My first introduction to the Arthurian legend was at the age of eleven, when I read Roger Lancelyn Green’s Knights of the Round Table. I memorized the score of Camelot, and saw the film with Vanessa Redgrave and Franco Nero several times (not so great). I loved reading The Mists of Avalon, and Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave. And of course, T.H. White’s Once and Future King.
It’s such a magical, powerful saga, that encompasses all the virtues and vices of humankind. We get adultery, illegitimacy, quests, battles, jealousies, deception, and lots of enchantment.
After hearing Peter and Sarah Walker’s performance (see earlier post), I did a little research on Lancelot. Here’s one version of his life.
Lancelot is born the son of King Ban and Elaine of Benoic (also Benwick). When King Ban is wounded, Elaine goes to tend to him, and Vivien carries the baby away. After the death of King Ban, Lancelot is brought up by Vivien, the Lady of the Lake, in her mystical kingdom. Hence he acquires his name, Lancelot du Lac.
Vivien herself is a fascinating character who goes by many names: Vivianne, Nimue, and Nyneve. She is the lover and the undoing of Merlin, and it is she who imprisons Merlin in a crystal cave or hawthorn tree, depending on the version of the story.
The enchantress Vivien raises Lancelot to be a model of chivalry. When he turns fifteen, she introduces him to King Arthur’s court at Camelot. There she requests that Arthur make Lancelot one of the Knights of the Round Table whenever Lancelot asks. Lancelot asks to be knighted the next day.
The moment Lancelot meets Queen Guinevere, he falls in love. At first, he continues to adore her from afar, as a chivalrous knight should. He proves himself to be the best knight of the kingdom, in battle and in tournament.
Guinevere and Lancelot become lovers. Lancelot’s devotion to Guinevere never wavers. He is tricked into sleeping with Elaine, the daughter of King Pelles, the keeper of the Holy Grail (Sangral). Galahad is born from this union.
When the Grail appears to the Knights of the Round Table, many leave in search of it. As an adulterer, Lancelot is too impure too achieve a vision of Grail, but Galahad, his son, is allowed to see it.
While Arthur is away defending the kingdom, Agravain and Mordred, Arthur’s illegitimate son by Morgan Le Fey, discover Lancelot and Guinevere in bed together. Mordred demands that Arthur obey the law and execute the queen by burning at the stake.
Meanwhile, Mordred declares himself king in Arthur’s absence. Arthur is forced to challenge his son for the throne. He kills Mordred, and Mordred deals a death blow to Arthur.
Lancelot saves Guinevere from burning, but Guinevere is finally appalled by the deadly repercussions of their affair. She retires to a convent and refuses to see Lancelot again. He, in turn, also chooses a religious life, and remains a monk until his death.