Lady of the Lake

The Lady of the Lake is a name or a title used by several fairy-like enchantresses in the Matter of Britain, the body of medieval literature and mythology associated with the legend of King Arthur. They play pivotal roles in many stories, including providing Arthur with the sword Excalibur, eliminating Merlin, raising Lancelot after the death of his father, and helping to take the dying Arthur to Avalon. Different sorceresses known as the Lady of the Lake appear concurrently as separate characters in some versions of the legend since at least the Post-Vulgate Cycle and consequently the seminal Le Morte d'Arthur, with the latter describing them as a hierarchical group, while some texts also give this title to either Morgan or her sister.

Names and origins

Today the Lady of the Lake is best known as either Nimuë, or several scribal variants of Ninianne and Viviane. Medieval authors and copyists produced various forms of the latter, including Nimane, Nimanne / Niv'en'e / Vivienne, Vivien, Vivian, Nimiane/Niniame, Nymenche, Nin'eve, Niniane, Niviana, and Ui'ane, among other variations, including alternate spellings with the letter i written as y. The most primitive French form might be Niniane. The form Nimue, in which the letter e can be written as ë or è, has been popularized by Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur and itself has several variations: in William Caxton's edition, her name appears as Nymue, Nyneue and Nynyue, but it had been rather Nynyve and Nenyve in Malory's original Winchester Manuscript. Even though "Nymue", with the m, appears only in the Caxton text, Nimue is perhaps the most common form of the name of the character as this was the only version of Le Morte d'Arthur published until 1947.

Arthurian scholar A. O. H. Jarman, following suggestions first made by scholars of the 19th century, proposed that the name "Viviane" used in French Arthurian romances were ultimately derived from the Welsh word chwyfleian, meaning "a wanderer of pallid countenance", which was originally applied as an epithet to the famous prophetic "wild man" figure of Myrddin Wyllt in medieval Welsh poetry. Due to the relative obscurity of the word, it was misunderstood as "fair wanton maiden" and taken to be the name of Myrddin's female captor. Others have linked the name "Nymenche" with the Irish mythology's figure Niamh, and the name "Niniane" with either the Welsh mythology's figure Rhiannon, the 5th-century saint Ninian, or the river Ninian. Still another theory connects her to the Romano-British water goddess Coventina, also known as Covienna.
Chrétien de Troyes's Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart, the first known story featuring Lancelot as a prominent character, was also the first to mention his upbringing by a fairy in a lake. If it is accepted that the German Lanzelet by Ulrich von Zatzikhoven contains elements of a more primitive version of this tale than Chrétien's, the infant Lancelot was spirited away to a lake by a water fairy known as the Lady of the Sea and then raised in her Land of Maidens. The fairy queen character and her paradise island in Lanzelet are reminiscent of Morgen of the Island of Avallon in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Vita Merlini. Guendoloena and Ganieda, respectively Merlin's one-time wife and his sister from Geoffrey's work, as well as the Roman goddess of the hunt and the nature, Diana, can also be considered prototypes.

In medieval literature

The Lady of the Lake began appearing by this title in the French chivalric romances by the early 13th century as the fairy godmother-type foster mother of the hero Lancelot. In the Lancelot-Grail prose cycle, the Lady resides in an enchanted realm, an otherworld place that the entry to which is disguised as an illusion of a lake. There, she raises Lancelot from his infancy following the death of his father King Ban, teaching Lancelot arts and writing, infusing him with wisdom and courage, and overseeing his training him to become an unsurprassed warrior. She also rears his orphaned cousins Lionel and Bors after having her damsel Seraide rescue them from King Claudas. All this takes her only few years to pass in the human world. Afterwards, she sends off the young Lancelot to King Arthur's court as the nameless White Knight, but then keeps aiding him in various ways during his early adventures with her magic-item gifts and through her maidens serving as her agents and messengers. She furthermore personally arrives to restore Lancelot to sanity during some of his recurring fits of madness.
The Vulgate Cycle tells of either different or the same Lady of the Lake in the Prose Merlin-derived section, which takes place before its main Vulgate Lancelot section but was written later, and links her with the disappearance of Merlin. Here, she is given the name Viviane and a human origin. In the Vulgate Merlin, she refuses to give Merlin her love until he has taught her all his secrets, after which she uses her power to seal him forever, originally either in the trunk of a hawthorn tree or beneath a stone. Though Merlin knows beforehand that this will happen due to his power of foresight, he is unable to counteract her 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 within a tree, underneath a large stone, or inside a cave or a tomb, depending on the version of this story. In the Prophéties de Merlin, she is proud of how Merlin had never taken her virginity, unlike what happened with his other students, and is especially cruel in the way she disposes of him. The Vulgate Lancelot explains this by a spell she put "on her groin which, as long as it lasted, prevented anyone from deflowering her and having relations with her." The Livre d'Artus has its Lady of the Lake leaving Merlin for another lover; she is never actually molested by Merlin and rids herself of him only as a precaution. In still another telling, in a nonviolent scene taking place under a blooming hawthorn, Merlin is betrayed and placed inside an invisible and indestructible tower, but then she comes to him every day or night.
According to her backstory in the Vulgate Merlin, Viviane was a daughter of the knight Dionas and a niece of the Duke of Burgundy. She was born in Dionas' domain of Briosque in the forest Brocéliande, and it was an enchantment of her fairy godmother Diana that caused Viviane to be so alluring to Merlin when she first met him there as a young teenager. The Vulgate Lancelot informs the reader that, back "in the time of Virgil", Diana had been a Queen of Sicily that was considered a goddess by her subjects. In the Post-Vulgate Suite de Merlin, the future Lady of the Lake was born and lived in a magnificent castle at the foot of a mountain in Brittany as a daughter of the King of Northumbria, and is initially known as the beautiful 12-years-old Damsel Huntress in her introductory episode. The Post-Vulgate rewrite also describes how Diana had killed her partner Faunus to be with a man named Felix, but then she was herself killed by her lover at that lake, which came to be called the Lake of Diana. This is also the place at where Lancelot du Lac is later raised, at first not knowing his real parentage, by Viviane after she is 18 years old. Prior the Post-Vulgate, however, the Lady of the Lake from Lancelot and Viviane from Merlin might have been separate characters.
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Another, unnamed Lady of the Lake appears to bestow the magic sword Excalibur from Avalon to Arthur. In the Post-Vulgate tradition, she is presented as an early benefactor of King Arthur who grants him Excalibur when his original sword is damaged in the fight against King Pellinore. She is later suddenly beheaded by Sir Balin as a result of a kin feud between them and a dispute over an enchanted sword. This takes place during the time when Merlin is still at Arthur's side and before the introduction of Viviane in the story. Modern retellings often omit that episode.
According to Anne Berthelot, Morgan le Fay herself is "the Lady of the Lake", as compared to the "upstart magician" Viviane, in the French prose cycles. The 13th/14th-century English poem Of Arthour and of Merlin casts Morgan herself in the role of the Lady of the Lake and residing near a town named Ninniane. The 15th-century Italian manuscript La Tavola Ritonda makes the Lady a daughter of Uther Pendragon and a sister to both Morgan and Arthur; here she is a character villainous to the extent that her own brother Arthur swears to burn her. In the 14th-century French prose romance Perceforest, a lengthy prequel to the Arthurian legend in a more fantasy manner than the chronicles, the figures of the Lady of the Lake and of the enchantress Sebile have been merged to create the character of Sebile of the Castle of the Lake, an ancestor of Arthur. The Lady of the Lake who raised Lancelot also appears in Perceforest, which derives her ancestry line from the descendants of ancient fairy named Morgane, whose own source of power was the deity Zephir.

In ''Le Morte d'Arthur''

In Thomas Malory's 15th-century compilation, the first Lady of the Lake remains unnamed besides this epithet. When Arthur and Merlin first go to meet her, she holds Excalibur out of the water and offers it to Arthur if he promises to fulfill any request from her later, to which he agrees. Later, the Lady comes to Arthur's court to receive her end of the bargain; she asks for the head of Sir Balin, whom she blames for her brother's death. Arthur refuses this request, and Balin swiftly decapitates her instead with his own magic sword in front of Arthur and then sends off his squire with her severed head, much to distress and shame of the king. Arthur gives the Lady a rich burial, has her slayer banished, and allows Sir Launcenor of Ireland to go after him to avenge this disgrace.
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The second Lady of the Lake is sometimes referred to by her title and sometimes referred to by name. Nimue, whom Malory describes as the "chief Lady of the Lake", plays a pivotal role in the Arthurian court throughout his story. The first time the character named Nimue appears is at the wedding of Arthur and Guinevere, as the young huntress rescued by Pellinore. She then proceeds to perform some of the same actions as the Lady of the Lake of his sources but is different in some ways. For instance, in the Post-Vulgate Suite du Merlin, Malory's source for the earlier parts of Le Morte d'Arthur, the Lady of the Lake traps Merlin in a tomb, which results in his death. She does this out of cruelty and a hatred of Merlin. In Le Morte d'Arthur, on the other hand, Nimue is still the one to trap Merlin, but Malory gives her a sympathetic reason: Merlin falls in love with her and will not leave her alone; Malory gives no indication that Nimue loves him back. Eventually, since she cannot get rid of him otherwise, she decides to trap him under rock and makes sure he cannot escape. She is tired of his sexual advances, and afraid of his power as "a devil's son", so she does not have much of a choice but to ultimately get rid of him.
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After enchanting Merlin, Malory's Nimue replaces him as Arthur's magician aide and trusted adviser. She also becomes the lover and eventual wife of Sir Pelleas. Nimue appears through the story as the chivalric code changes, hinting to the reader that something new will happen. This trend follows the logic that the author and the reader are in cahoots in order to achieve the wanted interpretation of the Arthurian legend. Each time the Lady reappears in Le Morte d'Arthur, it is at a pivotal moment of the episode, establishing the importance of her character within Arthurian literature, as she transcends any notoriety attached to her character by aiding Arthur and other knights to succeed in their endeavors. In Malory's text, Nimue is married to Pelleas and outwardly acts as an obedient wife, while at the same time subtly helping sway the court in the right direction. When Malory was looking at other texts to find inspiration, he chose the best aspects of all the other Lady of the Lake characters, making her pragmatic, compassionate, clever, and strong-willed. When Arthur is in need in Malory's text, some incarnation of the Lady of the Lake, or her magic, or her agent, reaches out to help him. For instance, she saves Arthur from a magical attempt on his life made by his sister Morgan le Fay and from the death at the hands of Morgan's lover Accolon, and together with Tristan frees Arthur from the evil sorceress Annowre. Malory, however, does not use her name for the Lady of the Lake associated with Lancelot, who too goes unnamed and may be considered the third one.
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In the end, a female hand emerging from a lake reclaims Excalibur in a miraculous scene when the sword is thrown into the water by Sir Bedivere just after Arthur's final battle. Malory counts Nimue among the magical queens who then arrive with Morgan to bear the mortally wounded Arthur away to Avalon.

Later appearances

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 1819 opera by Gioachino Rossini. Franz Schubert set seven songs from Walter Scott's Lady of the Lake, including the three "Ellen songs", although Schubert's music to Ellen's third song has become far more famous in its later adaptation, known as "Ave Maria".
The full French name of the University of Notre Dame, founded in 1842, is Notre Dame du Lac. This is translated as "Our Lady of the Lake", making reference to Mary, mother of Jesus as the Lady of the Lake, evidencing fusion between Arthurian legend and middle-Christian history.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson adapted several stories of the Lady of the Lake for his 1859–1885 poetic cycle Idylls of the King. He too 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. Some other authors choose to emphasize a single character.

20th–21st century

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 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.
A number of locations are traditionally associated with the Lady of the Lake's abode. Such places within Great Britain include the lakes Dozmary Pool and The Loe in Cornwall, the lakes Llyn Llydaw and Llyn Ogwen in Snowdonia, River Brue's area of Pomparles Bridge in Somerset, and the lake Loch Arthur in Scotland. In France, Viviane is also connected with Brittany's Paimpont forest, often identified as the Arthurian enchanted forest of Brocéliande, where her lake is said to be located at the castle Château de Comper.
The oldest localization of the Lake is in the Lancelot en prose, written around 1230. The place where Lancelot is raised is described there as to the north of Trèves-Cunault, on the Loire, in the middle of the forest of Beaufort-en-Vallée.