Lancelot du Lac was the bravest knight in the court of Camelot! His most famous tales involved his love with Guinevere. Lancelot was added to the Arthurian legends by Chretien de Troyes, a French poet in the thirteenth century. His first ever tale was the Knight and the Cart.
Lancelot’s surname du Lac gives a hint to his origins as being the adoptive son (or in some tales actual son) of the Lady of the Lake. He is connected to both the Christian world of medieval Europe and the Pagan world of Avalon!
While Lancelot and Guinevere is the most remembered tale of love, Lancelot had another lover. Elaine of Corbenic was a young woman who fell in love with Lancelot, and even went as far as to have herself glamoured to look like his lover Guinevere in order to sleep with him. This union would beget a son, and his name was Galahad. Galahad was the supreme virtuous knight! He is the knightly ideal in a way Lancelot could not be due to his romantic and sexual relationship with his queen!
A second Elaine would love Lancelot, and in fact die of love for him. She was Elaine of Astolat, and she was imprisoned in a tower of Astolat. She fell in love with Lancelot while looking through her window, and hers was an entirely unrequited love. She famously appeared in Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur and Tennyson’s Idylls of the King and also his poem “The Lady of Shalott.” Elaine was a hugely favored figure in the nineteenth century art world. She provided a lot of inspiration for the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and other later Pre-Raphaelite inspired artists!
Lancelot is the archetype of the knightly lover of a queen. Guinevere is the queen that falls in love with Lancelot, and they are together in most tellings of the legends that contain Lancelot as a figure! He is powerful and strong as well as brave and the picture of chivalry. Stories of the love of Lancelot and Guinevere were favorite topics of Bards and other traveling poets and Minstrels in the medieval period. Royal courts became places that embraced the tenets of courtly love and the chivalric code!
The medieval code of chivalry was something that Lancelot was skilled at living and abiding by. Within the lifestyle of the code of chivalry is the close link to the rules of courtly love. The rules of courtly love center on unmarried (to each other) lovers that flirt and play games within the court. Noble knights often took queens and princesses as their courtly lovers. This was seen as a totally chaste type of love, more of game than anything real. Some took it further in actually falling in love and becoming true lovers in the sexual sense!
Courtly love in the sexual sense is what happened with Lancelot and Guinevere. In many tellings of the legends they are not very subtle or cautious in their flirtations and trysts. The two are certainly suspected by several other knights who tell Arthur about their suspicions. Eventually Arthur sees the truth, and while there are examples of him being seemingly fine with the liaison, in most cases he becomes enraged.
Many versions of the legends state that Arthur intended to have Guinevere burned at the stake! This plan is foiled when Lancelot returned to save his lover (he had previously evaded capture). After the death of Arthur at Camlann Lancelot retired from the world, and Guinevere was in a nunnery. Some people believed that Lancelot came to get Guinevere from the nunnery so they could marry, now that she was widowed. While this is not really part of the main legends, the hopeless romantic in me wants it to be the true end. Guinevere married to Lancelot after being widowed, and maybe even having children! Alas, that was unlikely what the original legends intended. Likely Guinevere the faerie queen she was went back to Avalon!
Note on Image: The image at the top of the post is God Speed by Edmund Leighton. I found the image on wikipedia.com. It is an example of the many paintings of Lancelot and Guinevere, and another of Leighton’s Lancelot and Guinevere paintings (The Accolade) was featured in my Guinevere post!
- Le Morte D’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory
- Arthurian Romances by Chretien de Troyes
- The Idylls of the King by Alfred Lord Tennyson
- The Age of Chivalry by Thomas Bulfinch
- The Art of Courtly Love by Andreas Capellanus