In the medieval legends about King Arthur of Britain and his knights, Lancelot is the greatest knight of all. In time, however, Lancelot's love for Guinevere, the king's wife, leads him to betray his king and sets in motion the fatal events that end Arthur's rule.
Lancelot is generally considered to be a French contribution to the Arthurian legends*. He first appears in the romances of the French writer Chrétien de Troyes in the 1100s. However, some students of mythology see Lancelot as a later version of Celtic*f heroes or even of older images of gods associated with lightning and fertility.
medieval relating to the Middle Ages in Europe, a period from about A . D . 500 to 1500
romance in medieval literature, a tale based on legend, love, and adventure, often set in a distant place or time
Like many heroes of myth and legend, Lancelot enjoyed a royal birth and an unusual upbringing. He was the son of King Ban of
* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.
Benoic in western France, but he was raised by a mysterious figure known as the Lady of the Lake, who appears in various roles in the Arthurian tales. For this reason, he is sometimes called Lancelot of the Lake.
The Lady of the Lake prepared the youth to excel in all the knightly virtues and pastimes and then presented him to King Arthur's court. There Lancelot became the foremost knight, the model of chivalry and the good friend of the king. Unfortunately, however, Lancelot also fell in love with Queen Guinevere.
chivalry rules and customs of medieval knighthood
adultery sexual relationship between a married person and someone other than his or her spouse
Some of Lancelot's knightly feats had to do with Guinevere. On one occasion, he rescued her after she had been kidnapped by a rival prince, but he had to humble his pride and ride in a lowly cart to do so. The same prince later accused Guinevere of adultery, and Lancelot fought as her champion. His love for Guinevere was such that he resisted the charms of a maiden called Elaine of Astolat, who died of love for him. Another Elaine, this one the daughter of King Pelleas, proved more enterprising. She tricked Lancelot into sleeping with her, pretending that she was Guinevere. Elaine bore Lancelot's son, Galahad, who grew into a pure and sinless knight. As Christian morality played an increasing role in the Arthurian legends over time, Galahad came to replace his flawed father as the supreme knight of Arthur's Round Table.
morality ideas about what is right and wrong in human conduct
The uproar over Lancelot's affair with Guinevere tore King Arthur's court apart—as those who opposed Arthur had hoped that it would. Some of the knights followed Lancelot to France and set up another court, while others remained with Arthur. The two sides went to war until a rebellion led by Arthur's nephew Mordred broke out in Arthur's realm and the king had to return to Britain to suppress it. Arthur was mortally wounded fighting against the rebel army and was carried away to the island of Avalon. When Lancelot returned to Britain, Arthur's court was no more. Guinevere, in the meantime, had become a nun. Lancelot followed her example and devoted himself to religious service as a monk until he died.