How was Merlin imprisoned in a glass tower? Why did the Lady of the Lake give Arthur the sword Excalibur? Whatever happened to the Lady in the Lake? And why is this Pre-Raphaelite?
Nimue (the Lady of the Lake, Vivien) was the foster-mother of Sir Lancelot and raised him beneath the Lake's waters. She presented Excalibur to King Arthur. It was not a freely-given gift, however.
That is the Lady of the Lake, said Merlin; and within that lake is a rock, and therein is as fair a place as any on earth, and richly beseen; and this damosel will come to you anon, and then speak ye fair to her that she will give you that sword. Anon withal came the damosel unto Arthur, and saluted him, and he her again. Damosel, said Arthur, what sword is that, that yonder the arm holdeth above the water? I would it were mine, for I have no sword. Sir Arthur, king, said the damosel, that sword is mine, and if ye will give me a gift when I ask it you, ye shall have it.
By my faith, said Arthur, I will give you what gift ye will ask. Well! said the damosel, go ye into yonder barge, and row yourself to the sword, and take it and the scabbard with you, and I will ask my gift when I see my time. (Sir Thomas Mallory, Le Morte d'Arthur, Book I, Chapter XXV).
In Book II, an unknown woman appears at Arthur's court wearing a sword. Arthur learns from her that the sword can only be removed from its scabbard by a knight of all virtues. Arthur fails to pull the sword. Other knights try and Balin, a knight imprisoned for killing Arthur's cousin, succeeds. Since the point of the exercise was to demonstrate that Arthur was not without sin, the unknown woman asks Balin for the return of her sword but since a contract is a contract, he refuses. She honors it and disappears. For awhile.
She returns in Book II, Chapter III to call in the favor Arthur had promised:
Well, said the lady, I ask the head of the knight that hath won the sword, or else the damosel's head that brought it; I take no force though I have both their heads, for he slew my brother, a good knight and a true, and that gentlewoman was causer of my father's death. Truly, said King Arthur, I may grant neither of their heads with my worship, therefore ask what ye will else, and I shall fulfil your desire. I will ask none other thing, said the lady.
Before Arthur could make good on his promise, Balin and the Lady in the Lake had their own issues to resolve. Or not:
When Balin was ready to depart, he saw the Lady of the Lake, that by her means had slain Balin's mother, and he had sought her three years; and when it was told him that she asked his head of King Arthur, he went to her straight and said, Evil be you found; ye would have my head, and therefore ye shall lose yours, and with his sword lightly he smote off her head before King Arthur.
Merlin fell so deeply in love with Nimue that he agreed to teach her all his magical powers. She recorded all his prophecies and became his lover. She became more powerful than Merlin and imprisoned him in a glass tower. She was forced to reclaim Excalibur when Arthur was fatally wounded at the Battle of Camlann. Excalibur was hurled back to the waters. Her place as Merlin's student and lover was largely overtaken by Morgan Le Fay.
In Burne-Jones's painting, Nimue has entangled Merlin in hawthorne bushes and taken his magical texts. Nimue has cast a spell from a passage from the late medieval text, The Romance of Merlin, which describes Nimue luring a powerless Merlin to fate as they walk in the forest of Broceliande. Like Medusa, she is dscribed as having snakes entwined in her hair, able to turn men to stone with a look.
Lovers of things medieval, many of the Morris inner circle favorited the Arthurian legends as subjects for their art and writing, but none more than Burne-Jones.
As a young man, Burne-Jones badly wanted a copy of the Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur, written in 1485. He had found a reprint in a bookshop in Birmingham in 1856. He was 23 at the time and had recently left Oxford after making a walking tour of the great Gothic cathedrals of Northern France with William Morris, during which they decided to abandon their studies to become artists. He was reorganizing his worldview.
Being unable to afford the Malory reprint, Burne-Jones revisted the shop daily in order to read the book. Eventually, William Morris, who had come of age and received the first installment on his inheritance, stepped in and purchased the book for his friend. The book had a deep and far-reaching influence for both men. Georgiana Burne-Jones wrote in 1904:
I think that the book can never have been loved as it was by these two men. With Edward, it became literally a part of himself. Its strength and beauty, its mystical religion and noble chivalry of action, the world of lost history and romance in the name of people and places -- it was his own birthright upon which he entered.
Title: Beguiling of Merlin
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