There are so many ways I could introduce him.
Should I say that he was the noblest of Arthur’s knights and mightiest of his warriors?
That he was a rescuer of damsels in distress and slayer of evil knights and vicious beasts?
Or is it more important to mention that Arthur favoured him above all others and that women pined and died for love of him?
Personally I cannot hear his name without remembering that he was an oath breaker and an adulterer. His affair with Guinevere, and everything that came out of it, broke the Brotherhood of the Knights of the Round Table and, even more unforgivable in my eyes, broke both Arthur’s heart and his spirit. And on that basis alone I have often thought the Arthurian legends would be better off without him, mighty warrior or no.
In my more fanciful moments, when I have plotted what I could achieve with a time machine at my disposal, stopping Lancelot before he was begun has often crossed my mind. A quick trip back to 1170 to chop Chrétien de Troyes’ hands off – or otherwise maim or grievously injure him – should be enough to prevent Lancelot being inflicted on the world. Although if I was going to do the job properly I have to somehow halt Marie, Countess of Champagne’s insatiable love of courtly romance and make sure Godefroi de Leigni was out of the picture as well. After all, Cretin – and yes that is deliberate, I’m sure I’m not the first to make the joke and I doubt I’ll be the last – cannot shoulder the blame for Lancelot alone.
My intense dislike of Lancelot spilled over, unsurprisingly, into my own work on the legends. He became the bane of my writing as I generated drafts where he was absent entirely, drafts where he was present but so clichéd I was too ashamed to share them with anyone and yet more drafts where I used parts of his story as plot points but with other characters in his role.
No other character in the legends has affected me so profoundly, not even Arthur who I regularly converse with in my head and would, if he were alive today, pledge myself to him without a second thought. Lancelot had most definitely become my Achilles heel; the knot in the wool you only find when you’ve knitted half the pattern, the note you always hit half a tone flat no matter how hard you try not to, the fly in your barely touched glass of champagne. I’d built him up in my head to such an extent that, for a while, I could not write about Arthur or the legends at all without it turning into a stream of vitriol against a fictional character I could not understand and whose actions I could not accept.
Finally, one evening when I was, once again, decrying his name and person with particular vigour, a good friend pointed out to me that my problems all stemmed from my lack of objectivity in respect of Lancelot’s actions. This was, Simon continued with a knowing smile, an understandable failing on my part, given how the story so aptly mirrored several less-than-happy events in my own life.
When I’d got over the shock of Simon being right – not that he isn’t normally, it’s just that I’m usually very in tune with my own emotions and it truly hadn’t occurred to me that I was projecting my own hurt onto Lancelot’s betray of Arthur before he said it – I decided that I would have to tackle this issue properly. Only I didn’t quite know how. So I did what I often think I do best and procrastinated.
In the past two years I’ve spent my time working on the Lancelot free parts of Arthur’s story, studied for and passed my Treasury exam and produced a huge variety of original and fan fiction (including 55k worth of words in last Novembers NaNoWriMo that represents half of a novel length fan fiction). I have not been idle and that is all to the good. Yet it hasn’t keep him out of my head entirely. In the last few weeks I’ve found him appearing once more in my journal; odd scribbles here and there, notes on bits and pieces of his life as I remember them from different sources.
The time out seems to have done the trick. I still dislike him, I don’t think that will ever change, but he doesn’t make me angry anymore and I can write about him with a level of dispassion that means he is no longer the cartoon villain of the piece. He has become human in my head once more. I’ve even been starting to put together a cohesive ‘biography’ out of my notes and musing. Whether he makes it into my novels only time will tell but, for now, I’m working on my own version of “The Life of Lancelot” and trying to think more kindly of him.