Lessons From The Real Belle Dame Sans Merci

Water is powerful. It can wash away earth, put out fire, and even destroy iron, said Mameha in the delightful film Memoirs of a Geisha. Wise words indeed, water is, or can be an overwhelmingly destructive element; a totally dichotomous characteristic to its well known and much lauded life giving and transformative powers. However on close inspection one cannot help but see that each goes hand in hand, to truly understand the creative principals of this element you have to understand the destructive as well.

That our ancestors were aware of the duality of this element, is apparent in the wealth of water related folklore that still exists even to this day, Nixes and Mermaids, Selkies and Kelpies and especially any number of Lake Ladies, to name but a few of the denizens of the elemental realm of water and almost all dualistic in nature, capable of benevolence and violence equally depending upon the circumstance.

Possibly one of the most well known of the Lake Ladies is of course she, who is found in the Arthurian Legends and Romances, bearing the name of Viviane, Niniane or Nimue depending upon the chosen recension. Each apparently capable of creating and destroying kings and magicians upon a whim. Caitlin Matthews posits in her book “King Arthur and the Goddess of the Land” that these fickle fae are remnants of a lost feminine, “She appears in many guises: as an otherworldly maiden whose beauty dazzles; as a bountiful queen bestowing the gifts of the land upon her people; as a Dark Woman of Knowledge, cailleach, or Loathly lady”.

I would disagree with this assumption to some extent, the Lake ladies are the children of the Loathly Lady, the primordial feminine, and they do her bidding. Just as a Queen would send her ladies in waiting to run errands and deliver messages, these fae creatures serve her will, however these once high nobles have fallen, their status reduced over eons, their faded beauty caught only in glimpses through poetry and myth and their lessons reduced to cautionary tales for children.

These ladies in waiting now have number of names across the country, Froud calls them “The Fideal”, in Teeside they are “Peg Powler”, and in Lancashire, Cheshire and Derbyshire and parts of Yorkshire they are known as “Jenny Greenteeth”. Along with the nefarious Boggarts they are possibly one of the most primordial of elementals, Froud in his beautiful imagery describes the fideal thus:

“By the reed choked edges of lonely lakes, the fideal wanders through the twilight longing for a lover. Her song is sad yet irresistibly seductive. Her kiss is cold, tasting of earth. Her hands caress you, hold you, pull you down and down into chill waters. You would happily lie with her forever, wrapped in her watery embrace – but she is gone, she has returned to the dark lake shore and you are forgotten. The fideal sings as she walks through the reeds calling out to her next lover, leaving you down in the waters cold depths, eyes unseeing, weeds in your mouth.”

Keats also paints a horrifically descriptive yet elegant picture in his poem “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”,
“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!”
I saw their starv’d lips in the gloam
With horrid warning gaped wide,
And I awoke, and found me here
On the cold hill side. “
Katherine Briggs in her “Dictionary of Fairies”, is not quite so eloquent, declaring her as a “true bred water demon” that has “an insatiable desire for human life”.

So what can such a raw elemental spirit teach, most people I know recoil from her in fear and repulsion, unaware that she has anything to give, other than nightmares the like of which you will have not experienced since you were a child. And it is no small wonder that people blanch at the idea of knowing her, because to get to know her is to get to know and understand your own more base and predatory self or even better to understand how that nature manifests in others. For she is perpetually searching for souls, for the spark of life that others can give, her nature is sociopathic, she grasps at people, she drains them, uses them for what they are worth and then moves on to her next victim, totally forgetting the husk of humanity left behind. Yet for her it means little; she is after all amoral, not immoral, she does not do this out of spite, or a desire to destroy, these things do not even cross her mind; the only thing that possesses her is the unquenchable thirst for “something” although she knows not what, all she knows is that for an all too brief moment the thirst is slaked.

And there is the lesson to be learnt, every person has an internal directive as driving as Jenny’s thirst for the human essence, this affects their interactions with everybody they come into contact with. There is no such thing as a truly altruistic action. For most people this driving urge is barely acknowledged if at all. They shy away from Jenny as surely as they shy away from their “real” selves. This makes them an unknown and unpredictable quantity, and if they profess to be magical practitioners, it makes them volatile and dangerous.

Some, a very few embrace Jenny, and of those few, some use it to intentionally manipulate others and whilst you have to be wary of these people they are a lot more “stable” than those that hide from her, just as we know that as sure as eggs is eggs, Jenny can be found wandering the water’s edge looking for her next victim, we can also ascertain these people’s predictable patterns, and interact with them if necessary.

We can also use the knowledge Jenny gives, the knowledge of our own driving force, of our own predatory and primordial nature, and how this affects how we also interact with others. To know this does leave you, like Jenny searching for “that something” that you will never find from the general populace. But it is worthwhile; lonely as it may be, it leaves you knowing not just Jenny but yourself. I would trust anybody that has looked Jenny in the eye and seen themselves through the glass darkly over anybody else, even knowing that having done so they have embraced their own internal directive, even though it may be totally at odds with mine.

Once you have that knowledge it is easy to realise that Jenny is also more than capable of “drowning” those who are prepared to wander oblivious, and that can include those you chose to point in her direction; in some ways she can be a test of the reality or truth of people. The key lies with Froud’s wise words “would happily lie with her forever, wrapped in her watery embrace”; for many would rather happily drown in their illusion of what they believe is, and when confronted by Jenny and her reality willing sink into her watery depths without a backward glance. As such she is a useful spirit to have on side; she can test for you, without ever showing the other person you are there, leaving no magical trace, other than her own.

So next time you walk past a mill pond, or that bizarre glass like patch of water just beyond the weir, that stagnant pond on the edge of the flood plain, take a deep breath, brace yourself and look into the depths, if you’re lucky and strong enough, you may just find Jenny staring back at you.
And If you do, pick up a stone and invoke into it everything that is an artificial construct, everything that prevents you, from being real and gift it to her, another stone for her cairn of souls and listen to her song.

“I am the Moon in the water; I am the illusion of reality. Man always strives to pursue that which he perceives to be real, not what is. And when he grasps beyond his reach he falls into my depths.
That is my function, for if man in unison started reaching for reality then my mother would cease to exist. I keep the balance for my mother’s sake, I ensure her survival by tempting man with illusion and I do it alone.”

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