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.

 

Lewis Carroll on pixies

pixie brian froud

One of Brian Froud’s bad fairies.

In this post I feature a paragraph of juvenilia from the family journal ‘The Rectory Umbrella’ which was ‘published’ by Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson) and his brothers and sisters between 1850 and 1853 to entertain themselves and their parents.  The piece is of interest as an early work of fantasy by the future author of the Alice stories as well as being an example of Victorian ideas on pixies.

The text appears under the sub-title: ‘Zoological papers‘ and makes fun of the learned scientific, academic style (with footnotes).

Zoological papers: Pixies

“The origin of this curious race of creatures is not at present known: the best description we can collect of them is this, that they are a species of fairies about two feet high (1), of small and graceful figure; they are covered in a dark reddish kind of fur; the general expression of their faces is sweetness and good humour; the former quality is probably the reason why foxes are so fond of eating them. From Coleridge we learn the following additional facts; that they have ‘filmy pinions’ something like dragon flies’ wings, that they ‘sip the furze-flower’s fragrant dew’ (that, however, could only be for breakfast, as it would dry up before dinner-time), and that they are wont to ‘flash their faery feet in gamesome prank,’ or, in more common language, ‘to dance the polka (2) like winking.’

From an old English legend (3) which, as it is familiar with our readers, we need not here repeat, we learn that they have a strong affection for raw turnips, decidedly a more vulgar sort of food than ‘fragrant dew’; and from their using churns and kettles we conjecture that they are not unacquainted with tea, milk, butter &c. They are tolerably good architects, though their houses must unavoidably have something the appearance of large dog kennels, and they go to market occasionally, though from what source they get the money for this purpose has hitherto remained an unexplained mystery. This is all the information we have been able to collect on this interesting subject.

(1) So they are described by the inhabitants of Devonshire, who occasionally see them.

(2) Or any other step.

(3) A tradition, introduced into notice by the Editor.”

Now, it seems very likely that Carroll must have been reading Mrs Bray.  Her book, The Borders of the Tamar and the Tavy , was published in 1836 and describes, in a series of letters to the poet Robert Southey, the traditions, legends and superstitions that surround the North Dartmoor town of Tavistock.  This is the most likely source for most of Carroll’s information: Mrs Bray’s children’s book, A Peep at the Pixies, or Legends of the West, didn’t appear until 1854.

His fairy lore is on the whole, sound (excepting, I think, the turnips… as he confesses himself)  We do know that there was longstanding animosity between the Dartmoor foxes and pixies, which led to an ever-increasing effort by the latter to protect themselves.  The foxes hunted the pixies, digging them out of their underground homes and devouring them.  The pixies  responded by making iron shelters- which may, indeed, as Carroll suggests, look like dog kennels (R. King, ‘Folklore of Devonshire,’ Fraser’s Magazine, vol.8, 1873, p.781).

We know very well the fairies’ partiality for dairy products such as butter and milk, and it had long been a poetic conceit that tiny rural beings would drink dew and nectar from flowers.  We are also very familiar with their love of dance.  The use of kettles and the like is quite conventional: one common set of stories involves fairies seeking human aid to mend some basic item of domestic equipment- a stool or a ‘ped’ used to remove loaves from ovens; they made their own butter as well as stealing ours and would have needed a fully equipped kitchen for these tasks.  Tales of fairies at markets are also well-known, although their habit is often to thieve from the stalls rather than to buy.  In the frequent accounts of midwives who have cared for a fairy baby and, in the process, touched an eye with fairy ointment, the women are exposed when they spy a fairy at the market, whether buying or shoplifting.  Fairies often had gold, it is true, whether to purchase goods or to make gifts to chosen favourites.  Many writers have speculated about its source: was this money merely leaves and pebbles disguised by glamour (as was not unknown) or was it real currency, perhaps discovered by the fays underground?  Fairies were said to have abilities to help humans locate buried treasure, certainly, and access to ancient hoards might explain the unusual coins that often made up their payments.

Carroll’s pixies coincide very much with tradition, then, and even his jokey invention of their foxy fur coats is not entirely unheard of, as we know from more recent fairy sightings.  Nevertheless, the winged pixy is something of a surprise (though see Brian Froud’s image below) as is the description of them as always jolly.  As readers will know, they have a great tendency to mischief- hence the term ‘pixy-led.’

pixy

Another Froud pixie

Further reading

Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and ‘Through the Looking Glass’ are classics and well worth reading if you’ve not already, albeit not fairy stories in any conventional sense.  I have also enjoyed reading Sean Conroy’s recent book, Alice in the Underground: Lewis Carroll and Alice in Modern Culturea book which examines many of the debated questions of Carroll’s life and work.  My own British Pixies (2021) looks at all aspects of the folklore of the pixies of South West England.

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.

blake-girl-fairy
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.

blake-flora-flower-fairy
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.

blake-puck
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)

peter_blake-fairy_child_crying
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.

pb-chiswick
‘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