Lancelot, arguably the most famous of Arthur’s knights, does not appear at all in some of the earliest medieval Arthurian literature. He is not a character in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regum Britannie (c. 1136), nor in the early Welsh poems that mention some of Arthur’s companions, such as Cei and Bedwyr. Even later in the English tradition, once French texts have made him a central character, he can be a relatively minor knight. In the 14th-century Alliterative Morte Arthure, for example, he speaks at the war council Arthur holds near the beginning of the poem, but he is presented as one of the “less[er] men”:
By our Lord,” quod Sir Launcelot, “now lightes mine herte!
I lowe God of this love these lordes has avowed!
Now may less men have leve to say what them likes,
And have no letting by law; but listenes these wordes:
I shall be at journee with gentle knightes
On a jamby steed full jollily graithed,
Ere any journee begin to joust with himselven
Among all his giauntes, Genivers and other,
Strike him stiffly fro his steed with strenghe of mine handes,
For all the steren in stour that in his stale hoves!
Be my retinue arrayed, I reck it but a little
To make route into Rome with riotous knightes.
Within a seven-night day, with six score helmes,
I shall be seen on the se, sail when thee likes.” (367 – 380
French texts give us the Lancelot we know, the figure who is Arthur’s chief knight, Guinevere’s lover, and Galahad’s father. The image above is from Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 199, a 14th-century copy of the Lancelot (or Lancelot-Grail) Cycle, part of the French prose Vulgate Cycle. This cycle, dating to the 13th century, “continues” the unfinished Lancelot poem by Chrétien de Troyes, Le chevalier de la charette (The Knight of the Cart, c. 1177), which is the first text to mention Lancelot (and it is Chrétien who calls him Lancelot du Lac).
There are many manuscripts of the Lancelot-Grail Cycle. Some fully digitized examples are
- Cologny, Fondation Martin Bodmer, Cod. Bodmer 147 (end of the 13th century)
- London, British Library, Additional MS 10293 (10292 and 10294 are also digitized; early 14th century)
- London, British Library, Royal MS 14 E iii (c. 1315 – 1325)
- New Haven, Yale University Library, Beinecke MS 229 (c. 1275 – 1300)
- Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Rawl. Q. b. 6 (early 14th century)
- Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS français 113 (114 and 115 are also digitised on Gallica, as are other Arthurian-related manuscripts)
Thomas Malory makes it clear in his late 15th-century Morte Darthur that Lancelot is the greatest of Arthur’s warriors, but in later adaptations, his role as lover is equally important. Later readers are fascinated by his ill-fated love affairs, and by the guilt they induce in him. There are several incidents in Lancelot’s life which are, as a result of this fascination, particularly popular with adaptors and illustrators. These include his enchantment and temptation by the Four Queens; his relationship with Elaine, the lily maid of Astolat; his failure to see the Grail; his rescue of Guenevere from the fire; and his reaction to the death of Guenevere.
To illustrate this later response to Lancelot, below is Algernon Charles Swinburne’s 1860 poem “Lancelot” on the left, next to a series of post-medieval artistic interpretations of important moments from Lancelot’s ill-starred life.
Very long and hot it was,
The dry light on the dry grass,
The set noon on lakes of glass,
All that summer time;
And the great woods burnt and brown,
With dry tendrils dropping down,
And the sky’s white rampart thrown
On the bare wall of a town,
Round breadths of oak and lime.
Thro’ the woods I rode and rode,
No prayer of mine clomb up to God;
Sharp leaves crackled on the road
Where my horse the heaviest trode,
Over leaves and grass.
Thro’ the sad boughs rent on high
Naked burnt the great blind sky;
Yet I did not pray to die,
For no pain that was.
Here and there some colour was
Hidden in the muffled grass,
Some late flower that one might pass,
Or else a brown, smooth beech-mast was,
Or carven acorn cup.
And birds sang, and could not long,
For a trouble in their song:
All things there did suffer wrong,
All but I who rode along.
Now I grow so tired of this,
I would give much gold to kiss
One leaf of those primroses
That grow here when the green spring is
Whereof their life is made.
Under moon and under star
I have ridden fast and far
Where the deep leaves thickest are
In the huddled shade.
I cannot see what I shall do.
Now the day drops angrily,
Leaves a red stain on the sea,
And fierce light on field and tree,
Red as any brand.
A great slumber takes me round
In this place of sleepy sound;
Surely now the gift is found
And ready to my hand.
For there is left me nothing new
And none rides with me riding through
These brown wood walks so straight and few
For many nights and days.
And men say that I shall not win,
Tho’ the chosen for all my sin;
The sleepy beams crawl out and in
Under the branches rare and thin
Where thro’ I ride always.
Lo, the air begins to move
Like a heart that beats with love
All about thee and above,
For the hope it whispers of
But a little while.
A great love has healed his heart,
The shut eyelids move and start,
The shut lips are breathed apart
In a sleepy smile.
Ah! dear Christ, this thing I see
Is too wonderful for me,
If I think indeed to be
In Thy very grace.
Clear flame shivers all about,
But the bright ark alters not,
Borne upright where angels doubt;
The blessed maiden looketh out
White, with barèd face and throat
Leaned into the dark.
On her hair’s faint light and shade
A large aureole is laid,
All about the tresses weighed.
This is what thou wert to find.
Lo, the thin flames blown behind
Tremble in the blowing wind
As loose hair that girls unbind
In a woody place.
Ah, sweet Lord that art my Lord,
Thy light is sharp as any sword;
My heart is strainèd as a cord
That a child may break.
Evenwise each side her head
So they stand, the blessed maid,
The angels and the ark.
It were strange if I should see
Sweet new things for love of Thee;
For such hope was not to be;
Yet hast Thou had ruth on me
For my sorrow’s sake.
I tremble, but I cannot weep,
I fear so much I am asleep;
Round the faces ranged and steep
A thin splendour seems to creep
Thro’ the night so dear and deep,
Seems to stir as leaves that dip
In a lilied lake.
Ah, sweet Lord that died on rood,
Of old time Thy word hath stood
And we saw it very good;
Yet is this Thy happy blood
I was not to see.
Where she standeth in the night
Clasped about with solemn light,
Clothed upon with samite bright.
The blessed maiden very white,
This is all the happy sight
That I may bring for thee.
Over me the glory smites,
Sharp and level as the lights
Spear-shap’d on solemn winter nights
That strike from shade to shade;
Only all the inner place
(Ah, my Lord, is this Thy grace?)
Shineth as a happy face
In a clear and golden space
That itself hath made.
Is this love that I may win,
Love of mine for all my sin?
The straight flames flicker out and in,
Tho’ they never fade.
But the light of that strange place
(Lord, I thank Thee for Thy grace!)
Thro’ the lights of moving space
Trembles like a living face
Whereon some pain is laid.
Turn thine eyes against the light,
Where the spearèd splendours smite
Round the ark, most close and white;
This is given me to-night
For the love of thee.
All the wonder shown above
(Lord, I praise Thee for Thy love!)
Thro’ the lights that mix and move
Like blown feathers of a dove
Stirreth, strange to see;
And midway the solemn place
(As my soul were full of grace)
Leaning hither, the clear Face
Seemeth to bless me.
Points of sharp light star the ground;
Thro’ the wind is blown a sound
As of singing voices round
Over the dark land.
Christ the Lord is fair and crowned,
Whose pure blood, in bitter swound,
Droppèd from the holy wound;
Surely now the gift is found
And ready to thy hand.
Lo, between me and the light
Grows a shadow on my sight,
A soft shade to left and right,
Branchèd as a tree.
Green the leaves that stir between,
And the buds are lithe and green,
And against it seems to lean
One in stature as the Queen
That I prayed to see.
Ah, what evil thing is this?
For she hath no lips to kiss,
And no brows of balm and bliss
Bended over me.
For between me and the shine
Grows a face that is not mine,
On each curve and tender line
And each tress drawn straight and fine
As it used to be.
This is Guenevere the Queen.
For the face that comes between
Is like one that I have seen
In the days that were.
Nay, this new thing shall not be.
Is it her own face I see
Thro’ the smooth leaves of the tree,
Sad and very fair?
All the wonder that I see
Fades and flutters over me
Till I know not what things be
As I seemed to know.
But I see so fair she is,
I repent me not in this;
And to kiss her but one kiss
I would count it for my bliss
To be troubled so,
For she leans against it straight,
Leans against it all her weight,
All her shapeliness and state;
And the apples golden-great
Shine about her there.
Light creeps round her as she stands,
Round her face and round her hands,
Fainter light than dying brands
When day fills the eastern lands
And the moon is low.
And her eyes in some old dream
Woven thro’ with shade and gleam
Stare against me till I seem
To be hidden in a dream,
To be drowned in a deep stream
Of her dropping hair.
That is Guenevere the Queen.
Now I know not what they mean,
Those close leaves that grow so green,
Those large fruits that burn between,
Each a laugh new lit.
Now I know not what they were,
The light fires that trembled there
Sharp and thin in the soft air,
Nor the faces dumb and fair,
Nor the happy singing near;
But I seem to see her hair
And the light on it.
Day by day and hour by hour
Grew her white face like a flower,
Palest where the day grew lower
On the fiery sea.
Always sate I, watching her,
By her carven gilded chair,
Full of wonder and great fear
If one long lock of her hair
In the soft wind sink or stir,
Fallen to her knee.
All about her face and head
The flat sunset overspread
Like an aureole of red,
Stained as drops from wounds that bled
In some bitter fight.
All the tender shapen head
Dimly blurred with golden red,
And the thin face, as I said,
Drawn and white as snows wind-shed
On the green place of the dead
In a windy night.
Coloured flakes of stormy fire
Clomb the rent clouds high and higher,
And the wind like a great lyre
Sounded vague and loud.
And the sunset lines that flee
On the flats of fiery sea
Far below us, her and me,
Were as golden red to see
As the heaped hair on her knee
Or as the coloured cloud.
So we sat in love and fear,
And no faces came anear,
And no voices touched our ear
But of angels singing clear
Out of all the sunset drear
Round us and above.
And she listened; and a light
Shivered upward in my sight
Thro’ her set face, sad and white;
Till I hid mine eyes for fright
And for very love.
Drear and void the sunset was
On stained flats of fire and glass
Where she saw the angels pass
That I could not see:
For none eyes but hers might pierce
Thro’ the colours vague and fierce
That a sunset weaves and wears;
Downward slipt the long thin tears
As she turned and sang this verse
That she made for me.
“Eastward under skies that dip
As to touch the water’s lip,
Pass, my ship, with sails that drip
Not with dew, nor with rain.
Thro’ the morning float and pass
From the shores of flower and grass,
Thro’ a space of golden glass
Stained with a blood-red stain.
Evil ship on evil sea,
Bear him back again to me
Till I see what secrets be
Hidden in all this pain.”
Then she spake not, neither stirred,
But I shook for that one word
With the pain of that I heard
That she spake of me.
For the ship that seemed to pass
Thro’ the sea of fiery glass,
That strange ship mine own soul was
And my life the sea.
And the sin that I had done
In the fierce time that was gone
When I slew her knight alone
Face to face with the red sun
Setting in the west.
And my soul began to see
All the ill she had of me
When I bore her to the sea
From her place of rest.
Yet I loved her long and well;
Yea, my tongue would tire to tell
All the love that her befell,
And the slow speech faint and fail
Ere the love was told.
Now she dwelleth by me here,
In my castle builded fair;
But no crown of mine will wear
That I thought to keep for her,
And on her beloved hair
Lay the royal gold.
And her face grows grey and long
And harsh breaths come thro’ her song
And her heart is worn with wrong,
As is plain to see.
Should I die, no help it were
Now men say she is not fair,
For the pain she seems to wear
In grey cheeks and waning hair;
All my love avails not her,
And she loves not me.
Vain was the prayer I prayed alway,
Where in evil case I lay,
That she might love me one day
As the manner is;
Vain the prayer that I have prayed,
That, lying between light and shade,
I that loved her as I said,
I that never kissed a maid,
I might have her kiss.
The Camelot Project at the University of Rochester gathers many Arthurian resources in one place. To read more of Swinburne’s Arthurian poetry there, choose the Authors and Texts menu.
Visit the Guenevere page to see how the other half of the couple is treated.
Above is a sketch (1857) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828- 1882) for a mural painting for the Oxford Union. It shows Lancelot dreaming of Guenevere. The model for Lancelot is Sir Edward Burne-Jones. There is a page about the murals here.
The Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery has a significant collection of pre-Raphaelite works. Another item is this 1857 drawing by Rossetti, Sir Launcelot in the Queen’s Chamber. The final painting can be viewed on the National Trust Collections site.
Above is a window-design (Illustrated Times, June 21, 1862) for the Birmingham-based glass works Chance Brothers, featuring Lancelot and Guenevere.
Above are two of Gustave Doré’s illustrations to Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. The French artist (1832 – 83) supplied engravings as the Idylls were published in parts from 1867 to 1869. The Idylls were arranged in their final form in 1888. UBC Rare Books and Special Collections has two of the oversized folio presentations of Doré’s illustrations: The Story of Elaine (Moxon, 1871), and Guinevere (Moxon, 1867).
Julia Margaret Cameron (1815 – 1879) composed and shot photographs to illustrate the Idylls in 1874. Read more about the project on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s page for this image. The Victoria & Albert Museum in London has a webpage devoted to Julia Margaret Cameron.
The popularity of Tennyson’s Idylls contributed to a spate of illustrated versions of Arthurian stories. The picture of Lancelot above is from Nora Chesson’s Tales from Tennyson. The illustrator is M. Bowley. No publication date; a similar book by Chesson was published in 1890, and she died in 1906.
The two illustrations above are by Aubrey Beardsley (1872 – 1898), for J.M. Dent’s Birth Life and Acts of King Arthur (London, 1893-1894), an edition of Malory’s Le Morte Darthur. UBC Rare Books and Special Collections has copies of the Beardsley/ Dent Malory in both the deluxe and ordinary printings.
Above is the second panel in a series of tapestries based on the Quest of the Holy Grail. They were designed by Sir Edward Burne-Jones, William Morris, and John Henry Dearle (1895). There is a page about the Holy Grail Tapestries at the Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood site.
Another image from the Birmingham collection shows a photogravure from 1900 of an 1896 painting by Sir Edward Burne-Jones, The Dream of Sir Lancelot at the Chapel of the San Graal. The original painting is in the collection of the Southampton City Art Gallery.
The American artist Howard Pyle (1853 – 1911) adapted Arthurian stories in four books that he also illustrated. The pictures above come from The Story of the Champions of the Round Table (1905). You can read the whole book online at the Internet Archive.
The four images above are from Henry Gilbert’s King Arthur’s Knights: The Tales Retold for Boys and Girls (1911). You can read the whole book at Archive.org.
The illustrations are the work of the English artist and illustrator Walter Crane (1845 – 1915). The Art Renewal Center has a Walter Crane gallery.