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):

Marc Symonds- a faery artist

Fairy Tale, 1935

Mark Lancelot Symons (1887-1930) was an English painter who has been described both as a Symbolist and as a Pre-Raphaelite follower. His fairy art is in many respects transitional, between Victorian and modern in both its influences and style.

Symons was born in Hampstead, London, but spent his childhood in Sussex in a strictly orthodox Catholic family, the impact of which can be seen in the religious imagery of many of his pictures. Symon’s family mixed in artistic circles and Whistler, John Singer Sargent and Hercules Brabazon were all friends. Symons studied at the Slade School of Fine Art between 1905 and 1909 but after this became a monk. It was not until 1924 that he became a full-time painter and he died quite young.

Floating Fairy with Nude Youth

Many of Symon’s works depict Biblical incidents, or have an explicit Christian theme, but at the same time they abound with naked fairy children, all painted in his bright, clear, almost hyper-realist manner.  Amongst the works in which a less orthodox supernatural influence intrude are Floating Fairy with Nude Youth in the Background, which bears strong resemblances to some works by William Blake, and A Fairy Tale, of 1935.  This latter image closely resembles many of Symon’s other canvases: a young woman lies asleep amongst ruined stonework and honeysuckle; whilst she dreams, a host of naked fairy girls have appeared around her, singing, playing and cavorting in the air.  Most have gauzy dragonfly wings, a few have pieces of material draped loosely about them.  Most seem only partly aware of the sleeping human figure nearby.  One holds a long trumpet, something we might associate more with an angel rather than a fairy (although they are known to having hunting horns and both Tennyson and Dunsany described ‘horns of elfland’ in their work.)

Earthly Paradise, 1934
Ave Maria, 1928

Symons’ naked fairy girls might- given his background- be viewed as cherub-like symbols of innocence.  True enough, his religious scenes involving the holy family, such as his Earthly Paradise of 1934, are as replete with naked young bodies as Fairy Tale.  At the same time, though, similar writhing masses of flesh are seen in pictures such Sir Noel Paton’s Reconciliation of Oberon and Titania, where they have clear erotic intent, and John McKirdy Duncan’s Yorinda and Yoringel of 1909 features a group of prepubescent nudes dancing around the two main characters.  In some respects, these scenes of orgy- like indulgence bring to mind Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights.

Paton, Oberon and Titania
yorinda-and-yoringel-in-the-witches-wood-john-duncan
John McKirdy Duncan, Yorinda & Yoringel
File:Hieronymus Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights tryptich, centre panel -  detail 7.JPG - Wikimedia Commons
Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights, 1510

At the same time as Symons was working, Arthur Rackham continued to portray a fairyland full of bared youthful flesh and, in the late twentieth century, this theme came to the fore again in the work of Alan Lee and Brian Froud.  Naked juveniles have come to be seen as a defining aspect of Faery, perhaps indicative of the fairies’ uninhibited and natural state.

3 wood nymphs gathering flowers
Rackham, Three Wood Nymphs Gathering Flowers

Art critic Susan Casteras has been quite assiduous in identifying sexual scenes in Victorian fairy paintings in which the protagonists are adolescents or younger.  For example, in the Paton picture above, she points out several incidents, including the girl “with budding breasts” in the lower right hand corner, who is being propositioned by a clothed male fairy.  Casteras finds pubescent or prepubescent lovers everywhere, in scenes by Richard Dadd, Robert Huskisson and John Anster Fitzgerald.  As she remarks, they are displayed to us in a consequence-free voyeurism of the fairies’ intimacies.

For Casteras, these children behaving in adult ways convey several messages.  The diminutive size of most fairies is linked to sexuality in a covert manner.   The child lovers can simultaneously negate any suggestion of sexual contact, whilst still depicting it as possible.  The use of mythical beings allows all sorts of licentious and taboo behaviour to be shown without it seeming to be endorsed, not least amongst which are scenes in which female fairies are granted as much sexual appetite and freedom as males.  At the same time, many of the anxieties of Victorian Britain could be portrayed: the liberated sexual gymnastics of fairyland still involve plenty of sexual menace and violence by (older) males to the girl faes.  All in all, Casteras believes, these paintings provided a safety valve.  They are a “pre-Freudian displacement of sexuality into a childhood realm.” The adult purchasers of these images could in safety view them, but not participate.  They offered contemporary audiences a potent visual mix of nudity, the latent appeal of childhood, the qualities of vulnerability and even latent paedophilia.  (see Casteras in M. Brown, Picturing Children, 2017, 130-140).

Froud, Faeries

Modern artists continue to portray fairies as naked girls, very possibly still confronting the same societal issues that motivated Victorian painters.  This trend was, perhaps, initiated by Brian Froud and Alan Lee in Faeries in 1977.  In these respects, the illustrations may very much have been a product of their time, but the trend persists some thirty years later, in a very different moral climate.

erle 3

French artist Erlé Ferronniere has created many very attractive visions of fairyland, of which just two are reproduced here.  Most of his fairies are young girls, many are dressed in clothes made of dried leaves, but some are naked.  Like Symons’ fairies, they suggest a state of nature, unconscious and unashamed.

erle 6

The artist Syuceui continues this theme in his imaginings of girl-fairies.  This picture is from 2015 and is one of several in which his fays are winged prepubescent females.

Lastly, another French draughtsman, Jean-Baptiste Monge, has produced very similar designs, albeit it with rather bustier and saucier faes.  Faery, nudity and youthful sexuality have become inseparable in the minds of many, it seems.  See too my book Fairy Art of the Twentieth Century.

monge 1

Brian Froud-the background to his art

 

primroses
Primroses (1978)

Readers will be very familiar with Brian Froud’s fairy art from books such as Faeries and Good Faeries/ Bad Faeries.  Here I want to examine what he believes about the subjects he paints- and how that may influence his creative process.

Faeries

Froud- and his artistic partner Alan Lee- first came to public attention as ‘faery experts’ with the publication of the illustrated book, Faeries, in 1978.  It has been through several editions since, including a twenty-fifth anniversary issue, and the illustrations have for many become synonymous with representations of Faery.  This is understandable- there is something very immediate and ‘real’ about their vision of fairies: they are wild and often ugly.  Although the two artists portrayed naked and attractive female fairies, including quite young juveniles,  as often (if not more frequently) there are mature and deformed beings, hybrids of animals and humans, pixies with malicious faces and sharp fangs, a host of barely human humanoids.  The nakedness then serves to emphasise their wild, untamed natures- it isn’t sexual but feral.

Froud toadstools

Writing in her Introduction to the anniversary edition, Betty Ballantine described faeries as “alien creatures with values and ethics far removed from mankind: they do not think and, most notably, they do not feel, the way that humans do. This is precisely the core of much of their envy of mortals and a source of a good deal of the trouble they cause…”  She concluded: “Faerie is a world of dark enchantments, of captivating beauty, of enormous ugliness, of callous superficiality, of humour, mischief, joy and inspiration, of terror, laughter, love and tragedy.”  These lines summarise Froud and Lee’s vision exactly.

In his own preface to the anniversary edition, Brian Froud underlined that he and Lee had “wanted to be as true to the subject as possible and to portray fairies as they really are.  So, we went back to the original source material and folklore description.”  This is the real value of the book Faeries.  It is a very attractive ‘coffee-table’ volume to flick through and admire the illustrations, but the text is a faithful abbreviation of the folklore- although the two artists drew their material from across Europe, mixing up British, Irish and continental faes quite indiscriminately.

Froud continued: “we started to produce page after page of wizened faces with sharp little teeth, most of them up to no good.  We were painting pictures of faeries with their original power reinstated, not just airy whimsy.  We were being true to the fairies themselves and those who have bought the book have instinctively felt that honesty in every painting and drawing.”  Here he identified the reader’s response that still draws us to the images, over four decades later.  The fairyland of Faeries is sexy, menacing, beautiful, distorted; it is complex and imperfect, it mingles good and evil and, as such, it seems authentic.

harebell
Harebell faery (1978)

Good Faeries, Bad Faeries

After the success of Faeries, Brian Froud became particularly closely associated with fairydom and that link has substantially shaped his career since the late 1970s.  His other books include Goblins (1983), Lady Cottington’s Pressed Fairy Book (1994), Good Faeries, Bad Faeries (1998), The Faeries’ Oracle (2000) and Brian Froud’s World of Faerie (2007).  With these he has steadily drifted further from the solid base of faerylore that gave Faeries its convincing authority and accuracy and he has increased the whimsy and invention.

In the original Preface to the 1978 book, it is declared that “Only one thing is certain- that nothing is certain.  All things are possible in the land of Faerie.”  This has more and more become the case for the later books, which are much more works of fantasy fiction than attempts to summarise folklore.  Good Faeries, Bad Faeries is a very good example of this.  It is a mix of pure personal invention with traditional material and has to be approached with some care as a ‘source’ book.  As Froud says in the Preface to the ‘Good’ half of the book, it’s “about the magic in our lives today; it links faeries of the past with faeries of the present and future.”  The artwork is still fantastic, but as he tells us “such images grow from my own inner journeys and daily contact with the faeries.”  This new book is a product not so much of trips to the library but of undiluted imagination.

fairy kissed by pixies
The faery who was kissed by pixies (1998)

It seems clear to me that, since 1978, the artist has absorbed a lot of the more recent ideas about faeries- theories derived not from British folklore but from Theosophy, Spiritualism and from modern Paganism.  For example, he states “they are shape shifters, highly mutable, for no faery or nature spirit has a fixed body.  In their essence, faeries are abstract structures of flowing energy, formed of an astral matter…”  To look at the faeries is “to look at the four elements to which they are aligned: earth, water, fire and air.  Faeries are physical manifestations of these basic building blocks of creation and the spiritual custodians of all natural phenomena.”  They are “agents of the cosmic mechanics that underlie our world… bringing us messages from the depths inside ourselves and from the cosmos.”  They coalesce from “the pure consciousness of the world’s soul” gradually manifesting “in a form eloquent of function, moulded by emotion.”  This is a man who’s been reading Geoffrey Hodson, Madame Blavatsky and Paracelsus.  As I’ve indicated before, I’m more traditional in my approach to the subject, so I’m not so keen on these passages.

The faeries of Good Faeries, Bad Faeries have been ‘hippified’ too.  No longer are they the potentially malicious beings of 1978: they are “agents of self-growth and transformation, embodiments of the healing energies that flow through nature and through ourselves.”  Faeries are “a reflection of the inner nature of our souls;”  theirs is “a land where wisdom is inseparable from whimsy and where leprechauns dance with angels.”  We’re a long way here from the faeries who steal children and kill your cows…

Good Faeries, Bad Faeries is, in consequence, a curious mixture of traditional sprites, new age spirits and beings that are entirely made up by Brian Froud.  He deals with such beings as hobs, piskies, grigs, muryans,  bodachs, fideals, hobyahs and melsh dick; but also he describes sylphs, angels, undines, pans, fauns and- for some reason- a sphinx (?). He also offers us his own jokey beings, such as the rainbow faery, the buttered toast faery, the pen stealer and the foot fungus faery…

faery waters
Faery waters (1998)

In summary, therefore, Faeries remains a classic and is a recommended book to have in your faery collection- it is attractive as well as genuinely informative.  The later books are a delight to look at, but they can’t be treated as guides to Faery equivalent to the 1978 original.

For further discussion, see my book Fairy Art of the Twentieth Century

 

 

Stone rows and fairy rings

Walter Jenks, Fairy ring

Walter Jenks, The fairy ring

Just back from a break in the West Country.  We first spent a few days in North Cornwall, staying in the Landmark Trust‘s splendid property, The College, in Week St Mary, which was built as a Tudor grammar school.

mwm

From there we visited the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in Boscastle.  This is highly recommended: it’s not a huge place but it’s packed with intelligent and fascinating displays.  It takes a serious and enquiring view of the subject- with only a few mentions of he who shall not be named (HP).  It’s rather out of the way, but well worth the effort to travel there.

woodland-wish

‘Woodland wish’ by Kate Monkman- a postcard from the Museum collection.

Next we headed to Dartmoor to visit megalithic sites old and new.  We stayed at another Landmark property, the Chapel at Lettaford- extra enticing as artist Brian Froud lives only just down the road.  The moors were pretty dry after our long, hot English summer and were covered in tiny fairy rings of orange mushrooms.  At first I’d boldly marched across the turf, but then I found myself alert to the potential danger and weaving around the circles!  As an early birthday present, I picked up a copy of a new book, Old Stones, from Arcturus Books in Totnes.  It looks bound to be the inspiration of yet more rambles across that “wild and windy moor.”

down tor

The cairn circle and stone row at Down Tor, Dartmoor

‘Just made up?’ The problem of fairy physicality

hutton lear glimpse

Charles Hutton Lear, A glimpse of the fairies, 

There is a body of opinion that fairies have no fixed, physical form and that when they appear to us they shape themselves to our expectations.  This notion first seems to be mentioned in a fairy context by W B Yeats in his introduction to Fairy and folk tales of the Irish peasantry (1888).  Many generations of mystics and occult writers have acknowledged the existence of spiritual beings, he wrote- beings “who have no inherent form but change according to their whim, or the mind that sees them.”

Thought forms

Yeats did not originate this idea.  Early on, Theosophists had formulated the concept of ‘thought forms.’  Mahatma Koot Humi, one of Madame Blavatsky’s mentors and inspirations, wrote that “thoughts are things… they are real entities.”  This idea was elaborated by Charles Leadbeater and Annie Besant in a book, Thought forms, in 1905; they asserted that thoughts produced a radiating vibration conveying their emotion and also had a floating form.  The idea was then transferred nature spirits and elementals.  To become visible, they assume etheric bodies, which are shaped by folklore stories and human imaginations.  Robert Ogilvie Crombie of Findhorn explained that, although its natural form is a swirl of light, an elemental “can put on any of these thought forms and then appear personified as that particular being … elf, gnome, faun, fairy and so on.”[1]  Edward Gardner had a related but different conception.  He believed that Elsie and Frances at Cottingley had abilities akin to mediums.  They could materialist the fairies they photographed through ectoplasm, which was the explanation for their contemporary appearance.

The idea of the thought form was developed in relation to fairies by Geoffrey Hodson in Angels and the new race (1929)He asserted that fairies have no physical body but are formed of light, albeit along the ‘same model’ as humans.  In The kingdom of the gods in 1952 Hodson elaborated on these ideas: the archetype for the fairy form was the human body and their appearance was further determined by our expectations as to what we might see.

These ideas still prevail.  In Signe Pike’s 2009 book Faery tale she interviewed artist Brian Froud who told her (p.91):

“It’s often thought that faeries use our own thought patterns to manifest themselves.  For example, when a faery appears to a person, it will typically look quite similar to the creatures you see in storybooks.  This is because if you were to see a ball of energy, would you really know it was a faery?  No.  So they try to ‘speak’ our visual language.  We see wings, and flowing dresses, and heads and eyes.  The problem is, we think we’re just making it up.”

Likewise in The faery faith by Serena Roney-Dougal, she discusses how our psyche may create some of the things we see (pp.67-71).

Solid- or see-through illusions?

I have to admit that I feel uncomfortable with this idea, for several reasons:

  • It seems to introduce an insurmountable circularity into the situation.  If it is argued that fairies look like we expect them to look, it’s hard to establish a point at which our ‘preconceptions’ were first conceived, as no-one will ever see an ‘original’ or ‘authentic’ fairy;
  • There are compelling reports of ‘fairies’ that look nothing like our expectations: see for example some of the experiences in Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing fairies or some of the pixies described in Jon Dathen’s Somerset faeries and pixies;
  • The argument may seem to operate as a legitimate cover for those who claim to have seen fays when all they are describing are the products of their own over-active imaginations.  Their alleged visions are just repetitions of images they have derived from Enid Blyton’s stories,  from J. M. Barrie’s play script and from their nursery books.

Lastly, and most importantly, the theory is hard to square with cases which appear to be accounts of genuine encounters with solid and physical fays.  If fairies are solely balls of energy it’s difficult to reconcile this with the cases where their physical presence was either central to the plot or appeared already to be established before the human encountered them.  I am thinking here of the cases where humans and fays have entered into sexual relationships and where children have been borne of these pairings- children who often must be physically delivered by human midwives attending a faery knoll.  I also am thinking of cases where fairy celebrations have been stumbled upon accidentally by people- the many cases where the fairies have been found dancing and then lured in human partners, or the stories of fairy feasts discovered under fairy hills. In one story told by William of Newburgh, readers may recall, the man who discovered the celebration also managed to make off with a gold cup.  Elsewhere I have discussed the transmission of fairy powers by the medium of touch.  As a last example, I note Morgan Daimler’s discussion of fairy familiars on p.162 of her Fairy faithshe stresses that these familiars were “clearly visible to the witch as tangible presences, not dreams or see-through illusions…  they were real-world manifestations that were seen, heard, and spoken to, in the waking world.”

These are all very solid incidents where the human form of the fairies was central to the incident and also, as I’ve suggested, already established independent of any Schrödinger like observation.

Mccubbin, what the little girl saw in the bush

Frederick McCubbin, What the little girl saw in the bush, 1904

Summary

Our forebears definitely conceived of the fays as real and tangible- and so consistent in their appearance that classification into standard groups was possible and remained applicable over hundreds of years.  Any mutability in their appearance was purely of their own making- the result of their magic and glamour.

There were , of course, many who dismissed faeries as entirely illusory and imaginary, but this was for quite different reasons.  Rationalists challenged fairy belief on the grounds that it was self-delusion:

“Rainbow castles in the air/ Fit enough for fays and elves/ But not for mortals like ourselves.” (Martin Farquhar Tuppe, Liberty- Equality- Fraternity); or,

“That which belongs to neither heaven nor hell./ A wreath of mist, a bubble of the stream;/ Twixt a waking thought and dream…” (Sir Walter Scott, The kelpy).

All of that said, if fairies are but mutable forms responding to our own thoughts, it would explain their evolution in recent centuries, whereby they have acquired wands and wings and come to look like the leprechauns and flower fairies of contemporary culture.

This is a very difficult area and I can’t offer any definitive metaphysical solutions.  What do readers feel?  In short, do fairies look like fairies because they have a consistent and identifiable appearance or because they match themselves to whatever they find in our heads- be that Cicely Mary Barker or Henry Fuseli?

Further reading

I look at the question of fairy weight again in another posting whilst my posting on the question of who believes in fairies touches on related questions of belief and reality.  Whether or not fairy form changes according to our expectations, it’s certain that some fairies can shape-shift themselves.

‘The prettiest face’- fairy sexuality

paton msnd.jpg

Sir Joseph Noel Paton, The reconciliation of Oberon & Titania

“Tension mars the prettiest face-/ Sex in fairyland!” (Heaven 17, ‘Play to win,’ Penthouse & pavement, 1981)

I have written before about the location of faery and how the fairies may pass their time there.  These discussions have, of course, accepted that fairyland is a physical place.  In this post I want to explore the idea that it also exists within the human (male) psyche. When conceived by artists and writers, faery is often a ‘house of fun,’ it is a ‘stately pleasure dome.’

Fairyland is a place full of nudes disporting, as we see in the works of painters Noel Paton, John Simmons, John McKirdy Duncan, Richard Dadd, Robert Huskisson and (to demonstrate that it was not all men) Emiline Dell.  Paton’s canvases in particular are alive with naked, writhing flesh, conveying to us an idea that Faery is a place of constant and unbridled pleasure.

Peter Blake

Given that artists repeatedly populate Faery with naked bodies, we are driven to enquire- is it Eden or is it an orgy?  It’s true that some artists expressly consider their imagined worlds to be places of innocence, free of self-consciousness.

For example, Peter Blake painted a series of fairy paintings in the mid-1970s , both portraits and larger canvasses.  Blake saw children and fairies as sharing an enchanting naivety, which was translated into the nature of his pictures, in which the nudity is devoid of sexuality and is simply a natural, almost tribal, state.  That said, his image of Titania, a naked adolescent who has decorated her breasts and pubic hair with plants and found items, suggests something both more aware and more self-possessed.  In addition, close examination of several of his pictures will reveal naked, shadowy figures, cavorting and contorting in the margins and the background.  Placid as the main characters see, there is passion and disturbance very near.

pb poppy fairy

Peter Blake, Poppy fairy

Many contemporary images of fairies tend to take a more overtly sexualised approach.  This is entirely understandable, given that much of our literature depicts them as uninhibited- as petulant, lascivious children even…

Medieval fairies

Generally, the traditional view of fairies was as wanton and libidinous.  In the romance of Sir Launval, the knight encounters the fairy woman Tryamour reclining upon a couch in a pavilion.  It is a summer’s day and:

“For hete her clothes down sche dede/ Almest to her gerdyl stede,/ Than lay sche uncovert./ Sche was as whyt as lylye yn May/ Or snow that sneweth yn wynterys day./ He segh never non so pert…”

Presented with this alluring prospect, Sir Launval responds predictably and “For play, lytylle they sclepte that nygt.”

Robert Herrick is equally explicit in his poem Oberon’s feast.  The fairy king enters his bed chamber:

“and now he finds
His moon-tann’d Mab, as somewhat sick,
And (love knows) tender as a chick.
Upon six plump dandillions, high-
Rear’d, lies her elvish majesty:
Whose woolly bubbles seem’d to drown
Her Mabship in obedient down.”

Oberon approaches the bed, which is decorated thus:

“The fringe about this are those threads
Broke at the loss of maidenheads:
And, all behung with these, pure pearls,
Dropp’d from the eyes of ravish’d girls
Or writhing brides ; when (panting) they
Give unto love the straiter way.
For music now, he has the cries
Of feigned lost virginities;
The which the elves make to excite
A more unconquered appetite.
The king’s undrest ; and now upon
The gnat’s watchword the elves are gone.
And now the bed, and Mab possess’d
Of this great little kingly guest;
We’ll nobly think, what’s to be done,
He’ll do no doubt ; this flax is spun.”

The Victorians and later

Despite the bawdy example of their predecessors, and despite the excess of nubile flesh in their painting, Victorian writers were more circumspect. There is little in nineteenth century literature to match the visual art.  Like much of his fairy-themed verse, John KeatsBelle dame sans merci is suggestive of sexual passion: a young man encounters a beautiful, wide-eyed maid, a fairy child, who enchants with a song of love before:

“She took me to her elfin grot,
And there she gazed and sighed deep,
And there I shut her wild sad eyes-
So kissed to sleep.

And there we slumbered on the moss…”

This coy ‘slumber’ is in stark contrast to the explicitness of Sir Launfal.  Christina Rossetti’s Goblin market is also notable for its intense and sensual tone, but its evocations of sisterly incest do not involve the hideous and violent goblins.

nippers in the orchard

Brian FroudNippers in the orchard

Twentieth century fays

During the twentieth century, whilst the art has more recently become more adult and explicit, fairy verse has largely fallen from favour (except for the consumption of children).  About the only ‘adult’ example of which I’m aware is from The temptation by American poet Clark Ashton Smith, an undeniably erotic verse:

“Exile fays with childish bosoms,
And their undevirginate
Vulvas wrought like budding blossoms
Cool and small and delicate…”

As you’ll see from the entire poem, Smith was plainly fantasising about faery as bacchanalian orgy.  Some of this mood is to be found reflected in the crowded pictures of Brian Froud.   His fays are cheerfully and unashamedly sexual.  In addition, whilst representations of fairyland are often images of youth and perfection, Froud prefers imperfection- age, maturity and non-classical variety.

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Fairies and mushrooms, Brian Froud– I need hardly point out the phallic mushrooms and the (seemingly) drug-addled girl

Diversity in faery

Even so, alongside the wide hips and pendulous breasts, alongside the range of ages, there are still plenty of nymphs in our imaginary faery, bevies of adolescent and petite beauties who conform to more classical conceptions as well as being accommodated by with more contemporary and liberal views.  As stated earlier, the question must be, here, whether these nymphs represent a primal innocence or whether they speak of a more complex sexuality.

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Alan Lee, Faerie, 1978

The modern faery can be a living community, with young and old.  The situation in nineteenth century art was, by contrast, rather more puzzling.  Many Victorian painters filled their scenes with a variety of sizes and types of fairy.  Whilst some were grotesques, these figures were mostly adult males and females, albeit of a range of statures; examples will be found in the paintings of Richard Dadd, John Simmons, Robert Huskisson and Noel Paton (to name but a few), all of whom imagined a vast variety of forms and sizes of fairy.  Sometimes infants are present, but these are often more like cherubs than real children (as in Midsummer Eve by E. R. Hughes for instance) and as such these figures indicate the classical origins of much of the Victorian style.  Richard Doyle was one of the very few who included definite children in his pictures; they appeared mostly as pages to the fairy court, though, and were accordingly very tiny.   It is only in more recent fairy art work that identifiably juvenile and teenaged faeries have appeared.

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Alan Lee, a bluebell faery

Faery has always been sexualised by humans.  The Victorians, in their different theatrical representations of fairyland, went further and juvenilised it.  What was then seen only on the stage has in recent decades appeared in painting and illustration. Froud and Lee offer us strikingly distinct visualisations of such a world.  Lee’s actually quite demure fays are black eyed and alarming in their self absorption; there is a ferocity and menace in their solitary nakedness- and even that nakedness must be a warning, when we consider the deathly blue skin of the bluebell fay above.  They are a visual reminder that contact with fairies, and especially contact with a fairy lover, could be fatal.

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Alan Lee, the cover illustration to Faeries, 1978.

Froud’s world is, on the whole, more whimsical, but there are perturbing undercurrents. His vision is frequently crowded and carnal; the atmosphere is febrile.  It is an environment where sexuality is flaunted and voluptuous; sexual awareness is pervasive and it does not seem to be the preserve of the maturer members of the fleshly throng. Everything here is promiscuous, polyamorous and uninhibited.  It’s also notable that a higher proportion of his fays seem to be female- self-possessed and confident, perhaps, as you might expect a fairy queen to be.

When I consider Froud’s images, I am reminded of those backgrounds to Peter Blake‘s fairy scenes, where less distinct figures cavort and celebrate in the murk in comparable abandon.  The latter’s pictures are very nearly contemporary with the first designs from the former, so that it seems unlikely that Blake inspired Froud directly, but the parallel is striking nonetheless and may say something about contemporary ideas.  Both painters referred to the crammed nature of their canvases too: in 1997 Blake described how-

“As the fairies ooze to the front of the picture, they hear who’s looking at the painting and they stop and look out.  A group of them stare straight out at you, involving the viewer.”

Interviewed by Signe Pike for her book Faery tale in 2009, Froud said something very similar: there is-

“typically a central figure… and around the edges of the picture come crowding all of these faces.  It’s like they all want to be in the painting.  They don’t jostle… but they all sort of… get in.” (p.89)

There’s a more direct engagement here than in many of the Victorian pictures.  We are being invited, seduced, into their world.

Doyle fairy & elf kissing

Dicky Doyle, A fairy and an elf kissing, British Library.

Duality in fairy

To conclude, there seem today to be two main styles for the representation of faery by visual artists.  One is in the tradition Victorian painter Richard Doyle and the later children’s book illustrators: it is a vision of fairy as a place of charming, harmless pleasure, and of sexless innocence.  The fays are often little girls and everything is pretty and safe.  Josephine Wall’s intricate and kaleidoscopic paintings might fall into this category.

It also strikes me here how often we read in contemporary books how it is children, because of their innocence, who are most likely to be able to see fairies.  This thinking has prevailed since at least the time of the Cottingley fairy photographs: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was anxious to obtain further pictures from the two girls because he feared that their encroaching adolescence might soon mean that they would lose their clairvoyance.  Edward Gardner wrote to Doyle  expressing his concern that one of them might soon fall in love and then “hey presto!”, the fairy encounters would be at an end.  How curious it is that sex could become the antithesis of faery, rather than than one of its defining features, as seen repeatedly in earlier art and literature.

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Josephine Wall, The wood fairy

In contrast, as discussed at length here, there is a darker, more traditional and more sensual vision: we are lured in with enticing looks, but indulging ourselves may be a risk.  A contemporary artist who embodies much of what has been discussed- the frames crowded with figures, the nudity, the atmosphere of pagan mystery- may be Mia Araujo.

Further reading

I have also discussed questions of sexuality in fairyland in various other posts, including considerations of fairies’ passionate natures, of sex and sexuality in the poetry of William Blake and John Keats, some thoughts on ideas of fairy beauty, on representations of sex in the art of Arthur Rackham and Brian Froud and a wider discussion of our evolving views of gender and age in Faery.  For those desirous of an actual sexual encounter with a fay, I recommend a look at my posting on the fairy rules of love.

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

Fairies and culture

 

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‘Ferdinand and Ariel,’ by John Millais

Whatever our view of the existence of fairies and of a supernatural realm, there can be no denying the profound impact of faery (or the idea of it) upon our art and culture.  The reason for all this creativity, it seems to me, is that faery as a subject is so rich and complex.  Fairies can offer artists every emotion- sexual obsession, love, fear, jealousy, unbounded joy, mystery and mysticism- the list is lengthy.

Fae themes have been persistently rich sources of inspiration for a range of artists, whether in literature, song or the visual arts.  I’ll present a few examples, though I’m sure that proof is scarcely needed:

  • On the stage– whether inspiring the high art of Shakespeare or pantomimes and popular plays such as Peter Pan.   There was a particular trend for patriotic fairy stage plays during the Great War, which I have discussed;
  • Musicals, such as Edward Elgar’s Starlight Express of 1915 (this is the original production of this title, plainly, and not that by Andrew Lloyd Webber);
  • Novels and short stories (for both adults and children), from Charles Kingsley and George MacDonald through Enid Blyton, Beatrix Potter and E. M. Nesbit to Tolkien to Alan Garner;
  • Romance and myth– fairy themes are strong throughout many of the Arthurian myths and related stories, including the Welsh Mabinogion;
  • Poetry– from Robert Herrick and Michael Drayton through Keats and Blake to Walter de la Mare and Ivor Gurney.  On this blog I have been particularly interested in examining the interaction between fairy verse and the First World War, in the work of Robert Graves, Rose Fyleman, J R R Tolkien and others;
  • Painting- from Fuseli to Peter Blake and Brian Froud;
  • Illustration– from Rossetti and Burne-Jones through Edmund Dulac, Arthur Rackham and Henry Justice Ford to Cicely Mary Barker and Margaret Tarrant;
  • Sculpture– for example the puppets of Wendy Froud or the wire creations of Robin Wright;
  • Film and cartoon–  we have both fictional films, such as Disney’s Peter Pan or The Dark Crystal, as well as documentaries and ‘factual’ stories based upon the Cottingley case; and,
  • Music– ranging from ballet, opera, ballads, symphonies and lieder, light opera (Gilbert and Sullivan) to contemporary rock (Led Zeppelin, Marc Bolan or Sigur Ros).

Of course, the additional value of all of the above is that they are a supplement to the folklore evidence.  Just as much as traditional stories of fairies gathered by folklorists in the field, these various media give us a view of contemporary beliefs on the conduct and appearance of the fays.

What’s more, fairy works have inspired other fairy art.  For example Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream has inspired many works of art (by Paton, Dadd, Millais and many others).  In particular, it inspired a painting by Thomas Stothard,  Titania and Oberon, which in turn inspired a poem by Elizabeth Landon, The fairy queen sleeping.  In just the same way in 1825 Louisa Anne Meredith wrote The enchanted island in response to seeing the painting of the same name by Francis Darby; “’Tis the fairies’ home” the verse declares.

I’ll make a radical suggestion: even were fairies not to exist, their impact upon human culture would be almost undiminished.  We might even propose that, even if fairies did not exist, it would have been necessary to invent them to provide ourselves with such rich and fruitful veins of imagery and ideas.

The fairies have inspired our creativity for centuries, whether the source of that inspiration is our own imaginations or is an external supernatural force.  The power of this creative stimulus is expressly acknowledged by artists working in this genre.  It is not just a matter of the work produced, but of the transformative impact upon the artists themselves.   Interviewed by Signe Pike in Faery talepainter Brian Froud said that many of his readers and fans feel that with a rediscovery of their fairy faith:

“they feel they are coming home. They tell me they want to go away and write, or make something…”

His wife agreed: “often people have a creative response to our work.”  She starts her puppet workshops with meditation, within which “you do actually, genuinely, touch faeryland- you’re in it, whether you realise it or not.  So when you come back, and make a figure, it’s imbued with its own personality.”  In the act of imaginative creation, it would seem, there is a re-creation of the creator (Pike, 2010, pp.86-66).

In his introduction to David Riche’s Art of faery (2003), Froud argued that “Fairies mediate art, the mysterious moments of our creative relationship with the world.”  Whilst the twentieth century had emphasised our alienation from the world, the resurgence of visionary fairy art in its last decades and into the new millennium suggests the reversal of this and through that “the beginning of a spiritual journey. To paint fairies is not childish- but it could certainly said to be childlike- in its openness to creative and emotional impulses.”

Our culture is richer for fairies; we are richer for fairies….

Further reading

Neil Rushton on his dead but dreaming blog on WordPress provides a very useful overview of the entire world history of fairy art.  See too my book Fairy Art of the Twentieth Century  and my posting on fairies in Art Nouveau.

Contrary fairies

fairies-have-tiff-with-birds

Arthur Rackham, The fairies have a tiff with the birds

One thing that any regular reader of these pages- or of any materials on fairy-lore- will soon notice is that Faery is a place where contradictions are rife. Renowned fairy expert Katharine Briggs seems to have recognised this problem when she wrote that “it is possible for most people to keep two quite irreconcilable beliefs alive at the same time.” (The anatomy of Puck, p.5)  Morgan Daimler has recently said something very similar: ”

“When it comes to Fairy the only generality we can make is that we can’t easily make any generalities.” (Fairies- a guide to the Celtic fair folk p.173)

Inconsistency and uncertainty seem par for the course in fairy studies.  There is a distinct lack of consensus as to the appearance of the fays (their height, their facial features, the presence or absence of wings) or regarding their dress.  I have discussed the range of opinion on these matters before on this blog and in chapters 1, 5 and 28 of my book British fairies.  Of course, one might fairly observe that a non-human, presented with a selection of humans of varying age, ethnicity and dressed in their traditional, indigenous costume, might be equally puzzled to determine what the ‘typical’ human looks like.  There are many sorts of fairies, so the lack of consistency in reports need not trouble us.

Non-believers will say that inconsistency in accounts is hardly remarkable, given that we’re discussing a wholly imaginary set of beings.  The believer, in contrast, may explain the contradictions  by pointing to the variety of fairy forms, their magical abilities and their well-known sense of mischief.  Janet Bord argues as much in her book Fairies: real encounters with the little people: discrepancies in descriptions of fairies’ height may all be put down to their use of glamour and illusion.  The agnostic researcher, wishing to take a more ‘scientific’ approach, and to aiming to discover the reason and logic behind fairy belief, might search for social and psychological explanations.

The biggest problem for any form of rational analysis of fairy accounts is the existence of downright irreconcilable differences between descriptions.  I shall highlight just four here to demonstrate my point.

Iron taboo

Iron is well-known as a material that repels fairies. A child in a cradle can be protected by scissors hung over it; shears placed in a chimney prevent fairy incursions by that route and a wise traveller will carry metal with them, even something as small as a pin, as a defence against supernatural encounters.  Tales are often told of rescues of abducted spouses from fairy hills; the rescuer will place his knife at the threshold in order to stop the entrance to the hill re-closing and trapping him.  This list could be extended considerably, but the principle is very well established. However, how do we explain fairies using metal tools- which they often do, as evidenced in the stories of human help being sought to repair demanded pails, pick axes and the like?  Even more aberrant, perhaps, there is a Shetland story of an abducted boy who returns home skilled in making scythes, a craft he has learned whilst living with the trows (see for example Magical folk pp.38, 133 & 135).

The fairies’ faith

Religion is another source of contraries, as I have mentioned in a recent posting.  The fairies are generally regarded as being heathens, or at least irreligious.  On that basis, charms that are just as efficacious as a piece of iron include a page from the Bible, the sign of the cross or the invocation of God or the saints.  Prompt baptism of a newborn will guard against its theft as a changeling.  This all seems quite reasonable, until it is set alongside other traditions that treat the fairies as being perfectly orthodox Christian folk, conducting christenings and the like, or as beings concerned for their place in creation and worried over whether they will share in the Christian salvation. Once again, both cannot apply, but a compromise is almost impossible (see Magical folk pp.120, 127 & 135).

Time in fairyland

The passing of time is a significant feature of many stories of fairyland.  I have alluded to this previously and it is pretty well known that time in Faery can pass at a different rate to time in the mortal world.  A night spent under a fairy knoll may transpire to have been a year or ten, or a century, in the ‘real’ world.  As might be imagined, the consequence of this for the returning visitor can be disastrous and tragic.  And yet- this is not always a problem.  Some visitors come and go without ill-effects; a midwife may be taken to attend a fairy birth and return home the same night; a husband may go to rescue his wife from the beneath the fairy hill and will do so in ‘real time.’  The fairies themselves may come and go from our world without difficulty.

Fairy food

I have remarked before that fairies can be described both as vegetarians and as keen hunters.  Lastly, still on the issue of diet, how about fairy attitudes to bread?  This may sound bizarre, but it was widely believed in Britain that carrying a crust was a sure way of protecting yourself from malign influences.  Witness Robert Herrick’s brief rhyme:

“If ye feare to be affrighted,

When ye are (by chance) benighted,

In your pocket for a trust

Carrie nothing but a Crust:

For that holy piece of Bread,

Charmes the danger, and the dread.”

This may perhaps relate originally to carrying consecrated host, but it seems that ultimately any old slice of Hovis would do.  Now contrast the situation in Wales.  John Rhys tells of lake maidens (gwragedd annwn) lured to tryst with a mortal man by the offer of bread.  They are fussy though: not any old piiece of bara brith will do.  First the bread is too hard “Cras dy fara“, then too soft “Llaith dy fara,” until finally a happy medium is found and true love blossoms (Rhys, Celtic folklorepp.3-6 & 27-30).

Inconclusions

It is not possible to be didactic, especially on the subject of beings who are invisible and secretive.  Contacts with them are rare and always fleeting, so any impressions formed will always be uncertain and unconfirmed.  As I’ve suggested, the want of congruity throughout the reports may seem to give excellent grounds for rejecting them all as fictions.  What is odd, though, is that these tales derive from a period when there was a genuine and widespread belief in (and fear of) fairies.  This being so, you might expect the folk stories to provide listeners with consistent and coherent statements about the supernaturals, so that audiences might be forewarned and forearmed.  The lack of correspondence between accounts might even be argued to be an indicator of authenticity.

We’ll summarise with the words of some fairy experts. Brian Froud, renowned fairy artist, was interviewed by Signe Pike for her 2010 book Faery tale.  He described to Pike his reaction to his first investigations into faery:

“At first I thought, I don’t know… all this sounds a bit weird… and at the same time, a lot of it sounded like common sense.  It’s very typical of faery, actually.  In one way it simplified everything for me, and at the same time, it suddenly made everything very complicated.” (p.86)

Fairies are often regarded as being creatures of the ‘betwixt and between’ (see for example Storm Faerywolf’s book on the fairy tradition of that title).  If this is so, it’s only fitting that our knowledge about them should, in the same way, be indeterminate and unsettled.  It’s typical too of the fairies to want to withhold something from us- whether it’s their name or full knowledge of their personalities.  I’ll conclude this brief survey of contrariety with some very fitting words from the first paragraph of the first chapter of Morgan Daimler’s recent bookNoting the conflicting descriptions of fairies, she states:

“None of them are wrong, and none of them are exactly right either, and that’s your first lesson about Fairy: it is in all ways and always a contradiction.”

Staring elf

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‘Tinker bell’,* by artist Brian Froud

Blá nótt yfir himininn 
Blá nótt yfir mér 
Horf-inn út um gluggann 
Minn með hendur 
Faldar undir kinn 
Hugsum daginn minn 
Í dag og í gær 
Blá náttfötin klæða mig Í 
Beint upp í rúm 
Breiði mjúku sængina 
Loka Augunum 
Ég fel hausinn minn undir sæng 
Starir á mig lítill álfur 
Hleypur að mér en hreyfist ekki 
Úr stað – sjálfur 
Starálfur 

“Blue night over the sky, blue night over me, disappeared out of the window. Me, with my hands, hidden under my cheek, I think about my day, today and yesterday. I put on my blue night-clothes, go straight to bed. I pull the soft covers over, close my eyes, I hide my head under the covers. A little elf stares at me, runs towards me but doesn’t move from his place – from himself- a staring elf.”

These are the lyrics for the haunting song Starálfur by  Icelandic band, Sigur Ros.  I was entranced the first time I heard it- and for two reasons.  One is that it’s beautiful (which is reason enough for most fans of the band, obviously) and secondly because of what else the lyrics of the song evoked for me.  As a life-long lover of fairy lore, I wanted to know what the wider significance of that staring elf might be.

Icelandic elves

Some of you will know that the alfar, the Icelandic elves, are still very much still alive and well in present day Iceland.  Descendants of the Norse light and dark elves, they live under large rocks and hillocks and they are still treated with consideration and respect.  These same  alfar are also the distant relatives of our own English elves.

So, why is the elf in the song staring?  It may be conscience, perhaps, or just a dream, but it’s worth noting that one theme of Icelandic fairylore is that at certain times of year, and especially over the period of Christmas and the New Year, the elves will be abroad and may enter human homes.  Food and drink should be left out for them and they should be made to feel welcome (some readers may recall that a similar story applies to the trows of Shetland, and given their shared Norse heritage it is likely that the origins of both beliefs are shared).  Be that as it may, perhaps what’s described in this song is that presence of an elf in the home over the long winter nights.  Equally, it might merely evoke that feeling that the invisible people are always alongside us, watching and judging us; perhaps it is better that we are not aware of them, observing our actions, so perhaps this is why the speaker reflects upon his recent actions…

In the British Isles, we do not expect to be confronted with elves at such close quarters; they are usually banished to woods and even wilder, further places.  Even the house haunting brownie tended to keep discretely out of the way and did its chores at night.  This proximity, this invasion, is disturbing then.

Nightmares

What vocalist and composer Jón Þór Birgisson had in mind when he wrote this song, I don’t know; but I can say why it is affecting and memorable to me.  There are several abiding themes of fairlore that are evoked for me by the lyrics:

  • night is a time of peril, when our Good Neighbours are abroad.  In the song it’s not clear if that “blá nótt” is a glorious sky full of stars and the swirling Northern Lights, or something blacker and more brooding. Night is properly their time, and that is when humans should be at home and asleep.  During the hours of darkness the fairies dance and feast, disappearing at the first sign of dawn.  If we trespass upon their time, we should expect to be punished;
  • Nightmares can be brought to us by the fays at night.  Queen Mab is the elf most known for this; she is known as the midwife of dreams.  The dreams she brings may be pleasurable, but they may too be fearful and dismaying.  Fuseli’s painting of The nightmare captures this aspect of supernaturally induced dreams perfectly;
  • Following from this, I cannot help but see the creature sitting on the woman, pressing down upon her, as that Staring Elf.  What is disturbing and alarming about the song’s apparently benign image is the incursion of Faery into the home, into the safety and security of the warm bed.  The speaker pulls the covers over his head, seeking for cosy reassurance; instead he’s faced with an implacable and threatening presence.

There is, therefore, a curious disparity between the aetherial beauty of the music and the looming menace of the elf- always advancing, always imminent.  Perhaps that’s the epitome of the nightmare, in which the fear is ever unresolved- you fall from heights, you’re chased by beasts- but never die.  Both the tune and the images conjured will perpetually haunt me.

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Henry Fuseli, ‘The Nightmare’, 1781

* A closing note on the headline illustration by Brian Froud.  Froud’s representation of Tinkerbell, one of several paintings based upon Peter Panis perhaps the best of all works of art inspired by this play.  Any reading of the story has to confess that Tink is not a pleasant character- she’s jealous and vengeful and she tries to kill Wendy.  Disney’s blonde, busty, fluttering Tinkerbell wholly fails to capture the true character of the book.

Further reading

On her blog Morgan Daimler has written an interesting comparison of the alfar and the Irish sidhepointing out the surprising number of parallels between the two.

 

“Even lovers drown”- mermaids and faery

Rackham Mermaids

Arthur Rackham, ‘They have sea green hair’ from ‘Three Golden Apples’

“A mermaid found a swimming lad,

Picked him for her own,

Pressed his body to her body,

Laughed; and plunging down

Forgot in cruel happiness

That even lovers drown.”

W. B. Yeats, ‘The mermaid’ from The Tower, 1928

It is not, of course, possible to undertake a serious taxonomy of imaginary beasts, but personally I have never considered mermaids to be fairies: they cannot disappear, they have no magical powers (mostly) and they are often at the mercy of humans.  They seem too solid and physical; fairies are terrestrial whilst mermaids are marine.  They are semi-human, with some supernatural qualities, but they are not in the same dimension are fairies, I would contend.

Types of sea spirit

As stated, a phylogeny of creatures that are the products of mythology rather than biology is futile, but we can still offer some sort of classification and analysis:

  • mermaids and mermen are part human, part fish and are found around the coasts of England and Wales;
  • seal people including the selkies of Orkney and Shetland and the roane of the Highlands and islands are humans who can assume a seal skin to move through the sea.  Comparable are the merrows of Ireland.

Mermaids and seal people are often captured and made into the wives of human males, the mermaids by being stranded at low tide and the seal maidens by having their seal skins found and hidden after they have shed them on the shore.  These wives always pine for the sea and, eventually, escape back to it.

Ashore, mermaids are usually helpless and are at the mercy of the men who find them.  If they are assisted back into the sea, they may well grant magical protection to their saviours; if aid is refused, the men may be cursed.

Mermaid wisdom

The lure of mermaids for men appears to be their semi-naked state, their beauty- and most notably their hair- and their strange gnomic sayings, which added to their mysterious aura.  One of the more comprehensible sayings is recorded as follows: a mermaid surfaced to see the funeral of a young woman passing on the shore.  She called out-

“If they wad drink nettles in March/ And eat muggons in May/ Sae mony braw maidens/ Wadna gang to the clay.” (R. Chambers, Popular rhymes of Scotland, 1870, p.331)

The advice in this case seems sound: nettles, taken as tea or soup, are diuretic and are a good source of minerals and vitamins; mugwort is both a tonic and vermifuge.

Doubtless mermaids and fairies both were invented by our ancestors to explain sudden and inexplicable illness (see too my next post) and storms, drownings and disappearances.  There must, too, be some measure of anthropomorphising of seals, glimpsed floating in the waves and mistaken for humans.

Generally, mermaids lack magical abilities, although their deaths may provoke (or be avenged by) storms.  In some cases they can control the waves by their words; in other instances their power is not innate but derives from an article such as a cap or a leather mantle.

Some mermaids, beautiful as they may seem, are in truth monsters who lure fishermen to their deaths.  For Yeats, as seen in the verse above, this may be through a combination of accident and neglect.  Sometimes, too, these unions need not be tragic, as with the mermaid of Zennor in Penwith who lured away Mathey Trewella to live with her; he was lost to his human friends and relations but apparently did not perish.  Indeed, Cornish mermaids are generally more fairy-like in their attributes.  In the story of ‘Lutey and the mermaid’ a fisherman of Cury on the Lizard was granted three wishes by a stranded mermaid whom he rescued.  Likewise in the ‘Old man of Cury’ a mermaid found and returned to the waves at Kynance Cove provided a magical comb by which she could be summoned to provide arcane knowledge to her saviour.  For these stories see Robert Hunt’s Popular Romances of the West of England.

Fresh water beasts

Mermaids and selkies are strictly salt water beings.  A variety of fresh water spirits or monsters are identified by folklore, such as Jenny Greenteeth who drags children into ponds, and kelpies.  There are also marine monsters (see my earlier post on fairy beasts).  All of these have only one characteristic- destroying human life- and they lack any personality and society like fairies ‘proper.’  That said, in north-west England is found the Asrai, an aquatic fairy occasionally dredged in nets from pools and lakes, but which melts away in the air very quickly.  In Wales the Gwragedd Annwn are lake maidens who emerge from inland waters and occasionally marry young men- but always on their own terms and subject to their own conditions, which are ultimately always breached by their husbands, causing the water fairy to return home forever.

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Brian Froud, A mermaid

Further reading

Wirt Sikes in British Goblins (1880) devotes his third chapter to the gwragedd annwn, recounting various folk tales and, in passing, observing that these fresh water sprites exist in the absence of mermaids in Welsh mythology.  Katherine Briggs provides full details of all these stories and others concerning selkies in her Dictionary of fairies ; she also directs readers to Sea enchantresses by Gwen Benwell and Arthur Waugh (London 1961).  An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).  I have posted more recently on freshwater mere-maids, on the asrai, a particularly vulnerable type of British fresh water fairy, and on the variety of supernatural water beasts.  Mermaids are more than pretty faces, though: see too my post on mermaid wisdom.

Lastly, Charles Kingsley in The water babies had his own unique slant on the idea of the marine fairy and I have examined this separately.