The Lady of Shalott discussion guide



Poet: Alfred Lord Tennyson

Illustrator: Charles Keeping

Synopsis: The Lady of Shallot is a narrative poem in four parts.

The first part describes the setting, a rural idyll:

On either side the river lie

Long fields of Barley and of rye,

That clothe the wold and meet the sky;

And thro’ the field the road runs by

To many-tower’d Camelot.’

The road to Camelot is frequented by travellers who pause to look across at the mystical island and fortress where it is rumoured that the Lady of Shalott is imprisoned:

Four grey walls, and four grey towers

Overlook a space of flowers,

And the silent isle embowers

            The Lady of Shalott

Local labourers work in the fields and whisper stories about the ‘fairy Lady of Shalott’ though no one has ever seen her.

Part Two switches viewpoint. The narrative moves inside the tower where the lady weaves her magic cloth, depicting all the scenes outside her window. However a curse set upon her means that she can only view the outside world through a mirror. If she turns to look directly out of the window, then the curse will come to pass. One night two newly wedded lovers pass by the window and the Lady of Shallot longs for the real world that she will never know. The juxtaposition of the funeral and moonlight tryst foreshadows her fate.

‘But in her web she still delights

To weave the mirror’s magic sights

For often thro’ the silent nights

A funeral, with plumes and lights,

And music, went to Camelot:

Or when the moon was overhead,

Came two young lovers lately wed;

‘I am half sick of shadows,’ said

            The Lady of Shalott.


Part 3 moves towards the climax of the tragic story. A handsome knight in shining armour, Sir Lancelot, rides past the window.Three stanzas are devoted to describing his stunning appearance and the Lady of Shalott is so taken with his beauty that she wants to look upon him -  a shadowy mirror image is no longer good enough

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 Shalott.


Part 4 – the final section of the poem is the falling action and resolution. Set against a stormy backdrop (pathetic fallacy) the Lady leaves her tower and embarks a boat on the river. She paints her name on the prow before lying down, loosing the mooring and submitting to the flow of  the river which carries her to Camelot. In this final act the boat becomes her coffin enscribed with her name, making sure that those who find her will know her name:

And down the river’s dim expanse

Like some bold seer in a trance,

Seeing all his own mischance

Wish a glassy countenance

            Did she look to Camelot

The poem reverts once more to an external viewpoint. As the barque holding the Lady of Shalott, floats down to Camelot, the people gather on  the riverside to see her pass before the boat comes to rest.  Sir Lancelot, unaware that he has been the cause of the Lady of Shalott’s doom, comments:

But Lancelot mused a little space

He said, ‘she has a lovely face;

God in his mercy lend her grace,

            The Lady of Shallot.

The final tragedy of the poem is the lack of appreciation for the Lady’s true worth, she is just ‘a pretty face’. This ironic edge prevents the poem from falling into sentimentalism.

 Charles Keeping’s Illustrations

Charles Keeping’s illustrations of this classic poem are moody, mysterious and evocative. Produced in black ink line drawing with soft chalks, the shadowy world in which faces are half seen enhances rather than describes Tennyson’s imagery.

Keeping’s work has a sophistication that will be appreciated by older readers. When first published, some commentators described the work as `difficult', `dark', `depressing'; hard to `place'. Fortunately, today there is  a greater appreciation among gatekeepers that picture books are not solely for the very youngest readers. Keeping himself said in an article for Books for Keeps in 1982:

To produce something that's successful every time you've got to play a little safe. I don't feel that's what it's about. I'm not illustrating books like you would make sausages or something. It's not what to me books are about.'

Playing safe would not have produced the powerful, unforgettable and distinctive illustrations that Keeping created for his four classic books picture books: 'The Highwayma', 'Beowulf', 'The Wedding Ghost' and 'The Lady of Shalot't. On his death in 1988, Books for Keeps said Keeping was 'Technically in a class of his own, he brought insights into his subject matter that were unique because of the man he was.'


Before Reading

Making Connections: Tagline

The 2013 cover of ‘The Lady of Shalott’ has the tag line ‘Freedom has its fateful price’. Reproduce this line on a strip of paper and distribute to pairs or small groups and have them discuss what this line could mean. What sort of text do they think it describes? Encourage them to record all of their suggestions without self editing. Gather the class together and share initial ideas.

Semantic mapping: freedom

Invite the pupils individually or in pairs to list all the words or phrases that are suggested to them by the word ‘Freedom’. Gather suggestions and make a collective list, suggesting your own words to extend thinking, as appropriate (e.g. freedom of speech, artistic freedom) . When the collective list has been created, ask the pupils if  they can see any connections between the words. Start to form groups of words using a mind map format E.g. prison, captivity, cage, bars could be groups together. It is important to make the point here  that there are no right or wrong answers,  as long as they can articulate why they their thinking and the explanation is clear and plausible. Explain that it is possible for words and phrases to appear in more than one group and give an example.

Set the semantic maps to one side and revisit after reading the poem.


Introducing the poem: share the front cover of the Charles Keeping version, noting the tagline that you have already discussed. From the clues given, what do the pupils think this text is going to be about?

Look at the title page, which shows an image of the Lady of Shalott in a roundel. Distribute post-it notes and ask the pupils to suggest words that describe her.

Think Aloud:

Share the first double page spread and lead the children through a ‘Think Aloud’ process. If this is an unfamiliar technique model it first by speaking your own thoughts as you read. The aim is to show pupils how they can verbalize their inner thoughts. When thinking aloud pupils reveal their thinking and also any misconceptions which enables appropriate teaching. By using the ‘thik aloud’ strategy when sharing reading with pupils, you can help them become analytical about their own thought processes and encourage them to seek clarification when they meet something they don’t fully understand:

Reveal the poem line by line. Read the line and then verbalize your thoughts. Model at a pace that allows the pupils to follow your thinking but don’t make it too laboured or lengthy. So the opening of the poem might go something like this

‘On either side the river lie’

Think Aloud: ‘On either side’ I have heard the word either used before to mean ‘either/or’ it usually suggests that there are two possibilities. So here I think it means two sides. Then it goes on to say the river lie, so this must mean that on both sides of the river, or on the river banks something lies. Let’s have a look at the next line perhaps there will be some clues there:

‘Long fields of barley and of rye,’

Think Aloud: Ah, so it is the fields of barley that lie on both sides of the river. I notice that there isn’t a punctuation mark after 'lie', so that helps me read on and when I do that I get a better sense of what the poet is describing here. If I stopped at the end of ‘lie’ I could be confused. I think the poet is telling me what grows in the fields, I have heard of barley. My Nan likes barley sugar sweets and sometimes I like to drink lemon barleywater. I don’t know what it looks like though and I don’t know what rye is. I get the general idea that these are things growing in the field but I would have to look them up later to find out exactly what they are.

‘That clothe the wold and meet the sky’

Hmm, I’m finding that a bit difficult. I can see there’s a comma at the end of the last line, so this is part of the same sentence. If I go back and read from the beginning, I will have a better run up and that might help me get a better understanding of what is meant here.

Think Aloud: So, it’s the long fields of barley that clothe the wold. Clothe means to put clothes on. That’s really strange, how can a field be like putting clothes on? And I think there might be a spelling mistake here. Is it clothe the world? Or is there a word ‘wold’. I’m not sure. I’ll have to look that up because it’s stopping me from understanding this line.

Look up the word ‘wold’

Oh, so there is a word,  wold, it means open hilly countryside. That does seem to fit with what went before. So, if I have understood this properly, the fields of barley and rye clothe the open countryside. I can see what they poet is doing here. He’s creating an image of the crops in the fields covering or clothing the countryside.

 After demonstrating the technique for a few lines, have the children try it out in pairs. Feedback on what they have been able to read and understand. Ask if there were any tricky bits. Can anyone help?

Moving On

Identify a number of sections from the poem that are essential to the narrative.  Reproduce them and give small groups of 4 – 6 children one section each. As you give the sections out read them aloud. Distribute the sections in the order that they appear in the poem so that the class begin to build an understanding of the story.

 In small groups have the pupils use the Think Aloud strategy to work out what they think is happening in their section of the poem. Have a range of dictionaries available so they can check the definitions of any tricky words that prevent them from moving.

Suggested sections:

Section 1

Four gray walls, and four gray towers,
Overlook a space of flowers,
And the silent isle imbowers
The Lady of Shalott.

Section 2

Only reapers, reaping early
In among the bearded barley,
Hear a song that echoes cheerly
From the river winding clearly,
Down to tower'd Camelot:
And by the moon the reaper weary,
Piling sheaves in uplands airy,
Listening, whispers " 'Tis the fairy
Lady of Shalott."

 Section 3

There she weaves by night and day
A magic web with colours gay.
She has heard a whisper say,
A curse is on her if she stay
To look down to Camelot.

And moving thro' a mirror clear
That hangs before her all the year,
Shadows of the world appear.
There she sees the highway near
Winding down to Camelot:

But in her web she still delights
To weave the mirror's magic sights,
For often thro' the silent nights
A funeral, with plumes and lights
And music, went to Camelot:

Section 4

A bow-shot from her bower-eaves,
He rode between the barley-sheaves,
The sun came dazzling thro' the leaves,
And flamed upon the brazen greaves
Of bold Sir Lancelot.

His broad clear brow in sunlight glow'd;
On burnish'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 lirra," by the river
Sang Sir Lancelot.


Section 5

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 Shalott.

Down she came and found a boat
Beneath a willow left afloat,
And round about the prow she wrote
The Lady of Shalott.


Section 6

And at the closing of the day
She loosed the chain, and down she lay;
The broad stream bore her far away,
The Lady of Shalott.

 Under tower and balcony,

By garden-wall and gallery,
A gleaming shape she floated by,
Dead-pale between the houses high,
Silent into Camelot.
Out upon the wharfs they came,
Knight and burgher, lord and dame,
And round the prow they read her name,
The Lady of Shalott.

As the pupils discuss their sections be available to help with difficult words or to help unravel tricky phrasing. Ask the groups to summarise what they think their section is about and provide clarification as needed.

Interpreting through drama

In small groups have the children create a freeze frame image of their section of the poem. Explain that they can represent characters from the poem or use their bodies to create structures of landscape features. For example, four children might represent the four grey towers. Model different ways that tis could be done to create the image of a prison or a barrier preventing the Lady of Shalott from escaping.

Once the freeze frames have been created. Tell the children that they are going to unfreeze the image for 15 seconds and mime what is happening in that scene. At the end of the 15 minutes they make a second freeze frame.

  • 1st freeze frame
  • 15 seconds mime
  • 2nd freeze frame

Now add the element of sound. Demonstrate the different ways (percussive sound, sound collage, using words from the poem) in which sound can be added and at different points in the sequence.

Allow time for each group to practise putting together their freeze frame sequence with their sounds.

View each of the scenes in sequence. Start by reading the relevant section and then have the groups perform their piece for the rest of the class. When all the sections have been viewed, invite the pupils to tell you what they think the story is about.

Use a table to make a list of things they know (explicitly mentioned) and thinks they think (worked out from clues).  You may want to introduce the term inference or remind the children if it is a term they already use.


What we know (from things explicitly stated)

What we think (using clues from the text)











At this point you could tell the story of the Lady of Shalott. As well as retelling Tennyson’s version of the story, you could make connections with other Arthurian legends or Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur.

Read the full version of the poem.

Working with Illustrations

Enlarge images of The Lady of Shalott taken from different sections of the story.

  • The title page
  • The beginning of part II
  • The Beginning of Part III
  • The Beginning of part 4

Invite the pupils to share what they think each of these images conveys about The Lady of Shalott’s thoughts and feelings at that stage of the story. Encourage them to think about body language, gaze and gesture. Ideas can be written on post-its and stuck around the appropriate image. Invite the children to look at what others have written. Pick out words that are particularly apposite.

Illustration and setting.

How do the illustrations help create a sense of place? Contrast the opening illustration (people walking through the countryside to Camelot) or the image of farmers ploughing the field and boats passing down the river with the image of the tower at the end of the first part. Draw attention to areas of light and dark and to the quality of lines - what effect is created?.


Comparing images

The Lady of Shalott was one of the most painted subjects of the late nineteenth century. As well as the famous painting by John Waterhouse housed in The Tate, there are paintings and prints by Rosetti, Millais, Holman Hunt, Arthur Hughes, Arthur Rackham and Gustave Dore.

Select one painting to compare to Keeping’s illustrations and discuss the different ways in which the artists have interpreted the subject. For instance,Keeping does not make it evident that the lady is weaving and the mirror is just a vague suggestion at the beginning of part 4, both of these aspects are more explicit in other representations. You might also discuss the different effect of using colour or black and white.

Assemble a collection of images and ask pupils to select lines from the poem to caption the paintings.



Reviewing Semantic Maps

Discuss why the tagline ‘freedom has its fateful price’ was chosen. Is it a good tagline? What does freedom mean in the context of the poem? Suggest that any new insights specific to the poem can be added to their semantic maps.


Write a summary of the poem in no more than 50 words. Use  who, what, where, when, why prompts to aid the writing.


Copyright Just Imagine 2015

You may print and use these notes for use in the classroom. You may not reproduce them in any other format without permission.


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