The Arthurian Tale of Elaine of Astolat, Lady of Shalott
Elaine the Fair, the Lady of Shalott, comes down through Arthurian legend with seemingly only one purpose: to love Lancelot and, in doing so, reveal his undying affection for the queen of Camelot, Guinevere. However, the extensive number of retellings of her story, seemingly beginning in the thirteenth century novel Il Novellino by Italian author Masuccio Salernitano, emphasize that her tale has far more depth. Beyond a realization in Lancelot's love for Guinevere, Elaine represents Arthurian purity, honor, and the power wounded women can wield.
The most widely read story of Elaine was written in the fifteenth century by English author Sir Thomas Malory, who himself did not invent the story of Elaine, but merely combined numerous different Arthurian love and honor stories into the large text, Le Morte d'Arthur (‘The Death of Arthur’). In Sir Malory's version, the audience meets Elaine in the eighteenth book of the novel, directly after the search for the Holy Grail, or Sangreal as Malory calls it.
Though Book 18 of Le Morte d'Arthur does not begin with Elaine, the reader is given a brief overview of Lancelot's goings on since the end of his quest, most notably that he has taken up his affair with Queen Guinevere once again, and that King Arthur has in fact become suspicious of the pair. To avoid discovery, Lancelot avoids Guinevere and is banished from Camelot by the enraged queen. After a series of incidences in which Lancelot is shown to participate in jousting activities against King Arthur's court, always in disguise, Lancelot is shown to go to the court of Sir Bernard of Astolat and participate on Bernard's behalf in one of Arthur's tournaments. Bernard's daughter Elaine, only now introduced, falls for him almost immediately and requests that he wear a white token in honor of her, a feat he has never done because of his unending love for Arthur's queen. Yet since he is in disguise, he agrees.
Lancelot admiring Guinevere, whom he loved until his final days, painting by Herbert James Draper, 1890’s. (Wikimedia Commons).
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The tournament commences and Lancelot, as the avid Arthurian reader will not be surprised to discover, wins against Arthur's men, but is wounded in the process. Taken by Lavaine, one of Bernard's sons, to a hermit to be healed, Lancelot eventually ends up in the bedchamber of Elaine, tended to for many days until his full and complete strength returns to him. Once better, Lancelot makes to leave, greatly distressing the smitten Elaine who begs him to marry her, or even sleep with her once, instead. He refuses, his heart belonging to Guinevere, and leaves the home of Sir Bernard. Not ten days later, Elaine dies of a broken heart.
Jousting tournament with King Arthur’s men. Taken from: The Boy's King Arthur: "Sir Mador's spear brake all to pieces, but the other's spear held." By N.C.Wyeth. 1922. (Wikimedia Commons)
Her story, however, does not end in her death. Rather, Elaine left her family specific instructions of how to care for her corpse upon her demise. She dictated that she should be laid in a rowboat, with a lily in one hand and a letter she'd penned in the other, and floated down the Thames River. This river, passing by Westminster, is discovered by King Arthur and his wife Queen Guinevere, and upon reading the letter, Lancelot realizes the hand he played in her death. Overcome with guilt, he pays for a lavish and expensive funeral for the girl, ironically being thrust back into the good graces of Guinevere who, upon also reading Elaine's note, found that Lancelot remained faithful to her throughout his time away. Elaine's tale ends here, with her burial before the men and women of Arthur's court.
The Lady of Shalott reaches Camelot after being taken from the river, now deceased. Artist unknown, prior to 1887. (Wikimedia Commons)
Though tragic, Elaine's character is often forgotten as a substantial woman in Arthurian mythology. Her only real purpose appears to be to reveal how Lancelot's affection for Guinevere could not be swayed, even though his romance with the queen was forbidden. Yet Elaine of Astolat's heartbreak has inspired numerous retellings of her tale, from a heart wrenching song by modern musician Emilie Autumn to nineteenth century poet, Sir Alfred Tennyson. Tennyson's telling is truly the most prominent variation, entitled "The Lady of Shalott", and gives Elaine a far more grievous story than Malory.
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In Tennyson's tale, Elaine—known only as the Lady—is isolated in a tower on an unnamed river that flows to Camelot. Those who are nearby know little about her, and she spends her days weaving images in front of a mirror that shows her the world, quite literally watching as life passes her by. Supposedly, there is a curse upon her, unknown in Tennyson's work, which prevents her from taking part in life beyond her tower. Through this window is how Elaine sees Lancelot, riding by without exchanging a single word with the Lady, but she falls in love with him nonetheless. Her curse comes to fruition when she abandons her work and attempts to look beyond the mirror, out a window, to follow where he is going. In doing so, her death is imminent, and she takes to the river in a boat, where she dies before arriving at the palace. Another piece of irony occurs here once more as Lancelot takes note of her form as beautiful, and pities that she died so young.
The Earthly Paradise (Sir Lancelot at the Chapel of the Holy Grail). By Edward Burne-Jones. 1890’s. (Wikimedia Commons)
Yet another tale of Elaine paints the woman as neither grief stricken nor lovelorn, predating both Malory's and Tennyson's editions by centuries. In Mort Artu, a French variation that directly followed Salernitano's tale, Elaine is a much more vindictive character, tricking Lancelot into wearing her sleeve in the jousting tournament and implicating him in her death by writing a very heinous letter to be laid upon her corpse. Though this version was quickly overshadowed by Elaine's more emotional tales, its importance lies in the power behind the woman, and how Elaine was able to bend Lancelot to her whim, and Guinevere, as Lancelot was afraid of her reaction should he agree to Elaine's terms. This theme is toned down in later models, but not wholly forgotten as Lancelot's abandoned of Elaine is specifically blamed on Guinevere in Malory's novel.
I am half-sick of shadows, said the Lady of Shalott. Portrait by: John William Waterhouse. 1915. (Wikimedia Commons)
Though there are further stories about the elusive Elaine of Astolat, Malory's and Tennyson's both remain foremost despite their wildly different histories for the maiden. Both speak of heartbreak and grief for a character whose place in the Arthurian timeline is short and, in some ways, insignificant. However, Elaine's character has become as much a symbol of Arthurian romance as Lancelot and Guinevere had, and she is widely considered an emblem of medieval virginity and purity.
Featured Image: The Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse (Wikipedia)
By Ryan Stone
Lacy, Norris J. The New Arthurian Encyclopedia (Routledge: NJ, 1995.)
Malory, Thomas. Le Morte D'Arthur: King Arthur and the Legends of the Round Table (Signet Classics: New York, 2010.)
Tennyson, Alfred. Idylls of the King (Penguin: London, 1989.)
Tennyson, Alfred. "Lancelot and Elaine." The Camelot Project. http://d.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/text/tennyson-lancelot-and-elaine
Tennyson, Alfred. The Lady of Shalott: A Victorian Ballad (CreateSpace: South Carolina, 2015.)
"Alfred Lord Tennyson." Robbins Library Digital Project. http://d.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/creator/alfred-tennyson