In a previous posting I looked at the influence of British folklore and myths on musician Marc Bolan, as well as mentioning his personal devotion to the Great God Pan. Here I offer another brief glimpse of mythology and legend at work in contemporary rock.
The first album released by Pink Floyd in August 1967 was Piper at the Gates of Dawn. The title is taken from chapter seven of Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows, a strange, slightly hallucinogenic episode in which Ratty and Mole meet the Great God Pan on an island, isolated at the end of a side branch of the river where they live. It’s dawn and they are drawn inexorably into his presence, struck dumb with awe and reverence.
As late as July that year, the intended title of the album was Projection, but frontman Syd Barrett decided instead to borrow the name from one of his favourite books. Moreover, Barrett claimed to have had a dream, or vision, in which he met Pan (and other characters from the book) and the Great God had disclosed to him the secrets of the workings of Nature. To some extent, even, he believed that this encounter had resulted in him being an earthly embodiment of the deity.
The album tracks themselves didn’t refer to Pan, but there were still mythological references. The song Matilda Motherdescribes a child being read to in bed and the impact the fairy stories and their imagery have on his/ her imagination:
“Wandering and dreaming The words have different meaning Yes they did
For all the time spent in that room The doll’s house, darkness, old perfume And fairy stories held me high on Clouds of sunlight floating by Oh mother, tell me more Tell me more”
Secondly, we have Barrett’s song The Gnome, apparently drawing upon Grimm’s Fairy Tales and the work of J R R Tolkien, but full of traditional faery images and conventions. It concerns:
“A gnome named Grimble Gromble And little gnomes stay in their homes Eating, sleeping Drinking their wine He wore a scarlet tunic A blue green hood, it looked quite good He had a big adventure Amidst the grass, fresh air at last Wining, dining Biding his time…”
As is well known, Barrett succumbed to drug use and was ejected from Pink Floyd before becoming a virtual recluse. Reading the lyrics, this may not entirely surprise us, but the songs also confirm the persistent and powerful influence of Pan and Faery in the British imagination, especially during the late 1960s and early ’70s.
A number of documents from the sixteenth century include spells for conjuring up fairy women for sex. This may strike us as shocking and surprising, but the fact that a several separate texts have survived suggests that it was an activity in which a number of magicians were interested.
Spells to gain power over human women are known, as are spells to control spirits; the combination of the two activities is therefore not wholly unpredictable, especially given the well-known desirability of faery women to which I have made reference in numerous other postings.
There seem to be a number of motivating factors involved in these conjurations. Undeniably, possession and control over a supernatural beauty for the purposes of sexual enjoyment are top of the list, doubtless intertwined with a very male attitude to females and towards being able to boast about your magical (and sexual) skills. Once conjured, though, the fairy women could provide other benefits, because they had supernatural knowledge that could enrich the magician. In this, they can be rather like faery brides- though as will become clear, those casting the spells discussed here don’t seem to have been interested in any sort of long-term relationship.
Balancing this, nonetheless, it is very clear that the risks inherent in such operations were well known and that the need for careful management of the interaction- and fairly prompt dismissal of the faery- were fully appreciated.
The spells are surrounded by the typical precautions that many magicians employed: chalk circles may be drawn; the magus will have bathed and abstained from alcohol or sex for a period of time beforehand; clean linen will be laid on a table bearing a candle and (in this particular instance) on the bed; incense or other perfumes will be employed. A wand or a crystal ball may also be required to assist in the ritual, and the proper day of the week, point in the lunar cycle and time must be observed.
The fairy is then summoned, invoking a variety of holy names and images that are meant to subdue and constrain the spirit. The king and queen of fairies may also be called upon to assist, through their powers and virtues and through the faith and obedience owed to them by the individual fairies, so that they rank equally alongside the Trinity and the Virgin Mary. Given the date- and that all of this is post-Reformation- is doubly surprising. Given that all these Christian trappings are being deployed just to have sex with a supernatural might be regarded as triply surprising.
Three separate magical operations have been preserved. The first is to be found in Reginald Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft of 1584. After the ritual preparations, the magus sits in a circle and proceeds as follows:
“… then beginne your conjuration as followeth here, and saie: I conjure thee Sibylia, O gentle virgine of fairies, by the mercie of the Holie-ghost, and by the dreadfull daie of doome, and by their vertues and powers; … and by the king and queene of fairies, and their vertues, and by the faith and obedience that thou bearest unto them… I conjure thee O Sibylia, O blessed and beautifull virgine, by all the riall words aforesaid; I conjure thee Sibylia by all their vertues to appeare in that circle before me visible, in the forme and shape of a beautifull woman in a bright and vesture white, adorned and garnished most faire, and to appeare to me quicklie without deceipt or tarrieng, and that thou faile not to fulfill my will & desire effectuallie. For I will choose thee to be my blessed virgine, & will have common copulation with thee. Therefore make hast & speed to come unto me, and to appeare as I said before: to whome be honour and glorie for ever and ever, Amen.”
Discoverie of Witchcraft Book 13, c.8.
This may have to be repeated as many as four times until Sibylia appears, but Scot assures us she will, after which she must be bound by the holy names not to leave or become invisible until she is given leave to do so. Then, as Scot describes, she is asked by the conjurer “to give me good counsell at all times, and to come by treasures hidden in the earth, and all other things that is to doo me pleasure, and to fulfill my will, without anie deceipt or tarrieng; nor yet that thou shalt have anie power of my bodie or soule, earthlie or ghostlie, nor yet to perish so much of my bodie as one haire of my head.”
The other spells all resemble Scot’s, more or less. A second is to be found in a manuscript in the British Library. It recommends performing the spell on a Friday and that the magus should draw two touching chalk circles, in one of which is “a faire bed with new washed shetes, swet and well smyllinge.” A clean table stands in the other circle, on which is fresh water and bread. The virgin spirits Michel, Chicam and Burfee are then summoned to appear and to obey the magician’s will. One of them is commanded to lie on the bed.
A Latin incantation is repeated three times, after which the three faery women will appear, bearing food and wine. Nonetheless, the magician is warned:
“eate not with them. But thou shalle se oneof them that is fayrest and she shall make ye no chere. Then pryvily put thy sceptre to the hight of hir face and stand in the circle and kisse hir and say to hir… I conjure you, virgin, by the sceptre and the truth by virtue of which you have come here that you hasten to give to me a ring of invisibility and to approach this bed without delay and lie down nude by that venerable name which you discern in my sceptre… and, unless you make every assuagement you can without fraud or harm or illusion or bodily wound, that you do not depart from me until I desire to give you the licence and loose you by my own volition…”
The magus is warned to take the ring from the faery before lying down with her, otherwise he will not be able to receive it (it seems because he will no longer be pure). The other faeries are sent away then, after which the man is advised to “go naked to bede. Ly on the righte side of the bed and she on the lyfte sid of the bed and do what yow wilt. But aske note whether she be a Spirit or a woman, for then she well spaeke no mor to the. And she shall do thee no harm. Then lycans hir in the mornyng to go and she will com agayn when thou callst hir.”
The third magical operation is set out in a manuscript now to be found in Folger Library in Washington. It is very similar to the others, except that it is a lot more detailed and is concerned with conjuring the presence of “the seven sisters of the fairies,” who are called Lilia, Hestilia, Fata, Sola, Afrya, Julia and Venulla.
There are four spells. The first summons the sisters into the magician’s presence and constrains them to bring him treasure as well as to give him information as to the location of buried treasure and how to destroy any beings guarding that. They are also all required to “have bountiful copulation” with him as he chooses, without having any power over his body or being able to delude him.
The second spell enables the conjurer to call one of the fairy virgins to his bed whenever he wants to have pleasure with her. The ritual requires chalk circles and a freshly made bed and summons a “bountiful maid and virgin before me in a green gown and beautiful apparel, who will not fail to fulfil my will and desire effectually.” She is ordered to “Come quickly” because he wants carnal copulation with her.
The third spell deals with the faery once she has appeared. She is required to lie down on the bed “quietly and gently without fraud, hurt or guile” and without doing any harm to him, as well as departing when she’s told to do so. When the faery is present, the man is advised (once again) to lie down on her left-hand side and to do whatever he pleases (or can). The magician is reassured that, now she has been bound, the faery is just a woman and that he need not fear her. Even more importantly, he’s assured that he will never have encountered “so pleasant a creature or lively a woman in bed.” The magician is then advised that, having “fulfilled thy will and desire with her, thou mayst reason with her of any manner of things thou desirest to and in all kind of questions you list to demand of her.” As we see again, physical pleasure can be combined with the acquisition of wisdom and material wealth. Even so, the man is warned not to ask her any questions about herself, or to speak to anyone else about their contacts- or to otherwise disclose them. However fantastic the sex, great self-control must be exercised in this respect.
The fourth spell sends the faery back where she came from, there to rest until the magician fancies seeing her again.
A number of elements in these texts should be very familiar to readers: there’s the allusion to the danger of consuming faery food, the link between faeries and buried treasure, the need to keep quiet about the benefits derived from association with a faery and, lastly, the distinguishing green robe that she wears (albeit briefly, of course…)
The spells are at the same time both risibly adolescent and depressingly chauvinist. On the one hand, there’s the emphasis placed upon the fairy being a virgin: Scot, for example, is particularly concerned with conjuring “the blessed virgins,” the fairies Sibylia, Milia and Achilia and, interestingly, the British Library manuscript is also concerned with a trinity of faery virgins. I presume that the deflowering of the faery is part of her subjugation to the human magus. Alongside this repeated emphasis upon her purity, the faery lover is still guaranteed to be the best lover he will ever have gone to bed with: “For beauty and bounty neither queen nor empress in all the whole world is able to countervail her, for I have diverse times proved her and had her with me.” Even so, there is an odd note of bathos, too- an admission of reality perhaps- when the author of the text states that the magician will be able to do “with her whatsoever you please or canst do…” It seems that aspiration may run ahead of performance for those possibly too young or too old…
Sources & Further Reading
If you’d like to know more about these conjurations, you can consult the original texts which are reproduced as follows:
Recently I reread Maurice Hewlett’s fantastic collection of fairy tales from 1913, Lore of Proserpine, and was reminded of the author’s rather idiosyncratic view of fairies and classical nymphs. In his taxonomy, there is little difference between the two. I might add that the book is also suffused with the cult of the Great God Pan, a aspect of paganism that had considerable vogue amongst artists, musicians and writers during the late Victorian period and the first decades of the twentieth century, as I have described in my new book The Great God Pan and as I also mentioned last year in Nymphology.
The Lore of Proserpine is fiction, but it purports to be a record a series of episodes over the narrator’s life when he had faery encounters. The earliest was when he was a school-boy in his early teens and saw a dryad in a woodland glade. He describes how:
“I was now looking upon a Dryad. I was looking certainly at a spirit informed. A being, irradiate and quivering with life and joy of life, stood dipt to the breast in the brake; stood so, bathing in the light; stood so, preening herself like a pigeon on the roof-edge, and saw me and took no heed.
She had appeared, or had been manifest to me, quite suddenly. At one moment I saw the avenue of lit green, at another she was dipt in it. I could describe her now, at this distance of time—a radiant young female thing, fiercely favoured, smiling with a fierce joy, with a gleam of fierce light in her narrowed eyes. Upon her body and face was the hue of the sun’s red beam; her hair, loose and fanned out behind her head, was of the colour of natural silk, but diaphanous as well as burnished, so that while the surfaces glittered like spun glass the deeps of it were translucent and showed the fire behind. Her garment was thin and grey, and it clung to her like a bark, seemed to grow upon her as a creeping stone-weed grows…”
The dryad had emanated, he believed, from the oak trees of the wood, and shared some of the trees’ characteristics. We meet another dryad much later in the book, this time associated with an oceanid. Hewlett tells the story of a family living on the wild Cheviot Hills on the English-Scottish border. The mother of the family had been brought home by her sailor husband. Her origins were never discussed, but they seem clear from the fact that:
“It was told that until Miranda King was brought in, sea-birds had never been seen in Dryhopedale. It was said that they came on that very night when George King the younger came home, and she with him, carrying his bundle and her own. It was said that they had never since left the hamlet, and that when Miranda went out of doors, she was followed by clouds of them whichever way she turned.”
In turn, Miranda’s son brings home a dryad he has discovered and fallen for in a wood deep in the hills. He had been to the wood before, but “He had had a fright, had been smitten by that sudden gripe of fear which palsies limbs and freezes blood, which the ancients called the Stroke of Pan, and we still call Panic after them.” However, driven by a deep need and identification, he overcomes his terror and goes back to the wood to find dryad wife. His mother confirms the two women’s affinity: “I am of the sea and she of the fell, but we are the same nation. We are not of yours, but you can make us so.”
A strange, dramatic struggle follows in which the ‘King of the Wood’ (Pan), tries to reclaim his handmaiden from the young shepherd who has abducted her. He nearly succeeds and the girl, called Mabilla By-the-Wood, was nearly “resumed into her first state” (in other words, she nearly became the spirit of a beech tree once again) but her husband pursues and rescues her.
In some respects, then, nymphs only look like humans. Hewlett’s nymphs are animalistic, soulless beings- but they can be transformed to something more like a human woman through marriage to a human man. Describing Mabilla By-the-Wood, he says that:
“her eyes were large, grey in colour, but, as I have said, unintelligent, like an animal’s, which to us always seem unintelligent… Everything about her seemed to him to be quite what one would have expected, until one came, so to speak, in touch with her soul. That, if it lay behind her inscrutable, sightless and dumb eyes, betrayed her. There was no hint of it. Human in form, visibly and tangibly human, no soul sat in her great eyes that a man could discern.”
Pan is present in the story as the mysterious and violent King of the Wood, possessive of the spirits of the trees. Hewlett also recognises the deity’s suzerainty over terrestrial fairies. As he says, “Pan in potent in nearly all land solitudes,” whilst Artemis “is certainly ruler of the spirits of the air and water.” He continues:
“The legions of Artemis are all female, though on earth men as well as women worship her; the legions of Pan are all male, though on earth he can chasten women as well as men. But Pan can do nothing against Artemis, nor she anything against him or any of his. The decree or swift deed of either is respected by the other. They are not, then, as earthly kings, leaders of their hosts to battle against their neighbours. Fairies fight and marshal themselves for war; Mr. Wentz has several cases of the kind. But Pan and Artemis have no share in these warfares. Queen Mab is one of the many names, and points to one of the many manifestations of Artemis; the Lady of the Lake is another.”
Here we have references to the division of the woodland folk into Pan and his satyrs and the various nymphs. We also have Mab and the Lady of the Lake treated as, to all intents and purposes, nymphs or naiads. Artemis is the Greek goddess of the wilderness, wild animals and the moon. Her Roman equivalent was Diana, who was very often linked with fairies and whose name was frequently interchangeable with Titania. These passages from the Lore of Proserpine are clear evidence of the confusion between classical and native myth to which I alluded at the start. This is something by no means unique to Hewlett, and is by no means a recent phenomenon, but it was a rich source of inspiration.
Elsewhere in his book, Hewlett quotes Plato’s Phædrus: “Beloved Pan, and all ye other gods who haunt this place….” and then continues “Beloved Pan! My knowledge of Pan was of the vaguest, and yet more than once or twice did I utter that prayer wandering alone the playing field, or watching the evening mist roll down the Thames Valley and blot up the elm trees, thick and white, clinging to the day like a fleece. The third Iliad again I have never forgotten…” He, like so many public school boys of his generation, absorbed the Greek classics at a young age and often knew them better than their own native traditions. Confusion and cross-fertilisation were almost inevitable. Nevertheless, Pan was a real presence for Hewlett, like so many other writers of that period: “I had had good reason to know the awfulness of Pan.”
I have examined Pan, nymphs and fairies in previous postings. I shall return to the content of Hewlett’s Lore of Proserpine in the near future. I have also discussed Pan in literature and art on one of my other WordPress blogs.
I am very pleased to announce the publication of my latest book, The Great God Pan, by Green Magic Publishing, who back in 2017 were kind enough to publish my first fairy study, British Fairies.
The origins of the latest book lie partly in the research I did for 2020’s Nymphology, but also in my wider reading of fantasy writers such as Algernon Blackwood and Arthur Machen. As some readers will already know, Machen himself wrote a story called The Great God Pan; the title wasn’t his, it comes from ancient legend, so I felt entitled to use it too!
The new book, Great God Pan, is a study of the development of the cult of Pan, tracing its origins from ancient Greece and following the faith through the Renaissance to late Victorian times, when it had a major revival. This period is the main focus of the book, with reference to writers such as Oscar Wilde, Aleister Crowley, Dion Fortune and others.
Now, you’d be entitled to think that the goat god Pan hasn’t got a lot to do with fairies, but the situation’s rather more complex than we might expect. Let’s start towards the end…
In 1878 Walter Besant published the short story Titania’s Farewell. As the title tells us, the story’s focus is the departure of the fairies from British shores, something witnessed by a human who finds himself surrounded by the fairies late one night in the New Forest. Reflecting the next day on his enchanted experience, the narrator asks himself:
“Reality! Ideal! Why, which is which? The old nature worship goes on as ever. Great God Pan never dies.”
He seems to be very clear in his own mind that fairies are nature spirits and that they are intimately linked by this to Pan himself. The fairies of the story, in fact, don’t quite see it as simply as this. Addressing his court, King Oberon says that the fairies can’t flee from Britain to either Greece or Italy. This is because those places are:
“haunted by beings far different from ourselves- Bacchus and his noisy crew. You would not like to associate with him. Satyrs there are- monsters of most uncomely appearance and their manners are detestable. Dryads there are in the woods, and Naiads by their fountains; but you would not like them. They drowned fair young Hylas. When did we drown fair youth?”
The British fairies can’t go to these Mediterranean lands, then; they are ‘Teutonic elves’ as Oberon says. But they can’t go to Germany either, because there the woods are full of goblins and they’ve filled up their buildings with “clumsy plaster casts of the Fauns of the Latin hills.”
All of this leaves Oberon sounding very much like a jingoistic Victorian English gentleman, for whom all foreigners are simply frightful, with their beastly artistic pretensions and artistic temperaments.
In truth, British faery folk weren’t always seen as being so very different from classical beings, as I described a long time ago in a post on the impact of the Renaissance on the British fairy faith. For example, in The Faithful Shepherdess of 1609, John Fletcher described ‘fairy ground’ where the fairies dance in these terms:
“No Shepherd’s way lies here; ‘tis hallowed ground;
No maid seeks here her strayed cow or sheep,
Fairies, fawns and satyrs do it keep.”
The influence of Greek and Latin legend actually dates much earlier than that.
We can, in fact, go right back as early as St Augustine’s City of God, of the early fifth century. He briefly discusses some Gaulish fairies called dusii, whom he treated as being identical with “Silvans and Pans, commonly called incubi, [who] often misbehave towards women and succeed in accomplishing their lustful desires to have intercourse with them.” These are beings who seduce human women, usually coming to them when they are asleep at night, and in their highly sexed nature they link backwards to Pan, inveterate pursuer of nymphs in the groves of Arcady, and forward to the faery lovers of more modern times.
St Augustine’s ‘pans’ might also be called fauns or wood sprites. In about 1000, Bishop Burchard of Worms laid down a penance for any country people who expressed belief in the existence of such ‘sylvans’ or satyrs or who made offerings to them. A later English version of this same text, dating from the 13th century, repeated the same warnings, but called them fauns.
In the twelfth century Thomas of Monmouth described how a young virgin living in Dunwich in Suffolk was assaulted at night by a spirit in the form of a handsome young man who appeared in her bedroom and sought to tempt and seduce her. He’s called “one of those beings whom they call fairies and incubi [faunos dicunt et incubi.]” As this shows, faun and fairy were interchangeable words.
These country spirits may have Latin names, but they are very plainly what we’d call fairies, as is the case with John Lydgate’s Troy Book, written during the fifteenth century and first published in 1513. He refers to the:
“diverse goddis of þe wodis grene [who]
Appere þere, called Satiry,
Bycornys eke [too], fawny and incubi,
þat causen ofte men to falle in rage.”
The ‘rage’ to which Lydgate refers is, of course, the panic that Pan can induce in flocks, herds and people. The Troy Book was based on Guido delle Colonne’s Historia destructionis Troiae (A History of the fall of Troy), from which Lydgate inherited his “multos satiros faunosque bicornes” (many satyrs and two horned fauns).
These fauns/ fairies of the Middle Ages behaved in all the ways that remain familiar to us today. As well as trying to seduce suitable boys and girls, they offered rich goods that were only glamour, they liked to play tricks on humans and they also took children and left changelings.
Into early modern times, the terminology remained interchangeable. As I’ve discussed before, Reginald Scot in The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584)made a list of supernatural beings that included “satyrs, pans, fauns… nymphs… incubuses;” William Prynne in Histrio-Matrix of 1633, a Puritan attack on the theatre, complained of people dressing up as “Satyres, Silvanes, Muses, Nymphes, Furies, Hobgoblins, Fairies, Fates… which Christians should not name, much less resemble.”
As these last examples remind us, fairies and nymphs were consistently conflated or confused, as I’ve discussed before in postings and in Nymphology. These associations further embed into British faerylore the conjunction of fairies with girlish sexuality- something which can also be seen in much of the art associated with pan and the satyrs.
The intermingling of classical and native beings continues even to this day. For example, in his book Good Faeries, Bad Faeries, Brian Froud included Pan in the good half and a ‘Small Pan or Slight Panic,’ in the bad section. The former, ‘Poetic Pan,’ can materialise in many different places and, if humans come into contact with him, will arouse in them erotic impulses, abandonment to poetic emotions and intense feelings of spiritual connection to nature. Froud warns us, however, to take care, “for his influence is overwhelming.” In the second half of the book, the small Pan is the “irresistible child of the great Pan himself [who] hides himself away in secret nooks and crannies, ready to leap out in pursuit of the unwary (especially pretty young girls and attractive goats). His presence causes minor pandemonium and slight panic, so be cautious of things that pop out suddenly from hidden places.”
I am also posting articles related to this book one of my other WordPress blogs, John Kruse blog.
Back in October, we were out of lockdown long enough for a short holiday, which took us up to the West Midlands. We stayed near Ironbridge and visited the Jackfield tile museum there. Of all the early industrial sites amongst the complex of museums in the Ironbridge Gorge area, Jackfield is my favourite simply because it’s the most attractive- especially the reconstructed pubs and shops which were entirely tiled in Victorian and Edwardian times.
A new exhibit was the mural by Margaret Thompson shown above. It was very common in the early decades of the twentieth century to decorate children’s wards in hospitals with large, colourful tile pictures- bright, cheerful and very easily kept clean. Often they were themed on nursery rhymes and fairy tales; this design derives more from the artist’s imagination alone- at the same time, it is fairly typical of faery designs of its time.
Margaret E. Thompson trained in applied design at Goldsmith’s Art Institute in the late 1890s and became an artist and designer working in the Art Nouveau style. Her background was that of an artist rather than a commercial designer, but she was quickly recruited by Doulton’s pottery at Lambeth, London.
Thompson’s specialisms were faience murals and vases with fairy tale motifs. Her initial output for Doulton comprised unique vases with designs exhibiting many similarities to those of Arthur Rackham and Mabel Lucy Attwell (see below). In due course she moved on to work on ceramic tiles for children’s wards in hospitals across the world, for example in the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UCL Hospital, Bloomsbury, London and St Thomas’s Hospital, London. Other examples of her faery themed work are illustrated below; a number of Thompson’s works are held in the Victoria and Albert museum collection- most date from the period 1900-1905.
Mabel Lucie Attwell
Mabel Lucie Attwell (1879-1964) is perhaps one of the best known and popular artists of the inter-war period. In part this was due to her very keen business sense; in part because she diversified across a range of products. She is best remembered for her book illustrations and other graphic materials, but she also produced a range of pottery items, which is why she’s featured here.
I discussed Attwell’s career in my recent book Fairy Art of the Twentieth Century. She was born in the East End of London and attended several art schools before launching into her commercial career. She started out supplying work to magazines and, because this proved very popular, was soon contributing plates for children’s books such as The Water Babiesand Peter Pan, as well as designing postcards.
Attwell was a rapid and prolific worker and quickly became a household name. She honed her ‘brand’ further still when she devised the toy-like characters called ‘Boo-Boos.’ These were round little pixies in green, with pointed caps, antennae and ears. The Boo-Boos first appeared in story books, but Attwell went on to produce a range of themed products- pottery figurines, wall hangings and plaques, night lights, jigsaws, bed linen, dolls , biscuit tins, money boxes and such like.
Attwell was much influenced at the start of her career by the work of her close friend, Hilda Cowham, another fairy artist. Between 1924 and 1935, both women were both employed by Shelley Potteries, Stoke on Trent, who were producers of Art Deco style fine china. They provided the company with images and designs for nursery ware. The standing of these two artists is attested by these commissions, because previously potteries had relied solely upon their own in-house artists for designs.
The cute and cuddly babies, little girls and pixies that Attwell churned out are not to my taste, but they are a significant example of mid-twentieth century perceptions of Faery, alongside the flower fairies of Cicely Mary Barker and Margaret Tarrant and the sometimes more sinister designs of Arthur Rackham. Whether we like them or not, and whether we regard them as great art, it can’t be denied that they shaped contemporary attitudes to fairies and made a significant contribution to the process in which our perceptions of our Good Neighbours shifted away from a dangerous and independent presence to a far more saccharine and approachable image.
A recent book on modern paganism and fairy belief, Magic and Witchery in the Modern West (Feraro and White, 2019), suggested that many of the contemporary conceptions of fairies as planetary guardians and green protectors came not from age-old faery tradition but from books like Cicely Mary Barker’s flower fairies, books that adult pagans had seen as and absorbed as children. Is this really true? Is the view of faeries as green champions really so recent and untraditional a development?
In fact, there is a reasonable amount of evidence to indicate that faeries have been connected with nature conservation and environmental causes for a quite long time. For example, there is a widespread popular story of a woodcutter just about to fell a tree who is stopped by the appearance of a fairy being from beneath the ground. This is described as having happened as far apart in Britain as Northamptonshire and Nithsdale in the Scottish Borders. The idea of faeries as active defenders of the natural world was therefore accepted in folk belief from at least the start of the nineteenth century, a situation that was reflected in the literature of the time. In his 1810 poem Alice Brand, Sir Walter Scott had the elfin king demand:
“Why sounds yon stroke on the beech and oak,
Our moonlight circle’s screen,
Or who comes here to chase the deer,
Beloved of our Elfin Queen?”
In the ballad of Tam Lin, the young Tam appears to his lover-to-be, Janet, after she plucks a rose in the forest. He complains that she has taken the flower without his permission. Similarly, in the ballad Hynde Etin complaint is made by the fairy when nuts are picked, “For I’m the guardian of the wood/ and ye maun [must] let it be.” Whether this is environmental stewardship or cases of trespass on private land is not entirely clear, but the faeries are evidently highly protective of their natural resources. We might see those faeries that protect (human) orchards and nut groves, such as Owd Goggie, in a similar light.
Lastly, an article carried by the Welsh Western Mail in September 1878 described the industry that had brought prosperity to Nant y Glo and Blaenau, in Gwent, albeit at the cost of the local woodlands. The extensive tree-felling was dated back some ninety years to the time when ironworking first started in the area and demand for charcoal expanded steeply. Before then, we are told, the fairies had protected the trees of the hills and valleys thereabouts. These were yr tylwyth teg yn y coed, the fairies of the wood, who often used to be seen assembled under the female oaks there, and who guarded the trees and harmed those that felled them. Sadly, however, they couldn’t resist against the “inroads of a gross material civilisation” (as the writer called it, even then) and they were driven off west into less spoiled parts of the Principality. These sentiments might surprise us from a Victorian, but they demonstrate that environmental awareness, and a sense of the faeries’ role as eco-guardians, might not be that new.
As far back as the start of the seventeenth century, in fact, there is evidence of the fairies being seen as friends and protectors of wildlife and the natural world. Sir William Browne in Britannia’s Pastorals imagined the fairies
“Teaching the little birds to build their nests,/ And in their singing how to keepen rests…”
The ‘eco-fairy’ as a concept is not new, therefore, even if the label is. An examination of the folklore and literary sources discloses three interrelated functions that the faes were believed to undertake: they cared for small mammals and birds; they had a special link with certain flowers and trees and, lastly, they assumed a more general supervisory role over the natural world, keeping it in balance and preventing over-exploitation and pollution.
Fairies’ Furry Friends
Fairies not only lived and played in the countryside- according to Victorian poetry they talked to the birds, taught them how to sing and kept their eggs warm in the nest by curling up to sleep beside them. Poet Rose Fyleman, famous for There’s a Fairy at the Bottom of my Garden, in her verse A Fairy Went A-Marketing, imagined how a fae might buy pet fish and birds and then set them free. For Fyleman, fairies and wildlife were best of friends, with robins serving as a page in the fairy court and tiny faes living contentedly in flowers.
Verse and popular conceptions went hand in hand, as there are reported encounters with fairies helping birds find berries in the snow and looking after wildlife in wintry weather. Early Victorian child poet, Annie Isabella Brown, imagined fairies describing how:
“We gathered flannel-mullen leaves,
Against the winter’s cold;
To keep the little dormouse warm,
Within its hedgerow hold.”
Poet Menella Bute Smedley also imagined the fairies “twisting threads of bloom and light” to make butterflies’ wings.
Just as there was active supernatural involvement with the animal kingdom, folk tradition identifies two aspects to the relationship between fairies and plants. They are attracted to certain herbs, whether supernaturally or for merely utilitarian reasons (foxgloves, for example, are called fairy gloves and fairy thimbles) and, secondly, the fairies are said inhabit certain trees, such as oaks, thorns and elders. It was a relatively easy transition from these associations to come up with the idea of flower fairies as popularised by artists Cicely Baker and Margaret Tarrant, but the foundations of this twentieth century phenomenon are much deeper and older (see Lewis Spence, BritishFairy Tradition, pp.178-80).
It looks as though the first step towards the flower fairy idea was to emphasise the affinity between fairies and particular flowers. Next, it was an easy step to conceive of the spirits living in those flowers and the miniaturisation of the fairies popularised by Shakespeare and his contemporaries assisted with this. Inevitably, too, the fairy character began to be softened by association with bloom, scent and colour.
This change seems to have proceeded from the seventeenth century, judging by scattered indications in our literature. For instance, William Browne (1588-1643) in his verse The Rose imagined that “the nimble fairies by the pale-faced moon/ Water’d the root and kissed her pretty shade.” From the eighteenth century there is good literary evidence for the idea of fairies taking up residence in flowers. Coleridge, for example, described “Fays/ That sweetly nestle in the foxglove bells.” His contemporary George Darley imagined little fairies with scented wings emerging at night from blossoms and flitting from flower to flower enjoying nectar like wine (George Darley (1795-1846), What the Toys do at Night and The Elf Toper).
By the late nineteenth century this idea was exceedingly widespread: American poet Madison Julius Cawein repeatedly housed his fays in toadstools or in blooms and in his adult fairy tale, Phantastes, Scottish author George MacDonald described how “the flowers die because the fairies go away, not that the fairies disappear because the flowers die. The flowers seem a sort of house for them, or outer bodies, which they can put on and off when they please… you would see a strange resemblance, almost a oneness between the flower and the fairy… [but] whether all flowers have fairies, I cannot determine.” When J. M. Barrie adopted these ideas for Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, he was simply making use of an already well-established idea- although the success of his books and plays took it to a much wider audience.
Consequent upon inhabiting flowers, other connections were seen- for example, gardens become an ideal place to see fairies according to the poetry of Philip Bourke Marston and others. It was also during the nineteenth century that the fairies’ role as conservers of plant life was crystallised. In The Fairy’s Promise Edwin Arnold had fairies promise to help a love-sick poet because “Thou hast never plucked daisy or heather bell/ From the emerald braes where the fairies dwell.” The fairies’ floral duties are spelled out in detail in The Wounded Daisy by Menella Bate Smedley. They are to be found at work in the corners of meadows:
“Perhaps you’ll see them… setting the lilies steady, Before they begin to grow; Or getting the rosebuds ready Before it is time to blow. A fairy was mending a daisy Which someone had torn in half…”
According to numerous nineteenth century poets the fairies shaped and inspired growth and, even, taught the plants how to grow at special schools over the winter.
Finally, Menella Bute Smedley made an important leap by involving humans as partners in the task of caring for the natural world:
“Then pull up the weeds with a will,/ And fairies will cherish the flowers.” (A Slight Confusion)
There are, then, two conceptions of the exact interrelationship between fairies and the natural world. The first is that they exist simply as a part of the natural world and its processes. The second, and more significant, is that they act as ‘guardians of nature’, actively watching over plants, animals and the earth as a whole and keeping the intricate systems in balance.
Fairies and the Green Revolution
Many contemporary writers on fairy matters stress how the faes are opposed to intensive agriculture, to overuse of fertilisers, to pollution and to general environmental degradation. It would be easy to imagine that these ideas have been imported into the faery faith since the 1960s, but the examples given so far make it abundantly clear that they were present in folklore and, thence it would seem, in literature, well before any conception of the harms of over-intensive cultivation even occurred to the scientific community.
Fairies have always been linked more closely to rural and uncultivated locations than to towns, although it would be wrong to suggest that they’re never seen in urban places (and the evidence of the recent Fairy Census and of the witness accounts recorded in Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing Fairies both suggest this is changing anyway). Even in the countryside, though, they’re not a people solely of wild places and woods. They often live and work around human farms (the Hobs and the Brownie type of spirit) and they frequently take advantage of the human environment, using mills and dancing in pastures and meadows at night. There is no antipathy with agriculture as such, therefore.
That said, ideas of fairies as a champion of more traditional, organic, self-sufficient production date back to the mid-nineteenth century at the very latest. For example, folklorist Evans Wentz in the 1900s heard in Scotland that the Highland clearances also drove off the sith. Highlander John Dunbar of Invereen told him that “no one sees them now because every place on this parish where they used to appear has been put into sheep and deer and grouse and shooting.” A vision of them fighting with sheep was seen, in fact, as a premonition of what was the follow (Evans Wentz, Fairy Faith, 94).
Works such as Peter Pan and the various Flower Fairies books unquestionably popularised the conception of the fairy as protector and champion of nature, but these ideas had been around since Elizabethan times and had been consolidating during the Victorian period. Such perceptions of the faeries are, arguably, as traditional as notions of them dancing in rings and stealing children. The ‘green fairy’ is not some hippy, environmentalist creation, grafted on in recent decades, but is a fundamental element of the nature of Faery.
In a previous post I have discussed the close links between fairies and elder trees. As a seasonal posting today, I’m examining fairies and their relationship to holly.
I was recently browsing the journal, Welsh Outlook- A Monthly Journal of National Social Progress, in the collection of the National Library of Wales. The title doesn’t sound too promising for those searching for faerylore, but luckily I wasn’t put off. In volume 2, issue 10 (October 1915) there was an article on Snowdon Folklore, which recounted the story of Merfyn Ffowc, a shepherd.
Merfyn got lost in a thick mist on the mountains near Cwn Llan and, after wandering for some time, he heard a voice crying out in distress from higher above him. He clambered up a steep rock-face to find a small woman trapped in a cleft into which she had slipped. She was dressed in green, with silver shoes, and spoke a language he couldn’t understand- evidently a fairy. He carried her down the cliff and, almost as soon as they had reached the bottom, two men appeared, calling out for ‘Silifrit.’ Appreciative of Merfyn’s rescue, they presented him with a holly staff as a sign of their gratitude, and almost instantly vanished.
It turned out that this staff was lucky. Within the year Merfyn married a rich widow and his flocks expanded amazingly: every ewe gave him two lambs. It seems, however, that he didn’t fully appreciate (or recognise) the role of the fairy gift in his good fortune. As a result, he was caught one night in a terrible storm as he returned home from an evening drinking in Beddgelert and he lost his holly staff in the raging wind and rain. With the stick went all Merfyn’s new prosperity: all his sheep were washed away in the floods and he ended up poorer than he had started.
The holly staff seems to have had a magical significance for the fairy donors- as other examples will show. As for the fairy’s name, this type of name is something I’ve discussed in an earlier posting as well as in my book Famous Fairies.
The Welsh story immediately reminded me of another one, much older and from the other side of Britain. On June 17th 1499 in Norwich, John and Agnes Clerk and their daughter, Marion, appeared before a church court accused of sorcery. The family lived in Great Ashfield in Suffolk where the daughter had developed a reputation as a healer, soothsayer and finder of buried treasure. Marion immediately confessed everything, admitting that the fairies helped her whenever she needed information. Amongst their assistance was a holly stick that they had given her: her mother had taken it to the church on Palm Sunday, mixed up with the palm fronds, to be blessed, and Marion then used the stick to find treasure.
Two cases; two holly sticks from the faeries. What more do we know about the connection between this tree and the Good Folk? The plain answer has to be: not a lot. Katharine Briggs mentions in her Dictionary of Fairies that the holly is a fairy tree, along with the better known elder, oak and rowan, but she does not offer us more than this. In the traditional Scots ballad of The Elfin Knight, holly is mentioned in the refrain in two versions of the song: for example, “Sing green bush, holly and ivy.” See versions K & L in Child’s Ballads– these two refrains strongly indicate a faery or supernatural association with the shrub.
Robert Graves, in The White Goddess, gives a very full treatment of the magical and mythical significance of this shrub. He finds associations with the legends of King Arthur, Robin Hood and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. He also traces much deeper Druidic, Classical and Biblical links. None of these are specifically fae, but the symbolic power of the tree seems very clear.
Reverting to British folklore, in the Scottish Highlands, holly is recorded as having been used to ward off the sith folk at New Year. Perhaps its potency derives from its prickles (cut gorse is used in another story to defend against the faeries), from its evergreen (and therefore ‘immortal’) qualities and from its red berries. Just as with the rowan, which is regularly used as a protection against faery attack, red is a very powerful and defensive colour.
As I have described before, the countryside is full of shrubs and herbs that have positive and negative fairy associations. I have discussed the elder tree in an earlier post and I examine other faery plants in chapter 5 of my book Faery (2020).
In an earlier post, I discussed famous the youthful writings on pixies by Lewis Carroll, author of the ‘Alice’ stories. Carroll is not really a writer of ‘fairy tales,’ however strange and fantastical his books may have been, but he did not neglect them entirely.
Firstly, there is his follow-up to the Alice stories, Sylvie and Bruno (1889). This book is far less well-known than the two Alice adventures- and for good reason, as it really isn’t that good. However, it gives a very good idea of the image of fairies that Carroll harboured. His view of the Good Folk can be both sentimental- and yet cautious and honest. For example, from chapter 13: “All Fairies understand Doggee- that is, Dog-language” or, this lengthy passage from chapter 14:
“In the first place, I want to know—dear Child who reads this!—why Fairies should always be teaching us to do our duty, and lecturing us when we go wrong, and we should never teach them anything? You can’t mean to say that Fairies are never greedy, or selfish, or cross, or deceitful, because that would be nonsense, you know. Well then, don’t you think they might be all the better for a little lecturing and punishing now and then?
I really don’t see why it shouldn’t be tried, and I’m almost sure that, if you could only catch a Fairy, and put it in the corner, and give it nothing but bread and water for a day or two, you’d find it quite an improved character- it would take down its conceit a little, at all events.
The next question is, what is the best time for seeing Fairies? I believe I can tell you all about that.
The first rule is, that it must be a very hot day- that we may consider as settled: and you must be just a little sleepy- but not too sleepy to keep your eyes open, mind. Well, and you ought to feel a little- what one may call “fairyish”- the Scotch call it “eerie,” and perhaps that’s a prettier word; if you don’t know what it means, I’m afraid I can hardly explain it; you must wait till you meet a Fairy, and then you’ll know.
And the last rule is, that the crickets should not be chirping… I looked about in all directions for the little creature, but there was no trace of her- and my ‘eerie’ feeling was quite gone off, and the crickets were chirping again merrily- so I knew she was really gone. And now I’ve got time to tell you the rule about the crickets. They always leave off chirping when a Fairy goes by- because a Fairy’s a kind of queen over them, I suppose- at all events it’s a much grander thing than a cricket- so whenever you’re walking out, and the crickets suddenly leave off chirping, you may be sure that they see a Fairy.”
Sylvie & Bruno, c.14
On the more positive side, Carroll describes how Sylvie changes from a little girl into a fairy and he states categorically “I may tell you, besides, that she had no wings (I don’t believe in Fairies with wings), and that she had quantities of long brown hair and large earnest brown eyes, and then I shall have done all I can to give you an idea of her.”
Carroll’s collection of verse, Three Sunsets and Other Poems, which was published ten years later than Sylvie and Bruno in 1898, includes two poems on a clear fae theme: Puck Lost and Puck Found:
Puck has fled the haunts of men: Ridicule has made him wary: In the woods, and down the glen, No one meets a Fairy!
“Cream!” the greedy Goblin cries— Empties the deserted dairy— Steals the spoons, and off he flies. Still we seek our Fairy!
Ah! What form is entering? Lovelit eyes and laughter airy! Is not this a better thing, Child, whose visit thus I sing, Even than a Fairy?
Nov. 22, 1891.
Puck has ventured back agen: Ridicule no more affrights him: In the very haunts of men Newer sport delights him.
Capering lightly to and fro, Ever frolicking and funning— “Crack!” the mimic pistols go! Hark! The noise is stunning!
All too soon will Childhood gay Realise Life’s sober sadness. Let’s be merry while we may, Innocent and happy Fay! Elves were made for gladness!
Nov. 25, 1891.
The illustrations for Three Sunsets were provided by Emily Gertrude Thomson. She had illustrated William Allingham’s famous verse ‘The Fairies’ in 1878 and Carroll had so admired her wrote that he wrote to the publisher asking for her address. The two met for the first time in June 1879 at the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A). Their rendezvous was fascinating: Carroll arrived holding the hands of two little girls. He asked one to point out Thomson and she quickly indicated the artist, though none had met before. Carroll’s explanation of this was that he asked the child to identify the “young lady who knew fairies…”
Carroll was a difficult author to work for. He constantly intervened in his artists’ work, making suggestions and asking for alterations to completed drawings. The writer had very fixed and peculiar ideals of beauty. For example, he stipulated that all the fairies, and all the babies, in Thomson’s pictures should be girls, adding that he much preferred nude girls, although “no living child is perfect in form.” Thomson duly supplied for the book a series of twelve plates of very pleasingly pretty and shapely little girls, reclining nude beneath ferns, flowers and mushrooms. They have very little to do with the content of the book, but they are attractive pictures and- perhaps most importantly- they met the aesthetic and personal standards of Lewis Carroll, who was (as is known) a keen collector of little girls as his ‘nieces.’
I am pleased to announce the publication of my latest book, which is entitled Famous Fairies. As you’ll see, the inspiration for the idea came from a series of postcards designed for the Salmon Company in the early 1950s by the British artist Lorna R. Steele. This appears to have been a typical six card set, which was possibly retailed together in a special envelope (for collectors) as well as being sold separately at newsagents and such like for people to use for messages and greetings.
As I describe in my Fairy Art of the Twentieth Century, Lorna Steele (1902-90) was born in North London and was encouraged to become an artist by her uncle, Frank Jenners, who was himself an illustrator and author. She attended art school and then set up her own studio. She received early commissions for book illustrations from the University of London Press during the 1940s, providing illustrations for a variety of titles. After the war, she was associated with J. Salmond of Sevenoaks for whom she wrote and illustrated several books and designed a number of series of postcards, such as Peeps at Pixies in 1947.
Steele’s fairies are bright and almost cartoonish and her vision of faery is, perhaps, one of the most prosaic of all the British fairy artists. In humanising the beings, she often stripped them of all their magic and mystery, as might be seen in her postcard images of fairies at school, attending the market or posting their letters. Steele gave emphasis to the interaction between fairies and children, making them safe and approachable.
However, the Famous Fairies series is perhaps one of her most charming. It features several of the Famous Fairies that I have dealt with in my new book. Titania and Oberon are an obvious choice, as are Puck, the Cornish Pixie and (perhaps) the Will of the Wisp.
The borders of the cards are especially attractive, with their mushrooms, horse shoes and Halloween imagery. Steele’s fairies, with their whimsical eared caps, are firmly within the tradition of Cicely Mary Barker and Margaret Tarrant.
The final two cards in the series are surprising choices, as they are both figures from classical mythology- who arguably aren’t fairies at all. Admittedly, parallels have often been seen between Pan and Puck, and- in the absence of a clear conception of what Puck/ Robin Goodfellow looked like- Victorian painters especially resorted to the classical iconography of Pan- goat legs and horns (plus, perhaps, some wings)- to represent the most English of all supernatural personalities.
As for Neptune, well- little can be said. There are of course mermen in our folklore records, but very little trace of a king of the merfolk, such as this illustration depicts.
Famous British Fairies
Turning now to my new book: Famous Fairies: The Foremost Folk in Faeryland, it is a collection of short ‘biographies’ of the best known individuals in Faery. The text describes the careers and characters of nine of the most famous fairies to arise out of British faery-lore: Titania, Oberon, Ariel, Mab, Puck, King Arthur, Nimue, Tinker Bell and the native British equivalents of Rumpelstiltskin.
The history of each famous fairy is traced back to its origins and then their stories are followed through poetry, plays and paintings from late medieval times up to the present. Their lives and their deeds are examined in detail, with illustrations from literature and art.
The book describes exactly how and why these fairies became famous in the first place- and why they remain well-known and relevant even into the twenty-first century. As an essential guide to the key figures of faeryland, this book will help readers understand just why it is that these names are so familiar- and what it is about these faery personalities that made them renowned- across the world.
The book includes illustrations and a full bibliography. It’s available now from Amazon as a paperback and Kindle book, priced at £7.95 and £5.75 respectively.
I am very pleased to announce that Llewellyn Worldwide has now published Beyond Faery, the companion to my book Faerywhich they released in April this year.
As its full title indicates, in Beyond Faery- Exploring the World of Mermaids, Kelpies, Goblins & Other Faery Beasts, we’ve gone beyond the conventional boundaries and perceptions of the faes- as winged, female beings- to explore a much wider and wilder world of supernatural creatures. Many of these are far more dangerous- but perhaps, as a result, rather more predictable- that the humanoid fairies about whom I normally write.
The faery beasts that are the subject of this book share a number of traits that differentiate them from the more familiar members of fairy-kind. Firstly, they are- without exception- of conventional, human-world size. There are continual debates about the size of the human-like faes (as you’ll read in several of posts), but there is never any dispute that mermaids are the same size as we are and that the other creatures that resemble the mammals of this world- the dogs, horses, bulls and so on- are all the same size as their domesticated equivalents- if not somewhat bigger.
Secondly, the faery beasts have next to no conception of working with human beings to either assist them or to improve the natural world. Whilst the ‘eco-fairy’ has gained some vogue in recent decades, the faery beasts are far less complex creatures- or, we might say, more single minded in their purpose. Very many of them have one of two intentions: to scare us and/ or to kill and eat us. Mermaids are a bit different from this: they can enter into relationships with humans and raise families, but there is seldom any suggestion of any wider co-operation with us. They live in their world, we live in ours; they are in different dimensions- and the merfolk like to keep it that way.
These beasts are faery, then, in terms of their supernatural nature and their magical powers. They may look like the livestock or pets that we’re familiar with, but their behaviour is very different: their purpose and their powers are nothing like the ordinary dog’s or cow’s. In many ways, we might call them monsters.
I have already given readers a taste of what’s covered in the book in my recent postings, in which I’ve made use of material I’ve come across since the manuscript of Beyond Faery was finalised earlier this year. Those new examples supplement what you’ll find discussed in more detail in the chapters of the book. The text’s 270 pages long, including a glossary and a full bibliography.
I was a little surprised to note that Google has designated my book ‘controversial literature’- as, indeed, was the case for the previous book, Faery: A Guide to the Lore, Magic & World of the Good Folk, too. On consideration, I quite like the thought of having written two controversial books. I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether you think it’s as subversive as this might suggest!