The fair and loveable Elaine, known as the lily maid of Astolat, sits alone in her chamber high in a tower, where she watches over the shield of Sir Lancelot. She devotes all her energies to protecting this shield from rust or other harm, and has made an elaborately embroidered silk cover for it. She is with the shield so often that she is familiar with every scratch and dent in it and knows the stories behind them. In her fantasies, she relives the thrilling battles and jousts that they recall.
How is it that this innocent maiden has Lancelot's shield, especially when once she did not even know his name? Some time ago the shield was left in her care by its owner when he rode off to take part in a great tournament at which the king was to present a valuable diamond to the winner.
Long before he was crowned, Arthur had come into possession of nine valuable jewels, which he often displayed proudly at his court. Each year he sponsored a tournament at which one of these jewels was presented to the winner. In this, the ninth year, only the largest of the diamonds remained. At each of the previous contests Lancelot had won the prize. He had saved the jewels and secretly planned to offer them as a gift to the queen, after he had the entire set.
Now it was time again for the tournament, and the court was moving from London to Camelot for the great event. Guinevere had recently recovered from a severe illness and asked permission to remain behind. Upon learning about Guinevere's remaining in London, Lancelot went to the king and, claiming that one of his old wounds was bothering him again, obtained leave to stay in London.
After the others had gone, Guinevere began to complain at Lancelot for what he had done, pointing out that he had merely provided additional material for those who delighted in slandering them. Both their reputations would suffer, she said, and for no good reason. Lancelot was annoyed at her reaction, partly from disappointment and partly because he resented having lied in vain. He inquired whether the king had expressed any suspicions about their relationship and asked sarcastically whether she was now tired of him and preferred her husband.
Guinevere laughed scornfully and said:
"Arthur, my lord, Arthur, the faultless King,
That passionate perfection, my good lord-
But who can gaze upon the sun in heaven?
He never spake word of reproach to me,
He never had a glimpse of mine untruth,
He cares not for me. Only here to-day
There gleamed a vague suspicion in his eyes;
. . . to me
He is all fault who hath no fault at all.
For who loves me must have a touch of earth;
The low sun makes the color. I am yours,
Not Arthur's, as ye know, save by the bond."
The queen suggested that Lancelot go to the tournament in order to avoid harmful gossip. He was worried about the excuse he would make, but she planned that he would participate in the jousts while disguised. Then he could say that the ploy had been planned in advance so that he could prove that he still retained all his knightly prowess and was not just thriving on his reputation. Arthur, she predicted, would be delighted by this tale.
Lancelot set out for the tournament, riding alone, and on the way stopped at the castle of Astolat. There he was entertained by the lord of the place, his sons Sir Torre and Sir Lavaine, and his beautiful daughter, Elaine. He did not identify himself, but it was easy enough for them to determine that he was a great knight and from the royal court.
The shy and innocent young Elaine had naturally been attracted to the handsome, noble, and experienced knight. Lancelot made no advances, but because of his chivalrous nature, he was kind and attentive to her. Elaine's naiveté made her misunderstand this. She sat enthralled as he told them tales of the king's court and battles, and before long she had fallen in love with him.
The next morning, Lancelot borrowed an old shield and left his own in Elaine's care in order to complete his disguise. She asked him to wear her favor on his helmet, and although he had never honored any woman in this way before, he agreed when she pointed out that it would also add to his disguise.
Lancelot left for Camelot in the company of Sir Lavaine. On the way, he told his companion his real identity. Meanwhile, Elaine stayed at Astolat, watching over the shield and daydreaming about the man whom she loved.
At the tournament, no one recognized Lancelot, and all were surprised at the amazing success of this unknown knight. Lancelot's friends and relatives, however, were angered at this stranger's presumption in trying to outdo their hero's reputation and attacked him. He was outnumbered and seriously wounded. Despite his wound, he was still the obvious winner and was invited to accept the prize, but Lancelot cried out:
No diamonds! for God's love, a little air!
Prize me no prizes, for my prize is death!"
Bidding them not to follow, Lancelot fled from the field, accompanied by Lavaine. The two knights took refuge with a hermit they knew and attempted to staunch the flow of blood from the wound.
Meanwhile, Arthur assigned Sir Gawain to follow and find the unknown knight in order to award him the diamond. Much against his will, for he preferred the pleasant life at court, Gawain set out on his mission.
Later on, the queen was told about the events at the tournament. She told Arthur that the mysterious knight had really been Lancelot. When Guinevere learned that Lancelot had worn a lady's favor in his helmet, she was shocked and upset. She tried to hide her distress at this news but soon became very morose and suffered bitter pangs of jealousy and suspicion.
It is about at this point in the story that Elaine sits in her tower, guarding the shield. On his mission, Gawain eventually comes to Astolat. In conversation with Elaine, he learns about the shield and soon identifies it as belonging to Lancelot. Despite Arthur's explicit instructions, Gawain leaves the jewel with Elaine, reasoning that Lancelot must, after all, come back for his shield. He eagerly returns to Camelot, where he is chided by the king for not fully carrying out his orders. At the same time, though, Gawain derives much malicious pleasure from spreading tales about the love of Lancelot for Elaine. Guinevere is hurt by all this new gossip, which she considers an insulting blow to her pride.
Ever since she learned about Lancelot's wound from Gawain, Elaine has been very worried about him. Accompanied by her older brother, she sets out to find him. They finally discover Lancelot with Lavaine in a hermit's cell close to Camelot. The wound has become infected, and he is near death.
With much effort and patience, Elaine is able to nurse Lancelot back to health. All through his illness, she dreams and hopes that he also loves her. When he is well, they all return to Astolat for the shield, and it is here that Lancelot first learns of Elaine's love for him. He is deeply moved and admits that he regards her as a dear friend or sister, but it is impossible for him to marry her. He has no desire to cause her pain and is as gentle as the circumstances allow, but despite his considerate attitude, Elaine is heartbroken. Lancelot returns to Camelot, and after he goes she becomes seriously ill. She refuses to eat and loses all will to live. Within a few days, she dies, after having left strict instructions to her bereaved family.
Several days later, Lancelot is finally granted a private audience by Guinevere. He presents her with his gift, but the queen coldly accuses him of infidelity to her. In her anger she tosses the diamonds from her window into the river below. Lancelot looks out, and he sees a barge draped in black floating on the water, bearing the body of a young maiden.
Lancelot hastens to the landing place, where many other members of the court, including the king, have also gathered. Everyone is awed by the mysterious spectacle before them. Two knights bear the body into the palace, and Arthur reads aloud the letter that was clutched in her dead hand. It says:
"Most noble lord, Sir Lancelot of the Lake,
I, sometimes call'd the maid of Astolat,
Come, for you left me taking no farewell,
Hither, to take my last farewell of you.
I loved you, and my love had no return,
And therefore my true love has been my death.
And therefore to our Lady Guinevere,
And to all other ladies, I make moan:
Pray for my soul, and yield me burial.
Pray for my soul thou too, Sir Lancelot,
As thou art a knight peerless."
Everyone is affected by this touching letter. Lancelot tells the whole sad story to Arthur and the assembled courtiers. He also arranges for Elaine's burial.
Later Arthur comments to Lancelot that it is a pity he did not wed such a lovely maiden since he is so lonely. It is true that Lancelot is unhappy, but he is unable to make an answer to this remark. The queen quietly forgives him and apologizes for her suspicions, but somehow Lancelot is still not satisfied. He wanders alone, meditating about his life and the sins he has committed, and about his infidelity to his dearest friend, Arthur.