I’ve discussed before the musical Starlight Express by Sir Edward Elgar. As I stated, the 1915 production was based upon the novel, A Prisoner in Fairyland, which was published in June 1913.
The novel was written by Algernon Blackwood (1869-1951), an author who specialised in horror and fantasy themes. Several of his short stories build up mystery and fear using a fairy incident as the foundation for the plot: these include ‘Ancient Lights,’ ‘The Trod,’ ‘The Glamour of the Snow’ and ‘May Day Eve.’ His story, ‘A Touch of Pan,’ is his contribution to the Pan cult of the early twentieth century, which I have also mentioned before. Many of his stories can be read online.
A Prisoner in Fairyland is unlike any of these. It is a gentle, delicate, optimistic story, with some beautiful passages of imaginative description. It is not really about Fairyland at all- at least, not about the fairy realm in the sense in which I use it on this blog.
I know nothing definite about Blackwood’s inspiration, but I can’t help wondering if he saw the 1901 pantomime Bluebell in Fairyland, by Seymour Hicks. This production was definitely seen by J. M. Barrie, and inspired Peter Pan, but the idea that fairyland and dreams are the same, that there is a king waiting in a cave to be woken by children so he can do good in the world, and the fact that golden dust is sprinkled in the children’s eyes (“Eyelids droop and close as darkness falls/ Fairyland is waiting as the dustman calls) all seem very similar to Blackwood’s story (as I’ll show).
The Moral of the Story
Blackwood’s ‘fairyland’ and his references through out to fairies and fairy things is almost unique. As readers may know (especially if you’ve read any of the poems in my Victorian Fairy Verse), ‘fairy’ was used freely by writers from the eighteenth century onwards to denote anything that was small, dainty or cute. Blackwood’s usage derives from this, but it is still wholly his own. What springs to mind is a word no longer used in modern English, but which was, in the past, often to be found in conjunction with fairy- and that is ‘ferly,’ which means a wonder or marvel. It appears, for example, in the sixteenth century Scots drama, The Crying of Ane Playe. The main character, Harry Hobilschowe introduces himself as the play begins, telling us he has just arrived on a whirlwind from Syria, where he:
“lang has bene in þe fary/ Farleis to fynd.”
(he’s spent a long time in fairyland, searching for marvels).
The word is also used at the outset of the Middle English poem, Piers Plowman. Its use here is even more apposite, for Piers associates it with lying down to rest on a grassy bank near Malvern, one summer’s day. He may then have fallen asleep and dreamed- or else he had a vision:
“In a somer sesun, whon softe was the sonne…
Wente I wyde in this world wondres to here;
Bote in a Mayes morwnynge on Malverne hulles
Me bifel a ferly, of fairie, me-thoughte.”
In Blackwood’s story, dreaming is directly associated with access to the fairyland he portrays. Very broadly, the plot involves a successful business man, Henry Rogers, who retires early with the intention of using his wealth on good causes. Rogers takes a holiday with his cousin and his young family at their home in Switzerland and there, in the company of the niece and nephew, rediscovers his childhood dreams. The plot is negligible and the action is entirely concerned with the family’s thoughts, emotions and dreams. In my previous mention of the book, I called it a children’s story; it isn’t: the psychology and philosophy the book contains aren’t intended for younger readers, even though children and their inner life are central to the narrative.
Fairies in Fairyland?
So, are there any fairies in A Prisoner in Fairyland? I must tell you, dear reader, that there are not- and that, in a sense, I was grossly misled when purchasing the book! There are, nevertheless, numerous references to fairies and fairyland, so I need to explain what Blackwood is doing.
There is one scrap of traditional fairylore, it’s true: in chapter 23 he observes that “People lost in fairyland, they say, always forget the outer world of unimportant happenings.” This is quite true, as folklore makes it very clear how a person may become ‘elf-addled.’ Blackwood is using ‘fairyland’ in quite a different sense, however, to that of a place called Faery.
The moral of his story is captured is a single paragraph:
“Only the world today no longer believes in Fairyland… and even the children have become scientific. Perhaps it’s only buried, though. The two ought to run in harness really- opposite interpretations of the universe. One might revive it- here and there perhaps. Without it, all the tenderness seems leaking out of life.” (c.5)
As this may begin to indicate, there are (inevitably) marked traces of Victorian views of Faery in Blackwood’s work. As I have emphasised in my new book, Victorian Fairy Verse, for most writers of the period fairies were synonymous with everything tiny and cute. These underlying assumptions pervade Blackwood’s novel:
“Fairy things, like stars and tenderness, are always small.” (c.31)
“A Fairy blesses because she is a Fairy, not because she turns a pumpkin into a coach and four…” (c.28)
“that raciness and swift mobility, that fluid, protean elasticity of temperament which belonged to the fairy kingdom.” (c.23)
So, what exactly is Blackwood’s fairyland and how do you get there? The answer is very simple. Fairyland is the inner world of fantasy and imagination that we all inhabit during childhood. It is a source of joy and wonder and it is something that many adults mourn: “The world, too, is a great big child that is crying for its Fairyland.” (c.24)
For adults to be able to recover their fairyland, they need two things. They need to be close to children and to share their vivid imaginative life. Rogers is sitting with his niece and nephew on his knees and realises:
“Their plans and schemes netted his feet in fairyland just as surely as the weight of their little warm, soft bodies fastened him to the boulder where he sat. He could not move. He could not go further without their will and leadership.” (c.13)
In their sleep, the children’s spirits leave their bodies and travel on the Starlight Express to a place where starlight is stored. They then use this to heal sick and unhappy adults. “Like Fairies, lit internally with shining lanterns, they flew about their business” (c.16). Rogers, too, learns to join the children in their dreams and to explore this fairyland. It is “a state of mind, open potentially to all, but not to be enjoyed merely for the asking. Like other desirable things, it was to be ‘attained.'” (c.30) Fairyland can be entered only so long as some of its benefits will be taken back to the mortal world.
The Starlight Express
The Express carries dreamers’ souls to and from Faery, where they collect starlight. These are memorable images (in fact, stars and constellations sparkle throughout the prose, producing some passages of great beauty) and they clearly had the potential to capture the popular imagination.
As I mentioned in my preamble, the book appeared in June 1913. By the next summer, the need for Blackwood’s joy and child-like wonder began to seem acute. This explains why it was so quickly adapted as a musical; war-time Britain needed the boost and Blackwood’s text had plenty of uplifting ideas to offer. His key concept was that the uplifting and inspiring thoughts from fairyland must be distributed back to the rest of the world- on “their mission of deliverance.” (c.27) Henry Roger’s cousin is an author and for him the starlight from Faery is inspiration- “a thing of starlight, woods and fairies”- that he may then share with the rest of humanity through his novels: “flakes of thought like fairy seed” (c.27).
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Musical
The 1984 musical of the same name as Elgar and Blackwood’s work shares nothing with it except the name. The modern production was inspired by the Thomas the Tank Engine stories and it is, naturally, about trains, which don’t seem very magical to me.
As I have described before, the theatrical adaptation of Blackwood’s work was one of several Great War plays and musicals that sought to harness Faery to the Imperial war effort. All of these works have fallen into obscurity since- mostly for good reason.
Blackwood’s novel may have been caught up by jingoism, but it predates the war and has something much deeper to say that the others fairy plays of the time. It can be found cheaply on Amazon etc if you want yourself to travel on the Starlight Express.