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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 her name as Nimue, Viviane, Elaine, Niniane, Nivian, Nyneve, and Evienne, among other variations.
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.
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 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. 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 queens who bear the wounded Arthur away to Avalon, a setting tied to the Lady of the Lake in some literary traditions.
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", "Ellens Gesang II", and "Ellens Gesang III"), although Schubert's music to Ellen's Third Song has become far more famous in its later adaptation, known as "Ave Maria".
Modern authors of Arthurian fiction adapt the Lady of the Lake legend in various ways, often using two or more bearers of the title. Alfred Tennyson adapted several stories of the Lady of the Lake for his 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 the 1998 miniseries Merlin and its 2006 sequel Merlin's Apprentice, the characters of the Lady of the Lake and Nimue are separated, with the former being a goddess-like fae who is the twin sister of Queen Mab, and the latter being a noblewoman who is the object of Merlin's affections.
The BBC drama series Merlin also features two characters based on the Lady of the Lake. Nimueh serves as the primary antagonist of Series 1. The character has no connection to Merlin beyond his opposition to her plans, and her only connection to a lake is her use of a location called the Isle of the Blessed. The ninth episode of Series 2 is titled "The Lady Of The Lake", wherein a sorceress named Freya dies and vows to repay Merlin for his kindness to her. In the series 3 finale, Freya, now a water spirit, gives Excalibur to Merlin so that he can give it to Prince Arthur Pendragon. In the series 5 finale, which features the Battle of Camlann, a despondent Merlin casts the sword back into Lake Avalon, where a hand, presumably Freya's, catches it.
In BBC Radio 4's Afternoon Drama Pilgrim the antagonist Birdie (or Mrs Pleasance) is gradually revealled to be responsible for trapping Merlin ("The Drowned Mage") beneath a lake. Her story draws on that of Nimue.
The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley takes the tradition of multiple Ladies one step further. In Bradley's works, both the Lady of the Lake and the Merlin are offices. The Lady of the Lake is the title of the ruling priestess of Avalon, and the Merlin is a Druid who has pledged his life to the protection of Britain. Various characters assume the title of the Lady, including Viviane, Niniane, Morgan le Fay (called "Morgaine" in this version), and Nimue, a sympathetic and tragic young priestess who falls in love with the Merlin but is duty bound to seduce and lure him to his death – following which she drowns herself. Even more Ladies of the Lake appear in Bradley's extended Avalon prequels.
Other authors choose to emphasize a single character. Nimue appears in T. H. White's The Once and Future King as a water nymph and Merlin's enchantress. True to the legend she traps Merlin in a cave, but Merlin does not convey it as negative, and even refers to it as a holiday. This interpretation is followed by Lerner and Loewe in the musical Camelot; Nimue lures Merlin away with the song "Follow Me".
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.
Vivienne is the Lady of the Lake in DC Comics, while Nimue is Madame Xanadu, her youngest sister, and their middle sister is Morgaine le Fey (given name, Morgana), and their surname is Inwudu. The Lady of the Lake has appeared in Hellblazer, Aquaman, and her sister's series.
In recent Hellboy stories, Nimue is a witch who seduced Merlin and stole his powers, sealing him – still alive – in a tomb. But without his help, she lost control of those powers and went mad. The other witches killed her, cut her body into pieces, and buried her. She has since returned as the Queen of Blood, to raise an army against man, but is opposed by Hellboy who possesses the sword Excalibur (And thus is technically king of England).
Mary Stewart, in "The Last Enchantment" (1979) radically recasts the story of Merlin and Niniane, completely removing the aspect of malicious seduction and treachery dominant in the traditional version. In this depiction Merlin takes Niniane on as an apprentice, with her at first disguised as a boy, and willingly teaches her his magic. When her identity as a woman is discovered, they fall in love despite their age difference. As he gives her the secrets of his psychic abilities and how to control them, he seems to lose them himself – which Merlin does not mind. In a depleted, weakened condition, he takes ill and falls into a coma, and is believed to be dead. Niniane has him buried within his "crystal cave", where he awakes some time later. He escapes after a few weeks, through a combination of chance luck and ingenious planning, and travels incognito to let Arthur know he is still alive. Niniane takes Merlin's place as the court wizard-seer, while Merlin retires to the crystal cave and lives a quiet and happy life as a hermit.
In The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, slightly Northeast of Bleakwind Basin, there is a pond with a skeletal arm holding a leveled sword, which is a reference to the Lady in the Lake holding Excalibur.
The comedy film Monty Python and the Holy Grail references the story of the Lady of the Lake as to how King Arthur became king, which is immediately dismissed by an Anarcho-Syndicalist peasant, stating that "strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government".
A number of locations in Great Britain are traditionally associated with the Lady of the Lake's 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.
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