Faerie Brides

La Belle Dame Sans Merci by Frank Cadogan Cowper

The tradition of faerie woman luring men into Faery to be with them is a long one.   Equally long is the tradition of faerie woman leaving Faery to be married to human men on earth!    That’s right today’s subject is faerie and human couplings!   Countless fairytales, myths, legends, and poems present the story of people finding themselves in Faery accidentally , or of them falling in love with mysterious and powerful women.

In the early nineteenth century the Romantic poets were inspired by the medieval tradition of faerie legends (like those of the Arthurian tradition).    Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote a poem about Faerie Queen Mab.   John Keats wrote the incredible poem “La Belle Dame Sans Merci.”    Keats poem served as a huge inspiration for the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and later Pre-Raphaelite style painters.   The medieval faerie subject matter was also adopted by Alfred Lord Tennyson in his Idylls of the King, which focused on the legends of Arthur.

Tennyson wrote poems about Guinevere as well as the Lady of Shallot.   Pre-Raphaelite artists also took great inspiration from “The Lady of Shallot.”   

The medieval legend of the faerie Melusine was an example of a human nobleman named Raymond marrying a water faerie named Melusine.    After he discovered that Melusine was a mermaid (or water serpent, depending on the telling) he kept the secret until their son ransacked a monastery.   When Melusine learned he had betrayed her trust by spying on her on Saturday, she left him, but her cries became like the wails of a banshee when a member of the family was about to die!

“La Belle Dame Sans Merci” told the tale of a knight who was taken into Faery by a faerie woman.   She seduced him, and he fell hopelessly in love with her.    In the end she brought him back to the human world.   He was inconsolable without her, and the entire world seemed drab in comparison to what had transpired in the land of Faery!

The stories of the selkies are ones that show how far a man will go to keep his bride.    Selkies were seal women who could only be kept on land if someone steals their seal skin.    If a man was able to take her seal skin a selkie could become his bride.    If she would find her skin she would leave, often also leaving her children behind, or in some tales taking their children with her.   In those instances the husband would be left with nothing!

Stories of the swan maidens were much the same as the selkies.    Men would separate one from her sisters and steal her feather robe.   So long as he kept her robe, she would be his bride.   In certain versions of this story the man could win her love and her hand by following her and proving his worthiness!

Two cases of faerie brides in the Arthurian legends are Guinevere and Isolde.   I have written about this in other blog posts.     Guinevere is an example of the faerie bride tradition in Celtic lore and legend.   Isolde is another example of this, and is the Irish bride of King Mark of Cornwall who falls in love with the knight Tristan!   Guinevere is proven to be irresistible to men, of special note is of course her lover Lancelot!   Both of these queens is the center of a love triangle, and a hugely romantic figure in her own right.   They are also united in their ability to bewitch the men around them with their natural charms!    Never underestimate the power of a Faerie Queen!

In the Arthurian legends there are other faerie women.   The Lady of the Lake and Morgan Le Fay are both very powerful sorceresses.    They practice magic on the mystical Isle of Avalon.   Nimue or Vivian (as the Lady of the Lake is known) was the keeper of the sword Excalibur, and it was her who gifted it to Arthur!    The Lady of the Lake also imprisoned Merlin after he had taught her all she knew about magic.    Morgan Le Fay is said to be the half-sister of Arthur in most tellings of the legends.    She is intimately linked to faeries, and her name even means Morgan of the faeries.   Morgan is also often said to be the mother of Mordred with her own brother Arthur being his father.    Often this is explained to have been a union that occurred during a Pagan festival, or as Morgan using her magic to seduce her brother in the guise of another!

The tradition of faerie brides continues on with the popularity of fairytales and magical stories.   Books, movies, and television shows today still feature premises of lovers, where one is human, and the other is a member of the supernatural!    If you are a fan of books, films, and shows like this (as I am) you should read about the stories that inspired this popular premise!

Note on Image: The image at the top of this post is La Belle Dame Sans Merci by Frank Cadogan Cowper.    I found the image on wikiart.org.

Further Reading

  • Queen Mab by Percy Bysshe Shelley
  • La Belle Dame Sans Merci by John Keats
  • Water Faeries from the A Procession of Faeries story collections 
  • Le Morte D’Arthur by Thomas Malory
  • Arthurian Romances by Chretien de Troyes
  • The Age of Chivalry by Thomas Bulfinch
  • Once and Future Queen by Nicole Evelina
  • The Fairy Bible by Teresa Moorey
  • The Romance of Tristan and Iseult retold by J. Bedier, translated by Hilarie Belloc
  • Beauty and the Beast: Classic Tales About Animal Brides and Grooms from Around the World edited by Maria Tatar