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Saturday, April 24, 2010

Lancelot and Elaine

The time has arrived for the last of Arthur's annual jousts, the previous eight having been won by Lancelot.  Figuring it is his fame that has won him many of the contests, Lancelot decides to participate in disguise.  He borrows a shield from a son of the Lord of Astolat and allows the daughter of the Lord, Elaine, to keep his own shield while he bears her favor, which he has never done and will further help his disguise.  Lancelot wins the tournament, though he is severely injured.  Elaine nurses him back to health and declares her love for him but he does not share the sentiment, though he acknowledges that he may have loved her had he not loved Guinevere.  Lancelot returns to Camelot but Elaine dies of a broken heart and has left specific instructions to have her body transport to Camelot to deliver a note to Arthur which states her love for Lancelot.  Arthur honors her with a proper burial while Lancelot declares her to be purer than Guinevere and expresses regret for not having loved her.

Once Merlin is essentially dead to all mankind, Arthur is no longer protected from the corruption in his kingdom.  He has his first fleeting suspicion of an impure relationship between Lancelot and Guinevere, and death no longer occurs in the forests but literally visits his doorstep.  Merlin presence managed to shield Arthur from knowledge of the evil in his kingdom but with Vivien eliminating him, Arthur begins to see evidence of unrighteousness. 

Lancelot, too, has his eyes opened when the Queen expresses jealous of Elaine, about whom he states:  "Ye loved me, damsel, surely with a love/Far tenderer than my Queen's."  Lancelot describes her to Arthur thus :

Pure, as you ever wish your knights to be.
To doubt her fairness were to want an eye,
To doubt her pureness were to want a heart.

Such descriptions allow the reader to compare her directly with Guinevere.  Obviously, Guinevere cannot claim purity as a virtue, yet neither does she appear to be concerned about the person that has died.  She is only worried that Lancelot may have loved Elaine more than her.  Though there are many whispers about the Queen, there is nothing to demean in her character.  Her purity causes Lancelot to regret having loved Guinevere, though the latter expresses no such regret.  In this idyll, Lancelot becomes a character with which to sympathize while Guinevere is portrayed as selfish and jealous-heart.

The above painting is Elaine, or the lily maid of Astolat (1870) by Sophie Anderson.

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