Nightbringer | The Arthurian Online Encyclopedia

Elaine of Astolat

Demoiselle d’Escalot, Fair Maid of Astolat, Lady of Shalott
Elaine le Blank, Elaine the White, Elayne

Often identified simply as the Demoiselle d’Escalot (e.g., in the Vulgate Mort Artu) or the Fair Maid of Astolat in Malory and the ‘Lily Maid’ in Tennyson. She appears nameless in the Vulgate Mort Artu and the Stanzaic Le Morte Arthure.

The daughter of Sir Bernard of Escalot (Astolat) and sister of Sir Tirre and Sir Lavaine, she was considered one of the most beautiful maidens in EnglandLancelot, traveling secretly to the tournament at Winchester, lodged with Sir Bernard and borrowed the shield of the recently wounded Sir Tirre, leaving his sword and shield with Elaine for safekeeping. He also did for her what he had never done for any other woman, including Guenevere: with a view to heightening his incognito, he accepted Elaine’s token to wear in the lists. Elaine fell desperately in love with Lancelot.

When she learned he was wounded and lodged with Sir Baudwin the Hermit, she insisted on going herself to nurse him. When Lancelot was well, and prepared to leave for Camelot, Elaine asked him if he would marry her. Lancelot replied that he would never marry. Elaine then asked if he would be her lover, and Lancelot again refused, saying it would be ignoble. She pleaded with him, saying she would die for his love, but Lancelot departed. Even Sir Bors counseled him to love Elaine if he could, but Lancelot remained true to Guenevere. Afterwards, she fell sick.

Dying, she dictated a letter to Lancelot, which her father wrote down. Then, at her request, she was placed in a rich bed in a barge, and floated down the river Thames to Camelot (or Westminster), where Arthur, Guenevere, Lancelot and the rest of the court found her body and grieved to see her and the explanatory letter, which requested Lancelot to pray for her soul and give Mass-penny for her soul. They buried her at Camelot.

In Tennyson, she is known as the Lady of Shalott, “lily maid of Astolat”, who is required to view the world through a mirror and who dies when “she look’d down to Camelot”. The character is doubled in Natsume Soseki’s Kairoko: A Dirge. The Japanese text, drawing heavily on Tennyson and presumably on Malory as well, has the Lady of Shalott die when she looks away from her mirror and directly at Lancelot; but we later meet Elaine of Astolat, whose story roughly parallels the traditional account of her love for Lancelot, her death as a result of unrequited love, and the boat bearing her body to court.

For his own excellent artistic purposes, T.H. White combines Elaine of Astolat and Elaine of Carbonek into one character and identifies them both with the damsel in the scalding bath. In Malory, Elaine of Astolat is definitely distinct from her namesake of Carbonek. Elaine of Carbonek may have been the damsel in the scalding bath, but there is no way to combine the two Elaines.

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.

Le Morte Darthur | Sir Thomas Malory, 1469-1470
Idylls of the King | Lord Alfred Tennyson, 1859-1886