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The Lily Maid of Astolat

History, being rather unclear, has many different versions of Elaine, Lily Maid of Astolat, from the time of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. In the French version of King Arthur, Mort Artu, she tries to get Sir Lancelot to wear her sleeve in a joust after she declares her love.

In Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, she has fallen in love with Lancelot and he agrees to wear her sleeve in a jousting competition as the alternative to becoming involved with her.

In both versions, Elaine’s father, Bernard of Astolat, organises a jousting tournament, in which Lancelot participates. When Lancelot is wounded, Elaine convinces her father to bring him to her chamber for her to nurse him back to health.

While playing nurse, Elaine falls deeply in love with Lancelot. But when she confesses her love for him, he rejects her for he is in love with Queen Guinevere who is King Arthur’s wife. Unfortunately for Lancelot, King Arthur is his boss, and makes it hard for him to see Queen Guinevere. Elaine is heartbroken when Lancelot rejects her and consequently dies of a broken heart. As per her instructions, her family puts her in a barge and floats her down the river to Camelot with a note to Lancelot.

Elaine floating down the river.

Elaine floating down the river.

When she reaches Camelot, she is discovered by the lords, ladies and knights of Camelot. Queen Guinevere is outraged with jealousy until she finds out that Elaine died a virgin and nothing ever happened between her and Lancelot.

Lancelot is guilt-ridden and pays for a lavish funeral for Elaine (which could have been what her family had hoped for in the first place by sending her floating down the river).

The Lady of Shalott

Alfred Tennyson, also known as Alfred, Lord Tennyson, is one of the more popular poets in the English language. He was also Poet Laureate – a position that he held longer than any laureate before or after him.

One of Tennyson’s most famous poems is The Lady of Shalott, based on the legend of Elaine of Astolat. Tennyson’s poem was on a poem he had read, Donna do Scalotta, and so it is very different from Thomas Mallory’s version. In this version, no joust ever took place, Elaine had never met Lancelot before, and she is under an undisclosed curse to forever weave a magic web in an isolated tower, with only a mirror to reflect the view from her window.

Lord Alfred Tennyson

Lord Alfred Tennyson

However, one day the handsome knight, Sir Lancelot, rides past her window in the tower and the effect that he has on her is so strong that she turns to look out the window at him and the curse is broken. She leaves her tower and finds a boat near a riverbank. She writes her name on the prow and floats down the river to Camelot (in a subconscious effort to chase Lancelot, perhaps).

But before the boat reaches Camelot, she freezes to death and arrives at the palace of King Arthur where Lancelot stands among the Knights, lords and ladies, admiring her beauty.

“Under tower and balcony,
By garden-wall and gallery,
A gleaming shape she floated by,
A corse between the houses high,
Silent into Camelot.
Out upon the wharfs they came,
Knight and burgher, lord and dame,
And round the prow they read her name,
The Lady of Shalott.

Who is this? and what is here?
And in the lighted palace near
Died the sound of royal cheer;
And they cross’d themselves for fear,
All the knights at Camelot:
But Lancelot mused a little space;
He said, “She has a lovely face;
God in his mercy lend her grace,
The Lady of Shalott.”

– Excerpt from Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott.

The story of Elaine of Astolat has been changed and re-moulded many times. The unrequited love that she bore is very much a human experience, making her character more real than most of the others in the time of King Arthur. Though her actions may have been a bit drastic, she has given us great stories and poems, for such is the wonder of the Lady of Shalott.

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