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?’

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