for a year; this condition causes Lancelot to go half-mad, and Galehaut to fall sick out of longing for him and eventually to die of anguish after he receives a false rumour of Lancelot's suicide. Another sorceress, Hellawes, wants him for herself so obsessively that, failing in having him either dead or alive in Malory's chapel perilous episode, she soon herself dies from sorrow. Similarly, Elaine of Astolat (Vulgate's Demoiselle d'Escalot, in modern times better known as "the Lady of Shalott"), too, dies of heartbreak due to her unrequited love of Lancelot.
Elaine of Corbenic, daughter of the Fisher King, also falls in love with him; she is more successful than the others. With the help of magic, Elaine tricks Lancelot into believing that she is Guinevere, and he sleeps with her. The ensuing pregnancy results in the birth of his son, Galahad. Guinevere eventually learns of that affair and, furious when she finds that Elaine has made Lancelot sleep with her again, she banishes him from Camelot. Broken by her reaction, Lancelot goes mad again and wanders the wilderness for years, and is searched for by the remorseful Guinevere and the others. Eventually, he arrives back at Corbenic where he is recognised by Elaine. Lancelot, shown the Holy Grail through a veil, is cured of his madness. Shortly after he recovers, he is found by Perceval and Ector, who have both been sent to look for him by Guinevere, and returns to Camelot. Upon his return to court, Lancelot takes part in the Grail Quest. He is allowed only a glimpse of the Grail itself because he is an adulterer and distracted by earthly honours that have come through his knightly prowess. It is instead his teenage son Galahad who ultimately achieves the Grail to drink from, along with Lancelot's cousin Bors and King Pellinore's son Perceval.
Ultimately, Lancelot's affair with Guinevere is a destructive force, which was glorified and justified in the Vulgate Lancelot but becomes condemned by the time of the Vulgate Queste. Maleagant is killed by Lancelot when he tried to prove the adultery; revealed to Arthur by Morgan, it results in the death of three of Gawain's brothers (Agravain, Gaheris and Gareth) by Lancelot's hand when he violently rescues Guinevere from being burned at the stake for her infidelity; a war is waged against Lancelot by the vengeful Gawain and King Arthur in France; and the eventual result is Mordred's betrayal of Arthur to seize the throne for himself. Gawain challenges Lancelot to a duel twice; each time Lancelot delays because of Gawain's enchantment that makes him grow stronger between morning and noon, then strikes down Gawain but spares his life.
Upon hearing the news of Arthur's death by Mordred at Camlann in a letter from the dying Gawain, Lancelot returns to Dover and mourns the deaths of his comrades. In Britain, Lancelot's victorious war against the sons of Mordred and their Saxon allies provides him a partial atonement for his earlier role in the Vulgate story. He kills one of them himself and finds that Guinevere has become a nun. In Le Morte d'Arthur, Guinevere blames all the destruction of the Round Table upon their adulterous relationship, which is the seed of all the dismay that followed. She refuses to kiss Lancelot one last time, telling him to return to his lands and that he will never see her face again. Instead, Lancelot declares that, if she will take a life of penitence, then so will he.
Lancelot then retires to a hermitage to seek redemption, with eight of his kin joining him in monastic life, including Hector. As a monk, he conducts rites over Guinevere's body (who had become an abbess). As she had declared, he never saw her face again in life: in a dream, he is warned that she is dying; he sets out to visit her, but Guinevere prays that she might die before he arrives, which she does, half an hour before his arrival. After the queen's death, Lancelot and his fellow knights escort her body to be interred beside King Arthur (in the same place where Gawain's skull is kept).
The distraught Lancelot's health begins to fail (in fact, even before this time, Le Morte d'Arthur states that he had lost a cubit of height due to his fastings and prayers). Lancelot dies six weeks after the death of the queen. It is implied that he wished to be buried beside the king and queen; however, he had made a vow some time before to be buried at Joyous Gard next to Galehaut, so he asks to be buried there so as to keep his word. His eight companions return to France in order to take care of the affairs of their lands after his death. Acting on Lancelot's death-bed request, they go on a crusade to the Holy Land and all die there fighting the Saracens ("Turks" in Malory). In the Post-Vulgate, the burial site and bodies of Lancelot and Galehaut are later destroyed by King Mark.
Lancelot appeared as a character in many Arthurian films and television productions, sometimes even as the protagonistic titular character. He has been played by Robert Taylor in Knights of the Round Table (1953), William Russell in The Adventures of Sir Lancelot (1956-1957), Robert Goulet in Camelot (1960), Cornell Wilde in Sword of Lancelot (1963), Franco Nero in Camelot (1967), Luc Simon in Lancelot du Lac (1974), Nicholas Clay in Excalibur (1981), Richard Gere in First Knight (1995), Jeremy Sheffield in Merlin (1998), Phil Cornwell in King Arthur's Disasters (2005-2006), Thomas Cousseau in Kaamelott (2005-2009), Santiago Cabrera in Merlin (2008-2011), Christopher Tavarez in Avalon High (2010), Sinqua Walls in Once Upon a Time (2012, 2015), Dan Stevens in Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb (2014), and Martin McCreadie in Transformers: The Last Knight (2017), among others.