Tempters of the night

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Brian Froud, Midsummer night’s dream

Nowadays we might wish a child a goodnight and hope that they ‘sleep tight and that the bed bugs don’t bite.’  For earlier ages the risks of the hours of sleep were far more acute and justified much stronger invocations of protection: Robert Herrick’s Bellman prays that “Mercie secure ye all, and keep/ The Goblin from ye, while ye sleep;” in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline the character Imogen asks the gods that they “From fairies and the tempters of the night/ Guard me!”  Night time is indissolubly linked to the realm and activities of fairies.  For example, we have A Midsummer Night’s Dream in which all the mischief of Titania, Oberon and their court occur over a single night.  Puck declares in Act V scene 2 that:

“Now it is the time of night

That the graves, all gaping wide,

Everyone lets forth his spirit

In the churchway paths to glide:

And we fairies, that do run

By the triple Hecate’s team

From the presence of the sun

Following darkness like a dream

Now are frolic…”

Soon after this Oberon commands that “Now until the break of day/ Through this house each fairy stray…”  Throughout the play the consciousness of the approach of dawn and the limit upon the fairies’ powers is stressed.  It is only at Christmas, it seems, that the dangers of the darkness are diminished: “The nights are wholesome, then no planets strike,/ No fairy takes or witch hath power to charm…” (Hamlet, Act I, scene 1).

Other poets confirm the close link with night time and fairies’ aversion to daylight.  Milton in Ode on the Nativity (line 235) describes how “the yellow skirted Fayes/ Fly after the night steeds, leaving their moon loved maze.”  In Paradise Lost too Milton pictures:

“Fairy elves,

Whose midnight revels by a forest side

Or fountain, some belated peasant sees, or dreams he sees,

While overhead the moon

Sits arbitress.” (line 781)

John Lyly in the Maydes Metamorphosis of 1600 (Act II) has the fairies declare “By the moon we sport and play/ With the night begins our day” and Fletcher in the Faithful Shepherdess observes too how “The nimble footed fairies dance their rounds/ By the pale moonshine.”  We can be left in little doubt that, after sunset, the preferred activity of fairy folk is to dance in circles.  In the Merry Wives of Windsor (Act V scene 5) Dame Quickly addresses her pretend elves thus:

“Fairies black, grey, green and white/ You moon-shine revellers and shades of night…”

“And nightly, meadow fairies, look you sing, … in a ring.”

Prospero further confirms in The Tempest  that elves “By moonshine do the green-sour ringlets make,/ Whereof the ewe not bites.” This all sounds quite charming and harmless, but let us remind ourselves that not all the nocturnal activity might be so innocuous: Shakespeare’s King Henry IV wishes “That some night-tripping fairy had exchanged/ In cradle clothes our children where they lay.”

Additionally we should note the traditional association between brownies and their performance of domestic chores for human households during the hours of darkness- typically when the family are asleep and can neither witness nor disturb their supernatural helpers.

What are the reasons for this fundamental association?  One may simply be a natural and instinctive human aversion to darkness.  In the Rape of Lucrece Shakespeare invokes “Sable night, mother of dread and fear” (line 17).  In his cultural history, At days’ close- a history of night time (2005), Roger Ekirch devotes the first chapter to the ‘Terrors of the night’, stressing how for earlier generations the nocturnal hours consistently engendered anxieties over the proximity of the devil, the spirits of the dead and fairies.  Without sunlight we feel less secure, more vulnerable, more prey to troubled imaginings.

In more purely fairy terms, there may be a simple physical explanation of the link with dusk and dark.  Kirk in the opening chapter of his Secret Commonwealth informs us that fairies have “light changeable Bodies (like those called Astral), somewhat of the Nature of a condensed Cloud and best seen in Twilight.”  Later he described these “chamaeleon like” creatures as being formed of “congealed air.”  A belief in the crepuscular or nocturnal appearance of fairies was widespread.  The informants interviewed for Evan Wentz’s Fairy faith in Celtic countries (1911) consistently gave evidence that elves and pixies were to be seen at dusk or dawn (pp.108, 154, 158 & 180), after darkness had fallen (pp.139, 143 & 184) and in moonlight- when they danced (pp.142, 146, 159 & 181). It may simply be that, in bright sunlight, we were felt to be less aware of the fairy presence or- even more probably, perhaps- they came out at night because then it was safer to indulge in their pastime of thieving from humans!

Whatever the explanation, poets have always exploited and played with the nocturnal association.  In Oberon’s Palace  Robert Herrick imagined Queen Mab to be “moon-tanned” whilst Simon Steward in A description of the King and Queen of Fayries (1635) imagined Oberon setting his horn to his “moone-burnt lippes.” John Lyly in Endimion called a fairy “the Queen of Stars.”

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Brian Froud, Queen of the night

They who must not be named

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Arthur Rachkam- ‘They will mischief you’ from Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens

The open use of proper names for fairies- whether personal or collective names- is universally frowned upon and frequently punished.  I want briefly to examine in this post the  nature of this rule and its motivations.

Expert writer Katharine Briggs has described this superstition as the use of ‘euphemistic’ names for the fairy folk; I think that apotropaic may be a slightly more accurate term.  The primary purpose of this allusiveness, I believe, is to turn away displeasure and ill-fortune.

Indirect names are used, I think, for several related purposes.  The first is with a view to complimenting  the fairy folk.  Examples include the Good People, the Good Neighbours, the Honest Folk, The Fair Family (Tylwyth teg), The Gentry, the People of Peace and the Seelie Court (that is, the ‘blessed court’, which is matched by Seelie Wicht, a ‘blessed soul’).  Some names avoided impolitic directness but were simply descriptive, as with the Cornish an pobel vean, the little people.

The polite and honorary addresses often conceal a second motivation- and perhaps the most important- which is to avert the unfavourable attentions of the fairies.  The invocation of goodness and peaceable conduct in part seek to ensure such a state of affairs: if you are respectful to them, they won’t be so inclined to harm you.  This is perhaps clearer in such names as Bendith y mamau, the mothers’ blessing; a name surely aimed at deflecting the risk that the fairies will steal a human child and replace it with a changeling.  The term is, in a sense, a spell to ward off the risk of abduction and the substitution of a sickly or demanding stock.

A final, very significant, element in this must be a desire to avoid using proper names directly.  Across of the globe in very many cultures it is known that a person’s proper name has special powers and that it should never be used directly or without permission- for example, in Arabia the jinns are referred to as mubarakin, ‘the blessed ones.’ Names are a form of property with magical qualities; renowned folklorist John Rhys, writing in Evans Wentz’s The fairy faith in Celtic countries, observed that a fairy would be “baffled” if his proper name was discovered (p.137) . This explains many of the vaguely descriptive phrases employed- the Green Coaties or Green Gowns, White Nymphs, People of the Hills, The Strangers and Themselves.  

This respectful avoidance of secret or personal names is best exemplified by the fairy tales featuring this theme.  Rumplestiltskin is now the best known, thanks to the Brothers Grimm, but it is a German story, not a British one.  Insular folklore has its direct parallels: the tales of Tom Tit Tot, Whuppity Stourie, Terrytop (Cornwall) and Trwtyn Tratyn from Wales.  Possession of a being’s concealed name gives control over that individual, hence the efforts to hide and to discover it.  In one Welsh example cited by John Rhys in Celtic folklore, possession of the fairy maiden’s name constrained her to marry a man (p.45).

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Rackham, Rumplestiltskin

Some readers may, of course, quite properly object that I have violated these rules in my story The Elder Queen- the faery folk there are free with personal and collective names, I must confess.  My defence is this: it is for the Folk themselves to decide what is revealed; they can choose to make themselves visible and what personal information to vouchsafe to a human.  In my story Darren is favoured- but then they want something from him- his virility and his child- so perhaps it is not a fair exchange at all.  Bargains with fairies seldom are balanced and mutually rewarding…

“Queen Mab hath been with you”

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Brian Froud, ‘The queen of the bad fairies’

In my forthcoming fairy/ fantasy story, Albion Awake, one of the main characters is Maeve (Mab), ‘queen’ of the fairies.  She is a very well known name in literary fairy land, thanks amongst others to Shelley (who calls her ‘Queen of Spells’), Drayton and Shakespeare, and in this post I wanted to outline her traditional character (although my version in the new book is departs from convention in some respects).

Mab was generally conceived as being a tiny creature- the archetypal fairy.  She is believed to be derived from the Welsh Mabb, queen of the ellyllon, who were minute elves of grove and vale.  The most famous account of her is in Romeo and Juliet (Act One, scene iv) when Mercutio describes her in the following terms: “She comes in shape no bigger than an agate stone,” galloping at night in a coach made from a nut shell.  This diminutive stature is compounded by Shelley in his poem Queen Mab by an insubstantial and wispy physical form.

Whatever her size, though, Mab is source of disturbance.  Mercutio records that she “gallops night by night through lovers’ brains/ And then they dream of love.”  She is the fairy midwife of dreams and enables sleeping humans to realise their desires in fantasy.

Secondly, Mab is mischievous; witness Mercutio again: she “plats the manes of horses in the night and bakes the elf-locks in foul sluttish hairs.”  She is responsible for undoing domestic chores and pinches and torments lazy servants- for example Ben Jonson in his 1603 ‘Entertainment at Althorpe’ warns that in the dairy Mab can hinder the churning.

This interference in human affairs is taken one stage further, though, according to Mercutio’s description, and in this final aspect we find a link to the sensual, sexual fairy that I have discussed in an earlier posting.  Romeo’s companion recounts that “This is the hag, when maids lie on their backs, that presses them and learns them first to bear, making them women of good carriage.”  To be ‘hag-ridden’ was to suffer nightmares and ‘the hagge’ was conceived to be a hideous witch or succubus who sat on a sleeper’s stomach and caused bad dreams.  For example, in the Mad pranks and merry jests of Robin Goodfellow (1588, Percy Society 1841, p.42) Gull the Fairy describes how “Many times I get on men and women and so lie on their stomachs that I cause them great pain; for which they call me by the name of Hagge and Nightmare.”  This notion is here distorted by Shakespeare into something akin to an incubus seducing- and even educating- virgin girls.

Robert Herrick, in his poem Oberon’s palace, tells of a naked and “moon-tanned” Mab who goes to bed with the elf-king.  These more adult and sinister traits in Mab’s behaviour are something I have chosen to develop in my novel.

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Queen Mab by Fuseli

Sex & the fairy

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Arthur Rackham, illustration from Milton’s ‘Comus’

As I suggested in the previous post, sex and sexuality are strong elements in (adult) fairylore.  Maureen Duffy, in her extensive and detailed study of fairies in literature, The erotic world of faery (Cardinal, 1989), describes how fairies are an embodiment of repressed desires.  Folk culture favoured greater sexual freedom than the church could sanction, and fairy tales allowed writers to deal with taboo subjects and taboo desires in an indirect way.  Duffy notes that malignant spirits are more common than benevolent ones and she links the latter to a cheerful and open sexuality.

Fairy folk appear to have some kind of role as facilitators or instigators of human sexual relations.  In my next post on Queen Mab I note her apparent role in instructing innocent virgins.  Ben Jonson hints that house elves have some sort of role in enabling wenches to spend time with their lovers: in his Masque of Love Restored one of Robin Goodfellow’s roles is to sweep hearths, clean houses and generally do the chores for the maids “whilst they are at hot-cockles.” I do not think this is merely a reference to them playing the children’s game akin to Blind Man’s Bluff!  Even more explicit is John Lyly in Act II of The Maid’s Metamorphosis.  The ‘third fairy’ recounts his pastimes:

“When I feel a girl asleep,

Underneath her frock I peep,

There to sport, and there I play.

Then I bite her like a flea,

And about I skip.”

It is certainly undeniable that there is often close sexual dependency between fairies and humans.  Fairy women often seek out human partners, a theme I borrowed in my novel The elder queen, and the literary and visual representations of fairies are frequently more or less sexualised.  In this post I want to examine fairies in art in a little more detail, making particular reference to the twentieth century artists Arthur Rackham and Brian Froud.  In Victorian Painting (Phaidon, 1999, p.194) Lionel Lambourne describes how “many paintings … [were] saved from indecorum by the pretence that the women depicted were not scantily dressed real women but innocuous fairies, tastefully ‘veiled’ in the trappings of allegory or myth.”  This allowed artists to show naked and attractive young women without (once again) violating social taboos.  I want to discuss Rackham and Froud as successors of this approach.

Both artists depict goblins in very much the same way- as grotesque, mischievous beings.  They also both depict fairies as being quite distinct- as female and human like.  Nevertheless, there are significant differences in their portrayals.  Rackham’s fairies are young women with long hair- coy, slim, alluring- semi-naked or in see-through clothing.  An example of this preference of Rackham’s is an illustration to the story of Rip van Winkle, titled ‘These fairy mountains.’  It depicts a scene on a peak in the Catskills range.  I cannot help but notice that, whilst the ‘goblin’ figures are fully clothed, in a manner suitable to the altitude and climate, the fairies are posed partially and only very lightly dressed, giving the illustrator a good opportunity to show us some juvenile semi-nudity (see below).  This apparently provides confirmation of Lambourne’s observation on some of the parameters within which Victorian artists worked..

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Brian Froud’s fairies are often young, but not always, and they seem much more self-possessed or even self absorbed.  They engage with the viewer, they have their own sense of humour and their sexuality is their own.

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Brian Froud, ‘Fairy princess’

Of course, there is nearly a century separating the pictures and Brian Froud’s art is likely to be ‘post-feminist.’  I’d argue there is more, though.  Before there was sci-fi, there was fairy art, and the aim of both is to depict unreal things- generally as if they were actually real- either because the artist or the viewer (or both) wish to imagine it so.  Fantasy art can portray things that are impossible (such as Froud’s half-frog fairies) or it can present idealised images- how we would wish ‘faery’ to be; and it is often overtly sexual or suggestive of sexuality.  Fairy maids were in the past allowed to be sexy because they were outside the structures of family and society (for example, they could independently choose human partners).  They were allowed to express what would otherwise not have been permitted to the artist or to a young woman at the time.  Those constraints are much diminished now and I think that explains the difference in atmosphere between Rackham’s work and Froud’s.  The art of both is attractive, but the messages are very different.

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Brain Froud, ‘Here we are, what can you see?’

“A doubtful tale from faery land”- John Keats & fairy

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J Waterhouse, ‘La belle dame sans merci’

I am a great admirer of the poetry of John Keats.  At the start of my adult fairy tale, The Elder Queen (available through Amazon- see https://www.amazon.co.uk/Elder-Queen-modern-fairytale-ebook/dp/B00RZ7UNLW ), I quote some verses from his poem La Belle Dame sans Merci, which is a tale of a fatal fairy lover.  Throughout my book, there are sly quotations from Keats which those steeped in his works may spot.  An example is the fairy folk’s name for themselves- they tell Darren at the dance that they are ‘sky children’ which I have shamelessly stolen (or borrowed) from Hyperion line 133.

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Many writers have explored Keats’ poetry and his interest in faery.  A very good example is Maureen Duffy, The erotic world of faery (1972, pp.260-287), which examines in detail the intertwined themes of fairy women, death, love, sex and Keats’ relationship with his mother.  In this post I will simply highlight some of the main aspects of the poet’s treatment of fairy lore.

There is little doubt that one use of faery made by Keats is as a shorthand for girls and sex.  Keats is open in his liking for women (“Nymph of the downward smile” To G A W line 1) and feminine attributes (“Faery lids” in Lines line 7).  He readily goes further too, expressing his desire for physical contact.  He “fondled the maids with breasts of cream” (To Charles Cowden Clark line 34) and on a visit to Dawlish meets a Devon maid he greets as a “tight little fairy, just fresh from the dairy” (Where be ye going line 3).  He expressly tells country wench Betty that he would like to “rumple the daisies” with her (Over the hill line 19).

It isn’t just a matter of lust though.  Fairies are linked too with love.  Keats fears he will “Never have relish in the faery power/ Of unrequiting love!” (When I have fears line 11) and he knows that they love true, as humans do (When they were come to Faery’s Court & Song of the Four Fairies).  

If you want a field guide to the fairy realm, Keats indicates that faeries are creatures of the countryside- particularly groves (When they were come to Faery’s Court) and glades (To Emma line 7); they are most often found at evening- for example in Ode to a Nightingale line 37 he describes how “the Queen Moon is on her throne, Clustered around by all her starry Fays” (see too To Emma line 7 & Song of the Four Fairies).  Lastly they are often diminutive and delicate (see for example Faery Bird’s Song & Faery Song). 

So far, so conventional; these faeries are the tiny sprites of Mercutio in Romeo & Juliet: they may be mischievous, but they are not wicked.  Keats, however, knows another strand of fairy lore.  He is aware that fairies can be perilous and vengeful.  In When they came to the Faery’s Court he alludes to the ‘three great crimes in faery land’, which are playing before them, sleeping in their company and stealing their property.  This sort of disrespect will be punished- a very regular feature of human/ fairy dealings.  The faery folk can be antagonistic and possessive: at the very start of Lamia (Part I, lines 1-2) he recounts “Upon a time before the faery broods/ Drove nymph and satyr from the prosperous woods.”  The fairy folk are jealous of what they control and will not share- and it seems that this applies to lovers too.  Diane Purkis in her book Troublesome things (Penguin 2001) highlights the deadly privilege of being chosen and loved by a faery maiden.  This is a traditional theme epitomised by La Belle Dame sans Merci.  She is alluring, this Lady of the Meads, “Full beautiful, a faery’s child” with her long hair, wild eyes and sweet moan, but association with her is dangerous and almost invariably fatal.  Contact with the lady is literally enchanting: “And nothing else saw all day long./ For sidelong would she bend, and sing/ A faery’s song… and sure, in language strange she said,/ I love thee true.”  Very soon the hapless knight was “in thrall” to the fairy and was deathly pale.

No wonder then that, in Ode to a Nightingale line 70, Keats describes being “In faery lands forlorn.”  Many of his descriptions of the fays imply carefree joy, but John Keats was also alert to the darker side of relations with supernatural beings, that their interest and affection could constitute a curse as well as a blessing.  This theme is something I intend to explore in my books.

Kitsune & fairy beasts

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Hiroshige, ‘The new year fairy fires at Oji’

I’ve always been fascinated by the fairy foxes of Japan.  Foxes had always seemed mysterious to me as a child (because they were rarely and fleetingly seen- not so now that I am living in London!) and when I discovered the kitsune, the shape shifting supernatural foxes of Japanese mythology, I was immediately hooked.  These fairy foxes can speak, they can trick people, they can morph into human form or assume other, sometimes inanimate, shapes.  That unearthly wailing and yelping that foxes produce only confirmed and explained to me their reputation in the Orient and puzzled me as to why we did not tell similar stories.

In the British Isles, we have a tradition of fairy beasts, but it is not so strong.  The creatures tend to be solitary and do not have the scheming, magical nature of the kitsune.  The beasts are, nevertheless, antagonistic to human beings, by and large, a feature they definitely share with their eastern counterparts.  An encounter with a fairy beast is almost always perilous.  Meeting a fairy steed or hound at night will at least lead to a severe fright, if not an actual fatality.  They will chase the hapless wanderer, or seek to carry him off and drown him.

British fairy fauna take a number of forms:

– horses- such as the Scottish each uisge and the kelpie;

– dogs- such as the English barguest and gally trot;

– cattle- like the Dun Cow of Kirkham;

– ‘bogies’ such as the brag, trash, shock and Hedley Kow, monstrous beings that resemble dog/horse crosses; and,

– selkies- the Highland seal folk who can take the form of seals but also appear as human-like by divesting their skins. It is perhaps these latter that most resemble the Japanese foxes, although they are generally far less openly dangerous and are more often at risk from men rather than the other way round.

We often conceive of fairies as exclusively anthropomorphic, but even a brief review of the folklore reveals that they come in a variety of forms, including shape-shifters.  This serves to emphasise the fact that the boundary between conventionally conceived fairies and ghosts, spirits, giants and monsters is fluid and uncertain.  By its nature, folk belief is not rigidly categorised; perhaps only the supernatural nature and undercurrent of peril are common to all these creatures.

The white goddess & the elder queen

As a young man living in Guildford in 1984, I purchased a copy of the new edition of  The White Goddess by Robert Graves.  I was already interested in Celtic mythology and folk tales, in early British pagan beliefs and in the complex web of myth and story found in James Frazer’s The Golden Bough.

 

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Graves’ book immediately caught my imagination.  I know now that by academics it is seen as a work of fiction (see, for example, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_White_Goddess) but the poetic blend of literature, archaeology and belief sparked my imagination, partly because it confirmed to me themes that already had a powerful resonance.  I was spending many hours walking alone of the Surrey Downs, and the infusing with myth and magic of ordinary landscape features such as elder trees and hawthorns was inspiring and exciting.  The white blossom of these two bushes, the strong, cloying scent, and (most particularly) the link between the elder and fairy lore made a lasting impression upon me.

I had read in Katherine Briggs’ book, A dictionary of fairies, about the ‘old lady of the elder tree.’  The lady demands respect: if you wish to take wood from the tree, you must ask permission; if you fail to do so, misfortune will befall you- your cattle may die and your barn burn down.  For me this traditional figure transmuted into ‘our lady of the elder tree’, the guardian female spirit of the summer hedgerows.  The magical status of the elder, the Celtic scawen, was further augmented by Graves’ descriptions of the elder in the Celtic calendar and I began to weave my own personal myth around this archetypal British fairy tree.

It is notable that in Denmark there are similar tales told of the hyldre folk (the hidden people).  They too are linked to the elder tree (hylde).  The shrub is believed to be magical and inhabited by an elder mother or woman; it is essential to ask her leave before taking any branches.  Most dangerous of all, though, are the elle (elf) maids who dance in the moonlight near the elder thickets.  They have beautiful faces and voices and will lure young men to dance with them.  However, their bodies are hollow behind and they will dance the youths to death.  Beware these wood nymphs (hyldre)!  For more detail see Keightley’s Fairy Mythology, p.78 et seq, especially, p.93.

For me, this thinking culminated in my 2015 book, The elder queen, in which the elder tree is imtimately linked with female fairy power and allure.  The supernatural use of humans for the satisfaction of their own needs, the unattainability and inscrutability of fairy thought and the vital link between the faery realm and thye health of the rural environment all came together in this story.  Visit Amazon for details of the book and how to purchase!  I hope you enjoy it!

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