Who was the Arthurian Lady of the Lake?
Alright, time for one little confession…
I’m the BIGGEST King Arthur fan.
I’ve read every relevant book I’ve managed to get my hands on, I’ve watched every TV and movie adaptation (I’m looking at you Sean Connery) and I’ve visited a ton of historical sites that were allegedly visited by King Arthur. I’ve even written a book that incorporates the Arthurian Legend, which you can find right here!
I’m not ashamed to admit that I once got into a heated argument with a university classmate about whether or not King Arthur broke the Laws of Chivalry before in his life. She insisted he did, I insisted he didn’t.
Long story short, she was wrong, and I was right. Period.
Having said that, the Arthurian Legends are full of interesting characters that come with their own unique stories.
And my favorite (second to King Arthur, of course) has to be the fabled Lady of the Lake.
Who was the mysterious woman who not only gave King Arthur his magical sword, Excalibur but kidnapped Sir Lancelot as a child only to later cure him of his madness?
The Lady of the Lake may have been a Celtic goddess in origin, perhaps even related to the Gwagged Annwn, the lake ferries in modern Welsh folklore. According to Ulrich, she was a fairy that raised Sir Lancelot from birth and was the mother of Mabuz, identical to the Celtic god Mabon.
The Lady of the Lake’s character is super ambiguous, even in her most early appearances in the legends and stories. In the French Vulgate Estoire de Merlin, she loves the enchanter and seals him in a beautiful tower, magically constructed, so that she can keep him for herself forever. She would visit him regularly and ended up giving her love to him.
In the continuation of the Vulgate, known as the Suite du Merlin, the relationship is very different. When Merlin shows her a tomb of two lovers, magically sealed, she enchants him and has him cast into the tomb on top of the two lovers, whereupon she reseals the tomb and Merlin dies a slow death.
Alfred Lord Tennyson turns Vivien into the personification of evil. Edwin Arlington Robinson, in the poem, Merlin, makes Merlin’s “captivity” voluntary, and his Vivian is less of an enchantress than an interesting woman whom Merlin truly loves.
So, who is the Lady of the Lake or Vivien? Was she good, evil or a bit of both? Perhaps she was a combination of many imaginative tales and came to be popularized as one of the primary characters of the Arthurian legends.
The Lady of the Lake has been known by many names. The most common are Nimue, Viviane, and Vivien. Nimue became the most popularly used name for this character from Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur.
Morgana Le Fay was also, at some point, theorized to have been the Lady of the Lake, though that theory never gathered a lot of momentum due to the overwhelming lack of writing to support it.
Morgana le Fay is, in Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, Arthur’s half-sister, the daughter of Arthur’s mother Igraine and her first husband, the Duke of Cornwall. She is also presented as an adversary of Arthur’s: she gives Excalibur to her lover, Accolon, so he can use it against King Arthur and, when that plot fails, she steals the scabbard of Excalibur which protects Arthur and throws it into a lake.
Despite the motif of Morgana’s enmity towards Arthur and Guinevere, she is also presented as one of the women who take Arthur in a barge to Avalon to be healed.
Although the Lady of the Lake is most famous for giving King Arthur the sword, this title has been used to refer to many different people: water fey, an enchantress who Merlin fell in love with, etc. It makes sense that she’d have multiple names because it actually wasn’t the same person in all these legends.
Since no one actually knows the origins of the Lady of the Lake legend, people have theorized that she originated from the Celtic Water Goddess, Coventina, as it is believed the name Viviane stems from Co-Vianna, which is a variation of Coventina.
Nimue, the woman who sealed Merlin in a cave (or a tree), put him under a spell and deprived King Arthur of his services (but later on rescued the King twice, with one time being from Accolon, who -as mentioned above- was given Excalibur by Morgana Le Fay), is also mentioned as one of the maidens who aided King Arthur’s passage to Avalon.