The Lady is Elaine of Astolat (or Elaine the Fair), part of medieval Italian and French Arthurian legend cycles of the 13th-15th centuries, including Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur. Elaine loved Lancelot from afar; in Malory's version (an episode in Book 18 of Caxton's 1485 edition), she persuades him to carry her token in a jousting tournament, but he refuses to engage further with her, and she dies broken-hearted.
In the poem, she does not meet Lancelot while she lives, for she is cursed to remain in an island-castle prison, viewing the world only through a mirror. It is in this mirror that she sees Lancelot. Pierced by his beauty, she defies the curse, dares to venture into the world, and so discovers her end before her love.
The three paintings here are all versions of her by John William Waterhouse (1888, 1915, and 1894, respectively), but Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, Sidney Harold Meteyard, Arthur Hughes, Arthur Rackham, Howard Pyle, and many other Pre-Raphaelite and Symbolist artists drew and painted their impressions of her.
She has also been referenced in song. Emilie Autumn tells the story in her own words, accompanied by a harpsichord that captures an aching mix of hope, anger, and despair:
And Loreena McKennitt's beautiful adaptation of Tennyson's poem has never yet failed to break my heart and bring me to tears. Here is a live version:
I first discovered the Lady through Anne of Green Gables: Anne, in love with the poem, attempts to recreate the Lady's dying journey down the river, an adventure which of course goes terribly awry. Oh, how I longed to have a suitable river and boat in which to try it for myself! The Lady will always fascinate me, for as she watched piecemeal reflections of the world and spun them into dreams, I, dreaming, see parts of myself reflected in her.
Lancelot mused a little space; / He said, "She has a lovely face; / God in his mercy lend her grace, / The Lady of Shalott."
- All via Wikisource [link] [link] [link]
- Some further images can be found at the Camelot Project [link]
- Elaine of Astolat/The Lady of Shalott at the Camelot Project [link]
- Summary of Book 18 of Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur [link]
- Full text of Caxton's edition of Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur (link starts you at the Astolat episode of Book 18) [link]
- Full text of both versions of Tennyson's "The Lady of Shalott" [link] or [link]
- Full text of "Lancelot and Elaine" in Tennyson's The Idylls of the King [link]
- Wikipedia [link] and [link]