While all great love stories have an exterior context dependent on events [real or imaginary] occurring around the lovers, I found the story of Lancelot and Guinevere more difficult than usual.
● First, because all original accounts of our hero and heroine come from literary works about King Arthur.
● Second, since this is a love triangle, it is impossible to tell without addressing the many legends of King Arthur.
● Third, there is no canonical version of the legend, and the number of authors telling the story are numerous. Each used his own imagination to expand and embellish the older legends, and I’m not even considering all the television and movie versions.
● In all versions, there is an interrelationship between many characters. To tell the story of three could require filling in about dozens of other characters. Yikes!
I think I need to take a rest here, before we begin. I’m suffering from a severe case of T.M.I.
Tapestry showing Arthur
wearing the coat of arms
attributed to him (c.1385)▼
Origins: Fictitious or Historical
King Arthur Pendragon is a legendary king who led the defense of the Britons against Saxon invaders in the late 5th and early 6th centuries AD and established an empire over Briton, Ireland, Iceland, Norway, and Gaul.
Whether he existed or not is a matter of debate among historians. His background is gleaned from several writings, primarily the 6th century works of Gildas the Wise, a monk who wrote the history of the Britons The Ruin and Conquest of Britain about the coming of the Saxons, the 9th century Historia Brittonum penned in 830 AD by a Welsh cleric named Nennius, and the 10th century Annales Cambriae.
However, King Arthur is not mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle or named in any surviving manuscript written between the 6th and the 9th centuries. To date, there is no physical or other evidence to prove he did exist – which doesn’t necessarily mean he didn’t.
If he did exist, he might have been a warrior or officer of Roman affiliation who led a British military force against incoming Saxons during the 5th to 6th centuries AD.
Illustration by Charles Edwin Butler ▼
Regardless, by medieval times, King Arthur had become a legendary figure. We can thank Geoffrey of Monmouth, the Welsh author who wrote an imaginative pseudo-historical [Historia Regum Britanniae] in 1136, which is responsible for creating the now-familiar persona of King Arthur.
The work introduced, for the first time, many of the characters populating later versions of the Arthurian legends, including Uther Pendragon, Merlin, Guinevere, and Mordred, as well as the sword Excalibur, Arthur’s conception at Tintagel, and his final battle against Mordred at Camlann. The writings are considered an imaginative and fanciful account of the Kings of Britain, rather recorded history.
The work was intended to be an historical document, but it fired the imagination of European Fiction writers, who added their own twists, characters, and creativity. In the poem titled The Welsh Triad, Arthur had three wives, all named Guinenvere: Gwenhwyfar daughter of Gwent (Cywryd), Gwenhwyfar daughter of Gwythyr son of Greidiawl, and Gwenhwyfar daughter of Gogfran (Gogrvan) the Giant.
Subsequent events and characters of the Arthurian legends vary widely from one book and poem to another, but Geoffrey’s version often serves as a starting point for the later writings. Also, Le Morte d’Arthur (The Death of King Arthur) by Sir Thomas Malory (1459) had a great deal of influence on Arthurian literature.
Painting by Herbert James Draper
1900 Edinburgh Museums and Art
Galleries, Edinburgh ▼
The earliest datable reference to Guinevere [as Guanhumara] is in Geoffrey Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae. Geoffrey establishes her persona as descended from a noble Roman family and was the ward of Cador, Duke of Cornwall.
She makes a second appearance in the Welsh tale Culhwch and Olwen, written in the second half of the 12th century after Historia Britanniae. In this tale, she is Arthur's wife, Gwenhwyfar, daughter of Gogrfan. Not much is said about her other than she had a sister named Gwenhwyfach.
In later works, she is described as the daughter of Leodegan, King of Camelide [Camelerd]. There are numerous spellings of her name [over 15] in various literary works, including: Guanhumara, Guenhuuara, Guenevere, Gwenevere, the Welsh name Gwenhwyfar [means White Ghost], and the Breton name Gwenivar.
A number of the accounts of the legend indicate that Arthur had been married once before he meets Guinevere. Some say she is his third wife.
In some literary works, she is said to be a wise queen and the most beautiful woman in the world, resulting in her being abducted several times and having to be rescued. In the Latin version, she was also a powerful sorceress with the ability to foretell.
According to https://www.timelessmyths.com/arthurian/women.html, in the 13th century cycle of stories, there were actually two Guineveres. They were half-sisters, supposedly conceived on the same night, born on the same day, and looked like identical twins. Oo-kaay! But that’s another story.
The daughter of Leodegan and his wife became the Queen Guinevere we know and love. She supposedly had the birthmark of king’s crown on her back. The second Guinevere, daughter of Leodegan and his Chief Steward’s wife, had none.
Thomas Mallory, in Le Morte d’Arthur , wrote that when Arthur married Genevere, her father gave him a huge round table seating 150 men. Guinevere was often present when the Knights of the Roundtable convened, and acted as a moral compass for the knights, rewarding knights who behaved well and chastising those who choose poorly.
Lancelot du Luc [also Launcelot] makes his first appearance as a character in Arthurian legend in the early works of French author Chrétien de Troyes -- considered the father of medieval romances -- but only mentioned as being a knight of Arthur’s court. He is not mentioned at all in Monmouth’s tale written about forty years earlier.
Later, when Chrétien wrote “Lancelot, The Knight of the Cart” [between 1175 and 1181], Lancelot becomes a primary character from the land of Gorre. The author places Lancelot in the role of the most formidable, bravest, and most perfect knight at King Arthur's Round Table -- Arthur’s best friend and advisor -- and bestows the knight with a family back-ground, including King Ban and Elaine [Helaine or Helen] of Benoic/Benwick [Lancelot’s father and mother)] Lady of the Lake [his foster mother in most versions], and Hector de Maris, Lancelot’s younger half-brother and also a knight of the Round Table.
This work is definitely the first to introduce the tale of Queen’s Guinevere’s abductions and rescue, and also the first to reveal a relationship between Lancelot and Queen Guinevere.
Lancelot is always portrayed as handsome, gallant, respectful of women, the vision of the term “Knight in shining armor.” From the time he came to court and was knighted, King Arthur admired his courage and character. Lancelot became the King’s best friend and trusted confidant.
The Lady Of The Lake
I’d never heard of much about Hector de Maris, but the Lady of the Lake is in every rendition since “Lancelot, The Knight of the Cart”. Her roles in the legend are many, including evil sorceress, but in most she fostered Lancelot, hence the name du Luc [of the lake]. Her names are many, as well: Nimue, Nymue, Nimueh, Viviane, Vivien, Vivienne, Ninianne, Nivian, Nyneve, or Evienne.
After he was parted from his mother he never saw her again and was raised by Vivian until he was eighteen, when she took him to King Arthur's court.
Chrétien is French, Lancelot is sometimes considered of French origin, but Benwick is located in the Cambridgeshire, England.
Illustration of Lancelot by on horseback by Howard Pyle
from The Lady of Shalott by Lord Alfred Tennyson ▼
Although historians believe the Lancelot created by Chrétien is a purely fictitious character, some scholars profess that in 13th century, Sir Lancelot’s character and actions have been fleshed out to resemble Sir William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, [born approximately 1147].
According to Davis Carlton, “This great Arthurian Knight of the Round Table is reputed to be the most brave, skilled, and chivalrous of Arthur’s knights. Lancelot is reputed to be the greatest jouster, swordsman, and tournament champion of his age. The legendary Lancelot … was raised by the Lady of the Lake and presented to King Arthur’s court in Camelot. Lancelot is a tragic figure whose affair with Arthur’s wife, Queen Guinevere, is said to bring about Arthur’s downfall and force Guinevere into a life of penitence. Lancelot is the father of Sir Galahad, the noble knight made famous for his quest for the Holy Grail.” [http://faithandheritage.com/2017/01/the-greatest-knight-the-historical-basis-for-sir-lancelot/
If I’m sounding redundant – or totally confused – I am both.
Remember the number of written tales and the differences between them. Writing this blog, I’ve come to admire greatly the scholars who studied all of these books and poems and made the comparisons of one to another. It’s the work of a lifetime.
In some literary works, Guinevere is already married to Arthur when Lancelot sees her for the first time. In others, Arthur and Guinevere have not yet married but are betrothed. Some stories say that Arthur was in love with Guinevere, and a few contend it was marriage of convenience. Some stories have Lancelot and Guinevere falling in love over time while some insist they began having an affair soon after Lancelot’s arrival at Arthur’s court.
The love story of Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere is either a very short and tragic tale, or a very long and tragic tale, depending on how much detail you want in it. I had to pick one interpretation and present it, so I chose Le Morte d’Arthur, by Thomas Mallory. Below is my summary of the love story [not the entire book] based on the summary prepared by the Houghton-Mifflin-Harcourt Cliff Notes: https://www.cliffsnotes.com/literature/l/le-morte-darthur/summary-and-analysis/book-1-the-tale-of-king-arthur-merlin
The Short Version
Young and beautiful Guinevere was betrothed to King Arthur early in his career. The two were smitten with each other, married, and ruled happily for a number of years.
When Lancelot arrived at court, again it was love at first sight … for both of Lancelot (age 18) and Guinevere. Once knighted, Lancelot left court to prove himself and soon was considered the bravest and most honorable of Arthur’s Knights, Arthur’s best friend and confidant. Lancelot was the embodiment of chivalry, the knight in shining armor, except for his one failing: being in love with Queen Guinevere.
Illustration of Guinevere and Lancelot from Knowing the risks, they still began a dangerous love affair. article http://www.historyandwomen.com/ ▼
Back at court after a series of trials, Guinevere was convinced of Lancelot's continuing love for her, and they maintained their affair for years. Arthur knew, but didn’t intervene. Finally, he was prompted by Guinevere's sorceress enemy Morgan le Fay [Arthur's own half-sister], Aggravain, and Mordred [Arthur's son by his half-sister], to take action.
Under pressure, Arthur reluctantly sentenced Guinevere to be burned at the stake. Lancelot rescued her but in the battle, he killed Gareth and Gaheris, Sir Gawain’s brothers, who were attending the execution unarmed. Lancelot returned Guinevere to Arthur, but was banished, along with his followers.
Gawain, who had been Lancelot’s close friend, swore vengeance for the death of his brothers and confronted Arthur, insisting he attack Lancelot. Arthur agreed, but while he and Gawain were on their way to battle with Lancelot, Mordred pronounced himself King of England, claimed Guinevere as his wife, and attacked Arthur's army.
Having learned of this, Arthur and Gawain and their followers rushed back to Camlann and battled Mordred. Gawain was mortally wounded. He came to the king in a dream, and warned him not to continue the battle. Through a misunderstanding, however, the battle went on. Arthur killed Mordred but was mortally wounded by him, as Merlin had prophesied.
Lancelot and Guinevere both die of illness soon after, and Constantine becomes king. The Round Table is disbursed. ◘
Scholarly Arthurian Resources
King Arthur Page: Many different aspects of King Arthur.
Background on King Arthur: Gives a lot of detailed information about King Arthur.
The Mystic Realm of King Arthur: Has links to many great pages that discuss King Arthur.
The homepage for the Journal of Arthurian studies.
Arthurian Sites In England: Gives detailed information on every place in England Arthur supposedly visited.
The Legend of King Arthur: Touches on all aspects of King Arthur.