Montferrat Coin Knight-Life

Who Needs Lancelot?

LancelotLancelot du Lac - the ultimate exhibitionist - a shimmer of silver helmet, a dazzling smile, and an ego the length of the Channel Tunnel, flashing into crystal mirrors and singing "Tirra lirra" (see Tennyson, The Lady of Shallot)... For him, Elaine of Astolat pines away (he suffers no remorse), Guenevere nearly fries at the stake, and the noble fellowship of the Round Table is rent asunder...

For over eight hundred years, since his introduction by Chrétien de Troyes, Sir Lancelot has been extolled as the Flower of Chivalry, the romantic hero of all time. His origins are murky. His name may be distantly derived from the Irish God Lugh, or from Arthur's understandably obscure nephew (via his brother Madawc) Eliwlod, who had the misfortune to mutate into an eagle. It may be just another version of 'Lancelin', with a different diminutive ending - suggesting that he's a purely Breton or French character, grafted on to the Arthurian stories as many characters were.

But his most famous rôle as Guenevere's lover is purely Chrétien's invention. However, a strong line of lit. crit., including Prof. Owen of St. Andrews (ed. of the Everyman text), suggests that Chrétien's original story, The Knight of the Cart, may have been intended as a parody of courtly love. The 13th C. French prose romancers who adopted Lancelot did not share Chrétien's sense of humour. As a result, this comic character infiltrated the legend, usurped the leading romantic rôle, and was taken seriously!

So is Lancelot really necessary? Or is it, perhaps, time to consign him and his shining armour to the aluminium recycling plant?

How Queen Guenever made her a nunSome modern writers have retained him as Arthur's friend and Guenevere's lover. T. H. White amplified his rôle in The Ill-Made Knight and The Candle in the Wind, while Marion Zimmer Bradley, in her ultra-Californian The Mists of Avalon, hinted at bisexuality in Lancelot's love for Arthur. However, other authors, such as Rosemary Sutcliff and Mary Stewart, who have set their Arthurian novels in the Dark Ages, realised that Lancelot was a mediæval invention. They therefore linked Guenevere with Bedevere/Bedwyr - without traditional precedent.

- This substitution of Bedwyr for Lancelot is entirely superfluous. The pre-Lancelot tradition is preserved in Geoffrey of Monmouth, Wace, Layamon, the Alliterative Morte Arthure, etc., and has its roots in the earliest layers of Celtic myth, along with the stories of Diarmaid and Grainne, Deirdre and Naoise, of Drustan and Essylt.

Guenevere managed her love-life well enough without Lancelot, even discounting supernatural abductors like Melwas/Meliagraunce (literally Mael Gwas- the 'Noble Prince', i.e. Gwyn ap Nudd, Lord of the Underworld). Not that she was faithful to Arthur, who was scarcely celibate himself (several concubines, plus alleged incest with his sister Gwyar, also known as Anna or Morgause).

As a Celtic Queen, the embodiment of the Sovereignty of the Land, Gwenhwyfar was within her rights to replace the ageing Arthur with a younger, more virile consort. And like Arthur, she believed in family values.

So who's she really sleeping with...?

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