The deadly fairy: Keats’ “La Belle Dame sans Merci” and the ballad connection

Emanuela Militello | May 29, 2018

Knight pic1

Figure 1 Frank Dicksee La Belle Dame Sans Merci, 1901

“La Belle Dame sans Merci”: beautiful, tempting and deadly. The very title of Keats’ ballad draws the readers’ attention to the characterisation of the woman as cruel temptress.

An early fascination with Keats’ rendition of an age-old form spurred me to learn more about ballads as traditional forms – oral compositions passed on from generation to generation. Keats’ poem is a literary ballad, which can be considered part of the ballad revival that started after the publication of Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry in 1765 – poets borrowed the structure and themes of traditional ballads to create their own original compositions. The most comprehensive collection of popular ballads is probably Francis Child’s English and Scottish Popular Ballads (1898), and the characterisation of the woman as alluring and dangerous goes back to the oral tradition of balladry.

By all accounts, Keats’ ballad has been difficult to interpret univocally: is it a literary transposition of Keats’ fascination with his own muse? Or just a warning of the destructive power of love? However, my questions throughout will rather be: from where does Keats draw inspiration to portray his “faery’s child”? Where can we find other instances of this motif? Is there a connection between the supernatural world and the characterisation of the woman as alluring and lethal?

In the first stanza of Keats’ ballad, the narrative voice – an unidentified speaker – addresses the knight, asking him to tell his story. The knight narrates the other stanzas. He recounts how a beautiful woman of supernatural quality lured him:

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.

(Verses 13-16)

She lavished “roots of relish sweet, honey wild, and manna dew” (verses 25-26) on him and took him to her “elfin grot” (verse 29). There the knight fell asleep in her arms, thus dreaming of “death-pale” warriors, who warned him: “La Belle Dame sans Merci hath thee in thrall!” (verses 39-40). The knight woke on the “hill’s side” where he had fallen fast asleep, lulled by the lilting sound of the fairy’s voice. Nonetheless, the hill’s side seems to belong to a parallel supernatural dimension and the knight is destined to be “alone and palely loitering” (verse 46) – wandering seemingly for eternity in a timeless world that is ambiguously neither the land of the living nor that of the dead.

Keats’ version of the femme fatale seems to borrow heavily from traditional balladry. Going back to Child’s collection, we can find other examples of the same motif. For instance, the Border Ballad “Thomas Rhymer” features a character similar to Keats’ “faery’s child”. In the first two stanzas of Child’s ballad (37. Variant A, verses 1-6), the Queen is described through Thomas’ eyes:

TRUE THOMAS […]

beheld a ladie gay,

A ladie that was brisk and bold,

Come riding oer the fernie brae.

Her skirt was of the grass-green silk,

Her mantel of the velvet fine […]

In the third stanza, Thomas mistakenly addresses her as “Queen of Heaven” (the Virgin Mary), to which the fairy replies that she does not deserve that title, being “but the Queen of Elfland” (verse 15). She adds that Thomas should follow her and serve her seven years in the fairy world (verses 17-19). When Thomas returns to Scotland, he is endowed with prophetic vision, a gift from the Queen– incidentally his character is based on the historical figure of Scottish laird Thomas de Ercildoun who, as legend has it, was a great prophet in Scottish history.

The Queen lets Thomas go after the prescribed seven years have expired, and she appears throughout the ballad as a less cruel character than Keats’ “Belle Dame”. However, some similarities can be found between the two texts. What first strikes Thomas is the lady’s appearance and he follows her willingly – in variant B of the ballad she is referred to as “lady fair” and in variant C as “lady bright”. Similarly, the beauty of the fairy first lures the knight in Keats’ ballad. The supernatural woman is also given certain attributes in both poems. The Queen in Child’s ballad is “brisk and bold”; the materials of her mantel and skirt are mentioned, while in Keats’ poem she is given long hair, “wild” eyes and a light step. Furthermore, in Child’s Variant C, before abducting Thomas, the Queen   also tells him: “And if ye dare to kiss my lips, Sure of your bodie I will be.” (Verses 19-20)

Knight pic2

Figure 2 John William Waterhouse La Belle Dame Sans Merci, 1893

The kiss seems to give the lady control over the man, just as the knight’s “kisses four” seal his destiny – after he bestows four kisses on the lady’s “wild, wild eyes” (verse 31), the knight falls asleep in her arms.

Lastly, both women abduct the men and carry them off to their supernatural realm. The abduction of the male protagonist can also be found in the Border Ballad “Tam Lin”, where the titular character falls off his horse while hunting in the forest and is kidnapped by the Queen of Fairies. In this ballad, a young girl named Janet, who manages to complete the impossible tasks needed to free Tam Lin, saves the hero – just in time before he is chosen as tithe to hell on Halloween night, after spending seven years in the fairy world. As Tam Lin explains to Janet (39. Variant A, stanza 24:

‘And pleasant is the fairy land,

But, an eerie tale to tell,

Ay at the end of seven years

We pay a tiend to hell’

Thus, not only do we find the abduction motif here, but also the “tithe to Hell” motif that is present in “Thomas Rhymer”. As opposed to “Thomas Rhymer”, however, the Queen in “Tam Lin” is a particularly vicious character, as is apparent in the final lines of the ballad (39A, stanza 42):

‘But had I kend, Tam Lin,’ she says,

‘What now this night I see,

I wad hae taen out thy twa grey een,

And put in twa een o tree.’

Angered by Tam Lin’s escape, the Queen remarks that she would not have lost Tam Lin, had she taken the precaution of “taking out his eyes, and putting wooden ones” in their place. Quite a gruesome image. Another similarity between “Tam Lin” and “La Belle Dame sans Merci” can be identified when considering the setting where the abduction takes place. The Queen of Fairies kidnaps Tam Lin and has him dwell “in yon green hill” (39A, verse 100). The hill and the forest (“the groves so green” verse 84) resemble the eerie landscape in Keats’ ballad.

In conclusion, what is common to all three texts is the portrayal of the woman with supernatural powers as dangerous at best or downright callous at worst. This seems to suggest that the association of the woman with potentially disruptive, unearthly forces is a recurring feature in traditional ballads. Keats’ portrayal of the woman as supernatural being shows significant similarities to traditional ballads and represents Keats’ reworking of a traditional motif.


About Emanuela:

I studied Modern Languages in Milan before moving to Edinburgh to study English Literature.
I’m particularly interested in Scottish history, literature, and culture – I also have a weakness for Medieval Romance and British folklore.

Works Cited:

Francis James Child, “Tam Lin”

Francis James Child, “Thomas Rhymer”

John Keats, “La Belle Dame sans Merci”

Images Cited:

Frank Dicksee, La Belle Dame sans Merci, 1901

John William Waterhouse, La Belle Dame sans Merci, 1893

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