The Lady of the Lake raising her arm from the water to offer Excalibur to Arthur is a powerful image, one of the defining images of Arthur’s myths, I think.
Working on the graphic novel adaptation of Mallory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, I’ve been obliged to notice that it’s not just one lake lady. Also, as a personal note, in some versions, Nimue/Vivien is a lady of the lake.
The second, less famous lake lady rocks up to Arthur’s court bearing a sword only a good knight can pull from its scabbard. This is a bit of an evil joke, because the man who takes the sword is then fated to kill someone he loves with it. Swords from lakes may be magical, but they aren’t reliably benevolent.
Who are these ladies? Spirits of place? Half-forgotten deities? Literary plot devices? A bit of minds-eye candy?
As I’ve been colouring on the project, I’ve thought about them a lot. I’d like to offer my unsubstantiated personal uncertainty on the subject. (It’s not gnosis, I really don’t know…)
We know the Celts made offerings to water, including offerings of weaponry. There are sites, in lakes, where lots of booty was thrown in. I think this has to be connected. One possibility is that the ladies of the lakes are a vague folk memory of the lake beings to whom those offerings were made. Another option is that they’ve come into being to explain the underwater hoards. It makes sense if you find a treasure under a lake to imagine it belonged to someone, and from there it’s not very far to the strange women lying in ponds distributing swords as a basis for a system of government.