Thursday, 30 June 2005

Les Belles Dames Sans Merci: Elf Maidens and Men

"Why am I standing here,
Missing Her and wishing She were here?"
(Tommy Boyce, Bobby Hart, "She," originally performed by The Monkees)

"Midnight, on the water
I saw the Ocean's daughter...."
(Jeff Lynne, "I Can't Get It Out of My Head," from the Electric Light Orchesta album Eldorado)

Maybe it is because of what happened exactly a month ago (She still hasn't emailed or IMed me) or because of the anthology of poems I checked out from work, but today my mind is on the folklore motif in which a mortal man becomes entangled with an elf maiden or fairy princess. The tales about such encounters tend to vary. Sometimes the tales end happily. The fellow goes away to live with the fairy maiden in Faerie for the rest of his days or only for a specified amount of time (usually seven years). Other times the tales end unhappily. The man violates some taboo that the fairy maiden has set for him and winds up unable to return to Faerie or he winds up dead. Other times the fairy maiden simply destroys the mortal. Regardless, the motif of the fairy mistress or fairy bride is a common one.

Modern day fairy lore developed largely out of both Germanic and Celtic mythology. In Germanic mythology we find the elves, called in Old Norse the Álfar and in Old English the Ylfe. Among the ancient Germanic peoples the elves were hardly mere fairy folk, but for all extents and purposes minor gods. In Old Norse literature they are sometimes named together with the major gods, the phrase "the Æsir and Álfar" appearing in some of the Eddic poems. In the Old English charm "Against a Sudden Stitch" the elves are also mentioned in proximity to the major gods. Indeed, sacrifices were even offered to the elves. In ancient Scandinavia the Álfablót was held once year, at which offerings were given to them. While sacrifices were made to the elves in hopes of receiving their blessings, it seems that they also had their dark side as well. Scandinavian, English, and Continental sources credit them with causing diseases, usually through elfshot (the tiny arrows fired by the elves). Off the top of my head I can recall no sources dating from the time when the ancient Germanic peoples were still heathen or shortly after they were converted to Christianity in which an elf took a mortal as a lover. Regardless, it is possible that such tales existed. The Huldufolk of Icelandic and Scandinavian folk tales would seem to be a degenerated form of the elves of ancient myth, and there are tales in which the Huldufolk do seduce mortals. Similarly, in medieval English folk tales, as will be seen below, the elves do ocassionally take mortals as lovers.

Among the Irish, the fairy folk (known as the Sidhe) are identified with the Túathe dé Danann, the major gods worshipped by the Irish when they were still pagan. Unlike the Germanic peoples, there are some tales which could date back to the days before the Irish were converted in which one of the Sidhe seduced a mortal. One such story concerns Oisin, the bard of the Fianna (the legendary band of warriors led by Finn MacCumhail). One day Oisin saw a woman riding over the western sea on a white horse. She introduced herself as Niamh and told Oisin that she loved him. She wanted him to go with her to Tir na n' Og, the Land of Eternal Youth, where they would spend their days together. Oisin consented and so he went with her to Tir na n' Og. There he was happier than he ever had been. He loved Niamh and in Tir na n' Og he did not age nor suffer from diseases. Many, many years later (perhaps 100, perhaps 1000), however, he wished to visit Ireland again. Niamh begged him not to go, but when he would not relent, she gave him her blessing. She told him, however, that he must never dismount from the white horse (the one she had ridden to Ireland) or he would never see Tir na n' Og again. Oisin journeyed to Ireland on the white horse, all the while careful not to leave the horse's back. There came one day, however, when he did leave the horse's back. Either he thought he saw the stone trough of the Fianna and got off to inspect it, or he tried to help some men lift a stone and slipped off the horse. Regardless, the moment Oisin hit the earth, he aged in a matter of seconds. Oisin became an old man, half blind and infirm. He died not long after.

Oisin was not the only Celtic hero who met his doom after an encounter with an otherworldly maiden. Those familiar with the Arthurian cycle will know that no less than Merlin himself did so. According to the legends, Merlin became infatuated with the otherworldly maiden variously called Niniune, Nyneune, Viviane, or Vivian, often identified with the Lady of the Lake. Eventually she would beguile him in the forrest of Broceliande and imprison him there. Of course, not every character in the Arthurian mythos who encountered an otherwordly maiden met a bitter end. The story of Arthur's steward, Sir Launfal, is told in the 12th century French lay Launval, in Thomas Chestre's Middle English lay Sir Launfal, and other sources. Launfal had the misfortune of being disliked by Queen Guenevere. Because of this, he left King Arthur's court. Unfortunately, things did not improve for him. He was so generous to the poor that eventually he had given away all his money and lived in poverty. Fortunately, he eventually encountered a fairy lady, called in some sources Tryamour. Tryamour had noted his generosity and desired such a knight to serve her. Launfal consented to do so and Tryamour swore him to secrecy. She also restored his wealth. After winning a tournament, King Arthur called for Launfal to once more serve as his steward. It was perhaps a bad decision on Launfal's part that he chose to return to Arthur. At a dance Guenevere insulted Launfal and he forgot his oath to Tryamour. He boasted of being in the service of a fairy princess. Having violated his oath, he lost his wealth. Worse yet, even Arthur was angry with him. Perceval and Gawain swore to help Launfal and went forth to find Tryamour so she could save him. Eventually Tryamour showed up at King Arthur's court, where she put Guenevere to shame. She then took Launfal to Fairyland, where he spent the rest of his days.

The story of Sir Launfal resembles the tale of the Bretonic knight Graelent to a great degree. In both stories, the knights are sworn to secrecy by a fairy princess. In both they violate their oaths and reveal the existence of their fairy princesses. And in both does the fairy princess eventually save them and take them to Faerie. Such happy endings are not unusual. And in not every tale does the hero remain in the realm of the fairies. In the medieval ballad "True Thomas,." Thomas the Rhymer gets to visit Elfland and yet return to Scotland. Thomas the Rhymer, also known as Thomas of Erceldoune, was a legendary, 13th century Scottish figure who was known for his gift of prophecy. He could be found uner the Eildon Tree, from where he would give people his wisdom. In "True Thomas," he encounters the queen of Elfland, who wishes him to serve her there for seven years. Thomas consents and journeys with her to Elfland. There she tries to give him an apple from one of the trees from Elfland; however, Thomas knows that if a mortal eats anything from Elfland, then he or she won't be able to return to the mortal world. Thomas refuses the apple and returns to Scotland after his seven years of service are over.

Such a happy ending was not in store for the Knight of Stauftenberg of German legend. He had the misfortune to encounter a nymph of the Rhine, with whom he fell hopelessly in love. She got from him an oath of eternal loyalty, so that he could never love any other. Through the coming months he remained faithful to her. Finally, he won a tournament in which the winner would receive the hand of the Emperor's daughter in marriage. The Knight told the Emperor of his oath to the nymph, but the Emperor told him such an oath with an "unholy" being could be dissolved by the Archbishop with no consequences. The archbishop dissolved the oath and the knight forgot about his Rhine nymph. At the feast of the wedding between the knight and the Emperor's daughter, however, the knight was overtaken by horror. He rushed from the hall into the woods. Three days later he was found dead there.

Such stories did not end with the Middle Ages. Many of the older stories would be retold by modern poets. John Keats would create his own tale in the poem "La Belle Dame Sans Merci." In the poem a knight tells how he encountered a "faery's child" who seduced him. The two made love and as they slept on the moss, he had a most terrible dream. He dreamt of "pale kings, and princes too...pale warriors, death pale...," who warned him that "La belle Dame sans merci" had him in thrall. He awakened to find his elven maiden gone. Afterward he sojourned on the hill, apparently heart broken and awaiting her return, and as wasted as the "pale kings" of which he dreamt.

The motif of the mortal man who falls in love with an otherworldly maiden is less common in modern literature and song, although it does still appear from time to time. In The Lord of the Rings Aragorn loves the elf maiden Arwen. Eventually, she will forsake her immortality to marry him (sort of a reverse of the legends, an elf going to live with a mortal in his world). In WeaveWorld by Clive Barker Cal Moody falls in love with Suzanna, a woman is part mortal, part Seerkind. Eventually their meeting would lead to Cal experiencing the world of the Seerkind. In the song "The Rain, the Park, and Other Things," by the Cowsills, the hero falls in love with the mysterious "flower girl," who appears with the rain and disappears when it is over. In "I Can't Get It Out of My Head," by the Electric Light Orchestra, the singer finds himself obsessed with the "Ocean's daughter." Even "Hotel California," by The Eagles, can be considered a variant on the theme. Our hero is welcomed to the hotel by a beautiful woman, only the Hotel California proves to be a nightmarish place rather than the paradise that Faerie is usually described as being.

Given the number of these tales in which an otherworldly maiden leads to a man's destruction, some might view these tales as arising out of misogyny. I disagree. First, for every tale in which a fairy maiden sees a man to his doom, there is one in which there is a happy ending. Launfal and Graelent both spend their days with their lady loves in Fairyland. Second, there are also many tales in which a mortal woman is seduced by a supernatural being and comes to a bitter end, or nearly so. The Greek myths are filled with instances in which one of the gods falls in love with a mortal woman, the woman usually suffering for it. In the medieval tale of Sir Orfeo, Orfeo must go to Faerie to rescue his beloved, who fell under the spell of a fairy lord. Indeed, perhaps the best known encounter between a mortal and a supernatural being is "Little Riding Hood (and before some of you protest that the Wolf is not a supernatural being, consider this--how many wolves have you encountered can talk and masquerade as one's grandmother?)." Given that many tales feature a mortal woman seduced by a supernarual male, it would seem that they are more a warning of becoming involved with supernatural entities than an attack on women. Third, in many of the tales in which the hero comes to a bitter end, it is often through his own doing. He violates some taboo or oath. Oisin stepped off the horse. The Knight of Staufenberg broke his troth with the nymph. In such cases, the mortal man is obviously at fault.

Rather than misogyny, I think these myths and tales are actually a metaphor for the process of falling in love. Every man who has fallen in love views his ladylove as something more than she is. Though she might appear a normal woman to others, for the man who loves her she is an elvan maiden, a fairy princess, a goddess, a being from out of the ordinary. These tales portray the consequences of falling in love with such extraordinary beings. Sometimes the ending is happy. The hero spends the rest of his days with the fairy maiden in Fairyland, perhaps a metaphor for when love goes well--men and women marry and live happily ever after. Other times, either through his own doing or that of his lover, the hero is destroyed. This is a metaphor for love gone bad--either the man or the woman is untrue in some way and it leads to dire consequences. With regards to the tales of fairy maidens seducing mortal men, Greek gods seducing mortal women, and so on, I think that they express the hopes and fears people have with regards to love. Love is a force which can make one ecstatically happy or make one terribly unhappy. It can create or destroy one depending upon how his or her situation unfolds. Indeed, I must confess that I know all too well the dangers of elven princesses...

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