Fairies and Bread- the significance of baking in fairyland

baker

When we think of baking and fairies today, cupcakes and treats with pink icing for little girls’ parties tend to come to mind.  Even if we put these to one side, that homely substance, bread, seems far too ordinary and basic a product to have any supernatural aspects, but the folklore reveals that fairies have a strange relationship to the substance.

It might, in fact, be more accurate for us to talk about baked products in this posting, as we are by no means solely concerned with loaves made of wheat flour.  For example, throughout Scotland oatcakes (rather than loaves) were thought to have protective powers: a bannock hung over a cottage threshold would protect a mother and her new-born child inside and burning an oatcake would drive off the faeries.

Home Baking

“And, for thy food, eat fairy bread.”

(The Convert Soule, 1620)

The fairies are widely known to bake their own bread.  Tantalisingly, one Scottish writer has described faery bread as tasting like a wheaten loaf mixed with honey and wine; apparently, it will last for a week at least without going stale.  Cornish woman Anne Jefferies, who was imprisoned for suspected witchcraft, was fed by the faeries during her captivity and a person who tasted the bread they gave her described it as “the most delicious … I ever did eat, either before or afterward.”

The fairies will share their baked products with humans, sometimes, although (as with all fairy food) it may not be all it seems.  In Breconshire the belief is that gifts of bread from the tylwyth teg, if not eaten immediately and in darkness, will prove to be toadstools in the daylight.  A man from Dornoch in Sutherland was taken by the fairies and flew with them.  After this ordeal, they gave him meat and bread to eat, but he complained afterwards that it was like “so much cork.”

Bread Protects from Faeries

There seems to be something mysterious and semi-magical about bread when it comes to fairies. It can both protect people or bestow supernatural powers.

In one Scottish story a man who has stolen from the faeries is pursued by them and they cry out “You wouldn’t be so fast if it wasn’t for the hardness of your bread.”  In a similar tale, a Perthshire man was troubled by faery cattle eating his crops, but was unable to catch them until one day, as he chased a dun cow around his fields, a faery woman appeared and advised that he’d do better if he ate barley bannocks turned on the griddle and milk from black goats. He followed her advice, caught the faery cow and thereafter had the best milk herd in the district.  This bread magic can work both ways though: in an incident from the Hebrides a captive mermaid manages escaping into the sea; she’s nearly caught by a man and she tells him would have been luckier had it not been for the dryness of his bread- if he’d eaten porridge and milk, he’d have overtaken her.

Bread somehow works to protect people from faery ill-will.  It was widely believed throughout Britain that carrying a crust was a sure way of protecting yourself from malign influence, especially from being pixie-led.  Stuart poet Robert Herrick wrote that:

“If ye feare to be affrighted,

When ye are (by chance) benighted,

In your pocket for a trust

Carrie nothing but a Crust:

For that holy piece of Bread,

Charmes the danger, and the dread.”

The verse seems to imply that, originally, people must have carried a piece of consecrated host, but eventually any sort of bread was thought to be as good.  The Scottish Highland equivalent to this protection is to have oatmeal in your pocket or sprinkled over your clothes when travelling.

New babies are believed to be especially vulnerable to faery abduction, but bread products are a particularly effective at safeguarding them.  From Cornwall comes a belief that a child can be protected from being taken by baked goods: a mother must take a cake with her to her baby’s baptism and then give it to the first person she meets in the road.  This guarantees her child’s safety from the pixies.  There’s an identical practice in Sutherland in Scotland, involving oatcake and cheese, whilst on the Isle of Man the practice was to provide ‘blithe meat’ (bread and cheese) for people who came to visit a mother and her new-born child.  A portion of this would be scattered around for the unseen visitors, too- partly perhaps to win their favour as ‘godmothers’ and partly to guard against the risk of abduction.

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Bread Attracts Faeries

Confusingly, as I have described before when discussing fairy farming, fairies also seem to grow wheat and other grains so they can bake their own bread.  What’s more, they seem to like human loaves just as much as their own.  Traditionally, fairy helpers on farms, such as brownies, boggarts and others, are paid in bread.  Very frequently fairies will come to farmhouses to ask to borrow flour or meal when their own supplies have run low.  Bread can also be used to attract fairies to you in summoning charms and it seems to help appease faery animosity: at Wooler, in Northumberland, sickly children would be dipped in a well’s waters and bread and cheese would be left as an offering to the fairies, hoping for a cure.

That the faeries have a taste for human baking is confirmed by several stories from Wales, in which lake maidens are lured to tryst with a mortal man by the offer of bread.  They are very fussy about the bake of their loaves though: first the bread offered will be judged too hard, then too soft, until finally a happy medium is found and true love blossoms.  In another of these Welsh stories, concerning the maiden of Llyn y Fan Fach, a man uses bread to bait a fishing hook so he can catch himself a faery wife.  Once again, he tries first with a hunk from a well-baked loaf- and fails- and then tries with half-baked bread and lands his bride.  We may compare evidence from the isle of Man to these Welsh stories.  At Casstruan on the island the mermaids were said to have been very plentiful offshore and the local fishermen would befriend them by throwing them bread, butter and oatcakes.

What’s more, it’s doesn’t just appear to be the quality of the bake that seems to matter: the faeries don’t like salt in their loaves.  As a general rule, it’s a substance they can’t abide, something which comes out in Manx one story.  A woman was out walking when she heard music ahead of her on the road.  She followed the sound and caught up with a group of fairies.  They asked what she had in her basket, to which she replied bread, offering to share it with them.  She broke one of the oatcakes she had with her and placed it on a hedge.  They accepted her offer after checking that there was no salt in the mix.  Because of her generosity, she was promised always to have bread.

In fact, such is the liking of the faes for human bread that they will steal it if it can’t be got by gift or in exchange for an honest night’s work.  One Scottish story tells how the trows living under a cottage stole freshly baked oatcakes simply by slyly raising a floor slab and snatching them away as they cooled; on the Isle of Man the practice certainly was to leave the last cake of a batch behind the ‘turf-flag’ for the little people.

All the same, the fairies seem to have an ambiguous relationship to human baking.  The Welsh tylwyth teg are said to enter kitchens and to ‘robin’ bread dough- that is, to make it too sticky and stringy to rise.  The Cornish pixies too are said to spoil bread in the oven, making it come out full of ‘pixy-spits.’  Probably these examples are just examples of their mischievous nature getting the better of their appetites.

Two stories from the Isle of Man underline the importance of bread to the fairies.  In one, a servant girl at Bride was baking one day and forgot to share the cake she made with the fairies.  When she got into bed that night, she received a blow in the face that made her see stars.  She was a sensible young woman and readily understood what it meant- that the fairies were offended and vengeful- and she instantly got up and baked another cake, which she divided with them.  In another account, a woman lying sick in bed at Barrule was visited by ‘the Bishop of the fairies,’ a man in an old-fashioned three-cornered hat, who stood before her, broke a cake and gave her half.  The report does not really explain what this incident meant, but perhaps the fact that she recovered to tell the story indicates that she was favoured by the faes and had been healed.

Why Bread?

As noted already, part of the perceived power of bread must come from its use by the Christian church in the host.  The idea that a holy item will repulse the ‘evil’ forces of Faery is very common.  What would be effective, then, is its sanctified nature rather than the fact that it’s a leavened wheat product.  It may be simply confusion on the part of humans that, now, any old bit of bread would seem to do.

Another explanation might be that the fairies object to bread because it is a product of settled human civilisation- along with iron, for example.  This doesn’t really explain the situation, though, for two reasons: one that fairies make their own bread (and iron) and because they consume- and like- human bread.

In conclusion, then, in fairyland bread is far more magical and mysterious a food stuff than we might ever have supposed. For something so everyday and unremarkable, it holds great power.

For more on this, see my recently published book Faery.

Nightmares and fairies

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The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli

There is a little explored link between fairies and nightmares, an association expressed very well in one of the most famous fairy texts, Mercutio’s description of fairy queen Mab in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.  She is (as Shelley crowned her in his poem Queen Mab) the queen of dreams, both good and bad:

 “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.” (Act I, scene 4)

It’s pretty evident here that Shakespeare sees Mab as having a sexual function.  She educates- and maybe even seduces- virgin girls, teaching them how to perform in bed.  That bearing, or carriage, is not about deportment but about receiving a lover lying on top.

In this passage, Mab is called a ‘hag,’ and to be ‘hag-ridden’ was to suffer nightmares. ‘The hagge’ was imagined as a hideous witch who sat on a sleeper’s stomach, causing bad dreams.  The notion of compression was a very early one, as we see from the South English Legendary of about 1300:

“Þe luþere gostes …deriez men in heore slep… And ofte huy ouer-liggez [men], and men cleopiet þe niȝt-mare.”

“The evil ghosts harm men in their sleep and often lie on top of them, which people call ‘the night-mare.’”

There’s a supernatural cause here, but not a fairy one.  However, by the early seventeenth century the fae nature of the affliction was established.  For example, in the Mad Pranks and Merry Jests of Robin Goodfellow, one of Robin’s companions, Gull the Fairy, explains 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.”

The victim’s experience is described in The Holly Bush of 1646:

“the nightmare hath prest,

With that weight on their breast,

No returnes of their breath can pass.”

The sixteenth century Scots poem, My Heart is High Above, likewise conveys some sense of how the experience feels: “Then languor on me lies, like Morpheus the mair.”  Devon poet, Robert Herrick, in his poem, The Hag, also described the sensation of a being riding the sleeper:

“The Hag is astride,

This night for to ride;

The Devill and shee together:”

In their 1621 play Thierry and Theodoret, playwrights Beaumont and Fletcher emphasise the unpleasant and exhausting nature of the experience:

“goblins ride me in my sleep to jelly.” (I, 2)

However, the sensation he depicted also has something of pixy-leading about it, as well as reminding us of the stories of fairies actually riding human victims at night for want of an available horse:

“A Thorn or a Burr She takes for a Spurre:
With a lash of a Bramble she rides now,
Through Brakes and through Bryars,
O’re Ditches, and Mires,
She followes the Spirit that guides now.”
    
    miles johnston

Miles Johnston

In these versions, the pressure and shortness of breath are associated with fear rather than sexual activity and arousal, but there was great confusion between the two aspects of the nightmare.  We see this in William Sampson’s 1636 play The Vow Breaker- or the Fair Maid of Clifton in Nottinghamshire, when Ursula remarks to Anne:

“you us’d to say Hobgoblins, Fairies and the like were nothing but our own affrightments and yea, oh my Cuz, I once dreamed of a young batchelor and was ridden with a Nightmare.”

Here we elide seamlessly from fairies to nightmares to sexual fantasy within a single sentence.  In Drayton’s Nymphidia the sensual nature of the sensation is addressed more explicitly:

“And Mab, his merry queen, by night,

Bestrides young folk that lie up-right,

(in older times the mare that hight.)”

In both passages, the poets’ bawdiness is barely concealed.  Ursula being ridden by her lusty young batchelor and the ‘up-right’ wet-dreamers of Drayton are almost solely concerned with erotic dreams rather than horror.  This sexual aspect of the nightmare is underlined by Edward Topsell in his Historie of Serpents, where he mentions “The spirits of the night, called Incubi and Succubi, or else Night-mares.” (p.173)  These two spirits were believed to be supernatural lovers who came to men and women during the night.

The Victorian magazine, Once A Week, in 1867 carried a feature on Devonshire pixies, which informed its readers that they had control over sleeper’s fantasies: “Some may bring nightmares and others sweet dreams.”  Perhaps this isn’t so surprising, given that the pixies of the South West can control the weather and use their powers of glamour to change landmarks and ‘pixy-lead’ victims.

The intertwining of faeries and good and bad dreams is highlighted lastly in Cartwright’s play of 1635, The Ordinary, in which Moth prays that:

“St Francis and St Benedict,

Blesse this house from wicked wight,

From the Nightmare and the Goblin,

That is hight Goodfellow Robin…” (Act III, scene 1)

Here it is Robin Goodfellow himself, otherwise known as Puck, who takes on the role of the wicked wight who brings bad dreams and disturbed sleep.

The word ‘mare’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon mære/ mæra, and derives from a verb meaning ‘to crush.’  In modern English it has fallen together with the word for a female horse (Anglo-Saxon mere).  The words have entirely separate origins, although the sense of riding presumably encouraged them to be mixed up.  It seems this confusion worked in several directions: for instance, in 1696 John Aubrey in his Miscellanies described precautions taken to “prevent the Night-Mare (viz.) the Hag from riding their Horses.”  Fairies are known for taking horses from stables and riding them at night and Aubrey (or perhaps country people he spoke to) understandably, but mistakenly, expanded the term for a fairy dream to cover another well-known fairy activity.

the end

Further Reading

In more recent times, fairies have come to be associated with much sweeter dreams- as in Rose Fyleman’s verse Fairy Lullaby for a Mortal which imagines the faes bringing dreams and brushing away darkness with their “soft, soft wings.”  These literary and nursery visions of gentle and benign Faery are a long way from earlier perceptions.

See my recently released book, Faeryfor more discussion of Queen Mab and see my Fayerie for more on her role in Tudor and Jacobean verse.

Kensington Gardens- Britain’s fairy epic

Thomas_Tickell_by_Sylvester_Harding
Thomas Tickell, by Sylvester Harding

In my recent book, Fayerie- Fairies and Fairyland in Tudor and Stuart Verse, I discussed how the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was a period during which outside influences began to alter native fairy beliefs profoundly.  The Protestant Reformation and the Renaissance were two such, a third was the work of doctor, astrologer and alchemist Paracelsus, whose theories I have examined before.

The impact of these influences, especially that of Paracelsus, may be neatly contained in a single fairy poem, Kensington Gardens by Thomas Tickell (1686-1740).  Tickell was born near Carlisle and was a graduate of Oxford.  He held various government positions but is mainly recalled as a poet.  He produced a translation of Homer’s Iliad, which he published at the very same time as Alexander Pope’s version in 1715, a coincidence which caused some tension between the two.  The poem Kensington Gardens appeared in 1722 and is a heroic epic describing the fall of a fairy kingdom that once existed on the land that eventually became the park.

Strictly speaking, the poem should be described as Georgian, but Tickell’s birth and education took place within the Stuart period, and it is doubtless fair to assume that Tickell’s outlook and beliefs belong to the seventeenth century.  Kensington Gardens is of interest, therefore, because it encapsulates the mixture of traditional fairy belief and innovation that typified fairies in literature throughout the 1600s.

Tradition in Tickell’s Epic

Concepts of fairy conduct inherited by the author from much earlier include the fairies’ delight in leisure: “Their midnight pranks the sprightly fairies played/ On every hill and danced in every shade.”  They rewarded women for their domestic cleanliness:

“When cleanly servants, if we trust old tales,
Beside their wages had good Fairy vailes,
Whole heaps of silver Tokens, nightly paid,
The careful wife, or the neat dairy-maid…”

But they also stole babies, one of whom is Albion, the hero of the story:

“By magic fenc’d, by spells encompass’d round,
No Mortal touch’d this interdicted ground;
No Mortal enter’d, those alone who came
Stolen from the couch of some terrestrial dame:
For oft of babes they robb’d the matron’s bed,
And left some sickly changeling in their stead.”

Albion is a human child brought up by fairies and kept artificially small by them, although he is still noticeably tall at twelve inches in height.  He falls in love with the fae Kenna, an affair that precipitates the fall of the fairy realm when Oberon discovers and jealously expels the young man.

murray fq and bat
Fairy Queen on Bat, Amelia Jane Murray

King Oberon

Newer elements sit alongside these age-old ideas.  Tickell’s king of faery is Oberon.  This name has a long continental pedigree but it was made particularly popular in Britain by Shakespeare’s use of it in Midsummer Night’s Dream. 

Oberon’s subjects are especially worthy of note.  As we have already seen, they are small: they are described as a “pigmy race” elsewhere in the poem.  This diminutive stature was a noteworthy development in seventeenth century literature.  Small faes had existed before, but Mercutio’s soliloquy on Queen Mab in Romeo and Juliet gave impetus to an elaboration of the possibilities of miniature beings and poets- most importantly Michael Drayton and Robert Herrick- exploited the potential of this idea.  Tickell merely observed what was already a convention by the time he wrote.

Elemental Spirits

Lastly, the fairies of Kensington Gardens are said to have “airy forms.”  This notion of fairies as insubstantial, as well as tiny, derives directly from the work of Paracelsus.  He had proposed in the sixteenth century that the world was supported and kept functioning by elemental beings- the gnomes of the ground, undines of water, salamanders of fire and the sylphs of the air.  Parallels could readily be drawn between these creatures that he imagined and the fairies and goblins of native belief, and that is precisely what happened.  In his Anatomy of Melancholy of 1621, Robert Burton included a ‘Digression of Spirits’ in which he summarised views about fairies from across Europe.  For example, he describes:

“… those Naiades or water Nymphs which have been heretofore conversant about waters and rivers.  The water (as Paracelsus thinks) is their Chaos, wherein they live; some call them Fairies… Paracelsus hath several stories of them that have lived and been married to mortal men…”

Later Burton notes Paracelsus’ views on what he classes as “terrestrial devils,” a group which includes “Faunes, Satyrs, Wood-nymphs… Fairies, Robin Goodfellowes, Trulli etc.”  Two things are notable from these short passages.  Not only has Burton incorporated Paracelsus’ concepts of undines and gnomes; he has liberally strewn his text with classical Greek and Roman terminology. (Burton, Part I, section 2)

Forty years later, in 1665, a new version of Reginald Scot’s well-known book, The Discoverie of Witchcraft, was published.  Scot’s 1584 original contains a wealth of fairy information; the new edition was expanded with the addition of ‘A Discourse Concerning the Nature and Substance of Devils and Spirits.’  This new text (like Burton’s) owes a great deal to the new thought of the Renaissance and to Paracelsus’ scientific theories; for example, reference is made to the Neo-Platonists.  Fairies are termed “Astral Spirits,” having an “elemental quality.” They live in water, air, flames and under the earth; they have hunger and passions; they wage war and procreate; they have no physical body and can live for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. (Scot, 1665, Book II, cc.1 & 4)

This later text demonstrates how much the new theories about the nature of fairies had infiltrated British thought.  These ideas, along with references to nymphs, satyrs and other classical beings, were all indiscriminately mixed together, confusing and reshaping fairy belief for future generations.

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Fairy & moth, Amelia Jane Murray

Tickell’s Sylphs

Tickell’s poem is symptomatic of its age.  His fairies are miniscule, insubstantial forms- a state confirmed in the climactic battle of the war.  Albion fights with Fairy Prince Azuriel and their combat seems to be concluded when:

“With his keen sword he cleaves his Fairy foe,
Sheer from the shoulder to the waste he cleaves,
And of one Arm the tott’ring trunk bereaves.”

However, Albion is fighting a fairy, and different rules apply:

“His useless steel brave Albion wields no more,
But sternly smiles, and thinks the combat o’er:
So had it been, had aught of mortal strain,
Or less than Fairy, felt the deadly pain.
But Empyreal forms, howe’er in fight
Gash’d and dismember’d, easily unite…
So did Azuriel’s Arm, if fame say true,
Rejoin the vital trunk whence first it grew;
And, whilst in wonder fixt poor Albion stood,
Plung’d the curst sabre in his heart’s warm blood.”

Albion is struck down and Kenna is unable to revivify him: “the Fates alike deny/
The Dead to live, or Fairy forms to die.”

Ultimately, classical Greek sea god Neptune intervenes in fairy affairs.  With a sweep of his trident, he destroys Oberon’s divided, fractious kingdom, leaving only ruins on the site where later the new Hanoverian dynasty created its pleasure gardens and named it after Albion’s love, the ‘Aerial maid’ Kenna.

Oberon’s fairy nation is scattered: “Wing’d with like fear his abdicated bands.” They flee to secluded corners of Britain where they can still be glimpsed from time to time as they “featly foot the green,/ While from their steps a Circling verdure springs.” The fairies are not gone entirely, therefore, but they are scattered.

Tickell concludes his epic with several reminders of the transformed nature of his British fairies.  They are small, they are winged and they are sylph-like, aery beings.  In fact, a direct link with Paracelsus’ elementals of the air had already been made by rival poet Alexander Pope in The Rape of the Lock, which was published in 1712.  He was the first to introduce this term in English literature, but once he had connected “sylphs and sylphids, fays, fairies, genii, elves and daemons,” British fairies could never be the same again.

the-fae-by-amelia-jane-murray
Fairies on Owl, Amelia Jane Murray

Last Thoughts

Tickell had hoped his lengthy poem would be celebrated as a heroic fairy epic- a landmark in national literary history.  Sadly, it is largely forgotten now, except amongst enthusiasts of Georgian poetry and, of course, fans of faery.  Nonetheless, it’s worth reading- it’s quite entertaining, once you’ve got used to his florid style, and it tells us lots about the fairy faith as one era merged into another.

In conclusion, I’ll repeat what I said at the outset: the seventeenth century was a turning point in British fairy beliefs and Thomas Tickell’s fairy epic encapsulates the old and new ideas that were in ferment.

For more detail of Fayerie and my other faery books, please see my books page.

 

 

Fayerie- Fairies and Fairyland in Tudor and Stuart Verse

Fayerie

I am very pleased to announce the publication of my latest book, another annotated anthology entitled Fayerie- Fairies and Fairyland in Tudor and Stuart Verse.  Hot on the heels of Victorian Fairy Verse, this offers an annotated selection of poetry from the period along with a detailed introduction.

The Tudor and Stuart period in Britain, the time of Shakespeare, Jonson, Milton, Drayton, Herrick and many others, was a time when fairies featured repeatedly in poetry and drama. The new book is a detailed examination of the fairies of the era, as they are depicted in the verse of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Contents

The book’s divided into three parts. The first part surveys the medieval background- how fairies were portrayed in the romances, poems and other literary works of the Middle Ages. Particular attention is paid to ideas of fairyland and to the kings and queens of Faery.

In the second part I examine Tudor and Stuart fairy knowledge in detail. Drawing on the many plays and poems of the period, a picture is built up of how contemporary people understood and interacted with their fairy neighbours. The book then considers how new ideas were beginning to change fairy belief at this time: changes in religion, science and culture were taking place (most notably the Reformation and the Renaissance) and these had a major impact on popular perceptions of fairies. Lastly in this part of the book, two specific questions are examined: how big were the fairies thought to be and what colour were their clothes- and their bodies?

The third part of the book is an annotated anthology of selected Tudor and Stuart fairy verse. Work is included by Thomas Churchyard, Simeon Steward, Robert Herrick, Michael Drayton and William Warner, amongst others. Overall, rather than just relying on Shakespeare, Jonson and Milton, the book draws on a very wide range of authors, both English and Scots, and includes many little known plays and poems.

Robin Good-fellow, or Puck

Tudor and Stuart Ideas

There is continuity in British fairy belief right through from the twelfth century to present times.  Many of the concepts accepted in the Middle Ages are still perfectly recognisable today.  These ideas were transmitted to us by the Tudor and Stuart periods, and the elements of their faery faith are very familiar.  Here are few examples of core aspects of their belief which are still applicable.

It was well known that fairies were especially beautiful: in a verse written to celebrate the first staging of Massinger’s play The Emperor of the East in 1631, the “matchless features of the Fairy Queen” are praised.  Naturally, sexual desire was involved: “that little fairy,/ ‘T has a shrewd, tempting face” says a character in Middleton’s The Spanish Gipsy (1621, I, 5).

Caution was needed in such affairs, though.  People of the period well knew that the faes were changeable: you could speak about “that hopeful Elf/ Thy dear, dainty Duckling” but also “that elf/ Of sin and darkness.”  The faes could even be invoked to inflict revenge:

“Nay, then, revenge, look big! Elf and Fairy/ Help to revenge the wronged ‘pothecary!”  (Massinger, The Picture, II, 1; Middleton, The Triumphs of Truth and The Family of Love, IV, 4)

As I have discussed many times, the fairies would reward diligent servants and housewives (“I have sometimes found money in old shoes” Middleton, The Witch, IV, 1) and would viciously chastise those felt to be lazy and dirty.  Pinching was the preferred punishment:

“pricked and pinched me like an urchin” (Middleton, More Dissemblers Besides Women, III, 1)

“The nips of fairies upon maids’ white hips,/ Are not more perfect azure.” (The Witch, I, 2)

Lastly, when not tormenting us mortals, it was very well known that the fairies would dedicate themselves to pleasure: “Fine dancing in such fairy rings” and “sung and danced about me like a fairy.” (Middleton, A Mad World, My Masters, V, 2 & IV, 4).

Further detail

Fayerie is an ideal companion to my other new book, Fairy Ballads and RhymesIt is published through Amazon/KDP and is available as an e-book at £7.50 or as a paperback at £12.00.  For details of all my faery books (fiction and non-fiction), please see my book page.

“Dwarfish Fairyes elves”- Tudor and Stuart fairies

MSND

Summer School 2011, dress rehearsal of Midsummer Night’s Dream, at the Emily Laws School of Acting: Mustardseed, Titania, Cobweb & Peaseblossom.

I have often mentioned before how the robust elf of British tradition has undergone a transformation over the last few centuries into a tiny, winged being.  In this post I’d like to identify some culprits for this process.

Who are we going to blame?

The perception that the frightening and serious fairies of the British Middle Ages had undergone a change at some stage had been with me in vague terms for many years.  Recently, however, I finally got round to reading Minor White Latham’s 1930 book, Elizabethan Fairies.  His study crystallised my thoughts and confirmed what I had always suspected: that William Shakespeare is the major culprit and that 1594/5 marks the turning point in our perception of Faery.  Later poets followed the bard’s lead, but it was Midsummer Night’s Dream that started the trend.

The idea of small fairies was definitely well-established before our major playwrights and poets got their hands on the subject.  For example, from Reginald Scot’s list of fairies, found in his book The discoverie of witchcraft of 1584, we know there was traditional belief in a character called Tom Thumb.  This may surprise British readers, at least, for we think of him as a leading character in pantomimes and nursery stories.  This elf was small, as the name tells us: “but an inch in height, or a quarter of a span” according to a chapbook published in 1630 (a span is the distance from the thumb tip to the little finger tip- standardised at 9″ in imperial measurements).   In his play, The sad shepherd, Ben Jonson also described “span long Elves” carrying changelings (1637, Act II, scene 8)- I might point out that, if you think about it, this should be impossible.

Child sized fays

Generally, it was accepted that there might be both adult sized fairies and those that were shorter, perhaps only appearing like children.  We see both of these in Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor, of 1599, when an adult woman, Mrs Anne Page, decides to play a trick on Falstaff: she dresses her daughter Nan as the fairy queen, accompanied by some attendants- her “little son” and some other children disguised as “urchins, ouphs and fairies, green and white” (Act IV, scene 4).  Nan is a young woman of marriageable age- in her mid- to late-teens perhaps; her court would appear to be infants under ten.  From this episode it seems apparent that a variety of sizes were accepted as normal in Faery by Elizabethan audiences but that the ouphs (elves) and fairies that were seen might very commonly be the size of young children: in The woman’s prize, for example, Beaumont and Fletcher have a character threaten that “children of five year old, like little fairies, will pinch thee into motley.” (Act II, scene 2)

A few thoughts on the word on ‘urchin’ that’ used in the play as a substitute term for fairy.  The word comes from the French, herisson, meaning hedgehog, and it was apparently adopted because of the habit of certain fays (especially pixies) of shape-shifting into the form of hedgehogs.  The terms were for a while interchangeable, until ‘urchin’ increasingly became attached to poor and misbehaving boys (by way of spiteful and prank filled pixies, I assume).  The word is also used to denote fays by Thomas Nashe in Strange Newes (1592), in which he equates “fairies and night urchins,” in the anonymous play The mayde’s metamorphosis of 1600 and in Thomas Dekker’s Whore of Babylon (1607).

Another regularly used term that likewise has some connotations of smallness is ‘puppet.’ This featured in Robert Greene’s James IV of 1594, where Oberon, king of the fairies, is described as “not so big as the king of Clubs” and his subjects as being “Puppets,” and it appeared regularly subsequently: in The Tempest in 1611 Shakespeare called fays “demi-puppets;”  the term’s also used in Randolph’s Amyntas in 1632 and in Henry More’s An antidote against atheism of 1653 (referring to the “dancing places of those little Puppet-Spirits” in Book III, chapter 11).  In The mayde’s metamorphosis there’s also reference to “mawmets” tripping lightly as a bee.  The word has the same sense of a puppet-like being and certainly conveys an idea of diminutive statute- as underlined in Amyntas, where a fairy wife might be sought for in a nutshell.

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The Dream performed at Dewey Mountain, New York, 2017; picture from Adirondack Daily Enterprise

Shakespeare’s legacy

This vocabulary all implies a changing attitude to fairies: that they coming to be seen as tiny, inoffensive, pretty, charming.  We’ve run ahead of ourselves slightly, though, and ought to retrace our steps to 1595 and the first production of Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Latham has this to say of Shakespeare’s use of fairy themes:

“That the disappearance of the fairies as credible entities should have been hastened by the influence of Shakespeare is one of the greatest ironies of their history. Of all the Elizabethans who made mention of them, there is no one who showed himself more cognizant of the belief in their existence, and no one who featured more prominently their traditional power and activities.” (p.177)

Latham goes on to enumerate the traditional fairy-lore in Shakespeare’s plays: their dangerous enchantments; their substitution of changelings; their pranks- sometimes harmless, sometimes malicious; their generosity to favourites; their midnight dances; their pinching of those who fail to meet their standards;  their pixy-leading.  All of this authentic material was, however, overwhelmed and displaced by what he created in the Dream.  Latham summarises this ‘new Elizabethan’ fairy very succinctly:

“Diminutive, pleasing, and picturesque sprites, with small garden names and small garden affairs, associated with moon-beams and butterflies, they present themselves as a new race of fairies, as different from the popular fairies of tradition as are those fairies from the fays of the medieval romances. ” (p.180)

The medieval fays are the magician women like Morgan le Fay, in some respects related to Titania, but not reigning over a fairy kingdom and much more engaged in the affairs of human kind.  What became the conventional fairy after the Dream was this, according to Latham:

  • they were subjected to a royal court and lost their independent status;
  • they lose their mischievous and changeable sides and become uniformly good;
  • they’re devoted to making the world happier and more beautiful, without imposing any taboos and codes or exacting any penalties;
  • they dislike and avoid disturbance and disruption;
  • they love children and are solicitous of the welfare of all humans;
  • they are “extravagantly” attached to flowers, tending them, named after them, decorated with them; and,
  • they’ve shrunk.  No longer are they infant sized, now they’re tiny: they can hide in acorns; they make their coats from bats’ wings; their fans are butterfly wings; they may drown in a bee’s honey bag should it burst.

It’s these last two characteristics, combined with their new, benign, nature, that marks the real departure for British fairies.   Worse still, they have become comic and ridiculous (as in the whole episode involving Titania and Bottom).  Their dignity and their stature had been diminished and they had become an entirely new race of spirits.

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Exeter Drama Company‘s 2015 production of Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The earliest example of this change came almost immediately from Shakespeare himself, in Romeo and Juliet.  In Mercutio’s famous description of Queen Mab, she is reduced to a being “In shape no bigger than an agate stone/ On the forefinger of an alderman.”  Other poets then picked up upon the conceit of a minute fairy and had great fun with it.  During the first decades of the next century, several notable writers fixed the idea in the public imagination.  These included most notably:

  • Edward Fairfax, in his 1600 translation of Torquato Tasso’s Godfrey of Bulloigne, was an early adopter of Shakespeare’s new vision of Faery.  His fays are tiny enough to sit under “every trembling leaf” and they are intimately associated with blossoms: for example “Among the nymphs, the fairies, leaves and flowers” (Book 4, stanza 18 and Book 17, stanza 61);
  • Michael Drayton, author of such works as Nimphidia and The Muses’ Elizium, in which fairies use acorn cups as boats, ride upon earwigs and make wedding dresses from primrose leaves.  In his 1613 Poly Olbion, Drayton imagines frisking fairies “as on the light air borne/ Oft run at barley break upon the corn/ And catching drops of dew.”  In the Eighth Nymphal the abiding impression of tininess is expressed directly: “Why, by her smallness you may find,/ That she is of the fairy kind”;
  • William Browne– the third book of his Britannia’s pastorals (c.1625) revels in the possibilities of microscopic fays, whose bread is hazelnut kernels, whose wash basins are sea shells and who dine upon the udders of mice and hornet’s eggs; and,
  • Robert Herrick (1591- 1674), in whose verses “dwarfish Fairyes elves” dine off mushrooms, instead of tables, upon single grains of wheat, washed down with drops of dew.  His Queen Mab’s bed is formed of six dandelion heads, with curtains of gossamer.  In his 1648 collection Hesperides, Herrick includes five fairy poems for which he is particularly remembered: Oberon’s Feast, Oberon’s Palace, Oberon’s Chapel (or the Fairy Temple), The Fairies and The Beggar to Mab, the Fairy Queen.   All are easily accessible and give an authentic picture of the British fairy as it was conceived after Midsummer Night’s Dream.

These depictions pretty much sealed the fate of the fays.  They were now without question “pygmies” (Peter Heylyn, Cosmographie (1648), Book IV, p.196; Milton, Paradise lost (1667), Book IX, line 634).  They are, too, irredeemably linked to images of cuteness and harmlessness: for example in the 1660’s ballad The spring’s glory, “The fairies are tripping and lambs are skipping, /Pretty birds chirping in the wood do sing.”

One last citation will do, which is from the Poems and fancies of Margaret, Duchess of Newcastle, published in 1653.  The book is full of fairies and they are uniformly minute, evidently inspired by Drayton and Herrick.  Queen Mab and “all her fairy fry” dance on mole hills, sit under flowers and eat off mushrooms spread with spiders’ webs instead of table cloths (Pastime in fairyland).

Flower fairies

So it is, that little girls in petal like dresses have become fixed in our minds- not just on the stage but in the work of many artists (not least Cicely Mary Barker, Margaret Tarrant and the many other children’s book illustrators of the mid-twentieth century).  In a recent post I laid a heavy burden of blame upon Paracelsus for distorting our concepts of the fairy realm; reluctantly, perhaps, this must be shared with William Shakespeare.  The trends towards smaller and less fearsome fairies were already present in English culture, doubtless, but Shakespeare’s work accelerated and magnified them, an impact exaggerated further by his very status in the literary world.

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2016 production of The Dream by Millennium Charter Academy at Andy Griffith Playhouse, Mount Airy, North Carolina.

Further reading

See Latham, of course (although the book can be rare and expensive), many of my previous posts and, in my 2017 book British fairies, chapters 1 and 28 particularly.  In another posting I’ve also developed some of Latham’s ideas on representations of fairy faces in Tudor drama.

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

 

 

‘The prettiest face’- fairy sexuality

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Sir Joseph Noel Paton, The reconciliation of Oberon & Titania

“Tension mars the prettiest face-/ Sex in fairyland!” (Heaven 17, ‘Play to win,’ Penthouse & pavement, 1981)

I have written before about the location of faery and how the fairies may pass their time there.  These discussions have, of course, accepted that fairyland is a physical place.  In this post I want to explore the idea that it also exists within the human (male) psyche. When conceived by artists and writers, faery is often a ‘house of fun,’ it is a ‘stately pleasure dome.’

Fairyland is a place full of nudes disporting, as we see in the works of painters Noel Paton, John Simmons, John McKirdy Duncan, Richard Dadd, Robert Huskisson and (to demonstrate that it was not all men) Emiline Dell.  Paton’s canvases in particular are alive with naked, writhing flesh, conveying to us an idea that Faery is a place of constant and unbridled pleasure.

Peter Blake

Given that artists repeatedly populate Faery with naked bodies, we are driven to enquire- is it Eden or is it an orgy?  It’s true that some artists expressly consider their imagined worlds to be places of innocence, free of self-consciousness.

For example, Peter Blake painted a series of fairy paintings in the mid-1970s , both portraits and larger canvasses.  Blake saw children and fairies as sharing an enchanting naivety, which was translated into the nature of his pictures, in which the nudity is devoid of sexuality and is simply a natural, almost tribal, state.  That said, his image of Titania, a naked adolescent who has decorated her breasts and pubic hair with plants and found items, suggests something both more aware and more self-possessed.  In addition, close examination of several of his pictures will reveal naked, shadowy figures, cavorting and contorting in the margins and the background.  Placid as the main characters see, there is passion and disturbance very near.

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Peter Blake, Poppy fairy

Many contemporary images of fairies tend to take a more overtly sexualised approach.  This is entirely understandable, given that much of our literature depicts them as uninhibited- as petulant, lascivious children even…

Medieval fairies

Generally, the traditional view of fairies was as wanton and libidinous.  In the romance of Sir Launval, the knight encounters the fairy woman Tryamour reclining upon a couch in a pavilion.  It is a summer’s day and:

“For hete her clothes down sche dede/ Almest to her gerdyl stede,/ Than lay sche uncovert./ Sche was as whyt as lylye yn May/ Or snow that sneweth yn wynterys day./ He segh never non so pert…”

Presented with this alluring prospect, Sir Launval responds predictably and “For play, lytylle they sclepte that nygt.”

Robert Herrick is equally explicit in his poem Oberon’s feast.  The fairy king enters his bed chamber:

“and now he finds
His moon-tann’d Mab, as somewhat sick,
And (love knows) tender as a chick.
Upon six plump dandillions, high-
Rear’d, lies her elvish majesty:
Whose woolly bubbles seem’d to drown
Her Mabship in obedient down.”

Oberon approaches the bed, which is decorated thus:

“The fringe about this are those threads
Broke at the loss of maidenheads:
And, all behung with these, pure pearls,
Dropp’d from the eyes of ravish’d girls
Or writhing brides ; when (panting) they
Give unto love the straiter way.
For music now, he has the cries
Of feigned lost virginities;
The which the elves make to excite
A more unconquered appetite.
The king’s undrest ; and now upon
The gnat’s watchword the elves are gone.
And now the bed, and Mab possess’d
Of this great little kingly guest;
We’ll nobly think, what’s to be done,
He’ll do no doubt ; this flax is spun.”

The Victorians and later

Despite the bawdy example of their predecessors, and despite the excess of nubile flesh in their painting, Victorian writers were more circumspect. There is little in nineteenth century literature to match the visual art.  Like much of his fairy-themed verse, John KeatsBelle dame sans merci is suggestive of sexual passion: a young man encounters a beautiful, wide-eyed maid, a fairy child, who enchants with a song of love before:

“She took me to her elfin grot,
And there she gazed and sighed deep,
And there I shut her wild sad eyes-
So kissed to sleep.

And there we slumbered on the moss…”

This coy ‘slumber’ is in stark contrast to the explicitness of Sir Launfal.  Christina Rossetti’s Goblin market is also notable for its intense and sensual tone, but its evocations of sisterly incest do not involve the hideous and violent goblins.

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Brian FroudNippers in the orchard

Twentieth century fays

During the twentieth century, whilst the art has more recently become more adult and explicit, fairy verse has largely fallen from favour (except for the consumption of children).  About the only ‘adult’ example of which I’m aware is from The temptation by American poet Clark Ashton Smith, an undeniably erotic verse:

“Exile fays with childish bosoms,
And their undevirginate
Vulvas wrought like budding blossoms
Cool and small and delicate…”

As you’ll see from the entire poem, Smith was plainly fantasising about faery as bacchanalian orgy.  Some of this mood is to be found reflected in the crowded pictures of Brian Froud.   His fays are cheerfully and unashamedly sexual.  In addition, whilst representations of fairyland are often images of youth and perfection, Froud prefers imperfection- age, maturity and non-classical variety.

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Fairies and mushrooms, Brian Froud– I need hardly point out the phallic mushrooms and the (seemingly) drug-addled girl

Diversity in faery

Even so, alongside the wide hips and pendulous breasts, alongside the range of ages, there are still plenty of nymphs in our imaginary faery, bevies of adolescent and petite beauties who conform to more classical conceptions as well as being accommodated by with more contemporary and liberal views.  As stated earlier, the question must be, here, whether these nymphs represent a primal innocence or whether they speak of a more complex sexuality.

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Alan Lee, Faerie, 1978

The modern faery can be a living community, with young and old.  The situation in nineteenth century art was, by contrast, rather more puzzling.  Many Victorian painters filled their scenes with a variety of sizes and types of fairy.  Whilst some were grotesques, these figures were mostly adult males and females, albeit of a range of statures; examples will be found in the paintings of Richard Dadd, John Simmons, Robert Huskisson and Noel Paton (to name but a few), all of whom imagined a vast variety of forms and sizes of fairy.  Sometimes infants are present, but these are often more like cherubs than real children (as in Midsummer Eve by E. R. Hughes for instance) and as such these figures indicate the classical origins of much of the Victorian style.  Richard Doyle was one of the very few who included definite children in his pictures; they appeared mostly as pages to the fairy court, though, and were accordingly very tiny.   It is only in more recent fairy art work that identifiably juvenile and teenaged faeries have appeared.

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Alan Lee, a bluebell faery

Faery has always been sexualised by humans.  The Victorians, in their different theatrical representations of fairyland, went further and juvenilised it.  What was then seen only on the stage has in recent decades appeared in painting and illustration. Froud and Lee offer us strikingly distinct visualisations of such a world.  Lee’s actually quite demure fays are black eyed and alarming in their self absorption; there is a ferocity and menace in their solitary nakedness- and even that nakedness must be a warning, when we consider the deathly blue skin of the bluebell fay above.  They are a visual reminder that contact with fairies, and especially contact with a fairy lover, could be fatal.

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Alan Lee, the cover illustration to Faeries, 1978.

Froud’s world is, on the whole, more whimsical, but there are perturbing undercurrents. His vision is frequently crowded and carnal; the atmosphere is febrile.  It is an environment where sexuality is flaunted and voluptuous; sexual awareness is pervasive and it does not seem to be the preserve of the maturer members of the fleshly throng. Everything here is promiscuous, polyamorous and uninhibited.  It’s also notable that a higher proportion of his fays seem to be female- self-possessed and confident, perhaps, as you might expect a fairy queen to be.

When I consider Froud’s images, I am reminded of those backgrounds to Peter Blake‘s fairy scenes, where less distinct figures cavort and celebrate in the murk in comparable abandon.  The latter’s pictures are very nearly contemporary with the first designs from the former, so that it seems unlikely that Blake inspired Froud directly, but the parallel is striking nonetheless and may say something about contemporary ideas.  Both painters referred to the crammed nature of their canvases too: in 1997 Blake described how-

“As the fairies ooze to the front of the picture, they hear who’s looking at the painting and they stop and look out.  A group of them stare straight out at you, involving the viewer.”

Interviewed by Signe Pike for her book Faery tale in 2009, Froud said something very similar: there is-

“typically a central figure… and around the edges of the picture come crowding all of these faces.  It’s like they all want to be in the painting.  They don’t jostle… but they all sort of… get in.” (p.89)

There’s a more direct engagement here than in many of the Victorian pictures.  We are being invited, seduced, into their world.

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Dicky Doyle, A fairy and an elf kissing, British Library.

Duality in fairy

To conclude, there seem today to be two main styles for the representation of faery by visual artists.  One is in the tradition Victorian painter Richard Doyle and the later children’s book illustrators: it is a vision of fairy as a place of charming, harmless pleasure, and of sexless innocence.  The fays are often little girls and everything is pretty and safe.  Josephine Wall’s intricate and kaleidoscopic paintings might fall into this category.

It also strikes me here how often we read in contemporary books how it is children, because of their innocence, who are most likely to be able to see fairies.  This thinking has prevailed since at least the time of the Cottingley fairy photographs: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was anxious to obtain further pictures from the two girls because he feared that their encroaching adolescence might soon mean that they would lose their clairvoyance.  Edward Gardner wrote to Doyle  expressing his concern that one of them might soon fall in love and then “hey presto!”, the fairy encounters would be at an end.  How curious it is that sex could become the antithesis of faery, rather than than one of its defining features, as seen repeatedly in earlier art and literature.

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Josephine Wall, The wood fairy

In contrast, as discussed at length here, there is a darker, more traditional and more sensual vision: we are lured in with enticing looks, but indulging ourselves may be a risk.  A contemporary artist who embodies much of what has been discussed- the frames crowded with figures, the nudity, the atmosphere of pagan mystery- may be Mia Araujo.

Further reading

I have also discussed questions of sexuality in fairyland in various other posts, including considerations of fairies’ passionate natures, of sex and sexuality in the poetry of William Blake and John Keats, some thoughts on ideas of fairy beauty, on representations of sex in the art of Arthur Rackham and Brian Froud and a wider discussion of our evolving views of gender and age in Faery.  For those desirous of an actual sexual encounter with a fay, I recommend a look at my posting on the fairy rules of love.

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

Fairies and culture

 

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‘Ferdinand and Ariel,’ by John Millais

Whatever our view of the existence of fairies and of a supernatural realm, there can be no denying the profound impact of faery (or the idea of it) upon our art and culture.  The reason for all this creativity, it seems to me, is that faery as a subject is so rich and complex.  Fairies can offer artists every emotion- sexual obsession, love, fear, jealousy, unbounded joy, mystery and mysticism- the list is lengthy.

Fae themes have been persistently rich sources of inspiration for a range of artists, whether in literature, song or the visual arts.  I’ll present a few examples, though I’m sure that proof is scarcely needed:

  • On the stage– whether inspiring the high art of Shakespeare or pantomimes and popular plays such as Peter Pan.   There was a particular trend for patriotic fairy stage plays during the Great War, which I have discussed;
  • Musicals, such as Edward Elgar’s Starlight Express of 1915 (this is the original production of this title, plainly, and not that by Andrew Lloyd Webber);
  • Novels and short stories (for both adults and children), from Charles Kingsley and George MacDonald through Enid Blyton, Beatrix Potter and E. M. Nesbit to Tolkien to Alan Garner;
  • Romance and myth– fairy themes are strong throughout many of the Arthurian myths and related stories, including the Welsh Mabinogion;
  • Poetry– from Robert Herrick and Michael Drayton through Keats and Blake to Walter de la Mare and Ivor Gurney.  On this blog I have been particularly interested in examining the interaction between fairy verse and the First World War, in the work of Robert Graves, Rose Fyleman, J R R Tolkien and others;
  • Painting- from Fuseli to Peter Blake and Brian Froud;
  • Illustration– from Rossetti and Burne-Jones through Edmund Dulac, Arthur Rackham and Henry Justice Ford to Cicely Mary Barker and Margaret Tarrant;
  • Sculpture– for example the puppets of Wendy Froud or the wire creations of Robin Wright;
  • Film and cartoon–  we have both fictional films, such as Disney’s Peter Pan or The Dark Crystal, as well as documentaries and ‘factual’ stories based upon the Cottingley case; and,
  • Music– ranging from ballet, opera, ballads, symphonies and lieder, light opera (Gilbert and Sullivan) to contemporary rock (Led Zeppelin, Marc Bolan or Sigur Ros).

Of course, the additional value of all of the above is that they are a supplement to the folklore evidence.  Just as much as traditional stories of fairies gathered by folklorists in the field, these various media give us a view of contemporary beliefs on the conduct and appearance of the fays.

What’s more, fairy works have inspired other fairy art.  For example Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream has inspired many works of art (by Paton, Dadd, Millais and many others).  In particular, it inspired a painting by Thomas Stothard,  Titania and Oberon, which in turn inspired a poem by Elizabeth Landon, The fairy queen sleeping.  In just the same way in 1825 Louisa Anne Meredith wrote The enchanted island in response to seeing the painting of the same name by Francis Darby; “’Tis the fairies’ home” the verse declares.

I’ll make a radical suggestion: even were fairies not to exist, their impact upon human culture would be almost undiminished.  We might even propose that, even if fairies did not exist, it would have been necessary to invent them to provide ourselves with such rich and fruitful veins of imagery and ideas.

The fairies have inspired our creativity for centuries, whether the source of that inspiration is our own imaginations or is an external supernatural force.  The power of this creative stimulus is expressly acknowledged by artists working in this genre.  It is not just a matter of the work produced, but of the transformative impact upon the artists themselves.   Interviewed by Signe Pike in Faery talepainter Brian Froud said that many of his readers and fans feel that with a rediscovery of their fairy faith:

“they feel they are coming home. They tell me they want to go away and write, or make something…”

His wife agreed: “often people have a creative response to our work.”  She starts her puppet workshops with meditation, within which “you do actually, genuinely, touch faeryland- you’re in it, whether you realise it or not.  So when you come back, and make a figure, it’s imbued with its own personality.”  In the act of imaginative creation, it would seem, there is a re-creation of the creator (Pike, 2010, pp.86-66).

In his introduction to David Riche’s Art of faery (2003), Froud argued that “Fairies mediate art, the mysterious moments of our creative relationship with the world.”  Whilst the twentieth century had emphasised our alienation from the world, the resurgence of visionary fairy art in its last decades and into the new millennium suggests the reversal of this and through that “the beginning of a spiritual journey. To paint fairies is not childish- but it could certainly said to be childlike- in its openness to creative and emotional impulses.”

Our culture is richer for fairies; we are richer for fairies….

Further reading

Neil Rushton on his dead but dreaming blog on WordPress provides a very useful overview of the entire world history of fairy art.  See too my book Fairy Art of the Twentieth Century  and my posting on fairies in Art Nouveau.

Is there a fairy queen?

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Queen Titania, by John Simmons

This question may seem a shocking challenge to accepted conventions, but reflecting recently upon a couple of postings concerning the queens of elfland made on Living liminally by Morgan Daimler, I suddenly began to wonder whether we really mean the words we use when we so casually discuss the ‘fairy kingdom,’ the ‘faery realm,’  the seelie and unseelie ‘courts‘ and the king and queen of fairy.

Elsewhere, in her recent book Fairies, Morgan observes that “the social structure does seem to operate as a hierarchy ruled ultimately by Kings and Queens.” (p.61)    This is quite true, but as I have suggested before in my post on woodland elves, the idea of fairy royalty is very much a projection of medieval structures by medieval writers.  The idea was first seen in such poems as Huon of Bordeaux, King Herla, Sir Orfeo and in the verse of Chaucer: Sir Thopas and the prologue to the Wife of Bath’s tale.  Two centuries later, Spenser, Shakespeare and Herrick cemented the idea in our culture.  Neil Rushton has recently reiterated this interpretation in a posting on his ‘Dead but dreaming’ blog, Faeries in the Arthurian landscapein which he observes that:

“The stories were consumed by the small proportion of literate population, and were codified accordingly to suit their social expectations. The appearance of characters with supernatural qualities within these stories had, therefore, to adhere to certain doctrines, which would be acceptable to their social mores and belief systems.”

As Neil implies, when we think of fairies now we almost unconsciously and automatically conjure images of Arthurian knights and ladies and all the structures of precedence and privilege that go with them.  This is habit, but is it any more than that?

Fairy reign

We are very used, then, to thinking of Queen Mab and of Oberon and Titania.  But what need, though, do the faes really have of rulers?  In the Middle Ages, monarchs were required to perform several purposes within their simpler states:

  • to lead the people in armed conflict- as I have described previously, war amongst the fairies may jar with our conventional views of them, but the possibility is mentioned in a few sources and might therefore justify some sort of war chief;
  • to dispense justice- we are aware of no laws as such in Faery, although there are clearly codes of behaviour that they impose (upon humans at least) and the infringement of which (by humans) is subject to sanction.  Parallel with this distinct morality, there is a general atmosphere of unrestrained impulsiveness;
  • to organise society- it’s hard to tell what, if any, structure there is within fairy society.  If we regard them as nature spirits, then they are all at the level of worker bees, it would appear.  A few authorities have proposed hierarchies, although this normally seems to involve different forms of supernatural beings as against different ranks: see for example Geoffrey Hodson or two interviews with ‘Irish seers’ conducted by Evans-Wentz- one with George William Rusell (AE) and a second with an unnamed Mrs X of County Dublin (Fairy faith in Celtic countries pp.60-66 and 242-3).  You’ll see the differences in size in John Simmons’ painting below;
  • to act as some sort of religious leader or high priest(ess).  I explored the puzzling matter of fairy religion not long ago; it is an area of considerable doubt.

None of these functions seem especially essential to Faery as we generally conceive it.  Is the title of ‘queen’ therefore redundant, or at best merely a convenient honorary title?

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There sleeps Titania, by John Simmons

Secret commonwealth

Let’s consider the views of the Reverend Robert Kirk, who certainly seems to have been well placed to know what he was talking about.  Writing in the late 1680s, he titled his justly famous book The secret commonwealth of elves, fauns and fairies.  A ‘commonwealth’ can merely denote a nation state or polity, but it can also more narrowly have the meaning of ‘republic.’  Given that he cannot but have been aware of the English Parliamentary ‘Commonwealth’ that succeeded the execution of Charles I in 1649, I think it’s inescapable that this was the connotation intended by Kirk when he chose to describe his subject matter.  That seems undeniable when we read at the head of chapter 7 that “They are said to have aristocraticall Rulers and Laws, but no discernible Religion, Love or Devotion towards God…  they disappear whenever they hear his Name invocked…”   We note Kirk’s belief in their aversion to church and religion, but also his conviction that they inhabit some sort of democracy regulated by rules of conduct of some description.

Much more recently, Theosophist Charles Leadbeater wrote that humans frequently mistook fairy leaders for kings and queens, whereas “In reality the realm of nature spirits needs no kind of government except except the general supervision which is exercised over it [by devas].” (The hidden side of things, 1913, p.147).

Rank or honour?

Perhaps those termed king and queen in Faery are simply those of the most distinguished character or the greatest magical power.  This was my conception of Queen Maeve in my story Albion awake!  In chapter 9, in response to being called Fairy Queen, Maeve replies:

“So you call me- but if I am a queen, I have no dominion.  I have powers, but I do not reign.  My people are a commonwealth- a secret commonwealth.”

Plainly I’ve stolen her phrase here!  Later she calls her people her ‘Nation Underground.’  I’ll let you track that reference down yourselves!

In conclusion, the main influence upon our conceptions of Faery as a stratified and monarchical society, with a royal family, a court, nobility and attendants, seems to be European society during the medieval period, channeled through contemporary literature.  Whether we are thinking of mythical Iron Age Ireland, Chaucer’s England or the France of Chretien de Troyes or Marie de France, their aristocratic society provided a model that was unthinkingly imposed upon fairyland.  It seems unlikely that the ‘common folk’ necessarily shared this; indeed, a large number of fairies were independent and individual characters or were conceived as members of their own, very local community.  Should we continue to talk of kings and queens then, or is it simply habit?  Do the terms have anything to do with contemporary perceptions of fairy?  What do readers think?

Rheam-Queen-Mab-L

‘Queen Mab,’ Henry Meynell Rheam

Further reading

Elsewhere I discuss fairy kings and that famous fairy queen Titania.

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

Flower fairies- origins and meaning

gorse-flower-fairy

During the last hundred years or so, fairies have become intimately associated with flowers.  What I want to do in this post is to consider the evidence for such links in traditional folklore beliefs and to discuss how the idea has arisen that fairies are ‘nature spirits’ or ‘guardians of nature’ and have a particular mission to supervise the growth of flowers and other plants, in which work they may resemble bees or ants and are certainly of diminutive dimensions.

Shakespeare

Without doubt, one link in the chain connecting fairies to flora is literary.  Shakespeare perhaps initiated the trend with a the fairies in Midsummer Night’s Dream.  One is required to “hang a pearl in every cowslip’s ear” (II, 1).  Of course, we have fairy Peaseblossom in the same play (III, 1) and Oberon’s well-known directions to help Puck find Titania:

“I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight…” (Act II, 1)

In The Tempest Ariel, who sings “Where the bee sucks., there suck I”  The floral motifs are prominent, indicating a closeness to nature generally and the evidence of small statute is also present.  Robert Herrick and Michael Drayton took the matter of scale to extremes, though for reasons of pure fancy: I don’t believe that they sought to reflect any genuine traditions known to them.  British fairies are of a range of sizes, often adult height, quite often the size of children, much more rarely very small (the medieval English ‘portunes’ of just half an inch in height are an exception).

titania-sleeping

Richard Dadd, ‘Titania sleeping,’ 1841, The Louvre 

Herrick imagined a fairy loaf of bread as “A moon-parch’t grain of wheat” washed down with “A pure seed-pearle of infant dew/ Brought and besweetened in a blew/ And pregnant violet” (Oberon’s feast).  Drayton likewise envisaged a fairy palace “The walls of spiders’ legs are made … The windows of the eyes of cats” (Nymphidia).  The conceit of miniature fairies was sustained into the next century by other poets.  For example, in The flower and the leaf John Dryden imagined that a faint track “look’d as lightly press’d, by fairy feet” and William King, like Herrick, surveyed a fairy supper:

“What may they be, fish, flesh of fruit?/ I never saw things so minute./ Sir, a roasted ant is nicely done,/ By one small atom of the sun./ These are flies’ eggs in moonshine poach’d/ This a flea’s thigh, in collops scotched.” (Orpheus and Eurydice)

rowan

Tiny fairies

Increasingly, then, the convention prevailed that fairies were minuscule, but neither in literature nor in folk tales was there any deep attachment to plant life.  As described when discussing fairy clothes, fairies most often were attired in green, which may well be symbolic of growth, but there is still scant suggestion of any special purpose as ministers of Mother Nature.  There are quite a few indications of fairies inhabiting trees.  There is the Old Lady of the Elder Tree whom I have mentioned in discussing my book  The Elder Queen; from the Outer Hebrides comes a story of a fairy maiden who inhabits a tree on a knoll, once a year appearing to dispense ‘the milk of wisdom’ to local women (L. Spence, British fairy origins pp.101 & 186); also from the Highlands and Western Isles we hear a report of ‘tree spirits’, green elves who are often seen in woodland (Spence p.100).  This is about as good as it gets in British tradition.  Lewis Spence in chapter VI of British fairy origins examined the theory that fairies derived from ‘elementary spirits’ and summed up “all nature spirits are not the same as fairies; nor are all fairies nature spirits.” (p.110)  He further stated that “it is a notable thing that in Great Britain and Ireland the nature spirit remains to us in vestigial form only.  To make a list of British nature spirits as known in our islands today is very … difficult… I can think of no genuinely English earth or tree spirits.” (p.113)  He blames homogenisation into “the common hill-fairy, the standard elf of folk-lore.” (p.114)  On the matter of flowers, s I have described before, there are flowers that are believed particularly to repel or to attract fairies, but the surviving stories do not conceive of fairies living within or overseeing the growth of any flowers.

elder

How then do we explain the rapid ascendancy of the flower fairy?  I think that occult science and mystical philosophy are the source; flower fairies are a product of the thought of Paracelsus and Pseudo-Dionysus.  They are nature spirits, part of a ‘celestial hierarchy,’ and are derived from a system of thought very different to native custom.  I shall examine this theme further in due course.

Further reading

Other posts on the natural associations of fairies cover such issues as wood elves, fairy plants and ‘eco-fairies.’

 

‘Peaseblossom and mustard seed’- fairy plants

okun

‘Mother mushroom and her children’ by Edward Okun.

A range of plants have fairy associations, both good and bad.  It is convenient to divide them into three broad types for our discussion.

Trees

We commonly conceive of elves and fairies living in woodland, whilst certain specific tree species have strong links to fairies.  Thorn trees are magical throughout Britain and Ireland.  For instance, Northumbrian fairies are said particularly to prefer dancing around thorns.  From across the border comes a Scottish story of a man ploughing a field who made a special effort to protect an old hawthorn, known to be a fairy meeting place- by leaving an unploughed circle of turf around it- was rewarded with a fairy banquet and a life time’s luck and wisdom in consequence.  I have mentioned before the Old Lady of the Elder Tree as well as the special status of oaks as places for dancing or even as homes.  In The discovery of witchcraft of 1584 Reginald Scot listed the many different types of fairies with which mothers would scare their children (Book VII, chapter XV).  He included “the man in the oke,” a supernatural whose characteristics and habits are now almost entirely lost to us.

rowan

Rowan trees, in contrast, repel fairies.  Rowan set over your door will allow you to watch the fairies riding past without being drawn into their procession and a rowan cross worn about your person will prevent the fairies seizing you.  Both gorse and holly acted as protective barriers to fairies around a home, although it has to be confessed that they keep out humans just as well!

cowslip

Flowers

Today we tend to think immediately of flower fairies, but there is a much older and richer lore of flowers associated with fairies.  Fairy blooms include yellow flowers such as cowslips, broom, primroses and ragwort; the stems of the latter are used like witches’ broomsticks.  Blue bells are protected by fairies, and lone children picking them in woods risk being abducted. Fox gloves are known in Wales as menyg ellyllon, elves’ gloves.  The fairies also favour red campion, forget-me-not, scabious, wild thyme and, more unusually, tulips.

A strange tale from Devon describes how pixies near Tavistock loved to spend their nights in an old woman’s tulip bed and the flowers thrived from their beneficial presence.  When she died her flower bed was converted by the next residents in the cottage to growing parsley and the pixies blighted it.  An unknown plant was used by Dartmoor fairies to heal a servant maid they had previously lamed for refusing to put out water for them at night.  In a similar dual role, it is said that foxglove juice can expel a changeling and cure a child who is suffering from ‘the feyry’- that is, one who has been elf-struck.

The primary protective plant against fairies is St John’s Wort, although verbena is also effective.  I have discussed two other very important fairy plants separately: fern seed can confer invisibility whilst four-leaf clovers can dispel glamour.

primrose

Fungi

The link between fairies and the fairy ring where they are alleged to dance is very well established, but the associations go deeper.  Fairy butter (y menyn tylwyth teg) is a fungus found deep underground in limestone crevices and elf food (bwyd ellyllon) is a poisonous toadstool.  In Northumberland, fairy butter is a soft orange fungus found around the roots of old trees.

The linking of fungi with goblins and elves is well known and of longstanding. Perhaps it partly derives from the dual nature of the mushrooms- they may be edible or poisonous. They are, of course, linked to fairy rings and indicate where the elves have been dancing. One of these is the ‘Fairy Cake Hebeloma’, which is poisonous; another is the highly edible Fairy Ring Champignon.  The sudden appearance of toadstools may seem magical and mysterious.  Their red colouring (for the traditionally red and white spotted fly agaric toadstool) may link them to red fairy clothes whilst their diminutive size may also explain the connection. Robert Herrick in his poem Oberon’s feast imagines “A little mushroom table spread” for the tiny fairy diners and in The fairies’ fegaries “Upon the mushroome’s head/ Our table cloth we spread.”

Puff balls have been called ‘Puck’s fist’ and, in his Fairy mythologyKeightley suggests that ‘Elf’s fist’ was an old Anglo-Saxon name for the mushrooms found in rings.  Wirt Sikes in British goblins relates a Breconshire belief that gifts of fairy bread by the Tylwyth Teg, if not eaten immediately in darkness, will prove to be toadstools in the daylight.

BAL4208

Further reading

In other postings I examine the magical properties of fern seed, I look closely at fairy rings, I discuss the use of clover in the famous green fairy ointment and I consider the ‘flower fairy‘ cult.