Authors note: This is an essay I did for a class. I'm adding illustrations but leaving the formatting the same, complete with a works cited page. I've posted the poem I wrote this about as well. Comments are welcome but remember, this is old and already submitted (I got an A). I enjoyed writing it and it started my academic career for having 'interesting' takes on traditional literature and arguments. Should anybody come across this while doing research for a paper, please make sure to cite it correctly and check out the books I've listed, they were a lot of help.
Fairies Don’t Live in Flowers and Elves Don’t Bake Cookies
Symbol and Allusion in Tennyson’s “Lady of Shalott”
The Lady of Shalott was a fairy. She was not the winged, pre-pubescent girl who lives in flowers type of fairy. No, in the grand style of Celtic folk-lore, she was more than human. The Lady of Shalott’s place among the other folk is important. Not only does it give this poem the magic necessary to be included into the category of Arthurian Romance, it gives an added weight to many of the symbols Tennyson included.
The first thing necessary to understand the symbols surrounding the Lady of Shalott is her place in the world and the poem. The Lady of Shalott is a lady. While that may be self-evident it is important to point out that she isn’t a queen but she is still part of the upper-echelons of the other world. It also means that she has complete dominion of the island of Shalott and influence on the surrounding land. The fact that part of the surrounding land is Camelot is what makes this an Arthurian Romance and not just a fairy tale. However, most ladies in romances are paired with a knight, generally as the person for whom the knight does all of his heroic deeds. The absence of a knight to balance the Lady of Shalott shows an imbalance that will lead to the destruction of Camelot.
|Waterhouse's Lady of Shalott|
The second, and possibly more important, thing to understand is the Lady’s profession. The Lady of Shalott is a weaver. Of all the creative arts, none is so distinctly female as weaving. Penelope did it as she waited for Odysseus to return, the spider was created when a mortal woman, Arachne, lost a weaving contest with Athena. The Fates are also women; Clotho who spins the thread of life, Atropos who cuts it and Lachesis who measures and is sometimes said to weave the thread of life. For centuries, women wove cloth to cover their families and to sell; the textile trade made The Wife of Bath in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales very wealthy. Nothing could illustrate the Lady of Shalott’s power and independence more than her act of weaving. The Lady of Shalott is weaving a cloth to influence the land surrounding her island but she’s cursed. The cloth she is weaving is very special and the story of the Lady of Shalott weaving her cloth gives a beautiful synopsis of the rise of Camelot and a premonition of it’s fall.
Many people see The Lady of Shalott as a symbol herself. Not all of them are particularly flattering to the poem, Tenneyson or the society which would romanticize The Lady of Shalott. Indeed, in her book Women/Image/Text, Lynne Pearce says:
[T]he lady is, as I first indicated, a bountiful symbol of material oppression; she is the imprisoned woman, the condemned woman, the murdered woman of many centuries. And she is also, more specifically, the middle-class, genteel and educated woman of too many Victorian novels and too many social statistics. Propertyless and hence powerless, she is the domestic angel condemned forever to a drawing room existence. (74 Pearce)
|William Hollman Hunt I'm Half Sick of Shadow's|
This simplistic projection of The Lady of Shalott onto every oppressed woman in history denies the fact that she was not created in a vacuum. Tennyson put very little description into the physical nature of The Lady of Shalott, though she was painted often by the pre-Raphaelites. The charge that she had no property is easily done away with by remembering that as The Lady of Shalott, she holds dominion over her entire island. As for being powerless, the mirror shows differently. The Lady of Shalott is a better symbol for the secluded intellectual writer who creates pale reflections of a world they never experience. Indeed, as Kathleen Sullivan Kruger notes in her book Weaving the Word that, “[b]ecause we habitually link female involvement to textile history, the recuperation of this history recovers a record of women’s participation in the creation of culture and its texts, thereby reclaiming a female authorship.” (23)
What kind of reflections does the mirror cast? Though usually a symbol for vanity, the mirror that The Lady of Shalott is looking at does not reflect her. At first glance, it would seem that the mirror is reflecting the world outside a window. However, a little knowledge of the kind of loom Tennyson would have been familiar with and the line “To wave the mirror’s magic sights” (line 65) shows that the mirror is reflecting the cloth that she is weaving. The Lady of Shalott is weaving a magic cloth, one with scenes of the road above Camelot. Far from being powerless, the magic cloth showcases The Lady of Shalott’s power.
The Lady of Shalott can see what she is creating in her mirror but she can’t see it actually happening. This is the nature of her curse. She cannot stop weaving the magic cloth because, as soon as she does, she stops creating the scenes on the road to Camelot. To stop and look at the real world instead of the shadows would be an end to the very creative process that is creating those scenes in the real world. When she first started, The Lady of Shalott had no other care in the world but to continue her weaving until she begins to become dissatisfied, envious of the people in her weaving. Tennyson show’s the beginning of her end with the lines “She hath no loyal knight and true / The Lady of Shalott” (line 62-63) and “ ‘I am half sick of shadows,’ said / The Lady of Shalott.”
|Waterhouse Looking at Lancelot|
Though it is often Guinevere and her affair with Lancelot that is blamed for the beginning of the fall of Camelot, Tennyson indicates otherwise. Lancelot, it seems, carries the destruction of women with him. It is Lancelot’s arrival that prompts a dissatisfied Lady of Shalott to leave her loom to look at him. However, the scene on Lancelot’s shield give an indication that he was not meant to be the downfall of Camelot. The scene on his shield is that of the Red Cross Knight and the Faerie Queen from Edmund Spenser’s epic poem The Faerie Queene. Spenser intended his poem to be the ultimate English epic. The Red Cross Knight was representative of St. George, the patron saint of England. In his marriage to the Faerie Queen, The Red Cross Knight weds the physical world to the spiritual world in the ideal union. Lancelot bearing the scene of the Red Cross Knight on his shield is a reminder to his readers that Camelot was not the perfect kingdom that it is often supposed to be but it could have been.
In her mirror she can see the shining beauty that is Lancelot. If he’s that beautiful in the mirror, what would he look like in real life? The Lady of Shalott never gets to see Lancelot before the mirror breaks.
She left the web, she left the loom,
She made three paces through the room,
She saw the water lily bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
She looked down to Camelot.
Out flew the web and floated wide
The mirror cracked from side to side
“The curse is come upon me,” cried
The Lady of Shalott. (109-115)
|Walter Crane Lady of Shalott|
Two things break as the curse comes upon The Lady of Shalott; the mirror and the web. The web is what The Lady of Shalott was weaving. She was very likely weaving bits of herself into it and when it fully unravels, she dies. The glass reflects what she is weaving. When it breaks, not only does it disconnect the influence of the web on the outside world but it also curses the scene it had been looking upon. With the coming of Lancelot, The Lady of Shalott was effected by her curse and things began to fall apart in Camelot.
Had The Lady of Shalott stayed on her island, nobody would have known that anything had happened to anybody that day. The reapers would have noticed the absence of her singing but even that would have been forgotten eventually. All authors wish to be remembered and grasp at the immortality that creation can offer them. The Lady of Shalott knows she’s dying and, with her creation unraveling behind her, she grasps at the only way she’ll be remembered. The Lady of Shalott goes to Camelot.
There are two physical descriptions given of The Lady of Shalott in her poem. The first describes her robes as she lays down in the boat that will take her body to Camelot. “Lying, robed in snowy white” (line 136) is a great deal different from the “magic web with colors gay” (line 38) that she was weaving. The absence of color in her garments leads the indication that all of her colors, all of her life, was woven into the tapestry that is now a mess. She’d woven her own fate in with that of Camelot.
When the body of The Lady of Shalott floats into Camelot, the knights and lady’s cross themselves in fear, probably with a sense of foreboding at seeing the dead lady in a boat on the river. Whether the knights and ladies were aware of the Lady of Shalott as the reapers were, it is impossible to know although one could assume that everybody who had been there awhile would have heard some story of the singing of The Lady of Shalott. The only knight who hadn’t been there long enough to know about The Lady of Shalott is the one who caused her destruction and that of Camelot; Lancelot. “He said, ‘She has a lovely face, / God in his mercy lend her grace, / The Lady of Shalott’” (lines 169-171). He doesn’t know who she is or that he is the cause of her death and the doom of Camelot.
|Dante Gabrielle Rossetti Lady of Shalott|
The Pre-Raphaelites loved The Lady of Shalott. In fact, she was one of “the most favored of all Tennysonian subjects among Pre-Raphaelite and late-Victorian artists” (71 Speare). Two of the best known paintings done of The Lady of Shalott are by Dante Rosetti and John William Waterhouse. Both show The Lady of Shalott at the end of her story. The one by Rosetti shows Lancelot examining her face and the one by Waterhouse shows her alone in her boat as it’s beginning to float off down the river. Something about the way these artists have captured The Lady of Shalott at her most vulnerable, with no island, no loom, not even any life, illustrates a poignancy captured by the fate of The Lady of Shalott.
Could The Lady of Shalott avoided this fate and her death? No. People will argue that if she had just stayed with her task she wouldn’t have died and Camelot would have become the perfect kingdom it was meant to be. However, The Lady of Shalott was losing the joy she had originally found in her task. Initially, she must have wanted to sit down at her loom and begin weaving the story of Camelot. She doesn’t care if she’s cursed, she simply continues to weave. No matter how much somebody enjoys what they’re doing, everybody needs a break. Sitting so long at a task she once enjoyed turned her weaving into a burden. She was burnt out and longing for the things she was weaving into her story of Camelot. With the coming of Lancelot it becomes obvious that she wishes her own Red Cross Knight, if only for companionship, but she is not a fairy queen.
When The Lady of Shalott rebels and steps away from her loom to look out at Camelot in the hopes of seeing Lancelot there is a sense of doom but also one of liberation. The Lady of Shalott is no longer a slave to her creation and her creation is no longer being dictated by her. She had been weaving the events around Camelot for a very long time. It would now be up to the people in and around Camelot to create their own fates. The Lady of Shalott dies and comes to rest in her beloved Camelot at the feet of Lancelot. She doesn’t get to see him but he sees her and thinks her beautiful. Would he have thought her beautiful had he known who she really was and what she’d been laboring at for years? It is unlikely that they would have thanked her for stepping away from her loom and thus it is only in her death and the destruction of her creation is she given any praise. This is an early rendition of the old cliché that an artists work is worth more after he dies than it was ever worth while he was alive.
Kerenyi, C. The Gods of the Greeks. New York: Grove Press, Inc, 1960.
Kruger, Kathryn Sullivan. Weaving the Word: The Metaphorics of Weaving and Female Textual Production. London: Associated University Presses, 2001.
Lord Tennyson, Alfred. "The Lady of Shalott." The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Julia Reidhead et al. eighth edition. Vol. 2. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006. 1114-18. 2 vols.
Pearce, Lynne. Woman/Image/Text. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991.