Lady of the Lake

In an Arthurian legend, the Lady of the Lake gave King Arthur the sword known as Excalibur. Nimue is the name given to the Lady of the Lake when referring to her romance with Merlin the wizard.

She is also called Dame du Lac, Viviane, Niniane, Vivian, Niviene, etc. However, in Layamon's Brut (1215) she is called Argante, a name that may be derived from an earlier Celtic epithet of the form Ard Righan (High Queen, c.f. Rhiannon, Rigantona, Arianrhod). The Lady also raised Lancelot as her foster child.

Later, Merlin fell in love with Nimue when Arthur retrieved Excalibur from her lake located in Brittany, Cornwall and several other suggested locations. Nimue's incentive to preserve their romance was to gain the knowledge of magic that the wizard had.

She learned a spell from Merlin that could entrap a person for all time. After Lancelot rescued Guinevere and before the battle at Joyous Gard, Nimue cast the spell on Merlin. The sources differ in what Merlin was trapped in. Some say that it was in a Crystal Cave, while others say that he was trapped in a Castle of Air, a Glass Tower or an oak tree. This spell was irreversible.

Nimue also has various other exploits, one involving Pelleas.

Melusine is a somewhat related Celtic water spirit.


Later uses

The Walter Scott poem and its musical settings

Walter Scott wrote an influential poem, The Lady of the Lake, in 1810, drawing on the romance of the legend, but transplanting it to Loch Katrine in the Trossachs of Scotland.

As La donna del lago, the material furnished subject matter for an opera by Gioacchino Rossini (Naples 1819). It was the first of a fashion for operas with Scottish settings and based on Scott's works, of which Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor is the most familiar.

Ellen's third song, which is part of the Scott poem, became known as Schubert's Ave Maria – one of the three Ellen songs that were put to music by this composer (D. 837 - D. 839).

Alternative musical settings of these and other parts of the Scott poem (as separate songs) can be found here:

The full text of Walter Scott's poem is available from the Project Gutenberg website here: The Lady of the Lake (Gutenberg e-text #3011) (

The Raymond Chandler novel

Later, mystery novelist Raymond Chandler wrote The Lady in the Lake, revolving around a set of mysterious deaths in the San Bernadino Mountains. Here, the symbolic Arthur, questing for the Grail of truth and adhering to his own chivalric code, is Chandler's hero Philip Marlowe. As in the original tales, Marlowe's lady in the lake is not what she first seemed, and has a devastating effect on her lover.

A popular reference

The Lady of the Lake is mentioned in the comedy film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, in which King Arthur describes her presentation of Excalibur as a divine confirmation of his right to be king, prompting an anarcho-syndicalist peasant to complain that "Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government." Though not present in the film, the Lady of the Lake is a major character in the film's Broadway adaptation, Spamalot.

The murder victim Margaret Hogg, whose body was found in a lake in the Wasdale valley in 1984, became known as "the Wasdale Lady in the Lake".

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