The Lancelot-Grail Project:
What is the Lancelot-Grail ?

by † Elspeth Kennedy

The Lancelot-Grail Cycle (Cycle du Lancelot-Graal), sometimes called the Vulgate Cycle or the Prose Lancelot, evolved in stages.  The oldest surviving Lancelot manuscript in prose, Paris, BNF fr. 768, begins 'En la marche de Gaule' with an account of the events that lead to Lancelot being brought up, without a name, in the semblance of a lake, by a lady who had learned her magic from Merlin.  It then recounts Lancelot's adventures, from his knighting at King Arthur's court and his first sight of Queen Guinevere which was to inspire him to perform great deeds and to save Arthur's kingdom more than once, up to the establishment of his name at Arthur's court and his installation as a knight of the Round Table.  This is followed by an account of his departure from Arthur's court with his great friend Galehot and the False Guinevere episode in which Guinevere's identity is challenged and is re-established by Lancelot who then remains at Arthur's court.  This version of the romance ends with the death of Galehot through his separation from his close companion Lancelot.  There is much interplay with the romances of Chrétien de Troyes and with those of Robert de Boron and allusions to past Grail adventures, one of which names Perceval as the Grail hero who had sat in the Perilous Seat.

The second stage in the development of the cycle is marked by a re-writing of the False Guinevere episode and the death of Galehot that prepares the way for the incorporation of Chrétien's Chevalier de la Charette (Knight of the Cart), of a Grail Quest with a new hero Galaad, son of Lancelot, and of a Mort Artu.  The final stage includes two new branches placed at the beginning: firstly, the Estoire, a fundamental re-writing of Robert de Boron's early history of the Grail (the Joseph); secondly, a Merlin, a prose version of Robert de Boron's Merlin in verse.  This is followed in most cyclic manuscripts by a Suite Vulgate (Merlin Continuation) that prepares the way for what was originally the beginning of the first Prose Lancelot (En la marche de Gaule).  The change of Grailwinner, in the course of the development of the Lancelot-Grail Cycle from the first Prose Lancelot without a Grail quest resulted in a number of inconsistencies as a majority of manuscripts kept the allusion to Perceval as Grail-winner and also an account of the birth of an un-baptised Merlin that clashes with what is to be found in the second branch of the complete cycle.  Sporadic attempts are made in some manuscripts to remove these contradictions.  There is, however, one group of manuscripts that makes a more consistent effort to remove these contradictions.  This group is described as the 'Short Version' as it gives a slightly condensed version of the text, and it is manuscripts belonging to this group on which our study is based.

The Lancelot-Grail Cycle had a considerable influence on Arthurian prose romance.  Parts of it are incorporated into the Prose Tristan (some later Prose Lancelot manuscripts also incorporated parts of the Prose Tristan within the Lancelot-Grail Cycle).  A new cycle, which does not make Lancelot the central character, has survived in fragments in various languages, some in French, some only in translation into Spanish or Portuguese.  This is known as the Post-Vulgate Cycle. There is also a fifteenth-century manuscripts, Paris, BNF fr. 112, which provides a 'Readers Digest' version of Arthurian prose romance, and includes parts of the Prose Lancelot, in a very condensed form, but is textually related to the group of manuscripts we have studied.
Note by Alison Stones:
Robert de Boron's Joseph in a prose version, and sometimes his Merlin, continued to be copied well into the fourteenth century alongside the Lancelot-Grail (see Manuscript List, espcially New Haven, Beinecke Library, Yale 227), and numerous other special and abridged versions were copied well into the fifteenth century.

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