The Lady of the Lake taking the infant Lancelot. From Tennyson’s Idylls of the KingThe Lady of the Lake is the name of several related characters who play parts in Arthurian legend. Depending on the variant, characters’ roles include giving King Arthur his sword Excalibur, enchanting Merlin, and raising Lancelot after the death of his father.
Various writers and copyists conflated her with, or named her as Nimue, Viviane, Elaine, Niniane, Nivian, Nyneve, Nimueh and other variations. Other versions of the legends make Nimue, Viviane, etc., into separate characters.
The Lancelot-Grail Cycle provides a backstory for the Lady of the Lake, “Viviane”, in the prose Merlin section, which takes place before the Lancelot Proper, though it was written later. There, Viviane learns her magic from Merlin, who becomes enamored of her. She refuses to give him her love until he has taught her all his secrets, after which she uses her power to trap him either in the trunk of a tree or beneath a stone, depending on the story and author.
Regardless of the specific version, Merlin is unable to counteract Viviane because of his foresight; because of such an ability and “truth” it holds, he decides to do nothing for his situation other than to continue to teach her his secrets until she takes the opportunity to entrap and entomb him in a tree, a stone or a cave.
The Post-Vulgate’s second Lady of the Lake is called “Ninianne”, and her story is nearly identical to the one in the Lancelot-Grail. Sir Thomas Malory also uses both Ladies of the Lake in his Le Morte d’Arthur; he leaves the first one unnamed and calls the second one Nimue.
The character appears in many other episodes of Malory’s work. Each time she reappears, it is always at a pivotal moment of the episode, establishing the importance of her character within Arthurian Literature, especially Le Morte d’Arthur. In that work, she transcends any notoriety attached to her character by aiding Arthur and other knights to succeed in their endeavors.
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