Friday, February 6, 2009

"Hush And Shush For The Beldam Might Be Listening!"

Today (Feb. 6th) is the release of the film Coraline, directed by Henry Selick and based on the best selling young adult novella of the same name by author Neil Gaiman. The story revolves around 10-year-old-ish heroine Coraline Jones who lives in a flat with her parents who do not pay her the amount of attention she thinks she deserves. Bored with her parents, her eccentric neighbors, and the black cat that lives in their garden Coraline discovers a secret door in the spare of room of her house. Though the inside of the door is bricked up when Coraline discovers it that night she returns to the room and finds that the door now leads down a hallway to an apartment that looks just like her’s. There she discovers her “Other Mother” and “Other Father” who look just like her real mother and father except they have black buttons for eyes.

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.


Anonymous said...

This was very interesting. Thanks. :)

Melissa said...

That's not entirely accurate. The word "beldam" has been in the English language for over five centuries. The medieval (15th c.) suffix "bel-" applied as "grand-" in grandfather ("belfader") and grandmother ("beldam"). From "grandmother," it later came to regard any elderly woman, and evolved further to apply to "hag" type women and witches (as mentioned in Shakespeare's Macbeth, 17th c.) and especially those that prey on children (e.g. in Hansel and Gretel).

I dare say that the beldam and Keats' 'belle dame' have nothing to do with each other (other than similar sounding names). The beldam is described as old and ugly, which doesn't seem to be the case in Keats' ballad. More likely a version of a leanan sídhe, a beautiful fairy who seduces a mortal to be her lover, living off of his life force until he wastes away (turning pale?).

Justin M... said...

Melissa -

Thanks for sharing. Considering Gaiman's love on wordplay and extensive knowledge of folklore I'm sure he had your origin of the word "beldam" in mind when he wrote Coraline.

Nevertheless, I still maintain that he was almost certainly thinking about Keats' poem when he wrote the story as the parallels (a beautiful woman who turns into a monster, the ghosts, the seduction, etc...) are too strong not to be on purpose. So I can't say I agree with your second paragraph.

Melissa said...

Thanks for your response, Justin! Sorry for any confusion, but in my second paragraph I wasn't referring to the beldam in Coraline but the beldam of traditional definition and folklore. I meant that Keats was likely not describing a beldam his ballad (I should have been more specific). I quite agree that the similarities found in Keats' and Gaiman's works may be strong enough to suggest influence.

kamagra said...

I want to read the book, but I’ve got American Gods, The End of Mr Y, The Name of the Rose, and Wizard and Glass waiting to be finished on the bookshelf before that. Just haven’t been in a reading mood recently.

Anonymous said...

Notice too the paralelles between coraline and pans labrynth. Makes sense this story is very old.

SMITTENKITTEN glittergirl said...

I really love how everyone here is so kind, informative, and respectful of each other here, it is a refreshing break from the regular Internet world. I guess Gaiman lovers are of a different breed.

Unknown said...

Great movie!! And great blog for Coraline! This explains so much about the Beldam.

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