Lady of the Lake

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Nimue, The Lady of the Lake, shown holding the infatuated Merlin trapped and reading from a book of spells, in The Beguiling of Merlin (1872–1877) by Edward Burne-Jones

Lady of the Lake is the titular name of the ruler of Avalon in the Arthurian legend. She plays a pivotal role in many stories, including giving King Arthur his sword Excalibur, enchanting Merlin, and raising Lancelot after the death of his father. Different writers and copyists give the Arthurian character the name Nimue, Viviane, Vivien, Elaine, Ninianne, Nivian, Nyneve, or Evienne, among other variations.[1]

In medieval literature[edit]

Merlin And Vivien (1912) by Lancelot Speed

The Lancelot-Grail Cycle provides a backstory for the Lady of the Lake, Viviane, in the prose Merlin section, which takes place before the Lancelot Proper, though it was written later. There, Viviane learns her magic from Merlin, who becomes enamored of her. She refuses to give him her love until he has taught her all his secrets, after which she uses her power to trap him either in the trunk of a tree or beneath a stone, depending on the story and author. Though Merlin, through his power of foresight knows beforehand that this will happen, he is unable to counteract Viviane because of the "truth" this ability of foresight holds. He decides to do nothing for his situation other than to continue to teach her his secrets until she takes the opportunity to entrap and entomb him in a tree, a stone or a cave.

"Arthur meets the Lady of the Lake and gets the Sword Excalibur". A 1919 illustration by Henry Justice Ford for Andrew Lang's Tales of Romance

The Post-Vulgate Cycle's second Lady of the Lake is called Ninianne, and her story is nearly identical to the one in the Lancelot-Grail, though it adds her bestowal of the magic sword Excalibur to Arthur. Sir Thomas Malory also uses both Ladies of the Lake in his Le Morte d'Arthur; he leaves the first one unnamed and calls the second one Nimue. Malory's original Lady is presented as an early benefactor of King Arthur who grants him Excalibur when his original sword is damaged. She is later beheaded by Sir Balin as a result of a kin feud between them (she blames him for the death of her brother and he blames her for the death of his mother) and a dispute over an enchanted sword.

Both characters appear in many other episodes of Malory's work. Each time the Lady reappears, it is at a pivotal moment of the episode, establishing the importance of her character within Arthurian literature, especially Le Morte d'Arthur. In that work, she transcends any notoriety attached to her character by aiding Arthur and other knights to succeed in their endeavors.[2] After enchanting Merlin, Malory's Nimue replaces him as Arthur's adviser. She becomes the lover and eventual wife of Sir Pelleas and mother to his son Guivret. After the Battle of Camlann, she reclaims Excalibur when it is thrown into the lake by Sir Bedivere. Nimue is one of the four magical queens who bear the wounded Arthur away to Avalon, a setting tied to the Lady of the Lake in some literary traditions.

Later uses[edit]

Viviane and Merlin in Gustave Doré's 1868 illustration for Alfred Tennyson's Idylls of the King

The full name of the University of Notre Dame is translated "Our Lady of the Lake," making reference to the Virgin Mary as the Lady of the Lake, evidencing fusion between Aurthurian legend and middle-Christian history.[3]

Walter Scott wrote an influential poem, The Lady of the Lake, in 1810, drawing on the romance of the legend, but with an entirely different story set around Loch Katrine in the Trossachs of Scotland. Scott's material furnished subject matter for La Donna del Lago, an opera by Gioachino Rossini which debuted in Naples in 1819. It was the first of a fashion for operas with Scottish settings and based on Scott's works, of which Gaetano Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor is the most familiar. The three "Ellen songs" from Scott's poem were set to music by Franz Schubert (D. 837–D. 839 – "Ellens Gesang I",[4] "Ellens Gesang II",[5] and "Ellens Gesang III"[6]), although Schubert's music to Ellen's Third Song has become far more famous in its later adaptation, known as "Ave Maria".

Alfred, Lord Tennyson adapted several stories of the Lady of the Lake for his 1859-1859 poetic cycle Idylls of the King. He splits her into two characters; Viviane is a deceitful villain who ensnares Merlin, while the Lady of the Lake is a benevolent figure who raises Lancelot and gives Arthur his sword.

In modern culture[edit]

The Lady of the Lake in a 1903 illustration from Howard Pyle's The Story of King Arthur and His Knights

Modern authors of Arthurian fiction adapt the Lady of the Lake legend in various ways, often using two or more bearers of the title. Versions of the Lady (or Ladies) of the Lake appear in many other works of Arthurian fiction, including novels, films, television series, stage musicals, comics, and games. Though her identity may change, her role as a significant figure in the lives of both Arthur and Merlin remains consistent. Some examples of such 20th and 21st century works are listed below.

Claimed locations of the Lake[edit]

A number of locations in Great Britain are traditionally associated with the Lady of the Lake's[9] abode. They include Dozmary Pool, Llyn Llydaw, Llyn Ogwen, The Loe, Pomparles Bridge, Loch Arthur, and Aleines. In France, she is associated with the forest of Brocéliande.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Holbrook, S. E. "Nymue, the Chief Lady of the Lake, in Malory's Le Morte D’arthur." Speculum 53.4 (1978): 761-777. JSTOR. NCSU University Libraries, Raleigh, NC. 15 March 2009.
  2. ^ Sue E Holbrook: "Nymue, the Chief Lady of the Lake, in Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur" in Speculum Volume 53 No. 4 (1978): Pages 761-777.
  3. ^ M. Rible. "A Comparison of Celtic Myth and Arthurian Romance". Retrieved 27 Nov 2014. 
  4. ^ "Ellens Gesang I". Retrieved 2013-11-15. 
  5. ^ "Ellens Gesang II". Retrieved 2013-11-15. 
  6. ^ "Ellens Gesang III". Retrieved 2013-11-15. 
  7. ^ 14:15 (2013-03-14). "Pilgrim Series 4, Bleaker Lake". Retrieved 2013-11-15. 
  8. ^
  9. ^ "Lady of the Lake". Geography (History). Retrieved September 24, 2014. 

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