King Arthur and the Fairy Queen, by Henry Fuseli
It is often said that true happiness passed away with the departure of the fairies from our land. In this posting I want to examine the traditional ties that exist between fairies and the myths Merry England.
Fairies are inextricably linked with joy and merry making in the English/ British tradition. In many accounts their sole or main occupation is dancing in rings and one persistently identified characteristic of fairyland is joy. The fairies take a simple, unalloyed pleasure in dance and music, so much so that circle-dancing in the moonlight has become a defining trait. Accordingly, William Warner’s Albion’s England published in 1602 described how:
“The Elves and Faries, taking fists, did hop a merry Rounde…
The ayrie Sprites, the walking Flares, and Goblins great and small,
Had there good cheare, and companie, and sporte the Devill and all.”
In his 1611 masque Oberon the fairy Ben Jonson celebrates that:
“These are Nights,
Solemn to the shining Rites
Of the Fairy Prince and Knight:
While the Moon their Orgies light…
Stand forth bright Faies and Elves and tune your lays.”
In Milton’s Comus of 1632 we read how:
“And on the Tawny Sands and shelves,
Trip the pert Fairies and the dapper Elves,
By dimpled Brook and Fountain brim,
The Wood-Nymphs deckt with Daisies trim,
Their merry wakes and pastimes keep:
What hath night to do with sleep?” (lines 117-122)
Fairies continued to be associated with innocent pastimes into the nineteenth century, for example in Ann Radcliffe’s poem Air the “Fays of lawn and glade” circle to the merry tabor sound and Paul Dunbar reassured his readers that the fairy rout still shouted, sang and danced their roundelays, even in late Victorian times (Dunbar (1872-1906), The discovery).
Fairies, therefore, may be said to have been synonymous with ‘merry England.’ Unfortunately, the general opinion emerged that those times were over- despite Dunbar’s promises that fairy glee persisted- and this, of course, necessitated the poet’s assurances to the contrary. Most later writers felt that the fairies had departed, or at least fallen silent, and that Britain had become a less joyful place. As early as the seventeenth century, indeed, Richard Corbet in Farewell rewards and fairies explicitly blamed the Reformation and the baneful effect of Puritan morality for this:
“At morning and at evening both
You merry were and glad,
So little care of sleep or sloth
These pretty ladies had;
When Tom came home from labour,
Or Cis to milking rose,
Then merrily went their tabor,
And nimbly went their toes.
Witness those rings and roundelays
Of theirs, which yet remain,
Were footed in Queen Mary’s days
On many a grassy plain;
But since of late, Elizabeth,
And later, James came in,
They never danced on any heath
As when the time hath been.”
John Selden expressed the belief most memorably and succinctly: “There never was a merry World since the Fairies left Dancing and the Parson left conjuring” (Selden, Table talk, 1689, c.XCIX). Later the same century John Dryden, in his version of The wife of Bath’s tale, conveyed the same sentiment, but emphasised the intimate connection of the fairies to the British Isles:
“Above the rest our Britain they held dear,
More solemnly they kept their Sabbaths here,
And made more spacious rings, and revelled half the year.
I speak of ancient times, for now the swain
Returning late may pass the wood in vain,
And never hope to see the nightly train:”
The death of ‘Merrie England’ continued to be mourned long after the event. Thomas Hood lamented that the “Fairies have broke their wands/ And wishing has lost its power!” (Hood (1799-1845), A lake and a fairy boat). In the ‘Dymchurch flit’ Kipling’s fairies declared “we must flit out of this, for Merry England’s done” (Kipling, Puck of Pook’s Hill, 1906). Folklorists on the Isle of Man in the nineteenth century heard the same stories of the fynoderee: “There has not been a merry world since he lost his ground” ( J. Train, Account of the Isle of Man, vol.2, p.138). This supernatural Manx being is comparable to the British mainland brownie; he lives on a farmstead and is the source and guarantor of good fortune. It follows that “The luck of the house is said to depart for ever with the offended phynnod-derree” (William Harrison, Mona miscellany, pp.173-174.) The same of course is true in England and Scotland: there can be no happiness or contentment on a farm if the brownie is displeased or has disappeared.
To summarise, then, we can only hope to reconnect with joy and good luck if we re-establish contact with our good neighbours. This was certainly the conviction of William George Russell (AE). His poem The dream of the children describes how music and wonder are revived:
“For all the hillside was haunted/ By the faery folk, come again.”
Identification of elves with older, happier times holds out to us the hope that they may be restored. Through the fairies we may recover our innocence, simplicity and sense of community. The fairies’ unaffected love of dancing and music, their childlike joy in play, imply that our own ability to reconnect with a better, less complex world persists undiminished and may be revived.
As well as symbolising and linking us to a ‘merry England’ of the imagination, fairies had another historical role- to explain and contextualise monuments and prehistoric sites that were otherwise mysterious and anomalous. See my posts on fairies and megaliths and on the use of fairy-lore to explain the past.