Lancelot’s role in the love triangle makes him a difficult character for some writers to handle. How can he be honoured when, for romantic love, he betrays the king who saved Britain, to whom he has pledged allegiance?
It is worth noting that Lancelot’s love of the queen fits the medieval French courtly love tradition. The woman of the court–queen or duchess or baroness–should be the object of adoration. As long as the love is not acted upon, Lancelot’s adoration of Guinevere is praiseworthy according to this tradition.
This love from a distance offered a certain place for women. Given the stiff structures of the late middle ages, this tradition offered a certain kind of honour to women, though likely it was more a set of songs than a way of life. We may dream that this freedom was alive in the more diverse and peaceful context of southern France, as Guy Gavriel Kay did in A Song for Arbonne.
Modern readers and writers have trouble with this love triangle. One reason is that the twentieth century pushed the romantic idea that there is one true soul-mate for each person. If Arthur and Guinevere belong together, Lancelot’s love for the queen and hers for him is a betrayal. Or her marriage to Arthur is a tortuous betrayal if Lancelot is her true soul-mate.
I keep coming back to what Guy Gavriel Kay does with the Camelot story in his Fionavar series: he pictures each of the three having a perfect love for one another. Guinevere loves both men and both love her. Arthur and Lancelot have a deep loving friendship, the love of companions who completely trust each other. Kay follows the tradition that this makes their love a tragedy rather than a gift: Lancelot and Guinevere are brought back each time Arthur is to accentuate his pain. Kay pictures a tragedy and finds a surprising resolution in the end.
As much as I love Kay’s telling, I still wonder: does the love of the three for each other need to be tragic? Can there not be a recognition that we love in many ways? If the love is tied to longing, it is painful, can be tragic. But love can be about presence and understanding and nurture and self-giving. Why do so many assume that love is about taking, even if that taking is mutual? But I wander from the stories.
In my sense of the story, there is pain for Guinevere when Lancelot leaves Camelot. But part of that pain is the tension between him and the king as the king seeks a more autocratic and centralized kingdom. I do not (yet) see a romantic love for Lancelot when he returns to Brittany. Likely, after the pattern of protection for his land is set up and the Grail hidden, he will produce an heir–whether in love or necessity I do not know. My interest in this story, at least right now, is his skill as a knight. That will be my focus next week.