Tennyson and the Lady of Shalott/Elaine

Okay, so Alfred, Lord Tennyson, wrote a poem about the Lady of Shalott (“The Lady of Shalott”), and he wrote a poem about Lady Elaine of Astolat and her doomed romance with Sir Lancelot (“Lancelot and Elaine”). But the Lady of Shalott and the Lady of Astolat are really the same character. So why did Tennyson write two different poems about her as if she was two different people? Did he simply want to write about two different (and somewhat comflicting) versions of the legend, or did he think that they were two different women?

And no, this isn’t homework for an English class, I was simply listening to Loreena McKennit’s version of “The Lady of Shalott” and got to wondering.

The two stories may have a common source, but I think the two stories were at least somewhat differentiated before Tennyson came along. Malory seems to make the distinction between Elaine of Astolat (she of the barge, whom Lancelot never slept with) and Elaine of Pelles (the mother of Lancelot’s son Galahad, whom Lancelot slept with under enchantment).

I’d go with wanting to play with the story.

That wasn’t that rare among Victorian artists; the Arthurian tales have so many variants that one can tell many of the tales multiple ways and still remain “true” to one of the earlier versions. William Morris wrote more than version of more than one Arthurian tale. Several of the pre-Raphaelite painters depicted the “same” scene in mutiple paintings, each one quite different. Tennyson did the same thing with a couple of poems. The theme of Idylls of the King provided one context for the stories, whereas in an independent poem he could give a completely different twist to it. (I don’t believe that any of Tennyson’s paired stories are as long or as involved as the two tales of the Lady of Shalott/Astolat, but he does have a few others.)