The Beguiling of Men

Adolphe Lalauze’s painting the “Beguiling of Merlin” depicts a woman named Nimue reading from a book of spells and seducing Merlin.[1]  This image is highly reminsicent of the poem “La Belle Dame sans Merci: A Ballad” because they both feature a male figure being bewitched by a beautiful, mysterious woman. In both case, the woman in question—a femme fatale—seems supernatural in nature (in the Keats poem, she may be a faery or a changeling and in the Lalauze painting she reads spells that send Merlin into a trance.[2]

The Victorian web describes the femme fatale as a mixture of “sensual, erotic but invulnerable” traits, making her alluring, dangerous, but also demure enough to avoid suspicion.[3] In the Keats poem, for example, the woman in the meads cries during their lovemaking, implying that she pretends to be an virgin (the visions the knight experiences of other duped men implies she has seduced many men before him, thus negating her virginity).[4]  In the painting, Nimue exposes her neck, a disarming move that demonstrates her vulnerability.  However, it also indicates her erotic power over the man she seduces. The neck is an erogenous zone, therefor the sexual overtones of this action should not be underestimated.

Furthermore, parity between the poem and painting can be seen in the shared setting. In both instances, the femme fatale has bewitched a man in the heather. The beautiful, flowering setting of the meads and later the grot obscures the darker undertones of the femme fatale narrative. The combination of lovely scenery and innocence of the lady allow her to seduce the man and entrap him forever.

“I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful—a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.”[5]

Even when the man may suspect something is amiss–as evidenced when he notices her alarmingly “wild eyes”–he still proceeds with sleeping with her.[6] The wild eyes allude to her true nature, a nature that is steeped in folklore and magic.  Indeed, perhaps this is what makes her so attractive in the first place.   Once again, the idea of a dangerous woman is tied directly to both the natural and the supernatural world. In this case, perhaps the knight overlooked her wild eyes due to other, less obviously dangerous, aspects of her character. Her long hair, her light footfalls, and her beauty make her irresistible. Nimue of the painting has likewise lulled Merlin into a state of bliss, to the point where he is no longer standing and instead is lounging among the flowers in the bushes.[7] The lazy angle placement of his arm and hand also indicate that he is in a trance and he seems unable to take his eyes off of Nimue. Interestingly, in the Arthurian legend, Nimue learns the bewitching spells from Merlin.  By using both her beauty and her erotic magnetism, the femme fatale is able to use the man for her own gain.

[1] “The Beguiling of Merlin” ‘The Beguiling of Merlin’, Edward Burne-Jones. Lady Lever Art Gallery.

[2] “The Beguiling of Merlin”

[3] Lee, Elizabeth. “The Femme Fatale as Object.” The Victorian Web. Brown University, 1997.

[4] Keats, John. La Belle Dame Sans Merci. 1819.

[5] Keats, John.

[6] Keats, John.

[7] Burne-Jones, Edward. The Beguiling of Merlin. 1872-7. Oil on canvas. Trout Gallery, Carlisle PA.

The Beguiling of Merlin
The Beguiling of Merlin: