“Full of Fairy elves”- William Blake and fairies

Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing c.1786 by William Blake 1757-1827

Titania, Oberon and Puck with fairies dancing, 1796

This latest posting examines the poet William Blake’s conceptions of fairies.  This is to mark the publication of my latest book, Albion awake, a fairy story for adults that features both the Fairy Queen Mab and William Blake amongst its cast of historical characters.

Blake had a very clear vision of the nature of fairies, although these thoughts were frequently unique to him- not an uncommon situation in the complex mythology that he elaborated over the course of his life!  Blake spoke of “the elemental beings called by us by the general name of fairies.”  From this it seems clear that he did not conceive of a single class of supernatural being, but of complex variety- as if, of course, the British conception of fairy-kind.

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Illustration to Milton’s ‘Il Penseroso V‘- Milton dreams of “six spirits or fairies, hovering on the air with instruments.”

In his verse, Blake’s fairies fulfil a number of functions:

  • primarily and originally they are remnants of the pagan gods of Britain.  In The Four Zoas Blake speaks of the “fairies of Albion, afterwards The Gods of the Heathen.”
  • they are emanations of his character Los (broadly ‘time and space’) and accordingly they are the makers of time.  In Milton (28, 60) time is described as “the work of fairy hands of the four elements.”
  • along with nymphs, gnomes and genii, fairies are spirits that animate the material, vegetative world.  They are often associated by him with flowers and natural growth and they are linked to its vigour and fecundity.  For example in 1802, after his move to Felpham on the coast, Blake wrote that the trees and fields roundabout his cottage were “full of Fairy elves.” The fairy that dictates Europe to the poet is first discovered “sat on a streak’d Tulip.”
  • closely related to the previous characteristic, fairies are understood to be intimately aware of the sensuous nature of life.  In Europe, for example, the fairy offers to open Blake’s senses and to “shew you all alive/ The world, where every particle breathes forth its joy.”  He demonstrates that the material world is not dead; rather each flower whimpers when it is plucked and its eternal essence then hovers around Blake “like a cloud of incense.”  In this respect, then, fairies represent the natural state of human imagination and perception, before it has been blunted and enslaved by logic and reason.  In his Motto to the Songs of Innocence and Experience, Blake condemns how:

“The good are attracted by men’s perceptions,/ And think not for themselves;/ Til experience teaches them to catch/ And to cage fairies and elves.”

  • the keen animation of the fairy senses seems to shade into sensuality and Blake makes some connection between these spirits and female sexuality.  In ‘A fairy leapt upon my knee’ the spirit protests to Blake thus:

“Knowest thou not, O Fairies’ lord,/ How much to us contemn’d, abhorred,/ Whatever hides the female form/ That cannot bear the mortal storm?/ Therefore in pity still we give/ Our lives to make the female live;/ And what would turn into disease/ We turn to what will joy and please!”

The verse ‘The fairy’ treats the supernatural creature as ‘king’ of the marriage ring.  It appears that Blake saw the emotional and physical obsession of love as some sort of spell that has to be broken.  This link to carnal pleasure also seems to feature in his poem The Phoenix, sent to Mrs Butts in 1800 after the move to Felpham. Blake contrasts a fairy to the innocence of children playing.  The phoenix flees the sprite for the company of the children and-

“The Fairy to my bosom flew/ weeping tears of morning dew/ I said thou foolish whimpring thing/ Is not that thy Fairy Ring/ Where those children sport and play/ In fairy fancies light and gay?/ Seem the child and be a child/ And the Phoenix is beguild/ But if thou seem a fairy thing/ Then it flies on glancing Wing.”

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Illustration to Milton’s L’Allegro V- Queen Mab, fairies & a goblin.

These quite individual conceptions of the nature of faery were elaborated  by the poet from pre-existing folk materials of long standing.  We have just seen mention of fairy rings and, in one very significant respect, Blake did not depart at all from conventional imaginings of fairies: his creatures are always very small.  There are numerous examples of this:

  • An early poem, found in the manuscript collection owned by Rossetti,  describes how “A fairy leapt upon my knee.”  Blake condemns it as a “Thou paltry, gilded, poisonous worm,” emphasising its miniature dimensions.
  • In another early poem, found only in manuscript, ‘Little Mary Bell’ keeps a fairy hidden in a nut.
  • An illustration for the 1797 edition of Gray’s A long story has fairies riding upon flies;
  • In Europe Blake caught the fairy muse in his hat “as boys knock down a butterfly” and then took it home “in my warm bosom” where it perched on his table and dictated the verse.  In his early poem, The fairy, Blake likewise catches a elf in his hat after it leaps from some leaves in an effort to escape.  He addresses it as his ‘Butterfly.’
  • Lastly, in his famous account of a fairy funeral, Blake described “creatures of the size and colour of green and gray grasshoppers, bearing a body laid out on a rose leaf.”

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Illustration to Gray’s ‘Long story’- fairies riding on flies

Blake’s vision as, of course, a highly personal one and we would seldom be well advised to treat his version of fairy-lore as an authoritative guide to what his contemporaries believed about the supernatural world.  Nonetheless, it is a fascinating and coherent conception and a notable element within his overall philosophy.

My interpretation and use of Blake’s fairy lore, my new fairy tale Albion awake!, is available to purchase through Amazon as a Kindle or paperback.  I also intend to make related posts separately on johnkruseblog.wordpress.com.

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“That shrewd and knavish sprite”- the fairy temperament

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Is it possible to generalise meaningfully upon the character of a people?  There are, of course, popular conceptions of nations such as the British, Welsh, Irish and Cornish, but how valid are these stereotypes?  Turning to supernatural realms, is it any easier to delineate temperament?  Our ancestors apparently thought so, with the denizens of faery treated as predictably uniform in their conduct and reactions rather than being individuated.

Folk imagination detected distinctly discernible traits to the different ‘species’ of fairies. Certain identifiable types possessed very simple characters indeed, possessed of only a couple of features.  For example:

  • brownies or house elves, which were attached to specific houses or estates, were generally amenable to human proximity and were hard workers, being content with a regular bowl of gruel or fresh milk or water.  Robin Goodfellow is cast in this role in Samuel Rowland’s More knaves yet of 1613.  Robin helps the country wenches “To wash the dishes for some fresh-cheese hier:/ Or set their Pots and Kettles bout the fier.”   Brownies only became upset when presented with a more material reward, such as a suit of clothes, a mistaken kindness which would so offend that they would desert the holding or, sometimes, haunt it destructively like a poltergeist; or,
  • boggarts, bogies and bogles and similar spirits are consistently ill-tempered, tending to mischief that shades into downright malice.  By and large this is their only function- to trick, annoy and to scare, although on occasion there is a moral aspect to the treatment: the Dorset colepexy was a red-eyed goblin colt that would  lead wanderers astray into marshes.  Sometimes this was a punishment for malefaction, such as sealing from orchards.  Hobgoblins, personalised in the character of Puck  in Shakespeare’s Midsummer night’s dream (from whence the title of this post: Act II, scene i), traditionally inhabit the border between brownies and bogies.  They are mischievous creatures, but are generally well-disposed toward humankind and all our frailties.

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Midsummer Night’s Dream, a fairy meets puck.

The pixies and other trooping fairies, which usually take human form and often are of human stature, have more complex characters than those fairies so far described. Nevertheless, their moods, manners and motivations were conceived to be fairly constant, so consistent indeed that the personality descriptions that follow might almost serve as a human’s guide to dealing with Faery- what conduct to prefer, what to avoid.

The most typical fairy traits were:

  • a secretive, private disposition.  Spying and intrusion are resented and so is often chastised, frequently by pinching, as befell John Aubrey’s former schoolmaster, Mr Hart, when he intruded upon a fairy dance on the downs near Chippenham.  Any risk of disclosure of their presence is hated by fairies, so that they conceal themselves with the magical power of ‘glamour’ and will punish severely those who breach this. A very common story across the British Isles is of the human who is midwife, nursemaid or fosterer to a fairy child.  S/he is given balm with which to anoint the fairy infant’s eyes, but is cautioned not to put it upon their own.  The inevitable violation accidentally occurs, revealing the true nature of the fairy residence (frequently a ruin or charnel house).  Later the fairies are met at the market and greeted, in response to which the eye touched with glamour is promptly blinded.
  • an aversion to human untidiness and a preference for neatness.  To breach these standards usually leads to a merciless pinching. For example, Rowland has his Robin Goodfellow “bepinch the lazie queane” and John Marston in The Mountebank’s Mask of 1618 alludes to the risk that “lustie Doll, maide of the Dairie,/ Chance to be blew-nipt by the fairie.”  Robert Herrick, in his poem The fairies, succinctly encapsulates the fairy prejudices in their entirety-

“If ye will with Mab find grace/ Set each Platter in his place:/ Rake the fier up, and get/ Water in, ere sun be set./ Wash your Pailes and clense your Dairies;/ Sluts are loathsome to the Fairies:/ Sweep your house: who doth not so,/ Mab will pinch her by the toe.”

  • Herrick also hints at another less well-known fairy character trait: a respect for Christian superstition.  In the verse Ceremony upon Candlemas Eve he warns maidservants to remove all the greenery that had bedecked the Christmas hall before that date otherwise “So many Goblins shall you see.”
  • resentment of meanness and rudeness whilst, conversely, generosity and good manners will be rewarded.  However, presumption is also disliked.  Taking fairy gifts for granted, for example, or disclosing a person’s good fortune to others, will invariably lead to the withdrawal of fairy favour and the loss of the benefits they had bestowed.  The obligation to be circumspect about the source of one’s good luck is reflected in the words of Ben Jonson’s Entertainment at Althorpe.  Fairies presented a gift to the queen but then admonished her “Utter not/ We implore you/ Who did give it, nor wherefore/ And whenever you restore/ Yourself to us, you shall have more.”  Massinger expressed this same warning with greater foreboding in The fatal dowry (IV, 1): “But not a word of it- ’tis fairies’ treasure,/ Which but revealed brings on the blabber’s ruin.”
  • an esteem for a fair and generous nature, honesty and oath keeping, a preparedness to lend and share and a cheerful disposition on the part of human beings.

It will be observed that the code of conduct imposed upon humans is one of opposites and that the fairy nature is likewise a combination of polar contrasts.  For fortunate humans of the desired disposition, though, the fairies will be grateful and kind (subject to the conditions of discretion already specified).

Lastly, it will be noted that the more modern type of fairy (small, winged, associated with flowers) is a far more benign kind of nature spirit altogether.  They are reserved and timid, gentle, kind, harmless and helpful.  The iconography reflects this, with girlish imagery replacing wizened old men as the ‘typical’ fairy.

Fairy dwellings

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Arthur Rackham, Three little men in the woods

Where do fairies live?  This seems like an obvious question, but it is one that is not always directly asked.  British folklore gives various answers to the query, in part depending on the region from whence the tale derives and in part on the nature of the fairy folk involved.  It is important too in answering this question for us distinguish the places the fairies haunt or frequent, such as groves, moors, highways, stone circles and barrows, from their actual dwelling places.

A trite answer to the question of residence might be to respond that the fairies live in ‘Fairyland.’  This would not, in early modern Scotland, have seemed so banal a reply: the fairies’ palaces under the hill were known as Elfame and accordingly we hear about the Court and the Queen of Elfame.  For example, in a criminal trial of a suspected witch in 1576 she described the fairies thus “Thai war the gude wychtis that wynnit in the Court of Elfame” (that is- “They were the good folk that dwelled in the Court of ‘Elf-home.’)  As will be read in the following paragraphs, though, fairy-land in the main was conceived not as a distinct and parallel realm (other than in the cases discussed in the second bullet point), but as supernatural ‘pockets’ occurring within and between the human world.

The Reverend Kirk assures us that fairy dwellings are “large and fair,” being illuminated by “fir Lights, continual Lamps and Fires, often seen without Fuel to sustain them.”  He explains one reason for our uncertainty as to the nature of these homes: they are “(unless att some odd occasions) unperceavable by vulgar eyes.”  In other words, they are protected by glamour and are as a rule invisible (Kirk s.4).

Some writers tended to be quite vague as to exact location.  For example, Reginald Scot in The discoverie of witchcraft (1584) simply states that fairies “do principally inhabit the mountains and caverns of the earth,” although their habit is “to make strange apparitions on the earth in meadows or in mountains” (Book III, c.4).  It is possible, in fact, to list quite a number of typical fairy homes:

  • under or in fairy knolls- this was a belief held widely throughout the British Isles.  For example, the fairy knowe or sithein was prevalent in Highland tradition (Wentz pp.86 & 104) but it is also found in Wales: it was said that the smaller Tylwyth teg lived in ‘holes in the hills’ (Wentz p.148) – as did the Cornish pixies at the Gump of St Just.   Welsh writer D. Parry-Jones provided very circumstantial evidence as to the routes into the fairies’ homes: “Their habitations were universally believed to be underground, in dimly lit regions, with the entrance to them under a sod, near one of their circles, by some ancient standing stone, under the bank of a river, away on the open moor hidden by bushes, or in the ruins of an old castle, as on Ynys Geinon rock. In the midst of this castle there was a pit with a three-ton stone lying across it, and when they wanted ingress or egress, they uttered a secret word, and lo! the stone lifted, and fell back again of its own accord. From the entrance down to the underground passage they descended along a ladder of twenty-one or –two gold rungs.” (Parry-Jones, Welsh legends & fairy lore, 1953, p.19)  The belief prevailed in England, too, for instance the fairies who lived under Hack Pen in Wiltshire, according to Aubrey.  He recorded that a shepherd employed by a Mr Brown or Winterbourne Basset had seen the ground open and had been “brought to strange places underground” where music was played.  As Aubrey observed of such visitors “never any afterwards enjoy themselves.”  (Briggs, Fairies in tradition, p.12; Fairyist, Fairyplaces, Wessex).  The strength of the link between elves and hills may be demonstrated by Rudyard Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill.  In the story, Puck consistently refers to his nation underground as ‘The People of the Hills.’  Sometimes these hills would open up to reveal a lighted hall within which the fairies danced  and into which humans would be lured.  This happens, for example, in Thomas Creede’s play of 1600, The wisdome of Dr Dodypol, in which a wine goblet is offered to a traveller by a fairy emerging from a mound in which music is being played.  This enchanted realm is ruled by a wizard whose invitation is to “taste the sweetnesse of these heavenly cates, Whilst from the hollow craines of this rocke, Musick shall sound…;” it is his spell that “Made a guilt pallace breake out of the hill, Filled suddenly with troopes of knights and dames, Who daunst and reveld while we sweetly slept…”   See too William of Newburgh’s tale of a fairy cup, stolen from a feast in an opened barrow.  It appears that any prominent or unusually shaped outcrop or hillock was likely to attract a supernatural association- for example, the Tolcarne rock near Newlyn which was inhabited by a troll-like being (Wentz p.176);
  • in an underground realm-  a classic description of such a subterranean country is found in the Middle English poem, Sir Orfeo: “When he was in the roche y-go,/ Wele thre mile other mo,/ He com into a fair cuntray,/ As bright soonne somers day,/ Smothe and plain and al grene,/ Hill no dale nas none ysene…”  As will be seen, this was a common British conception of fairyland.  In Wales the Tylwyth Teg dwelt in such a land or else underneath lakes, in the case of the human sized gwragedd annwn (Wentz p.142, 144 & 147).  In light of the latter site, we may be reassured to know that Scottish fairies sensibly preferred “Dwellings underground in dry spots” according to Evan Wentz’s informant John Dunbar of Ivereen (p.95).  In England there are two tales of an underground land where fairies live: the St Martin’s Land of the Green Children of Woolpit as told by William of Newburgh and Ralph of Coggeshall.  There was no sun, just a constant twilight and the children emerged from it through a long cavern.  Gerald of Wales describes a similar world in his tale of Elidor and the Golden Ball- the country was cloudy, yet bright, and at night very dark as there were no moon or stars.  In Cornwall, Bottrell collected the story of Richard Vingoe who was taken beneath Trevilley Cliffs at Land’s End and found there an underground world  reached by a cavern.  Many Welsh tales mention the fairies residing in caves. Likewise in the Welsh tale of Einion and Olwen fairyland is a fine wooded country extending for miles underground and Keightley reports a conversation with a Norfolk girl who advised him that in their expansive subterranean caverns the fairies built “houses, bridges and other edifices.”  Access to these lands might be through something as innocuous as a molehill (Wentz pp.161-162; Keightley pp.298 & 306) or by lifting a sod and disappearing (Rhys p.227);
  • in caves and holes– these are particularly associated with hobgoblins, for example Hob Hole and Obtrusch Roque in Yorkshire;
  • on enchanted islands off the Pembroke and Carmarthen coasts (Wentz p.147).  These disappear when approached or may only be seen by standing on an enchanted turf.  These isles are the home of the Plant Rhys Dwfn.  The tylwyth teg are also said to inhabit an island in a lake near Brecon which is reached by a subterranean passage leading from a door in a rock on the shore, which reveals itself once a year (Parry-Jones, pp.19-20).  Another Welsh story mentions an island in a lake known as the ‘Garden of the fairies;’
  • in the vicinity of standing stones– fairies were, for example, associated with the Pentre Ifan cromlech in Pembrokeshire whilst in the story of Einion and Olwen fairyland is accessed by a path located under a menhir (Wentz pp.155 & 161).  In England, it is told that the Oxfordshire fairies were last seen disappearing under the Rollright Stone circle (Evans, Folklore Journal, 1895);
  • on the shore- in the folklore of Newlyn and Penzance in Cornwall, the tidal shoreline is the home of one family of pixies called the bucca.  They are propitiated by the local fishermen with offerings of fish (Wentz pp.174-175);
  • in human houses and farms- as is very well known, brownies and similar ‘house elves’ co-habit with humankind.  For example, in The hierarchie of blessed angels (1636, p.574) Thomas Haywood stated that pucks and hobgoblins were to be found living “in corners of old houses least frequented/ or beneath stacks of wood.”  Some fairies apparently live under the human house (Briggs pp.99-100), “under the door stane” according to Sir Walter Scott (Border minstrelsy p.14), a proximity which can inevitably lead to neighbour disputes.  For example, Parry-Jones tells of a farmer in Gwynedd whose habit was to empty his chamber-pot outside his front door every night before bed.  One evening a small man appeared and asked him to desist, as the waste was running down his chimney into his house beneath.  The farmer complied, blocking up the old door and creating a new one at the opposite side of the cottage, for which he was rewarded by healthy stock and great prosperity;
  • in trees- there are only a few traces of this association with woodland, something that seems more pronounced in Scandinavian and German tales. For example, in the Sad Shepherd Ben Jonson advises that “There, in the stocks of trees, white Faies doe dwell,/ And span-long Elves, that dance about a poole!/ With each a little Changeling, in their armes!/ The airie spirits play with falling starres!/ And mount the Sphere of fire, to kisse the Moone!”  In the English fairy-tale ‘The King of the cats’the nature of these tree dwellings is elaborated considerably: a wanderer at night sees a light streaming from a hollow oak; when he climbs the tree and looks inside, he discovers an interior resembling a church.  Readers of earlier posts may recall that I have made reference to the belief in the ‘Old Lady of the Elder Tree’, a spirit inhabiting and guarding these shrubs (The white goddess & the elder queen); you may also be familiar with the rhyme ‘Fairy folks are in old oaks’ and there is some record of a Northern belief in a race called ‘The Oakmen.’  Lastly we should note the “ympe-tre” of the fourteenth century ballad, Sir Orfeo.  The term ymp-tree is understood to denote a grafted apple or cherry; sleeping beneath it Orfeo’s wife Heurodis is approached and abducted by the Fairy King.  Whether this tree is the King’s home or merely a haunt of his is not clear; for certain plenty of trees were felt to have supernatural links without them being the physical residence of a fairy spirit.
  • in a ruined structure made by glamour to look grand and well maintained.  Examples are the ‘Fairy dwelling on Selena moor’ (actually only a derelict farmhouse) and the illusory palace on Glastonbury Tor visited by St Collen.  In a fairy midwife tale recounted by Rhys, a cave is made to look finely furnished when it was really only strewn with rushes and ferns;
  • outside on the moors- John Rhys relays an account of the Tylwyth Teg who were said to live amongst ferns in the summer and to shelter amidst the gorse and heather during winter (Celtic folklore p.82); and, finally,
  • nowhere- as fairies are spirit visitors to our material world, some consider that they have no habitations here.  As such, they deserve human pity and comfort: a fire and clean water at night will ease their roofless wandering (Wentz p.182).

“Her web, which spreadeth wide.”

 

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I have added a new page to the blog site, what I guess I should now term a ‘curated’ list of links to other faery sites.  It is a selection of the favourite websites and blogs I have come across in my internet travels so far; more than a simple catalogue of links, therefore, but some praise and comments too.  I hope it helps your own researches just as it has enhanced my own.  If you have additions or suggestions, please let me know.