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