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.
Graves’ book immediately caught my imagination. I know now that by academics it is seen as a work of fiction, 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. In due course I came to realise the powerful links that have always existed between fairies and plants– with certain trees and flowers having particularly strong associations.
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!
For a critical analysis of Graves’ White goddess, and a discussion of just how much he may have invented, a good start is a posting on Morgan Daimler’s blog discussing Graves’ influence on modern paganism.