William Blake and fairy origins

blake_mhh

I recently discussed William Blake’s conceptions of the nature of fairies.  It was pointed out to me by one reader (Dr9mabuse- whom I wish to thank) that I had overlooked another possible Blake reference, from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

Illustrated above is plate 11 from that poem.  The text reads as follows:

“The ancient Poets animated all sensible objects
with Gods or Geniuses, calling them by the names and
adorning them with the properties of woods, rivers,
mountains, lakes, cities, nations, and whatever their
enlarged & numerous senses could percieve.”

I think it would be perfectly reasonable to regard this as an allusion to Blake’s treatment of fairies as animating spirits of nature.  He, of course, went far beyond this, elaborating this thought considerably in the Four Zoas, but in its original conception it coincided exactly with one of the commonest theories on the source of fairy beliefs.

There are two books which particularly discuss the development of popular ideas on fairies.  The first is the classic British Fairy Origins by Lewis Spence, published in 1946.  Spence, who had a life long interest in the occult and mythology, set out a number of sources which he felt jointly fed into the fairy belief.  These are that fairies were:

  • elementary spirits– they are the spirits of natural features;
  • spirits of the dead– fairies are, in a sense, simply ghosts.  They haunt burial tumuli, the deceased are often found amongst their number (explicitly in The fairy dwelling on Selena moor) and time spent with them can age the visitor;
  • ancestral spirits– more than just being the dead, fairies were the dead of a particular family- the protective spirits of their predecessors;
  • aboriginal races– this theory postulates that fairies are a recollection of former inhabitants of Britain who were pushed to the margins by later settlers.  It is a garbled derivative of Darwin’s ideas of evolution as set out in The Descent of Man: the elusive pygmy races are our ape-like ancestors.  Of course, there is no evidence at all that Britain and Ireland were ever settled by any other than races of full stature and this is by far the least convincing of these origin theories;
  • former pagan gods– it seems widely accepted, for example, that the fairies of Ireland are the much-diminished survivors of the ancient Tuatha de Danaan;
  • totemic– the fairies are symbols of tribal kinship with certain animals; or,
  • fallen angels– they were cast out of heaven with Lucifer, but did not plummet all the way into hell (a widespread belief in Scotland on the evidence of Evans Wentz).

More recently, Katherine Briggs laid out the competing (or intermingled) theories in her book Fairies in tradition and literature.  Her list is very similar to Spence’s- fairies derive from:

  • forgotten gods and nature spirits– they are the seasons personified and the spirits of trees and water.  Amongst these Briggs includes fairies which may have been intended to act as warnings to children to avoid harmful places such as rivers, standing water and orchards- for example, Jenny Greenteeth, the spirit who lurked beneath the grass-like scum on pools, waiting to drag down unwary infants;
  • the ‘hosts of the dead‘, such as the ‘Wild Hunt’;
  • fallen devils;
  • giants and monsters; and,
  • tutelary spirits which comprise ancestral spirits attached to a particular family (most notably the banshees of Scotland who warn of family tragedy) and brownies and the like which serve a particular farm or household.

 

crane

Walter Crane, Dryads & Naiads

In each list I have given priority to fairies as nature spirits.  This animistic idea is part of what Blake seems to have been referring to in the verse quoted.  The classical nymphs of wood and well, the dryads and naiads, are plainly the ‘geniuses of woods, rivers and lakes’ mentioned by Blake and very evidently contributed something to his thought and to our more general understanding of faery.  For British writers, at least, the different spirits were interchangeable.  For example Gavin Douglas, the Scots poet, in his translation of Virgil’s Aeneid, makes a direct substitution of one for the other.  In tackling Virgil’s lines “Haec nemora indigenae fauni nymphaique tenebant…” he gives us the following (my highlighting):

“Thir woddis and schawis all, quod he,

Sum tyme inhabyt war and occupyit

With nymphis and faunis apoun every side,

Qwhilk Farefolkis or than Elfis clepen we,

That war engendryt in this sam cuntrie…

Furth of ald stokkis and hard runtis of treis…”

Aeneid Book 8, chapter 6, line 4 et seq.

Nevertheless, these supernatural beings have developed their own local and distinct features and characters, in British folklore as well as in Blake’s poetry.  As I described previously, in William Blake’s personal mythology fairies were spiritual beings investing natural features, but they took on other functions and aspects.  Likewise, the British fairy tradition was woven from many strands and imbued fairies with multiple powers  and meanings.

In my recently published Albion awake!the fairy queen Maeve has some of these close associations with the land and with its well-being; she has a general role as a guardian of fertility for the Isle of Albion.  I have made further posts related to the book separately on johnkruseblog.wordpress.com, offering a background reading list and picture gallery.

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