“The Saxon Deities give their names to the days of the week:
“Sunna and Mona represent the sun and the moon; Seatern (Saetern) the anglicized name of the Italian harvest god. In Norse mythology, Woden or Odin is the sky god, patron of culture, and the inventor of runes. Friga is his wife, queen of the gods and the goddess of married love; she is thought to have become assimilated with Freya, another wife of Odin and goddess of love, beauty, and fertility. Thuner or Thor, a son of Odin, is the god of thunder, famed for his hammer — the thunderbolt — which always returned to him after being hurled as a weapon. Tiw, or Tyr, another son of Odin, is the Norse god of war.”
The story comes from the body of literature about the court of King Arthur, and it goes like this.
The Lady of the poem lives alone in a castle on the island of Shalott, upriver from Camelot. Though Tennyson never explains how or why, the Lady has been forbidden to look through her window to the world outside. If she does, she will bring a curse down upon herself.
As part of the enchantment that she lives under, however, the Lady has been provided with a magic mirror that reveals to her what passes outside her castle, and she spends her days and nights in front of this mirror, weaving a tapestry composed of the sights she sees reflected in it. Tennyson calls this tapestry a “web” and he calls the sights the Lady sees in the mirror “the shadows of the world.”
In addition to the river traffic of boats and barges, the Lady sees all sorts of people walking and riding by on the road to Camelot: village children, shepherds, monks, and occasionally the most colorful of all—the pages and knights of Arthur’s court. With all of these images to weave into her tapestry, the Lady stays very busy. But, although she seems content with her lot, Tennyson remarks that when she watches “two young lovers lately wed” walking together by the river, the Lady suddenly feels “half sick of shadows.”
One day Sir Lancelot appears in her mirror as he rides to Camelot, and the Lady is so taken with the sight of him that she forgets completely about the enchantment and rushes to the window to get a better view. Immediately the mirror shatters and the tapestry she has been weaving flies out the window and floats to the ground. An autumn storm begins to build—dark clouds roll in, the wind rises, and rain begins to fall.
Realizing that “the curse has come upon her,” the Lady decides to brave her fate, leave her island castle, and follow Lancelot to Camelot. She gathers up her tapestry, finds a boat on the bank, writes her own name around the prow of the boat, and casts off to float downstream. Some time later, as the boat arrives in Camelot, the curse takes its final effect, and she dies. The people of the city come down to the riverside to see this mysterious sight—the body of a woman wrapped in a tapestry and lying in a boat—and they discover who she is by reading her name written around the prow. Lancelot, too, comes down to the river, and when he sees her, he comments on how beautiful she is, and says a blessing over her, asking God to grant her grace.
As you might imagine, this story can be and has been interpreted in a variety of ways. Some readings emphasize the cost of disregarding the law or breaking with tradition. Others emphasize the benefits, however brief, of the choice the Lady makes. These latter readings celebrate her courage to reject arbitrary rules, to embrace life, to follow her heart. She is the captain of the ship. Waterhouse captures her at her defining moment, the moment she leaves observation behind and takes action.