La Belle Dame Sans Merci by John Keats

John Keats in 1819, by Charles Brown

What folklorist Katherine Briggs has called “one of the most beautiful fairy poems in the English language”, and William Morris “the germ” from which all the poetry of the Pre-Raphaelites sprung, seems to have been written on 28th April 1819. Keats included it in a packet of letters addressed to his brother George and his brother’s wife Georgina, who had moved to a settlement in America the year before. Keats wrote regular letters to the couple, including among them finished and unfinished verse, and would add to the pile till he could find someone to deliver the lot, rather than sending one at a time. The bundle containing “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” was begun on 14th February, with a complaint that he was finding his latest composition, the never-to-be-completed Hyperion, difficult, and that he must wait for “spring to rouse me up a little” so he could continue. “I know not why Poetry and I have been so distant lately”, he writes in March. The bundle continued to accrue until 3rd May, by which time he’d resumed writing poetry, though not Hyperion. His poems contained in the bundle included a playful tale in which a princess wants to show her latest finery to the fairies and, finding them not at home, instructs her dwarf to open the fairies’ door and let her in anyway; the dwarf refuses, saying he was a handsome prince till he made the mistake of entering the fairy realm unbidden, so she lets herself in, and isn’t heard from again. There was also a mock-Spenserian verse, a sonnet on Dante’s damned lovers Paolo and Francesca, and a “Chorus of Fairies”. Fairies, or faery generally, ran throughout Keats’s poetry, as Freudian critic Maureen Duffy writes:

“With Keats faery isn’t simply a convenient idiom… it is a mode of the imagination so natural to him that he can’t write poetry in any other way.”

Keats took the title “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” from a French poem of one hundred 8-line stanzas written in 1424 by Alain Chartier, and translated into English around 1526 (by Richard Ros, though for a long time it was thought to be by Chaucer). And he had in fact referred to the title already, in his long poem, “The Eve of St. Agnes”, composed earlier the same year. “St. Agnes” is a Romeo and Juliet-inspired tale of Porphyro seeking to win the love of Madeline, who belongs to a rival family house. Madeline has performed the rites and prayers of St Agnes’s Eve, by which a woman is granted a dream of her true love. Porphyro sneaks into her bedchamber, so he can make it seem he is the prayed-for vision. To wake her, he picks up a lute and plays Chartier’s “La Belle Dame”, perhaps hoping its tale of a knight who dies when scorned by a heartless woman will warn Madeline against the cruelty of rejection and the risks of loneliness.

Keats’s own “Belle Dame” owes more to fantastical incarnations of the cruel-hearted woman, including Nimue, who imprisons Merlin in Le Morte Darthur, the fairy queen in folk ballads of Tamlin and Thomas the Rhymer, and, most of all, the story of the Enchantress Phaedria, who lures a knight to an island, woos him to sleep, then abandons him, in Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. (It was a volume of The Faerie Queene that set Keats on the path to becoming a poet himself.)

Tom Keats, by Joseph Severn

But there may have been more concrete, biographical origins for Keats’s poem. His life had its share of women he’d lost or longed for (Andrew Motion, in his biography of Keats, says the poet’s relationships with women had a “pattern of possession and abandonment”). This included his mother, who died when he was fourteen, and his latest amour, Fanny Brawne, whom he either couldn’t commit to, or wouldn’t commit to him, sickly and impecunious poet that he was. But the most relevant episode from Keats’s life seems to have been the death of his younger brother Tom the previous December. Looking through Tom’s papers, Keats came across letters purporting to be from a woman, “Amena”, who said she loved Tom, and who Tom at one point seems to have gone to France in search of. But she was, Keats realised, an elaborate joke by Tom’s friend Charles Wells. In those days, it was a common belief that intense emotion could kill you, and Keats was convinced this futile search contributed to his brother’s death.

There are two versions of Keats’s poem. The one in the letter to his brother George is the earlier version, whereas the first published version appeared in Leigh Hunt’s journal The Indicator in May 1820, where it was signed not Keats but “Caviare”. There are only a few differences between the two, one of which is that in the first verses of the early version, the lost and forlorn victim is called a “knight-at-arms”, while in the published version he’s a “wretched wight”. Although the published version sounds more poetic, the earlier version feels more concrete, but perhaps one of the reasons Keats changed that “knight-at-arms” is that the invented “Amena” addressed her supposed lover Tom as her “knight”, too. Perhaps Keats felt this veiled reference to his brother’s death was too raw for him to publish, even under a pseudonym.

In the end, it was the earlier version of the poem that became the accepted version, as it was included in the Life, Letters, and Literary Remains, of John Keats (1848), edited by Richard Monckton Milnes, and that was how it was discovered by the next generation of Keats’s admirers.

Henry Meynell Rheam’s 1901 painting of the same name

In the poem, the last thing this knight-at-arms remembers is balmier days, when he met a lady, “a fairy’s child”, who took him to her elfin grotto, lulled him asleep, and abandoned him, whereon he woke after a vision of “pale kings and princes too,//Pale warriors, death-pale were they all” who had been the fairy’s woman’s previous victims. But is “victims” the right word? What exactly happens in this elfin grotto? In the revised, first published version of the poem, the lady merely gazes at her “wretched wight” and sighs deep, which makes you wonder if, though she regrets what she’s about to do, she’s intent on casting her spell on this young man anyway. But in the earlier version “she wept and sighed full sore”, making it seem as though she’s too taken up with her own sorrow to love this young knight, or is genuinely helpless to prevent what’s about to happen. When he sleeps, and wakes to find himself alone and now in winter, it could be she hasn’t cast a spell on him at all, but he has somehow been infected by her sadness. More than any other difference between the two versions of the poem, the revision of this line feels like Keats trying to make his poem make sense — make the lady into a properly wicked enchantress — whereas the earlier version, in which both knight and lady are sucked into an overpowering and ensorcelling sadness, is the stranger and more evocative idea.

So what is this “fairy child”, this lady who attracts a knight only to woo him to sleep and have him wake, seasons later, on a cold hill side, bereft and alone? Robert Graves, commenting on the poem in The White Goddess, found in Keats’s “Belle Dame” another incarnation of his own dangerous muse:

“…the Belle Dame represented Love, Death by Consumption (the modern leprosy) and Poetry all at once… She was Death, but she granted poetic immortality to the victims whom she had seduced by her love-charms.”

John William Waterhouse’s 1893 painting inspired by the poem

The muse of Romantic poetry was both inviting and dangerously addictive. She was Keats’s “Lamia” (written soon after “Belle Dame”) and Coleridge’s Life-in-Death from “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. She could be laudanum, consumption, imagination, passion, the brief fiery brightness of genius, and poetry itself. This seems even more underlined for Keats, whose poetic muse took the form of a fairy lady because he was awakened to his own poetic ambition quite literally by a faerie queen — Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. In the light of this, it’s interesting to read his comment in the bundle of letters sent to George and Georgina where he hoped spring would bring with it a renewed poetic inspiration, as “La Belle Dame” begins with its knight lost and forlorn in winter, when “sedge has withered from the lake,//And no birds sing”. The abandoned knight-at-arms is also, then, a wintered poet, bereft of his muse’s inspiring presence, in need of spring. (And when that spring comes, it’s not a heartening warmth, but a poetically-inspiring sorrow.)

The poem’s power, I think, comes from its being such a distilled version of a tale with so many potential meanings. And this fits perfectly with Keats’s poetical ideal, his determination to stand back from the central image of his poem and let it be what it is without any attempt to interpret it. He called this:

Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason…”

Coleridge and Keats — the more sickly and imaginative of the Romantics, though of different generations — met just the once, while Coleridge was out for a walk with another (unnamed) man, rambling endlessly over many subjects as he apparently did. Keats joined in (or at least listened in, as Coleridge doesn’t seem to have needed much by way of responses) then left, but immediately returned. What happened next was reported in a collection of anecdotes about Coleridge, supposedly in his own words, Specimens of the Table Talk of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Keats came back and said:

“Let me carry away the memory, Coleridge, of having pressed your hand!” — “There is death in that hand,” I said to —, when Keats was gone; yet this was, I believe, before the consumption showed itself distinctly.”

Keats died in 1821 of tuberculosis, as had, and would, most of his family. (Even his brother George and sister-in-law Georgina, out in America, did not escape.) His reputation really caught fire with the Pre-Raphaelites and other Victorian poets of their age, such as Tennyson, Swinburne, and William Morris, and with painters such as John William Waterhouse, Walter Crane and Arthur Hughes.

I think that, as a fantasy poem, “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” is significant for the way it allows its central situation to be whatever the reader wants it to be. In it, fantasy breaks from allegory into pure poetry, and thus gains a new and ageless power to enchant those with a fairy turn of mind.

La Belle Dame Sans Merci, according to Punch Magazine (1920)


Harpist in the Wind by Patricia McKillip

UK paperback

The final book in Patricia McKillip’s Riddle-Master trilogy, Harpist in the Wind (published in 1979), begins seven days after the ending of the previous novel, Heir of Sea and Fire. Morgon and Raederle have now had a book apiece in which to come into their power and learn something of who they are — enough to be a little wary of themselves. But there’s still a lot to know, as Morgon sums up near the start of Harpist:

“I asked a riddle two years ago, and now I am trapped in a maze of riddles, hardly knowing how to begin to find my way out.”

All he does know for sure is he has two deadly enemies, the mysterious shape-changers who keep popping up in the form of dead people, and the Founder of the School of Wizards at Lungold, Ghisteslwchlohm (whose name I long gave up trying to sound, even in the privacy of my readerly mind).

For much of Harpist, we still don’t know what’s going on. In that way, it’s very unlike, say, The Lord of the Rings, where we pretty soon know what Sauron is trying to do (take over the world), and what the protagonists have to do to defeat him (destroy the One Ring). Morgon and Raederle set out on a quest with the vague idea of finding Ghisteslwchlohm, while also basically being on the run from him and the shape-changers. Like the first book in the trilogy, Harpist is a series of relatively calm periods of travel or rest, punctuated by sudden, violent encounters that leave the characters reeling, and often not much the wiser. This is a book that keeps its revelations, and the unravelling of its riddles, till the end.

Which, for me, brings up inevitable comparisons with another book that leaves its revelations to the end, A Voyage to Arcturus. And there are other similarities between Lindsay’s book and McKillip’s trilogy, from the naggingly intriguing (both narratives start and end with their main character climbing a supernaturally-charged tower, for instance), to broad-stroke generalities (in both, the protagonists form a companionship with a figure later revealed to be something like a god). Both books are about their main characters working their way from a state of deception and confusion towards an understanding of their true nature and the world they live in.

HB cover, art by Michael Mariano

But it’s not an easy comparison to make. The Riddle-Master trilogy feels like a very different sort of reading experience, particularly in terms of prose style. Lindsay’s approach is to present the weird sights, characters, and events in his novel with the straightforward prose of an objective, unaffected observer. For him, such wonders should be left to speak for themselves. McKillip’s is a much more poetic style, though not the evocative, mock-archaic poetry of, say, Lord Dunsany or Clark Ashton Smith, which creates its never-never worlds through (as Smith has it) “a sort of verbal black magic”. McKillip’s is something more modern, more compressed and sparse, with almost too light a touch for such blatant magics and wonders. It’s much closer to, say, Alan Garner’s style. The plot, characters, and world are equally poetic, in that I don’t feel they’re an attempt at realism (as genre fantasy usually is). They belong wholly in the imagination, and are meant to exist only in the realm of language.

I think this is best illustrated by looking at how magic works in the world of the Riddle-Master trilogy. If I have one test for what I — entirely arbitrarily — think of as genre fantasy as opposed to something else (“literary fantasy”, perhaps, though I don’t mean either term pejoratively), it’s to ask whether it could be turned into a role playing game. Magic is a clear case in point. There’s no sense, in this trilogy, that McKillip’s magic has a system. You don’t have to learn spells, or expend energy. You don’t even have to learn the true names of things (as in Earthsea). Rather, it’s as though the characters reach out and take the writer’s pen for a moment, writing their magic into the narrative, not as a physical effect, but a poetic one. Some of the quieter moments of magic are exactly like creative thinking, where you go inside yourself and seek through all the half-formed ideas, notions, and feelings for something that seems to be offering enough of a shape that it can be worked on:

“He let his thoughts flow into the stone, seep through marble, amethyst, and gold until he touched something like the remnant of a half-forgotten dream. He explored farther; he found no names, only a sense of something that had once lived.”

When the magic gets more spectacular, as at the battle between wizards and shape-changers at the city of Lungold, the result reads more like poetry than combat:

“Morgon gathered a memory of the fabric of energy out of his thoughts, fed it with a power he had never tapped before. He let it build through him, eating at all his thoughts and inner movements until it spat away from him, humming a high, dangerous language. It crackled luminously toward the source of power within the walls, disappeared within them, but it did not detonate. It reappeared before it struck, shooting back at Morgon with the same deadly intensity. He stared at it incredulously for a split second, then opened his mind to absorb it back. It imploded into darkness within him.”

It’s obvious that by this point Morgon has changed from the princeling of a farming island he was at the start of the first book. As he says of himself:

“I am branded with stars on my face, with vesta-scars on my hands. I can take nearly any shape that has a word to name it. I have fought, I have killed, I intend to kill again. I have a name older than this realm, and I have no home except in memory.”

Del Rey paperback, art by Darrell Sweet

In both the previous books, it was pointed out that gaining power has a tendency to draw you away from being the person you once were, and to make you strange in the eyes of the people who know you. But what’s made clear in this book is how important it is to resist letting go of those old connections. When Morgon is at the height of his new powers, he’s at first at the mercy of those powers, till he recalls the most personal and domestic of his links with who he once was, his young sister:

“He saw Tristan come out onto the porch at Akren, shivering a little in the cold wind, her eyes dark and fearful, staring toward the tumult in the mainland… He got to his knees and then to his feet, with all the enduring stubbornness that small island had instilled in him.”

Throughout this trilogy, a small handful of words are used again and again, with an almost riddling significance. “Name” is one (as Morgon says, “I was born with power that leaves me nameless in my own world”), “shape” is another (being linked to both the shape-changers, and to Morgon and Raederle’s developing abilities to assume different forms). A third is “binding”. “Name” is linked to destiny, but also one’s identity (“she was turning away from her own name—the familiar heritage in An that had defined her from her birth”); “shape” is about other people’s ability to understand you (“Maybe somehow I will find him, hold him to some shape that I can understand, and ask him why”); “binding”, though, is about setting limits to one’s changeability and power. As Morgon says at one point:

“You saw the falcon’s flight… its beauty and its deadliness. If such power were bound to no law, that power and the lust for it would become so terrible—”

If you give yourself wholly to power, you risk becoming someone with “no law but power”, and so nothing but a vessel for power, no longer human but “lawless, destructive, loveless”, like the wizard Ghisteslwchlohm. The essence of this idea is to be found in the trilogy’s notion of “land-law”, that inner link between a ruler and their land which means the land isn’t so much ruled by the ruler, as that the two are one. Power over the land becomes inseparable from care for it. It’s not a top-down hierarchy, but a two-way relationship.

The Riddle-Master trilogy isn’t an easy read (nor was it an easy write, apparently, as it took McKillip twelve years, after which she at first resolved never to write another fantasy — see this interview). It has a strangeness that’s easy to be wrong-footed by thanks to its familiar-feeling genre-fantasy setting. But it’s dealing, uncompromisingly, with some of the profundities of human nature: identity, the process of becoming yourself, the self-alienating effects of power, and those foundational relationships that make you who you are.

And, to address the question I set out to answer in my review of the first book in the trilogy, “Is the Riddle-Master trilogy itself a riddle?” I’d say, it’s about the essential riddle of the self — the process of discovering one’s “name” (destiny), one’s “shape” (identity), and one’s essential “bindings” (relationships). Perhaps these are the three stars on Morgon’s forehead.