Medieval Arthurian Legend

The Old French pre-Vulgate Lancelot: the Lady of the Lake

13th century, Old French.

A damsel plunges into a lake and disappears beneath its surface with the baby Lancelot. The child grows up in a house beneath the lake. But there is no water above it.

The early-thirteenth century Old French prose romance Lancelot – known as the pre-Cyclic or pre-Vulgate Lancelot to distinguish it from the huge and slightly later third part of the Lancelot-Grail or Vulgate Cycle – was written sometime before 1220, and is the first Arthurian romance to flesh out the details of Lancelot’s boyhood at the home of the Lady of the Lake, and his early adventures at King Arthur’s court.

Lancelot’s father was King Ban of Benwick, a kingdom that lay on the borders of Brittany and Gaul, so the Lancelot tells us. Brittany, and other lands that had been under the control of King Arthur’s father Uther Pendragon included, we are told, the entire countryside as far as the borders with the Auvergne and with Gascony. The Auvergne is a largely mountainous region of south-central France; Gascony, in south-west France, abuts the Pyrenees. Arthur, then, was now lord of kingdoms that extended as far southwards as the northern foothills of the Massif Central and the wine-making region of Bordeaux. Beyond, was Gaul, and during this time Gaul was under the control of Rome, and paid tribute. This sounds far more like the age of the expanding Roman Republic than it does the crumbling Roman Empire. Perhaps these Gallic kingdoms were the client Celtic tribes of southern France when Roman Provence was under direct Roman control, and when the surrounding Celtic kingdoms paid tribute in return for peace. Perhaps sometime around 100 BC. But local war and treachery, with the backing of the Romans, conspired to the downfall of Lancelot’s father. As King Ban’s principal fortress burned, his wife hurried to where the King had fallen dead, leaving her son lying beside a lake and very close to some horses’ hooves as she ran to minister to her husband. Returning, she finds the baby in the arms of a damsel who plunges into the lake and disappears beneath its surface with the child.

A baby left unprotected near the hooves of frightened horses is in a very dangerous position, and so is one who disappears beneath the surface of a lake. Perhaps a probable outcome can be inferred.

However, all is well. The child grows up in a house beneath the lake. But there is no water above it, curiously, and this house is shown to be in the real world when Lancelot acquires a hunting dog from an old vassal of his father’s who recognises his former lord in the features of this young man of unknown lineage. The world in which Lancelot is being brought up, the world beneath the lake, is the same world that his father knew, and its towns are the same towns that his father ruled over. There is no water above him.

Story fragment recounted from: Corley, Corin, with an introduction by Kennedy, Elspeth, 1989. Lancelot of the Lake. (The pre-cyclic prose Lancelot). Translated from Old French with an introduction. Oxford University Press. Lancelot's childhood, pp 3–47.

See for yourself

Lancelot-Grail – Wikipedia

Lancelot – Wikipedia

King Ban – Wikipedia

Lady of the Lake – Wikipedia

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