LANCELOT (Lancelot du Lac, or Lancelot of the Lake), a famous figure in Arthurian romance. There is no knight of Arthur's court whose name is so familiar to the great majority of English readers as that of Sir Lancelot. The secret loves of Lancelot and the queen are the dominating theme of later Arthur ian romance. Lancelot, however, is not an original member of Arthur's court, and the development of his story is still a source of considerable perplexity to the critic.
In the earliest extant version, the Lanzelet of Ulrich von Zat zikhoven (the translation of a French original, now lost), the hero is nephew to Arthur, but has no illicit relations with the queen ; on the contrary, he indulges in a series of amorous adventures, of which three, at least, end in marriage. Here, as elsewhere, he is the son of Ban de Benoic (Pant von Genewis), who is driven from his kingdom by the revolt of his subjects and dies of a broken heart. The queen lays her child on the bank of a lake, while tend ing her dying husband, and a water maiden, rising from the lake, carries off the babe to her mysterious kingdom, peopled by 1 o,000 maidens, where no man ever enters. There she brings up the youth, with the object of avenging her upon an enchanter who has robbed and dispossessed her son. The lad returns to earth, fulfils his mission, and after various adventures, not only wins a wife and a kingdom, but regains his paternal inheritance. There he reigns in peace with his wife, begets a numerous family, and dies in a good old age.
The French original of this poem must have been composed some time in the 12th century, as the ms. from which von Zatzikhoven worked was the property of Hugo de Morville, one of the hostages who replaced Richard Coeur de Lion in his Austrian prison in 1194. In the succeeding century, when the tradition of Lancelot's relations with the queen was firmly established (see GUENEVERE) , the story was worked over and elaborated into the prose Lancelot, which eventually, by incorporating the Grail Queste and the Mort Artus, became the most important member of the Arthurian cycle.
Here the primitive folk-lore elements of the Lanzelet have com pletely disappeared : the lake has become a mirage, and the educa tion of Lancelot, with that of his cousins, Lionel and Bohort, equally protégés of the Lady of the Lake, differs in no way from that of any other youth of his rank and period.
It is by no means easy to discover how Lancelot came to occupy the commanding position finally assumed by him in Arthurian story. He certainly does not belong to the early pseudo-historic tradition ; he is never mentioned in any of the chronicles. In the earlier romances he is either ignored, or occupies a position subor dinate to that of Gawain, Erec, Yvain or even Perceval, who was, of course, not an original Arthurian hero. He suddenly appears as Guenevere's lover in the poem of Le Chevalier de la Charrette, of which he is the hero, to disappear from the scene again in Chretien's subsequent work Le Chevalier an Lion (Yvain) ; nor is he among the knights figuring on the doorway of Modena cathe dral. The real cause for his apparently sudden and triumphant rise to popularity is thus extremely difficult to determine. What appears the most probable solution is that which regards Lancelot as the hero of an independent and widely diffused folk-tale, which, owing to certain special features, was brought into contact with, and incorporated in, the Arthurian tradition. This much has been proved : certain of the adventures recounted in the Lanzelet—the theft of an infant by a water maiden; the appearance of the hero at a tournament on three consecutive days, in three differing suits of armour; the rescue of a queen, or princess, from an other world prison—all belong to one well-known and widely spread folk-tale, variants of which are found in almost every land, and of which numerous examples have been collected alike by M. Cosquin in his Conies Lorrains, and by J. F Campbell in his Tales of the West Highlands.