Lewis Carroll on pixies

pixie brian froud

One of Brian Froud’s bad fairies.

In this post I feature a paragraph of juvenilia from the family journal ‘The Rectory Umbrella’ which was ‘published’ by Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson) and his brothers and sisters between 1850 and 1853 to entertain themselves and their parents.  The piece is of interest as an early work of fantasy by the future author of the Alice stories as well as being an example of Victorian ideas on pixies.

The text appears under the sub-title: ‘Zoological papers‘ and makes fun of the learned scientific, academic style (with footnotes).

Zoological papers: Pixies

“The origin of this curious race of creatures is not at present known: the best description we can collect of them is this, that they are a species of fairies about two feet high (1), of small and graceful figure; they are covered in a dark reddish kind of fur; the general expression of their faces is sweetness and good humour; the former quality is probably the reason why foxes are so fond of eating them. From Coleridge we learn the following additional facts; that they have ‘filmy pinions’ something like dragon flies’ wings, that they ‘sip the furze-flower’s fragrant dew’ (that, however, could only be for breakfast, as it would dry up before dinner-time), and that they are wont to ‘flash their faery feet in gamesome prank,’ or, in more common language, ‘to dance the polka (2) like winking.’

From an old English legend (3) which, as it is familiar with our readers, we need not here repeat, we learn that they have a strong affection for raw turnips, decidedly a more vulgar sort of food than ‘fragrant dew’; and from their using churns and kettles we conjecture that they are not unacquainted with tea, milk, butter &c. They are tolerably good architects, though their houses must unavoidably have something the appearance of large dog kennels, and they go to market occasionally, though from what source they get the money for this purpose has hitherto remained an unexplained mystery. This is all the information we have been able to collect on this interesting subject.

(1) So they are described by the inhabitants of Devonshire, who occasionally see them.

(2) Or any other step.

(3) A tradition, introduced into notice by the Editor.”

Now, it seems very likely that Carroll must have been reading Mrs Bray.  Her book, The Borders of the Tamar and the Tavy , was published in 1836 and describes, in a series of letters to the poet Robert Southey, the traditions, legends and superstitions that surround the North Dartmoor town of Tavistock.  This is the most likely source for most of Carroll’s information: Mrs Bray’s children’s book, A Peep at the Pixies, or Legends of the West, didn’t appear until 1854.

His fairy lore is on the whole, sound (excepting, I think, the turnips… as he confesses himself)  We do know that there was longstanding animosity between the Dartmoor foxes and pixies, which led to an ever-increasing effort by the latter to protect themselves.  The foxes hunted the pixies, digging them out of their underground homes and devouring them.  The pixies  responded by making iron shelters- which may, indeed, as Carroll suggests, look like dog kennels (R. King, ‘Folklore of Devonshire,’ Fraser’s Magazine, vol.8, 1873, p.781).

We know very well the fairies’ partiality for dairy products such as butter and milk, and it had long been a poetic conceit that tiny rural beings would drink dew and nectar from flowers.  We are also very familiar with their love of dance.  The use of kettles and the like is quite conventional: one common set of stories involves fairies seeking human aid to mend some basic item of domestic equipment- a stool or a ‘ped’ used to remove loaves from ovens; they made their own butter as well as stealing ours and would have needed a fully equipped kitchen for these tasks.  Tales of fairies at markets are also well-known, although their habit is often to thieve from the stalls rather than to buy.  In the frequent accounts of midwives who have cared for a fairy baby and, in the process, touched an eye with fairy ointment, the women are exposed when they spy a fairy at the market, whether buying or shoplifting.  Fairies often had gold, it is true, whether to purchase goods or to make gifts to chosen favourites.  Many writers have speculated about its source: was this money merely leaves and pebbles disguised by glamour (as was not unknown) or was it real currency, perhaps discovered by the fays underground?  Fairies were said to have abilities to help humans locate buried treasure, certainly, and access to ancient hoards might explain the unusual coins that often made up their payments.

Carroll’s pixies coincide very much with tradition, then, and even his jokey invention of their foxy fur coats is not entirely unheard of, as we know from more recent fairy sightings.  Nevertheless, the winged pixy is something of a surprise (though see Brian Froud’s image below) as is the description of them as always jolly.  As readers will know, they have a great tendency to mischief- hence the term ‘pixy-led.’

pixy

Another Froud pixie

Further reading

Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and ‘Through the Looking Glass’ are classics and well worth reading if you’ve not already, albeit not fairy stories in any conventional sense.  I have also enjoyed reading Sean Conroy’s recent book, Alice in the Underground: Lewis Carroll and Alice in Modern Culturea book which examines many of the debated questions of Carroll’s life and work.  My own British Pixies (2021) looks at all aspects of the folklore of the pixies of South West England.

Fairies and elder trees

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Cicely Mary Barker, from Flower fairies of the trees, 1961

In one of my earliest postings, I discussed the curious link between fairies and elder trees.  I’d like to return to that with some fresh evidence, mainly drawn from the Isle of Man.

Elder trees are widely seen as having some sort of magical or spiritual properties.  For example, in Herefordshire there was a taboo upon burning elder wood for fear of bringing misfortune, whilst its inner rind was used to cure cows of jaundice.  Witches were said to dislike the tree, so its pith was fed to those believed to have been bewitched.   In Shropshire elder was never used as firewood as it would bring misfortune, even death, to the household.  The wood shouldn’t even be brought into the house, as it could cause a cow to lose its calf, nor should cattle be driven with an elder stick.  The juice of the plant would be used to protect the threshold and the hearth.

On the Isle of Man,  the same ideas prevailed as on the British mainland.  Whilst the tree was said to be the haunt of the fairies, it repelled witches and, accordingly, there was hardly to be found an old well (tholtan in Manx) near which there didn’t grow an elder tree, according to Agnes Herbert in a guide to the island written in 1909.  If you carried elder leaves with you, the islanders believed, you would be protected against witchcraft.

These are but the first indications of the supernatural associations of the tramman tree on the island.  The fairies live in the trees and when the branches of the trees are seen to bend in the wind at night, it is in fact the fairies riding upon them.  Given their status as fairy residences, interference with the trees can be dangerous.  Evans Wentz heard the story of a woman from Arbory parish who one dark night accidentally collided with a tramman.  She was instantly smitten with a terrible swelling which all her neighbours agreed was the consequence of offending the fays by her clumsiness.  Another local account told of a man who cut down an elder and was driven to suicide by the aggrieved fairies, Walter Gill recorded in 1932.

The Manx fairies living in the ‘tramman’ are plainly very similar to the Old Lady of the Elder tree that I described before.  It’s not clear, though, whether or not they’re identical.  The Old Lady seems to personify the tree in some way- to be its spirit- whilst the Manx fays live in, or at least gather in, the elders, but may not actually embody them.  Regardless of the detail, the supernatural associations are very clear and persistent and- what’s more-  can be seen across Northern Europe from Denmark to the British Isles.

elderberry

Cicely Mary Barker, The elderberry fairy, from Flower fairies of the autumn, 1926

Neverland and fairyland- J. M. Barrie, Peter Pan and British fairy tradition

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One of Arthur Rackham’s illustrations of Barrie’s story

This is a slightly amended version of an earlier post, re-posted because the old one was getting bombarded with spam!

Scottish author, J. M. Barrie, is renowned as the creator of Peter Pan, the central character of a play of that name and of two stories Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (1906) and Peter and Wendy (1911).  I would argue that his work has had a profound influence subsequently upon popular conceptions and conventions regarding faery.  A good deal of Barrie’s material on fairies was drawn from British tradition, in which respect he can’t be criticised.  However, it is what he invented that has probably had to be most profound effect on representations of genre.

Barrie and tradition

The traditional elements in his descriptions of fairy kind include the following:

  • language- Barrie has Tinker Bell speaking a language incomprehensible to human children (although Peter Pan has learned it).  Her speech is like “the loveliest tinkle of golden bells” and is also described as high-pitched squeaking.  This fits well with many older descriptions of fairy speech;
  • dancing- the fairies’ favourite pastime is dancing and by their waltzing around they create fairy rings.  Mushrooms left in the circle are seats not tidied away by their servants, according to Barrie (a first hint of his cute tendencies).  When they are happy, they “feel dancey.”  When they are troubled, they are “undancey”;
  • not working- Barrie is inconsistent in this.  He declares that “they never do anything useful… They look tremendously busy, you know, as if they had not a moment to spare, but if you were to ask them what they were doing, they could not tell you.” Elsewhere, he has them milking their cows, building and repairing pots and pans.  This uncertainty as to the exact nature of the fairy economy is long-standing;
  • glamour- Barrie’s fairies employ magic to disguise their houses and to hide themselves.  This is a standard fairy trait and Barrie tells us that pretending to be something else is “one of their best tricks.  They usually pretend to be flowers”;
  • diminutive- Barrie’s fairies are all small– Tinker Bell for example is “no longer than your hand, but still growing.”
  • concealment– Barrie’s fairy folk are shy of human contact, only appearing after dark and when the gates are locked in Kensington Gardens and disguising themselves as flowers if they are caught in the open;
  • alien- “Fairies indeed are strange” and it is only the half-boy, Peter Pan, who really comprehends them and knows that, often times, the only way to communicate with them is in the rough physical language they use themselves.  He often cuffs them and gives them a good hiding, according to Barrie; and,
  • bad temperament– in Tinker Bell’s vindictive jealously of Wendy and in their use of physical chastisements, Barrie’s fairies are very traditional.  They tweak Peter’s nose when he sleeps across a fairy path; they ‘mischief’ those they take against.  “Nearly all the nasty accidents you meet with in the Gardens occur because the fairies have taken an ill-will against you and so it behoves you to be careful what you say about them…”  “If the fairies see you … they will mischief you- stab you to death, or compel you to nurse their children, or turn you into something tedious, like an evergreen oak.”  Of Tinker Bell, Barrie explains that she “was not all bad: or, rather, she was all bad just now, but, on the other hand, sometimes she was all good.  Fairies have to be one thing or the other, because being so small they unfortunately have room for one feeling only at a time.  They are, however, allowed to change, only it must be a compete change.”  For regular readers, these accounts of abductions, violence and the need to speak circumspectly will be very familiar.

Barrie’s inventions

Significant aspects of the character and abilities of Tinker Bell have nothing to do with British tradition though.  Barrie’s most notable inventions include:

  • fairy-dust- this enables fairies to fly.  It covers Tinker Bell and rubs off; we are not told what it is;
  • fairy light- every fairy gives off a very bright light.  She cannot control it (“about the only thing they can’t do”) but “it just goes out of itself when she falls asleep;”
  • fairies nest in trees, we are told, although Barrie also has them occupying more conventional houses and palaces arranged in streets too;
  • they are closely linked to flowers– there is some traditional material here, in the association with natural life and verdancy, but for Barrie “they dress exactly like flowers and change with the seasons, putting on white when lilies are in and blue for bluebells, and so on.  They like crocus and hyacinth time best of all as they are partial to a bit of colour, but tulips (except the white ones, which are fairy cradles) they consider too garish…”

PP

Fairies and children

For Barrie, there was a very close link between children and fairies.  This manifests in three ways:

  • they are born from babies’ laughter- “when they first baby laughed for the first time, its laugh broke into a thousand pieces and they all went skipping about and that was the beginning of the fairies.”  Every time a child is born, another fairy will appear;
  • they are particularly drawn to children:  Barrie tells us that “it is frightfully difficult to know much about fairies, and about the only thing known for certain is that there are fairies wherever there are children… They can’t resist following the children…”
  • childrens’ disbelief in fairies kills them.  A fairy’s life is short in any case, although “they are so little that a short time seems a good while to them.”  Worse, though, is the fact that “children know such a lot now, they soon don’t believe in fairies ad every time a child says ‘I don’t believe in fairies’ there is a fairy that drops down dead.”

The bond between the delicate and pretty fairies and children that Barrie conjures fits ill with much of the rest of the delineation of their characters- the pinching, the grudges and the cruelty, but it is the ‘natural’ association between infancy and faery that has proved abiding.

Finally, it is also notable that Barrie was not immune to the quasi-adult treatment of fairies that had pervaded much Victorian literature and art.  There is a curious and uncomfortable tension between Peter, Tinker Bell and Wendy, with the two females competing for the attention of and the right to care for Peter.  Tink herself is introduced thus: she was “exquisitely gowned in a skeleton leaf cut low and square, through which her figure could be seen to the best advantage.  She was slightly inclined to embonpoint.”  Later Wendy describes her cattily as “an abandoned little creature” and that aura of wantonness pervades the character.  All in all, Tinker Bell appears to be an adult.  She is “quite a common fairy” and is not very polite, using “offensive” and “impudent” language to Wendy in their squabble over Peter.  This might be read as sexual possessiveness, or it might be the childhood exclusiveness of ‘the best friend.’

Further reading

In other posts I have examined the impact of other famous literary works on traditional British fairy-lore, books including Harry Potter, the Water Babies and the works of Mrs Ewing.

‘Horse and hattock’- Fairy motion- Part Two

Scott Ariel & Caliban

David Scott, Ariel and Caliban, 1837.

In a previous post I examined evidence indicating that the fays have a distinctive gliding motion.  Implicit in that is the possibility that they may be hovering above the surface of the ground, rather than being in contact and taking steps.  It sounds from the reports as though they may not actually be flying, nor are they walking.  In this post I return to the subject and pull together all the clues in traditional folklore on the subject of fairy locomotion.

Since the eighteenth century it has become very difficult to conceive of fairies without also picturing wings.  Winged fairies are now consistently seen by witnesses- as in the recent Fairy Census- but the older folklore generally doesn’t describe them like this.  How they get about then is not clear.

Fairies on foot

We know that the brownies definitely get around on foot.  For instance, there’s a common story of a devoted domestic sprite in Scotland who walked daily from his dwelling to the house to which he was attached, crossing a stream by stepping stones on the way.  One day, when the weather was bad and the water levels had risen, the people in the house didn’t expect to see him because the river was too treacherous to cross- but he impressed them with his commitment to his duties by walking a long distance out of his way in order to cross by a bridge.  Plainly, if levitation or flight had been an option- he would have used it.

We also hear of fairies moving house.  When they do so, they tend to move in a conventional human manner, with horses and carts.  In one sighting from Sutherland during the late 1860s the witness saw three carts laden with furniture and other household possessions being dragged over the moorland where there was no road and in a direction in which no human habitation lay.  When the church bells drove the pixies out of their home at Withypool on Exmoor, they borrowed a local farmer’s horse and cart to make the move.  Various other isolated mentions of fays using carts and carriages can be found.

The same methods are, of course, used when the fairies decide to abandon a place.  On the Isle of Man, when the flour mill was built at Colby, the local fairies gave up their former haunts.  Early one morning they were seen climbing up into the mists and solitude of the mountain glens, with their household goods on their backs.

The only exception to these very mundane images comes from the Reverend Robert Kirk.  In The secret commonwealth he described in chapter two how:

“They remove to other Lodgings at the Beginning of each Quarter of the Year … Their chamælion-lyke Bodies swim in the Air near the Earth with Bag and Bagadge…”

This quaint image is certainly highly suggestive of that floating motion I described in my previous posting.  Nonetheless, there’s no suggestion of ‘teleporting’ from one location to another, nor of flight as such.

It’s worth mentioning here too the fact that some fays will also put to sea in boats, whether for pleasure trips or for fishing. Either way, they are expected to be tied to exactly the same forms of locomotion as humans.

Mounted fairies

Besides wagons and coaches, another very well known use of horses by the fairies is in the so-called ‘fairy rade’ in which the group often termed the ‘trooping fairies’ process about the countryside.  Fairies will also hunt on horseback  and there are frequent reports of this- especially from the Isle of Man.  Yet again, though, there is some suggestion here of weightlessness.  Describing the Nithsdale fairies, Cromek said that they rode steeds “whose hoof would not print the new ploughed land or dash the dew from the crop of a harebell” and that they never deviated from straight lines in their travels, going straight through hedges and across corn fields to their destinations without leaving a trace on the crops.

The fairies keep their own horses, but they will also ride human steeds at night (tying their manes in ‘elf-locks’ and on the Isle of Man they’ve even been known to commandeer people to ride around on).

doyle-fary-queen

Richard Doyle

Flying fairies?

The nearest we come to some indication of winged flight is a couple of Victorian descriptions of encounters.  An example from West Yorkshire dates to about 1850.  A man called Henry Roundell, of Washburn Dale near Harrogate, got up early one day to hoe his turnips.  When he reached the field, he was astonished to discover that every row was being hoed by a host of tiny men in green, all of them singing in shrill cracked voices “like a lot of field crickets.”   As soon as he tried to climb over the stile into the field, they fled ‘like flocks of partridges.’  Another nineteenth century account from nearby Ilkley tells of a crowd of fairies surprised whilst bathing in the local spa baths.  The caretaker of the wells cried out in astonishment and “away the whole tribe went, helter skelter, toppling and tumbling, head over heels, heels over heeds, and all the while making a noise not unlike a disturbed nest of young partridges.”  As they fled there was a whirring noise, which sounds very like startled wings, but we are told that “the fairies were “bounding over the walls like squirrels.”  In fact, if you look closely at both accounts, there’s no suggestion that they actually flew away like birds- merely that the startled commotion sounded similar to this.

Some fays (hobs and pixies) can transform themselves into birds, as we have see when discussing fairy shapeshifters, but this is a rare ability and is definitely not a widespread means of travel.

Magical flight

Can fairies fly then?  The answer is- yes, but not with wings.  The vast majority of British fairies have never been believed to have wings, in any case, but they don’t need them because they (or certain groups of them at least) can get around very well without.  They are able to fly through the air by magical means; there seem to be three or four separate ways of achieving this.

One is by means of a simple spell.  Various forms of words are recorded: naming the location to which you want to go might be enough in some cases.  On other occasions, a magic formula is required, and the commonest of which we hear is the cry of “Horse and hattock!”  It’s never made clear why these words are used, but we can hazard a few guesses.  It’s known that fays can enchant plant stems to ride like horses through the air.  For example Scottish poet Alexander Montgomerie mentions “When our good nighbours doe ryd … Some buckled on a bunwand, and some on a been” in his verse The Flyting between Montgomerie and Polwart (1585).  Now, a hattock is no longer an everyday word in English, but it means a sheaf or stook of corn, so perhaps what we have here is a spell to turn a wheat or barley stem into a mount.  There is of course an evident connection with witches’ broomsticks here, although it seems the fairies have a great deal more choices of flight available to them.

In Scotland and Ireland the fairy host, the sluagh, ride around the night sky, sometimes transporting hapless humans with them.  It seems that this is how they get about, as no other form of transport is ever mentioned.  For example, Sandy Gunn, of Houstry, near Dunbeath in the far north of Scotland, set out one summer morning sometime in the 1870s to visit his sister Betty.  He never arrived at her house and did not return home in the evening.  In fact, it wasn’t until the middle of the next day that he appeared, with a strange tale to tell.  Walking up a hill called Cnoc-an-Crask he’d felt a gentle breeze.  He’d lost his footing and been carried up into the air.  All day and all night he flew across the country, before being gently returned to the same spot the next morning.  In this case the flight seems to have been used mischievously (or even, perhaps, as a treat for the hapless human).  In another case the flight is pure mischief, teasing and scaring the victim.  A man at Fleshwick on the Isle of Man was caught up one night and transported over the fields until he got to the cliff edge, where the fays suddenly deposited him.

Flight could also be used as a punishment against one who’d offended or annoyed the sith.  A Perthshire herdsman who had prevented the fairies carrying off a newborn child and its mother was promptly carried off through the air for six or seven miles and back again before being unceremoniously dropped down through the smoke hole of his father’s cottage.  Here the aerial abduction is plainly a punishment for thwarting the fairies’ wills.

Similar stories come from Wales, too, and from them we learn that this form of flight is not necessarily pleasant for the human taken along.  The Welsh fairies travel either above, in the middle of or below the wind.  Above is a giddy and terrible sensation, whilst below involves being dragged through bush and brake.  This was plainly the  experience of one man whose case was described by the Reverend Edmund Jones in the late eighteenth century.  A hunting party visited a pub kept by Richard the tailor, “one who resorted to the company of fairies.”  One of the group went outside to relieve himself and was snatched up by a passing fairy band.  He was with them all night, being carried all the way from Monmouthshire to Newport and back again.  When he reappeared the next morning he “looked like he’d been pulled through thorns and briars.”  He felt very ill and said that for part of his journey he had been insensible.  Evidently he had been travelling below the wind (Jones, The appearance of evil, no.68).

A very similar – and vivid- description was given by Reginald Scot in his Discoverie of witchcraft of 1584 (Book III, c.IV):

“many such have been taken away by the said spirits for a fortnight or a month together, being carried with them in chariots through the air, over hills and dales, rocks and precipices, and passing over many countries and nations in the silence of the night, bereaved of their sense and commonly of their members to boot.”

The flying ‘chariots’ is a unique feature (although, as stated, we sometimes hear of ordinary terrestrial carriages and coaches) but Scot’s depiction of the effect of these prolonged aerial abductions certainly fits very well with the Rev. Jones’.  A Manx commentator described those taken as being carried ‘insensible’ through the sky.  Doubtless many of us might faint at the experience.

Naturally, some humans are exhilarated by the experience of flight and the novelty of visiting strange places in far lands.  Others are keen to try it at first, but then find it’s not as enjoyable as they had hoped.  A weaver joined the sluagh by pronouncing the magic words over his loom beam.  To begin with all went well, until he saw the host flying off a precipice.  At this point his courage failed him, he dropped to the ground and had to carry the beam all the way home on his shoulder

Next, a magical item can be used by the fairies to move around.  In a story from Herefordshire, a boy lost in the woods finally comes across a cottage and is taken in by the two women living there.  Later that night they put on white caps and fly off to a fairy dance.  He uses a third spare cap to follow them, although he’s later admonished by them for his impudence.

Finally, fairies can travel in a whirlwind.  This is again well known from Scotland and Ireland, but is also reported from as far away as Cornwall.  The use of these eddies of wind by which to move about seem to offer the fairies two advantages: firstly, they are fast and secondly they will blind humans who encounter them, maintaining the fairies’ concealment and, perhaps, allowing them to conduct a bit of surreptitious thieving on the way.

Further reading

See my other posts on whirling fairies and on fairy motion and too chapter 13 of my British fairies for a discussion of fairy pathways.

 

 

 

 

Not all nymphs are nice… Arthur Machen and fairyland

A_Naiad_or_Hylas_with_a_Nymph_by_John_William_Waterhouse_(1893)

J. M. Waterhouse, A naiad, or Hylas and the nymph, 1893

Welsh born writer Arthur Machen (1863-1947) is best known for his Gothic horror novels, but beyond this he believed that the humdrum visible world conceals a more mysterious and strange reality.  Fairylore was just one element of his wide reading that he combined into this vision.

Turanians

In his second volume of autobiography, Things Near and Far, published in 1923, Machen acknowledged the rational explanations for fairy belief and for the origins of fairies (later set out in detail by Lewis Spence in British Fairy Origins of 1946):

“I am well aware, of course, of the various explanations of the fairy mythology; the fairies are the gods of the heathen come down into the world: Diana becomes Titania.  Or the fairies are a fantasy on the small dark people who dwelt in the land before the coming of the Celts; or they are elementals- spirits of the four elements: there are all these accounts, and for all I know, may be true, each in its measure.”

Machen dismissed the more intangible of these scientific interpretations, but he was strongly attracted by the idea of ‘little people’ who still survived in out of the way places.  Sometimes they were an actual, existing population: in his short story The Turanians Machen describes a girl spying upon a gypsy encampment-  they are “strange-wood-folk”

“gabbling to one another in their singsong speech … [a] people of curious aspect, short and squat, high-cheek-boned, with dingy yellow skin and long almond eyes.”

“Though everybody called them gipsies, they were in reality Turanian metal-workers, degenerated into wandering tinkers; their ancestors had fashioned the bronze battle-axes, and they mended pots and kettles.”

These Turanians are slightly exotic perhaps (if you’re unfamiliar with them) but they’re ordinary humans otherwise.

However, in other stories, Machen’s Turanians could become something far more primitive and alien.  They could then provide a convenient vehicle for Machen’s peculiar form of horror and the feature persistently in his novels.  In The Novel of the Black Seal (1895) one character expands upon this:

“I was especially drawn to consider the stories of the fairies, the good folk of the Celtic races.  Just as our remote ancestors called the dreaded beings “fair” and “good” precisely because they dreaded them, so they had dressed them up in charming forms, knowing the truth to be the reverse.  Literature too had gone early to work, and had lent a powerful hand in the transformation, so that the playful elves of Shakespeare are already far removed from the true original and the real horror is disguised in a form of prankish mischief.”

Machen followed the theories of Scottish folklorist David MacRitchie (1851-1925), which were set out most fully in his book, The testimony of tradition.  He traced the feys back to dwarfish Lapps or Eskimos.  From linguistics and anthropology came the label ‘Turanians,’ which denotes the Ural-Altai family of languages, including Finnish and Turkish, and which was used to denote an ancient and primitive culture from central Asia.  These peoples composed the aboriginal population of Europe before the fair-haired Aryans arrived and drove them north and west into the remotest recesses of the land.  Amongst those influential authors who promoted this idea were Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Sabine Baring-Gould and Madame Blavatsky, founder of Theosophy, who stated in The secret doctrine that the Turanians “were typified by the dwarf (dwergar).”

Machen was very taken with these theories.  For him the Turanians are the prehistoric inhabitants of the country, cave dwellers who have retreated before the advance of modern humans.  They feature in a number of his stories, such as the Red Hand (1895), in which a murder is committed with a flint blade and ancient hieroglyphs are found near the victim.  The elusiveness of the prehistoric peoples explains the myth of invisible fairies; their activities explain many ‘fairy phenomena’ such as flint arrow ‘elf-bolts,’ the changeling belief and the idea of witches’ sabbats.  Thus in the Novel of the Black Seal an inscription on the seal in the unknown characters of the ‘Little People’ is half seriously suggested to be  in language of ‘the Tylwyth Teg’ and the physical traces of their culture and activities are taken to be ‘fairy.’

All this comes together fully in Machen’s short story The Shining Pyramid (1906): a girl thought to have ‘gone with the fairies’ has in fact been abducted by a primitive race surviving in the Brecon Beacons.  They send cryptic messages through flint arrowhead characters and ultimately torture and sacrifice the girl.  Machen’s character Dyson explains to his friend how he realised what had actually happened:

“The hint came from the old name of the fairies, ‘the little people’ and the very probable belief that they represent a tradition of the prehistoric Turanian inhabitants of the country who were cave dwellers… [they were] under four feet in height, accustomed to live in darkness, possessing stone instruments and [with] a Mongolian cast of features.”

Despite this euhemerism and rationalism, albeit infused with violence and mystery, in his work Machen also showed great interest in the mystic, pagan, occult and romantic aspects of faery. Elsewhere he wrote that “belief in fairies and belief in the Stock Exchange as bestowers of happiness were equally vain, but the latter was ugly as well as inept.”  His work is thoroughly imbued with an awareness of, and awe for, faery; fairies may be illusory, but the mere suggestion of them endows his work with tension and glamour.  Machen repeatedly makes reference to fairy languages and to the dread power of our supernatural neighbours, for example in his best known novel, The Hill of Dreams, and in the story The White People.  

The line dividing these literal ‘little people’ from the little folk of faery legend is not always clearly defined in Machen’s work.  An example of this is the 1926 story Out of the Earth.  It purports to describe real events in West Wales during the Great War.  There have been reports of the local children turning aggressive and attacking visiting children.  Investigation suggests that what is being experienced is actually a communication of the upheavals and violence in the human world to what might be called fairyland:

“They were only visible, only audible, to children and the childlike… These little people of the earth rise up and rejoice in these times of ours.  For they are glad, as the Welshman said, when they know that men follow their ways.”

It’s notable too that in his 1917 story The Terror Machen had also envisaged the turmoil of the war infecting the animal population, with farm livestock turning horrifically against their owners.

In due course Machen’s idea of a horrific and primitive aboriginal culture was taken up by H. P. Lovecraft.  In The Horror at Red Hook, for example,  a character reflects that:

“these hellish vestiges of old Turanian-Asiatic magic and fertility-cults were even now wholly dead he could not for a moment suppose, and he frequently wondered how much older and how much blacker than the very worst of the muttered tales some of them might really be.”

the meeting 1972

Graham Ovenden, The meeting, 1972, Nasher Museum of Art, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina

The meaning of ‘faery’

In Machen’s writing the word ‘faery’ seems to have three distinct, but layered or related, meanings.  This is well-illustrated by sampling its usage in his novels, especially 1922’s The Secret Glory.  

‘Faery’ can imply something merely curious, unusual and lovely.  This may be applied to things as trivial as a young couple in awe as they discover London, to the metropolis that the same couple uncover for the first time, or to a salad in a French restaurant; but it also, more poetically, describes a snowbound scene as a “white fairyland,” and he sees in a sunset sky “golden lances [that] glittered in a field of faerie green” as well as “the green of the faery seas.” This usage shades imperceptibly into a sense of something mysterious, magical and beautiful, as in “the faery hills and woods and valleys of the West.” More specifically, those seas reappear in a reference to “ships of the saints, without oar or sail, afloat on the faery sea, seeking the Glassy Isle” -that is, the isle of Avalon, Ynys Wytrin at Glastonbury; and Machen also mentions to the “faery apple-garths in Avalon.”

Machen’s work is full of references to Celtic myth and to the intertwined Arthurian romances, so it is inevitable that it he would see “images of the fairies in his eyes” too.  In The secret glory the main character Ambrose Meyrick comes from Wales, where

“there were stories of the magic people who rose all gleaming from the pools in lonely woods; who gave more than mortal bliss to those who loved them; who could tell the secrets of that land where flame was the most material substance; whose inhabitants dwelt in palpitating or quivering colours or in the notes of a wonderful melody.”

Meyrick meets with a mysterious fiddler whose music “was like fairies dancing” and he has a lover, Nelly Foran, who is a girl from the West of Ireland “nurtured on the wonderful old legends of the saints and the fairies.”

Machen even seems to have invented his own fairylore, telling the story of the Emperor Nightingale (Eos Amherawdur in Welsh) who ruled over all the kings of the tylwydd teg.

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Nymph V by Giuditta-R

“In the time of the fairies”

There are also authentic elements of traditional lore concerning the fair folk, the tylwydd teg, scattered throughout Machen’s writing.  For example, in Opening the door (1931) a man seems to be abducted by the fairies for six weeks when he steps through an old and neglected door at the end of his garden.  The white people incorporates a classic description of a visit to fairyland: a young man out hunting follows a white stag until it disappears.  He realises it has entered a door in a large, round hill and he continues his pursuit into the darkness within.

“And all of a sudden it got light. and there was the sky, and the sun shining and birds singing in the trees, and there was a beautiful fountain.  And by the fountain a lovely lady was sitting, who was the queen of the fairies, and she told him that she had changed herself into a stag to bring him there because she loved him so much.”

Many of Machen’s themes are dark and bleak and it follows that he was an advocate of a more traditional and ambivalent view of our ‘good neighbours.’  For example, in his 1917 story The Terror a child’s mysterious death might prove to be the work of the tylwyth teg: “‘unless it was The People that had done it.’ The Celtic fairies are still malignant.”  In Change (1936), a child on holiday in West Wales is apparently snatched by the fairies and a wizened changeling left in his stead.  Likewise, the child disappearance at the core of The Shining Pyramid is initially thought to be another fairy kidnapping, but it turns out that the ‘little people’ responsible are not supernatural beings but primitive troglodytes.

In all these stories the traditional source material is reworked by Machen.  His mentions of folklore are allusive and are reprocessed as horror and magical mystery.  Hence, in The White People the central character learns magical charms from her nurse: she is taught certain gestures– how to touch her eyes, lips and hair in a “peculiar way”- and to repeat:

“the old words of the fairy language, so that I might be sure I had not been carried away.”

Repeatedly in his work, Machen explores the idea that another world is not far from our own.  Whether that is the world of the Holy Grail, the realm of pagan gods who are still powerful and present, or the land of Faerie, it is a powerful source of mystery and enchantment.

Machen’s fairylands

Throughout his autobiographical books Machen invoked landscape comparisons with faery.  As a boy, he always saw the area around his home “as a kind of fairyland” whilst oddly shaped stones caused him to fall into a reverie, “as if it had been a fragment of paradise of fairyland.”

This romantic response to natural features lasted throughout the author’s life and appears in his written works.  The Holy Mountain in the “enchanted land” around Abergaveny was “a mountain peak in fairyland;” beyond that town the hills surge up into the “sharp peaks of the order of the fairies” towards Llanthony and The Tump, or Twyn Barlwm, near Merthyr Tydfil was to Machen “a faery dome.”  He recalled walking in the Wentwood Forest in Monmouthshire, “under suns that rose from the holy seas of faery and sank down behind magic hills.”

In contrast, London could seem like a “goblin city” to Machen, although even there he could find mystery and enchantment: October mists in Notting Hill Gate made “the plane trees in the back gardens droop down from fairyland.”  A bird’s song in a garden evoked “the blessed faery realm beyond the woods of earth, where the wounds of men are healed.”

Ovenden, illustration to Machen's 'White people'

Graham Ovenden, illustration for ‘The White People‘, Arthur Machen, 1982.

Dark & bright nymphs

The mentions of faery in the last section were sources of comfort and images of beauty.  In his fiction, fairies are more often associated with danger and horror.

In Machen’s unsettling and brooding story, The White People, a girl recounts strange magical discoveries in her secret journal.  She describes meeting mysterious supernatural beings, such as ‘the white people’ and ‘the nymphs.’  She’s instructed by her nurse in “the old words of the fairy language” as a protection against being taken.  The girl also learns how to summon the nymphs and discovers that:

“I might meet them in all kinds of places and how they would always help me, and I must always look for them and find them in all sorts of strange shapes and appearances.  And without the nymphs I could never have found the secret and without them none of the other things could happen … there were two kinds, the bright and the dark, and both were very lovely and very wonderful, and some people saw one kind and some only the other, but some saw them both.  But usually the dark appeared first and the bright ones came afterwards, and there were extraordinary tales about them.”

Eventually, the girl goes to a pool and summons the nymphs. Previously, dipping her feet in the cold waters of the pool had seemed as if the nymphs were kissing them, but the tone then shifts in a sinister and menacing way:

“The dark nymph, Alanna, came and she turned the pool of water into a pool of fire…”

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Nymph by Giuditta-R

The Hill of Dreams

In Machen’s masterpiece, The Hill of Dreams, the hero Lucian becomes lost in a strange landscape: “all afternoon his eyes had looked on glamour, he had strayed in fairyland …like the hero of a fairy-book.”  Ultimately he wanders into “outland and occult territory,” to “the woods beyond the world,to that vague territory that haunts all dreams.”  Ancient hill forts are described as ‘fairy-hills’ ‘faerie bulwarks’ and ‘fairy raths’ and even the capital city can be imagined as the site of “dolmen and menhir … gigantic, terrible.  All London was one grey temple of an awful rite, rung with a ring of wizard stones.”

Lucian’s preference is for alchemy, Cabala and Dark Age history- for “a land laid waste, Britain deserted by the legions, the rare pavements riven by frost, Celtic magic still brooding on the wild hills and in the black depths of the forest…” He wonders if he’s descended from ‘the little people’ and whether “there were some drop of fairy blood in his body that made him foreign and strange to the world.”  Lucian is drawn to the ‘fairy bulwarks’ of a Roman camp (the ‘hill of dreams’) and becomes bewitched by a beautiful young woman called Annie who speaks “wonderful, unknown words”- apparently an unintelligible, possibly fairy, language.  She dismisses it as “only nonsense that the nurses sing to the children” but it becomes apparent that there is more to it than that, that it is in fact some form of enchantment.

Throughout this and his other booksMachen’s descriptions of the Gwent countryside are vivid, intense and charged with otherworldly meaning.  Lucian follows an unknown lane “hoping he had found the way to fairyland.”  He scrambles up to the old Roman fort crowning a hill near his home and falls asleep on a hot summer’s afternoon, hearing “the old wood-whisper or … the singing of the fauns.”  This results, it seems, in his possession by fauns, nymphs or witches.  He has become some sort of changeling.  He realises that he was been watched by unknown figures and that “they” are a woman and “her awful companions, who had never grown old through all the ages.”  Hideous shapes in the wood “called and beckoned to him” and it is ultimately revealed that Annie is somehow Queen of the Sabbath and a moonlight enchantress.  She is no longer “the symbol of all mystic womanhood” and his beloved; rather- alarmingly- “jets of flame issued from her breasts” and she drinks his soul in an infernal, orgiastic rite.

Further reading

I’ve discussed how a link was created between British fairies and classical nymphs in a previous posting.  I highly recommend the works of Arthur Machen to readers: Penguin produce an accessible collection including The White Peopleand The Hill of Dreams is another good starting point.  See too my post on The Fairy Faith in English Music to see how Machen’s writing directly influenced one classical composer.

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Nymph IV by Giuditta-R