Copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman
As we saw in a previous post, the first part of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s narrative poem Christabel ends with the protagonist imperiled by the strange, abducted woman, Geraldine, whom Christabel met while at prayer in the woods near her father’s castle and invited to share her bedroom--and then her bed--for the night, after being seduced by her houseguest’s beauty and spellbound by her magic breasts.
In Part II of the poem, as the castle’s bell rings to announce the dawn, Geraldine awakens and dresses before awakening Christabel. Although she seems a bit confused, it seems to Christabel that she has “sinned” somehow. Her confusion may be the result of her sleep, but it also seems, as does her forgetfulness of how, exactly, she has “sinned,” that she is also perplexed as a result of the spell that Geraldine has cast upon her. Christabel is still under the influence of her houseguest’s enchantment. The women visit Sir Leoline’s bedchamber, wherein the baron has himself just awakened. Geraldine has assumed the form and appearance of the daughter of a neighboring nobleman, a former friend and present foe of Sir Leoline named Lord Roland de Vaux of Tryermaine. When Sir Leoline hears how Geraldine was abducted, he determines to avenge Geraldine’s honor by sponsoring a tournament at which he may “dislodge” the “reptile souls” of her abductors “from the bodies and forms of men” which they have adopted. As her father embraces Geraldine, Christabel has a momentary, highly disturbing vision of Geraldine’s true form and nature:
And fondly in his arms he took
Fair Geraldine, who met the embrace,
Prolonging it with joyous look.
Which when she viewed, a vision fell
Upon the soul of Christabel,
The vision of fear, the touch and pain!
She shrunk and shuddered, and saw again--
(Ah, woe is me! Was it for thee,
Thou gentle maid! such sights to see?)
Again she saw that bosom old,
Again she felt that bosom cold. . . .
However, Christabel comes at once back under Geraldine’s spell, and Sir Leoline sends his bard, Bracy, to fetch Lord Roland, to retrieve his daughter (i. e., Geraldine, who impersonates the girl), promising to meet him upon his way. He regrets that he and Roland are no longer friends, repenting “of the day/When” he “spake words of fierce disdain/To Roland de Vaux of Tryermaine.” Bracy begs Sir Leoline not to do so, however, advising him of a dream he’s had in which Christabel, in the form of a dove, is being squeezed to death by a green snake at the base of a tree in the forest near the baron’s castle. Again, the poem’s narrator calls upon Jesus and Mary to protect and defend Christabel, implying that the young woman is in spiritual danger. However, Sir Leoline, having fallen under Geraldine’s spell, as has his daughter, says that he and Sir Roland will crush any such serpent, at which point the narrator describes Geraldine as a lamia, or serpent-woman:
A snake's small eye blinks dull and shy;
And the lady's eyes they shrunk in her head,
Each shrunk up to a serpent’s eye,
And with somewhat of malice, and more of dread,
At Christabel she looked askance!--
One moment--and the sight was fled!
In case the reader, being, perhaps, a little slow, has missed the previous implications, Coleridge makes it clear that Geraldine is the very serpent (or serpent-woman) of which Bracy dreamed. It is she who threatens the imperiled Christabel.
When Geraldine’s spell begins to lose its force upon Christabel, she, recalling the true appearance and nature of the lamia, bids her father to send Geradline away at once. However, the baron, still under Geraldine’s sway, is ashamed at his daughter’s inhospitable attitude and sends Bracy upon his way, ad Christabel quickly comes again under Geraldine’s enchantment.
Here, the poem (another of Coleridge’s “fragments”) ends, although, as we saw in the previous post concerning this work, the poet is alleged to have intended to finish it according to this storyline, identified by Coleridge’s biographer, James Gilman:
Over the mountains, the Bard, as directed by Sir Leoline, hastes with his disciple; but in consequence of one of those inundations supposed to be common to this country, the spot only where the castle once stood is discovered--the edifice itself being washed away. He determines to return. Geraldine, being acquainted with all that is passing, like the weird sisters in Macbeth, vanishes. Reappearing, however, she awaits the return of the Bard, exciting in the meantime, by her wily arts, all the anger she could rouse in the Baron's breast, as well as that jealousy of which he is described to have been susceptible. The old Bard and the youth at length arrive, and therefore she can no longer personate the character of Geraldine, the daughter of Lord Roland de Vaux, but changes her appearance to that of the accepted, though absent, lover of Christabel. Now ensues a courtship most distressing to Christabel, who feels--she knows not why--great disgust for her once favored knight.
This coldness is very painful to the Baron, who has no more conception than herself of the supernatural transformation. She at last yields to her father's entreaties, and consents to approach the altar with the hated suitor. The real lover, returning, enters at this moment, and produces the ring which she had once given him in sign of her. . . [betrothal]. Thus defeated, the supernatural being Geraldine disappears. As predicted, the castle bell tolls, the mother's voice is heard, and, to the exceeding great joy of the parties, the rightful marriage takes place, after which follows a reconciliation and explanation between father and daughter.
Since Coleridge never ended the poem, it’s not possible to say how he would have developed its overall theme, but, of course, the idea that the Christabel’s true love is a knight whose arrival in the proverbial nick of time brings the lesbian lamia’s plans to wed Christabel to naught is fraught with difficulties, to say the least, and seems to support the patriarchal and heterosexual status quo, as horror typically does, both identifying the matriarchal and homosexual threats that Geraldine represents with the monstrous Other which is to be vanquished so that normal order may prevail and all may, once more, be right with the world. In this regard, as in equating lesbians to female vampires, Coleridge’s poem also sets the tone for many movies that take up this motif.