‘War fairies’- fairyland’s role in the Great War

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Captain Robert Graves, author of Goodbye to all that.

The outbreak of the Great War in August 1914 meant the advent of total war for all the denizens of the British Isles.  The fairies, just as much as the human population of Britain, had a potential contribution to make to the war effort.  Faery could perform two opposing roles for the Empire: as a refuge from the conflict or as a recruiting tool; by the time of the Armistice in November 1918, both roles had been exploited.

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Robert Graves by John Aldridge, National Portrait Gallery, London.

“We’ll be fairies soon”- Art, violence and faery

Fairyland as a sanctuary from violence and destruction is something I’ve discussed before in connection with Bernard Sleigh and his Map of Fairyland.  The arts could offer individual and national solace and escape.

Several poets found personal comfort in images of a pastoral, playful otherworld and in turn they offered the same to their readers. Irish poet Francis Ledwidge imagined fairy jollity, with dancing amongst the trees, and wondered in the poem Fairies “What are we but fairies too,/ Living but in dreams alone,/ Or at the most, but children still,/ Innocent and overgrown?” His fairyland was a place of eternal summer and abundance of flowers and fruit, a place of rest, love and pleasure- see for example the verse Lanawn shee.  Robert Graves seemed to want to run away become a fairy in verses like Cherry time or “I’d love to be a fairy’s child.”

Of course, the detailed vision varied from poet to poet.  Graves’ fays were very much those of the late Victorian nursery- feminine, winged and small.  Ivor Gurney wrote of such tiny beings too, before the sobering experience of life at the front.  Ledwidge drew on his Irish heritage and the Tuatha de Danaan of the Celtic myths shaped the characters of his verse; his fairies can be sad and dangerous as well as joyous.  Predominantly, Rose Fyleman’s verse is deeply imbued with childlike playfulness; her narrators and subjects join the fairies’ games.

Rose Fyleman

For all that yearning for escapism, there was, too, an acute awareness that the humans’ world was not like Faery and that “No fairy aid can save them now” (Ledwidge, Lanawn shee).  Fyleman too was aware that after the war it might not be possible to return to the dreams of the Edwardian nursery (There used to be fairies in Germany).  In this poem the fairies function as a conscience for the human population, albeit one that has failed in respect of the Germans by being unable to prevent the outbreak of war.  In consequence, the fairies have disappeared from the Kaiser’s lands.

The visual arts also contributed to boosting the nation’s flagging morale. In two earlier postings I’ve discussed the 1914 painting The piper of dreams by Estella Canziani and craftsman Bernard Sleigh’s An Ancient Mappe of Fairyland, Newly Discovered and Set ForthThese works simply evoked an atmosphere and provided scope for individual fantasy without any explicit allusions to the conflict.

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The fairies go to war

Rarely, the fairies were harnessed directly to the war effort itself.  There are two notable examples to consider.  In May 1917 poet Eleanor Gray published a short verse drama entitled The war fairies.  The piece was dedicated to her niece and godchild Muriel Harrowing, who had volunteered for service as a war nurse as early as August 1914; all proceeds from sale of Gray’s slim booklet were to go to the British Red Cross.  This was the contemporary context to her work, but her choice of material seems to have been much more personal.  It’s notable that Gray’s 1927 collection of poems, Alfieri, was dedicated to the Irish mystic and visionary AE, who himself wrote about and painted fairies.

In The war fairies the fays Viola and Mignon are distressed by the conflict in the human world.  They lament the sounds that shake the air and terrify the lilies ; the fairies can no longer enjoy their revels because of the tears and sighs of mortals.  At the same time there seems to be nothing they can do to help: they are “such mites of gossamer” that men pay them no attention.

Nevertheless, Viola is determined to find a way to “help the giant folk whose foolish eyes/ Too dull are to be ‘ware of us.”  The two fairies quickly resolve to combine to “chase the monster now devouring all the milk and honey o’ the world, leaving it void of joy.”  They unite in a dance to “chase the cruel thing/ Into a quagmire.”

At this point Queen Titania appears, asking why her fairies are in tears.  They explain what they have seen: “Young hopes are blighted, nerveless lie young hands/ Pulseless young hearts, strong hearts are struck with eld/ Love silent lies/ Its eloquence is quelled.” They’ve witnessed young soldiers dying, calling out for Home and Mother, and have been moved to act.

Titania’s advice is to stay out of mortals’ love of strife, but the two little fairies are committed to try to help with Love.  The queen warns them that, by doing so and leaving Elfland, they will become hybrid creatures, made partly human by gaining a soul, but as such unable ever to return.  Viola and Mignon are not discouraged: “We’ve seen new beauty, Queen, nor can forego its sadness.”  They rally to their side a chorus of elves who are willing to help.  These elves confirm that they are ready “To fold up/ Your spangled garments- to put off your crowns” and to replace them with red crosses, aprons and stout hearts.

Titania protests at the loss of her attendants, but they are all inspired to sacrifice their pleasure for the sorrows of the human world and to go to “weave chains of love throughout the lands, binding all equally in bonds of brotherhood… In toil unwearied, love to consummate.”  Titania has to accept their mission and bids them farewell as they go to sow love in hearts where wrath and sin dwell.  The scene ends with the elves dancing as they say goodbye to the velvet sward and rippling stream, “to moths and owls and fireflies bright… We leave you for a higher flight.”

It’s interesting to contrast Gray’s vision of wartime faerie to Rose Fyleman’s.  As in Fyleman’s poem, the fays have a moral role to play, but in Gray’s story they actively engage with the human world and make a difference.  Curiously, though, the end result is the same for them- they cease to be fairies- although in The war fairies Viola, Mignon and their companions are not extinguished but become mortal, partaking of the joys (and sorrows) of earthly life.

Gray’s little play is entirely free of jingoism and hatred of the ‘Hun.’  It does not name any foe- except perhaps the violent nature of men as a race- and it aspires to a humanist love for all.  The fairies become nurses, not soldiers, and will bring help to the injured whatever their nationality.  Very different is the second fairy play to appear that year.

raf-poster-1918

In Spring 1917 the Germans began to use Gotha heavy bombers to carry out air raids against the South-East of England.  In fact, Eleanor Gray had penned a response to the aerial attacks upon London, the poem Zeppelin nights, which cried out that “Men slept. A mighty rape/ Seized, smote- and left them dead.”  As a consequence of the intensification of the air campaign, Rose Patry wrote the play Britain’s defenders, or Peggy’s peep into Fairyland, a fairy play, which was published with a musical score in autumn that year.

In Britain’s defenders young Peggy and her sister Betty sneak out of bed and into a nearby dell in the hope of seeing fairies dancing in a fairy ring.  Instead they see various fairies of the natural world, along with Britannia, leading in the Moon as a prisoner.  The Moon’s offence has been to shine at night and to show the German bombers the way over the Channel to South East England.  The assembled fairies sing:

“On naughty Moon, you are in disgrace,

Mind you be good and hide your face;

When Gothas o’er the North Sea fly,

Go bye-bye, go bye-bye.”

The Moon’s defence is that “the horrid old Kaiser” has taken advantage of her light and that she’s being unfairly blamed, when the Sun and stars are not, yet have also shone.  Britannia calms this squabbling but insists “we must do something to stop these intruders.”  In response, each fairy in turn offers to contribute their particular abilities to Britain’s defence: the Wind Fairy will blow mighty gales that push the pilots off course; the Snow Fairy will send blinding blizzards and Jack Frost will freeze the planes’ petrol; the Wave Fairy will stir up mountainous waves, the Will of the Wisp will lure German pilots to land in bogs and the Rain Fairy will send veils to hide the Moon.  There’s some concern that the rain will also make mud that will hinder the troops at the front, but the Rain Fairy promises to keep the downpours away from the trenches and the Sun promises to dry out the ground in Flanders.  Various patriotic declarations and a verse of ‘God save the king’ follow.

Finally, the Will of the Wisp discovers Betty and Peggy asleep behind a bush.  Britannia asks the fairies to carry them safely home as they are “only two of the myriads of children you must help me to protect.”  The fairies pick up the slumbering girls singing:

“Fairy bells are ringing,

‘Forward to the fray.’

Fairy bands are mustering,

Through the night and day.

Fairy voices calling,

‘Britain needs your aid,’ Fairy echoes falling

‘She shall be obeyed.’”

Then the short play ends with the fairies carrying the girls out in procession and singing a final stirring song:

“Hear our Fairy ding-dong-bell.

We who love our island well,

When our foes approach our land,

Marshal we our fairy band.

Wave and Wind and Mist and Rain,

Make the Gothas’ journey vain.

Britain, dear, we’ll give to thee

Lasting peace and victory.”

Summary

At the distance of one hundred years we can smile indulgently at patriotic fervour of Britain’s defenders, but Rose Patry clearly saw no necessary contradiction between the best interests of fairyland and the national interest of Britain.  Nor did she hesitate to banish Titania and instate Britannia as the fairy queen.  Of course, we should be mistaken to view fairies as wholly benign and peaceable.  We might like to think of them as pacifist vegetarians, but the traditional fays do not hesitate to use violence against humans nor to fight amongst themselves.

Neither of these plays are great works of drama, but they are a fascinating glimpse of  different aspects of the national mood in the last year of the Great War.

See too my postings on the composer Rutland Boughton and on J R R Tolkien and the Great War.

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