Alfred Lord Tennyson’s 1842 poem, The Lady of Shalott creatively manufactured one of the most influential witch figures of the second half of the last millennium. A combination of the witches of Avalon from the medieval Arthurian sagas and Edmund Spencer’s Faerie Queen, the unnamed Lady of Shalott is both and she is neither. She is a powerful seer separate from society, yet one who sorrows. She has seemingly sacrificed human interaction in exchange for her mystical powers, and yet she regrets this sacrifice: longing to love and be loved in return. And this is perhaps her most notable contribution to the witch-lore of the centuries that were to follow: the myth that the witch cannot or should not love a mortal without sacrificing her power or some other element of self or magickal community.
Obviously, this is not a true concept. A witch, like any other human or even mammal, is capable of love and of being loved. However, in casting the Lady of Shalott as a tragic victim of her own power, Tennyson unwittingly launched a pop culture campaign exploring this idea of love vs. magickal power, and the combination thereof. It was a particularly popular notion in witch-films and television of the middle twentieth century, notably the classic films So I Married a Witch and Bell, Book, and Candle as well as the magickal sitcom Betwitched.
The power disparity between the witch and her lover (and indeed Bell, Book, and Candle’s insistence that she sacrifice her power if she is to be in love) descends from The Lady of Shalott’s dark focus on the ethics of its witch-faerie star falling in love. It begs the question of whether she can love without magickally influencing the object of her love to love her back? It also debates whether a relationship between a magickal being and a non-magickal being is a balanced relationship. These related questions are vital to two anthropological discussions: the influence societal, or in this case, otherworldly power, has in any relationship (i.e. Does the Queen or the Royal Mistress really love the King or did she marry him for the throne?) and the modern magickal nix on the use of love magick for ethical reasons.
Where Helen of Troy was the face that launched a thousand ships, the boat of the Lady of Shalott launched a series of ethical questions integral to both the anthropology of magick and the psychology of relationships.
For a more in-depth look at the Lady of Shalott, her fellow literary witches, and other historical and mythical witches: keep your eye out for the upcoming class: History of Witches in the Western World! NEW from yours truly and exclusively offered at the fabulous Sacred Mists!!
Pictured above is John William Waterhouse’s famous version of The Lady of Shalott.