Three Wishes: your dreams fulfilled by faeries?

Jessie Wilcox Smith, Cinderella

A cliché of faery lore is that the fairies grant our wishes, often in threes because this is a magical and significant number (at least in Christian tradition).  This is more the substance of fairy-tales and fairy godmother stories than authentic British folklore, but it’s not entirely without foundation in native accounts.

Mermaids seem especially prone to granting triple wishes.  Furthermore, as the Cornish story of Lutey and the mermaid demonstrates, mermaid vengeance may be postponed (as I recently described for the faeries too).  The mermaid first granted Lutey three wishes as a reward for returning her to the sea when she’d become stranded, but then refused to let go of him when they were in the surf, instead trying to drag him under the water.  The barking of his dog and the sight of his cottage on the shore broke her spell, and with a flash of his knife he forced her to let him go.  Nevertheless, the mermaid promised to return after nine (three times three) years- which she did, seizing him from a fishing boat out at sea.  The mermaid in the related Cornish story, The Old Man of Cury, grants a single wish, as does the Manx mermaid who falls for a man who woos her with gifts of apples.

John Bauer, Syv ønsker, The Seven Wishes

The fairy women of Scotland seem especially inclined to grant wishes to humans.  These skills may be taught, or exchanged for sex, or they may be given as rewards.  Often, the grant is offered conditionally: the recipient can have either ‘ingenuity without advantage’ or ‘advantage without ingenuity.’  One will be clever and highly skilled, but will never be rich; the other will make the man prosperous, but he will be stupid.  Abilities in crafts or music are often bestowed; even a great skill in thieving can be granted, apparently.  Sometimes, too, these awards are not really gifts at all, and a price may be exacted, which can even be the eventual forfeit of the human him or herself.  We saw this with Lutey; in the Scottish tale of Peter Waters of Caithness, he met a fairy woman at a well and she spontaneously offered to endow him with great prowess, either as a preacher or as a piper.  He chose to be a piper and she even gave him a set of pipes.  All she asked was that, in return, they meet again after seven years.  In the meantime, he won great fame and fortune for his music but when he duly returned to meet her at the well, he was never seen again (J. G. Campbell, Superstitions).

An unusual Scottish Gaelic story builds upon this general idea.  The fairy queen (who is generally identified with Fann, the embodiment of skill) was grieved by the lack of wisdom amongst many women in the world.  She therefore breathed on the fairy flax plant and issued a summons to every woman in the world to come to her knoll to be endowed with wisdom.  Many came and the queen appeared before them, carrying a limpet in which there was the ais or skill of wisdom.  Each woman was invited to drink from the shell, according to her faith and desire.  Sadly, the cup ran dry before all could drink (Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, vol.2).

There are other ways to get what you want from fairies though.  At Bewcastle, in Cumbria, there is a stone to which you can whisper your secret wishes; the fairies will then help you.  In several other instances, wishes are granted and skills bestowed as the result of bargains- although these deals are not always willing entered into by the faeries.  A boy who stripped turf from a faery knoll was persuaded to replace it on the basis that he would be helped in making the best chanter possible for his bagpipes.  A girl who agreed not to tether her cows on a knoll was then directed to grazing that never ceased and produced very rich milk.  Equally, a man who stuck his knife in the doorway of a faery hill refused to remove it until he had been granted piping skills.

All in all, there is a curious transactional relationship between humans and supernaturals. The faeries constantly and unrepentantly steal from us and use our property and possessions, but they will spontaneously grant valuable knowledge and skills or make gifts of gold. They will reward good deeds but at the same time lavish wealth on favourites who may seem to be chosen at random. In some cases love motivates their actions; in other cases they find themselves forced begrudgingly to comply. It’s a complex exchange of generosity and obligation, part of the tangled and frequently tortuous relationship that we have forged with the over the last thousand years or more of cohabitation on these islands.

Weber, Christmas Fairy

‘Cherry of Zennor’- a fairy adventure considered

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The cliffs near Trereen: Gurnard’s Head with Trereen Dinas promontory fort.

Like the ‘Fairy House on Selena Moor,’ this Cornish tale is taken from Robert Hunt, Popular Romances of the West of England, 1st series, p. 118 et seq.  It’s another lengthy story with many fascinating fairy facets.

“Old Honey lived with his wife and family in a little hut of two rooms and a ‘talfat,’ (sleeping platform) on the cliff side of Trereen in Zennor. The old couple had half a score of children, who were all reared in this place. They lived as they best could on the produce of a few acres of ground, which were too poor to keep even a goat in good heart. The heaps of crogans (limpet shells) about the hut led one to believe that their chief food was limpets and gweans (periwinkles). They had, however, fish and potatoes most days, and pork and broth now and then of a Sunday. At Christmas and the Feast they had white bread. There was not a healthier nor a handsomer family in the parish than Old Honey’s. We are, however, only concerned with one of them, his daughter Cherry. Cherry could run as fast as a hare, and was ever full of frolic and mischief…

[The Penwith peninsula generally is rich with fairylore, and Zennor parish seems to be a hot spot, what with this story, the mermaid of Zennor and the captured pixie SkillywiddenThe area is also endowed with numerous megalithic sites, adding an even greater aura of ancient mystery to the landscape.]

Soon after Cherry got into her teens she became very discontented, because year after year her mother had been promising her a new frock… Cherry was sixteen. One of her playmates had a new dress smartly trimmed with ribbons, and she told Cherry how she had been to Nancledra to the preaching, and how she had ever so many sweethearts who brought her home. This put the volatile Cherry in a fever of desire. She declared to her mother she would go off to the “low countries”  (beyond Towednack) to seek for service, that she might get some clothes like other girls.

[Nancledra village is on the main road south to Penzance on Mount’s Bay, about halfway between north and south coasts. Towednack is smaller and nearer to Zennor.]

Her mother wished her to go to Towednack that she might have the chance of seeing her now and then of a Sunday.  “No, no!” said Cherry, “I’ll never go to live in the parish where the cow ate the bell-rope, and where they have fish and taties (potatoes) every day, and conger-pie of a Sunday, for a change.”

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The Highlands and Lowlands of Towednack parish

One fine morning Cherry tied up a few things in a bundle and prepared to start. She promised her father that she would get service as near home as she could, and come home at the earliest opportunity. The old man said she was bewitched, charged her to take care she wasn’t carried away by either the sailors or pirates, and allowed her to depart. Cherry took the road leading (south) to Ludgvan and Gulval. When she lost sight of the chimneys of Trereen (just north of Nancledra), she got out of heart and had a great mind to go home again. But she went on.

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Barrow on Lady Downs

At length she came to the “four cross roads” on the Lady Downs, sat herself down on a stone by the road-side, and cried to think of her home, which she might never see again.  Her crying at last came to an end, and she resolved to go home and make the best of it.  When she dried her eyes and held up her head she was surprised to see a gentleman coming towards her- for she couldn’t think where he came from; no one was to be seen on the Downs a few minutes before.  The gentleman wished her “morning,” enquired which was the road to Towednack, and asked Cherry where she was going.

[In another published version of the story, our young heroine at this point idly picks and crushes some fern fronds, the effect of which sees to be to conjure up the faery gentleman . The same book (Frances Olcott, The Book of Elves and Fairies, 1918) includes the poem Mabel on Midsummer Day by Mary Howitt, in which a girl is sent on an errand is warned that it’s a dangerous time of year and she must take care not to offend the Good Folk and neither “pluck the strawberry flower/ Nor break the lady-fern.” ]

“Cherry told the gentleman that she had left home that morning to look for service, but that her heart had failed her, and she was going back over the hills to Zennor again.  “I never expected to meet with such luck as this,” said the gentleman. “I left home this morning to seek for a nice clean girl to keep house for me, and here you are.”

He then told Cherry that he had been recently left a widower, and that he had one dear little boy, of whom Cherry might have charge. Cherry was the very girl that would suit him. She was handsome and cleanly. He could see that her clothes were so mended that the first piece could not be discovered; yet she was as sweet as a rose, and all the water in the sea could not make her cleaner. Poor Cherry said “Yes, sir,” to everything, yet she did not understand one quarter part of what the gentleman said. Her mother had instructed her to say “Yes, sir,” to the parson, or any gentleman, when, like herself, she did not understand them. The gentleman told her he lived but a short way off, down in the low countries; that she would have very little to do but milk the cow and look after the baby; so Cherry consented to go with him.

Away they went; he talking so kindly that Cherry had no notion how time was moving, and she quite forgot the distance she had walked.  At length they were in lanes, so shaded with trees that a checker of sunshine scarcely gleamed on the road. As far as she could see, all was trees and flowers. Sweet briars and honeysuckles perfumed the air, and the reddest of ripe apples hung from the trees over the lane.

Then they came to a stream of water as clear as crystal, which ran across the lane. It was, however, very dark, and Cherry paused to see how she should cross the river. The gentleman put his arm around her waist and carried her over, so that she did not wet her feet.

The lane was getting darker and darker, and narrower and narrower, and they seemed to be going rapidly down hill. Cherry took firm hold of the gentleman’s arm, and thought, as he had been so kind to her, she could go with him to the world’s end.  After walking a little further, the gentleman opened a gate which led into a beautiful garden, and said: “Cherry, my dear, this is the place we live in.”

[This whole journey is highly suggestive of a passage into a faery underworld.  Time seems to stretch, and, although Cornish lanes can be shady between their high stone hedges, this progress downhill and over a stream strongly indicates that the pair are crossing some sort of boundary into another world.  The fecundity of the countryside, in contrast to the bare moors off central Penwith, may be another indicator of this.]

“Cherry could scarcely believe her eyes. She had never seen anything approaching this place for beauty. Flowers of every dye were around her; fruits of all kinds hung above her; and the birds, sweeter of song than any she had ever heard, burst out into a chorus of rejoicing. She had heard granny tell of enchanted places. Could this be one of them? No. The gentleman was as big as the parson; and now a little boy came running down the garden walk shouting: “Papa, papa.”

The child appeared, from his size, to be about two or three years of age; but there was a singular look of age about him. His eyes were brilliant and piercing, and he had a crafty expression. As Cherry said, “He could look anybody down.”  Before Cherry could speak to the child, a very old dry-boned, ugly-looking woman made her appearance, and seizing the child by the arm, dragged him into the house, mumbling and scolding. Before, however, she was lost sight of, the old hag cast one look at Cherry, which shot through her heart “like a gimblet.”

[The man can’t be a fairy because he is human sized, Cherry reasons- he is not one of the ‘pobel vean.’  Nevertheless, the unusual nature of faery eyes is often remarked upon and may be a sure indicator of faery nature.]

“Seeing Cherry somewhat disconcerted, the master explained that the old woman was his late wife’s grandmother: that she would remain with them until Cherry knew her work, and no longer, for she was old and ill-tempered, and must go. At length, having feasted her eyes on the garden, Cherry was taken into the house, and this was yet more beautiful. Flowers of every kind grew everywhere, and the sun seemed to shine everywhere, and yet she did not see the sun.

[Light, without any discernible source for it, is another definitive trait of faery.  Gardens, have, of course, a strong fairy association.]

“Aunt Prudence- so was the old woman named- spread a table in a moment with a great variety of nice things, and Cherry made a hearty supper. She was how directed to go to bed, in a chamber at the top of the house, in which the child was to sleep also. Prudence directed Cherry to keep her eyes closed, whether she could sleep or not, as she might, perchance, see things which she would not like. She was not to speak to the child all night. She was to rise at break of day; then take the boy to a spring in the garden, wash him, and anoint his eyes with an ointment, which she would find in a crystal box in a cleft of the rock, but she was not on any account to touch her own eyes with it. Then Cherry was to call the cow; and having taken a bucket full of milk, to draw a bowl of the last milk for the boy’s breakfast. Cherry was dying with curiosity. She several times began to question the child, but he always stopped her with: “I’ll tell Aunt Prudence.” According to her orders, Cherry was up in the morning early. The little boy conducted the girl to the spring, which flowed in crystal purity from a granite rock, which was covered with ivy and beautiful mosses. The child was duly washed, and his eyes duly anointed. Cherry saw no cow, but her little charge said she must call the cow.”

[The instruction to Cherry to keep her eyes and mouth shut, to anoint the child’s eyes with water from a magical spring and to guard against touching her own with the salve are all quintessential fairy elements.  Numerous stories of midwives visiting Faery involve this plot element.  Not asking questions is another part of the pact that respects and preserves fairy mystery.]

“Pruit! pruit! pruit!” called Cherry, just as she would call the cows at home; when, lo! a beautiful great cow came from amongst the trees, and stood on the bank beside her.  Cherry had no sooner placed her hands on the cow’s teats than four streams of milk flowed down and soon filled the bucket. The boy’s bowl was then filled, and he drank it. This being done, the cow quietly walked away, and Cherry returned to the house to be instructed in her daily work.”

[I’ve discussed before the fairy love of dairy products. This bountiful and vaguely magical beast may be stolen– they’d say borrowed- from a local farmer, or it may be raised by the faes alone.]

“The old woman, Prudence, gave Cherry a capital breakfast, and then informed her that she must keep to the kitchen, and attend to her work there- to scald the milk, make the butter, and clean all the platters and bowls with water and gard (gravel sand). Cherry was charged to avoid curiosity. She was not to go into any other part of the house; she was not to try and open any locked doors.”

[It’s worthwhile remarking how like to servitude is Cherry’s sojourn here.  Most mortals taken to Faery work there as prisoners and slaves.  Cherry’s terms of service may sound better, but her lot seems the same.]

“After her ordinary work was done on the second day, her master required Cherry to help him in the garden, to pick the apples and pears, and to weed the leeks and onions.  Glad was Cherry to get out of the old woman’s sight.  Aunt Prudence always sat with one eye on her knitting, and the other boring through poor Cherry. Now and then she’d grumble: ‘I knew Robin would bring down some fool from Zennor- better for both that she had tarried away.’  Cherry and her master got on famously, though, and whenever Cherry had finished weeding a bed, her master would give her a kiss to show her how pleased he was.”

[Of course, taking human females for sex was the other reason they might be abducted. It may be significant that the fairy man shares a name with Robin Goodfellow]

“After a few days, old Aunt Prudence took Cherry into those parts of the house which she had never seen. They passed through a long dark passage. Cherry was then made to take off her shoes; and they entered a room, the floor of which was like glass, and all round, perched on the shelves, and on the floor, were people, big and small, turned to stone. Of some, there were only the head and shoulders, the arms being cut off; others were perfect. Cherry told the old woman she “wouldn’t cum ony furder for the wurld.” She thought from the first she was got into a land of Small People (i.e. the fairies) underground, only master was like other men; but now she know’d she was with the conjurers, who had turned all these people to stone. She had heard talk on ’em up in Zennor, and she knew they might at any moment wake up and eat her.”

[This scene is highly reminiscent of Sir Orfeo’s visit to the fairy king’s castle in the poem of that name.  The possibility that this faeryland is in fact some sort of abode of the dead is made clear here. The uncertain distinction between fairies and ghosts is common in British folklore: the Cornish pixies are said to be the spirits of dead children and Northern boggarts are almost entirely ghost-like.  Interestingly, we now learn that Cherry is not as simple or as trusting as she might have seemed and has had her suspicions all along- that she is in fact with the small people- an pobel vean.]

“Old Prudence laughed at Cherry, and drove her on, insisted upon her rubbing up a box, “like a coffin on six legs,” until she could see her face in it. Well, Cherry did not want for courage, so she began to rub with a will; the old woman standing by, knitting all the time, calling out every now and then: “Rub! rub! rub! Harder and faster!” At length Cherry got desperate, and giving a violent rub at one of the corners, she nearly upset the box. When, O Lor! it gave out such a doleful, unearthly sound, that Cherry thought all the stone people were coming to life, and with her fright she fell down in a fit. The master heard all this noise, and came in to inquire into the cause of the hubbub. He was in great wrath, kicked old Prudence out of the house for taking Cherry into that shut-up room, carried Cherry into the kitchen, and soon, with some cordial, recovered her senses. Cherry could not remember what had happened; but she knew there was something fearful in the other part of the house. But Cherry was mistress now- old Aunt Prudence was gone. Her master was so kind and loving that a year passed by like a summer day. Occasionally her master left home for a season; then he would return and spend much time in the enchanted apartments, and Cherry was certain she had heard him talking to the stone people. Cherry had everything the human heart could desire; but she was not happy; she would know more of the place and the people. Cherry had discovered that the ointment made the little boy’s eyes bright and strange, and she thought often that he saw more than she did; she would try; yes, she would!”

[The passage of time in faery is notoriously different from that on earth.  As ever, too, curiosity is sure to break the spell, just as with Pandora.]

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The barrows on Trendrine Hill, Towednack parish.

“Well, next morning the child was washed, his eyes anointed, and the cow milked; she sent the boy to gather her some flowers in the garden, and taking a “crurn” of ointment, she put it into her eye. Oh, her eye would be burned out of her head if Cherry had not run to the pool beneath the rock to wash her burning eye; when lo! she saw at the bottom of the water hundreds of little people, mostly ladies, playing-and there was her master, as small as the others, playing with them. Everything now looked different about the place. Small people were everywhere, hiding in the flowers sparkling with diamonds, swinging in the trees, and running and leaping under and over the blades of grass. The master never showed himself above the water all day; but at night he rode up to the house like the handsome gentleman she had seen before. He went to the enchanted chamber, and Cherry soon heard the most beautiful music.”

[This kind gentleman is in fact a shape-shifting fairy.  The fairy music that Cherry hears is further confirmation of the supernatural nature of all around her.]

“In the morning her master was off, dressed as if to follow the hounds. He returned at night, left Cherry to herself, and proceeded at once to his private apartments. Thus it was day after day, until Cherry could stand it no longer. So she peeped through the key-hole, and saw her master with lots of ladies, singing; while one dressed like a queen was playing on the coffin. Oh, how madly jealous Cherry became when she saw her master kiss this lovely lady. However, the next day the master remained at home to gather fruit. Cherry was to help him, and when, as usual, he looked to kiss her, she slapped his face, and told him to kiss the Small People, like himself, with whom he played under the water.

So he found out that Cherry had used the ointment. With much sorrow, he told her she must go home, that he would have no spy on his actions, and that Aunt Prudence must come back. Long before day, Cherry was called by her master. He gave her lots of clothes and other things; took her bundle in one hand, and a lantern in the other, and bade her follow him. They went on for miles on miles, all the time going up-hill, through lanes, and narrow passages. When they came at last on level ground, it was near daybreak. He kissed Cherry, told her she was punished for her idle curiosity; but that he would, if she behaved well, come sometimes on the Lady Downs to see her. Saying this, he disappeared. The sun rose, and there was Cherry seated on a granite stone, without a soul within miles of her- a desolate moor having taken the place of a smiling garden. Long, long did Cherry sit in sorrow, but at last she thought she would go home.

[The story culminates in the ejection from Faery for breaking the fairy rules.  This was the fate of Elidyr, amongst others, and Cherry had to be thankful for she was not blinded in the eye she had surreptitiously touched with the ointment.  This is, almost always, the fate of disobedient midwives.]

“Her parents had supposed her dead, and when they saw her, they believed her to be her own ghost. Cherry told her story, which every one doubted, but Cherry never varied her tale, and at last every one believed it. They say Cherry was never afterwards right in her head, and on moonlight nights, until she died, she would wander on to the Lady Downs to look for her master.”

[We end as so many similar stories end (see for example that of Mr Noy and the House on Silena Moor): the visitor to Faery returns home, like one given up ages ago for dead, but can never settle again.  Cherry’s sojourn in Faery has left her ‘elf-addled,’ and she cannot feel happy with mortal things ever again.]

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Zennor quoit, visited April 2019.

Further reading

Cornish folklore is replete with accounts of supernatural beings.  In other posts I have examined fairies dancing at a spring, Cornish changelings and abduction by the piskies.

Faery song

waterhouse siren 

A siren, J W Waterhouse

I have written before of the fairies’ love of music (known as fonn-sith in Scotland) and of song.  Songs are more, though, than just entertainment: they are magical.

The special status of song in fairy culture is demonstrated extremely well in a story from Highland Scotland.  Angus Mór of Tomnahurich was a shepherd.  He heard music coming from a fairy knoll, accompanied by the voice of his wife-to-be singing.  Approaching the knoll, he peeped in but couldn’t see her.  A fairy woman happened to be passing by so he seized her with his iron-tipped crook and demanded to know what was happening.  She told him that he would only be able to save his intended if, at the end of that week, he could tell the fairy queen’s secret on the Bridge of Easan Dubh (the Black Falls).  Seven days later Angus was on the bridge, where he heard a woman singing in a very fine voice.  It was the queen, and the song itself was her secret.  The last verse went as follows:

“There is music (ceol) in the hall of my dear,

There is gold in the land of Mackay,

But there is a song (oran) in Inverness,

That shall never be known.”

Big Angus cried out that he now knew every word of her song- and her secret with it.  The Queen screamed in frustration, but he had effectively broken her spell, and she was forced to relinquish her claim to his wife.

James Halliwell long ago observed that “fairies always talk in rhyme” and it is true to say that many of their activities and many significant statements are accompanied by song.  For example, fairies at work- grinding, churning or ‘waulking’ cloth- had special songs that went with those activities.  Expressions of strong emotions, such as anger, love and grief, would also take a verse form (Halliwell, Popular Rhymes & Nursery Tales, 1849, p.190; Evans Wentz pp.102 & 112).

The use of verse and rhyme to formulate secrets was also common amongst faery-kind.  Think, for example, of the British equivalents of Rumpelstiltskin, creatures such as Whuppity Stoorie and Sili Go Dwt: these goblin-like characters sing their secret to themselves, but are always overheard and undone:

“Little kens oor gude dame at hame,

That Whuppity Stoorie is my name!”

“Nimmy, nimmy not,

My name’s Tom Tit Tot” and,

“Little did she know

That Trwtyn Tratyn

Is my name.”

This last verse works much better in the original Welsh:

“Bychan a wydda’ hi

Mai Trwtyn-Tratyn

Yw f’enw i.”

Wordplay was something that supernaturals particularly respected and enjoyed- and a skill in it could prove crucial.  Some fishermen from the Isle of Lewis were out in their boat when a mermaid briefly surfaced.  They saw her ‘blood-charm’ (perhaps a reference to the fact that a mermaid’s shed blood will stir up the waves into a tempest) and, in any event, merely sighting a mermaid would normally have been interpreted as a sign of disaster.  She resurfaced nearer to the boat and asked the helmsman for his ‘half-stanza.’  The steersman gave a clever answer, referring to his control over the ship, to which she said “It is well that you gave such a reply” and then sank out of sight.  It appears that his quick wit and versifying pleased her, because the boat and the crew got home safely, although other ships out that day foundered and men drowned.

Closely comparable to this incident are the circumstances which gave rise to a ‘fairy song’ from Argyllshire.  A fairy woman daily visited a mother and her new-born son, “with words and with singing of verses to try if she could ‘word’ him away with her.”  Luckily, the mother always had a ready answer and was able to prevent her child being taken.  The fairy woman in her verses successively disparaged the boy- in response to which his mother praised him- then she warned of the temptations of the girls in town as he got older, with their curly brown hair and their bouncy breasts (cìochan currach) and lastly the bean-sith admitted that she wanted him to be the herder of her sheep on the moor.  The mother instead retorted that she hoped he’d be a warrior or a rich farmer.

henry william walker, a fairy bower

Henry William Walker, A Fairy Bower

Mermaid wisdom is also often expressed in verse, as in this advice on health and diet:

“If they would drink nettles in March

And eat mugwort in May

So many braw maidens

Wadna gang to the clay.”

The same habit was known amongst fairies: for example, a man on the Island of Barra was sent to fetch a doctor for a seriously ill woman.  It was a hot day and on his return journey he sat down on a fairy knoll for a rest and fell asleep.  He awoke to hear a song “Ill it becomes a messenger, on an important message, to sleep on the ground in the open air.” (Evans Wentz p.114)

Faery song can have a sinister significance as well.  The song of the kelpie, the supernatural horse that lives in Scottish rivers, is said to signify that it is in search of human blood.  It is certainly known to sing in triumph when a person is already on its back and it is too late for them to escape.  One song had these words:

“And ride weil, Davie

And by this night at ten o’clock,

Ye’ll be in Pot Cravie.”

Another version, recorded in 1884, went as follows:

“Sit well, Janety, or ride well Davie

For this time morn, ye’ll be in Pot Cravie.”

Pot Cravie is the English attempt at the Gaelic place-name Poll nan Craobhan, a deep pool on the River Spey.  The song celebrates that the victim will be plunged into the kelpie’s lair and won’t be returning.

Another very famous fairy song is that 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 baby heir (Evans Wentz p.99).

In summary, in Faerie speech and words in all their forms are magical and must be carefully guarded.

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Arthur Rackham, A Fairy Orchestra, (from ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’), 1908

‘The House on Selena Moor’- a story analysed

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A view west towards Silena Moor (in the valley) today

Here is an annotated version of this fascinating text, taken from William Bottrell’s Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall, Second Series, Penzance 1873, pp.94-102

“When the ancient family of Noy flourished in Buryan, there was a large tract of unenclosed common, belonging to the farms of Pendrea, Selena, and Tresidder, which extended from Cotnewilly to Burnewhall, and branched off in other directions. Great part of this ground was swampy and produced a rank growth of rushes, water-flags, and coarse herbage. Many acres were gay in summer with cotton-grass, bog-beans, cucco-flowers, and other plants usually found in such soil. In some places were dry rocky banks overgrown with sloe-trees, moor-withey, furze, and brambles; these patches being surrounded by a broad extent of quaking bog or muddy soil appeared like islands in a marsh. There were also many springs, rivulets, and pools, that seldom froze, much frequented by wild-fowl in winter. Great part of this moorland was then impassable; horse-tracks leading to Burnewhall, Selena, and other farms, passed over the driest places, and were continued by rough causeways through swamps;—they were very bad roads at all seasons.

[Silena Moor is still to be found in Penwith, to the west of Newlyn on the main B3315 road to Land’s End.  It is to the south west of St Buryan and is an area of rough grass and scrub, as can just about be seen in the above photo.]

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The menhir overlooking Silena moor

“One afternoon in harvest, Mr. Noy, with some of his men, were over to Burnewhall helping his kinsfolk, the Pendars. As more hands were required for the next day, which was to be the gulthise (harvest home), soon after ‘croust‘ time (lunch time) he rode up to Church-town to get them…

Soon after ‘day-down’ Mr. Noy, followed by his dogs, left the public-house intending to return to Burnewhall, but he didn’t arrive there that night nor the next. The Pendars and their people thought he might have enjoyed himself at the Ship Inn till late, and then have gone home to Pendrea. Mr. Noy had no wife nor anybody else to be much alarmed about him, as he was a middle-aged or rather elderly bachelor. But next day when people from Church-town, Pendrea, and scores of neighbours from other farms, came with their horses to help and to feast at the gulthise, and nobody among them had seen or heard of Mr. Noy from the time he left the inn, they got somewhat uneasy; … Dame Pendar sent messengers round to all places where she thought Mr. Noy might have gone, and they returned, just as the feast was breaking up, without any tidings of him.

Then everyone became anxious, and as it was near daybreak they volunteered to disperse and search in every place they could think of before going to bed.  So away they went, some on horseback, others afoot, to examine mill-pools, stream-works, cliffs, and other dangerous places, near and far away. They returned at night, but nobody had seen or heard of the missing gentleman. Next morning horsemen were dispatched to other parishes, and as Mr. Noy was well known and liked there was a general turn out to hunt for him; but this day, too, was passed in a like fruitless search miles away.

On the third day, however, in the grey of the morning, a horse was heard to neigh, and dogs were heard barking among thickets on a piece of dry ground almost surrounded with bogs and pools, on Pendrea side of Selena Moor.  Now it happened that no one had thought of looking for Mr. Noy in this place so near home, but when with much ado, a score or so of men discovered a passable road into this sort of island in the bogs, there they saw Mr. Noy’s horse and hounds; the horse had found plenty of pasture there, but the dogs, poor things, were half-starved. Horse and dogs showed their joy, and led the way through thorns, furze, and brambles—that might have grown there hundreds of years—till they came to large ‘skaw’ [elder] trees and the ruins of an old bowjey [cowshed] or some such building that no one knew of.

[Note the presence of fairy elder trees at the remote spot where Noy is found.  The description of the spot as an ‘island’ may have resonances with the wider Celtic concept of faery as a normally inaccessible island in the sea]

“The horse stopped at what had been a doorway, looked around and whinnied; the dogs, followed by several people, pushed through the brambles that choked the entrance, and within they found Mr. Noy lying on the ground fast asleep. It was a difficult matter to arouse him; at last he awoke, stretched himself, rubbed his eyes, and said,

‘Why you are Burnewhall and Pendrea folks; however are ye all come here? To-day is to be the gulthise, and I am miles and miles away from home. What parish am I in? How could ‘e have found me? Have my dogs been home and brought ‘e here?’

Mr. Noy seemed like one dazed as we say, and all benumbed as stiff as a stake, so without staying to answer his questions, they gave him some brandy, lifted him on horseback, and left his steed to pick its way out, which it did readily enough, and a shorter one than they discovered.

[Note his physical and mental state– a good indicator of his recent contact with faerie.  Waking up in a strange place after a fairy encounter is a very common scene, especially to be found in Welsh stories of visits to unknown houses and inns on the moors.]

“Though told he was on his own ground, and less than half a mile from Burnewhall, he couldn’t make out the country as he said, till he crossed the running water that divides the farms. “But I am glad,” said he “however it came to pass, to have got back in time for the gulthise.” When they told him how the corn was all carried three days ago, he said they were joking, and wouldn’t believe it till he had seen all in the mowhay [barn] under thatch and roped down; that the loose straw was raked up, and all harvest implements put away till next season.”

[We have the classic lapse of time here, something that typifies the difference between Faery and the human world.  The mention of crossing streams may also be an indicator of a transition from faery back to the normal world.]

“Then whilst breakfast was getting ready, seated on a chimney-stool by a blazing fire, he told his neighbours that when he came to Cotnewilly, the night being clear, he thought he might as well make a short cut across the moor and save nearly a mile- as he had often done before in summer time- instead of going round by the stony bridle-path; but his horse, that was pretty much used to finding his own way when his master was tipsy, wanted to keep the usual road, and his rider, to baulk him, pulled farther off towards Pendrea side of the common than he would otherwise have done, and went on till he found himself in a part that was unknown to him; though he had been, as he thought, over every inch of it that man or beast could tread on, both in winter and summer. Getting alarmed at the strange appearance of everything around him, he tried in vain to retrace his steps, then gave the horse its head, and let it take its own course.

[This stumbling into a strange place in a familiar landscape is a very good example of the experience of being ‘pixy-led’.]

“Yet, instead of proceeding homeward, as was dobbin’s wont, it bore Mr. Noy to a land so crowded with trees that he had to alight and lead his steed. After wandering miles and miles, sometimes riding but oftener afoot, without seeing any habitation in this strange place, which he believed must be out of Buryan but in what parish he couldn’t tell, he at last heard strains of lively music, and spied lights glimmering through the trees and people moving about, which made him hope that he had arrived at some farm where they had a gulthise, and the harvest-folks were out, after supper, dancing in the town-place.

[Pretty obviously, Noy has crossed now into fairyland. This music and feasting is either some fairy event he has stumbled upon or is deliberately set up to lure him to them.]

“His dogs slunk back, and the horse wasn’t willing to go on, so he tied him to a tree, took his course through an orchard towards the lights, and came to a meadow where he saw hundreds of people, some seated at tables eating and drinking with great enjoyment apparently, and others dancing reels to the music of a crowd or tambourine—they are much the same thing—this was played by a damsel dressed in white, who stood on a heaping-stock just beside the house door, which was only a few paces from him.”

[The white dress may be indicative of fairy nature- and of course the reluctance of the dogs and horse to approach demonstrates their keener sense of otherworldliness- but then, they’ve not been in the Star Inn for several hours and they’re a good deal more alert than Mr Noy probably is as he comes upon this faery celebration.  Across Britain, the faeries are renowned for their love of feasting, music and dance, all of which are good ways of trapping unwary humans too.]

“The revellers, farther off, were all very smartly decked out, but they seemed to him, at least most of them, to be a set of undersized mortals; yet the forms and tables, with the drinking-vessels on them, were all in proportion to the little people. The dancers moved so fast that he couldn’t count the number of those that footed jigs and reels together, it almost made his head giddy only to look at their quick and intricate whirling movements.”

[We’re dealing here with pixies or ‘an pobel vean’ the little people of Cornwall.  As in many British stories, this is an encounter with small faeries– child height or less.]

“Noy noticed that the damsel who played the music was more like ordinary folks for stature, and he took her to be the master’s daughter, as, when one dance was ended, she gave the crowd to a little old fellow that stood near her, entered the house, fetched therefrom a black-jack [a leather jug], went round the tables and filled the cups and tankards that those seated, and others, handed to be replenished. Then, whilst she beat up a new tune for another set of dancers, Mr. Noy thought she cast a side-glance towards him; the music, he said, was so charming and lively that to save his soul he couldn’t refrain from going to join the dancers in a three-handed reel, but the girl with a frown and look of alarm, made a motion with her head for him to withdraw round a corner of the house out of sight. He remained gazing, however, and still advancing till she beckoned to the same little old man, to whom she spoke a few words, gave him the crowd to play, and leaving the company, went towards the orchard signalling to Mr. Noy to follow her, which he did. When out of the candle-glare and in a clear spot where moonlight shone, she waited for him. He approached and was surprised to see that the damsel was no other than a farmer’s daughter of Selena, one Grace Hutchens, who had been his sweetheart for a long while, until she died, three or four years ago; at least he had mourned her as dead, and she had been buried in St. Buryan Churchyard as such.”

[Grace is a fairy captive, a servant at the celebration rather than a participant.  She knows the danger of Noy joining in the dance, which is a classic way of being ‘taken.’]

“When Mr. Noy came within a yard or so, turning towards him, she said, ‘thank the stars, my dear William, that I was on the look-out to stop ye, or you would this minute be changed into the small people’s state like I am- woe is me.’ He was about to kiss her, ‘Oh, beware!” she exclaimed, “embrace me not, nor touch flower nor fruit; for eating a tempting plum in this enchanted orchard was my undoing. You may think it strange, yet it was all through my love for you that I am come to this.'”

[‘Changed into the fairy state‘ is a very important phrase.  Long presence in faery,  and especially consumption of food and drink there, will alter you both physically and mentally.  It’s interesting in this account that even touching one of the inhabitants can have the same effect.]

“‘People believed, and so it seemed, that I was found on the moor dead; it was also supposed that I must have dropped there in a trance, as I was subject to it. What was buried for me, however, was only a changeling, or sham body, never mine I should think, for it seems to me that I feel much the same still as when I lived to be your sweetheart.'”

[Abduction of people and livestock by a faked death, and the leaving behind of a ‘stock’ is a strategy used across Britain by the fays.  A log or plant stem might be used for people, or a slaughtered cow’s hide might be stuffed- or even left behind with an elderly elf hidden within.]

“As she said this several little voices squeaked, “Grace, Grace, bring us more beer and cider, be quick!”

[Note the small voices to go with the small bodies of the pobel vean- and their treatment of Grace as a slave.]

“‘Follow me into the garden, and remain there behind the house; be sure you keep out of sight, and don’t for your life, touch fruit or flower,’ said she, in conducting out Mr. Noy, who desired her to bring him a tankard of cider too. ‘No, my love, not for the world,’ she replied, ‘await me here, I’ll soon return. Sad is my lot to be stolen from the living and made housekeeper to these sprites,’ murmured Grace, in quitting the garden.

Over a few minutes she returned to Mr. Noy, led him into a bowery walk, where the music and noise of merriment didn’t overpower their voices, and said, ‘you know, my dear Willy, that I loved you much, but you can never know how dearly.’

‘Rest yourself,’ she continued pointing to a stone, ‘on that seat, whilst I tell ye what you never dreamt of.’ Mr. Noy seated himself as desired, and Grace related how one evening, about dusk, she was out on Selena Moor in quest of strayed sheep, when hearing him, in Pendrea ground, halloo and whistle to his dogs, she crossed over towards the sound in hopes of falling in with him, but missed her way among ferns higher than her head, and wandered on for hours amidst pools and shaking bogs without knowing whither.

After rambling many miles, as it seemed to her, she waded a brook and entered an orchard, then she heard music at a distance, and proceeding towards it, passed into a beautiful garden with alleys all bordered by roses and many sweet flowers, that she had never seen the like of. Apples and other tempting fruit dropped in the walks and hung over head, bursting ripe.”

[Again there is the idea of crossing a stream as a boundary into faery, a place that has some connotations of the garden of Eden.]

“This garden was so surrounded with trees and water- coming in every here and there among them- that, like one ‘piskey-led,’ all her endeavours to find a way out of it were in vain. The music, too, seemed very near at times, but she could see nobody. Feeling weary and athirst, she plucked a plum, that looked like gold in the clear starlight; her lips no sooner closed on the fruit than it dissolved to bitter water which made her sick and faint. She then fell on the ground in a fit, and remained insensible, she couldn’t say how long, ere she awoke to find herself surrounded by hundreds of small people, who made great rejoicing to get her amongst them, as they very much wanted a tidy girl who knew how to bake and brew, one that would keep their habitation decent, nurse the changed-children (i.e. the changelings) that weren’t so strongly made as they used to be, for want of more beef and good malt liquor, so they said.”

[The music is a lure, yet has no definite source- a clear example of ‘ceol sidhe.’ The fairy food, we note, may seem enticing but is unsatisfactory- even unpleasant, when actually eaten. We note too the fairy preference for neatness in humans and their complaints about the weakening of human stock found in the stolen infants.]

“At first she felt like one entranced and hardly knew how to ‘find herself’ in such strange company; even then, after many years’ experience, their mode of life seemed somewhat unnatural to her, for all among them is mere illusion or acting and sham. They have no hearts, she believed, and but little sense or feeling; what serves them, in a way, as such, is merely the remembrance of whatever pleased them when they lived as mortals- may be thousands of years ago.  What appear like ruddy apples and other delicious fruit, are only sloes, hoggans (haws) and blackberries. The sweet scented and rare flowers are no other than such as grow wild on every moor.”

[In this story the fays seem to be our deceased ancestors; there is, too, the familiar use of ‘glamour‘ to deceive.]

“In answer to Mr. Noy’s enquiries about small people’s dietary, Grace told him how she sickened, at first, on their washy food of honey-dew and berries—their ordinary sustenance—and how her stomach felt so waterish that she often longed for a bit of salt fish. The only thing she relished was goat’s milk, ‘for you must have often heard,’ said she, ‘that these animals are frequently seen on moors, or among carns and in other out-of-the-way places, miles from their homes. They are enticed away by small people to nourish their babes and changelings. There’s a score or more of goats here at times. Those cunning old he-ones that often come among a flock—no one knows whence—and disappear with the best milkers, are the decoys, being small people in such shapes. One may often notice in these venerable long-beards, when seen reposing on a rock, chewing their cuds, a look of more than human craftiness and a sly witch-like glance cast from the corner of their eyes.'”

[This story is firmly of the opinion that faery is a place of scant pleasures, for its all superficial and unreal; the food sounds unappetising in the main, although the fairy love of dairy products, especially those of goats, is confirmed.  The fact that fairy food was insubstantial and unhealthy for a human reminds us of the story of the Suffolk Green Children, in which the reverse was the case.]

“Looking at Mr. Noy for a moment with a melancholy expression, Grace sighed and continued, ‘I am now getting used to this sort of life and find it tolerable, the more so because the whole tribe behave to me with great kindness, the elderly men above all; you observed that little fellow to whom I spoke and who now plays the tambourine, I desired him to tell the rest, in case they inquired for me, that I was gone to look after the children, and he is so much attached to me as to do or say anything I request.’ Seeing Mr. Noy look somewhat lowering, Grace exclaimed, ‘Oh! my dear Willy, don’t be such a noddy as to be jealous, for he’s no other than vapour, and what he is pleased to think love, is no more substantial than fancy.’

Mr. Noy asked if there were any children among them besides those they stole and replaced with changelings?

‘Very few indeed,’ she replied, ‘though they are fond of babies, and make great rejoicing when one happens to be born amongst them; and then every little man, however old, is proud to be thought the father. For you must remember they are not of our religion,’ said she, in answer to his surprised look, ‘but star-worshippers. They don’t always live together like Christians and turtle-doves; considering their long existence such constancy would be tiresome for them, anyhow the small tribe seem to think so. And the old withered ‘kiskeys’* of men that one can almost see through, like puffs of smoke, are vainer than the young ones. May the Powers deliver them from their weakly frames! And indeed they often long for the time when they will be altogether dissolved in air, and so end their wearisome state of existence without an object or hope.'”

* the kiskey is the dried up stalk of the kegga, the water hemlock.

Midsummer night's dream

[I have discussed fairy physiology in an early posting and have examined too fairies’ mortality: they are long lived but not immortal, it appears.  The statement about star worship was discussed in my article on fairy religionParticularly notable is the fact that the Welsh fairy king, Gwyn ap Nudd, was said in the Welsh Triads to have great knowledge about the nature and qualities of the stars and could predict the future from them.  The references to fairy salvation are a late, Christian interpolation into fairy-lore, transferring to the Good Neighbours our own concerns about heaven and hell, beliefs that may well not be theirs.]

“Grace also told him—but he didn’t remember exactly the words she spoke—that she was the more content with her condition since she was enabled to take the form of any bird she pleased, and thus gratify her desire to be near him, so that when he thought of her but little suspected her presence; she was mostly hovering round and watching him in the shape of some common small bird. Grace assured Mr. Noy of her everlasting love, yet as long as nature would permit him to retain his mortal form she would rather behold him in flesh and blood, than see him changed to her state. She also told him, that when he died, if he wished to join her, they would then be united and dwell in this fairy-land of the moors.”

[Changes in shape and in size are characteristic, it seems, of Cornish fairies with spriggans able to swell rapidly to the size of a giant and the fairy master of Cherry of Zennor varying between tiny and normal human stature.  The fairy associations with birds and with insects have been discussed in previous posts.]

“Mr. Noy wanted to know much more about these strange beings, and was about to enquire, when they again called, ‘Grace, Grace, where art thou so long? Bring us some drink quickly.’ She hastily entered the house, and that moment it came into his head that he, too, would have some liquor, disperse the small tribe, and save Grace.

Knowing that any garment turned inside out and cast among such sprites would make them flee, and happening to put his hand into his coat pocket, he felt there the gloves that he had worn for binding in the afternoon; quick as thought, he turned one inside out, put into it a small stone, and threw it among them; in an instant they all vanished with the house, Grace, and all the furniture. He just had time to glance round, and saw nothing but thickets and the roofless house of an old bowjey, when he received a blow on his forehead that knocked him down, yet he soon fell asleep and dozed away an hour or two he thought.”

[Turning a garment, whether coat, glove or hat, is a tried and tested solution to being piskey-led.  Throwing the item of clothing- most especially gloves, adds potency to the charm.]

“Those to whom Mr. Noy related his story, said that he had learnt nothing new from Grace, for old folks always believed of the fair people such things as she told him, and they disliked to be seen, above all by daylight, because they then looked aged and grim. It was said, too, that those who take animal forms get smaller and smaller with every change, till they are finally lost in the earth as muryans (ants), and that they passed winter, for the most part, in underground habitations, entered from cleves or carns. And it is held that many persons who appear to have died entranced, are not really dead, but changed into the fairy state.”

[A repetition of some of the themes already highlighted- faery and death, the change in physical state experienced there plus a statement of the underground location of faery.  The celebration seen above ground seems more likely them to have been intended to catch Noy- or just to enjoy a warm summer evening.]

“The recovered gentleman further informed them that he had remarked amongst the small folks, many who bore a sort of family-likeness to people he knew, and he had no doubt but some of them were changelings of recent date, and others their forefathers who died in days of yore, when they were not good enough to be admitted into heaven, nor so wicked as to be doomed to the worst of all places. Over a while, it is supposed they cease to exist as living beings, for which reason fewer of them are now beheld than were seen in old times.”

[Seeing neighbours believed to be dead still alive in faery is a common theme- for example, the story of ‘The Tacksman of Auchriachan.’ There’s a trace here too of the idea that fairies are fallen angels who were caught between heaven and hell when the doors of each were closed.  It’s got mixed up with concepts of abduction and stocks, though.]

“From the night that Mr. Noy strayed into the small people’s habitation, he seemed to be a changed man; he talked of little else but what he saw and heard there, and fancied that every redbreast, yellow-hammer, tinner (wag-tail) or other familiar small bird that came near him, might be the fairy-form of his departed love.

Often at dusk of eve and moonlight nights, he wandered round the moors in hopes to meet Grace, and when he found his search was all in vain he became melancholy, neglected his farm, tired of hunting, and departed this life before the next harvest. Whether he truly died or passed into fairy-land, no one knows.”

[This is a poignant statement of the sense of bereavement felt by many returned from faery.  This yearning to get back to the joys of faery, however compromised they may be, is seen too in the story of ‘Cherry of Zennor’ and James Hogg’s poem ‘Kilmeny‘ amongst many othersNoy hopes to stumble upon Grace and her captors again at evening time, one of the liminal points in the day.]

Cherry of Zennor

an enactment of the Cornish story of ‘Cherry of Zennor

Further Reading

See too my posts on Cherry of Zennor, Cornish fairy dancing and Cornish changelings.

“A Gift from the Fair Folk”-Marc Bolan, British rock and Faery

T Rex 1

Rear cover of Unicorn, 1969

In a past post I discussed the faery influences detectable in the music of Led Zeppelin.  Now, following my series of posts looking at fae themes in British classical music of the early twentieth century, in opera, musical theatre, songs and chamber works, I want to bring our discussions up to date.

Much of the British rock music of the late sixties and early seventies was suffused with faery.  A very good example of this is the work of Marc Bolan, in the days when he performed as Tyrannosaurus Rex, and before he shortened the band name to T. Rex and became the glam star that we remember.

The fairy influence is especially strong in the four albums Bolan released between 1968 and 1970, but even as late as Ride a White Swan in 1972 there are traces of elvishness.  The album titles themselves betray the tenor of the songs included on them: they are My People Were Fair and Had Sky in Their Hair… But Now They’re Content to Wear Stars on Their Brows (which is all one title) and Prophets, Seers and Sages from 1968; 1969’s Unicorn and A Beard of Stars, released in the following year.

A Crooning Moon Rune

Certain themes appear repeatedly on these four albums.  There are, of course, repeated allusions to dwarves and fairies:

“Twelve years old, your elvish fingers toss your Beethoven hair” (‘Child Star,’ on My People);

“You’re a gift from the fair folk… A sprite in my house of sight” (‘Travelling Tragition,’ on Prophets)

“Fairy lights in her eyes/ Tame the water” (‘Pilgrim’s Tale,’ on Unicorn)

“She bathes in thunder/ The elves are under her” (‘Jewel,’ T. Rex, 1970)

“Tree wizard pure tongue … The swan king, the elf lord” (‘Suneye,’ T. Rex)

and, most especially for its mention of the sidhe folk:

“Fools have said the hills are dead/ But her nose is a rose of the Shee;/ A silver sword by an ancient ford,/ Was my gift from the child of the trees.” (‘Blessed Wild Apple Girl,’ Best of T.Rex, 1971).

There are, too, plentiful mentions of wizards, warlocks and magi, of myths and legends and of mysteries, such as unicorns.  Bolan references Narnia (‘Wonderful Brown-Skin Man’ on Prophets), King Arthur and the Matter of Britain: “Holy Grail Head, deep forest fed/ Weaving deep beneath the moon” (‘Conesuala’ on Prophets) or “Let’s make a quest for Avalon” (‘Stones for Avalon,’ on Unicorn) and (repeatedly) Beltane, including these lines:

“Wear a tall hat like a druid in the old days,

Wear a tall hat and a tatooed gown,

Ride a white swan like the people of the Beltane…” (‘Ride a White Swan,’ on Ride a White Swan, 1972).

Bolan was, it seems, steeped in British folklore.  He wrote of ‘The Misty Coast of Albany’ (with its echoes of William Blake’s lines “All things begin & end in Albion’s ancient Druid rocky shore”) and of the magical woods “Elder, elm and oak.” (‘Iscariot’ and ‘Misty Coast,’ both on Unicorn).  Even so, the other major fascination and inspiration for Bolan seems to have been classical myth, most especially woodland creatures like satyrs and fauns.  On a mantelpiece at his home he kept a small statute of the god Pan, which he called ‘Poon,’ to whom he addressed little messages and requests. Bolan’s biographer Mark Paytress has described the god as “Marc’s muse.”  Of course, in this devotion he’s linked directly to Arnold Bax, John Ireland and Arthur Machen.

The pagan Greek world appears several times in Bolan’s lyrics, with allusions to satyrs, maenads and titans:

“The frowning moon, it tans the faun,/ Who holds the grapes for my love.” (‘Frowning Atahualpa,’ My People)

“a pagan temple to Zeus/ He drinks acorn juice” (‘Stacey Grove,’ Prophets)

“Alice eyes scan the mythical scene… We ran just like young fauns” (‘Scenescof Dynasty,’ Prophets)

 As this jumble of citations possibly indicates, there were so many allusions packed into Bolan’s songs that the verses tended not to tell any coherent story but rather to sketch impressionistic imagery for the listener: aural painting, let’s say, creating a mood or feeling.

T Rex 2

The back cover of the expanded version of Unicorn.

The jumble of influences and imagery extended to the band’s album covers, too.  Bolan loved the art of William Blake, Dali and Arthur Rackham and for the cover of the first album, My People, asked the designer to provide something that looked ‘like Blake.’  On the back of the sleeve of Unicorn there’s a black and white photo of Bolan and co-member Steve Peregrine Took (note the name, Tolkien fans).  The pair are posed with an array of meaningful objects, which include a book on the Cottingley fairies (supplied by photographer Peter Sanders) and several volumes from Bolan’s own collection- a child’s Shakespeare, Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet and William Blake’s collected verse.  Collectively, these form a kind of key to Bolan’s writing.

Peel 68

John Peel and his gramophone, 1968: N.B. Fairport Convention album, folk fans.

Do you ken John Peel?

The Bolan story is made more intriguing for his association with radio DJ John Peel.  Peel will be well known to many British readers, but very possibly much less familiar to those from outside the UK.  Peel became an institution on BBC Radio One, with a weekly show late on Friday nights on which he played and promoted new music he had discovered.  He performed a major role introducing listeners to punk rock from 1976, but before that had favoured folk and dub.  Earlier still, he had been a good friend of Marc Bolan.

The pair met in late July or early August 1967 and quickly became close.  They spent a great deal of time together, professionally and socially, and Bolan one night gave Peel a hamster called Biscuit (in a night club- the poor creature spent the evening riding round on one of the turntables).

Peel was taken with Bolan’s warbling voice and began to feature Tyrannosaurus Rex prominently on his radio shows.  He had a regular column in the International Times in which he also promoted his new friend.  As an established and respected DJ Peel played frequently around the country and so could offer more direct help to his friend’s career.  He started to give Bolan live support sets to his DJ appearances: Peel had a regular slot at the club called Middle Earth in London’s Covent Garden and also took the band with him as part of his ‘John Peel Roadshow’ as it was grandly called- everyone crammed together in his car and heading up the motorway.

Not only did Peel promote Bolan’s music; he contributed to it.  He narrated the track Wood Story on the album My People Were Fair and wrote the sleeve notes:

“They rose out of the sad and scattered leaves of an older summer… They blossomed with the coming spring, children rejoiced and the earth sang with them.”

Peel provided a further narration on the album Unicorn and also started to appear as a sort of support act for his friends.  He read poetry to the crowd at the Royal Albert Hall, sitting cross-legged on the stage, and at the Tyrannosaurus Rex gig at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on January 13th 1969, Peel was billed to appear to “prove the existence of fairies,” as the flyers promised, by reading poetry to the audience.  In the face of this proof, they remained, it is reported, “politely silent.”  What could Peel have been reading?  Based on what we learned just now, I wonder if the DJ may have read selected poems from Shakespeare and Blake- and maybe John Keats too?

Peel made out later that he never really understood or sympathised with Bolan’s mythic leanings.  He claimed that he couldn’t understand the song lyrics because they were too ‘mystical’ and ‘hippie’ for him.  Nonetheless, there’s the evidence of those sleeve notes and we know too that the pair travelled, with their respective partners, to visit Glastonbury, capital of hippiedom since the days of Rutland Boughton, where Bolan was pictured on top of the Tor.

In later years Peel was a gruff and slightly cynical personality, so these ‘airy-fairy’ indulgences all feel rather difficult to reconcile with the older, more rational enthusiast for the Sex Pistols and Extreme Noise Terror.  Nevertheless, Peel’s overall verdict was that Tyrannosaurus Rex “were elfin to a degree beyond human understanding.”

Signs of the Times

Marc Bolan is now the best remembered fairy rock star of the period, but the fae influence was pervasive.

For example, Bob Johnson of folk-rockers Steeleye Span asked in an interview in 1976:

“Everything I do and think is based on England.  If I lived on the West Coast [of the USA] how on earth could I think about elves and fairies and goblins and old English castles and churches?”

So strong, in fact, was this spirit of place that, along with another band member, Johnson produced an electric folk opera The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1977). This was based upon the book of the same title by Edward, Lord Dunsany (an author in the vein of Machen and a great influence upon H. P. Lovecraft) and the record featured contributions from, amongst others, Welsh folk singer and Eurovision entrant Mary Hopkin, blues musician Alexis Korner and Christopher Lee, star of (amongst so many films) The Wicker Man.

elfland

The King of Elfland’s Daughter album cover.

Further Reading

You can listen to all Tyrannosaurus Rex’s albums on YouTube, of course; check out too the work of Dunsany and (even) Steeleye Span.  For more information on Marc Bolan, see these biographies: Paul Roland, Cosmic Dancer, 2012; Mark Paytress, Marc Bolan- The Rise and Fall of a Twentieth Century Superstar, 2003 and John Bramley, Marc Bolan- Beautiful Dreamer, 2017.  For John Peel see his autobiography Margrave of the Marches and Michael Heatley, John Peel, 2004.

The Fairy Faith in English Music

bax 1

I’ve written previously about Rutland Boughton, the (original) Glastonbury Festival and the use of Arthurian and Faery themes in opera and song.  Here I expand further on this theme within British classical music.

Arnold Bax

Arnold Bax (1883-1953) was a British composer for whom fairy and Celtic themes were of major significance.  From his time as a student at the Royal Academy of Music between 1900 and 1905 Bax was greatly attracted to Ireland and Celtic folklore.

Bax & the Celtic Twilight

Soon after his graduation, Bax departed from classical influences and deliberately adopted what he conceived of as a Celtic idiom.  His infatuation with the newly revived ‘Celtic’ culture, and with the island of Ireland, must be understood within the broader context of the  fin-de-siècle artistic and spiritual fashions upon which the composer’s youthful imagination was nourished.

The latest aesthetic fashions tended to favour anything exotic and which contrasted with common-place concerns and the practicalities of everyday life. Theosophy, Eastern mysticism, French Symbolism and the spiritual Celticism that was so much in vogue in the 1890s all contributed important strands to the artistic culture of the time, while in the not too distant background was the Pre-Raphaelite medievalism of Rossetti and William Morris. There was much talk of neo-paganism and a strong interest in the occult.  Undoubtedly, too, a large part of the general appeal of these subjects was that their potent atmosphere of sexuality. To this can be added, particularly for a musician, the impact of Wagnerian music drama, the daring novelties of Strauss and, a decade or so later, the lavish splendours of the Russian ballet.

Bax was intoxicated with all of this intellectual ferment and Celticism in particular dominated his imagination for a time and led directly to his fascination with Ireland.  Even so, as we shall see, he remained equally susceptible to the exuberant and decadent poetry of Swinburne, and to the exotic influence of Russia. They were all just different aspects of the same extravagant sources of inspiration and they all left their mark on his music.

W.B. Yeats was, of course, the high priest of this Celticism and Bax duly came under his spell. In 1902, he says, he read The Wanderings of Usheen (Oisin), “and in a moment the Celt within me stood revealed.” In attempting to explain what he meant by this rhetorical phrase Bax has told us that, in his opinion, “the Celt- although he knew more clearly than most races the difference between dreams and reality- deliberately chose to follow the dream.” As there was “a tireless hunter of dreams” in his own make-up, Bax concluded that behind his everyday English exterior there must exist an inner Celtic self. His recognition of the true nature of this inner self, he insisted, he owed to Yeats.  The poet’s influence was “the key that opened the gate of the Celtic wonderland to my wide-eyed youth,” and it was shortly after his first discovery of Niamh, Oisin and the enchanted islands in the western seas that Bax visited Ireland for the first time. The composer never doubted what the country had given him. If Yeats’ particular brand of Irish Celticism allowed Bax to focus his adolescent emotions , and to recognise what he believed was his ‘Celtic self,’ then the country itself provided him with a physical setting for his fantasies. “My dream became localised,” he said. Ireland represented that dream for him, although very evidently Bax saw the country through an idealistic haze:

“I went to Ireland as a boy of nineteen in great spiritual excitement and once there my existence was at first so unrelated to material actualities that I find it difficult to remember it in any clarity. I do not think I saw men and women passing me on the roads as real figures of flesh and blood; I looked through them back to their archetypes, and even Dublin itself seemed peopled by gods and heroic shapes from the past.”

Bax travelled extensively in the country and, for some years before the Great War, had homes both in England and in Ireland. So great was his identification with, and immersion in, the country and its cultural heritage that he even wrote Irish poetry under the pseudonym of Dermot O’Byrne.  Bax’s brother also lived in Dublin during the period and through him the composer got to know mystic poet and painter AE (George Russell) and had contact with the city’s influential circle of  Theosophists.

The result of this infatuation with Ireland can be heard in the music Bax composed during this phase of his life. “In part at least I rid myself of the sway of Wagner and Strauss,” he later said, “and began to write Irishly, using figures and melodies of a definitely Celtic curve,” although he never made any use of actual folk songs. The Irish influence is clear from the titles of works like A Connemara Revel (1904) and An Irish Overture (1905), while Cathleen-ni-Hoolihan, also of 1905, and Into the Twilight of 1908, clearly reflect his interest in Yeats. Nonetheless, despite his contact with, and sympathy for, the Gaelic-speaking population, his music always belonged to the “non-existent Ireland of the Celtic Twilight.”

For his first important work, A Celtic Song Cycle of 1904, Bax chose to set poems by the Scottish writer Fiona Macleod, and he produced about a dozen or so other songs to her verses in the years immediately following .  Fiona Macleod was, after Yeats, the greatest populariser of Celticism at the end of the nineteenth century (readers may recall that Boughton was similarly influenced), even though the writing is now virtually unknown. Her work was arguably as much an inspiration for Bax at this period in his life as was the work of Yeats, although he never acknowledged this explicitly. As we’ve seen before, no such writer actually existed, because Fiona Macleod was in truth the Celtic alter ego of William Sharp, the Scottish literary critic, biographer and novelist. Bax met Sharp in due course and the influence of Sharp’s verse on the music he composed in the first decade of the century is very strong.

Fairy Music

In 1908 Bax began a working on trilogy of tone poems called Eire (Into the Twilight; In the Faëry Hills and Roscatha). A review of In the Faëry Hills in the Manchester Guardian said that “Mr Bax has happily suggested the appropriate atmosphere of mystery” and the Musical Times praised “a mystic glamour that could not fail to be felt by the listener.”

Into the Twilight began as life as a sketch for an orchestral interlude in Bax’s projected opera, Déirdre, based on the life of the tragic Irish heroine. Only the opening passages of Into the Twilight were actually newly written in 1908; much of the rest of the tone poem was a re-composition of one of Bax’s student works, Cathleen-ni-Hoolihan, which was composed between 1903 and 1905.

In the Faëry Hills, to which the composer gave the alternative Irish title An Sluagh Sidhe (The Fairy Host), was inspired by Yeat’s The Wanderings of Oisin.  Bax wrote of the origin of the piece itself that “I got this mood under Mount Brandon with all W B [Yeats]’s magic about me – no credit to me of course because I was possessed by Kerry’s self”. He wrote in a programme note for the work that he had sought “to suggest the revelries of the ‘Hidden People’ in the inmost deeps and hollow hills of Ireland”.

In The Wanderings of Oisin the fairy princess Niamh falls in love with the Irish hero, Oisin, and his poetry, and persuades him to join her in the immortal islands. He sings to the immortals what he conceives to be a song of joy, but his audience finds mere earthly joy intolerable:

“But when I sang of human joy
A sorrow wrapped each merry face,
And, Patrick! by your beard, they wept,
Until one came, a tearful boy;
A sadder creature never stept
Than this strange human bard,” he cried;
And caught the silver harp away…”

The immortals then sweep Oisin into “a wild and sudden dance” that “mocked at Time and Fate and Chance”.  The basic idea of a mortal being enticed away by supernatural forces is paralleled in several of Bax’s orchestral works of the same period, for example The Garden of Fand (1913-16) and in some Greek influenced works we shall now examine.

Pagan Music

Despite the importance of Yeats’ mystic and fairy poetry to Bax’s music, the influences the composer drew upon were actually much broader and deeper.  His works are inspired by Irish and Arthurian myth, Scottish and Norse mythology, English folk tradition and by classical Greek legends.  Indeed, Bax himself once scathingly dismissed the ‘Celtic twilight’ of the contemporary writers as “all bunk derived by English journalists from the spurious Ossian and the title of an early work by Yeats. Primitive Celtic colours are bright and jewelled.”  He wanted to suggest that he was more interested in the raw, original sources than in modern imitations.

Bax’s pagan Greek influences are channelled through 19th-century English literature such as Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound and several works by Swinburne.  The latter’s recreation of this pagan world introduced a fresh element of ecstasy into English poetry which obviously had an enormous appeal for Bax, whose own youthful outpourings, both musical and literary, were marked by their intense passion.

Another of Bax’s scores, The Happy Forest (1914), bears a title taken from a prose-poem by Herbert Farjeon which was itself influenced by the Idylls of Theocritus, known as the ‘father’ of Greek pastoral poetry.  Bax used Farjeon as a point of departure for painting a musical impression of another enchanted wood filled with “the phantasmagoria of nature. Dryads, sylphs, fauns and satyrs abound- perhaps the goat-foot god may be there, but no man or woman.”

The most important of his scores from this time, Spring Fire (1913), was based largely on the first chorus of Algernon Swinburne’s Atalanta in Calydon, quotations from which appear at the head of each movement in the score. Completed at Tintagel and published in 1865, Swinburne’s poetic drama retold the Greek myth of the killing of the wild Calydonian boar by a band of heroes, that includes the huntress Atalanta. Bax was concerned with the earthier, primitive aspects of Greek mythology: the erotic capers of silvan demigods, the orgiastic frolics of the bacchantes and the followers of Pan, and the annual regeneration of nature.

Elemental phenomena- such as wild landscapes and seas- also had a very powerful effect upon him. His friend Mary Gleaves recalled that Bax had an “almost erotic” empathy with trees, and there are sexual connotations to his sea music as well. Bax himself acknowledged the non-Celtic nature of the ideas behind Spring Fire and the other scores and stated that ‘the true ecstasy of spring’ and the ‘affirmation of life’ were Hellenic concepts, foreign to the Celt: “Pan and Apollo, if ever they wandered so far from the Hesperidean garden as this icy Ierne, were banished at once in a reek of blood and mist and fire…”

These pagan scores date from the period just before the Great War, when there was a distinct artistic vogue for ‘pagan’ subjects. Nijinsky’s production of L’après-midi d’un faune was first performed in 1912, and The Rite of Spring in 1913. Other works of the period are Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé (1910) and Skryabin’s Prometheus (1913). Thus, in creating the finest of his pre-war compositions, Bax was not only embodying his own ‘adolescent dreams’ but responding to a broader trend.

Nympholepsy

The classical Greek influence is especially strong and relevant in one piece.  Originally a work for solo piano, Nympholept was completed by Bax in July 1912.  The title derives from Greek νυμφόληπτος (numpholēptos), one who suffers from nympholepsy, which is the state of rapture inspired by nymphs, and on the manuscript of the piece Bax wrote:

“The tale telleth how one walking at summer-dawn in haunted woods was beguiled by the nymphs, and, meshed in their shining and perilous dances, was rapt away for ever into the sunlight life of the wild-wood.”

The title was taken by Bax from a poem of 1894 by Algernon Swinburne, which describes a “perilous pagan enchantment haunting the midsummer forest.” In 1951, Bax further recorded that Swinburne’s poem was about the “panic induced by noonday silence in the woods.”  There is indeed a fevered noonday atmosphere to the verse, with its invocations of Pan and the pulse of being pervading everything:

“In the naked and nymph-like feet of the dawn… / And in each life living, O thou the God who art all.”

The manuscript of the orchestral version has an additional note by Bax, a quotation from George Meredith’s poem The Woods of Westermain, which conjures up further images of the goddess, imps and enchantment:

“Enter these enchanted woods/ You who dare…”

Robert Browning also wrote a poem entitled Numpholeptos, and Bax himself had written one called Nympholept, which is dated 26th February 1912- five months before the piano score was completed.  It was eventually published by him anonymously in Love Poems of a Musician (London, 1923) and tells how the narrator “chased all day the elfin bride” through a forest.  Browning too asks “What fairy track do I explore?” in his description of his obsessive love.  The equation between classical nymphs and native fairies is one that has been made since Tudor times, meaning that, in literary and musical terms, the terms can be interchangeable.

Regrettably, Bax’s optimistic yearning for an imaginary Arcadian existence (what he dismissed as “the ivory tower of my youth” in 1949) was soon to be swept away by the harsh realities of the The Great War, the Easter Rising in Ireland and, on a more personal level, the disintegration of his marriage. Never again in his music was Bax to visit the world of classical antiquity, or to recapture the mood of unadulterated happiness and elation.

john-ireland

John Ireland

For Arnold Bax, the love of myth and fairy lore was an intellectual matter; for fellow composer John Ireland (1869- 1962) it was real and physical, the product of personal sensation and experience.  He once declared of himself: “I am a Pagan.  A Pagan I was born and a Pagan I shall remain- that is the foundation of religion.”

Arthur Machen

“They told me Pan was dead, but I,

Oft marvelled who it was that sang

Down the green valleys languidly

Where the grey elder thickets hang…”

A key factor in Ireland’s philosophy and music was the writing of Welsh novelist, Arthur Machen.  The composer first came across his work when he picked up a copy of The House of Souls at Preston railway station in 1906.  He said that he instantly bought it and instantly loved it: its impact upon him was as important as had been reading De Quincey’s Confessions of an Opium Eater.

Nearly thirty years later Ireland was to get to know Machen personally, but the author’s world of fantasy and mystery had had an immediate effect upon him.  Machen’s books have been described as a “catalyst” for Ireland, something which “infused” his compositions.  He himself declared that his music could not be understood unless the listener had also read Machen’s stories.

For Ireland, Machen had the status of a “seer.” The composer’s interest in magic and the unknown were ignited by reading his stories and he shared with the author a belief in the subconscious or ‘racial memory,’ the idea that through ancient sites such as barrows and standing stones he could connect to an ancient mysticism.  At Chanctonbury Ring and Maiden Castle hillforts, for example, Ireland believed that he could still detect traces of the early rites that had been performed there.

Ireland was especially fascinated by ritual and by the occult.  He shared this, too, with Machen, who was a member of the Golden Dawn along with Yeats, Aleister Crowley, Bram Stoker and fellow fantasy novelist Algernon Blackwood.  Ireland’s particular devotion was to Pan.  In 1952 he said that:

“The Great God Pan has departed from this planet, driven hence by the mastery of the material and the machine over mankind.”

The composer was not alone in this fascination (as we have already seen from Arnold Bax).  From the 1880s until the 1940s there was something of an artistic cult for the ancient god, as is witnessed in poetry (Walter de la Mare’s They told me (see above) and Sorcery, Swinburne’s Palace of Pan, Robert Browning’s Pan and Luna and Elizabeth Browning’s A Musical Instrument) and in novels (such works as Francis Bourdillon’s A Lost God, E. F. Benson’s The Man Who Went Too Far and Saki’s The Music on the Hill.)  Aleister Crowley wrote a ‘Hymn to Pan’ and the rural god even appears in Kenneth Graham’s Wind in the Willows, in the chapter entitled ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’ (later the title of an album by Pink Floyd). Pan had an aura of decadence and Ireland was definitely attracted to the god’s darker side- the very same aspect that was celebrated by Machen.

Arthur Machen was not, of course, John Ireland’s sole influence.  He drew musically upon the spirit of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and he also found John Brand’s Observations on Popular Antiquities, a rich source of English fairy lore and folk tradition, a further valuable inspiration.  The fairy author, Sylvia Townsend Warner, who happened also to be a relative of Machen, was another influence, her concerns with physical and mental ecstasy matching Ireland’s own.

The Hill of Dreams

Ireland found Machen’s novel The Hill of Dreams intensely compelling and reckoned that it deserved a place in the ‘literary hierarchy.’  It never ceased to be a source of inspiration for him.  It is the strange story of a young man who seems to come into contact with an ancient cult at an overgrown hill fort and who is eventually claimed by the satyrs and witches who haunt the place.  The book probably helped shape Ireland’s piano concerto, Mai-Dun, which takes its title from the name Thomas Hardy used for Maiden Castle.

The mood of intoxicating summer heat, fevered sexual dreams and pagan mystery invoked here are exactly what Bax was trying to emulate in Nympholept.

Ovenden, illustration to Machen's 'White people'

Graham Ovenden, The White People

The White People

“What voice is that I hear,

Crying across the pool?

It is the voice of Pan you hear,

Crying his sorceries shrill and clear”

Walter de la Mare, Sorcery

One of the stories in Machen’s House of Souls is the remarkable White People, an account by a young girl of her encounters with mysterious white people (who may be fairies), her discovery of a lost altar to Pan and the revelation of hidden mysteries to her by water nymphs, fae spirits who may seem charming and harmless in some aspects, but fierce in others (see Bax earlier).  Ireland said that this haunting story had “astounding qualities” at which he “never ceased to marvel.”

The story directly inspired three very short piano suites written in 1913 by Ireland, Island Spell, Moon-Glade and Scarlet Ceremonies, which he grouped together under the title DecorationsScarlet Ceremonies took its title directly from The White People.  Two of its movements are headed by citations from poet Arthur Symons; for example, Island Spell begins:

“I would wash the dust of the world in a soft green flood,

Here, between sea and sea in the fairy wood,

I have found a delicate, wave-green solitude…”

The third song borrows some lines from Machen:

“Then there are the ceremonies, which are all of them important, but some are more delightful than others: there are White Ceremonies, and the Green Ceremonies, and the Scarlet Ceremonies.  The Scarlet Ceremonies are the best…”

Ireland’s fascination with pagan ritual is also demonstrated by 1913’s brief prelude for orchestra, Forgotten Rite, a composition that has been said to be permeated with Machen’s notion of a “world beyond the walls;” with the proximity of the supernatural.  The Rite was particularly inspired by the ancient landscapes of Guernsey, an island that Ireland described as being especially ‘Machenish,’ and it also invokes Pan.   In Sarnia (1940) Ireland pursued this theme, celebrating the ecstasy of communing with nature.  This ‘Island Sequence’ comprises three piano pieces, ‘Le Catioroc’ (a Guernsey headland crowned by the impressive Le Trepied dolmen), ‘In a May Morning’ and ‘Song of the Springtides,’ the being latter prefaced by a quotation from Swinburne.  The ritualistic mood again derives from Machen’s novel The Great God Pan.

le_trepied_megalithic_burial_chamber

Le Trepied

John Ireland and the Fairies

As I stated earlier, Ireland’s pagan and mystic fascinations came not just from reading (unlike Bax).  He lived his occult and faery beliefs.

In 1933 John Ireland was visiting the South Downs in Sussex. He was working on a new composition and walked high up on top the Downs to visit a ruined chapel called Friday’s Church.  Ireland was irritated to find that he was not alone.  A group of children dressed in white appeared near him and started to dance.  He watched them for some time before it began to dawn upon him that the infants made no sound and their feet upon the turf were silent.  He looked away, briefly distracted, and when he looked back- they had vanished.  He was convinced that he had had a fairy experience.  He wrote about it in detail to Machen, whose laconic reply was:

“Oh, so you’ve seen them too?”

Ireland’s piano concerto Legend was the product of this experience.

In conclusion

As I’ve suggested before, the impact of the fairy faith upon British culture is deep and persistent: it’s given rise to musicals, operas, epic novels and to plays.  All I can do, finally, is to encourage readers to go to the works of art themselves.  Read Machen and Macleod, read Blackwood and Swinburne; try the compositions of Bax and Ireland.  Sylvia Townsend Warner’s book of her own fairy tales, Kingdoms of Elfin, is also very entertaining.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Traditional material in the Fairy Census

Cottingley harebell posie Elsie

Elsie Wright presented with a posy of harebells

The Fairy Investigation Society‘s recent Fairy Census, published in January this year and covering 2014-2017, is a fascinating snapshot of contemporary perceptions of the fairy realm.  As I have already discussed, there is much that is new in modern fairy sightings, but there is also much that seems to come straight from traditional folklore sources, mixed up with the more contemporary and anomalous experiences.  There are quite a few experiences which would be very familiar to our ancestors of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, although the examples of each are all quite limited in number.

The sorts of aspects of Faery I’m discussing here tend to be those that sit less well with the benign image of fays that has become so prevalent now.  Here are a few examples:

  • Hiding or moving things– the mischievous removal or concealment of personal possessions, often keys or jewellery, was reported a few times;
  • Pixie-led– in a second manifestation of fairy mischief, there was a handful of cases in which individuals found themselves lost or going in circles in a familiar place or within a small area where the exits were nearby and clear;
  • Abductions– in only ten cases (1% of the total) there seemed to have been an attempt to abduct a person (half involved adults and half children). Several times a strong feeling of compulsion was reported, often tempered by a sense of fear- even in situations where the fairies’ conduct was not in itself threatening: for example, they seemed to be dancing or playing;
  • Time distortion– it’s well known that time can pass very differently in Faery and this was mentioned in several reports. Most often hours were lost or unaccounted for.  Memorably, one witness described the sensation as “time felt twisty” (no.225);
  • Music– traditional accounts very frequently link music and dancing with fairy sightings. In the Census music was heard in only 11% of cases.  In half of these bells the music came from bells, although sounds like pipes, voices and drums were also reported.  Six of the witnesses compared what they heard to Irish or ‘Celtic’ music. As regular readers may recall, ceol sidhe is an especially Irish phenomenon;
  • Dancing– once the commonest pastime of our good neighbours, this was mentioned but in only 3% of the modern cases;
  • Conventional terms were often resorted to as a frame of reference or as a label for what the person experienced. Mention is quite often made in the Census of pixies, dryads, elves, gnomes, dwarves, leprechauns, brownies and goblins.  The traditional dress associated with these were reasonably common too- clothes of green, red and brown and caps, quite often pointed.  The most interesting of these accepted fairy ‘types’ were the four mentions of ‘banshees.’  The being’s hollow, mourning cry was what provoked the identification; in two of the cases, a death was felt to be directly related to the premonition; and,
  • Fairy temperament– many contemporary writers describe faes as kind, friendly and helpful- full of good will to humans and to the natural world. The older idea of fairy character was generally a lot darker and echoes of this are to be found in some of the Census cases.  Witnesses sensed anger, hostility and even outright malice in about 3% of cases; they felt fear in 6%.  In one instance in the Census- and one in Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing fairies– there was an impression that the fairy was mocking the human for some reason (Census no.475; Johnson p.24).  Balancing these negative emotions, there were also a few reports in which the human sensed the fairy’s interest or curiosity in them or what they were doing.

Cottingley 3

Elsie Wright again

The Census therefore presents us with an intriguing combination of traditional and wholly novel elements.  Only a few of the encounters involve interaction, so that the majority are descriptions of brief sightings (frequently of flying beings).  Nevertheless we come away with the impression that fairy encounters are an evolving body of law, with new perceptions or reactions added to the older understandings.

See too my posting on who believes in fairies for some further discussion of the Census statistics and their breakdown by age and gender.

Cottingley 2

 

Staring elf

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‘Tinker bell’,* by artist Brian Froud

Blá nótt yfir himininn 
Blá nótt yfir mér 
Horf-inn út um gluggann 
Minn með hendur 
Faldar undir kinn 
Hugsum daginn minn 
Í dag og í gær 
Blá náttfötin klæða mig Í 
Beint upp í rúm 
Breiði mjúku sængina 
Loka Augunum 
Ég fel hausinn minn undir sæng 
Starir á mig lítill álfur 
Hleypur að mér en hreyfist ekki 
Úr stað – sjálfur 
Starálfur 

“Blue night over the sky, blue night over me, disappeared out of the window. Me, with my hands, hidden under my cheek, I think about my day, today and yesterday. I put on my blue night-clothes, go straight to bed. I pull the soft covers over, close my eyes, I hide my head under the covers. A little elf stares at me, runs towards me but doesn’t move from his place – from himself- a staring elf.”

These are the lyrics for the haunting song Starálfur by  Icelandic band, Sigur Ros.  I was entranced the first time I heard it- and for two reasons.  One is that it’s beautiful (which is reason enough for most fans of the band, obviously) and secondly because of what else the lyrics of the song evoked for me.  As a life-long lover of fairy lore, I wanted to know what the wider significance of that staring elf might be.

Icelandic elves

Some of you will know that the alfar, the Icelandic elves, are still very much still alive and well in present day Iceland.  Descendants of the Norse light and dark elves, they live under large rocks and hillocks and they are still treated with consideration and respect.  These same  alfar are also the distant relatives of our own English elves.

So, why is the elf in the song staring?  It may be conscience, perhaps, or just a dream, but it’s worth noting that one theme of Icelandic fairylore is that at certain times of year, and especially over the period of Christmas and the New Year, the elves will be abroad and may enter human homes.  Food and drink should be left out for them and they should be made to feel welcome (some readers may recall that a similar story applies to the trows of Shetland, and given their shared Norse heritage it is likely that the origins of both beliefs are shared).  Be that as it may, perhaps what’s described in this song is that presence of an elf in the home over the long winter nights.  Equally, it might merely evoke that feeling that the invisible people are always alongside us, watching and judging us; perhaps it is better that we are not aware of them, observing our actions, so perhaps this is why the speaker reflects upon his recent actions…

In the British Isles, we do not expect to be confronted with elves at such close quarters; they are usually banished to woods and even wilder, further places.  Even the house haunting brownie tended to keep discretely out of the way and did its chores at night.  This proximity, this invasion, is disturbing then.

Nightmares

What vocalist and composer Jón Þór Birgisson had in mind when he wrote this song, I don’t know; but I can say why it is affecting and memorable to me.  There are several abiding themes of fairlore that are evoked for me by the lyrics:

  • night is a time of peril, when our Good Neighbours are abroad.  In the song it’s not clear if that “blá nótt” is a glorious sky full of stars and the swirling Northern Lights, or something blacker and more brooding. Night is properly their time, and that is when humans should be at home and asleep.  During the hours of darkness the fairies dance and feast, disappearing at the first sign of dawn.  If we trespass upon their time, we should expect to be punished;
  • Nightmares can be brought to us by the fays at night.  Queen Mab is the elf most known for this; she is known as the midwife of dreams.  The dreams she brings may be pleasurable, but they may too be fearful and dismaying.  Fuseli’s painting of The nightmare captures this aspect of supernaturally induced dreams perfectly;
  • Following from this, I cannot help but see the creature sitting on the woman, pressing down upon her, as that Staring Elf.  What is disturbing and alarming about the song’s apparently benign image is the incursion of Faery into the home, into the safety and security of the warm bed.  The speaker pulls the covers over his head, seeking for cosy reassurance; instead he’s faced with an implacable and threatening presence.

There is, therefore, a curious disparity between the aetherial beauty of the music and the looming menace of the elf- always advancing, always imminent.  Perhaps that’s the epitome of the nightmare, in which the fear is ever unresolved- you fall from heights, you’re chased by beasts- but never die.  Both the tune and the images conjured will perpetually haunt me.

John_Henry_Fuseli_-_The_Nightmare

Henry Fuseli, ‘The Nightmare’, 1781

* A closing note on the headline illustration by Brian Froud.  Froud’s representation of Tinkerbell, one of several paintings based upon Peter Panis perhaps the best of all works of art inspired by this play.  Any reading of the story has to confess that Tink is not a pleasant character- she’s jealous and vengeful and she tries to kill Wendy.  Disney’s blonde, busty, fluttering Tinkerbell wholly fails to capture the true character of the book.

Further reading

On her blog Morgan Daimler has written an interesting comparison of the alfar and the Irish sidhepointing out the surprising number of parallels between the two.

 

“A witchery of sound”- ‘ceol sidhe’ or fairy music

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‘Flute fairy’ by Svetlana Chezhina

“There’s many feet on the moor to-night, and they fall so light as they turn and pass,
So light and true that they shake no dew from the featherfew and the hungry grass.
I drank no sup and I broke no crumb of their food, but dumb at their feast sat I;
For their dancing feet and their piping sweet, now I sit and greet till I’m like to die.

Oh kind, kind folk, to the words you spoke I shut my ears and I would not hear!
And now all day what my own kin say falls sad and strange on my careless ear;
For I’m listening, listening, all day long to a fairy song that is blown to me,
Over the broom and the canna’s bloom, and I know the doom of the Ceol-Sidhe.

I take no care now for bee or bird, for a voice I’ve heard that is sweeter yet.
My wheel stands idle: at death or bridal apart I stand and my prayers forget.
When Ulick speaks of my wild-rose cheeks and his kind love seeks out my heart that’s cold,
I take no care though he speaks me fair for the new love casts out the love that’s cold.

I take no care for the blessed prayer, for my mother’s hand or my mother’s call.
There ever rings in my ear and sings, a voice more dear and more sweet than all.
Cold, cold’s my breast, and broke’s my rest, and oh it’s blest to be dead I’d be,
Held safe and fast from the fairy blast, and deaf at last to the Ceol-Sidhe!”

This poem, ‘The fairy music’ by Nora Chesson Hopper, captures the enchantment and other worldliness that it is associated with fairy music.  Previously I have discussed the fairies’ liking for music and song and what seems to be the generally pleasure-seeking nature of their existence (see my earlier posting on  fairy pastimes as well as chapter 11 of my British fairies).  According to John Dunbar of Invereen, one of folklorist Walter Evans-Wentz’ Highland informants, the fairies were “awful for music, and used to be heard often playing the bagpipes.” (The fairy faith in Celtic countriesp.95)

Fairy musical skill

What I would like to do now in this posting is to discuss the actual nature and sound of that fairy music, based upon the first hand testimonies of those who have claimed to have been fortunate enough to have heard it.  Nonetheless, there are a number of themes associated with fairy music which we may quickly recap:

  • the music is often heard coming from particular knolls, hills or barrows, in which the fairies are taken to reside.  This is a very common local story and it can be found from the Fairy Knowe on Skye to the ‘music barrows’ of southern England, for example at Bincombe Down and Culliford Tree in Dorset and Wick Moor, near Stogursey in Somerset.
  • fairy musical skills and even instruments can be granted to fortunate humans.  There are several sets of bagpipes in Scotland alleged to be fairy gifts.  Fairy musical ability could be a blessing that made a man and his heirs rich (Evans- Wentz p.103). It could also be a curse, too: the favoured one might die young, being taken back by the fairies to play for them (Evans-Wentz p.40).
  • conversely, talented human musicians were from time to time abducted to satisfy the powerful fairy need for music and dance.  Almost always they met the fate of all who tarry in Faery.  They believed that they had played for just a night, but find all transformed on their return home.
  • fairy music can have magical or enchanting power- for example, from Ireland come stories of those who, on hearing it, felt compelled to dance- and then had to continue until they dropped from sheer exhaustion (Evans-Wentz p.69).  Coleridge in his poem The eolian harp described “Such a soft floating witchery of sound/ As twilight Elfins make;”  deliberately or not, a spell seemed to be cast upon the listening human; and,
  • occasionally, humans are able to commit a fairy tune to memory and contribute it to the mortal repertoire.  One such is Be nort da deks o’ Voe from Shetland. Two Welsh examples are Cân y tylwyth teg and Ffarwel Ned Pugh (see Wirt Sikes, British goblins c.7 and also Evans Wentz Fairy faith pp.118 & 131- two examples from Man).

The last two points are of particular significance into an enquiry into what fairy music actually sounds like.  Most of our older sources are not very helpful on this.  In his history of Aberystruth parish, the Reverend Edmund Jones in 1779 is typical of the vague descriptions normally found: “everyone said [the music] was low and pleasant, but none could ever learn the tune.”  Gathering evidence for his book The fairy faith in Celtic countriesEvans-Wentz was told that fairy music consisted of tunes not of this world, unlike anything a mortal man ever heard (pp.124 & 24), being the finest, grandest and most beautiful kind (pp.32, 47 & 57).  Evans-Wentz was informed that it often continued over an extended period- an hour or even a whole night.

Ninfa

‘A little night music’ by David Delamare

The sound of fairy music

Evidently the otherworldly nature of the music gave witnesses problems when they later tried to describe their experiences.  The testimony of those of a more artistic temperament might therefore prove more enlightening.  Poet and mystic George Russell (AE) told Evans-Wentz that he first listened to the music in the air on a hillside in County Sligo.  He heard “what seemed to be the sound of bells, and was trying to understand these aerial clashings in which wind seemed to break upon wind in an ever-changing musical silvery sound.” (p.61)  This leads us much closer to the reality and, in fact, the best account comes from a close friend of Russell and his wife, the visionary writer Ella Young.  Over the summer of 1917 and into 1918 she repeatedly heard the ceol sidhe, which in her opinion surpassed human symphonies.  Interestingly the very same description was used on the Isle of Man in the 1720s (Simon Young and Ceri Houlbrook, Magical folk, 2018p.173).

The fairy music was, Young said, “orchestral and of amazing richness and complexity.”  The melodies could be exquisite, sometimes like very fast reels, at others slow and wistful.  On August 27th 1917 she described “a certain monotony like slow moving waves with a running melody on the crests.”  Interwoven with this might be voices singing in an unknown tongue, either solo or resembling Gregorian chant.  Young noted “delicate and intricate rhythms” in a variety of tempos, including “music of stricken anvils.”  She heard a “myriad, myriad instruments” among which she mentioned cymbals, bells (both silvery tinkling and deep tolling), trumpets, harps, violins, drums, pipes, organs and bagpipes.  Several times, though, she could not compare the sound to anything she knew from earthly ensembles; she heard “very high notes- higher than any human instrument could produce,” “something like a Jew’s harp” and “a curious reedy instrument.”  Again, Young was not alone in this: George Waldron recorded that on Man in the 1720s islanders would hear “Musick, as could proceed from no earthly instruments” (Magical folk, p.173).

Despite her eloquence and sensitivity, Young struggled to give a clear account; it was “not music I can describe… it is beyond words.”   Moreover, she found it “difficult to recall this music and the sensation it creates.”  Nevertheless, she wrote (in terms similar to Russell’s) that the orchestral sound resembled a “wave or gush of wind” and that its effect was to create “a sense of freedom and exultation.”

Young harboured some doubts over her aural visions.  She wrote on September 9th 1917 that “my head has been for several days quite normal,” but then she heard the sounds again and concluded “I think the singing in my head was really astral.” In other words, its origin was aethereal and unearthly.  She believed that all could hear the same if only they drew closer to nature and had a peaceful and patient heart.

It is difficult to know quite what to make of this.  Young herself admitted concerns over her own sanity, but at the same time W. B. Yeats and both AE and his wife heard the same “faery chimes” and “solemn undertone” of song.  Furthermore, as noted earlier, these experiences could last for hours; this lessens the likelihood that they can be dismissed as temporary auditory delusions.  Either these witnesses all hallucinated together or these highly detailed and circumstantial experiences record some actual sensations.  The consensus, at least amongst poets, was certainly to confirm that pipes and, particularly, bells were characteristic of fairy music (see for example Ceol sidhe by Francis Ledwidge or Fairy ring by Abbie Farwell Brown).

cicely-mary-barker-fairy orchestra

Cicely Mary Barker, ‘Fairy orchestra’

The soft low music of the tribe

In conclusion, whatever its nature, the idea of fairy music has always had an aura of mystery and enchantment and, as such, has always attracted poets.  The opening verse from Nora Hopper embodied this, but even a poet like Rose Fyleman, whose fairy verse was generally very anodyne and was aimed at a junior audience, could still suggest a little of that magical strangeness; here’s her poem ‘Fairy music’:

“When the fiddlers play their tunes you may sometimes hear,
Very softly chiming in, magically clear,
Magically high and sweet, the tiny crystal notes
Of fairy voices bubbling free from tiny fairy throats.

When birds at break of day chant their morning prayers,
Or on sunny afternoons pipe ecstatic airs,
Comes an added rush of sound to the silver din-
Songs of fairy troubadours gaily joining in.

When athwart the drowsy fields summer twilight falls,
Through the tranquil air there float elfin madrigals,
And in wild November nights, on the winds astride,
Fairy hosts go rushing by, singing as they ride.

Every dream that mortals dream, sleeping or awake,
Every lovely fragile hope- these the fairies take,
Delicately fashion them and give them back again
In tender, limpid melodies that charm the hearts of men.”

Perhaps our best response is to hope to share Ella Young’s experiences and to know for ourselves that “This astral music is very much in sound delicately beautiful.”  As Irish poet William Sharp wrote in his verse The nine desires, it is “The desire of the poet, the soft, low music of the Tribe of the Green Mantles.”

Further reading

There are words to accompany this music, too, and I describe Young’s experience of that in a separate post on fairy speech and song.

An expanded version of this text will appear in my next book, Faeries, which will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide next year.

 

 

Led Zep in Fairyland?

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This is just a quick plug for a posting on my separate music blog, BroadcastBarnsley.  I’ve written a discussion of ‘Stairway to Heaven’ by Led Zeppelin, bringing out some of the fairy and Tolkien themes I read in the lyrics.  Read the posting here.

Have a look too at my posting on faery influences in the music of Marc Bolan, a contemporary of Led Zep.

For fuller details of my writing on music, cinema, the arts and other topics, please see my website.

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