Famous Fairies

One of the Famous Fairies series by Lorna Steele

I am pleased to announce the forthcoming publication of a new book, to be titled Who’s Who In Faeryland. As you’ll see, the inspiration for the idea came from a series of postcards designed for the Salmon Company in the early 1950s by the British artist Lorna R. Steele. This appears to have been a typical six card set, which was possibly retailed together in a special envelope (for collectors) as well as being sold separately at newsagents and such like for people to use for messages and greetings.

Lorna Steele

As I describe in my Fairy Art of the Twentieth Century, Lorna Steele (1902-90) was born in North London and was encouraged to become an artist by her uncle, Frank Jenners, who was himself an illustrator and author.  She attended art school and then set up her own studio. She received early commissions for book illustrations from the University of London Press during the 1940s, providing illustrations for a variety of titles.  After the war, she was associated with J. Salmond of Sevenoaks for whom she wrote and illustrated several books and designed a number of series of postcards, such as Peeps at Pixies in 1947.

Steele’s fairies are bright and almost cartoonish and her vision of faery is, perhaps, one of the most prosaic of all the British fairy artists.  In humanising the beings, she often stripped them of all their magic and mystery, as might be seen in her postcard images of fairies at school, attending the market or posting their letters. Steele gave emphasis to the interaction between fairies and children, making them safe and approachable.

However, the Famous Fairies series is perhaps one of her most charming. It features several of the Famous Fairies that I have dealt with in my new book. Titania and Oberon are an obvious choice, as are Puck, the Cornish Pixie and (perhaps) the Will of the Wisp.

The borders of the cards are especially attractive, with their mushrooms, horse shoes and Halloween imagery. Steele’s fairies, with their whimsical eared caps, are firmly within the tradition of Cicely Mary Barker and Margaret Tarrant.

The final two cards in the series are surprising choices, as they are both figures from classical mythology- who arguably aren’t fairies at all. Admittedly, parallels have often been seen between Pan and Puck, and- in the absence of a clear conception of what Puck/ Robin Goodfellow looked like- Victorian painters especially resorted to the classical iconography of Pan- goat legs and horns (plus, perhaps, some wings)- to represent the most English of all supernatural personalities.

As for Neptune, well- little can be said. There are of course mermen in our folklore records, but very little trace of a king of the merfolk, such as this illustration depicts.

Famous British Fairies

Turning now to my forthcoming book, Who’s Who will be a collection of short ‘biographies’ of the best known individuals in Faery. The text describes the careers and characters of nine of the most famous fairies to arise out of British faery-lore: Titania, Oberon, Ariel, Mab, Puck, King Arthur, Nimue, Tinker Bell and the native British equivalents of Rumpelstiltskin. Also included are shorter descriptions of a range of other named faery folk and a discussion of the whole issue of faery names.

The history of each famous fairy is traced back to its origins and then their stories are followed through poetry, plays and paintings from late medieval times up to the present. Their lives and their deeds are examined in detail, with illustrations from literature and art.

The book describes exactly how and why these fairies became famous in the first place- and why they remain well-known and relevant even into the twenty-first century. As an essential guide to the key figures of faeryland, this book will help readers understand just why it is that these names are so familiar- and what it is about these faery personalities that made them renowned- across the world.

Hand charms and faery

enchantment

Henry Justice Ford, The enchantment, 

The above image is an illustration to the ‘Story of Ciccu’ in Andrew Lang’s Pink fairy book of 1897.  Henry Justice Ford chose to illustrate a scene in which three sleeping brothers are endowed with gifts by three fairy women who come upon them.  You will observe the fairies’ curious hand gestures.

These put me in mind of lines from Tennyson’s poem Merlin and Vivien, which forms part of his Idylls of the King.  The young woman, Vivien/ Nimue, wishes to learn the elderly magician’s skills from him, especially one charm of “woven paces and waving hands.”  She slowly wears him down with promises of her love until he is “overtalked and overworn” and, against his better judgment, tells her the charm she wishes so much to know.  Almost immediately she employs it to imprison him for infinity in an oak tree.

In both these examples we have fairy women “waving hands” to cast spells.  I know that various individual gestures and movements  have magical or spiritual power.  These are very often now labelled in Hindi ‘mudras’ and ‘bandhas’- terms borrowed from yoga practice when surely there must be native equivalents (?).  I have been able to find less about series of gestures with both hands at once.  It appears that the technique may involve creating certain significant or powerful shapes, or tracing certain signs in the air. Mostly what I have encountered relates to static positions, rather than to the  “waving of hands” described by Nimue.

Can readers add to this? Has anyone encountered other faery examples of this practice?

Further reading

Other ways of working charms and/ or acquiring or wielding fairy magic include fern seed, spell books, incantations and other verbal charms, ointment and simple touch.

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