References: Women of Camelot: queens and enchantresses at the court of King Arthur (Orchard Australia, 2000) by Mary Hoffman, Le Morte d’Arthur in two volumes: volume one and volume two (J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1978, originally published in 1485) by Sir Thomas Malory, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lady_of_the_Lake, Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies (Hodder, 2013) by Dr. Alice Mills, http://www.legendofkingarthur.co.uk/legendary-characters/vivien.htm, http://www.timelessmyths.com/arthurian/women.html#Lake, http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/h01.html, The Story of Sir Launcelot and His Companions (Dover Publications, Inc., 1991, originally published in 1907) by Howard Pyle, The Story of King Arthur and His Knights (Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., 2005) by Howard Pyle,
The Lady of the Lake is a figure so ambiguous in all ways that there is not even a consensus on whether she is one person or two – or, in true mythical fashion, three. ‘The Lady of the Lake’ is really more a position rather than an individual: she is the keeper and possibly maker of Excalibur, and/or the ruler of Avalon. One of the Ladies of the Lake, Viviane from the Vulgate Merlin, was also Queen of Sicily, where she was worshipped as a goddess. Other names attributed to the Lady of the Lake include Nimue, Vivien, Vivian, Elaine, Ninianne, Nivian, Nyneve and Evienne. One variation of her name, ‘Vi-Vianna’, implies a connection to the Celtic water goddess Coventina, while others suggest links to the Irish goddess Niamh or the Welsh goddess Rhiannon.
There is even a connection to the Roman goddess of the hunt, Diana (and therefore to her Greek counterpart, Artemis) in one version of the legend. In this story, Nimue was the daughter of Diones and the goddaughter of Diana. Merlin glimpsed her dancing in the forest and fell in love on the spot. Their wedding was officiated by Diana herself – a startling irony, given that Diana is famously, and sometimes savagely, chaste – promptly followed by Merlin’s imprisonment in a bewitched castle. It doesn’t sound like a great foundation for a marriage, but hey, when it comes to spectacularly terrible relationship breakdowns, the Lady of the Lake is Arthurian legend’s true expert. There is also a version in which she was Merlin’s spurned lover, changing into the shape of a beautiful woman in order to seduce him (which does rather beg the question, what was she before?) only to trap him in amber mid-orgasm. She then transformed into an oak tree around him. That is commitment.
Different versions have her entrap him in a hawthorn tree, beneath a stone, inside a cave or a tower. What remains consistent is this: Merlin fell, and she rose.
The first Lady of the Lake who appears in Le Morte d’Arthur goes unnamed. She gifted Arthur with Excalibur and later came to his court, where she accused Arthur’s knight Sir Balin of killing her brother and Balin accused her of killing his mother – whereupon he promptly beheaded her, much to Arthur’s dismay. It was later that the character of Nimue appeared, as a mystery woman who wandered into Arthur and Guinevere’s wedding feast while looking for her dog, only to be kidnapped by a knight called Sir Hontzlake. Nimue’s cousin, Sir Meliot of Logurs, battled Hontzlake to rescue her, but was outmatched. It was Sir Pellinore who brought her safely back to court, and safe is perhaps not the right word, because Merlin immediately fell in lust with her.
Nimue felt no interest in return, but used his attraction to pump him for knowledge. They were travelling companions, leaving England for the lands of King Ban, father of Lancelot. By the time they returned to Cornwall, Merlin was actively pursuing Nimue for sex and she had no further use for him. She walled him up behind an enormous rock with her magic and left him there, buried alive. It was an act of quite astonishing cruelty.
And then, in so many ways, she became him.
When Morgan le Fay’s lover and conspirator, Accolon, got his hands on Excalibur and attacked Arthur with it, Nimue forced Accolon to drop it, ensuring Arthur won the battle and the sword was restored to him. When Morgan le Fay sent a poisoned cloak as a ‘reconciliation’ gift, Nimue suggested Arthur force the messenger to try it on first, and so the unlucky handmaiden died a painful death instead. A sorceress named Annowre abducted Arthur, hoping to win him with her obsessive love, and would have killed him in the wake of his rejection had Nimue not brought his knights for a timely rescue. She claimed Annowre’s severed head like a trophy.
Nor was her loyalty limited to Arthur. Young Sir Pelleas fell in love with a woman who played with his heart, and Nimue’s way of resolving that situation was to enchant the girl to love him while simultaneously enchanting Pelleas to hate her. Nimue then took the knight as her lover and later, her husband. When Guinevere was accused of murder, Lancelot fought for her, but it was Nimue who cleared her name by identifying the true murderer. And Nimue was there at the very end, one of the sorceress queens who came for Arthur to bear his body away after the final battle.
Different translations of Malory’s work imply Nimue may have been two different women, Nimue and Nyneve. This may explain the marriage to Pelleas, who also appears twice-over – Pelleas the young, heartbroken knight, and King Pelleas of Corbenic, father of Elaine, grandfather of Galahad, guardian of the Grail. The Nimue married to Sir Pelleas bore him a son, Guivret. The Lady of the Lake, in her different personas, had another son; after the death of King Ban, she raised Lancelot as her own and taught him the art of chivalry. He was known, because of her, as Lancelot of the Lake.
If Nimue is a figure of wisdom, Vivian is ambition. She appears in some versions of the legend as a separate character, a girl taught – essentially weaponised – by Morgan le Fay. Vivian came to Camelot to study magic with Merlin and who deliberately seduced him into teaching her everything he knew. While her ruthlessness should certainly not be underestimated, there is an astonishing amount of sexism behind the idea that this lord of magic and prophecy was helpless before her; his lust was his blind spot, and she exploited it, in the same way he exploited Igraine’s faith in her husband Gorlois. In some versions, she entombed him. In others, he was her prisoner in a hidden tower.
This Vivian became an enemy of Camelot, cursing Arthur’s knights for her amusement, sending them to their deaths when it suited her. Howard Pyle paints Vivian as a classic temptress, surrounding her with beautiful handmaidens in a hidden castle. She was not an ally to Morgan le Fay; Vivian was entirely her own woman. Neither was she friendly with Nimue, who played a far less morally ambiguous role with Vivian in the narrative.
Of all these sorceresses encircling Merlin and Arthur, there is a third distinct character: Ganieda, Merlin’s twin sister. An alternative spelling of her name is Gwenddydd. In these stories, Ganieda and Merlin’s father was named Morfryn. Ganieda was wife to King Rhydderch, which made her sister-in-law twice-over to Merlin’s wife Gwendoloena. Merlin was a seer and ‘fool’ at Rhydderch’s court. He predicted three deaths for the same boy, which drew scorn from his audience. Merlin went to live in the wilderness, and in time the threefold death came true. The only time he returned to Rhydderch’s court was when his estranged wife remarried; Merlin stabbed her new husband with a pair of antlers.
Ganieda came to live with Merlin after the death of her own husband. She had a house built for them, with seventy doors and seventy windows, through which Merlin could watch the stars and foretell the future. Merlin later sought a cure for his madness in a healing spring, accompanied by Ganieda and the young poet Taliesin. When Ganieda drank the water, she became a powerful seer herself.
Whatever form they take – goddess, enchantress, temptress, mother, sister, queen – the Ladies of the Lake are women who exist outside of boundaries. Theirs is a changeable neutrality; while they each have certain loyalties, in the end they are always their own side. And that is the side that usually wins.
These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller – I work with the sources I have to hand but if you know an alternative version I would love to hear it!