Working one day, alone in my tower—er, office—I listened to Loreena McKennett singing “The Lady of Shallot” (lyrics from Tennyson’s poem) and it struck me how the good Lady and I have more than a few things in common. We even share a first name— she’s based on the Arthurian legend of Elaine.
Modern technology is often blamed as the cause of our loss of connection with life and each other, but maybe it’s not just computers and phones that distance people from life. The Lady of Shallot had the same problem, really, and ages before Apple Stores appeared on the scene. She stared into a mirror, not a computer, but the mirror was not to blame for her isolation. It was just a symptom.
I think fear was—and is—the problem.
Fear of engaging the unknown. Fear of being vulnerable. Fear of the messy realities of life. Fear of feeling scared, or lonely, or even bored. Lady Elaine had a curse that scared her. Modern Elaine has the 6 o’clock news and endless posts and messages screaming that life “out there” is frightening. Thus she, and I, kept busy, kept our noses firmly to grindstones (or keyboards or looms, depending on the century).
Gazing at life from a safe remove seems less scary. But that safety is an illusion, a lie—isn’t it?
There is always some danger in living fully. Touching and tasting and experiencing can and often do lead to pain or anger. Yet they also lead to great joy. I used to be so careful to stay safe, like that other Elaine— and my fear snared me. It still does, sometimes. (Often. Old habits die hard!)
In the poem, the Lady cannot gaze out her window directly because of the curse; she looks instead at life reflected in a mirror, and so:
She lives with little joy or fear.
Over the water, running near,
The sheepbell tinkles in her ear.
Before her hangs a mirror clear,
Reflecting tower’d Camelot.
And as the mazy web she whirls,
She sees the surly village churls,
And the red cloaks of market girls
Pass onward from Shalott.
This is about living in fear. About watching life but not being all in. About not taking risks.
Like many women, I was raised from infancy to be cautious, to not risk too much, to avoid showing myself. To not walk alone, or in the dark, to not wear certain clothes. To not call attention to myself. To not venture opinions without testing the waters to be sure the opinion is acceptable. To not laugh too loud or say anything stupid—or too smart, either. In other words, to fade.
Think about the word “ladylike.” Merriam-webster says it means to be “polite and quiet in a way that has traditionally been considered suited to a woman.” Another listed definition is even more telling: “lacking in strength, force, or virility.”
The most impregnable towers are those you build yourself, one ladylike brick at a time.
The Lady of Shallot is the ultimate fear-tale. When the Lady is finally stirred by lust and dares to leave the tower and venture into life, she’s struck stone-cold dead! She floats downstream where her pale, dead beauty is admired but her life is not much mourned. Maybe because her life was so pale and weak and confined, as she’d been taught it should be.
It’s better to weave by night and day and catch silvery glimpses of life, to keep safe in your tower, to avoid risking strong feelings of any kind. Life represents danger— strong emotions, good or bad, are to be feared.
“She lives with little joy or fear.”
Sad, the quelling message of this.