Dunsany’s Faeries- the background to the ‘King of Elfland’s Daughter’

ardly fairy music
Ardly, Fairy Music

I have discussed Lord Dunsany’s 1924 fairy classic, The King of Elfland’s Daughter, in a previous post.  Here I put this classic novel in the wider context of Dunsany’s fantasy writing.

My starting point is a phrase that tolls throughout Dunsany’s classic.  Elfland is repeatedly described as being ‘beyond the fields we know.’  The phrase appears in the first chapter of the The King of Elfland’s Daughter and numerous times after that; its encapsulation of the mystery beyond the homely and familiar sticks in the memory.  I’d like to examine how this concept evolved.

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The Author

Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany (1878-1957), was an Anglo-Irish writer and dramatist who wrote more than ninety books, including many hundreds of short stories, as well as plays and essays. He achieved great fame and success with his early work.  Dunsany was born and raised in London, but lived much of his life in Ireland, where he worked with W. B. Yeats and Lady Gregory.  In addition, during the First World War he became familiar with the young poet Francis Ledwidge, who was in his regiment, and promoted his work after he was killed.

The Sword of Welleran

In his earliest books, Dunsany accepted the conventional lore on fairies and their dwellings.  For example, in the story The Fortress Unvanquishable (1908), “the race of fairies and the elves and the little scared spirits of the trees and dreams” live in woods; in Poltarnees, of 1910, the country people are “kind to the little woodland things and any rumour of the fairies or old legend.”  The wills of the wisp, meanwhile, are depicted quite properly as the denizens of East Anglian marshes in the 1908 story The Kith of the Elf Folk.

Even so, Dunsany’s own unique conception of the location and nature of fairyland was already beginning to form.  His 1910 collection, Dreamer’s Tales, touched on this issue in numerous of the stories included in the book.  The story Carcassonne concerns an imaginary city to which “the elf-kings with their fairies had first retreated from men, [they] had built it on an evening late in May by blowing their elfin horns.”  We’ll hear those horns again, ringing out across Elfland, just as we’ll discover that Faery is a fabulous city just beyond the reach (and vision) of humankind.  In the same collection, in the story The Field, the narrator describes walking to escape from the urban sprawl of London.  What draws him away from the traffic and noise is the call of country uplands:

“The call is from afar both in leagues and years, for the hills that call are the hills that were, and their voices are the voices of long ago, when the elf-kings still had horns.”

Fairyland is distant in both space and time, it seems.  There is a danger of fairyland, and all it represents, being lost.  This melancholy theme was the subject of his (very) brief story, The Giant Poppy, which was published in Fifty-One Tales in 1915.  It’s so brief I can reproduce it in full:

“I dreamt that I went back to the hills I knew, whence on a clear day you can see the walls of Ilion and the plains of Roncesvalles. There used to be woods along the tops of those hills with clearings in them where the moonlight fell, and there when no one watched the fairies danced.

But there were no woods when I went back, no fairies nor distant glimpse of Ilion or plains of Roncesvalles, only one giant poppy waved in the wind, and as it waved it hummed “Remember not.” And by its oak-like stem a poet sat, dressed like a shepherd and playing an ancient tune softly upon a pipe. I asked him if the fairies had passed that way or anything olden.

He said: “The poppy has grown apace and is killing gods and fairies. Its fumes are suffocating the world, and its roots drain it of its beautiful strength.” And I asked him why he sat on the hills I knew, playing an olden tune.

And he answered: “Because the tune is bad for the poppy, which would otherwise grow more swiftly; and because if the brotherhood of which I am one were to cease to pipe on the hills men would stray over the world and be lost or come to terrible ends. We think we have saved Agamemnon.”

Then he fell to piping again that olden tune, while the wind among the poppy’s sleepy petals murmured “Remember not. Remember not.””

The Book of Wonder

In his next collection, The Book of Wonder, published in 1912, Dunsany developed these ideas much further.  In The Probable Adventure of the Three Literary Men, Dunsany describes his trio as heading towards the ‘Dubious Land,’ which is to be found at the edge of the world, overlooking the abyss.  On the way, they pass through Rumbly Heath, a place whose “stormy hillocks were the ground-swell and after-wash of the earthquake, lulled for a while.”  This is very suggestive (to me, at least!) of the fairy knolls of British folklore.

The idea of Faery as being at the edge of our known universe was elaborated throughout the collection.  Pombo the Idolater, in the account of his Injudicious Prayers, travels from London to the village of World’s End, where, at the furthest end of Last Street, he finds steps leading down over the edge of the world to Lonely House, the House of Nowhere and from there over a precipice to the stars and constellations.  The Quest of the Queen’s Tears takes its hero, Ackronnion, on a hunt for the Gladsome Beast, which lives underneath fairyland, at the edge of the world.  Along with his page, Ackronnion “set out through the fields of fable until they came to Fairyland, a kingdom sunning itself (as all men know) for leagues along the edges of the world.”  As they approached, the wind blew in their faces from the void, bringing “a kind of metallic taste from the roving stars.”  Ackronnion seeks directions from the Old Man Who Looks After Fairyland, whose house windows look star-ward, away from the world, and he explains how to climb over the edge of the precipice, looking out over space, to find the Gladsome Beast.

The City of Never is a story about a child who visits a dream city that once again stands at the edge of the world, although it can be reached somewhere beyond the Surrey Hills.  This ‘Ultimate City’ exists in a perpetual twilight and we’ll encounter this mysterious half-light again in The King of Elfland’s Daughter.  It’s also highly reminiscent of the light found in many subterranean fairylands, where a permanent evening exists without sun or moon.

As the quest of Ackronnion for the Gladsome Beast implies, Dunsany was developing his own mythical menagerie as well.  He frequently referred to elves, fairies, gnomes (and even centaurs), but he was beginning to play with the established species.  As the Three Literary Men head towards the ‘Dubious Land’ across Rumbly Heath, they see “the harmless little mipt, half faery, half gnome, giving shrill contented squeaks on the edge of the world” whilst nuzzling dead white bones.  The Hoard of the Gibbelins is concealed within their evil tower which “is joined to Terra Cognita, to the lands we know, by a bridge.”  The skilled thief, Nuth, concocts a plan to steal emeralds from the ‘gnoles,’ who live in a wood infested with elves and fairies.  The nearest human village (wisely it seems) was “some miles away, with the backs of all its houses turned to the wood and without one window at all facing in that direction.  They did not speak of it there…”  These creatures may echo, or resemble, imps, goblins and gnomes, but they aren’t quite the same.  They are, though, uniformly dangerous.  This peril explains the reluctance of humans to even acknowledge their existence, let alone discuss them, and we’ll encounter this attitude once again in the King of Elfland’s Daughter.

As well as the obvious peril of creatures that kill and eat humans, there are other features of Faery that may prevent a person ever returning.  As the heroine discovers in Miss Cubbidge and the Dragon of Romance, the passage of time is different:

“But whether the centuries passed her or whether the years, or whether no time at all, she did not know.  If anything indicated the passing of time, it was the rhythm of elfin horns blowing upon the heights.  If the centuries went by, the spell that bound her gave her also perennial youth…”

The Last Book of Wonder

In his next collection, The Last Book of Wonder, which came out in 1916, Dunsany consolidated this evolving mythology.  The jewel thief, Mr Neepy Thang, who features in the story of The Bird of the Difficult Eye, also has to journey to the Edge of the World to steal gems for his clients.  He is asked to steal emeralds from the nest of the Bird:

“So Neepy Thang set out. He bought the purple ticket at Victoria Station. He went by Herne Hill, Bromley and Bickley and passed St. Mary Cray. At Eynsford he changed and taking a footpath along a winding valley went wandering into the hills. And at the top of a hill in a little wood, where all the anemones long since were over and the perfume of mint and thyme from outside came drifting in with Thang, he found once more the familiar path, age-old and fair as wonder, that leads to the Edge of the World… he went down that path going further and further from the fields we know… The glamour that is at all times upon those lonely lands that lie at the back of the chalky hills of Kent intensified as he went upon his journeys. Queerer and queerer grew the things that he saw by little World-End Path. Many a twilight descended upon that journey with all their mysteries, many a blaze of stars; many a morning came flaming up to a tinkle of silvern horns; till the outpost elves of Fairyland came in sight and the glittering crests of Fairyland’s three mountains betokened the journey’s end.  And so with painful steps (for the shores of the world are covered with huge crystals) he came to the risky seas of Shiroora Shan and saw them pounding to gravel the wreckage of fallen stars, saw them and heard their roar, those shipless seas that between earth and the fairies’ homes heave beneath some huge wind that is none of our four. And there in the darkness on the grizzly coast, for darkness was swooping slantwise down the sky as though with some evil purpose, there stood that lonely, gnarled and deciduous tree. It was a bad place to be found in after dark, and night descended with multitudes of stars, beasts prowling in the blackness gluttered [see any dictionary, but in vain] at Neepy Thang. And there on a lower branch within easy reach he clearly saw the Bird of the Difficult Eye sitting upon the nest for which she is famous. Her face was towards those three inscrutable mountains, far-off on the other side of the risky seas, whose hidden valleys are Fairyland.”

The Long Porter’s Tale shares many similarities.  A man called Gerald Jones once, as a child, caught a glimpse of fairyland and heard a fairy song on a Yorkshire Moor. He has longed all his life to witness these again, and is told how he might do so at the Edge of the World in the town of Tong Tong Tarrup, a place known to be visited by elves and gnomes.

“The ways to that town are winding; he took the ticket at Victoria Station that they only give if they know you: he went past Bleth: he went along the Hills of Neol-Hungar and came to the Gap of Poy. All these are in that part of the world that pertains to the fields we know; but beyond the Gap of Poy on those ordinary plains, that so closely resemble Sussex, one first meets the unlikely. A line of common grey hills, the Hills of Sneg, may be seen at the edge of the plain from the Gap of Poy; it is there that the incredible begins, infrequently at first, but happening more and more as you go up the hills.”

Jones is able to gaze out over “the twilight of the World’s Edge” and, in the abyss, he glimpses a fairy woman and hears a snatch of the lost song again- but is then cast out of Tong Tong Tarrup.

“Yet it may be that the devastation wrought by Time is merely local, and that outside the scope of his destruction old songs are still being sung by those that we deem dead. I try to hope so.”

In parallel with these stories, Dunsany wrote others that showed that he built his fantasies upon a solid foundation of authentic fairy lore.  The City on Mallington Moor demonstrates this.  The narrator has heard of a mythical city that is sometimes seen on a distant English moor, perhaps in the Pennines.  He travels there to discover the truth and gets directions from a local shepherd.  Setting out, he follows a track that “was no more than the track of a hare- an elf-path, the old man called it, Heaven knows what he meant.”  Such narrow paths through gorse and heather are called pixie-paths in Cornwall, so we are clearly heading in the right direction.

A mist descends and the searcher has to lie down in the heather to wait.  When the veil of fog lifts, a wondrous oriental city is revealed.  It seems to have simply materialised or settled in this remote spot, but the visitor is able to enter its walls, wander its streets and speak to its exotic people.  Eventually, he finds a hostel where he can rest for the night and falls asleep to the sound of singing.

The story ends: “A small wind having arisen, I was awakened by a sprig of heather that beat continually against my face.  It was morning on Mallington Moor, and the city was quite gone.”  This conclusion confirms that Dunsany was well aware of the widespread British folklore tradition of people who stumble across celebrations in houses or find inns in places where they did not think anyone lived.  They are well entertained and given a luxurious bed for the night, only to wake the next morning to find themselves asleep on the open moorland.

In 1919 Dunsany published another collection of short stories, Tales of Three Hemispheres, in which he looked “Beyond the fields we know, in the Lands of Dream…”  Five years later, he revealed what he had found there.

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Sidney Sime, The King of Elfland’s Daughter

The King of Elfland’s Daughter

Dunsany’s triumph, The King of Elfland’s Daughter, represents a summation of all his learning and experimentation.  The story is set in the Vale of Erl, which “is very near to the border beyond which there is none of the fields we know.”  The people living near the border build their houses turned away from it, and refuse to acknowledge that Elfland exists so near to them.  Alveric, son of the king of Erl, sets out to seek Lirazel, the king of Elfland’s daughter.  To do this, he must cross the “boundary, which is made of twilight, and come to that palace that is only told of in song.”  Continually, too, from Elfland, the silver horns ring out and the sound drifts across the twilight barrier, audible to those that wish to hear.

In Elfland, time passes very differently.  For the king’s daughter, “time had had no value or meaning … She did not dream what time means to us here.”  The damage done by the passing of time to humans, and the fact that Elfland is “unvexed by Time” is a constant refrain of throughout the book.   Many of the ideas and themes he had sketched out in his earlier stories were brought to masterful fruition by Dunsany in this novel.

Later Work

Dunsany lived until 1957, so many books followed The King of Elfland’s Daughter.  There is evidence that he lost some of his fairy faith in his later years.  His 1939 novel, The Story of Mona Sheehy, concerns a girl who believes that she is daughter of the fairy queen.  The book charts how she is disabused of this fantasy and comes to accept the realities of her life.  Dunsany’s short story Helping the Fairies (1947) is even more down-to-earth and cynical.  A newcomer to the Irish village of Rathgeel has cut down a fairy thorn tree- “one that the Little People had danced round for ages.”  All the villagers expect the fairies to have their revenge and to take the man’s luck away.  Instead, though, he has a run of incredible good fortune, placing winning bets and making lucrative deals.  The villagers become uneasy at the way in which he is insulting the Little People with his prosperity and, in the end, they take matters into their own hands and the stranger is murdered- at which point it can be said that the Little People have exacted their vengeance, just as everyone knew they would.

Despite these two strongly rationalist works, however, Dunsany retained his detailed knowledge of fairy-lore.  His 1949 poem, The Fairy Child, is very much in the spirit of verse by W. B. Yeats, Dora Sigerson Shorter or Nora Chesson Hopper (see my Victorian Fairy Verse).  It is imbued with the darker perceptions of Faery that are drawn from authentic British and Irish folk tradition.  It differs markedly from the fairyland of Lirazel, but is true to its roots; it is a story of abduction and of substitution with a stock or changeling.  It’s notable, too, that Dunsany describes Faery as being not being “Heaven or Earth or Hell,” but somewhere else.

From the low white walls and the church’s steeple,

From our little fields under grass or grain,

I’m gone away to the fairy people

I shall not come to the town again.

You may see a girl with my face and tresses,

You may see one come to my mother’s door

Who may speak my words and may wear my dresses.

She will not be I, for I come no more.

I am gone, gone far, with the fairies roaming,

You may ask of me where the herons are

In the open marsh when the snipe are homing,

Or when no moon lights nor a single star.

On stormy nights when the streams are foaming

And a hint may come of my haunts afar,

With the reeds my floor and my roof the gloaming,

But I come no more to Ballynar.

Ask Father Ryan to read no verses

To call me back, for I am this day

From blessings far, and beyond curses.

No heaven shines where we ride away.

At speed unthought of in all your stables,

With the gods of old and the sons of Finn,

With the queens that reigned in the olden fables

And kings that won what a sword can win.

You may hear us streaming above your gables

On nights as still as a planet’s spin;

But never stir from your chairs and tables

To call my name.  I shall not come in.

For I am gone to the fairy people.

Make the most of that other child

Who prays with you by the village steeple

I am gone away to the woods and wild.

I am gone away to the open spaces,

And whither riding no man may tell;

But I shall look upon all your faces

No more in Heaven or Earth or Hell.

 

‘War fairies’- fairyland’s role in the Great War

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Captain Robert Graves, author of Goodbye to all that.

The outbreak of the Great War in August 1914 meant the advent of total war for all the denizens of the British Isles.  The fairies, just as much as the human population of Britain, had a potential contribution to make to the war effort.  Faery could perform two opposing roles for the Empire: as a refuge from the conflict or as a recruiting tool; by the time of the Armistice in November 1918, both roles had been exploited.

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Robert Graves by John Aldridge, National Portrait Gallery, London.

“We’ll be fairies soon”- Art, violence and faery

Fairyland as a sanctuary from violence and destruction is something I’ve discussed before in connection with Bernard Sleigh and his Map of Fairyland.  The arts could offer individual and national solace and escape.

Several poets found personal comfort in images of a pastoral, playful otherworld and in turn they offered the same to their readers. Irish poet Francis Ledwidge imagined fairy jollity, with dancing amongst the trees, and wondered in the poem Fairies “What are we but fairies too,/ Living but in dreams alone,/ Or at the most, but children still,/ Innocent and overgrown?” His fairyland was a place of eternal summer and abundance of flowers and fruit, a place of rest, love and pleasure- see for example the verse Lanawn shee.  Robert Graves seemed to want to run away become a fairy in verses like Cherry time or “I’d love to be a fairy’s child.”

Of course, the detailed vision varied from poet to poet.  Graves’ fays were very much those of the late Victorian nursery- feminine, winged and small.  Ivor Gurney wrote of such tiny beings too, before the sobering experience of life at the front.  Ledwidge drew on his Irish heritage and the Tuatha de Danaan of the Celtic myths shaped the characters of his verse; his fairies can be sad and dangerous as well as joyous.  Predominantly, Rose Fyleman’s verse is deeply imbued with childlike playfulness; her narrators and subjects join the fairies’ games.

Rose Fyleman

For all that yearning for escapism, there was, too, an acute awareness that the humans’ world was not like Faery and that “No fairy aid can save them now” (Ledwidge, Lanawn shee).  Fyleman too was aware that after the war it might not be possible to return to the dreams of the Edwardian nursery (There used to be fairies in Germany).  In this poem the fairies function as a conscience for the human population, albeit one that has failed in respect of the Germans by being unable to prevent the outbreak of war.  In consequence, the fairies have disappeared from the Kaiser’s lands.

The visual arts also contributed to boosting the nation’s flagging morale. In two earlier postings I’ve discussed the 1914 painting The piper of dreams by Estella Canziani and craftsman Bernard Sleigh’s An Ancient Mappe of Fairyland, Newly Discovered and Set ForthThese works simply evoked an atmosphere and provided scope for individual fantasy without any explicit allusions to the conflict.

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The fairies go to war

Rarely, the fairies were harnessed directly to the war effort itself.  There are two notable examples to consider.  In May 1917 poet Eleanor Gray published a short verse drama entitled The war fairies.  The piece was dedicated to her niece and godchild Muriel Harrowing, who had volunteered for service as a war nurse as early as August 1914; all proceeds from sale of Gray’s slim booklet were to go to the British Red Cross.  This was the contemporary context to her work, but her choice of material seems to have been much more personal.  It’s notable that Gray’s 1927 collection of poems, Alfieri, was dedicated to the Irish mystic and visionary AE, who himself wrote about and painted fairies.

In The war fairies the fays Viola and Mignon are distressed by the conflict in the human world.  They lament the sounds that shake the air and terrify the lilies ; the fairies can no longer enjoy their revels because of the tears and sighs of mortals.  At the same time there seems to be nothing they can do to help: they are “such mites of gossamer” that men pay them no attention.

Nevertheless, Viola is determined to find a way to “help the giant folk whose foolish eyes/ Too dull are to be ‘ware of us.”  The two fairies quickly resolve to combine to “chase the monster now devouring all the milk and honey o’ the world, leaving it void of joy.”  They unite in a dance to “chase the cruel thing/ Into a quagmire.”

At this point Queen Titania appears, asking why her fairies are in tears.  They explain what they have seen: “Young hopes are blighted, nerveless lie young hands/ Pulseless young hearts, strong hearts are struck with eld/ Love silent lies/ Its eloquence is quelled.” They’ve witnessed young soldiers dying, calling out for Home and Mother, and have been moved to act.

Titania’s advice is to stay out of mortals’ love of strife, but the two little fairies are committed to try to help with Love.  The queen warns them that, by doing so and leaving Elfland, they will become hybrid creatures, made partly human by gaining a soul, but as such unable ever to return.  Viola and Mignon are not discouraged: “We’ve seen new beauty, Queen, nor can forego its sadness.”  They rally to their side a chorus of elves who are willing to help.  These elves confirm that they are ready “To fold up/ Your spangled garments- to put off your crowns” and to replace them with red crosses, aprons and stout hearts.

Titania protests at the loss of her attendants, but they are all inspired to sacrifice their pleasure for the sorrows of the human world and to go to “weave chains of love throughout the lands, binding all equally in bonds of brotherhood… In toil unwearied, love to consummate.”  Titania has to accept their mission and bids them farewell as they go to sow love in hearts where wrath and sin dwell.  The scene ends with the elves dancing as they say goodbye to the velvet sward and rippling stream, “to moths and owls and fireflies bright… We leave you for a higher flight.”

It’s interesting to contrast Gray’s vision of wartime faerie to Rose Fyleman’s.  As in Fyleman’s poem, the fays have a moral role to play, but in Gray’s story they actively engage with the human world and make a difference.  Curiously, though, the end result is the same for them- they cease to be fairies- although in The war fairies Viola, Mignon and their companions are not extinguished but become mortal, partaking of the joys (and sorrows) of earthly life.

Gray’s little play is entirely free of jingoism and hatred of the ‘Hun.’  It does not name any foe- except perhaps the violent nature of men as a race- and it aspires to a humanist love for all.  The fairies become nurses, not soldiers, and will bring help to the injured whatever their nationality.  Very different is the second fairy play to appear that year.

raf-poster-1918

In Spring 1917 the Germans began to use Gotha heavy bombers to carry out air raids against the South-East of England.  In fact, Eleanor Gray had penned a response to the aerial attacks upon London, the poem Zeppelin nights, which cried out that “Men slept. A mighty rape/ Seized, smote- and left them dead.”  As a consequence of the intensification of the air campaign, Rose Patry wrote the play Britain’s defenders, or Peggy’s peep into Fairyland, a fairy play, which was published with a musical score in autumn that year.

In Britain’s defenders young Peggy and her sister Betty sneak out of bed and into a nearby dell in the hope of seeing fairies dancing in a fairy ring.  Instead they see various fairies of the natural world, along with Britannia, leading in the Moon as a prisoner.  The Moon’s offence has been to shine at night and to show the German bombers the way over the Channel to South East England.  The assembled fairies sing:

“On naughty Moon, you are in disgrace,

Mind you be good and hide your face;

When Gothas o’er the North Sea fly,

Go bye-bye, go bye-bye.”

The Moon’s defence is that “the horrid old Kaiser” has taken advantage of her light and that she’s being unfairly blamed, when the Sun and stars are not, yet have also shone.  Britannia calms this squabbling but insists “we must do something to stop these intruders.”  In response, each fairy in turn offers to contribute their particular abilities to Britain’s defence: the Wind Fairy will blow mighty gales that push the pilots off course; the Snow Fairy will send blinding blizzards and Jack Frost will freeze the planes’ petrol; the Wave Fairy will stir up mountainous waves, the Will of the Wisp will lure German pilots to land in bogs and the Rain Fairy will send veils to hide the Moon.  There’s some concern that the rain will also make mud that will hinder the troops at the front, but the Rain Fairy promises to keep the downpours away from the trenches and the Sun promises to dry out the ground in Flanders.  Various patriotic declarations and a verse of ‘God save the king’ follow.

Finally, the Will of the Wisp discovers Betty and Peggy asleep behind a bush.  Britannia asks the fairies to carry them safely home as they are “only two of the myriads of children you must help me to protect.”  The fairies pick up the slumbering girls singing:

“Fairy bells are ringing,

‘Forward to the fray.’

Fairy bands are mustering,

Through the night and day.

Fairy voices calling,

‘Britain needs your aid,’ Fairy echoes falling

‘She shall be obeyed.’”

Then the short play ends with the fairies carrying the girls out in procession and singing a final stirring song:

“Hear our Fairy ding-dong-bell.

We who love our island well,

When our foes approach our land,

Marshal we our fairy band.

Wave and Wind and Mist and Rain,

Make the Gothas’ journey vain.

Britain, dear, we’ll give to thee

Lasting peace and victory.”

Summary

At the distance of one hundred years we can smile indulgently at patriotic fervour of Britain’s defenders, but Rose Patry clearly saw no necessary contradiction between the best interests of fairyland and the national interest of Britain.  Nor did she hesitate to banish Titania and instate Britannia as the fairy queen.  Of course, we should be mistaken to view fairies as wholly benign and peaceable.  We might like to think of them as pacifist vegetarians, but the traditional fays do not hesitate to use violence against humans nor to fight amongst themselves.

Neither of these plays are great works of drama, but they are a fascinating glimpse of  different aspects of the national mood in the last year of the Great War.

See too my postings on the composer Rutland Boughton and on J R R Tolkien and the Great War.

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Bernard Sleigh and the map of fairyland- Part Two

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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?

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Bernard Sleigh

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-Fyleman

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.

ledwidge

Francis Ledwidge

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.

MAS 701 - The Piper of Dreams

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.

wall

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.

avalon

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.”

sidhe

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.

ariel

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.

Further reading

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

 

 

 

“A witchery of sound”- ‘ceol sidhe’ or fairy music

ceol sidhe

‘Flute fairy’ by Svetlana Chezhina

“There’s many feet on the moor to-night, and they fall so light as they turn and pass,
So light and true that they shake no dew from the featherfew and the hungry grass.
I drank no sup and I broke no crumb of their food, but dumb at their feast sat I;
For their dancing feet and their piping sweet, now I sit and greet till I’m like to die.

Oh kind, kind folk, to the words you spoke I shut my ears and I would not hear!
And now all day what my own kin say falls sad and strange on my careless ear;
For I’m listening, listening, all day long to a fairy song that is blown to me,
Over the broom and the canna’s bloom, and I know the doom of the Ceol-Sidhe.

I take no care now for bee or bird, for a voice I’ve heard that is sweeter yet.
My wheel stands idle: at death or bridal apart I stand and my prayers forget.
When Ulick speaks of my wild-rose cheeks and his kind love seeks out my heart that’s cold,
I take no care though he speaks me fair for the new love casts out the love that’s cold.

I take no care for the blessed prayer, for my mother’s hand or my mother’s call.
There ever rings in my ear and sings, a voice more dear and more sweet than all.
Cold, cold’s my breast, and broke’s my rest, and oh it’s blest to be dead I’d be,
Held safe and fast from the fairy blast, and deaf at last to the Ceol-Sidhe!”

This poem, ‘The fairy music’ by Nora Chesson Hopper, captures the enchantment and other worldliness that it is associated with fairy music.  Previously I have discussed the fairies’ liking for music and song and what seems to be the generally pleasure-seeking nature of their existence (see my earlier posting on  fairy pastimes as well as chapter 11 of my British fairies).  According to John Dunbar of Invereen, one of folklorist Walter Evans-Wentz’ Highland informants, the fairies were “awful for music, and used to be heard often playing the bagpipes.” (The fairy faith in Celtic countriesp.95)

Fairy musical skill

What I would like to do now in this posting is to discuss the actual nature and sound of that fairy music, based upon the first hand testimonies of those who have claimed to have been fortunate enough to have heard it.  Nonetheless, there are a number of themes associated with fairy music which we may quickly recap:

  • the music is often heard coming from particular knolls, hills or barrows, in which the fairies are taken to reside.  This is a very common local story and it can be found from the Fairy Knowe on Skye to the ‘music barrows’ of southern England, for example at Bincombe Down and Culliford Tree in Dorset and Wick Moor, near Stogursey in Somerset.
  • fairy musical skills and even instruments can be granted to fortunate humans.  There are several sets of bagpipes in Scotland alleged to be fairy gifts.  Fairy musical ability could be a blessing that made a man and his heirs rich (Evans- Wentz p.103). It could also be a curse, too: the favoured one might die young, being taken back by the fairies to play for them (Evans-Wentz p.40).
  • conversely, talented human musicians were from time to time abducted to satisfy the powerful fairy need for music and dance.  Almost always they met the fate of all who tarry in Faery.  They believed that they had played for just a night, but find all transformed on their return home.
  • fairy music can have magical or enchanting power- for example, from Ireland come stories of those who, on hearing it, felt compelled to dance- and then had to continue until they dropped from sheer exhaustion (Evans-Wentz p.69).  Coleridge in his poem The eolian harp described “Such a soft floating witchery of sound/ As twilight Elfins make;”  deliberately or not, a spell seemed to be cast upon the listening human; and,
  • occasionally, humans are able to commit a fairy tune to memory and contribute it to the mortal repertoire.  One such is Be nort da deks o’ Voe from Shetland. Two Welsh examples are Cân y tylwyth teg and Ffarwel Ned Pugh (see Wirt Sikes, British goblins c.7 and also Evans Wentz Fairy faith pp.118 & 131- two examples from Man).

The last two points are of particular significance into an enquiry into what fairy music actually sounds like.  Most of our older sources are not very helpful on this.  In his history of Aberystruth parish, the Reverend Edmund Jones in 1779 is typical of the vague descriptions normally found: “everyone said [the music] was low and pleasant, but none could ever learn the tune.”  Gathering evidence for his book The fairy faith in Celtic countriesEvans-Wentz was told that fairy music consisted of tunes not of this world, unlike anything a mortal man ever heard (pp.124 & 24), being the finest, grandest and most beautiful kind (pp.32, 47 & 57).  Evans-Wentz was informed that it often continued over an extended period- an hour or even a whole night.

Ninfa

‘A little night music’ by David Delamare

The sound of fairy music

Evidently the otherworldly nature of the music gave witnesses problems when they later tried to describe their experiences.  The testimony of those of a more artistic temperament might therefore prove more enlightening.  Poet and mystic George Russell (AE) told Evans-Wentz that he first listened to the music in the air on a hillside in County Sligo.  He heard “what seemed to be the sound of bells, and was trying to understand these aerial clashings in which wind seemed to break upon wind in an ever-changing musical silvery sound.” (p.61)  This leads us much closer to the reality and, in fact, the best account comes from a close friend of Russell and his wife, the visionary writer Ella Young.  Over the summer of 1917 and into 1918 she repeatedly heard the ceol sidhe, which in her opinion surpassed human symphonies.  Interestingly the very same description was used on the Isle of Man in the 1720s (Simon Young and Ceri Houlbrook, Magical folk, 2018p.173).

The fairy music was, Young said, “orchestral and of amazing richness and complexity.”  The melodies could be exquisite, sometimes like very fast reels, at others slow and wistful.  On August 27th 1917 she described “a certain monotony like slow moving waves with a running melody on the crests.”  Interwoven with this might be voices singing in an unknown tongue, either solo or resembling Gregorian chant.  Young noted “delicate and intricate rhythms” in a variety of tempos, including “music of stricken anvils.”  She heard a “myriad, myriad instruments” among which she mentioned cymbals, bells (both silvery tinkling and deep tolling), trumpets, harps, violins, drums, pipes, organs and bagpipes.  Several times, though, she could not compare the sound to anything she knew from earthly ensembles; she heard “very high notes- higher than any human instrument could produce,” “something like a Jew’s harp” and “a curious reedy instrument.”  Again, Young was not alone in this: George Waldron recorded that on Man in the 1720s islanders would hear “Musick, as could proceed from no earthly instruments” (Magical folk, p.173).

Despite her eloquence and sensitivity, Young struggled to give a clear account; it was “not music I can describe… it is beyond words.”   Moreover, she found it “difficult to recall this music and the sensation it creates.”  Nevertheless, she wrote (in terms similar to Russell’s) that the orchestral sound resembled a “wave or gush of wind” and that its effect was to create “a sense of freedom and exultation.”

Young harboured some doubts over her aural visions.  She wrote on September 9th 1917 that “my head has been for several days quite normal,” but then she heard the sounds again and concluded “I think the singing in my head was really astral.” In other words, its origin was aethereal and unearthly.  She believed that all could hear the same if only they drew closer to nature and had a peaceful and patient heart.

It is difficult to know quite what to make of this.  Young herself admitted concerns over her own sanity, but at the same time W. B. Yeats and both AE and his wife heard the same “faery chimes” and “solemn undertone” of song.  Furthermore, as noted earlier, these experiences could last for hours; this lessens the likelihood that they can be dismissed as temporary auditory delusions.  Either these witnesses all hallucinated together or these highly detailed and circumstantial experiences record some actual sensations.  The consensus, at least amongst poets, was certainly to confirm that pipes and, particularly, bells were characteristic of fairy music (see for example Ceol sidhe by Francis Ledwidge or Fairy ring by Abbie Farwell Brown).

cicely-mary-barker-fairy orchestra

Cicely Mary Barker, ‘Fairy orchestra’

The soft low music of the tribe

In conclusion, whatever its nature, the idea of fairy music has always had an aura of mystery and enchantment and, as such, has always attracted poets.  The opening verse from Nora Hopper embodied this, but even a poet like Rose Fyleman, whose fairy verse was generally very anodyne and was aimed at a junior audience, could still suggest a little of that magical strangeness; here’s her poem ‘Fairy music’:

“When the fiddlers play their tunes you may sometimes hear,
Very softly chiming in, magically clear,
Magically high and sweet, the tiny crystal notes
Of fairy voices bubbling free from tiny fairy throats.

When birds at break of day chant their morning prayers,
Or on sunny afternoons pipe ecstatic airs,
Comes an added rush of sound to the silver din-
Songs of fairy troubadours gaily joining in.

When athwart the drowsy fields summer twilight falls,
Through the tranquil air there float elfin madrigals,
And in wild November nights, on the winds astride,
Fairy hosts go rushing by, singing as they ride.

Every dream that mortals dream, sleeping or awake,
Every lovely fragile hope- these the fairies take,
Delicately fashion them and give them back again
In tender, limpid melodies that charm the hearts of men.”

Perhaps our best response is to hope to share Ella Young’s experiences and to know for ourselves that “This astral music is very much in sound delicately beautiful.”  As Irish poet William Sharp wrote in his verse The nine desires, it is “The desire of the poet, the soft, low music of the Tribe of the Green Mantles.”

Further reading

There are words to accompany this music, too, and I describe Young’s experience of that in a separate post on fairy speech and song.

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