Lancelot is considered in many versions of Arthurian tales to be the best and most skilled of the Knights of the Round Table. He is something of a latecomer to tales about Arthur. He is not mentioned by Wolfram von Eschenbach or Geoffrey of Monmouth, but tales of him seem to arise particularly from French Arthurian legends.
By the time Mallory rewrites the Arthurian cycle with approval from the Roman Catholic Church, Lancelot is one of the central characters, and the main reason for the split in the Round Table that ends with Arthur’s death.
According to legend, Lancelot is the son of King Ban and cousin to Sir Lionel and Sir Bors. After spending several years proving himself as a knight, he comes to King Arthur’s court and immediately falls in love with Queen Guinevere. Their adulterous liaison will ultimately prove Arthur’s undoing, as the Round Table becomes split between support for Lancelot and the Queen, and support for Arthur.
Lancelot is also the father of Galahad, the last in the Arthurian cycle to seek and find the Grail. In fact, Lancelot’s guilt at being barred from the sight of the Grail because of his adultery is often a matter of interest. In many versions, Lancelot parenting Galahad is often the result of trickery. Galahad rescues a maiden named Elaine who immediately falls in love with him. She conspires with her maid to send him a note, which implies he will meet the queen for a liaison.
Since it is dark, Lancelot readily makes love to the supposed queen, and is devastated to find he has made love to Elaine instead. This type of story is often surprising to the modern reader, because it is barely credible. Plus it places the woman in the place of temptress and trickster, which is not very flattering to females in general.
In some versions, Guinevere finds out about this affair and bans Lancelot from the court. However, they do reconcile, and Arthur’s nephews, Gawain, Agravaine, and Arthur’s son Mordred discover them. This forces Arthur into a decision to have the queen burned alive.
Lancelot rescues her, but unfortunately slays Gareth, Gawain’s youngest brother. This makes Gawain his enemy, and allows Mordred to slay the king. It is thought Lancelot became a hermit after Arthur’s death, and lived out his life in obscurity.
Though Lancelot does not capture the imagination much in early Arthurian legends, he becomes probably the most identifiable Knight of the Round Table, in treatments of the legends following the Middle Ages. Tennyson, in particular, invested Lancelot with nobility and tragedy.
Perhaps the most interesting modern interpretation of Lancelot is in T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. In White’s version, Lancelot calls himself “le chevalier mal fet” or ill-made knight. He is depicted as extremely ugly, antithetical to most portrayals of him. He is also intensely conflicted in his love for both Arthur and Guinevere. Being unable to perform miracles after he begins his illicit relations with the queen devastates him.
Other modern versions of Lancelot that are fascinating in interpretation include Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon and the 2004 film King Arthur. For mature audiences only, Monty Python and the Holy Grail lampoons Lancelot with great glee.