Fairies and holly trees

Cicely Mary Barker, The Holly Fairy

In a previous post I have discussed the close links between fairies and elder trees. As a seasonal posting today, I’m examining fairies and their relationship to holly.

I was recently browsing the journal, Welsh Outlook- A Monthly Journal of National Social Progress, in the collection of the National Library of Wales. The title doesn’t sound too promising for those searching for faerylore, but luckily I wasn’t put off. In volume 2, issue 10 (October 1915) there was an article on Snowdon Folklore, which recounted the story of Merfyn Ffowc, a shepherd.

Merfyn got lost in a thick mist on the mountains near Cwn Llan and, after wandering for some time, he heard a voice crying out in distress from higher above him. He clambered up a steep rock-face to find a small woman trapped in a cleft into which she had slipped. She was dressed in green, with silver shoes, and spoke a language he couldn’t understand- evidently a fairy. He carried her down the cliff and, almost as soon as they had reached the bottom, two men appeared, calling out for ‘Silifrit.’ Appreciative of Merfyn’s rescue, they presented him with a holly staff as a sign of their gratitude, and almost instantly vanished.

It turned out that this staff was lucky. Within the year Merfyn married a rich widow and his flocks expanded amazingly: every ewe gave him two lambs. It seems, however, that he didn’t fully appreciate (or recognise) the role of the fairy gift in his good fortune. As a result, he was caught one night in a terrible storm as he returned home from an evening drinking in Beddgelert and he lost his holly staff in the raging wind and rain. With the stick went all Merfyn’s new prosperity: all his sheep were washed away in the floods and he ended up poorer than he had started.

The holly staff seems to have had a magical significance for the fairy donors- as other examples will show. As for the fairy’s name, this type of name is something I’ve discussed in an earlier posting as well as in my book Famous Fairies.

The Welsh story immediately reminded me of another one, much older and from the other side of Britain. On June 17th 1499 in Norwich, John and Agnes Clerk and their daughter, Marion, appeared before a church court accused of sorcery. The family lived in Great Ashfield in Suffolk where the daughter had developed a reputation as a healer, soothsayer and finder of buried treasure. Marion immediately confessed everything, admitting that the fairies helped her whenever she needed information. Amongst their assistance was a holly stick that they had given her: her mother had taken it to the church on Palm Sunday, mixed up with the palm fronds, to be blessed, and Marion then used the stick to find treasure.

Margaret Tarrant

Two cases; two holly sticks from the faeries. What more do we know about the connection between this tree and the Good Folk? The plain answer has to be: not a lot. Katharine Briggs mentions in her Dictionary of Fairies that the holly is a fairy tree, along with the better known elder, oak and rowan, but she does not offer us more than this. In the traditional Scots ballad of The Elfin Knight, holly is mentioned in the refrain in two versions of the song: for example, “Sing green bush, holly and ivy.” See versions K & L in Child’s Ballads– these two refrains strongly indicate a faery or supernatural association with the shrub.

Robert Graves, in The White Goddess, gives a very full treatment of the magical and mythical significance of this shrub. He finds associations with the legends of King Arthur, Robin Hood and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. He also traces much deeper Druidic, Classical and Biblical links. None of these are specifically fae, but the symbolic power of the tree seems very clear.

Reverting to British folklore, in the Scottish Highlands, holly is recorded as having been used to ward off the sith folk at New Year. Perhaps its potency derives from its prickles (cut gorse is used in another story to defend against the faeries), from its evergreen (and therefore ‘immortal’) qualities and from its red berries. Just as with the rowan, which is regularly used as a protection against faery attack, red is a very powerful and defensive colour.

As I have described before, the countryside is full of shrubs and herbs that have positive and negative fairy associations. I have discussed the elder tree in an earlier post and I examine other faery plants in chapter 5 of my book Faery (2020).

Margaret Tarrant

For more on the faeries’ interactions with nature, see my book Faeries and the Natural World (2021):

‘War fairies’- fairyland’s role in the Great War

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Captain Robert Graves, author of Goodbye to all that.

The outbreak of the Great War in August 1914 meant the advent of total war for all the denizens of the British Isles.  The fairies, just as much as the human population of Britain, had a potential contribution to make to the war effort.  Faery could perform two opposing roles for the Empire: as a refuge from the conflict or as a recruiting tool; by the time of the Armistice in November 1918, both roles had been exploited.

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Robert Graves by John Aldridge, National Portrait Gallery, London.

“We’ll be fairies soon”- Art, violence and faery

Fairyland as a sanctuary from violence and destruction is something I’ve discussed before in connection with Bernard Sleigh and his Map of Fairyland.  The arts could offer individual and national solace and escape.

Several poets found personal comfort in images of a pastoral, playful otherworld and in turn they offered the same to their readers. Irish poet Francis Ledwidge imagined fairy jollity, with dancing amongst the trees, and wondered in the poem Fairies “What are we but fairies too,/ Living but in dreams alone,/ Or at the most, but children still,/ Innocent and overgrown?” His fairyland was a place of eternal summer and abundance of flowers and fruit, a place of rest, love and pleasure- see for example the verse Lanawn shee.  Robert Graves seemed to want to run away become a fairy in verses like Cherry time or “I’d love to be a fairy’s child.”

Of course, the detailed vision varied from poet to poet.  Graves’ fays were very much those of the late Victorian nursery- feminine, winged and small.  Ivor Gurney wrote of such tiny beings too, before the sobering experience of life at the front.  Ledwidge drew on his Irish heritage and the Tuatha de Danaan of the Celtic myths shaped the characters of his verse; his fairies can be sad and dangerous as well as joyous.  Predominantly, Rose Fyleman’s verse is deeply imbued with childlike playfulness; her narrators and subjects join the fairies’ games.

Rose Fyleman

For all that yearning for escapism, there was, too, an acute awareness that the humans’ world was not like Faery and that “No fairy aid can save them now” (Ledwidge, Lanawn shee).  Fyleman too was aware that after the war it might not be possible to return to the dreams of the Edwardian nursery (There used to be fairies in Germany).  In this poem the fairies function as a conscience for the human population, albeit one that has failed in respect of the Germans by being unable to prevent the outbreak of war.  In consequence, the fairies have disappeared from the Kaiser’s lands.

The visual arts also contributed to boosting the nation’s flagging morale. In two earlier postings I’ve discussed the 1914 painting The piper of dreams by Estella Canziani and craftsman Bernard Sleigh’s An Ancient Mappe of Fairyland, Newly Discovered and Set ForthThese works simply evoked an atmosphere and provided scope for individual fantasy without any explicit allusions to the conflict.

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The fairies go to war

Rarely, the fairies were harnessed directly to the war effort itself.  There are two notable examples to consider.  In May 1917 poet Eleanor Gray published a short verse drama entitled The war fairies.  The piece was dedicated to her niece and godchild Muriel Harrowing, who had volunteered for service as a war nurse as early as August 1914; all proceeds from sale of Gray’s slim booklet were to go to the British Red Cross.  This was the contemporary context to her work, but her choice of material seems to have been much more personal.  It’s notable that Gray’s 1927 collection of poems, Alfieri, was dedicated to the Irish mystic and visionary AE, who himself wrote about and painted fairies.

In The war fairies the fays Viola and Mignon are distressed by the conflict in the human world.  They lament the sounds that shake the air and terrify the lilies ; the fairies can no longer enjoy their revels because of the tears and sighs of mortals.  At the same time there seems to be nothing they can do to help: they are “such mites of gossamer” that men pay them no attention.

Nevertheless, Viola is determined to find a way to “help the giant folk whose foolish eyes/ Too dull are to be ‘ware of us.”  The two fairies quickly resolve to combine to “chase the monster now devouring all the milk and honey o’ the world, leaving it void of joy.”  They unite in a dance to “chase the cruel thing/ Into a quagmire.”

At this point Queen Titania appears, asking why her fairies are in tears.  They explain what they have seen: “Young hopes are blighted, nerveless lie young hands/ Pulseless young hearts, strong hearts are struck with eld/ Love silent lies/ Its eloquence is quelled.” They’ve witnessed young soldiers dying, calling out for Home and Mother, and have been moved to act.

Titania’s advice is to stay out of mortals’ love of strife, but the two little fairies are committed to try to help with Love.  The queen warns them that, by doing so and leaving Elfland, they will become hybrid creatures, made partly human by gaining a soul, but as such unable ever to return.  Viola and Mignon are not discouraged: “We’ve seen new beauty, Queen, nor can forego its sadness.”  They rally to their side a chorus of elves who are willing to help.  These elves confirm that they are ready “To fold up/ Your spangled garments- to put off your crowns” and to replace them with red crosses, aprons and stout hearts.

Titania protests at the loss of her attendants, but they are all inspired to sacrifice their pleasure for the sorrows of the human world and to go to “weave chains of love throughout the lands, binding all equally in bonds of brotherhood… In toil unwearied, love to consummate.”  Titania has to accept their mission and bids them farewell as they go to sow love in hearts where wrath and sin dwell.  The scene ends with the elves dancing as they say goodbye to the velvet sward and rippling stream, “to moths and owls and fireflies bright… We leave you for a higher flight.”

It’s interesting to contrast Gray’s vision of wartime faerie to Rose Fyleman’s.  As in Fyleman’s poem, the fays have a moral role to play, but in Gray’s story they actively engage with the human world and make a difference.  Curiously, though, the end result is the same for them- they cease to be fairies- although in The war fairies Viola, Mignon and their companions are not extinguished but become mortal, partaking of the joys (and sorrows) of earthly life.

Gray’s little play is entirely free of jingoism and hatred of the ‘Hun.’  It does not name any foe- except perhaps the violent nature of men as a race- and it aspires to a humanist love for all.  The fairies become nurses, not soldiers, and will bring help to the injured whatever their nationality.  Very different is the second fairy play to appear that year.

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In Spring 1917 the Germans began to use Gotha heavy bombers to carry out air raids against the South-East of England.  In fact, Eleanor Gray had penned a response to the aerial attacks upon London, the poem Zeppelin nights, which cried out that “Men slept. A mighty rape/ Seized, smote- and left them dead.”  As a consequence of the intensification of the air campaign, Rose Patry wrote the play Britain’s defenders, or Peggy’s peep into Fairyland, a fairy play, which was published with a musical score in autumn that year.

In Britain’s defenders young Peggy and her sister Betty sneak out of bed and into a nearby dell in the hope of seeing fairies dancing in a fairy ring.  Instead they see various fairies of the natural world, along with Britannia, leading in the Moon as a prisoner.  The Moon’s offence has been to shine at night and to show the German bombers the way over the Channel to South East England.  The assembled fairies sing:

“On naughty Moon, you are in disgrace,

Mind you be good and hide your face;

When Gothas o’er the North Sea fly,

Go bye-bye, go bye-bye.”

The Moon’s defence is that “the horrid old Kaiser” has taken advantage of her light and that she’s being unfairly blamed, when the Sun and stars are not, yet have also shone.  Britannia calms this squabbling but insists “we must do something to stop these intruders.”  In response, each fairy in turn offers to contribute their particular abilities to Britain’s defence: the Wind Fairy will blow mighty gales that push the pilots off course; the Snow Fairy will send blinding blizzards and Jack Frost will freeze the planes’ petrol; the Wave Fairy will stir up mountainous waves, the Will of the Wisp will lure German pilots to land in bogs and the Rain Fairy will send veils to hide the Moon.  There’s some concern that the rain will also make mud that will hinder the troops at the front, but the Rain Fairy promises to keep the downpours away from the trenches and the Sun promises to dry out the ground in Flanders.  Various patriotic declarations and a verse of ‘God save the king’ follow.

Finally, the Will of the Wisp discovers Betty and Peggy asleep behind a bush.  Britannia asks the fairies to carry them safely home as they are “only two of the myriads of children you must help me to protect.”  The fairies pick up the slumbering girls singing:

“Fairy bells are ringing,

‘Forward to the fray.’

Fairy bands are mustering,

Through the night and day.

Fairy voices calling,

‘Britain needs your aid,’ Fairy echoes falling

‘She shall be obeyed.’”

Then the short play ends with the fairies carrying the girls out in procession and singing a final stirring song:

“Hear our Fairy ding-dong-bell.

We who love our island well,

When our foes approach our land,

Marshal we our fairy band.

Wave and Wind and Mist and Rain,

Make the Gothas’ journey vain.

Britain, dear, we’ll give to thee

Lasting peace and victory.”

Summary

At the distance of one hundred years we can smile indulgently at patriotic fervour of Britain’s defenders, but Rose Patry clearly saw no necessary contradiction between the best interests of fairyland and the national interest of Britain.  Nor did she hesitate to banish Titania and instate Britannia as the fairy queen.  Of course, we should be mistaken to view fairies as wholly benign and peaceable.  We might like to think of them as pacifist vegetarians, but the traditional fays do not hesitate to use violence against humans nor to fight amongst themselves.

Neither of these plays are great works of drama, but they are a fascinating glimpse of  different aspects of the national mood in the last year of the Great War.

See too my postings on the composer Rutland Boughton and on J R R Tolkien and the Great War.

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Who is Titania?

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Vivien Leigh as Titania in Midsummer night’s dream

For many of us today, Titania has become the archetype of the fairy queen, if not of female fairies as a class.  Her origins seem to be Elizabethan.  In 1590 Edmond Spenser made his Faerie Queen a descendant of Titania, but the character was most explicitly and effectively introduced into fairy-lore by William Shakespeare in Midsummer night’s dream.  She was not a traditional character of British folklore (as her name might, in any case, suggest) and the playwright was certainly very well aware of the British equivalent: Queen Mab features prominently in a famous speech by Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, which was first performed in 1597. The Dream was written in 1605; did Shakespeare merely want a bit of variety or did he have other motives for creating a new faery monarch?

Diana

Somewhat like the name of her consort Oberon, Titania’s name is more descriptive than personal.  ‘Titania’ simply means that she is born of Titans- though this naturally begs some very important questions.  Roman writer Ovid tells us in The Metamorphoses that Titania is another name or aspect of the goddess Diana.  The latter was the Roman deity responsible for childbirth and, as such, there are some parallels with Queen Mab the midwife.  The Romans also linked Diana to the Greek goddess Artemis, who was primarily a goddess of nature, particularly of springs and water courses (she was, for example, known as Limnaia, ‘lady of the lake’, a name which for us now is freighted with resonances of Morgan le Fay and other fay maidens and such like nymphs).  In her guise as goddess of woods and water, Artemis had obvious parallels with native nature spirits and the association makes considerable sense.  However, Shakespeare had already used ‘Diana’ as a character in All’s well that ends well, five years previously to The dream, so perhaps again he merely sought variety- or had pursued the links even more deeply.

Edwin_Landseer Titania_and_Bottom

Edwin Landseer, Titania and Bottom, 1851

The Titans

Diana was descended from Titans, a heritage which takes us back to the roots of Greek mythology.  The Titans were a race of giants born of Uranus and Ge (heaven and earth).  Amongst their numbers were the male gods Oceanus, Cronus, Hyperion, Prometheus and Atlas; amongst the goddesses were numbered Thea, Phoebe and Rhea.  The inter-relationships and identities of these beings are far from fixed in the myths, but we need not be concerned with the detail.  It is the general tenor of the stories that’s significant: they contain a variety of fruitful themes and concepts.

Cronus is often seen as the chief of the Titans.  He led a revolt against Zeus and the Olympian gods and was defeated and displaced, being banished with all his kind to imprisonment in Tartarus.  It’s said that Cronus now sleeps eternally on some Western island, and as such his myth has very likely contributed to the growth of the story of King Arthur sleeping in Avalon.  The sister of Cronus was Rhea, but she was also his wife and so mother of a pantheon including Zeus, Poseidon, Hera and others.  In this role Rhea is commonly identified with another goddess, Cybele, who was in turn worshipped across the ancient world as the Great Mother Goddess.  She is another deity of nature, fertility and wild places and, as such, fairly readily linked to a fairy queen of groves and springs.

The daughter of the famous Titan Atlas was the equally well-known Calypso, nymph of the island of Ogygia.  It was she who detained Odysseus for seven years and tried to prevent him ever returning home with promises of immortality.   The time-scale and the reward must trigger for us thoughts of detention in fairyland.

In summary then, these divine female Titans all have attributes and rich associations which provoke thoughts of British equivalents and which tie local beings into a wider and more powerful mythology.  It may be for these reasons that Shakespeare chose the name Titania: she brought with her connotations of power and antiquity.

Shakespeare’s fairy queen

Rather like Artemis/ Diana, Shakespeare’s fairy queen is intimately associated with the natural environment.  Her quarrel with Oberon disrupts the weather and the growing of the crops.  This is summarised by Titania when she tells Bottom that:

“I am a spirit of no common rate./ The summer still doth tend upon my state.” (Act III, scene i)

She rules over the seasons and they follow her moods.

In due course, naturally, the character of Titania took on a life of her own.  The name was taken up by others and became accepted as the appropriate appellation: for example, in Thomas Dekker’s play The whore of Babylon in 1607.

The new queen inherited much of the wanton sexuality of fairies generally and especially that of Queen Mab, giving us the erotically tinged imagery of Fuseli and Simmons as illustrated below.  The buxom wenches of the paintings are ironic given the fact that Artemis, one of Titania’s forms, was also known as a goddess of chastity who was in conflict with Aphrodite (who, in fact, is also of Titan ancestry).

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John Simmons, There sleeps Titania

Titania and Bottom c.1790 by Henry Fuseli 1741-1825

Titania and Bottom c.1790 Henry Fuseli 1741-1825

Further reading

This posting was inspired by a reading of Geoffrey Ashe’s excellent Camelot and the vision of Albion.  Robert Graves in The white goddess also has a good deal to say about Cronus and the rest.  See too my consideration of the identity of Shakespeare’s Ariel.

An edited and expanded version of this post will be found in my books Famous Fairies and Fayerie- Fairies and Fairyland in Tudor and Stuart Verse.  See my books page for more information.

The White Goddess & the Elder Queen

Welcome to British Fairies, my blog devoted to the fairy folk of the British Isles.  The philosophy here is simple: to celebrate and investigate the fairies of England, Cornwall, Wales and Scotland (with some reference too to the Isle of Man).  I’ll stick strictly to this rule, and not dilute or confuse the evidence with examples from Ireland- or any where else (wherever possible).  There’s plenty of evidence to discuss from Britain alone, and much of it is underused or little known.

Fairies have long been a fascination of mine and, over the last few years, a subject upon which I have focused in detail.  I’m constantly researching and writing about our Good Neighbours: see the list of my publications on my separate books page.

Background

As a young man living in Guildford in 1984, I purchased a copy of the new edition of  The White Goddess by Robert Graves.  I was already interested in fairy-lore, in Celtic mythology and folk tales, in early British pagan beliefs and in the complex web of myth and story found in the Arthurian legends and in James Frazer’s The Golden Bough.

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Graves’ book immediately caught my imagination.  I know now that by academics it is seen as a work of fiction,  but the poetic blend of literature, archaeology and belief sparked my imagination, partly because it confirmed to me themes that already had a powerful resonance.  I was spending many hours walking alone of the Surrey Downs, and the infusing with myth and magic of ordinary landscape features such as elder trees and hawthorns was inspiring and exciting.  The white blossom of these two bushes, the strong, cloying scent, and (most particularly) the link between the elder and fairy lore made a lasting impression upon me.  In due course I came to realise the powerful links that have always existed between fairies and plants–  with certain trees and flowers having particularly strong associations.

Elder trees

I had read in Katherine Briggs’ book, A dictionary of fairies, about the ‘old lady of the elder tree.’  The lady demands respect: if you wish to take wood from the tree, you must ask permission; if you fail to do so, misfortune will befall you- your cattle may die and your barn burn down.  For me this traditional figure transmuted into ‘our lady of the elder tree’, the guardian female spirit of the summer hedgerows.  The magical status of the elder, the Celtic scawen, was further augmented by Graves’ descriptions of the elder in the Celtic calendar and I began to weave my own personal myth around this archetypal British fairy tree.

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Arthur Rackham, The elder mother.

It is notable that in Denmark there are similar tales told of the hyldre folk (the hidden people).  They too are linked to the elder tree (hylde).  The shrub is believed to be magical and inhabited by an elder mother or woman; it is essential to ask her leave before taking any branches.  Most dangerous of all, though, are the elle (elf) maids who dance in the moonlight near the elder thickets.  They have beautiful faces and voices and will lure young men to dance with them.  However, their bodies are hollow behind and they will dance the youths to death.  Beware these wood nymphs (hyldre)!  For more detail see Keightley’s Fairy Mythology, p.78 et seq, especially, p.93.

For me, this thinking culminated in my 2015 book, The elder queenin which the elder tree is intimately linked with female fairy power and allure.  The supernatural use of humans for the satisfaction of their own needs, the unattainability and inscrutability of fairy thought and the vital link between the faery realm and the health of the rural environment all came together in this story.  Visit Amazon for details of the book and how to purchase!  I hope you enjoy it!

elder queen

Further reading

For a critical analysis of Graves’ White goddess, and a discussion of just how much he may have invented, a good start is a posting on Morgan Daimler’s blog discussing Graves’ influence on modern paganism.

See a list of my own faery publications here.