“La Belle Dame Sans Merci”: A Fairy for her Time?
In the closing paragraphs of Shirley by Charlotte Brontë, the old housekeeper Martha says,
I can remember the old mill being built – the very first it was in the district, and then, I remember it being pulled down, and going…to see the foundation-stone of the new one laid…I can tell, one summer evening, fifty years syne, my mother coming running in just at the edge of dark, almost fleyed out of her wits, saying she had seen a fairish (fairy) in Fieldhead Hollow; and that was the last fairish that was ever seen in this country side (though they’ve been heard within these forty years). A lonesome spot it was--and a bonnie spot--full of oak trees and nut trees. It is altered now.
This little speech perfectly encapsulates the changes that occurred in the passage from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century, as developments in industry and agriculture began to tame previously wild countryside. And a change in attitudes towards fairies was part of those alterations. Before the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution took hold, fairies had been genuinely feared. To country people, the threat of fairies souring their milk or replacing their babies with changelings was real, and precautions such as an iron nail in the crib or only referring to fairies as “the good folk” were necessary. This can sometimes be hard for modern readers of old literature to grasp. Take, for instance, the scene in The Merry Wives of Windsor in which Sir Hugh Evans et al dress up as fairies to frighten Falstaff. It is difficult in a modern production to present these “fairies” as suitably terrifying, since most of the audience will struggle to even understand what could be scary about fairies, let alone be frightened themselves. Even in the late seventeenth century, a genuine belief in fairies and their powers persisted. In 1691, Robert Kirk--the so-called “Fairy Minister”--wrote The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies, a matter-of-fact description of fairies and other supernatural creatures visible to those with the second sight. Kirk himself was believed to have had dealings with these creatures; and after his supposed death to have appeared to a relative and said,
'Say to Duchray, who is my cousin as well as your own, that I am not dead, but a captive in Fairyland; and only one chance remains for my liberation. When the posthumous child, of which my wife has been delivered since my disappearance, shall be brought to baptism, I will appear in the room, when, if Duchray shall throw over my head the knife or dirk which he holds in his hand, I may be restored to society; but if this is neglected, I am lost for ever.'" True to his tryst, Mr. Kirk did appear at the christening and "was visibly seen;" but Duchray was so astonished that he did not throw his dirk over the head of the appearance, and to society Mr. Kirk has not yet been restored.
But by Kirk’s time, attitudes were already beginning to change. An educated church minister, Kirk does not write of the fairies with fear, but in a scientific manner. He describes his work as an essay of:
The Nature and Actions of the Subterranean (and, for the moƒt Part,) Inviƒible People, heretofioir going under the name of ELVES, FAUNES, and FAIRIES, or the lyke, among the Low-Country Scots, as they are deƒcribed by thoƒe who have the SECOND SIGHT; and now, to occaƒion further Inquiry, collected and compared, by a Circumƒpect Inquirer reƒiding among the Scottiƒh-Irifh in Scotland.
And he gives his reason for writing it on the title page:
A Subject not heretofore diƒcourƒed of by any of our
Writters; and yet ventured on in an Eƒƒay
to ƒuppreƒs the impudent and growing
Atheiƒme of this Age, and to
ƒatiƒfie the deƒire of ƒome
Apparently, not everyone believed in fairies in 1691, and it is interesting that Kirk associates this with the “growing atheism” of an increasingly secular and scientific age.
By the time Keats came to write “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” in 1819, British society had reached the era portrayed in the main action of Shirley: a time of growing industrialization Luddites and social unrest following the Napoleonic Wars. The Romantic Movement (arguably both a reaction against a changing society and a revolutionary advocate for change) was in its second generation. In Germany, the Brothers Grimm and, as we now know, Franz Xaver von Schönwerth were collecting and recording fairy tales so they might not be lost. In this context, Keats wrote “La Belle Dame Sans Merci: A Ballad” a short lyric poem in four-line stanzas with an A-B-A-B rhyme pattern, telling the tale of a knight seduced by a fairy maid and taken to her home. A vision of “pale warriors”(Xii) that appears while he sleeps reveals to him the true, pitiless nature of the fairy, and he wakes to find himself one of their number, “alone and palely loitering”(XIIii), presumably cursed. As fairy stories go, it is both enchanting and chilling, much as one imagines the fairies seen by housekeeper Martha’s mother might have been. But how does this fairy sit in the age of Wellington and the Liverpool to Manchester Railway? And how does she pave the way for what was to come later in the portrayal of elves, fauns and fairies?
Looking at some of Keats’ other poems, his portrayal of the times seems to back up that given in Shirley, which is to say that the woods have diminished and are no longer magical. In response to JR Reynolds’ “To a Friend, On Robin Hood”, in which his friend imagines that on a summer’s evening in Sherwood, one might “know/The archer-men in green, with belt and bow” (ll. 11-12) Keats responds:
No, those days are gone away…
And if Marian should have
Once again her forest days,
She would weep and he would craze.
He would swear, for all his oaks,
Fallen beneath the dockyard strokes…
In the opening lines of “Lamia” he writes:
Upon a time, before the faery broods
Drove Nymph and Satyr from the prosperous woods,
Before King Oberon’s bright diadem,
Sceptre, and mantle, clasp’d with dewy gem,
Frighted away the Dryad and the Fauns… (ll.1-5)
Here he seems to lament a time when the fairies drove out the fauns of antiquity from the woods. By that stroke of reasoning, the woods had withered before the fairies were even in their heyday. And yet the enchantress of “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” is subtle and powerful, charming the reader as much as the knight-at-arms. Why? It is reasonably to assume that Keats did not himself believe in fairies. So why did he write a fairy ballad?
The simple answer is that, like his fellow-Romantics, he was harking back to former literary forms.
The application of the word “romantic” has undergone great changes over two centuries. In the eighteenth century it was directly associated with “romance”: it was a literary term denoting the archaic and remote culture of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, and applied to art forms which included the ballad, the lay and the Ariostan and Spenserian epic.
Keats already makes this evident by calling “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” a ballad. It also bears some resemblance to the medieval lay or lai.
Two very famous ballads deal with fairy seduction: “Thomas the Rhymer” tells of a man visited by the Queen of Elfland, who takes him to her home for seven years and grants him the gift of a tongue that can never lie. “Tam Lin” tells of a girl named Janet seduced by Tam Lin, who she believes to be a fairy, but was actually kidnapped by fairies himself as a youngster. Janet’s love and fortitude on Halloween night frees him from the fairies’ control, much to the anger of the Fairy Queen. In the first ballad, although the Queen of Elfland causes Thomas to fall in love with her, making him her captive for seven years, she seems fairly benign. She warns him of falling foul of the dangers of Elfland:
But Thomas, ye maun hold your tongue
Whatever ye may hear or see,
For if you speak word in Elflyn land
Ye’ll ne’er get back to your ain countrie
And she rewards him for his good service by giving him the apple that will produce a truthful tongue. The Fairy Queen in “Tam Lin” is much more controlling and vindictive. When Janet manages to break Tam’s curse, she speaks an angry tirade against them both:
Out then spak the queen o’ Fairies,
And an angry queen was she;
Shame betide her ill-far’d face,
An ill death may she die,
For she’s ta’en awa the boniest knight
In a’ my companie
But had I ken’d, Tom-lin, she says,
What now this night I see,
I wad hae ta’en out thy twa grey e’en,
And put in twa een o’ tree.
A comparison with the Breton lais also yields some interesting results. In The Forest in Folklore and Mythology, Alexander Porteous identifies La Belle Dame Sans Merci with the Korrigan who inhabits the enchanted Breton forest of Broceliande, also home to Sir Launfal’s fairy mistress, known from Marie de France’s Breton lai “Lanval” and the anonymous Middle English romance “Sir Launfal”. Korrigans are described variously as evil spirits that dance around fountains, and siren-like female fairies that lure men to their deaths. “Lanval” is another tale of a human man in love with a fairy woman. But the fairy in this tale (called in the English version Dame Tryamour) is benign and similar to the queen in “Thomas the Rhymer”. She lays a test on him, which he fails. (He is never to boast of her, which he does, consequently losing her). But she forgives him in the end, appearing at Arthur’s court so Lanval is not punished for claiming his lady is more beautiful than Guinevere, and the tale ends happily.
Keats’ fairy maid differs both from the queen of “Thomas the Rhymer” and Lanval’s Dame Tryamour, whose function seems to be to test and reward the protagonist; and from Tam Lin’s queen, whose vengeance on her former captive would be terrible, were it not for the rules of magic holding her back. Keats’ fairy is described in more otherworldly terms than the fairy women of the ballads and lays, who generally appear to men as beautiful but ordinary-looking ladies. She woos the knight by means of ethereal beauty and a sensual display of love. “Her hair was long, her foot was light/ And her eyes were wild” (IV.i-ii). “She found me roots of relish sweet/ and honey wild, and manna dew” (VII.i-ii) “And there I shut her wild wild eyes/ With kisses four” (VIII.iii-iv) We could say that, in an age which doubts the existence of fairies, Keats romanticises a being that has lost its power to threaten but retained its enchantment in the human mind. This would seem reasonable for a Romantic poet, with a Romantic’s enthusiasm for dreams and the creative powers of the artist to create new or lost worlds.
However, the curse she brings on the knight, while less gory than plucking out his eyes, is memorably chilling. (“I saw their starved lips in the gloam/ With horrid warning gaped wide”(XI.i-ii)) This is a Romanticism that also includes the Sublime and the Gothic. In this Gothic guise, the fairy does appear more similar to the Korrigan than to anything else. The pallor of the young knight could well suggest she has fed on his life blood and those of the other warriors, kings and princes. This darker aspect of the fairy, which reminds us inescapably of vampires, brings to mind the words of Mary Shelley in her Introduction to Frankenstein: “I busied myself to think of a story…One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror.” It is interesting to compare this vampiric approach to the fairy with the line, “Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies” (IIIv) from “Ode to a Nightingale.” If we are to consider “the mysterious fears of our nature” (again latent in dreams) in connection with “La Belle Dame”, then Keats’ apparent mixture of fear and longing associated with consumption and early death has an echo in this poem. In “Ode to a Nightingale”, he also says, “I have been half in love with easeful Death” (VI.ii). This strangely enchanting death-wish has its parallel in the enchantment and the curse of the Belle Dame Sans Merci.
It could be said, then, that Keats’ fairy maid sits well within the poet’s times because she embodies Romantic ideals of bringing back earlier traditions (the ballad and the lay; the tale of fairy abduction), and power of dreams, both enchanting and nightmarish. This helps to explain why his fairy retains her traditional powers at a time when literal abduction by fairies seemed less and less likely.
However, this is in contrast to his treatment of a similar subject in Lamia (also written in 1819). Lamiae in folklore are “monsters similar to vampires and succubi that seduced young men and then fed on their blood.” In Keats’ poem, Lamia--a serpent in woman’s form--pursues the handsome Lycius and enchants him into marrying her. But when Lycius’ old teacher, Apollonius, accuses her of being a lamia, she withers away and vanishes in Lycius’ arms. Interestingly, Keats’ Lamia, although a woman-serpent, does no feeding on blood (unlike La Belle Dame) and her interest in acquiring a young man seems to have more in common with an ordinary woman’s need of the same thing than anything Gothic. Although Lamia has Lycius “tangled in her mesh” (l.295) and uses magic and shape-shifting to win him, we read that she first “fell into a swooning love of him” (l.219) and she does not appear to intend him harm. In the end, she seems powerless against Apollonius’ “sophist’s eye” (l.299) which refuses to see the enchantment. She is not unmasked as a furious serpent, as one might expect, but simply loses power and vanishes. We might say, the enchantment of the lamia (or fairy) is broken by the cold eye of reason and science. This is similar to the “growing atheism of this age” of which Robert Kirk complained, reducing fairies and their like to a mere powerless nothing by simple unbelief.
I am not going to attempt to guess why Keats adopts such different attitudes to supernatural beings in such a short space of time. (It may simply have been for variety). Yet the two different approaches to the fairy (Korrigan, Lamia etc.)--namely, a powerful being drawn from earlier tradition who can embody our fears and desires, and a creature in which the educated adult no longer believes--foreshadow two different ways the portrayal of the fairy was to go in the next couple of centuries. The nineteenth century was replete with fairies. This was the era of Arthur Rackham and Andrew Lang. Paintings such as The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke by Richard Dadd, (1855-64) and The Captive Robin by John Anster Fitzgerald (c.1864) are typical of the Victorian craze for fairies. But these fairies are often small (in The Captive Robin the fairies and the robin are much the same size) and whimsical. They are the sort of fairies one would want to find in the bottom of one’s garden, not run away from in fear. By the time we get to the Cottingley Fairies (1917-1920), JM Barrie’s Peter Pan (1904) and Mary Cicely Barker’s Flower Fairies of the Spring (1923) fairies for many people have become harmless, tiny creatures, increasingly the sole preserve of writing and art specifically for children. The “sophist’s eye”, along with ever-increasing technological change and two World Wars, robs the fairies of all their former power to enchant and terrify. Hence the audiences I mentioned earlier who may struggle to understand why Falstaff would be scared of fairies.
However, the legacy of “The Belle Dame Sans Merci” takes us down a different route. The poem itself provided inspiration for the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (in many ways an inheritor of the Romantics) and was depicted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1848), Walter Crane (1865) Arthur Hughes (1861-3), John William Waterhouse (1893) and Sir Frank Dicksee (1902), to name but a few. This in turn helped in the development of the fantasy genre. William Morris, an associate of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, was one of the proto-fantasists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (along with George MacDonald and Lord Dunasnny). In his book The Wood Beyond the World (1894) the protagonist Golden Walter is drawn to a mysterious Wood, ruled over by a Lady who holds a Maiden captive, as well as a King’s Son; and who attempts to seduce Walter as well. “Therat the Lady turned and looked on him, and when her eyes met his, he felt a pang of fear and desire mingled shoot through his heart” (p.51) Without going into too much detail about the plot, this is very much in the vein of “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”; the Lady an inheritor of the fairy who produces (or even represents) “fear and desire mingled”. Morris and his fellow proto-fantasists kept alive the tradition of the powerful, mysterious fairy once feared and marvelled at by our ancestors. Their influence was to lead to the Elves of JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (1954) the fauns and evil queens of CS Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia (1950-56) and a whole wave of fantasy fiction, including Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon (1983), Juliet Marillier’s Sevenwaters (1999-2010) and Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (2004). In this latter work, fairy magic and fairy abduction take place in the very era in which John Keats wrote “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”. From a belief at the start of the plot that “there was no more magic done in England” (p.4) the novel ends in an England in which “The paths to Faerie are open again” (p.709). Surely, there is no better legacy for the Belle Dame Sans Merci as a fairy for her time than this?
English Poets Series, John Keats: An Anthology (Norwich, 1989)
The Norton Anthology of English Literature Sixth Edition (1993)
(“Robin Hood” and JR Reynolds, “To a Friend, On Robin Hood” handout from University of Leeds, 1995, unknown original origin)
“Tam Lin” and “Thomas the Rhymer”: FJ Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads 1882-98
The Lais of Marie de France, Penguin Classics (1986)
Sir Orfeo and Sir Launfal, ed. Lesley Johnson and Elizabeth Williams (University of Leeds, 1984)
 Charlotte Brontë, Shirley, a Tale (1849) p. 511
 Traditionally, iron is proof against fairy magic
 “THESE Siths, or FAIRIES, they call Sleagh Maith, or the Good People, it would ƒeem, to prevent the Dint of their ill Attempts, (for the Iriƒh uƒe to bleƒs all they fear Harme of;)” from The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies
 Robert Kirk and Andrew Lang The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies 1893 version, introduction by Andrew Lang
 As an aside, it is interesting to note how closely claims of fairy abduction in earlier centuries resemble claims of alien abduction in the twentieth century.
 Ibid. preamble by Robert Kirk
 Ibid title page by Robert Kirk
 The Guardian, Monday 5th March 2012 “Five hundred new fairy tales discovered in Germany”
Keats, “Robin Hood” (1818) ll. 1, 40-44
Marilyn Butler, Romantics, Rebels, Reactionaries 1760-1830 (1981) pp.1-2
 “Thomas the Rhymer” The English and Scottish Popular Ballads
 Ibid, “Tam Lin”
 New York, 1928
 Compare Morgan le Fay in the Arthurian tradition. “It is clear enough that Morgan is the tutelary spirit, or goddess of this place, and that her animosity towards Arthur (who as her half-brother, has faery blood himself) is merely an aspect of the challenging and testing role which such figures eternally offer, in order to discover who among their many servants is truly worthy of favour.” John Matthews, The Arthurian Tradition (1994)
 For example, in “Thomas the Rhymer”:
Her shirt was o’ the grass-green silk,
Her mantle o’ the velvet fine;
At ilka tett of her horse’s mayne
Hung fifty siller bells and nine. (ll. 5-8)
This is all the description we get.
Robert Kirk also says: “THEIR Apparell and Speech is like that of the People and Countrey under which they live”, Secret Commonwealth ch.5
 1831, although the events it tells of happened in 1816
 Wikipedia: Lamia(mythology) en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lamia_(mythology)
 As a fantasist, I find it interesting to compare this figure with George MacDonald’s Lilith (1895) and the Lady of the Green Kirtle in CS Lewis’ The Silver Chair (1953)
 A book in which the Arthurian tale is told form Morgan le Fay’s point of view, with Avalon as a Faerie realm
 A series set in Dark Ages Ireland, with very real fairies, who can be both benign and malign.
 The action of the plot takes place from Autumn 1806 to Spring 1817