ARThurian: The Lady of the Lake

The Lady of the Lake is perhaps one of the most mysterious and ambiguous characters in Arthurian folklore.  Although she is commonly accepted as being the leader or ruler of Avalon, her character has been attributed with other actions as well.  Some of these include giving Arthur the sword Excalibur from the lake, enchanting Merlin, and raising Lancelot after his father died.  She is most frequently called Nimue, Vivien, and Niniane.

The story of her beguiling Merlin is most often attributed to the name Nimue.  While she is a student of Merlin, he becomes enamored of her and falls under her spell, both figuratively and literally.  She convinces him to teach her his magical secrets, withholding her love until he does so.  However, she uses the power and magic from these secrets to trap him in a tree trunk or cave, depending on the version.  She is certainly portrayed as an antagonist, as she takes Merlin away from Arthur and the good of Camelot.

The character who gives Excalibur to Arthur is sometimes called Niniane, though often she is simply ambiguously named “The Lady of the Lake.”  She considered a protagonist and benefactor to Arthur, also helping him in other times of need.

The name Vivien most likely originates from Tennyson’s Idylls of a King, in which she is a villain who ensnares Merlin and dislikes Arthur and Camelot.  Tennyson attributes the bestowal of Excalibur and raising of Arthur to a different Lady of the Lake.

Other actions attributed to the Lady of the Lake are being beheaded by Sir Balin, aiding the Nights of the Round Table in their various quests, becoming Arthur’s adviser, marrying Sir Pelleas, reclaiming Excalibur when Sir Bedivere throws it in the lake after Arthur’s death, and being one of the queens who bear Arthur’s body to Avalon.  One thing is certain: she always appears at pivotal moments in many narratives, especially Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, proving her significance to Arthurian legend despite her ambiguity.

“The Beguiling of Merlin” by Edward Burne-Jones.  This piece illustrates the famous beguiling of Merlin.  The usually powerful and lethal wizard is shown to be helpless in his love for Nimue, and possibly also because she cast a spell on him.  Nimue reads from his book of enchantments, gleaning his usually well-kept secrets.  She looks back at him warily, as if to make sure that he is still enraptured, and not about to punish her for her treachery.  The tree in the background is possibly where she entraps him.

The Beguiling of Merlin

“Nimue, Damosel of the Lake” by Frank Cowper.  This painting is a bit curious, at it doesn’t seem to draw on Nimue’s role in legend.  Perhaps Cowper’s goal was to simply portray her character and traits apart from her actions.  He depicts her as being vain, gentle, and beautiful.

Nimue Damosel of the Lake

“Vivien” by Frederick Sandys.  This piece illustrates Tennyson’s diabolical Vivien.  Her beauty, extravagance, and self-confidence are highlighted, traits that may have allowed her to ensnare Merlin.  The apple in front of her might be a reference to Eve, implying her betrayal and disobedience.

Vivien

ARThurian: Guinevere

Guinevere, Guennuvar, Gwenhwyfar, Ginovar, Wenhaver, Wennevaria.  Her character is about as widely interpreted as the spellings of her name.  Damsel in distress, cunning adulteress, noble queen.  Every version of the legend (and need I repeat that there are hundreds) seems to have interpreted her differently.  Her portrayal in art is no less varied and complex.  All in all, she is a very multifaceted and real character.  Her actions are not difficult for us imperfect humans to understand, especially given her situation, caught between duty and passion.

“Guenevere” or “La Belle Iseult” by William Morris.  Though this painting is generally thought to depict Guinevere, some think that it may actually portray Isolde.  Nevertheless, the situation is applicable to either.  The rumpled sheets, unfastened belt, and preoccupied expression on her face hint at the sexual guilt of an adulterous queen.  However, it doesn’t necessarily portray her as wicked.  Her expression implies remorse and deep sadness.  This painting is a masterpiece in that it combines multiple sides of Guinevere’s character into a believable portrait.

Guenevere or La Belle Iseult

“Queen Guinevere Maying” by John Collier.  This beautifully executed scene portrays Guinevere Maying with her servants and subjects.  According to many legends, she is separated from the group kidnapped by Melwas while Maying.  However, this scene does not necessarily imply impending doom.  Rather it depicts her regal, almost aloof bearing.  No one could mistake her for being anything less than a queen.  She is an object of wonder, outshining the blossoms held in her hand.

Queen Guinevere Maying

“Lancelot and Guinevere” by Herbert James Draper.  In this whimsical, romantic depiction of Lancelot and Guinevere’s first meeting, Guinevere is preparing for her wedding.  The celebration tents can be seen in the background, as well as the flowers adorning everything.  Their eyes meet as Lancelot passes by on his horse.  This painting portrays Guinevere as beautiful and noble, but also foreshadows her coming betrayal when she chooses her heart over her duty.

Lancelot and Guinevere

“Queen Guinevere” by James Archer.  This is perhaps one of the only artistic portrayals of the burdens of being Arthur’s queen.  It is not clear whether the departing ship is Arthur leaving to fight the Saxons, or is Arthur’s death boat.  Either way, Guinevere must bear the burden of a soldier’s wife, as well as a king’s wife.  She must watch him go off to war, not knowing if and when he will return, left lonely and filled with anxiety.

Queen Guinevere

“Guinevere in her Golden Days” by Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale.  Ms. Brickdale illustrated a version of Tennyson’s Idylls of a King.  These include many different stages of Guinevere’s life, from an innocent maiden, to a radiant young queen, to a guilt-ridden lover, to a penitent nun.  This one is my personal favorite, depicting Guinevere shortly after becoming queen, but before her affair with Lancelot.  The peace, leisure, and sumptuousness of being queen are well portrayed, as well as her natural beauty and grace.

Guinevere in her Golden Days

ARThurian: The Lady of Shalott

The Lady of Shalott, also known as Elaine of Astolat, is one of the most common subjects in Arthurian-inspired artwork.  To understand most interpretations of her, it is important to be familiar with Tennyson’s poem, “The Lady of Shalott.”  In the poem, the Lady of Shalott is for an unknown reason imprisoned in a castle on the island of Shalott, adjacent to Camelot.  She is cursed to weave a tapestry and only see the world through a circular mirror that reflects the real world from the window opposite.  She knows there will be consequences if she looks into the real world, but she knows not what the consequence is.  One day she sees Lancelot through the window and she gives in and looks out her window at his real image, immediately falling in love with him.  Her tapestry unravels from the loom and the mirror cracks.  She leaves the tower and lies in a boat with her name carved in the side, floating down the river to Camelot as she dies.  Most likely it is her watery death and inescapable curse that draws people to her situation most strongly.

Her character in more traditional Arthurian legends is much different.  Many versions exist, including her being manipulated by her father, who convinces her to seduce Lancelot and bind her to him, she ends up falling in love with Lancelot.  Another version consists of her falling in love with Lancelot at a joust and asking him to wear her favor.  Most versions agree that she dies of a broken heart when Lancelot rejects her in favor of Guinevere, and her corpse floats to Camelot in a boat.  She is a flawed character, yet realistic and intriguing.  Maybe this is why artists love to interpret her character, appearance, and demise.

The first set of paintings are clearly depicting Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott, while the rest are most likely referring to Elaine of Astolat, whose fate inspired Tennyson’s character.

The Lady of Shalott

“‘I am Half-Sick of Shadows,’ Said the Lady of Shalott” by John William Waterhouse.  The title line of this piece is from Tennyson’s poem.  She can only view the real world through a circular mirror, and so is only experiencing shadows of reality.  She sees young lovers through the mirror and wishes she could take part in that world; this moment is expressing her awakened desire for love.

“‘I am Half-Sick of Shadows,’ Said the Lady of Shalott” by Sidney Meteyard.  This is also the line from Tennyson’s poem, like Waterhouse’s piece.  The circular mirror can be seen casting a dim reflection of the young lovers in the background.  The darker colors of this piece, as well as her pose, suggest a darker, more sensual tone.

“The Lady of Shalott” by William Maw Egley.  This is also portraying the moment when she glimpses Lancelot in reality, though the curse has yet to wreak its havoc.  Lancelot can be seen through the mirror on the opposite side of the room, and Camelot is visible through the widow at the back.

“The Lady of Shalott Looking at Lancelot” by John William Waterhouse.  This is depicting the moment when she gives in and looks at Lancelot through the window.  We already see the curse is unfolding, as the mirror behind her cracks and the threads from the tapestry entangle her.  Lancelot’s armored head can be seen in the mirror.

“The Lady of Shalott” by William Holman Hunt.  This is also the moment of the curse bearing down upon her, with the cracked mirror, entangling threads, and her hair blowing wildly in some unearthly wind.  Lancelot is also visible through this mirror.  This piece is heavy in symbolism, from the numerous random objects scattered across the floor to the frescoes on the wall.

“The Lady of Shalott” by John William Waterhouse.  This is probably the most well-known paintings of the Lady of Shalott, and is perhaps the only one to depict her still alive in her death boat.  This particular piece is also interesting because the woman pictured looks completely different from the other two paintings in which Waterhouse depicts the Lady of Shalott.  She takes with her the tapestry she has been weaving in her tower for who knows how long, and her name is carved in the prow.  The raw emotion in her face is also evident; the viewer can clearly see the anguish and heartbreak she is experiencing.

“The Lady of Shalott” by Arthur Hughes.  This piece displays the reaction of peasant women, presumably collecting herbs by the river, to the tragic corpse of the lady.  Her paleness, along with her white gown, make her stand out and compare her to the graceful swan swimming alongside her.

“Lady of Shalott” by G. E. Robertson.  This painting depicts the moment her boat reaches Camelot.  The man leaning over her is most likely Lancelot, for he was the first to see her when she reaches Camelot and remarks that she had a lovely face.  In this piece, the Lady of Shalott is also lying on her woven tapestry and is displayed magnificently and tragically in her boat.

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Elaine of Astolat

“Elaine, or the Lily Maid of Astolat” by Sophie Anderson.  Most images of Elaine focus directly on her death and not on her predicament with Lancelot.  The bargeman is also a common figure in Elaine’s death and is portrayed mourning in this piece.  Elaine’s paleness is perhaps the most striking component, emphasizing both her fairness and her death.

“Elaine Floats Down to Camelot” by Briton Riviere.  This piece is much more peaceful, with a hint of a smile on Elaine’s porcelain-like face, as if she finally found peace and relief to her anguish through death.  The sunrise or sunset also suggests hope or a new beginning.  The bargeman’s contemplative pose also adds to the tone.

“Elaine” by Pollie Clarke.  This is a very romantic depiction of Elaine, adorned with lilles and arriving at the lush river bank.  The knight surveying her is most likely Lancelot.

“Elaine” by John Atkinson Grimshaw.  This piece is very somber and even spooky.  The red light makes the water look red, like blood, and hints at violence and/or chaos.  This contrasts to Elaine’s peaceful expression and white gown, implying she was the victim of a corrupt world.