Lady of the Lake

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Nimue, The Lady of the Lake, shown holding the infatuated Merlin trapped and reading from a book of spells, in The Beguiling of Merlin (1872–1877) by Edward Burne-Jones

Lady of the Lake is the titular name of the ruler of Avalon in the Arthurian legend. She plays a pivotal role in many stories, including giving King Arthur his sword Excalibur, enchanting Merlin, and raising Lancelot after the death of his father. Different writers and copyists give the Arthurian character the name Nimue, Viviane, Vivien, Elaine, Ninianne, Nivian, Nyneve, or Evienne, among other variations.[1]

In medieval literature[edit]

Merlin And Vivien (1912) by Lancelot Speed

The Lancelot-Grail Cycle provides a backstory for the Lady of the Lake, Viviane, in the prose Merlin section, which takes place before the Lancelot Proper, though it was written later. There, Viviane learns her magic from Merlin, who becomes enamored of her. She refuses to give him her love until he has taught her all his secrets, after which she uses her power to trap him either in the trunk of a tree or beneath a stone, depending on the story and author. Though Merlin, through his power of foresight knows beforehand that this will happen, he is unable to counteract Viviane 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 in a tree, a stone or a cave.

"Arthur meets the Lady of the Lake and gets the Sword Excalibur". A 1919 illustration by Henry Justice Ford for Andrew Lang's Tales of Romance

The Post-Vulgate Cycle's second Lady of the Lake is called Ninianne, and her story is nearly identical to the one in the Lancelot-Grail, though it adds her bestowal of the magic sword Excalibur to Arthur. Sir Thomas Malory also uses both Ladies of the Lake in his Le Morte d'Arthur; he leaves the first one unnamed and calls the second one Nimue. Malory's original Lady 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 and he blames her for the death of his mother) and a dispute over an enchanted sword. According to the Vulgate Merlin, had its charm, given to Diana, which caused Viviane (the Lady of the Lake) to be so tempting for Merlin. The Vulgate Lancelot tells us that she was the Queen of Sicily, but considered a goddess by his subjects pagan fools. The continuation post-vulgata Merlin describes how he killed her lover to be with another man, but then he was beheaded by this man to be a murderess. This story was later transferred to a lake in France, and was later called the Lake of Diana.

Sir Thomas Malory and the Lady of the Lake[edit]


In Sir Thomas Malory’s text, Le Morte D’Arthur he refers to Nymue as one of two Ladies of the Lake. Malory strives to dissociate Nymue from the general title of the Lady of the Lake. This is due to the fact that Sir Balin kills one of the ladies of the lake and if the woman that dies is Nymue, Malory loses a key element to the plot of his tale. It is important to note that Malory takes the time to mention Nymue as the “chief” and most important lady. Throughout Malory’s tale, Nymue plays a pivotal role in Arthurian court. Without Nymue the Arthurian tale would not be as potent as it is with her. Malory’s Nymue does not conform to the stereotypes surrounding her role. Firstly, it is not Nymue’s hand that juts out the lake to hand Excalibur to Arthur. According to Malory, this hand belongs to the unidentified first Lady of the Lake. Furthermore, Malory starts to break Nymue out of the stereotypical role that women in Arthurian literature tend to fall under. Instead of only serving the plot as a temptress, Nymue becomes a recognizable force for good. In Malory’s text Nymue’s character evolves from the dependent maiden to a woman who subtly take charge in order to help and save the men around her. She is married to Sir 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 for his characters, he chose the best aspects of all the other Lady of the Lake characters. He morphed Nymue into a compassionate, smart and strong willed sympathetic character. Nymue is a different kind of woman, one who does not shrink behind the male figures in her life. Instead, she is pragmatic, unflappable, and knowledgeable.


Similarly, Malory also introduces a character named Nyneve. This woman is another character for whom the title Lady of the Lake fits. Similar to Nyme, Nyneve is sympathetic to Arthur and also marries Pelleas. She heavily stresses justice based on the greater good. In Malory’s text, Nyneve is loosely related to Arthur receiving Excalibur. In Le Morte D’Arthur this king receives Excalibur three times. Once from the stone, once from the unidentified Lady of the Lake and once in a battle from Nyneve. The distinction between the Lady of the Lake and Nyneve is evident through this example. It is important to note that when Arthur is in need, some incarnation of the Lady of the Lake, or her magic, reaches out to help him. Nyneve appears as the chivalric code changes; her appearance hints to the reader that something new will happened. This trend follows the logic that Malory is in a conspiracy of sorts with his reader. In this scenario, the author and the reader are in cahoots in order to achieve the wanted interpretation of the Arthurian legend. The first time the named character Nyneve appears is at Arthur’s wedding. This also happens to be the same time the Round Table is presented. The Round Table is known to symbolize the chivalric code of Arthur’s court, thus Nyneve is presented at the same time to symbolize that this woman is also connected to the justice system of Camelot. Furthermore, through her, the reader is able to gage how to judge other female characters. Before Nyneve, there had been no standard for which to compare the other female characters. There were only men and they did not undergo the same struggles/challenges that the women did. Nyneve at Arthur’s court is a microcosm for the flow of justice throughout the realm. Though the characters of Nymue and Nyneve have distinct differences, they also possess many similarities. This makes sense because the characters were written by the same author. However, there are still other accurate spellings of the names which are not mentioned above.

Both characters appear in many other episodes of Malory's work. Each time the Lady reappears, it is at a pivotal moment of the episode, establishing the importance of her character within Arthurian literature, especially Le Morte d'Arthur. In that work, she transcends any notoriety attached to her character by aiding Arthur and other knights to succeed in their endeavors.[2] After enchanting Merlin, Malory's Nimue replaces him as Arthur's adviser. She becomes the lover and eventual wife of Sir Pelleas and mother to his son Guivret. After the Battle of Camlann, she reclaims Excalibur when it is thrown into the lake by Sir Bedivere. Nimue is one of the four magical queens who bear the wounded Arthur away to Avalon, a setting tied to the Lady of the Lake in some literary traditions.

Pagan Roots of the Lady of the Lake[edit]

The Lady of the Lake figures very prominently in Arthurian legends, but the roots of this mythical being hark back to the Celtic tradition of pre-Christian Britain. The Celts worshipped the Danube and the Thames, among other rivers[3], and deposited thousands of votive offerings in bodies of water across England and Wales including Llyn Cerrig Bach and Llyn Fawr, both in Wales[4]. In many of these locations, swords and other tools have been found, showing their symbolic surrender to the Otherworld after use in the mortal plane. While a definite location for the Isle of Avalon has not been agreed upon, its identity as a mystical place of liminality and magic assure its connections with revered Celtic pools, and the priestesses rumored to inhabit the Isle are tied to Celtic myth. Additionally, the Lady of the Lake herself shares many aspects with Celtic water-deities, and her role as priestess, sorceress, and healer hark from Celtic legends and beliefs.


After killing Mordred, the wounded Arthur awaits the arrival of Morgan le Fay and her attendants to bear him away on a mystical barge. However, he first tasks Sir Bedivere to cast Excalibur into the lake from whence it came. These circumstances bear no relation to Christianity or the chivalric ideals present when Sir Thomas Malory compiled his Morte D’Arthur. However, they are strikingly similar to the Celtic practice of consigning objects of great craft or beauty to sacred waters, in an offering to the deity of that holy site and a deliverance of the treasured weapon to the Otherworld.

Therefore, in keeping with the Celtic reverence for lakes, and the Celtic belief that the gods and goddesses of rivers and lakes were the deities themselves, not simply physical manifestations of their power, the Lady of the Lake accepts the return of Excalibur as the local goddess of the lake. Material culture exists to support this idea, and John Darrah argues that many ancient swords retrieved from the Thames River were ‘ritual Excaliburs’[5]. Still, the obstacle exists that a Celtic tradition from Iron Age Britain surfaced in a 14th Century adventure, originally crafted by Breton poets. Some scholars suggest that the Breton conteurs were the agent of transposition; they retained cultural ties with Wales and Cornwall across the English Channel, and understood both Welsh and French. Thus, they could pull from the Celtic tradition preserved in Wales and even Ireland, and combined it with the newer courtly ideals of France to create the Lady of the Lake and the Excalibur tale known today[6].

Lady of the Lake: Celtic Goddess[edit]

The Lady of the Lake as a character bears many of the characteristics of a water deity, and her history lends credence to this argument. Sometimes she is cited as being descended from a goddess, specifically Diana of the Woods; other times, she is directly equated with Diana, who married Faunus, Lord of Animals, while the Lady of the Lake has a relationship with Merlin, who can also shape-shift and control beasts[7]. While this relationship is not entirely Celtic, it highlights the magical power and influence of the Lady of the Lake.

Furthermore, in a practice related to both warfare and religion, Celtic warriors would behead their defeated enemies and preserve the head as a measure of respect and pride. The Celts believed the soul resided in the head, and placed great stock on ritual beheading and ‘head-hunting’ or ‘head-gathering’. Furthermore, the Celts would make votive offerings of heads or skulls to their sacred rivers and lakes. Arthurian legend is rife with beheadings, both magical and mundane. However, the beheading of the Lady of the Lake herself by Sir Balin and her connection to hallowed water further intertwines the Arthurian stories with the Celtic past.

The Lady of the Lake’s identity itself shows traces of Celtic ancestry, sometimes being depicted with three identities. This triplicity is common throughout Celtic religion, where the number three is divine and represented in many forms in Celtic art and other aspects of life. The Mother Goddess is often seen in three forms; Maiden, Mother, and Crone, and these categories roughly correspond to the Lady(ies) of the Lake, as Viviane is often older, Nyneve is married, and Nymue is a young girl (as portrayed in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon). The Lady of the Lake’s connection with Lancelot also suggests a Celtic goddess. Lancelot is not a Welsh character, but many aspects of his mythology feature beheadings and challenges at fords, rivers, or springs, suggesting he was drawn from preexisting Celtic ideals and heroic conceptions. The Lady of the Lake also shares the features of a goddess in her duality as caregiver and avenger, since she both fosters Lancelot and demands the head of Sir Balin.

Later uses[edit]

Viviane and Merlin in Gustave Doré's 1868 illustration for Alfred Tennyson's Idylls of the King

The full name of the University of Notre Dame is translated "Our Lady of the Lake," making reference to the Virgin Mary as the Lady of the Lake, evidencing fusion between Arthurian legend and middle-Christian history.[8]

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 opera by Gioachino Rossini which debuted in Naples in 1819. It was the first of a fashion for operas with Scottish settings and based on Scott's works, of which Gaetano Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor is the most familiar. The three "Ellen songs" from Scott's poem were set to music by Franz Schubert (D. 837–D. 839 – "Ellens Gesang I",[9] "Ellens Gesang II",[10] and "Ellens Gesang III"[11]), although Schubert's music to Ellen's Third Song has become far more famous in its later adaptation, known as "Ave Maria".

Alfred, Lord Tennyson adapted several stories of the Lady of the Lake for his 1859-1859 poetic cycle Idylls of the King. He 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.

In modern culture[edit]

The Lady of the Lake in a 1903 illustration from Howard Pyle's The Story of King Arthur and His Knights

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.

  • Some authors choose to emphasize a single character. 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.
  • 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 offices. 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 the 1998 miniseries Merlin and its 2006 sequel Merlin's Apprentice, the characters of the Lady of the Lake and Nimue are separated, with the former being a goddess-like fae who is the twin sister of Queen Mab, and the latter being a noblewoman who is the object of Merlin's affections.
  • 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 Afternoon Drama Pilgrim the antagonist Birdie (or Mrs Pleasance) is gradually revealled to be responsible for trapping Merlin ("The Drowned Mage") beneath a lake.[12] Her story draws on that of Nimue.
  • This interpretation is followed by Lerner and Loewe in the musical Camelot; Nimue lures Merlin away with the song "Follow Me".
  • 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.
  • The Lady of the Lake is featured in Marvel Comics in the stories of Captain Britain. Her real name is Niamh Chinn Oir and she is an inhabitant of Avalon.
  • In the comic book series Hellboy, Nimue is a witch who seduced Merlin and stole his powers, sealing him – still alive – in a tomb. But without his help, she lost control of those powers and went mad. The other witches killed her, cut her body into pieces, and buried her. She has since returned as the Queen of Blood, to raise an army against man, but is opposed by Hellboy who possesses the sword Excalibur (and thus is technically king of England).
  • She appears in "Lady of the Lake" (also titled "Spirit of Avalon"), the penultimate episode of the 1995-1996 animated series Princess Gwenevere and the Jewel Riders, where she gives Princess Gwenevere the Staff of Avalon holding powerful magic to defeat the evil sorceress Lady Kale and save her friends.
  • In the 2009 video game Sonic and the Black Knight, Nimue, the Lady of the Lake, is portrayed by Amy Rose (voiced by Lisa Ortiz). In the game, she tests Sonic's character to see if he is worthy of being a knight.
  • In the 2011 video game The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, there is a pond slightly Northeast of Bleakwind Basin with a skeletal arm holding a leveled sword, which is a reference to the Lady in the Lake holding Excalibur.
  • In the 2012 video game King Arthur II: The Role-Playing Wargame, the sorceress Nimue is an enemy who kidnapped Merlin. A shape-shifting fairy-battle takes place between Nimue and Merlin's apprentice Morgana Le Fay inside a fairy Fading Tower.[13]
  • In the Safehold series of science ficion novels by David Weber, one of the main characters, Merlin Athrawes, is a cybernetic avatar of a long-dead Federation naval officer named Nimue Alban.
  • The comedy film Monty Python and the Holy Grail references the story of the Lady of the Lake as to how King Arthur became king, which is immediately dismissed by an anarcho-syndicalist peasant, stating that "strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government".
  • She appears in the musical Spamalot, which is in turn based off of the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Among her works she turns Dennis the peasant into Sir Galahad, counsels Arthur in a time of doubt, and uses her "Laker Girls" to help put on musical numbers.

Claimed locations of the Lake[edit]

A number of locations in Great Britain are traditionally associated with the Lady of the Lake's[14] abode. They include Dozmary Pool, Llyn Llydaw, Llyn Ogwen, The Loe, Pomparles Bridge, Loch Arthur, and Aleines. Pergusa Lake in Sicily, in France, she is associated with the forest of Brocéliande.

Another popular location given to Avalon is Glastonbury, in Somerset, England. In medieval times and before, the Isle of Glastonbury was surrounded by watery marshes and thick fogs, making it a prime candidate for a location of magic and otherworldly presence to the ancient Celts of Britain. It’s original name was Ynys Wydryn, ‘the isle of glass’, but it was also known by its connection to apples in the Welsh tongue. Additionally, the presence of a medieval church of St. Michael on the heights of the Glastonbury Tor suggests an earlier pagan temple or holy site[15]. There is also an island off the coast of Brittany referred to by the Roman author Pomponius Mela, where nine priestesses were said to live, and they possessed the power to call upon storms, control animals, and provide powerful healing[16].

Celtic Influence[edit]

The lake itself holds magical qualities, as it acts as a boundary between this world and that of the fays, or fairies, and is generally held to be a perilous and eerie place in Arthurian romance. This cautious respect for the lake could stem from the blending of ancient Celtic beliefs and medieval Christian principles. When Christianity was firmly established throughout Britain and France, the priests and bishops attempted to purge all aspects of the older pagan religion. However, in time, the churchmen surrendered to the peasant deference for sacred wells, pools, and springs, and sanctified them[17]. Archaeological evidence supports this notion; votive offerings have been discovered in Lake Gévaudan, France dating well after Christianity came to dominate the region[18].

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Holbrook, S. E. "Nymue, the Chief Lady of the Lake, in Malory's Le Morte D’arthur." Speculum 53.4 (1978): 761-777. JSTOR. NCSU University Libraries, Raleigh, NC. 15 March 2009.
  2. ^ Sue E Holbrook: "Nymue, the Chief Lady of the Lake, in Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur" in Speculum Volume 53 No. 4 (1978): Pages 761-777.
  3. ^ Ellis, Peter Berresford (2002). Celtic Myths and Legends. New York: Carroll & Graf. p. 2. 
  4. ^ Green, Miranda J. (1997). The World of the Druids. New York: Thames and Hudson. p. 64. 
  5. ^ Darrah, John (1997). Paganism in Arthurian Romance. Rochester, NY: Boydell Press. p. 90. 
  6. ^ Loomis, Roger Sherman (1927). Celtic Myth and Arthurian Romance. New York: Columbia University Press. p. 23. 
  7. ^ Darrah, John (1997). Paganism in Arthurian Romance. Rochester, NY: Boydell Press. p. 143. 
  8. ^ M. Rible. "A Comparison of Celtic Myth and Arthurian Romance". Retrieved 27 Nov 2014. 
  9. ^ "Ellens Gesang I". Retrieved 2013-11-15. 
  10. ^ "Ellens Gesang II". Retrieved 2013-11-15. 
  11. ^ "Ellens Gesang III". Retrieved 2013-11-15. 
  12. ^ "Pilgrim Series 4, Bleaker Lake". 2013-03-14. Retrieved 2013-11-15. 
  13. ^
  14. ^ "Lady of the Lake". Geography (History). Retrieved September 24, 2014. 
  15. ^ Darrah, John (1997). Paganism in Arthurian Romance. Rochester, NY: Boydell Press. p. 243. 
  16. ^ Darrah, John (1997). Paganism in Arthurian Romance. Rochester, NY: Boydell Press. p. 217. 
  17. ^ Darrah, John (1997). Paganism in Arthurian Romance. Rochester, NY: Boydell Press. p. 19. 
  18. ^ Green, Miranda J. (1997). The World of the Druids. New York: Thames and Hudson. p. 33. 

Darrah, John. Paganism in Arthurian Romance. Rochester, NY: Boydell, 1997. Print. Ellis, Peter Berresford. Celtic Myths and Legends. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2002. Print. Green, Miranda J. The World of the Druids. New York, N.Y.: Thames and Hudson, 1997. Print. Hodges, Kenneth. “Swords and Sorceresses: The Chivalry of Malory’s Nyneve.” Arthuriana 12.2 (2002): 18. JSTOR. Web. 19 Nov. 2014. 2014. Holbrook, S.E. “Nymue, the Chief Lady of the Lake.” Speculum 53.4 (1978): 16. JSTOR. Web. 19 Nov. 2014. Loomis, Roger Sherman. Celtic Myth and Arthurian Romance. 2nd ed. New York: Columbia UP, 1927. Print. Malory, Thomas, and Janet Cowen. Le Morte D'Arthur. 2nd ed. Vol. 2. Baltimore: Penguin, 1969. Print. Tatlock, J.S.P. “Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini.” Speculum 18.3 (1943): 22. JSTOR. Web. 30 Nov. 2014.

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