La Belle Dame sans Mercy
Based upon a medieval love debate poem, the three panels of this semi-circular shawl represent the three main players in the poem. The middle panel is the narrator who is an unwilling eyewitness to the debate between the lover and the lady. Because he has recently lost his own lady through death, his thoughts are in turmoil with no place to rest. The outer two panels represent the lover and lady, starting off with a somewhat relaxed conversation that turns into a much more serious debate.
The pattern instructions use one main color and three accent colors; however, this shawl is easily adaptable to other color options from one solid color to a main body and border color to gradients. Pattern includes charts as well as fully written instructions, so you can use whichever instruction type you prefer.
Frabjous Fibers Cheshire Cat (100% superwash Merino, 512 yds/468 m per 110 g): 1 skein for Color A; 1 mini skein each for Colors B, C, and D (sample uses 1 full skein of Cabbages & Kings and the three lightest skeins in the Down the Rabbit Hole Phantomwise mini skein pack)
or another fingering weight yarn: approximately 500 yds/457 m of Color A; 90 yds/82 m each for Colors B and C; and 128 yds/117 m for Color D
US 6 (4.0 mm) 32” (80 cm) circular needle, or size needed to obtain gauge
4 stitch markers
22 stitches and 34 rows over 4” (10 cm) in stockinette, blocked
(Note: Designer is a tight knitter, so for size and yarn usage purposes, make sure to take time to check your gauge.)
66” (168 cm) across the straight edge; 29” (74 cm) radius
Skill Level: Intermediate
Skills needed: knit, purl, yarn over, decreases (k2tog, ssk, sl2-k1-psso), garter tab cast on, picot bind off (tutorials for cast on and bind off are available at karendawndesigns.com)
Thank you to my test knitters (timstephens4, Maryorsini431, pastormolly, and megknitsalot) who provided valuable feedback. And thank you to the women of Stitch Definition, who provided photography (Anne Podlesak), tech editing (Maureen Hannon), and graphic design/layout (Elizabeth Green).
The Story Behind the Name
In the mid-fifteenth century, Richard Roos translated into English a French poem written by Alain Chartier, Belle Dame sans Mercy. At least now we know that it was Roos; for quite a while, the much more well-known Geoffrey Chaucer was attributed as the translator/author of the English version of the poem. (Side note: Poet John Keats, in the early nineteenth century, used the name of the poem for his own poem “La Belle Dame sans Merci”; however, the contents of the poem were much different. His version inspired several Pre-Raphaelite artists.)
The Roos version of the poem is a dream vision, in which the narrator claims to have had a dream and is sharing that dream with the reader. This dream vision is a little atypical in that not only does it have the frame story of the dream narrator but it also has an inner frame story of yet another narrator. First, the dreamer explains that he has been tasked with the translation of a poem about a love debate as part of his penance (although his “crime” doesn’t seem to be included). At this point, within the dream of the translator narrator, the poem turns to another narrator, who is in mourning for his lady and who feels that he will never find love again.
This narrator is out walking and sees a garden in which several minstrels are playing. Because he is melancholy, he is determined to skip over this party, but he meets several of his friends who convince him to join them. During the feast, he notices another man who seems to be even more melancholy than himself and who doesn’t seem to be enjoying the meal. The narrator leaves the table and sets off to find solitude in the garden. Instead, the man from the feast and a woman approach and the narrator becomes an unwilling eyewitness to their conversation.
And it is this conversation that is the heart of the poem: a love debate between the lover and the lady. The lover declares his love for this lady. But the lady not only does not love him but also does not want to be tied to any man, so she spurns him. He tries to convince her, but she tells him he is wasting his time in pursuing her. This debate exists in a larger framework of the medieval debate regarding reason and will. The lady uses reason to try to explain why she cannot return his affection and also that she doesn’t fully believe that he is as in love as he professes because lovers often exaggerate or say things in jest rather than truthfulness. He accuses her of having a marble heart unable to be pierced by mercy.
She ends their conversation by saying, “Ye noye me sore in wasting al this winde” (You annoy me sorely in wasting all this hot air). He dissolves into tears and pleads for his death. At this point the poem returns to the narrator who says he heard that a couple of days after this conversation, the lover reportedly died. Thus, the medieval readers of this poem, as part of the entertainment of reading it, would continue the debate, arguing whether or not the lady should have shown the lover some mercy or if she did nothing wrong in being honest with him.