Chapter 1 Soon afterward there are many tournaments, in which Sir Launcelot du Lake proves his prowess above all. Queen Guenever favors him above all other knights, and he falls in love with her. Launcelot decides to try to prove himself with adventures, and leaves court with his nephew Sir Lionel. They stop to rest under an apple tree and Launcelot falls asleep. Meanwhile three knights come galloping along, followed by one other, who overtakes them and strikes them to the ground and binds them. Lionel sneaks up to the knight to try to surprise him, but the knight turns and strikes Lionel to the ground, binds him, and takes all four to a castle, where they are imprisoned with many others.
Although we have heard this love story prophesied by Merlin, this is the first time that we see Launcelot’s love for Guenever explicitly discussed. In many ways, this is a hopeless love, since Guenever is bound to the king, whom Launcelot also loves and has pledged allegiance to. Thus leaving court for a quest seems the far easier move than pursuing an affair—although Launcelot hopes to “win” Guenever’s love through his knightly prowess. Barely do the knights depart than they meet with a more serious adventure than they’d asked for.
Chapter 2 Sir Ector de Maris (Launcelot’s half-brother) had decided to follow Launcelot to join him. On the way Ector meets a forester, who says that adventures are to be found at a nearby manor, where there is a tree above a ford from which many knights’ shields are hanging. If Sir Ector strikes on a copper basin hanging there three times, he will be given directions. Ector sees the place, and notices that one of the shields is his cousin Lionel’s. He vows to seek revenge, and beats on the basin. A knight sneaks up behind him, but Sir Ector strikes him with his spear. The knight congratulates him, but quickly and with great strength picks Ector from the saddle, carries him into the manor hall, and throws him to the ground.
Launcelot had left court largely because of his love for Guenever, whereas Ector de Maris seems more generally interested in whatever adventures he might meet with. Throughout these tales, scattered through the forests and on the paths are characters that seem placed precisely to direct knights towards such adventures, as if they were waiting for the questers to arrive. In this case, Ector’s ambivalent journey soon turns concrete when he has a chance to avenge Lionel.
The knight, Sir Turquine, says he’ll grant Ector de Maris his life if he promises to be his prisoner, but Ector refuses. Turquine beats Ector and throws him into prison, where he meets Sir Lionel, who tells him of having left Launcelot asleep.
It seems that Turquine has been successful in kidnapping a number of Arthur’s knights, all of whom have met with this rather unpleasant adventure in their travels.
Chapter 3 Meanwhile, four queens approach Launcelot asleep under the apple tree, and begin to fight over who will win his love. Morgan le Fay, one of the queens, decides to enchant him to remain asleep and take him to her castle, where he can choose one of the women. When they arrive he awakens, and the queens tell him that they know that he and Guenever cannot have each other, so he must choose one of them, or else die in their prison. Launcelot declares he’ll have none of them but Guenever. They leave him alone in prison.
Morgan le Fay often seems to turn up when it is a matter of tricking men into doing her will. Launcelot, as we will see, tends to be popular among women, most of whom have heard of his infatuation with Guenever, but who believe that that affair is doomed anyway. This is the first time we see proof of just how loyal Launcelot will remain to the queen, despite the illegitimate nature of his love.
Chapter 4 A damsel comes bearing Launcelot’s dinner, and he confides his despair in her. She says that if Launcelot comes to her father’s upcoming tournament and helps him win, she will free him. Her father is Bagdemagus, so Launcelot agrees. The next morning the damsel sneaks out and prepares a horse for him. Launcelot rides towards Bagdemagus, and rests to sleep at a pavilion on the way.
Although other women have succeeded in keeping Launcelot confined, they cannot account for the independent will of someone like this young woman, who is eager to offer a favor to Launcelot in exchange for assistance in another matter.
Chapter 5 The knight to whom the pavilion belongs arrives, slips into the bed and begins to kiss Launcelot, who springs up and wounds him with his sword. The knight says that his lady was supposed to have met him in this bed, and Launcelot apologizes for hurting him. The lady arrives and cries out at realizing that her lord, Belleus, is wounded. But Belleus reassures her that Launcelot is a good man. The lady asks Launcelot if Arthur can make Belleus a knight of the Round Table. Launcelot agrees, and in the morning he rides to Bagdemagus’ Abbey.
This is another case of mistaken identity, though in this specific instance the effect is more comic than tragic, even if a certain amount of bloodshed seems unavoidable. Belleus shows himself to be level-headed (unlike Gawaine, for instance) in understanding that Launcelot’s actions were not of evil intention, so he does not think he needs to avenge himself against the knight.
Chapter 6 The daughter of Bagdemagus meets Launcelot and sends for her father, who embraces him. Since there will be some of Arthur’s knights fighting against Bagdemagus, Launcelot says he’ll use another shield so as to remain unknown. On Tuesday the tournament begins, and twelve of Bagdemagus’ men are killed, while only six of the King of Northgalis’ men are killed.
Now that he has been freed from the queens’ prison, Launcelot must fulfill his end of the bargain to Bagdemagus’s daughter by fighting for him—even though, in this case, this might mean fighting against some of his allies who are also knights of the Round Table.
Chapter 7 Launcelot du Lake then enters the fight and strikes down the King of Northgalis. Launcelot and Sir Mordred (one of the knights fighting against Bagdemagus) joust together, and Launcelot hurls him off his saddle. Then Launcelot strikes down twelve more knights, and the others yield to Bagdemagus. Each party departs, and in the morning, after much celebration, Launcelot leaves to seek out his brother Lionel. Before he does, he tells Bagdemagus’ daughter to tell him if she ever needs another favor.
While Launcelot has appeared in these stories before, only now do we get a true sense of just how successful he is on the battlefield (something that Merlin, as we recall, had predicted in one of his prophecies). Here he uses such prowess for good, even though it is against his own allies: we are meant to privilege his defense of a lady above all.
On the way Launcelot meets a beautiful damsel and asks what adventures there are in this area. She tells him that there is a knight in these parts, Sir Turquine, whom no one has ever conquered. He has about 64 knights of Arthur’s court imprisoned. The damsel asks Launcelot, after he goes after Turquine, to return and help her and other damsels who are dealing with a false knight. Launcelot agrees, and she leads him to the ford with the copper basin, which Launcelot strikes. From the distance rides Turquine, with Sir Gaheris, Gawaine’s brother, tied and bound beside him. Launcelot says Turquine has shamed the knights of the Round Table and must pay, but Turquine says he defies the entire fellowship of the Round Table.
Having crossed one adventure off his list, Launcelot continues on to another. While the knights of the Round Table go off to the forest in search of adventure, presumably to test their own strength and courage, it is hardly the case that they are alone in a wild land. Instead they are constantly encountering each other, and having to come to the rescue of each other—which turns out to be just another opportunity to both prove one’s chivalry, prowess, and loyalty to the fellowship.
Chapter 8 The two men race at each other and draw their swords, striking and wounding each other for hours. Finally they stop to rest, and Turquine says that he only knows of one jouster who is so skilled: his mortal enemy. Turquine declares that if this man (Launcelot) is not his enemy, he will deliver all his prisoners to him and will make peace. Turquine then says his enemy’s name is Sir Launcelot du Lake, since Launcelot killed Turquine’s brother Sir Carados, and Turquine has vowed to avenge this death.
We have grown accustomed to such revelations of secrets, given that it is so difficult for knights to determine each other’s identity from beneath their armor. In that sense, it is surprising that Turquine would even confide in the unknown knight about his mortal enemy, though the possibility that this knight might help him against Launcelot is probably too great to pass up.
Launcelot declares that he is indeed Launcelot, and will defy Turquine. Turquine says they won’t depart until one of them is dead. They fight for hours and hours until all the ground is blood-spattered.
Launcelot does not allow the ruse to go on for too long, and instead reveals his true identity with a flourish, leading to a great battle.
Chapter 9 Finally Turquine stumbles, and Launcelot leaps upon him and slices his neck open, killing him. Launcelot then goes to Gaheris and asks to borrow his horse, which Gaheris permits, thanking Launcelot for saving him. Launcelot tells Gaheris to free the prisoners and to wish them well from him, until they all meet again at court. Launcelot departs and Gaheris easily takes the keys from the porter, and he opens the prison door and shares the story of Launcelot with the prisoners. Sir Lionel, Ector de Maris, and Sir Kay leave immediately to try to find Launcelot.
Throughout the book, it will be the sign of a great test for a knight to attempt to battle against a knight whom no one has ever conquered before. This is a test that Launcelot often takes up, and whenever he does so the winning streak of the other knight seems to end, as Launcelot is generally considered the “greatest knight.” Turquine has temporarily stopped other knights of the Round Table from pursuing their own adventures, but now they can all resume their quests.
Chapter 10 Launcelot returns to the damsel (who told him about Turquine), and she tells him that a knight in these parts is robbing and raping women. To Launcelot, this is against the order of knighthood. He tells the damsel to ride forward as if she’s alone, and he’ll rescue her if need be. After a while the knight rides up and snatches the damsel from her horse. Launcelot overtakes him and they both draw their swords, but Launcelot kills the knight quickly. The damsel thanks Launcelot and blesses him. Before she leaves she says she’s heard that Launcelot only loves Queen Guenever and that Guenever has enchanted him not to love anyone else. He tells her that it will not suit him to leave the life of a traveling knight and remain home with a wife. On the other hand, he doesn’t want to anger God by sleeping with many women and not getting married.
Having pointed out a possible adventure to Launcelot, the damsel now requires a related task of him—not only that he save other knights but that he defend women, as the order of chivalry requires him to do. Launcelot is nothing if not a chivalrous knight, and he will never refuse such a favor. However, this society’s intermingled relationship between courtly love and battlefield defense grows complicated for Launcelot, who wants to defend ladies’ honor without winning their love as a result. Remarkably, he ends up confiding some of his doubts about a relationship with Guenever—or anyone else.
Launcelot continues alone into the forest until he comes across a troll (“churl”) under a bridge, who lashes at him with a club. Launcelot cuts off his head, but on the other side of the bridge the inhabitants of a village cry that he’s killed the porter of their castle.
Venturing into unknown lands, Launcelot at times finds it difficult to distinguish between true enemies and legitimate defenders: his strategy seems to be to kill first and ask questions later.
Chapter 11 Launcelot ignores them and continues to the castle. Two giants approach him, but Launcelot kills them. He enters the castle, where dozens of ladies kneel and thank him for saving them from their imprisonment. They’ve been forced to work night and day weaving silk. Launcelot tells them his name so that they might spread the news of his glory. They tell him that the castle is named Tintagil, and it belonged to the Duke of Cornwall, the man who had married Igraine before she married Uther and had Arthur.
We don’t learn what Launcelot is thinking here, and instead we (along with the narrator) follow him into the heart of the castle. Launcelot seems unwilling to let a potential quest go without following it to its logical endpoint. We then learn that in fact this is not an unknown land, but rather home to the first husband of Arthur’s mother.
Launcelot continues on into many strange, wild lands. One night he lodges with an old woman. Late at night he sees through the window three knights overtaking one man. He emerges and realizes the lone knight is Sir Kay. Launcelot defeats Kay’s attackers so that they ask for mercy. Launcelot agrees on the condition that they yield to Sir Kay: they initially protest, but then agree, and Launcelot tells them to go to Queen Guenever and say they were sent from Kay to be their prisoners. Kay kneels down and thanks Launcelot for saving his life twice. They rest together, but in the morning Launcelot departs early alone, disguising himself Kay with Kay’s harness.
Launcelot’s adventures are portrayed as too numerous to recount them all in detail. What we do learn tends to be related to other knights of the Round Table, here Arthur’s adopted brother, whom Launcelot is able to rescue in a typical case of luck and circumstance (as well as knightly prowess). It is also typical for Launcelot to send conquered knights to Guenever instead of Arthur, which is justifiable but also suggests his feelings for her.
Chapter 12 Launcelot rides out of the forest and into some meadows, where he sees a long bridge and pavilions on which three white shields and spears are hanging. One knight at the pavilion thinks Launcelot is Sir Kay and rides out to joust with him. They clash and Launcelot strikes him to the ground, upon which the knight realizes that this is not Kay. His companions come to help him, but Launcelot succeeds against them. He has mercy on them instead of killing them, and tells them to go to Guenever as prisoners, and to say that Kay sent them.
Disguised as Sir Kay, Launcelot is able to court various other adventures, taking advantage of the relationship between shield and identity as a shorthand for knights to determine who other knights are. Here Launcelot also shows his graciousness in choosing not to gain greater glory for himself but instead for his fellow knight Kay, still as a gift to Guenever. All this seems rather embarrassing for Kay, however, especially as he is usually portrayed as a knight who isn’t especially skilled.
Chapter 13 Launcelot rides into the forest and encounters knights of Arthur’s court, Gawaine, Uwaine, Ector de Maris, and Sagramour le Desirous. Sagramour decides to test the strength of Kay (whose shield Launcelot still wears), but Launcelot evades him and strikes him down, as well as Ector after him. Uwaine decides this knight must have slain Kay, as Launcelot strikes down Gawaine as well. Gawaine says the knight must be Launcelot, and they decide to let him go on.
Interestingly, the knights’ suspicion that their mighty opponent is Launcelot does not lead to any moment of revealed identity, but rather to the knights of Arthur’s court allowing Launcelot to pass on undetected. Perhaps they want to collude in this game of mistaken identity, or perhaps there is some jealousy at work here as well.
Chapter 14 Launcelot continues into the forest and sees a black brachet, which he chases over a bridge into a manor. In the manor the brachet comes to lick the wounds of a dead knight lying in the hall next to a weeping woman. The woman says the knight is her husband, Sir Gilbert the Bastard. Launcelot then departs into the forest and meets a damsel, who asks him to help her wounded brother, who has just killed Sir Gilbert. A sorceress had told her that her brother’s wounds could only be cured if a knight went into the Chapel Perilous and took from it a cloth covering a corpse and a sword. The damsel says her brother’s name is Sir Meliot de Logres, and since he is of the Round Table, Launcelot says he’ll help her.
Here the pastime of hunting converges with that of questing. Often animals like brachets are less innocent than they appear, and they seem to lead knights to greater knowledge and to reveal possible adventures. It is also typical in these stories for knights to encounter one isolated event that turns out to be closely related to other events that follow—here, for instance, the battle between Sir Meliot and Sir Gilbert—that a knight like Launcelot has to slowly piece together.
Chapter 15 Launcelot continues on to the Chapel Perilous, where he sees many knights, who all charge towards him. But as Launcelot approaches them they scatter and leave a path for him to enter the dimly lit chapel, where he takes the cloth and sword lying by a dead knight. On emerging, the knights say he must lay down the sword or die, but Launcelot refuses and passes right through them again. Then he comes to a damsel, who likewise orders Launcelot to lay down the sword, or he’ll never see Guenever again. The damsel orders Launcelot to kiss her, and he refuses. She says she’s loved him for seven years, and confesses that if he had kissed her he would have died, and she could have cared tenderly for his body and kept it close to her. Frightened, Launcelot rides away quickly. The woman dies of grief in two weeks.
The group of knights charging towards Launcelot seems to be more of an opportunity to test his courage than a fellowship meant to stop Launcelot from entering the chapel at all costs. The fact that Launcelot is able to pass right through them without being harmed suggests that they may even be a mirage or enchantment. Both these knights and the damsel seem bent on tricking Launcelot into either leaving or remaining in the chapel to die. The damsel’s pained vow is another example of the book’s obsession with the strange, sorcerer-like powers (or at least desires) of women.
Launcelot meets Sir Meliot’s sister, and she weeps with joy as they approach the wounded man. Launcelot touches his wounds with the cloth and sword, and he is cured. He departs the next morning, vowing to meet again at Pentecost at Arthur’s court.
Though Launcelot has agreed to help Meliot’s sister since he is of the Round Table, what is more important to him is to assist ladies in distress whenever he can.
Chapter 16 Launcelot rides through valleys until reaching a castle, where he sees a falcon above him. The bird gets caught on a branch, and a lady emerges. She asks Launcelot to help her get the hawk, or else her husband, Sir Phelot, will be furious. Launcelot takes off his armor and climbs into the tree to free the hawk. At that moment Phelot emerges and declares that he’ll kill Launcelot. Launcelot says that Phelot should be ashamed to kill an unarmed man. Phelot attacks him, but Launcelot cuts off a branch from the tree and strikes Phelot on the head. Launcelot takes Phelot’s sword from his hand and cuts off his head. The lady swoons, and Launcelot quickly leaves.
Launcelot’s preference of helping ladies in harm rather than being cautious about his place regarding the other men in their lives is clear here. Phelot is acting pretty rationally within the logic of the time, since another man has dared to assist the lady that is his rightful “property.” Launcelot, however, feels justified in killing Phelot, given that the latter has broken any kind of order of chivalry by threatening to kill Launcelot unarmed.
Chapter 17 Riding away, Launcelot sees a knight chasing a lady with a sword, and the lady calls to Launcelot to rescue her. Lancelot puts himself between them, saying if the knight, Pedivere, wants to kill the lady, he will have to kill him first. Pedivere says the lady has been unfaithful, but she says it’s a lie. The lady asks Launcelot not to trust Pedivere, since he has no mercy, but Pedivere swears to obey Launcelot. They all ride together, but then the knight points to the distance and cries that armed men are approaching. As Launcelot is distracted, Pedivere lops off his lady’s head. Launcelot shouts that Pedivere is a traitor and strikes the man to the earth, at which Pedivere begs for mercy. Launcelot has him swear to always keep his lady’s head with him and not to rest until he arrives before Guenever. When Pedivere reaches Arthur’s court, Guenever exclaims that what he did was a shameful, horrible deed. She tells Pedivere to go to Rome for penance, which he does.
A number of different codes of ethics and moral action come to clash here. On the one hand, adultery is considered utterly shameful, and Pedivere’s desire to kill his unfaithful wife has a number of precedents in the legal, ethical, and even religious systems of the time. At the same time, Launcelot is portrayed as similarly justifiable in wanting to defend the lady’s honor. What ultimately makes Pedivere’s behavior in need of profound repentance is his trickery, which is portrayed as an utterly shameful dishonor—rather than fighting Launcelot for the life of the lady, Pedivere tricks him and fulfills his will anyway. Launcelot’s merciful actions are a great contrast to such behavior.
Chapter 28 Launcelot arrives in Camelot for Pentecost, reuniting with all the other knights. They all share stories of their adventures, all bearing witness to Launcelot’s greatness.
Pentecost is a natural ending and beginning point in these stories, marking a time in the calendar year when the knights can regroup and rest.