Lancelot and Guinevere

Lancelot and GuinevereA story adapted from the romantic verse by Chretien of Troyes.

Lancelot of the Lake

King Ban and Helen were forced to flee from their besieged castle in Brittany, and turning to see his home in flames, the King sank dying to the ground. When Helen laid her baby son Lancelot on the ground in order to tend her husband, Vivian , the Lady of the Lake, picked up the baby and plunged with him into the waters of the Lake.

Lancelot never saw his true mother again, remaining in the palace of the Lady of the Lake till he was eighteen when the fairy herself brought him to King Arthur's court. Struck by his courage and feats of arms, King Arthur made him his friend and confidant, but no sooner had Lancelot beheld Queen Guinevere, then he fell deeply in love with her.

But Meleagant, son of Bademagu, carried off Queen Guinevere to his kingdom, whence no foreigner returns.

Lancelot Seeks Guinevere

Lancelot, striving to rescue his beloved Queen but not knowing where she was confined, rode his horse so hard it dropped dead. On foot, he overtook a cart driven by a dwarf. A cart was usually used like a pillory to carry criminals through the streets so when the dwarf offered news of the Queen, Lancelot hesitated a couple of steps before climbing in. Common sense warned him against risking shame and disgrace but prompted by love's command, he felt no concern at the humility.

At the next town Lancelot bore the taunts that people aimed at him in silence while the dwarf conducted him to a lodging place where the fair damsel Elaine courteously invited him in.

At first sight Elaine fell in love with him but Lancelot had only one heart entrusted to someone else so he could not bestow it elsewhere. When Elaine learned of his mission she presented him with a horse and a lance, saying: 'You have undertaken a more grave and perilous affair than ever undertaken by a knight and I would like to accompany you some distance along the road, if you will escort me?' Lancelot agreed.

As they rode she talked to him though he said little, preferring to think. They came upon a spring bordered by a stone basin where Lancelot picked up a comb of gilded ivory holding a handful of hair. Elaine asked to see it and said: 'I am as sure as anything that the comb belongs to Queen Guinevere and those are the strands of the Queen's hair.'

At this news Lancelot fell forward in a faint, bowing his head over the saddle-bow. Fearing he was about to fall from his horse, Elaine quickly dismounted to support him. Feeling ashamed, Lancelot asked her: 'Why do you need to bear me aid?'

Elaine took good care not to tell the truth of her love for him: 'Sire, I dismounted to get the comb - I was anxious to hold it.'

After carefully removing the tresses, Lancelot gave the comb to Elaine and laid the golden locks in his bosom near his heart between shirt and flesh. Believing no sore or illness could afflict him now, he would not exchange them for a cartload of emeralds, essence of pearl or treacle; the cure for pleurisy he now held in contempt; nor had he any need of St. Martin or St. James.

Elaine clearly saw where his love lay: 'My lord, I have no right to make a further request of you so I will turn back and commend you to God.'

Lancelot allowed her to depart and rode alone along the track until late in the afternoon when he came upon a sword-bridge. Dismounting, he gazed at the wicked-looking stream, swift and surging, black and turgid as if it were the devil's stream. Then he looked hard at the bridge, for there never was such a bad bridge. It consisted of a polished, gleaming sword, stout and stiff, as long as two lances, and firmly fixed into tree trunks at each end.

'I would rather die than turn back now,' Lancelot said quietly and did a marvellous thing. He removed the armour from his feet and hands and supporting himself with his bare hands and feet upon the sword, he crossed over in great pain. Though wounded in the hands, knees and feet, love led him on, relieving the agony. While blood dripped on his shirt on all sides, he saw before him a strong tower.

Lancelot Fights Meleagant

King Bademagu, scrupulous about matters of honour, saw the knight cross the bridge from the vantage point of a high window in the tower. Standing at his side, also watching, was his son Meleagant, just the opposite in character to his father since he never wearied of villainy and treachery. Meleagant knew he would have to meet the knight's challenge for Queen Guinevere.

'Son,' the King said, 'that is the boldest deed that ever entered the mind of man. 'Make peace and be reconciled with him. Honour him and deliver the Queen into his hands.'

'Never! Queen Guinevere will never be given up by me but contested and defended against all who foolishly dare to come in quest of her.'

'I am sorry to see you so foolish,' the King said and went down to the bridge where Lancelot was staunching the blood from his wounds. The King asked the knight: 'Sire, you come to seek the Queen ?'

'Sire, your surmise is correct.'

'I will give you some of my three Mary's ointment for your wounds and you best tarry here for two or three weeks while your wounds heal.'

'I cannot delay and wish to fight now . . . but in deference to you I will wait until tomorrow.' The king provided Lancelot with a strong horse and handsome arms.

News of Lancelot's coming travelled fast and next morning there was scarcely room to move one's foot in the castle square where the battle was about to be fought. Two mounted knights arrived before prime had sounded: Meleagant was sharp and alert though most of the spectators, mostly captives, favoured the wounded Lancelot.

The two knights met head on, clashing breast to breast, such that each lance broke upon the other's shield. The combatants felt no shame in falling to earth and rushed at each other like wild boars, fighting fiercely, stunning and wounding each other with heavy, wicked blows.

The onlookers could discern no advantage on either side. Then slowly, weakened by his wounded hands, Lancelot's blows became weaker and he fell. Looking up from the ground, he saw seated at a window in the tower, the lady he most desired to see - Guinevere. Unable to take his eyes or face from her, he defended himself with back-handed blows before leaping to his feet and forcing Meleagant back.

Lancelot's strength and courage grew, partly because he had love's aid and partly because of the hate he held for the man who had imprisoned his lady-love. Love and hate made him so fiery that Meleagant winced and had to side-step to avoid his blows. Knowing that his son would be killed if the fight continued, King Bademagu intervened and ordered Meleagant to make peace and surrender the Queen. Meleagant refused at first but feeling the force of Lancelot's sword he had no choice but to agree terms.

Meleagant would surrender Queen Guinevere provided that Lancelot agreed to fight him again within a year at the court of King Arthur. Lancelot agreed and put up his sword. Since it also meant they were also set free, the captives rejoiced and pressed forward to touch Lancelot but the King ushered Lancelot away into the hall to meet Queen Guinevere.

'Here is Lancelot of the Lake come to see you,' the King said. 'You should be pleased.'

But Guinevere, with clouded brow, looked displeased: 'I, sire? He cannot please me; I care nothing about seeing him.'

Lancelot looked dumbfounded.

Guinevere added: 'Truly he has made poor use of his time though I shall never deny that I feel gratitude toward him.' Deigning to say anything further, she returned to her room. Lancelot followed her with his eyes and heart till she reached the door through which his heart went while his eyes remained behind, weeping with his body.

'Why has she shown you such countenance?' asked the King.

Lancelot did not know: 'She will not look at me or hear my words and that grieves me so.'

More distress followed for Lancelot when Sir Kay, the Queen's escort, greeted him: 'How hast thou shamed me!'

Lancelot looked at Kay in further astonishment and pleaded: 'What disgrace?'

'You have carried out what I could not do.'

Not understanding how his love Queen Guinevere could reject him and why his friend Sir Kay should hate him, Lancelot could only beg his leave. During the rest of that day and night Lancelot puzzled at to what he had done for Guinevere to show such hate toward him. The only conclusion he could arrive at was that she had learned that he climbed upon the pillory cart: 'But if she loved me she would not esteem me less for mounting a cart - she ought to ascribe it to love.'

Two Lovers

While Lancelot lamented, Queen Guinevere repented her treatment of Lancelot: 'What was I thinking of when my lover stood before me? Did I not deprive him of his heart and life in one mortal blow? Can I ever make amends? How much better I would feel if I could hold him in my arms; yes, certainly unclad , in order the better to enjoy him.'

The following day, Lancelot hastened to his lady-love and this time the Queen did not lower her eyes to the ground. Lancelot asked why she had received him so poorly the day before.

'Did you not hesitate for shame to mount the pillory cart? Two whole steps?'

'Hesitate!' Lancelot exclaimed. 'May God save me from such a crime again. Can you pardon me?'

'My dearest friend, you are quite forgiven.'

'Thank you my dearest lady, but I cannot tell you here all that I wish.'

Guinevere glanced toward the window: 'Come tonight and speak with me at yonder barred window when everyone is asleep. My escort Sir Kay is close by but still suffering from his wounds.'

No moon or star was shining and no candle or lamp was burning within the house when Lancelot tip-toed to the window. Guinevere, clad only in a white chemise and short cape, waited behind the bars at the window. Drawing close to one another, they held hands, he desirous of her and she of him. Distressed at not being able to closer to his lady-love, Lancelot cursed the bars and asked her consent to enter.

'I consent but the bars are too strong,' Guinevere answered.

Lancelot Pulling at the BarsUndaunted, Lancelot pulled and wrenched at the bars, cutting his finger to the nerve, though he paid no heed to the blood that trickled down. First checking the Sir Kay was asleep, he went to the bed of the Queen and knelt before her, holding her more dear than the relic of a saint. Guinevere embraced him, pressing him tightly to her bosom, drawing him into the bed beside her and showing him every possible satisfaction. Their sport was so agreeable and sweet as they kissed and fondled each other, that in truth, a marvellous joy overcame them as was never heard or known.

With the dawn Lancelot had to leave his mistress's side, and in great sorrow he departed, leaving his heart behind and enough of his body to stain the sheets with blood from his cut finger. Restoring the bars of the window, he returned to his lodging.

Guinevere's Denial

Guinevere fell into a gentle sleep but was awakened in the morning when Meleagant called upon her and noticed the blood-stained sheets. Checking the bed of Sir Kay, he found his sheets were also blood-stained from his wounds. Meleagant sent for his father King Bademagu.

'A fine watch your guard has kept,' Meleagant told him, 'Kay looked upon the Queen last night, has done what he pleased with her and there is the evidence! Blood on the sheets of both beds! This is very humiliating for me.'

The Queen blushed with shame and swore to them: 'So help me God, this blood was never brought by Kay but my nose bled during the night.'

'Lady, this is going badly for you,' the King solemnly said. 'Is what my son says true?'

Guinevere answered: 'Never was there such a monstrous lie. Kay is courteous and loyal enough not commit such a monstrous deed. Nor do I expose my body in the market-place, nor do I offer it of my own free will.'

'Let me answer, sire,' Sir Kay said. 'May God have mercy upon my soul if I lay with the lady. Indeed I would rather be dead than ever do my lord King Arthur such an ugly wrong. I will defend the Queen and myself in battle against the accusation.'

'You are too ill to fight,' rebuffed the King.

At that moment Lancelot entered - news of the commotion had spread quickly. The Queen explained Meleagant's accusation that Kay had slept with her in the night. Lancelot immediately volunteered to fight: 'Kay is sorely wounded and I am ready to do battle on his behalf to prove his innocence.'

Meleagant jumped up: 'I am well satisfied with that. Let us battle and allow God to bring the truth to light.'

Within the space of two days, Lancelot and Meleagant were battling again, assailing each other so bitterly that both shields were soon broken and sparks flew from their helmets. Striking at each other with great fury, they did not even pause to catch their breath.

Again, the King saw that Meleagant was weakening and in his anxiety for his son called out to Queen Guinevere that honour had been satisfied. He begged her, for God's sake, to let them be separated.

'Whatever is your pleasure,' the Queen answered. 'I shall not object.'

The King rushed forward to separate the two combatants. Though unwilling at first, both battle-weary knights eventually lowered their swords.

Much aggrieved at the accusations brought against his lady-love and feeling ashamed at being responsible for bringing wrongful accusations against his friend Kay, Lancelot sorrowfully turned to Guinevere: 'Madame, now I shall depart from you and if false tongues ever bring you pain, please send me word and I shall defend your honour and deliver you from danger.'

An unhappy Lancelot then rode away. Urged in one direction by passion for his lady-love and in another by loyalty to Kay and his lord King Arthur, the troubled knight wandered aimlessly about, often suffering wild fits of frenzy. The twenty-three knights sent by a distraught Guinevere failed to find him and it was two years before he returned to Camelot.

 
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