Sunday, 18 October 2009

Doomed Damsel: Elaine, the fair maid of Astolat

Elaine, just like the hapless Isabella whom we met before, is a favourite subject of the Pre-Raphaelites. She was the victim of her passion for a rotter. She had the misfortune to fall in love with Sir Lancelot, well-known adulterer and betrayer of his best friend, King Arthur.

The cad wore Elaine's sleeve during a joust, as a token of his insincere affection. Despite this good luck charm, he was injured in the fight. She nursed him tenderly back to health, but as soon as he was pronounced fit, Lancelot shot through to Camelot, where he enjoyed matinéé romps in Queen Guinevere's boudoir while Arthur dutifully slaved over the Round Table of an afternoon, signing decrees and dispensing justice.

Meanwhile, back in Astolat, broken-hearted Elaine retreated to the tower of Shalott, where she weaved upon a loom day and night, forbidden by a curse to look out of her window. She had to catch her glimpses of the world outside through shadows and reflections in a mirror on the wall. (It didn't even have the decency to tell her she was the fairest of them all.)

She grew tired of living her life through reflections, saying she was "half-sick of shadows". No sooner did she utter these words, or she saw in her mirror Sir Lancelot ride past, clad in shining armour and heartlessly singing "Tirra-lirra", if Alfred, Lord Tennyson, is to be believed:

… From the bank and from the river
He flashed into the crystal mirror,
"Tirra lirra," by the river
Sang Sir Lancelot.

Driven by love, the Lady of Shalott rushed to the window, in her haste breaking her loom and her tapestry, only to see Lance disappearing in the distance, on his way back to Camelot and Gwynnie. The mirror cracked from side to side as she cried: "The curse has come upon me!" Once again we only have Tennyson's word for this, and he doesn't say whether she was referring to her doom, the dastardly Lancelot, or a gynaecological matter.

She climbed down from the tower to the water's edge, where she found a boat and wrote 'The Lady of Shalott' upon its prow. She laid herself down and let the boat drift down the river to Camelot, singing one last song before she died of a broken heart. The song may have been "Tirra-lirra" or "Heartbreak Hotel" for all we know: Tennyson is silent upon the matter.

When her dead body drifted ashore at Camelot, it created a bit of a stir and among the rubberneckers was Lancelot. Pretending he had no idea who she was, he said piously:

"She has a lovely face;
God in his mercy lend her grace,
The Lady of Shalott."

Poets and painters, from Tennyson to the  and beyond, had a field day with poor old : Elaine - we have numerous pictures of her in her tower and in her boat, but no explanations for several little mysteries that puzzle me:

Why did Lancelot wear her sleeve during the joust? Why not a scarf or a hankie? The girl probably took a lot of trouble to wear a nice frock; it seems a bit harsh to rip her sleeve off.

Who put the mirror curse on her and why? Why was she only "half-sick" of shadows? What would it take to make her completely sick?

Where did she find the paint for "The Lady of Shallot" on the boat's prow? Did she first paint over its legally registered name? Did she have to stand in the water to do it or did she just hang over the side and write upside-down? Did the boat owner's insurance pay for the damage?

Life is full of little mysteries.

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