I can already hear you thinking, He’s not a forgotten character. This is absolutely true, however there’s a lot of hilarious stuff that gets left out of modern adaptations, which tend to foreground the love triangle.
I’m going to stick with Malory for this post, because I’m still grinding my way through Chretien de Troyes. The stories are, of course, inconsistent. Malory tried, but continuity wasn’t actually a thing yet, so even within his one collection, there are points where the passage of time just doesn’t work, and the characterization is wobbly at best.
If you’re skimming the 500-odd pages of Le Morte D’Arthur for Lancelot stuff to read, you can skip the first four books entirely, because his only appearances are in Merlin’s prophecies. Of the remainder:
- Book V is the war with Rome, in which he barely appears.
- Book VI is “his” book, and contains a bunch of short adventures all jammed together in what must have been one very exciting year. None of them are more than a few pages long, and there’s a lot of variety.
- Book VII is Gareth’s, in which Lancelot has a minor supporting role. Gareth is a cupcake, so you should read this one anyway.
- Books VIII, IX, and X are Tristram’s story, which will be addressed in a future post. This has some of the best Lancelot background bits; he spends a lot of time rescuing fellow knights, being gracious, and face-palming. Skim it, and don’t try to keep track of the main character.
- Book XI starts off the nearly 100 pages of the Grail story. A lot of things happen to Lancelot in this. None of them are good. Also, 15 years pass between Galahad’s birth and the quest, during which no one else ages.
- Book XVIII, XIX, and XX are largely concerned with Lancelot and Guinevir. Includes some funny adventures, some serious ones, more tournaments, and the romantic part of the tragic endgame.
- Book XXI is the other tragic endgame with Mordred, which is almost an afterthought here, and then more romantic tragic endgame, because even with Arthur dead our lovers aren’t allowed to be happy. Read it if you like to be sad.
So who is this guy, anyway? Other stories in the canon give a more detailed background, but since we’re sticking with Malory for the time being — Lancelot is a second-generation character. His father, King Ban of Benwick, was one of Arthur’s early supporters. The supposed location of Benwick is not clear, other than somewhere in what is currently France. The family connection is a little unusual, in that Ban (and his brother) fought on Arthur’s side in the war to establish his claim to the throne, but once that was done, they got duly rewarded and went home to deal with their own problems. Neither of them was still around by the time the Round Table was instituted, but all of their kids signed on. This gives the clan an unusual relationship with Camelot; they were Arthur’s allies, not defeated enemies, and he came to them (on Merlin’s advice) for help.
Back to the family tree. Ban was married to one of the Innumerable Elaines. He had a brother, Bors, and possibly another one — there is a single reference in Malory to Gwenbaus, who is described as “a wise clerk.” Beyond this lies a hopeless morass, because Malory is inconsistent in how he uses relationship designations; the same person might be called a brother, then a cousin, or a cousin, then a nephew, and just to make it even more fun, a couple of names appear to get passed down generations. Lancelot has a dozen or so of these nebulous male relatives around. On the female side, he might have a sister (her existence is implied by dialog; she never appears and has no name), and a side character named Alice is said to be a member of the family, although exactly how is impossible to tell.
There’s only one mention in this collection of Lancelot’s early life, when Merlin pays a visit to his mom. We run into a timeline problem right away, because this episode indicates that if he had even been born when Arthur became king, he was at most a child. Malory nevertheless asserts that Lancelot was along for the continental war that occupies Book V, and which supposedly occurred as soon as Arthur had established order at home. That means that somewhere, there is a great wodge of time unaccounted for, in order for him to have grown up.
The Fun Stuff
One reason I think Lancelot gets so much air time vs other characters — aside from the evergreen joy of a love triangle as a plot element — is that he is just a delightful character to work with. Being the best at everything is great, of course, but even the rest of the top tier knights don’t get the same level of enduring interest. Why him? Because he’s fun.
For one thing, he is friends with practically everybody. His family is not involved in the feud that simmers over the course of the book; he’s friendly with Lamorak on the Pellinor side, and all but adopts Gareth (Lot’s youngest) as soon as the kid shows up at court. He gets on well enough with Gawaine — not an easy character to like — that when the affair with Gwen is made public, Gawaine actually tries to cover for him at first, and their friendship breaking up is at least as big a deal as any of the other tragedies going on at the end. Outside those factions, Lancelot is tight with Tristram (who is no fun at all), as the two bond over their romantic troubles. He’s constantly rescuing other knights who’ve gotten in over their heads, and is always generous about it. He manages to come across as a genuinely nice character the majority of the time.
He also gets most of the funny stories in Malory, which is refreshing. Many of the other characters might not withstand having fun poked at them, but some of the things you can get away with when you are Literally the Best include:
- That time he took shelter in an apparently abandoned tent, only to get kissed by a knight who was expecting to find his girlfriend sleeping there (after almost killing the guy, they became friends).
- That time he fought a tournament wearing a dress in order to make fun of one of Tristram’s friends.
- That time he was having a nice peaceful vacation away from the hustle and bustle of court, and a huntress accidentally shot him in the ass.
- That time he killed some guy (who had the temerity to kidnap Gwen) with, literally, one hand tied behind his back.
- The fact for the entire middle of the book he is the team mom, rescuing the young knights from ill-thought escapades and all but telling them to put on a sweater for God’s sake.
- Meanwhile, he’s an actual disaster who gets hurt a lot — usually by one of his friends or relatives because he’s fighting incognito on the underdog side of a tournament, which is his favorite form of sulking — and nearly dies, and then tries to Do Things too soon afterward, and nearly dies again, and gets yelled at a lot.
Very few of the other characters ever get to have any fun with their lives at all. Kay and Dinadin are jokers, but they’re mean. Gareth gets some lighthearted moments, but other than that? Things tend to be pretty serious. Granted that the overall arc of the story is toward tragedy, it’s nice to have a change of tone along the way.
The Romantic Stuff
I’m going to leave the love triangle for some other post and talk about other entanglements instead. Honestly, the book could have been subtitled Women Trying and (Mostly) Failing to Sleep with Lancelot. Not that he makes an effort to seduce them or anything; they just show up.
Morgan le Fay kidnaps him at one point and demands that he choose among her and her three friends as paramour or they’ll kill him. He gets freed by a sympathetic damsel, who quizzes him archly about his lack of interest in getting married, noting how this makes every woman in the kingdom sad.
A witch named Hellawes sets a trap in the Chapel Perilous:
I have loved thee this seven year, but there may no woman have thy love but Queen Guenever. But sithen I may not rejoice thee to have thy body alive, I had kept no more joy in this world but to have thy body dead.
So that’s nice. After he gets away, Hellawes is so sad about it that she dies.
Elaine falls in love with him, asks him to marry her (no), then to be her lover (absolutely not), and finally declares that she has no recourse but to die. I know this story is supposed to be very tragic and was given much loving attention by later poets, but I find endless amusement in Elaine’s father’s “wait, what the hell is going on here?” reaction to this, and also Lancelot’s “swear to God, I never touched her (wtf is my life)”.
A different Elaine, daughter of King Pelles, is the only woman in the book not named Guinevir to succeed in the sex quest, albeit via a magical deception which eventually leads Lancelot to spend several years in amnesiac insanity. (The sheer quantity of whump in the Grail story is impressive. And yes, that’s two Elaines, and that was also supposed to be Lancelot’s mother’s name, and it was also the name of his cousin or brother’s daughter, I think. I don’t even know what was going on with this book.)
Near the end we get another helpful-for-a-price damsel, when he’s languishing in the dungeon of an evil knight while Gwen faces execution (having been falsely accused of poisoning someone). After being repeatedly turned down for sex, this one grudgingly settles for a kiss and sets him free.
I do wonder what all of these helpful ladies told their employers later on….
That’s kind of lot to write in one entry, and honestly, there’s far more weirdness to come. I heartily recommend reading some of these old stories. Even if not always for the reasons the authors might have intended, they’re incredibly entertaining.