As daughter of King Pelles of Corbenic, the Grail King, she is descended from Joseph of Arimathea, but in order to join the holy line to that of Lancelot she must first seduce the reluctant knight. She must not be confused with Elaine of Astolat. Vulgate II calls Elaine of Carbonek, the wisest woman who ever lived. “The best of the world” seems to be a figure of speech with the old romancers, however, I am not sure the statements is meant to be taken as literal fact.
When Lancelot first came to Carbonek, rescued the damsel in the scalding bath (placed there by Morgan Le Fay), and killed a troublesome dragon, Elaine fell in love with him. At that time, she seems to have been acting as the “damosel passing fair and young” who bore the Holy Grail at dinnertime in the castle.
With the help of Dame Brisen and the connivance of King Pellam, Elaine managed to sleep one night with Lancelot, at Case Castle, by tricking him into thinking she was Guenevere using a potion. Thus was Galahad begotten, who was by his holy life to expiate the fornication of his father and mother and to heal his grandfather Pellam and Pellam’s kingdom of the effects of the Dolorous Stroke. When Lancelot woke up in the morning and saw how he had been tricked, he came near smiting Elaine down with his sword.
Then ... Elaine skipped out of her bed all naked, and kneeled down afore Sir Launcelot, and said: Fair courteous knight ... I require you have mercy upon me, and as thou art renowned the most noble knight of the world, slay me not, for I have in my womb him by thee that shall be the most noblest knight of the world ... Well, said Launcelot, I will forgive you this deed; and therewith he took her up in his arms, and kissed her, for she was as fair a lady, and thereto lusty and young, and as wise, as any was that time living.
He threatened, however, to slay Dame Brisen if ever he saw her, but nothing ever came of the threat. She was loved by other men, such as Sir Brinol of the Hedged Manor (Bromel), but she denied them her affections because she truly loved Lancelot. When Galahad was born, she brought him to Camelot. She showed Galahad to Lancelot but Lancelot, ashamed, would barely speak to her. Relations between Elaine and Guenevere were understandably tense. They had come to court to help celebrate Arthur’s victory over Claudas. Again they tricked Lancelot into Elaine’s bed by pretending she was Guenevere. This time Guenevere herself, whose room was next door and who had been expecting Lancelot in her own bed, heard them. She came into Elaine’s room, found them together, and jealousy accused Lancelot, setting off a fit of his madness. After wandering a long time, unknown, he came, a few years later, again to Carbonek, insane and naked, where he was eventually recognized and Elaine had her father cure by exposure to the Grail. She nursed him back to health and cared for him until he left.
Pellam now set him up with Elaine in the Joyous Isle. Lancelot agreed to this arrangement because he thought he could never again return to Arthur’s court after his disgrace. As Le Chavaler Mal Fet (Chevalier Malfait), he lived with Elaine in the Castle of Bliant and kept the Joyous Isle against all comers for perhaps two years. Then, to Elaine’s grief, Ector de Maris and Percivale came to the Joyous Isle and persuaded Lancelot to return to the court. By this time Galahad, who had been growing up at his grandfather’s castle Carbonek on the mainland, was fifteen years old; Elaine promised that he could come to Arthur’s court to be made knight that same feast of Pentecost. When Lancelot came once again to Carbonek during the Grail Quest, he learned to his sorrow that Elaine had died in the interim.
It is possible, as T.H. White has it, that Elaine of Carbonek was herself the damsel Lancelot rescued from the scalding bath. I doubt this. According to the Vulgate, the damsel in the bath was being punished for sin, and as Grail-bearer Elaine must have been free of fleshy sin before her night with Lancelot. (After that night, of course, they had to find a new damsel to carry the Grail. Amide may have fulfilled this office for a time.)
Elaine is a French variation of Helen, the name ultimately derives from Greek mythology (e.g., Helen of Troy), and is borne by a number of people in Arthurian romance.
Post-Vulgate Queste del Saint Graal | 1230-1240
Le Morte Darthur | Sir Thomas Malory, 1469-1470