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

Sylvia Townsend Warner- Of Cats and Elfins

For Christmas I received this collection of short stories by Sylvia Townsend Warner. Split into two sections- one on fairies, one on cats (!)- it complements her book, Kingdoms of Elfin, which I have reviewed before.

As a fan of both cats and elves, the book is highly recommended. It’s a pleasant read- and a thought provoking one too. There’s a general introduction to Warner’s views on the inhabitants of Faery, followed by her unusual little tales. Her opinions on fairy-kind as a whole are well worth noting.

In many respect, Warner’s elfins are very similar to those we know. For example, they frequent meadows where they “dance mushrooms into rings” and the island of Britain is divided up into kingdoms ruled over by fairy queens, such as Elfame. Warner’s belief was that fairies are, eventually, mortal. They can die of old age and they can die, too, by misadventure- for example, by drowning, poisoning or hanging.

Warner’s elfins have a very low estimation of humankind. We are noisy, rude, dirty and, worst of all, dim. Her fae are smaller than humans, winged and able to ‘put on’ invisibility. As a result, she observed that:

“It is sometimes said that we have but our own obtuseness to blame for not seeing fairies more often than we do; but this is to attach too much importance to our idiosyncrasies, even to such a well-established, long-standing idiosyncrasy as obtuseness; for if we fail to see the fairies, it is not because we are too stupid to see them, but because they are too clever to allow themselves to be seen by us.”

Of Cats & Elfins, ‘The Kingdom of Elfin.’

All in all, Warner’s elves don’t reckon much to us human beings. In her story ‘The Narrative of Events Preceding the Death of Queen Ermine,’ it is remarked that “Mortals are not logical animals.” The courtier who makes this observation expands upon his experience a little later, explaining the essential difference between human and fairy kind (the possession of consciences): “We [that is, the fae] have no need of them. We have reason. But they are part of the mortal apparatus, as tails are to cats…” In the story ‘The Duke of Orkney’s Leonardo,’ we are told a little more about Elfin morality. They are “untrammeled by that petted plague of mortals, conscience, [so] they never reproached or regretted, entered into explanations or lied.” Faery is a world of guilt-free Enlightenment, it would seem. In the same story, Warner has a nice little joke at human gullibility: of fairy princess Lief, she remarks sardonically that:

“If she had believed in witches she would have believed he was under a spell; but Caithness was full of witches- mortals all, derided by rational Elfins.”

The fairy view of people is summarised by Warner in these terms:

“It is a sad fact, but undeniable: the Kingdom of Elfin has a very poor opinion of humankind. I suppose we must seem to them shocking boors, uncouth, noisy, ill-bred and disgustingly oversized. It is only the fairies with a taste for low company, like Puck and the Brownies… that make a practice of familiarity. And it is to be observed that they, for choice, frequent the simple and rustic part of mankind and avoid professors and students of folklore…”

Of Cats & Elfins, ‘The Kingdom of Elfin.’

As she notes, those humans who go out consciously looking for traces of the faeries tend to be disappointed- or are the victims of fairy vindictiveness. Warner confronts the fact that, when they do have contact with us, it is frequently an unpleasant experience for the mortals. They may give us a nasty fright, or:

“Often they go further, causing them to fall into languishing sicknesses, harrying them with ignominious accidents and even pursuing them unto death. They commonly employ one or two methods: blasting or shooting with an elf-bolt…”

Of Cats & Elfins, ‘The Kingdom of Elfin.’

According to Warner, three groups, nevertheless, have a good chance of meeting faeries on happier terms. These are country women with new born babies, young children and handsome men. Mothers are taken because “the fairies think that the plodding and bovine nature of human kind is peculiarly well adapted to provide reliable old-fashioned nurses for fairy babes.”

Children are abducted either because they are wanted as a tithe for the devil (according to one theory) or because they enjoy the company of children and taking care of them (which she thinks more likely). This sits uncomfortably with a entirely typical faery episode in ‘The Narrative of Events Preceding the Death of Queen Ermine’ in which local children are punished for trespassing on the queen’s land. Most suffer pinchings, scratching and hair pullings, but some of the fairies get rather carried away in their duties- “driving the marauders into wasps’ nests, jerking them off boughs into nettlebeds, alluring them to toadstools or gay wreaths of deadly nightshade.” The resultant death toll is quite high.

As for men, fairy women take them as husbands. Warner notes, though, that the reverse is seldom the case. Although fairy men will seduce human women, “no earthly woman’s charms have been powerful enough to bind a fairy to her in honorable matrimony.” In large measure, she ascribes this to the fairy temperament:

“Their amorousness is proverbial and no doubt the fairies who married mortal husbands were induced to this rash step by the violence of their passions, coupled with a romantic and high-flown notion that there is something very fine about defying convention. Once married, however, they make admirable wives.”

Of Cats & Elfins, ‘The Kingdom of Elfin.’

On the whole, though, fairies are an unromantic lot and are incapable of falling heavily for another: “Elfins find such love burdensome and mistrust it.” If only humans could be as calm and rational… The other remark to make upon Warner’s Elfins is their diversity. The author was a lesbian with a life-long partner and in the story ‘The Duke of Orkney’s Leonardo’ she imagined a gay husband and his wife, neither of them prepared to conform to the stereo-types expected of them.

Raphael, Mary F., A Wood Nymph; Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum

The last story in the Cats and Elfins collection is ‘Stay, Corydon, Thou Swain.’ In many ways it is my favourite, although it is strictly not about Elfins but about nymphs. In short, it concerns a Mr Mulready, a draper in Wells in Somerset. He is a highly respectable widower who sings in the Baptist chapel choir. One evening the choir has been practicing the madrigal by Wilbye that provides the story’s title. The words of the verse stick in Mulready’s mind:

“Thy nymph is light and shadow-like

For if thou follow her, she’ll fly from thee,

But if thou fly from her, she’ll follow thee.”

Then, “All of a sudden, Mr Mulready found himself wondering about nymphs, and wondering, too, in a very serious and pertinacious way. He had never, to his knowledge, given a though to these strange beings before and yet it now seemed to him that he had an idea of them both clear and pleasant- as though perhaps in childhood he had been taken to see one. He wished to see a nymph again… What he felt was more than a whim: it was an earnest desire, a mental craving…”

The next day he realises that he has a nymph working in his shop, a pale young girl called Edna Cave. He asks to come out for a bicycle ride the next evening and they agree to cycle to Merley Wood, the other side of Glastonbury (there is a real Merley Wood, but it’s near Wimbourne in Dorset- definitely not an evening’s ride from Wells). Mulready knows the wood- and has always been a little nervous of its atmosphere, but as he tells himself: “When one has a nymph vouchsafed one for a whole evening, one does not boggle over details. He was extremely happy and excited at the thought of such a shy and rare being becoming his companion.”

They ride to the wood on a beautiful summer’s evening. Edna Cave is exactly the company the older man had hoped for : “He had already a general idea of how a nymph should behave: she would be rather quiet and take a great interest in flowers.” This is exactly what Edna does. They sit happily together under blackthorn blossom on the edge of the wood, saying little, but very content, until it is late and starting to get quite dark. Mr Mulready encourages them to leave and they are just walking back to their bikes when Edna turns around and walks back towards the blackthorn:

“She put out her hands. He thought she was going to break off a spray… And then, in a moment, she disappeared.”

Edna vanishes, leaving Mulready stunned and panicked. There is no trace of her at all- and he has to face returning to Wells with this shattering news. This wonderful mystery is exactly what I sought to celebrate in my book Nymphology published last year; it is, as well, a fine end to the Elfin section of Warner’s collection.