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.
Above: Julia Margaret Cameron. "Parting of Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere." 1874.
In Once Upon a Time, we meet Lancelot as the “Leviathan,” the new general whose battle prowess is so outstanding he strikes without warning like a monster from the depths of the sea. Sir Lancelot du Lake (or du Lac in French texts) was taken from his parents and raised by the Lady of the Lake; in Once Upon a Time he tells Charming he was raised near a lake. This is the same Lady of the Lake in Arthurian legend who bestows Arthur with the enchanted sword Excalibur (in some legends this is a different sword from the one in the stone) and to whom Excalibur is returned after Arthur’s demise. In this Once Upon a Time episode, it is apparent that “Lady of the Lake” also refers to the Siren in Lake Nostos who was defeated by Charming in Season 1, and the nickname “Leviathan” is a nod to Lancelot’s origins. Whether the Once Upon a Time writers intended it or not, this multiple layer of meanings parallels the symbolic landscape of the medieval mind, in which a physical item or name can have several mental or spiritual interpretations at once.
The segment at Lake Nostos also has symbolic references to the Quest for the Holy Grail, present in many medieval works, especially Le Morte Darthur and the German Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, on which Wagner’s opera is based. In the wedding ceremony, Lancelot mentions the legend of a cup that grants eternal life. In the Mabinogion, a collection of Celtic myths which is the basis of many elements in Arthurian literature, the cauldron of Ceridwen grants wisdom and has life-bestowing power. In the late medieval texts, the Grail is the “Sangreal,” or Holy Blood, the Cup of Christ which was used by Him at the Last Supper and caught the blood from His side at the Crucifixion, and was brought to England by Joseph of Arimathea. Lake Nostos, to Charming’s despair, has dried up since he killed the Siren. In the Grail legends, the knight-errant comes upon a vast desert Wasteland, devoid of life and water, ruled by the Fisher King, who has been made barren by a festering wound in his groin. Similarly, Snow White has been made barren by King George through drinking cursed water. Again, in the medieval eye, the physical setting symbolizes the inner landscape of self. In the Grail Quest, in order to heal the land and the king, and make them both fertile again, the knight must ask the right questions or complete the right actions in order to achieve the healing power of the Grail, the spiritual symbol of life. Lancelot, the knight-errant, tells Charming, “You just need to know where to look,” and thus finds the last drop of magic water that will lift the curse. This parallels asking the right question. The little shell that held the water symbolizes the feminine principle, birth, love, fertility, and in some medieval instances, pilgrimage, or a religious quest (Cooper 151-152). Thus, Lancelot prays to God by saying “God in His mercy lend her grace,” (which also happens to be a line from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem “The Lady of Shallott,” published in 1842).1 It is fitting that Snow and Charming’s wedding cup is a representation of the life-giving, healing Grail, and that Lancelot wishes them “strong, true, and eternal” love.
Although in Malory’s version Lancelot participated in the Grail Quest, he only got as far as the door of the Grail Chapel. His human fallibility, especially his love for Guinevere, prevented him from truly achieving the Grail. However, what makes Lancelot so heroic in the Quest for the Holy Grail as written in Le Morte Darthur is that he still strives to rectify his mistakes and improve spiritually during the quest, even though he knows for certain he will never fully achieve the Grail. He just attempts to find and realize his best self in the journey, which is the central quest theme of all Arthurian literature. This is echoed in Once Upon a Time: although Lancelot has fallen from grace in Camelot, he still sees that a wrong has been inflicted on Snow White by King George and wishes to help restore the right by her. He is still endeavoring for trouthe and striving to act by the Code of Chivalry, and thus redeem himself in a fashion. In a way, this is the quest of many of the main characters in Once Upon A Time: to weave parts of their Fairy Tale Land selves and Storybrooke selves into the best tapestry of the two, and in some cases, to achieve redemption. Whether Cora is telling the truth about her murder of Lancelot remains to be seen (he could only be bested by treason or enchantment, after all, and Cora seems to be able to dole out both). Hopefully Sir Lancelot, the Knight of the Round Table who “had the greatest name of any knight of the world, and he was most honored by high and low” (Malory 166), continues his own quest for trouthe and redemption through further adventures in the lands of Once Upon a Time.
1 Thanks to Laura Foster who figured out this line from Once Upon a Time and remembered that it was a quote from Tennyson’s poem.
*Please note that much of the information presented in this essay is knowledge I gained from researching and writing my thesis: Imperfect Quest Heroes: A Study of Knights-Errant in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, and Malory’s Le Morte Darthur, submitted and approved August 8, 2001, in partial fulfillment of the requirements of the degree of Master of Arts in English Language and Literature in the Graduate Division of Queens College, City University of New York, by Lori Torone (my maiden name).
Benson, Larry D. Malory’s Morte Darthur. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970.
Cantor, Norman F. The Civilization of the Middle Ages. 1963. New York: HarperPerennial,
Cavendish, Richard. King Arthur and the Grail: the Arthurian Legends and their Meaning.
London, Waidenfeld and Nicolson, 1978.
Cooper, J.C. An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols. London: Thames and
Hudson, Ltd., 1978.
Keen, Maurice. Chivalry. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1984.
Malory, Sir Thomas. Le Morte Darthur. Ed. R.M. Lumiansky. New York: Collier Books,
Macmillan Publishing Co., 1982.
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