The Imagery of Bells

This book will explore the meaning and imagery of bells in popular culture, religion, spiritual belief and legend, and the emotional responses they create.

Just hearing a bell influences our thoughts and evokes memories, and therefore changes how we think and act, subconsciously and sublimely.

From our earliest years we hear them, read about them and do what they tell us, from TinkerBell and the school bell, to the church bells at weddings and funerals.

If a bell tolls, and you hear it, be certain it is tolling for you.

Bells are messengers. They communicate and send us information. They bring people together and tell us people are coming. They can be a call to action, and they tell us the time They can alert us to impending danger or to a risk of infection.

Bells are rung at all the significant moments in our lives.  The joyous occasions and the sad events.

Bells never ring by chance or with no purpose. Even wind chimes hanging from a tree can warn us of a change in the weather.

Bells can connect us through time. Many that ring out from church towers have done so for centuries. When we hear them, we hear almost the same sounds that people in previous generations heard.

The Nine Tailers

'The ringers were practising their Christmas peal; it drifted through the streaming rain with an aching and intolerable melancholy, like the noise of the bells of a drowned city pulsing up through the overwhelming sea.'

Dorothy L. Sayers, The Nine Tailers

The bell used in the novel for the announcement of the death of the murder victim is the largest (tenor) bell.  It is dedicated to St. Paul.  Hence "teller Paul" or in dialect "tailer Paul".

Sayers is acknowledging the assistance of Paul Lea Taylor (born 1914) of Taylor's bell foundry in Loughborough who provided her with detailed information on ringing.

A superb needlework (right) by Patricia Porteous of Leicestershire, inspired by a visit to Taylor's Bell Foundry.  Compare with the image (below) of a bell being cast at the foundry.


In a scene that weighs heavy with horror, a bell tolls to tell Macbeth it is time for him to kill Duncan, his king.  The focus of the scene is Macbeth's innermost thoughts of fear, doubt and guilt.

'I go, and it is done; the bell invites me.
Hear it not, Duncan, for it is a knell
That summons thee to heaven or to hell.'

Macbeth, Act II, Scene l

It is after midnight. Macbeth is alone in the torch-lit hall of his castle. He is weary because his sleep has been disturbed by 'cursed thoughts'.

He sees a dagger floating in the air, its tip pointing him towards Duncan's quarters. Macbeth reaches out to grasp it but fails. Is it real, or a vision?  He thinks he sees blood on the blade.

Then, a bell tolls. It is Lady Macbeth's signal that the chamberlains guarding Duncan have fallen asleep. She has drugged them. Macbeth follows the summons and strides towards Duncan's quarters to do his evil work.

Elegy written in a country churchyard

The Death or Curfew Knell is rung at the time of death. Thomas Gray in his Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard uses this bell metaphorically to great effect to mark the dying of the day:

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea,
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

Gray uses the metaphor of the church bell to personify the day, which 'dies' at sunset. He is also making death into something universal. It is not only people who die, but each day.  The descending darkness speaks of death, but somehow, the cattle and the ploughman are unaware, or uninterested.

All that is left is death (the night) and the narrator. Is he the person who has died? Or is it his spirit? If so, is he a malign spirit so that 'darkness' means the abode of the devil?

Or is Thomas Gray seeing the darkened churchyard through the eyes of an owl?

Save that from yonder ivy-mantled tow'r
The moping owl does to the moon complain
Of such, as wand'ring near her secret bow'r,
Molest her ancient solitary reign.
The Screech Owl is also known as the Lych Owl because its cry was regarded as a portent of death.

In the Middle Ages, most people died at home. Bodies were placed on a bier and taken to the lychgate where they remained until the funeral service, which may have been a day or two later. The lychgate kept the rain off, and often had seats for those who would keep vigil to deter body snatchers.

Their night watch was called the lych wake. Bodies at that time were buried in shrouds rather than coffins. At the funeral, the priest conducted the first part of the service under the shelter of the lychgate. The word Lych derives from the Saxon word for a corpse.


Her creator, J.M.Barrie described 'Tinker Bell' as a fairy who mended pots and kettles, an actual tinker of the fairy folk.

Her speech consists of the sounds of a tinkling bell, which is understandable only to those familiar with the language of the fairies.

In the original stage productions of Peter Pan, Tinker Bell was represented on stage by a darting light created by a small mirror held in the hand off-stage and reflecting a little circle of light from a powerful lamp, and her voice was a collar of bells and two special ones that Barrie brought from Switzerland.

Tinker Bell has become one of the Disney studios' most important branding icons, being regarded as a symbol of the 'magic of Disney'.

All images © Stephen Butt 2019