Most valiant of the Knights of King Arthur, and the lover of Queen Guinevere, Lancelot first appears in the 12th-century romance Lancelot or Le Chevalier de la Charrete ["The Knight of the Cart"] (?1177) by Chrétien de Troyes, to whom the idea was suggested by his patroness Marie de Champagne. No earlier reference to Lancelot survives, though it has been conjectured that he was a 6th-century Pictish ruler. In the legend the castle he eventually attains, Joyous Gard(e), is usually placed in the north of England. He is named as the son of King Ban of Benwick (in Brittany); when his father dies of a broken heart, the young Lancelot is reared by the Lady of the Lake, who then sends him to Arthur's court. Lancelot overcomes Arthur's initial suspicion and becomes his most loyal and heroic knight, and the champion of Queen Guinevere.
It was Chrétien's version of Lancelot's adventures – and their subsequent prose adaptation in the Vulgate Cycle (compiled 1215-1235) – that was used by Sir Thomas Malory in Le Morte Darthur (1485) In the German Lanzelet (?1195) by Ulrich von Zatzikhoven Lancelot is unaware of his origins but learns he must prove his valour in order to regain his inheritance. In Malory's version, Lancelot's love for Guinevere eventually leads to the dissolution of the Round Table, the war between Arthur and Lancelot, and the usurpation of the throne by Mordred (Modred). Lancelot is of course unable to attain the Grail because of his adultery. After Arthur's defeat and Guinevere's death, Lancelot pines away.
Lancelot seldom features strongly in modern Arthurian fiction, although he almost certainly was the model for the Prince Valiant comic strip by Hal Foster. He is centre-stage in: Launcelot (1926) by Ernest Hamilton; Launcelot and the Ladies (1927) by Will Bradley (1868-1962); The Ill-Made Knight (1940) by T H White; The Little Wench (1935) by Philip Lindsay (1906-1958); Launcelot My Brother (1954) by Dorothy James Roberts (1903-1990); The Queen's Knight (1955) by Marvin Borowsky; and Lancelot (1978) by Peter Vansittart. A particularly touching portrayal of Lancelot wandering the Earth searching for Guinevere's grave centuries later is given by Jane Yolen in "The Quiet Monk" (1988 IASFM). Lancelot's love for Guinevere is the focal point of the movies Lancelot and Guinevere (1963) and First Knight (1995), and plays a major part in Excalibur (1981). [MA]