Flower fairies- origins & 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.

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

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 previously, 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 before; 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.

 

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“Nymphes and faeries”- Renaissance influences upon the ‘national fairy’

satyr

The fairy as conceived by British folk tradition was effected- and not for the better- by the revival of classical learning in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.   In this post I wish to trace the course and impact of this rebirth of Roman and Greek knowledge in the specific context of British fairy lore.

The very earliest sign of classical influence comes from Chaucer, in the Merchants Tale. He refers there to “Pluto, that is the king of fayerye/ And many a lady in his companye/ Folwinge his wyf, the quene Prosperpyne.”  This can be dated to about 1390 and is probably more a sign of Chaucer’s own education and reading than any real indicator of the spread of new thinking from Italy, where the rinascimento was at that time still in its infancy.

I suggest a more significant start date is the appearance of Gavin Douglas’ 1513 translation of Ovid’s Aeneid, in which he chose to refer to “nymphis and faunis apoun every side/ Quhilk Fairfolkis or than Elfis clepen we…”  This linking of nymphs and elves remains consistent then for the next  150 years; for example, Thomas Nash makes this analogy: “The Robin Goodfellows, Elfs, Fairies, Hobgoblins of our latter age, which idolatrous former days and the fantastical world of Greece ycleped Fauns, Satyrs, Dryads and Hamadryads…” Latterly, Milton in Comus from 1630 spoke of  fairies and elves as equivalent to nymphs.  Of this work, Floris Delattre observed that “the now trite assimilation of English fairies to classical nymphs gains … a fresh beauty” thanks to the poet’s “refined language” (English fairy poetry, 1908, p.165).

Translations of Ovid soon spread other classical concepts: for example Thomas Phaer in his 1550 version of the Aeneid mentioned fauns, nymphs and the fairy queen whilst Arthur Golding’s translation of the Metamorphoses of 1565 described “nymphes of faery.” The process could work in reverse as well, with native terms being used to explain classical ones.  For example, Golding felt that the best translation he could make was to describe the “Chimaera, that same pouke.”

The easy reference to classical deities then became habitual.  Nymphs and fairies were inseparable. Drayton in Poly-Olbion treats “Ceres nymphs” as interchangeable with fairies (Song XXI) and also marries a nymph to a fay and has dryads, hamadryads, satyrs and fauns dance with fairies in his Nymphals 8 & 6.  Other Greek and Roman figures also begin to insinuate themselves.  Scot in The discovery of witchcraft (1584) mentions “satyrs, pans, fauns, sylvans, tritons, centaurs…” in  his list of fairy beings (Book VII c.XV) and he names the fairy queen variously as Sibylla, Minerva, Diana and Herodias.  For King James VI in Daemonologie Diana and her court are synonymous with ‘Phairie.’  Ben Jonson’s Masque of Oberon from 1610 carelessly mixes the “coarse and country fairy” with satyrs and sylvans. Burton, writing the Anatomy of melancholy  in 1621, listed such “Terrestrial devils [as] lares, genii, fauns, satyrs, wood nymphs, foliots, fairies…”  Spenser meanwhile introduced the Graces to the company of fairies in both The Fairy queen and Epithalamium.  

It may be helpful to provide a summary of the various Greek and Roman gods and spirits with whom parallels were so freely drawn.  It must be acknowledged that there are undeniable parallels and comparisons between some British fairies and some Mediterranean deities, analogies sufficiently strong to justify a few of the identifications made.  This is, of course, due to the fact that all of these supernatural beings derive ultimately from the same Indo-European sources and are responses to the same natural processes and features.  Nonetheless, each culture had developed differently and whilst there were links to be made (as, for example, was done in works such as Frazer’s Golden Bough) these beings had evolved separately for centuries and, whilst comparable, were very far from being identical.

nymphs

Writers freely made reference to:

  • Abundantia- who was the Roman goddess of fortune and prosperity.  She evolved into a beneficent spirit and, ultimately, into Habundia, queen of the witches and fairies;
  • Ceres- she was a goddess of the growth of plant foods.  Insofar as she had vegetative associations, there was some tenuous link with British fairies;
  • Diana– who was goddess of childbirth, of nature and of the moon.  Queen Mab was a midwife, as testified by Andro Man, accused of witchcraft in 1598, and fairies often danced in the moonlight, so that Diana’s transfer to Britain makes some sense;
  • Dryads– nymphs of trees and woods and so comparable to elves;
  • Fauns– a faun is a rural deity who bestows fruitfulness on fields and cattle.  He can also have prophetic powers.  His influence over natural processes suggested the analogy with elves;
  • Genii– are clan spirits and perhaps therefore allied to brownies, banshees and the like;
  • Graces- these were Greek goddesses of fertility in fields and gardens and accordingly comparable to elves and fairies;
  • Hecate- was the goddess of magic and spells; she was linked to the moon and was a goddess of childbirth and the night.  Through Queen Mab she was therefore associated with fairies and witches;
  • Herodias– was mother of Salome and was reputed to be head of a witch cult.  She became linked to fairies through the witch craze and was identified with Habundia, queen of Elfame.  By circuitous routes, therefore, Heywood ended up equating sibils and fees, white nymphs, Nightladies and Habundia their queen;
  • Lares- are tutelary deities of fields and homes and are accordingly similar to boggarts, brownies and such like;
  • Minerva- was linked to the arts and crafts and had no real identity with British fairies;
  • Nymphs- these are minor deities linked to fertility, growth, trees and water (streams, lakes and the seas).  As such they are clearly comparable to elves and fairies.  For example, the nymphs tended to protect specific locales so that there may be some analogy to be made between the water naiads and British sprites like Grindylow and Peg Powler;
  • Pan- was a deity of Arcadia, part-goat, part-human.  He haunted the high hills and brought fertility to the flocks and herds, but not to agriculture.  He could send visions and dreams.  He has a vague resemblance to pucks and hobgoblins, but no more;
  • Satyrs– were envisaged as half-man and half-beast; they were brothers to the mountain nymphs and akin to fauns.  As such, they resembled pucks, brownies and hobgoblins to some extent;
  • Sibylla– was a prophetess, and so became linked to fairies through the witch craze;
  • Sylvans– these are woodland deities, readily associated with fairies.

Some of the classical names used had no relevance at all to British fairies; some denoted distantly related beings.  All were facile and ultimately uninformative and unhelpful.  The use of the classical comparisons diluted and disrupted more accurate knowledge of genuine British traditions, inhibiting rather than encouraging study.  They were superficial displays of learning which detracted from a deeper and more valuable investigation of the ‘national fairies’ as Floris Delattre termed them.  Classical references added nothing of value to the verse- rather it obscured the nature of insular tradition and accelerated its decline by promoting false analogies and parallels.   The Greek and Roman figures had character traits and qualities unknown before, with notions of hierarchy, worship and relationships that were alien and inapplicable to British folklore.  All in all, therefore, the impact of the Renaissance learning was in this instance  entirely negative.

To conclude, we must first concede that British fairy lore was already a hybrid, containing elements of Celtic, Saxon and French myth; Morgan le Fay mixed with Germanic elves and Cornish pixies to create complex and many layered stories. Classical themes added nothing to this.  References to nymphs and fauns were a learned and literary graft upon native roots and served only to stunt further development of the tradition.  Whatever the wider enriching qualities of the Renaissance, it only did damage to British folk lore.

“Fear of little men”-or, ‘How the fairy got her wings’

In William Allingham’s poem The fairies (1883) he gives late expression to a formerly common attitude to fairies:

“Up the airy mountain,/ Down the rushy glen,/ We daren’t go a-hunting/    For fear of little men;/ Wee folk, good folk, Trooping all together;”

fuseli-puck

The traditional terror of fairies and the change in attitudes in more recent times is something I have touched upon before and which I wish to analyse in some more detail.

Until at least the early seventeenth century,  the conventional view of fairy kind was that they were as dangerous as they were intriguing and enticing.   For example, the eller maids of Denmark were beautiful, but also deadly: anyone lured into dancing with them would be danced to death; they would never be able to stop and would perish from exhaustion. Fairies were the causes of disease and stole human children, food and possessions, as I have previously described.

What I wish to examine here is how these fearsome and sometimes fatal creatures could deteriorate into something cloyingly cute and eminently suitable for little girls to imitate. In Religion and the decline of magic (1971) Keith Thomas prefaces his discussion of fairy beliefs by observing that “Today’s children are brought up to think of fairies as diminutive beings of a benevolent disposition, but the fairies of the Middle Ages were neither small nor particularly kindly” (p.724). When was our fearful respect for the fairies replaced by a simpering, indulgent affection?

I have dated the change, as I suggest, to around 1600.  Shakespeare provides us with some evidence of the shift in popular perceptions.  Some commentators view him as the sole culprit, but this is to imbue him with far greater influence and respect than he had at the time.  He may now be seen as a genius and cultural icon, but that was not his status in his lifetime; as a playwright he did not shape views, but he certainly does reflect them.

Take, for example, Midsummer Night’s Dream.  On the one hand there is Puck, whose magic interventions in human affairs might be dismissed as farcically inept, but who should probably best be viewed as mischievous, if not malignant, in his conduct.  He admits to revelling in his tricks, for certain.  At another extreme are the fairies introduced by Titania to Bottom, called Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth and Mustardseed; here we have a first hint of the tiny and harmless beings with whom we are so familiar today.  A sense of these fairies’ size is conveyed by their use of glow-worms as lanterns and their hiding in acorn cups to escape Oberon’s fury.  By contrast, there is the encounter in The Merry Wives of Windsor between Sir John Falstaff and some children disguised as fairies.  They may be small, but that does not in the least detract from the horror he feels: “They are fairies; he that speaks to them shall die: I’ll wink and couch: no man their works must eye” (Act V scene 5).  Lack of stature, for Shakespeare’s contemporaries, still did not of necessity denote weakness or an amenable nature.

What exactly changed, then?  I think that there is a number of causes.  The growth of science and industry, particularly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, removed the justification for and threat of fairies.  Previously, as Geoffrey Parrinder remarked, “they helped explain many of the curious happenings of life” (Witchcraft, Pelican, 1958, p.70). By the later 1600s, this function was being superseded as John Aubrey wrote:

Old wives tales-  Before printing old wives’ tales were ingenious, and since Printing came into fashion, til a little before the Civil-Warres, the ordinary Sort of People were not taught to read; nowadayes bookes are common, and most of the poor people understand letters; and the many good bookes, and a variety of Turnes of affaires; have putt all the old Fables out of doors and the divine art of Printing and Gunpowder have frightened away Robin Goodfellow and the Fayries” (Remains of Gentilisme & Judaisme, 1687-89, p.68).

When they were no longer required to explain illness, they were left as merely decorative and un-threatening.  That said, if fairies had become redundant in this environment, their social function could be preserved by transporting them to other worlds.  This appears to be what has happened: green clad goblins have been translated into the ‘little green men’of science fiction.

Secondly, rationalism and religious scepticism has had a role.  Disbelief in a spirit world is sufficient to kill off fairies entirely, but it has also stopped them being taken seriously.  Once this had happened, their descent into cuteness and whimsy was easy.

Fairy belief for a long time was treated as a thing of the previous generation.  For instance, John Aubrey recalled that “when I was a Boy, our Countrey people would talke much of them…” meaning  ‘Faieries.’  His contemporary, Sir William Temple, said much the same thing, suggesting that fairy belief had only really declined over the previous thirty years or so (i.e. during the mid-seventeenth century).  Robert Burton, writing the Anatomy of melancholy in 1621, shared these opinions:  fairies had been “in former times adored with much superstition” but were now seen only from time to time by old women and children.

Nevertheless, doubt seems to have been well established by the 1580s at least.  The best evidence for this is Reginald Scot’s The discoverie of witchcraft (1584).  The book is an assault upon belief in witches, but he compares this extensively with the parallel belief in a supernatural race of beings.  In his introduction ‘To the reader’ Scot remarks that:

“I should no more prevail herein [i.e., in persuading his audience] than if a hundred years since I should have entreated your predecessors to believe that Robin Goodfellow, that great and ancient bull-beggar, had been a cozening merchant and no devil indeed.  But Robin Goodfellow ceaseth now to be much feared…”

Once again, the fairy faith is a thing of the (distant) past.  Later Scot comments that “By this time all Kentishmen know (a few fooles excepted) that Robin Goodfellow is a knave” (Book XVI, c.7).  Scot’s theme is that such credulity is not just old-fashioned; it is now the preserve of the simple and weak.  He repeats these allegations throughout his text: “the feare of manie foolish folke, the opinion of some that are wise, the want of Robin Goodfellow and the fairies, which were woont to mainteine chat and the common people’s talke in this behalfe … All which toies take such hold upon men’s fansies, as whereby they are lead and entised away from the consideration of true respects, to the condemnation of that which they know not” (The Epistle); likewise- “we are so fond, mistrustful and credulous that we feare more the fables of Robin Goodfellow, astrologers and witches and beleeve more things that are not than things that are.  And the more unpossible a thing is, the more we stand in feare thereof” (Book XI, c.22).

Talk of fairies then, was in Scot’s opinion only fit for “yoong children” and its only purpose was to “deceive and seduce.”  Scot is concerned how many in the past were “cousened and abused” by such tales and he admonishes his readers to remember this:

“But you shall understand that these bugs speciallie are spied and feared of sicke folke, children, women and cowards, which through weakness of mind and body are shaken with vain dreams and continuall feare… But in our childhood our mothers maids have so terrified us with … urchins, elves, hags, fairies… that we are afraid of our own shadowes” (Book VII, c.15).

Scot remained confident in the advance of reason, however:

“And know you this, by the waie, that heretofore Robin Goodfellow and Hobgoblin were as terrible and also as credible to the people as hags and witches be now, and in time to come a witch will be as derided and contemned, and as plainlie perceived, as the illusion and knaverie of Robin Goodfellow…” (Book VII, c.2)

King James I/VI in his Daemonologie (1597) was just as scornful as Scot of any belief in ‘Phairie’ but he did not ascribe it to mere foolishness.  For him, it was more sinister- it was a deception of the devil who had “illuded the senses of sundry simple creatures, in making them beleeve that they saw and harde such thinges as were nothing so indeed.” Although the fairy faith was “one of the illusiones that was risest in the time of Papistrie” it was thankfully in decline in Presbyterian Scotland at the time that he wrote (c.V).

Thirdly, fairy belief dwindled as the natural world was increasingly explored, surveyed and quantified.  When every acre of land was being assessed for its productive value and as a capital asset, the fairies were mapped and measured out of existence.  On a crowded island, no space was left for anything except the tiniest of beings to survive.  In fact, even as early as the first quarter of the seventeenth century, Michael Drayton could equate smallness with fairy nature: in his Eighth Nymphal he declares “Why, by her smallness you may find/ That she is of the fairy kind.”

rape-of-the-lock

The cumulative effect of these societal changes was, as Keith Thomas wrote, that “By the Elizabethan age, fairy lore was primarily a store of mythology rather than a corpus of living beliefs” (Religion and the decline of magic, 1971, p.726).  Deprived of its rationale, the decay set in quickly.  There is a suggestion of flight in Drayton’s Poly-Olbion- “The frisking fairy there, as on the light air borne” (1613, Song XXI) but explicit winged flight is first mentioned in The Rape of the Lock from 1712, in which Alexander Pope imagined fairies “Some to the sun their insect wings unfold/ Waft on the breeze or sink in clouds of gold.”   When, in 1798, Thomas Stothard illustrated Pope’s book with fairies with butterfly wings, the trend was confirmed.  Contemporaneously, we may note a bat winged Puck by Fuseli from 1790 and a tiny winged fairy creature in his illustration of Titania awakening with Bottom dated to 1794. This quickly seems to have become the convention: in subsequent Victorian images fairies are predominantly winged creatures; these wings are either gauzy like dragonflies’ or patterned like butterflies’.

henry-fuseli-titania-awakes-surrounded-by-attendant-faries-1794

All the same, folk belief could still lag well behind popular culture and artistic representations: Ivor Gurney wrote a poem in 1918 that must preserve older Gloucestershire beliefs.  Having waited in a lane at dusk for a lover to return home, he is alarmed by a bustle in the hedgerow:

“Until within the ferny brake/ Stirred patter-feet and silver talk/ That set all horror wide awake-/ I fear the fairy folk.”  (Girl’s Song, September 1918)

There have been stubborn resisters too to the sentimentalising tendency.  Rudyard Kipling in Puck of Pook’s Hill (1908) made clear his feelings; Puck tells Dan and Una (p.14):

“Besides, what you call [fairies] are made up things the People of the Hills have never heard of- little buzzflies with butterfly wings and gauze petticoats, and shiny stars in their hair, and a wand like a school-teacher’s cane for punishing bad boys and rewarding good ones… Can you wonder that the People of the Hills don’t care to be confused with that painty-winged, wand-waving, sugar-and-shake-your-head set of impostors?  Butterfly wings indeed!”

The ultimate result of this decline is some of the twee horrors to be found.  For Christmas, I received a card bearing an illustration by Ida Rentoul Outhwaite.  Along with Cicely Mary Barker, she is one of the prime offenders in the genre loathed by Kipling (and Puck). Amongst her pictures you will find fairies with perfect 1920s bobs and, worse still, gambling with koala bears at drinks parties…

ida-1

The resistance to the sentimentalising tendency continues (see for example the remarks of Cassandra Lobiesk on her website Fae folk: the world of fae- see my links page), but after at least a century, it may sadly be a losing battle.

 

“This enchanted isle”-Romantic visions of fairyland

paul-nash-landscape-of-the-megaliths

On a recent trip to Glastonbury, I visited Gothic Image bookshop in the High Street and picked up a reprinted edition of their publication, This enchanted isle by Peter Woodcock. Originally published in 2000, the book describes itself as a study of ‘the neo-romantic vision from William Blake to the new visionaries.’  Woodcock has written on art and literature and has an interest in the ‘shamanic’ tradition; in this book he traces the influence of William Blake and Samuel Palmer on later writers, artists and film-makers.

I discuss This enchanted isle and the neo-romantic movement in greater detail in an essay on one of my other blogs, johnkruseblog.wordpress.com.  Here, I want to focus solely on the fairy aspects of Woodcock’s subject.

As I have discussed in an earlier posting, William Blake saw all of natural life as being animated by fairies and he perceived elves and fairies filling the fields and hedgerows around his cottage at Felpham.  In this, his acolyte Samuel Palmer was very similar.  He was brought up on stories of fairies, witches and ghosts and imagined supernatural life filling the lanes and woods of rural Dulwich near his home in Walworth on the very edge of London.  Later he moved to Shoreham, the Kentish village which inspired his finest work.  As Palmer’s son, Albert Herbert, later recounted in his biography, Samuel Palmer- life and letters (1892), part of the attraction of the rural hamlet was that traditional folk beliefs  were still held by the residents there (and he preferred the older pastoral poets for the same reason- their close links to romantic rural life).  Palmer readily imagined goblins (that is, brownies) drudging in the thatched barns of Shoreham for the reward of a bowl of cream and happily listened to tales of fairies tripping across the domestic hearths.  There is more than a nod to Milton’s L’Allegro here, inevitable perhaps given Palmer’s great admiration for his verse.

The mystical landscape visions of Blake and Palmer were inherited by various twentieth century artists, foremost amongst whom was Paul Nash. His writings disclose similar responses to the  English countryside; he had a strong sense of the unique character of places and the power of those with links to antiquity.  Of Wittenham Clumps, which he painted repeatedly, he said:

“I felt their importance long before I knew their history…  [The landscape was] full of strange enchantment, on every hand it seemed a beautiful, legendary country, haunted by old gods long forgotten.”

wham-1935

Later in his life, Nash encountered the stones of Avebury.  Initially, he responded to the forms and colours of the stones, saying there was “no question of animism here.”  This changed, however, so that in his essay for Country Life written in May 1937, The life of the inanimate object, he was able to write “it is not a question of a particular stone being the house of the spirit- the stone itself has its spirit, it is alive.”  The idea of animating inanimate objects was very old indeed, “a commonplace in fairy tale and and occurs quite naturally also in most mythologies.”  In English culture, he wrote, the romantic poet Wordsworth payed a major role creating  mythology that gave ‘systematic animation to the inanimate.’

Sketching at Silbury Hill, he recalled that “I felt that I had divined the secret of that paradoxical pyramid.  Such things do happen in England, quite naturally, but they are not recognised for what they are- the true yield of the land, indeed, but also works of art; identical with the intimate spirit inhabiting these gentle fields, yet not the work of chance or the elements, but directed by an intelligent purpose ruled by n authentic vision.”  For Nash there was magic in ancient and significant places that was still real and tangible in the twentieth century.  His art tried to express and to contact those deep forces of the English landscape.

pn-silbury

Woodcock also links the Welsh born writer Arthur Machen (1863-1947) with the neo-romantic movement.  Machen is best known for his Gothic horror novels, but like the others discussed, he believed that the humdrum world conceals a more mysterious and strange reality.  Fairylore was just one element of his wide reading that he combined into his vision.  In his second volume of autobiography, Things near and far, published in 1923, he acknowledges the rational explanations of fairy belief (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 goods 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 knew of these scientific interpretations, but he had little time for them.  In his work he is more interested 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.  He repeatedly makes reference to fairy languages and dread power of our supernatural neighbours.

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.”  Ancient hill forts are described as ‘fairy-hills’ and ‘fairy raths’ whilst the capital is 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 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.

In Hill of dreams, Machen’s descriptions of the countryside near Gwent 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 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.

‘Mysterious Albion’- William Blake and the matter of Albion

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Richard Dadd, ‘Come unto these yellow sands’

This post strays a little from my chosen theme of fairy lore into wider British folklore.  However, given the recent publication of my new fairy tale Albion awake!, I wished to set William Blake’s ‘fairies of Albion’ in a fuller mythological context.

What and where is this land of Albion?  How has this mere geographical name become imbued with so much symbolism?  Author Peter Ackroyd has written that today Albion “is not so much a name as the echo of a name.”  To understand how the term became freighted with significance, we need to travel back centuries to its origins.

The name appears to be derived from one of three proto-Celtic stems.  It may mean ‘world’, as in the Gaulish/ Galatian albio (see modern Welsh elfydd, early Welsh elbid meaning ‘earth, world, land, country or district’).  Secondly it may denote ‘white’ (as in Latin albus), though not in the sense of the white cliffs of Dover, as is often suggested, but more likely to suggest the world of light above the surface  of the earth as contrasted to the dark underworld.  Lastly, Albion may mean simply ‘hill’ or ‘highland’.  It would then be linked to the root of the word ‘Alp’ and also to the Gaelic Alba, the name for Scotland.

Whatever the exact origin, the place name was commonly known throughout Europe from a very early date. The first reference is in Avienus’ Ora maritima which dates to the late 4th century BC.  Various other Latin and Greek writers used the term until it was displaced in Roman times by Britannia as the preferred name for the British Isles.  Nevertheless, King Athelstan in 930 chose to term himself ‘Rex … totus Albioni regnis’ whilst his successor Edgar went further, declaring himself ‘Totus Albionis imperator.’

The name Albion therefore has a long and distinguished toponymic pedigree and was for many centuries a sober and unremarkable label.  It was only in the early 12th century that it gained its legendary associations, thanks to Geoffrey of Monmouth.  In his History of the kings of Britain,  Geoffrey alleged that the island was called Albion prior to its conquest and renaming by Brutus, who fled the fall of Troy (Book I, 16).  Subsequent writers propagated a tale that the island was inhabited by giants and that their queen, Albina, gave it its name.  This story of giants settling the land was repeated by successive authors, including Wace, Layamon, Holinshed, Camden and Spenser in The Faerie Queen (IV, 11, 16).  John Milton told the story in his History of Britain (1670) .  In Book I he recounts that the land was “subdu’d by Albion a Giant, Son of Neptune; who call’d the Iland after his own name, and rul’d it 44 Years. ”  He adds that the island was later settled by some sisters and that “The Eldest of these Dames in thir Legend they call Albina; and from thence, for which cause the whole Scene was fram’d, will have the name Albion deriv’d.”  The effect of these works was to transform the perception of ‘Albion.’  No longer was it merely a name- it had become redolent of national myth and stirring legend.

It is probably from Milton, or perhaps Spenser, that William Blake derived his knowledge of the legends of the giant Albion.  In his hands the figure is progressively elaborated. Initially Albion is representative for Blake of primeval man, an ancestor or patriarchal figure, ‘father of all mankind.’  Subsequently Albion became husband of Britannia and father to Jerusalem.  His rejection of Luvah leads to the diminution of his senses, his sickness and his sleep.  In the poem Milton Albion’s awakening is linked to revolution.  As such, Albion as a personification of Britain is shown rejoicing in his political awakening and liberty in the illustration Glad day.  For Blake, the ‘sleep of Albion’ was the suppression of the imagination by materialism; when Albion awakes he has been freed and transformed by the possibilities suggested by the American and French rebellions.  For more detail see S. Foster Damon, A Blake dictionary (available on GoogleBooks.

It was Blake that imbued Albion with a fresh and radical sense and it was his conception of Albion as a political entity that resurfaced in the 1960s and 1970s.  The ‘Albion Free State’ was a libertarian and hippy conception, in favour of free love, free festivals, natural birthing and much more.  For the Windsor Free Festival, on August bank holiday 1974, a free state newspaper was produced which contained a draft national anthem for the new polity.   It begins thus:

“Giants built Stonehenge,/ Giants built this land,/ Let’s spurt up like mushrooms/ And seize the upper hand.”

For the October 1974 general election Albion Free State produced what they self-deprecatingly labelled their “kind of Alternative State manifesto.” It called for Blake’s head to replace that of the queen on bank notes and declared that “Albion is the other England of Peace and Love which William Blake foresaw in vision- a country freed of dark satanic mills and Big Brother machinations…”  The writers of the manifesto wanted to create “a network … of independent collectives and communities federated together to form the Albion Free State.”  Life would be organised at local level, by neighbourhoods and workers.  The new nation would take over waste land and waste buildings for “diverse needs,” the manifesto noting that “The ‘true levellers’ in 1649 grew corn by taking over common land.”  This may at first glance have sounded like the product of a bunch of stoned hippies, but the authors had plainly read their literature and their history and they understood both their antecedents and the value and power of deep rooted cultural symbols.

In my recently published fairy tale, Albion awake!, I make use of both Blake’s conception of the sick isle of Albion and its need for salvation and the 1960s radical project for a polity within a polity.  This is still not an obsolete idea: on April 7th 2012 the Albion Free State was launched as a self declared anarchist community with permanent territories within the British Isles, in Scotland and west Yorkshire.  The aspiration to live in a leaderless community that is self-determining and free continues to have vitality, just as does the vision and poetry of William Blake, which can provide the basis for boundless inspiration and interpretation (see https://mw.micronation.org/wiki/Free_State_of_Albion for more information).

“Full of Fairy elves”- William Blake and fairies

Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing c.1786 by William Blake 1757-1827

Titania, Oberon and Puck with fairies dancing, 1796

This latest posting examines the poet William Blake’s conceptions of fairies.  This is to mark the publication of my latest book, Albion awake, a fairy story for adults that features both the Fairy Queen Mab and William Blake amongst its cast of historical characters.

Blake had a very clear vision of the nature of fairies, although these thoughts were frequently unique to him- not an uncommon situation in the complex mythology that he elaborated over the course of his life!  Blake spoke of “the elemental beings called by us by the general name of fairies.”  From this it seems clear that he did not conceive of a single class of supernatural being, but of complex variety- as if, of course, the British conception of fairy-kind.

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Illustration to Milton’s ‘Il Penseroso V‘- Milton dreams of “six spirits or fairies, hovering on the air with instruments.”

In his verse, Blake’s fairies fulfil a number of functions:

  • primarily and originally they are remnants of the pagan gods of Britain.  In The Four Zoas Blake speaks of the “fairies of Albion, afterwards The Gods of the Heathen.”
  • they are emanations of his character Los (broadly ‘time and space’) and accordingly they are the makers of time.  In Milton (28, 60) time is described as “the work of fairy hands of the four elements.”
  • along with nymphs, gnomes and genii, fairies are spirits that animate the material, vegetative world.  They are often associated by him with flowers and natural growth and they are linked to its vigour and fecundity.  For example in 1802, after his move to Felpham on the coast, Blake wrote that the trees and fields roundabout his cottage were “full of Fairy elves.” The fairy that dictates Europe to the poet is first discovered “sat on a streak’d Tulip.”
  • closely related to the previous characteristic, fairies are understood to be intimately aware of the sensuous nature of life.  In Europe, for example, the fairy offers to open Blake’s senses and to “shew you all alive/ The world, where every particle breathes forth its joy.”  He demonstrates that the material world is not dead; rather each flower whimpers when it is plucked and its eternal essence then hovers around Blake “like a cloud of incense.”  In this respect, then, fairies represent the natural state of human imagination and perception, before it has been blunted and enslaved by logic and reason.  In his Motto to the Songs of Innocence and Experience, Blake condemns how:

“The good are attracted by men’s perceptions,/ And think not for themselves;/ Til experience teaches them to catch/ And to cage fairies and elves.”

  • the keen animation of the fairy senses seems to shade into sensuality and Blake makes some connection between these spirits and female sexuality.  In ‘A fairy leapt upon my knee’ the spirit protests to Blake thus:

“Knowest thou not, O Fairies’ lord,/ How much to us contemn’d, abhorred,/ Whatever hides the female form/ That cannot bear the mortal storm?/ Therefore in pity still we give/ Our lives to make the female live;/ And what would turn into disease/ We turn to what will joy and please!”

The verse ‘The fairy’ treats the supernatural creature as ‘king’ of the marriage ring.  It appears that Blake saw the emotional and physical obsession of love as some sort of spell that has to be broken.  This link to carnal pleasure also seems to feature in his poem The Phoenix, sent to Mrs Butts in 1800 after the move to Felpham. Blake contrasts a fairy to the innocence of children playing.  The phoenix flees the sprite for the company of the children and-

“The Fairy to my bosom flew/ weeping tears of morning dew/ I said thou foolish whimpring thing/ Is not that thy Fairy Ring/ Where those children sport and play/ In fairy fancies light and gay?/ Seem the child and be a child/ And the Phoenix is beguild/ But if thou seem a fairy thing/ Then it flies on glancing Wing.”

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Illustration to Milton’s L’Allegro V- Queen Mab, fairies & a goblin.

These quite individual conceptions of the nature of faery were elaborated  by the poet from pre-existing folk materials of long standing.  We have just seen mention of fairy rings and, in one very significant respect, Blake did not depart at all from conventional imaginings of fairies: his creatures are always very small.  There are numerous examples of this:

  • An early poem, found in the manuscript collection owned by Rossetti,  describes how “A fairy leapt upon my knee.”  Blake condemns it as a “Thou paltry, gilded, poisonous worm,” emphasising its miniature dimensions.
  • In another early poem, found only in manuscript, ‘Little Mary Bell’ keeps a fairy hidden in a nut.
  • An illustration for the 1797 edition of Gray’s A long story has fairies riding upon flies;
  • In Europe Blake caught the fairy muse in his hat “as boys knock down a butterfly” and then took it home “in my warm bosom” where it perched on his table and dictated the verse.  In his early poem, The fairy, Blake likewise catches a elf in his hat after it leaps from some leaves in an effort to escape.  He addresses it as his ‘Butterfly.’
  • Lastly, in his famous account of a fairy funeral, Blake described “creatures of the size and colour of green and gray grasshoppers, bearing a body laid out on a rose leaf.”

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Illustration to Gray’s ‘Long story’- fairies riding on flies

Blake’s vision as, of course, a highly personal one and we would seldom be well advised to treat his version of fairy-lore as an authoritative guide to what his contemporaries believed about the supernatural world.  Nonetheless, it is a fascinating and coherent conception and a notable element within his overall philosophy.

My interpretation and use of Blake’s fairy lore, my new fairy tale Albion awake!, is available to purchase through Amazon as a Kindle or paperback.  I also intend to make related posts separately on johnkruseblog.wordpress.com.

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