On my Fairy Bookshelf: ‘Prisoner in Fairyland’

ab2
Algernon Blackwood (right) during World War I

I’ve discussed before the musical Starlight Express by Sir Edward Elgar.  As I stated, the 1915 production was based upon the novel, A Prisoner in Fairyland, which was published in June 1913.

Background

The novel was written by Algernon Blackwood (1869-1951), an author who specialised in horror and fantasy themes.  Several of his short stories build up mystery and fear using a fairy incident as the foundation for the plot: these include ‘Ancient Lights,’ ‘The Trod,’ ‘The Glamour of the Snow’ and ‘May Day Eve.’  His story, ‘A Touch of Pan,’ is his contribution to the Pan cult of the early twentieth century, which I have also mentioned before.  Many of his stories can be read online.

A Prisoner in Fairyland is unlike any of these.  It is a gentle, delicate, optimistic story, with some beautiful passages of imaginative description.  It is not really about Fairyland at all- at least, not about the fairy realm in the sense in which I use it on this blog.

I know nothing definite about Blackwood’s inspiration, but I can’t help wondering if he saw the 1901 pantomime Bluebell in Fairyland, by Seymour Hicks.  This production was definitely seen by J. M. Barrie, and inspired Peter Pan, but the idea that fairyland and dreams are the same, that there is a king waiting in a cave to be woken by children so he can do good in the world, and the fact that golden dust is sprinkled in the children’s eyes (“Eyelids droop and close as darkness falls/ Fairyland is waiting as the dustman calls) all seem very similar to Blackwood’s story (as I’ll show).

The Moral of the Story

Blackwood’s ‘fairyland’ and his references through out to fairies and fairy things is almost unique.  As readers may know (especially if you’ve read any of the poems in my Victorian Fairy Verse), ‘fairy’ was used freely by writers from the eighteenth century onwards to denote anything that was small, dainty or cute.  Blackwood’s usage derives from this, but it is still wholly his own.  What springs to mind is a word no longer used in modern English, but which was, in the past, often to be found in conjunction with fairy- and that is ‘ferly,’ which means a wonder or marvel.  It appears, for example, in the sixteenth century Scots drama, The Crying of Ane Playe.  The main character, Harry Hobilschowe introduces himself as the play begins, telling us he has just arrived on a whirlwind from Syria, where he:

“lang has bene in þe fary/ Farleis to fynd.”

(he’s spent a long time in fairyland, searching for marvels).

The word is also used at the outset of the Middle English poem, Piers Plowman.  Its use here is even more apposite, for Piers associates it with lying down to rest on a grassy bank near Malvern, one summer’s day.  He may then have fallen asleep and dreamed- or else he had a vision:

“In a somer sesun, whon softe was the sonne…

Wente I wyde in this world wondres to here;

Bote in a Mayes morwnynge on Malverne hulles

Me bifel a ferly, of fairie, me-thoughte.”

In Blackwood’s story, dreaming is directly associated with access to the fairyland he portrays.  Very broadly, the plot involves a successful business man, Henry Rogers, who retires early with the intention of using his wealth on good causes.  Rogers takes a holiday with his cousin and his young family at their home in Switzerland and there, in the company of the niece and nephew, rediscovers his childhood dreams.  The plot is negligible and the action is entirely concerned with the family’s thoughts, emotions and dreams.  In my previous mention of the book, I called it a children’s story; it isn’t: the psychology and philosophy the book contains aren’t intended for younger readers, even though children and their inner life are central to the narrative.

ab1
Blackwood with Sir Edgar Elgar, 1915

Fairies in Fairyland?

So, are there any fairies in A Prisoner in Fairyland?  I must tell you, dear reader, that there are not- and that, in a sense, I was grossly misled when purchasing the book!  There are, nevertheless, numerous references to fairies and fairyland, so I need to explain what Blackwood is doing.

There is one scrap of traditional fairylore, it’s true: in chapter 23 he observes that “People lost in fairyland, they say, always forget the outer world of unimportant happenings.”  This is quite true, as folklore makes it very clear how a person may become ‘elf-addled.’  Blackwood is using ‘fairyland’ in quite a different sense, however, to that of a place called Faery.

The moral of his story is captured is a single paragraph:

“Only the world today no longer believes in Fairyland… and even the children have become scientific.  Perhaps it’s only buried, though.  The two ought to run in harness really- opposite interpretations of the universe.  One might revive it- here and there perhaps.  Without it, all the tenderness seems leaking out of life.” (c.5)

As this may begin to indicate, there are (inevitably) marked traces of Victorian views of Faery in Blackwood’s work.  As I have emphasised in my new book, Victorian Fairy Verse for most writers of the period fairies were synonymous with everything tiny and cute.  These underlying assumptions pervade Blackwood’s novel:

“Fairy things, like stars and tenderness, are always small.” (c.31)

“A Fairy blesses because she is a Fairy, not because she turns a pumpkin into a coach and four…” (c.28)

“that raciness and swift mobility, that fluid, protean elasticity of temperament which belonged to the fairy kingdom.” (c.23)

So, what exactly is Blackwood’s fairyland and how do you get there?  The answer is very simple.  Fairyland is the inner world of fantasy and imagination that we all inhabit during childhood.  It is a source of joy and wonder and it is something that many adults mourn: “The world, too, is a great big child that is crying for its Fairyland.” (c.24)

For adults to be able to recover their fairyland, they need two things.  They need to be close to children and to share their vivid imaginative life.  Rogers is sitting with his niece and nephew on his knees and realises:

“Their plans and schemes netted his feet in fairyland just as surely as the weight of their little warm, soft bodies fastened him to the boulder where he sat.  He could not move.  He could not go further without their will and leadership.” (c.13)

In their sleep, the children’s spirits leave their bodies and travel on the Starlight Express to a place where starlight is stored.  They then use this to heal sick and unhappy adults.  “Like Fairies, lit internally with shining lanterns, they flew about their business” (c.16).  Rogers, too, learns to join the children in their dreams and to explore this fairyland.  It is “a state of mind, open potentially to all, but not to be enjoyed merely for the asking.  Like other desirable things, it was to be ‘attained.'” (c.30) Fairyland can be entered only so long as some of its benefits will be taken back to the mortal world.

The Starlight Express

The Express carries dreamers’ souls to and from Faery, where they collect starlight.  These are memorable images (in fact, stars and constellations sparkle throughout the prose, producing some passages of great beauty) and they clearly had the potential to capture the popular imagination.

As I mentioned in my preamble, the book appeared in June 1913.  By the next summer, the need for Blackwood’s joy and child-like wonder began to seem acute.  This explains why it was so quickly adapted as a musical; war-time Britain needed the boost and Blackwood’s text had plenty of uplifting ideas to offer.   His key concept was that the uplifting and inspiring thoughts from fairyland must be distributed back to the rest of the world- on “their mission of deliverance.” (c.27)  Henry Roger’s cousin is an author and for him the starlight from Faery is inspiration- “a thing of starlight, woods and fairies”- that he may then share with the rest of humanity through his novels: “flakes of thought like fairy seed” (c.27).

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Musical

The 1984 musical of the same name as Elgar and Blackwood’s work shares nothing with it except the name.  The modern production was inspired by the Thomas the Tank Engine stories and it is, naturally, about trains, which don’t seem very magical to me.

Further Reading

As I have described before, the theatrical adaptation of Blackwood’s work was one of several Great War plays and musicals that sought to harness Faery to the Imperial war effort.  All of these works have fallen into obscurity since- mostly for good reason.

Blackwood’s novel may have been caught up by jingoism, but it predates the war and has something much deeper to say that the others fairy plays of the time.  It can be found cheaply on Amazon etc if you want yourself to travel on the Starlight Express.

“Under a broad bank”- fairy portals

paton belle dame

Sir Noel Paton, The Belle Dame sans merci

I have previously discussed visits to fairylands underground; in this post I want to briefly examine the entrances to those places- the portals where a human might most likely encounter a fay being.

The folklore, literary sources and popular ballads are very consistent in the identifying the sorts of places or environments in which a meeting with a fae is likely.  What appears to unify the locations is the fact that they all share a solitary or unique feature; they will stand out in the landscape.  These distinctive sites are as follows:

  • lone trees– a tree standing isolated in a prominent position is noticeable and memorable in any case, but very often marks a fae portal.  For instance, Thomas of Erceldoune meets the fairy queen at the ‘Eildon tree’ (in one version of the poem it is described as a “dern tree”- that is ‘hidden’ or ‘secret’).  In the romance of the same name, knight Sir Launfal is approached by two fairy maidens whilst sitting in the shade of a tree one hot undrentide during the feast of Trinity (late May or early June).  In the Scottish ballad of Allison Gross, a man is turned into a dragon (or ‘worm’) by witch Alison and is left to coil himself around a tree.  Lone trees are magical,  definitely.  However, we can go further and suggest that these fairy trees are very likely to be either may (hawthorn) trees, as these are notorious fairy haunts, and apple trees.  In the ballad of Young Tamlane he’s carried off by the elfin queen having fallen asleep underneath an apple and the wife of Sir Orfeo is stolen away from her husband by the fairies whilst sitting one early May morning in an orchard, beneath an “ympe tree”- a grafted apple.
  • free standing hills- fairies are well known to live under burial mounds and it appears that distinct and conspicuous hills of any description will be likely fairy spots at which contact can be made.  English poets Thomas Campion and Thomas Browne both imagined the fairy queen regally seated upon a grassy knoll (“All ladies that do sleep” and Britannia’s Pastorals, Book I, Song II, lines 396-404) whilst in folklore many everyday activities conducted upon a fairy hill could prove dangerous for humans, whether that was cutting turf, sitting, playing or just sleeping.
  • grassy banks and slopes- these are often mentioned specifically, but could very well just be part of a fairy hill rather than a separate feature in the landscape; it’s not always clear.  Thomas of Erceldoune lay down on Huntlie bank on a May morning ; in the ballad of Thomas the Rhymer we hear that he reclines on a grassy bank.  There’s a definite suggestion that part of the process may involve a tired person lying down to rest, drifting off to sleep, and, in that semi-conscious state, being able to make contact with faery.  In the medieval poem Piers Plowman the narrator is out on the Malvern Hills on a May morning; “weori of wandringe” he went to rest “undur a brod banke bi a bourne syde.”  It is then that he beholds “a ferly- a feyrie” (a wonder of fairy origin).  In Edmund Spencer’s poem The Faery Queen Prince Arthur similarly lies down to sleep on verdant grass after wandering in a forest and has a vision of the Fairy Queen lying down beside him (Book I, canto IX, stanzas 13-14).  Elsewhere in his epic Spenser imagines that “Nymphes and Faeries by banckes did sit”- there is clearly a close association here between faes and these slightly secluded locations (Book I, canto X, stanza 65).
  • Daisies- the magical communion with Faery is further enhanced, it seems, it there are daisies on the bank.  In Allison Gross the fairy queen comes to sit on a “gowany bank” near to where the frightful worm coils about the tree.  It may be significant too that in the ballad of Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight the wicked knight comes to the maid when she sits in her bower on the first of May, surrounded by daisies.  They are one of the archetypal fairy flowers.

It will be evident from these examples that, whilst the place is important, the time of day (undrentideand the time of year (very typically early May/ Beltane) are also highly significant in bringing about an encounter.  Combine all the right factors and a meeting with a faery is a very strong possibility.

Katherine_Cameron-Thomas_the_Rhymer

Katherine Cameron, Thomas the Rhymer

Bernard Sleigh and the map of fairyland: Part One

Bernard Sleigh 1872-1954, An Anciente Mappe of Fairyland, Newly Discovered and Set Forth, 1920

Fairies can threaten humans, leading them astray or stealing children, but they can also serve as muses, inspiring great works of art and literature.  This post looks at one quite unique product of that inspiration.

Writing on British fairy literature during the 1920s and ‘30s in the journal Mythlore for 2013, author Douglas Anderson teased his audience:

“I’d like to turn to the author I find most interesting from this period. He grew up in the Birmingham area of England and was indelibly inspired after seeing Peter Pan performed on stage. He was devoted to William Morris and George MacDonald. He went on to write about fairies, in poems and in stories, illustrating his own writings with his own artwork. He was particularly renowned for his maps…”[1]

I imagine we all think we know who Anderson is referring to, but he has a surprise for us:

“Though the above could all be said of J.R.R. Tolkien, I’m actually talking about someone else, named Bernard Sleigh.”

Sleigh (1872–1954) was an English muralist, stained-glass designer, illustrator and wood engraver; in late 1917 he created a remarkable fantasy map that constitutes his best-known legacy today.  An Ancient Mappe of Fairyland, Newly Discovered and Set Forth is large, colourful and ambitious, being crammed with a multitude of characters from legend and fairytale.

In this post I want to explore the making and meaning of that chart.  I pored over the maps of Middle Earth as a boy and such plans have now become a staple of fantasy writing, but Tolkien did not initiate this fashion, nor are his maps as loaded with meaning as some.

‘Here they do magic’

Arthur_Joseph_Gaskin_-_Kilhwych,_The_King's_Son

Gaskin, Kilhwych, the king’s son (illustration to the Mabinogion)

Born in 1872, the first difference between Sleigh and Tolkien is that the former was twenty years older, which meant that he did not serve during the First World War.  Their education was also utterly different.  Aged fourteen, Sleigh left school and was apprenticed to a wood engraver.  As part of this training, he studied at the Birmingham School of Art, where he was a student of Arthur Gaskin, a painter, illustrator and craftsman, who had in turn worked with Edward Burne-Jones. Whilst attending art school Sleigh came under the influence of the Birmingham Group, an informal collective of Arts and Crafts painters and craftsmen.  All of these influences can be seen in Sleigh’s work, the medieval style of which echoes Burne-Jones, William Morris and Walter Crane.

Sleigh- Phylis & Demoophoon, Phantastes

Sleigh, Phylis and Demoophoon, illustration from George MacDonald’s Phantastes

Sleigh was especially skilled in wood engraving and soon found commissions illustrating books. One of his first major projects was engraving one hundred of Gaskin’s illustrations for a two-volume edition of Hans Christian Andersen’s Stories and Fairy Tales.[2] Sleigh was also published in The Yellow Book, The Dome and The Studio and illustrated Piers Plowman, several novels by Morris, George Macdonald’s Phantastes, Legrand d’Aussy’s Fabliaux and an edition of the romance of Tristan and Iseult, all titles suited to his style and tastes.

Sleigh went on to have a highly distinguished and successful career, designing furnishings and internal decorations for a wide range of private clients.  He also taught at Birmingham School of Art, published several design and craft manuals and was a member of several artistic societies.

In the context of Sleigh’s professional life, the map of fairyland looks like something of an aberration, but it was in fact an expression of much deeper personal interests that persisted throughout his life.

Sleigh, Habour of the Holy Graal

Sleigh, The harbour of the Holy Graal

“I believe in Faeries”

Sleigh is celebrated today not for his handicraft design but for the Ancient Mappe of Fairyland.  This is not, in fact, unfitting.  As a young man, Sleigh was greatly inspired by the mythical writings of MacDonald and Morris and the map clearly reflects their influence.  Indeed, by the time he retired in 1937, Sleigh’s imagery had turned from romantic medievalism entirely to a world peopled by supernatural beings.  His writing, too, changed from the practical to the mythological, for example Witchcraft (1934), The dryad’s child (1936) and two fantasies for children, The boy in the ivy (1955) and The tailor’s friends (1956).

The map’s immediate success encouraged Sleigh to produce further fairy works.  In October 1920 he published The faery calendar, in which illustrations for each month of the year were paired with a piece of prose or verse. In his Preface Sleigh confessed that-

“I believe in Faeries. It is very natural and not a bit foolish; for in these days we are quickly learning how little we know of any other world than our own. It is no more difficult for me to believe that a wild rose, or a daisy, has personality, consciousness of life- a spirit, in short, than that a human being has.”

He was, of course, in very good company at this time, with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle promoting the veracity of the Cottingley fairy photographs and espousing very similar Theosophist beliefs.

Sleigh’s next book, A faerie pageant, appeared in 1924; it was a limited-edition volume resembling the Calendar.  Lastly, in 1926 Sleigh wrote a volume of stories about fairies, The Gates of Horn: Being Sundry Records from the Proceedings of the Society for the Investigation of Fairy Fact and Fallacy. Although intended for adults, his publishers J. M. Dent marketed it as a children’s book, resulting in its commercial failure.   This makes copies extremely rare today, although the stories are highly regarded by those fortunate enough to have been able to read them.  As a footnote to this, we should note that in 1927 Sleigh was instrumental in establishing a real Fairy Investigation Society, which still operates online today.

‘The other end of nowhere’- making the map

Sleigh’s daughter, the writer Barbara, recalled in her childhood memoir that:

“One wet holiday my father drew a Map of Faeryland for us. On it were marked the sites of all our best-loved fairy-stories. There is Peter Pan’s House, and the palace of La Belle Dormante and the Bridge of Roc’s Eggs, and such succinct entries as ‘Here be bogles’ and ‘Warlocks live here’. It has fascinated several generations of children.” (The smell of privet, 1971, pp.51-52.)

It is reported that Sleigh got the idea for the map after seeing a production of J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan.  If this is correct, it is a further interesting parallel with Tolkien who recorded in his diary the profound effect that seeing the play had upon him.  Nonetheless, fantasy maps have always been created, although the growth in fantasy literature in the twentieth century seems to have led to a marked rise in the number produced.  Early examples include the playing board for ‘The Prince’s Quest: A Fairy Race Game’ from 1890 and A map of fairy land (Alan Wright, 1909).  Sleigh’s map was therefore not unique, but its scope and scale were new and inspired others, such as Czech artist Jaro Hess’ 1930 map of The land of make believe, a map of ‘The land of nursery rhyme’ drawn by Charles Folkard as an endpaper to the 1946 book of that name by Alice Daglish and Ernest Rhys and, lastly, a 1973 map to accompany William Goldman’s Princess bride (not forgetting Tolkien and George R. R. Martin, of course).

princes quest

The prince’s quest

The Ancient Mappe of Fairyland was first published in December 1917 as a full colour scroll with wood ends, rolling out to nearly a metre and a half in width and thirty-five centimetres in height. With it Sleigh produced a small sixteen-page pamphlet, A guide to the Map of Fairyland.  In 1926, because the map had continued to be a good seller, the publishers Sidgwick and Jackson issued a second companion volume: Travels in fairyland is an anthology of the nursery rhymes, stories and poems mentioned on the map or listed at the end of the Guide.

wright

Alan Wright, Map of fairyland

The map is hand-drawn and seems to be a combination of coloured pencil and watercolour wash.  It is somewhat reminiscent of Tolkien’s illustrations of The Hobbit– but plainly rather more accomplished.  Less highly finished than many of Sleigh’s full-colour illustrations, there is a childlike or playful quality to the draftsmanship which is part of its appeal.

After Sleigh retired from teaching in 1937, the map was turned into a Rosebank Fabric by the well-known Lancashire company.  This, in turn, led to many other commissions for textile designs, thereby providing a source of income over and above his meagre teaching pension.

hess

Hess, The land of make believe

Further reading

This posting will be continuedAnother description of the Mappe can be found on The fairy page blog.  There are a few interesting articles on this blog (plus a great deal about Harry Potter) but it seems to have run out of steam in April 2017.

[1] Douglas A. Anderson, ‘Fairy elements in British literary writings in the decade following the Cottingley fairy photographs episode,’ Mythlore 32.1, Fall/Winter 2013.

[2] George Allen, 1893.