Arthur, Arthurian, Celtic myth, Chretien de Troyes, Folklore, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Ginover, Guinevere, Holy Grail, King Arthur, Knights of the Round Table, Lancelot, Le Chevalier de la Charrette, Le Conte du Graal, Monmouth
Lancelot is an interesting figure. Forgetting linguistics for a moment (as Arthurian names often did as they transferred from Britain to the continent), he does not exist in Britain as far as personality and place in Arthur’s court. He first appears with Chretien de Troyes in ‘Erec et Enide’ and is first featured in his “Le Chevalier de la Charrette”. His sudden appearance has led to three theories about his original persona:
He is Llwch Llenlleawc, Llwch the bounding one. This has been appealing because of an interesting reinterpretation of his feat at the Sword Bridge episode in Chretien de Troyes. There he crossed it with his hands, whereas in Irish tales they are jumped in one leap.
He is in many extant Chretien manuscripts named L’Ancelot. The direct translation of this is “The servant” which, given his willingness to be Guinevere’s love slave in the stories and the philosophy of Chretien’s patron Marie de Champagne, makes perfect sense. Lancelot would in that case be an invention of Chretien.
Through some feasible linguistic transformation it is possible that L’Ancelot is a French version of Anguselaus. Anguselaus was a prominent figure in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s history, History of the Kings of Britain. However, there is no trace of any connection between him and the queen there.
The first option seems unlikely and in fact the translation is not certain. He is not known in the stories as the man who beat the sword bridge but as a great fighter who is the best of Arthur’s knights. And, like other Celtic warriors, his nickname should reflect that.
The connection to Angus would make this character Pictish and a very late addition about whom nothing is known prior to Geoffrey. That fact would make any traditional origins highly unlikely. It is not a likely one anyway. As Tatlock long ago addressed, names and locations in Geoffrey’s work were inserted to reflect contemporary events. Anguselaus of Moray, for instance, was at the time of the writing a recent rebel. There is no reason to believe he was also an historical figure of the sixth century.
This puts us in an awkward position with regards to Lancelot’s place in Arthurian literature; either he was an invention of seven centuries after the fact or he is a traditional figure who mysteriously has no history before 1136. Both choices leave him as a character that did not belong in the cycle of Arthurian stories before Geoffrey of Monmouth placed him there.
As to his development, Chretien represented him as entirely devoted to Guinevere. He provided a single instance of adultery between them and several of his willingness to give anything for her. These characteristics would be taken as stock features of his personality from that point on. Parallel to this would be a development of Lancelot as the ideal courtly knight. By the time of the Vulgate romances and Sir Thomas Malory in the fifteenth century, Lancelot had developed into a long-time adulterer and Arthur’s most celebrated knight. It was only natural that this dual development would lead to a rewriting of Arthur’s demise. In the later works Lancelot and Guinevere’s lust for each other became the basic reason for the fragmentation and destruction of the Arthurian kingdom.