By Lori J. Fitzgerald
Huzzah! Once Upon a Time has entered the realm of Arthurian legend and literature with Episode 2x03, “The Lady of the Lake,” which features probably the most well-known Knight of the Round Table, Sir Lancelot. There are many works of Arthurian literature which span across the medieval period in Europe (approximately 1100-1500 AD), but Le Morte Darthur, by Sir Thomas Malory (1485) is considered the definitive work, as he took many of the Arthurian texts that came before him and shaped them into what is considered the paradigm of knightly stories, of which Sir Lancelot is as central a figure as King Arthur himself.
The feudal system was the reality behind King Arthur’s court. The knight, a professional and trained soldier of the warrior-elite, became a lord’s vassal, a member of his retinue, by pledging his military services and fealty to the lord. In return, the liege-lord granted the knight a tract of land or property called a fief. Knights ran their estates, kept order in the area, and administered justice to the lower classes. They could be called into battle at any time by their lord, and they were expected to fight valiantly to protect him. As part of the ruling class with such an important role in society, knights were also expected to follow a code of behavior. Medieval romances such as Le Morte Darthur mirrored real life in that the knight became the main character whose plot conflict often involved the attempt to adhere to the chivalric ideal of behavior (Cavendish 39-40).
The Code of Chivalry included several elements, among them battle prowess, largesse, gentilesse, curtesye, and trouthe. Battle prowess is strength and valor on the battlefield. Largesse is material generosity, and gentilesse is spiritual generosity. Curtesye is courtly manners, gentlemanly respect and fairness, and also involves the exaltation of women, also known as courtly love. Trouthe, or integrity, is most important; a knight who has trouthe maintains what is right in society and is true to his own ideal sense of self. If a knight follows the Code of Chivalry as a basis for behavior, then he gains and maintains honor.
Sir Lancelot is the first knight to be introduced in Le Morte Darthur:
Soon after Arthur had come from Rome into England, all the knights of the Round Table resorted unto the king and made many jousts and tournaments. Some knights so increased in arms and worship that they passed all their fellows in prowess and noble deeds, and that was well proved by many. But especially it was proved by Sir Lancelot du Lake, for in all tournaments, jousts, and deeds of arms, for both life and death, he passed all other knights; at no time was he overcome, unless it were by treason or enchantment. (141)
As the knight who surpasses all others, Sir Lancelot becomes the champion of the court, representing Arthur in battle and protecting him and his queen, Guinevere. In Once Upon a Time, Prince Charming asks how a Knight of the Round Table could “fall from grace,” and Lancelot answers because of “a woman.” This woman is, of course, Queen Guinevere, Arthur’s wife. In courtly love, which had its own code of conduct recorded by the writer Andreas Capellanus, the lovers’ feelings were kept unannounced and in secrecy; however, publicly the knight performed deeds of valor dedicated to and in adoration of his beloved which brought them both honor. The knight was absolutely committed to her, and if his desire was frustrated, then he would feel the throes of “love languor,” or lovesickness (Cantor 349). Therefore, loyalty and service to a beloved were equated with the same loyalty and service given to a liege lord (Keen 30). Lancelot, as the best knight, also excelled at courtly love: “Wherefore Queen Guinevere had him in great favor above all other knights, and certainly he loved the queen in return above all other ladies all the days of his life. For her he did many deeds of arms, and he saved her from the fire through his noble chivalry” (Malory 141). Courtly love, however, was supposed to be unrequited love. When, through his human fallibility, Lancelot gives in to his physical desire, he crosses the boundary to treason, the worst crime in medieval eyes, which could consist of slaying the liege lord, lying with his wife, or surrendering his castle (Keen 8-10). However, it is worth noting that Arthur knew of the affair, but chose to ignore it, and it was only when the charge of treason was brought in front of him at court by jealous knights that he had no choice but to act upon it: “…the king was full loath that such a charge should be upon Sir Lancelot and his queen, because the king had a suspicion of the situation. But he wished not to hear of it, for Sir Lancelot had done so much for him and the queen so many times that, wit ye well, the king loved him passingly well” (Malory 695). As an outcast from Camelot in Once Upon a Time, Lancelot has become a “sword-for-hire” for King George; this was a form of “bastard feudalism” in which a lord paid a fixed fee or offered political protection in return for feudal services from “freelancers,” or mercenary knights (Benson 142-143). It is no wonder that Once Upon a Time’s Lancelot has a tone of bitterness in answering Snow and Charming, for he has lost his love, his liege lord, and his honor.
Explore the Arthurian legend surrounding Lancelot, take a trip into the woods to discover the mythology behind Red Riding Hood or learn more about a modern day hero called Snow White. Origins provides unique insights and perspectives from talented writers into the characters we know and love, going far beyond the boundaries of Storybrooke.