Spirits of Place: faeries and the land

Eleanor Brickdale, A Sprite

“The green land’s name that a charm encloses,

It never was writ in the traveller’s chart…”

Algernon Charles Swinburne, ‘A Ballad of Dreamland’

In his introduction to the 1974 reprint of Alfred Watkins’ ley line classic, The Old Straight Track, John Michell noted how both Watkins and the Reverend Francis Kilvert invoked the “same genius terrae britannicae” of the red Herefordshire earth.  This genius, the ‘spirit of the British land,’ is very much what we are describing when we discuss British fairies.

The painter Paul Nash sought to discover and free the imprisoned spirit of the land, the motive power that animated the British landscape.  He deeply felt that a spirit of place, a genius loci, inhabited the soil and scenery and that certain poets in particular sensed it.  William Blake, he felt, “perceived among many things the hidden significance of the land he always called Albion”  (Personal Statement, Unit One, 1934).  Poet Herbert Read described Nash as having “profound intuitions” that enabled him to “reveal the immemorial values in the landscape.” He saw “an animistic landscape, the sacred habitation of familiar spirits” in which many natural elements were synthesised in a “druidic ritual” (Read, Paul Nash, Penguin Modern Painters, 1944). Through his strong sense of the character and spirit of individual places, Nash felt that he could witness “another aspect of the accepted world…” In this, he saw himself merely to be continuing a tradition initiated by Wordsworth, who had built up a mythology founded upon a “systematic animation of the inanimate, which attributes life and feeling to non-human nature.”

Intriguingly, Nash repeatedly drew analogies between human life and the lives of trees: he was keenly aware of how the tree was rooted in the soil and dependent upon earth and landscape. In a letter written in August 1912 the painter even went so far as to declare that he painted trees as though they were human because “I sincerely love and worship trees and know that they are people- and wonderfully beautiful people.” These ideas make his comments upon Ivinghoe Beacon, on the Chiltern Hills, more fascinating: it was, he recalled, “an enchanted place… where you might meet anything from a polecat to a dryad.” The woodland spirits were alive and active for Nash.

Nash, Avebury

Elsewhere, Nash wrote that “The idea of giving life to inanimate objects is as old as almost any record of fable.  It has varied in its conception throughout very different histories,” which included fairy lore and mythology.  This “endowment of natural objects, organic but not human, with active powers or personal influences” lies at the core of faery belief, I also believe (Nash, ‘The Life of the Inanimate Object,’ Country Life, May 1st 1937).  The artist had recently visited the Avebury megaliths for the first time and “the holy stones of the Great Circle” had evidently impressed him deeply.  He continued that “it is not a question of a particular stone being the house of the spirit- the stone itself has its spirit, it is alive.” This idea of animating inanimate objects was very old indeed, “a commonplace in fairy tale and which occurs quite naturally also in most mythologies.”  

Sketching at Silbury Hill near Avebury, Nash 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 an authentic vision.”

(‘A Characteristic,’ Architectural Record, March, 1937, 39-40)

Nash’s revelation at Silbury encouraged him to intensify his search for “A character which frankly disclosed a national inspiration, something whose lineaments seemed almost redolent of place and time within the limits of these shores.”

Nash in the Forest of Dean, 1938

As well as the Avebury complex, Nash was especially devoted to the twin Oxfordshire hills called the Wittenham Clumps, which he returned to paint throughout his life. The legends attached to the Clumps enhanced their mystery for him: one of the hills was an ancient fort where it was said that treasure was buried, guarded by a phantom raven. Beneath the hills were long barrows and an ancient forest. The place had, he said, “a compelling magic.”

Earlier writer Maurice Hewlett had had the same perception as Nash.  In his 1913 novella The Lore of Proserpine, he recorded how “I have seen spirits, beings… and have observed them as part of the landscape, no more extraordinary than grazing cattle or wheeling plover.”  A little later, he added that he regarded them as a “natural fact… a part of the landscape” (‘The Soul at the Window,’ The Lore of Proserpine, 1913). 

As we just saw, Nash discussed the ‘yield’ of the land when describing Silbury. Earlier investigators had (incredibly) dismissed the stone circle and avenues as purely natural features, but he rightly saw them as more than a simple geological formation. Elsewhere he discussed how his art would become preoccupied with “one landscape [and the] flowers and fungi which it yields.” This suggests that, almost like crops or the native fauna and flora, the faery folk are a natural outgrowth of the soil.  I think we can usefully borrow a further term from English land law and talk about the ‘burden’ of the land: this is a term denoting certain costs or obligations that come with a certain body of land.  In faery terms, these will be their right and expectation to be given a share of food products, to be able to use the occupiers’ homes and other buildings and (even) to have certain areas of land set aside and preserved solely for them. They are a continual presence on the land- and a continual influence upon its usage and meaning.

I feel, therefore, that British fairies are in many respects bound up and directly expressive of the landscape within which they live.  Pixies, the tylwyth teg, the ‘yarthkins‘ of East Anglian, they are a part of the terrain in which they reside, they are the animating spirit of those moors, mountains and fens. The wild and aggressive spriggans, buccas and piskies of the south-west arguably manifest the rugged nature of the region they inhabit; so too the tiddy ones or yarthkins of the Fens, rising as they do from the waterways and peaty soils of that region. They are the original and most fundamental yield of the land.

Nash, Bleached Objects

To conclude, I need hardly say that these ideas are not by any means uniquely mine. Well known faery artist Brian Froud, for example, has said that “Faeries are the inner nature of each land and a reflection of the inner nature of our souls.” The people of each nation are shaped by their environment; so too are the supernatural beings of that country and, as a result, there is a continual circular interaction between them all.

Further reading: see too my previous posting on genii loci discussing other aspects of this subject. See too my book, Faeries and the Natural World (2021):

Kensington Gardens- Britain’s fairy epic

Thomas_Tickell_by_Sylvester_Harding
Thomas Tickell, by Sylvester Harding

In my recent book, Fayerie- Fairies and Fairyland in Tudor and Stuart Verse, I discussed how the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was a period during which outside influences began to alter native fairy beliefs profoundly.  The Protestant Reformation and the Renaissance were two such, a third was the work of doctor, astrologer and alchemist Paracelsus, whose theories I have examined before.

The impact of these influences, especially that of Paracelsus, may be neatly contained in a single fairy poem, Kensington Gardens by Thomas Tickell (1686-1740).  Tickell was born near Carlisle and was a graduate of Oxford.  He held various government positions but is mainly recalled as a poet.  He produced a translation of Homer’s Iliad, which he published at the very same time as Alexander Pope’s version in 1715, a coincidence which caused some tension between the two.  The poem Kensington Gardens appeared in 1722 and is a heroic epic describing the fall of a fairy kingdom that once existed on the land that eventually became the park.

Strictly speaking, the poem should be described as Georgian, but Tickell’s birth and education took place within the Stuart period, and it is doubtless fair to assume that Tickell’s outlook and beliefs belong to the seventeenth century.  Kensington Gardens is of interest, therefore, because it encapsulates the mixture of traditional fairy belief and innovation that typified fairies in literature throughout the 1600s.

Tradition in Tickell’s Epic

Concepts of fairy conduct inherited by the author from much earlier include the fairies’ delight in leisure: “Their midnight pranks the sprightly fairies played/ On every hill and danced in every shade.”  They rewarded women for their domestic cleanliness:

“When cleanly servants, if we trust old tales,
Beside their wages had good Fairy vailes,
Whole heaps of silver Tokens, nightly paid,
The careful wife, or the neat dairy-maid…”

But they also stole babies, one of whom is Albion, the hero of the story:

“By magic fenc’d, by spells encompass’d round,
No Mortal touch’d this interdicted ground;
No Mortal enter’d, those alone who came
Stolen from the couch of some terrestrial dame:
For oft of babes they robb’d the matron’s bed,
And left some sickly changeling in their stead.”

Albion is a human child brought up by fairies and kept artificially small by them, although he is still noticeably tall at twelve inches in height.  He falls in love with the fae Kenna, an affair that precipitates the fall of the fairy realm when Oberon discovers and jealously expels the young man.

murray fq and bat
Fairy Queen on Bat, Amelia Jane Murray

King Oberon

Newer elements sit alongside these age-old ideas.  Tickell’s king of faery is Oberon.  This name has a long continental pedigree but it was made particularly popular in Britain by Shakespeare’s use of it in Midsummer Night’s Dream. 

Oberon’s subjects are especially worthy of note.  As we have already seen, they are small: they are described as a “pigmy race” elsewhere in the poem.  This diminutive stature was a noteworthy development in seventeenth century literature.  Small faes had existed before, but Mercutio’s soliloquy on Queen Mab in Romeo and Juliet gave impetus to an elaboration of the possibilities of miniature beings and poets- most importantly Michael Drayton and Robert Herrick- exploited the potential of this idea.  Tickell merely observed what was already a convention by the time he wrote.

Elemental Spirits

Lastly, the fairies of Kensington Gardens are said to have “airy forms.”  This notion of fairies as insubstantial, as well as tiny, derives directly from the work of Paracelsus.  He had proposed in the sixteenth century that the world was supported and kept functioning by elemental beings- the gnomes of the ground, undines of water, salamanders of fire and the sylphs of the air.  Parallels could readily be drawn between these creatures that he imagined and the fairies and goblins of native belief, and that is precisely what happened.  In his Anatomy of Melancholy of 1621, Robert Burton included a ‘Digression of Spirits’ in which he summarised views about fairies from across Europe.  For example, he describes:

“… those Naiades or water Nymphs which have been heretofore conversant about waters and rivers.  The water (as Paracelsus thinks) is their Chaos, wherein they live; some call them Fairies… Paracelsus hath several stories of them that have lived and been married to mortal men…”

Later Burton notes Paracelsus’ views on what he classes as “terrestrial devils,” a group which includes “Faunes, Satyrs, Wood-nymphs… Fairies, Robin Goodfellowes, Trulli etc.”  Two things are notable from these short passages.  Not only has Burton incorporated Paracelsus’ concepts of undines and gnomes; he has liberally strewn his text with classical Greek and Roman terminology. (Burton, Part I, section 2)

Forty years later, in 1665, a new version of Reginald Scot’s well-known book, The Discoverie of Witchcraft, was published.  Scot’s 1584 original contains a wealth of fairy information; the new edition was expanded with the addition of ‘A Discourse Concerning the Nature and Substance of Devils and Spirits.’  This new text (like Burton’s) owes a great deal to the new thought of the Renaissance and to Paracelsus’ scientific theories; for example, reference is made to the Neo-Platonists.  Fairies are termed “Astral Spirits,” having an “elemental quality.” They live in water, air, flames and under the earth; they have hunger and passions; they wage war and procreate; they have no physical body and can live for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. (Scot, 1665, Book II, cc.1 & 4)

This later text demonstrates how much the new theories about the nature of fairies had infiltrated British thought.  These ideas, along with references to nymphs, satyrs and other classical beings, were all indiscriminately mixed together, confusing and reshaping fairy belief for future generations.

amelia-jane-murray-
Fairy & moth, Amelia Jane Murray

Tickell’s Sylphs

Tickell’s poem is symptomatic of its age.  His fairies are miniscule, insubstantial forms- a state confirmed in the climactic battle of the war.  Albion fights with Fairy Prince Azuriel and their combat seems to be concluded when:

“With his keen sword he cleaves his Fairy foe,
Sheer from the shoulder to the waste he cleaves,
And of one Arm the tott’ring trunk bereaves.”

However, Albion is fighting a fairy, and different rules apply:

“His useless steel brave Albion wields no more,
But sternly smiles, and thinks the combat o’er:
So had it been, had aught of mortal strain,
Or less than Fairy, felt the deadly pain.
But Empyreal forms, howe’er in fight
Gash’d and dismember’d, easily unite…
So did Azuriel’s Arm, if fame say true,
Rejoin the vital trunk whence first it grew;
And, whilst in wonder fixt poor Albion stood,
Plung’d the curst sabre in his heart’s warm blood.”

Albion is struck down and Kenna is unable to revivify him: “the Fates alike deny/
The Dead to live, or Fairy forms to die.”

Ultimately, classical Greek sea god Neptune intervenes in fairy affairs.  With a sweep of his trident, he destroys Oberon’s divided, fractious kingdom, leaving only ruins on the site where later the new Hanoverian dynasty created its pleasure gardens and named it after Albion’s love, the ‘Aerial maid’ Kenna.

Oberon’s fairy nation is scattered: “Wing’d with like fear his abdicated bands.” They flee to secluded corners of Britain where they can still be glimpsed from time to time as they “featly foot the green,/ While from their steps a Circling verdure springs.” The fairies are not gone entirely, therefore, but they are scattered.

Tickell concludes his epic with several reminders of the transformed nature of his British fairies.  They are small, they are winged and they are sylph-like, aery beings.  In fact, a direct link with Paracelsus’ elementals of the air had already been made by rival poet Alexander Pope in The Rape of the Lock, which was published in 1712.  He was the first to introduce this term in English literature, but once he had connected “sylphs and sylphids, fays, fairies, genii, elves and daemons,” British fairies could never be the same again.

the-fae-by-amelia-jane-murray
Fairies on Owl, Amelia Jane Murray

Last Thoughts

Tickell had hoped his lengthy poem would be celebrated as a heroic fairy epic- a landmark in national literary history.  Sadly, it is largely forgotten now, except amongst enthusiasts of Georgian poetry and, of course, fans of faery.  Nonetheless, it’s worth reading- it’s quite entertaining, once you’ve got used to his florid style, and it tells us lots about the fairy faith as one era merged into another.

In conclusion, I’ll repeat what I said at the outset: the seventeenth century was a turning point in British fairy beliefs and Thomas Tickell’s fairy epic encapsulates the old and new ideas that were in ferment.

For more detail of Fayerie and my other faery books, please see my books page.

 

 

“A Gift from the Fair Folk”-Marc Bolan, British rock and Faery

T Rex 1

Rear cover of Unicorn, 1969

In a past post I discussed the faery influences detectable in the music of Led Zeppelin.  Now, following my series of posts looking at fae themes in British classical music of the early twentieth century, in opera, musical theatre, songs and chamber works, I want to bring our discussions up to date.

Much of the British rock music of the late sixties and early seventies was suffused with faery.  A very good example of this is the work of Marc Bolan, in the days when he performed as Tyrannosaurus Rex, and before he shortened the band name to T. Rex and became the glam star that we remember.

The fairy influence is especially strong in the four albums Bolan released between 1968 and 1970, but even as late as Ride a White Swan in 1972 there are traces of elvishness.  The album titles themselves betray the tenor of the songs included on them: they are My People Were Fair and Had Sky in Their Hair… But Now They’re Content to Wear Stars on Their Brows (which is all one title) and Prophets, Seers and Sages from 1968; 1969’s Unicorn and A Beard of Stars, released in the following year.

A Crooning Moon Rune

Certain themes appear repeatedly on these four albums.  There are, of course, repeated allusions to dwarves and fairies:

“Twelve years old, your elvish fingers toss your Beethoven hair” (‘Child Star,’ on My People);

“You’re a gift from the fair folk… A sprite in my house of sight” (‘Travelling Tragition,’ on Prophets)

“Fairy lights in her eyes/ Tame the water” (‘Pilgrim’s Tale,’ on Unicorn)

“She bathes in thunder/ The elves are under her” (‘Jewel,’ T. Rex, 1970)

“Tree wizard pure tongue … The swan king, the elf lord” (‘Suneye,’ T. Rex)

and, most especially for its mention of the sidhe folk:

“Fools have said the hills are dead/ But her nose is a rose of the Shee;/ A silver sword by an ancient ford,/ Was my gift from the child of the trees.” (‘Blessed Wild Apple Girl,’ Best of T.Rex, 1971).

There are, too, plentiful mentions of wizards, warlocks and magi, of myths and legends and of mysteries, such as unicorns.  Bolan references Narnia (‘Wonderful Brown-Skin Man’ on Prophets), King Arthur and the Matter of Britain: “Holy Grail Head, deep forest fed/ Weaving deep beneath the moon” (‘Conesuala’ on Prophets) or “Let’s make a quest for Avalon” (‘Stones for Avalon,’ on Unicorn) and (repeatedly) Beltane, including these lines:

“Wear a tall hat like a druid in the old days,

Wear a tall hat and a tatooed gown,

Ride a white swan like the people of the Beltane…” (‘Ride a White Swan,’ on Ride a White Swan, 1972).

Bolan was, it seems, steeped in British folklore.  He wrote of ‘The Misty Coast of Albany’ (with its echoes of William Blake’s lines “All things begin & end in Albion’s ancient Druid rocky shore”) and of the magical woods “Elder, elm and oak.” (‘Iscariot’ and ‘Misty Coast,’ both on Unicorn).  Even so, the other major fascination and inspiration for Bolan seems to have been classical myth, most especially woodland creatures like satyrs and fauns.  On a mantelpiece at his home he kept a small statute of the god Pan, which he called ‘Poon,’ to whom he addressed little messages and requests. Bolan’s biographer Mark Paytress has described the god as “Marc’s muse.”  Of course, in this devotion he’s linked directly to Arnold Bax, John Ireland and Arthur Machen.

The pagan Greek world appears several times in Bolan’s lyrics, with allusions to satyrs, maenads and titans:

“The frowning moon, it tans the faun,/ Who holds the grapes for my love.” (‘Frowning Atahualpa,’ My People)

“a pagan temple to Zeus/ He drinks acorn juice” (‘Stacey Grove,’ Prophets)

“Alice eyes scan the mythical scene… We ran just like young fauns” (‘Scenescof Dynasty,’ Prophets)

 As this jumble of citations possibly indicates, there were so many allusions packed into Bolan’s songs that the verses tended not to tell any coherent story but rather to sketch impressionistic imagery for the listener: aural painting, let’s say, creating a mood or feeling.

T Rex 2

The back cover of the expanded version of Unicorn.

The jumble of influences and imagery extended to the band’s album covers, too.  Bolan loved the art of William Blake, Dali and Arthur Rackham and for the cover of the first album, My People, asked the designer to provide something that looked ‘like Blake.’  On the back of the sleeve of Unicorn there’s a black and white photo of Bolan and co-member Steve Peregrine Took (note the name, Tolkien fans).  The pair are posed with an array of meaningful objects, which include a book on the Cottingley fairies (supplied by photographer Peter Sanders) and several volumes from Bolan’s own collection- a child’s Shakespeare, Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet and William Blake’s collected verse.  Collectively, these form a kind of key to Bolan’s writing.

Peel 68

John Peel and his gramophone, 1968: N.B. Fairport Convention album, folk fans.

Do you ken John Peel?

The Bolan story is made more intriguing for his association with radio DJ John Peel.  Peel will be well known to many British readers, but very possibly much less familiar to those from outside the UK.  Peel became an institution on BBC Radio One, with a weekly show late on Friday nights on which he played and promoted new music he had discovered.  He performed a major role introducing listeners to punk rock from 1976, but before that had favoured folk and dub.  Earlier still, he had been a good friend of Marc Bolan.

The pair met in late July or early August 1967 and quickly became close.  They spent a great deal of time together, professionally and socially, and Bolan one night gave Peel a hamster called Biscuit (in a night club- the poor creature spent the evening riding round on one of the turntables).

Peel was taken with Bolan’s warbling voice and began to feature Tyrannosaurus Rex prominently on his radio shows.  He had a regular column in the International Times in which he also promoted his new friend.  As an established and respected DJ Peel played frequently around the country and so could offer more direct help to his friend’s career.  He started to give Bolan live support sets to his DJ appearances: Peel had a regular slot at the club called Middle Earth in London’s Covent Garden and also took the band with him as part of his ‘John Peel Roadshow’ as it was grandly called- everyone crammed together in his car and heading up the motorway.

Not only did Peel promote Bolan’s music; he contributed to it.  He narrated the track Wood Story on the album My People Were Fair and wrote the sleeve notes:

“They rose out of the sad and scattered leaves of an older summer… They blossomed with the coming spring, children rejoiced and the earth sang with them.”

Peel provided a further narration on the album Unicorn and also started to appear as a sort of support act for his friends.  He read poetry to the crowd at the Royal Albert Hall, sitting cross-legged on the stage, and at the Tyrannosaurus Rex gig at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on January 13th 1969, Peel was billed to appear to “prove the existence of fairies,” as the flyers promised, by reading poetry to the audience.  In the face of this proof, they remained, it is reported, “politely silent.”  What could Peel have been reading?  Based on what we learned just now, I wonder if the DJ may have read selected poems from Shakespeare and Blake- and maybe John Keats too?

Peel made out later that he never really understood or sympathised with Bolan’s mythic leanings.  He claimed that he couldn’t understand the song lyrics because they were too ‘mystical’ and ‘hippie’ for him.  Nonetheless, there’s the evidence of those sleeve notes and we know too that the pair travelled, with their respective partners, to visit Glastonbury, capital of hippiedom since the days of Rutland Boughton, where Bolan was pictured on top of the Tor.

In later years Peel was a gruff and slightly cynical personality, so these ‘airy-fairy’ indulgences all feel rather difficult to reconcile with the older, more rational enthusiast for the Sex Pistols and Extreme Noise Terror.  Nevertheless, Peel’s overall verdict was that Tyrannosaurus Rex “were elfin to a degree beyond human understanding.”

Signs of the Times

Marc Bolan is now the best remembered fairy rock star of the period, but the fae influence was pervasive.

For example, Bob Johnson of folk-rockers Steeleye Span asked in an interview in 1976:

“Everything I do and think is based on England.  If I lived on the West Coast [of the USA] how on earth could I think about elves and fairies and goblins and old English castles and churches?”

So strong, in fact, was this spirit of place that, along with another band member, Johnson produced an electric folk opera The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1977). This was based upon the book of the same title by Edward, Lord Dunsany (an author in the vein of Machen and a great influence upon H. P. Lovecraft) and the record featured contributions from, amongst others, Welsh folk singer and Eurovision entrant Mary Hopkin, blues musician Alexis Korner and Christopher Lee, star of (amongst so many films) The Wicker Man.

elfland

The King of Elfland’s Daughter album cover.

Further Reading

You can listen to all Tyrannosaurus Rex’s albums on YouTube, of course; check out too the work of Dunsany and (even) Steeleye Span.  For more information on Marc Bolan, see these biographies: Paul Roland, Cosmic Dancer, 2012; Mark Paytress, Marc Bolan- The Rise and Fall of a Twentieth Century Superstar, 2003 and John Bramley, Marc Bolan- Beautiful Dreamer, 2017.  For John Peel see his autobiography Margrave of the Marches and Michael Heatley, John Peel, 2004.

The fairies of Albion

pn

Paul Nash- Earth home or The fortress

A quick plug for my other WordPress blog.  On johnkruseblog I write about archaeology, art, history, landscape, theatre, film and anything else that takes my fancy.

A long term theme has been the idea of Albion as a parallel or alternative identity for Britain- a mythical, mystical counterpart.  I’ve just posted a discussion on the fairies of Albion, examining how our local fays may be seen as an expression of the spirit of the land and of the people.

This posting ties in with some thoughts I’ve looked at here, especially the links between fays and our ancient landscape and the theories of William Blake.

Click on over to johnkruseblog and have a look!

“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.

Blake, Palmer and faery

As I have discussed Blake’s fairy beliefs 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.

Paul Nash and the English landscape

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

Arthur Machen

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.

Further reading

The intimate link between British fairies and the British landscape is something I return to several times, examining the fertile associations between standing stones, our sense of history and the unseen ancestors within the land.  I have examined the writings of Arthur Machen on fairies in much greater detail in a subsequent posting.  For further discussion of Faery art during this period, see my book Fairy Art of the Twentieth Century

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

dadd-comeunto-these-yellow-sands

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.

The land of Albion

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.’

Mythical Albion

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.

Blake’s Albion

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).

Modern visions of Albion

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).

Further reading

For more details generally on Albion and my other interests, see my separate blog at johnkruseblog.wordpress.com.  I have discussed there issues of King Arthur and the fairies of Albion.