Who is Ariel?

Maclise, Daniel, 1806-1870; Priscilla Horton (1818-1895), as Ariel

The character Ariel in Shakespeare’s The Tempest is a distinct departure from the fairies of the playwright’s earlier Midsummer Night’s Dream.  In the latter, Puck is derived straight from British folk tradition with his pranks, his earthy humour and his domestic associations.  Ariel has none of these characteristics.  Where did Shakespeare get his inspiration?  There are three Ariels we must discuss.

Origins

Ariel is a Hebrew name.  Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa mentions in De occulta philosophia that “Ariel is the name of an angel, and is the same as the Lion of God.  Sometimes it is also the name of an evil demon and of a city called Ariopolis where the idol of Ariel was worshipped.”(Book III, Part 3)  The name was chosen by medieval and Renaissance magicians and by Neo-Platonist philosophers as a name for one of the sylphs, a being who was sometimes said to be ruler of Africa.  Sylphs are one of the four ‘elementals’, the spirits of the earth, air, fire and water.  The sylphs are the spirits of the air and were said to be capricious, passionate and irascible.  The sylphs’ airy and aerial connections obviously suggested a fairy analogy to playwrights and poets.

Shakespeare

In The Tempest the spirit Ariel is enslaved by the sorcerer Prospero.  He can fly at incredible speed (“with a twink”), riding on the clouds and conjuring storms; he can walk on the waves and ride the sharp north wind; he can change his shape.  Ariel is ‘delicate,’ ‘a bird’, a ‘chick,’ he is ‘but air.’  His ‘dainty’ and diminutive nature is emphasised by the song he sings in Act V, scene 1:

“Where the bee sucks, there suck I:
In a cowslip’s bell I lie;
There I couch when owls do cry.
On the bat’s back I do fly
After summer merrily.
Merrily, merrily shall I live now
Under the blossom that hangs on the bough.”

 

ariel, maud tindal atkinson

‘Ariel’ by Maud Tindal Atkinson, 1915

Ariel was formerly imprisoned in a tree by a witch; from this Prospero released him- on conditions of service for a time.  After a period serving Prospero well and faithfully, Ariel is ultimately released: “to the elements be free” (V, 1) and then is “as free as mountain winds.” (II, 1).

Puck is clearly and solidly male, but Ariel is sexless (hence, in theatrical productions, the variation between portraying the character as male or female).  In contrast to Puck’s cheeky cheeriness, Ariel seems subservient and melancholy.  This theme of enslavement perhaps comes from Ariel’s origins in hermetic magic: he is a familiar, a spirit to be conjured and commanded.  He is there to do Prospero’s will and lacks any personality or motivation of his own.  Both captive Ariel and the conjured spirit are controlled by another’s arcane knowledge and skills.

Henry Singleton A

Alexander Pope

There is a second Ariel in English literature.  In Alexander Pope’s Rape of the lock (1714) Ariel the sylph reappears.  The poem was a mock-heroic commentary upon an actual incident, first written in 1712, and the ‘machinery’ of the sylphs was something of an afterthought for Pope.  Nevertheless, the elementals assume an important role as guardians and attendants to the heroine.  In his introductory letter to Mrs Arabella Fermor that precedes the poem, Pope states that he has drawn upon “a very new and odd Foundation, the Rosicrucian doctrine of spirits.”  He explains to her that, according to these gentlemen, the four elements are inhabited by spirits, the sylphs being “the best condition’d Creatures imaginable. For they say, any mortals may enjoy the most intimate Familiarities with these gentle spirits, upon a Condition very easy to all true Adepts, an inviolate preservation of Chastity.”

Chastity is key to Pope’s plot.  In the poem Ariel’s task is to protect his mistress Belinda’s virtue, but as a sylph he seems ill-suited to do this.  We also learn that women can be reborn as one or other of the elementals depending upon their characteristics during life and that:

“The light Coquettes in Sylphs aloft repair,/ And sport and flutter in the Fields of Air.” (Canto I, lines 65-66)

The sylphs are now explicitly the tiny fairies with insect wings that are so familiar to us. They have ‘transparent forms’ and ‘fluid Bodies half dissolv’d in Light.’ (Canto II lines 59-67.)

In the event, Ariel fails to protect Belinda’s virginity and a symbolic lock of her hair is snipped off by a suitor.  This contrasts with the success of Ariel in The Tempest, who fulfills all of Prospero’s commands.  It is significant that, having failed, Ariel is replaced by Umbriel, a malignant gnome (a daemon of the earth who delights in mischief, according to the Rosicrucian doctrine).

For our purposes in this blog, the importance of these two literary characters is as a symbol of the wider change to the understanding of British fairies.  The traditional types began to be affected from the seventeenth century onwards by concepts of classical, oriental and magical origin, a process with far reaching implications for native belief.

pope

For more discussion, see my book Famous Fairies.

Flower fairies- origins and meaning

gorse-flower-fairy

During the last hundred years or so, fairies have become intimately associated with flowers.  What I want to do in this post is to consider the evidence for such links in traditional folklore beliefs and to discuss how the idea has arisen that fairies are ‘nature spirits’ or ‘guardians of nature’ and have a particular mission to supervise the growth of flowers and other plants, in which work they may resemble bees or ants and are certainly of diminutive dimensions.

Shakespeare

Without doubt, one link in the chain connecting fairies to flora is literary.  Shakespeare perhaps initiated the trend with a the fairies in Midsummer Night’s Dream.  One is required to “hang a pearl in every cowslip’s ear” (II, 1).  Of course, we have fairy Peaseblossom in the same play (III, 1) and Oberon’s well-known directions to help Puck find Titania:

“I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight…” (Act II, 1)

In The Tempest Ariel, who sings “Where the bee sucks., there suck I”  The floral motifs are prominent, indicating a closeness to nature generally and the evidence of small statute is also present.  Robert Herrick and Michael Drayton took the matter of scale to extremes, though for reasons of pure fancy: I don’t believe that they sought to reflect any genuine traditions known to them.  British fairies are of a range of sizes, often adult height, quite often the size of children, much more rarely very small (the medieval English ‘portunes’ of just half an inch in height are an exception).

titania-sleeping

Richard Dadd, ‘Titania sleeping,’ 1841, The Louvre 

Herrick imagined a fairy loaf of bread as “A moon-parch’t grain of wheat” washed down with “A pure seed-pearle of infant dew/ Brought and besweetened in a blew/ And pregnant violet” (Oberon’s feast).  Drayton likewise envisaged a fairy palace “The walls of spiders’ legs are made … The windows of the eyes of cats” (Nymphidia).  The conceit of miniature fairies was sustained into the next century by other poets.  For example, in The flower and the leaf John Dryden imagined that a faint track “look’d as lightly press’d, by fairy feet” and William King, like Herrick, surveyed a fairy supper:

“What may they be, fish, flesh of fruit?/ I never saw things so minute./ Sir, a roasted ant is nicely done,/ By one small atom of the sun./ These are flies’ eggs in moonshine poach’d/ This a flea’s thigh, in collops scotched.” (Orpheus and Eurydice)

rowan

Tiny fairies

Increasingly, then, the convention prevailed that fairies were minuscule, but neither in literature nor in folk tales was there any deep attachment to plant life.  As described when discussing fairy clothes, fairies most often were attired in green, which may well be symbolic of growth, but there is still scant suggestion of any special purpose as ministers of Mother Nature.  There are quite a few indications of fairies inhabiting trees.  There is the Old Lady of the Elder Tree whom I have mentioned in discussing my book  The Elder Queen; from the Outer Hebrides comes a story of a fairy maiden who inhabits a tree on a knoll, once a year appearing to dispense ‘the milk of wisdom’ to local women (L. Spence, British fairy origins pp.101 & 186); also from the Highlands and Western Isles we hear a report of ‘tree spirits’, green elves who are often seen in woodland (Spence p.100).  This is about as good as it gets in British tradition.  Lewis Spence in chapter VI of British fairy origins examined the theory that fairies derived from ‘elementary spirits’ and summed up “all nature spirits are not the same as fairies; nor are all fairies nature spirits.” (p.110)  He further stated that “it is a notable thing that in Great Britain and Ireland the nature spirit remains to us in vestigial form only.  To make a list of British nature spirits as known in our islands today is very … difficult… I can think of no genuinely English earth or tree spirits.” (p.113)  He blames homogenisation into “the common hill-fairy, the standard elf of folk-lore.” (p.114)  On the matter of flowers, s I have described before, there are flowers that are believed particularly to repel or to attract fairies, but the surviving stories do not conceive of fairies living within or overseeing the growth of any flowers.

elder

How then do we explain the rapid ascendancy of the flower fairy?  I think that occult science and mystical philosophy are the source; flower fairies are a product of the thought of Paracelsus and Pseudo-Dionysus.  They are nature spirits, part of a ‘celestial hierarchy,’ and are derived from a system of thought very different to native custom.  I shall examine this theme further in due course.

Further reading

Other posts on the natural associations of fairies cover such issues as wood elves, fairy plants and ‘eco-fairies.’