‘A geography of trees’- wood elves in myth and popular culture

 

Female_HalfElf

“… like a wind out of fairy-land
Where little people live
Who need no geography
But trees.”           (Hilda Conkling [1910-86], Geography, 1920)

Today probably most people, if asked, would imagine elves and fairies gambolling in a woodland setting.  This appears to have become a very strong convention within our popular visual culture, yet it is not traditional to British fairy lore (despite a few links between fairies and particular trees, most notably in Gaelic speaking areas where the fairy thorn has particular power and significance- see for examples poems of this name by Samuel Ferguson and Dora Sigerson Shorter). I wish therefore in this posting to examine how this prevalent image came about.

Shakespeare

Although the fairy king Oberon is met in a forest in the thirteenth century romance epic Huon of Bordeuax, but I believe the primary source of our close association between fairies and forests is Shakespeare, both the ‘wood near Athens’ which features in Midsummer night’s dream and in which Titania, Oberon, Puck and the other fairies make their home, and the open woodland of Windsor Great Park that features in the Merry Wives of Windsor and which is the scene of Falstaff’s believed encounter with the fairy queen and her train.  Whilst their ultimate roots may lie with the dryads and hamadryads of classical myth, it was these theatrical presentations of fairies that first really fixed the woodland elf in the English speaking public’s imagination.  Much subsequent literature and visual art has cemented the pairing to the extent that it appears inevitable, but there is little trace of it in older sources or in British folklore.

British fairy homes

The British fairy, according to older writers, could be found in a variety of locations.  They frequented mountains, caverns, meadows and fields, fountains, heaths and greens, hills and downland, groves and woods.  Generally, they were more likely to be found in ‘wild places.’ Residence underground- whether in caves or under hills- is a commonly featured preference and I have often mentioned the presence of fairies under knolls and barrows.  Woods feature in these sources, it’s perfectly true, but they are far from the most commonly mentioned locations.  (I have considered here Reginald Scot, Burton’s Anatomy of melancholy, Bourne’s Antiquitates vulgares and a few medieval texts.)  The South English legendary of the thirteenth or fourteenth century is especially interesting reading in this connection: elves are seen, we are informed, “by daye much in wodes… and bi nightes ope heighe dounes…”- in other words, they frequent woods during the day (presumably for concealment from human eyes) but resort to open hill tops at night for their revelries.

A particularly relevant source is the Welsh minister, the Reverend Edmund Jones. In his 1780 history of the superstitions of Aberystruth parish he recorded the contemporary views locally on the most likely locations for seeing fairies.  They did not like open, plain or marshy places, he reported, but preferred those that were dry and near to or shaded by spreading branches, particularly those of hazel and oak trees (The appearance of evil, para.56).  Jones’ description fits the open oak parkland of Windsor perfectly, where Falstaff is duped by those merry wives and their gang of children disguised as elves.  It’s also notable that Wirt Sikes in his British goblins locates the Welsh elves (ellyllon) in groves and valleys.  In Wales at least, then, an open wooded landscape was believed in popular tradition to be the fairies’ preferred habitat.

EnchantedForest_Fitzgerald

John Anster Fitzgerald, The enchanted forest

Woodland fays

Woods were one of the favoured resorts for the fairy folk, then, but not their sole preserve.  It seems to be in Victorian times that woodland elves became the cliche that we encounter today.  I have (for better or ill) read a lot of Victorian fairy verse and certain stereotyped images are very well worn: moonlight, dancing in rings, woodland glades.  Here are just a few examples to indicate what you’ll see ad nauseam.  The connection begins to appear in the eighteenth century (see for example the “fairy glade” of Sir James Beattie’s The minstrel and The palace of fortune by Sir William Jones, 1769). References multiply throughout the next hundred years and into the last century: the “sylvan nook where fairies dwell” of Janet Hamilton’s Pictures of memory; Ann Radcliffe’s “woodlands dear” and “forest walks” in Athlin and The glow-worm; the “woodways wild” of Madison Julius Cawein’s Prologue and the “fairy wood” in his Elfin; the “woodland fays” that appear in George Pope Morris’ Croton Mode.  By then well-established, these fays persisted into the twentieth century, in “some dark and mystic glade” of Tennessee Williams’ Under April rain or the “nymphs of a dark forest” of Edna St Vincent Millay.  All of this imagery transferred to the visual arts, too, especially to the illustrations of children’s books.

tarrant fairy way

Margaret Tarrant, ‘The fairy way’

Tolkien’s elves

Once this image was embedded in the culture, it proved almost impossible to eradicate.  J. R. R. Tolkien absorbed it and the Silvan or Wood Elves of Lord of the Rings are the result; Galadriel is one of the Galadhrim (the tree people) of Lorien.  Tolkien’s influence in recent decades has been extensive and powerful.  An example might be Led Zeppelin, whose own highly influential Stairway to heaven invokes images of fairyland where “the forests shall echo with laughter.”  The pervasive idea was that the natural habitat of the fairy is the forest.

It might not be inappropriate to conclude with more lines from infant prodigy Hilda Conkling.  In If I could tell you the way she described how-

“Down through the forest to the river
I wander…
Fairies live here;
They know no sorrow.
Birds, winds,
They are the only people.
If I could tell you the way to this place,
You would sell your house and your land
For silver or a little gold,
You would sail up the river,
Tie your boat to the Black Stone,
Build a leaf-hut, make a twig-fire,
Gather mushrooms, drink spring-water,
Live alone and sing to yourself
For a year and a year and a year!”

MWT-G3804-330 Fairies Market

Margaret Tarrant, The fairies market, 1921

Further reading

For a wider consideration of the relationship between fays and trees, see Neil Rushton’s posting on dead but dreaming on the metaphysics of fairy trees.  See my other postings for thoughts on eco-fairies and fairies at the bottom of your garden.

An expanded version of this text will appear in my next book, Faeries, which will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide next year.

 

 

‘An ode to joy’- the fairies and the good old days

Prince-Arthur-and-the-Fairy-Queen

King Arthur and the Fairy Queen, by Henry Fuseli

It is often said that true happiness passed away with the departure of the fairies from our land.  In this posting I want to examine the traditional ties that exist between fairies and the myths Merry England.

Fairies are inextricably linked with joy and merry making in the English/ British tradition.  In many accounts their sole or main occupation is dancing in rings and one persistently identified characteristic of fairyland is joy.  The fairies take a simple, unalloyed pleasure in dance and music, so much so that circle-dancing in the moonlight has become a defining trait.  Accordingly, William Warner’s Albion’s England published in 1602 described how:

“The Elves and Faries, taking fists, did hop a merry Rounde…

The ayrie Sprites, the walking Flares, and Goblins great and small,

Had there good cheare, and companie, and sporte the Devill and all.”

In his 1611 masque Oberon the fairy Ben Jonson celebrates that:

“These are Nights,

Solemn to the shining Rites

Of the Fairy Prince and Knight:

While the Moon their Orgies light…

Stand forth bright Faies and Elves and tune your lays.”

In Milton’s Comus of 1632 we read how:

“And on the Tawny Sands and shelves,

Trip the pert Fairies and the dapper Elves,

By dimpled Brook and Fountain brim,

The Wood-Nymphs deckt with Daisies trim,

Their merry wakes and pastimes keep:

What hath night to do with sleep?” (lines 117-122)

Fairies continued to be associated with innocent pastimes into the nineteenth century, for example in Ann Radcliffe’s poem Air the “Fays of lawn and glade” circle to the merry tabor sound and Paul Dunbar reassured his readers that the fairy rout still shouted, sang and danced their roundelays, even in late Victorian times (Dunbar (1872-1906), The discovery).

Fairies, therefore, may be said to have been synonymous with ‘merry England.’  Unfortunately, the general opinion emerged that those times were over- despite Dunbar’s promises that fairy glee persisted- and this, of course, necessitated the poet’s assurances to the contrary.  Most later writers felt that the fairies had departed, or at least fallen silent, and that Britain had become a less joyful place.  As early as the seventeenth century, indeed, Richard Corbet in Farewell rewards and fairies explicitly blamed the Reformation and the baneful effect of Puritan morality for this:

“At morning and at evening both
You merry were and glad,
So little care of sleep or sloth
These pretty ladies had;
When Tom came home from labour,
Or Cis to milking rose,
Then merrily went their tabor,
And nimbly went their toes.

Witness those rings and roundelays
Of theirs, which yet remain,
Were footed in Queen Mary’s days
On many a grassy plain;
But since of late, Elizabeth,
And later, James came in,
They never danced on any heath
As when the time hath been.”

John Selden expressed the belief most memorably and succinctly: “There never was a merry World since the Fairies left Dancing and the Parson left conjuring” (Selden, Table talk, 1689, c.XCIX). Later the same century John Dryden, in his version of The wife of Bath’s tale, conveyed the same sentiment, but emphasised the intimate connection of the fairies to the British Isles:

“Above the rest our Britain they held dear,

More solemnly they kept their Sabbaths here,

And made more spacious rings, and revelled half the year.

I speak of ancient times, for now the swain

Returning late may pass the wood in vain,

And never hope to see the nightly train:”

The death of ‘Merrie England’ continued to be mourned long after the event.  Thomas Hood lamented that the “Fairies have broke their wands/ And wishing has lost its power!” (Hood (1799-1845), A lake and a fairy boat).  In the ‘Dymchurch flit’ Kipling’s fairies declared “we must flit out of this, for Merry England’s done” (Kipling, Puck of Pook’s Hill, 1906). Folklorists on the Isle of Man in the nineteenth century heard the same stories of the fynoderee: “There has not been a merry world since he lost his ground” ( J. Train, Account of the Isle of Man, vol.2, p.138).  This supernatural Manx being is comparable to the British mainland brownie; he lives on a farmstead and is the source and guarantor of good fortune.  It follows that “The luck of the house is said to depart for ever with the offended phynnod-derree” (William Harrison, Mona miscellany, pp.173-174.)  The same of course is true in England and Scotland: there can be no happiness or contentment on a farm if the brownie is displeased or has disappeared.

To summarise, then, we can only hope to reconnect with joy and good luck if we re-establish contact with our good neighbours.  This was certainly the conviction of William George Russell (AE).  His poem The dream of the children describes how music and wonder are revived:

“For all the hillside was haunted/ By the faery folk, come again.”

Identification of elves with older, happier times holds out to us the hope that they may be restored.  Through the fairies we may recover our innocence, simplicity and sense of community.  The fairies’ unaffected love of dancing and music, their childlike joy in play, imply that our own ability to reconnect with a better, less complex world persists undiminished and may be revived.

http://www.john-howe.com/blog/2011/09/15/the-defining-of-dreams/

Further reading

As well as symbolising and linking us to a ‘merry England’ of the imagination, fairies had another historical role- to explain and contextualise monuments and prehistoric sites that were otherwise mysterious and anomalous.  See my posts on fairies and megaliths and on the use of fairy-lore to explain the past.