Bernard Sleigh and the map of fairyland- Part 2

afanc

I continue here my examination of Bernard Sleigh’s Ancient mappe of fairyland and its background.

‘Edwardian innocence’- the context of the map

“Fairies and ghosts are here galore.” (Robert Graves, ‘Letter to SS from Mametz Wood,’ from Fairies and fusiliers. 1918)

Tom Harper, the British Library’s antiquarian map curator, has observed that:

An ancient mappe of Fairyland… was published in 1918, the year that World War I ended, so it is difficult not to relate the two in some way. Could the Fairyland constitute a yearning for a return to pre-1914 Edwardian innocence? Compared with the devastated, bomb-blasted landscape of northern France, this vision of a make-believe land may have seemed a seductive escape for a European society bearing the physical and psychological scars of mass conflict.

The map is very much a product of the Arts and Crafts ideology which evinced a return to traditional, pre-industrial production methods.  The ornamentation and typeface are in the style of William Morris’ Kelmscott Press. This retrospective stylistic attitude places the map in opposition to a mechanical modernity, which happened to have reached its most destructive pinnacle during the War.”

These comments raise a very interesting question.  To what extent is escapism in art excusable?  Should artists confront the events of their day in their works, as is the case with Great War artist Otto Dix, or should they offer their audiences refuge?  Furthermore, as noted, Sleigh was too old to serve in Flanders.  Without that first-hand experience- what the Germans called Fronterlebnis– was he qualified to speak in any case?

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Bernard Sleigh

Modern painter Peter Blake is known for the series of fairy pictures he produced whilst a member of the Brotherhood of Ruralists during the 1970s.  Interviewed for the Independent in December 1997, Blake told Andrew Lambirth that-

“Fairies are a vehicle for what we want them to be… There’s an edge of magic realism to them.  The fairies I paint have the ability to make magic.”

More recently, however, Blake seemed to have a change of heart, describing his fairy phase as “unforgivably sentimental.”  Reviewing Tate Liverpool’s 2007 retrospective of Blake’s career, critic Waldemar Januszczak was far less kind; for him the pictures were “unforgivably silly” when set against the political background of late 1970s Britain.  So- were the fairy pictures a dereliction of some perceived duty as a social reporter; should Blake have been painting punks and Grunwick strikers?  Should Sleigh likewise have painted mud and trenches?

Rose-Fyleman

Rose Amy Fyleman

Prolific English children’s author Rose Amy Fyleman (1877-1957) is probably best remembered for her first published work, There are fairies at the bottom of our garden, which appeared in May 1917.  It reassures readers that they can participate in fairy revels themselves:

“There are fairies at the bottom of our garden!…
The King is very proud and very handsome;
The Queen- now you can guess who that could be
(She’s a little girl all day, but at night she steals away)?
Well – it’s Me!”

Over the Channel as Fyleman wrote, the British were preparing the appalling offensive at Passchendaele. Talk of fairies, merrymaking with the local wildlife behind the gardener’s shed, might have seemed curiously irrelevant and inappropriate- even unpatriotic- that summer.  The next year, though, Fyleman wrote a partner poem, There used to be, which stands in affecting antithesis to her previous verse:

“There used to be fairies in Germany-

I know, for I’ve seen them there…

What, and oh what were they doing

To let things like this?

How could it be? And didn’t they see

That folk were going amiss?…

There used to be fairies in Germany-

The children will look for them still…

“The flowers,” they will say, “have all vanished,

And where can the fairies be fled

That played in the fern?”- The flowers will return,

But I fear that the fairies are dead.”

This is a remarkable social and political commentary.  The Great War smashed many childhood illusions and security; to some degree it appears that it was the fairies’ fault, arising from neglect of and by them.  The result has been their extinction.

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Francis Ledwidge

Whatever our views of Fyleman’s verse, it cannot be denied that fairyland provided comfort and shelter from the experience of war for those actually on the frontline.  Arguably their views are a better measure of the fittest response from art to death and disruption.  Irish poet Francis Ledwidge was writing fairy verse in the trenches right up until the week of his death in 1917.  Awaiting action in Belgium in July that year, Ledwidge preferred not to think about whizz bangs and gas but to imagine fairy dances, piping elves, ceol sidhe (fairy music) and the allurements of fairy lovers:

“From hill to hill, from land to land,

Her lovely hand is beckoning for me,

I follow on through dangerous zones,

Cross dead men’s bones and oceans stormy.”

(The lanawn shee (The fairy lover), July 1917)

In fact, Ledwidge’s attraction to fairy themes only increased as the war progressed.  His first collection of verse, Songs of the fields (1915), contained no fay references.  His second, Songs of peace of 1917, contained two and the third, Last songs, which was published in 1918, includes eight fairy poems.  Arguably, as the stress increased and his odds of avoiding injury diminished, the lure of a fantasy outlet grew irresistible.

Poet and mythologist Robert Graves came out of action in Flanders still able to promise that “you’ll be fairies soon” in his poem Cherry time or to declare “I’d love to be a fairy’s child” in the verse of the same name (both published in his 1918 collection Fairies and fusiliers). Another officer, J. R. R. Tolkien, was likewise writing fairy verse in the trenches- although his subjects may have been toughened by the experience, transforming them from typical winged Victorian elves in his early verse to the noble warriors of Lord of the Rings.

MAS 701 - The Piper of Dreams

Estella Canziani, The piper of dreams, Medici Society

Lastly, in summer 1915 painter Estella Canziani exhibited The piper of dreams at the Royal Academy.  The picture shows a boy playing a whistle in a wood, unaware of the fairies flitting around him; it was an instant success.  The Medici Society quickly acquired the rights to the image and published prints and postcards, very many of which were sent to troops at the front, where it was very popular.

As Blake indicated, fairies have always had a creative function in our culture, providing inspiration to writers and visual artists alike.  Fairy imagery too is a vehicle for addressing many emotions and problems, from sexuality to violence.  There is no inherent reason why fairy art cannot discuss war- nor why it should not be a legitimate response to conflict.

‘Dreamland’- the content of the map

 One map dealer has described faerie, as depicted by Sleigh, as “an idyllic, fantastical land.”  This captures its mood exactly.  However, we should note at the outset that there is a slight misnomer.  The map portrays the land of fairy-tales, rather than being a depiction of Faerie.

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The 1917 Guide to the map is a charming read, being poetic and full of authentic fairylore.  Sleigh begins:

“In the heart of every child is hidden a little golden key which unlocks the door of a silent, clean swept room full of changing lights and mystic shadows.  There, every child that is born into the world enters at times to gaze eagerly upon the one great window, pictured with ancient legends…

Charmed magic casements, opening on the foam,

Of perilous oceans, of faery lands forlorn.” (Guide p.7)

Sleigh concludes with lines from John Keats’ famous poem, Ode to a nightingale, inappropriate as they may be to his generally affectionate vision of faery.

The map is “for the use and guidance of future explorers” who travel to the “rainbow guarded shores” of this mysterious place- The land of heart’s desire, The fortunate isles, The islands of the blest.  It’s needed because the tracks “vanish and reappear- and vanish again in bewildering fashion- baffling and discouraging to even the most earnest traveller.” ( The guide, pp.8-9) In Fairyland distances are measured in thoughts, each equalling five hundred of our miles.  What’s more, travellers must always be cautious.  They should arrive at Dreamland Harbour where their passports will be stamped and their eyes touched with magic ointment.  This traditional protection against fairy glamour is vital because, without it, they won’t be able to tell good fairies from bad and they may end up as a lost child in Never Never Land.  In this emphasis upon the malicious and untrustworthy nature of fairy kind, Sleigh is wholly authentic: faery has always been a place of illusion and peril and Sleigh did not conceal this from his children.

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Turning to the map itself, there is a blending of fairytale, myth, fairy lore and the Matter of Britain.  Fairyland is an island, mountainous at its two ends and with a lower land bridge joining these.  A wall, “builded of Stars by manie Elfin Emperours in days remote,” divides the good and evil halves.  The island is littered with symbols indicating inns, fairy shrines and temples, wishing wells and, most exciting of all, the sites of dwarves’ treasure.  There are plenty of traditional folklore references.

Amidst the peaks on the left/ west, we see the Valley of Dragons, in which lies The Weird Wood and “Blackadder Lake- here Afanc broodeth.” The afanc is a Welsh water monster.  Nearby is an elfin monastery, a wandering will of the wisp and, in the hills above, fairy flocks grazing near Fairies’ Marsh, Elfin Mere and the Kobold’s Caves.

Settlements crowd the lower ground between the highlands.  There we find many fairy references: Elfin Citie, Kelpie Hamlet, Undine Bay, Brownies’ Huts, Troll Town, Dwarf’s Caves, Bogles Corner, Pixie Town, an Elfin temple and Oberon’s Cross.  Scattered around these you spot that “Tom Tit Tot lives here,” that there are leprechauns, nixies, neckans, mermaids, sirens and water sprites, a River of White Nymphs and, where “the sidhe make the Water of Life.”

sidhe

So far, so good: but the traditional theme is not so consistent.  You will also encounter Humpty Dumpty, Goosey Gander, Bo Peep, Puss in Boots and Jack Horner.  In Avalon you may visit the tombs of Arthur and Guinevere and Morgan Le Fay’s house.  Merlin sits disconsolate in the Forest of Lyonesse; there is Ogier le Danois close to ‘The Imp Tree’ from the romance of Sir Orfeo (“Ƿai sett hem doun al þre/ Under a faire ympe-tre”).  You will come across Perseus and Andromeda, Theseus and the Golden Fleece, Valhalla and Asgard.  Very modern elements creep in, too: we see the Lost Boys and, away across the sea, the Water Babies and other personnel from Kingsley’s book.  The range of references is huge and you cannot but be impressed at the breadth of literature with which the Sleigh children were acquainted, aged about ten and twelve.  There is a reading list at the end of The guide, which includes the reasonably predictable Arabian Nights, Andersen, Charles Kingsley, Nesbit and Brothers Grimm, but also suggests the young audience might like to tackle Malory, The Mabinogion, de la Motte Fouqué and Macdonald’s Phantastes- a very different proposition to The princess and the goblin.

‘A key to all the mythologies’

Many authorities have argued that the Victorian fairy fascination was a response to disenchantment with their world- and an effort to re-enchant it.  By 1918 the need for enchantment was very great.

The Ancient mappe of Fairyland won’t teach us a great deal about the location or nature of Faerie, but it will certainly entertain and charm.  For example, along the lower edge you will spot Puck singing for Titania at the foot of an old-fashioned dove cote from which most of the birds have been evicted by tiny winged fays.

ariel

Nonetheless, Sleigh’s map is more than amusement.  Whilst Tolkien’s Middle Earth maps can be engrossing, they are no more than drawings of made up places.  Sleigh’s map is the same, but it is more: it is a “little golden key” to a wealth of other stories, opening a magic casement onto a treasury of classic myths.  Like all real maps, it is a guide to a journey, but it’s not the adventure itself.

 

 

 

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Bernard Sleigh and the map of fairyland: Part One

Bernard Sleigh 1872-1954, An Anciente Mappe of Fairyland, Newly Discovered and Set Forth, 1920

Fairies can threaten humans, leading them astray or stealing children, but they can also serve as muses, inspiring great works of art and literature.  This post looks at one quite unique product of that inspiration.

Writing on British fairy literature during the 1920s and ‘30s in the journal Mythlore for 2013, author Douglas Anderson teased his audience:

“I’d like to turn to the author I find most interesting from this period. He grew up in the Birmingham area of England and was indelibly inspired after seeing Peter Pan performed on stage. He was devoted to William Morris and George MacDonald. He went on to write about fairies, in poems and in stories, illustrating his own writings with his own artwork. He was particularly renowned for his maps…”[1]

I imagine we all think we know who Anderson is referring to, but he has a surprise for us:

“Though the above could all be said of J.R.R. Tolkien, I’m actually talking about someone else, named Bernard Sleigh.”

Sleigh (1872–1954) was an English muralist, stained-glass designer, illustrator and wood engraver; in late 1917 he created a remarkable fantasy map that constitutes his best-known legacy today.  An Ancient Mappe of Fairyland, Newly Discovered and Set Forth is large, colourful and ambitious, being crammed with a multitude of characters from legend and fairytale.

In this post I want to explore the making and meaning of that chart.  I pored over the maps of Middle Earth as a boy and such plans have now become a staple of fantasy writing, but Tolkien did not initiate this fashion, nor are his maps as loaded with meaning as some.

‘Here they do magic’

Arthur_Joseph_Gaskin_-_Kilhwych,_The_King's_Son

Gaskin, Kilhwych, the king’s son (illustration to the Mabinogion)

Born in 1872, the first difference between Sleigh and Tolkien is that the former was twenty years older, which meant that he did not serve during the First World War.  Their education was also utterly different.  Aged fourteen, Sleigh left school and was apprenticed to a wood engraver.  As part of this training, he studied at the Birmingham School of Art, where he was a student of Arthur Gaskin, a painter, illustrator and craftsman, who had in turn worked with Edward Burne-Jones. Whilst attending art school Sleigh came under the influence of the Birmingham Group, an informal collective of Arts and Crafts painters and craftsmen.  All of these influences can be seen in Sleigh’s work, the medieval style of which echoes Burne-Jones, William Morris and Walter Crane.

Sleigh- Phylis & Demoophoon, Phantastes

Sleigh, Phylis and Demoophoon, illustration from George MacDonald’s Phantastes

Sleigh was especially skilled in wood engraving and soon found commissions illustrating books. One of his first major projects was engraving one hundred of Gaskin’s illustrations for a two-volume edition of Hans Christian Andersen’s Stories and Fairy Tales.[2] Sleigh was also published in The Yellow Book, The Dome and The Studio and illustrated Piers Plowman, several novels by Morris, George Macdonald’s Phantastes, Legrand d’Aussy’s Fabliaux and an edition of the romance of Tristan and Iseult, all titles suited to his style and tastes.

Sleigh went on to have a highly distinguished and successful career, designing furnishings and internal decorations for a wide range of private clients.  He also taught at Birmingham School of Art, published several design and craft manuals and was a member of several artistic societies.

In the context of Sleigh’s professional life, the map of fairyland looks like something of an aberration, but it was in fact an expression of much deeper personal interests that persisted throughout his life.

Sleigh, Habour of the Holy Graal

Sleigh, The harbour of the Holy Graal

“I believe in Faeries”

Sleigh is celebrated today not for his handicraft design but for the Ancient Mappe of Fairyland.  This is not, in fact, unfitting.  As a young man, Sleigh was greatly inspired by the mythical writings of MacDonald and Morris and the map clearly reflects their influence.  Indeed, by the time he retired in 1937, Sleigh’s imagery had turned from romantic medievalism entirely to a world peopled by supernatural beings.  His writing, too, changed from the practical to the mythological, for example Witchcraft (1934), The dryad’s child (1936) and two fantasies for children, The boy in the ivy (1955) and The tailor’s friends (1956).

The map’s immediate success encouraged Sleigh to produce further fairy works.  In October 1920 he published The faery calendar, in which illustrations for each month of the year were paired with a piece of prose or verse. In his Preface Sleigh confessed that-

“I believe in Faeries. It is very natural and not a bit foolish; for in these days we are quickly learning how little we know of any other world than our own. It is no more difficult for me to believe that a wild rose, or a daisy, has personality, consciousness of life- a spirit, in short, than that a human being has.”

He was, of course, in very good company at this time, with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle promoting the veracity of the Cottingley fairy photographs and espousing very similar Theosophist beliefs.

Sleigh’s next book, A faerie pageant, appeared in 1924; it was a limited-edition volume resembling the Calendar.  Lastly, in 1926 Sleigh wrote a volume of stories about fairies, The Gates of Horn: Being Sundry Records from the Proceedings of the Society for the Investigation of Fairy Fact and Fallacy. Although intended for adults, his publishers J. M. Dent marketed it as a children’s book, resulting in its commercial failure.   This makes copies extremely rare today, although the stories are highly regarded by those fortunate enough to have been able to read them.  As a footnote to this, we should note that in 1927 Sleigh was instrumental in establishing a real Fairy Investigation Society, which still operates online today.

‘The other end of nowhere’- making the map

Sleigh’s daughter, the writer Barbara, recalled in her childhood memoir that:

“One wet holiday my father drew a Map of Faeryland for us. On it were marked the sites of all our best-loved fairy-stories. There is Peter Pan’s House, and the palace of La Belle Dormante and the Bridge of Roc’s Eggs, and such succinct entries as ‘Here be bogles’ and ‘Warlocks live here’. It has fascinated several generations of children.” (The smell of privet, 1971, pp.51-52.)

It is reported that Sleigh got the idea for the map after seeing a production of J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan.  If this is correct, it is a further interesting parallel with Tolkien who recorded in his diary the profound effect that seeing the play had upon him.  Nonetheless, fantasy maps have always been created, although the growth in fantasy literature in the twentieth century seems to have led to a marked rise in the number produced.  Early examples include the playing board for ‘The Prince’s Quest: A Fairy Race Game’ from 1890 and A map of fairy land (Alan Wright, 1909).  Sleigh’s map was therefore not unique, but its scope and scale were new and inspired others, such as Czech artist Jaro Hess’ 1930 map of The land of make believe, a map of ‘The land of nursery rhyme’ drawn by Charles Folkard as an endpaper to the 1946 book of that name by Alice Daglish and Ernest Rhys and, lastly, a 1973 map to accompany William Goldman’s Princess bride (not forgetting Tolkien and George R. R. Martin, of course).

princes quest

The prince’s quest

The Ancient Mappe of Fairyland was first published in December 1917 as a full colour scroll with wood ends, rolling out to nearly a metre and a half in width and thirty-five centimetres in height. With it Sleigh produced a small sixteen-page pamphlet, A guide to the Map of Fairyland.  In 1926, because the map had continued to be a good seller, the publishers Sidgwick and Jackson issued a second companion volume: Travels in fairyland is an anthology of the nursery rhymes, stories and poems mentioned on the map or listed at the end of the Guide.

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Alan Wright, Map of fairyland

The map is hand-drawn and seems to be a combination of coloured pencil and watercolour wash.  It is somewhat reminiscent of Tolkien’s illustrations of The Hobbit– but plainly rather more accomplished.  Less highly finished than many of Sleigh’s full-colour illustrations, there is a childlike or playful quality to the draftsmanship which is part of its appeal.

After Sleigh retired from teaching in 1937, the map was turned into a Rosebank Fabric by the well-known Lancashire company.  This, in turn, led to many other commissions for textile designs, thereby providing a source of income over and above his meagre teaching pension.

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Hess, The land of make believe

Further reading

This posting will be continuedAnother description of the Mappe can be found on The fairy page blog.  There are a few interesting articles on this blog (plus a great deal about Harry Potter) but it seems to have run out of steam in April 2017.

[1] Douglas A. Anderson, ‘Fairy elements in British literary writings in the decade following the Cottingley fairy photographs episode,’ Mythlore 32.1, Fall/Winter 2013.

[2] George Allen, 1893.

Mere maids- freshwater spirits of Britain

 

fideal
A fideal, Brian Froud

In this post I want to explore a very particular form of British fairy being, the freshwater mermaids or water sprites.  Mere, meaning a lake or pool, is an old English word that forms the basis of mermaid, although of course this almost exclusively used in reference to the sea fairy now.  Nonetheless, the idea of the inland ‘mere-maid’ is very ancient, the very oldest of these very likely being found in the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf, in the ghastly shape of the mother of the monster Grendel.

The illustrations I have found suggest that these creatures may be sexually alluring to some extent, but on the whole they are perilous to humankind.

asrai

An asrai, from kelfae.com

Drowning, gold and midnight

The majority of our fresh water meremaids share something with Grendel’s mother: they are dangerous, if not fatal, to humans.  A very good example is the creature dwelling in the Black Mere at Morridge in Staffordshire.  No animals would drink the waters and birds were said to avoid overflying the mere.  This was probably because the mermaid used to seize passersby at midnight and drown them.  When an attempt was made to drain the Mere, she emerged and threatened to engulf the whole of the nearby town of Leek in its waters.  Wisely, the work was abandoned and never restarted.

Other mere maidens include those of the ponds, pools and meres at Fordham, Cambridgeshire and in Suffolk at Rendlesham and most notably at the Mermaid Pits, Fornham All Saints.  All these beings came out at night to drag down their victims.  Most are anonymous, but a few have been given names, for example Jenny Greenteeth, who has been encountered at Ellesmere in Shropshire as well as in Lancashire and Cumbria, Grindylow in Yorkshire, Nelly Longarms and the widespread Rawhead and Bloodybones.  In Scotland one encounters the fideal, an evil spirit who haunts Loch na Fideil near Gairloch, in the north-west Highlands; she is often regarded as a personification of the entangling bog grasses and water weeds of the loch’s shore.

It is often said that the purpose of these creatures was to teach children to steer clear of ponds and similar drowning dangers, such as lawn-like mats of pond weed.  The same risk existed around river banks, so that we hear  of ‘Peg Powler’ at Piercebridge on the River Tees, who might drag incautious children from the banks under the waves, and of comparable perilous creatures in the River Gipping in Suffolk.

All of these supernaturals preyed upon passing mortals.  Despite this bad reputation (or possibly because of it) some were also connected to gold or treasure in some way.  A beautiful maiden at Child’s Ercall in Shropshire offered two men gold if they would enter the water to take it from her (but she disappeared when they commented upon their luck, surely a variation of the common idea of keeping quiet about fairy favours).  We must wonder too whether,  if they had entered the water, the outcome might not have been as happy as they anticipated.  At Marden (Herefordshire) and Rostherne Mere (Cheshire) the mere-maids are said to be guarding bells submerged beneath the pool.

The asrai

The last creature to discuss is perhaps the most intriguing, the asrai or ashray of Cheshire and Shropshire (no specific locations seem to be identified).  This meremaid combines many of the features already mentioned.  However, the fairy maid is portrayed as far more vulnerable than those seen before.  If she is caught, she does not fight back like some of the creatures mentioned, she instead pleads in an incomprehensible language to be set free and, when she is not, she curls up moaning in the fisherman’s boat and has melted away by the time he reaches shore at daybreak. Where her hands had touched the fisherman, he was burned and marked for life.

Other versions of the folk belief say that asrai have green hair and either a fishtail or webbed feet.  They are reputed to live for many centuries, coming to the surface of the lake once each century to bathe in the moonlight, which helps them to grow. If the asrai sees a man she will use promises of gold and jewels to attempt to lure him into the deepest part of the lake, there to drown or simply to trick him. She cannot tolerate human coarseness and vulgarity, and this will be enough to frighten her away.  Curiously, the same has been said of other fairies: Lewis Spence recorded that a woman of Loch Aline in the Highlands escaped abduction by the fairies when she used “a very coarse, unseemly word” (as well she might in the circumstances).  The sidhe could not tolerate this and left her where they found her (Lewis Spence, The fairy tradition in Britain, p.264).

Scottish poet Robert Williams Buchanan described the asrai evocatively, if not wholly in line with oral tradition.  In his poem The asrai- prologue to the changeling he says that:

“Before man grew of the four elements
The Asrai grew of three- fire, water, air-
Not earth, -they were not earthly….

The Asrai wander’d, choosing for their homes
All gentle places- valleys mossy deep,
Star-haunted waters, yellow strips of sand
Kissing the sad edge of the shimmering sea,                                         
And porphyry caverns in the gaunt hill-sides.”

In his sequel poem The changeling Buchanan tells us that “of the dew and the crystal air,/ And the moonray mild, were the Asrai made.”  Because, “In the glorious gleam of the natal ray,/The pallid Asrai faded away!” they were forced to retreat “far away in the darkened places,/ Deep in the mountains and under the meres.”

The most intriguing aspect of the asrai belief is the combination of predatory danger and vulnerability when caught.  It is comparable to the Scottish selkies, the seal women, who can be trapped and forced into marriage with a human if their seal skins can be stolen from them.  Perhaps in both we see the idea of the dangers of travelling between elements or dimensions.  Humans who visit fairyland can suffer both physically and mentally, and these stories demonstrate that the reverse is just as true.  The supernatural stranded in the physical world loses his or her power and is prey to mortality.

The kelpie_Draper

The kelpie, Herbert James Draper, 1913.

 

 

 

‘Cruel garden of dark delights?’- fairy cruelty

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J. A. Fitzgerald, Who killed Cock Robin?

In her book, Strange and secret peoples, Carole Silver observes that “fairy sadism is repeatedly depicted in Victorian painting.”  She identifies a series of well-known images in which various forms of animal cruelty are portrayed (chapter 5, pp.157-164).  These include pictures by Richard Doyle (March of the elf king and Elves battling frogs), Noel Paton (owls are being hunted and tormented in both his paintings of Titania and Oberon), George Naish (Midsummer fairies), Edward Hopley (Puck and moth) and, most notably, John Anster Fitzgerald in his series of pictures of fairies tormenting and killing a robin.  It’s fair to mention, though, that although wanton cruelty seems to be a pastime for Fitzgerald’s fays, he also depicts scenes of communion with wildlife.

john anster fitzgerald

The theme is not just found in visual art.  In literature of the period, too, animal abuse is described- for example fairies tormenting an owl (again) in M R James, After dark in the playing field (1924) and Maurice Hewlett, The lore of Proserpine  (1913) in which there is a description of the casual torture of a rabbit by a fairy (pp.25-26).

hopley

Hopley, Puck and Moth

Silver suggests that the artist’s intention was to avoid portrayals of fairy mistreatment of humans, by transferring the suffering to dumb animals.  This could well be the case; traditional fairies are known for their mischief- if not malice- against mortals. It may also be possible that the increasing tendency to see fairies as small children gave rise to the idea that they would behave like them, with the same thoughtless cruelty.

The traditional view

Is there any traditional support for these recent depictions?  The short and simple answer is no.  For many contemporary fairy writers and enthusiasts, fairies have become the archetype of eco-awareness and the concept of abuse of wild animals seems anathema.  This appears to be an entirely traditional view too.

fitzgerald

As early as The pranks of Puck in the seventeenth century protection of hunted beasts is a theme.  In the ballad Puck hides himself in snares and traps left by men and scares the hunters when they return to collect their catch.  Very much more recently, the same kind of behaviour is ascribed to the pixies in Jon Dathen’s fascinating collection of modern interviews Somerset faeries and pixies (Capall Bann Publishing, 2010).  In one story told to Dathen, the pixies give shelter to an exhausted fox pursued by horses and hounds (p.22).  (By pure coincidence, in by novel The elder queen, I imagined North Devon fairies helping hunted foxes and badgers in much the same way).

Elsewhere is Dathen’s book he is told (by two separate interviewees) that “if there’s one thing the pixies despise, it’s cruelty to animals.”  If they become aware of mistreatment or neglect of wild or domesticated beasts, the guilty person will be punished by the pixies, generally by the time-honoured means of vicious pinching (Dathen pp.14 & 72-74).  The pixies are described as being especially close to certain animals, including horses and (significantly- given the earlier discussion) robins (pp.72-3 & 48).  In Seeing fairies, Marjorie Johnson’s collection of modern accounts of fairy sighting, there is another mention of fairy care for wildlife in heavy snowfall on moorland (pp.135-136).

Abusers or allies?

I have mentioned before the convention that, purportedly, fairies fight amongst themselves; as we have seen there may be little compunction about teasing, tormenting or even abducting humans who have infringed their unspoken rules or fallen under their power.  According to others, the fays are vegetarian and as such might be expected to hate hunting.

On balance the evidence suggests that fairies are not imagined traditionally as gratuitously cruel.  They injure those who offend them, but not defenceless beasts.  Although more modern representations of faeries as harmless, winged and tiny have undoubtedly compounded the perception, the concept of fays as being in harmony with nature and protecting their surroundings seem to have deep roots.

EnchantedForest_Fitzgerald

 

‘Just made up?’ The problem of fairy physicality

hutton lear glimpse

Charles Hutton Lear, A glimpse of the fairies, 

There is a body of opinion that fairies have no fixed, physical form and that when they appear to us they shape themselves to our expectations.  This notion first seems to be mentioned in a fairy context by W B Yeats in his introduction to Fairy and folk tales of the Irish peasantry (1888).  Many generations of mystics and occult writers have acknowledged the existence of spiritual beings, he wrote- beings “who have no inherent form but change according to their whim, or the mind that sees them.”

Thought forms

Yeats did not originate this idea.  Early on, Theosophists had formulated the concept of ‘thought forms.’  Mahatma Koot Humi, one of Madame Blavatsky’s mentors and inspirations, wrote that “thoughts are things… they are real entities.”  This idea was elaborated by Charles Leadbeater and Annie Besant in a book, Thought forms, in 1905; they asserted that thoughts produced a radiating vibration conveying their emotion and also had a floating form.  The idea was then transferred nature spirits and elementals.  To become visible, they assume etheric bodies, which are shaped by folklore stories and human imaginations.  Robert Ogilvie Crombie of Findhorn explained that, although its natural form is a swirl of light, an elemental “can put on any of these thought forms and then appear personified as that particular being … elf, gnome, faun, fairy and so on.”[1]  Edward Gardner had a related but different conception.  He believed that Elsie and Frances at Cottingley had abilities akin to mediums.  They could materialist the fairies they photographed through ectoplasm, which was the explanation for their contemporary appearance.

The idea of the thought form was developed in relation to fairies by Geoffrey Hodson in Angels and the new race (1929)He asserted that fairies have no physical body but are formed of light, albeit along the ‘same model’ as humans.  In The kingdom of the gods in 1952 Hodson elaborated on these ideas: the archetype for the fairy form was the human body and their appearance was further determined by our expectations as to what we might see.

These ideas still prevail.  In Signe Pike’s 2009 book Faery tale she interviewed artist Brian Froud who told her (p.91):

“It’s often thought that faeries use our own thought patterns to manifest themselves.  For example, when a faery appears to a person, it will typically look quite similar to the creatures you see in storybooks.  This is because if you were to see a ball of energy, would you really know it was a faery?  No.  So they try to ‘speak’ our visual language.  We see wings, and flowing dresses, and heads and eyes.  The problem is, we think we’re just making it up.”

Likewise in The faery faith by Serena Roney-Dougal, she discusses how our psyche may create some of the things we see (pp.67-71).

Solid- or see-through illusions?

I have to admit that I feel uncomfortable with this idea, for several reasons:

  • It seems to introduce an insurmountable circularity into the situation.  If it is argued that fairies look like we expect them to look, it’s hard to establish a point at which our ‘preconceptions’ were first conceived, as no-one will ever see an ‘original’ or ‘authentic’ fairy;
  • There are compelling reports of ‘fairies’ that look nothing like our expectations: see for example some of the experiences in Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing fairies or some of the pixies described in Jon Dathen’s Somerset faeries and pixies;
  • The argument may seem to operate as a legitimate cover for those who claim to have seen fays when all they are describing are the products of their own over-active imaginations.  Their alleged visions are just repetitions of images they have derived from Enid Blyton’s stories,  from J. M. Barrie’s play script and from their nursery books.

Lastly, and most importantly, the theory is hard to square with cases which appear to be accounts of genuine encounters with solid and physical fays.  If fairies are solely balls of energy it’s difficult to reconcile this with the cases where their physical presence was either central to the plot or appeared already to be established before the human encountered them.  I am thinking here of the cases where humans and fays have entered into sexual relationships and where children have been borne of these pairings- children who often must be physically delivered by human midwives attending a faery knoll.  I also am thinking of cases where fairy celebrations have been stumbled upon accidentally by people- the many cases where the fairies have been found dancing and then lured in human partners, or the stories of fairy feasts discovered under fairy hills. In one story told by William of Newburgh, readers may recall, the man who discovered the celebration also managed to make off with a gold cup.  Elsewhere I have discussed the transmission of fairy powers by the medium of touch.  As a last example, I note Morgan Daimler’s discussion of fairy familiars on p.162 of her Fairy faithshe stresses that these familiars were “clearly visible to the witch as tangible presences, not dreams or see-through illusions…  they were real-world manifestations that were seen, heard, and spoken to, in the waking world.”

These are all very solid incidents where the human form of the fairies was central to the incident and also, as I’ve suggested, already established independent of any Schrödinger like observation.

Mccubbin, what the little girl saw in the bush

Frederick McCubbin, What the little girl saw in the bush, 1904

Summary

Our forebears definitely conceived of the fays as real and tangible- and so consistent in their appearance that classification into standard groups was possible and remained applicable over hundreds of years.  Any mutability in their appearance was purely of their own making- the result of their magic and glamour.

There were , of course, many who dismissed faeries as entirely illusory and imaginary, but this was for quite different reasons.  Rationalists challenged fairy belief on the grounds that it was self-delusion:

“Rainbow castles in the air/ Fit enough for fays and elves/ But not for mortals like ourselves.” (Martin Farquhar Tuppe, Liberty- Equality- Fraternity); or,

“That which belongs to neither heaven nor hell./ A wreath of mist, a bubble of the stream;/ Twixt a waking thought and dream…” (Sir Walter Scott, The kelpy).

All of that said, if fairies are but mutable forms responding to our own thoughts, it would explain their evolution in recent centuries, whereby they have acquired wands and wings and come to look like the leprechauns and flower fairies of contemporary culture.

This is a very difficult area and I can’t offer any definitive metaphysical solutions.  What do readers feel?  In short, do fairies look like fairies because they have a consistent and identifiable appearance or because they match themselves to whatever they find in our heads- be that Cicely Mary Barker or Henry Fuseli?

Peter Blake- fairyist

DACS; (c) DACS; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Daisy fairy (Victoria Art Gallery, Bath; previously Waddington galleries, London)

Over his long career, renowned British artist Peter Blake has drawn his inspiration from a variety of sources, including the wrestling he loved as a youth, fifties pinups magazines and, more surprisingly, perhaps,  Victorian fairy painting.  In his many fairy paintings, he has demonstrated that ‘high art’ and fairy themes can still co-exist, even in the twenty-first century (and despite some later embarrassment about this on Blake’s part).

Victorian inspirations

During the mid-1970s, Blake’s work took a surprising turn away from his early urban and contemporary themes.  In March 1975 in Somerset a group of British born and British based artists founded the Brotherhood of Ruralists.  The new movement was inspired by Samuel Palmer, Spenser and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, amongst others, and its declared aims were to portray love, beauty, joy and magic in their work.  Amongst the Brotherhood were Blake, David Inshaw, and Graham Ovenden, a painter and expert in Victorian photography, painting and illustration, whose publications include a study of fairy illustrators Richard Doyle, Eleanor Vere Boyle and William Stephens Coleman.

blake-girl-fairy

Girl fairy

Peter Blake was especially inspired by literary subjects, such as Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Fairies in particular became a key theme during his ruralist period and Blake researched the work of Victorian predecessors, painters such as Richard Dadd, Doyle and John Anster Fitzgerald and illustrators Maxfield Parrish and Arthur Rackham.  He admired the eroticism of much of this fairy art, most notably in the work of Paton and Simmons.  At the same time Blake saw children and fairies as sharing an enchanting naivety, which was translated into the nature of his pictures. He was, too, interested in fantasy, but he wanted his fairies to be real people rooted in the present.

blake-flora-flower-fairy

Flora- flower fairy

Blake has painted a series of portraits of generic flower, water and seaweed fairies (mainly as a source of income), but he also undertook much larger and more personal studies of groups and of named individuals such as Titania and Puck.  One of the first of this series of paintings, Puck, Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth and Mustardseed, which was started in 1969, shows a naked boy Puck along with tinier, winged child-fairies.  They seem to be beside a weed covered pond, in which the full moon is reflected, and in the background is a stretch of suburban garden fence.

blake-puck

Puck, Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth and Mustardseed

Interviewing Blake for the Independent newspaper in December 1997, Andrew Lambirth described the fairies in these terms:

“If not children, they tend to be female, either portrait heads or nearly naked, and extravagantly breasted.  There is a lambent sensuality in these images, an edginess not far from surrealist frisson, yet verging on innocence rather than lubriciousness.  Delicacy of tone and useful juvenescence of imagery is matched by meditative distancing.  Peter Blake’s paintings are as oddly disquieting as the best Victorian fairy paintings.”

Blake explained during this interview that he wanted his pictures to balance otherness with here and now solidity.  He described how:

“As the fairies ooze to the front of the picture, they hear who’s looking at the painting and they stop and look out.  A group of them stare straight out at you, involving the viewer.”

In part Blake’s paintings were a reaction against the ‘gift-shop’, coffee table depictions of faery that flourished during the mid-1970s.  He wanted to produce more substantial and serious images, he said:

“Fairies are a vehicle for what we want them to be.  If you want a concept of a naughty fairy, you can read it in.  The beautiful fairies tend to be good, I think.  There’s an edge of magic realism to them.  The fairies I paint have the ability to make magic.”

Peter Blake’s fairy pictures depict the possibility of encountering the fantastic in our everyday lives.  He endeavoured to devise a believable other world.  He graded his fairies by their size rather than by their wealth and tried to imagine how the queen of the fairies might feel and act; what would fairy morality be like?  Unlike humans, they might not cover their bodies up but might choose to emphasise and display them.  Accordingly, Titania (in one of the several versions painted between 1976 and 1983) is shown largely naked with grass knotted around her nipples and her pubic hair decorated with daisies.  She wears boots of dock leaves, a grass necklace and a grass belt adorned with odd found items such as a spark plug and a lost toy.  She faces the viewer frankly and confrontationally.  Surrounding her are shadowy figures of naked females, some grinning, some perhaps in pain or in the throes of ecstasy (similar shapes are found with Puck in the painting described earlier).  Natalie Rudd has written that

Titania marks a new model in Blake’s canon of fairy painting; she does not embody the childlike asexuality of his earlier fairies.  Like the nymphs in classical mythology and Blake’s urban strippers, she is a figment of male fantasy, poised eternally between innocence and desire, childhood and womanhood, apparently available yet essentially out of reach.” (N. Rudd, Peter Blake, Tate Gallery, 2003, p.67)

Critic Nicholas Usherwood has spoken of Titania’s “disturbing eroticism, banishing any trace of whimsicality.”  Serena Davies, writing in the Daily Telegraph, reacted very differently, calling the fairy images “strident, ugly pictures that still fail to charm to day.” (Telegraph, July 7th 2007)

In other pictures that Blake produced during this period, fairies dance and play at night in the open air, in one case around and upon a car (Nymphs and Daimler).  Another, The death of a moth, shows the fairy girls mourning the deceased insect.  Many of his fays, like queen Titania, are imagined wearing floral decorations.  All of these pictures emphasise the fairies’ intimate connection with nature, even amidst the detritus of human culture.  Blake has said of these that “in a curious way, the fairy pictures are far more knowing than the Alice pictures [his illustrations to Alice through the looking glass, 1970].  The fairies again come back to being part of my travelling company- they could as easily be strippers.  They look urban.” (Rudd, p.73)

peter_blake-fairy_child_crying

Fairy child crying

Generally, though, I do not believe that it was Blake’s intention in his fairy images to evoke strippers or to examine the nature of fairy sexuality.  His vision of Faery draws upon that of Midsummer Night’s Dream and upon contemporary productions of that play: there is a great deal of natural innocence in the pictures.  His nudes, such as Fairy girl in Falmouth Art Gallery, suggest naturism rather than eroticism; there is an unashamed ‘tribal’ quality to the nakedness that is not intended to titivate but to depict a unity with the fairies’ (semi) rural surroundings.  They are open and honest; they are as they were born and unaware of any reason for shame or concealment.  There is also an accommodation with the spread of human material culture; artifacts are collected and reused in unexpected ways. Blake is enjoying a joke here as well as commenting upon pollution and destruction of habitats.

pb-chiswick
‘I may not be a Ruralist any more, but I saw a fairy in my garden’

The Ruralists (along with Blake’s marriage) disintegrated in the early 1980s and Blake moved back to London, admitting that he had never stopped being an urbanist.  The Ruralist influence remained, though, as shown by a picture from 1982 portraying a fairy at the bottom of his garden in Chiswick.  More recently Blake has described his fairy phase as “unforgivably sentimental.”  The art critic Waldemar Januszczak was less kind; for him they were “unforgivably silly” when set against the political background of late 1970s Britain (Review of Tate Liverpool retrospective, July 1st 2007).  How we feel about this remark depends upon whether we feel that all art must provide explicit social commentary.  As I suggested in the last paragraph, there is commentary here, but it is more subtle.

Young British Artists

Arguably Blake’s fairy pictures were not disengaged from contemporary environmental concerns.  Some of the issues he tackled are still being examined today.  ‘Young British artist’ Matt Collishaw much more recently produced a series of photographic images called Sugar and spice which deliberately contrast young girls dressed as fairies and bedecked with flowers posed in scrap yards and surrounded by urban litter which dwarfs them- discarded drinks cans and cartons, a banana skin and a lost shoe.  The gritty squalor of the settings cancels out any saccharine prettiness in the models.

Sugar and Spice, All Things Nice, This Is What Little Girls Are Made Of #3 1998 by Mat Collishaw born 1966

Diversity in faery?

Pathfinder Artwork

Recently (belatedly) I bought a copy of Seeing fairies by Marjorie Johnson.  It’s a loosely sorted catalogue of over four hundred twentieth century sightings of supernatural beings, fascinating for the data it provides on fairies and those who see them.

One thing that struck me was how the British and Irish conception of the fairy had spread worldwide.  Most of the recorded experiences came from British residents, but there were also reports from Australia, the USA and New Zealand.  Some strange things were seen from time to time, both in Britain as well as across the globe, but it was notable too how consistently a twofold division into gnomes and fairies was imposed.

The vast majority of the sightings in Seeing fairies predate the 1970s; far more recently, of course, cinema, television, the inter-web and the international availability of books through Amazon and Google Books have further exerted the English-speaking, Anglo-American cultural hegemony.  Faerie has become very white, very Western European.  There is a worrying trend for British fairies to become world fairies.

Contemporary writers on the fairy faith often include lists of fairy types in their books, as a guide to those readers who hope to encounter fays themselves.  These can be comprehensive in their coverage, including fays from all over Europe and, sometimes, all over the world.  For example, Edain McCoy in her books The witch’s guide and Magick of fairies lists beings from Israel, Mexico, the Middle East and Australia.  At the same time, though, she asserts that certain types, like elves, are found worldwide.  Similarly, in her Complete guide to faeries and magical beings (2001), Cassandra Eason provides a very comprehensive ‘A-Z of world fairies’ but includes within it a statement that “elves have been recorded worldwide.”  This is nothing to do with folk tradition but everything to do with colonialism.  Whilst local fay types are recognised, the tendency of most writers in Australia is not to see bunyips; instead, they identify fairies, elves and leprechauns.  In the same way, in North America most visions are not of kachinas, abatwas or pukwudgies (for the latter, see Magical folk, Simon Young, 2017) but of imported fairy types.

One of the fundamental motivations of this blog has been to preserve local distinctions.  This is a site interested in the fairies of the British Isles– not of Ireland, nor Brittany, nor any other European or other country.  This is not chauvinism, but it is about celebrating and preserving local varieties and differences.  The tendency of mass (social) media is to confuse or erase these distinctions, reducing the fairy races to just a handful and (worst of all) ethnically cleansing our folklore of all except the frankly rather Aryan looking tall, blond elves of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.  Faerie is richer and more interesting than that.

deutsche lego

 

Fairy names

 

iro

Previously I have discussed fairy language in the context of conversation with humans and in fairy song; I want here to consider fairy names.  I have recently been reading Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing fairies (2014) and my examples are mostly drawn from that book.

To recap previous discussions, there are several aspects to the human experience of fairy speech.  Sometimes there is a complete barrier and no communication at all is possible: for example, in Canada in the early 1920s a little man “made an effort to talk to [a girl aged eleven] but she could not understand what he said” (p.34) or a three year old in Liverpool talked at length with some pixies “in a language her mother could not follow” (p.279).  More often the fays seem quite at home in the local tongue, whether that is English, Welsh or whatever.  Still, their speech will be distinctive for its tone: repeatedly fairy voices are reported to be “high pitched,” “bell-like or chirpy,” clipped and very quick” and like “a melodious twittering” (pp.44, 51, 59, 255).  This chirping, tinkling nature might in itself cause some problems of comprehension.

There are some lists of names in the early seventeenth century literature which are not to be taken seriously.  In The life of Robin Goodfellow we read of Pinch, Patch, Gull, Grim, Sib, Tib, Licke and Lull.  From Drayton’s Nimphidia come Hop, Mop, Dryp, Pip, Trip, Skip, Fib, Tib, Pinch, Pin, Tick, Quick, Jil, Jin, Tit, Nit, Wap and Win.  These are just alliterative play, plainly, although Katherine Briggs suggests that there may be a “hint of scurrility” here too, with wap and win at least being sexual slang.

une fee d'automne

How are fairies named then?  We have both contemporary and historical evidence on this:

  • Elias Ashmole recorded various spells for conjuring fairies in the seventeenth century.  Knowing a name was an important part of gaining control over the fay, and he identified two- Elabigathan and Margaret Barrance. The former is suitably exotic, the latter sounds like any goodwife Ashmole might have met in contemporary Oxford;
  • There are traditional/classical names, such as ‘Sybilia‘- one of the fairy queens, and rulers of the elemental beings known as Paralda (air), Niksa (water), Ghob (earth) and Djinn (fire).  The names of these kings can be found widely in contemporary writing (see, for example, Ted Andrews, Enchantment of the faerie realm) but they derive from Eliphas Levi, The conjuration of the four elements, and (perhaps) beyond that from Kabbalist sources;
  • Doreen Virtue records an encounter with a small pink, long-haired fairy called Lilitte (Fairies 101, pp.12-13);
  • Robery Ogilvie Crombie (Roc) of Findhorn met a faun in Edinburgh’s Royal Botanical Gardens whose name was Kurmos; and,
  • from amongst Marjorie Johnson’s informants we learn of Trindy and Frieta, two fairies who lived in a cairn in a garden in Cornwall (p.65), Puck and Parry, two Cornish pixies met in Liverpool (p.279), a male fay in Shropshire named Hartha and, lastly, a tiny Welsh fairy called Veronica (p.272).  We have a spectrum here from the everyday, through the mildly exotic, to the traditional.

What emerges seems to be a mixture of classical inherited names, conventional contemporary names and some which might be dismissed as made up or might  alternatively be thought of as examples of genuine fairy appellations.  It is a puzzling mixture, contrasting with the fairly high degree of consensus over fairy dress and appearance.  Perhaps what we can identify are the close parallels with the nature of the language spoken: sometimes it is familiar, sometimes archaic, occasionally it is unknown.

outhwaite

 

‘Elf addled’- the ill effects of faery contact

froud, somethign wicked

Brian Froud, ‘Something evil this way comes’

I take the title of this posting from one of the Anglo-Saxon herbals or Leechbooks.  Our forebears diagnosed a number of ailments which they ascribed to malign fairy intervention; one of these was called ælfadl (which we may roughly translate as elf- addle today).  Its nature is uncertain- it appears to involve some degree of internal physical pain- but I have co-opted it to describe the mental health effects of contact with our fairy neighbours.

Physical risks of fairyland

It’s pretty widely known that a visit to fairyland can have serious physical consequences. Because time may pass more slowly in Faery, the returning visitor may discover that their few hours away were really years or centuries, so that they return to a land wholly unfamiliar to them and where they often crumble away to dust as soon as they have contact with the food or soil of the mortal world. The ill-effects may be less drastic than this, but nevertheless contact with the otherworld can lead to permanent disablement by the fairies.

Psychological risks of faery

Less well-reported are the psychological ill-effects of a sojourn with the fays.  We can piece together the evidence from various sources across the centuries.  In seventeenth century England John Aubrey collected a story concerning a shepherd, employed by a Mr Brown of Winterbourne Basset in Wiltshire, who had seen the ground open and had been “brought to strange places underground” where music was played.  As Aubrey observed of such visitors, they would “never any afterwards enjoy themselves.” (Briggs, Fairies in Tradition, p.12).

Later the same century the Reverend Robert Kirk met a woman who had come back from Faery; she ate very little food and “is still prettie melanchollyous and silent, hardly seen ever to laugh.  Her natural Heat and radical Moisture seem to be equally balanced, lyke an unextinguished Lamp, and going in a circle, not unlike the faint Lyfe of Bees and some Sort of Birds that sleep all the Winter over and revive in the Spring” (Kirk, Secret commonwealth chapter 15).  The ‘half-life,’ withdrawal or hibernation that Kirk seems to be describing here is mentioned elsewhere in Scotland.  On Shetland it was believed that the trows might steal part of new mother, that part that remained at home seeming ‘pale and absent.’  (Magical folk, p.132)

The Shetland trows would also take children for a while, but released them at puberty.  Back with human society, they always maintained “an unbroken silence regarding the land of their captivity.”  Indeed, that silence could be physically enforced: in Ireland it was believed that “the wee folk puts a thing in their mouth that they can’t speak.” (Spence, Fairy tradition, p.262)

W. B. Yeats was fascinated by this condition and reported that those who’d been ‘away’ were always pining with sorrow over their loss of fairy bliss.  They had a cold touch and a low voice.  They seemed to have lost part of their humanity and would be queer, distraught and pale, ever restless with a desire to be far away again.  Yeats was told by one woman from the Burren that:

“Those that are away among them never come back, or if they do they are not the same as they were before.” (Unpublished prose, vol.1, p.418 & vol.2, p.281)

The symptoms of having been ‘away’ are a dazed look, vacant mind, fainting fits, trances, fatigue, languor, long and heavy sleeping and wasting away.

Sometimes it is hard to determine whether the after-effects are psychological or physiological (though one may lead to the other).  The Reverend Edmund Jones in his history of Aberystruth parish in Wales described a neighbour and good friend who had been absent with the fairies for a whole year.  When he came back,  “he looked very bad.” (p.70)  Likewise Jones wrote in another book on spirit apparitions in Wales that the experience was debilitating and left the revenant sickly and disturbed; often the person would fade away and died not long after their return home (The appearance of evil paragraphs 68 & 82).  In Welsh belief of the time, in fact, even seeing fairies might prove to be a premonition of the person’s death (paras 56, 62, and 69).

Cornish case study

An example of being elf-addled comes from the well-known story of the House on Selena Moor, in Bottrell’s Traditions and hearthside stories of the West of Cornwall (1873, pp.94-102).  Pixie led on the moor, a Mr Noy finds a farmhouse at which a celebration is taking place.  As he approaches, he meets a former lover whom he thought dead, but who has actually been captured and enslaved by the fairies.  She warns him not to touch the fairy food and drink, as she had done, and tells him something of the fairy life.  The experience of seeing the fairies, and of knowing his lost love still to be alive in fairyland, deeply affected him:

“From the night that Mr. Noy strayed into the small people’s habitation, he seemed to be a changed man; he talked of little else but what he saw and heard there, and fancied that every redbreast, yellow-hammer, tinner (wag-tail), or other familiar small bird that came near him, might be the fairy-form of his departed love.

Often at dusk of eve and moonlight nights, he wandered round the moors in hopes to meet Grace, and when he found his search was all in vain he became melancholy, neglected his farm, tired of hunting, and departed this life before the next harvest. Whether he truly died or passed into fairy-land, no one knows.”

Noy had had no physical contact with Grace nor had he partaken of the fairy fruit and beer- otherwise he would never have been able to return home at all.  Nevertheless, what he saw and heard was enough to blight the brief remainder of his life.

It’s worth recalling here too that prolonged physical contact with the fairies- a sexual relationship with a supernatural lover, perhaps in the course of a prolonged partnership or marriage- can have both physiological and psychological consequences.  It can often be fatal, whether almost immediately or over time.

Summary

A visit to fairyland need not be harmful.  Many travellers come and go unscathed. Some are even transformed for the better by the experience.  As alluded to earlier, girls might be abducted by the Shetland trows but returned to their homes when they reached adulthood.  They would be restored to their families “in maiden prime with a wild unearthly beauty and glamour on them.” (Magical folk p.132)

To close, time spent in faery must always be viewed as potentially perilous.  Even if the person is not enslaved or entrapped, they can still be affected long term by the experience, both physically and mentally.

Further reading

Morgan Daimler has posted on fairy possession on her blog, looking particularly at the Anglo-Saxon and old Irish evidence for the problem and its treatment.

‘The prettiest face’- fairy sexuality

paton msnd.jpg

Sir Joseph Noel Paton, The reconciliation of Oberon & Titania

“Tension mars the prettiest face-/ Sex in fairyland!” (Heaven 17, ‘Play to win,’ Penthouse & pavement, 1981)

I have written before about the location of faery and how the fairies may pass their time there.  These discussions have, of course, accepted that fairyland is a physical place.  In this post I want to explore the idea that it also exists within the human (male) psyche. When conceived by artists and writers, faery is often a ‘house of fun,’ it is a ‘stately pleasure dome.’

Fairyland is a place full of nudes disporting, as we see in the works of painters Noel Paton, John Simmons, John McKirdy Duncan, Richard Dadd, Robert Huskisson and (to demonstrate that it was not all men) Emiline Dell.  Paton’s canvases in particular are alive with naked, writhing flesh, conveying to us an idea that Faery is a place of constant and unbridled pleasure.

Peter Blake

Given that artists repeatedly populate Faery with naked bodies, we are driven to enquire- is it Eden or is it an orgy?  It’s true that some artists expressly consider their imagined worlds to be places of innocence, free of self-consciousness.

For example, Peter Blake painted a series of fairy paintings in the mid-1970s , both portraits and larger canvasses.  Blake saw children and fairies as sharing an enchanting naivety, which was translated into the nature of his pictures, in which the nudity is devoid of sexuality and is simply a natural, almost tribal, state.  That said, his image of Titania, a naked adolescent who has decorated her breasts and pubic hair with plants and found items, suggests something both more aware and more self-possessed.  In addition, close examination of several of his pictures will reveal naked, shadowy figures, cavorting and contorting in the margins and the background.  Placid as the main characters see, there is passion and disturbance very near.

pb poppy fairy

Peter Blake, Poppy fairy

Many contemporary images of fairies tend to take a more overtly sexualised approach.  This is entirely understandable, given that much of our literature depicts them as uninhibited- as petulant, lascivious children even…

Medieval fairies

Generally, the traditional view of fairies was as wanton and libidinous.  In the romance of Sir Launval, the knight encounters the fairy woman Tryamour reclining upon a couch in a pavilion.  It is a summer’s day and:

“For hete her clothes down sche dede/ Almest to her gerdyl stede,/ Than lay sche uncovert./ Sche was as whyt as lylye yn May/ Or snow that sneweth yn wynterys day./ He segh never non so pert…”

Presented with this alluring prospect, Sir Launval responds predictably and “For play, lytylle they sclepte that nygt.”

Robert Herrick is equally explicit in his poem Oberon’s feast.  The fairy king enters his bed chamber:

“and now he finds
His moon-tann’d Mab, as somewhat sick,
And (love knows) tender as a chick.
Upon six plump dandillions, high-
Rear’d, lies her elvish majesty:
Whose woolly bubbles seem’d to drown
Her Mabship in obedient down.”

Oberon approaches the bed, which is decorated thus:

“The fringe about this are those threads
Broke at the loss of maidenheads:
And, all behung with these, pure pearls,
Dropp’d from the eyes of ravish’d girls
Or writhing brides ; when (panting) they
Give unto love the straiter way.
For music now, he has the cries
Of feigned lost virginities;
The which the elves make to excite
A more unconquered appetite.
The king’s undrest ; and now upon
The gnat’s watchword the elves are gone.
And now the bed, and Mab possess’d
Of this great little kingly guest;
We’ll nobly think, what’s to be done,
He’ll do no doubt ; this flax is spun.”

The Victorians and later

Despite the bawdy example of their predecessors, and despite the excess of nubile flesh in their painting, Victorian writers were more circumspect. There is little in nineteenth century literature to match the visual art.  Like much of his fairy-themed verse, John KeatsBelle dame sans merci is suggestive of sexual passion: a young man encounters a beautiful, wide-eyed maid, a fairy child, who enchants with a song of love before:

“She took me to her elfin grot,
And there she gazed and sighed deep,
And there I shut her wild sad eyes-
So kissed to sleep.

And there we slumbered on the moss…”

This coy ‘slumber’ is in stark contrast to the explicitness of Sir Launfal.  Christina Rossetti’s Goblin market is also notable for its intense and sensual tone, but its evocations of sisterly incest do not involve the hideous and violent goblins.

nippers in the orchard

Brian FroudNippers in the orchard

Twentieth century fays

During the twentieth century, whilst the art has more recently become more adult and explicit, fairy verse has largely fallen from favour (except for the consumption of children).  About the only ‘adult’ example of which I’m aware is from The temptation by American poet Clark Ashton Smith, an undeniably erotic verse:

“Exile fays with childish bosoms,
And their undevirginate
Vulvas wrought like budding blossoms
Cool and small and delicate…”

As you’ll see from the entire poem, Smith was plainly fantasising about faery as bacchanalian orgy.  Some of this mood is to be found reflected in the crowded pictures of Brian Froud.   His fays are cheerfully and unashamedly sexual.  In addition, whilst representations of fairyland are often images of youth and perfection, Froud prefers imperfection- age, maturity and non-classical variety.

fairies and mushrooms

Fairies and mushrooms, Brian Froud– I need hardly point out the phallic mushrooms and the (seemingly) drug-addled girl

Diversity in faery

Even so, alongside the wide hips and pendulous breasts, alongside the range of ages, there are still plenty of nymphs in our imaginary faery, bevies of adolescent and petite beauties who conform to more classical conceptions as well as being accommodated by with more contemporary and liberal views.  As stated earlier, the question must be, here, whether these nymphs represent a primal innocence or whether they speak of a more complex sexuality.

Lee F 3

Alan Lee, Faerie, 1978

The modern faery can be a living community, with young and old.  The situation in nineteenth century art was, by contrast, rather more puzzling.  Many Victorian painters filled their scenes with a variety of sizes and types of fairy.  Whilst some were grotesques, these figures were mostly adult males and females, albeit of a range of statures; examples will be found in the paintings of Richard Dadd, John Simmons, Robert Huskisson and Noel Paton (to name but a few), all of whom imagined a vast variety of forms and sizes of fairy.  Sometimes infants are present, but these are often more like cherubs than real children (as in Midsummer Eve by E. R. Hughes for instance) and as such these figures indicate the classical origins of much of the Victorian style.  Richard Doyle was one of the very few who included definite children in his pictures; they appeared mostly as pages to the fairy court, though, and were accordingly very tiny.   It is only in more recent fairy art work that identifiably juvenile and teenaged faeries have appeared.

Lee F 2

Alan Lee, a bluebell faery

Faery has always been sexualised by humans.  The Victorians, in their different theatrical representations of fairyland, went further and juvenilised it.  What was then seen only on the stage has in recent decades appeared in painting and illustration. Froud and Lee offer us strikingly distinct visualisations of such a world.  Lee’s actually quite demure fays are black eyed and alarming in their self absorption; there is a ferocity and menace in their solitary nakedness- and even that nakedness must be a warning, when we consider the deathly blue skin of the bluebell fay above.  They are a visual reminder that contact with fairies, and especially contact with a fairy lover, could be fatal.

lee & froud faeries

Alan Lee, the cover illustration to Faeries, 1978.

Froud’s world is, on the whole, more whimsical, but there are perturbing undercurrents. His vision is frequently crowded and carnal; the atmosphere is febrile.  It is an environment where sexuality is flaunted and voluptuous; sexual awareness is pervasive and it does not seem to be the preserve of the maturer members of the fleshly throng. Everything here is promiscuous, polyamorous and uninhibited.  It’s also notable that a higher proportion of his fays seem to be female- self-possessed and confident, perhaps, as you might expect a fairy queen to be.

When I consider Froud’s images, I am reminded of those backgrounds to Peter Blake‘s fairy scenes, where less distinct figures cavort and celebrate in the murk in comparable abandon.  The latter’s pictures are very nearly contemporary with the first designs from the former, so that it seems unlikely that Blake inspired Froud directly, but the parallel is striking nonetheless and may say something about contemporary ideas.  Both painters referred to the crammed nature of their canvases too: in 1997 Blake described how-

“As the fairies ooze to the front of the picture, they hear who’s looking at the painting and they stop and look out.  A group of them stare straight out at you, involving the viewer.”

Interviewed by Signe Pike for her book Faery tale in 2009, Froud said something very similar: there is-

“typically a central figure… and around the edges of the picture come crowding all of these faces.  It’s like they all want to be in the painting.  They don’t jostle… but they all sort of… get in.” (p.89)

There’s a more direct engagement here than in many of the Victorian pictures.  We are being invited, seduced, into their world.

Doyle fairy & elf kissing

Dicky Doyle, A fairy and an elf kissing, British Library.

Duality in fairy

To conclude, there seem today to be two main styles for the representation of faery by visual artists.  One is in the tradition Victorian painter Richard Doyle and the later children’s book illustrators: it is a vision of fairy as a place of charming, harmless pleasure, and of sexless innocence.  The fays are often little girls and everything is pretty and safe.  Josephine Wall’s intricate and kaleidoscopic paintings might fall into this category.

It also strikes me here how often we read in contemporary books how it is children, because of their innocence, who are most likely to be able to see fairies.  This thinking has prevailed since at least the time of the Cottingley fairy photographs: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was anxious to obtain further pictures from the two girls because he feared that their encroaching adolescence might soon mean that they would lose their clairvoyance.  Edward Gardner wrote to Doyle  expressing his concern that one of them might soon fall in love and then “hey presto!”, the fairy encounters would be at an end.  How curious it is that sex could become the antithesis of faery, rather than than one of its defining features, as seen repeatedly in earlier art and literature.

the_wood_fairy

Josephine Wall, The wood fairy

In contrast, as discussed at length here, there is a darker, more traditional and more sensual vision: we are lured in with enticing looks, but indulging ourselves may be a risk.  A contemporary artist who embodies much of what has been discussed- the frames crowded with figures, the nudity, the atmosphere of pagan mystery- may be Mia Araujo.

Further reading

I have also discussed questions of sexuality in fairyland in various earlier posts, including consideration of sex and sexuality in the poetry of William Blake and John Keats, some thoughts on ideas of fairy beauty, on representations of sex in the art of Arthur Rackham and Brian Froud and a wider discussion of our evolving views of gender and age in Faery.  For those desirous of an actual sexual encounter with a fay, I recommend a look at my posting on the fairy rules of love.