Today’s letter is E and the characters are both called Elaine and both were involved with Lancelot, whose mother was also called Elaine. There must be something about the name. I believe it’s a variation of “Helen”.
I’ll be mentioning the appearances of these two women in modern fiction as well as their mediaeval stories.
Elaine of Astolat is known as the Lily Maid of Astolat. She is the pathetic one of the two. I should add, she is the one who makes it into modern and Victorian fiction too, inspiring the Lady of Shalott.
|The Lady Of Shalott. Waterhouse. Public Domain.|
In the Morte D’Arthure, in a story taken from “the French book” mentioned by Malory, Elaine is the daughter of a certain Sir Bernard, who is having a tournament. Long story, but boils down to this: one of the participants is Sir Lancelot, of whom you will hear more in a future post. She is in love with him and begs him to wear her favour in the contest, an embroidered red sleeve. He agrees, but says he will be doing it incognito, so uses her brother’s plain white shield, while she hides his in her room. She doesn’t know who he is herself.
Lancelot wins the tournament but is badly wounded. Everyone admires this amazing knight and wonders who he is. He gets treatment at the forest cell of a hermit who was once one of Arthur’s knights but has retired and is a hotshot surgeon.
Sir Gawain turns up at Sir Bernard’s home and, after seeing Lancelot’s shield, identifies him and tells the horrified girl that he has been badly wounded. Of course, she rushes off to nurse him, but while she is gathering herbs or whatever, the idiot decides he simply has to compete in another tournament he has heard about, and gets out of his sickbed well before he is ready.
So, more time in bed, and does he fall in love with his nurse? Nope. Furthermore, he finds out that Gawain has identified him and knows he is going to be in huge trouble with Guinevere, because Gawain is going to blab... Oh, dear.
He tells Elaine firmly, after he recovers, that sorry, he can’t be her husband or lover. And then he offers her money in the form of a huge yearly income when she marries someone else... Idiot.
Elaine dies ten days later and, probably during the ten days, comes up with her revenge - “He’ll be sorry when I’m dead, you’ll see!”
She requires her body to be dressed richly and have a letter put into her hand and be carried by barge down the river, with a boatman to make sure it reaches its destination and not just some random spot.
And then the whole court gathers as the letter is read. Guinevere says something like, “You could have been nicer to her!” Lancelot says that he can only love who he can love and not call it up on request, and Arthur agrees - poor man! Lancelot even says “But I offered her all that money to marry someone else, I don’t get it!” No, Lancelot, you wouldn’t, would you?
Guinevere, who has been angry with him, as he predicted, calls him in to apologise, but he is not accepting apologies. Coldly he tells her he has had about enough of her jealousy and they have a quarrel. A nice revenge for Elaine.
The Lady Of Shalott is the heroine of Tennyson’s poem of the same name. She lives in a tower on the way to Camelot, weaving scenes from life, but never allowed to see the real thing, except in her mirror, due to a curse. And in her mirror, she sees Lancelot, riding along singing “Tirra Lirra by the river”. Finally, angry and frustrated with only shadows of life, she turns to see the real thing and, of course, the curse comes down on her. “The mirror crack’d from side to side” (Agatha Christie used that for the title of one of her murder mysteries) She goes down to the river, gets in her barge and lies down to die. No letter, no boatman. “She has a lovely face,” says Lancelot, who has no idea who the woman is. By the way, that poem has been turned into a song by Lorena McKennitt. Listen to it here.
In T.H White’s novel Elaine has been in love with Lancelot for years and knows perfectly well who he is. She is not a young thing either, by then, but neither is he.
American novelist Phyllis Ann Karr wrote a short story, “Two Bits Of Embroidery”. One is that scarlet sleeve made by Elaine. The other is a head cloth embroidered by a kitchen maid who has a crush on Sir Kay, who is in charge of the kitchens. She asks him to wear it as her favour. He says no, but asks to keep the cloth to show somebody. The “somebody” is the Queen, who takes the girl into her personal service, sewing for her. So, the girl whose knight wears her favour dies, the one whose knight didn’t wear it lives and thrives. A nice story, in several anthologies if you want to read it.
The other Elaine is Elaine of Carbonek/Corbenic, daughter of King Pelles/Pellam, the keeper of the Holy Grail. Lancelot rescues her from a bathtub full of very hot water(a curse, of course). She doesn’t die of unrequited love for Lancelot - oh, no, not her! She is helped to sleep with him by a great enchantress, Dame Brisen, who sends him off to a castle where he thinks he is meeting Guinevere - and puts something in his wine to make sure he doesn’t notice his lover that night isn’t the Queen.
When he finds out, next day, he is furious, but calms down, thinking it isn’t her fault, it was that bitch Brisen! However, he doesn’t seem to end up beheading the enchantress as he vowed to do, and Elaine becomes pregnant with Galahad, the future Grail Knight, who will sit in the Siege Perilous and achieve the Grail, so that’s okay. Never mind that Lancelot had to be drugged and tricked, or that he is told he is too sinful to achieve it himself.
This Elaine also gets some time in modern fiction. She appears in T.H White’s Once And Future King, in her Malory guise, though T.H White has a bit more compassion for her than Malory.
She is also in Parke Godwin’s Firelord and Beloved Exile. She marries Lancelot(called Ancellius in these books), and gives birth to their son, but is furious when she realises that he merely feels sorry for her. Her anger is directed at Gwenhwyfar (Guinevere)rather than her husband, who has remained good friends with Gwenhwyfar even after their brief affair is over, and tries to get her revenge in the second novel, after Arthur’s death, a revenge that backfires on her.
Anyway, this is a long post and I need to go away and do some housework after breakfast, so goodbye for today and tomorrow I will be back with the Fisher King!