‘Adar Rhiannon’- fairy birds

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Adar Rhiannon by Tammy Mae Moon

In Wirt Sikes’ British Goblins you will find the story of Shon ap Shenkin:

“Shon ap Shenkin was a young man who lived hard by Pant Shon Shenkin [in Carmarthenshire]. As he was going afield early one fine summer’s morning, he heard a little bird singing, in a most enchanting strain, on a tree close by his path. Allured by the melody he sat down under the tree until the music ceased, when he arose and looked about him. What was his surprise at observing that the tree, which was green and full of life when he sat down, was now withered and barkless! Filled with astonishment he returned to the farm-house which he had left, as he supposed, a few minutes before; but it also was changed, grown older, and covered with ivy. In the doorway stood an old man whom he had never before seen; he at once asked the old man what he wanted there. ‘What do I want here?’ ejaculated the old man, reddening angrily; ‘that’s a pretty question! Who are you that dare to insult me in my own house?’ ‘In your own house? How is this? where’s my father and mother, whom I left here a few minutes since, whilst I have been listening to the charming music under yon tree, which, when I rose, was withered and leafless?’ ‘Under the tree!-music! what’s your name?’ ‘Shon ap Shenkin.’ ‘Alas, poor Shon, and is this indeed you!’ cried the old man. ‘I often heard my grandfather, your father, speak of you, and long did he bewail your absence. Fruitless inquiries were made for you; but old Catti Maddock of Brechfa said you were under the power of the fairies, and would not be released until the last sap of that sycamore tree would be dried up. Embrace me, my dear uncle, for you are my uncle—embrace your nephew.’ With this the old man extended his arms, but before the two men could embrace, poor Shon ap Shenkin crumbled into dust on the doorstep.” (Sikes pp.92-94)

In several respects this is a typical story about the differential passage of time in Faery and the mortal risks faced by a human returning home.  Such accounts date back to King Herla in the Middle Ages.  Of course, Shon is not aware of any journey to Faery at all; he simply sat in the shade by the roadside, but somehow was transported from this world.

However, what interests me in the tale are two of the details- the tree and the bird.  The tree is said to be a sycamore, which is unusual; it would not have surprised me to learn that it was a hawthorn (or perhaps an elder).  These are notorious fairy trees with which the Good Folk and magical properties have always been closely associated; sycamores don’t seem to have these traditional associations.

The other feature is the bird.  I have discussed the faery nature of certain insects (bees and moths) and fairies fleeing a human’s presence have not infrequently been compared to birds, but the evidence of a fairy nature is much harder to find in the fairylore of the British Isles.

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Rhiannon by Tammy Mae Moon

Scraps of evidence are present, nonetheless.  Evans Wentz mentions Breton fairies who take the form of ducks, swans and magpies (an especially significant bird in British folklore) whilst in Ireland fairies and some of the goddesses of the Tuatha de Danaan appear as crows.  (Fairy Faith pp.200 & 305-7)  From the Isle of Man, there is a fascinating little story about a notorious fairy woman whose beauty was deadly to local men.  She would bewitch them with her charms and then lead groups of them together int the sea, where they drowned.  The people resolved to end this slaughter and plotted to catch and kill her.  To escape, the fairy took the form of a wren.  She survived, but every New Year’s Day she must become a wren once more and face being hunted and killed in a traditional January 1st ceremony.

From Oxfordshire there comes the story of True John and Greedy Jack, a tale that pits a man favoured by the fairies against a jealous neighbour.  Both farmers had apple trees, but John’s produced abundant fruit and were always full of crowds of small green birds whilst, at night, small lights were seen in the branches, accompanied by singing and perfume.  Jack was envious and one day tried shooting at the trees with a shot gun to scare off the birds and damage the fruit.  Instead, it was his own fruit that were peppered with shot and the birds pecked at his face.  After this, Jack lost all his luck.  When John died, Jack cut down the bounteous tree hoping to drive the birds to live in his own, but instead a mighty wind arose and flattened his orchard.  Neither the birds nor the lights were seen again.  Both for their colour and for their close association to the lights, these are very obviously faery birds, a fact that should have been clear to Jack.  From that, it should have been clear in turn that he could not force the fairies into favouring him over his rival.  His downfall followed inexorably.  The protective role of faeries towards apple trees is something I’ve commented upon in several previous posts, too.

Lastly, as Sikes himself records, there is the ancient Welsh legend of the Birds of Rhiannon (Adar Rhiannon). Rhiannon is one of the goddesses or fairy women of Welsh myth.  Their song can “wake the dead and lull the living to sleep.”  In a clear sign of their magical or faery nature, the birds can be remote but sound as if they are very near.

This legend appears in the Mabinogion in the story of Branwen, Daughter of Llyr (Branwen ferch Llŷr). Seven men only had escaped from a large force that had followed King Bran across the sea to fight the Irish.  Bran himself had died of his wounds, but had commanded the survivors to cut off his head and bury it under Tower Hill in London. On their way there, the men paused at Harlech in North Wales to rest and feast. Three birds came and began singing to them so sweetly that all the songs they had ever heard before seemed unpleasant in comparison.  The feast and birdsong were so enchanting, they remained listening for seven years.  (see Sikes p.2 and Evans Wentz pp.329 & 334)

The sweetness of song and the dislocation of time (for a period of years of considerable magical significance) are found in the Welsh myth just as in the story of Sion ap Senkin.  It seems clear from these scattered remnants that there was once a much completer knowledge of the nature and powers of faery birds, something that we have sadly lost with the passage of the years.

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Rhiannon by Tammy Mae Moon

For more on fairy animals generally, see my recently published book Faery.  For more on the faeries’ interactions with nature, see my book Faeries and the Natural World (2021):

Natural World

Floatiness- movement of fay people?

IRO f with bunnies

Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, Fairy with bunnies and flower skipping rope

“Oh, band of mischievous fairies,/ That flicker and float about;”

(Old Donald, Menella Bute Smedley)

As many readers will know very well indeed, the Irish and Scottish Gaelic name for the fairies is sidh.  One of the derivations of this term is from the word for ‘peace.’  Translations of the name therefore give us ‘the People of Peace,’ the ‘still folk’ or ‘the silently moving folk.’  One interpretation of ‘peace’ is that it is a euphemistic name– an expression of hope as much as a description, a form of wish or charm that the fays will be peaceful in their conduct and leave us mortals in peace, just as use of the ‘Good Neighbours’ aspires to a state of amity between supernaturals and humans.

Silent movement

I want in this post to discuss the other understanding of the phrase- the suggestion that the ‘peace’ in question is not an absence of conflict (either with humans or between the fairies themselves) but is descriptive of the manner of their movement.

“And in the fields of martial Cambria…/ Where light foot fairies skip from bank to bank.”  (The tragedy of Locrine, 1594, attributed to Shakespeare)

Now, just how fairies might get about is generally take for granted and seldom remarked upon.  We assume that they’ll walk, that they might ride their own faery horses or that they might fly with those pretty butterfly and dragonfly wings that they’ve so recently acquired.  Perhaps rather more often than fluttering, fairies are taken to ‘teleport’ from one spot to another: witness Ariel in The Tempest, putting a girdle about the earth in forty minutes.

iro yellow fay

Movement through the air is particularly likely to be soundless, which may indeed explain the ‘people of peace’ epithet.  John Gregorson Campbell believed that this was entirely appropriate in the circumstances:

“Sound is a natural adjunct of the motions of men, and its entire absence is unearthly, unnatural, not human.  The name sith without doubt refers to ‘peace’ or silence of Airy motion, as contrasted to the stir and noise accompanying the movements and actions of men.  The German ‘still folk’ is a name of corresponding import… They seem to glide or float along, rather than to walk.” (Superstitions of the Highlands and islands p.4).

Campbell compared the sound of the fairies’ movement to a rustling noise, like that of a gust of winds, or a silk gown, or a sword drawn sharply through the air.

“In they swept with a rustling sound/ Like dead leaves blown together.”

The fairies’ cobbler, Rosamond M. Watson

The soundlessness of fairy movement seems to be confirmed by an account collected by Welsh minister Edmund Jones.  A girl of Trefethin parish told him how she had come across some fairies dancing under a crab tree.  Regularly for three or four years after that time, either when she was going to or coming home from school, she would meet with them to dance in a barn.  She recalled that they wore green and blue aprons, were of small stature and looked “oldish.” Most notable, though, was she never heard their feet whilst she was dancing with them; she took off her own shoes too to make no noise as it seemed displeasing to them.

Skipping and speeding

Other authorities believe that fairy motion was typified by its great speed, which is achieved without perceptible effort.  The fays’ hands and feet may move so fast that they aren’t visible and they seem to glide through the air without touching the ground.  A man who met some Scottish fairies on Halloween described to poet James Hogg how “their motions were so quick and momentary he could not well say what they were doing.”  Supporting this, an account of Broonie the trow king from Orkney describes him as ‘gliding’ from farmstead to farmstead.  Nonetheless, another witness reported how she saw a trow getting about by skipping- backwards (County folklore, vol.3 ,Shetland and Orkney).

iro the acrobats

Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, The acrobats

Swimming in the air

Is there anything else distinctive about fairy motion that can be gleaned from the sources?

There are a few intriguing mentions of unusual or characteristic movement.  In The secret commonwealth the Reverend Robert Kirk describes how, with their bodies of “congealled Air” the sidh folk are “some tymes caried aloft” and that they “swim in the Air near the Earth” (c.1).  Welsh Rev. Edmund Jones relates how Edmund Daniel of Arail saw fairies at Cefn Bach: they were “leaping and striking the air” in an undulating motion (The appearance of evil no.59).  Lastly, a nineteenth century Yorkshire account describes the fays as being seen, early on summer mornings, in “rapid, confused motion.”  These latter descriptions are so individual and unique as to lend them considerable authenticity.

Catch us if you can

The same man who told James Hogg about the fairies on Halloween also had another supernatural experience, when he saw a crowd of fays travelling up Glen Entertrony.  At first he thought they were neighbours returning from the fair and tried to catch up with them to get the latest news.  Although they were only twenty paces ahead of him, and he was running, he was never able to reach them- and all the time they seemed to him to be standing still in a circle.  This puts me in mind of an incident from the Mabinogion.  In the story of Pwyll, Lord of Dyfed, Pwyll is seated on top of a fairy hill when he sees fairy princess Rhiannon riding past.  He tries to pursue her, but can never catch her up however hard he spurs his horse.

In the Scottish Highlands it is also believed that, when ‘the folk’ move about in groups, they travel in eddies of wind.  In Gaelic such an eddy is known as `the people’s puff of wind’ (oiteag sluaigh) and its motion ‘travelling on tall grass stems’ (falbh air chuiseagan treorach).  John Rhys recorded in Celtic folklore that the Welsh tylwyth teg were said to dance on the tops of rushes, again suggestive of a light and floating motion.

Whilst we’re talking about fairy movement, it may be worth mentioning here a curious observation by Alasdair Alpin MacGregor in his folk lore guide, The peat fire flame.  He records the Highlands belief that fairies always approach from the West.  My guess is that this is the direction associated with sunset and so, by extension, with death, and that it reflects the association of fairies with the dead, even if they are not ghosts or the dead themselves.

Conclusions

What can we conclude from this brief survey of allusive hints?  The best we can probably say is that one way that fairies might be identified is by their particular gliding, floating movements.

I examine other evidence on other means of locomotion in two other posts, one on fairies whirling and one on ‘Horse and Hattock.’

IRO Dragonfly fairy

Some Welsh Otherworlds

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Caer Sidi by Sirsur on Deviant Art

In a post last summer I discussed the Welsh tendency to portray fairyland as an island, especially an offshore island that appeared and disappeared unpredictably.  In this post I’m returning to the subject of the Celtic ideas of Faery,  but with a wider perspective.

We have to start with some background.  In Welsh mythology Annwn (Old Welsh Annwfyn) is the commonest term used for the Otherworld, the supernatural dimension.  The word occurs most notably in the title of a poem found in the ‘Book of Taliesin’ and dated roughly to the late 800s- early 1100s- ‘The spoils of Annwn’ (Preiddau Annwn).  This poem describes a journey by King Arthur and three ships full of his men to seize a magical cauldron from Annwn.  The verse touches on many important themes:  there is the Celtic idea of the special food vessel (perhaps a forerunner of the Grail);  the cauldron’s cooking fire is kindled by the breath of nine maidens, a group we must irresistibly associate with Morgan le Fay and the nine virgin priestesses of the Isle de Sein off the Breton coast; there is the use of the magic number seven (only seven men return with Arthur from his voyage- just as only seven men return to Britain with Bran the Blessed in the story ‘Branwen, daughter of Llŷr‘ in the Mabinogion)- and there is the idea of a a fairy fortress, my particular interest here.

Caer Sidi

Arthur’s quest takes him to a stronghold that has various names in the poem.  It is first called Caer Sidi (or Siddi), but it’s also the four-cornered fort, the fort of numbness, the fort of obstruction and the Glass Fort (Caer Wydyr).  Those of us interested in the Arthurian legends could easily be distracted by this last name, which takes us to other mythological sites in the Matter of Britain: to Ynys Witrin, the Isle of Glass, and thence to Glastonbury and Avalon (but that’s another story).

Back to Caer Sidi; this name is translated variously as the Otherworld fort, the spiral fortress and, importantly for us here, the Fairy Fort.  That interpretation derives from a link made between Sidi and the Gaelic sidhe, meaning the Tuatha De Danann, the fairy folk.  Now, it has to be admitted that sidhe properly means ‘peace’ and that it has come to mean ‘fairy’ because it’s an abbreviation of ‘people of peace,’ one of those euphemisms regularly used by people to avoid naming Them directly that I’ve examined before.  It’s not a wholly secure chain of etymology, therefore, but it’s a generally accepted translation and (as I’m no Celtic scholar) I’m content to accept it.

Another Taliesin poem, Kerd Veib am Llyr (Song before the sons of Llyr) also refers to Caer Sidi.  The poet declares that

“Complete is my chair in Caer Sidi/ No-one will be afflicted with disease or old age that may be in it/… Around its borders are the streams of ocean.”

These lines appear to imply that this chair (kadeir- meaning a throne or seat of precedence) is situated on an island and that either the seat or the site confer some sort of eternal youth- that it is a paradise.

corona-borealis-fred-espenak-sq

Caer Arianrhod

Magical, or supernatural, forts are popular with the Welsh poets.  Another example that’s worth mentioning is Caer Arianrhod.  This location features in the story of Math fab Mathonwy, also in the Mabinogion.  Arianrhod herself is one of the children of the goddess figure Don, the Welsh equivalents of the Irish goddess Danu and her offspring, the Tuatha De Danann.  The mythology is all very complicated and it’s easy to get lost, but for present purposes it will suffice us to say that forts and fairies seem to be intimately related in Celtic myth.  Another ancient Welsh poem, Kadeir Kerritwen (the Chair of Ceridwen), describes how the River Enfnys flows around Arianrhod’s court: it is, once again, an island, depicted as being physically separated from the rest of the mortal world as a metaphor for its spiritual separation.  I may add that Caer Arianrhod is also a name for the constellation of the Northern Crown, the Corona Borealis.

Now, we’re not talking here about Caernarfon castle- let’s bear that it mind.  These legends were formulated in the ‘Dark Ages’ when there were no stone medieval castles.  Even Norman motte and bailey strongholds of wood and earth would have been too advanced for the period, so what we have to imagine for all of these locations is a traditional British hill fort, somewhere like Maiden Castle or Hambledon Hill.  Of course, as I’ve only recently discussed, there are longstanding fairy associations with ancient sites, whether hill forts, stone circles or barrows.  That’s why, therefore, in my story Albion awake!I had the main characters meet the fairy queen Maeve atop the tumulus on the summit of Hambledon Hill.

So, to return to our theme, Fairyland for the Welsh appears always to have been associated with some identifiable feature in the landscape, whether a prehistoric fortification or an island.  The ‘otherness’ and inaccessibility of each particular site presumably derived from its physical features (man-made or natural)  and also from the aura of mystery attached to it: Iron Age hillforts or Neolithic causewayed camps would have been ancient and inexplicable presences, haunted by the spirits of poorly understood ancestors. Possibly too some memories are preserved of the sacredness of lakes and other bodies of water in Iron Age Celtic worship.  There was a gulf in time, as well as some geographical barrier, that separated the observer from the fairy place.

To conclude, then, the Welsh faerie is somewhere near to us, yet faraway.  It might be found either:

  • on a high hilltop (and you might be reminded here of Arthur Machen’s story The hill of dreams);  and/ or,
  • on an enchanted island in the sea or in an inland lake.  We know that King Arthur sails to Annwn in his ship Prydwen, indicating that Caer Sidi must be doubly remote and inaccessible.  This idea is not uniquely Welsh.  I’ll close with a story from the Scottish Highlands.  In the far north west in Gairloch lies Loch Maree and in that loch there is Eilean Sithain (the fairy island).  On that island is another loch, and in that loch a further island, on which- under a tree- sits the fairy queen, receiving from her people their kain (tithe or tribute) which is paid every seven years to the devil (it was said).  (see J. H. Dixon, Gairloch in North west Ross-shire, 1885, p.159).

Some further reading

I’ve mentioned Robert Graves’ White Goddess before and in it, chapters 5 and 6, he examines the mythology behind the two caers at some length (make what you will of it).

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

 

Bernard Sleigh and the map of fairyland- Part Two

afanc

I continue here my examination of Bernard Sleigh’s Ancient mappe of fairyland and its background.

‘Edwardian innocence’- the context of the map

“Fairies and ghosts are here galore.” (Robert Graves, ‘Letter to SS from Mametz Wood,’ from Fairies and fusiliers. 1918)

Tom Harper, the British Library’s antiquarian map curator, has observed that:

An ancient mappe of Fairyland… was published in 1918, the year that World War I ended, so it is difficult not to relate the two in some way. Could the Fairyland constitute a yearning for a return to pre-1914 Edwardian innocence? Compared with the devastated, bomb-blasted landscape of northern France, this vision of a make-believe land may have seemed a seductive escape for a European society bearing the physical and psychological scars of mass conflict.

The map is very much a product of the Arts and Crafts ideology which evinced a return to traditional, pre-industrial production methods.  The ornamentation and typeface are in the style of William Morris’ Kelmscott Press. This retrospective stylistic attitude places the map in opposition to a mechanical modernity, which happened to have reached its most destructive pinnacle during the War.”

These comments raise a very interesting question.  To what extent is escapism in art excusable?  Should artists confront the events of their day in their works, as is the case with Great War artist Otto Dix, or should they offer their audiences refuge?  Furthermore, as noted, Sleigh was too old to serve in Flanders.  Without that first-hand experience- what the Germans called Fronterlebnis– was he qualified to speak in any case?

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Bernard Sleigh

Modern painter Peter Blake is known for the series of fairy pictures he produced whilst a member of the Brotherhood of Ruralists during the 1970s.  Interviewed for the Independent in December 1997, Blake told Andrew Lambirth that-

“Fairies are a vehicle for what we want them to be… There’s an edge of magic realism to them.  The fairies I paint have the ability to make magic.”

More recently, however, Blake seemed to have a change of heart, describing his fairy phase as “unforgivably sentimental.”  Reviewing Tate Liverpool’s 2007 retrospective of Blake’s career, critic Waldemar Januszczak was far less kind; for him the pictures were “unforgivably silly” when set against the political background of late 1970s Britain.  So- were the fairy pictures a dereliction of some perceived duty as a social reporter; should Blake have been painting punks and Grunwick strikers?  Should Sleigh likewise have painted mud and trenches?

Rose-Fyleman

Rose Amy Fyleman

Prolific English children’s author Rose Amy Fyleman (1877-1957) is probably best remembered for her first published work, There are fairies at the bottom of our garden, which appeared in May 1917.  It reassures readers that they can participate in fairy revels themselves:

“There are fairies at the bottom of our garden!…
The King is very proud and very handsome;
The Queen- now you can guess who that could be
(She’s a little girl all day, but at night she steals away)?
Well – it’s Me!”

Over the Channel as Fyleman wrote, the British were preparing the appalling offensive at Passchendaele. Talk of fairies, merrymaking with the local wildlife behind the gardener’s shed, might have seemed curiously irrelevant and inappropriate- even unpatriotic- that summer.  The next year, though, Fyleman wrote a partner poem, There used to be, which stands in affecting antithesis to her previous verse:

“There used to be fairies in Germany-

I know, for I’ve seen them there…

What, and oh what were they doing

To let things like this?

How could it be? And didn’t they see

That folk were going amiss?…

There used to be fairies in Germany-

The children will look for them still…

“The flowers,” they will say, “have all vanished,

And where can the fairies be fled

That played in the fern?”- The flowers will return,

But I fear that the fairies are dead.”

This is a remarkable social and political commentary.  The Great War smashed many childhood illusions and security; to some degree it appears that it was the fairies’ fault, arising from neglect of and by them.  The result has been their extinction.

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Francis Ledwidge

Whatever our views of Fyleman’s verse, it cannot be denied that fairyland provided comfort and shelter from the experience of war for those actually on the frontline.  Arguably their views are a better measure of the fittest response from art to death and disruption.  Irish poet Francis Ledwidge was writing fairy verse in the trenches right up until the week of his death in 1917.  Awaiting action in Belgium in July that year, Ledwidge preferred not to think about whizz bangs and gas but to imagine fairy dances, piping elves, ceol sidhe (fairy music) and the allurements of fairy lovers:

“From hill to hill, from land to land,

Her lovely hand is beckoning for me,

I follow on through dangerous zones,

Cross dead men’s bones and oceans stormy.”

(The lanawn shee (The fairy lover), July 1917)

In fact, Ledwidge’s attraction to fairy themes only increased as the war progressed.  His first collection of verse, Songs of the fields (1915), contained no fay references.  His second, Songs of peace of 1917, contained two and the third, Last songs, which was published in 1918, includes eight fairy poems.  Arguably, as the stress increased and his odds of avoiding injury diminished, the lure of a fantasy outlet grew irresistible.

Poet and mythologist Robert Graves came out of action in Flanders still able to promise that “you’ll be fairies soon” in his poem Cherry time or to declare “I’d love to be a fairy’s child” in the verse of the same name (both published in his 1918 collection Fairies and fusiliers). Another officer, J. R. R. Tolkien, was likewise writing fairy verse in the trenches- although his subjects may have been toughened by the experience, transforming them from typical winged Victorian elves in his early verse to the noble warriors of Lord of the Rings.

MAS 701 - The Piper of Dreams

Estella Canziani, The piper of dreams, Medici Society

Lastly, in summer 1915 painter Estella Canziani exhibited The piper of dreams at the Royal Academy.  The picture shows a boy playing a whistle in a wood, unaware of the fairies flitting around him; it was an instant success.  The Medici Society quickly acquired the rights to the image and published prints and postcards, very many of which were sent to troops at the front, where it was very popular.

As Blake indicated, fairies have always had a creative function in our culture, providing inspiration to writers and visual artists alike.  Fairy imagery too is a vehicle for addressing many emotions and problems, from sexuality to violence.  There is no inherent reason why fairy art cannot discuss war- nor why it should not be a legitimate response to conflict.

‘Dreamland’- the content of the map

 One map dealer has described faerie, as depicted by Sleigh, as “an idyllic, fantastical land.”  This captures its mood exactly.  However, we should note at the outset that there is a slight misnomer.  The map portrays the land of fairy-tales, rather than being a depiction of Faerie.

wall

The 1917 Guide to the map is a charming read, being poetic and full of authentic fairylore.  Sleigh begins:

“In the heart of every child is hidden a little golden key which unlocks the door of a silent, clean swept room full of changing lights and mystic shadows.  There, every child that is born into the world enters at times to gaze eagerly upon the one great window, pictured with ancient legends…

Charmed magic casements, opening on the foam,

Of perilous oceans, of faery lands forlorn.” (Guide p.7)

Sleigh concludes with lines from John Keats’ famous poem, Ode to a nightingale, inappropriate as they may be to his generally affectionate vision of faery.

The map is “for the use and guidance of future explorers” who travel to the “rainbow guarded shores” of this mysterious place- The land of heart’s desire, The fortunate isles, The islands of the blest.  It’s needed because the tracks “vanish and reappear- and vanish again in bewildering fashion- baffling and discouraging to even the most earnest traveller.” ( The guide, pp.8-9) In Fairyland distances are measured in thoughts, each equalling five hundred of our miles.  What’s more, travellers must always be cautious.  They should arrive at Dreamland Harbour where their passports will be stamped and their eyes touched with magic ointment.  This traditional protection against fairy glamour is vital because, without it, they won’t be able to tell good fairies from bad and they may end up as a lost child in Never Never Land.  In this emphasis upon the malicious and untrustworthy nature of fairy kind, Sleigh is wholly authentic: faery has always been a place of illusion and peril and Sleigh did not conceal this from his children.

avalon

Turning to the map itself, there is a blending of fairytale, myth, fairy lore and the Matter of Britain.  Fairyland is an island, mountainous at its two ends and with a lower land bridge joining these.  A wall, “builded of Stars by manie Elfin Emperours in days remote,” divides the good and evil halves.  The island is littered with symbols indicating inns, fairy shrines and temples, wishing wells and, most exciting of all, the sites of dwarves’ treasure.  There are plenty of traditional folklore references.

Amidst the peaks on the left/ west, we see the Valley of Dragons, in which lies The Weird Wood and “Blackadder Lake- here Afanc broodeth.” The afanc is a Welsh water monster.  Nearby is an elfin monastery, a wandering will of the wisp and, in the hills above, fairy flocks grazing near Fairies’ Marsh, Elfin Mere and the Kobold’s Caves.

Settlements crowd the lower ground between the highlands.  There we find many fairy references: Elfin Citie, Kelpie Hamlet, Undine Bay, Brownies’ Huts, Troll Town, Dwarf’s Caves, Bogles Corner, Pixie Town, an Elfin temple and Oberon’s Cross.  Scattered around these you spot that “Tom Tit Tot lives here,” that there are leprechauns, nixies, neckans, mermaids, sirens and water sprites, a River of White Nymphs and, where “the sidhe make the Water of Life.”

sidhe

So far, so good: but the traditional theme is not so consistent.  You will also encounter Humpty Dumpty, Goosey Gander, Bo Peep, Puss in Boots and Jack Horner.  In Avalon you may visit the tombs of Arthur and Guinevere and Morgan Le Fay’s house.  Merlin sits disconsolate in the Forest of Lyonesse; there is Ogier le Danois close to ‘The Imp Tree’ from the romance of Sir Orfeo (“Ƿai sett hem doun al þre/ Under a faire ympe-tre”).  You will come across Perseus and Andromeda, Theseus and the Golden Fleece, Valhalla and Asgard.  Very modern elements creep in, too: we see the Lost Boys and, away across the sea, the Water Babies and other personnel from Kingsley’s book.  The range of references is huge and you cannot but be impressed at the breadth of literature with which the Sleigh children were acquainted, aged about ten and twelve.  There is a reading list at the end of The guide, which includes the reasonably predictable Arabian Nights, Andersen, Charles Kingsley, Nesbit and Brothers Grimm, but also suggests the young audience might like to tackle Malory, The Mabinogion, de la Motte Fouqué and Macdonald’s Phantastes- a very different proposition to The princess and the goblin.

‘A key to all the mythologies’

Many authorities have argued that the Victorian fairy fascination was a response to disenchantment with their world- and an effort to re-enchant it.  By 1918 the need for enchantment was very great.

The Ancient mappe of Fairyland won’t teach us a great deal about the location or nature of Faerie, but it will certainly entertain and charm.  For example, along the lower edge you will spot Puck singing for Titania at the foot of an old-fashioned dove cote from which most of the birds have been evicted by tiny winged fays.

ariel

Nonetheless, Sleigh’s map is more than amusement.  Whilst Tolkien’s Middle Earth maps can be engrossing, they are no more than drawings of made up places.  Sleigh’s map is the same, but it is more: it is a “little golden key” to a wealth of other stories, opening a magic casement onto a treasury of classic myths.  Like all real maps, it is a guide to a journey, but it’s not the adventure itself.

Further reading

See too my further discussion of the role played by faery art and literature in the 1914-18 war effort: ‘War fairies‘ and my consideration of Rutland Boughton, the Glastonbury Festival and faery opera.  For further discussion of Faery art in the period, see my book Fairy Art of the Twentieth Century

 

 

 

Fairy lore and The Mabinogion

coranyeit

As many readers are likely to be aware, The Mabinogion is the collection of early medieval Welsh stories that connects us to ancient Celtic mythology and gives us the first literary mentions of later Romantic hero, King Arthur.  Much could be written (and has been) about the connections between these stories and the works of Chretien de Troyes, Marie de France and Malory; yet more can be said about the links between the Welsh myths and the Irish stories of Cuchulain and others.  Here, I wish solely to focus upon the traces of fairy-lore in these accounts.

It is fair to say that The Mabinogion is steeped in magic.  Fairy glamour- the use of concealment, deception and transformation- is a theme that runs throughout the different stories of the collection.  The ‘glamorous’ quality of the tales is so fundamental to them and so subtle that we might almost overlook it.  Nonetheless, the integral otherworldly quality of many of the stories shares a nature and a source with faery.  These are fairy-tales just as much as they are hero stories, pseudo-history or courtly romances.

Welsh fairies

There are several features that can be identified which more explicitly demonstrate the fairy presence in The Mabinogion.  These include:

  • mounds- in several tales the action takes place, or characters are discovered seated upon, mounds.  In Pwyll and Manawyddan the gorsedd at Narberth has a particularly central role, but see too the stories of Owein and of Peredur- in the latter one mound is also explicitly stated to be a barrow, reminding us of the link between fairies and ancient sites.  Regular readers will further recall that grassy knolls are a typical fairy haunt;
  • magical ointment- in an incident in the story of Peredur, an ointment is used to revive knights killed in combat.  This quality of bestowing immortality or overcoming mortality recalls my recent discussion of the properties of fairy ointment;
  • fairy hounds- at the very start of the story Pwyll, the eponymous hero comes across Arawn, lord of Annwfn, who is out hunting with archetypal supernatural hounds– white with red ears.  This is very plainly a fairy pack and Arawn appears to be the lord of fairyland;
  • in the story of Culhwch ac Olwen, the many members of King Arthur’s court are listed.  Amongst them is his messenger Sgilti Light Foot who can run over forests on the tops of the trees and over mountains on the tips of the reeds. This skill is directly paralleled by a fairy trait recorded at Llanberis in North Wales by John Rhys; the Tylwyth Teg were said to be so light and agile that they could dance on the tips of the rushes (Celtic folklore p.83);
  • characters in the tales can travel with a tell-tale gliding motion, most notably Rhiannon in the story of Pwyll; she cannot be pursued either slowly or quickly, but always mysteriously moves ahead of those following her. This gait is distinctively fairy and is a feature of the ‘fairy rades’ often commented upon.
  • lastly, we must address the identity and nature of the people called Coranyeit/ Corannyeid (modern Welsh coraniaid) who bring plague to Britain in the story of Llud and Llevelys.  The episode requires a lengthier consideration.  

The Coraniaid

The people called Coranyeit appear to be fairies of some description- or, at least, strangers with magical powers.  Their name is etymologically linked to Welsh corr/ corrach (dwarf/ stunted), suggestive of diminutive fairies, and to the Breton fairies called korriganed.  The latter closely resemble the pixies of the British south-west, but it is hard to identify any clear parallels between korrigans and coranyeit.  All we do know is that the troublesome beings of the Welsh story are said to have come from Asia (Triad 36).

The Coraniaid are classed as one of the three gormessoedd (foreign oppressions or invasions) of Wales; this is because they have an unfortunate gift- they can hear anything that is said, however hushed the voice, provided that the wind catches it.  As a result, no-one could plot against them and they could seemingly never be harmed.  This trait perhaps is linked to the need to refer to the fairies by pseudonyms, such as Tylwyth Teg, Bendith y Mamau or ‘good neighbours’ so as not to insult or antagonise them.

The Corannyeid are eliminated from the realm by mashing insects in water and sprinkling this upon the assembled people.  The humans present are unharmed and the intruders are destroyed.  This detail is very puzzling and has never had any satisfactory explanation; some commentators have suggested that Spanish fly may be involved. The Welsh word used in the story (pryvet; Modern Welsh pryfed) is of very limited assistance in solving the mystery as it simply means ‘insects’ in a general sense. Nothing is clear, then, but there is some parallel at least to the use of various plants like rowan or of substances like stale urine to repel fairies.  These may be distasteful to humans, but they are none of them fatal.

In the Coraniaid‘s size, their malevolence and their supernatural senses there is plainly a good deal of fairy nature.  A final observation may clinch this identification.  In 1779 a clergy man called Edmund Jones wrote A geographical, historical and religious account of the parish of Aberystruth.  He had cause to criticise (at length) the parishioners’ foolish attachment to old delusions concerning the tylwyth teg.  Amongst the beliefs prevalent in the area in the late eighteenth century was the idea that the fairies would always know whatever was spoken out of doors, especially at night (p.72).  This seems to be a direct preservation of the Corianaid‘s regrettable eavesdropping abilities.

korrigan