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.

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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.

 

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“Nymphes and faeries”- Renaissance influences upon the ‘national fairy’

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The fairy as conceived by British folk tradition was effected- and not for the better- by the revival of classical learning in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.   In this post I wish to trace the course and impact of this rebirth of Roman and Greek knowledge in the specific context of British fairy lore.

Renaissance writers

The very earliest sign of classical influence comes from Chaucer, in the Merchants Tale. He refers there to “Pluto, that is the king of fayerye/ And many a lady in his companye/ Folwinge his wyf, the quene Prosperpyne.”  This can be dated to about 1390 and is probably more a sign of Chaucer’s own education and reading than any real indicator of the spread of new thinking from Italy, where the rinascimento was at that time still in its infancy.

I suggest a more significant start date is the appearance of Gavin Douglas’ 1513 translation of Ovid’s Aeneid, in which he chose to refer to “nymphis and faunis apoun every side/ Quhilk Fairfolkis or than Elfis clepen we…”  This linking of nymphs and elves remains consistent then for the next  150 years; for example, Thomas Nash makes this analogy: “The Robin Goodfellows, Elfs, Fairies, Hobgoblins of our latter age, which idolatrous former days and the fantastical world of Greece ycleped Fauns, Satyrs, Dryads and Hamadryads…” Latterly, Milton in Comus from 1630 spoke of  fairies and elves as equivalent to nymphs.  Of this work, Floris Delattre observed that “the now trite assimilation of English fairies to classical nymphs gains … a fresh beauty” thanks to the poet’s “refined language” (English fairy poetry, 1908, p.165).

Translations of Ovid soon spread other classical concepts: for example Thomas Phaer in his 1550 version of the Aeneid mentioned fauns, nymphs and the fairy queen whilst Arthur Golding’s translation of the Metamorphoses of 1565 described “nymphes of faery.” The process could work in reverse as well, with native terms being used to explain classical ones.  For example, Golding felt that the best translation he could make was to describe the “Chimaera, that same pouke.”

Nymphs and fairies

The easy reference to classical deities then became habitual.  Nymphs and fairies were inseparable. Drayton in Poly-Olbion treats “Ceres nymphs” as interchangeable with fairies (Song XXI) and also marries a nymph to a fay and has dryads, hamadryads, satyrs and fauns dance with fairies in his Nymphals 8 & 6.  Other Greek and Roman figures also begin to insinuate themselves.  Scot in The discovery of witchcraft (1584) mentions “satyrs, pans, fauns, sylvans, tritons, centaurs…” in  his list of fairy beings (Book VII c.XV) and he names the fairy queen variously as Sibylla, Minerva, Diana and Herodias.  For King James VI in Daemonologie Diana and her court are synonymous with ‘Phairie.’  Ben Jonson’s Masque of Oberon from 1610 carelessly mixes the “coarse and country fairy” with satyrs and sylvans. Burton, writing the Anatomy of melancholy  in 1621, listed such “Terrestrial devils [as] lares, genii, fauns, satyrs, wood nymphs, foliots, fairies…”  Spenser meanwhile introduced the Graces to the company of fairies in both The Fairy queen and Epithalamium.  

It may be helpful to provide a summary of the various Greek and Roman gods and spirits with whom parallels were so freely drawn.  It must be acknowledged that there are undeniable parallels and comparisons between some British fairies and some Mediterranean deities, analogies sufficiently strong to justify a few of the identifications made.  This is, of course, due to the fact that all of these supernatural beings derive ultimately from the same Indo-European sources and are responses to the same natural processes and features.  Nonetheless, each culture had developed differently and whilst there were links to be made (as, for example, was done in works such as Frazer’s Golden Bough) these beings had evolved separately for centuries and, whilst comparable, were very far from being identical.

nymphs

Classical references

Writers freely made reference to:

  • Abundantia- who was the Roman goddess of fortune and prosperity.  She evolved into a beneficent spirit and, ultimately, into Habundia, queen of the witches and fairies;
  • Ceres- she was a goddess of the growth of plant foods.  Insofar as she had vegetative associations, there was some tenuous link with British fairies;
  • Diana– who was goddess of childbirth, of nature and of the moon.  Queen Mab was a midwife, as testified by Andro Man, accused of witchcraft in 1598, and fairies often danced in the moonlight, so that Diana’s transfer to Britain makes some sense;
  • Dryads– nymphs of trees and woods and so comparable to elves;
  • Fauns– a faun is a rural deity who bestows fruitfulness on fields and cattle.  He can also have prophetic powers.  His influence over natural processes suggested the analogy with elves;
  • Genii– are clan spirits and perhaps therefore allied to brownies, banshees and the like;
  • Graces- these were Greek goddesses of fertility in fields and gardens and accordingly comparable to elves and fairies;
  • Hecate- was the goddess of magic and spells; she was linked to the moon and was a goddess of childbirth and the night.  Through Queen Mab she was therefore associated with fairies and witches;
  • Herodias– was mother of Salome and was reputed to be head of a witch cult.  She became linked to fairies through the witch craze and was identified with Habundia, queen of Elfame.  By circuitous routes, therefore, Heywood ended up equating sibils and fees, white nymphs, Nightladies and Habundia their queen;
  • Lares- are tutelary deities of fields and homes and are accordingly similar to boggarts, brownies and such like;
  • Minerva- was linked to the arts and crafts and had no real identity with British fairies;
  • Nymphs- these are minor deities linked to fertility, growth, trees and water (streams, lakes and the seas).  As such they are clearly comparable to elves and fairies.  For example, the nymphs tended to protect specific locales so that there may be some analogy to be made between the water naiads and British sprites like Grindylow and Peg Powler;
  • Pan- was a deity of Arcadia, part-goat, part-human.  He haunted the high hills and brought fertility to the flocks and herds, but not to agriculture.  He could send visions and dreams.  He has a vague resemblance to pucks and hobgoblins, but no more;
  • Satyrs– were envisaged as half-man and half-beast; they were brothers to the mountain nymphs and akin to fauns.  As such, they resembled pucks, brownies and hobgoblins to some extent;
  • Sibylla– was a prophetess, and so became linked to fairies through the witch craze;
  • Sylvans– these are woodland deities, readily associated with fairies.

Some of the classical names used had no relevance at all to British fairies; some denoted distantly related beings.  All were facile and ultimately uninformative and unhelpful.  The use of the classical comparisons diluted and disrupted more accurate knowledge of genuine British traditions, inhibiting rather than encouraging study.  They were superficial displays of learning which detracted from a deeper and more valuable investigation of the ‘national fairies’ as Floris Delattre termed them.  Classical references added nothing of value to the verse- rather it obscured the nature of insular tradition and accelerated its decline by promoting false analogies and parallels.   The Greek and Roman figures had character traits and qualities unknown before, with notions of hierarchy, worship and relationships that were alien and inapplicable to British folklore.  All in all, therefore, the impact of the Renaissance learning was in this instance  entirely negative.

Nymphs in literature

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Paul Hermann Wagner (1852-1937), Waldnymphe (Forest nymph)

Nymphs have always been popular characters, in poetry in particular, and have been possessed of a distinct character and attributes.  They are associated inextricably with fairies in the earliest quote, from Melusine, of around 1500:

“Ye should have ben out of the handes of the Nymphes and of the fairees.”

Their physical attractiveness was their primary feature, as this string of quotations demonstrates:

“O nymph of beauty’s train, The onely cause and easer of my paine.”  (Thomas Lodge, The delectable history of Forbonius and Prisceria, 1584)

Lodge hammered home his idea of ‘nimphs’ in many other lines of verse, in which they were lauded as ‘gorgeous’, ‘faire’, ‘lovelie’, ‘heavenly,’ ”tender’ and ‘sweet’ (Glaucus and Scilla; Euphues’ golden legacy).  The effect of such attractiveness was predictable:

“he hath seen some beautiful Nymph, and is growen amorous.” (Euphues)

It was perhaps Edmund Spenser who was most especially devoted to the celebration of their charms:

“Ye silvans, fawns and satires that among these thickets oft have daunst,/ Ye nymphs and nayades with golden heare.” (A pastoral eclogue upon the death of Sir Philip Sydney, 1595).

He placed them securely within a classical, woodland landscape, describing variously a swain “”who in these woods amongst the nymphs dost wonne” and invoking:

“O flocks, O faunes, and O ye plesaunt springs/ Of Tempe, where the country Nymphs are rife…” (Virgil’s gnat)

Their unspoiled, rural nature is a trait that was to appeal to poets for centuries.  Their physical attractiveness was undeniable and irresistible.  In Colin Clout’s come home again Spenser mentions “the nymph delitious” and declares that “a fairer nymph yet never saw mine eie.”  These praises reach their natural conclusion in verses from The Fairy Queen:

“As if the love of some new nymphe late seene/ Had in him kindled youthful fresh desire…” (Canto VIII, stanza XI)

“Finding the nymph asleepe in secret wheare/ As he by chance did wander the same way,/ Was taken with her love, and by her closely lay.” (Canto IV, stanza XIX)

Lastly, it will have been seen that other terms are sometimes employed.  Spenser grouped his nymphs with naiads and these divinities occasionally appear in verse, the earliest being Lydgate’s Troyyes Book of 1495, in which he refers comprehensively to-

“Water nymphs, nor this nayades, Satiry, nouther driades, that goddesse bene of wode and wildernesse.”

Spenser elsewhere speaks of “Fayre Naiades” (Virgil’s gnat, 1597) and Milton charmingly imagines them as being “flowrie-kirtl’d” (Comus, 1637).  Finally, we may note that Nabokov was by no means originator of the term ‘nymphet.’  In the Polyolbion of 1612 Michael Drayton makes mention “of the Nymphets sporting there, In Wyrrall and in Delamere.” (XI, Argument 171)

Progressively over time, as I have argued in another post, the nymph and the fairy drew ever closer together- the fairy assimilating to the nymph and becoming younger and more feminised.

Pagliei, Gioacchino, 1852-1896; The Naiads
Naiads by Gioacchino Pagliei (1852-1895). Nottingham City Art Gallery

Conclusion

To conclude, we must first concede that British fairy lore was already a hybrid, containing elements of Celtic, Saxon and French myth; Morgan le Fay mixed with Germanic elves and Cornish pixies to create complex and many layered stories. Classical themes added nothing to this.  References to nymphs and fauns were a learned and literary graft upon native roots and served only to stunt further development of the tradition.  Whatever the wider enriching qualities of the Renaissance, it only did damage to British folk lore.

An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).

The rules of fairy love

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(image by Brian Froud)

The rules of fairy love are, as we might expect from such beings, contradictory and unfair.  There is one set of rules for humans and another, laxer set for the fairies.

The rules for human lovers

Fairies demand various virtues and qualities of human beings.  True love is the first of these.  Lovers are expected to be devoted and honourable and to follow four key rules.

  1. Respect true love- The fairies punish attempts to interfere in the course of true love between young couples. Hobgoblin Puck declares “I love true lovers” whilst disliking wanton wives and cuckolders.  In one story he uses his magic powers to save a young woman from the unwanted advances of her lecherous uncle, allowing her to marry her young suitor whilst at the same time reforming the old man’s morals.
  2. Love is given, not taken- The use of force is punished. Seventeenth century poet John Fletcher warned that if anyone is found “Forcing of a chastity” a horn will be sounded and the fairies all will run to pinch the violator to the bone until his lustful thoughts are gone.
  3. Encourage lovers- In aid of true love, the fairy queen chastised women who did not take pity on their pining lovers. Elizabethan poet Thomas Campion told how fairies would be sent to pinch the unkind ladies, whilst to those “that will hold watch with love” the fairy queen would bestow beauty and greater adoration.  Conversely, “they that have not fed/ On delight amorous/ She vows that they shall lead/ Apes in Avernus”- in other words, they shall suffer sexual frustration because they lacked devotion.
  4. Promote wedded bliss- Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream provides the best examples of fairies promoting the virtues of true love. After toying with Titania and Bottom and with the Athenian lovers, fairy king Oberon brings “joy and prosperity” to the triple weddings that crown the play.  He blesses the bridal beds, promising true love and constancy to the couples, as well as children who shall “ever be fortunate” and free of deformity.

Midsummer Night’s Dream ends on this reassuring note; there is marital harmony in both middle earth and Faery and the guarantee of a prosperous future for the newlyweds.  However, these gifts come from Oberon, a notoriously unfaithful seducer.  When we first meet him in the play, he is accused by his wife Titania of stealing away from fairy land and “versing love/ To amorous Phillida,” an accusation he fails to deny.  Worse still, he is revealed elsewhere to have fathered Puck after seducing an innocent girl.  This is the other side of Faery: high standards are demanded of humans but are not applied to supernaturals.

The rules for fairy lovers

The rules of love for fairies are:

  1. Have fun- In his description of Oberon’s Palace poet Robert Herrick depicts the fairy king in the worst possible light. After a feast he goes to Queen Mab’s bed ready “For Lust and action.”  Their chamber is hung about with pearls made from the tears of “ravished Girles/ Or writhing Brides.”  The music is provided by elves who imitate “the cries/ Of fained-lost Virginities” so as to “excite/ A more unconquered appetite.”  This is probably the more authentic Faery: it is natural and uninhibited.
  2. Take what you want- Oberon was not alone in his predatory behaviour. Women were often stolen as brides, a good example being in the story of Sir Orfeo whose wife is enchanted and kidnapped by the king of fairy.  Sadly, she was not alone.
  3. Enjoy love on your own terms- Fairy maidens can be as predatory as the men. They can abduct and seduce hapless youths using their renowned beauty and allures.  In an early English poem, Round Table knight Launval encounters fairy lady Tryamour.  She is found in a pavilion, nearly naked in the heat and lying on a couch- “white as the lily in May/ or snow that snows on a winter’s day.”  Launval is instantly obsessed, and soon they are in bed and “For play, little they slept that night.”  There is a sting in the tail though.  Fairies demand honesty of humans but fairy lovers almost always insist that they are asked no questions and that their relationship is concealed.  Launval- like all such human lovers- breaches this vow of silence by boasting of his partner and “all that he had before won/ Melted away, like snow in the sun.”  He loses his lover and all her rich gifts because he is unable to prevent himself blabbing.
  4. The human pays the price- There is nearly always a price to pay for the pleasure and privilege of loving a fairy. If it is not abandonment, the lover will instead sicken and die for longing, will be trapped in fairy land for ever or, after enjoying great pleasure with the maiden, will return home to find that not hours and days have passed as he imagined, but years and decades; all those he knew are married or dead and the world is changed irrevocably.

These, then, are the fairy rules of love.  Humans must be chaste and faithful, whereas fairies may be passionate, cruel, inconstant and selfish.

“Queen Mab hath been with you”

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Brian Froud, ‘The queen of the bad fairies’

In my fairy/ fantasy story, Albion Awakeone of the main characters is Maeve (Mab), ‘queen’ of the fairies.  She is a very well known name in literary fairy land, thanks amongst others to Shelley (who calls her ‘Queen of Spells’), Drayton and Shakespeare, and in this post I wanted to outline her traditional character (although my version in the new book is departs from convention in some respects).

Tiny Mab

Mab was generally conceived as being a tiny creature- the archetypal fairy.  She is believed to be derived from the Welsh Mabb, queen of the ellyllon, who were minute elves of grove and vale.  The most famous account of her is in Romeo and Juliet (Act One, scene iv) when Mercutio describes her in the following terms: “She comes in shape no bigger than an agate stone,” galloping at night in a coach made from a nut shell.  This diminutive stature is compounded by Shelley in his poem Queen Mab by an insubstantial and wispy physical form.

Whatever her size, though, Mab is source of disturbance.  Mercutio records that she “gallops night by night through lovers’ brains/ And then they dream of love.”  She is the fairy midwife of dreams and enables sleeping humans to realise their desires in fantasy.

Mischievous Mab

Secondly, Mab is mischievous; witness Mercutio again: she “plats the manes of horses in the night and bakes the elf-locks in foul sluttish hairs.”  She is responsible for undoing domestic chores and pinches and torments lazy servants- for example Ben Jonson in his 1603 ‘Entertainment at Althorpe’ warns that in the dairy Mab can hinder the churning.

Troublesome dreams

This interference in human affairs is taken one stage further, though, according to Mercutio’s description, and in this final aspect we find a link to the sensual, sexual fairy that I have discussed in an earlier posting.  Romeo’s companion recounts that “This is the hag, when maids lie on their backs, that presses them and learns them first to bear, making them women of good carriage.”  To be ‘hag-ridden’ was to suffer nightmares and ‘the hagge’ was conceived to be a hideous witch or succubus who sat on a sleeper’s stomach and caused bad dreams.  For example, in the Mad pranks and merry jests of Robin Goodfellow (1588, Percy Society 1841, p.42) Gull the Fairy describes how “Many times I get on men and women and so lie on their stomachs that I cause them great pain; for which they call me by the name of Hagge and Nightmare.”  This notion is here distorted by Shakespeare into something akin to an incubus seducing- and even educating- virgin girls.

Robert Herrick, in his poem Oberon’s palace, tells of a naked and “moon-tanned” Mab who goes to bed with the elf-king.  These more adult and sinister traits in Mab’s behaviour are something I have chosen to develop in my novel.

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Queen Mab by Henry Fuseli