Shadows of Camelot

I was in high school when I first discovered the lyrical ballad The Lady of Shalott by Lord Alfred Tennyson and fell utterly in love with it. For anyone who doesn’t know the ballad, it centers around a woman, Elaine of Astolat, who lives in a castle on an island. She watches the world pass her by through a mirror while she weaves the images she sees.  She is forbidden to look directly onto the land itself.  One day she spots Sir Lancelot in her mirror, stops weaving and looks out her window towards Camelot.  This brings about the curse.  Knowing she is to die; she sets off on a boat inscribed with her name and leaves her island heading the boat towards Camelot.  She dies in the boat before she reaches the shore and many of the knights and ladies gather around as the boat finally arrives at its destination. One of the main knights at the shore is Lancelot who states that she is very pretty. Thus ends the poem. 

John William Waterhouse 1888

Even at this early age, there was something about this poem that drew me. The idea of Elaine taking her own fate in her hands and despite the curse, she chose to die on her own terms.  It was beautiful and empowering and while I could probably give you an entire feminist theory on the women of Camelot and how they empowered themselves, we’re here for a book review. 

It was with great delight when I discovered Half Sick of Shadows by Laura Sebastian, a story about Elaine, the Lady of Shalott, told in her point of view. I got it last year, but the world conspired to keep me from reading it at the time and I knew this was a book was wanted to sit and savor, not read through half-heartedly.  And I am so glad I waited. 

At the end of her book, Sebastian writes an afterword describing how this book came about and she says something that stuck with me, especially after I finished the final chapter. 

She writes: “It isn’t surprising that Elaine of Shalott was such a popular cultural figure during the Victorian era, a favorite of poets like Tennyson and the Pre-Raphaelite painters.  She was seen as the ideal woman, especially when compared to the evil Morgana and the traitorous Guinevere.” There’s more to this but you get the idea.

The story revolves around Elaine, the Seer, Morgana, the Sorceress, Guinevere, the wilding, Arthur, the would be King, and Lancelot, the knight.  They are raised in Avalon by Nimue to fulfill their destinies. Through her weaving, Elaine sees many futures for them, but they all end in death, heartbreak and the destruction of their family unit. As they leave the idyllic island of Avalon to journey back to Albion and Camelot, their fates are set. Elaine becomes the advisor to Arthur as he struggles to win the throne from his half brother Mordred.  Along the way he must secure the hand of Guinevere and align her kingdom of Lyonesse with that of Camelot.  Elaine struggles with the visions she sees of her friend Morgana, the madness and destruction she wrought, the betrayal of her beloved Lancelot and her friend Gwen, and the future death of her King and friend Arthur to his half brother Mordred.  All while visions of her own death by drowning have haunted her all her life.  In the end, Elaine makes her choice, takes her own fate into her hands and makes the biggest sacrifice.  It is a story of women trapped by the rules of court struggling to make their own choices and take back their own agency.  Morgana confronts Elaine the story and asks her a question, “I found my line, Elaine.  Where is yours?” This question is so important because both in this story and the original poem, Elaine has her line, and she chooses to stand by it.

James Archer 1860

This book was beautiful and full of the wonder and magic.  It focuses on the women of importance without taking away from the true myth of Arthur and Camelot.  Go read it, you won’t be disappointed. It was worth the wait and the slow savoring that it deserved.

The first book of the new year down is my friends, and there will be many more.  Next week will be a review as well and come the first Friday of February, we will return to our regular schedule of reviews every other week. 
Stay warm my friends, and as always, make sure you take time for yourself. Curl up with your favorite throw, a good drink and an even better book.

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