Faes and the Natural World

Cicely Bridget Martin, The Fairy in the Meadow, 1909

As I observe in my latest book, Faeries in the Natural World, there is a strong prevailing view at present that the faes are intimately connected to the environment and are actively concerned about pollution and habitat degradation, sometimes working with human intermediaries to mitigate harm and to reverse changes. This view has been around since the 1960s, when the environmental movement first began to appear.

An early literary example of the developing sense that human industrialisation and pollution could actively injure faery kind comes from Alan Garner’s Moon of Gomrath (1963). The elves of this story suffer from “smoke sickness.” They complain that “it is the dirt and ugliness and unclean air that men have worshipped these two hundred years that have driven the lios-alfar [the light elves of Norse myth] to the trackless places and the broken lands… You should hear their lungs. That is what men have done.” This is a clear indictment of human society in the wake of the first environmental classic, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, published in September 1962.

Even before that, though, there was a strong belief that there was antipathy between faes and modern life. Numerous writers from the mid-Victorian period onwards alleged that trains, noise, smoke and general encroachment on the countryside was steadily driving faeries into the remoter and less inhabited spots; Welsh writers in particular argued this, but any more rural location where commerce trespassed- quarrying or mills in the Lake District, the Highlands and on the Isle of Man or Shetland, for example- was recognised as antithetical to the faery and trow populations. The 1909 painting at the head of this post is another illustration; we might be surprised that such a sensitivity comes from the Edwardian period, but there it is: the British artist, Cicely Bridget Martin (1879-1947), could see the contradiction between faery life and the litter left behind by human picnickers. A hundred years later, though, and we would pretty much take such a barbed comment on waste and wildlife damage for granted.

None of this withstanding, the folklore evidence that associates the faeries with an environmentalist position is a good deal more limited than we might anticipate. That’s not to say that evidence for “eco-faeries” doesn’t exist (pixies are described protecting foxes from hunts or caring for wildlife in winter, for example, as well as their sometimes intimate associations with certain trees and flowers) but it can be found alongside the faeries setting up their own mines, mills and dye works and such like (see my recent book, How Things Work in Faery for full details of this). Victorian poets and painters delighted in emphasising the faes’ links to nature: suggesting that they paint butterflies’ wings, for instance, and it is very likely that these images have been influential in shaping subsequent generations’ views of the place of the faeries in the natural world. As much as anything, their ‘green’ credentials derive from the fact that they live in the woods and fields- from which we assume that they must want to defend the natural world. I’d say a fairer reading would be to say that they want to defend their homes and resources from human disruption and invasion; they want to carry on using that land themselves as they choose. As they happen to be have fairly non-industrialised and non-intensive economy, this gives the impression that they are all for sustainability, low carbon and rewilding. I suspect this is really a matter of us humans applying our labels to their motives: coupled with a large degree of guilt.

Certainly, the latter half of the last century saw a steep rise in the perception that the faeries were alarmed over the climate crisis and the degradation of ecosystems- and that they wanted to recruit humans to help halt the damage they were doing. Quite often too, for that matter, Pan and the nymphs of the natural world- and the devas of the Theosophists- were also heard to deliver the same messages. However we may wish to interpret this (as warnings from the supernatural world or, perhaps, as expressions of the human witnesses’ own unconscious worries) the import is the same: the situation is urgent and humans need to take into account the welfare of those beings that can’t express their distress.

Eileen Soper, Silky and the Snail

For fuller discussion of all aspects of the faery relationship to the natural world, see my latest book from Green Magic Publishing. This looks not only at the environmentalism of the faes, but also examines how Faery affects the fertility of humans as well as their livestock, considers how faeries influence the weather, how they interact with a range of wild animals, plants, trees and fungi and the locations with which they are most closely associated in the natural world- not just faery rings but wells, high places and ancient sites.

Faeries in Maurice Hewlett’s ‘Lore of Proserpine’

Rheam, Once Upon a Time

“Thus go the fairy kind,

Whither Fate driveth; not as we

Who fight with it, and deem us free

Therefore, and after pine, or strain

Against our prison bars in vain;

For to them Fate is Lord of Life

And Death, and idle is a strife

With such a master …”

Hypsipyle, by Maurice Hewlett

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

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

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

Nymphs

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

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

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

Miles Willams Mathis, Dryad Child

Faery Kind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Anster Fitzgerald, Cock Robin Defending His Nest

What’s in a Name? Using the right terms for the faeries

Recently I’ve been researching the pixies of south-west Britain for my book, British Pixies, and, in so doing, encountered serious problems in pinning down the basic terminology used by authors such as Robert Hunt and William Borlase and (presumably) their local Cornish sources.  There are at least five terms used to label the fairy folk of the south-west: pixies, pobel vean (little people), spriggans, knockers and buccas.  A couple of these words seem to be Cornish and, we might be tempted to suggest, are older and more authentic than some of the other terms.  The word pixie/ pisky would seem to be a later import, if we are correct in supposing that it is related to the pucks of England and the pwcca of Wales and is (probably) a Germanic word originally.  The bucca certainly seems to be an identical being.  Some of the folklore writers tried to make distinctions between this multiplicity of words: for instance, the pobel vean were said to be smaller and more beautiful; the knockers lived in mines; the spriggans were ugly and evil.  The truth is, though, that reading the sources, we find the words being used interchangeably, so that Cornish witnesses can speak of knockers as buccas or can use the latter word to denote both pixies and the pobel vean.

Precision seems both impossible and, very probably, unnecessary.  This example is reflective of a wider problem within the British Isles, where successive layers of incoming speech have led to an overlapping vocabulary, which can tempt us into imagining differences (or even similarities) that don’t exist.  Over and above this, of course, there is the additional problem of the faeries not wanting us to know what they really call themselves, for fear of giving us power over them). Here are a few other instances of the taxonomic confusion.

Isle of Man: the island’s fairies are often called the ferrish (singular)/ ferrishyn (plural)This could be a Manx word, but compare it with authentically Manx Celtic terms like mooinjer veggy or sleigh beggey, meaning the little people.  Ferrishyn seems suspiciously similar, to me, to the terms ferishers, feriers, fraries and, even, farisees/ pharisees used in Norfolk and Suffolk in the east of England.  On Orkney and Shetland you might encounter the pronunciation ferries. Recalling the Highland Gaelic tendency to turn a final ‘s’ into ‘sh,’ this could indicate the route by which Manx speakers arrived at ferrish.  Whatever the exact derivation, these are all dialect versions of ‘fairies’ and, as such, aren’t themselves hugely old.  Katherine Briggs drew a comparison with the feorin of the English North West, but, as Simon Young has demonstrated, this is most probably derived from ‘fear’- something that scares you. 

Wales: there seem to be several good, genuine, Welsh words in use, many of them euphemisms. These include tylwyth teg, bendith y mamau (the mother’s blessings), y dynion mwyn (the kind people), y teulu (the tribe), gwragedd anwyl (the beloved women), yr elod (‘the intelligences’- perhaps, the ‘wise’ or ‘all-knowing’ ones), pwcca and ellyllon.  All’s not what it seems, however.  As already mentioned, pwcca could just be a borrowing across the border.  Likewise, ellyllon is simply the Welsh rendering of the English ‘elves’ and even tylwyth teg, ‘the fair folk’ may be a mistaken rendering of fairies, based on the assumption that the core of the English word was ‘fair’ as in good-looking. I need hardly say that y goblin bach, the little goblin, is not a deeply authentic Welsh label.

England: the foregoing sections suggest the invasive power of the English language (which is true) but let’s not forget that Anglo-Saxon was itself steadily overwhelmed by subsequent influxes of Romance and other languages.  Old English ‘elf’ still survives, especially in lowland Scotland, but it generally plays second best to a French import, fay/ fairy, a word which has been adopted as a handy, catch-all labelOther continental importations include goblin, from the French gobelin, and Scandinavian troll (which is the root of the trows of Orkney and Shetland too).  Both goblin and trow seem to have been required because there wasn’t a decent English equivalent.  Anglo-Saxon had used the word dweorg, meaning a small, malicious elf-like being. This vanished from standard English- along with any concept of ‘dwarves’ as a species of supernatural entity.  In Dorset, there is still the derrick, a name that’s derived from dweorg and which is now applied to a little man who’s often said to be a local kind of pixie… 

Much more recently, as I’ve described before, we’ve imported Latin and Greek words like nymph, naiad and siren as extra terms to use in parallel with fairy, elf and mermaid.  We’ve also adopted entirely made-up names, such as gnome and sylph.  As mentioned in a previous posting, these were dreamed up by Paracelsus, but they’ve assumed a place in the language, to the extent that gnomes have even been accepted as a separate genus of fairy being.

These imported names can add variety to texts- and I’m as guilty as any of switching from one to another just to avoid monotony- but they can also create the impression that the landscape is peopled with a dense confusion of different types of being, whereas we may, in most instances, be dealing with only a handful of types.  Broadly, in Britain, we can probably narrow matters down to fairies/ elves and brownies/ hobs/ boggarts.  The rest is probably just a matter of differences of terminology (and this is before we’ve even considered all the very local names that exist: dobbies, powries, dunters, red caps, piskies etc etc)…. 

Emmeline Richardson

Pan & Nymphs in ‘The Lore of Proserpine’

Rodolphe Julian, Pan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Franz Stuck, Pan beobachtet Kentaurenpaar

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

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

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

Penny Ross, Spring Fairy

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

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

Bouguereau, Nympha & Satyr

Great God Pan & Faery

I am very pleased to announce the publication of my latest book, The Great God Pan, by Green Magic Publishing, who back in 2017 were kind enough to publish my first fairy study, British Fairies.

The origins of the latest book lie partly in the research I did for 2020’s Nymphology, but also in my wider reading of fantasy writers such as Algernon Blackwood and Arthur Machen.  As some readers will already know, Machen himself wrote a story called The Great God Pan; the title wasn’t his, it comes from ancient legend, so I felt entitled to use it too!

The new book, Great God Pan, is a study of the development of the cult of Pan, tracing its origins from ancient Greece and following the faith through the Renaissance to late Victorian times, when it had a major revival.  This period is the main focus of the book, with reference to writers such as Oscar Wilde, Aleister Crowley, Dion Fortune and others.

Moony, Enchanted Wood

Now, you’d be entitled to think that the goat god Pan hasn’t got a lot to do with fairies, but the situation’s rather more complex than we might expect.  Let’s start towards the end…

In 1878 Walter Besant published the short story Titania’s Farewell.  As the title tells us, the story’s focus is the departure of the fairies from British shores, something witnessed by a human who finds himself surrounded by the fairies late one night in the New Forest.  Reflecting the next day on his enchanted experience, the narrator asks himself:

“Reality! Ideal! Why, which is which? The old nature worship goes on as ever.  Great God Pan never dies.”

He seems to be very clear in his own mind that fairies are nature spirits and that they are intimately linked by this to Pan himself.  The fairies of the story, in fact, don’t quite see it as simply as this. Addressing his court, King Oberon says that the fairies can’t flee from Britain to either Greece or Italy.  This is because those places are:

“haunted by beings far different from ourselves- Bacchus and his noisy crew.  You would not like to associate with him.  Satyrs there are- monsters of most uncomely appearance and their manners are detestable.  Dryads there are in the woods, and Naiads by their fountains; but you would not like them.  They drowned fair young Hylas.  When did we drown fair youth?” 

The British fairies can’t go to these Mediterranean lands, then; they are ‘Teutonic elves’ as Oberon says.  But they can’t go to Germany either, because there the woods are full of goblins and they’ve filled up their buildings with “clumsy plaster casts of the Fauns of the Latin hills.”

All of this leaves Oberon sounding very much like a jingoistic Victorian English gentleman, for whom all foreigners are simply frightful, with their beastly artistic pretensions and artistic temperaments. 

John Philip Wagner, Little Pan’s Dance

In truth, British faery folk weren’t always seen as being so very different from classical beings, as I described a long time ago in a post on the impact of the Renaissance on the British fairy faith.  For example, in The Faithful Shepherdess of 1609, John Fletcher described ‘fairy ground’ where the fairies dance in these terms:

“No Shepherd’s way lies here; ‘tis hallowed ground;

No maid seeks here her strayed cow or sheep,

Fairies, fawns and satyrs do it keep.”

The influence of Greek and Latin legend actually dates much earlier than that.

We can, in fact, go right back as early as St Augustine’s City of God, of the early fifth century.  He briefly discusses some Gaulish fairies called dusii, whom he treated as being identical with “Silvans and Pans, commonly called incubi, [who] often misbehave towards women and succeed in accomplishing their lustful desires to have intercourse with them.”  These are beings who seduce human women, usually coming to them when they are asleep at night, and in their highly sexed nature they link backwards to Pan, inveterate pursuer of nymphs in the groves of Arcady, and forward to the faery lovers of more modern times.

St Augustine’s ‘pans’ might also be called fauns or wood sprites.  In about 1000, Bishop Burchard of Worms laid down a penance for any country people who expressed belief in the existence of such ‘sylvans’ or satyrs or who made offerings to them.  A later English version of this same text, dating from the 13th century, repeated the same warnings, but called them fauns.

In the twelfth century Thomas of Monmouth described how a young virgin living in Dunwich in Suffolk was assaulted at night by a spirit in the form of a handsome young man who appeared in her bedroom and sought to tempt and seduce her.  He’s called “one of those beings whom they call fairies and incubi [faunos dicunt et incubi.]”  As this shows, faun and fairy were interchangeable words.

These country spirits may have Latin names, but they are very plainly what we’d call fairies, as is the case with John Lydgate’s Troy Book, written during the fifteenth century and first published in 1513.  He refers to the:

“diverse goddis of þe wodis grene [who]

Appere þere, called Satiry,

Bycornys eke [too], fawny and incubi,

þat causen ofte men to falle in rage.”

The ‘rage’ to which Lydgate refers is, of course, the panic that Pan can induce in flocks, herds and people.  The Troy Book was based on Guido delle Colonne’s Historia destructionis Troiae (A History of the fall of Troy), from which Lydgate inherited his “multos satiros faunosque bicornes” (many satyrs and two horned fauns).

These fauns/ fairies of the Middle Ages behaved in all the ways that remain familiar to us today.  As well as trying to seduce suitable boys and girls, they offered rich goods that were only glamour, they liked to play tricks on humans and they also took children and left changelings. 

Into early modern times, the terminology remained interchangeable.  As I’ve discussed before, Reginald Scot in The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584)made a list of supernatural beings that included “satyrs, pans, fauns… nymphs… incubuses;”  William Prynne in Histrio-Matrix of 1633, a Puritan attack on the theatre, complained of people dressing up as “Satyres, Silvanes, Muses, Nymphes, Furies, Hobgoblins, Fairies, Fates… which Christians should not name, much less resemble.”

As these last examples remind us, fairies and nymphs were consistently conflated or confused, as I’ve discussed before in postings and in Nymphology.  These associations further embed into British faerylore the conjunction of fairies with girlish sexuality- something which can also be seen in much of the art associated with pan and the satyrs.

The intermingling of classical and native beings continues even to this day.  For example, in his book Good Faeries, Bad Faeries, Brian Froud included Pan in the good half and a ‘Small Pan or Slight Panic,’ in the bad section. The former, ‘Poetic Pan,’ can materialise in many different places and, if humans come into contact with him, will arouse in them erotic impulses, abandonment to poetic emotions and intense feelings of spiritual connection to nature. Froud warns us, however, to take care, “for his influence is overwhelming.”  In the second half of the book, the small Pan is the “irresistible child of the great Pan himself [who] hides himself away in secret nooks and crannies, ready to leap out in pursuit of the unwary (especially pretty young girls and attractive goats).  His presence causes minor pandemonium and slight panic, so be cautious of things that pop out suddenly from hidden places.”

John Philip Wagner, Little Pan

I am also posting articles related to this book one of my other WordPress blogs, John Kruse blog.

Sylvia Townsend Warner- Of Cats and Elfins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thy nymph is light and shadow-like

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Baudelaire & the Supernatural

Here’s something I wrote for my personal blog about the French Symbolist poet Baudelaire and his relationship to the supernatural. I thought its references to fairies, to the Breton goblins called lutins and to nymphs might be of interest to the readers of ‘British Fairies.’  Baudelaire explores many of the themes we have touched upon, the ill-defined relationship of Faery to the land of the dead, or the abduction and subjection of humans as slaves; all in his inimitable style.

johnkruseblog

Baudelaire_en_1844_par_Emile_Deroy Baudelaire in 1844 by Emile Delroy

Charles-Pierre Baudelaire was born in Paris in 1821.  He came to be one of the leading Symbolist or decadent poets of the period.  He is known for exotic, gothic verse that is obsessed with boredom, sin, submission, death, sex and femmes fatales.  His themes sound like the classic teenaged/ emo preoccupations, familiar to us now, but in the mid-nineteenth century the poet’s references to Satanism and pagan orgies were shocking, rather than the mere conventions of death-metal.  There was also a notable supernatural element to Baudelaire’s poetry, which is what I wish specially to explore here.

Let’s deal with the black magick side of his work first.  In his ‘Preface’ to Les Fleurs du Mal, Baudelaire declared “On evil’s pillow Satan Trismegist/ Our ravished senses at his leisure lulls… The Devil holds our strings in puppetry!”  At the conclusion of Possessed, he cries…

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Georges Picard- French fairies

Nymph & Forest Fairies

I discovered this artist through Sean Conroy’s former blog and had reposted it here.  His posts are no longer on WordPress but I found I inherited his images from him when I reblogged the post, so I have reused them with my own text…

Georges Picard (1857-1946) was a French painter and illustrator who produced a number fairy studies.  The pictures are distinctive, in part because of Picard’s unique ‘soft-focus’ technique (very much in contrast to the sharp and icy nymphs painted by his close contemporary Bouguereau) and in part because of his cavalier intermixing of fairies, sprites and nymphs, of adult women and small children gambolling together in sunny glades.

Dancing Fairies

Picard’s fairy scenes include A Nymph and Forest Fairies and Nymphs and Cherubim Amongst the Vines at Obernai. His main figures never, honestly, look especially fae: rather, they are adult female nudes painted in the academic style, who are discovered, lightly draped with a thin veil, cavorting in woodland clearings.  They look like what they were: Parisian models with fashionable hair styles and jewellery.  They are in the company of sprites or fairies in the form of small naked children.  This mix of sizes is a trait inherited from many of the British fairy painters who preceded him, such as Noel Paton, as doesn’t tell us much (I don’t believe) about Picard’s fairy philosophy.

Fairy & Sprites in the Undergrowth

Particularly noticeable is Picard’s cheerful jumbling of genres, so that biblical angels appear alongside classical divinities, Graeco-Roman nymphs and dryads disport themselves with native French fées.

Nymphs & Cherubim amongst the Vines at Obernai

Allegory of Wine

Picard also dealt with a fairy theme when he illustrated Alphonse Daudet’s short story  Le Conte de Noel, part of the La Fete des Toits (1896). This features a conversation between sparrows, chimneys, the snow and others.  We are then introduced to Les Kobolds.   For English speakers, the kobolds may best be known from German tradition as mine sprites, related to the Cornish knockers, but they are also household spirits, akin to a British Brownie, that live by the hearth or wood shed and undertake household chores at night.  They are small, male and bearded.  Daudet introduces them to us as follows:

c’est-à-dire les esprits familiers de chaque maison qui conduisent Noël à toutes les cheminées où il y a des petits souliers qui attendent.

“the familiar spirits of each house, who guide Christmas to all the chimneys where little stockings are waiting. “

Christmas (Noel) arrives to deliver presents and says to the fairies “Maintenant, messieurs les kobolds, marchez avec moi sur la pente des toits, nous allons commencer notre distribution.”  “Right, gentlemen, come with me across the roof tops, we’re going to start handing out presents.”

Christmas wants, this year, to concentrate on treating the poorest children, but the kobolds object that-

Avec ton nouveau système, les pauvres seront heureux, mais les riches pleureront. Et dame! un enfant qui pleure n’est plus ni riche ni pauvre. C’est un enfant qui pleure; et il n’y a rien de si triste…” 

“With your new system, the poor children will be happy and the rich ones will cry.  But, a child who’s crying is neither rich nor poor- it’s simply a weeping child and there’s nothing so sad.”

Picard illustrated this story with two drawings which, despite the text, portrayed the kobolds as semi-naked girls.  One wears only her boots, the other a top with a pointed hood, stockings and shoes.  This latter sprite leans against a chimney pot, pushing out her bottom and regarding us impishly.  Picard had drawn very similar pictures of a little blonde girl playing in a pond, catching frogs, a figure he obviously preferred to the masculine (and possibly ugly) spirits that Daudet had imagined.

The artist drew what pleased him, but in his interpretation of Daudet’s text, as well as in his wider vision of Faery, he was rather misleading.  Nonetheless, his pictures, if we examine them attentively, can lead us to new insights into faery-kind.  For example, Daudet’s story is a clue that the kobold is an ancestor of  Santa’s toy-making elves, with whom we are today so familiar.

For more on the classical nymph, see my newest book Nymphology.  There will be more on knockers in my forthcoming book on the ‘Economy of Faery.’  For more on the art of Faery, see my book Fairy Art of the Twentieth Century

 

 

‘Nymphology’- a new book

Nymphology

I am pleased to announce that my new book, Nymphology- A Brief History of Nymphs, is now available as a Kindle book and paperback through Amazon.

I’ve often discussed the interface between classical and British mythologies, both on this site and in my book Fayeriebut I decided to focus on the subject in a short new volume, examining the meaning and stories of nymphs from the ancient Greek past right up to the present day.

Nymphs have always been about sex,  whether that’s the story of Hylas and the Nymphs or it’s the modern day nymphets of Nabokov’s Lolita or adult websites.  There’s much more to it than that, though; the nymph is also about healing and poetic inspiration, about religious as well as sexual obsession.

I’ve traced their story from the classical texts and poets, through Morgan Le Fay and the Lady of the Lake, through Spenser, Shakespeare and Michael Drayton’s Nymphidia right up to Nabokov and Pierre Louys’ Chansons de Bilitis.  Nymphs are found in paintings and sculptures as well as in literature, and the new book celebrates them all.

The boo is 80 pages long plus illustrations- in the UK it’s £5.50 for the e-book and £7.95 for the paperback copy.  For details of all my other books, please see my separate Books page.

Hermaphroditus_Salmacis_Albani_Louvre
Salmacis and Hermaphroditus, Albani, 1630

 

Faery: the Lore, Magic & World of the Good Folk

faery

I’m very pleased to announce that my new book, Faery: A Guide to the Lore, Magic and World of the Good Folk, has now been published by Llewellyn Worldwide and is available through all the usual channels.

The new book builds on my last, British Fairiesas well as on the postings on this blog.  What I have aimed to offer is a complete statement of our knowledge of the life, culture, personality, temperament and habits of the Good Folk, often trying to understand the faery perspective on these matters to better appreciate why and how they behave.  Of course, everything has to be seen from the human standpoint: it’s only through our interactions with the faeries that we can experience their world.  Furthermore, this relationship between humans and supernaturals has always had its points of friction.  In the book, I don’t shy away from examining the perils of faery contact: they are more powerful and more complex than popular culture often allows and they have to be approached with caution and respect.

The new book is based upon extensive research in hard to find folklore sources and brings readers a wealth of new information they might not otherwise discover.

Contacting Faery

In chapter 13 of the book, I examine the magical methods for contacting and summoning the fae (something I’ve also touched on in a posting on this blog).  Given that the new book is all about bringing us closer to Faery and improving our understanding of our Good Neighbours, I’ll add here another ritual procedure that I recently unearthed.

This is taken from the Rosicrucian text, Le Comte de Gabalis, by Abbé Nicolas-Pierre-Henri de Montfaucon de Villars (1635–1673). The book builds on the work of Paracelsus, whom I’ve had occasion to criticise in a previous post, but it provides us with a further interesting insight into the magical methods practiced in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to contact the supernatural world.  Villars makes the process sound quite straightforward (Gabalis, Discourse II):

“One has only to seal a goblet full of compressed Air, Water, or Earth and to leave it exposed to the Sun for a month. Then separate the Elements scientifically, which is particularly easy to do with Water and Earth. It is marvellous what a magnet for attracting Nymphs, Sylphs, and Gnomes, each one of these purified Elements is. After taking the smallest possible quantity every day for some months, one sees in the Air the flying Commonwealth of the Sylphs, the Nymphs coming in crowds to the shores, the Gnomes, the Guardians of the Treasures,  parading their riches. Thus, without symbols, without ceremonies, without barbaric words, one becomes ruler over these Peoples. They exact no worship whatever from the Sage, whose superiority to themselves they fully recognise. Thus venerable Nature teaches her children to repair the elements by means of the Elements. Thus harmony is re-established. Thus man recovers his natural empire, and can do all things in the Elements without the Devil, and without Black Art.”

Readers will recall that Paracelsus envisaged four classes of beings to accompany the four elements comprising the world.  Salamanders are the fire beings and:

“If we wish to recover empire over the Salamanders, we must purify and exalt the Element of Fire which is in us, and raise the pitch of that relaxed string. We have only to concentrate the Fire of the World in a globe of crystal, by means of concave mirrors…”

So, there we have the instructions.  Before you put them into practice, though, I strongly recommend that you prepare yourselves by reading Faery: A Guide to the Lore, Magic and World of the Good Folk!