Vivian, The Lady of the Lake, and Nimue.

The Lady of the Lake by Lancelot Speed
I was going to talk about Nimue and Vivian separately, but their stories are so entwined, that to separate them would cause confusion and repetition. Especially for me.

The Lady of the Lake is a figure of mystical connotations, evoking, for me at least, someone who isn't quite human, who belongs to the Other on the magical Isle of Avalon, surrounded by a wide still lake covered in mist. This makes her a liminal character, sitting on the boundaries of the real and the magical, accessible, but only just. She controls access to Avalon, and all of the mysteries the Isle encompasses.

It is the Lady of the Lake who gives Excalibur to Arthur, rising from the lake to hand him the magical sword that will unite Britain. In other versions she sails across the lake in her stately barge, bearing Excalibur. This prompts questions. Who is she? Where does Excalibur come from? Who made it? Where is Avalon?

The Lady of the Lake is given several names by different authors, either Vivian, Vivien, Nimue, Ninianne, or Nivian, among others, and appears most often in the medieval stories. In the Morte d'Arthur, Sir Thomas Malory uses two figures, one unnamed, and the other called Nimue. It is Nimue who has an important role in Arthur's court, able to influence others, including Arthur. These characters appear at important moments in Arthurian tales. Another character in Mallory, Nyneve, a similar character to the Lady of the Lake, saves Arthur twice from attack by Morgan. The Lady of the Lake, in her various incarnations, and other characters, including Morgan, escort the injured Arthur to Avalon.

Walter Crane
In the Lancelot-Grail cycle she appears as Vivian, and falls in love with Merlin, refusing to give him her love until she has learnt all his magical knowledge. She then traps him in a tree, a stone or a cave.

Other Lady of the Lake activities include stealing Lancelot when he was a child, and then curing him when he went mad. She enchants Ettarde, a lady who has spurned Sir Pelleas, one of Arthur's knights, and while Ettarde eventually dies of a broken heart, Nimue marries Pelleas and lives happily ever after. I think it's fair to say that these are very human activities, and just goes to show that mystical beings seem to have the same frailties as mortals.


In Tennyson's Idylls of the King, Vivien is quite the minx, and after a cat and mouse game of love and deception, tears and anger, pleading and luring Merlin with her wiles, Vivien learns the charm she has been desperate to know. This charm when uttered, "with woven paces and with waving arms,/ the man so wrought on ever seem'd to lie/ Closed in the four walls of a hollow tower,/ From which was no escape for evermore."

Merlin and Vivien
After a storm in Broceliande wood, Merlin "overtalk'd and overworn," finally reveals the charm, and immediately Vivien seals him into the hollow trunk of a giant oak which has been split by lightning, and "he lay as dead, /And lost to life and use and name and fame." And she takes off, leaving him forever. There's a fantastic description of the charm in this poem, some of which I have used at the start of Twice Born.

The Lady of the Lake's origins possibly stem from a water deity, which were very popular in Celtic societies, and are emblematic of life itself.

So you can see why I've talked about Nimue and Vivian together! I have kept them as separate characters in my books. Vivian is the mortal, but powerful Lady of the Lake, who lives on Avalon and who obtained Excalibur for Merlin and Arthur. Nimue is a witch and priestess who lives on Avalon with Vivian. It is Nimue who has the ambiguous relationship with Merlin.

In my future blogs I'll look at Avalon and Merlin, but I think the very next exploration of the Arthur legends should be about the man himself, King Arthur.



Comments

  1. These are certainly fascinating stories, and you've done them justice in your books - which are wonderful!

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