An enchantress (or one of several) who has a manipulative role in the Arthurian romances (see Arthur); she is called variously Viviane, Niniane, Nimuë, etc. She does not appear in the earliest Arthurian stories, but was probably adopted into the canon from other legends, especially those of lake spirits (see Undine). Her part emerges in the Vulgate Cycle of Arthurian stories (compiled 1215-1235) and most completely in Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte Darthur (1485). She is seen as a student of Merlin's who takes on his function as Arthur's protector. It is she who gives Arthur Excalibur, and who receives it back as Arthur lies dying. She feigns love for Merlin and uses the spells she has learned from him to ensnare and trap him. She becomes the foster-mother of Lancelot when he is abandoned, and subsequently delivers him to Arthur's court. An almost certainly different Lady of the Lake is killed by Sir Balin, who thereby incurs the wrath of Arthur.
The Lady is often portrayed as a benign spirit or Fairy, as distinct from the darker Morgan Le Fay, although both are probably based on the same early beliefs. In most Arthurian fiction that seeks "realism" her character is downplayed, but in the more traditional Arthurian stories her role is allowed to develop. She is best displayed in The Mists of Avalon (1982) by Marion Zimmer Bradley, which explores her part in the rise of Christianity and its impact on the Old Religion. In King Arthur's Daughter (1978) by Vera Chapman she is the loving wife of Merlin; their descendant marries Arthur's daughter and thus perpetuates the bloodline. In the Daughter of Tintagel sequence by Fay Sampson – in particular Black Smith's Telling (1990) and Taliesin's Telling (1991) – she is depicted as leader of a band of rebel women warriors (see Amazons) who use Arthur as their champion to protect the Old Religion against Christianity. [MA]