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.