Kimberly Ellis
12 December 2000

Lancelot and Guinevere:
The Love Affair through the Ages

Any work of literature can be the result of many different influences and inspirations, but all pieces of literature are produced by at least two distinct sources. The first of these sources is the author himself, and the second is the society in which the author lives. The author as a source is intuitive, but the role of society in the crafting of a piece of literature is less obvious. The premise on which this assertion is based is that no person who has ever lived in a society is completely independent of its influences. Although this influence comes in varying degrees in different people, the prevailing trends, philosophies, technologies, and moralities of any historical period all have significant impact on the way in which people living during that period think. Sometimes this influence encourages divergence from the norm, and at other times adherence to it; some societies encourage people to break free and think independently, while others encourage strict sameness in its citizens. Authors, like any other people, are subject to this societal influence. So, in turn, literary works are affected by the societies in which their writers live. This holds true whether or not a writer's pieces are set in that same society; even when writing about a new society, a fantastical society, or an old society, the quiet echoes of the author's own society will always be present in the background.

This trend can be best illustrated by reviewing stories that have been written by many different authors over many different historical periods. Although the number of stories that have survived retelling after retelling, century after century, is not large, there are isolated instances of stories that have been passed down and retold in almost every historical and literary period since the Middle Ages. Many of the Arthurian legends have exhibited this kind of survivorship. In particular, the story of the adulterous love affair between Sir Lancelot, Arthur's bravest knight, and Guinevere, Arthur's queen, has been included in some form in almost every Arthur story since it was first invented, in Chrétien de Troyes's "The Knight of the Cart." By following the evolution of how Lancelot and Guinevere's relationship is depicted in Arthurian legends through the ages, and comparing these depictions to the societies in which the legends' writers were living, contemporary society's importance on literary works can be demonstrated.

Chrétien de Troyes's "The Knight of the Cart"

Chrétien de Troyes wrote the first known story depicting the adulterous affair between Guinevere and Lancelot around the year 1170 (Weigand 7). The subject was not of his own choosing, but rather of his patroness's; in the second paragraph of this work he attests that "the subject matter and meaning are furnished and given him by the countess," that is, Marie de Champagne of France (Chrétien 207). Marie was the daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen of France during the early 12th century. When Eleanor and her husband Louis VII were divorced, she married Henry Plantagenet, who later became King Henry II ("Eleanor of Aquitaine"). With the power and influence she gained through being queen of two different countries during her lifetime, Eleanor was able to direct the artistic works that were being written in her court. She was especially fond of the works of traveling minstrels (called troubadours), because they romanticized and glorified women, waxing poetic on their beauty and charms (Whyland, "Troubadour"). Through patronizing such artists, Eleanor was almost single-handedly responsible for the creation of medieval romance. Marie, daughter of Eleanor and Louis, followed her mother's example, supporting her own legion of courtly writers and courtly lovers at her home in Champagne. Chrétien was just one of these writers, albeit one of the most well known today by virtue of the fact that he signed his works ("Marie de Champagne") "The Knight of the Cart," is the romance in which he first describes the relationship between Guinevere and Lancelot.

Chrétien's "Knight of the Cart" begins with a challenge from a mysterious and evil knight from distant lands. He challenges Arthur to send his best knight out to the field for a joust. If the stranger is victorious, he will claim Guinevere, but if he loses, he promises to return his hostages safely to Camelot. Sir Kay the Seneschal begs the king for this honor and is granted the right to be the queen's champion, but he loses the battle with the mysterious knight, and in so doing loses the queen. The noble Sir Gawain comes to the rescue, however; immediately upon hearing the news that the queen has been lost, he offers to go after her. He is joined almost immediately by an anonymous knight, who frantically rides on ahead, eager to save the lady Guinevere. This nameless knight (whom we later discover is Sir Lancelot) rides his horse to death on the way to the queen, and Gawain soon overtakes him again at a cart being driven by a dwarf. In those days, riding in the back of a cart was a punishment for criminals, and so Lancelot hesitates a few seconds before he accepts the dwarf's offer of a ride, but seeing as he no longer has a horse, he views this ignominy as the only way to reach the queen. Ever after, even when his true identity is disclosed, he is known as "The Knight of the Cart." The dwarf, who knows where the queen has been taken, takes Lancelot and Gawain (following on his horse) to a crossroads. One of the forks leads to an underwater bridge and the other to a bridge made of nothing but a naked sword blade. These, the dwarf assured the knights, were the only ways to reach the place where Guinevere is being held captive. Gawain opts to use the underwater bridge, while Lancelot takes the sword bridge path. During his journey, Lancelot has many adventures, and after much travail he reaches the castle where Guinevere is being held. By this point it has been made clear that Lancelot is in love with Guinevere, but when he bests Meleagant, the mysterious knight who has stolen her in the first place, she spurns Lancelot because of the two seconds he hesitated before boarding the cart. Eventually they are reunited, however; this comes after they have each been convinced of the other's death, and realizes that in the absence of each other, their own lives are not worth living. Guinevere is finally allowed to return to the court, but the wicked Meleagant still wishes a final battle with Lancelot. This battle, scheduled to take place in Arthur's court, required both jousters to be present on an appointed day, lest they forfeit. Meleagant contrives to capture Lancelot, however, and walls him up in a tower so that he cannot reach Camelot on the prescribed day, thereby shaming his name. Lancelot is rescued by Meleagant's own sister, and enraged, Lancelot returns to court. There he is granted his final battle with his enemy; he emerges victorious, and Meleagant is killed in the fight (Troyes 207-294).

The depiction of the love affair between Lancelot and Guinevere in this story is very much the product of the society in which it was written. The 12th century was the age of courtly lovers, especially in the courts of powerful ladies like Marie de Champagne. Time and again, Lancelot proves himself to be one of the greatest of all courtly lovers in this story; there are far too many instances of his courtliness to be covered in this brief analysis, but it would be worthwhile to mention a few of the more significant ones. For example, one of the most important objects any courtly lover carries with him is a token of his lady fair. Lancelot finds his token on the way to the sword bridge; it is a comb with a few strands of Guinevere's golden hair still in its teeth. He gives the comb to the maiden with whom he rides, but the hair he keeps, carrying it underneath his armor, against his heart. He draws such joy from this token as befits a courtly lover; for example, "He would not have traded it for a cart loaded with emeralds or carbuncles; nor did he fear that ulcers or any other disease could afflict him..." (Troyes 235).

Only in the society of courtly love would Lancelot's arduous journey to the queen's rescue be met with disdain; but indeed, Guinevere is ungrateful at first for Lancelot's efforts. After he has won her freedom, she declares, "in truth he has wasted his efforts. I shall always deny that I feel any gratitude towards him." Lancelot does not question this reaction at first; indeed, he believes that if she is angry with him, it must be for good cause (Troyes 256). This illustrates the fact that in the etiquette of a courtly relationship, the lady had the power. The knight was subject to her commands; everything that he did and everything for which he fought had to be condoned by his lover, lest he lose her favor (Dillon). If he displeases his love, a knight has no choice other than to try and win her favor back, pining for her all the while.

The very idea of an adulterous relationship between Lancelot and Guinevere comes from the tenets of courtly love. In Andreas Capellanus's Art of Courtly Love, which was written for Marie de Champagne, a series of "love trials" brings a case before her in which she is asked whether love can exist between married people. Marie replies that in such cases, no true love can exist; meaning courtly lovers had to engage in adulterous relationships if they ever wished to enjoy the fruits of true love (Capellanus 1990). Therefore, the idea of a relationship between Lancelot and Guinevere (which Marie invented herself) reflects the opinion of 12th century courtly love society; an adulterous relationship is normal by their standards.

Some critics argue that Troyes was quite displeased with his patroness's choice of subjects for this piece (Cohen 232). As evidence, they point out the fact that Chrétien did not finish the work himself; he handed it to another writer with his blessings: "The clerk Godefroy de Lagny has put the final touches on The Knight of the Cart; ...he did it with the approval of Chrétien, who began it" (Troyes 294). Additionally, throughout the piece, Lancelot is constantly being tricked and bested by his antagonists, in such episodes as when he is made to believe that Guinevere is dead, or when he is trapped in the stone tower before the final fight with Meleagant. Finally, the introduction of the piece is almost an apology; he makes it clear that the patroness, not the writer, is the source of the story's subject. It is possible that Troyes was displeased by the adulterous relationship Marie had envisioned, and that he never wanted to write the piece at all. Like the elements of courtly love society about which he wrote, this displeasure would also have sprung from the society in which Troyes was living, particularly in its Church. The Church was displeased with the lack of fidelity people of the 12th century seemed to have for their spouses. Marriage as an institution was failing; in order to save their flock from further sin, the Church felt that it needed to take action. Therefore in the 12th century, it added marriage to the list of sacraments (Cohen 235). When people were married, their bond was no longer merely legal; their contract was written before the Lord. If indeed contextual clues can be interpreted as Troyes's lack of enthusiasm for his subject, this too would have been a result of the society in which his work was being written.

Sir Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur

Le Morte d'Arthur is probably the most important version of the Arthurian legends ever to be written. One of its greatest accomplishments is that it draws together many of the stories surrounding the lives and adventures of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table into one cohesive narrative; at least nine different sources were consulted by its author. First published in 1485, it has survived up to the present as one of the most complete versions of the Arthurian legend (Loomis 169-171). The love affair between Lancelot and Guinevere is presented at length throughout the narrative. Although it is not usually the central part of what is happening at King Arthur's court, it is ever present in the background, and ultimately is the driving force towards Arthur's decline and fall at the end of the piece.

The trouble with describing the sociological context during which Le Morte was being written is that the identity of the writer is unknown. There are at least three different candidates for the author, who identifies himself at the end of the work only as "Thomas Malory, Knight." However, this mysterious author does provide us with one other important piece of information: that it was completed at the end of the ninth year of the reign of King Edward IV of England (Malory 531). This places the composition Le Morte in either 1469 or 1470, in England.

Malory's time was one of instability in government. Edward IV, head of the house of York, had just come to the throne after the bitterly fought War of the Roses. He married a commoner and, displeased with the nobles at his court, attempted to replace them with more commoners, recently raised to noble positions. This angered the nobles, however, and he was overthrown for a brief time in 1470. By 1471 he had regained his throne, where he reigned until his death in 1483 ("Edward IV").

Socially, the days of feudalism were drawing to a close; although the world was still very neatly divided into "master" and "servant" classes, the lines between them were not as extreme as they had been in centuries before. The ever-glorified "knights in shining armor" still existed, but since the Hundred Years' War (which ended around 1453), they had begun fading away; archers were able to cut them down by the hundreds, ending their regime as the most powerful and elite soldiers in a kingdom's arsenal. By the latter third of the 15th century, nobles were pining for earlier, nobler days, while the peasant classes slowly paved the way for the bourgeoisie to form in the following centuries. The only power that remained constant was in the hands of the Church, which would not suffer its first serious blow in authority until the Protestant Reformation, still over a century away ("Hundred Years' War," "Feudalism").

The relationship between Lancelot and Guinevere in Le Morte, drawn strongly from sources that had drawn on Chrétien himself, shares with its predecessor an abundance of the traditions of courtly love. Lancelot performs many deeds of chivalry in Guinevere's name, and time and again, throughout Le Morte, Lancelot weaves in and out of favor with his lady. In contrast with Chrétien's Lancelot, however, Malory's Lancelot is not primarily a lover; he is a fighter, as befits a knight being written about in the wake of the Hundred Years' War and the War of the Roses. To one of the ladies at court, Lancelot says, "I love not to be constrained to love..."; this is certainly a different Lancelot than the one put forth in "The Knight of the Cart" (Malory 416). In Malory, the love between Lancelot and Guinevere seems to exist for one purpose only: to inspire Lancelot to perform chivalrous deeds in the name of his lady and of the court of Camelot. In fact, with the exception of the downfall of Arthur's kingdom at the end of Le Morte, the love affair exists mostly as a background fact, rather than as a key point.

Midway through Le Morte, the greatest quest of all the Arthurian knights begins: the quest for the Holy Grail. This magical cup, the one used in Jesus's last supper, was brought to England by Joseph of Arimathea, according to legend. All of the knights of the realm took part in this quest, Lancelot among them. He has visions while searching for the Grail, and is told by one of the interpreters of his visions, "for great pride though madest great sorrow that thou haddest not overcome all the white knights with the cover of white by whom was betokened virginity and chastity; and therefore God was wroth with you" (Malory 300). Here his sin with Guinevere is being held against him, but indirectly so; the people who warn him of his imminent failure in the Grail quest rarely mention it outright. He attempts to repent of his love for Guinevere, hoping that will help him achieve the Grail, but failing this, he immediately goes back to Guinevere upon returning to Camelot. Although in this instance Lancelot fails to be the greatest of knights, 15th century influence is clear in the seer's interpretation of Lancelot's dream, although it is unlikely that it was original to Malory. That he includes this detail shows that progress since the 12th century had been made, however: three centuries before, virginity and chastity were unnecessary virtues; here, by the power of the Church, they have been reestablished among the traits necessary to be one of God's chosen and most beloved knights.

That the love affair is relatively undeveloped until the end of the work could hardly have been an accident on Malory's part. As a knight himself, Malory would have been a member of the noble class whose social positions were being threatened during the time of Edward IV. In light of the Church's power at the time, it would have been unwise of Malory to depict his social peers engaging in graphically adulterous relations, and so he downplays the adulterous elements of his material until they become necessary to the plot (MacBain 59-60). When Malory's Lancelot and Guinevere consummate their love (although we are not led to assume that this is the first time), it is mentioned almost in passing: "So, to pass upon this tale, Sir Launcelot went unto bed with the queen..." (Malory 438). In spite of this brief mention, Malory hedges on the point later, saying, "whether they were abed or at other manner of disports, me list not hereof make no mention, for love that time was not as is nowadays" (Malory 460). This is in reference to the scene in which Lancelot and Guinevere are caught in their love by Sir Mordred, although Lancelot, ever the noble knight, denies the allegations of treason that are levied upon him. Guinevere joins a nunnery nonetheless, and the reign of King Arthur comes to a fiery end as Lancelot and Arthur's supporters wage war against one another.

It is important to note that none of the actual plot surrounding Lancelot and Guinevere's love affair is original to Malory; for the most part, he remains faithful to his sources, imparting only those things that are written elsewhere. It is in the way in which he tells their story that the influence of his society on his writing can be seen. Using Lancelot as the ideal nobleman, Malory uses glowing language whenever he talks of his adventures and trials. In a time during which commoners were threatening the power of contemporary nobility, it is logical that Malory, a knight by his own admission, would present Lancelot in the best light he can muster. That, added to the omnipresent influence of the Church, would do well to explain why Malory refuses to be explicit when describing Lancelot's relationship with Guinevere. Instead, he hedges throughout; although everyone in Malory's Camelot was aware of Lancelot and Guinevere's love for each other, whether they ever consummated their love is pointedly glazed over in Le Morte.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson's "Guinevere"

By the nineteenth century, the lifestyles described in Arthurian legends were no more. Knights no longer rode horses and saved damsels; they were few, and those being knighted were scientists, writers, and other people who had made a significant contribution to the world around them, not fighters or courtly lovers. A series of revolutions had overthrown many aristocratic governments, and as time passed, the middle class became, by sheer weight of numbers, quite powerful. The industrial revolution was in full swing, and factories were sprouting all over the western world, speeding England, America, and the other western countries into a new, modern age.

During most of this time, Queen Victoria was in power in England. Ascending to the throne in 1837, she ruled Britain, Ireland, and (eventually) India until her death in 1901. Her reign, which would come to be known as the Victorian era, strongly supported morality and ethics in everything. Victoria championed family values, obedience to the law, and social respectability in herself and in her subjects. Much of the artistic and literary output of England at the time reflected the philosophies of Victorianism, presenting the English social order of the day to the rest of the world ["Victoria (queen)"].

The Idylls of the King by Alfred, Lord Tennyson is such a piece of literature, having been written in England during Victoria's rule. Begun in 1859 and not completed until 1885, it is one of the most highly acclaimed versions of the Arthur stories since Malory's Le Morte. Tennyson chose a different style of writing than had been used in other tellings of the Arthurian legends: he wrote episodically, in verse, keeping each of the stories independent of the others ("Tennyson, Alfred, Lord"). In one of these episodes, he writes specifically of the love affair between Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere and its effect on the fall of Camelot; its title, simply, is "Guinevere."

When Tennyson's version of the story begins, Guinevere is already with the nuns at Almesbury, anonymously in hiding because of the ensuing war between Arthur and Lancelot for her honor. The first part of the poem is her reflection upon the events that have led up to her disgrace at Camelot and in the eyes of her husband the king. Her troubles began when she and Lancelot are very nearly caught in their romance by Modred; Lancelot manages to "pluck...him by the heel" before he can see or hear any of their treasonous behavior, but it is certainly a close call. At first the lovers laugh off the incident, but guilt and fear invade their thoughts, and they try to swear that they will never see one another again. They find themselves unable to go so far, however, and instead they make secret plans to meet. Vivian, one of the queen's ladies, overhears these plans, and takes them to Modred, who in turn catches Lancelot and Guinevere together. They flee, and Guinevere takes sanctuary in the nunnery, never to be seen or heard from by any of them again.

Meanwhile, a novice in the nunnery, ignorant of Guinevere's true identity, finds her weeping about her fate, and tries to comfort her. Ironically, however, the novice uses Arthur's sorrow as an example of extreme suffering, by whose example all other problems pale. In spite of the child's good intentions, Guinevere is not soothed, being the cause of the very sorrows the novice is describing to her. After their conversation is over, Arthur himself arrives at Almesbury, and a very repentant Guinevere cries on her knees as Arthur gives her both his woes and his forgiveness. Afterwards, he leaves, and Guinevere repents of all she has done, having learned through her guilt and sorrow the evilness of what she has committed.

The strict Victorian code of conduct is overwhelmingly present in this version of the story. Very clearly does Tennyson condemn Guinevere for her adulterous relationship with Lancelot, time and again: "this is all woman's grief,/That she is woman, whose disloyal life/Hath wrought confusion in the Table Round"; "so glad were spirits and men/Before the coming of the sinful Queen" (Tennyson). Even Arthur, who claims to love her still, condemns her: "Well is it that no child is born of thee./The children born of thee are sword and fire,/Red ruin, and the breaking up of laws" (Tennyson). Victorian society had no patience for adulterers, and even the legendary Guinevere could not escape their judgment.

Interestingly, no actual details of the relationship between Lancelot and Guinevere are given in this poem. There is no indication or even implication that they may have engaged in intercourse; even Malory was more forthcoming on this point. This is yet another indication of 19th century morality in this piece. This morality is heightened still by Arthur's assertion, "O Guinevere,/For I was ever virgin save for thee" (Tennyson). Few, if any, other versions of the Arthurian legends pretend this level of chastity in King Arthur; in fact, most versions, including Le Morte, cite him as the father of Sir Mordred with another woman, the product of his own adultery. In this version Tennyson writes a King Arthur with whom a 19th century Victorian could identify; a blameless, upright man, who remains as sinless as possible under the eyes of God. The legend rewritten, Guinevere takes most of the blame–and the pain–for her downfall.


Although this is only a brief overview of the works in which the love affair between Lancelot and Guinevere is described, it is clear that the story has changed much through the ages. Its plot certainly has changed with retellings, but the details of the relationship, as well as the tone with which it is described, have changed with the times as well. These latter changes have been caused by the changes in the authors' societies themselves. Even more modern versions of the story have more modernized descriptions; the relationship becomes more sexual and less condemned as time goes by. In examining these and other works, it becomes clear that the society in which an author is writing has much influence on how he describes his subjects and tells his stories. Lancelot and Guinevere is only one example of this phenomenon; likely, it exists in literature wherever stories are retold time and again.


Works Cited

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