Naked fairies- nudity in fairyland

mush fae

In a book published in 2017, American art historian Susan Casteras contributed a chapter on Victorian fairy painting.  She perceptively remarked how nudity, which is very far from being an inherent element in folklore, became something that the Victorians chose to exaggerate in their visions of fairyland.  Many paintings of the period, she rightly observed,  were all about “flaunting nudity for its own sake rather than as a supposedly accurate transcription of faery lore.”  (S. Casteras, ‘Winged Fantasies: Constructions of Childhood, Adolescence and Sexuality in Victorian Fairy Painting’ in Marilyn Brown, Picturing Children, 2017, c.8, 127-8)

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John Simmons, A Fairy on a Leaf

Looking at John Simmons’ painting above, you cannot help but agree with the second part of Casteras’ comment- although Simmons was a particular offender, producing a number of ‘pin-up’ canvases.  What about the folklore evidence, though?  Victorian pictures- and more recently the work of Alan Lee, Brian Froud and Peter Blake– have habituated us to the idea of a Faery full of frolicking nudes, but how traditional is this?

The honest answer has to be that there’s very little sign of nudity in the older accounts of Faery.  In my post on fairy abductions of children, I mentioned the story of a girl who temporarily went missing in Devon.  A game keeper and his wife living at Chudleigh, on Dartmoor, had two children, and one morning the eldest girl went out to play while her mother dressed her baby sister. In due course, the parents realised that the older child had disappeared and several days of frantic and fruitless searching followed. Eventually, after hope had nearly been lost, the girl was found quite near to her home, completely undressed and without her clothes, but well and happy, not at all starved, and playing contentedly with her toes. The pixies were supposed to have stolen the child, but to have cared for her and returned her.

Now, this girl was a human infant and there may have been several reasons why the pixies might have taken off all her clothes.  They may have objected to human things; they may have thought a ‘natural’ state was healthier and preferable.  Whatever the exact explanation, it’s one of the few instances where there’s a suggestion that nudity might be the normal condition in Faery.

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A calendar illustration by Mabel Rollins Harris

The other evidence is all qualified in one way or another. Mermaids don’t have clothes, but that’s for very obvious reasons.  Men are forever falling in love at first sight with these creatures, but you may well suspect that coming across a uninhibited and naked female is a pretty strong draw in any case.

Some fairies don’t ‘need’ clothes at all because they’re naturally very hairy: the brownies, hobgoblins and the Manx fynoderee are all examples of these.  Their shaggy pelts were covering enough.  It’s almost always this kind of faery that is the subject of a story in which a reward of clothes for services rendered alienates the helpful being.  Typically, a brownie or boggart with work faithfully on a farm, threshing grain, carrying hay and tending the livestock, all for very little reward except some bread and milk left out ta night.  After a while, the curiosity of the farmer overcomes good sense and the creature’s labours are spied upon.  It’s seen to be (at the very best), dressed in tattered rags and (at the worst) completely naked.  Pity is taken and new clothes are made in recognition of its hardwork, but all that’s achieved is to offend the fae, who recites a short verse- and leaves forever.

Lastly, the only other definite example of bare fairy flesh is one I’ve discussed several times previously and one in which ulterior motives are very important.  In the medieval romance of Sir Launval, the young knight is summoned into the presence of the fairy lady, Tryamour.  She’s found in a pavilion in a forest, relaxing on a couch on a hot summer’s day.

“For hete her clothes down sche dede/ Almest to her gerdyl stede,/ Than lay sche uncovert; Sche was as whyt as lylye yn May, / Or snow that sneweth yn wynterys day, / He segh never non so pert.””

“because of the heat, she’d undone her dress nearly to her waist; she lay uncovered; she was as white as a lily in May, or snow falling on a winter’s day; he’d never seen anyone so pert.”

Tryamour’s plan is to seduce Launval and, plainly, lying there topless and available is a pretty good scheme for winning his attention.  It’s not normal behaviour in Faery, though, anymore than it is on the earth surface.  Most of the accounts we have of the appearance of fairies describe their clothes– their style and their colour; we are not told that they are provocatively naked.

Nude fairies, therefore, seem to be a Victorian obsession; they are the soft porn of their day.  As has been described before, it was acceptable to display bare breasts in art, but only so long as it was justifiable and/ or distant from the present day.  Painting classical nymphs, oriental harems and fairyland let artists get away with it.  they seized the opportunity- regardless of the fact that the folklore provided almost no basis for this.

The Perils of Fairy Passion- sex & power

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Fairy by Linda Ravenscroft

I have described in previous posts the widely known physical attractiveness of fairies.  In Stuart verse, for example, we find praise for “the matchless features of the Fairy Queen” and for her “gracious eyes.”

Fairy partners were extremely attractive, but love for a fairy could be portrayed as obsessive, something that caused the human to sicken and to pine, as we see from Robert Armin’s The Valiant Welshman (1615, Act II, scene 5):

“Oh, the intolerable paine that I suffer from the love of the fairy Queen!  My heeles are all kybde [bruised] in the very heate of my affection, that runnes down into my legges; methinks I could eat up a whole Baker’s shoppe at a meale, to be eased of this love.”

Fairies were desirable partners simply because of their physical beauty.  However, a fairy’s lover could hope for great favour still- and the lover of the fairy queen (the most beauteous of all her kind) would naturally be even more highly honoured and rewarded.  At the same time, though, these supernaturals could prove to be possessive and demanding lovers- and vengeful if they felt neglected or slighted.

The trade-off between sex and gain, passion and pain, was therefore a difficult one, as we see from both folklore record and from romantic fiction.

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John Simmons, ‘Titania’

The Scottish Evidence

Andro Man of Aberdeen was tried for witchcraft in 1598. He disclosed a relationship with the fairy queen that involved both her worship (he and others assembled and kissed her “airrs” in reverence) but also regular sexual contact.  He said of her:

“the queen is very plesand, and wilbe auld and young quhen scho pleissis; scho mackis any king quhom she pleisis and leyis with any scho lykis.”

One of those whom the queen liked was Man.  Over a period of thirty years, he said, he had “conversit with hir bodily.” In other words, he ‘lay with her’ and, as a result of these “carnal dealings” they had had “diverse bairnis” whom he’d since visited in fairyland/ elphame.

Over and above these numerous infants, Man had gained materially: he learned to diagnose and cure diseases in cattle and humans and he was taught charms to steal milk and corn, or to protect his neighbours’ fields against such fairy thefts.

Sex with a fairy often appears to have been the price (and the conduit) for supernatural powers.  Isobell Strathaquin, also from Aberdeen, was tried in the January of the previous year to Andro Man; she told the court that she acquired powers in this manner: she “learnit it at [from] ane elf man quha lay with hir.”

Elspeth Reoch of Orkney also gained the second sight from two fairy men, but it involved sexual harassment by one of them.  She told her 1616 trial that two men had approached her and called her “ane prettie” before giving her a charm to enable her to see the faes.  Later “ane farie man” called John Stewart came to her on two successive nights and ‘dealt with her,’ not allowing her to sleep and promising a “guidly fe” is she agreed to have sex with him.  She held out against his blandishments until the third night, when he touched her breast and them seemed to lie with her.  The next day she was struck dumb (in order to conceal the source of her prophetic powers) and had to wander the town and beg for her living, offering people the knowledge she received through her second sight.

Sometimes, it has to be admitted, boasting can come into these accounts.  Isobel Gowdie, from Auldearn near Nairn, was tried as a witch in 1662.  During her confession she seems to mock or tease her accusers with her account of the huge proportions of the devil’s ‘member.’  They were pressing her for confessions and they got them, with Isobel all the while expressing her modesty and Christian timidity over describing such shocking acts.

Sex in the Stories

The exchange of sex and skill is common between fairy and mortal.  In the poem and ballads of the same name, Thomas of Erceldoune was relaxing outside in the sunshine one day when he was approached by the gorgeous fairy queen.  After some resistance, she consented to lie with him “And, as the story tellus ful right, Seven tymes be hir he lay.”  Thomas is moved to these prodigious feats by her physical desirability (and, no doubt, by his own youthful vigour) but there’s a price to pay.  Initially after intercourse, the queen loses her beauty and becomes a hideous hag; secondly, her looks and youth may only be restored by her lover agreeing to spend seven years in Faery.  Thomas seems to have very little choice about this and has to leave immediately- although on the plus side, his travelling companion is restored to her former loveliness.  Once there, the riches start to flow to Thomas.  He is elegantly clothed and lives a life of luxurious leisure; what’s more, at the end of his time in Faery, he is endowed by the queen with special abilities.  In some versions of the tale, he becomes a skilled harper; in others he gains second sight.

The romance of Sir Launfal is comparable for the trade off between sex and wealth.  The fairy lady Tryamour summons the young knight to her in a forest.  She is reclining semi-naked in the heat and offers him a rich feast, followed by a sleepless night of sex.  The next morning, though, the nature of their transaction becomes clear: she promises to visit him regularly in secret but there are two conditions: “no man alive schalle me se” and, even more onerous:

“thou makst no bost of me…

And, yf thou doost, y warny the before,

Alle my love thou hast forlore.”

Assenting to the terms, he is given fine clothes, horses, armour and attendants and returns to the court of King Arthur.  Before, he had been poor and of no account, but now he is rich and gains status and respect.

In due course (albeit for honourable reasons) Launfal discloses his secret lover.  As with fairy money, this indiscretion might normally be expected to lose him Tryamour’s affections instantly and irreparably, but in this case she comes to Arthur’s court and carries him off to faery forever.

Summary

Fairy love and fairy magical abilities may be bestowed upon the lucky human, but that good fortune is plainly qualified.  The gifts are in fact an exchange; there must be a surrender on the part of the mortal recipient, which may be the loss of some of their independence or which may require a complete abandonment of their home, friends and family.   Perhaps the prize of fairy love and fairy knowledge are worth paying highly for, but, in earlier times, the cost of the bargain often turned out to be excessive, for fairy contact could prove fatal if revealed to the church and state.

A Note on the Scottish Witch Cases

As I highlighted before in my discussion of Ronald Hutton’s book, The Witch, I still harbour reservations about using the testimony from the Scottish witch trials.  I say above that Isobel Gowdie was ‘pressed’ for incriminating evidence.  This was literally true: boards were placed on suspects’ legs and piled with rocks.  We have a record of one victim of this crying out for it to stop and agreeing to confess whatever the court wanted.

Once these individuals had fallen into the authorities’ hands, their fate was pretty much sealed.  The sentence that almost all faced was to be ‘wyrrit and burnit,’ which means that they were tied to a stake, strangled and then burned.  For Elspeth Reoch, for example (NB Orcadian readers!) she was taken to the top of Clay Loan in Kirkwall where there is still a small area of grass; several local women suffered the same horrible fate on this spot.  We know too that one woman leaped from the top of a high prison tower in Perth to avoid execution.

Faced with the same circumstances, you too might agree to say whatever your inquisitors wanted you to say if it ended the misery.  How much can we trust this evidence then?  My feeling is that, whilst these might not be personal experiences, they still reflect what society as a whole believed to be the structure and conduct of the fairy folk.  If it did not convince the torturers, they might not have accepted it.  These confessions reflect the wider understanding of Faery in those days and need not be dismissed out of hand as the individual fantasy of a person desperate to stop the torture.

Finally: I have quite often quoted from the confessions of these individuals.  Whenever you read their names, spare a thought for them.  The worst that most did was to try to cure people and livestock at a time when medicines and health care were hugely limited.  To most of us, I’m sure these hardly sound like crimes, let alone capital offences.

This 16th-century woodcut depicts King James VI at the North Berwick witch trials, the case that first sparked his obsession with hunting. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Witches examined before King James I/VI

Who is Titania?

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Vivien Leigh as Titania in Midsummer night’s dream

For many of us today, Titania has become the archetype of the fairy queen, if not of female fairies as a class.  Her origins seem to be Elizabethan.  In 1590 Edmond Spenser made his Faerie Queen a descendant of Titania, but the character was most explicitly and effectively introduced into fairy-lore by William Shakespeare in Midsummer night’s dream.  She was not a traditional character of British folklore (as her name might, in any case, suggest) and the playwright was certainly very well aware of the British equivalent: Queen Mab features prominently in a famous speech by Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, which was first performed in 1597. The Dream was written in 1605; did Shakespeare merely want a bit of variety or did he have other motives for creating a new faery monarch?

Diana

Somewhat like the name of her consort Oberon, Titania’s name is more descriptive than personal.  ‘Titania’ simply means that she is born of Titans- though this naturally begs some very important questions.  Roman writer Ovid tells us in The Metamorphoses that Titania is another name or aspect of the goddess Diana.  The latter was the Roman deity responsible for childbirth and, as such, there are some parallels with Queen Mab the midwife.  The Romans also linked Diana to the Greek goddess Artemis, who was primarily a goddess of nature, particularly of springs and water courses (she was, for example, known as Limnaia, ‘lady of the lake’, a name which for us now is freighted with resonances of Morgan le Fay and other fay maidens and such like nymphs).  In her guise as goddess of woods and water, Artemis had obvious parallels with native nature spirits and the association makes considerable sense.  However, Shakespeare had already used ‘Diana’ as a character in All’s well that ends well, five years previously to The dream, so perhaps again he merely sought variety- or had pursued the links even more deeply.

Edwin_Landseer Titania_and_Bottom

Edwin Landseer, Titania and Bottom, 1851

The Titans

Diana was descended from Titans, a heritage which takes us back to the roots of Greek mythology.  The Titans were a race of giants born of Uranus and Ge (heaven and earth).  Amongst their numbers were the male gods Oceanus, Cronus, Hyperion, Prometheus and Atlas; amongst the goddesses were numbered Thea, Phoebe and Rhea.  The inter-relationships and identities of these beings are far from fixed in the myths, but we need not be concerned with the detail.  It is the general tenor of the stories that’s significant: they contain a variety of fruitful themes and concepts.

Cronus is often seen as the chief of the Titans.  He led a revolt against Zeus and the Olympian gods and was defeated and displaced, being banished with all his kind to imprisonment in Tartarus.  It’s said that Cronus now sleeps eternally on some Western island, and as such his myth has very likely contributed to the growth of the story of King Arthur sleeping in Avalon.  The sister of Cronus was Rhea, but she was also his wife and so mother of a pantheon including Zeus, Poseidon, Hera and others.  In this role Rhea is commonly identified with another goddess, Cybele, who was in turn worshipped across the ancient world as the Great Mother Goddess.  She is another deity of nature, fertility and wild places and, as such, fairly readily linked to a fairy queen of groves and springs.

The daughter of the famous Titan Atlas was the equally well-known Calypso, nymph of the island of Ogygia.  It was she who detained Odysseus for seven years and tried to prevent him ever returning home with promises of immortality.   The time-scale and the reward must trigger for us thoughts of detention in fairyland.

In summary then, these divine female Titans all have attributes and rich associations which provoke thoughts of British equivalents and which tie local beings into a wider and more powerful mythology.  It may be for these reasons that Shakespeare chose the name Titania: she brought with her connotations of power and antiquity.

Shakespeare’s fairy queen

Rather like Artemis/ Diana, Shakespeare’s fairy queen is intimately associated with the natural environment.  Her quarrel with Oberon disrupts the weather and the growing of the crops.  This is summarised by Titania when she tells Bottom that:

“I am a spirit of no common rate./ The summer still doth tend upon my state.” (Act III, scene i)

She rules over the seasons and they follow her moods.

In due course, naturally, the character of Titania took on a life of her own.  The name was taken up by others and became accepted as the appropriate appellation: for example, in Thomas Dekker’s play The whore of Babylon in 1607.

The new queen inherited much of the wanton sexuality of fairies generally and especially that of Queen Mab, giving us the erotically tinged imagery of Fuseli and Simmons as illustrated below.  The buxom wenches of the paintings are ironic given the fact that Artemis, one of Titania’s forms, was also known as a goddess of chastity who was in conflict with Aphrodite (who, in fact, is also of Titan ancestry).

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John Simmons, There sleeps Titania

Titania and Bottom c.1790 by Henry Fuseli 1741-1825

Titania and Bottom c.1790 Henry Fuseli 1741-1825

Further reading

This posting was inspired by a reading of Geoffrey Ashe’s excellent Camelot and the vision of Albion.  Robert Graves in The white goddess also has a good deal to say about Cronus and the rest.  See too my consideration of the identity of Shakespeare’s Ariel.

An edited and expanded version of this post will be found in my books Famous Fairies and Fayerie- Fairies and Fairyland in Tudor and Stuart Verse.  See my books page for more information.

Peter Blake- fairyist

DACS; (c) DACS; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
Daisy fairy (Victoria Art Gallery, Bath; previously Waddington Galleries, London)

Over his long career, renowned British artist Peter Blake has drawn his inspiration from a variety of sources, including the wrestling he loved as a youth, fifties pinups magazines and, more surprisingly, perhaps,  Victorian fairy painting.  In his many fairy paintings, he has demonstrated that ‘high art’ and fairy themes can still co-exist, even in the twenty-first century (and despite some later embarrassment about this on Blake’s part).

Victorian inspirations

During the mid-1970s, Blake’s work took a surprising turn away from his early urban and contemporary themes.  In March 1975 in Somerset a group of British born and British based artists founded the Brotherhood of Ruralists.  The new movement was inspired by Samuel Palmer, Spenser and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, amongst others, and its declared aims were to portray love, beauty, joy and magic in their work.  Amongst the Brotherhood were Blake, David Inshaw, and Graham Ovenden, a painter and expert in Victorian photography, painting and illustration, whose publications include a study of fairy illustrators Richard Doyle, Eleanor Vere Boyle and William Stephens Coleman.

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Girl fairy

Peter Blake was especially inspired by literary subjects, such as Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Fairies in particular became a key theme during his ruralist period and Blake researched the work of Victorian predecessors, painters such as Richard Dadd, Doyle and John Anster Fitzgerald and illustrators Maxfield Parrish and Arthur Rackham.  He admired the eroticism of much of this fairy art, most notably in the work of Paton and Simmons.  At the same time Blake saw children and fairies as sharing an enchanting naivety, which was translated into the nature of his pictures. He was, too, interested in fantasy, but he wanted his fairies to be real people rooted in the present.

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Flora, flower fairy

Blake has painted a series of portraits of generic flower, water and seaweed fairies (mainly as a source of income), but he also undertook much larger and more personal studies of groups and of named individuals such as Titania and Puck.  One of the first of this series of paintings, Puck, Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth and Mustardseed, which was started in 1969, shows a naked boy Puck along with tinier, winged child-fairies.  They seem to be beside a weed covered pond, in which the full moon is reflected, and in the background is a stretch of suburban garden fence.

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Puck, Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth and Mustardseedption

Interviewing Blake for the Independent newspaper in December 1997, Andrew Lambirth described the fairies in these terms:

“If not children, they tend to be female, either portrait heads or nearly naked, and extravagantly breasted.  There is a lambent sensuality in these images, an edginess not far from surrealist frisson, yet verging on innocence rather than lubriciousness.  Delicacy of tone and useful juvenescence of imagery is matched by meditative distancing.  Peter Blake’s paintings are as oddly disquieting as the best Victorian fairy paintings.”

Daimler and Nymphs | Art UK
Nymphs & Daimler

Blake explained during this interview that he wanted his pictures to balance otherness with here and now solidity.  He described how:

“As the fairies ooze to the front of the picture, they hear who’s looking at the painting and they stop and look out.  A group of them stare straight out at you, involving the viewer.”

In part Blake’s paintings were a reaction against the ‘gift-shop’, coffee table depictions of faery that flourished during the mid-1970s.  He wanted to produce more substantial and serious images, he said:

“Fairies are a vehicle for what we want them to be.  If you want a concept of a naughty fairy, you can read it in.  The beautiful fairies tend to be good, I think.  There’s an edge of magic realism to them.  The fairies I paint have the ability to make magic.”

Fairies: Death of a Moth, 1975-2012 : Peter Blake : Artimage
Death of a Moth, 1975-

Peter Blake’s fairy pictures depict the possibility of encountering the fantastic in our everyday lives.  He endeavoured to devise a believable other world.  He graded his fairies by their size rather than by their wealth and tried to imagine how the queen of the fairies might feel and act; what would fairy morality be like?  Unlike humans, they might not cover their bodies up but might choose to emphasise and display them.  Accordingly, Titania (in one of the several versions painted between 1976 and 1983) is shown largely naked with grass knotted around her nipples and her pubic hair decorated with daisies.  She wears boots of dock leaves, a grass necklace and a grass belt adorned with odd found items such as a spark plug and a lost toy.  She faces the viewer frankly and confrontationally.  Surrounding her are shadowy figures of naked females, some grinning, some perhaps in pain or in the throes of ecstasy (similar shapes are found with Puck in the painting described earlier).  Natalie Rudd has written that

Titania marks a new model in Blake’s canon of fairy painting; she does not embody the childlike asexuality of his earlier fairies.  Like the nymphs in classical mythology and Blake’s urban strippers, she is a figment of male fantasy, poised eternally between innocence and desire, childhood and womanhood, apparently available yet essentially out of reach.” (N. Rudd, Peter Blake, Tate Gallery, 2003, p.67)

Fairies: Night, 1982-2012 : Peter Blake : Artimage
Fairies: Night, 1982

peter blake fairy paintings - Google Search | Fairy paintings, Peter blake,  Aurora sleeping beauty
Fairy Girl

Critic Nicholas Usherwood has spoken of Titania’s “disturbing eroticism, banishing any trace of whimsicality.”  Serena Davies, writing in the Daily Telegraph, reacted very differently, calling the fairy images “strident, ugly pictures that still fail to charm to day.” (Telegraph, July 7th 2007)

In other pictures that Blake produced during this period, fairies dance and play at night in the open air, in one case around and upon a car (Nymphs and Daimler).  Another, The death of a moth, shows the fairy girls mourning the deceased insect.  Many of his fays, like queen Titania, are imagined wearing floral decorations.  All of these pictures emphasise the fairies’ intimate connection with nature, even amidst the detritus of human culture.  Blake has said of these that “in a curious way, the fairy pictures are far more knowing than the Alice pictures [his illustrations to Alice through the looking glass, 1970].  The fairies again come back to being part of my travelling company- they could as easily be strippers.  They look urban.” (Rudd, p.73)

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Fairy child crying

Generally, though, I do not believe that it was Blake’s intention in his fairy images to evoke strippers or to examine the nature of fairy sexuality.  His vision of Faery draws upon that of Midsummer Night’s Dream and upon contemporary productions of that play: there is a great deal of natural innocence in the pictures.  His nudes, such as Fairy girl in Falmouth Art Gallery, suggest naturism rather than eroticism; there is an unashamed ‘tribal’ quality to the nakedness that is not intended to titivate but to depict a unity with the fairies’ (semi) rural surroundings.  They are open and honest; they are as they were born and unaware of any reason for shame or concealment.  There is also an accommodation with the spread of human material culture; artifacts are collected and reused in unexpected ways. Blake is enjoying a joke here as well as commenting upon pollution and destruction of habitats.

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‘I may not be a Ruralist any more, but I saw a fairy in my garden’

The Ruralists (along with Blake’s marriage) disintegrated in the early 1980s and Blake moved back to London, admitting that he had never stopped being an urbanist.  The Ruralist influence remained, though, as shown by a picture from 1982 portraying a fairy at the bottom of his garden in Chiswick.  More recently Blake has described his fairy phase as “unforgivably sentimental.”  The art critic Waldemar Januszczak was less kind; for him they were “unforgivably silly” when set against the political background of late 1970s Britain (Review of Tate Liverpool retrospective, July 1st 2007).  How we feel about this remark depends upon whether we feel that all art must provide explicit social commentary.  As I suggested in the last paragraph, there is commentary here, but it is more subtle.

Young British Artists

Arguably Blake’s fairy pictures were not disengaged from contemporary environmental concerns.  Some of the issues he tackled are still being examined today.  ‘Young British artist’ Matt Collishaw much more recently produced a series of photographic images called Sugar and spice which deliberately contrast young girls dressed as fairies and bedecked with flowers posed in scrap yards and surrounded by urban litter which dwarfs them- discarded drinks cans and cartons, a banana skin and a lost shoe.  The gritty squalor of the settings cancels out any saccharine prettiness in the models.

Sugar and Spice, All Things Nice, This Is What Little Girls Are Made Of #3 1998 by Mat Collishaw born 1966

Further Reading

For further discussion of the centuries’ art, see my book Fairy Art of the Twentieth Century

Is there a fairy queen?

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Queen Titania, by John Simmons

This question may seem a shocking challenge to accepted conventions, but reflecting recently upon a couple of postings concerning the queens of elfland made on Living liminally by Morgan Daimler, I suddenly began to wonder whether we really mean the words we use when we so casually discuss the ‘fairy kingdom,’ the ‘faery realm,’  the seelie and unseelie ‘courts‘ and the king and queen of fairy.

Elsewhere, in her recent book Fairies, Morgan observes that “the social structure does seem to operate as a hierarchy ruled ultimately by Kings and Queens.” (p.61)    This is quite true, but as I have suggested before in my post on woodland elves, the idea of fairy royalty is very much a projection of medieval structures by medieval writers.  The idea was first seen in such poems as Huon of Bordeaux, King Herla, Sir Orfeo and in the verse of Chaucer: Sir Thopas and the prologue to the Wife of Bath’s tale.  Two centuries later, Spenser, Shakespeare and Herrick cemented the idea in our culture.  Neil Rushton has recently reiterated this interpretation in a posting on his ‘Dead but dreaming’ blog, Faeries in the Arthurian landscapein which he observes that:

“The stories were consumed by the small proportion of literate population, and were codified accordingly to suit their social expectations. The appearance of characters with supernatural qualities within these stories had, therefore, to adhere to certain doctrines, which would be acceptable to their social mores and belief systems.”

As Neil implies, when we think of fairies now we almost unconsciously and automatically conjure images of Arthurian knights and ladies and all the structures of precedence and privilege that go with them.  This is habit, but is it any more than that?

Fairy reign

We are very used, then, to thinking of Queen Mab and of Oberon and Titania.  But what need, though, do the faes really have of rulers?  In the Middle Ages, monarchs were required to perform several purposes within their simpler states:

  • to lead the people in armed conflict- as I have described previously, war amongst the fairies may jar with our conventional views of them, but the possibility is mentioned in a few sources and might therefore justify some sort of war chief;
  • to dispense justice- we are aware of no laws as such in Faery, although there are clearly codes of behaviour that they impose (upon humans at least) and the infringement of which (by humans) is subject to sanction.  Parallel with this distinct morality, there is a general atmosphere of unrestrained impulsiveness;
  • to organise society- it’s hard to tell what, if any, structure there is within fairy society.  If we regard them as nature spirits, then they are all at the level of worker bees, it would appear.  A few authorities have proposed hierarchies, although this normally seems to involve different forms of supernatural beings as against different ranks: see for example Geoffrey Hodson or two interviews with ‘Irish seers’ conducted by Evans-Wentz- one with George William Rusell (AE) and a second with an unnamed Mrs X of County Dublin (Fairy faith in Celtic countries pp.60-66 and 242-3).  You’ll see the differences in size in John Simmons’ painting below;
  • to act as some sort of religious leader or high priest(ess).  I explored the puzzling matter of fairy religion not long ago; it is an area of considerable doubt.

None of these functions seem especially essential to Faery as we generally conceive it.  Is the title of ‘queen’ therefore redundant, or at best merely a convenient honorary title?

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There sleeps Titania, by John Simmons

Secret commonwealth

Let’s consider the views of the Reverend Robert Kirk, who certainly seems to have been well placed to know what he was talking about.  Writing in the late 1680s, he titled his justly famous book The secret commonwealth of elves, fauns and fairies.  A ‘commonwealth’ can merely denote a nation state or polity, but it can also more narrowly have the meaning of ‘republic.’  Given that he cannot but have been aware of the English Parliamentary ‘Commonwealth’ that succeeded the execution of Charles I in 1649, I think it’s inescapable that this was the connotation intended by Kirk when he chose to describe his subject matter.  That seems undeniable when we read at the head of chapter 7 that “They are said to have aristocraticall Rulers and Laws, but no discernible Religion, Love or Devotion towards God…  they disappear whenever they hear his Name invocked…”   We note Kirk’s belief in their aversion to church and religion, but also his conviction that they inhabit some sort of democracy regulated by rules of conduct of some description.

Much more recently, Theosophist Charles Leadbeater wrote that humans frequently mistook fairy leaders for kings and queens, whereas “In reality the realm of nature spirits needs no kind of government except except the general supervision which is exercised over it [by devas].” (The hidden side of things, 1913, p.147).

Rank or honour?

Perhaps those termed king and queen in Faery are simply those of the most distinguished character or the greatest magical power.  This was my conception of Queen Maeve in my story Albion awake!  In chapter 9, in response to being called Fairy Queen, Maeve replies:

“So you call me- but if I am a queen, I have no dominion.  I have powers, but I do not reign.  My people are a commonwealth- a secret commonwealth.”

Plainly I’ve stolen her phrase here!  Later she calls her people her ‘Nation Underground.’  I’ll let you track that reference down yourselves!

In conclusion, the main influence upon our conceptions of Faery as a stratified and monarchical society, with a royal family, a court, nobility and attendants, seems to be European society during the medieval period, channeled through contemporary literature.  Whether we are thinking of mythical Iron Age Ireland, Chaucer’s England or the France of Chretien de Troyes or Marie de France, their aristocratic society provided a model that was unthinkingly imposed upon fairyland.  It seems unlikely that the ‘common folk’ necessarily shared this; indeed, a large number of fairies were independent and individual characters or were conceived as members of their own, very local community.  Should we continue to talk of kings and queens then, or is it simply habit?  Do the terms have anything to do with contemporary perceptions of fairy?  What do readers think?

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‘Queen Mab,’ Henry Meynell Rheam

Further reading

Elsewhere I discuss fairy kings and that famous fairy queen Titania.

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

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‘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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.