Faeries in Maurice Hewlett’s ‘Lore of Proserpine’

Rheam, Once Upon a Time

“Thus go the fairy kind,

Whither Fate driveth; not as we

Who fight with it, and deem us free

Therefore, and after pine, or strain

Against our prison bars in vain;

For to them Fate is Lord of Life

And Death, and idle is a strife

With such a master …”

Hypsipyle, by Maurice Hewlett

I have discussed before the book The Lore of Proserpine by Maurice Hewlett.  In this post I return to Hewlett’s opinions about the nature of fairies and fairy society.  The book is a curious read, in that it is a work of fiction that seems to be a collection of reports of cases and personal experiences, somewhat akin to Evans-Wentz’ Fairy Faith.  It is, therefore, a set of loosely linked short stories and a quasi-scientific or folklore study of faery kind- yet it rejects the examinations of folklore written by the Grimm Bothers and others:

“Grimm and his colleagues started with a prejudice, that Gods, fairies and the rest have never existed and don’t exist. To them the interest of the inquiry is not what is the nature, what are the laws, of such beings, but what is the nature of the primitive people who imagined the existence of such beings? I very soon found out that Grimm and his colleagues had nothing to tell me.”

This is a rejection by Hewlett of the ‘folklore’ approach to faeries. Rather like this blog, he prefers a different approach and his book is presented as a dissertation on faery ways based upon a lifetime’s personal contacts with fairies. It should be noted though that Hewlett, as a British public-school boy, knows as much about the classical gods of Greece as he does about Puck and Mab.  The former are the “Gods” of the last paragraph. His mythology can seem quite heterodox and confused, but- as I’ve discussed before- that is quite typical of much British folklore.   

Nymphs

A significant part of the book is concerned with sightings of nymphs- and by ‘nymphs’ Hewlett seems to mean the classical beings and not female fairies by another name.  Hewlett (or, rather, the narrator of the book) claims that the open-minded and less sceptical part of his mind has seen naiads and the rest. As a young teenager, he has a vision in an English wood:

“I believed that 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.”

A whole chapter is given over to a succession of encounters with Oreads (mountain or hill nymphs) at Broad Chalke in Wiltshire.  Where these events took place can be identified exactly on a map, making the whole episode that much more compelling and real.  Quite where nymphs blend into ‘hill fairies’ or such like, is hard to say.

Miles Willams Mathis, Dryad Child

Faery Kind

Most of the book is concerned with beings Hewlett expressly calls fairies.  Rather like the Reverend Kirk (to whom he refers several times), Hewlett has a very well-developed conception of their nature, life style and morals.

To begin with, fairies are “born whole and in a flash,” they don’t grow up.  They come from another dimension:

“Of this chain of being, then, of which our order is a member, the fairy world is another and more subtle member, subtler in the right sense of the word because it is not burdened with a material envelope. Like man, like the wind, like the rose, it has spirit; but unlike any of the lower orders, of which man is one, it has no sensible wrapping unless deliberately it consents to inhabit one. This, as we know, it frequently does.”

Seen with humans, they don’t fit in, they’re not the same yet, faeries are part of the natural world and belong entirely within it:

“Now, it is a curious thing, accepted by all visionaries, that a supernatural being, a spirit, fairy, not-human creature, if you see it among animals, beasts and birds, on hills or in the folds of hills, among trees, by waters, in fields of flowers, looks at home and evidently is so. The beasts are conscious of it, know it and have no fear of it; the hills and valleys are its familiar places in a way which they will never be to the likes of us. But put a man beside it and it becomes at once supernatural. I have seen spirits, beings, whatever they may be, in empty space, and have observed them as part of the landscape, no more extraordinary than grazing cattle or wheeling plover. Again, I have seen a place thick with them, as thick as a London square in a snow-storm, and a man walk clean through them unaware of their existence, and make them, by that act, a mockery of the senses.”

They are nature spirits: “the fairy kind are really the spirit, essence, substance (what you will) of certain sensible things, such as trees, flowers, wind, water, hills, woods, marshes and the like, that their normal appearance to us is that of these natural phenomena; but that in certain states of mind, perhaps in certain conditions of body, there is a relation established by which we are able to see them on our own terms, as it were, or in our own idiom, and they also to treat with us to some extent, to a large extent, on the same plane or standing-ground.”

These nature spirits have no language, their songs have no words, and they communicate by telepathy.  They may look physically human, but they are utterly different from us in their temperament and consciousness.  They live entirely in the present moment, they don’t dwell on the past or try to peer into the future:

“The whole nature of the creature was strung to one issue only, to that point when she could fling headlong into activity- an activity in which every fibre and faculty would be used. A comparison of the fairy-kind with human beings is never successful, because into our images of human beings we always import self-consciousness. They know what they are doing. Fairies do not. But wait a moment; there is a reason. Human creatures, I think, know what they are doing only too well, because performance never agrees with desire. They know what they are doing because it is never exactly what they meant to do, or what they wanted to do. Now, with fairies, desire to do and performance are instinctive and simultaneous. If they think, they think in action. In this they are far more like animals than human creatures, although the form in which they appear to us, their shape and colouring are like ours, enhanced and refined.”

Hewlett’s fairies have no souls; if you look into their eyes you see the “far, intent, rapt gaze of a wild animal.”  They don’t have a morality we’d recognise, therefore:

“Literature will tell him that fairies are benevolent or mischievous, and tradition, borrowing from literature, will confirm it. The proposition is ridiculous. It would be as wise to say that a gnat is mischievous when it stings you, or a bee benevolent because he cannot prevent you stealing his honey…  That is the pathetic fallacy again; and that is man all over. Will nothing, I wonder, convince him that he is not the centre of the Universe?”

It is, Hewlett asserts, “often said that fairies of both sexes seek our kind because we know more of the pleasure of love than they do.”  However, he warns that “it certainly appears like a standing fact of Nature that when the beings of one order come into commerce with those of another the result will be tragic.”

“Love with them is a wild and wonderful rapture in all its manifestations, and without regard necessarily to sex…  It must be remembered that I am dealing with an order of Nature which knows nothing of our shames and qualms, which is not only unconscious of itself but unconscious of anything but its immediate desire; but I am dealing with it to the understanding of a very different order, to whom it is not enough to do a thing which seems good in its own eyes, but requisite also to be sure of the approbation of its fellow-men. I should create a wrong impression were I to enlarge upon this branch of my subject; I should make my readers call fairies shameful when as a fact they know not the meaning of shame, or reprove them for shamelessness when, indeed, they are luckily without it. I shall make bold to say once for all that as it is absurd to call the lightning cruel, so it is absurd to call shameful those who know nothing about the deformity. No one can know what love means who has not seen the fairies at their loving…” 

In summary, Hewlett calls them “swift, beautiful and apparently ruthless creatures.”

As for their government, Hewlett recognises that they have figures called kings and queens but he states that these are not rulers as such.  They recognise the authority of greater spirits but, in essence, theirs is an anarchy: “The fairies are of a world where Right and Wrong don’t obtain, where Possible and Impossible are the only finger-posts at cross-roads; for the Gods themselves give no moral sanction to desire and hold up no moral check.”

The narrator of this book has encountered very many fairies, but he recognises that he is unusual and very lucky. “The laws which govern the appearance of fairies to mankind or their commerce with men and women seem to be conditioned by the ability of men to perceive them. The senses of men are, figuratively speaking, lenses coloured or shaped by personality.”  In other words, we see what we are conditioned to see- what we expect.  There is a second complication too, which is the fact that “manifestation is not always mutual, [so] that a man may see a fairy without being seen, and conversely, a fairy may be fully aware of mankind or of some man or men without any suspicion of theirs.”

This fundamental soul-less and animal-like quality explains much of the unbridgeable gap that lies between our two species- and why the faeries can seem to act in heartless or inhuman ways.  As beings of nature, they are entirely absorbed within their environment, accepting cold as a fact and tolerating it; enjoying pleasure in the moment when they find it.  One of his first sightings, ‘The Boy in the Wood,’ involves a faery spotted throttling a rabbit. This is being done, slowly and cruelly, just for the pleasure of being able to kill the animal. Hewlett’s fairies don’t worry about the impact of their actions- in consequence of which, in the account of ‘Beckwith’s Case,’ we see a fairy steal a little girl away from her family.  Even though the girl’s father had rescued the fairy and cared for her for many months, she has no qualms about befriending and then abducting the daughter. 

This is the harsh world of Hewlett’s faery- and, truth to tell, it’s not far at all from many of the traits of fae nature we see in the traditional folklore.  As I’ve described before, his stories are told with beauty and sensitivity and I can only recommend the book again.

John Anster Fitzgerald, Cock Robin Defending His Nest

Pan & Nymphs in ‘The Lore of Proserpine’

Rodolphe Julian, Pan

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.”

Franz Stuck, Pan beobachtet Kentaurenpaar

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.

Penny Ross, Spring Fairy

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.

Bouguereau, Nympha & Satyr

‘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.

 

 

‘The fairest of the fair’- Fae beauty

3-take-the-fair-face-of-woman-sophie-anderson

‘Take the fair face of woman,’ Sophie Anderson

“It was late on an eve in midsummer,
I fell sleeping on the green,
And when I awoke in wonder, I saw
What few mortal men have seen.

Changelings, fays and sprites,
A mighty swarm, all had taken to the air,
And before them passed their Fairy Queen,
She.. the fairest of the fair…”

(from He who would dream of fairyland, by Micheal Patrick Hearn)

I posted not too long ago a comment upon the convention of fairies’ pointy ears, in response to an examination of the question by Morgan Daimler.  I thought more about it, and about conceptions of fairy beauty in general, and decided to review our evolving iconography on this subject.  I have written about fairy physiology, their height and physical form, but I had neglected to discuss that most obvious of features, their faces!

Fairies in folklore

For centuries humans have found the physical charms of fairy men and women irresistible.  Whether it is the many alluring fairy queens of whom we read in medieval romances, the Irish leanan sidhe and her male counterpart gean canach, or long-haired mermaids on the shore, all are so desirable that we would abandon all we know to be with a fairy lover.  Fae beauty is said to exceed that of humans- this is the case with the elf-wife of Wild Edric in the twelfth century story of his fate; the same was the case in Wales in the accounts of the lake maidens and the girls of the tylwyth teg (the fair family) who lured men into their dances (Rhys, Celtic folklorepp.3, 23 & 44 and pp.85-6 & 90 respectively).

Overall, the folklore evidence seems to be that there were types of fairy known to be ugly or deformed- spinner Habetrot‘s distended bottom lip, misshapen through years of pulling thread- springs to mind; and then there were the rest of the elves and fairies, whose features were at least unremarkable or normal and, not infrequently, surpassing human looks.  The fays might be shorter in stature than us, but they were not regarded as any less fair.  Mentions of some repulsive feature- an extra-long tooth or a malformed nose- do not seem to include pointed ears.  Also largely lacking from the folklore of Britain and Ireland is the combination of beauty and deformity that is found in the Danish elle-maids, who may have gorgeous faces but hollow backs or cows’ tails.  The only British example of this type I can bring to mind is the Highland glaistig, a lovely woman who wears a long green dress- that conceals her hooved feet.

Goblins in art

The folklore dichotomy between ‘fair’ and ‘foul’ fairy types is found in our visual arts too.

RGF

Cover of a seventeenth century chapbook

Popular depictions of fairies date right back to the sixteenth century and certain conventions were fixed even then.  One type of fairy consistently found is the hairy Puck-like creature- also known as Robin Goodfellow.  He derives substantially from classical images of the satyr, often with horns and with the pointed ears of a goat.

puck

This image stayed with us for centuries.  Although we may later have spoken about goblins, possibly even elves,  the way they were represented stayed very much the same: they were ugly, if not grotesque, and only partially human.  There are many examples, such as in pictures of Shakespeare’s character Puck by Sir Joshua Reynolds or Henry Fuseli or in paintings of other scenes from  Midsummer night’s dream, for instance, The reconciliation of Oberon and Titania or Oberon and the mermaid, both by Sir Noel Paton.

simmons fairy lying on a leaf

John Simmons, A fairy lying on a leaf

Nubile fairies

The second strand in our art also, I feel sure, derives ultimately from classical art.  In contrast to those satyrs and fauns, the Greeks envisaged naiads, dryads and other nymphs.  They were almost always young, naked women, and later British art- especially in the Victorian period-  is full of nude nubiles with long hair.  These are the young females who sprout wings and acquire wands during the nineteenth century.  As I’ve suggested in a discussion of fairies on the stage and in art, this honouring of classical models may also have been an excuse to produce a little soft porn for the consumer art market, but it was all very tastefully done.

444px-Fairy_song

Arthur Rackham, ‘Fairy song,’ illustration to A midsummer night’s dream.

For some time these two fairy types were held apart, so that the females were pretty and petite and indisputably human, whilst the elves, goblins (and later pixies) had some distinguishing feature that clearly denoted their otherness- often it was the ears, although they could be simply oversized (as in the work of Hutton Lear), or bat-like (Paton, Reconciliation of Oberon and Titania).  Sometimes the heads and bodies might be misshapen, for example by being exaggeratedly rounded.  Arthur Rackham’s work typifies these contrasting poles, as shown in the example below, ‘These fairy mountains.’ At the same time, though, we start to see in some of Rackham’s work an amalgamation of the two types, as in Fairy song above.

these fairy mountains

It’s not always easy to be sure about the physical characteristics of the fairies, either because the maidens have abundant locks or because (in the case of John Anster Fitzgerald) they wear odd, close fitting hats and caps.  That said, it is quite common for those hats to be strangely shaped, with flaps and points much resembling animal ears (Richard Dadd is another example of this style).  We should also note the paintings of Henry Fuseli, whose fairies are women, it’s quite true, but whose faces are often sharp and caricatured, sometimes with disturbingly black eyes.

Flower fairies

By and large, though, the two distinct strains of fairy representation remained separate until the twentieth century.  What then followed was huge popularity of the ‘flower fairy‘ and, as many readers will know, there was nothing in the least supernatural or alarming about the creatures drawn by Margaret Tarrant and Cicely Mary Barker.  The riot of Victorian nudes disappeared to be replaced by nice demure little girls from Croydon with bobbed 1920s hair and pretty party frocks (Ida Rentoul Outhwaite in Australia is another exemplar of this genre).  Meanwhile, the pixies and goblins perhaps became a little quainter and less wicked as children’s book illustration increasingly became the venue for fairy art (see, for example, the work of Rosa Petherick- amongst many).

Poppy-Flower-Fairy

Cicely Mary Barker, The poppy flower fairy

Modern fairies

I think it is only much later in the twentieth century that elements of the ‘Puck’ seeped into the drawing of the ‘fairy’ to give us the elves we’d instantly recognise today.  When English artists Alan Lee and Brian Froud drew their celebrated Faeries in 1978 they gave pointed ears to all the fays they drew.  Indisputably, the illustrations in this book (and its many successors) have been extraordinarily influential upon subsequent popular conceptions.

There’s nothing in Tolkien’s books about pointed ears (whether on the hobbits or on the notedly handsome elves) which could form a link in this chain of influence.  In fact, setting aside Tarrant and Barker (despite the huge and continuing popularity of their work) I think that it is other children’s illustrators of the mid-twentieth century who form the iconographic link between artists of the 1960s and ’70s and the Victorian antecedents.  In the innumerable illustrations for children’s books showing fairies, elves and pixies, we witness the final merging of the lovely female fairy and the cute pixy.  There are considerable numbers of these- too many to enumerate here- but as examples I will mention Gladys Checkley, Helen Jacobs and Rene Cloke, all of whose pictures will have introduced young children from the 1930s through to the 1960s to the idea of diminutive, dragonfly-winged fairies with pointed ears.  From these pictures it was a very short step to Galadriel and Legolas as we unavoidably envisage them today.

Jacobs a fleet of fairies

Helen Jacobs, A fleet of fairies

gladys checkley

Gladys Checkley postcard (c.1950)

Further reading

Ideals of fairy beauty (and of sexuality, which tends, inseparably, to be connected to this) are matters I have discussed several times before.  I have compared the work of Rackham and Froud  and I have examined our evolving representations of fairy age and gender.

“Nymphes and faeries”- Renaissance influences upon the ‘national fairy’

satyr

The fairy as conceived by British folk tradition was effected- and not for the better- by the revival of classical learning in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.   In this post I wish to trace the course and impact of this rebirth of Roman and Greek knowledge in the specific context of British fairy lore.

Renaissance writers

The very earliest sign of classical influence comes from Chaucer, in the Merchants Tale. He refers there to “Pluto, that is the king of fayerye/ And many a lady in his companye/ Folwinge his wyf, the quene Prosperpyne.”  This can be dated to about 1390 and is probably more a sign of Chaucer’s own education and reading than any real indicator of the spread of new thinking from Italy, where the rinascimento was at that time still in its infancy.

I suggest a more significant start date is the appearance of Gavin Douglas’ 1513 translation of Ovid’s Aeneid, in which he chose to refer to “nymphis and faunis apoun every side/ Quhilk Fairfolkis or than Elfis clepen we…”  This linking of nymphs and elves remains consistent then for the next  150 years; for example, Thomas Nash makes this analogy: “The Robin Goodfellows, Elfs, Fairies, Hobgoblins of our latter age, which idolatrous former days and the fantastical world of Greece ycleped Fauns, Satyrs, Dryads and Hamadryads…” Latterly, Milton in Comus from 1630 spoke of  fairies and elves as equivalent to nymphs.  Of this work, Floris Delattre observed that “the now trite assimilation of English fairies to classical nymphs gains … a fresh beauty” thanks to the poet’s “refined language” (English fairy poetry, 1908, p.165).

Translations of Ovid soon spread other classical concepts: for example Thomas Phaer in his 1550 version of the Aeneid mentioned fauns, nymphs and the fairy queen whilst Arthur Golding’s translation of the Metamorphoses of 1565 described “nymphes of faery.” The process could work in reverse as well, with native terms being used to explain classical ones.  For example, Golding felt that the best translation he could make was to describe the “Chimaera, that same pouke.”

Nymphs and fairies

The easy reference to classical deities then became habitual.  Nymphs and fairies were inseparable. Drayton in Poly-Olbion treats “Ceres nymphs” as interchangeable with fairies (Song XXI) and also marries a nymph to a fay and has dryads, hamadryads, satyrs and fauns dance with fairies in his Nymphals 8 & 6.  Other Greek and Roman figures also begin to insinuate themselves.  Scot in The discovery of witchcraft (1584) mentions “satyrs, pans, fauns, sylvans, tritons, centaurs…” in  his list of fairy beings (Book VII c.XV) and he names the fairy queen variously as Sibylla, Minerva, Diana and Herodias.  For King James VI in Daemonologie Diana and her court are synonymous with ‘Phairie.’  Ben Jonson’s Masque of Oberon from 1610 carelessly mixes the “coarse and country fairy” with satyrs and sylvans. Burton, writing the Anatomy of melancholy  in 1621, listed such “Terrestrial devils [as] lares, genii, fauns, satyrs, wood nymphs, foliots, fairies…”  Spenser meanwhile introduced the Graces to the company of fairies in both The Fairy queen and Epithalamium.  

It may be helpful to provide a summary of the various Greek and Roman gods and spirits with whom parallels were so freely drawn.  It must be acknowledged that there are undeniable parallels and comparisons between some British fairies and some Mediterranean deities, analogies sufficiently strong to justify a few of the identifications made.  This is, of course, due to the fact that all of these supernatural beings derive ultimately from the same Indo-European sources and are responses to the same natural processes and features.  Nonetheless, each culture had developed differently and whilst there were links to be made (as, for example, was done in works such as Frazer’s Golden Bough) these beings had evolved separately for centuries and, whilst comparable, were very far from being identical.

nymphs

Classical references

Writers freely made reference to:

  • Abundantia- who was the Roman goddess of fortune and prosperity.  She evolved into a beneficent spirit and, ultimately, into Habundia, queen of the witches and fairies;
  • Ceres- she was a goddess of the growth of plant foods.  Insofar as she had vegetative associations, there was some tenuous link with British fairies;
  • Diana– who was goddess of childbirth, of nature and of the moon.  Queen Mab was a midwife, as testified by Andro Man, accused of witchcraft in 1598, and fairies often danced in the moonlight, so that Diana’s transfer to Britain makes some sense;
  • Dryads– nymphs of trees and woods and so comparable to elves;
  • Fauns– a faun is a rural deity who bestows fruitfulness on fields and cattle.  He can also have prophetic powers.  His influence over natural processes suggested the analogy with elves;
  • Genii– are clan spirits and perhaps therefore allied to brownies, banshees and the like;
  • Graces- these were Greek goddesses of fertility in fields and gardens and accordingly comparable to elves and fairies;
  • Hecate- was the goddess of magic and spells; she was linked to the moon and was a goddess of childbirth and the night.  Through Queen Mab she was therefore associated with fairies and witches;
  • Herodias– was mother of Salome and was reputed to be head of a witch cult.  She became linked to fairies through the witch craze and was identified with Habundia, queen of Elfame.  By circuitous routes, therefore, Heywood ended up equating sibils and fees, white nymphs, Nightladies and Habundia their queen;
  • Lares- are tutelary deities of fields and homes and are accordingly similar to boggarts, brownies and such like;
  • Minerva- was linked to the arts and crafts and had no real identity with British fairies;
  • Nymphs- these are minor deities linked to fertility, growth, trees and water (streams, lakes and the seas).  As such they are clearly comparable to elves and fairies.  For example, the nymphs tended to protect specific locales so that there may be some analogy to be made between the water naiads and British sprites like Grindylow and Peg Powler;
  • Pan- was a deity of Arcadia, part-goat, part-human.  He haunted the high hills and brought fertility to the flocks and herds, but not to agriculture.  He could send visions and dreams.  He has a vague resemblance to pucks and hobgoblins, but no more;
  • Satyrs– were envisaged as half-man and half-beast; they were brothers to the mountain nymphs and akin to fauns.  As such, they resembled pucks, brownies and hobgoblins to some extent;
  • Sibylla– was a prophetess, and so became linked to fairies through the witch craze;
  • Sylvans– these are woodland deities, readily associated with fairies.

Some of the classical names used had no relevance at all to British fairies; some denoted distantly related beings.  All were facile and ultimately uninformative and unhelpful.  The use of the classical comparisons diluted and disrupted more accurate knowledge of genuine British traditions, inhibiting rather than encouraging study.  They were superficial displays of learning which detracted from a deeper and more valuable investigation of the ‘national fairies’ as Floris Delattre termed them.  Classical references added nothing of value to the verse- rather it obscured the nature of insular tradition and accelerated its decline by promoting false analogies and parallels.   The Greek and Roman figures had character traits and qualities unknown before, with notions of hierarchy, worship and relationships that were alien and inapplicable to British folklore.  All in all, therefore, the impact of the Renaissance learning was in this instance  entirely negative.

Nymphs in literature

paul_hermann_wagner_-_waldnymphe
Paul Hermann Wagner (1852-1937), Waldnymphe (Forest nymph)

Nymphs have always been popular characters, in poetry in particular, and have been possessed of a distinct character and attributes.  They are associated inextricably with fairies in the earliest quote, from Melusine, of around 1500:

“Ye should have ben out of the handes of the Nymphes and of the fairees.”

Their physical attractiveness was their primary feature, as this string of quotations demonstrates:

“O nymph of beauty’s train, The onely cause and easer of my paine.”  (Thomas Lodge, The delectable history of Forbonius and Prisceria, 1584)

Lodge hammered home his idea of ‘nimphs’ in many other lines of verse, in which they were lauded as ‘gorgeous’, ‘faire’, ‘lovelie’, ‘heavenly,’ ”tender’ and ‘sweet’ (Glaucus and Scilla; Euphues’ golden legacy).  The effect of such attractiveness was predictable:

“he hath seen some beautiful Nymph, and is growen amorous.” (Euphues)

It was perhaps Edmund Spenser who was most especially devoted to the celebration of their charms:

“Ye silvans, fawns and satires that among these thickets oft have daunst,/ Ye nymphs and nayades with golden heare.” (A pastoral eclogue upon the death of Sir Philip Sydney, 1595).

He placed them securely within a classical, woodland landscape, describing variously a swain “”who in these woods amongst the nymphs dost wonne” and invoking:

“O flocks, O faunes, and O ye plesaunt springs/ Of Tempe, where the country Nymphs are rife…” (Virgil’s gnat)

Their unspoiled, rural nature is a trait that was to appeal to poets for centuries.  Their physical attractiveness was undeniable and irresistible.  In Colin Clout’s come home again Spenser mentions “the nymph delitious” and declares that “a fairer nymph yet never saw mine eie.”  These praises reach their natural conclusion in verses from The Fairy Queen:

“As if the love of some new nymphe late seene/ Had in him kindled youthful fresh desire…” (Canto VIII, stanza XI)

“Finding the nymph asleepe in secret wheare/ As he by chance did wander the same way,/ Was taken with her love, and by her closely lay.” (Canto IV, stanza XIX)

Lastly, it will have been seen that other terms are sometimes employed.  Spenser grouped his nymphs with naiads and these divinities occasionally appear in verse, the earliest being Lydgate’s Troyyes Book of 1495, in which he refers comprehensively to-

“Water nymphs, nor this nayades, Satiry, nouther driades, that goddesse bene of wode and wildernesse.”

Spenser elsewhere speaks of “Fayre Naiades” (Virgil’s gnat, 1597) and Milton charmingly imagines them as being “flowrie-kirtl’d” (Comus, 1637).  Finally, we may note that Nabokov was by no means originator of the term ‘nymphet.’  In the Polyolbion of 1612 Michael Drayton makes mention “of the Nymphets sporting there, In Wyrrall and in Delamere.” (XI, Argument 171)

Progressively over time, as I have argued in another post, the nymph and the fairy drew ever closer together- the fairy assimilating to the nymph and becoming younger and more feminised.

Pagliei, Gioacchino, 1852-1896; The Naiads
Naiads by Gioacchino Pagliei (1852-1895). Nottingham City Art Gallery

Conclusion

To conclude, we must first concede that British fairy lore was already a hybrid, containing elements of Celtic, Saxon and French myth; Morgan le Fay mixed with Germanic elves and Cornish pixies to create complex and many layered stories. Classical themes added nothing to this.  References to nymphs and fauns were a learned and literary graft upon native roots and served only to stunt further development of the tradition.  Whatever the wider enriching qualities of the Renaissance, it only did damage to British folk lore.

An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).  See too my posting Not all nymphs are nice for some alternative approaches to our classical inheritance, in which I discuss nymphs in the work of Arthur Machen, and also his influence on the depiction of nymphs and fairies in early twentieth century classical music.

See my more recent book, dealing solely with nymphs and nymphets, Nymphology (2020).

William Blake and fairy origins

blake_mhh

I recently discussed William Blake’s conceptions of the nature of fairies.  It was pointed out to me by one reader (Dr9mabuse- whom I wish to thank) that I had overlooked another possible Blake reference, from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

Illustrated above is plate 11 from that poem.  The text reads as follows:

“The ancient Poets animated all sensible objects
with Gods or Geniuses, calling them by the names and
adorning them with the properties of woods, rivers,
mountains, lakes, cities, nations, and whatever their
enlarged & numerous senses could perceive.”

I think it would be perfectly reasonable to regard this as an allusion to Blake’s treatment of fairies as animating spirits of nature.  He, of course, went far beyond this, elaborating this thought considerably in the Four Zoas, but in its original conception it coincided exactly with one of the commonest theories on the source of fairy beliefs.

Fairy origins

There are two books which particularly discuss the development of popular ideas on fairies.  The first is the classic British Fairy Origins by Lewis Spence, published in 1946.  Spence, who had a life long interest in the occult and mythology, set out a number of sources which he felt jointly fed into the fairy belief.  These are that fairies were:

  • elementary spirits– they are the spirits of natural features;
  • spirits of the dead– fairies are, in a sense, simply ghosts.  They haunt burial tumuli, the deceased are often found amongst their number (explicitly in The fairy dwelling on Selena moor) and time spent with them can age the visitor;
  • ancestral spirits– more than just being the dead, fairies were the dead of a particular family- the protective spirits of their predecessors;
  • aboriginal races– this theory postulates that fairies are a recollection of former inhabitants of Britain who were pushed to the margins by later settlers.  It is a garbled derivative of Darwin’s ideas of evolution as set out in The Descent of Man: the elusive pygmy races are our ape-like ancestors.  Of course, there is no evidence at all that Britain and Ireland were ever settled by any other than races of full stature and this is by far the least convincing of these origin theories;
  • former pagan gods– it seems widely accepted, for example, that the fairies of Ireland are the much-diminished survivors of the ancient Tuatha de Danaan;
  • totemic– the fairies are symbols of tribal kinship with certain animals; or,
  • fallen angels– they were cast out of heaven with Lucifer, but did not plummet all the way into hell (a widespread belief in Scotland on the evidence of Evans Wentz).

More recently, Katherine Briggs laid out the competing (or intermingled) theories in her book Fairies in tradition and literature.  Her list is very similar to Spence’s- fairies derive from:

  • forgotten gods and nature spirits– they are the seasons personified and the spirits of trees and water.  Amongst these Briggs includes fairies which may have been intended to act as warnings to children to avoid harmful places such as rivers, standing water and orchards- for example, Jenny Greenteeth, the spirit who lurked beneath the grass-like scum on pools, waiting to drag down unwary infants;
  • the ‘hosts of the dead‘, such as the ‘Wild Hunt’;
  • fallen devils;
  • giants and monsters; and,
  • tutelary spirits which comprise ancestral spirits attached to a particular family (most notably the banshees of Scotland who warn of family tragedy) and brownies and the like which serve a particular farm or household.

crane

 

Walter Crane, Dryads & Naiads

Fairies as nature spirits

In each list I have given priority to fairies as nature spirits.  This animistic idea is part of what Blake seems to have been referring to in the verse quoted.  The classical nymphs of wood and well, the dryads and naiads, are plainly the ‘geniuses of woods, rivers and lakes’ mentioned by Blake and very evidently contributed something to his thought and to our more general understanding of faery.  For British writers, at least, the different spirits were interchangeable.  For example Gavin Douglas, the Scots poet, in his translation of Virgil’s Aeneid, makes a direct substitution of one for the other.  In tackling Virgil’s lines “Haec nemora indigenae fauni nymphaique tenebant…” he gives us the following (my highlighting):

“Thir woddis and schawis all, quod he,

Sum tyme inhabyt war and occupyit

With nymphis and faunis apoun every side,

Qwhilk Farefolkis or than Elfis clepen we,

That war engendryt in this sam cuntrie…

Furth of ald stokkis and hard runtis of treis…”

Aeneid Book 8, chapter 6, line 4 et seq.

Nevertheless, these supernatural beings have developed their own local and distinct features and characters, in British folklore as well as in Blake’s poetry.  As I described previously, in William Blake’s personal mythology fairies were spiritual beings investing natural features, but they took on other functions and aspects.  Likewise, the British fairy tradition was woven from many strands and imbued fairies with multiple powers  and meanings.

In my recently published Albion awake!the fairy queen Maeve has some of these close associations with the land and with its well-being; she has a general role as a guardian of fertility for the Isle of Albion.  I have made further posts related to the book separately on johnkruseblog.wordpress.com, offering a background reading list and picture gallery.  An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).