In the ten volume Squire’s Tales, author Gerald Morris has a running plot line about who is the greatest knight in England. Is it Sir Gawain? Or is it Sir Lancelot?
I know from a college King Arthur class that this was an actual debate for many years. Sir Gawain was the blunt, honest Anglo-Saxon, compared with the urbane and superficial French Sir Lancelot. The clash of cultures, played out in knightly tales.
In the Squire’s Tales, Sir Lancelot has his affair with Guinevere. It’s not held up as admirable — adultery is not romantic. And when their affair ends, Sir Lancelot rides away.
For several books, he shows up in cameo appearances, under disguise.
Then, in The Princess, the Crone, and the Dung-Cart Knight, he again takes up his armor and sword.
And, again, here follows a spoiler.
There is a scene that makes me sob. Not just get prickly in the eyes, but actually cry out loud, can hardly catch my breath, weep.
Sir Lancelot, traveling incognito, comes to a hermitage that delights him. Made of stones, carefully fitted into place, he marvels at the patience and craftsmanship required to build such a place.
Within this hermitage is an empty crypt. The hermit says, “the tomb waits here as a hallowed resting place for one of the great heroes of the land, and I am its guardian until that time.”
When Sir Lancelot asks who the hero is, the hermit says, “Sir Lancelot du Lac. A great man indeed.”
But, of course, Sir Lancelot had gone missing. One visitor wondered if he was already dead.
“I know only what I am told. Sir Lancelot has more to do for England, deeds that will lift his name higher than it has ever been raised, and when he dies, he will be laid to rest here.”
This is, in some ways, so simple a scene. My sons asked why I was crying.
And it’s not easy to explain. Perhaps all things that are deeply felt can be hard to put into words.
Here is this former knight. In the pages that follow he speaks a little of his self-blame, his loathing of his own actions.
Yet in the midst of this bitterness of spirit, Sir Lancelot is given a glimpse of his end, that whenever he dies, whether sooner or later, he has a resting place in a beautiful hermitage that delighted him.
He is given a prophecy that he still has great things to do for his adopted land.
He is given hope that the “honor” that he pursued so single-mindedly when young will be superseded by truly great deeds. His gifts will be put to use, in greater measure.
This knowledge comes to him before he has actually done much. Before his pain has been truly healed.
It is a grace.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately of how we define ourselves. For Sir Lancelot, he defined himself as a hypocrite. He had been one. But he was one no longer.
It was time for him to step into his new identity.
I think this speaks to me so much because of the reality of second chances. That a less-than-ideal decision does not need to become a permanent state of pain.
It took eleven or twelve reading programs and therapies before I found one that worked. In all those attempts, I could have defined myself as a failure as a parent, a failure as a teacher. And, I suppose, that was, truly, how the situation was playing out.
But it was not the only truth. My sister would remind me, “You continue to fight for your son. You aren’t giving up on him.”
We have second chances. And third chances. And chances to choose better every single day.
While still incognito, Sir Lancelot said of his younger self, “Sir Lancelot was not worthy to buckle Sir Gawain’s armor for him.” That may have been true.
But it didn’t mean that he had no more great deeds to do.