At first Coraline is delighted by this alternate world since everything and everyone in it seemingly caters to her every whim. The only one who doesn’t is the black cat who lives in the garden (he also is the only one without buttons for eyes because, in fact, he is the same black cat from Coraline’s world) who warns Coraline that things are not as good as they may seem. Sure enough things quickly begin to unravel for Coraline when her Other Mother attempts to remove Coraline’s eyes and replace them with buttons. Coraline tries to leave the Otherworld but is stopped as the Other Mother slowly begins to transform what was once a dream world into a living nightmare.
So will Coraline escape from the clutches of her sinister new family? I won’t divulge anymore of the plot since I think it would be well worth anyone’s time to go out and read the book and see the film. However, there is one issue that I do think is worth addressing: Just what is the Other Mother?
There is a point in both the book and the film when Coraline is imprisoned in a mirror by the Other Mother. There, inside the mirror, Coraline encounters the ghosts of the Other Mother’s past victims, all children. When Coraline attempts to talk to these children they warn her only to “Hush and shush for the Beldam might be listening!” That world, “Beldam,” turns up several more times in the book though it is never once explained. I do not believe this to be bad storytelling on Gaiman’s part but rather an attempt to get readers to do a little research.
The term “Beldam” steams from a ballad written in 1819 by English poet John Keats called La Belle Dame sans Merci. The title is actually French and means “The Beautiful Lady without Pity.” Inspired by the classic English folktale of Tam Lin, La Belle Dame sans Merci tells of an unnamed knight who encounters a beautiful fairy woman who whisks the knight away to her “elfin grotto.” There the night falls asleep and (like Coraline) encounters the ghosts of “pale kings and princes” who warm him to flee from the “Belle Dame” or “Beldam” as Gaiman has rendered it. The knight awakens to find him self alone on the “cold hill’s side” already condemned for all eternity.
Scholars have debated the meaning of Keats poem for years now, arguing over whether or not the knight and fairy maiden had sex, whether or not that sex was consensual (did one rape the other?), and if in the end the knight is dead or alive? Whatever the case may be it is beyond argument that the Beldam both seduces and traps the knight, in a very similar way to how she seduces and traps Coraline; promising her a wonderful life and her full attention. This ultimately makes the Beldam a type of predator, which is what she turns out to be in the end. The world she has created for Coraline is an illusion, a snare, and it worked. One of my personal favorite lines in the whole book is when Coraline discovers that the Otherworld of the Beldam is, in fact, no bigger than the flat in which she used to live and asks the cat why the world is so small. In response the cat replies; “A spider’s web only has to be big enough to catch a fly.”
At Top: Coraline (2002) by Neil Gaiman
Center: Coraline’s “Other Mother” begins to show her true form in Henry Selick’s Coraline (2009) film.
Sources: Coraline (2002) by Neil Gaiman, and La Belle Dame sans Merci (1819) by John Keats.