NIGHTBRINGER | The Arthurian Encyclopedia

Lady of the Lake

Dame del Lac, Damoisele del Lac, Damsel of the Lake

There are two distinct Ladies of the Lake in Malory. Very little is said about her in the Arthurian romances, there seem to be three in all, taking the Vulgate into account: one who raised Lancelot in France, one who gave Arthur his sword, and Nimue. Likely all started as one character but, in the present state of the legends, I see nothing for it but to split them.

According to Ulrich von Zarzikhoven, the fairy who raised Lancelot was the mother of Mabuz, and, as Mabuz is thought to be identical with the Celtic god Mabon, this would suggest that the Lady of the Lake in this instance was none other than Morgan Le Fay, for she was, in origin, Mabon’s mother, Matrona. It seems highly likely, therefore, that the Lady of the Lake has her origins in a Celtic lake divinity, perhaps of the same kind as the Gwragged Annwn (lake fairies in the modern Welsh folklore), a possibility further supported by the fact that some sources say that she was one of the three queens aboard the ship that ferried the dying Arthur to Avalon.

Lake in Arthurian legends

The French Lady seems to be basically good. So does Nimue; although she imprisons Merlin, she thereafter acts beneficently to Arthur and his court. However, the one who gave Arthur his sword, even in that instance cooperating with Merlin, appears to have been evil. Tennyson makes the Lady of the Lake a good, mysterious, almost angelic benefactress of Arthur, but Viviane a villainess who seduces and imprisons Merlin as part of her design to bring back Paganism.

For convenience I distinguish them as follows: Viviane (the French Damsel of the Lake, who raised Lancelot), “Nineve” (Malory’s first English Lady of the Lake, who gave Arthur his sword), and Nimue (the second English Lady of the Lake, who gained the position after “Nineve’s” death and who became benefactress to Arthur’s court). Though “Nineve” is never actually named, “Nineve” is a variant of both the names Nimue and Viviane, and it is a handy one for my purpose.

Both Nimue and Viviane are credited with imprisoning Merlin; whereas Viviane must be in France to raise Lancelot, Malory definitely puts Nimue in Britain. Take your choice as to which actually did away with the great necromancer. Viviane definitely, and Nimue apparently, had other damsels of the lake under them. The Vulgate says the Damsels of the Lake owed their knowledge of magic to Merlin; Malory corroborates this as far as Nimue is concerned, but not as far as “Nineve” is portrayed.

Sir Pelleas was given a bejeweled necklace of the Lady of the Lake after he had assisted an old woman across a river. Its enchantment made its wearer unfathomably loved.

Balin was said to have killed a Lady of the Lake, though not necessary the one who delivered and received Excalibur.

Christopher W. Bruce in his Arthurian Name Dictionary, says the following about the Lady of the Lake:

An enigmatic fairy credited with imprisoning Merlin, raising Lancelot, giving Excalibur to Arthur, and bearing Arthur’s body to Avalon. Some of these roles are given to Morgan Le Fay in some versions, and it is likely that the two characters emerged from the same Celtic goddess, called Modron. The Italian La Tavola Ritonda says that Morgan was her sister. Some texts, such as the Post-Vulgate Suite du Merlin or Malory’s Le Morte Darthur, have more than one character bearing this title. Her proper name include Ninianne, Viviane, Nina, and Nimue, all seemlingly scribal variants of each other.

Her first role seems to have been Lancelot’s foster-mother; in Chrétien de Troyes’s Lancelot, we learn that Lancelot has a magical ring given to him by his foster-mother, and that

this lady was a fairy... who had cared for him in infancy.

In Ulrich von Zatzikhoven’s Lancelet, we see Lancelot’s upbringing by the Queen of Maidenland. The Queen also has a son named Mabuz, who probably owes his character to the Welsh Mabon, son of Modron.

Neither of these romances call Lancelot’s guardian the “Lady of the Lake,” though the character is roughly identical to the Lady specifically named in the Vulgate Lancelot, which continues the tradition. Here, her home was an invisible island in the Lake of Diana in Brittany. Both Ulrich and Lancelot tell how the Lady, or one of her servants, took the infant Lancelot from his mother after his father’s kingdom fell to an invasion or revolt. In Ulrich, her nurturing of Lancelot was part of a larger plan to revenge herself on Iweret, a powerful lord who wronged her son Mabuz. She raised Lancelot until he was old enough to depart for Arthur’s court. According to Lancelot, she accompanied him to Arthur, who knighted the boy at her request. She left him after bestowing upon him the magic ring mentioned by Chrétien. Lancelot says that she also raised Lionel and Bors, Lancelot’s cousins. She assisted Lancelot throughout his adventures, providing magic weapons and armor when needed, and curing him of insanity after he went mad in a Saxon prison. In similar ways, she also provided assistance to Lionel and Bors.

It is also in the Vulgate Lancelot that we first find the assertion that she imprisoned Merlin, which apparently occured before Lancelot’s birth. The Lady used Merlin’s love to learn his craft, then – after she had learned enough – she sealed him in a pit in the forest of Darnantes, where he remained forever. The Lady’s treatment of Merlin in Lancelot is difficult to reconcile with her more noble behavior towards Lancelot. The Vulgate Merlin (and its English translation, called the Prose Merlin) handles this conflict by giving Merlin an more romantic end. Merlin also provides additional details about the Lady: The daughter of a nobleman named Dyonas, her birth was blessed by Diana, the goddess of the woods. Merlin met her in the forest of Briosque and fell in love with her at first sight. He courted her by dazzling her with enchantment. After learning his magic, she imprisoned him in a tower in the forest of Broceliande, where she visited him often, but never allowed him to leave.

In the Suite du Merlin and in Malory, the Lady (called Ninniane or Nimue) first arrives at Arthur’s court in pursuit of a white stag. In short time, she and her hound were abducted by Sir Hontzlake of Wentland and Sir Abelleus. Arthur sent Gawain after the stag, assigned Tor to retrieve the hound, and dispatched Pellinore to rescue the Lady. The latter two knights were successful and, in gratitude, the Lady agreed to stay at Arthur’s court, where Merlin fell in love with her. According to the Suite, the Lady secretly hated Merlin. Again, after learning his spells, she sealed him in a cavern tomb. Malory has her imprison him by placing a stone over the mouth of his cave. She then took Merlin’s place as Arthur’s advisor. She saved Arthur from his own sword in a battle against Accalon, from a poisoned cloak sent to him by Morgan Le Fay, and from a sorceress named Aunowre or Elergia. She also vindicated Guinevere in the murder of Gaheris or Patrise. Malory adds that she married the noble Sir Pelleas. In her final service to Arthur, according to Malory, she was one of the four queens who bore his body from the plain of Salisbury to the Isle of Avalon.

In the Suite and Malory, however, the title of the Lady of the Lake also belongs to a woman who gives Excalibur to Arthur in return for a future gift. She later arrived at Arthur’s court to claim the gift: the head of Sir Balin, who had killed her brother. Arthur was in the process of refusing the request when Balin showed up and beheaded her, saying that she had killed his mother. In these stories, Ninianne (or Nimue) is presented as the Lady of the Lake’s servant; after the Lady’s death, Ninianne earns the title herself.

She appears as the title character in Thelwall’s The Fairy of the Lake, in which she saves Arthur from the Saxon Queen Rowena’s seduction, and saves Guinevere from the incestuous plans of her father, King Vortigern. In the Prophecies de Merlin, in addition to Lancelot and his cousins, she also raises Tristan’s half-brother, Meliadus the Younger, who becomes her lover.

See also
The Lake | The Legend of King Arthur

Lancelot, or Le Chevalier de la Charrete | Chrétien de Troyes, late 12th century
Lanzelet | Ulrich von Zatzikhoven, c. 1200
Lancelot do Lac | 1215-1220
Vulgate Lancelot | 1215-1230
Vulgate Merlin | 1220-1235
Post-Vulgate Suite du Merlin | 1230-1240
Prose Tristan | 1230-1240
Les Prophecies de Merlin | Richart d’Irlande, 1272-1279
La Tavola Ritonda | 1325–1350
Prose Merlin | Mid-15th century
Le Morte Darthur | Sir Thomas Malory, 1469-1470
Vita di Merlino con le Sue Profetie | c. 1480
The Fairy of the Lake | John Thelwall, 1801

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