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Erotic Magic: The Enchantress in Middle English Romance

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  12 September 2012

Corinne Saunders
Affiliation:
University of Durham
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Summary

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.

(John Keats, ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’, 13–16)

THE POWER of romantic desire is one of the great leitmotifs of literature, and it is in romance writing most of all that this motif is played out. We need only think of the haunting narratives of Tristan and Isolde or Lancelot and Guinevere to be reminded of the compelling quality of desire both within the fictions of romance and for readers and listeners. One aspect of such desire is, of course, the erotic – or more exactly, the pursuit of the erotic. The erotic gestures towards, but is not synonymous with, the sexual, and romance does not treat all sexual encounters as erotic. As with Palomides' hunt for the Questing Beast, pleasure may be situated in impossibility, in the constant re-enactment or narrative of pursuit. The object of desire is desirable precisely in his or her otherness, even unattainability, while the force of love is both transfiguring and alienating. It is not coincidental that there is in romance a powerful link between desire and enchantment. Somewhere behind the clichés of the magic of love, from ‘You put a spell on me’ to ‘There's magic in the air’ to ‘Some enchanted evening’, is a recognition of the fear and fascination of violent and inexplicable desire, so vividly expressed in the ancient notions of the wound or illness or madness of love, in the image of the heart pierced by the arrows of the God of Love, and in the idea of love as hunt or siege.

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Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2007

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