At the beginning of Le Morte d’Arthur, it appears that Arthur is supposed to be the hero of the story. He is raised in ignorance of his true identity; a miracle accompanies the recognition of his right to rule Britain; he endures a struggle to prove himself worthy as a ruler; he has good intentions to rule in a noble manner. In the first two books, for the most part Arthur’s actions seem heroic. He wins battles and demonstrates both bravery and honor. However, Malory also describes an act of Arthur’s that does not accord with the role of hero. Based on a prophecy of Merlin, Arthur orders that all the male infants born on May Day be cast out to sea in boats to drown. Unknown to him, the survivor is his son Mordred, the result of Arthur’s unknowing tryst with his sister Margawse. Later in the tale, Arthur attempts to rule justly but often fails to enforce his own rules. As noted by Bedwell, “When Gaheris kills Morgause due to her affair with Lamorak, Arthur [banishes him]. However, Arthur does not maintain this strong stance; Gaheris’ exile, like Uwain’s, is short-lived” (12). In the end of the tale, Arthur dies in a way that does not seem heroic, slain by his own son instead of in a battle with a true enemy of Britain.
Lancelot, on the other hand, is the most successful of Arthur’s knights. In chapter 8, Lancelot is characterized as one of the two best knights in the world. In the beginning of book 3, however, Merlin warns Arthur that Lancelot will love Arthur’s wife Guinevere. In book 6, Lancelot leaves court to seek adventures; he wishes to do noble deeds in accordance with his role as a knight of the Round Table. Four queens attempt to seduce him, but he refuses and pledges his allegiance to Guinevere; he also performs other heroic actions such as slaying a giant and fighting other knights. However, ultimately he succumbs to temptation and has sex with Guinevere. Malory does not spend a lot of time focusing on this action, but he does say on an ongoing basis that Lancelot loves Guinevere and defends Guinevere’s honor when she is falsely accused of treason. During the entire tale, though, Lancelot’s major flaw is his having had sex with Guinevere. What makes Lancelot a better candidate to be regarded as the hero of Le Morte d’Arthur is that Malory gives Lancelot a redemption arc. Much of book 10 and 11 is devoted to showing Lancelot continuing to perform heroic deeds, seeming to lose his mind temporarily, and then becoming ashamed of his actions.
After Arthur’s death, Lancelot and Guinevere do not marry or continue their romantic relationship; as described in book 21, each of them turns to religion and Lancelot eventually dies peacefully after Guinevere’s death. Based on the mostly positive way that Malory describes Lancelot and the fact that he gives Lancelot both a redemption arc and a peaceful death, Lancelot comes across as more of a hero than Arthur does. Arthur may be tragic and a victim of fate in many ways, but Lancelot consistently achieves greatness and never stops striving for greatness. As summarized by Scala, “Thus, we see the development of a larger tendency across these books of the Morte in which each time Malory's sources take some worship away from Lancelot, Malory finds a way to retrieve it for his hero” (387). Ultimately, Malory portrays Lancelot as a hero more consistently than he does Arthur.
Bedwell, Laura K. "The Failure of Justice, the Failure of Arthur." Arthuriana 21.3 (2011): 3-22. Literary Reference Center Plus. Web. 26 Jan. 2013.
Scala, E. (2002). Disarming Lancelot. Studies in Philology, 99(4), 380-403. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/222467518?accountid=35812