Sex and the fairy

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Arthur Rackham, illustration from Milton’s ‘Comus’

As I suggested in the previous post on fairies in John Keats’ poetry, sex and sexuality are strong elements in (adult) fairylore.  Maureen Duffy, in her extensive and detailed study of fairies in literature, The erotic world of faery (Cardinal, 1989), describes how fairies are an embodiment of repressed desires.  Folk culture favoured greater sexual freedom than the church could sanction, and fairy tales allowed writers to deal with taboo subjects and taboo desires in an indirect way.  Duffy notes that malignant spirits are more common than benevolent ones and she links the latter to a cheerful and open sexuality.

Fairy folk appear to have some kind of role as facilitators or instigators of human sexual relations.  In my next post on Queen Mab I note her apparent role in instructing innocent virgins.  Ben Jonson hints that house elves have some sort of role in enabling wenches to spend time with their lovers: in his Masque of Love Restored one of Robin Goodfellow’s roles is to sweep hearths, clean houses and generally do the chores for the maids “whilst they are at hot-cockles.” I do not think this is merely a reference to them playing the children’s game akin to Blind Man’s Bluff!  Even more explicit is John Lyly in Act II of The Maid’s Metamorphosis.  The ‘third fairy’ recounts his pastimes:

“When I feel a girl asleep,

Underneath her frock I peep,

There to sport, and there I play.

Then I bite her like a flea,

And about I skip.”

It is certainly undeniable that there is often close sexual dependency between fairies and humans.  Fairy women often seek out human partners, a theme I borrowed in my novel The elder queenand the literary and visual representations of fairies are frequently more or less sexualised.  In this post I want to examine fairies in art in a little more detail, making particular reference to the twentieth century artists Arthur Rackham and Brian Froud.  In Victorian Painting (Phaidon, 1999, p.194) Lionel Lambourne describes how “many paintings … [were] saved from indecorum by the pretence that the women depicted were not scantily dressed real women but innocuous fairies, tastefully ‘veiled’ in the trappings of allegory or myth.”  This allowed artists to show naked and attractive young women without (once again) violating social taboos.  I want to discuss Rackham and Froud as successors of this approach.

Both artists depict goblins in very much the same way- as grotesque, mischievous beings.  They also both depict fairies as being quite distinct- as female and human like.  Nevertheless, there are significant differences in their portrayals.  Rackham’s fairies are young women with long hair- coy, slim, alluring- semi-naked or in see-through clothing.  An example of this preference of Rackham’s is an illustration to the story of Rip van Winkle, titled ‘These fairy mountains.’  It depicts a scene on a peak in the Catskills range.  I cannot help but notice that, whilst the ‘goblin’ figures are fully clothed, in a manner suitable to the altitude and climate, the fairies are posed partially and only very lightly dressed, giving the illustrator a good opportunity to show us some juvenile semi-nudity (see below).  This apparently provides confirmation of Lambourne’s observation on some of the parameters within which Victorian artists worked..

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Brian Froud‘s fairies are often young, but not always, and they seem much more self-possessed or even self absorbed.  They engage with the viewer, they have their own sense of humour and their sexuality is their own.

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Brian Froud, ‘Fairy princess’

Of course, there is nearly a century separating the pictures and Brian Froud’s art is likely to be ‘post-feminist.’  I’d argue there is more, though.  Before there was sci-fi, there was fairy art, and the aim of both is to depict unreal things- generally as if they were actually real- either because the artist or the viewer (or both) wish to imagine it so.  Fantasy art can portray things that are impossible (such as Froud’s half-frog fairies) or it can present idealised images- how we would wish ‘faery’ to be; and it is often overtly sexual or suggestive of sexuality.  Fairy maids were in the past allowed to be sexy because they were outside the structures of family and society (for example, they could independently choose human partners).  They were allowed to express what would otherwise not have been permitted to the artist or to a young woman at the time.  Those constraints are much diminished now and I think that explains the difference in atmosphere between Rackham’s work and Froud’s.  The art of both is attractive, but the messages are very different.

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Brian Froud, ‘Here we are, what can you see?’

Further reading

An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).  I consider the changing image and gender stereotypes of fairies in a later post looking at developments since Victorian times.

I have examined the faery art of Brian Froud separately, whilst in other posts I have also discussed questions of fairy sexuality and what we consider to be beauty amongst fairykind. 

“A doubtful tale from faery land”- John Keats and faery

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J Waterhouse, ‘La belle dame sans merci’

I am a great admirer of the poetry of John Keats.  At the start of my adult fairy tale, The Elder Queenwhich is available as either a paperback or e-book through Amazon, I quote some verses from his poem La Belle Dame sans Merci, which is a tale of a fatal fairy lover.  Throughout my book, there are sly quotations from Keats which those steeped in his works may spot.  An example is the fairy folk’s name for themselves- they tell Darren at the dance that they are ‘sky children’ which I have shamelessly stolen (or borrowed) from Hyperion line 133.

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Many writers have explored Keats’ poetry and his interest in faery.  A very good example is Maureen Duffy, The erotic world of faery (1972, pp.260-287), which examines in detail the intertwined themes of fairy women, death, love, sex and Keats’ relationship with his mother.  In this post I will simply highlight some of the main aspects of the poet’s treatment of fairy lore.

Fairies and girls

There is little doubt that one use of faery made by Keats is as a shorthand for girls and sex.  Keats is open in his liking for women (“Nymph of the downward smile” To G A W line 1) and feminine attributes (“Faery lids” in Lines line 7).  He readily goes further too, expressing his desire for physical contact.  He “fondled the maids with breasts of cream” (To Charles Cowden Clark line 34) and on a visit to Dawlish meets a Devon maid he greets as a “tight little fairy, just fresh from the dairy” (Where be ye going line 3).  He expressly tells country wench Betty that he would like to “rumple the daisies” with her (Over the hill line 19).

Fairies and love

It isn’t just a matter of lust though.  Fairies are linked too with love.  Keats fears he will “Never have relish in the faery power/ Of unrequiting love!” (When I have fears line 11) and he knows that they love true, as humans do (When they were come to Faery’s Court & Song of the Four Fairies).  

Country fairies

If you want a field guide to the fairy realm, Keats indicates that faeries are creatures of the countryside- particularly groves (When they were come to Faery’s Court) and glades (To Emma line 7); they are most often found at evening- for example in Ode to a Nightingale line 37 he describes how “the Queen Moon is on her throne, Clustered around by all her starry Fays” (see too To Emma line 7 & Song of the Four Fairies).  Lastly they are often diminutive and delicate (see for example Faery Bird’s Song & Faery Song). 

Perilous fairies

So far, so conventional; these faeries are the tiny sprites of Mercutio in Romeo & Juliet: they may be mischievous, but they are not wicked.  Keats, however, knows another strand of fairy lore.  He is aware that fairies can be perilous and vengeful.  In When they came to the Faery’s Court he alludes to the ‘three great crimes in faery land’, which are playing before them, sleeping in their company and stealing their property.  This sort of disrespect will be punished- a very regular feature of human/ fairy dealings.  The faery folk can be antagonistic and possessive: at the very start of Lamia (Part I, lines 1-2) he recounts “Upon a time before the faery broods/ Drove nymph and satyr from the prosperous woods.”  The fairy folk are jealous of what they control and will not share- and it seems that this applies to lovers too.  Diane Purkis in her book Troublesome things (Penguin 2001) highlights the deadly privilege of being chosen and loved by a faery maiden.  This is a traditional theme epitomised by La Belle Dame sans Merci.  She is alluring, this Lady of the Meads, “Full beautiful, a faery’s child” with her long hair, wild eyes and sweet moan, but association with her is dangerous and almost invariably fatal.  Contact with the lady is literally enchanting: “And nothing else saw all day long./ For sidelong would she bend, and sing/ A faery’s song… and sure, in language strange she said,/ I love thee true.”  Very soon the hapless knight was “in thrall” to the fairy and was deathly pale.

No wonder then that, in Ode to a Nightingale line 70, Keats describes being “In faery lands forlorn.”  Many of his descriptions of the fays imply carefree joy, but John Keats was also alert to the darker side of relations with supernatural beings, that their interest and affection could constitute a curse as well as a blessing.  This theme is something I intend to explore in my books.  An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).