the fair maiden of astolat

Elaine of Astolat, the Fair Maiden, Lady of Shalott, figures briefly in Arthurian legend. She becomes a symbol of steadfast but unrequited love. She, in fact, falls in love with Sir Lancelot who, however, has eyes only for his Queen Guinivere. 


Elaine is the daughter of Bernard of Astolat and is also referred to as Elaine the Fair and Elaine the White. Fair and white are attributed to her not only for her complexion but also for her purity. Versions of her story appear in Sir Thomas Malory’s “Morte d’Arthur” and Lord Alfred Tennyson’s “Idylls Of The King”. Elaine of Astolat is the protagonist who inspires Tennyson’s poem “The Lady Of Shalott”.


A version of the story appeared in the early 13th century “Mort Artu” in which the Demoiselle d’Escalot dies of unrequited love for Lancelot and drifts down a river to Camelot in a boat.

Another version is told in the 13th century Italian novella La Donna di Scalotta, (No. LXXXII in the collection Cento Novelle Antiche).




Una figliuola d'un grande varvassore' sì amò Lancialotto de Lac oltre misura ; ma elli non le voleva donare suo amore; imperciocché elli l'avea donato alla reina Ginevra. Tanto amò costei Lancialotto, ch'ella ne venne alla morte, e comandò che quando sua anima fosse partita dal corpo, che fosse arredata una ricca navicella coperta d'uno vermiglio sciamito, con un ricco letto ivi entro, con ricche e nobili covertile di seta, ornato di ricche pietre preziose. E fosse il suo corpo messo in questo letto vestito di suoi più nobili vestimenti, e con bella corona in capo ricca di molto oro e di molte ricche pietre preziose, e con ricca cintura e borsa. Et in quella borsa avea una lettera che era dello infrascritto tenore. Ma imprima diciamo di ciò che va innanzi la lettera - La damigella morì di mal d'amore, e fu fatto di lei ciò che disse. La navicella sanza vela fu messa in mare con la donna. Il mare la guidò a Camalot, e ristette alla riva. Il grido fu per la corte. I cavalieri e baroni dismontaro de' palazzi, e lo nobile re Artù vi venne, e maravigliasi forte ch'eri, sanza niuna guida. Il re intrò dentro, vide la damigella e l'arnese. Fe' aprire la borsa. Trovaro quella lettera. Fecela leggere, e dicea cosi:


A tutti i cavalieri della tavola ritonda manda salute questa damigella di Scalot, siccome alla miglior gente del mondo. E se voi volete sapere perch’io a mio fine sono venuta, si è per lo migliore cavaliere del mondo e per lo più villano, cioè monsignore messer Lancialotto de Lac, che già nol seppi tanto pregare d'amore, ch'elli avesse di me mercede. E così lassa sono morta per bene amare, come voi potete vedere.


The Lady Elaine of Astolat falls in love with Lancelot. Hers is a profound, genuine, naive love, accompanied by a great selflessness and a purity of heart. All that this young beautiful lady, compared to the Lily for her purity, has to offer to Lancelot is cast aside by the latter, blinded as he is for his love for Guinivere. Elaine pines for that love. After all, she has cured Lancelot's physical wounds with so much dedication and devotion for weeks and weeks. This does not suffice. Lancelot expects to thank her in a material way and she is offended. In Malory's version, this becomes a significant point though underplayed by Lancelot who regrets not being able to give Elaine what she desired. Elaine loses that will to live, no words of Lancelot who promises land and bounty if she marries another Knight have the desired effect. In her ears those words sounded cold and detached. Her will power drowns the moment she realises her love would never be returned. She dies when he does “not wish [elli non le voleva] to return her love”. The wording here indicates that Lancelot, being a free man, had some choice in selecting a lover; his love for the Queen is treacherous towards Arthur and adulterous. His behaviour thus renders him more culpable than in later versions. Although the lady seems to have little control over her death for she yearns for it and so it is expected, as “death came to her,” she does have almost full control over the manner in which her dead body will be presented to the court. Before dying, she organises the setup, requesting a rich ship to carry her body to Camelot and commissions her brother Sir Torre to write a letter explaining her death. The tale explains that “her instructions were executed exactly as she had said”. Despite the lady’s specific design, her journey requires some faith in that she plans for her corpse to be left without sail or oarsman in the sea and must assume that the wind will blow towards Camelot and that the waves will bring her to King Arthur's reign. Whereas other versions of the story imagine the maiden floating down the river Thames, where she can count on the currents to bring her to her destination, Il Novellino's depiction of the lady coming to Camelot by sea lends the death journey a sense of fate. It is also very evocative of burial ceremonies of Viking origin. The final words of the tale are those of the lady's letter, which calls Lancelot “the best knight in the entire world, and the cruellest one”.



Lord Tennyson's poems, both bearing the same title "The Lady of Shalott", (1832 and 1842) were based on the story. The earlier version of the poem was likely referenced as the primary source material which then gave life to the second poem. It was, in fact, more an inspiration for the poetry rather than the latter poem. In fact, in the second poem Tennyson focuses more on the Lady's isolation in the tower and her decision to participate in the living world, two subjects which are not hinted at or mentioned in the novella “Donna di Scalotta”.


In Malory's 15th century Morte d'Arthur, Elaine's story begins when her father Bernard of Astolat organises a jousting tournament, attended by King Arthur and his knights. Sir Lancelot had no intention of participating yet, somehow, he was convinced to take part. For this reason, Lancelot visits Bernard and his two sons before the tournament. While Lancelot is in her family's household, Elaine becomes enamoured of him and begs him to wear her token at the coming tournament. Often, wearing that token meant that a loving pledge would have taken place between the Knight and his Lady. Knowing that, inevitably with King Arthur there’d be Queen Guinevere, his tormented and clandestine love, at the tournament, Lancelot consents to wear the token but says that he will have to fight in disguise so as not to be recognized. Little does he realise, then, that Elaine has given that token with all her heart, her soul and all her love. Lancelot asks Bernard to procure him a different shield to fight with during the tournament as his was recognizable. Bernard agrees and lends him the plain white shield of Sir Torre, Elaine's brother.


Lancelot, disguised as he is, goes on to win the jousting tournament, fighting against King Arthur's party and beating forty of them in the tournament. He does, however, receive an injury to his side from the lance of Sir Bors. Lancelot is carried off the field by Elaine's other brother, Sir Lavaine. They arrive at the cave of the hermit Sir Baudwin. Baudwin himself was a former Knight of the Round Table who had retired into hermitage in prayer. Elaine, worried, urges her father to let her bring the wounded Lancelot to her chambers where she nurses him. In her attentive ways, Elaine brings Lancelot back to health and her love for him is immense. When Lancelot is well, he makes it known that he is ready to leave. Prior to leaving, Lancelot offers to pay Elaine for her services and for having cured him and restored him to health. Elaine is shocked and feels insulted. She brings him his shield, which she had been guarding, and a wary and uncomfortable Lancelot leaves the castle, never to return. He is now aware of her feelings for him but, oblivious as he was towards the feelings of Elaine, and his gnawing need to be near Guinevere, he gallops off to Camelot.


The theme of unrequited love recurs in many romances of the middle ages. As soon as Lancelot leaves, Elaine loses the will to live. Ten days later, the Fair Maid of Astolat dies of heartbreak. In accordance with her instructions, her body is placed in a small boat, clutching a lily in one hand, and her final letter in the other. She then floats down the Thames to Camelot where she is discovered by King Arthur's court, who, moved by her exquisite beauty and angelic face call her 'a little lily maiden'. Lancelot is summoned and hears the contents of the letter, after which he explains what happened (actually he gives his version omitting, naturally, his love for Guinivere). Lancelot proceeds to pay for a rich funeral, partly to atone for his fault, partly as a sign of respect towards the Astolat household.


This is the Chapter in Malory’s Morte d’Arthur that gives all the details:





At last, the Quest of the Holy Grail was ended, and by ones and twos the knights came back to Camelot, though many who had set out so boldly were never seen again about the Round Table.


Great was the joy of King Arthur when Sir Launcelot and Sir Bors returned, for, so long had they been away, that almost he had feared that they had perished. In their honour there was high festival for many days in London, where Arthur then had his court; and the King made proclamation of a great tournament that he would hold at Camelot, when he and the King of Northgalis would keep the lists against all comers.


So, one fair morning of spring, King Arthur made ready to ride to Camelot and all his knights with him, save Launcelot, who excused himself, saying that an old wound hindered him from riding. But when the King, sore vexed, had departed, the Queen rebuked Sir Launcelot, and bade him go and prove his great prowess as of old. "Madam," said Sir Launcelot, "in this, as in all else, I obey you; at your bidding I go, but know that in this tournament I shall adventure me in other wise than ever before."


The next day, at dawn, Sir Launcelot mounted his horse, and, riding forth unattended, journeyed all that day till, as evening fell, he reached the little town of Astolat, and there, at the castle, sought lodgement for that night. The old Lord of Astolat was glad at his coming, judging him at once to be a noble knight, though he knew him not, for it was Sir Launcelot's will to remain unknown.


So they went to supper, Sir Launcelot and the old lord, his son, Sir Lavaine, and his daughter Elaine, whom they of the place called the Fair Maid of Astolat. As they sat at meat, the Baron asked Sir Launcelot if he rode to the tournament. "Yea," answered Launcelot; "and right glad should I be if, of your courtesy, ye would lend me a shield without device." "Right willingly," said his host; "ye shall have my son, Sir Tirre's shield. He was but lately made knight and was hurt in his first encounter, so his shield is bare enough. If ye will take with you my young son, Sir Lavaine, he will be glad to ride in the company of so noble a knight and will do you such service as he may." "I shall be glad indeed of his fellowship," answered Sir Launcelot courteously.


Now it seemed to the fair Elaine that never had she beheld so noble a knight as this stranger; and seeing that he was as gentle and courteous as he was strong, she said to him: "Fair Knight, will ye wear my favour at this tournament? For never have I found knight yet to wear my crimson sleeve, and sure am I that none other could ever win it such honour." "Maiden," said Sir Launcelot, "right gladly would I serve you in aught; but it has never been my custom to wear lady's favour." "Then shall it serve the better for disguise," answered Elaine. Sir Launcelot pondered her words, and at last he said: "Fair maiden, I will do for you what I have done for none, and will wear your favour." So with great glee, she brought it him, a crimson velvet sleeve embroidered with great pearls, and fastened it in his helmet. Then Sir Launcelot begged her to keep for him his own shield until after the tournament, when he would come for it again and tell them his name.


The next morn, Sir Launcelot took his departure with Sir Lavaine and, by evening, they were come to Camelot. Forthwith Sir Lavaine led Sir Launcelot to the house of a worthy burgher, where he might stay in privacy, undiscovered by those of his acquaintance. Then, when at dawn the trumpets blew, they mounted their horses and rode to a little wood hard by the lists, and there they abode some while; for Sir Launcelot would take no part until he had seen which side was the stronger. So they saw how King Arthur sat high on a throne to overlook the combat, while the King of Northgalis and all the fellowship of the Round Table held the lists against their opponents led by King Anguish of Ireland and the King of Scots.


Then it soon appeared that the two Kings with all their company could do but little against the Knights of the Round Table, and were sore pressed to maintain their ground. Seeing this, Sir Launcelot said to Sir Lavaine: "Sir Knight, will ye give me your aid if I go to the rescue of the weaker side? For it seems to me they may not much longer hold their own unaided." "Sir," answered Lavaine, "I will gladly follow you and do what I may." So the two laid their lances in rest and charged into the thickest of the fight and, with one spear, Sir Launcelot bore four knights from the saddle. Lavaine, too, did nobly, for he unhorsed the bold Sir Bedivere and Sir Lucan the Butler. Then with their swords they smote lustily on the left hand and on the right, and those whom they had come to aid rallying to them, they drove the Knights of the Round Table back a space. So the fight raged furiously, Launcelot ever being in the thickest of the press and performing such deeds of valour that all marvelled to see him, and would fain know who was the Knight of the Crimson Sleeve. But the knights of Arthur's court felt shame of their discomfiture, and, in especial, those of Launcelot's kin were wroth that one should appear who seemed mightier even than Launcelot's self. So they called to each other and, making a rally, directed all their force against the stranger knight who had so turned the fortunes of the day. With lances in rest, Sir Lionel, Sir Bors, and Sir Ector, bore down together upon Sir Launcelot, and Sir Bors' spear pierced Sir Launcelot and brought him to the earth, leaving the spear head broken off in his side. This Sir Lavaine saw, and immediately, with all his might, he rode upon the King of Scots, unhorsed him and took his horse to Sir Launcelot. Now Sir Launcelot felt as if he had got his death-wound, but such was his spirit that he was resolved to do some great deed while yet his strength remained. So, with Lavaine's aid, he got upon the horse, took a spear and, laying it in rest, bore down, one after the other, Sir Bors, Sir Lionel, and Sir Ector. Next he flung him into the thickest of the fight, and before the trumpets sounded the signal to cease, he had unhorsed thirty good knights.


Then the Kings of Scotland and Ireland came to Sir Launcelot and said: "Sir Knight, we thank you for the service done us this day. And now, we pray you, come with us to receive the prize which is rightly yours; for never have we seen such deeds as ye have done this day." "My fair lords," answered Sir Launcelot, "for aught that I have accomplished, I am like to pay dearly; I beseech you, suffer me to depart." With these words, he rode away full gallop, followed by Sir Lavaine; and when he had come to a little wood, he called Lavaine to him, saying: "Gentle Knight, I entreat you, draw forth this spear head, for it nigh slayeth me." "Oh! my dear lord," said Lavaine, "I fear sore to draw it forth lest ye die." "If ye love me, draw it out," answered Launcelot. So Lavaine did as he was bidden, and, with a deathly groan, Sir Launcelot fell in a swoon to the ground. When he was a little recovered, he begged Lavaine to help him to his horse and lead him to a hermitage hard by where dwelt a hermit who, in bygone days, had been known to Launcelot for a good knight and true. So with pain and difficulty they journeyed to the hermitage, Lavaine oft fearing that Sir Launcelot would die. And when the hermit saw Sir Launcelot, all pale and besmeared with blood, he scarce knew him for the bold Sir Launcelot du Lac; but he bore him within and dressed his wound and bade him be of good cheer, for he should recover. So there Sir Launcelot abode many weeks and Sir Lavaine with him; for Lavaine would not leave him, such love had he for the good knight he had taken for his lord.


Now when it was known that the victorious knight had departed from the field sore wounded, Sir Gawain vowed to go in search of him. So it chanced that, in his wanderings, he came to Astolat, and there he had a hearty welcome of the Lord of Astolat, who asked him for news of the tournament. Then Sir Gawain related how two stranger knights, bearing white shields, had won great glory, and in especial one, who wore in his helm a crimson sleeve, had surpassed all others in knightly prowess. At these words, the fair Elaine cried aloud with delight. "Maiden," said Gawain, "know ye this knight?" "Not his name," she replied; "but full sure was I that he was a noble knight when I prayed him to wear my favour." Then she showed Gawain the shield which she had kept wrapped in rich broideries, and immediately Sir Gawain knew it for Launcelot's. "Alas!" cried he, "without doubt it was Launcelot himself that we wounded to the death. Sir Bors will never recover the woe of it."


Then, on the morrow, Sir Gawain rode to London to tell the court how the stranger knight and Launcelot were one; but the Fair Maid of Astolat rose betimes, and having obtained leave of her father, set out to search for Sir Launcelot and her brother Lavaine. After many journeyings, she came, one day, upon Lavaine exercising his horse in a field, and by him she was taken to Sir Launcelot. Then, indeed, her heart was filled with grief when she saw the good knight to whom she had given her crimson sleeve thus laid low; so she abode in the hermitage, waiting upon Sir Launcelot and doing all within her power to lessen his pain.

After many weeks, by the good care of the hermit and the fair Elaine, Sir Launcelot was so far recovered that he might bear the weight of his armour and mount his horse again. Then, one morn, they left the hermitage and rode all three, the Fair Maid, Sir Launcelot, and Sir Lavaine, to the castle of Astolat, where there was much joy of their coming. After brief sojourn, Sir Launcelot desired to ride to court, for he knew there would be much sorrow among his kinsmen for his long absence. But when he would take his departure, Elaine cried aloud: "Ah! my lord, suffer me to go with you, for I may not bear to lose you." "Fair child," answered Sir Launcelot gently, "that may not be. But in the days to come, when ye shall love and wed some good knight, for your sake I will bestow upon him broad lands and great riches; and at all times will I hold me ready to serve you as a true knight may." Thus spoke Sir Launcelot, but the fair Elaine answered never a word.


So Sir Launcelot rode to London where the whole court was glad of his coming; but from the day of his departure, the Fair Maid drooped and pined until, when ten days were passed, she felt that her end was at hand. So she sent for her father and two brothers, to whom she said gently: "Dear father and brethren, I must now leave you." Bitterly they wept, but she comforted them all she might, and presently desired of her father a boon. "Ye shall have what ye will," said the old lord; for he hoped that she might yet recover. Then first she required her brother, Sir Tirre, to write a letter, word for word as she said it; and when it was written, she turned to her father and said: "Kind father, I desire that, when I am dead, I may be arrayed in my fairest raiment, and placed on a bier; and let the bier be set within a barge, with one to steer it until I be come to London. Then, perchance, Sir Launcelot will come and look upon me with kindness." So she died, and all was done as she desired; for they set her, looking as fair as a lily, in a barge all hung with black, and an old dumb man went with her as helmsman.


Slowly the barge floated down the river until it had come to Westminster; and as it passed under the palace walls, it chanced that King Arthur and Queen Guenevere looked forth from a window. Marvelling much at the strange sight, together they went forth to the quay, followed by many of the knights. Then the King espied the letter clasped in the dead maiden's hand, and drew it forth gently and broke the seal. And thus the letter ran: "Most noble Knight, Sir Launcelot, I, that men called the Fair Maid of Astolat, am come hither to crave burial at thy hands for the sake of the unrequited love I gave thee. As thou art peerless knight, pray for my soul."


Then the King bade fetch Sir Launcelot, and when he was come, he showed him the letter. And Sir Launcelot, gazing on the dead maiden, was filled with sorrow. "My lord Arthur," he said, "for the death of this dear child I shall grieve my life long. Gentle she was and loving, and much was I beholden to her; but what she desired I could not give." "Yet her request now thou wilt grant, I know," said the King; "for ever thou art kind and courteous to all." "It is my desire," answered Sir Launcelot.


So the Maid of Astolat was buried in the presence of the King and Queen and of the fellowship of the Round Table, and of many a gentle lady who wept, that time, the fair child's fate. Over her grave was raised a tomb of white marble, and on it was sculptured the shield of Sir Launcelot; for, when he had heard her whole story, it was the King's will that she that in life had guarded the shield of his noblest knight, should keep it also in death.


Sir Thomas Malory, Morte d'Arthur





This is how I see Elaine of Astolat, in one of my very first poems.




Dear Lady of Shalott,

like you I am Elaine of Astolat

like you I climb the boat of my life

and let go on that river of oblivion

for I need to forget,

I need to forgive,

I need to cease

because that will be my release;

I need to disappear

to make the burden of life easier.


Oh Lady of Shalott,

Your eyes remain tighly shut;

Haven't these centuries of mourning sufficed?

Your lilies are fading

and the wreaths that adorn you

will wither away and fade in time.

I dare not wander further

as I fear to lose your sight.


Perhaps one day,

perhaps not far away,

You'll reach my boat,

Together we'll travel far and wide;

The Wiltshire skies and the old kind sun

Will brighten our days

as we seek, once more,

the fountain of love,

our lily of hope.



Josette Marie Camilleri

Copyright: November 26, 1984.

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