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.
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.
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:
‘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.
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.
For more discussion, see my book Famous Fairies.