“in all turnementes, justys, and dedys of armys, both for lyff and deth, he passed all other knyghtes – and at no tyme was he ovircom but yf hit were by treson other inchauntement” Le Morte D’Arthur (Malory)
[Translation: Lancelot was the best of the best, the greatest champion of the elite Round Table Knights. He was a badass for sure. -Chris]
Lancelot is not my favorite of King Arthur’s knights; I much prefer Sir Gawaine, truth be told. I actually named the male lead in my first book Gavin, a modern form of Gawaine. Be that as it may, in modern tales of the round table, Lancelot is always front and centre. The tragic love triangle between King Arthur, Queen Guinevere, and Lancelot has dominated most modern versions of the ancient tales of Camelot. Lancelot himself provides an interesting archetype for heroes in modern fantasy, the perfect warrior torn between duty and his own desires.
In almost any version of the story Lancelot is the most skilled of the Round Table Knights. This is quite a distinction, considering King Arthur’s court attracts the best knights in all of Christendom. He wins all of the tournaments, kills giants single handedly, beats most of the other knights in duels at least once. He storms castles single handedly, wrecks enemy formations in battle with sword and lance, and generally makes everyone else look second rate. Sure, many of the other knights have their claim to fame, but Lancelot is without question the best of them all, at least in most Arthurian tales. He even had better stats in the D&D books, although Gawaine had a cooler power.
In battle at least, Lancelot was the very definition of Mary Sue. It is hard for us to maintain dramatic interest in a character who always wins.
Lancelot was not just a tournament-winning, lord of war; he was also the most charming of Arthur’s knights and the king’s closest friend. Most interpretations place Lancelot’s social graces on par with his peerless fighting skills. He is polite, handsome, and skilled at all the arts of Knighthood. He is dutiful, bringing great honour to his king. He is also Chivalrous, often helping the less fortunate and showing great hospitality and respect towards the fairer sex. (T.H White does make him ape-like and ugly, even nasty, but that is not the norm.)
This is a little more interesting. The romantic potential of the great knight is certainly something that interests modern readers. It’s still not enough though. If we left it at this the character would be a perfect hero, and would only be exciting as a love interest in period romance novels or light-hearted action.
No, the real reason that Lancelot is interesting and important to modern is that despite his near perfection in every single aspect of Chivalry, Warfare, and Romance he has a fatal flaw. Lancelot and Guinevere fall in love, and their love is one of the keystones of the downfall of the perfect realm of Camelot. In Malory Lancelot and Guinevere are more or less driven together by fate. In more modern tellings it is lust and imprefection that drives them together. The best modern version, in my opinion, is T.H. White who has Lancelot as being initially jealous of Guinevere because her presence disrupts his relationship with Arthur (Yoko breaking up the band I guess). Arthur can’t have his best Knight at odds with his queen, and so forces them to spend time together (oops).
Regardless of the telling, Lancelots inhumanly perfect outer shell disguises a heart full of very human desires. His incredible skill only serves to increase the heights from which he inevitably falls when he finally gives in to his desire. When Lancelot and Guinevere commit adultery and betray Arthur, the realm Camelot is denied two of its pillar characters and tragedy is inevitable, even without Arthur’s other problems. Lancelot is the archetype of a man driven to greatness but humbled by his own inner demons. He betrays his friends, his realm, and ultimately himself. That is more interesting, and a story we can all relate to. In this case Lancelots power only serves to magnify his failings. A serf commiting adultery isn’t going to cause the realm to collapse, after all. The same is true of the Lannisters in A Song of Ice and Fire, their particular infidelity would not matter as much if they were not so elevated. A very modern archetype, indeed.
However the tale of Lancelot does not end in utter desolation and failure. The great knight wanders, mad and seeking redemption. Eventually he finds it by joining Arthur and the last of the round table knights in the great battle against Mordred. Even in the face of his own betrayal and sundered from his lord, Lancelot performs his duty one last time. In this he completes the cycle and rises from his fall, passing into legend. In some version fo the tale he falls alongside Arthur. In others he visits his queen one last time, platonically, before they both retire to contemplation. This forth part, the potential for redemtion, elevates Lancelot even further.
I am often minded of Darth Vader when I think of Lancelot. Anakin Skywalker begins as the potentially the greatest Jedi Knight the order had ever. His love leads to his downfall and a betrayal of the order. He is redeemed when he turns against the Emperor to save Luke, who is the last Jedi Knight. Perhaps if George Lucas had taken a bit more from Arthurian myth, I would have enjoyed Episodes 1,2, and 3 more.
“Guenever never cared for God. She was a good theologian, but that was all. The truth was that she was old and wise: she knew that Lancelot did care for God most passionately, that it was essential he should turn in that direction. So, for his sake, to make it easier for him, the great queen now renounced what she had fought for all her life, now set the example, and stood to her choice. She had stepped out of the picture.
Lancelot guessed a good deal of this, and, when she refused to see him, he climbed the convent wall with Gallic, ageing gallantry. He waylaid her to expostulate, but she was adamant and brave. Something about Mordred seems to have broken her lust for life. They parted, never to meet on earth.”
― T.H. White, The Book of Merlyn
Lancelot is a powerful character who is deeply flawed. His power makes him a pillar of the realm. His good qualities make him attractive and successful. His humanity makes him vulnerable. His ability to overcome his fall from grace and redeem himself makes him a hero. Modern readers love flawed, human characters and Sir Lancelot has certainly earned his place at the table in this regard.
Afterthought: is Sam Gamgee is the inverse Lancelot?