The Lady of Shallot Echoed Throughout Time as seen in Song of the Sparrows

The Lady of Shallot by Alfred Lord Tennyson is one work that has echoed in literature throughout time. Written and then revised, once in 1832 and again in 1842, the story itself draws upon Arthurian legend which was a popular revival in the Victorian Era, such as William Morris’s “The Defense of Guinevere”. However, this grandiose idea of knights and honor, love and betrayal appears repeatedly through history, predominantly referencing caricatures shown in The Lady of Shallot.

Song of the Sparrow  written by Lisa Ann Sandell is one work which draws on Tennyson’s presentation of the Lady of Shallot, creating a modern day work that is reminiscent of earlier times. Written in completely lyrical form Song of the Sparrow was published in 2007 and intended for young adult audiences.

For an example of this poetic form, that exemplifies some of the grit shown in many Arthurian works, Sandell details a battle which never was even referenced in the Lady of Shallot.

“The noise brings me back,

the fearsome noise of swords

striking swords,

a metallic clanging that rings in

my ears, echoing and echoing

the fearsome

din of men

screaming and crying as they

meet the sharp ends of blades.”  (Sandell)

This is the beginning to a majority of differences between the two works, while incorporating some of the same legend.

Set the in the Dark Ages like Alfred Lord Tennyson’s The Lady of Shallot, Song of the Sparrows reimagines and elaborates on the classic tale. The main character, Elaine, is a young woman from the island of Shallot who travels to King Arthur’s (who at the time is merely a strong general, not a monarch) war camp after her childhood home is burnt down. Working as a servant Elaine meets figures from Arthurian legend such as Guinevere and Lancelot, which eventually leads to her sailing down the river in that fated boat.

The Lady of Shallot depicts a young woman who becomes tired with her everyday menial tasks. Seeing two lover outside her window while she works weaving cloth the Lady of Shallot begins to regret her simplistic life, commenting “I am half sick of shadows.” (Tennyson, line 71)

However the main turning point in Tennyson’s tale is when the Lady of Shallot sees Lancelot for the first time.

“His broad clear brow in sunlight gow’d;

 On burninsh’d hooves his war horse trode;

From underneath his helmet flow’d

His coal- black curls as on he rode,

 As he rode down to Camelot.

From the bank and from the river

He flash’d into the crystal mirror,

“Tirra lira,’ by the river

Sang Sir Lancelot.” (Tennyson, 100-108)

Upon seeing Lancelot the Lady of Shallot develops this moment of agency leaving her weaving  behind, setting out towards Camelot, and cries out, “The curse is come upon me.” (Tennyson, 116)

“She left the web, she left the loom,

She made three paces thro’ the room,

She saw the water lily bloom,

She saw the helmet and the plume,

She look’d down to Camelot.

Out flew the web and floated wide;

The mirror crack’d from side to side;

‘The curse is come upon me,’ cried

The Lady of Shallot” (Tennyson, 109-117)


In the Song of the Sparrows, Elaine is integrated into the rest of society from the beginning of the novel. Even though she may seem distant, as she moves through her duties cleaning and cooking, she still speaks to the “outside world.” Which is a very different contrast from The Lady of Shallot where the Lady seems very distant and cut off from civilization going on around her.

Song of the Sparrows also gives the Lady of Shallot a name, and this inclusion allows Elaine a property very different than Tennyson’s Lady of Shallot.  Elaine becomes a person pinning away for something greater, while Tennyson’s Lady of Shallot is an idea, which everyone has had, of wanting more than everyday occurrences. By giving the Lady of Shallot a name, Sandell is making Elaine more involved however less relatable to the reader, because there is no longer the ability to project one’s feelings onto this unnamed and somewhat mysterious figure.

Sandell’s Elaine again differs from Tennyson’s Lady of Shallot in her integration into Arthurian society by having an already established friendship with Lancelot before wanting more of an involvement. The main turning point of The Lady of Shallot is that the Lady sees Lancelot and just becomes almost “full-sick” of the idea of being alone in her chambers, weaving.  Sandell even seems to make a statement against this idea of love at first sight, or defend the reasoning behind her change in the plot of the classic poem.

“It should begin with friendship, I think. Suddenly I cannot look at him.

It should begin with friendship and truly knowing who a person is,

knowing his flaws and hopes and strengths and fears,

knowing all of it. And admiring and caring for-

 loving the person because of all of those things…

I know that now.”  (Sandell)

                Tennyson’s Lady of Shallot never gives an explanation for the death of the Lady. It leaves a question in the reader’s mind of what happened, and why. However, Sandell’s Song of the Sparrows lays out the scene in detail, exposing the answer to the reader while changing the scene set in Tennyson’s work.

In the Song of the Sparrows Elaine does not die, but goes into the boat across the river not because of boredom but to warn Arthur of an army fast approaching. Elaine is shot and arrives on the river bed unconscious but alive. This new spin on Arthurian legend takes away Tennyson’s theme of isolation and death but brings a necessary message to Sandell’s young audience of acceptance and bravery.

Song of the Sparrows is a young adult novel which brings in Arthurian legend to present themes not found in Tennyson’s work, The Lady of Shallot. Sandell draws upon Tennyson’s overall plot, adding depth to characters and eliminating some mystery found in the poem, while following key elements of caricature.


Cover Page of the Song of Sparrows by Lisa Ann Sandell

Song of the Sparrows-

Other media works interpreting Tennyson’s The Lady of Shallot


Works Sited

Sandell, Lisa Ann. Song of the Sparrow. New York: Scholastic, 2007. Print.

Damrosch, David, and Kevin J.H. Dettmar. “The Lady of Shallot- Alfred, Lord Tennyson.” British Literature. 4th ed. Vol. 2B. N.p.: Pearson, 2010. 1181-185. Print. The Longman Anthology.