Lady of the Lake

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Lady of the Lake
Matter of Britain character
Idylls of the King (1913) 08 - O master, do you love my tender rhyme.jpg
The Lady and Merlin in an illustration by Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale (1913)
First appearance Estoire de Merlin[1]
Occupation Enchantress
Spouse(s) Pelleas
Significant other(s) Merlin
Children Lancelot, Guivret

Lady of the Lake is the title held by a sorceress character in the Matter of Britain. 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, Nymue, Nimueh, Viviane, Vivien, Vivienne, Ninianne, Nivian, Nyneve, or Evienne, among other variations.[2] In some versions and adaptations, at least two separate characters bearing the title "the Lady of the Lake" appear since the Post-Vulgate Cycle and Le Morte d'Arthur.


The Arthurian scholar A. O. H. Jarman, following suggestions first made by scholars of the 19th century, proposed that the name Viviane in French Arthurian romances was 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, but due to the relative obscurity of the word, was misunderstood as "fair wanton maiden" and taken to be the name of Myrddin's female captor.[3][4][5]

Chrétien de Troyes's Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart, the first 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) and raised in her country of Meidelant ("Land of Maidens", an island in the sea inhabited by ten thousand maidens who live in perpetual happiness); the fairy queen and her paradise island are reminiscent of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Morgen of the Island of Avallon in his Vita Merlini.

In medieval literature[edit]

The Lady of the Lake in a 1903 illustration from Howard Pyle's The Story of King Arthur and His Knights
Nimue, the Lady of the Lake, shown holding the infatuated Merlin trapped and reading from a book of spells, in The Beguiling of Merlin by Edward Burne-Jones (1874)

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. 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. 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.

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 (Nymue). 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, it was the goddess Diana's enchantment, given to Dyonas, that caused Viviane to be so alluring to Merlin.[6] The Vulgate Lancelot tells us that she was the Queen of Sicily, but considered a goddess by her subjects. The continuation Post Vulgate Merlin describes how she killed her lover to be with another man, but then she was beheaded by this man as a murderess. This story was later transferred to a lake in France, and was later called the Lake of Diana.

The Middle English romance Arthour and Merlin, casts Morgan herself in the role of the Lady of the Lake and residing near a town named Ninniane. The Italian manuscript Tavola ritonda (The Round Table) makes Morgan both a daughter of Uther Pendragon and a sister of the Lady of the Lake.

Le Morte d'Arthur[edit]

King Arthur asks the Lady of the Lake for the sword Excalibur in Walter Crane's 1911 illustration from Henry Gilbert's King Arthur's Knights: The Tales Retold for Boys and Girls
The Lady of the Lake in Lancelot Speed's illustration for The Legends of King Arthur and His Knights (1912)

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, who she blames for her brother's death. Arthur refuses this request, and Balin beheads her instead, much to Arthur's distress.

The second Lady of the Lake is sometimes referred to by her title and sometimes referred to by name. That name has several variations. In William Caxton's text of Le Morte d'Arthur, her name appears as "Nymue" four times, "Nyneue" twice, and "Nynyue" once, and, in the Winchester MS, her name appears as "Nynyve" five times and "Nenyve" twice. Even though "Nymue," with the m, appears only in the Caxton text, it is perhaps the most common name for this Lady of the Lake as the Caxton text was the only version of Le Morte d'Arthur published until 1947.[7]

Nimue appears as the chivalric code changes; her appearance hints to the reader that something new will happen. 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 character named Nimue appears is at Arthur's wedding. She then appears 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.[8]

Malory describes Nimue as the "chief Lady of the Lake," and she plays a pivotal role in the Arthurian court throughout the story. Malory's Nymue performs some of the same actions as the Lady of the Lake of his sources, but Malory's Nimue is different in some ways. For instance, in the Suite du Merlin, his 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.[9] 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 a dotage” on 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 she is afraid of the sorcerer’s power, so she does not have much of a choice but to ultimately get rid of him.[10]

In Malory's text, Nimue 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, making her a compassionate, clever, strong willed, and sympathetic character. Nimue does not shrink behind the male figures in her life; instead, she is pragmatic, unflappable, and knowledgeable.

It is important to note that 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 Accolon, and together with Tristan helps him kill an evil sorceress named Annowre (these stories had already appeared in the French romances).

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 magical queens who bear the wounded Arthur away to Avalon, a setting tied to the Lady of the Lake in some literary traditions.

Later appearances[edit]

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

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",[11] "Ellens Gesang II",[12] and "Ellens Gesang III"[13]), although Schubert's music to Ellen's third song has become far more famous in its later adaptation, known as "Ave Maria".

The full name of the University of Notre Dame, founded in 1842, is in French; 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.[14]

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.

In modern culture[edit]

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 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 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 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 revealed to be responsible for trapping Merlin ("The Drowned Mage") beneath a lake.[15] Her story draws on that of Nimue.
  • 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 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 didn’t know anything about how horrible demons are, and puts a geas on her so she will leave Gilthunder alone.
  • 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 then appears in a later scene when she catches the sword underwater after Arthur throws it into the lake in shame of his failures, she then 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 advices him to trust the Mage, she then returns the sword to Arthur.
  • Nimue is featured in the ABC fantasy series Once Upon a Time. She first appears in the episode "Nimue," played 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. 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.

Claimed locations of her lake[edit]

A number of locations in Great Britain are traditionally associated with the Lady of the Lake's abode.[16] They include Martin Mere, Dozmary Pool, Llyn Llydaw, Llyn Ogwen, Llyn y Fan Fach, The Loe, Pomparles Bridge, Loch Arthur, and Pergusa Lake in Sicily. In France, she is associated with the forest of Brocéliande.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Nathan Currin. "The Lady of the Lake ~ Other Characters in Arthurian Legend - King Arthur & The Knights of the Round Table". 
  2. ^ 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.
  3. ^ Jarman, A. O. H., "A Note on the Possible Welsh Derivation of Viviane," Gallica: Essays Presented to J. Heywood Thomas (Cardiff 1969) 1-12.
  4. ^ Jarman, A. O. H., "Hwimleian, Chwibleian", Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies 16 (1954-1956) 72-76.
  5. ^ Ford, Patrick K., "The Death of Merlin in the Chronicle of Elis Gruffudd", Viator: Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Vol 7 (1976), University of California Press, pp. 379-390 (p. 381).
  6. ^ Bruce, Christopher, The Arthurian Name Dictionary, Routledge, 1999, p. 145
  7. ^ Holbrook, S. E. “Nymue, the Chief Lady of the Lake, in Malory’s Le Morte Darthur.” Speculum, vol. 53, no. 4, Oct., 1978, pp. 761-777. JSTOR
  8. ^ Holbrook, S. E. “Nymue, the Chief Lady of the Lake, in Malory’s Le Morte Darthur.Speculum, vol. 53, no. 4, Oct., 1978, pp. 761-777. JSTOR.
  9. ^ Larrington, Carolyne. King Arthur's Enchantresses: Morgan and Her Sisters in Arthurian Tradition. I. B. Tauris, 2006.
  10. ^ Holbrook, S. E. “Nymue, the Chief Lady of the Lake, in Malory’s Le Morte Darthur.” Speculum, vol. 53, no. 4, Oct., 1978, pp. 761-777. JSTOR.
  11. ^ "Ellens Gesang I". Archived from the original on 2013-12-29. Retrieved 2013-11-15. 
  12. ^ "Ellens Gesang II". Archived from the original on 2013-12-29. Retrieved 2013-11-15. 
  13. ^ "Ellens Gesang III". Retrieved 2013-11-15. 
  14. ^ M. Rible. "A Comparison of Celtic Myth and Arthurian Romance". Retrieved 27 Nov 2014. 
  15. ^ "Pilgrim Series 4, Bleaker Lake". 2013-03-14. Retrieved 2013-11-15. 
  16. ^ "Lady of the Lake". Geography. History. Retrieved September 24, 2014. 


  • 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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