‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’- John Keats’ greatest faery poem

John_William_Waterhouse_-_La_Belle_Dame_sans_Merci_(1893)
John Waterhouse, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, 1893

In one of the very first posts on this blog, I discussed the use of faeries in the verse of English poet John Keats (1795-1821).  Here I’m going to focus on one of his greatest poems, and one of the greatest fairy poems of all.  I want to examine its meaning and how it has inspired other works of art.

cowper, belle dame
Frank Cadogan Cowper, Belle Dame, 1926

Here’s the text of Keats’ poem, which was written in 1819:

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
       Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
       And no birds sing.
O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
       So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
       And the harvest’s done.
I see a lily on thy brow,
       With anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
       Fast withereth too.
I met a lady in the meads,
       Full beautiful—a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
       And her eyes were wild.
I made a garland for her head,
       And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love,
       And made sweet moan
I set her on my pacing steed,
       And nothing else saw all day long,
For sidelong would she bend, and sing
       A faery’s song.
She found me roots of relish sweet,
       And honey wild, and manna-dew,
And sure in language strange she said—
       ‘I love thee true’.
She took me to her Elfin grot,
       And there she wept and sighed full sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
       With kisses four.
And there she lullèd me asleep,
       And there I dreamed—Ah! woe betide!—
The latest dream I ever dreamt
       On the cold hill side.
I saw pale kings and princes too,
       Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—‘La Belle Dame sans Merci
       Thee hath in thrall!’
I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
       With horrid warning gapèd wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
       On the cold hill’s side.
And this is why I sojourn here,
       Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
       And no birds sing.
Henry Meynell Rheam, Belle Dame
Henry Meynell Rheam, La Belle Dame, 1901

Like many faery writers and painters, Keats immediately locates his poem in the past: we have a knight riding on horse-back- we know we’re in the Middle Ages, when faeries were much nearer to people than today (or so we always say- see my previous post on this perpetual relegation of the faes to the previous generation).  Simultaneously, the medieval context gives Keats’ verse an extra weight and authority.  He’s placing himself alongside Malory, Spenser and other poets who’ve written about faery themes, adding to the ‘authenticity’ of what he writes.

Walter_T._Crane_-_La_belle_Dame_Sans_Merci_(1865)
Walter Crane, La Belle Dame, 1865

Then we meet the faery woman- and she is everything that I’ve described in preceding posts on this blog: she’s beautiful, she’s sexually appealing, she’s also unearthly and deadly.  Instantly, it would seem, the knight falls under her spell: making garlands for her in most un-knightly fashion, bearing her on his horse and becoming obsessed entirely with her.  She sings to him- and this seems to be part of the spell that she works.  Her alien nature is betrayed by her every aspect: her strange speech, her songs, her wild looks.  Yet despite these warning signs, and the precipitate nature of their declared love for each other, the knight abandons caution and submits without resistance to her charms.

Dicksee La_Belle_Dam_Sans_Merci 1902
Frank Dicksee, La Belle Dame, 1902

Two fateful incidents follow quickly.  Firstly, the knight eats the food the fairy woman prepares for him; as I have described, consumption of fairy food – and the partaking of fairy nature that comes with it- can often have dire consequences for the human.  Secondly, (although Keats is circumspect about this, given the date and style of his poem) the knight has sex with the fae woman in her ‘grot’- her cave or underground home.  He has doubly surrendered his body to her power now.

hughes, La belle dame sans merci
Arthur Hughes, La Belle Dame, 1863

The consequence of the knight’s close contact with faery nature is serious.  He dreams his ‘latest,’ his last, dream and (it would seem) he finds himself no longer in the faery woman’s cave but abandoned and alone on a hillside-a common conclusion to stories of fairy encounters: the glamour evaporates and the human is left solitary and bewildered in the wilderness.  The knight sees visions of those who have before him fallen under the faery’s spell and he is warned- far too late- of the peril he was in.  These cautions are useless to him now, though: he is either ‘elf-addled‘- made sick by his intimate association with the faery- or he is, in fact, dead.  The others, certainly, are starved with gaping mouths, and the hapless knight is left ‘alone and palely loitering,’ looking fevered and haggard.  He cannot return to or settle back to his earthly life, he cannot escape the fairy woman’s ‘thrall.’  In this state of exile or alienation from his former condition, the knight closely resembles the fairy-abductee Kilmeny, of James Hogg’s nearly contemporary poem of the same name.  After her visit to Faery and her return to our world:

“But all the land were in fear and dread,
For they kendna [knew not] whether she was living or dead.
It wasna her hame, and she couldna remain;” (Hogg, Kilmeny1813)

Keats’ Belle Dame epitomises some of the aspects of Faery we often downplay.  It is common in folklore accounts to find faeries, and mermaids too, taking advantage of humans for their own benefit.  This can frequently have dire implications for the human involved, ranging from subjection to terminal decline; the best that might be said of these cases is that the outcome may not be intentional- the fairies’ solipsistic nature may simply fail to register the impact on the mortal party.  However, there are plenty of traditional examples of supernatural beings- ranging from boggarts and goblins through to kelpies- whose deliberate aim is to cause harm and injury.  Keats’ Belle Dame is one of these- we need look no further than the title of the poem to know this, of course: she is ‘sans merci,’ without mercy.

fishman bd2
Fishman. La Belle Dame

As the illustrations to this posting demonstrate, Keats’ poem has inspired successive generations of artists.  Two stages of the poem are illustrated: either the knight succumbing to the charms of the maiden, or the aftermath of his deadly seduction.  The version of this by Frank Cadogan Cowper (1877-1959), an English painter often called the ‘last Pre-Raphaelite’ for his richly coloured historical and legendary paintings which regularly feature captivating, fay-like women, shows the faery maiden arranging her hair whilst the knight lies prostrate before her.  She looks wonderfully, callously unconcerned, sitting on the river bank in her glorious dress patterned with red poppies.  The blooming poppies that surround the couple suggest a possible origin for his unconsciousness.  Henry Meynell Rheam (1859-1920), depicts a similar scene, except that ghostly figures of previous victims are shown hovering behind the rather self-satisfied looking faery.  Other artists have focused instead the irresistible allure of the fairy maid, who seems superficially pretty and defenceless.  Frank Dicksee’s painting perhaps best encapsulates this first stage of the poem.  The fascination of Keats’ work persists even today, as we see from the two canvases by US based fantasy artist, Marc Fishman (b.1971).  He emphasises the dangerous sexual allure of the fae woman, with her gauzy, see-through gowns and her wild, perfumed, intoxicating hair.  Her emergence from a pool in the first of these also links her to the deadly meremaids I have discussed in the past.

Lastly, the Mediaeval Baebes have arranged the poem to music, in a haunting rendition (they have done the same too for Kilmeny,  and for the Scots ballad of Tam Lin for that matter).  For a more general discussion of fairy themes and iconography in nineteenth century poetry, see my recent book, Victorian Fairy VerseFor a detailed examination of the psychological and physical effects of faery contact, see my recently published Faery.

fishman belle dame
Fishman, La Belle Dame

Laughing gnome- the faery attitude to humans

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The source of my title, but not very relevant, I know…

What do the fairies think about us?  The view that has emerged in recent decades is that they are concerned to help us, to heal the planet and to better ourselves, but as I’ve indicated in previous posts, the older tradition very frequently discloses a harder, more cynical character.

The attitude of the faes to humans that is exposed in the folk stories can be, at best, dispassionate and can be coolly exploitative in other accounts.  In fact, according to some observers, the fairies regard us with humour or even contempt.

jultomte-JN2

In the 1673 text, A Pleasant Treatise of Witches, the author describes the fays as “little Mimick Elves” who “busy themselves chiefly in imitating the operations of men.”  We shouldn’t mistake this for flattery though: these ‘imitators of men’ seem to laugh, he tells us, “mocking sometimes the workmen [in mines] but seldome or never hurting them.” (p.53)

This bleaker view of fae conduct was repeated in an article in Fraser’s Magazine in 1842 (vol.25, p.317).  In A Sketch of Scottish Diablerie in general the writer observed that most people feel that they imitate human feasts and pastimes in “fiendish mockery” and for some “hellish purpose.”

In this light, an isolated incident in Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing Fairies acquires more meaning and significance.  A Mrs J. Hanley recalled an incident that had occurred when she was a young woman of eighteen.  Walking in the mountains near Bettws-y-coed in North Wales, she had the sensation that she was being followed and turned around.  She saw:

“a little man about two feet high, who looked rather as if he had been put together out of sticks or the twisty roots of gorse.  He seemed too me to be swaggering along, mocking us, I think, as a small boy might so.”

She turned to her companion to point out the extraordinary sight, but the being vanished at that moment (of course).  Nevertheless, she retained the feeling that she and her friend were being watched by several unseen observers and were “the objects of derision.” (p.24)

This is not the only such experience recorded in Johnson’s book.  Other witnesses detected a derisive tone in voices or in the way that fairies laughed at them- although sometimes this amusement may have been merely teasing or even sympathetic. (Johnson pp.25, 58, 68 & 90)

From time to time, fairy contempt for humankind breeds overconfidence.  This can be seen in the ‘Rumpelstiltskin’ class of stories, in which a fairy being holds power over an individual so long as his name can’t be discovered. Contemptuous of the human’s ability to guess the name, the supernatural uses it to himself- and is, of course, overheard.

Why should the fairies have this attitude towards us?  Scottish fairy poet James Hogg may offer part of the explanation.  He was told by shepherd William Laidlaw that he had met with fairies in the Ettrick Forest. Their wild unearthly eyes had-

“turned every one upon him at the same moment and he had heard their mysterious whisperings, of which he knew no word, save now and then the repetition of his name, which was always done with a strain of pity.” (‘Odd characters’ in Shepherd’s Calendar, 1829).

Perhaps this explains the fairy attitude.  Humans are short-lived, they lack magical powers and they spend their time working hard to win the means to live. Compared to the carefree fairy lifestyle, it must seem a comically pitiable existence, hectic with unceasing toil and prematurely ended.  In this context, it’s highly instructive to reread the recollections of Welsh boy Elidyr, who visited faery in the twelfth century.  He recalled to Gerald of Wales that the fairy folk he met had only contempt for humans’ ambition, infidelity and inconstancy.  Later he tried to steal a golden ball from his supernatural hosts; they recovered it from him with expressions of scorn, contempt and derision.  The encounters described above all appear to be modern instances of the same responses.

Further Reading

See my new book, Faery, forthcoming from Llewellyn International in March 2020 and see too my previous posts on faery relations with humankind and the overall fairy temperament and attitudes.

iro- f banquet

Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, A fairy banquet

 

Always going, never gone- the reality of the ‘vanishing’ fairy

Duncan, John, 1866-1945; The Riders of the Sidhe

John Duncan, The riders of the sidhe

“I speke of manye hundred yeres ago.
But now kan no man se none elves mo…”

(Chaucer, Wife of Bath’s Tale)

An abiding aspect of accounts of Faery is that the fairies aren’t around anymore and that fairy belief is fading; it was once strong, but not any more.  This sort of account has been given repeatedly for the last five hundred years or so.  Fairy-lore expert Katherine Briggs to some extent subscribed to this view when she called her 1978 book The vanishing people, although she herself collected some modern modern sightings as well.

Fairies have always been going, but they have never finally and completely gone.  In Farewell to the fairies, the final chapter of her book Strange and secret people- fairies and the Victorian subconscious, Carole Silver observed that:

“The fairies have been leaving England since the fourteenth century but have never quite left despite the rise of the towns, science, factories and changes of religion.”

Two processes were believed to be working in parallel.  There was an active departure of the fairies combined with a growing disbelief amongst the human population.  Combined, these factors convinced observers again and again that our good neighbours had deserted us.  Sometimes the departure was the the fairies moving away from a vicinity, other times it appears that they were vanishing completely.

“Robin Goodfellow is a knave”- the sixteenth century & before

Chaucer was the first to declare that the fays had disappeared, and there has been a constant chorus of lamenting voices ever since.  These were strengthened, from the mid-sixteenth century onwards, by a belief that it was the Reformation which had driven out the supernaturals, the fairies’ Christian faith being inimical to that of Luther and Calvin.

By the late sixteenth century Reginald Scot felt able to declare that “Robin Goodfellow ceaseth now to be much feared.” Elsewhere in The discovery of witchcraft he noted that “By this time all Kentish men know (a few fooles excepted) that Robin Goodfellow is a knave.”  In 1591 George Chapman had a character in his play A humorous day’s mirth query whether “fairies haunt the holy greene, as ever mine auncesters have thought.”  The fairy faith was increasingly seen as a thing of the past, or at the very least as a matter for an older generation and for less well educated and more superstitious folk.  For instance, writing in 1639, Robert Willis described how-

“within a few daies after my birth… I was taken out of the bed from [my mother’s] side and by my sudden and fierce crying recovered again, being found sticking between the beds-head and the wall and, if I had not cried in that manner as I did, our gossips had a conceit that I had been carried away by the Fairies…” (Mount Tabor p.92)

Doyle, triumphal march of the elf king 1870

Richard Doyle, The triumphant march of the elf king, 1870

“Out of date and out of credit”- the 1600s & 1700s

These early sources would suggest that fairy belief was over and done with by the start of the seventeenth century.  That was far from being the case.  As late as 1669, it seems, a spirit called ‘Ly Erg’ had haunted Glen More in the Highlands. Describing the Hebrides in 1716, Martin Martin averred that “it is not long since every Family of any considerable Substance in these Islands was haunted by a Spirit they called Browny…”  Speaking of Northumberland in 1729 the Reverend John Horsley felt that “stories of fairies now seem to be much worn, both out of date and out of credit.”  In 1779 the Reverend Edmund Jones alleged that, in the parish of Aberystruth, the apparitions of fairies had “very much ceased,” although the tylwyth teg had once been very familiar to the local people.  In other words, there had been belief but it was dwindling, or had died out.

“A winter evening’s tale”

The fairy faith was still apparently on the wane, or only just faded, during the next century too.  This was particularly believed to be the case in Scotland.  Shepherd poet James Hogg described the experiences of William Laidlawe, also called Will O’Phaup, who had been born in 1691 and who was “the last man of this wild region who heard, saw and conversed with the fairies; and that not once but at sundry times and seasons.”  Will lived on the edge of Ettrick Forest which was “the last retreat of the spirits of the glen, before taking their final leave of the land of their love…”  The fays’ departure was a regular theme for Hogg.  For example, in The queen’s wake he claimed that “The fairies have now totally disappeared… There are only a very few now remaining alive who have ever seen them.”  In 1820 Sir Walter Scott announced that “The fairies have abandoned their moonlight turf.” Writing of the Tay basin in 1831 James Knox agreed that “during the last century the fairy superstition lost ground rapidly and, even by the ignorant, elves are no longer regarded, though they are the subject of a winter evening’s tale.”

In a description of the Highlands in 1823 it was said that brownies had become rare, but that once every family of rank had had one.  Likewise Alan Cunningham, a lowland Scot, said that in Nithsdale and Galloway “there are few old people who have not a powerful belief in the influence and dominion of the fairies…”  Several accounts of the fairies’ departure from the Scottish Highlands can be dated to about 1790, although a lingering faith persisted with some into the middle of the next century.  A Galloway road-mender refused to fell a local fairy thorn in 1850, for example.

Also in the early 1820s, the fairies of the Lake District were declared extinct. Further south still, but at almost the same time, Fortescue Hitchens pronounced that in Cornwall-

“the age of the piskays, like that of chivalry, is gone.  There is perhaps hardly a house they are reputed to visit… The fields and lanes are forsaken.”

halt in the fairy procession

John Anster Fitzgerald, A halt in the fairy procession

“Credulous times”?- vanishing Victorian fays

Of Northamptonshire in 1851 it was said that “the fairy faith still lingers, but is in the last stages of decay.”  Nevertheless in 1867 John Harland could write that “the elves or hill folk yet live among the rural people of Lancashire.”  Speaking of his youth in the first half of the century, Charles Hardwick stated that, fairies had then been “as plentiful as blackberries-” but this no longer seemed to be the case to him considering the Lancashire of the 1870s.  Researching Devon folklore in the same year, Sir John Bowring interviewed four old peasants on Dartmoor who told him that “the piskies had all gone now, although there had been many formerly.”  Even so he was told a version of the common story of pixies caught stealing grain from a barn, something that had apparently happened as recently as three years before.

According to John Brand, describing Shetland in 1883, “not above forty or fifty years ago every family had an evil spirit called a Browny which served them…”  Writing about the same islands in the same year, Menzies Fergusson said that:

“credulous times are long, long gone by and we can see no more of the flitting sea trow… Civilisation has crept in upon all the fairy strongholds and disenchanted the many fair scenes in which they were wont to hold their fair courts.”

Recounting Cornish folk belief in 1893 Bottrell cited a verse to the effect that “The fairies from their haunts have gone.” In Herefordshire in 1912 a Mrs Leather of Cusop, just outside Hay on Wye, recalled fairies being seen dancing under foxgloves in Cusop Dingle: a vision that was within the memory of people still living, she recorded.

Sims-Charles-1900.-The-Beautiful-is-Fled

Charles Sims, The beautiful is fled, 1900

“Not utterly extinct?”- fairies in the twentieth century

Twentieth century writers echoed their predecessors.  Speaking of Wales in 1923 folklorist Mary Lewes recorded a-

“practically universal belief among the Welsh country folk into the middle of the last century [which] is scarcely yet forgotten.”

She blamed education and newspapers for having quenched the people’s spirits: “mortal eyes in Cambria will no more behold the Fair Folk at their revels.”  She lamented that “even the conception of fairies seems to have been lost in the present generation.”  A couple of years later, reflecting on Western Argyll in the 1850s, another writer reminisced over the “dreamland” people had inhabited before “the fierce eye of bespectacled modern omniscience” had dispelled belief.  “These were the days of elemental spirits, of sights and sounds relegated by present day sceptics to the realm of superstition or imagination.”  By the 1920s only old people recalled the wealth of folktales.  The fairy faith was also felt to be going or gone by this time from Herefordshire, Shropshire and from the Lake District.

Towards the end of last century, describing Sussex folk belief, Jacqueline Simpson declared that:

“Although it is most improbable that a belief in fairies is seriously entertained by any adult of the present generation, it was a different matter of the nineteenth century… Even one generation ago, it was not utterly extinct.”

tarrant fairy way

Margaret Tarrant, The fairy way

The fairies travel yet?

Continually, then, it seemed to investigators to be the case that fairy belief had been strong until a generation or so ago, but had since expired.  This was asserted every few decades, and little in substance really separates the remarks of Reginald Scot from those of Jacqueline Simpson.  For this reason, when Robin Gwyndaf alleged in 1997 that “fairy belief persisted in Wales until the late 1940s or early 1950s,” how confident should we be in the red line he seeks to draw?  Plenty of writers have done the same before, and have found themselves subsequently contradicted.  Equally, too, there have been writers- perhaps wiser, certainly more cautious-  who have not been so ready to pronounce the fairies’ obituary.

As already noted, the fairies were declared dead and gone from the Lake District in both 1825 and the early twentieth century.  Another observer was not so pessimistic: “The shyness of the British fairy in modern times has given rise to a widespread belief that the whole genus must be regarded as extinct,” wrote a Mrs Hodgson, yet she felt confident specimens could still be found in remote Cumberland and Westmorland neighbourhoods.  In the 1870s Francis Kilvert was told by David Price of Capel-y-ffin that “We don’t see them now because we have more faith in the Lord and don’t think of them.  But I believe the fairies travel yet…”  In 1873 William Bottrell confidently wrote that, in West Cornwall, “belief in the fairies is far from being extinct…”  On the Isle of Man it has been said that the fairies have retreated from the noise and disturbance of modern human life- but that they are still there, in the remote glens and moors.

Conclusions

Have the fairies disappeared?  It seems that it all depends on who does the asking and who they’re talking to.  The evidence of the recent Fairy Census, and of Marjorie Johnson’s collection of sightings in Seeing fairies, suggests that- contrary to all reports- the fairies are still present and active.

The scattered, individual accounts may give a contemporary observer the impression that the fairy faith is lost.  Nonetheless, with a little perspective, with the passage of a few years, a glance back will reveal that witnesses are still meeting our Good neighbours: they may be less willing to speak publicly about these experiences than once would have been the case, but the anonymity of an on-line survey permits confessions that seem to confirm that, indeed, ‘the fairies travel yet.’

An expanded version of this text will appear in my next book, Faeries, which will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide next year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fairy wells

Goblin harvest amelia bowerley

Goblin harvest by Amelia Bowerley

“The Fairy Well of Lagnanay-
Lie nearer me, I tremble so,
Una, I’ve heard wise women say
(Hearken to my tale of woe)-
That if before the dews arise,
True maiden in its icy flow
With pure hand bathe her bosom thrice,
Three lady-brackens pluck likewise,
And three times round the fountain go,
She straight forgets her tears and sighs.”

The fairy well of Lagnanay, Samuel Ferguson

I have discussed in a previous post how some fairies have an aversion to running water.  In contrast, though, still water has strong faery and magical properties and is, as hitherto described, the home of quite a few (largely fearsome) fays- the ‘meremaids’ of pools and lakes.

I want to look at the supernatural nature of ponds and wells in this posting.  A folklore example of this that comes from East Yorkshire records how a troublesome bogle in Holderness was banished to a well, since called Robin Round Cap Well.  In lowland Scotland the story was told of a girl who sat spinning wool on a distaff by a well when she looked in a saw a pot of gold beneath the surface.  She marked the spot with her spindle and ran to tell her father.  He suspected it was just fairy glamour intended to trap and drown her and, sure enough, when they returned to the place, the moor was covered in distaffs.  Nonetheless, twelve men in green appeared and returned her original spindle with its wool all spun.  Author Rose Fyleman was aware of the fay powers of water and, in The second adventure of the rainbow cat, the cat is given a bottle of fairy water from a magic well that bestows the ability to see through walls.

me_fairy_well

Writer and designer Feral Strumpet at the holy well at Mount Grace Priory, Osmotherly.

Holy (fairy) wells

Britain once was covered with ‘holy’ wells, many of which had no Christian association at all.  They were wishing wells, places of prediction, and very many are likely to have been so regarded for millenia. These sites often still exist, but their supernatural links are now mostly forgotten; they are muddy springs in fields or neglected wells by roadsides.  They still have a strong attraction for many, nonetheless.

Respect was shown to fairy wells in various ways.  Offerings of pins were made at Bradwell in Derbyshire on Easter Sunday and at Wooler in Northumberland, whenever a person wanted a wish to come true.  At various sites in Scotland, both buttons and pins were left.  Perhaps the most famous of these was the so-called ‘Cheese Well’ on top of Minchmuir, Peebles-shire, into which locals threw pieces of cheese for the guardian fairies.  Given the fays’ well known liking for dairy products, such offerings seem entirely appropriate; the same can’t be said about the pins, though, as iron is always regarded as an effective way of repelling our good neighbours.

eichler nixe
Reinhold Maximilian Eichler, The Nixie (from Jugend magazine, 1898)

Healing wells

The wells had health giving properties, too, so that if a child had gone into a decline and was no longer thriving (it was ‘shargie’ and had been afflicted by ‘the fairy’) leaving a child overnight near a well would cure it.  At Wooler, too, sickly children would be dipped in the well’s waters and bread and cheese left as an offering.  If it was suspected that the child had in fact been substituted for a fairy changeling, well water might again be part of the remedy.  At Chapel Euny in West Cornwall the way to expel a changeling and restore a human child was to dip the suspect infant in the well on the first three Wednesdays in May.  Both the time of day and the time of year are particularly fay, as has been described before.

Given the supernatural properties of well water, it is unsurprising that they should be used to imbue the human children abducted by the fairies with fay properties.  This is only evidenced in literature rather than folklore, but an excellent example is in the Scottish verse Kilmeny by James Hogg.  She’s dipped in the waters of life to ensure that her youth and beauty never fade.  

hannah-titania-jewelry-fairy-well-222531971

Poet, artist, musician Hannah Titania at her fairy well

Conclusions

There’s a complex and (as ever) contrary relationship between the faeries and water.  It can be the medium in which they live, it can be protective against them and it can be used by them for magical purposes.

Many of us instinctively sense the links between fays, wells and some sort of supernatural presence.  Fairies’ association with natural features may be part of this; perhaps the mysterious appearance of fresh water from underground had mysterious and magical qualities that also encouraged links to the Good Folk.  The Tiddy Mun of the East Anglian fens, for example, was believed to control the flood waters and had to be propitiated with offerings of water.  Fresh water can be both potion and poison; which will apply seems unpredictable and to depend very much upon place and personality.

Further reading

See my posting on the Sennen fairies for an example of a sighting at a well.

An expanded version of this text will appear in my next book, Faeries, which will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide next year.

 

‘Something in that witching face’- kelpies and mermaids

caffieri mermaid

Caffieri, ‘Young siren’

A long time ago, in an early posting on this blog, I discussed mermaids; I want now to return to the subject with some further reflections and information.

The little mermaid

Just like fairies, elves and pixies, it is very notable how the popular image of mermaids has improved and how they are coming to be regarded as wholly cute and attractive figures of myth.  The illustrations to this posting by Hector Caffieri demonstrate an early stage in this trend; perhaps the best known contemporary example might be Disney’s Ariel, the little mermaid.  In passing, it may be worthwhile making an additional observation on visual conventions.  The cartoon Ariel, for one, is sanitised and winsome.  Caffieri’s ‘Siren’ above is likewise a small girl, but it’s notable how the standard image has changed in the last century or so.  Today, the fish scales extend to the waist; in Victorian times (as can be seen) they often started somewhat lower, requiring a more discrete treatment (or perhaps a chance for a little titillation).

Today, mermaids are viewed wholly as figures suitable for children to like, draw and to imitate, with mermaid tails being a widely available form of fun beach wear.  It seems very likely that this more benign idea is derived from Hans Christian Andersen’s 1837 story of The little mermaid.  The main character in this is presented as a model of Christian self sacrifice and goodness and has doubtless had a pervasive influence commensurate with the story’s popularity.  For modern generations, the aforementioned cartoon version of the story from Disney has profoundly influenced popular views of marine supernaturals since its release in 1989.  Other symptoms of these revised views of merfolk may be the 1984 film Splash starring Daryl Hannah and the very recent appearance of female entertainers playing mermaids for parties and corporate events.

Folklore mermaids

Whilst terrestrial fairies have been the subject of prettification and miniaturisation since the late sixteenth century,  this process has only been applied to mermaids during the last century and a half.  The consequence is that a great deal more of the older folklore attitudes survive, both in stories and in poetry.  Mermaids are still supernatural creatures deserving of awe, fear and mistrust.  Kindliness was never one of the mermaid’s traditional traits and it is still not how other supernatural water beasts are perceived.  In this respect, the dependable J K Rowling gives us a depiction more observant of folklore in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (there called grindylows).  It may be easier for us to identify with and to find attractive qualities in a being that lives solely on land; mermaids live in a different element in which a human cannot survive and this important distinction may help to preserve their distance from us and our healthy respect for that difference.

caffieri-hector-1847-1932 a-young-siren

Caffieri,  ‘Siren’ (Bonhams)

It’s also inescapable that most mermaids are depicted as young, beautiful, naked women.  There’s probably a lot of psychology here if you’d like to find it.  This iconography may tell us about relations between men and women: the separation between elements may be a metaphor for the difference between the sexes.  It may equally just have something to say about sex more generally- that physical attraction is powerful, but dangerous; that we are entering a new and exposing environment when we entrust ourselves to another individual; that the lure of the strange and mysterious is strong but perilous.   As with all supernatural partners, love for mermaids is enticing but full of risk: what is placed in jeopardy may be long term happiness, your present way of living and connections or, even, life itself.

Irish poet Francis Hackett (1883-1962) captured many of the conventional traits of the mermaid in his poem Sea dawn:

“From Wicklow to the throb of dawn
I walked out to the sea alone
And by the black rocks came upon
A being from a world unknown.

As proud she sat as any queen
On high, and naked as the air:
Her limbs were lustrous, and a sheen
Of sea-gold flowed from her flowing hair.

And as the spreading sea did swell
With dawns strange and brimming light
Her little breasts arose and fell
As if in concord with the sight.

Faint was the sea sound that she made
Of little waves that melt in sand
While with her honey hair she played
And arched the mirror in her hand.”

This evocation of adolescent allure may well now trigger thoughts of the recent controversy concerning J. M. Waterhouse’s painting Hylas and the nymphs and its temporary removal from the walls of Manchester City Art Gallery.  Both the picture and Hackett’s verse are of a piece and represent one powerful current of thought on mermaids and their nature.

Common mermaid themes

Across the world, there are several themes common to tales of merfolk.  The principal of these are as follows:

  • they can predict the future (see John Rhys, Celtic folklorethough very often this knowledge is dispensed in cryptic terms;
  • they can grant magical powers to those they favour (see for example The old man of Cury in Hunt’s Popular romances of the West of England);
  • they can punish those who offend them or who injure those whom they protect (see Hunt’s stories of the mermaid in Padstow Harbour and of The mermaid’s vengeance);
  • they can assume normal human form by magical means; and,
  • they can become involved in love affairs with mortals, whether that involves living for a while on land with the human or luring the human beneath the waves.  The outcomes are seldom good (see Matthew Arnold, The merman’s lament).

As is the case in contact with all supernatural beings, involvement with merfolk is generally risky and involves an imbalance of power.  Romantic attachments can be fatal whilst any information or ability gained from them is only obtained through coercion, whether that is bribery or physical force.

mucha mermaid

An art nouveau mermaid or water sprite

Water monsters

To repeat, as with the improvement in the character of fairies, the changed perception of merfolk is a relatively recent amelioration.  Evidence of the earlier, much more dangerous, nature of these beings is still to be found in the Scottish accounts of water horses (associated with salt water), water bulls and other water beasts like kelpies, which are found in freshwater lochs.  Their main occupation, it seems, is seducing mortals and luring them to their doom.  James Hogg’s 1819 poem The mermaid is representative of this:  the Maid of the Crystal Wave lures a young man to ‘places he should not have been and sights he should not have seen’ and it proves to be his ruin.  Similarly in Charles Mackay’s 1851 ballad The Kelpie of Corryevreckan a handsome stranger on a horse rides off with love-struck Jessie, but then plunges beneath the waves with her, so that she is found drowned the next day.  Poet Joseph Rodman Drake in his verse, To a friend, described travellers being terrorised by “the kelpie’s fang.”

It is notable that whilst mermaids might accidentally drown their lovers, it is not generally their intention, whereas the character of the water beasts is specifically to seek out humans in order to destroy them.  In light of this, there is perhaps a case for excluding the latter from the category of ‘fairies.’ Mermaids are semi-human in form; the kelpie can take on human form whilst the water horses appear as animals alone and may be better described as monsters.

Lastly, what is particularly notable is the Highland Scottish link between water creatures and horses.  Exactly why this should have been made is far from clear, but it is to be found across Northern Europe in Scandinavian folklore, from Iceland through to Denmark.  It seems very likely that Viking settlement introduced this idea into the north of Scotland.

waterhouse, sketch-for-a-mermaid-1892

J W Waterhouse, ‘Sketch for a mermaid’, 1892.

Further reading

As mentioned, I posted before on the risks of loving mermaids and water beasts and I have also discussed catching the fleeting and vulnerable asrai.  Mermaids are more than pretty faces, though: see my post on mermaid wisdom and my posting on Gwenhidw, the Welsh mermaid queen. See too my discussion of freshwater mere-maids and of of Charles’ Kingsley’s famous novel, The water babies.