By Danièle Cybulskie
If t-shirts had been all the rage in the Middle Ages, you can bet there would have been “Team Lancelot” ones selling like hotcakes. You can also bet that I wouldn’t have owned one.
When thinking of Camelot, one invariably comes up with three names: Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot. Lancelot always seems to be portrayed as a hero: chivalrous, fearless, and above reproach – that is, unless you take into account his adultery with the queen. Funnily enough, his introduction to the story is much less glamourous than might be imagined.
Lancelot’s first leading role seems to have been Chrétien de Troyes’ 12th-century poem Lancelot, also called The Knight of the Cart. But this Lancelot may be unfamiliar to modern eyes. Rather than being swooned over, he spends a lot of time swooning, himself. He narrowly avoids falling out a window when he sees Guinevere below (he is saved by a quick-acting Gawain, who basically tells him he’s being an idiot), and almost falls off his horse when he sees some of Guinevere’s hairs caught in a comb left lying on the ground. Lancelot is also quite rude to one of his hostesses, insisting on sleeping in a room she’s told him not to sleep in (at which point he is nearly skewered by a flaming lance for his folly), and consistently rides horses to death in his enthusiasm – even borrowed ones. Still, he does pick the more difficult of the two paths when he rides to the queen’s rescue, and he does manage to rescue her despite the odds.
Lancelot is much more familiar in Thomas Malory’s (15th-century) Le Morte D’Arthur. Malory loves Lancelot more than any other knight (except maybe Tristram), and gives him lots of heroic deeds to perform. It’s important to remember, though, just how devastating Lancelot’s treason is. Not only does he commit (real or supposed) adultery with the queen, endangering the succession, but he also rescues her from the king’s justice, defying the king again by holding her in his castle and forcing Arthur into civil war. Lancelot’s defiance of Arthur brings about the end of perfect Camelot (a handy lesson on the dangers of treason), yet he remains an enduring hero, somehow a paragon of chivalry and romance.
To me, the most interesting thing about Lancelot is this long-lasting popularity, especially since he was brought to Arthurian legend through writing, and outshines many more characters that came from longer, oral tradition. In terms of literary history, this is really fascinating. But I’m keeping my “Team Gawain” t-shirt.
You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist