La Belle Dame sans Merci Symbols, Allegory and Motifs
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Written by Yang (Jenny) Bai
Motif: Bands of flower
In the poem, bands of flower are mentioned three times. The knight makes three bands of flower for la belle dame, including a garland, a bracelet and a fragrant zone. These bands of flower may appear to be innocent tokens of courtship. It seems that these bands of flower are gifts from the knight, gifts intended to curry flavor with la belle dame. Flowers are classic symbols of beauty and femininity. It seems that la belle dame is so beautiful that the knight wants to put her on an altar of worship and to celebrate her beauty with a profusion of floral accessories. Therefore, these bands of flower could be interpreted as the symbol of the knight’s admiration and devotion to the fairy lady. However, these bands of flower may also bear a totally different meaning. Bands are also symbol of slavery and entrapment. It is possible that in the knight’s subconsciousness, he intends to use these bands to bind the fairy lady forever to himself. The knight is a man who exhibits a domineering temperament, therefore it is possible that he wants to enslave the lady and to become the sole object of her affection. The fact that the knight makes not just one, but three bands for the lady, further reinforces his powerful desire to dominate.
Pale complexion is mentioned several times. When the knight is asleep in the fairy lady’s cave, he dreams about kings, princes and warriors, all of whom affect a deadly pale complexion. When the knight wakes from this horrid dream, he finds himself abandoned by his lady. The knight suffers from this sudden desertion and begins to affect a sickly pallor himself. The recurring motif of paleness symbolizes the loss of masculinity. It suggests the idea that a simple encounter with a beautiful enchantress is enough to have sucked the masculine virility out of these once powerful men. This paleness delivers a moralistic message, cautioning men to beware of the destructiveness of beautiful women. If men like mighty kings and powerful knights can succumb to the destructiveness of women, then no man seems to be immune to the deadly power of feminine wiles. The loss of virility encapsulates men’s anxiety towards women. The pale complexion of the knight reflects men’s age-old fear of being spiritually castrated under the deadly charms of bewitching women. The pale complexion also indicates that this poem is written in a patriarchal spirit by painting men as pitiful victims, while women are portrayed as the cruel perpetrators of their destruction.
The allegory of the knight’s dream
In his dream, the knight dreams about pale kings, princes and warriors who are in a state of extreme suffering. These men warned him about the dangers of the fairy lady, telling him that she is not an angelic fairy, but a heartless woman bent on destroying honest men. These men in his dream appeared to be the fairy lady’s former loves, their sickly appearance and pitiful demeanor suggest that their encounter with the fairy lady had been fatal. However, these men may well be the imagination of the knight’s dream. Since these “male victims” only make their appearance in the dream, therefore one can not give unconditional credence to their claims. Dreams often reflect a person’s subconscious thoughts. It is more reasonable to interpret this dream as the workings of the knight’s subconsciousness. It seems that the knight’s anxiety towards women is manifesting itself in his dreams by warning him of the possible dangers. Therefore, the knight’s dream is an allegory of the misogynistic prejudices of patriarchy.
The knight is described of having a lily on his brow. Because the lily flower has a white color, the metaphorical use of lily refers to the extreme paleness of the knight’s complexion. In the biblical tradition, lily is associated with the ideas of purity and innocence. For example, the Archangel Gabriel is often depicted holding a lily. By alluding to the purity of lily, this metaphor seeks to portray the knight as an innocent victim whose life has been sucked out by the destructive fairy sorceress. However, the metaphorical use of lily can hold a hidden meaning, since lily can also allude to sexual desires. The ancient Greeks see lily as a symbol of eroticism and sexuality. Similarly, the Romans see lily as a symbol of lust. Therefore, the lily at the knight’s brow can be seen as his sexual yearnings for the fairy lady. His longing for the fairy is such that it literally drains the energy in his body.
Symbol: The Fairy’s food
La belle dame offers the knight some food to eat, including honey, manna dew and roots. These food are wild, rustic and undomesticated. These wild food symbolizes a wild and uncivilized existence, in keeping with the fairy’s primitive cave and her wild eyes. These wild food indicates that la belle dame is no common mortal. She is a supernatural being who scorns civilized lifestyle and domesticated food. There is a debate over the meaning this food offering. It may be an innocent gesture of hospitality. It can also be interpreted as a loving, maternal act. It could also be seen as the fairy’s desire to serve the knight. It could also mean that the fairy intends to trap the knight inside of her fairy world. Since in folklore tradition, eating the fairy’s food will cause a mortal being to be forever subjugated under the fairy’s power.
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