In which the Lady of Shalott dies for love of Launcelot
Eventually, however, Launcelot did recover. On the day he was ready to leave Baudwin’s hermitage, Elaine did some quick math, and realized that with his injuries healed, Launcelot didn’t have a reason to keep her around.
“Sir Launcelot! Beloved! I know you’re leaving,” she said when she found him. “Please, take me with you!”
“No, thank you.”
“Please, marry me! I know it’s olden times and the man is supposed to ask the girl’s father, but I don’t care!”
“No, thank you.”
“Then please, let’s just fool around one more time, and then I can be your girl on the side!” Desperate, Elaine tried anything she could think of to get Launcelot to like her. It was like a scene out of an ABC Afterschool Special. “Anything goes! I’ll do what Guene-don’t!”
“Jesu defend me!” cried Launcelot. “How many times can I say no?”
“Then I guess I’ll just die of grief!” shouted Elaine. Then she shrieked shrilly, and fell down in a swoon.
While some ladies-in-waiting carried Elaine off to bed, Launcelot consulted Bernard and Lavaine. “I really don’t want to marry her.”
Lavaine and Bernard would’ve both been a lot happier if he did, but Launcelot was implacable.
So Launcelot went back to Camelot. He took Lavaine with him, as his sidekick, and everyone in Camelot was happy to see him back except for Agravaine and Mordred and Guenever. Guenever arranged to always be in a different room whenever Launcelot was around, and would get up and leave whenever he came in and sat down. Childish, high-school antics, really.
Meanwhile Elaine went on a hunger strike and, as Bors predicted, eventually she died. Before her death, she wrote a letter about how she was dying for the love of Launcelot, and after she passed away her father loaded her body into a boat with the letter, and sent it downriver towards Camelot.
This bit here is pretty famous: Elaine of Astolat, aka the Lady of Shalott came down the river in her funeral barge, where the knights of Camelot found her. Tennyson wrote a poem you might remember from Anne of Green Gables:
“Who is this? And what is here?”
And in the lighted palace near
Died the sound of royal cheer;
And they crossed themselves for fear,
All the Knights at Camelot;
But Lancelot mused a little space
He said, “She has a lovely face;
God in His mercy lend her grace,
The Lady of Shalott.”
Anyway. In Malory’s telling, Arthur and Guenever spotted the barge first, from out a high window at Camelot. Initially they couldn’t figure out what it was; it looked like a boat, but there didn’t seem to be anyone moving around on it. Arthur called over Sir Kay, and pointed it out to him.
Kay squinted at it and shrugged.
“Go down with, uh, him and him.” Arthur pointed to the two closest knights on hand, Sir Agravaine and Sir Brandiles. “And bring me ready word what is there. No, actually, I’m coming, too, because Malory says that four knights go to investigate.”
So Arthur, Kay, Brandiles, and Agravaine headed down to the water, where they roped in the boat and climb aboard. Inside, of course, they found the fairest corpse lying in a rich bed, and also the boat’s pilot because Malory couldn’t make up his damn mind about whether there was a pilot or not. If there was a pilot then no word would he speak, because of course that would defeat the whole purpose of the royal letter.
So the four knights go back inside, and in a stunning continuity error Arthur told himself about Elaine’s exquisite corpse. “That fair corpse will I see,” declared Arthur. “Again, I mean.” He went back down to the water, this time leading along Guenever.
Arthur, Guenever, and certain knights — Malory isn’t about to commit to a particular number, like three or four, it’s enough to know that only certain knights came with — boarded the barge, and examined Elaine’s corpse, covered in riches and finery.
Guenever spotted the letter and pointed it out to Arthur, who picked it up and carried it back up to Camelot. Apparently King Arthur was illiterate, because he called for a clerk to read it.
“Dear Sir Launcelot,” read the clerk. “Now that I’m dead the question of how much sex we did or did not have will never be resolved. My official position is that I was your lover. Please give me a nice funeral, and I would like you, Launcelot, to offer ye my mass-penny, which is something we do in these olden times. Sincerely, the virgin (or was I?) Elaine of Astolat.”
“How odd,” said Arthur, while Guenever breaks down sobbing. He called for Sir Launcelot, who had been conspicuously absent, and had the letter read again.
“I did not murder her,” was the first thing Launcelot said once he’d heard the letter.
“I wasn’t accusing you of anything,” said Arthur.
“Good. Just so we’re clear. I’m sorry she’s dead and I didn’t murder her and Sir Lavaine here will attest to that fact.” Launcelot waved in Sir Lavaine, who agreed that Launcelot did not murder Elaine.
“You might have been nicer to her,” Guenever sniffed.
“Well…” Launcelot seemed at a loss for words. “She wanted to marry me, or to be my mistress on the side, and I said no, and then I totally offered her a lot of money…”
“I don’t remember that part,” muttered Lavaine.
“A thousand pound yearly to her and to her heirs,” lied Launcelot. “All she had to do was marry someone else, anyone else. I didn’t want to marry her! I didn’t love her.”
“It’s true,” said Arthur. “The heart wants what it wants. Many knight’s love is free in himself, and never will be bounden. But there is the matter of this letter. I assign you the Quest of Elaine’s Funeral, Launcelot.”
So Launcelot arranged a lavish funeral for Elaine, and offered her mass-penny. Afterwards Guenever called in Launcelot and chewed him out royally for the whole big mess, and Launcelot tried to defend himself but didn’t have much of a leg to stand on.
The end! No moral.
PS Sir Lavaine spent that winter showing everyone in Camelot how great at venery he was.
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