With the most recent issue of Once & Future on the sleeves, it gives me another chance to share my passion of the Arthurian legend with you as we take the time to get to know Lancelot du Lac some more. Arguably Arthur’s most famous knight and friend and finally revealed! And, boy, what a reveal!
You don’t grow up in North Wales, and not learn about the legend of King Arthur. But I don’t think it was until I saw an issue of Camelot 3000 by Mike W Barr and Brian Bolland that I saw a depiction of the king. One that stuck with me, even to this day. and, one of my all time favourites too.
Hand-in-hand with this depiction I was also introduced to the adulterer, Lancelot. And with his 80’s big-hair I was not a fan. These feelings were only further strengthened when Lancelot (Nicholas Clay) did it all again in John Boorman’s film, Excalibur. How could anyone take the side of Lancelot when faced with the dog-faced depiction of Arthur as brilliantly played by Nigel Terry?
“Get out, and stay out!” – Camelot 3000 #7What’s more, when studying the Arthurian tradition at university I was to learn that he was another bolt-on to the legend. One gifted to use by the French. Us Brits don’t have a good history when it comes Anglo-Franco relationships over the centuries, that’s for sure. Lancelot just seemed to be another chance to rub our faces in it.
As you are learning – if you’ve read previous instalments of this series of deep-dives into the literary histories of King Arthur – the legends, stories and spin-offs of many a legend evolves across time, and the figure of Lancelot Du Lac is no different.
While there may be some academics who argue that Lancelot has some providence in the Celtic roots of the legend, it was the French writer Chrétien de Troyes who really introduced the world to this knight, placing him deep at the heart of the Medieval chivalric tradition that writers like Chrétien and Sir Thomas Malory embraced. It is Chrétien who gives him his name, Lancelot Du Lac, in his poem, ‘Le Chevalier de la Charrette’ (‘Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart’) and the one Kieron Gillen and Dan Mora are taking to wholeheartedly in Once & Future #15.
From the very off Lancelot shows a passion for Guinevere, whom he saves in Chrétien’s tale. A passion that may very well have been an inclusion insisted on by his patron Marie de Champagne. A request that, some say, saw another complete this poem after Chrétien walked away from it. He was far too uneasy with the inclusion of the theme of adultery, apparently. Even though it was Avery prevalent one in Medieval poetry. As you’ll know if you’ve ever read any Chaucer. Adultery in Medieval literature? There’s a Phd in there somewhere.
Although given Chrétien (and the unnamed clerk who may have completed this work) writes about Lancelot as a well-established character, chances are there were many stories told of his exploits known to Chrétien and 12th century Europe, but now lost to us like so much from the past. Maybe he was always an adulterer. The Pepe Le Pew of his time. Who knows, he may well have had his roots in the Celtic past, but we juts don’t know.
By the time he is reappropriated in the French retelling of the Arthurian legend in the interconnection stories of the Vulgate Cycle, he is still an adulterer but because of his philandering (albeit originally as part of a spell cast upon him) he is not worthy of the Holy Grail. Even though his illegitimate son, Galahad, is. So, there is that small comfort for me to cling to, I suppose.
While Lancelot and Guinevere fall in love in the prime of their youth, Malory puts off Lancelot and Guinevere’s illicit romance until they are both much older and while hunting for the Holy Grail. Although, he does pledge himself to her quite early on in Le Morte d’Arthur.
Of course, no-one could even perceive of the story of King Arthur to not include Lancelot. And while I have half-jested about my deep held feelings for this French reprobate, there have been renditions of him that do stand out for me. None more so that T H White’s wonderful epic, The Once and Future King; a collection of the novellas White wrote across a couple of years (1938 – 1940) and collected in 1958. You may know one of the book in the collection already. It was adapted by Disney as the animated classic The Sword in the Stone in 1963. Same they never took the time to do the follow-ups.
In this book – which I cannot highly recommend – Lancelot is an ugly brute. Both figuratively and literally. But, in the world of violent and impeding dangers that echoed that of the world on the brink of another world war, Lancelot fitted in magnificently. But, again, I cannot help but side with White’s King Arthur. A man we witness as a boy, and a pacifist outnumbered in a Medieval world built on violence. A violence reflects in the world around White. A world on the brink of war, and something White wonderfully explored in these novels.
White’s Arthur is very much at odds with that of Once & Future, that’s for sure. So, with that in mind, I wonder what Gillen and Mora’s Lancelot will come to begin their own take on aspects of this famous saga? Maybe this will be a Lancelot I can finally get behind and root for. Won’t it?
Catch up with previous instalments of Arthurian Annotations here and learn more about the legend of King Arthur and some of the literary inspirations behind this hit book.