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Understanding Lancelot

When I read Malory I suspend my disbelief. This is legend, epic, and the stuff of dreams, visions and desires. I see ladies throwing themselves at Lancelot, knowing he is chaste but nonetheless risking their lives and reputations to let him out of the dungeon, or give him healing, or hide him, or slip him his armor, or die of desire and sail downriver in a boat. Or the normally sensible knights obeying the queen's whim, to drop everything and go search of Lancelot; or worse yet, to obey all women! Or the absolutely idiotic way that Lancelot and Guenever are towards each other. And even with the suspension of disbelief I wonder "What is wrong with these people?"

Well, here is part of it. We need to understand the succession of Arthurian stories and story tellers.

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Origins of the Superhero

The Arthurian legends came together from several once-independent story pools that were reinterpreted and woven together by Breton raconteurs to entertain the newly installed feudal lords of Normandy. As the Norman culture spread the stories of the raconteurs were retold by minstrels and written by clerks, and finally interpreted by troubadours. As the storytellers changed with the times, so did the stories get modified and reinterpreted.

At first the characters, along with plots and personalities, came from the old body of traditional British tales. Cymric heroes are there: Kei, and Arthur. And the old gods too, sort of. We don’t have much today about the ancient god Bran, but he must’ve had a lot said about him to appear in the Arthurian corpus as Bran, Brandegoris, Ban, Brennus, Brandiles, Bran the Blessed (both the Pagan and Christian versions), and so on.

Local characters got picked up too. That’s natural. One day your patroness says, “Tell us a story in the new fashion Gregory,” and I know she means new = Romance but I don’t really remember the story I heard from Provence, so I’ll just use a local guy.

“Yes, my lady. You have heard of Lanzlet, the hero under the lake yonder?” Like Bran, we don’t know much about Lancelot except a handful of old stories and lais that seem to come from the northeast of France, somewhere between Champagne and Metz maybe.

The storytellers all had the same audience (people of court), but their own reasons to tell the tales. The clerks, monks all, interpreted stories to illustrate morality and doctrine. Their monopoly on writing has weighted our modern canon, but some ballads and lais indicate that there as a vital, vivid oral tradition as well. Minstrels surely adapted their selection of tales and parts of tales to their audience of the night—I know I’d tell a different story to a court full of knights than I would to a court full of ladies. And therein lies the origin of Sir Lancelot’s character.

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Sir Lancelot is a girl’s story

Of course there are girl stories and boy stories. At the faerie tale level Cinderella is a girl story, Iron John is a boy story. In modern cinema the dialect of chick flick versus dick flick is well known.

I came to understand Lancelot only from an essay by H. R. Zimmer, in his book, The King and the Corpse. He’s best known for his scholarly works about Hindu iconography and meaning. His insights into the Arthurian milieu I find to be brilliant and incisive. He uses some psychological jargon of animus and anima that were popular in his time, and the tools are useful to understand this.

The Anima and Animus are (sort of) the imaginary part of us that is of the other gender. It’s based on the observation that people are men or women, but everyone is a mixture of masculine and feminine traits. So men have their normal masculine external expression—and knighthood is a superb vehicle for that, and a secret feminine one, called their Anima. Women’s invisible masculine power is contained in their Animus.

According to Zimmer, Sir Lancelot manifests the animus of the noble women of the audience. He is the perfect man as seen by women. Lancelot defies every convention of his time for one purpose—LOVE. He violates his oaths of fealty and homage, he discards laws of the church, he breaks the laws of the Round Table for one purpose—LOVE. And he does all that and STILL KICKS ASS. Flawlessly, perfectly, and 100% of the time.

Remember that this was first time in history that the Love = Good = Moral Superiority). The theme of Romance, and the many stories about it, were presented by troubadours to an audience that was increasingly of the stay-at-home wives of Crusader husbands. Imagine the frisson of a cold winter in a bleak castle where women of property and power gather to hear stories of temptation and fidelity, and of adultery and of True Love so deep and intense that the most powerful man and woman in the world would throw away everything for their passion.

Sir Lancelot is a girl story.

Sir Lancelot is Not English

England, when the Arthurian tales were popularized, was the trongest, richest and most influential part of a large empire of little lands. The peoples were Angevins, Normans, Tolousians, etc., and especially Aquitanians. This accounts for a streak of not-Englishness in the body of stories. Part of this is visible as we see the shift from stories about the king to stories about the knights. Part of this is about an anti-authoritarianism of the nobles, who preferred a king “up there,” while they (like the Arthurian heroes) did what they wished. Part of this is because Sir Lancelot was developed by troubadours of Provence.

Lancelot had a few stories known, but his popularity really began with Chretien de Troyes, patronized by Marie de France, daughter of the Eleanor of Aquitaine. He, the Knight of Love, intruded into other stories, usurped some themes and was set as an example against every other previously famous knight. In the literary record the knight most lately developed gets to whomp on everyone who came before him. Sir Lancelot, a “second stage” arrival, defeats Gawaine, Kay, Percival and all those other old timers. Especially Sir Gawaine, who is the paragon for feudal obedience, chivalrous virtues, Romance, kinship uber alles and STILL manages to be “the man’s man,” especially with women. Totally a king’s man. And Sir Gawaine is so clearly the favorite of insular writers (Sir Gawaine and the Green Knights, many others) that it was natural for the poetic followers of the Queen Eleanor to make a hero who trumped all others.

(I’ll only note that this “make a new guy” process continued with Sir Galahad being created by the prissy monks, who largely seized control of the canonical story line with the very weight of text and depth of insight of the Vulgate version.)

Other Factors

Certainly other factors exist. I'm happy to discuss theories or evidence on the Forum.

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