Warning: This is not a blog post for the major fans of the character Lancelot. This is not a delberate 'bashing' so much as a (admitedly sharp, and a little biased, as I'm only human) crique of his character, not only in BBC's Merlin, but also in the legends and other adaptations. Fans of the character MAY find it interesting, but there is also the chance they might find this offensive or as an attack on their favorite characters. If you are prone to feeling extremely defensive of Lancelot and/or feel the contents of this post could upset you, I would advise you not to read it or, at the very least, take its contents with a grain of salt. Consider yourself warned and continue on at your own risk.
Lancelot is known in the BBC Merlin series as a friend of Merlin, of base-birth but later a knight, and a love-interest of Gwen's.
His character arc more or less concludes in series 4 when he dies (for a second time) after being reanimated by Morgana as a shade and bent to destroy Arthur and Gwen's romance so that Guinevere can never become queen. Merlin frees his spirit at the lake before his second (and last) funeral. The knights remember him, not fondly so much as a good knight who was loyal in all ways but one.
Some fans have wondered if perhaps the writers of BBC Merlin cut his character short. Hardcore fans have felt upset about the fact that we are left to assume Arthur never knew he and Gwen were enchanted and thought a redemption should have been possible.
However, looking at the legends, and the origins of Lancelot's character, and its connection to the show, I have concluded the writers did all they could within reason. No one is knocking that the actor did a good job protraying Lancelot. I give him full credit for doing one of the best jobs, for all the character's flaws (or lack thereof), of making Lancelot even borderline sympathetic to me, a major Arthurian Legends fan who has never cared much for Lancelot in general. In fact, I believe his act IS the reason most of BBC Merlin's version of Lancelot HAS so many fans to begin with, the small exception being people who were familiar with the French romance tradition of Arthurian Legend and Lancelot's story and already liked him beforehand. He did a good job getting emotions across for an otherwise fairly bland character. For which I cannot blame the writers either.
Lancelot's character actually had a fairly rocky start in the legends. Here is his story.
Lancelot enters the Legends
It would appear that in the older stories, from the English and the Welsh tradition, of Arthur that also included a Queen Guinevere (there is debate over whether or not Guinevere was actually three seperate queens all married to Arthur at different points in his life, or if she was actually based off of an old deity, the goddess theory coming to light because of how many times the queen is routinely kidnapped in the King Arthur stories and how it mirrors several myths of goddesses being stolen away), the great love story was, as we Merlin fans would call it, strictly Arwen (Arthur/Gwen). It appears that in those stories, Arthur was not only her husband and king, but also her knight and rescuer.
These stories over time went out of fashion. My own personal theory which I subscribe to is the possiblity that writers of the middle-ages who were bias against the Irish were in love with the love story of Tristan and Isolde (long before it came to be included in the King Arthur canon, being a stand-alone story in all likelihood before this) but refused to record a romance that included such an overtly Irish heroine. So they embraced the idea of Guinevere cheating on Arthur as Isolde did Mark, the difference largely being that while the traditional Arthur is kind and protective of his wife, Mark is usually was shown as a foolish jerk (the nicer versions of him, such as the one seen in the delightful 2006 film Tristan and Isolde, are much more recent and possibly based more on King Arthur than the legend's established negative character of Mark).
However, it was not Lancelot who became Guinevere's lover in these stories. Why? Because there WAS no Lancelot
back then. Simply he hadn't been invented yet. Her lover was Sir Bedivere (yes, the same Bedivere who throws Arthur's sword back to the Lady of the Lake whose actions Merlin mirrors in the show!), known then by the Welsh as Bedwyr.
From the books I've read their romance isn't unamusing. Arthur/Guinevere fan though I am, I confess I do not find Bedivere/Guinevere near as annoying as Lancelot/Guinevere as a general rule. (If you're interested in a book that protrays a love story between them in a dark, realstic very unromanized way and through the eyes of a clever smart-lipped heroine, I strongly recommend Here Lies Arthur by Philip Reeve; also, I have been told, though I am not sure because I have not read or else have not finished reading them, respectively, that the Mary Stewart Arthurian novels and The Road to Avalon by Joan Wolf also feature a romance between Guinevere and Bedwyr).
Somewhere along the line (it is hard to say exactly where) someone tired of Bedivere. Or maybe they just found it hard to believe Arthur would waste his last words and pin his last hopes on a knight who'd been sleeping around with his wife. Who knows?
And Lancelot was born.
My personal theory on the birth of Lancelot's character is that his inventor was a woman. Likely wealthy (she would have to of read Arthurian legends or at least have heard them from a bard) and seemingly of French descent or else related to someone who could make these stories fall into the French tradition seperate from the Welsh.
Of course, Lancelot's inventor may have been a man, but if that was the case, I strongly believe the man would have to be a bit off (or extremely bored with his own life) to invent such a one-dementional character.
Think of it as fanfiction in its earliest form, long before it had a name. Lancelot of these later legends bears several traits of a Mary-sue/Gary-stu.
1) he is often perfect-looking (a few versions are an exeption to these, but with a few details on his looks changed here and there, he never seems to be unappealing to woman-folk, even when he should be gross and unappealing, such as sleeping out of doors for weeks or fighting in a battle).
2) He is constantly stealing the spotlight from Arthur and the other knights. He often saves the day when there is no logical reason in the world why it shouldn't be another knight who steps up and does so.
3) He loves both Guinevere and Arthur and 'angsts' endlessly while betraying them both.
4) Most of his cruelties and bad actions are justfied by temporary maddness (usually caused by somebody else, and so ALSO not a fault of his own mind/genes, mind you). He even kills Sir Gareth in a blind rage in many of the stories and is excused as he "didn't know what he was doing" and sometimes "didn't even know it WAS Gareth".
5) No matter how many other amazing knights come to be, ALL the young squires and knights-in-training all but BEG for Lancelot to be the one to dub them over even King Arthur himself. Anyone who doesn't fall over Lancelot and think he's the best knight ever usually gets beat up pretty bad, is made to look foolish or stupid, or later changes their ways and come to love Lancelot after all.
6) Woman throw themselves at this man like it's going out of style. Oh, and I don't just mean Guinevere and the Lily Maid of Shalott either! Those are only TWO of the many woman who fawn over this idealized man. There are at least TWO Elaines, to begin with, one of these the Lily Maid and the other Galahad's mother who met Lancelot when he pulled her, naked as the day she was born, out of a boiling bathtub (I'm NOT making this up, I swear!). Then there was MORGANA who was crazy about him, and fought with at least THREE other queens/sorceresses over the fact that she wanted to be Lancelot's mistress. There was the girl who let him out of the cell in that story as well, come to think of it...
7) At first his love for Guinevere usually is somewhat love/hate, often because he feels she's "Taking Arthur away from him" (I have looked up, puzzled and digusted, from many a King Arthur book, muttering, "What is this knight gay or something?") but then his love for her is suddenly so pure that simply sleeping with another woman and living to face her scorn is enough to drive him off screaming into the forest like a madman. Have I mentioned, by the way, that this ALSO is tradtionally shown as not his fault either, because he didn't KNOW it was Elaine and not Guinevere in bed with him because it was dark, he was drunk, and somebody TOLD him it was Gwen?
8) some legend recorders have gone to annoyingly great length JUST to press the thought across that Lancelot is a better knight than Sir Tristan. And for no apparent reason. This adds nothing to the story, it's just a niffty little detail, I guess.
9) Arthur's birth was the stuff of legends; Uther having Merlin hide him, raised by Sir Ector as Kay's brother... Pretty exciting stuff, right? Well, Lancelot has a backstory that outshines this (or attempts to) as well! His mother's name was Elaine (yes, another one!) and for some reason she couldn't raise him herself (I don't know if she died or what, there are too many versions) and she GAVE HIM TO THE LADY OF THE LAKE HERSELF as a foster son. Ususally the same Lady of the Lake who gives Arthur Excalibur; so this would be like if Lancelot was raised by Freya on the show, or Nimueh (since she's older). Then after struggling for years from nothing, he works his way up to being a knight and winning Arthur's favor.
10) In cases where the other knights show their vices and pick on someone, Lancelot is the sole exception. Even in the case of Gareth, his own brothers treated him terribly and Lancelot was the only one who never made fun of him.
I could come up with more examples, but I think I've made my point.
Lancelot in more recent adaptions of the legend
My problem with his character in Merlin was that it wasn't UNLIKE the legends. He has NO VICES. Gwaine is impulsive and drinks too much, Elyan can be whinny and make poor choices (A Herald of the New Age), etc... What does Lancelot have? Aside from a habit of "caring too much" and loving Gwen but stepping aside either because he needs to prove himself or else doesn't want to come between her and Arthur, he doesn't have any. Everybody LOVES him. He's lurking around Arthur's girl when he appears, and even Arthur likes him! Merlin is BFFs with him; he even finds out about his magic and keeps it a secret, never having even the slightest fear of Merlin or a passing feeling of telling on him to protect Camelot. I remember when I was watching the shade Lancelot as a former shell of himself, stripped of any personality, single-minded, thinking, "Um, so in other words, aside from a memory-swipe, thanks to Morgana Pendragon, he's exactly the same?" (Then he knocked Merlin out and I thought, "Okay, THAT'S new!")
But, of course, Merlin is not the only show/book/movie that has recently protrayed Lancelot.
Going back to 1981, we had Exclaibur (MOST OVERRATED KING ARTHUR MOVIE EVER!). There's not much to be said for the Lancelot in that, simply because he's the legend's Lancelot to a T, only even WORSE (yes, I'm surprised it's possible, too).
In 1998, we had Sam Neil as Merlin (nothing to Colin Morgan, of course, but not bad). The Lancelot in that was not memorable. He was picked out by Merlin to be a great knight, but then steals Guinevere (played by the lovely Lena Hendely from Game of Thrones, The Jungle book, and The Brother's Grimm) from Arthur when Arthur goes to seek the Grail, breaking the heart of his wife Elaine. Honestly, I was much more interested in Frick and Morgan (Morgana) and Merlin and Nimue (Nimueh) when viewing that film.
In 2001 we had The Mists of Avalon. I cannot begin to express my dislike for Lancelet (Lancelot) in that movie/book. He was very unkind to Morgaine (Morgana) and still most of his actions were justified. Even Morgaine herself seemed to forgive him way too quickly.
In 2004, we had the first half-decent Lancelot in a long, long time! In King Arthur. In that film, Lancelot is a good friend to Arthur, had vices, and was well-protrayed. Sadly, though, he doesn't "fit" well in the movie because he's very historically inacturate in an otherwise historical film and it is jarring and bizzare. Like they just took some cool character and renamed him Lancelot or something.
In books, Lancelot has been featured many a time.
In the Once and Future King, a large "book" within the book is centered around him (The Ill-made Knight). My beef with him in that book is that the writer tried TOO HARD to make Lancelot less Gary-stu by making him ugly and only good because he was "afraid to be wicked". Yeah, it kinda just made him WORSE. Women still flocked to him and he still had spells of maddness and was over-justifed in everything -good or bad- he choose to do.
To my great surprise, I enjoyed his character in Mercedes Lackey's novel about Queen Guinevere, but to be fair, she made Arthur very uninteresting in her story and Mordred was more of a Criminal Minds level villian. There were few other male characters in that book worth liking to begin with. As he was just an average guy who fell in love with Gwen in that book, he wasn't too hard to like.
In Avalon High, he is a blond teenage guy who the main character Elaine/Ellie is "supposed" to fall in love with except she loves Will (King Arthur) instead. He isn't a big part of the story. He has his affair with Jennifer (Guinevere) but Arthur (Will) doesn't really care and their friendship is largely unaffected. In the film adaption, he is an african american teenager who plays the same role, right up until the plot twist where Will turns out to just be a knight, not actually King Arthur. Miles (Merlin) knows about their cheating on Will because of his psychic visions which strike him off-and-on and give him painful headaches. His best friend ends up being the film's verison of Ellie (Allie) who turns out to be a female reincartion of King Arthur (and yes AH film-canon is the only way I will EVER ship Merthur! And that only because Allie and Miles would make a slightly cuter couple than Allie/Will). In short, getting back on track, Lancelot is tolerable in this version as well but not a favorite.