Elaine of Astolat in Tennyson's The Lady of Shalott and Lancelot and Elaine
The Arthurian legends have fascinated people over the centuries with tales of kings, noble ladies, knights, magicians, love, and death. Among those who wrote about King Arthur's reign was Alfred, Lord Tennyson. One of his poems, "The Lady of Shalott," became immensely popular for its moving pathos and mystery. Yet, the poem was based on a character from Arthurian legends - Elaine of Astolat. Several years after composing the poem, Tennyson wrote directly about Elaine's tragic love affair with Sir Lancelot in "Lancelot and Elaine," found in his epic piece Idylls of the King. Although both poems share many of the same features, they portray the two ladies quite differently from one another. The Lady of Shalott is a fairy of sorts, residing in a magical world, while Elaine is a purely human character according to Arthurian legends. The differences are quite apparent when viewed according to the women's family structure, interaction with society, presence of magical elements, and manner of death. Thus, despite their many similarities, Tennyson makes each into a unique and completely separate figure.
Both the Lady of Shalott and Elaine of Astolat share numerous similarities in their lives. Even the places they live possess a similar name. Most of the scenes in "The Lady of Shalott" take place in a tower. Likewise, Elaine retreats to a tower where she keeps Sir Lancelot's shield. Lilies surround each lady, literally and figuratively. Tennyson says that "the lilies blow / Round an island there below, / The island of Shalott" ("The Lady of Shalott" lines 7-9). Similarly, he calls Elaine "the lily maid of Astolat" ("Lancelot and Elaine" 2). Both ladies occupy their time by weaving or embroidering. William E. Buckler compares Elaine to the Lady by stating:
The "case of silk" that she decorates for Lancelot's shield has its counterpart in the Lady's storied tapestry; it is Lancelot who, here again unintentionally, motivates her fatal decision; like the Lady, she approaches Camelot in a mysterious funeral barge; and as Lancelot had in the earlier poem "mused a little space," in the idyll he "later came and mused at her." (113)
When comparing both poems, one sees many surface parallels in the two women's lives. Nevertheless, a deeper reading reveals manifold differences between the ladies
Completely alone, the Lady lives a life of seclusion revealed by the lines "And the silent isle imbowers / The Lady of Shalott" ("The Lady of Shalott" 17-18). Tennyson never mentions anyone other than the Lady as an occupant of the island. She has no apparent family members to guide or help her in any way. She has no one with whom to converse while inside the castle. In fact, she has no given name, simply a title. On the other hand, Elaine has a father and two older brothers to keep her...