I continue here my examination of Bernard Sleigh’s Ancient mappe of fairyland and its background.
‘Edwardian innocence’- the context of the map
“Fairies and ghosts are here galore.” (Robert Graves, ‘Letter to SS from Mametz Wood,’ from Fairies and fusiliers. 1918)
Tom Harper, the British Library’s antiquarian map curator, has observed that:
“An ancient mappe of Fairyland… was published in 1918, the year that World War I ended, so it is difficult not to relate the two in some way. Could the Fairyland constitute a yearning for a return to pre-1914 Edwardian innocence? Compared with the devastated, bomb-blasted landscape of northern France, this vision of a make-believe land may have seemed a seductive escape for a European society bearing the physical and psychological scars of mass conflict.
The map is very much a product of the Arts and Crafts ideology which evinced a return to traditional, pre-industrial production methods. The ornamentation and typeface are in the style of William Morris’ Kelmscott Press. This retrospective stylistic attitude places the map in opposition to a mechanical modernity, which happened to have reached its most destructive pinnacle during the War.”
These comments raise a very interesting question. To what extent is escapism in art excusable? Should artists confront the events of their day in their works, as is the case with Great War artist Otto Dix, or should they offer their audiences refuge? Furthermore, as noted, Sleigh was too old to serve in Flanders. Without that first-hand experience- what the Germans called Fronterlebnis– was he qualified to speak in any case?
Modern painter Peter Blake is known for the series of fairy pictures he produced whilst a member of the Brotherhood of Ruralists during the 1970s. Interviewed for the Independent in December 1997, Blake told Andrew Lambirth that-
“Fairies are a vehicle for what we want them to be… There’s an edge of magic realism to them. The fairies I paint have the ability to make magic.”
More recently, however, Blake seemed to have a change of heart, describing his fairy phase as “unforgivably sentimental.” Reviewing Tate Liverpool’s 2007 retrospective of Blake’s career, critic Waldemar Januszczak was far less kind; for him the pictures were “unforgivably silly” when set against the political background of late 1970s Britain. So- were the fairy pictures a dereliction of some perceived duty as a social reporter; should Blake have been painting punks and Grunwick strikers? Should Sleigh likewise have painted mud and trenches?
Rose Amy Fyleman
Prolific English children’s author Rose Amy Fyleman (1877-1957) is probably best remembered for her first published work, There are fairies at the bottom of our garden, which appeared in May 1917. It reassures readers that they can participate in fairy revels themselves:
“There are fairies at the bottom of our garden!…
The King is very proud and very handsome;
The Queen- now you can guess who that could be
(She’s a little girl all day, but at night she steals away)?
Well – it’s Me!”
Over the Channel as Fyleman wrote, the British were preparing the appalling offensive at Passchendaele. Talk of fairies, merrymaking with the local wildlife behind the gardener’s shed, might have seemed curiously irrelevant and inappropriate- even unpatriotic- that summer. The next year, though, Fyleman wrote a partner poem, There used to be, which stands in affecting antithesis to her previous verse:
“There used to be fairies in Germany-
I know, for I’ve seen them there…
What, and oh what were they doing
To let things like this?
How could it be? And didn’t they see
That folk were going amiss?…
There used to be fairies in Germany-
The children will look for them still…
“The flowers,” they will say, “have all vanished,
And where can the fairies be fled
That played in the fern?”- The flowers will return,
But I fear that the fairies are dead.”
This is a remarkable social and political commentary. The Great War smashed many childhood illusions and security; to some degree it appears that it was the fairies’ fault, arising from neglect of and by them. The result has been their extinction.
Whatever our views of Fyleman’s verse, it cannot be denied that fairyland provided comfort and shelter from the experience of war for those actually on the frontline. Arguably their views are a better measure of the fittest response from art to death and disruption. Irish poet Francis Ledwidge was writing fairy verse in the trenches right up until the week of his death in 1917. Awaiting action in Belgium in July that year, Ledwidge preferred not to think about whizz bangs and gas but to imagine fairy dances, piping elves, ceol sidhe (fairy music) and the allurements of fairy lovers:
“From hill to hill, from land to land,
Her lovely hand is beckoning for me,
I follow on through dangerous zones,
Cross dead men’s bones and oceans stormy.”
(The lanawn shee (The fairy lover), July 1917)
In fact, Ledwidge’s attraction to fairy themes only increased as the war progressed. His first collection of verse, Songs of the fields (1915), contained no fay references. His second, Songs of peace of 1917, contained two and the third, Last songs, which was published in 1918, includes eight fairy poems. Arguably, as the stress increased and his odds of avoiding injury diminished, the lure of a fantasy outlet grew irresistible.
Poet and mythologist Robert Graves came out of action in Flanders still able to promise that “you’ll be fairies soon” in his poem Cherry time or to declare “I’d love to be a fairy’s child” in the verse of the same name (both published in his 1918 collection Fairies and fusiliers). Another officer, J. R. R. Tolkien, was likewise writing fairy verse in the trenches- although his subjects may have been toughened by the experience, transforming them from typical winged Victorian elves in his early verse to the noble warriors of Lord of the Rings.
Estella Canziani, The piper of dreams, Medici Society
Lastly, in summer 1915 painter Estella Canziani exhibited The piper of dreams at the Royal Academy. The picture shows a boy playing a whistle in a wood, unaware of the fairies flitting around him; it was an instant success. The Medici Society quickly acquired the rights to the image and published prints and postcards, very many of which were sent to troops at the front, where it was very popular.
As Blake indicated, fairies have always had a creative function in our culture, providing inspiration to writers and visual artists alike. Fairy imagery too is a vehicle for addressing many emotions and problems, from sexuality to violence. There is no inherent reason why fairy art cannot discuss war- nor why it should not be a legitimate response to conflict.
‘Dreamland’- the content of the map
One map dealer has described faerie, as depicted by Sleigh, as “an idyllic, fantastical land.” This captures its mood exactly. However, we should note at the outset that there is a slight misnomer. The map portrays the land of fairy-tales, rather than being a depiction of Faerie.
The 1917 Guide to the map is a charming read, being poetic and full of authentic fairylore. Sleigh begins:
“In the heart of every child is hidden a little golden key which unlocks the door of a silent, clean swept room full of changing lights and mystic shadows. There, every child that is born into the world enters at times to gaze eagerly upon the one great window, pictured with ancient legends…
Charmed magic casements, opening on the foam,
Of perilous oceans, of faery lands forlorn.” (Guide p.7)
Sleigh concludes with lines from John Keats’ famous poem, Ode to a nightingale, inappropriate as they may be to his generally affectionate vision of faery.
The map is “for the use and guidance of future explorers” who travel to the “rainbow guarded shores” of this mysterious place- The land of heart’s desire, The fortunate isles, The islands of the blest. It’s needed because the tracks “vanish and reappear- and vanish again in bewildering fashion- baffling and discouraging to even the most earnest traveller.” ( The guide, pp.8-9) In Fairyland distances are measured in thoughts, each equalling five hundred of our miles. What’s more, travellers must always be cautious. They should arrive at Dreamland Harbour where their passports will be stamped and their eyes touched with magic ointment. This traditional protection against fairy glamour is vital because, without it, they won’t be able to tell good fairies from bad and they may end up as a lost child in Never Never Land. In this emphasis upon the malicious and untrustworthy nature of fairy kind, Sleigh is wholly authentic: faery has always been a place of illusion and peril and Sleigh did not conceal this from his children.
Turning to the map itself, there is a blending of fairytale, myth, fairy lore and the Matter of Britain. Fairyland is an island, mountainous at its two ends and with a lower land bridge joining these. A wall, “builded of Stars by manie Elfin Emperours in days remote,” divides the good and evil halves. The island is littered with symbols indicating inns, fairy shrines and temples, wishing wells and, most exciting of all, the sites of dwarves’ treasure. There are plenty of traditional folklore references.
Amidst the peaks on the left/ west, we see the Valley of Dragons, in which lies The Weird Wood and “Blackadder Lake- here Afanc broodeth.” The afanc is a Welsh water monster. Nearby is an elfin monastery, a wandering will of the wisp and, in the hills above, fairy flocks grazing near Fairies’ Marsh, Elfin Mere and the Kobold’s Caves.
Settlements crowd the lower ground between the highlands. There we find many fairy references: Elfin Citie, Kelpie Hamlet, Undine Bay, Brownies’ Huts, Troll Town, Dwarf’s Caves, Bogles Corner, Pixie Town, an Elfin temple and Oberon’s Cross. Scattered around these you spot that “Tom Tit Tot lives here,” that there are leprechauns, nixies, neckans, mermaids, sirens and water sprites, a River of White Nymphs and, where “the sidhe make the Water of Life.”
So far, so good: but the traditional theme is not so consistent. You will also encounter Humpty Dumpty, Goosey Gander, Bo Peep, Puss in Boots and Jack Horner. In Avalon you may visit the tombs of Arthur and Guinevere and Morgan Le Fay’s house. Merlin sits disconsolate in the Forest of Lyonesse; there is Ogier le Danois close to ‘The Imp Tree’ from the romance of Sir Orfeo (“Ƿai sett hem doun al þre/ Under a faire ympe-tre”). You will come across Perseus and Andromeda, Theseus and the Golden Fleece, Valhalla and Asgard. Very modern elements creep in, too: we see the Lost Boys and, away across the sea, the Water Babies and other personnel from Kingsley’s book. The range of references is huge and you cannot but be impressed at the breadth of literature with which the Sleigh children were acquainted, aged about ten and twelve. There is a reading list at the end of The guide, which includes the reasonably predictable Arabian Nights, Andersen, Charles Kingsley, Nesbit and Brothers Grimm, but also suggests the young audience might like to tackle Malory, The Mabinogion, de la Motte Fouqué and Macdonald’s Phantastes- a very different proposition to The princess and the goblin.
‘A key to all the mythologies’
Many authorities have argued that the Victorian fairy fascination was a response to disenchantment with their world- and an effort to re-enchant it. By 1918 the need for enchantment was very great.
The Ancient mappe of Fairyland won’t teach us a great deal about the location or nature of Faerie, but it will certainly entertain and charm. For example, along the lower edge you will spot Puck singing for Titania at the foot of an old-fashioned dove cote from which most of the birds have been evicted by tiny winged fays.
Nonetheless, Sleigh’s map is more than amusement. Whilst Tolkien’s Middle Earth maps can be engrossing, they are no more than drawings of made up places. Sleigh’s map is the same, but it is more: it is a “little golden key” to a wealth of other stories, opening a magic casement onto a treasury of classic myths. Like all real maps, it is a guide to a journey, but it’s not the adventure itself.
See too my further discussion of the role played by faery art and literature in the 1914-18 war effort: ‘War fairies‘ and my consideration of Rutland Boughton, the Glastonbury Festival and faery opera. For further discussion of Faery art in the period, see my book Fairy Art of the Twentieth Century