The Lady of the Lake's origins are probably ancient and pagan, like Morgan le Fay's, and she and Morgan may have ultimately derived from the same tradition. The first mention of Avalon, a magical island with which the Lady and Morgan are frequently associated, is in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae; Geoffrey says Arthur's sword Caliburn was forged there, and says Arthur was taken to the isle after his battle with Mordred to have his wounds healed.
Chrétien de Troyes mentions in his romance Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart that Lancelot had been raised by a water fay who gave him a magic-resisting ring. Lancelot's life with the Lady of the Lake is detailed in the German Lanzelet by Ulrich von Zatzikhoven and the Prose Lancelot Proper, which was later expanded into the Lancelot-Grail Cycle. There, the Lady of the Lake fosters the infant Lancelot after his father Ban has been killed fighting against his enemy Claudas. It has been suggested that these three works are derived from a lost tradition of Lancelot, which is perhaps best preserved in Ulrich's version.
The character has some similarities to the sea nymph Thetis of Greek mythology. Like the Lady of the Lake, Thetis is an aquatic spirit who raises the greatest warrior of her time (in this case, her son Achilles). Thetis' husband is Peleus, while the Lady of the Lake takes the knight Pelleas as her lover in some versions. Thetis uses magic to make her son invulnerable to harm and later gives him a shield and armor forged by the god Hephaestus, while the Arthurian character gives Lancelot a ring that protects him from all magic and delivers Excalibur to King Arthur. The Greek theme may have influenced or originated the tradition; the epic poem Iliad which features Thetis was popular both with the Romans, who occupied and colonized Great Britain and Brittany, and with the medieval scholars who wrote down the Celtic myths and oral traditions. The Lady of the Lake's guise as a water fay also makes her somewhat similar to Melusine.
In Medieval Literature
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, but when he does, she uses her power to trap him either in the trunk of a tree or beneath a stone, depending on the version. Because he could see the future, he knew this would happen, but was powerless to avoid it.
The Post-Vulgate Cycle omits the entire account of Lancelot's early adventures found in the Lancelot-Grail, and splits the Lady of the Lake's character in two. The first of these gives Arthur his sword Excalibur after he breaks his first one, but she demands he repay the favor at the time of her choosing. Some time later, she shows up at court and demands Arthur put the knight Sir Balin to death, explaining her family has had an ongoing blood feud with his. Instead, Balin chops off her head, and is banished from court. 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.
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. In La Donna del Lago, Scott's material furnished subject matter for an opera by Gioacchino Rossini, which debuted in Naples in 1819. It was the first of a fashion for operas with Scottish settings and based on Scott's works, of which Gaetano Donizetti Lucia di Lammermoor is the most familiar. The three "Ellen songs" from Scott's poem were set to music by Franz Schubert (D. 837 - D. 839 – "Ellens Gesang I", "Ellens Gesang II", and "Ellens Gesang III]"), although Schubert's music to Ellen's Third Song has become far more famous in its later adaptation, known as "Ave Maria".
Other Appearances and Popular References
Alfred Tennyson adapted several stories of the Lady of the Lake for his poetic cycle Idylls of the King. He splits her into two characters; Vivien is a deceitful villain who ensnares Merlin, while the Lady of the Lake is a benevolent figure who raises Lancelot and gives Arthur his sword. Nimue appears in T. H. White's The Once and Future King as Merlin's love interest. True to the legend she traps Merlin in a cave, but Merlin does not convey it as negative, and even refers to it as a vacation.
The character plays a major role in The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley. In Bradley's works, both the Lady of the Lake and the Merlin are offices. The Lady of the Lake is the title of the ruling priestess of Avalon, and the Merlin is a Druid who has pledged his life to the protection of Britain. In The Mists of Avalon, Viviane is the Lady of the Lake as the story opens, and is later succeeded by the priestess Niniane. Niniane is in turn succeeded by Morgaine Le Fey, while the Merlin is seduced by Nimue. In this version, Nimue is a sympathetic and tragic young priestess who falls in love with the Merlin but is duty bound to seduce and lure him to his death, and who then commits suicide herself.
Mystery novelist Raymond Chandler wrote The Lady in the Lake in 1943, which revolves 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 seems, and has a devastating effect on her lover.
The murder victim Margaret Hogg, whose body was found in a lake in England's Wasdale Valley in 1984, became known as "the Wasdale Lady in the Lake". Similarly, an unidentified murder victim thought to have been killed by the Cleveland Torso Murderer in the 1930s is referred to as the "Lady of the Lake".
Polish fantasy writer Andrzej Sapkowski introduced Nimue to his Witcher saga in The Swallow's Tower (1997), and focused on her in Lady of the Lake (1999). The 1998 made-for-television movie Merlin features a character named Nimue, played by Isabella Rossellini, who meets and falls in love with the young Merlin. This character is distinct from the Lady of the Lake, played by Miranda Richardson.
In Spamalot, a musical theatre adaptation of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the Lady of the Lake takes the role of the female lead. She is a stereotypical diva, as evidenced by her solo in act two, "Diva's Lament (Whatever Happened to My Part?)". She also is very eager to get Arthur to marry her, going so far as to have a dress that converts into a wedding gown in a single motion. This Lady of the Lake's real name was revealed to be Guinevere at the end of the show. The actress who portrayed her, Sara Ramirez, won the Tony Award for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical in 2005 for her role as the Lady of the Lake.
In Robert Graves's novel 1949 Seven Days in New Crete, also known as Watch the North Wind Rise, depicting a future world where the present monotheistic religions are discarded and the Triple Goddess once again rules supreme, "Nimue" is the name of the Goddess's "Maiden" manifestation.
The Lady is the patron deity of the nation of the Arthurian-based Bretonnia in the Warhammer Fantasy universe. T. A. Barron's Lost Years of Merlin series and Great Tree of Avalon series feature Nimue and the Lady of the Lake, respectively, as two separate characters. She also appears in Stephen R. Lawhead's Pendragon Cycle, as Charis, A Faery from the lost land of Atlantis, When she arrives in Britain after the devastation of her homeland, she marries Taliesin, Chief Bard of Britain, and is mother of Merlin. Under the name Ellie Harrison, the Lady is the protagonist and narrator of Meg Cabot's Avalon High young adult novel.
Claimed Locations of the Lake
A number of locations in Great Britain are traditionally associated with the Lady of the Lake's abode. They include Dozmary Pool, Llyn Llydaw, Llyn Ogwen, Loe Pool, Pomparles Bridge, Loch Arthur, and Berth Pool.