BESIDE A LAKE SO VAST it extended beyond the horizon, the exhausted travelers stopped for the night. Anxious as they were, sleep seemed impossible, but the sound of the water lapping against the shore gradually calmed them, while fatigue overcame the hardness of the ground. At dawn King Ban mounted his still weary horse and rode to the top of a nearby hill for one more sight of Trebe. This was the last of all his castles, and would remain to him only as long as it could hold out against the besiegers. With the queen, their infant son, and just one squire, he had followed a hidden path through the marshes that kept out invaders from the south. Trebe would be in the care of his seneschal while Ban traveled by land and sea to King Arthur's court. One after another, his allies had fallen to King Claudas; appeals to Arthur, busy with wars at home, had remained unanswered. The seneschal had urged Ban to go to Camelot himself, the better to make Arthur understand his dire need for help. Now Ban, barely on his way, could see in the distance the great walls of Trebe with the early light upon them, and the high tower. Would he succeed, he wondered, in saving this final vestige of his kingdom?
What looked like a patch of mist suddenly became a dense cloud of smoke in which the tower disappeared and, even as he watched, the castle was enveloped in smoke and flame. Then there was fire everywhere, making torches of lofty halls and turning the sky blood red; and all the land around reflected the hideous brightness.
The castle has been betrayed by King Ban's seneschal; the king dies in the shock of this disaster. His infant son is abducted by the Lady of the Lake, who raises him in her magical kingdom concealed by the illusion of a lake. When Lancelot is old enough to become a knight, the Lady of the Lake takes him to Camelot.
The journey that King Ban had undertaken was completed now by his son, although Lancelot had never heard his own name or his father's. That spring, not long after Whitsuntide, the Lady of the Lake, her hopeful ward, and a great retinue set out on the lengthy journey to the coast of Gaul. From there, they went by boat to Great Britain and then started on the road to King Arthur's court. It was a magnificent procession that rode across fields and through the forest toward Camelot, the horses and their riders all in white and silver, ivory, silk and brocade. A squire carried a fine silver helmet, another a pure white shield, another a spear, another a ceremonial robe for Lancelot to wear when he was knighted. Then came the Lady in white samite, her cloak lined with ermine, riding an exquisite snowwhite mare that moved as softly as a cloud. The boy who rode beside her on a tall and spirited hunter could not have been more wonderful to behold, princely in his bearing, with innocence and energy shining from his whole being. They were attended by Bors and Lionel, his young cousins, who would perhaps return this way themselves one day. No eyes could look elsewhere when this procession at last crossed the bridge into King Arthur's high city.
The king was quick to agree that so promising a youth should become a knight. The Lady, however, insisted that he must be knighted in his own arms and attire. To this the king objected. He was accustomed to making his knights a gift of their armor, so that they would be known to belong to his household. When the Lady would not yield, Sir Yvain and Sir Gawain, both knights of the Round Table, convinced the king that an exception should be made.
So the Lady of the Lake succeeded in her mission. As she was taking leave of Lancelot, she told him for the first time that she was not his mother, although she loved him fully as much as if she were. His father was one of the noblest knights in the world, she said, and his mother one of the loveliest and most worthy ladies who ever lived. More than that, she told him, he would learn before long, but not from her. She commended him to God and kissed him and, just before leaving, said, "My prince, you will find that the more great and perilous deeds you undertake, the more you will be ready to do others. Should there be any that prove beyond your powers, be assured that no other knight on earth could accomplish them, either. So go your way with confidence, my beautiful, noble child. Your quality is such that men will always aspire to win your friendship, and women will love you above all others." Too choked with sorrow to say anything more, she embraced him once again and turned away. The boy was deeply moved, and his eyes filled with tears. Wordlessly, he kissed his cousins to bid them farewell.
Lancelot goes out into the world and accomplishes a series of perilous adventures. Meanwhile, Arthur's kingdom is attacked by Galehaut, the Lord of the Distant Isles who has already won the crowns of thirty kings. Finding Arthur too weak to be a worthy opponent, Galehaut gives him a year to prepare. When the war begins again, Lancelot, known as the Black Knight, has returned and fights for the king. Galehaut, overwhelmed with admiration for the Black Knight's valor, renounces his own victory. At Lancelot's request, and at the moment when Galehaut's success would have been inevitable, the Lord of the Distant Isles surrenders to Arthur.
Galehaut learns that Lancelot is in love with Queen Guenevere, but is much too timid to approach her. Sacrificing his own feelings for Lancelot, Galehaut arranges a meeting between the young knight and the queen.
Then the queen took the knight by the hand, and had him sit beside her. She smiled at him graciously and said, "My lord, we have had such a great desire to see you, and now, thanks to God and to Galehaut here, we have the joy of doing so. And yet I do not know whether you really are the knight I have been asking for, and I hope you will be pleased to tell me yourself."
[ . . . . . . . . . . ]
"The Lady of the Lake brought you to Camelot to be knighted, but I still don't know who you are. Please tell me."
There was a long silence. "I am Lancelot," he answered, "the son of Ban of Benoic."
The queen drew a sharp breath as she recalled Arthur's failure to help the father under siege. And now King Ban's son was sitting beside her! But she said only, "Many have done knightly deeds, but yours are so astonishing that I can only wonder what inspires you."
"My lady, whatever I have done was done only for you."
"I love you more than myself, more than anyone or anything in the world."
"But I have spoken to you just twice before, when you first arrived at court and when you were leaving."
"That was when I came to you in my armor, and told you that wherever I went in the world I would be your knight. And you accepted my service, and I took leave of you, and you said 'Farewell, dear friend.' Those words have never left my heart. They have made me a worthy knight, if I really am one. They have saved me from every evil and every danger. They comforted me whenever I was sad. They fed me when I was hungry. They make me rich in my great poverty."
"Then God be praised that I spoke them! I am glad you understood me as you did, and gained so much by that." She paused a moment, then said with a delicate reluctance, "But in truth I have said as much to many knights, without meaning anything special."
Guenevere promises Galehaut that she will never come between him and Lancelot, but her self-interest eventually makes her do so. This causes Galehaut so much suffering that he consults Master Elias, a seer who interprets his dreams and a vision of his own.
The next morning he met with Galehaut in a chapel; no one else was there except Lancelot. Master Elias said, "You dreamed of a leopard who took your heart and a serpent who deprived you of your limbs. The serpent is the queen. She made it impossible for you to move, and she alone can prevent the leopard from taking your life. After the lion, which always represents a king, the leopard is the greatest of all animals. The leopard in your dream is the greatest knight in the world." He hesitated before continuing. "I have had a vision during the night, a vision of a bridge of forty-five planks spanning a dark river. But I can relate that to you only when we are alone."
[ . . . . . . . . . . ]
"You were crossing a bridge originally made of forty-five planks. But deep water extended far beyond the last plank, because some had been removed. There you had to jump off; nor was there any way back, because the bridge had disappeared. This would surely be a vision of your death, except that it was the leopard who had taken away the planks, and the leopard could also replace them."
"But what do they mean, those forty-five planks! Are they the years of my life — and how many are missing?"
[ . . . . . . . . . . ]
What Merlin prophesied so long ago is happening now. He predicted that a wondrous dragon would come from the Distant Isles. Flying left and right over many lands, the dragon would constantly grow in power as he subdued them. When he reached the kingdom of Logres, his shadow would be so vast that it would darken the whole land. By then, the dragon would have thirty heads all made of gold. Logres would have fallen as quickly as the others, had a magnificent leopard not held the invader back, putting him at the mercy of the ruler he was on the very point of defeating. Later there would be such love between the dragon and the leopard that they would feel they were one being, each unable to live without the other. But a golden-headed serpent would steal the leopard away and corrupt his heart. And that is how the great dragon would die." He paused.
Names occurring in the foregoing excerpts
(in order of appearance)
|King Ban of Benoic||Lancelot's father|
|Trebe||Ban's last castle|
|King Claudas||Ban's foe|
|Lady of the Lake||a fay; kidnapper of the infant Lancelot, the woman in whose underwater realm he grows up and whom he believes to be his mother|
|Bors & Lionel||brothers; younger cousins of Lancelot, also kidnapped by the Lady of the Lake, with whom he grows up in the Lady's underwater realm|
|The Black Knight||the third (and last) of the sobriquets used to designate Lancelot before he reveals his true name; Lancelot wants to remain incognito until he has achieved renown as an outstanding warrior. The Black Knight is Arthur's most effective defender against the invading forces of Galehaut.|
|Galehaut||Lord of the Distant Isles (whose holdings come to include much of Wales), the great warrior poised to conquer Arthur's kingdom... until, in deference to Lancelot's wishes, he surrenders to Arthur|
|Master Elias||a wise and learnèd man, interpreter of dreams|
|Logres||King Arthur's kingdom; roughly, England|