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YouTube Lancelots and Guineveres

May 18, 2009 | Updated May 25, 2011

Floating amid videos of talking cats that say "mama" and easy bar tricks where you freeze a bottle of beer in two seconds are thousands of Lancelots and Guineveres. And I don't just mean namesakes like Lancelot Link, secret chimp, and the Evolution Revolution. I mean fanvids of various King Arthur movies and TV shows, parodies such as Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and performances such as Rick Wakeman's 1975 "Guinevere" and "Sir Lancelot and the Black Knight" on ice at Wembley. It makes this medievalist happy to see Arthuriana alive and well. Although it is strange to say this, in many ways these electronic Lancelots and Guineveres have more to do with the medieval spirit of storytelling, which was to freely change the story to fit the occasion, and the manuscript page more than the printed page. Let me explain.

First of all, there is no such thing as one story of the adulterous love between Lancelot and Guinevere. Lancelot initially appears in literature in Chrétien de Troyes's twelfth-century Knight of the Cart. In this story, Lancelot screws up while trying to rescue the captured Guinevere. Lancelot's crime is that he hesitates for a moment before he steps into the cart of a dwarf who promises to help him. Lancelot eventually does save Guinevere, but she rebuffs him because he let his knightly pride go before his love for her. However, she relents and they spend a night of pleasure together.

Guinevere first appears in Geoffrey of Monmouth's twelfth-century The History of the Kings of Britain, which does not mention Lancelot. In this work, Guinevere is beautiful but bears Arthur no children. While Arthur is away fighting, Arthur's nephew Mordred usurps the throne and marries Guinevere. In Sir Thomas Mallory's fifteenth-century Le Morte D'Arthur, which combines many of the King Arthur legends, we have the Lancelot and Guinevere we've come to know. Lancelot is the world's best knight, although his adulterous love for the Queen prevents him from acquiring the Holy Grail. Guinevere is the tragic heroine of romantic love; she is married to man she respects but she deeply loves another. The sin of their relationship is part of the reason King Arthur's kingdom falls. The stories and fragments of stories about Lancelot and Guinevere have been transformed throughout the centuries by many cultures in many languages. There are French, English, German, Italian, Portuguese, Japanese, and Yiddish King Arthurs - just to name a few. The YouTube Lancelots and Guineveres continue the medieval tradition of taking a story and adapting it to one's preferences.

Secondly, medieval manuscript pages were not static like printed pages. That is, printed pages need to be the same for mass production. Manuscript pages were unique and open to comments. Sometimes comments were made decades or hundreds of years later. Making a manuscript was time-consuming and expensive, from drying the animal skins to copying the text by hand. Pages were scarce, so those who could write used whatever they could find. Most manuscripts are not beautifully colored and full of gold leaf; they are without pictures and scribbled upon. Manuscript pages contain "glosses" in the margins and between the lines. Glosses are everything from explanations to comments to meditations to recipes for medical remedies to doodles. This resembles an Internet screen with main text plus sidebars and commentary from anyone from anywhere at any time.

Sometimes the comments are the best part. YouTube has Lancelots and Guineveres from John Boorman's Excalibur, Robert Taylor in one of his "iron jockstrap" roles with Ava Gardner in Knights of the Round Table, the movie adaptation of Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon, Merlin, Arthur the King, The First Knight, and many others. These clips are edited and set to music, including Pachelbel's Canon in D, "Take My Breath Away," and "Hold Me for a While." And the comments? They have the variety and occasional randomness of a good gloss. Here are a few. "I will love you always Lancelot and Guinevere." "Who cares about the damned historical facts when in everybody's mind there is such a great romance like that of Lancelot and Guinevere's?" "Do Guinevere's feet smell bad?" "In the book, Lancelot is basically in love with Arthur - one of the reasons he agrees to the threesome." "My first boyfriend was my sister." "Ioan Gruffud looks like one of my teachers." Oh and by the way, not a single comment condemns their adultery.