|Lady of the Lake|
|Matter of Britain character|
|First appearance||Estoire de Merlin|
|Home||Her lake, sometimes Avalon|
The Lady of the Lake (French: Dame du Lac, Demoiselle du Lac) is an enchantress in the Matter of Britain, the body of medieval literature and legend associated with King Arthur. She plays a pivotal role in many stories, including giving Arthur his sword Excalibur, enchanting Merlin, and raising Lancelot after the death of his father. At least two different sorceresses bearing the title "the Lady of the Lake" appear as separate characters in some versions and adaptations since the Post-Vulgate Cycle and consequently Le Morte d'Arthur.
Names and origins
Today the Lady of the Lake is best known as Nimuë, or its scribal variants Ninianne or Viviane, medieval authors and copyists produced various other forms including Nimane (Vulgate Merlin, in addition to "Viviane"), Nimanne / Niv[i]en[n]e / Vivienne (Huth Merlin), Vivien, Vivian, Nimiane/Niniame (Arthour and Merlin, English Merlin), Nymenche (Lancelot Propre), Nin[i]eve (Post-Vulgate Suite du Merlin), Niniane (Livre d'Artus), Niviana (Baladro), and Ui[n/ui]ane (Estoire de Merlin), among other variations, including alternate spellings with the letter i written as y (such as Nymanne or Nynyane). 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 (predominantly) 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 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 (and a corruption of) the Welsh word chwyfleian (also spelled hwimleian, chwibleian, et al. in medieval Welsh sources), meaning "a wanderer of pallid countenance", which was originally applied as an epithet to the famous prophetic "wild man" figure of Myrddin Wyllt (Merlin) 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, or connected the name "Niniane" with the Welsh mythology's figure Rhiannon or the 5th-century saint Ninian.
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 to accept 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 (merfeine in Old High German) known as the Lady of the Sea and then raised in her Land of Maidens (Meide lant). The fairy queen character and her paradise island in Lanzelet are reminiscent of Morgen (Morgan) 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 in the French chivalric romances by the early 13th century, becoming Lancelot's fairy godmother-like foster mother. In the Lancelot-Grail (Vulgate) prose cycle, in which she is known for her connection to the color white, the Lady resides in an enchanted realm disguised as an illusion of a lake (the Post-Vulgate notes it as Merlin's work). There, she raises the child Lancelot after the death of his father King Ban, as well as his also orphaned cousins Lionel and Bors after having her damsel Seraide (Saraïde, later called Celise) rescue them from King Claudas. She then aids Lancelot in various ways during his early adventures, including with her magic item gifts and through her maidens serving as her agents and messengers, and restoring him to sanity on multiple occasions.
The Vulgate Cycle provides a backstory for the Lady of the Lake in the Prose Merlin-derived section, which takes place before its main Vulgate Lancelot section but was written later. 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 one version, in a nonviolent scene taking place under a blooming hawthorn, he is betrayed and placed inside an invisible and indestructible tower, but then she comes to him every day or night in a motif reminiscent that of Ganieda's visits of Merlin's house in Vita Merlini.
According to her backstory in the Vulgate Merlin, she was the daughter of Dionas (Dyonas) and the niece of the Duke of Burgundy and it was an enchantment of Dionas' godmother Diana (Diane/Dyane) that caused her to be so alluring to Merlin. The Vulgate Lancelot informs the reader that, "in the time of Virgil", Diana was the Queen of Sicily that was considered a goddess by her subjects. The Post-Vulgate version of Merlin describes how Diana killed her partner Faunus to be with a man named Felix, but then she was herself killed by her lover at that lake, later called the Lake of Diana (Lac Diane/Dyane). This is the place at where Lancelot du Lac ("of the Lake") is raised, at first not knowing his real parentage. In the Post-Vulgate Suite du Merlin, she is a daughter of the king of Brittany who is initially also known as the Damsel Huntress in her introductory episode. The Livre d'Artus has its Lady of the Lake leaving Merlin for another lover; here, she is never actually molested by Merlin and rids herself of him only as a precaution. 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 that, with a spell, she put "on her groin which, as long as it lasted, prevented anyone from deflowering her and having relations with her."
Another, unnamed Lady of the Lake appears to bestow the magic sword Excalibur 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. 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, while he blames her for the death of his mother, who had been burned at the stake, as well as for how, he says, "by enchantment and sorcery she has been the destroyer of many good knights") and a dispute over an enchanted sword. 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 Arthour and 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 (The Round Table) 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 Post-Vulgate, 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 meet this Lady of the Lake, she holds Excalibur out of the water and offers it to Arthur if he promises to fulfill a request from her later. He agrees and receives his famous sword. Later, the Lady of the Lake 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 sends off his squire with her 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.
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. 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.
After enchanting Merlin, Malory's Nimue replaces him as Arthur's magician aide and adviser. She becomes the lover and eventual wife of Sir Pelleas and mother to his son Guivret. Nimue appears as the chivalric code changes; her appearance hints 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 a pragmatic, compassionate, clever, strong-willed character. 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 (a motif from the Post-Vulgate), and together with Tristan frees Arthur from the evil sorceress Annowre (a motif from the Prose Tristan).
After the Battle of Camlann, she reclaims Excalibur when it is thrown into the water by Sir Bedivere. In the end, Malory's Nimue is named as one of the magical queens who bear the mortally wounded Arthur away to Avalon, a setting tied to the Lady of the Lake characters 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 1819 opera by Gioachino Rossini. Franz Schubert set seven songs from Walter Scott's Lady of the Lake, including the three "Ellen songs" ("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".
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.
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 (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. Some examples of such 20th and 21st century works are listed below.
- Nineue, "Tennyson's Vivien", is a character in John Cowper Powys's novel Porius: A Romance of the Dark Ages (1951).
- Nimue appears in T. H. White's 1958 novel 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.
- The 1960 musical Camelot includes the character Nimue who has a song called "Follow Me" performed in Act I. In the play (and the later film adaptation), Arthur "tells Guinevere the story of how he pulled the sword from the stone and became king, and she finally agrees to marry him. The wizard Merlyn is amused by this development, but his joy turns to sorrow as his memories of the future begin to fade. He realizes that Nimue, a beautiful water nymph, has come to draw him into her cave for an eternal sleep. He begs Nimue for answers, as he has forgotten if he has warned Arthur about two important individuals, Lancelot and Mordred. His memories fade permanently, though, and he is led away."
- The Lady of the Lake is satirized in the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail in which a peasant named Dennis says, "Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony."
- Mary Stewart's 1979 novel The Last Enchantment 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.
- Marion Zimmer Bradley's 1983 novel The Mists of Avalon takes the tradition of multiple Ladies one step further. In Bradley's works, both the Lady of the Lake and the Merlin are names of offices in the pagan hierarchy. 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.
- In Bernard Cornwell's 1990s novel series The Warlord Chronicles, Nimue is an Irish orphan adopted by the British druid Merlin. She becomes Merlin's most adept priestess and lover, but she eventually turns against him and imprisons him, torturing him to reveal the last of his magical secrets. She is a prominent character in the books, being a major love interest for, and finally an adversary to, the series' main protagonist Derfel.
- In the 1995-1996 animated series Princess Gwenevere and the Jewel Riders, the name of the first season's antagonist Lady Kale, here too a former student of Merlin who magically imprisons him, was created as an anagram of Lady of the Lake. However, a good Lady of the Lake herself briefly appears in the titular episode "Lady of the Lake" during the finale of the show's second and final season.
- In the 1998 miniseries Merlin, the characters of the Lady of the Lake (Miranda Richardson) and Nimue (Isabella Rossellini) are separated, with the former being a goddess-like fae who is the sister of Queen Mab (also Richardson in a dual role), and the latter being a noblewoman who is the object of Merlin's affections.
- In the 2006 pseudo-sequel Merlin's Apprentice, Richardson reprises her role as the Lady of the Lake, though she portrays a much different characterization. In this depiction, the Lady is the main antagonist who serves as an enchanter to an army of barbarians who seek to destroy Camelot. The Lady herself wishes to punish Camelot for the way they poisoned her streams and drained her lakes. This miniseries also depicts Merlin's sleep in the cave; as he slept, the Lady used her magic to conceive a son with Merlin (Sam Neill also reprising his role from the 1998 miniseries), and then enchanted him to sleep for 50 years.
- The BBC 2008–2012 drama series Merlin also features two characters based on the Lady of the Lake. Nimueh serves as the primary antagonist of the 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 the 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 2013 Afternoon Drama Pilgrim, the antagonist Birdie (or Mrs Pleasance) is gradually revealed to be responsible for trapping Merlin ("The Drowned Mage") beneath a lake. Her story draws on that of Nimue.
- The 2017 film King Arthur: Legend of the Sword features the Lady of the Lake played by Jacqui Ainsley in a few scenes. She first appears in the flashbacks of the film as Bedivere tells Arthur how she bounded Excalibur to the Pendragon bloodline after Merlin used it to destroy the Mage Tower. She reappears in a later scene when she catches the sword underwater after Arthur throws it into the lake in shame of his failures; she pulls him underwater and shows him a vision of what his uncle Vortigan would do to England if he did not accept the sword and tells him that only he can prevent it. She then tells him that Vortigan must be met where sword meets tower and advises him to trust the Mage before returning the sword to Arthur.
- 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 the 1983 DC Comics series Camelot 3000, the Lady of the Lake is referred to as Nyneve, and is depicted as a woman with a beautiful body wearing a golden sun-shaped mask. Morgan le Fay sends her to confront the heroes of Camelot. When Nyneve removes the mask, Merlin, upon seeing her face, is unable to resist her and departs, thus removing him from Morgan's path. Later, when he escapes her control, it is revealed that her only facial feature is a gigantic mouth with a long serpentine tongue which Merlin turns against her.
- Nimue appears as one of the primary antagonists in the Hellboy comic book series. She is driven mad after the powers she acquired from Merlin give her knowledge of the Ogdru Jahad, prompting the witches of Britain to dismember her and seal her away underground. Resurrected in the present day, she assumes the mantle of the Irish triple war goddess the Morrígan and assembles an army of legendary and folkloric beings to eradicate mankind.
- The 2010s anime series Seven Deadly Sins features Vivian as a supporting antagonist, taking her name without her position as Lady of the Lake. Vivian is a minion of Holy Knight Grand Master Hendrickson, and works toward his goals of unleashing the Demon Clan, mostly due to her obsession with Gilthunder, a handsome young Holy Knight. In the first season, Vivian is eventually defeated by her former master, a female Merlin who is one of the titular Seven Deadly Sins, after a surprise appearance by King Arthur. In the second season, Merlin berates Vivian for her stupidity, explaining that she and Hendrickson really did not know anything about how horrible demons are, and puts a geas on her so she will leave Gilthunder alone.
- Nimue is featured in the ABC 2010s fantasy series Once Upon a Time. She appears as the main antagonist in the first half of Season 5, portrayed by Caroline Ford. While fleeing from Vortigan, who sacked and burned her village, she meets Merlin and they fall in love. With Merlin being immortal, Nimue drinks from the Holy Grail so they can be together forever. Afterward, she kills Vortigan, which darkens her magic and turns her into the very first Dark One. Nimue breaks Excalibur and Merlin uses one of the pieces to make the Dark One dagger in order to control her. At some point, Nimue is killed and her power is taken. However, she manages to live on in all of the following Dark Ones, appearing to them as a vision. She forms an alliance with Captain Hook, manipulating him into casting the Dark Curse and reviving her and the Dark Ones. She then leads a Dark One invasion in Storybrooke, which ultimately leads to her demise at the hands of Hook, who betrays her to redeem himself. The Lady of the Lake is referenced several times as Lancelot's mother, but she never appears; the episode titled "The Lady of the Lake" does not feature her and instead refers to Prince Charming's mother.
- Nimue is featured as the main character of the book Cursed, who dies with the Sword of Power in a lake after being shot by an arrow. This prevents the church, the Ice King, or Uther Pendragon from getting it.
The Lady's lake
A number of locations are traditionally associated with the Lady of the Lake's abode. Such places within Great Britain include Dozmary Pool and The Loe in Cornwall, Llyn Llydaw and Llyn Ogwen in Snowdonia, River Brue's Pomparles Bridge in Somerset, and Loch Arthur in Scotland. In France, she is also connected with Brittany's Paimpont forest which is often identified as the Arthurian Brocéliande.
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