Lewis Carroll, Puck & Faeries

Fairies and Nautilus Illustration by E. Gertrude Thomson
‘Fairies & Nautilus,’ by Thomas, from Three Sunsets

In an earlier post, I discussed famous the youthful writings on pixies by Lewis Carroll, author of the ‘Alice’ stories. Carroll is not really a writer of ‘fairy tales,’ however strange and fantastical his books may have been, but he did not neglect them entirely.

Firstly, there is his follow-up to the Alice stories, Sylvie and Bruno (1889). This book is far less well-known than the two Alice adventures- and for good reason, as it really isn’t that good. However, it gives a very good idea of the image of fairies that Carroll harboured. His view of the Good Folk can be both sentimental- and yet cautious and honest. For example, from chapter 13: “All Fairies understand Doggee- that is, Dog-language” or, this lengthy passage from chapter 14:

“In the first place, I want to know—dear Child who reads this!—why Fairies should always be teaching us to do our duty, and lecturing us when we go wrong, and we should never teach them anything? You can’t mean to say that Fairies are never greedy, or selfish, or cross, or deceitful, because that would be nonsense, you know. Well then, don’t you think they might be all the better for a little lecturing and punishing now and then?

I really don’t see why it shouldn’t be tried, and I’m almost sure that, if you could only catch a Fairy, and put it in the corner, and give it nothing but bread and water for a day or two, you’d find it quite an improved character- it would take down its conceit a little, at all events.

The next question is, what is the best time for seeing Fairies? I believe I can tell you all about that.

The first rule is, that it must be a very hot day- that we may consider as settled: and you must be just a little sleepy- but not too sleepy to keep your eyes open, mind. Well, and you ought to feel a little- what one may call “fairyish”- the Scotch call it “eerie,” and perhaps that’s a prettier word; if you don’t know what it means, I’m afraid I can hardly explain it; you must wait till you meet a Fairy, and then you’ll know.

And the last rule is, that the crickets should not be chirping… I looked about in all directions for the little creature, but there was no trace of her- and my ‘eerie’ feeling was quite gone off, and the crickets were chirping again merrily- so I knew she was really gone. And now I’ve got time to tell you the rule about the crickets. They always leave off chirping when a Fairy goes by- because a Fairy’s a kind of queen over them, I suppose- at all events it’s a much grander thing than a cricket- so whenever you’re walking out, and the crickets suddenly leave off chirping, you may be sure that they see a Fairy.”

Sylvie & Bruno, c.14

On the more positive side, Carroll describes how Sylvie changes from a little girl into a fairy and he states categorically “I may tell you, besides, that she had no wings (I don’t believe in Fairies with wings), and that she had quantities of long brown hair and large earnest brown eyes, and then I shall have done all I can to give you an idea of her.”

Carroll’s collection of verse, Three Sunsets and Other Poems, which was published ten years later than Sylvie and Bruno in 1898, includes two poems on a clear fae theme: Puck Lost and Puck Found:

Puck Lost

Puck has fled the haunts of men:
Ridicule has made him wary:
In the woods, and down the glen,
No one meets a Fairy!

“Cream!” the greedy Goblin cries—
Empties the deserted dairy—
Steals the spoons, and off he flies.
Still we seek our Fairy!

Ah! What form is entering?
Lovelit eyes and laughter airy!
Is not this a better thing,
Child, whose visit thus I sing,
Even than a Fairy?

Nov. 22, 1891.

Victorian Fairy Verse | British Fairies

Puck Found

Puck has ventured back agen:
Ridicule no more affrights him:
In the very haunts of men
Newer sport delights him.

Capering lightly to and fro,
Ever frolicking and funning—
“Crack!” the mimic pistols go!
Hark! The noise is stunning!

All too soon will Childhood gay
Realise Life’s sober sadness.
Let’s be merry while we may,
Innocent and happy Fay!
Elves were made for gladness!

Nov. 25, 1891.

The illustrations for Three Sunsets were provided by Emily Gertrude Thomson. She had illustrated William Allingham’s famous verse ‘The Fairies’ in 1878 and Carroll had so admired her wrote that he wrote to the publisher asking for her address.  The two met for the first time in June 1879 at the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A). Their rendezvous was fascinating: Carroll arrived holding the hands of two little girls. He asked one to point out Thomson and she quickly indicated the artist, though none had met before. Carroll’s explanation of this was that he asked the child to identify the “young lady who knew fairies…”

Carroll was a difficult author to work for. He constantly intervened in his artists’ work, making suggestions and asking for alterations to completed drawings.  The writer had very fixed and peculiar ideals of beauty.  For example, he stipulated that all the fairies, and all the babies, in Thomson’s pictures should be girls, adding that he much preferred nude girls, although “no living child is perfect in form.” Thomson duly supplied for the book a series of twelve plates of very pleasingly pretty and shapely little girls, reclining nude beneath ferns, flowers and mushrooms. They have very little to do with the content of the book, but they are attractive pictures and- perhaps most importantly- they met the aesthetic and personal standards of Lewis Carroll, who was (as is known) a keen collector of little girls as his ‘nieces.’ 

Victorian Fairy Verse

Gurdon

A shameless little bit of self-promotion.  I’ve had the idea in my head for a while to pull together a lot of the Victorian poems I’d collected during my research and I’ve finally now published it.

There’s plenty written on Victorian fairy paintings (Christopher Wood, Jeremy Maas and Beatrice Philpotts), and plenty on the literature of Shakespeare’s time (Latham, DeLattre and Halliwell), but strangely nothing on the outpouring of fairy verse in the 19th century that matched the visual art.  That oversight is now corrected.

The Victorian era saw a peak of popular interest in fairies- in art, literature, popular entertainments and in children’s books. Whilst there are several studies that examine Victorian fairy painting, that have been none that are devoted to the fairy poetry of the era. This book showcases the richness and complexity of this genre of nineteenth century verse.

The book contains an introduction to the subject, followed by a brief survey of fairy poetry from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries- writers such as Drayton, Herrick and William Blake. The fairy verse of the nineteenth century is then surveyed in themed chapters, which examine good and bad fairies, mermaids, Irish fairy verse, North American poetry and the twentieth century legacy of these writings. Each chapter includes a brief introduction, biographies of the poets and notes and discussion on each of the poems.Over eighty poets are included, from well-known names such as Ruskin, Tennyson and Rossetti to a host of much less well-known fairy writers.

Some of the poems are sickly sweet- as we might well expect, but some are dramatic or dark.  Writers portrayed the more scary side of faery- the taking of children, the abduction of women, the deadly side of mermaid nature- just as much as they depicted wings and wands.  I’ve discussed the austere and haunting poetry of Scot Fiona Macleod before; here’s a complete contrast, ‘The Sick Fairy’ by Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman:

“Brew some tea o’ cowslips, make some poppy-gruel,

Serve it in a buttercup—ah, ’tis very cruel,

That she is so ailing, pretty Violetta!

Locust, stop your violin, till she’s feeling better.”

This is from her collection Once Upon a Time and Other Child Verses, published in 1897 with illustrations by Etheldred Barry, whose plate to accompany the fairy poem ‘Once Upon a Time’ is reproduced here.  Plainly, we’re a long way here from the sadness and magic of Macleod’s fairy nobility.  Nevertheless, I see Freeman’s poem as being just as valid an expression of Victorian fairy beliefs as anything by the more ‘serious’ writers like MacLeod, Yeats or AE.  Her poems still have something important to tell us about how the Victorians saw fairies.

once-upon-a-time-chasing-fairies

I’ve included a few works by Tennyson and Rossetti, but mostly I wanted to feature lesser known writers, some of whom were prolific in the genre.  As we’re dealing too with English language verse, I’ve included Irish and North American authors as well.  The former shared many aspects of fairy culture with Britain (as well as being part of the same country at the time); US and Canadian writers drew very heavily on British and Irish roots- to the extent, in fact, that as black literary figures emerged, they too adopted the fairy conventions lock, stock and barrel.

I’ve illustrated the book with line drawing by contemporary artist Gertrude Thomson.  She was a friend of Lewis Carroll, who helped him with his life drawing technique as well as finding child models for him to sketch.  In 1898 she illustrated his book of poems Three Sunsets.

The book’s available now from Amazon/ KDP, £7.50 for the e-book and £14.00 for the paperback.

Victorian Fairy Verse: An Annotated Anthology by [Kruse, John]

See a list of my faery publications (present and planned) here.