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"Just be who you are, calm and clear and bright." - Richard Bach, Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah

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.

(A version of this entry appeared on Read It Forward.)

4 Comments to What’s a beldame?

  1. Pare's Gravatar Pare
    May 28, 2010 at 7:02 pm | Permalink

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

  2. Kate's Gravatar Kate
    May 31, 2010 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

    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!

  3. joseph pathammavong's Gravatar joseph pathammavong
    November 12, 2010 at 1:52 am | Permalink

    Hi, I heard you on Jim Harold’s podcast and I can’t wait to read your novels!

  4. Mia Martin's Gravatar Mia Martin
    April 17, 2021 at 10:57 pm | Permalink

    I have more information that the fairy above turned to the dark side by giving up her soul and sad wild eyes replace by buttons she uses the fairy ring outside by luring children by kidnapping them and it is dangerous to eat their food.
    In my theory it can be wasteland of the dead as a graveyard that can explains alot with the cat

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Hi! I'm Camille. I only write stories that could never ever happen in real life, though I do believe in real-life magic. If we were in the same room I'd fix you a cup of tea, but for now we'll have to settle for a virtual connection. I'm really glad you're here.