Sir Lancelot: Exploring the History Behind the Legend
There is no doubt that most of us, in our childhoods and later in life, heard all about the stories and legends of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. For many, the stories of Arthur and his exploits were the integral part of growing up, and they continue to be the central aspect of what is a quintessentially British identity. But today, we won’t be focusing on King Arthur. Instead, our story shifts to one of his closest companions - a knight equally dashing and brave, whose legend is the central part of the Arthurian legend: Sir Lancelot. Depicted as one of the most gallant and brave of all the Knights of the Round Table, Lancelot of the Lake is considered the epitome of that traditional, chivalric romance that served as an inspiration and an ideal to many over the centuries.
Lancelot first appears in the annals of literature in a work by Chrétien de Troyes back in 1170 AD. This painting by Herbert James Draper depicts Lancelot and Guinevere. (Public domain)
The Early Origins of the Story of Lancelot
The earliest mentions of the character of Lancelot are positively dated to the early decades of the middle ages. The earliest known literary work that features Lancelot as a prominent character is known as Erec and Enide (Érec et Énide) written in 1170 AD by the medieval French poet and troubadour Chrétien de Troyes. He is widely regarded as one of the most important authors of medieval literature and the Arthurian legend, and is also credited with most likely creating the characters of Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart; Yvain, the Knight of the Lion; and Percival, the Knight of the Grail.
It is possible that his works - which were highly novel for the time - popularized the early form of the novel and gave a major rise in popularity of the Arthurian romance. After first appearing in the said work, where his name is included with those of knights Gawain and Erec, Lancelot continues to appear as an increasingly important figure in Chrétien’s future works. Later on, with the publishing of Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart, this knight becomes the main protagonist of his own story.
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Chrétien de Troyes’ work is also the first to name him as Lancelot du Lac (Lancelot of the Lake) which was later picked up by other authors both in France and in England, establishing the name in various forms. Now, scholars who have been struggling to find the truth before the historical authenticity of both Lancelot and King Arthur, placed a great deal of attention on this medieval work. Troyes wrote his story without focusing on Lancelot’s background too much - as if his readers were already well familiar with this hero. This serves as a possible proof that the legend of Lancelot existed even before this work was written.
A depiction of Lancelot and Guinevere by Wilhelm List. (Public domain)
One of the leading scholars on the subject of medieval French literature, Matilda Bruckner perfectly sums this up:
“what existed before Chrétien remains uncertain, but there is no doubt that his version became the starting point for all subsequent tales of Lancelot as the knight whose extraordinary prowess is inextricably linked to his love for King Arthur's Queen."
In an attempt to trace the origins of Lancelot as an actual historical figure, one of the best insights can be hidden in his name, and so one way to go is to look at the origin of the words and names in and of themselves. One of the more interesting theories can link Lancelot with some older, Pan-European ancient legendary hero. The prominent English historian of the early 20th century, Alfred Anscombe, proposed that the name has Germanic origins. He stated that Lancelot comes from early Germanic * Wlancloth, with roots in the Old English wlenceo (pride) and loða (cloak). This in turn he connects with the historical Vinoviloth, a Gothic tribe that supposedly settled in Britain at Vinovia, today Binchester. And as Lancelot can be connected with Binchester, Ascombe’s parallel does make some sense.
Other scholars argue that the name Lancelot was simply invented by Troyes in his novels, while others propose another interesting theory. It is stated that the name has been derived from Anguselaus, one of the characters from the pen of Geoffrey of Monmouth, a major figure credited with the development of the legend of King Arthur. Anguselaus is most likely the anglicized form of the name Unguist, which belong to the son of a 6th century Pictish King. When transliterated into French it became Anselaus or Lanselaus - and from there, Lancelot emerged. Over time, historians proposed a multitude of possibilities for the origins of the name, and most of them are rooted in actual historical figures of princes and kings.
Lancelot rescuing Guinevere. (Public domain)
Could Lancelot be a Representation of a Celtic Deity?
But here is the version that has the most credibility, placing Lancelot as firmly rooted in the oldest histories of the British Isles, possibly giving him the identity of an ancient Celtic or pre-Celtic hero or deity that survived through time by becoming a myth. This version was proposed by Roger Sherman Loomis, who was one of the leading scholars of Arthurian myth.
His theory states that Lancelot is directly related to Llenlleog (Llenlleawg) - roughly pronounced as Lenleoc - that appears in a Welsh story called Culhwch and Olwen, and tells of a hero related to the Arthurian story. Here he is connected to the Welsh hero Llwch Llawwynnauc (Llwch meaning “Lake”). Most agree that this hero is euphemized form of the Celtic deity Lugh Lonbemnech, a major god of the Celtic pantheon.
Those are just some of the attempts to prove Lancelot as a hero with real origins. But what of the Arthurian story? In the many medieval legends related to Arthur and his chivalrous knights, Lancelot stands out as the very best of them all. But in a predictable medieval literary twist, love and passion stand in the way, and his chivalry soon becomes blinded.
Lancelot is entrusted with the protection of the King’s wife, Guinevere. However, her striking beauty could not be resisted - the two fall in love and start an affair. “Reason is passion’s slave,” it is said, and thus Lancelot becomes truly blind to his duty: madly in love with the young queen, he betrays King Arthur and so begins a tragic set of events that would lead to the demise of Arthur and the end of his rule.
In these stories, Lancelot is no mere upstart or a mystery-knight. Like most, he too is of noble birth, born as the son of one King Ban of Benoic (Benwick). Here, again, we can find connections to ancient Welsh mythology, as Ban of Benoic can be connected to Bran le Benoit, the French name for Bran the Blessed, a giant and a king of the Welsh myth, and one of the major figures in the Mabinogion.
According to legend, Lancelot is raised not by his parents, but by a mysterious figure widely known as the Lady of the Lake, which is featured prominently in the Arthurian legends. This gives him the title Lancelot of the Lake. It is this lady that prepares the young knight, teaching him all that there is to know before presenting him to the court of King Arthur, where he becomes his noblest knight and the most chivalrous one.
Sir Lancelot saves Guinevere. “At last the strange knight smote him to the earth, and gave him such a bugget on the helm as well-night killed him.” (Public domain)
Symbolism and Virtue in the Legend of Lancelot
However, his love for Guinevere stood against all else. Lancelot gives himself entirely over into the service of the lady he loves, alas to the detriment of all his knightly ideals and goals. Also, in accordance to the popular trends of the time, Lancelot exhibits towards her the fine amor, meaning a pure love that was a major attribute of proper chivalric behavior.
Nevertheless, throughout the Arthurian cycle, Lancelot is presented with numerous challenges that serve as tests to his chivalry. In one episode, he is seduced and tricked into sleeping with the daughter of the so-called Fisher King, Elaine - while she was pretending to be Guinevere. From this union is born Galahad, another great hero of the Arthurian cycle, who grows up to be an ideal and pure knight.
Throughout the development of the story of Lancelot, it becomes clear that increasingly important Christian beliefscome to play a big role in the story. Purity, sinlessness, and penitence all come to characterize this tale. Galahad, sinless and pure, replaces his father who succumbed to his passions and love for Guinevere. As the story progresses, Lancelot’s affair with the king’s wife completely tears the royal court apart. The supporters of Lancelot and those of King Arthur descend into a bitter and bloody war.
When Arthur’s treacherous nephew, Mordred, rebelled in Britain, the King fought him as well, and was mortally wounded in a climactic finale. However, by that time, fully aware of their transgressions, both Guinevere and Lancelot go into exile, becoming a nun and a monk respectively. They both devote themselves to this life in seclusion until their death.
As one reads the stories of the Arthurian cycle and especially those relating to Lancelot, one can quickly understand the metaphorical focus on symbolism and the development of virtues: Lancelot starts out as a pure and noble knight but succumbs to baser passions and is consumed by an impossible love. However, it is his noble son, Galahad - born of sin - that redeemed his own father and rose to even loftier heights by following a pure and noble lifestyle, rising to become one of the finest knights to ever live.
While it is clear that the stories of Lancelot and Galahad were both thoroughly adapted to the Christian and chivalric trends of the Middle Ages, one can still recognize within them a basis that is much more ancient. A basis rooted in the myths and legends of the Celtic mythology. And that is the important part: the story of Lancelot is a remnant of something much greater, of old stories of gods and mortal heroes, of legend and reality intertwined.
The rescue of Guinevere in a William Hatherell painting. (Public domain)
The Unity of Europe’s Oldest Myths: Lancelot as European Romantic Heritage
But to those with a keen eye, further secrets about the origins of Lancelot could appear. If we consider that the main story of Lancelot, written by Chrétien de Troyes in the Middle Ages, was greatly fueled and inspired by Christian beliefs dominant at the time, we can quickly see that Troyes might have relied on the Bible for some inspiration in creating the story of Lancelot.
One theory suggests that his name means simply “Lance, son of Lot” (Lance ap Lot in Welsh). As such, his story could be inspired by that of Lot, a figure from the Bible and the Book of Genesis. Much like Lancelot, Lot is tricked into sleeping with women, in this case his own daughters - they bear him two sons.
Other scholars give him a Germanic origin, connecting him with a historical figure, one Lanzelin (also called Landholt) from circa 930 to 991 AD, Count of Altenburg, Klettgau, Thurgau, and Lord of Muri. He was the son of the famous Guntram the Rich, a powerful Count of Breisgau of possible Frankish or Burgundian origin, who is considered as a probable progenitor of the House of Habsburg. Either way, the possibilities are numerous - and the truth of Lancelot’s origins might never be known.
Fact or fiction, Lancelot became one of the unmistakable symbols of the Arthurian legend, and one of the most important figures in European romantic heritage. Today, he is considered as a mainly English hero, but he is in fact a mythical knight that is a part of the entire pantheon of European history. In many ways Lancelot is the symbiosis of many ancient European myths, whose visage - hazy with age - entwines the real and the imagined, the Gods of old and folk heroes of battles long gone and forgotten, becoming part of our shared identity.
Top image: Medieval knight. Source: Daniel / Adobe Stock
By Aleksa Vučković
Dover, C. 2003. A Companion to the Lancelot-Grail Cycle. DS Brewer.
Lacy, N. 2010. Lancelot-Grail: Lancelot, pt. I. Boydell & Brewer Ltd.
De Troyes, C. 1997. Lancelot: The Knight of the Cart. Yale University Press.