JAN / FEB 2013: BY TASHA BRANDSTATTER
Nothing’s more tempting than what you can’t have… just ask Lancelot and Guinevere, whose tale of forbidden love continues to inspire artists, writers, and filmmakers after nearly a millennium.
But why does this tale of a married woman and a valiant (occasionally crazy) knight hold so much fascination for us?
If you’ve never picked up a book or seen a movie and have no idea who Lancelot and Guinevere are, she was Queen of Camelot, married to King Arthur. Her original Welsh name, Gwenhwyfar, roughly translates to “White Enchantress,” which is certainly what Lancelot, Arthur’s number one knight and unofficial BFF, thought she was.
Lancelot was carried away by the Lady of the Lake when he was just a baby and raised by her in the land of water spirits, wherever that is. When he became an adult, the Lady sent Lancelot away to serve in King Arthur’s court, where he immediately developed an attraction for Queen Guinevere. Their romance didn’t officially start, however, until Guinevere was kidnapped and raped by one of Arthur’s enemies, Meleagant. Lancelot rescued her, though she contrarily told him she never wished him to do so. Being a proper knight, he apologized and set out to win back the approval of his queen.
Although Arthur is an important figure in this love triangle, the heart of the story is really Guinevere. The way the tale is interpreted often depends on how one views Guinevere. Was she a bird in a cage, as the Pre-Raphaelites saw her, trapped in a loveless marriage and unable to deny herself a tiny bit of happiness? Was she a femme fatale who selfishly led both men to their destruction? Or was Arthur her true love, and Lancelot a foolish mistake?
How people interpret Guinevere’s actions usually ends up influencing how Lancelot and Arthur are viewed, too, although Arthur is overwhelmingly portrayed as an older man who trusts Lancelot’s honor in regards to Guinevere unquestioningly—despite the fact that he’s younger, handsomer, French, and, you know, AROUND. There’s an element of quis custodiet ipsos custodes (it translates to “who watches the watchmen?”) to the story of Lancelot and Guinevere, especially seeing as how they fall in love after Lancelot rescues her from a kidnapping. Today the famous Latin phrase has political implications, but when originally written by the Roman poet, Juvenal, it referred to trusting one’s wife to remain faithful:
“I know the plan that my friends always advise me to adopt: ‘Bolt her in, constrain her!’ But who can watch the watchmen?”
Not Arthur, apparently. There’s an Oedipal component to the story, as well (as there is with so many Arthurian tales). If Arthur was a father figure to Lancelot, then what does it say that Lancelot lusts after the man’s wife? Perhaps that’s why Guinevere was sentenced to treason after Arthur found out about her affair with Lancelot… or maybe she was simply seen as another one of Arthur’s kingly possessions.
This doesn’t explain the story’s longevity, however. Everyone loves a forbidden romance, especially in the case of courtly love, but many other stories contain similar themes and aren’t as well-known or drawn upon as heavily. So, what makes the story of Guinevere and Lancelot so special?
Personally, I think it’s the ambiguous characters of the forbidden romance. We’ve already discussed the ambiguous nature of Guinevere, but Lancelot is even more mysterious. He’s a man without a country or the legacy of a family. He doesn’t even know his name until he performs his first heroic deed and finds “Lancelot” inscribed on a metal slab in a cemetery. Is he a noble knight, a man who’s mad, bad, and dangerous to know, or a knight in dented armor? The answer is all of the above according to the French poems that are the source material for much of Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, known as the Vulgate Cycle.
Lancelot represents pure possibility and that is the true appeal of his forbidden romance with Guinevere. All of us have questions from our past where we flirt with the idea of what might have happened if…? What if we’d married our high school sweetheart, or gone to college out of state? What if we’d accepted that job offer or taken that phone call? We’re presented with choices all the time from which there is no going back. But we flirt with the possibility of going back in our minds, of living another life and being a different person, possibly a happier one.
After rescuing Guinevere from being burned alive for treason and delivering her to a convent, Lancelot went mad for several years and wreaked destruction throughout the countryside. He only returned to sanity after Galahad, his son, showed him the Holy Grail through a veil. Unlike his son, Lancelot is not a pure soul worthy of seeing the Grail—he represents chaos, especially in the hierarchical world of Camelot. Chrétien de Troyes called him “The Knight of the Cart” because he agreed to ride in a pillory in order to rescue Guinevere, a mode of transport unworthy of the dignity of a Knight of the Round Table and that would reflect badly on Arthur. It’s a fitting symbol of how Lancelot subverts the social order, especially in the pursuit of Guinevere.
Most modern adaptations forgo the depth and morally ambiguous symbolism of Lancelot by producing rather uninteresting characters. Lancelot on Once Upon A Time, the TV series Merlin, and the musical Camelot spring immediately to mind. Richard Gere’s portrayal in First Knight is probably the best in recent memory, but Lancelot remains at his most complex in literature. Broken Sword by Molly Cochran and Warren Murphy, for example, has an entire section devoted to Lancelot’s “mad period” and his affair with Elaine. Meanwhile, Queen Guinevere has become the focus of a love triangle that unfairly excludes the appeal of Lancelot and thus presents little justification for her actions. Alfred Lord Tennyson’s portrayal of Queen Guinevere in Idylls of the King, for example, moralizes her relationship with Lancelot and Arthur while providing few details of the affair itself, implying at the end that the fall of Camelot is the result of her indiscretions.
One of the most iconic love stories ever told, whatever your interpretation of Guinevere and Lancelot, you can’t help but be intrigued by the romance of their courtly love story. With two such rich characters and a depth of interpretation and mythology surrounding them, it’s likely the story of Lancelot and Guinevere will continue to inspire artists and writers for a long time to come. ■