Fairy Godmothers- the folklore evidence

fairies-bless-the-newborn-child-by-Estella-Canziani
Estella Canziani, Fairies Bless the New Born Child

I recently read an academic article which suggested that the idea of the fairy godmother, so prevalent is our contemporary views of Faery, was a relatively recent introduction to existing tradition, something derived from the Brothers Grimm and from stories like Pinocchio and Cinderella, and since reinforced by popular films, rather than it being a long-standing element of folklore belief.  In this posting I want to challenge that idea and to argue instead that it is one of the oldest recognised aspects of faery behaviour.

Medieval Romance

One of the pastimes or habits of medieval faeries was to either bless or torment humans. According to the historian Layamon, for example, King Arthur was blessed by elves at his birth (this is, by far, our earliest faery godmother account, as the writer was born around 1200).  In the 13th century French romance, Huon of Bordeaux, too, there is a reference to a healing horn that’s presented to faery king Oberon by four faery ‘godmothers.’  Hearing a blast upon it will make the sickest man whole and sound instantly.

The fourteenth century romance of Ogier the Dane mixes fairy material with the ‘Matter of Britain,’ the stories of King Arthur and the exploits of the knights of the Round Table.  At his birth, Ogier is endowed with gifts and qualities by six fairy women; the last of these, Morgana, declares “I claim you as my own.  You shall not die until you have visited me in Avalon.”  After many adventures serving King Charlemagne, Ogier is shipwrecked on a strange island that turns out to be Morgana’s realm.  He falls under her seductive spell and passes a hundred years in bliss, not ageing a day, until by accident he recovers his memory and wishes to return to France.  On doing so, Ogier finds a new king, Hugh Capet, on the throne, whilst the language spoken has changed during his long absence.  After more noble deeds, Morgana reclaims Ogier for herself and takes him back to Avalon- where he is still alive today, alongside King Arthur.

Jessie wilcox smith cinderella
Jessie Wilcox-Smith, Cinderella

Faery Gifts

Amongst the christening gifts made by fairies is very famous song indeed of Dunvegan Castle on the Isle of Skye.  This was a lullaby, sung over the cradle of the new-born heir to the clan MacLeod by a fairy woman.  It foretold the child’s strength in arms and that he would possess plenty of cattle and rich crops in the fields; it promised that he would be free from injury in battle and would enjoy a long life.  Each verse of the song had a different tune.  For many generations afterwards, the custom of the clan was to sing the protective charm over the latest baby heir.

Warwick Goble This was the image I used on our "welcome baby" cards for my little one - MAGIC!
Warwick Goble, illustration in Dora Owen, The Book of Fairy Poetry, 1920

In Tudor times the belief still lingered that some children might be endowed with talents and good fortune at their birth, as in these lines by John Milton (At a Vacation Exercise in the Colledge):

“Good luck befriend thee Son; for at thy birth,

The Faiery Ladies daunc’t upon the hearth;

Thy drowsie Nurse hath sworn she did them spie

Come tripping to the Room where thou didst lie;

And sweetly singing round thy Bed,

Strew all their blessings on thy sleeping Head…”

jessie-willcox-smith-godmothers
Jessie Wilcox-Smith, The Fairy Godmother

These conceptions of course persist for modern readers in the fixed character of the ‘fairy godmother,’ but in Tudor and Stuart times it seems that the favour of the fairy kingdom more generally was envisaged by Ben Jonson (The Silent Woman, Act V, scene 1):

“To what strange fortune, friend, some men are born…

Surely, when thou wert young,

The fairies dandled thee.”

In Victorian verse the idea of fairy godmothers and of three wishes was greatly elaborated, most notably with mermaids, thereby embedding it in our consciousness.  See for example, The Fairy Gift, The Fairy and the Three Wishes & The Farmer and the Magic Ring, all by John Godfrey Saxe, The Fairy’s Gift, Margaret Elizabeth Munson Sangster, in Poems of the Household (1893), 242 and Wise Sarah & The Elf, Elizabeth Coatsworth.  Generally, see my Victorian Fairy Verse.

weber fairy gm
Sarah Stilwell Weber, Fairy Godmother

 

 

Fayerie- Fairies and Fairyland in Tudor and Stuart Verse

Fayerie

I am very pleased to announce the publication of my latest book, another annotated anthology entitled Fayerie- Fairies and Fairyland in Tudor and Stuart Verse.  Hot on the heels of Victorian Fairy Verse, this offers an annotated selection of poetry from the period along with a detailed introduction.

The Tudor and Stuart period in Britain, the time of Shakespeare, Jonson, Milton, Drayton, Herrick and many others, was a time when fairies featured repeatedly in poetry and drama. The new book is a detailed examination of the fairies of the era, as they are depicted in the verse of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Contents

The book’s divided into three parts. The first part surveys the medieval background- how fairies were portrayed in the romances, poems and other literary works of the Middle Ages. Particular attention is paid to ideas of fairyland and to the kings and queens of Faery.

In the second part I examine Tudor and Stuart fairy knowledge in detail. Drawing on the many plays and poems of the period, a picture is built up of how contemporary people understood and interacted with their fairy neighbours. The book then considers how new ideas were beginning to change fairy belief at this time: changes in religion, science and culture were taking place (most notably the Reformation and the Renaissance) and these had a major impact on popular perceptions of fairies. Lastly in this part of the book, two specific questions are examined: how big were the fairies thought to be and what colour were their clothes- and their bodies?

The third part of the book is an annotated anthology of selected Tudor and Stuart fairy verse. Work is included by Thomas Churchyard, Simeon Steward, Robert Herrick, Michael Drayton and William Warner, amongst others. Overall, rather than just relying on Shakespeare, Jonson and Milton, the book draws on a very wide range of authors, both English and Scots, and includes many little known plays and poems.

Robin Good-fellow, or Puck

Tudor and Stuart Ideas

There is continuity in British fairy belief right through from the twelfth century to present times.  Many of the concepts accepted in the Middle Ages are still perfectly recognisable today.  These ideas were transmitted to us by the Tudor and Stuart periods, and the elements of their faery faith are very familiar.  Here are few examples of core aspects of their belief which are still applicable.

It was well known that fairies were especially beautiful: in a verse written to celebrate the first staging of Massinger’s play The Emperor of the East in 1631, the “matchless features of the Fairy Queen” are praised.  Naturally, sexual desire was involved: “that little fairy,/ ‘T has a shrewd, tempting face” says a character in Middleton’s The Spanish Gipsy (1621, I, 5).

Caution was needed in such affairs, though.  People of the period well knew that the faes were changeable: you could speak about “that hopeful Elf/ Thy dear, dainty Duckling” but also “that elf/ Of sin and darkness.”  The faes could even be invoked to inflict revenge:

“Nay, then, revenge, look big! Elf and Fairy/ Help to revenge the wronged ‘pothecary!”  (Massinger, The Picture, II, 1; Middleton, The Triumphs of Truth and The Family of Love, IV, 4)

As I have discussed many times, the fairies would reward diligent servants and housewives (“I have sometimes found money in old shoes” Middleton, The Witch, IV, 1) and would viciously chastise those felt to be lazy and dirty.  Pinching was the preferred punishment:

“pricked and pinched me like an urchin” (Middleton, More Dissemblers Besides Women, III, 1)

“The nips of fairies upon maids’ white hips,/ Are not more perfect azure.” (The Witch, I, 2)

Lastly, when not tormenting us mortals, it was very well known that the fairies would dedicate themselves to pleasure: “Fine dancing in such fairy rings” and “sung and danced about me like a fairy.” (Middleton, A Mad World, My Masters, V, 2 & IV, 4).

Further detail

Fayerie is an ideal companion to my other new book, Fairy Ballads and RhymesIt is published through Amazon/KDP and is available as an e-book at £7.50 or as a paperback at £12.00.  For details of all my faery books (fiction and non-fiction), please see my book page.

‘The Immortal Hour’- Avalon, Opera & Faerie

Immortal-Hour

‘The Immortal Hour’

My consideration of the period of the First World War and its impact on visions of faery continues with this posting on the work of Rutland Boughton.  He may be unknown to almost all readers, but he’s a fascinating subject for many reasons- for his fae operas, for his radical political views and as the founder of the original Glastonbury Festival.

He’s been described as a “socialist, patriot, musician and domestic genius, an agnostic of deep religious feeling and a man of many contradictory characteristics.”

rb by cw

The young Boughton by Christina Walshe

Boughton was born in Aylesbury in 1878.  His family ran a grocer’s shop which was not particularly successful, meaning that his schooling and prospects were limited.  However, through luck and hard work, he managed to establish the musical career he had aspired to and, by the early 1900s, he was developing a reputation as a teacher and composer.  He was working in Birmingham and his experience there with choirs convinced him of “the immense civilising influence of music and he began to feel that music, and art generally, might one day succeed where religion had failed.”  He pursued these thoughts in a book, Music Drama of the Future, in 1911.  He had become aware of:

“the truly popular nature of all the greatest art and of the fact that the greatest artists acquire their superhuman power by acting as the expression of the ‘oversoul’ of a people.”

Boughton was a great admirer of Wagner and argued that he had chosen folk subjects for his operas (such as the Rheingold) because these myths had been produced by this ‘oversoul.’

British legend and British drama

Music Drama of the Future formed a sort of manifesto for Boughton.  He wanted to produce heroic music dramas based upon the British ‘national scriptures’- stories like the legends of King Arthur which were the birth right of the British people.  In addition, he wanted to create a national theatre where this might be done and which might lie at the heart of a larger community.  He argued that previous attempts at communes had failed because they lacked a religious centre- a function that this new theatre could perform.  He realised that he needed to find a “civically conscious” place where he could co-operate with the inhabitants to develop a “new city” focused on the drama venue.

Around this time too, Boughton began to collaborate with writer Reginald Buckley.  They shared a mutual love of Wagner, Ruskin, Milton, Dante and Tennyson and each wanted to write ‘music drama.’  Buckley had already written a text called Arthur of Britain and had been searching for a composer.  Boughton had already identified the Arthurian myths as a subject. He saw them as the “best tap into the mystical heart of Great Britain.”

leapdance201

A social experiment

There were various false starts in the plan for establishing the national theatre.  Boughton proposed a summer school at Hindhead in 1912 and then went on to consider Letchworth Garden City as a possible setting for his experiment.  By 1913, however, he’d chosen Glastonbury in Somerset as the best location in which to found his “English Bayreuth” and moved into a large house called Chalice Well where he also opened a school of music and drama.  The aim of this was to train local singers, instrumentalists and dancers so that they could perform in the festivals, which would take place four times a year, at Easter, Whitsuntide, August and at Christmas. His plans were ambitious and unusual: he envisaged a festival linked to a commune for artists who preferred a country life and who felt that they should earn their livings through art combined with running a co-operative farm.  In 1916 he wrote that “the whole business is for me as much a sociological as an aesthetic thing.”  He and Buckley wanted to control the performances of their works completely, but they also wanted to involve the local community actively in all aspects of the festivals- performing, designing clothes and scenery and choreographing dances.

Boughton was evidently ahead of his time- a fact demonstrated by his unconventional love life.  He had married in 1903 but the marriage had not been wise or successful.  Whilst in Birmingham he had formed a relationship with a music lover called Christine Walshe and in 1911 he left his wife and moved in with Christina.

The first Glastonbury Festival of Music Drama and Mystic Drama opened on August 5th 1914- the day after Britain entered the First World War.  It featured performances of ‘A chapel in Lyonesse’ based on a poem by William Morris and the Immortal Hour, based on the faery play of that name by Scottish poet Fiona Macleod (real name, William Sharp).  We’ll discuss this opera in more detail later, but it proved extremely popular and has been called “England’s greatest fairy opera.”  The Immortal Hour was performed again at Easter 1915 and again in August 1916.  That summer saw the first performance too of Boughton and Buckley’s opera The Round Table.

glasto_000105 (2)

 ‘Music of the duration’

Just as the 1916 Festival ended, Boughton received his call-up papers from the Army.  He appealed this to a tribunal, on the grounds that his work in Glastonbury was “of national importance.”  In this he may have found encouragement from Lloyd George who, in 1916, had asked “Why should we not sing during the war?” He had been speaking in support for the annual eisteddfod but Boughton might well have drawn a parallel with his own English venture.

The authorities did not accept Boughton’s case- even though he argued that the Glastonbury festivals could draw money away from Bayreuth and Oberammergau- and for the next two years the festival was suspended whilst he served King and country.  It has to be admitted, though, that whilst other artists like Tolkien, Ledwidge or Graves served on the front line, Boughton never did.  He was bandmaster of a succession of regiments. Nevertheless, when in December 1918 The Times newspaper reviewed the music composed during the war it recognised Boughton’s contribution to the ‘artistic war effort’.

 

Morris, Carey Boynes, 1882-1968; Rutland Boughton (1878-1960)

The older Boughton

Return to Avalon

As soon as the war was over, Boughton began planning the revival of the festival.  He moved to a new and larger house called Mount Avalon which served as a school and hostel and at the first post-war festival, in August 1920, he presented The Immortal Hour, The Round Table and the new opera written with Buckley, The Birth of Arthur. 

 The revived festival as an idea, and the individual performances, attracted great praise and encouragement, but there was too a universal feeling that it could not grow as it should so long as it was staged in the cramped Assembly Rooms in Glastonbury High Street, in which there was neither space for larger audiences nor for the performers.  Nonetheless, there were great hopes for the future and admiration for the way all the performers were able to contribute- as well as to develop their skills.  The Times had, for example, been impressed how the school’s teachers had “discovered the children of the town to be fairies, nymphs, water sprites and elves.”

ih_000104 (2)

The festival continued until 1927 but steadily declined, despite successful national tours.  A major contributing factor was Boughton’s ‘adulterous’ circumstances combined with his left-wing opinions.  In 1923 he separated from Christina and moved in with one of his local pupils, a woman called Kathleen.  This was scandalous in the Glastonbury of the 1920s- pupils were withdrawn from the schools and money was withheld for developing a dedicated theatre in the town.  Money, too, had always been a problem: the festival launched with appeals for funds and always made a loss.  Eventually the festival company went into liquidation; nevertheless, it had presented 350 stage performances and 100 concerts during its existence and permanently had an effect on the little town of Glastonbury.  As many readers will know, the town itself is now a centre for alternative spirituality and lifestyles- a place where today Boughton’s love life would scarcely raise an eyebrow; secondly, as all readers will surely know, there is the modern Glastonbury Festival; organiser Michael Eavis must have derived some inspiration for this from the 1920s forerunner (even though the present day event is not, strictly, in Glastonbury at all, but several miles east).

In November 1927 Boughton moved to a smallholding at Kilcot on the edge of the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire, where he and Kathleen raised a family, kept pigs, goats and hens and grew vegetables and cider apples.  From this point on, his career also sank steadily into obscurity- something he ascribed (perhaps with a hint of paranoia) to his political views.

RB&Kath1934

Rutland & Kathleen in later life

Politics

The early 1920s Boughton was involved with the London Labour Choral Union.  Along with Herbert Morrison, he believed that “working class music making could be an invigorating element in Socialist politics and culture.”   The choral union was indeed a vital part of Labour Party culture until it was cut as an unaffordable luxury.

Before then, though, Boughton had joined the Communist Party, expressing his belief in organised control by the workers.  He identified personally with this because he felt that, as a composer, he had very little control over the fruits of his labour.  Boughton resigned from the Party in 1929 because he felt he had been undervalued and underused, but rejoined in 1945, only to quit again in 1956 over the invasion of Hungary.

It was only very late in his life that Boughton returned to the Arthurian Cycle, which he had largely abandoned after the death of Buckley in 1919.  He wrote the final two operas, Galahad and Avalon, in the mid-1940s.  The final scene of Avalon shows his continuing belief in Socialist principles: the Lady of the Lake reveals three visions of the past, present and future to the dying King Arthur.  These are the star of Bethlehem, the white star of hope shining over his own land and, finally, a red star that will rise in the east.  At the outset, the composer had seen Arthur as “an essentially British fount of inspiration” but clearly over the decades it changed from Wagnerian epic to a political tract with strong religious overtones.  The cycle as a whole may not be a success, but it has been described as “an extraordinary demonstration of artistic courage and determination- a ruin perhaps, but undeniably impressive.”  Certainly, the cycle to many seemed to represent the raison d’etre of a national festival founded in Avalon; the dramas were the source of the festival’s vitality and its justification.

William_Sharp

William Sharp- the artist formerly known as Fiona Macleod

Faeryland

“I have gone out and seen the lands of Faery/ And have found sorrow and peace and beauty there.” (Dreams within dreams, Fiona Macleod)

Myth and faerie magic suffuse much of Boughton’s work.  They are of course present in the Arthurian cycle, but he also wrote a range of other songs and operas based on fairy poems.  These include Faery people, based on a poem by Mary Webb, and a large number of poems by Fiona Macleod, amongst which are Dalua and Avalon, part of Boughton’s Six Celtic Choruses. 

The most important of these latter works is The Immortal Hour.  Christina Walshe was very influential in developing Boughton’s taste for Irish and Scottish mythology; she was half Irish and was a great supporter of the ‘Celtic revival.’ Boughton studied Hebridean folk songs before writing the music for The Hour and, whilst he was absent in the army in September 1918, she arranged performances of W. B. Yeats’ play The land of heart’s desire and of The Immortal Hour.

Fiona Macleod was the secret pseudonym of William Sharp (1855-1905), something kept secret during his lifetime. Sharp was a Scottish author, a prolific writer of poetry, plays and literary biography.  He was much involved in the ‘Celtic revival’ in Scotland and became familiar with W. B. Yeats.  Like Yeats, he was a member of Alistair Crowley’s Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.  Consonant with these occult interests, Macleod/ Sharp wrote a great deal of mystical and mythical verse, amongst which are small a number with an explicit fairy theme, including The bugles of dreamland, The hills of Ruel, The moon child, The lords of shadow, Dreams within dreams and The last fay.  Sharp was plainly very familiar with the key elements of Gaelic fairy belief and with the overall mood of magic and sadness that pervades Celtic legend.  These are powerful elements in the Immortal Hour,  which is a verse drama of some seventy pages concerned with Celtic myths of the sidh folk and based on the Irish story Tochmarc Étaíne, the ‘Wooing of Etain.’

Macleod’s Immortal Hour has been described as being ideal for Boughton as it was “a legend only half told, with meanings hinted at, never spoken out.”  This left him free to mould the work into any musical shape that appealed.  He did so, but still left much to the audience’s imaginations.  As The Times acknowledged in 1919, “the vague imagery of Fiona Macleod was easy to catch in music- and easy to dissipate.” Boughton had captured it effectively.  Whilst the original play was “visionary and vague” the opera was visionary but not vague- full of tunes that haunt you.

Macleod’s play is very short- only two brief acts- and not a great deal happens in it.  In the first act fairy princess Etain and High King of Ireland, Eochaid, are brought together by fairy trickster Dalua.  In the second act Etain’s former lover, Midir, comes from faery in search of her.  She remembers her former life and departs with him and Dalua casts a spell of death over Eochaid.  The drama is perhaps best known for the recurring ‘fairy song’:

“How beautiful they are, the lordly ones, who dwell in the hills, in the hollow hills.”

Mary Webb’s poem ‘Fairy led’ was used as the basis for Boughton’s ‘Fairy song:’

“The fairy people flouted me,
Mocked me, shouted me–
They chased me down the dreamy hill and beat me with a wand.
Within the wood they found me, put spells on me and bound me
And left me at the edge of day in John the Miller’s pond.

Beneath the eerie starlight
Their hair shone curd-white;
Their bodies were all twisted like a lichened apple-tree;
Feather-light and swift they moved,
And never one the other loved,
For all were full of ancient dreams and dark designs on me.

With noise of leafy singing
And white wands swinging,
They marched away amid the grass that swayed to let them through.
Between the yellow tansies
Their eyes, like purple pansies,
Peered back on me before they passed all trackless in the dew.”

Final thoughts

Boughton combined many intriguing characteristics- he was a social radical, he was interested in self sufficiency and communal living, he had an intense spirituality without being conventionally religious and he recognised the potential power of music, poetry and myth in our lives.  Boughton reasserted the place of the Arthurian legends and of Avalon in British culture in the twentieth century and, significantly for us here, he is a notable example of the power of Faery in art.

Further reading

I’ve written more about the impact of the fairy faith on British music, on the composers Arnold Bax and John Ireland.  This essay should be read in conjunction with my discussions of Tolkien, Bernard Sleigh and his map of faery and the role of the arts during the Great War.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Those white and blue fairies”- fairy faces

dark fairy
Dark fairy by Maiarcita on http://www.deviantart.com

Reading Minor White Latham’s Elizabethan fairies recently, I was struck by his argument that Tudor and Stuart conceptions about the race and colour of fairies might have been quite different our own assumptions.  I’ve argued before that there’s a good deal of evidence of  ethnic diversity in Faery  Let’s not forget, for example, that in Midsummer Night’s Dream the fairy court has connections with the far east, Titania and Oberon disputing over a boy “stolen from an Indian king” whose mother was a “votaress” of Titania’s, the pair sitting together gossiping in the “spiced Indian air, by night.”  Likewise, Milton in Paradise Lost imagined a “Pygmean race beyond the Indian mount.”   African and Asian fairies ought not to surprise us at all, then, but Latham goes considerably further than this.

Masks for masques

The Tudors and Stuarts loved performing as faes in masques and plays, and to do so they put on masks.  For example, in George Gascoigne’s 1565 comedy The Buggbears there’s reference to spirits played by actors in “visars like devills,” to going “a-sprityng with this face and that” and “buggbears with vysardes.”  Latham’s argument is that the colour of these masks reflects conceptions about what he calls the ‘complexion’ of the fairies.  A very good starting point for an exploration of this argument is Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor.

In the Merry Wives of Windsor, Shakespeare returned to a fairy theme for comic effect.  Fairies often appeared on the English stage as a vehicle for cheating or tricking characters, and that is their purpose in this play.  A plot is hatched to make a fool of Falstaff by dressing up some children as fairies and scaring him.  Mrs Anne Page decides her daughter Nan, her young son and three or four more of his age group shall “dress / Like urchins, ouphs and fairies, green and white,” holding candles and rattles (IV, 4).  Nan is to be the fairy queen in a white silk dress and it’s very evident from the line quoted above that the others will be wearing green and white too.  Mrs Page’s friend, Mrs Ford, then says “I’ll go buy them vizards.”  In a slightly later scene (IV, 6), in which the women go over their plans again, it’s agreed that the children should be “mask’d and vizarded.”  They’ll be in disguise, then; their faces will be covered.  As a consequence, when Falstaff is confronted by Nan as the fairy queen (V, 5) and she calls forth “Fairies, black, grey, green and white” there’s a good deal of support for Latham’s suggestion that these colours relate not to their clothes (which we already know about) but to the colour of their masks (faces).

melancholicheart.deviantart.com Red-Faerie
Red Faerie by melancholicheart.deviantart.com

Support for Latham’s contention comes from the text of a masque performed for Queen Elizabeth at Woodstock in 1575.  The entertainment began with the monarch being approached by the ‘Queen of Fayry’ who presents herself by declaring that her love for Elizabeth had drawn her out of her woodland retreat and “caused me transforme my face/ and in your hue to come before your eyne/ now white, then blacke, your frend the fayery Queene.”  Black and white were the colours of the English queen, but at the same time it did not appear to be considered odd that her supernatural counterpart might have a black face.

Red, black & white spirits

In light of these examples, I’d return to other evidence I cited for you in an previous post on red and white fairies, and argue more confidently that those citations weren’t descriptions of clothes but of skin colour.  There are further examples to consider.

Reginald Scot in his Discourse concerning the nature and substance of devils and spirits mentions “white spirits and black spirits, grey spirits and red spirits” (c.33); in Macbeth the three witches meet with Hecate and “Like elves and Fairies in a ring” summon up “Black spirits.” The 1618 masque at Cole-Orton featured a character asking Puck about “ye faries, those little ring-leaders, those white and blew faries.”  In his play, Monsieur Thomas, John Fletcher has a character attempting to conjure spirits of earth and air, whom he addresses thus: “Be thou black or white or green, be thou heard or seen.” (c.1637, Act V, scene 9)  Lastly, Joan Willimot, accused of witchcraft in 1618, had a fairy woman called Pretty as her spirit guide, who would advise her on those who had been cursed.  She told Joan that the Earl of Rutland’s son had been “stricken with a white spirit.”  This is very suggestive of a white fairy, akin to those ‘white ladies’ who are often seen haunting springs or old houses.

All in all, it seems to me that we have pretty strong evidence for the fact that English people of the early modern period conceived of their fays as being quite alien in appearance- red, green, blue, grey, jet black and snow white.

anime fairy

Further reading

My posts on diversity in fairy and on fairy colours touch on closely related topics; my post on fairy stature examines another convention of the fairy drama of Shakespeare’s time.

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.  There’s more too on faery anatomy and physiology in my Faery Lifecycle published in 2021:

faery-lifecycle-cover

‘An ode to joy’- the fairies and the good old days

Prince-Arthur-and-the-Fairy-Queen

King Arthur and the Fairy Queen, by Henry Fuseli

It is often said that true happiness passed away with the departure of the fairies from our land.  In this posting I want to examine the traditional ties that exist between fairies and the myths Merry England.

Fairies are inextricably linked with joy and merry making in the English/ British tradition.  In many accounts their sole or main occupation is dancing in rings and one persistently identified characteristic of fairyland is joy.  The fairies take a simple, unalloyed pleasure in dance and music, so much so that circle-dancing in the moonlight has become a defining trait.  Accordingly, William Warner’s Albion’s England published in 1602 described how:

“The Elves and Faries, taking fists, did hop a merry Rounde…

The ayrie Sprites, the walking Flares, and Goblins great and small,

Had there good cheare, and companie, and sporte the Devill and all.”

In his 1611 masque Oberon the fairy Ben Jonson celebrates that:

“These are Nights,

Solemn to the shining Rites

Of the Fairy Prince and Knight:

While the Moon their Orgies light…

Stand forth bright Faies and Elves and tune your lays.”

In Milton’s Comus of 1632 we read how:

“And on the Tawny Sands and shelves,

Trip the pert Fairies and the dapper Elves,

By dimpled Brook and Fountain brim,

The Wood-Nymphs deckt with Daisies trim,

Their merry wakes and pastimes keep:

What hath night to do with sleep?” (lines 117-122)

Fairies continued to be associated with innocent pastimes into the nineteenth century, for example in Ann Radcliffe’s poem Air the “Fays of lawn and glade” circle to the merry tabor sound and Paul Dunbar reassured his readers that the fairy rout still shouted, sang and danced their roundelays, even in late Victorian times (Dunbar (1872-1906), The discovery).

Fairies, therefore, may be said to have been synonymous with ‘merry England.’  Unfortunately, the general opinion emerged that those times were over- despite Dunbar’s promises that fairy glee persisted- and this, of course, necessitated the poet’s assurances to the contrary.  Most later writers felt that the fairies had departed, or at least fallen silent, and that Britain had become a less joyful place.  As early as the seventeenth century, indeed, Richard Corbet in Farewell rewards and fairies explicitly blamed the Reformation and the baneful effect of Puritan morality for this:

“At morning and at evening both
You merry were and glad,
So little care of sleep or sloth
These pretty ladies had;
When Tom came home from labour,
Or Cis to milking rose,
Then merrily went their tabor,
And nimbly went their toes.

Witness those rings and roundelays
Of theirs, which yet remain,
Were footed in Queen Mary’s days
On many a grassy plain;
But since of late, Elizabeth,
And later, James came in,
They never danced on any heath
As when the time hath been.”

John Selden expressed the belief most memorably and succinctly: “There never was a merry World since the Fairies left Dancing and the Parson left conjuring” (Selden, Table talk, 1689, c.XCIX). Later the same century John Dryden, in his version of The wife of Bath’s tale, conveyed the same sentiment, but emphasised the intimate connection of the fairies to the British Isles:

“Above the rest our Britain they held dear,

More solemnly they kept their Sabbaths here,

And made more spacious rings, and revelled half the year.

I speak of ancient times, for now the swain

Returning late may pass the wood in vain,

And never hope to see the nightly train:”

The death of ‘Merrie England’ continued to be mourned long after the event.  Thomas Hood lamented that the “Fairies have broke their wands/ And wishing has lost its power!” (Hood (1799-1845), A lake and a fairy boat).  In the ‘Dymchurch flit’ Kipling’s fairies declared “we must flit out of this, for Merry England’s done” (Kipling, Puck of Pook’s Hill, 1906). Folklorists on the Isle of Man in the nineteenth century heard the same stories of the fynoderee: “There has not been a merry world since he lost his ground” ( J. Train, Account of the Isle of Man, vol.2, p.138).  This supernatural Manx being is comparable to the British mainland brownie; he lives on a farmstead and is the source and guarantor of good fortune.  It follows that “The luck of the house is said to depart for ever with the offended phynnod-derree” (William Harrison, Mona miscellany, pp.173-174.)  The same of course is true in England and Scotland: there can be no happiness or contentment on a farm if the brownie is displeased or has disappeared.

To summarise, then, we can only hope to reconnect with joy and good luck if we re-establish contact with our good neighbours.  This was certainly the conviction of William George Russell (AE).  His poem The dream of the children describes how music and wonder are revived:

“For all the hillside was haunted/ By the faery folk, come again.”

Identification of elves with older, happier times holds out to us the hope that they may be restored.  Through the fairies we may recover our innocence, simplicity and sense of community.  The fairies’ unaffected love of dancing and music, their childlike joy in play, imply that our own ability to reconnect with a better, less complex world persists undiminished and may be revived.

http://www.john-howe.com/blog/2011/09/15/the-defining-of-dreams/

Further reading

As well as symbolising and linking us to a ‘merry England’ of the imagination, fairies had another historical role- to explain and contextualise monuments and prehistoric sites that were otherwise mysterious and anomalous.  See my posts on fairies and megaliths and on the use of fairy-lore to explain the past.

“Nymphes and faeries”- Renaissance influences upon the ‘national fairy’

satyr

The fairy as conceived by British folk tradition was effected- and not for the better- by the revival of classical learning in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.   In this post I wish to trace the course and impact of this rebirth of Roman and Greek knowledge in the specific context of British fairy lore.

Renaissance writers

The very earliest sign of classical influence comes from Chaucer, in the Merchants Tale. He refers there to “Pluto, that is the king of fayerye/ And many a lady in his companye/ Folwinge his wyf, the quene Prosperpyne.”  This can be dated to about 1390 and is probably more a sign of Chaucer’s own education and reading than any real indicator of the spread of new thinking from Italy, where the rinascimento was at that time still in its infancy.

I suggest a more significant start date is the appearance of Gavin Douglas’ 1513 translation of Ovid’s Aeneid, in which he chose to refer to “nymphis and faunis apoun every side/ Quhilk Fairfolkis or than Elfis clepen we…”  This linking of nymphs and elves remains consistent then for the next  150 years; for example, Thomas Nash makes this analogy: “The Robin Goodfellows, Elfs, Fairies, Hobgoblins of our latter age, which idolatrous former days and the fantastical world of Greece ycleped Fauns, Satyrs, Dryads and Hamadryads…” Latterly, Milton in Comus from 1630 spoke of  fairies and elves as equivalent to nymphs.  Of this work, Floris Delattre observed that “the now trite assimilation of English fairies to classical nymphs gains … a fresh beauty” thanks to the poet’s “refined language” (English fairy poetry, 1908, p.165).

Translations of Ovid soon spread other classical concepts: for example Thomas Phaer in his 1550 version of the Aeneid mentioned fauns, nymphs and the fairy queen whilst Arthur Golding’s translation of the Metamorphoses of 1565 described “nymphes of faery.” The process could work in reverse as well, with native terms being used to explain classical ones.  For example, Golding felt that the best translation he could make was to describe the “Chimaera, that same pouke.”

Nymphs and fairies

The easy reference to classical deities then became habitual.  Nymphs and fairies were inseparable. Drayton in Poly-Olbion treats “Ceres nymphs” as interchangeable with fairies (Song XXI) and also marries a nymph to a fay and has dryads, hamadryads, satyrs and fauns dance with fairies in his Nymphals 8 & 6.  Other Greek and Roman figures also begin to insinuate themselves.  Scot in The discovery of witchcraft (1584) mentions “satyrs, pans, fauns, sylvans, tritons, centaurs…” in  his list of fairy beings (Book VII c.XV) and he names the fairy queen variously as Sibylla, Minerva, Diana and Herodias.  For King James VI in Daemonologie Diana and her court are synonymous with ‘Phairie.’  Ben Jonson’s Masque of Oberon from 1610 carelessly mixes the “coarse and country fairy” with satyrs and sylvans. Burton, writing the Anatomy of melancholy  in 1621, listed such “Terrestrial devils [as] lares, genii, fauns, satyrs, wood nymphs, foliots, fairies…”  Spenser meanwhile introduced the Graces to the company of fairies in both The Fairy queen and Epithalamium.  

It may be helpful to provide a summary of the various Greek and Roman gods and spirits with whom parallels were so freely drawn.  It must be acknowledged that there are undeniable parallels and comparisons between some British fairies and some Mediterranean deities, analogies sufficiently strong to justify a few of the identifications made.  This is, of course, due to the fact that all of these supernatural beings derive ultimately from the same Indo-European sources and are responses to the same natural processes and features.  Nonetheless, each culture had developed differently and whilst there were links to be made (as, for example, was done in works such as Frazer’s Golden Bough) these beings had evolved separately for centuries and, whilst comparable, were very far from being identical.

nymphs

Classical references

Writers freely made reference to:

  • Abundantia- who was the Roman goddess of fortune and prosperity.  She evolved into a beneficent spirit and, ultimately, into Habundia, queen of the witches and fairies;
  • Ceres- she was a goddess of the growth of plant foods.  Insofar as she had vegetative associations, there was some tenuous link with British fairies;
  • Diana– who was goddess of childbirth, of nature and of the moon.  Queen Mab was a midwife, as testified by Andro Man, accused of witchcraft in 1598, and fairies often danced in the moonlight, so that Diana’s transfer to Britain makes some sense;
  • Dryads– nymphs of trees and woods and so comparable to elves;
  • Fauns– a faun is a rural deity who bestows fruitfulness on fields and cattle.  He can also have prophetic powers.  His influence over natural processes suggested the analogy with elves;
  • Genii– are clan spirits and perhaps therefore allied to brownies, banshees and the like;
  • Graces- these were Greek goddesses of fertility in fields and gardens and accordingly comparable to elves and fairies;
  • Hecate- was the goddess of magic and spells; she was linked to the moon and was a goddess of childbirth and the night.  Through Queen Mab she was therefore associated with fairies and witches;
  • Herodias– was mother of Salome and was reputed to be head of a witch cult.  She became linked to fairies through the witch craze and was identified with Habundia, queen of Elfame.  By circuitous routes, therefore, Heywood ended up equating sibils and fees, white nymphs, Nightladies and Habundia their queen;
  • Lares- are tutelary deities of fields and homes and are accordingly similar to boggarts, brownies and such like;
  • Minerva- was linked to the arts and crafts and had no real identity with British fairies;
  • Nymphs- these are minor deities linked to fertility, growth, trees and water (streams, lakes and the seas).  As such they are clearly comparable to elves and fairies.  For example, the nymphs tended to protect specific locales so that there may be some analogy to be made between the water naiads and British sprites like Grindylow and Peg Powler;
  • Pan- was a deity of Arcadia, part-goat, part-human.  He haunted the high hills and brought fertility to the flocks and herds, but not to agriculture.  He could send visions and dreams.  He has a vague resemblance to pucks and hobgoblins, but no more;
  • Satyrs– were envisaged as half-man and half-beast; they were brothers to the mountain nymphs and akin to fauns.  As such, they resembled pucks, brownies and hobgoblins to some extent;
  • Sibylla– was a prophetess, and so became linked to fairies through the witch craze;
  • Sylvans– these are woodland deities, readily associated with fairies.

Some of the classical names used had no relevance at all to British fairies; some denoted distantly related beings.  All were facile and ultimately uninformative and unhelpful.  The use of the classical comparisons diluted and disrupted more accurate knowledge of genuine British traditions, inhibiting rather than encouraging study.  They were superficial displays of learning which detracted from a deeper and more valuable investigation of the ‘national fairies’ as Floris Delattre termed them.  Classical references added nothing of value to the verse- rather it obscured the nature of insular tradition and accelerated its decline by promoting false analogies and parallels.   The Greek and Roman figures had character traits and qualities unknown before, with notions of hierarchy, worship and relationships that were alien and inapplicable to British folklore.  All in all, therefore, the impact of the Renaissance learning was in this instance  entirely negative.

Nymphs in literature

paul_hermann_wagner_-_waldnymphe
Paul Hermann Wagner (1852-1937), Waldnymphe (Forest nymph)

Nymphs have always been popular characters, in poetry in particular, and have been possessed of a distinct character and attributes.  They are associated inextricably with fairies in the earliest quote, from Melusine, of around 1500:

“Ye should have ben out of the handes of the Nymphes and of the fairees.”

Their physical attractiveness was their primary feature, as this string of quotations demonstrates:

“O nymph of beauty’s train, The onely cause and easer of my paine.”  (Thomas Lodge, The delectable history of Forbonius and Prisceria, 1584)

Lodge hammered home his idea of ‘nimphs’ in many other lines of verse, in which they were lauded as ‘gorgeous’, ‘faire’, ‘lovelie’, ‘heavenly,’ ”tender’ and ‘sweet’ (Glaucus and Scilla; Euphues’ golden legacy).  The effect of such attractiveness was predictable:

“he hath seen some beautiful Nymph, and is growen amorous.” (Euphues)

It was perhaps Edmund Spenser who was most especially devoted to the celebration of their charms:

“Ye silvans, fawns and satires that among these thickets oft have daunst,/ Ye nymphs and nayades with golden heare.” (A pastoral eclogue upon the death of Sir Philip Sydney, 1595).

He placed them securely within a classical, woodland landscape, describing variously a swain “”who in these woods amongst the nymphs dost wonne” and invoking:

“O flocks, O faunes, and O ye plesaunt springs/ Of Tempe, where the country Nymphs are rife…” (Virgil’s gnat)

Their unspoiled, rural nature is a trait that was to appeal to poets for centuries.  Their physical attractiveness was undeniable and irresistible.  In Colin Clout’s come home again Spenser mentions “the nymph delitious” and declares that “a fairer nymph yet never saw mine eie.”  These praises reach their natural conclusion in verses from The Fairy Queen:

“As if the love of some new nymphe late seene/ Had in him kindled youthful fresh desire…” (Canto VIII, stanza XI)

“Finding the nymph asleepe in secret wheare/ As he by chance did wander the same way,/ Was taken with her love, and by her closely lay.” (Canto IV, stanza XIX)

Lastly, it will have been seen that other terms are sometimes employed.  Spenser grouped his nymphs with naiads and these divinities occasionally appear in verse, the earliest being Lydgate’s Troyyes Book of 1495, in which he refers comprehensively to-

“Water nymphs, nor this nayades, Satiry, nouther driades, that goddesse bene of wode and wildernesse.”

Spenser elsewhere speaks of “Fayre Naiades” (Virgil’s gnat, 1597) and Milton charmingly imagines them as being “flowrie-kirtl’d” (Comus, 1637).  Finally, we may note that Nabokov was by no means originator of the term ‘nymphet.’  In the Polyolbion of 1612 Michael Drayton makes mention “of the Nymphets sporting there, In Wyrrall and in Delamere.” (XI, Argument 171)

Progressively over time, as I have argued in another post, the nymph and the fairy drew ever closer together- the fairy assimilating to the nymph and becoming younger and more feminised.

Pagliei, Gioacchino, 1852-1896; The Naiads
Naiads by Gioacchino Pagliei (1852-1895). Nottingham City Art Gallery

Conclusion

To conclude, we must first concede that British fairy lore was already a hybrid, containing elements of Celtic, Saxon and French myth; Morgan le Fay mixed with Germanic elves and Cornish pixies to create complex and many layered stories. Classical themes added nothing to this.  References to nymphs and fauns were a learned and literary graft upon native roots and served only to stunt further development of the tradition.  Whatever the wider enriching qualities of the Renaissance, it only did damage to British folk lore.

An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).  See too my posting Not all nymphs are nice for some alternative approaches to our classical inheritance, in which I discuss nymphs in the work of Arthur Machen, and also his influence on the depiction of nymphs and fairies in early twentieth century classical music.

See my more recent book, dealing solely with nymphs and nymphets, Nymphology (2020).

“A votaress of my order”- offerings to fairies

The-Cheese-Well

The cheese well

One of the explanations of the belief in fairies is that they are the degraded remnants of former gods, the traces of ancient pantheistic belief in Britain.  The habit of making offerings of one description or another to these beings lends support to this theory but, as we shall see, the evidence presents a confusing picture of what people understood themselves to be doing.  The recorded practices could be worship, or they could even be something akin to a commercial transaction.

Offerings to fairies

The offerings take several forms.  The first is a general gift made to ‘the fairies’ as a sign of respect and propitiation.  Several examples of this come from Scotland: in the Highlands and Islands it was common for milk to be poured on stones with hollows in them in order to ensure the protection of the herds of cattle.  On top of Minchmuir, Peebles-shire, there was  the so-called ‘Cheese Well’ into which locals threw pieces of cheese for the guardian fairies.  If we see the fairies as once having been gods, then these marks of honour aimed at appeasing the ‘good neighbours,’ averting ill fortune and ensuring their continuing good will, appear to be strong confirmation of divine origins.

Similarly, on Lewis farmers would wade out into the waves and pour beer into the sea, invoking the water-spirit Shoney and asking for a good harvest of seaweed for the fields. Comparable conduct was found in the South West of England: miners would give up a portion of their lunches to the ‘knockers’ in the mine, hoping that they would then be led to the best lodes of tin, and at Newlyn the pixies living between low and high water mark, the bucca, would be offered a ‘cast’ of three fish so as to guarantee a good catch in the nets.  These ‘sacrifices’ made with a view to a specific outcome are a very familiar aspects of human interactions with divinities.  They also imply that the fairies possessed some kind of control over the sea and its contents.  This is not a typical fairy attribute, although the Cornish spriggans were said to have power over the weather and could call on thunder and lightning when they wished to.

In England there is an example of a more direct exchange between human and fairy.  There was a belief that elder trees were inhabited by the ‘old lady of the elder tree.‘  If a person wished to cut some branches from a bush, a vow had to be made: ‘Old Lady, if you let me take some of your wood now, you can take some of mine when I’m a tree.’ Omission of this promise could lead to disaster- fire or illness in the household.

Secondly, there are examples of offerings being made in return for which a gift of money might be expected from the fairies.  An example comes from Llanberis, in Snowdonia, from the 1750s: the practice was for farm maids to place a jug of fresh sweet milk and a clean towel on a stone in the morning.  When they later returned, the jug would have been emptied by the Tylwyth Teg and a handful of coins would have been left.  This kind of exchange between humans and fairies is very closely associated with the reports of fairies leaving small sums of silver for chosen people- albeit on the strict condition that they maintain secrecy as to the source of their new found prosperity.  Violation of this would inevitably terminate the fairies’ good favour.  These practices clearly are a kind of bargain as much as an oblation.  An interesting variant on this practice comes from Wirt Sikes in British goblins (p.22).  He tells of  a “servant girl who attended to the cattle on the Trwyn farm, near Abergwyddon, [who] used to take food to ‘Master. Pwca,’ as she called the elf. A bowl of fresh milk and a slice of white bread were the component parts of the goblin’s repast, and were placed on a certain spot where he got them. One night the girl, moved by the spirit of mischief, drank the milk and ate most of the bread, leaving for Master Pwca only water and crusts. Next morning she found that the fastidious fairy had left the food untouched. Not long after, as the girl was passing the lonely spot where she had hitherto left Pwca his food, she was seized under the arm pits by fleshly hands (which, however, she could not see), and subjected to a castigation of a most mortifying character. Simultaneously there fell upon her ear in good set Welsh a warning not to repeat her offence on peril of still worse treatment.”  This might be read as either divine punishment for disrespect or simply revenge for a practical joke.

Domestic offerings

The exchanges just described were made in the open air or in uninhabited or deserted buildings.  Throughout Britain, though, there was a very similar practice of householders leaving out bread, milk or clean, warm water for the fairies at night.  Once again, a small gift might be anticipated in the morning.  Sometimes, the coins were more like a reward- a clean and neat house was appreciated by the nocturnal visitors and was acknowledged by a couple of coppers.  Some writers were in no doubt as to the nature of these interactions.  Robert Burton, in Anatomy of melancholy (1621), understood fairies to be erstwhile deities “which have been in former times adored with much superstition, with sweeping their houses and setting of a pail of clean water, good victuals and the like, and then they should not be pinched but find money in their shoes and be fortunate in their enterprises.”  Avoidance of punishment was a clear motivation: John Aubrey noted that, until the reign of King James I, country folk were “wont to please the fairies, that they might do no shrewd turnes, by sweeping clean the Hearth and setting by it a dish of fair water and halfe sadd bread, whereon was set a messe of milke sopt with white bread.  And on the morrow they should find a groat” (Remains of Gentilisme & Judaism, 1687 pp.29 & 125).

Offerings to brownies

The last kind of fairy offering we should note is that made to known individual beings- most commonly the brownies and  other domestic hobgoblins of English and lowland Scottish folklore.  A kind of bargain is again involved in these cases.  The brownie undertakes some “drudgery work” in the house or on the farmstead (threshing, mowing, cleaning) and gets remuneration. However, it was fundamental to the transaction that this gift of cream, milk or cake did not seem like a direct payment.  The items were ‘left out’, available for the brownie to find and consume, but they were not explicitly given to the hobgoblin in return for the labours undertaken.  If the offering was too plainly intended for the spirit- the worst  examples being specially-made clothes to cover their hairy nakedness- then the brownie would take offence and would either leave the holding in a huff or, worse still, remain but as a malevolent presence.

An example of this tradition is found in Scot’s Discoverie of witchcraft (1584): “your grandams maides were woont to sett a boll of milke before … Robin Good Fellow for grinding of the malt or mustard and sweeping the house at midnight: and you have heard that he would chafe exceedingly if the maide or the goodwife of the house, having compassion on his nakedness, laid anie clothes for him, besides his messe of white bread and milke which was his standing fee” (Book IV, c.X).   Milton, in L’Allegro, gives a similar account of the country dweller’s stories of brownies:

“Tells how the drudging goblin sweat,
To earn his cream-bowl duly set,
When in one night, ere glimpse of morn,
His shadowy flail hath thresh’d the corn
That ten day-labourers could not end;
Then lies him down, the lubber fiend,
And stretch’d out all the chimney’s length,
Basks at the fire his hairy strength;
And crop-full out of doors he flings,
Ere the first cock his matin rings.”

the_brownies_and_other_tales_

A curious example of domestic interaction between humans and fairies which sits somewhere between the brownie and ‘neatness rewarded’ is a story from Stowmarket in Suffolk, recorded in the mid-nineteenth century.  An old man in the town was regularly visited by the ‘ferriers’ or ‘ferrishers’ (as they were termed in the county) who used to meet in his home; he recalled that they wore long green coats and yellow shoes.  He kept his house scrupulously clean for them and in return the ferriers supplied faggots which they put in his oven and, from time to time, would leave a shilling for him under a chair leg.  When he spoke about these visits, he lost their favour.  It’s hard to say in this account who is more beholden to whom- there’s an equality of exchange which obscures any suggestion of devotion.

The exact relationship between fairies and humans is, on the evidence of these examples, confused and ill-defined.  This need not be too surprising, given that such uncertainty exists as to the origins of the fairy belief.  In the first examples, maintaining the benevolence of the supernatural realm was a key element in the folk customs.  The later examples, though, whilst made in propitiative guise, should really be seen as bargains.  In return for labour or for food a payment is made; the pretence is that these are offerings but actual truth appears to be that the fairies are the supplicants, a relationship that Katherine Briggs identified when she spoke of the ‘dependence of the fairies’ upon humans.

An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).

“Where should this music be? i’ the air or the earth?”- fairy pastimes

msn-fairy-orchestra

As has been discussed in previous posts, the residents of fairyland were conceived to spend a good deal of their time tormenting humans, either maliciously or mischievously, some in thievery from hapless mortals and a little in honest commerce.  The impression gained from folklore though, is that mostly the fairy life was one of leisure, with nothing to do but have fun.

Again and again the sources connect the fairies with pleasure and revelry, and in particular:

  • dancing appears to have been their chiefest delight and one of their commonest attributes (for example, see Macbeth, IV, 1- “Like elves and fairies in a ring.”). Most often this is said to take place by moonlight and usually in open places- in grassy fields, meadows, pastures and near megalithic monuments.  The fondness for moonlight is a widespread preference recorded in literature, including Milton in Comus- “Now to the moon in wavering morrice move…” (lines 115-117), Lyly, Fletcher and, of course, Shakespeare, who mentions ‘moonshine revels’ in both Midsummer Night’s Dream (II, 2) and The Merry Wives of Windsor (V, 5).   In Cornwall fairies are said to dance at their fairs, although again these are most likely to be held in open spaces (Wentz p.171).  The dances would invariably be in a circle, in one late nineteenth century case on the Isle of Skye being around a bonfire (see Briggs, Fairies in tradition p.20), and the inevitable consequence of this was the well-known ‘fairy rings’ on the grass.  This is noted by Prospero in The Tempest (V, 1) who invokes “Ye elves … that/ By moonshine do the green-sour ringlets make/ Whereof the ewe not bites.”  Many other writers also allude to the same habit and phenomenon, including Ben Jonson, Lyly, Milton, Brown, John Aubrey and Thomas Nashe.  Wirt Sikes in British goblins was told that the fairies prefer (reasonably enough) to dance in dry places, preferentially under oak trees; there they leave reddish circles- most often under the female oaks (p.106).  Humans might be lured to join these ‘wanton’ dances and would have great trouble escaping, as I have described before.

fairy-ring

  • “Most dainty music”- music naturally accompanied the dancing, both instrumental and vocal; for example Thomas Brown in The Shepherd’s pipe describes fairies dancing to piping in meadows or in fields of yellow box.  In Scotland the bagpipes appear to have been preferred. John Dunbar of Invereen told Wentz’ informants that the sidh were “awful for the bagpipes” and often were heard playing them (p.95).   Fairies are frequently associated with particular pipes and chanters in the Highlands (Wentz pp.86 & 111) and it is also notable that their musical skills might be bestowed upon fortunate humans (p.103).  Equally, it is said, several folk tunes are originally fairy airs, heard and memorised by attentive players. To human ears the fairy music was invariably found to be ‘soft and sweet’ and nearly irresistible- especially to the young (Rhys pp.53, 86, 96 & 111; Wentz p.159).   Throughout Shakespeare’s Tempest “heavenly music” is a central element to the enchantments used by Prospero and Ariel,  lending it a magical as well as pleasurable aspect.  Humans, it seems, are welcome to join in fairy songs (just as with dances) so long as they are polite and, possibly even more importantly, musical, so that their contribution is harmonious and positive.  Woe betide the poor vocalist: in one Scottish case a hump back who sang well and enhanced a song was rewarded by having his hump taken away;  a jealous imitator who tried to repeat this spoiled the rhyme and was punished by bestowal of the hump (Wentz p.92);
  •  feasting too went along with the the enjoyment of song and dance.  Banqueting, wine and ale are frequently alluded to (in the Cornish stories of Selena Moor and Miser on the Gump, for instance).  A Zennor girl came upon pixy ‘junketting’ in an orchard near Newlyn, Wentz was told (p.175).  In many of the instances when fairy hills are seen to open up it is to reveal a fine feast within (for example William of Newborough, Book I, c.28 & Keightley p.283).
  • riding provided the other major pastime.  The ‘fairy rade’ or procession features in a large number of stories, for example Allison Gross and Tam Lin.  These processions are described as being richly caparisoned and very stately.  Mounted fairies also liked to hunt, although these outings tend to be far noisier and wilder affairs.  We are never surely told what is was that the fairies preferred to chase, but we often hear of their abandoned gallops across the countryside with their hounds.
  • mischief might also be said to be a fairy entertainment.  The taunting of humans is a fixed fairy character trait and was a primary source of pleasure for several types of fairy- especially the pucks and hobgoblins, and this is exemplified by Thomas Haywood in his Hierarchie of the blessed angels (1636, p.574) when he describes how they enjoy gambolling at night on a household’s shelves and settles, making a noise with the pots and pans and waking up the sleeping inhabitants.

In all of the above, it will be noted, the fairies mirrored the activities of earthly royal courts and noble houses.  At the end of Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example, we are told that Oberon “doth keep his revels here tonight.”  Overall, in fact, the strong impression gained from a study of the accounts (both traditional and literary) is that the fairies’ time was mainly filled with pleasure and mischief, and that there was only a very a scanty ‘work ethic.’  This is echoed in a comment on the Anglesey fairies recorded by one of Evans Wentz’ interviewees.  The woman observed with some disapproval that “all the good they ever did was singing and dancing.”

1920s-fairies

‘When the fairies came,’ Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, 1888- 1960

An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).  I have return to fairy music and song in a later post.

“Full of Fairy elves”- William Blake and fairies

Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing c.1786 by William Blake 1757-1827

Titania, Oberon and Puck with fairies dancing, 1796

This latest posting examines the poet William Blake’s conceptions of fairies.  This is to mark the publication of my latest book, Albion awakea fairy story for adults that features both the Fairy Queen Mab and William Blake amongst its cast of historical characters.

Blake had a very clear vision of the nature of fairies, although these thoughts were frequently unique to him- not an uncommon situation in the complex mythology that he elaborated over the course of his life!  Blake spoke of “the elemental beings called by us by the general name of fairies.”  From this it seems clear that he did not conceive of a single class of supernatural being, but of complex variety- as if, of course, the British conception of fairy-kind.

wb-penseroso_-v

Illustration to Milton’s ‘Il Penseroso V‘- Milton dreams of “six spirits or fairies, hovering on the air with instruments.”

The character of Blake’s fays

In his verse, Blake’s fairies fulfil a number of functions:

  • primarily and originally they are remnants of the pagan gods of Britain.  In The Four Zoas Blake speaks of the “fairies of Albion, afterwards The Gods of the Heathen.”
  • they are emanations of his character Los (broadly ‘time and space’) and accordingly they are the makers of time.  In Milton (28, 60) time is described as “the work of fairy hands of the four elements.”
  • along with nymphs, gnomes and genii, fairies are spirits that animate the material, vegetative world.  They are often associated by him with flowers and natural growth and they are linked to its vigour and fecundity.  For example in 1802, after his move to Felpham on the coast, Blake wrote that the trees and fields roundabout his cottage were “full of Fairy elves.” The fairy that dictates Europe to the poet is first discovered “sat on a streak’d Tulip.”
  • closely related to the previous characteristic, fairies are understood to be intimately aware of the sensuous nature of life.  In Europe, for example, the fairy offers to open Blake’s senses and to “shew you all alive/ The world, where every particle breathes forth its joy.”  He demonstrates that the material world is not dead; rather each flower whimpers when it is plucked and its eternal essence then hovers around Blake “like a cloud of incense.”  In this respect, then, fairies represent the natural state of human imagination and perception, before it has been blunted and enslaved by logic and reason.  In his Motto to the Songs of Innocence and Experience, Blake condemns how:

“The good are attracted by men’s perceptions,/ And think not for themselves;/ Til experience teaches them to catch/ And to cage fairies and elves.”

  • the keen animation of the fairy senses seems to shade into sensuality and Blake makes some connection between these spirits and female sexuality.  In ‘A fairy leapt upon my knee’ the spirit protests to Blake thus:

“Knowest thou not, O Fairies’ lord,/ How much to us contemn’d, abhorred,/ Whatever hides the female form/ That cannot bear the mortal storm?/ Therefore in pity still we give/ Our lives to make the female live;/ And what would turn into disease/ We turn to what will joy and please!”

The verse ‘The fairy’ treats the supernatural creature as ‘king’ of the marriage ring.  It appears that Blake saw the emotional and physical obsession of love as some sort of spell that has to be broken.  This link to carnal pleasure also seems to feature in his poem The Phoenix, sent to Mrs Butts in 1800 after the move to Felpham. Blake contrasts a fairy to the innocence of children playing.  The phoenix flees the sprite for the company of the children and-

“The Fairy to my bosom flew/ weeping tears of morning dew/ I said thou foolish whimpring thing/ Is not that thy Fairy Ring/ Where those children sport and play/ In fairy fancies light and gay?/ Seem the child and be a child/ And the Phoenix is beguild/ But if thou seem a fairy thing/ Then it flies on glancing Wing.”

wb-goblin-lallegro-5

Illustration to Milton’s L’Allegro V- Queen Mab, fairies & a goblin.

Blake’s tiny fairies

These quite individual conceptions of the nature of faery were elaborated  by the poet from pre-existing folk materials of long standing.  We have just seen mention of fairy rings and, in one very significant respect, Blake did not depart at all from conventional imaginings of fairies: his creatures are always very small.  There are numerous examples of this:

  • An early poem, found in the manuscript collection owned by Rossetti,  describes how “A fairy leapt upon my knee.”  Blake condemns it as a “Thou paltry, gilded, poisonous worm,” emphasising its miniature dimensions.
  • In another early poem, found only in manuscript, ‘Little Mary Bell’ keeps a fairy hidden in a nut.
  • An illustration for the 1797 edition of Gray’s A long story has fairies riding upon flies;
  • In Europe Blake caught the fairy muse in his hat “as boys knock down a butterfly” and then took it home “in my warm bosom” where it perched on his table and dictated the verse.  In his early poem, The fairy, Blake likewise catches a elf in his hat after it leaps from some leaves in an effort to escape.  He addresses it as his ‘Butterfly.’
  • Lastly, in his famous account of a fairy funeral, Blake described “creatures of the size and colour of green and gray grasshoppers, bearing a body laid out on a rose leaf.”

XYC309871

Illustration to Gray’s ‘Long story’- fairies riding on flies

Blake’s vision as, of course, a highly personal one and we would seldom be well advised to treat his version of fairy-lore as an authoritative guide to what his contemporaries believed about the supernatural world.  Nonetheless, it is a fascinating and coherent conception and a notable element within his overall philosophy.

My interpretation and use of Blake’s fairy lore, my new fairy tale Albion awake!is available to purchase through Amazon as a Kindle or paperback.  I also intend to make related posts separately on johnkruseblog.wordpress.com.  An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).

albion

Further reading

I have discussed William Blake in several other posts: I consider his views on fairy origins, on the nature of the magical realm of Albion and how Blake’s art and poetry has influenced later generations of artists, writers and visionaries.