We had traveled with King Arthur from the ninth century through the fifteenth when the university declared that we would henceforward meet remotely. My Arthurian literature class (whenever we were “hole togyders” there were eighteen of us) would never gather around its U-shaped table again. While material like the plague scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail suddenly had new significance, I wondered whether my students would maintain their interest in our readings while experiencing new and frightening circumstances. Next up on the syllabus was the Victorian era, and I sat down to design an online lesson about Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem “The Lady of Shalott.”
The Lady of Shalott does not currently feature in many adaptations, as she is perhaps the least active Arthurian character in the roster. The Lady is trapped in a tower because she is subject to a curse imposed on her for unexplained reasons. If she looks directly out of the window towards Camelot, the curse will take effect. Her only views of the world are provided by a mirror that reflects the road beneath her window. She occupies her time with weaving the images that she sees, and she naturally grows discontent: “‘I am half sick of shadows’ said the Lady of Shallot.” This stasis endures until Lancelot, who, this time, ruins somebody’s life without even realizing it, rides by singing gallantly. He is, it seems, irresistible: the Lady walks to the window and gazes out at him. Her mirror and her tapestry suddenly rip apart. The curse having activated, the Lady leaves the tower and drifts down the river in a boat, singing while slowly dying. In Camelot, everyone gathers to wonder at her. Lancelot gets the concluding line: he admires her beauty and calls for God’s blessing upon her.
Many Victorian readers enjoyed the pathos of the Lady’s plight, and, as a result, numerous artists depicted her weaving at her loom or dying in her barge. My students, in contrast, have not found the poem appealing. The situation is too mysterious; the Lady is too powerless. I suspect that they are, moreover, disturbed by the poem’s aestheticization of death. It is, frankly, not my favorite poem either. This spring, however, I was compelled by the stanzas describing the Lady’s isolation. My window did not look out on willow trees or curly shepherd lads. But I was nonetheless trapped in my dwelling place, under the threat of forces beyond my control. Direct exposure to the world could be fatal. Instead of immediate contact with others, I viewed their images on a computer screen.
This was not, I will admit, my first Lady of Shalott moment. A few years ago in Oregon, I endured a very slow haircut while a rare snowfall took place outside. I sat facing the wall, impatient to know if the snow was continuing but unable to move my head. Then I noticed that a hand mirror hanging on the wall was tilted so that it reflected the winter scene outside the window. “I realized that I was doing the Lady of Shalott thing,” I told my class later. “Wow, you could have died and floated down the millstream and we could have come out of the cafeteria and looked at you!” a student responded. Everybody flinched a bit. Clearly, parallels with this story must not be pushed too far.
I am predisposed to find mundane world echoes of the texts that I teach. This spring, however, my students noticed the parallels too. Their reflections on the poem included statements along the lines of, “I am totally half sick of shadows” and “we are confined like she is.” Amid the fear, sorrow, and frustration of those days, I was encouraged to see these comments. Having read works full of charismatic knights and imperious ladies, the students identified with a woman who, like them, was trapped and unhappy. I decided that if they could emerge from the pandemic with more sympathy for those who are imprisoned, confined, or powerless, I would thank whatever aventure, fortune or chance led Tennyson to coincide with Covid-19.
Rachel Kapelle is a lecturer who teaches writing and literature at Case Western Reserve University. Her scholarship focuses on Arthurian literature and medieval romance.