The Lady of the Lake: The Good, the Bad, and the Complicated

By: E.J. Lawrence

I once heard a saying–I don’t know how true it is–that in the ancient eras, boys were more often associated with water, while girls were more often associated with fire. The reasoning given to me was that boys spent more time in the outdoors and were more prone to fall into wells, rivers, oceans, etc., while girls spent more time indoors or around fires and were more prone to burning themselves.

Whether this is true or not (and it isn’t like our ancestors are known for their super meticulous record keeping and preserving), it is interesting how few stories one can find that associate women with water. The ones that do tend to be negative–sirens, mermaids, women on a ship as “bad luck.” Which is why I find the connection between women and water in the Arthurian legends fascinating–first, because they exist, and second, because they are equal parts “good” and “bad.”

Really, “good” and “bad” are too simplistic a way of describing the relationship women in these legends have with water. Women in the Arthurian canon are notoriously complicated characters, but they also make a valuable contribution to the medieval discussion about the roles of women. From a theological (and thus academic) standpoint, there were two primary schools of thought on women. Camp A: Women are like Eve; they are all temptresses who work to bring about the downfall of mankind and their passions must be kept in check (see: Tertullian, Augustine). Camp B: Women are like Mary; they are good and chaste and through them, we receive hope (children) for the future (see: Julian of Norwich, Hildegard).


The answer to the question “Are women more like Eve or Mary?” is probably “yes.” Also, “no.” Which is precisely how many of the Arthurian texts answer this same question. Particularly when it comes to the women associated with water.

Though there are several, I will briefly cover two Arthurian women and their complex, watery ways.

The first that comes to mind is probably the Lady of the Lake. Depending on which

(Walter Crane, 1911)

version of the legend one reads, she goes by many names: Nimue, Vivienne, or simply “The Lady of the Lake”…and any spelling variations of those. Many might consider her “good”–she gives Arthur his famed sword, Excalibur, after all!

…But she does so with the caveat that Arthur will owe her a favor one day (spoiler alert: This particular deal never goes well in literature.)

The “favor” she asks for later is that he behead Balin, one of his own knights. So this would seem to make her evil again.

Arthur refuses, and Balin takes of the lady’s head instead. Arthur is unhappy, but the lady doesn’t die; she’s a fairy, after all.

She also raises a human boy as her own. His name is “Lancelot du Lake”–or “Lancelot of the Lake.” See? She’s good again!

Beguiling of Merlin (Edward Burne-Jones, 1872-1877)

…But later, she forces Merlin to teach her all of his secrets of magic and then traps him in a tree for all eternity, depriving Arthur of his adviser just when he needs him most. So…evil again.

When Arthur dies, he asks Sir Bedivere to return the sword Excalibur to the lake. After three tries, Bedivere finally does so and sees a woman’s hand reach up from the lake, grab the sword, brandish it three times and then disappear. It is then Arthur knows he can cross the sea to Avalon. So…perhaps she is good, after all.

Accompanying Arthur across the sea is also his sister Morgan le Fay, whom I’ve written on extensively here and here. Morgan le Fay (also a “fay” or “faerie”) shares many of the Lady of the Lake’s qualities–she, too, is sometimes “good,” acting in the best interests of Arthur’s kingdom, and sometimes “evil,” acting against Arthur and his kingdom.

But perhaps it’s best to view these two women as acting in their own interests more so than determining their morality based on how they act in the interest of others. Considering the significance of symbolism to the medieval world, I think the fact that these two women in particular are associated with water helps to show their fluid nature, as well as the fact they “ebb and flow” according to what is needed. Are they Eve or Mary?

Yes. And no.

Though this fluidity might make them seem fickle, it’s important to note there is a consistency to their actions. Both the Lady of the Lake and Morgan le Fay pursue their own interests and goals to the exclusion of others’, and while their own goals come into conflict with Arthur’s at times, everything in the Arthurian narrative works toward the ultimate goal of bringing the downfall of Camelot.

Still, this is one of the reasons I adore the women of the Arthurian canon–they are complicated. Though popular narrative has tried to boil them down to “good” or “bad” distinctions (Morgan le Fay, “bad”; Lady of the Lake, “good”), when one actually digs into the stories themselves, it just isn’t that simple. Medieval literature is known for its driving plots, not its complex characterization. Which makes it all the more interesting to see these types of nuanced female characters represented in medieval narratives.

The Death of King Arthur (James Archer, 1860)


Runner Up Idea: I really want to write about Perceval’s sister one of these months, and I thought about writing her story here since she meets the Grail Knights by boat…but the Lady of the Lake seemed to align more closely to the theme. But keep an eye out for my discussion of Perceval’s sister!


Source Note: All summaries in this article are from Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, both the Winchester and Caxton MS.

Marie de France Invents Courtly Love; Or, Why We Have Chivalry All Wrong

by E.J. Lawrence

I love history. My favorite part is learning about historical events, especially ones which occurred out of pure selfishness, or happenstance, that affected people or places hundreds of years later. Henry VIII’s desire to get divorced, which later caused intense strife between the Catholic and Protestant churches, for instance. Or Russia’s Pauline Laws in 1797 that said only male heirs could rule, and thus caused a young czarina to seek out the help of a devilish monk named Rasputin to save her only son. Her attempt to salvage the Romanov line, of course, ended tragically.

Empress Theodora of the Byzantine Empire, 6th Century

So, when K.P. suggested our May theme be about women in their “purple” (from the Empress Theodora quote), I interpreted this as a question about influence. Not just influencing a decision now and again, but influencing a long-lasting decision–one that affects our world even now.

I’m sure I could look to find women commanding armies (Boudica) or kingdoms (Empress Theodora), but that’s not really where my expertise lies. My expertise lies in literature. Arthurian literature, specifically. At first glance, you might not think women had much influence over the King Arthur stories. After all, the canonical works about King Arthur are all by men.

Perhaps. But they were enjoyed by men and women alike. And one of the most enduring facets of Arthurian legend would not even exist if it weren’t for one very influential woman: Marie de Champagne, also known as Marie de France.

Marie de France was the daughter of another highly influential woman, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Yes, the same Eleanor who married Henry II (the one who killed Thomas a Beckett) and conspired with her son, Henry the Young, to overthrow his father. Also, this is the same Eleanor who gave birth to Richard the Lionhearted (Marie de France’s half-brother) and John (also Marie’s half-brother, and the same man who signed the Magna Carta).

Let me re-cap that for you: If it weren’t for Eleanor of Aquitaine and her crazy family, we would likely have no Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, no T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, no Robin Hood, no Magna Carta either!the influence that this one family had on literature is immeasurable.

But we’re here to discuss Marie de France.

Marie de France by Richard of Verdun

Yes. Without Marie de France, there might not be a Lancelot, and there certainly wouldn’t be a salacious love triangle between him, King Arthur, and the beauteous Queen Guinevere.

You see, back in the day, authors used to have patrons. The patron would allow the author (or painter, or musician, etc.) to work on their art, as long as they could commission a piece from time to time for themselves. Marie de France patronized the writings of one Chrétien de Troyes. We know almost nothing about Chrétien, except that he was a writer, possibly from Troyes (in Champagne), he had an extensive education, and he was fascinated by the King Arthur tales. Anything beyond this is mostly speculation.

But we do know Marie de France asked him to write “a romance.” “Romance” for this time period is a type of work that dealt with chivalry and noble quests, not necessarily a love story. However, in this case, it was a love story. Chrétien says that “The Countess presents [me] with the matter and the meaning, and [I] undertake to shape the work, adding little to it except effort and careful attention.”1 This means, of course, that the story was all her idea, and Chrétien claims he did not change anything. Whether he says this as a dutiful artist to his patron, or to ensure everyone knows this story was not his idea, we don’t know. Yet, we are certain this story is hers.

The story is “The Knight of the Cart,” and it introduces Lancelot as he goes to rescue Guinevere from Meleagant. It is in this tale, we see Lancelot as being wholly in love, devoted to his queen…but more than a “I really hope no harm comes to my best friend’s wife” kind of way. Or even more than a “She’s the queen, it’s my duty to help her” kind of way. Rather, we get scenes such as when Lancelot is forced to lie with a woman overnight (a common trope in Arthurian literature), he keeps his shirt on, and lays as far from her as humanly possible. The Lady recognizes that “The knight had only one heart, and it was no longer his; he had entrusted it to another[…]Love, who governs all hearts, made it stay in one place.”2 It’s at this moment the Lady excuses herself, telling Lancelot she knows her company isn’t pleasing to him. Lancelot “gladly” lets her go. He is so committed to his love that he refuses the advances of another.

His passion is later compared to Pyramus when, as he fights Meleagant, Guinevere wills him to stop, and Lancelot obeys, for “A lover is obedient; when he is completely in love, he performs his beloved’s pleasure eagerly and promptly. Thus Lancelot, who loved more than Pyramus–if love more any man could–was compelled to obey.”3

But, of course, these vignettes could perhaps be brushed aside as “Courtly Love”–a name often given to the “duties” a knight owes his “lady” in such romances. Despite the title of this post, I’m not here to debate Courtly Love. However, the story makes it perfectly clear this is more than Courtly Love, for later, Lancelot breaks the bars off the queen’s prison and “had all he desired. The queen eagerly sought his company and his pleasure as he held her in his arms and she held him in hers. In the pleasure of loving, he tasted such rapturous happiness by kissing and caressing her that theirs was, without word of lie, a wondrous joy, whose equal has never yet been heard or known. But on this matter I shall always be silent. Every tale should pass over it in silence. The choicest and most pleasurable joys are those the tale keeps from us.”4

But on this matter I shall always be silent. Every tale should pass over it in silence. The choicest and most pleasurable joys are those the tale keeps from us.4

As he leaves her room the next morning, before he is discovered, he is described as leaving like a suppliant before an altar.4 I mean, that’s a romance, right? Kissing, holding, cut scene, idol worship of the lover? Well, it’s an Arthurian Romance, in any case.

Lancelot and Guinevere’s Last Night Together by Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale

Though Chrétien’s tale ends well, without the downfall of the kingdom, we know the impact the story has on the legend moving forward. The Lancelot/Guenevere affair sets off the chain reaction for the what will ultimately be the demise of Camelot. It’s because of this affair that Lancelot is barred from the Grail quest. Without this element of the story, Malory, Tennyson, and T.H. White would probably never written their versions. They certainly wouldn’t have been able to write their versions with the same sense of gravitas. For the fall of Arthur’s kingdom is a tragedy…but Malory’s story doesn’t end there. Rather, Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur actually ends with Lancelot’s death, as he’s spirited away by “more men than he had ever seen angels.”5 In the end, Lancelot finds redemption for his betrayal. In Lancelot, there’s a picture of Malory himself, a man with overwhelming potential who gave it all up for “love.” Lancelot finds forgiveness in ways one can only imagine Malory hoped to. So many end the story with Camelot’s destruction, but the ending of Malory’s tale is a beautiful representation of redemption. The “romances” often get lumped in with ideas about “Courtly Love” and damsels in distress, and while some of them are that simple, they expanded to be tales about so much more. Stories about love and betrayal and loss and faith.

For all this (or a good bit of it, at least), we can thank Marie de France and her patronage of the arts. So keep sharing your stories! Who can say what resounding influence they might also have on future generations?

If you’re interested in more about Lancelot and Grail lore, I also have a piece you can read here:

Transposing the Planes: Supernatural vs. Natural Elements in Le Morte D’Arthur

1 Chrétien de Troyes. The Complete Romances of Chrétien de Troyes. David Staines, ed., Indiana UP, 1993, pp. 170

2 Chrétien de Troyes. The Complete Romances of Chrétien de Troyes. David Staines, ed., Indiana UP, 1993, pp. 185

3 Chrétien de Troyes. The Complete Romances of Chrétien de Troyes. David Staines, ed., Indiana UP, 1993, pp. 216

4 Chrétien de Troyes. The Complete Romances of Chrétien de Troyes. David Staines, ed., Indiana UP, 1993, pp. 227

5 Malory, Thomas. Le Morte D’Arthur. Modern Library, 1999.