Thursday, 8 March 2012

Stephanie Meyer and Keats Part II: Lamia

Having done the Eve of St Agnes, you might have noticed that the motif of La Belle Dame sans Merci stood out in the poem. I was going to write about that until I realised that Lamia could not be ignored. Lamia is connected to La Belle Dame Sans Merci (about a woman going after a man and deceiving him) anyway.

Lamia, 1909 by John Waterhouse. Observe the snake skin lying on her lap.

The original Greek version of Lamia is about this Queen of Libya, Lamia who was Zeus' lover. But Zeus' wife Hera found out about their affair and killed Lamia's children, turning Lamia into a half-snake, half-woman. Lamia went berserk, killing children out of jealousy that she had none living. Another version says she lured men and killed them. Aristophanes' version says that Lamia enticed a philosophy student, Mennipus and they were going to get married until Menippus' tutor Apollonius came to the wedding and announced that Lamia is a snake. She changes form and admits that she was planning to kill her husband and suck out his soul. Burton described this myth in his Anatomy of Melancholy, but didn't mention the part where Lamia confesses her murderous intent. This omission is important, because Keats' poem is derived from Burton's tale, as he couldn't understand Greek. In Keats' version Lamia is a more ambiguous and sympathetic character.

Lamia is a beautiful snake who encounters Hermes, who is chasing after a nymph. She promises Hermes to direct him to the nymph if he will change her into a woman, because she wants to attract Lycius, a handsome youth and philosophy student. He agrees, and she transforms. 
  Left to herself, the serpent now began
To change; her elfin blood in madness ran,
Her mouth foam’d, and the grass, therewith besprent,
Wither’d at dew so sweet and virulent;
Her eyes in torture fix’d, and anguish drear,        150
Hot, glaz’d, and wide, with lid-lashes all sear,
Flash’d phosphor and sharp sparks, without one cooling tear.
The colours all inflam’d throughout her train,
She writh’d about, convuls’d with scarlet pain:
A deep volcanian yellow took the place        155
Of all her milder-mooned body’s grace;
And, as the lava ravishes the mead,
Spoilt all her silver mail, and golden brede;
Made gloom of all her frecklings, streaks and bars,
Eclips’d her crescents, and lick’d up her stars:        160
So that, in moments few, she was undrest
Of all her sapphires, greens, and amethyst,
And rubious-argent: of all these bereft,
Nothing but pain and ugliness were left.
Still shone her crown; that vanish’d, also she        165
Melted and disappear’d as suddenly;
And in the air, her new voice luting soft,
Cried, “Lycius! gentle Lycius!”—Borne aloft
With the bright mists about the mountains hoar
These words dissolv’d: Crete’s forests heard no more.
By Herbert Draper



As Lamia transforms, her serpentine beauty is gone, though she is still beautiful enough to attract Lycius, it is still nothing compared to her snake form. The process is painful.  This is disturbingly reminiscent of Breaking Dawn, where Bella Swan is transformed into a vampire by Edward Cullen to prevent her from dying. From being a human (and therefore a different species) she is now his equal.  The childbirth scene is similarly painful and grotesque: like Lamia, Bella must endure pain to be transformed, because Edward wouldn't transform her until she was dying. It's what Bella has always hoped for, because she didn't want to be older than her perpetually youthful boyfriend. Admittedly, while Lamia's beauty decreases, Bella becomes even more perfect to the eye. But this is of course SMeyer's lurid fantasy. 
Ah, happy Lycius!—for she was a maid        185
More beautiful than ever twisted braid,
Or sigh’d, or blush’d, or on spring-flowered lea
Spread a green kirtle to the minstrelsy:
A virgin purest lipp’d, yet in the lore
Of love deep learned to the red heart’s core:
Oh, Bella, how true this is. I know you are a terribly immature girl who has demeaned the intellect of sensible  young women to dream of handsome vampires, but you are far, far from innocent despite your utter naivete in life and people. Bella is of course courted by all the guys in her school, and even after she dates Edward, she is still technically virgo intacta. Still her passion for him is so voluminous (I will not say great, because it depends primarily on the physical sensations and she is unconsciously using him because she has no emotional connection with most of her so-called friends) you could argue that she is learned in the arts of romance. Come on, who is the one who keeps on hounding Edward to sleep with her? Instead of vice versa. Instead of the Byronic hero seducing the maiden, it is a seductress maiden we are seeing here.


Anyway Lamia falls in love with Lycius' handsome face (Did I mention he is very much like Edward?) Lycius is not only like a Greek God but he is a philosophy student devoted to reason. Edward is a top student who wins a place to Harvard. But after Lamia entices him, he sees her beauty and is immediately smitten. Just like Edward, who can't read Bella's mind and thinks she is beautiful. Despite SMeyer's insistence that Bella is no beauty she is. Oh yes she is. Don't you dare deny it.  


Lamia, 1905, by Waterhouse. Don't know how the knight got here, but as the poem is related to LBDSM which features a knight, Waterhouse may have drawn on LBDSM.


Lamia agrees to stay provided she doesn't have to roam the lands with Lycius and they can spend their hours in her palace.

“Thou canst not ask me with thee here to roam
“Over these hills and vales, where no joy is,—
“Empty of immortality and bliss!
“Thou art a scholar, Lycius, and must know
“That finer spirits cannot breathe below        280
“In human climes, and live: Alas! poor youth,
“What taste of purer air hast thou to soothe
“My essence? What serener palaces,
“Where I may all my many senses please,
“And by mysterious sleights a hundred thirsts appease?        285
“It cannot be—Adieu!” 
I don't know whether you have observed that on falling in love with Edward Bella loses her little contact with the world, to Charlie's anger, when before she was popular in school. Now this is Lycius' experience, but SMeyer obviously inversed the gender roles here. After all, Edward is a mythical creature like Lamia, and Bella is human like Lycius. And because everyone else finds the Cullens weird, being with them isolates Bella further into a fantasy dreamland of a large house with expensive cars and hot vampires, which are dangerous as Lamia's deception. Or from Edward's point of view, he loses his reason because he can't read Bella's mind though he can read others'. This makes her a mythical creature to him, to be worshipped. As Lamia tempts Lycius to withdraw into a world of fantasy and solitude (which is bad and selfish) Bella, though well-intentioned at heart, draws into Edward's world, alienating her father and going depressed when Edward leaves her, which is selfish too and akin to villainy, and making Edward upset too as his world now does revolve around her. And their love is an unsteady fantasy like Lamia's, full of doubt and longing.


Let the mad poets say whate’er they please
Of the sweets of Fairies, Peris, Goddesses,
There is not such a treat among them all,        330
Haunters of cavern, lake, and waterfall,
As a real woman, lineal indeed
From Pyrrha’s pebbles or old Adam’s seed.
Thus gentle Lamia judg’d, and judg’d aright,
That Lycius could not love in half a fright,        335
So threw the goddess off, and won his heart
More pleasantly by playing woman’s part,


Lamia lowers herself down to Lycius' level to make him love her more. Now feminists I am sure will agree with me here. Because of love Bella loses her reason, lowering herself beneath Edward, who is a sentimental result of a wet dream clever fellow. Not that she had much sense in the first place, but SMeyer wanted a loser girl to be the heroine. Alternately, because there is so much gender-swapping, Edward lowers himself (which is even more likely) to Bella's level because Bella is a suicidal fool archetypal Gothic heroine.  We hear so much of his cleverness but see few traces of it. Which leads me to conclude that he is lowering himself to be with a loser, (she thinks so badly of herself she would die if he was so great) and by an extension of that, to be the orgasmic fantasies   ideal future husband of 13-year-old readers. Personally if Edward were more like, for example, Darwin or Keats I would find him more attractive, but hey, everyone else has different standards. And don't accuse me of necrophilia, all Edward lovers are in love with a 108-year-old vampire.  If Edward were not such an unconvincingly romantic swooner he wouldn't garner so much attention from underage girls. And if SMeyer made him discuss Selfish Gene Theory disappointed females would call him a nerd, and promptly shut their books and return to their husbands. 

We also see a description of Lamia's sumptuous palace.  
LOVE in a hut, with water and a crust,
Is—Love, forgive us!—cinders, ashes, dust;
Love in a palace is perhaps at last
More grievous torment than a hermit’s fast:—
That is a doubtful tale from faery land,        5
Hard for the non-elect to understand.
Had Lycius liv’d to hand his story down,
He might have given the moral a fresh frown,
Or clench’d it quite: but too short was their bliss
To breed distrust and hate, that make the soft voice hiss.        10
Besides, there, nightly, with terrific glare,
Love, jealous grown of so complete a pair,
Hover’d and buzz’d his wings, with fearful roar,
Above the lintel of their chamber door,
And down the passage cast a glow upon the floor.
Keats puts in a philosophical word here: Love in solitude comes to nothing, like fire burnt to embers, and so is love in a palace, because it is unrealistic and distancing yourself from reality. SMeyer should have taken heed here and made Bella's and Edward's life a perpetual misery, instead of the celluloid perfection she wants us to believe in.  Lamia selfishly keeps Lycius to herself, and will not let him yearn for the outside world he once had. Yes, Edward, keeping Bella to your vampiric coven is depriving her of a normal life. Lycius has the instincts of an ordinary social man, and wants to make his trophy public matter - he wants to marry her. Here he is tyrannical, and you feel sorry for Lamia, who surrenders to her new master. Bella once worshipped by Edward becomes his besotted slave, and you see the connection where he will only marry her if she wishes to consummate their relationship.  Abusive relationship, anyone?
Perverse, with stronger fancy to reclaim        70
Her wild and timid nature to his aim:
Besides, for all his love, in self despite,
Against his better self, he took delight
Luxurious in her sorrows, soft and new.
His passion, cruel grown, took on a hue        75
Fierce and sanguineous as ’twas possible
In one whose brow had no dark veins to swell.
Fine was the mitigated fury, like
Apollo’s presence when in act to strike
The serpent—Ha, the serpent! certes, she        80
Was none. She burnt, she lov’d the tyranny,
But I'm thinking of Jacob now, so Lycius is both Edward and Jacob. After all Jacob doesn't want Bella to stay in her fantasy dreamland of Edward, and wishes to pursue a relationship with her.  Jacob in many ways is more abusive that Edward who is only passive-abusive. Jacob forces himself upon Bella who doesn't love him and forces her to face reality. And she actually feels happier a while with Jacob who offers some realistic part of friendship. It makes sense really, beacuse SMeyer said Bella loves both men but Edward more. So Loving one Lycius=Loving Edward+Jacob.


Also, the playing the woman's part instead of a goddess could be seen as a snark reference to pop culture. Let's just imagine SMeyer is playing a joke on us by having her Mary Sue characters do stupid things compatible with the most idiotic intelligence to attract the love of more fans. A genuinely intellectual story of godlike proportions wouldn't have such a huge following - it's meant for ordinary women, not goddesses, just like the poem says. 

On the wedding Lamia informs Lycius that she has no friends or family. Bella certainly acts in that manner. She has alienated her normal school friends for a vampire, and her concerned father that he might as well be dead. Besides his presence doesn't seem to have much effect on her instability. As for her mum .... *facepalm* Lamia tells Lycius not to invite his tutor Apollonius because Apollonius knows her true form. 

At the wedding the uninvited Apollonius shows up and looks at Lamia sharply. Poor Lamia faints to Lycius' anger and alarm. He scolds Apollonius for scaring his bride, going to the extent of villifying him, but then Apollonius reveals that Lamia is a snake and tells Lycius he has saved his life from her. Lamia transforms and vanishes, and Lycius falls dead. The palace and the servants all vanish as they are mere illusions to nothingness. 


I think it ironic, however, that while Lamia changes from snake (mythological creature) to woman, Bella changes from woman to vampire. It's like a reverse transformation. Lamia tries to be normal to get her man, Bella tries to be weird to get hers. I think Keats is the more realistic, ludicrous though the plot is.  At least he acknowledges the fact that reality wins in the end. Gold turns to dust. Unlike the oh-so-boring happy ending of the Twilight series (it is not a saga, check this post for details. And this one.)

A tragic ending.  

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