The following telling of The Grail Maiden is shortly paraphrased from La Morte d'Arthur by Thomas Malory, ©Signet Classics, 2001 pgs 335-355
The story of Elaine of Corbenic or Elaine of Astolat and Lancelot is a very confusing one, in the annals of Arthurian Legend. First mentioned by the French in the 12th century, then picked up by Sir Thomas Malory in the 15th and confused even further by the fact that Malory relates both stories in his La Morte d'Arthur rather than to simply choose one or the other; worse yet, he names Sir Lancelot's mother Elaine. Curious. Is she three? One, or as the Triple Goddess, both three and one? Was she the Grail Maiden, mother to the greatest of the Grail heroes, or was she simply the lovelorn Maiden of Astolat? You decide. Herein, I give to you, in a nutshell, Malory's story of Elaine of Corbenic, the Grail Maiden, as to me it seems the more interesting of the two. The story, in a nutshell, goes thusly....
While riding out looking for adventure, Lancelot du Lac happened upon the tower of Corben. Realizing there was inside, a damsel in distress, he came to her aid, releasing her from a vat of poison in which she had been imprisoned for many months. He returned her forthwith to her father, King Pelles, who invited Lancelot to stay with them, and a feast was prepared in Lancelot's honor.
Into the middle of the feast, comes Elaine, carrying a chalice of radiant beauty. King Pelles kneels humbly before the girl and her chalice, confusing Lancelot to no end. Once the chalice was removed, the dinner went on splendidly, and Lancelot soon retired to a bed which the king had offered, and the king retired, assured of Lancelot's valor and confident of what the night would hold.
Meanwhile, aided by her father, and the sorceress Lady Brusen, Elaine tricked Lancelot into a night's tryst by taking on the guise of Lancelot's beloved Guenivere and thus, she conceived her son Galahad, who was to become the greatest of knights and to become the keeper of the Grail, in his turn.
When Lancelot awoke to see the trick which had been played on him, he drew his sword on Elaine, who confessed to being subject to Lady Brusen's spell, and now carrying Lancelot's child, whom she believed would become the Grail Knight. Lancelot agreed not to harm Elaine, but then turned his vengence on Lady Brusen. With a great amount of coaxing and tears, Elaine convinced him to spare Lady Brusen's life, as well. Angry, Lancelot rode away without another kind word to the Princess Elaine.
And so Elaine remained in Corbenic, alone with her father, and a very amourous suitor in one Sir Bromell. Try as he might, though, Sir Bromell could not convince Elaine to marry him, even when she was delivered of her son. Finally, Elaine confessed her love for Lancelot, and that he was the father of her son. Enraged, Sir Bromell seized the castle for a year and a day, vowing to kill Lancelot, if the knight should ever have the misfortune to return to Corbenic.
But he did not. Instead, his nephew Sir Bors arrived and was himself challenged, quickly conquering his attacker. He then ordered Sir Bromell to present himself to Lancelot, one year from this day and goes in to present himself to Lady Elaine and King Pelles. Imagine his surprise when he learns her babe not only resembles his cousin Lancelot, but is Lancelot's own son.
The subject broached, Elaine is distressed to hear that Lancelot was imprisoned, for the better part of a year, by Morgan Le Fay.
More than a little confused, Sir Bors spends a strange night in Corbenic, dreaming of Grails and knights, before returning to Camelot, with the news of King Pelles, and Elaine and her child and the happenings under their roof. Guenivere, on hearing of the child and of Lancelot's betrayal of her, is enraged, but when Lancelot defends himself to her, she forgives him. After all, he was enchanted.
Eventually, a feast is held in Camelot and Elaine convinces her father that she must attend. Happily, she goes, expecting a great and loving reunion with her beloved Lancelot. Unfortunately, it does not turn out that way. Lancelot flatly ignores Elaine. She and her entourage, therefore, spend the evening trading cold jibes with a very jealous Guenivere, before Elaine takes her ladies and turns in for the night.
Guenivere chides and argues with Lancelot over the Lady Elaine, but in the end, they decide on a secret meeting. When Lady Elaine hears of this, she and Lady Brusen intercede again, and by trickery, Elaine once again has her knight. When Guenivere hears of this, she coldly rejects Lancelot. It was more than enough for the knight's nerves. Poor befuddled Lancelot goes mad and runs away from Camelot, half-naked and raving.
On seeing this, Elaine scolds and accuses Guenivere for her heartlessness; Guenivere, in turn, banishes Elaine from Camelot and threatens her life, if she ever seeks out Lancelot. It is left to Sir Bors, Sir Ector, and Sir Lyonel to go in search of Lancelot, as the two ladies are too distraught to be of any use in ascertaining the distressed and half-naked knight's whereabouts.
Lancelot, the poor man, has been wandering insanely and does so for quite a while, before he comes upon a pavilion wherein rests the knight Sir Blyaunte. Realizing who Lancelot is, and that he is mad, he refuses to fight, instead taking Lancelot home, under restraint, to care for him for the next two years, never once regaining his senses, even though his health returns enough so that he can go on his way.
Free and healed in body, if not spirit and mind, he wanders for a time, finally finding himself back at the castle Corbin and in the employ of the household of Corbenic as nothing less than a court jester. Some time passes in his life as a fool and yet no one notices him, until one day Elaine happens to find him asleep in her garden. Ashamed for him, she summoned her father and Lady Brusen to take a look at him. Lady Brusen pronounced him mad, and placed a spell on him so that he would remain asleep for another hour while attendants moved him inside the castle and into the tower chambers where Pelles kept the Holy Grail.
Lancelot is brought to his senses, and awakens, very angry and ashamed. He asks Pelles for his own castle, pleading on the sake of his honor, as he believes there is now no honorable way for him to return to Camelot. The king agrees and gifts him with the (confusingly named) Castle Blyaunte on the Joyous Isle and there Lancelot lives with Elaine as his wife, giving himself a new name La Shyvalere Mafete (the Knight Who Has Tresspassed), and daily he grieved for his lost King Arthur, Camelot, and Guenivere.
Things go well for Camelot, and the life of the knights go on as usual. Galahad is named knight, and the questing continues, this time for the lost Lancelot. Yet it will take two years before word of this comes to the Joyous Isle. It is not until Sir Ector and Sir Parcival arrive on its shores that Lancelot has any contact with his former life, yet there they are; he challenges them, as if they were any intruders to the Joyous Isle, and as they beg to know his name, he who bested them both--they, knights of the Round Table--Sir Ector is overjoyed to learn he has found his brother at last. And though it takes a while, they do finally convince Lancelot to return to Camelot which he does without giving Elaine a second thought.
There is a little addendum in the chapter of Elaine again confronting Guenivere, and yet exiting without a further word; surviving quietly beside her beloved son and father, and Grail.
It seems to me, the story of Elaine the Grail Maiden, or Elaine of Corbenic, is the better story of Elaine and it seems only to me that the story of the Grail Maiden is not tragic enough for it to have become so popular with the Pre-Raphaelite artists and poets (among them, Tenneyson and Rossetti) as did the later tale of the Lady of Shallot, whose story is so readily known. (If you do not know it, in a nutshell, the young Lady of Shallot was the daughter of a king at whose court Lancelot arrives seeking a disguise for a Joust. The Lady of Shallott falls in love with Lancelot, yet he does everything to discourage it. When he finally out-and-out rejects her, she wills herself to die and convinces her family that for her funeral, she is to be placed in a barge and floated "down to Camelot" with a message to everyone that Lancelot is responsible for her death. The idea of The Lady being grown and trapped in a tower by a witch's spell is an even later invention by Alfred Lord Tennyson).
Because of this popularity of Elaine of Astolat, among the literati of the 19th century, there is a tendency on the part of some readers to believe the taking of this tale by the Pre-Raphaelites meant that the Pre-Raphaelites hated women. In the context of the times that is not so. The Pre-Raphaelites were surrounded by death on all sides. The 19th century was a time of great mortality for the whole of English society from infant mortality rates, to rates of death from childbirth and diseases, and because of this, the Pre-Raphaelites became fascinated with the figure of the "Dying Maiden", as had many artists been, begining as far back as in the 18th century with the likes of Richardson who in his novel Clarissa popularized the idea that death--more correctly suicide--was a way to cleanse a woman's tainted reputation. Thus fascinated, they reproduced the image in all manner of art, from the photographs of leading English photographers, to the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood (most notably Rossetti and later, Waterhouse), to the novels of Henry James (who is the only noted misogynist of the bunch). And therein lies the problem of Elaine of Corbenic. While the regal woman shows the way to triumph spiritually and overcome adversity in the name of bigger ideals, it is the patheticness of the misguided Elaine of Astolat that endures. (Since we speak of suicide here, and not noble or tragic death, I will exclude Shakespeare's Ophelia, who was clearly not in her right mind. Elaine of Astolat, is another matter entirely.)
Maybe finally, it is time to right some of the art world's wrongs? And so I present her, as if to say Death as an ideal situation (and Death as a solution to unrequited love), is passé. Long Live Elaine of Corbenic!
By the way. A Big Congrats goes out to Marion Zimmer Bradley on her portrayal of the lovelorn Elaine. She may be meek, but she got what she wanted, and survived! :o)
Click the next link below to find more lovely links on the story of the two Elaines and the poor confused Lancelot! :o) Enjoy!
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Piece above: Stitching the Standard, E. Blair Leighton, 1911