Friday, May 28, 2010

What's a beldame?

Waterhouse's painting after Keats' poem, "La Belle Dame Sans Merci."

When people ask me about Petty Magic, I usually use the word 'witch' even though my narrator hates that word with a red-hot fiery passion—just because 'witch' is quicker to understand. (There's an old-school witch on the cover, too, spiriting a little girl away on her broomstick—but this is ironically appropriate.)

Think of us as sibyls or seraphs—fearsome, oh yes, but more or less benevolent.

Eve and the other beldames in Petty Magic live at least twice as long as ordinary women but age half as quickly. They can turn themselves into animals, travel thousands of miles in a twinkling, or render themselves invisible, but they get worn out and need to sleep and recharge just like anybody else. They can be sweet and solicitous like fairy godmothers, or...not. And they tell lies, so they say, only to keep the men in black from locking them up.

Because Eve is more superwoman or benign enchantress than vindictive old hag, I wanted a different word for her. In Coraline, Neil Gaiman refers to the 'other mother' as a beldam, as in 'crone' or 'witch' (the word comes from Middle English—bel, grand, and dam, mother, grandmother being the original meaning). In the dictionary 'beldame' is only listed as an alternate spelling, but in "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" (written in 1819, revised in 1820) Keats's beldame is from the French, a 'beautiful lady'—that is to say, a sorceress.
She took me to her elfin grot,
And there she gaz'd and sighed deep,
And there I shut her wild sad eyes--
So kiss'd to sleep.

And there we slumber'd on the moss,
And there I dream'd, ah woe betide,
The latest dream I ever dream'd
On the cold hill side.

I saw pale kings, and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
Who cry'd—"La belle Dame sans merci
Hath thee in thrall!"
The belle dame is a dangerous woman—a fairy, or a sort of banshee—who, in medieval legend, would lure men into an enchanted forest and make them lose all desire for anything else, even to go on living. The poem harks back to the chivalric tradition, in which 'women were to be loved from afar and to be considered unattainable.'

Another version of "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" by Frank Dicksee.

Archetypes aren't terribly interesting unless you can somehow subvert them (or better yet, subvert and reinforce). Can a 'dangerous woman' have (mostly) good intentions? Maybe not Keats' beldame...but definitely mine.

2 comments:

Pare said...

"Can a 'dangerous woman' have (mostly) good intentions?" God, I hope so. How boring to be completely dangerous, or completely good... :)

Kate said...

I had no idea that so much thought had gone into that term. I just figured it was a word I had never heard of before. Very interesting!