‘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.

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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

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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.

Catching fairies- human abductions of fairy kind

colli

from the series ‘Catching fairies’ by Matt Collishaw

“The fairies have lost a fairy,
They don’t know what to do;
The rumours about her vary,
And all of them can’t be true.
They say she stood on a lily,
And fell in its depths immense;
But I don’t think she’d be so silly,
For she was a fairy of sense!”

Trial by Jury by Menella Bute Smedley

We are very familiar with the idea of fairy folk stealing humans, whether that is infants swapped for changelings or older men and women taken as lovers, wet-nurses and midwives (see the earlier posting on being ‘away with the fairies’ or chapter 21 of my British fairies). There is also some evidence of the reverse process- for fairies being captured by humans.

As might be expected, fairies are captured extremely rarely and when it happens it seems to be a combination of extremely good luck, cunning and agility.  In two poems, Europe and The fairy, William Blake describes catching fairies in his hat.  In the former verse, he does this “as boys knock down a butterfly.”  Blake used the same butterfly simile in the latter poem, which describes how:

“So a Fairy sung/ From the leaves I sprung/ He leaped from the spray, to flee away/ But in my hat I caught/ He shall soon be taught.”

Speed and surprise are essential to catching a magical creature, as is reiterated in the poem, The opal dream cave by Katherine Mansfield, which also demonstrates that the long term outcome can be tragic or disappointing:

“In an opal dream cave I found a fairy:
Her wings were frailer than flower petals –
Frailer far than snowflakes.
She was not frightened, but poised on my finger,
Then delicately walked into my hand.
I shut the two palms of my hands together
And held her prisoner.
I carried her out of the opal cave,
Then opened my hands.
First she became thistledown,
Then a mote in a sunbeam,
Then–nothing at all.
Empty now is my opal dream cave. “

The captive fairy stories

These incidents of fairy capture break down into three types, depending upon their outcomes:

  1. the captive fairy dies- Keeping fairies as playthings in the human world is cruel and dooms them, attractive as it may sound-I’d like to tame a fairy/ To keep it on a shelf” (The child and the fairies).  In the Suffolk story ‘Brother Mike’ a fairy is caught by a farmer in the act of stealing corn from his barn.  He puts the creature in his hat and takes back to the farmhouse for the amusement of his children.  The captive is tethered to the kitchen window and there he pines away and dies, refusing all food. This compares to the story of the Green Children, also from Suffolk.  These two infants strayed from faery into the human world; the boy of the pair soon died of grief. From Cheshire and Shropshire come tales of the water fairy called the asrai. This mysterious being, in the form of a young, naked woman, is from time to time dredged in fishing nets from lakes and meres.  When exposed to the air they never last long, simply melting away in the bottom of the fishing boat before it reaches the shore.
  2. the captive fairy is forced to act against her will- Near Lochaber in Scotland a man somehow captured a malevolent glaistig that had haunted the neighbourhood.  He imprisoned it in an outhouse and, as a condition of its release, made it swear to leave the area and to no longer molest the population.  He and his family were thereafter cursed with bad luck for his  efforts.  A Welsh story from Llanberis concerns a lake maiden, a gwrag annwn, who is lured ashore with an apple and caught by a man.  She agrees under compulsion to marry him, but the marriage is subject to conditions which, as always happens in these stories, were eventually breached.  Lastly, from the Isle of Skye there comes an account of mass compulsion. A builder was asked to construct a byre to hold 365 cows at Minguinish.  When he had finished the walls, he realised that he knew of no way of roofing over the vast space.  Heading home, he encountered and caught a fairy.  He was immediately besieged by other fairies seeking to release their companion; the terms of his ransom were that they roofed the Great Byre, which they did overnight.
  3. the captive fairy escapes- the most numerous of these accounts culminate in the fairy’s return home.  Sometimes, as with the Green Children, the fairy is simply lost and is taken in by humans.  This is the case in the Cornish story of Coleman Gray.  The pixie boy is found wandering and distressed and is cared for by a human family, until one day he hears his mother calling and returns to her.  More often the fairy is caught, although not always intentionally.  An account from Dartmoor describes how a woman returning from market met a pixie gambolling on the path in front of her.  She snatched it up, put it in her empty basket and latched the lid. For a while he complained loudly in a strange tongue.  When he fell silent, she opened the lid to check on him and found that he had disappeared.  From Lancashire there comes a story of two poachers who were out ferreting and who, instead of rabbits, flushed two fairies from a burrow into their sacks.  They were so alarmed by the voices crying out from inside the sacks that they dropped them and ran home.  The next day the sacks were retrieved, empty and neatly folded.  It seems that the fairies bore no ill will for the incident; likewise in the story of Skillywidden, a pixie captured at Treridge near Zennor, the fairy does not seem too put out by his ordeal.  A farmer was cutting furze when he spotted the young pixie asleep.  He scooped it up and took it home where it played contentedly by the hearth with his children.  However, one day when they all slipped outside to play, the pixie’s parents appeared searching for him and he readily went home with them.  Readers may note that there is a farm called Skillywadden to the south of Trendrine Hill where this incident took place; this may therefore be prime fairy catching country…

It is also notable from these examples how often it is the case that a juvenile fairy is caught.  Presumably the reason for this is quite simply that they are less cautious and less alert to danger than their parents.  Secondly, whilst contact with fairies is generally something to be discouraged, in most of these cases there are no ill consequences for the captors; in fact, in several cases the human children play with the fairy child on terms of amity and equality.  In some of the other cases, it appears that the fairies may have accepted that it was their own want of care or simple bad luck that led to their capture and, as a result, no vengeance is exacted.

asrai

An asrai, by Clayscence

Further reading

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