Spirits of Place: faeries and the land

Eleanor Brickdale, A Sprite

“The green land’s name that a charm encloses,

It never was writ in the traveller’s chart…”

Algernon Charles Swinburne, ‘A Ballad of Dreamland’

In his introduction to the 1974 reprint of Alfred Watkins’ ley line classic, The Old Straight Track, John Michell noted how both Watkins and the Reverend Francis Kilvert invoked the “same genius terrae britannicae” of the red Herefordshire earth.  This genius, the ‘spirit of the British land,’ is very much what we are describing when we discuss British fairies.

The painter Paul Nash sought to discover and free the imprisoned spirit of the land, the motive power that animated the British landscape.  He deeply felt that a spirit of place, a genius loci, inhabited the soil and scenery and that certain poets in particular sensed it.  William Blake, he felt, “perceived among many things the hidden significance of the land he always called Albion”  (Personal Statement, Unit One, 1934).  Poet Herbert Read described Nash as having “profound intuitions” that enabled him to “reveal the immemorial values in the landscape.” He saw “an animistic landscape, the sacred habitation of familiar spirits” in which many natural elements were synthesised in a “druidic ritual” (Read, Paul Nash, Penguin Modern Painters, 1944). Through his strong sense of the character and spirit of individual places, Nash felt that he could witness “another aspect of the accepted world…” In this, he saw himself merely to be continuing a tradition initiated by Wordsworth, who had built up a mythology founded upon a “systematic animation of the inanimate, which attributes life and feeling to non-human nature.”

Intriguingly, Nash repeatedly drew analogies between human life and the lives of trees: he was keenly aware of how the tree was rooted in the soil and dependent upon earth and landscape. In a letter written in August 1912 the painter even went so far as to declare that he painted trees as though they were human because “I sincerely love and worship trees and know that they are people- and wonderfully beautiful people.” These ideas make his comments upon Ivinghoe Beacon, on the Chiltern Hills, more fascinating: it was, he recalled, “an enchanted place… where you might meet anything from a polecat to a dryad.” The woodland spirits were alive and active for Nash.

Nash, Avebury

Elsewhere, Nash wrote that “The idea of giving life to inanimate objects is as old as almost any record of fable.  It has varied in its conception throughout very different histories,” which included fairy lore and mythology.  This “endowment of natural objects, organic but not human, with active powers or personal influences” lies at the core of faery belief, I also believe (Nash, ‘The Life of the Inanimate Object,’ Country Life, May 1st 1937).  The artist had recently visited the Avebury megaliths for the first time and “the holy stones of the Great Circle” had evidently impressed him deeply.  He continued that “it is not a question of a particular stone being the house of the spirit- the stone itself has its spirit, it is alive.” This idea of animating inanimate objects was very old indeed, “a commonplace in fairy tale and which occurs quite naturally also in most mythologies.”  

Sketching at Silbury Hill near Avebury, Nash recalled that:

“I felt that I had divined the secret of that paradoxical pyramid.  Such things do happen in England, quite naturally, but they are not recognised for what they are- the true yield of the land, indeed, but also works of art; identical with the intimate spirit inhabiting these gentle fields, yet not the work of chance or the elements, but directed by an intelligent purpose ruled by an authentic vision.”

(‘A Characteristic,’ Architectural Record, March, 1937, 39-40)

Nash’s revelation at Silbury encouraged him to intensify his search for “A character which frankly disclosed a national inspiration, something whose lineaments seemed almost redolent of place and time within the limits of these shores.”

Nash in the Forest of Dean, 1938

As well as the Avebury complex, Nash was especially devoted to the twin Oxfordshire hills called the Wittenham Clumps, which he returned to paint throughout his life. The legends attached to the Clumps enhanced their mystery for him: one of the hills was an ancient fort where it was said that treasure was buried, guarded by a phantom raven. Beneath the hills were long barrows and an ancient forest. The place had, he said, “a compelling magic.”

Earlier writer Maurice Hewlett had had the same perception as Nash.  In his 1913 novella The Lore of Proserpine, he recorded how “I have seen spirits, beings… and have observed them as part of the landscape, no more extraordinary than grazing cattle or wheeling plover.”  A little later, he added that he regarded them as a “natural fact… a part of the landscape” (‘The Soul at the Window,’ The Lore of Proserpine, 1913). 

As we just saw, Nash discussed the ‘yield’ of the land when describing Silbury. Earlier investigators had (incredibly) dismissed the stone circle and avenues as purely natural features, but he rightly saw them as more than a simple geological formation. Elsewhere he discussed how his art would become preoccupied with “one landscape [and the] flowers and fungi which it yields.” This suggests that, almost like crops or the native fauna and flora, the faery folk are a natural outgrowth of the soil.  I think we can usefully borrow a further term from English land law and talk about the ‘burden’ of the land: this is a term denoting certain costs or obligations that come with a certain body of land.  In faery terms, these will be their right and expectation to be given a share of food products, to be able to use the occupiers’ homes and other buildings and (even) to have certain areas of land set aside and preserved solely for them. They are a continual presence on the land- and a continual influence upon its usage and meaning.

I feel, therefore, that British fairies are in many respects bound up and directly expressive of the landscape within which they live.  Pixies, the tylwyth teg, the ‘yarthkins‘ of East Anglian, they are a part of the terrain in which they reside, they are the animating spirit of those moors, mountains and fens. The wild and aggressive spriggans, buccas and piskies of the south-west arguably manifest the rugged nature of the region they inhabit; so too the tiddy ones or yarthkins of the Fens, rising as they do from the waterways and peaty soils of that region. They are the original and most fundamental yield of the land.

Nash, Bleached Objects

To conclude, I need hardly say that these ideas are not by any means uniquely mine. Well known faery artist Brian Froud, for example, has said that “Faeries are the inner nature of each land and a reflection of the inner nature of our souls.” The people of each nation are shaped by their environment; so too are the supernatural beings of that country and, as a result, there is a continual circular interaction between them all.

Further reading: see too my previous posting on genii loci discussing other aspects of this subject. See too my book, Faeries and the Natural World (2021):

Faeries in Maurice Hewlett’s ‘Lore of Proserpine’

Rheam, Once Upon a Time

“Thus go the fairy kind,

Whither Fate driveth; not as we

Who fight with it, and deem us free

Therefore, and after pine, or strain

Against our prison bars in vain;

For to them Fate is Lord of Life

And Death, and idle is a strife

With such a master …”

Hypsipyle, by Maurice Hewlett

I have discussed before the book The Lore of Proserpine by Maurice Hewlett.  In this post I return to Hewlett’s opinions about the nature of fairies and fairy society.  The book is a curious read, in that it is a work of fiction that seems to be a collection of reports of cases and personal experiences, somewhat akin to Evans-Wentz’ Fairy Faith.  It is, therefore, a set of loosely linked short stories and a quasi-scientific or folklore study of faery kind- yet it rejects the examinations of folklore written by the Grimm Bothers and others:

“Grimm and his colleagues started with a prejudice, that Gods, fairies and the rest have never existed and don’t exist. To them the interest of the inquiry is not what is the nature, what are the laws, of such beings, but what is the nature of the primitive people who imagined the existence of such beings? I very soon found out that Grimm and his colleagues had nothing to tell me.”

This is a rejection by Hewlett of the ‘folklore’ approach to faeries. Rather like this blog, he prefers a different approach and his book is presented as a dissertation on faery ways based upon a lifetime’s personal contacts with fairies. It should be noted though that Hewlett, as a British public-school boy, knows as much about the classical gods of Greece as he does about Puck and Mab.  The former are the “Gods” of the last paragraph. His mythology can seem quite heterodox and confused, but- as I’ve discussed before- that is quite typical of much British folklore.   

Nymphs

A significant part of the book is concerned with sightings of nymphs- and by ‘nymphs’ Hewlett seems to mean the classical beings and not female fairies by another name.  Hewlett (or, rather, the narrator of the book) claims that the open-minded and less sceptical part of his mind has seen naiads and the rest. As a young teenager, he has a vision in an English wood:

“I believed that I was now looking upon a Dryad. I was looking certainly at a spirit informed. A being, irradiate and quivering with life and joy of life, stood dipt to the breast in the brake; stood so, bathing in the light; stood so, preening herself like a pigeon on the roof-edge, and saw me and took no heed.”

A whole chapter is given over to a succession of encounters with Oreads (mountain or hill nymphs) at Broad Chalke in Wiltshire.  Where these events took place can be identified exactly on a map, making the whole episode that much more compelling and real.  Quite where nymphs blend into ‘hill fairies’ or such like, is hard to say.

Miles Willams Mathis, Dryad Child

Faery Kind

Most of the book is concerned with beings Hewlett expressly calls fairies.  Rather like the Reverend Kirk (to whom he refers several times), Hewlett has a very well-developed conception of their nature, life style and morals.

To begin with, fairies are “born whole and in a flash,” they don’t grow up.  They come from another dimension:

“Of this chain of being, then, of which our order is a member, the fairy world is another and more subtle member, subtler in the right sense of the word because it is not burdened with a material envelope. Like man, like the wind, like the rose, it has spirit; but unlike any of the lower orders, of which man is one, it has no sensible wrapping unless deliberately it consents to inhabit one. This, as we know, it frequently does.”

Seen with humans, they don’t fit in, they’re not the same yet, faeries are part of the natural world and belong entirely within it:

“Now, it is a curious thing, accepted by all visionaries, that a supernatural being, a spirit, fairy, not-human creature, if you see it among animals, beasts and birds, on hills or in the folds of hills, among trees, by waters, in fields of flowers, looks at home and evidently is so. The beasts are conscious of it, know it and have no fear of it; the hills and valleys are its familiar places in a way which they will never be to the likes of us. But put a man beside it and it becomes at once supernatural. I have seen spirits, beings, whatever they may be, in empty space, and have observed them as part of the landscape, no more extraordinary than grazing cattle or wheeling plover. Again, I have seen a place thick with them, as thick as a London square in a snow-storm, and a man walk clean through them unaware of their existence, and make them, by that act, a mockery of the senses.”

They are nature spirits: “the fairy kind are really the spirit, essence, substance (what you will) of certain sensible things, such as trees, flowers, wind, water, hills, woods, marshes and the like, that their normal appearance to us is that of these natural phenomena; but that in certain states of mind, perhaps in certain conditions of body, there is a relation established by which we are able to see them on our own terms, as it were, or in our own idiom, and they also to treat with us to some extent, to a large extent, on the same plane or standing-ground.”

These nature spirits have no language, their songs have no words, and they communicate by telepathy.  They may look physically human, but they are utterly different from us in their temperament and consciousness.  They live entirely in the present moment, they don’t dwell on the past or try to peer into the future:

“The whole nature of the creature was strung to one issue only, to that point when she could fling headlong into activity- an activity in which every fibre and faculty would be used. A comparison of the fairy-kind with human beings is never successful, because into our images of human beings we always import self-consciousness. They know what they are doing. Fairies do not. But wait a moment; there is a reason. Human creatures, I think, know what they are doing only too well, because performance never agrees with desire. They know what they are doing because it is never exactly what they meant to do, or what they wanted to do. Now, with fairies, desire to do and performance are instinctive and simultaneous. If they think, they think in action. In this they are far more like animals than human creatures, although the form in which they appear to us, their shape and colouring are like ours, enhanced and refined.”

Hewlett’s fairies have no souls; if you look into their eyes you see the “far, intent, rapt gaze of a wild animal.”  They don’t have a morality we’d recognise, therefore:

“Literature will tell him that fairies are benevolent or mischievous, and tradition, borrowing from literature, will confirm it. The proposition is ridiculous. It would be as wise to say that a gnat is mischievous when it stings you, or a bee benevolent because he cannot prevent you stealing his honey…  That is the pathetic fallacy again; and that is man all over. Will nothing, I wonder, convince him that he is not the centre of the Universe?”

It is, Hewlett asserts, “often said that fairies of both sexes seek our kind because we know more of the pleasure of love than they do.”  However, he warns that “it certainly appears like a standing fact of Nature that when the beings of one order come into commerce with those of another the result will be tragic.”

“Love with them is a wild and wonderful rapture in all its manifestations, and without regard necessarily to sex…  It must be remembered that I am dealing with an order of Nature which knows nothing of our shames and qualms, which is not only unconscious of itself but unconscious of anything but its immediate desire; but I am dealing with it to the understanding of a very different order, to whom it is not enough to do a thing which seems good in its own eyes, but requisite also to be sure of the approbation of its fellow-men. I should create a wrong impression were I to enlarge upon this branch of my subject; I should make my readers call fairies shameful when as a fact they know not the meaning of shame, or reprove them for shamelessness when, indeed, they are luckily without it. I shall make bold to say once for all that as it is absurd to call the lightning cruel, so it is absurd to call shameful those who know nothing about the deformity. No one can know what love means who has not seen the fairies at their loving…” 

In summary, Hewlett calls them “swift, beautiful and apparently ruthless creatures.”

As for their government, Hewlett recognises that they have figures called kings and queens but he states that these are not rulers as such.  They recognise the authority of greater spirits but, in essence, theirs is an anarchy: “The fairies are of a world where Right and Wrong don’t obtain, where Possible and Impossible are the only finger-posts at cross-roads; for the Gods themselves give no moral sanction to desire and hold up no moral check.”

The narrator of this book has encountered very many fairies, but he recognises that he is unusual and very lucky. “The laws which govern the appearance of fairies to mankind or their commerce with men and women seem to be conditioned by the ability of men to perceive them. The senses of men are, figuratively speaking, lenses coloured or shaped by personality.”  In other words, we see what we are conditioned to see- what we expect.  There is a second complication too, which is the fact that “manifestation is not always mutual, [so] that a man may see a fairy without being seen, and conversely, a fairy may be fully aware of mankind or of some man or men without any suspicion of theirs.”

This fundamental soul-less and animal-like quality explains much of the unbridgeable gap that lies between our two species- and why the faeries can seem to act in heartless or inhuman ways.  As beings of nature, they are entirely absorbed within their environment, accepting cold as a fact and tolerating it; enjoying pleasure in the moment when they find it.  One of his first sightings, ‘The Boy in the Wood,’ involves a faery spotted throttling a rabbit. This is being done, slowly and cruelly, just for the pleasure of being able to kill the animal. Hewlett’s fairies don’t worry about the impact of their actions- in consequence of which, in the account of ‘Beckwith’s Case,’ we see a fairy steal a little girl away from her family.  Even though the girl’s father had rescued the fairy and cared for her for many months, she has no qualms about befriending and then abducting the daughter. 

This is the harsh world of Hewlett’s faery- and, truth to tell, it’s not far at all from many of the traits of fae nature we see in the traditional folklore.  As I’ve described before, his stories are told with beauty and sensitivity and I can only recommend the book again.

John Anster Fitzgerald, Cock Robin Defending His Nest

Pan & Nymphs in ‘The Lore of Proserpine’

Rodolphe Julian, Pan

Recently I reread Maurice Hewlett’s fantastic collection of fairy tales from 1913, Lore of Proserpine, and was reminded of the author’s rather idiosyncratic view of fairies and classical nymphs.  In his taxonomy, there is little difference between the two.  I might add that the book is also suffused with the cult of the Great God Pan, a aspect of paganism that had considerable vogue amongst artists, musicians and writers during the late Victorian period and the first decades of the twentieth century, as I have described in my new book The Great God Pan and as I also mentioned last year in Nymphology.

The Lore of Proserpine is fiction, but it purports to be a record a series of episodes over the narrator’s life when he had faery encounters.  The earliest was when he was a school-boy in his early teens and saw a dryad in a woodland glade.  He describes how:

“I was now looking upon a Dryad. I was looking certainly at a spirit informed. A being, irradiate and quivering with life and joy of life, stood dipt to the breast in the brake; stood so, bathing in the light; stood so, preening herself like a pigeon on the roof-edge, and saw me and took no heed.

She had appeared, or had been manifest to me, quite suddenly. At one moment I saw the avenue of lit green, at another she was dipt in it. I could describe her now, at this distance of time—a radiant young female thing, fiercely favoured, smiling with a fierce joy, with a gleam of fierce light in her narrowed eyes. Upon her body and face was the hue of the sun’s red beam; her hair, loose and fanned out behind her head, was of the colour of natural silk, but diaphanous as well as burnished, so that while the surfaces glittered like spun glass the deeps of it were translucent and showed the fire behind.  Her garment was thin and grey, and it clung to her like a bark, seemed to grow upon her as a creeping stone-weed grows…”

The dryad had emanated, he believed, from the oak trees of the wood, and shared some of the trees’ characteristics.  We meet another dryad much later in the book, this time associated with an oceanid.  Hewlett tells the story of a family living on the wild Cheviot Hills on the English-Scottish border.  The mother of the family had been brought home by her sailor husband.  Her origins were never discussed, but they seem clear from the fact that:

“It was told that until Miranda King was brought in, sea-birds had never been seen in Dryhopedale. It was said that they came on that very night when George King the younger came home, and she with him, carrying his bundle and her own. It was said that they had never since left the hamlet, and that when Miranda went out of doors, she was followed by clouds of them whichever way she turned.”

In turn, Miranda’s son brings home a dryad he has discovered and fallen for in a wood deep in the hills.  He had been to the wood before, but “He had had a fright, had been smitten by that sudden gripe of fear which palsies limbs and freezes blood, which the ancients called the Stroke of Pan, and we still call Panic after them.” However, driven by a deep need and identification, he overcomes his terror and goes back to the wood to find dryad wife.  His mother confirms the two women’s affinity: “I am of the sea and she of the fell, but we are the same nation.  We are not of yours, but you can make us so.”

A strange, dramatic struggle follows in which the ‘King of the Wood’ (Pan), tries to reclaim his handmaiden from the young shepherd who has abducted her.  He nearly succeeds and the girl, called Mabilla By-the-Wood, was nearly “resumed into her first state” (in other words, she nearly became the spirit of a beech tree once again) but her husband pursues and rescues her.

In some respects, then, nymphs only look like humans.  Hewlett’s nymphs are animalistic, soulless beings- but they can be transformed to something more like a human woman through marriage to a human man. Describing Mabilla By-the-Wood, he says that:

“her eyes were large, grey in colour, but, as I have said, unintelligent, like an animal’s, which to us always seem unintelligent…  Everything about her seemed to him to be quite what one would have expected, until one came, so to speak, in touch with her soul. That, if it lay behind her inscrutable, sightless and dumb eyes, betrayed her. There was no hint of it. Human in form, visibly and tangibly human, no soul sat in her great eyes that a man could discern.”

Franz Stuck, Pan beobachtet Kentaurenpaar

Pan is present in the story as the mysterious and violent King of the Wood, possessive of the spirits of the trees. Hewlett also recognises the deity’s suzerainty over terrestrial fairies. As he says, “Pan in potent in nearly all land solitudes,” whilst Artemis “is certainly ruler of the spirits of the air and water.” He continues:

“The legions of Artemis are all female, though on earth men as well as women worship her; the legions of Pan are all male, though on earth he can chasten women as well as men. But Pan can do nothing against Artemis, nor she anything against him or any of his. The decree or swift deed of either is respected by the other. They are not, then, as earthly kings, leaders of their hosts to battle against their neighbours. Fairies fight and marshal themselves for war; Mr. Wentz has several cases of the kind. But Pan and Artemis have no share in these warfares. Queen Mab is one of the many names, and points to one of the many manifestations of Artemis; the Lady of the Lake is another.”

Here we have references to the division of the woodland folk into Pan and his satyrs and the various nymphs. We also have Mab and the Lady of the Lake treated as, to all intents and purposes, nymphs or naiads. Artemis is the Greek goddess of the wilderness, wild animals and the moon. Her Roman equivalent was Diana, who was very often linked with fairies and whose name was frequently interchangeable with Titania. These passages from the Lore of Proserpine are clear evidence of the confusion between classical and native myth to which I alluded at the start. This is something by no means unique to Hewlett, and is by no means a recent phenomenon, but it was a rich source of inspiration.

Penny Ross, Spring Fairy

Elsewhere in his book, Hewlett quotes Plato’s Phædrus: “Beloved Pan, and all ye other gods who haunt this place….” and then continues “Beloved Pan! My knowledge of Pan was of the vaguest, and yet more than once or twice did I utter that prayer wandering alone the playing field, or watching the evening mist roll down the Thames Valley and blot up the elm trees, thick and white, clinging to the day like a fleece. The third Iliad again I have never forgotten…” He, like so many public school boys of his generation, absorbed the Greek classics at a young age and often knew them better than their own native traditions. Confusion and cross-fertilisation were almost inevitable. Nevertheless, Pan was a real presence for Hewlett, like so many other writers of that period: “I had had good reason to know the awfulness of Pan.”

I have examined Pan, nymphs and fairies in previous postings. I shall return to the content of Hewlett’s Lore of Proserpine in the near future. I have also discussed Pan in literature and art on one of my other WordPress blogs.

Bouguereau, Nympha & Satyr

On My Faery Bookshelf: ‘The King of Elfland’s Daughter’ & others

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The 1977 album cover

In my recent post about Faery in the music of Mark Bolan and English rock of the 1960s and ’70s, I mentioned the rock opera based upon the 1924 book, The King of Elfland’s Daughter, by Edward Lord Dunsany.

I hadn’t read this, and thought I really should.  Having ordered the book through my local library, my default is now corrected!

The story concerns the land of Erl.  The people there feel neglected and unknown in the world, a situation that could be corrected if only there was magic in their land.  Their prince, Alveric, agrees to resolve this problem and travels through the misty frontier into nearby Elf Land.  There he meets and woos the king’s daughter, Lirazel.

They return to Erl and have a son, who is named Orion.  However, Lirazel cannot adapt to earthly ways and pines for her home.  Eventually, her father calls her back with magic and then hides Elfland from men.

Alveric sets out on a quest to recover his elvish bride, leaving behind his infant child.  Orion grows up to be a naturally skilled hunter in the forests and fields of Erl.  As time passes, and as Alveric heads further and further away in his futile search for his wife, the King of Elfland allows the border of his realm to draw nearer to earth again.  In due course, Orion discovers that unicorns stray over into our fields to graze and he becomes addicted to hunting them.  Inevitably, though, they are very hard to chase and he recruits a troll, Luralu, to help.  Slowly, then, Elfland and Earth are becoming intertwined, building up to the point when the magical world flows over Erl completely and the sundered family are reunited.

The plot of The King of Elfland’s Daughter is simple, but entertaining, and the author makes excellent use of such faery themes as the differential passage of time, but what is most attractive about the novel is its style.  Dunsany’s prose has a stately, poetic elegance; certain phrases are repeated, almost like an incantation, “the fields we know” and the faery palace, that “may be told of only in song.”  This is a feature, too, of traditional ballads (many of which are faery themed) and it gives a dreamlike quality to the majestic progress of the narrative, entirely appropriate to its magical subject matter.  (Dunsany achieved a similar effect in his chronicles of Pegana, too, which in creating an entirely new universe and pantheon, were key sources of inspiration for H P Lovecraft’s Cthulhu).

All in all, it’s a lovely book, and highly recommended.

Other books for your collection

I’ve been catching up on my faery fiction recently, and I can also recommend the following.

The Lore of Proserpine

The Lore of Proserpine was published by Maurice Hewlett in 1913.  It’s an intriguing and elegant read, unlike any other book I have yet found in this subject area.  The work is fiction (we might assume) but it is written as a biographical account of a life-time’s encounters with faery folk.  The ambivalent status of the book, presenting itself as a sober and considered account of supernatural experiences, is part of its attraction.

Hewlett first sees a fairy boy in a wood when he is a child himself.  Regular sightings follow into adulthood, many of these occurring in the ostensibly unpromising surroundings of London, as well as in some of the remoter parts of the British countryside (deep in the Cheviot Hills or on the downs in Wiltshire).  Some of the sightings are presented as personal, others are relayed as reports from witnesses whom Hewlett has interviewed).  It’s full of wise remarks and informed speculations on fairy nature and, at only 130 pages in length and available as a very cheap paperback, it comes with the strongest British Fairies endorsement.

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Kingdoms of Elfin

I’ve mentioned it before, in passing, but I should also give honourable mention here to Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Kingdoms of Elfin (1977).  In this book, too, a unique universe of faery is invented, based upon traditional faerylore but moulded by the author to her own vision.  It is a crueller Faery than Dunsany’s, where all is calm and peace, and in that respect is truer to the authentic nature of British fairies.

 

Fairy Sexuality

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Working on my next book (on faery beasts)with my publishers, the question of ‘hetero-normativity’ was raised by my editor with respect to fairy sexuality.  All the examples of relationships I gave were male and female: were there no gay fays?

This is a valid question- and perhaps a surprising one in that we are all aware that ‘fairy’ has come to be used as another word for gay.  The latter share a common history, too, in that they originated as insults (gay used to be used of prostitutes and suggested promiscuity; fairy implied an effeminate male) but have since been adopted with pride.

If we rely on the folklore record, all we’ll find is heterosexual fairies and merfolk.  Does this reflect actual folk belief or the beliefs of those recording folktales?  I strongly suspect that the latter is the case. Many of the early recorders of fairy-lore were clergymen, who undertook it as a suitable hobby.  It is hardly surprising, especially where those church ministers were Scottish Presbyterian, that anything in the least morally suspect would be suppressed.   In a sense, it is surprising that any information about the lhiannan-shee, the fairy lover, was preserved, but perhaps her loose morals and malign effect upon her victims was worth recording as an example of demonic corruption.  Beyond that was asking too much, even so.

Other early folklorists came from academia, and I suspect that a keen sense of academic and social propriety may once again have encouraged them to draw a veil over any stories they considered ‘unfit’ to print (if they were told such stories by their informants at all).  All in all, a variety of factors probably conspired to conceal the less ‘acceptable’ elements in folklore.

I was fascinated, then, to read Maurice Hewlett’s Lore of Proserpine. Although published in 1913, in his final ‘Summary Chapter’ he described fairy relationships:

“Love with them is a wild and wonderful rapture in all its manifestations, and without regard necessarily to sex.  I never, in all my life, saw a more beautiful expression of it than in the two females whom I saw greet and embrace on Parliament Hill.  Their motions to each other, their looks and their clinging were beyond expression tender and swift.”

Hewlett refers to an incident in his earlier chapter ‘The Soul at the Window.’  Out one night on Hampstead Heath, he saw a group of fairies meet, and:

“I saw one greeting between two females.  They ran together and stopped short within touching distance.  They looked brightly and intently at each other, and leaning forward approached their cheeks til they touched.  They touched by the right, they touched by the left.  Then they took hands and drew together.  By a charming movement of confidence, one nestled to the side of the other and, resting her head, looked up and laughed.  The taller embraced her with her arm and held her for a moment.  The swiftness of the act and its gracefulness were beautiful to see.  Then they ran hand in hand to the others…”

Hewlett’s book is fiction, but he could acknowledge same sex devotion between fairies a century ago.

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Sir Ian McKellen, ‘Gandalf,’ as a Fairy Queen

In an earlier post, A fay of colour- diversity in Faery I questioned the very powerful presumption that faes are predominantly white and fair haired.  Plentiful evidence suggests that earlier generations made no such assumptions and that, indeed, Tudor and Stuart beliefs could encompass some radically different concepts of faery.  Just as in race, so in sexuality: what we have is a silence in our sources, not a denial.

 

‘Cruel garden of dark delights?’- fairy cruelty

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J. A. Fitzgerald, Who killed Cock Robin?

In her book, Strange and secret peoples, Carole Silver observes that “fairy sadism is repeatedly depicted in Victorian painting.”  She identifies a series of well-known images in which various forms of animal cruelty are portrayed (chapter 5, pp.157-164).  These include pictures by Richard Doyle (March of the elf king and Elves battling frogs), Noel Paton (owls are being hunted and tormented in both his paintings of Titania and Oberon), George Naish (Midsummer fairies), Edward Hopley (Puck and moth) and, most notably, John Anster Fitzgerald in his series of pictures of fairies tormenting and killing a robin.  It’s fair to mention, though, that although wanton cruelty seems to be a pastime for Fitzgerald’s fays, he also depicts scenes of communion with wildlife.

john anster fitzgerald

The theme is not just found in visual art.  In literature of the period, too, animal abuse is described- for example fairies tormenting an owl (again) in M R James, After dark in the playing field (1924) and Maurice Hewlett, The lore of Proserpine  (1913) in which there is a description of the casual torture of a rabbit by a fairy (pp.25-26).

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Hopley, Puck and Moth

Silver suggests that the artist’s intention was to avoid portrayals of fairy mistreatment of humans, by transferring the suffering to dumb animals.  This could well be the case; traditional fairies are known for their mischief- if not malice- against mortals. It may also be possible that the increasing tendency to see fairies as small children gave rise to the idea that they would behave like them, with the same thoughtless cruelty.

The traditional view

Is there any traditional support for these recent depictions?  The short and simple answer is no.  For many contemporary fairy writers and enthusiasts, fairies have become the archetype of eco-awareness and the concept of abuse of wild animals seems anathema.  This appears to be an entirely traditional view too.

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As early as The pranks of Puck in the seventeenth century protection of hunted beasts is a theme.  In the ballad Puck hides himself in snares and traps left by men and scares the hunters when they return to collect their catch.  Very much more recently, the same kind of behaviour is ascribed to the pixies in Jon Dathen’s fascinating collection of modern interviews Somerset faeries and pixies (Capall Bann Publishing, 2010).  In one story told to Dathen, the pixies give shelter to an exhausted fox pursued by horses and hounds (p.22).  (By pure coincidence, in by novel The elder queen, I imagined North Devon fairies helping hunted foxes and badgers in much the same way).

Elsewhere is Dathen’s book he is told (by two separate interviewees) that “if there’s one thing the pixies despise, it’s cruelty to animals.”  If they become aware of mistreatment or neglect of wild or domesticated beasts, the guilty person will be punished by the pixies, generally by the time-honoured means of vicious pinching (Dathen pp.14 & 72-74).  The pixies are described as being especially close to certain animals, including horses and (significantly- given the earlier discussion) robins (pp.72-3 & 48).  In Seeing fairies, Marjorie Johnson’s collection of modern accounts of fairy sighting, there is another mention of fairy care for wildlife in heavy snowfall on moorland (pp.135-136).

Abusers or allies?

I have mentioned before the convention that, purportedly, fairies fight amongst themselves; as we have seen there may be little compunction about teasing, tormenting or even abducting humans who have infringed their unspoken rules or fallen under their power.  According to others, the fays are vegetarian and as such might be expected to hate hunting.

On balance the evidence suggests that fairies are not imagined traditionally as gratuitously cruel.  They injure those who offend them, but not defenceless beasts.  Although more modern representations of faeries as harmless, winged and tiny have undoubtedly compounded the perception, the concept of fays as being in harmony with nature and protecting their surroundings seem to have deep roots.

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Further reading

I have written previously about fairy warfare.  An expanded version of this text will appear in my next book, Faeries, which will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide next year.