‘Eco-Fairies’- old or new?

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A recent book on modern paganism and fairy belief, Magic and Witchery in the Modern West (Feraro and White, 2019), suggested that many of the contemporary conceptions of fairies as planetary guardians and green protectors came not from age-old faery tradition but from books like Cicely Mary Barker’s flower fairies, books that adult pagans had seen as and absorbed as children.  Is this really true?  Is the view of faeries as green champions really so recent and untraditional a development?

In fact, there is a reasonable amount of evidence to indicate that faeries have been connected with nature conservation and environmental causes for a quite long time.  For example, there is a widespread popular story of a woodcutter just about to fell a tree who is stopped by the appearance of a fairy being from beneath the ground.  This is described as having happened as far apart in Britain as Northamptonshire and Nithsdale in the Scottish Borders.  The idea of faeries as active defenders of the natural world was therefore accepted in folk belief from at least the start of the nineteenth century, a situation that was reflected in the literature of the time.  In his 1810 poem Alice Brand, Sir Walter Scott had the elfin king demand:

“Why sounds yon stroke on the beech and oak,

Our moonlight circle’s screen,

Or who comes here to chase the deer,

Beloved of our Elfin Queen?”

In the ballad of Tam Lin, the young Tam appears to his lover-to-be, Janet, after she plucks a rose in the forest.  He complains that she has taken the flower without his permission.  Similarly, in the ballad Hynde Etin complaint is made by the fairy when nuts are picked, “For I’m the guardian of the wood/ and ye maun [must] let it be.”  Whether this is environmental stewardship or cases of trespass on private land is not entirely clear, but the faeries are evidently highly protective of their natural resources.  We might see those faeries that protect (human) orchards and nut groves, such as Owd Goggie, in a similar light.

Lastly, an article carried by the Welsh Western Mail in September 1878 described the industry that had brought prosperity to Nant y Glo and Blaenau, in Gwent, albeit at the cost of the local woodlands.  The extensive tree-felling was dated back some ninety years to the time when ironworking first started in the area and demand for charcoal expanded steeply.  Before then, we are told, the fairies had protected the trees of the hills and valleys thereabouts.  These were yr tylwyth teg yn y coed, the fairies of the wood, who often used to be seen assembled under the female oaks there, and who guarded the trees and harmed those that felled them.  Sadly, however, they couldn’t resist against the “inroads of a gross material civilisation” (as the writer called it, even then) and they were driven off west into less spoiled parts of the Principality.  These sentiments might surprise us from a Victorian, but they demonstrate that environmental awareness, and a sense of the faeries’ role as eco-guardians, might not be that new.

Jacobean Precedents

As far back as the start of the seventeenth century, in fact, there is evidence of the fairies being seen as friends and protectors of wildlife and the natural world.  Sir William Browne in Britannia’s Pastorals imagined the fairies

“Teaching the little birds to build their nests,/ And in their singing how to keepen rests…”

The ‘eco-fairy’ as a concept is not new, therefore, even if the label is.  An examination of the folklore and literary sources discloses three interrelated functions that the faes were believed to undertake: they cared for small mammals and birds; they had a special link with certain flowers and trees and, lastly, they assumed a more general supervisory role over the natural world, keeping it in balance and preventing over-exploitation and pollution.

Fairies’ Furry Friends

Fairies not only lived and played in the countryside- according to Victorian poetry they talked to the birds, taught them how to sing and kept their eggs warm in the nest by curling up to sleep beside them.  Poet Rose Fyleman, famous for There’s a Fairy at the Bottom of my Garden, in her verse A Fairy Went A-Marketing, imagined how a fae might buy pet fish and birds and then set them free.  For Fyleman, fairies and wildlife were best of friends, with robins serving as a page in the fairy court and tiny faes living contentedly in flowers.

Verse and popular conceptions went hand in hand, as there are reported encounters with fairies helping birds find berries in the snow and looking after wildlife in wintry weather.  Early Victorian child poet, Annie Isabella Brown, imagined fairies describing how:

“We gathered flannel-mullen leaves,

Against the winter’s cold;

To keep the little dormouse warm,

Within its hedgerow hold.”

Poet Menella Bute Smedley also imagined the fairies “twisting threads of bloom and light” to make butterflies’ wings.

Flower Fairies

Just as there was active supernatural involvement with the animal kingdom, folk tradition identifies two aspects to the relationship between fairies and plants. They are attracted to certain herbs, whether supernaturally or for merely utilitarian reasons (foxgloves, for example, are called fairy gloves and fairy thimbles) and, secondly, the fairies are said inhabit certain trees, such as oaks, thorns and elders.  It was a relatively easy transition from these associations to come up with the idea of flower fairies as popularised by artists Cicely Baker and Margaret Tarrant, but the foundations of this twentieth century phenomenon are much deeper and older (see Lewis Spence, British Fairy Tradition, pp.178-80).

It looks as though the first step towards the flower fairy idea was to emphasise the affinity between fairies and particular flowers.  Next, it was an easy step to conceive of the spirits living in those flowers and the miniaturisation of the fairies popularised by Shakespeare and his contemporaries assisted with this.  Inevitably, too, the fairy character began to be softened by association with bloom, scent and colour.

This change seems to have proceeded from the seventeenth century, judging by scattered indications in our literature.  For instance, William Browne (1588-1643) in his verse The Rose imagined that “the nimble fairies by the pale-faced moon/ Water’d the root and kissed her pretty shade.”  From the eighteenth century there is good literary evidence for the idea of fairies taking up residence in flowers.  Coleridge, for example, described “Fays/ That sweetly nestle in the foxglove bells.” His contemporary George Darley imagined little fairies with scented wings emerging at night from blossoms and flitting from flower to flower enjoying nectar like wine (George Darley (1795-1846), What the Toys do at Night and The Elf Toper).

By the late nineteenth century this idea was exceedingly widespread: American poet Madison Julius Cawein repeatedly housed his fays in toadstools or in blooms and in his adult fairy tale, Phantastes, Scottish author George MacDonald described how “the flowers die because the fairies go away, not that the fairies disappear because the flowers die.  The flowers seem a sort of house for them, or outer bodies, which they can put on and off when they please… you would see a strange resemblance, almost a oneness between the flower and the fairy… [but] whether all flowers have fairies, I cannot determine.”  When J. M. Barrie adopted these ideas for Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, he was simply making use of an already well-established idea- although the success of his books and plays took it to a much wider audience.

Consequent upon inhabiting flowers, other connections were seen- for example, gardens become an ideal place to see fairies according to the poetry of Philip Bourke Marston and others.  It was also during the nineteenth century that the fairies’ role as conservers of plant life was crystallised.  In The Fairy’s Promise Edwin Arnold had fairies promise to help a love-sick poet because “Thou hast never plucked daisy or heather bell/ From the emerald braes where the fairies dwell.”   The fairies’ floral duties are spelled out in detail in The Wounded Daisy by Menella Bate Smedley.  They are to be found at work in the corners of meadows:

“Perhaps you’ll see them… setting the lilies steady,
Before they begin to grow;
Or getting the rosebuds ready
Before it is time to blow.
A fairy was mending a daisy
Which someone had torn in half…”

According to numerous nineteenth century poets the fairies shaped and inspired growth and, even, taught the plants how to grow at special schools over the winter.

Finally, Menella Bute Smedley made an important leap by involving humans as partners in the task of caring for the natural world:

“Then pull up the weeds with a will,/ And fairies will cherish the flowers.” (A Slight Confusion)

There are, then, two conceptions of the exact interrelationship between fairies and the natural world.  The first is that they exist simply as a part of the natural world and its processes.  The second, and more significant, is that they act as ‘guardians of nature’, actively watching over plants, animals and the earth as a whole and keeping the intricate systems in balance.

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Fairies and the Green Revolution

Many contemporary writers on fairy matters stress how the faes are opposed to intensive agriculture, to overuse of fertilisers, to pollution and to general environmental degradation.  It would be easy to imagine that these ideas have been imported into the faery faith since the 1960s, but the examples given so far make it abundantly clear that they were present in folklore and, thence it would seem, in literature, well before any conception of the harms of over-intensive cultivation even occurred to the scientific community.

Fairies have always been linked more closely to rural and uncultivated locations than to towns, although it would be wrong to suggest that they’re never seen in urban places (and the evidence of the recent Fairy Census and of the witness accounts recorded in Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing Fairies both suggest this is changing anyway).  Even in the countryside, though, they’re not a people solely of wild places and woods.  They often live and work around human farms (the Hobs and the Brownie type of spirit) and they frequently take advantage of the human environment, using mills and dancing in pastures and meadows at night.  There is no antipathy with agriculture as such, therefore.

That said, ideas of fairies as a champion of more traditional, organic, self-sufficient production date back to the mid-nineteenth century at the very latest.  For example, folklorist Evans Wentz in the 1900s heard in Scotland that the Highland clearances also drove off the sith.  Highlander John Dunbar of Invereen told him that “no one sees them now because every place on this parish where they used to appear has been put into sheep and deer and grouse and shooting.”  A vision of them fighting with sheep was seen, in fact, as a premonition of what was the follow (Evans Wentz, Fairy Faith, 94).

Conclusion

Works such as Peter Pan and the various Flower Fairies books unquestionably popularised the conception of the fairy as protector and champion of nature, but these ideas had been around since Elizabethan times and had been consolidating during the Victorian period. Such perceptions of the faeries are, arguably, as traditional as notions of them dancing in rings and stealing children.  The ‘green fairy’ is not some hippy, environmentalist creation, grafted on in recent decades, but is a fundamental element of the nature of Faery.

Margaret Tarrant, Brimstone Fairy

For further discussion of the environmental role of faeries, see my more recent post on the relationship of faeries to the natural world and my book Faeries and the Natural World (2021):

Wedgwood Fairyland

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I have argued before that faery has had a profound influence on many aspects of culture, especially in the visual arts.  I have illustrated my posts with a wide range of images, from oil paintings to postcards, but not previously ceramics.  However, pottery also proved a popular vehicle for fairy imagery, from the ‘Boo-Boos’ of Mabel Lucie Attwell to some very high quality pieces produced by the famous Wedgwood company.

‘Fairyland lustre ware’ is one of Wedgwood’s best-known (and most highly collectable) ceramic ranges. It was the project of one designer, Daisy Makeig-Jones.  The contemporary fashion was for geometric Art Deco designs, but Jones’ work seemed  to  appeal to a public wearied and depressed by the First World War.

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The Artist

Susannah Margaretta ‘Daisy’ Makeig-Jones (1881–1945) was born in Wath-upon-Dearne near Rotherham, Yorkshire, the eldest of seven children. As a child, she was taught by a governess at home before attended a boarding school near Rugby, where her artistic talent was identified and encouraged. When her family moved to Torquay, she entered the town’s school of art. She then moved to London to live with an aunt whilst attending Chelsea art school.

Jones wanted to develop an independent career as an artist but had to wait until her late twenties to realise this.  An introduction from a relative to the managing director of Wedgwood encouraged in Jones the hope that she might train to become a ceramic designer. She was immediately enthusiastic about this idea and wrote to Wedgwood, who were at first reluctant.  To become a successful designer she would first have to learn the basic principles and processes of ceramic manufacture, which would mean working on the factory floor. The long apprenticeship and the social gulf between Jones, a doctor’s daughter, and the factory hands were both concerns to the company’s management. Nonetheless, she was not to be discouraged and her persistence secured her a position. In 1909, at the age of twenty-eight, she travelled to Staffordshire to begin training as an apprentice pottery painter.

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Jones showed great promise and was promoted to the permanent staff in August 1911. For a while she designed nursery ware in the studio of the company’s art director (using illustrations for Hans Christian Andersen as a model) but in January 1914 she finally achieved her ambition to become a designer with a studio of her own.

Jones was attracted to fanciful designs and began to produce imitations of Oriental dragon patterns in 1913 in what was called ‘ordinary lustre ware.’ She moved on to her signature Fairyland Lustre design in 1915. In creating these new patterns on bone china (also new to Wedgwood), Jones was influenced by illustrations in children’s story books, such as H J Ford’s pictures for Andrew Lang’s colour fairy books, which she had loved as a girl, as well as illustrations by Edmund Dulac, Arthur Rackham and Kay Nielsen.  She rarely drew fairies herself, using other artists’ figures within an overall decorative scheme of her own devising.  Jones also drew upon the rich colours and designs of old oriental porcelain. Daisy produced fantasy landscapes peopled by magical figures such as fairies and elves, all in glowing, jewel-like colours picked out with gold.

Jones’ promotion within Wedgwood was unusual not only because she was a woman, but also because she rose from within the company’s ranks, an exception to their usual practice of bringing in well-known and established designers from outside.  Apparently, this rapid success was not good for Jones’ character.  She became self-important and domineering and would not take advice from her employers; this personal trait was compounded by her higher social standing and family links to the Wedgwood family.  Some staff alleged that she seemed more interested in fairies and elves and mythical worlds rather than the real one of harsh economic facts.  She was not prepared or able to change her way of working and, eventually, in April 1931, she was asked to retire.  She initially refused and carried on working in her studio.  A confrontation followed, of course, and Jones left Wedgwood in a fury, having had all her designs smashed.  Her career was over and she returned to Devon to live with her family.  Jones died in 1945.

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Fairyland Lustre

The Fairyland line was a boon to the Wedgwood company, as business had fallen off with the outbreak of war, a loss of revenue compounding a range of pre-existing financial difficulties.   The new Fairyland Lustre series proved extremely popular because, New York antiques dealer Nicholas Dawes has surmised, “Many Europeans were looking for something to escape from the horrors of war,” and Jones’ designs were “escapist [and] fantastical.”  This may be correct: we have seen previously how artists responded to the Great War: some by taking shelter in fairyland (such as Algernon Blackwood and Edward Elgar,  Bernard Sleigh, Estella Canziani, Robert Graves, J R R Tolkien, Rose Fyleman and Francis Ledwidge), others by confronting it and recruiting faery to the war effort.

A large part of the success of the Fairyland lustreware range was the beautiful effects that Jones achieved by combining modern technical innovations and an ancient glazing technique that mixed gold, silver and copper metallic oxide pigments in oil before painting them onto the pottery. After firing, the metal melts into a very thin, lustrous, reflective film that produces an iridescent effect. The complexity of the process and the cost of the raw materials meant that, at the time, the pieces were considered expensive, but were still a commercial success for the company.

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A trade booklet titled Wedgwood Fairyland Ware from 1921 described the line in these terms:

“The doors of Fairyland are many but hard to find. Some are hidden in hollow trees or caves, others are in wells or lakes, or at the bottom of the sea. It’s possible to get there by climbing up a rainbow, a sunbeam, a moonbeam or by getting a leprechaun to make you a pair of fairy shoes.”

Fairyland Lustre line proved immensely popular across in the United States during the 1920s, providing Wedgwood with a popular and expensive product with which to penetrate the lucrative American market. Soon, however, Jones’ Art Nouveau fairies faded from fashion as tastes changed and the line was progressively discontinued from 1929.  Wedgwood hired a new art director and moved on to more austere modern styles, abandoning the expensive multi-coloured glazes as the world entered economic depression.

The range comprised sixty-two patterns made until 1931 or available by special order until 1941.  Its contemporary popularity is attested by the fact that it was quickly imitated. Besides its artistic significance, it is highly collectable today and can command very high prices.

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Further Reading

For more information, see my book Fairy Art of the Twentieth Century

 

 

Enchanted gardens (with fairies at the bottom)

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Cicely Mary Barker, The pine tree fairy, c.1940, Laing Art Gallery

I recently caught the end of an exhibition at the William Morris Gallery, near to where I live in East London.  The theme of the show was ‘The enchanted garden’  but there was, unexpectedly, a strong fairy theme alongside the pictorial  paean to English garden paradises.

Amongst the pictures displayed were several of the original flower fairy illustrations by Cicely Mary Barker, which were a delight to see.  They were much larger than I might have anticipated.  There was also ‘A fairy’ by Lucien Pisarro and the delightful ‘Jorinda and Joringel’ a painting illustrating a scene from one of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales by Mark Lancelot Symons, a painter who produced a number of fairy works and who deserves greater attention.

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Lucien Pissaro, The fairy, 1894

The convention is for us to imagine fairies in the countryside- dancing in meadows and on high moors- and leaving fairy rings behind- or secreted in woodland glades.  This is all perfectly correct: these are the secluded places where traditional fairy sightings have occurred and they have been reinforced in our imaginations by writers like William Shakespeare.  In the last century and a half, though, writers have also moved the fairy folk into (urban) back gardens.  They have become, perhaps, the outside equivalent of the domestic brownie.

Most famous for this must be Rose Amy Fyleman (1877-1957) whose first published work, There are fairies at the bottom of our garden, appeared in May 1917. She brought Faery right into the lives of her readers, imagining the fairy court assembling to dance behind the gardener’s shed and casting the imagined little girl reading the poem as the fairy queen herself.

Fyleman was not alone though in relocating fairies so much closer to home, nor was she the first to make the move.  English poet Philip Bourke Marston (1850-1887) repeatedly swapped between the ideas of fairies and flowers in gardens in poems such as Flower fairies, Garden fairies and Before and after the flower birth.  It’s never entirely clear whether they are real fairies or the spirits of flowers, for their silver laughter and singing are described, as are their “sudden scents.”

“Flower fairies- have you found them,
When the summer’s dusk is falling.
With the glow-worms watching round them,
Have you heard them softly calling?”

American poet Madison Julius Cawein (1865- 1914) also wrote extensively on fairy themes; in ‘Fairies’ he imagines Puck in a garden, travelling “Down the garden-ways … on a beetle’s back” whilst in Unmasked he too realises that the blooms outside his house are really fairies in disguise.  Lastly, another US poet, Arthur Peterson, in a verse entitled Halloween 1916 assembled Puck and the “blithe fairies”, who are the spirits of the summer flowers, to dance together to mark the coming of autumn with its frosts.

“… we came unto a garden,

Bright within a gloomy forest…

And I saw, as we grew nearer,

That the flowers so blue and golden

Were but little men and women,

Who amongst the green did shine.

But ‘twas marvellous the resemblance

Their bright figures bore to blossoms…”

Symons, Mark Lancelot, 1887-1935; Jorinda and Jorindal

Mark Symons, Jorinda and Joringel, Reading art gallery

‘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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Fairy wells

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Goblin harvest by Amelia Bowerley

“The Fairy Well of Lagnanay-
Lie nearer me, I tremble so,
Una, I’ve heard wise women say
(Hearken to my tale of woe)-
That if before the dews arise,
True maiden in its icy flow
With pure hand bathe her bosom thrice,
Three lady-brackens pluck likewise,
And three times round the fountain go,
She straight forgets her tears and sighs.”

The fairy well of Lagnanay, Samuel Ferguson

I have discussed in a previous post how some fairies have an aversion to running water.  In contrast, though, still water has strong faery and magical properties and is, as hitherto described, the home of quite a few (largely fearsome) fays- the ‘meremaids’ of pools and lakes.

I want to look at the supernatural nature of ponds and wells in this posting.  A folklore example of this that comes from East Yorkshire records how a troublesome bogle in Holderness was banished to a well, since called Robin Round Cap Well.  In lowland Scotland the story was told of a girl who sat spinning wool on a distaff by a well when she looked in a saw a pot of gold beneath the surface.  She marked the spot with her spindle and ran to tell her father.  He suspected it was just fairy glamour intended to trap and drown her and, sure enough, when they returned to the place, the moor was covered in distaffs.  Nonetheless, twelve men in green appeared and returned her original spindle with its wool all spun.  Author Rose Fyleman was aware of the fay powers of water and, in The second adventure of the rainbow cat, the cat is given a bottle of fairy water from a magic well that bestows the ability to see through walls.

me_fairy_well

Writer and designer Feral Strumpet at the holy well at Mount Grace Priory, Osmotherly.

Holy (fairy) wells

Britain once was covered with ‘holy’ wells, many of which had no Christian association at all.  They were wishing wells, places of prediction, and very many are likely to have been so regarded for millenia. These sites often still exist, but their supernatural links are now mostly forgotten; they are muddy springs in fields or neglected wells by roadsides.  They still have a strong attraction for many, nonetheless.

Respect was shown to fairy wells in various ways.  Offerings of pins were made at Bradwell in Derbyshire on Easter Sunday and at Wooler in Northumberland, whenever a person wanted a wish to come true.  At various sites in Scotland, both buttons and pins were left.  Perhaps the most famous of these was the so-called ‘Cheese Well’ on top of Minchmuir, Peebles-shire, into which locals threw pieces of cheese for the guardian fairies.  Given the fays’ well known liking for dairy products, such offerings seem entirely appropriate; the same can’t be said about the pins, though, as iron is always regarded as an effective way of repelling our good neighbours.

eichler nixe
Reinhold Maximilian Eichler, The Nixie (from Jugend magazine, 1898)

Healing wells

The wells had health giving properties, too, so that if a child had gone into a decline and was no longer thriving (it was ‘shargie’ and had been afflicted by ‘the fairy’) leaving a child overnight near a well would cure it.  At Wooler, too, sickly children would be dipped in the well’s waters and bread and cheese left as an offering.  If it was suspected that the child had in fact been substituted for a fairy changeling, well water might again be part of the remedy.  At Chapel Euny in West Cornwall the way to expel a changeling and restore a human child was to dip the suspect infant in the well on the first three Wednesdays in May.  Both the time of day and the time of year are particularly fay, as has been described before.

Given the supernatural properties of well water, it is unsurprising that they should be used to imbue the human children abducted by the fairies with fay properties.  This is only evidenced in literature rather than folklore, but an excellent example is in the Scottish verse Kilmeny by James Hogg.  She’s dipped in the waters of life to ensure that her youth and beauty never fade.  

hannah-titania-jewelry-fairy-well-222531971

Poet, artist, musician Hannah Titania at her fairy well

Conclusions

There’s a complex and (as ever) contrary relationship between the faeries and water.  It can be the medium in which they live, it can be protective against them and it can be used by them for magical purposes.

Many of us instinctively sense the links between fays, wells and some sort of supernatural presence.  Fairies’ association with natural features may be part of this; perhaps the mysterious appearance of fresh water from underground had mysterious and magical qualities that also encouraged links to the Good Folk.  The Tiddy Mun of the East Anglian fens, for example, was believed to control the flood waters and had to be propitiated with offerings of water.  Fresh water can be both potion and poison; which will apply seems unpredictable and to depend very much upon place and personality.

Further reading

See my posting on the Sennen fairies for an example of a sighting at a well.

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

 

Bernard Sleigh and the map of fairyland- Part Two

afanc

I continue here my examination of Bernard Sleigh’s Ancient mappe of fairyland and its background.

‘Edwardian innocence’- the context of the map

“Fairies and ghosts are here galore.” (Robert Graves, ‘Letter to SS from Mametz Wood,’ from Fairies and fusiliers. 1918)

Tom Harper, the British Library’s antiquarian map curator, has observed that:

An ancient mappe of Fairyland… was published in 1918, the year that World War I ended, so it is difficult not to relate the two in some way. Could the Fairyland constitute a yearning for a return to pre-1914 Edwardian innocence? Compared with the devastated, bomb-blasted landscape of northern France, this vision of a make-believe land may have seemed a seductive escape for a European society bearing the physical and psychological scars of mass conflict.

The map is very much a product of the Arts and Crafts ideology which evinced a return to traditional, pre-industrial production methods.  The ornamentation and typeface are in the style of William Morris’ Kelmscott Press. This retrospective stylistic attitude places the map in opposition to a mechanical modernity, which happened to have reached its most destructive pinnacle during the War.”

These comments raise a very interesting question.  To what extent is escapism in art excusable?  Should artists confront the events of their day in their works, as is the case with Great War artist Otto Dix, or should they offer their audiences refuge?  Furthermore, as noted, Sleigh was too old to serve in Flanders.  Without that first-hand experience- what the Germans called Fronterlebnis– was he qualified to speak in any case?

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Bernard Sleigh

Modern painter Peter Blake is known for the series of fairy pictures he produced whilst a member of the Brotherhood of Ruralists during the 1970s.  Interviewed for the Independent in December 1997, Blake told Andrew Lambirth that-

“Fairies are a vehicle for what we want them to be… There’s an edge of magic realism to them.  The fairies I paint have the ability to make magic.”

More recently, however, Blake seemed to have a change of heart, describing his fairy phase as “unforgivably sentimental.”  Reviewing Tate Liverpool’s 2007 retrospective of Blake’s career, critic Waldemar Januszczak was far less kind; for him the pictures were “unforgivably silly” when set against the political background of late 1970s Britain.  So- were the fairy pictures a dereliction of some perceived duty as a social reporter; should Blake have been painting punks and Grunwick strikers?  Should Sleigh likewise have painted mud and trenches?

Rose-Fyleman

Rose Amy Fyleman

Prolific English children’s author Rose Amy Fyleman (1877-1957) is probably best remembered for her first published work, There are fairies at the bottom of our garden, which appeared in May 1917.  It reassures readers that they can participate in fairy revels themselves:

“There are fairies at the bottom of our garden!…
The King is very proud and very handsome;
The Queen- now you can guess who that could be
(She’s a little girl all day, but at night she steals away)?
Well – it’s Me!”

Over the Channel as Fyleman wrote, the British were preparing the appalling offensive at Passchendaele. Talk of fairies, merrymaking with the local wildlife behind the gardener’s shed, might have seemed curiously irrelevant and inappropriate- even unpatriotic- that summer.  The next year, though, Fyleman wrote a partner poem, There used to be, which stands in affecting antithesis to her previous verse:

“There used to be fairies in Germany-

I know, for I’ve seen them there…

What, and oh what were they doing

To let things like this?

How could it be? And didn’t they see

That folk were going amiss?…

There used to be fairies in Germany-

The children will look for them still…

“The flowers,” they will say, “have all vanished,

And where can the fairies be fled

That played in the fern?”- The flowers will return,

But I fear that the fairies are dead.”

This is a remarkable social and political commentary.  The Great War smashed many childhood illusions and security; to some degree it appears that it was the fairies’ fault, arising from neglect of and by them.  The result has been their extinction.

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Francis Ledwidge

Whatever our views of Fyleman’s verse, it cannot be denied that fairyland provided comfort and shelter from the experience of war for those actually on the frontline.  Arguably their views are a better measure of the fittest response from art to death and disruption.  Irish poet Francis Ledwidge was writing fairy verse in the trenches right up until the week of his death in 1917.  Awaiting action in Belgium in July that year, Ledwidge preferred not to think about whizz bangs and gas but to imagine fairy dances, piping elves, ceol sidhe (fairy music) and the allurements of fairy lovers:

“From hill to hill, from land to land,

Her lovely hand is beckoning for me,

I follow on through dangerous zones,

Cross dead men’s bones and oceans stormy.”

(The lanawn shee (The fairy lover), July 1917)

In fact, Ledwidge’s attraction to fairy themes only increased as the war progressed.  His first collection of verse, Songs of the fields (1915), contained no fay references.  His second, Songs of peace of 1917, contained two and the third, Last songs, which was published in 1918, includes eight fairy poems.  Arguably, as the stress increased and his odds of avoiding injury diminished, the lure of a fantasy outlet grew irresistible.

Poet and mythologist Robert Graves came out of action in Flanders still able to promise that “you’ll be fairies soon” in his poem Cherry time or to declare “I’d love to be a fairy’s child” in the verse of the same name (both published in his 1918 collection Fairies and fusiliers). Another officer, J. R. R. Tolkien, was likewise writing fairy verse in the trenches- although his subjects may have been toughened by the experience, transforming them from typical winged Victorian elves in his early verse to the noble warriors of Lord of the Rings.

MAS 701 - The Piper of Dreams

Estella Canziani, The piper of dreams, Medici Society

Lastly, in summer 1915 painter Estella Canziani exhibited The piper of dreams at the Royal Academy.  The picture shows a boy playing a whistle in a wood, unaware of the fairies flitting around him; it was an instant success.  The Medici Society quickly acquired the rights to the image and published prints and postcards, very many of which were sent to troops at the front, where it was very popular.

As Blake indicated, fairies have always had a creative function in our culture, providing inspiration to writers and visual artists alike.  Fairy imagery too is a vehicle for addressing many emotions and problems, from sexuality to violence.  There is no inherent reason why fairy art cannot discuss war- nor why it should not be a legitimate response to conflict.

‘Dreamland’- the content of the map

 One map dealer has described faerie, as depicted by Sleigh, as “an idyllic, fantastical land.”  This captures its mood exactly.  However, we should note at the outset that there is a slight misnomer.  The map portrays the land of fairy-tales, rather than being a depiction of Faerie.

wall

The 1917 Guide to the map is a charming read, being poetic and full of authentic fairylore.  Sleigh begins:

“In the heart of every child is hidden a little golden key which unlocks the door of a silent, clean swept room full of changing lights and mystic shadows.  There, every child that is born into the world enters at times to gaze eagerly upon the one great window, pictured with ancient legends…

Charmed magic casements, opening on the foam,

Of perilous oceans, of faery lands forlorn.” (Guide p.7)

Sleigh concludes with lines from John Keats’ famous poem, Ode to a nightingale, inappropriate as they may be to his generally affectionate vision of faery.

The map is “for the use and guidance of future explorers” who travel to the “rainbow guarded shores” of this mysterious place- The land of heart’s desire, The fortunate isles, The islands of the blest.  It’s needed because the tracks “vanish and reappear- and vanish again in bewildering fashion- baffling and discouraging to even the most earnest traveller.” ( The guide, pp.8-9) In Fairyland distances are measured in thoughts, each equalling five hundred of our miles.  What’s more, travellers must always be cautious.  They should arrive at Dreamland Harbour where their passports will be stamped and their eyes touched with magic ointment.  This traditional protection against fairy glamour is vital because, without it, they won’t be able to tell good fairies from bad and they may end up as a lost child in Never Never Land.  In this emphasis upon the malicious and untrustworthy nature of fairy kind, Sleigh is wholly authentic: faery has always been a place of illusion and peril and Sleigh did not conceal this from his children.

avalon

Turning to the map itself, there is a blending of fairytale, myth, fairy lore and the Matter of Britain.  Fairyland is an island, mountainous at its two ends and with a lower land bridge joining these.  A wall, “builded of Stars by manie Elfin Emperours in days remote,” divides the good and evil halves.  The island is littered with symbols indicating inns, fairy shrines and temples, wishing wells and, most exciting of all, the sites of dwarves’ treasure.  There are plenty of traditional folklore references.

Amidst the peaks on the left/ west, we see the Valley of Dragons, in which lies The Weird Wood and “Blackadder Lake- here Afanc broodeth.” The afanc is a Welsh water monster.  Nearby is an elfin monastery, a wandering will of the wisp and, in the hills above, fairy flocks grazing near Fairies’ Marsh, Elfin Mere and the Kobold’s Caves.

Settlements crowd the lower ground between the highlands.  There we find many fairy references: Elfin Citie, Kelpie Hamlet, Undine Bay, Brownies’ Huts, Troll Town, Dwarf’s Caves, Bogles Corner, Pixie Town, an Elfin temple and Oberon’s Cross.  Scattered around these you spot that “Tom Tit Tot lives here,” that there are leprechauns, nixies, neckans, mermaids, sirens and water sprites, a River of White Nymphs and, where “the sidhe make the Water of Life.”

sidhe

So far, so good: but the traditional theme is not so consistent.  You will also encounter Humpty Dumpty, Goosey Gander, Bo Peep, Puss in Boots and Jack Horner.  In Avalon you may visit the tombs of Arthur and Guinevere and Morgan Le Fay’s house.  Merlin sits disconsolate in the Forest of Lyonesse; there is Ogier le Danois close to ‘The Imp Tree’ from the romance of Sir Orfeo (“Ƿai sett hem doun al þre/ Under a faire ympe-tre”).  You will come across Perseus and Andromeda, Theseus and the Golden Fleece, Valhalla and Asgard.  Very modern elements creep in, too: we see the Lost Boys and, away across the sea, the Water Babies and other personnel from Kingsley’s book.  The range of references is huge and you cannot but be impressed at the breadth of literature with which the Sleigh children were acquainted, aged about ten and twelve.  There is a reading list at the end of The guide, which includes the reasonably predictable Arabian Nights, Andersen, Charles Kingsley, Nesbit and Brothers Grimm, but also suggests the young audience might like to tackle Malory, The Mabinogion, de la Motte Fouqué and Macdonald’s Phantastes- a very different proposition to The princess and the goblin.

‘A key to all the mythologies’

Many authorities have argued that the Victorian fairy fascination was a response to disenchantment with their world- and an effort to re-enchant it.  By 1918 the need for enchantment was very great.

The Ancient mappe of Fairyland won’t teach us a great deal about the location or nature of Faerie, but it will certainly entertain and charm.  For example, along the lower edge you will spot Puck singing for Titania at the foot of an old-fashioned dove cote from which most of the birds have been evicted by tiny winged fays.

ariel

Nonetheless, Sleigh’s map is more than amusement.  Whilst Tolkien’s Middle Earth maps can be engrossing, they are no more than drawings of made up places.  Sleigh’s map is the same, but it is more: it is a “little golden key” to a wealth of other stories, opening a magic casement onto a treasury of classic myths.  Like all real maps, it is a guide to a journey, but it’s not the adventure itself.

Further reading

See too my further discussion of the role played by faery art and literature in the 1914-18 war effort: ‘War fairies‘ and my consideration of Rutland Boughton, the Glastonbury Festival and faery opera.  For further discussion of Faery art in the period, see my book Fairy Art of the Twentieth Century

 

 

 

“A witchery of sound”- ‘ceol sidhe’ or fairy music

ceol sidhe

‘Flute fairy’ by Svetlana Chezhina

“There’s many feet on the moor to-night, and they fall so light as they turn and pass,
So light and true that they shake no dew from the featherfew and the hungry grass.
I drank no sup and I broke no crumb of their food, but dumb at their feast sat I;
For their dancing feet and their piping sweet, now I sit and greet till I’m like to die.

Oh kind, kind folk, to the words you spoke I shut my ears and I would not hear!
And now all day what my own kin say falls sad and strange on my careless ear;
For I’m listening, listening, all day long to a fairy song that is blown to me,
Over the broom and the canna’s bloom, and I know the doom of the Ceol-Sidhe.

I take no care now for bee or bird, for a voice I’ve heard that is sweeter yet.
My wheel stands idle: at death or bridal apart I stand and my prayers forget.
When Ulick speaks of my wild-rose cheeks and his kind love seeks out my heart that’s cold,
I take no care though he speaks me fair for the new love casts out the love that’s cold.

I take no care for the blessed prayer, for my mother’s hand or my mother’s call.
There ever rings in my ear and sings, a voice more dear and more sweet than all.
Cold, cold’s my breast, and broke’s my rest, and oh it’s blest to be dead I’d be,
Held safe and fast from the fairy blast, and deaf at last to the Ceol-Sidhe!”

This poem, ‘The fairy music’ by Nora Chesson Hopper, captures the enchantment and other worldliness that it is associated with fairy music.  Previously I have discussed the fairies’ liking for music and song and what seems to be the generally pleasure-seeking nature of their existence (see my earlier posting on  fairy pastimes as well as chapter 11 of my British fairies).  According to John Dunbar of Invereen, one of folklorist Walter Evans-Wentz’ Highland informants, the fairies were “awful for music, and used to be heard often playing the bagpipes.” (The fairy faith in Celtic countriesp.95)

Fairy musical skill

What I would like to do now in this posting is to discuss the actual nature and sound of that fairy music, based upon the first hand testimonies of those who have claimed to have been fortunate enough to have heard it.  Nonetheless, there are a number of themes associated with fairy music which we may quickly recap:

  • the music is often heard coming from particular knolls, hills or barrows, in which the fairies are taken to reside.  This is a very common local story and it can be found from the Fairy Knowe on Skye to the ‘music barrows’ of southern England, for example at Bincombe Down and Culliford Tree in Dorset and Wick Moor, near Stogursey in Somerset.
  • fairy musical skills and even instruments can be granted to fortunate humans.  There are several sets of bagpipes in Scotland alleged to be fairy gifts.  Fairy musical ability could be a blessing that made a man and his heirs rich (Evans- Wentz p.103). It could also be a curse, too: the favoured one might die young, being taken back by the fairies to play for them (Evans-Wentz p.40).
  • conversely, talented human musicians were from time to time abducted to satisfy the powerful fairy need for music and dance.  Almost always they met the fate of all who tarry in Faery.  They believed that they had played for just a night, but find all transformed on their return home.
  • fairy music can have magical or enchanting power- for example, from Ireland come stories of those who, on hearing it, felt compelled to dance- and then had to continue until they dropped from sheer exhaustion (Evans-Wentz p.69).  Coleridge in his poem The eolian harp described “Such a soft floating witchery of sound/ As twilight Elfins make;”  deliberately or not, a spell seemed to be cast upon the listening human; and,
  • occasionally, humans are able to commit a fairy tune to memory and contribute it to the mortal repertoire.  One such is Be nort da deks o’ Voe from Shetland. Two Welsh examples are Cân y tylwyth teg and Ffarwel Ned Pugh (see Wirt Sikes, British goblins c.7 and also Evans Wentz Fairy faith pp.118 & 131- two examples from Man).

The last two points are of particular significance into an enquiry into what fairy music actually sounds like.  Most of our older sources are not very helpful on this.  In his history of Aberystruth parish, the Reverend Edmund Jones in 1779 is typical of the vague descriptions normally found: “everyone said [the music] was low and pleasant, but none could ever learn the tune.”  Gathering evidence for his book The fairy faith in Celtic countriesEvans-Wentz was told that fairy music consisted of tunes not of this world, unlike anything a mortal man ever heard (pp.124 & 24), being the finest, grandest and most beautiful kind (pp.32, 47 & 57).  Evans-Wentz was informed that it often continued over an extended period- an hour or even a whole night.

Ninfa

‘A little night music’ by David Delamare

The sound of fairy music

Evidently the otherworldly nature of the music gave witnesses problems when they later tried to describe their experiences.  The testimony of those of a more artistic temperament might therefore prove more enlightening.  Poet and mystic George Russell (AE) told Evans-Wentz that he first listened to the music in the air on a hillside in County Sligo.  He heard “what seemed to be the sound of bells, and was trying to understand these aerial clashings in which wind seemed to break upon wind in an ever-changing musical silvery sound.” (p.61)  This leads us much closer to the reality and, in fact, the best account comes from a close friend of Russell and his wife, the visionary writer Ella Young.  Over the summer of 1917 and into 1918 she repeatedly heard the ceol sidhe, which in her opinion surpassed human symphonies.  Interestingly the very same description was used on the Isle of Man in the 1720s (Simon Young and Ceri Houlbrook, Magical folk, 2018p.173).

The fairy music was, Young said, “orchestral and of amazing richness and complexity.”  The melodies could be exquisite, sometimes like very fast reels, at others slow and wistful.  On August 27th 1917 she described “a certain monotony like slow moving waves with a running melody on the crests.”  Interwoven with this might be voices singing in an unknown tongue, either solo or resembling Gregorian chant.  Young noted “delicate and intricate rhythms” in a variety of tempos, including “music of stricken anvils.”  She heard a “myriad, myriad instruments” among which she mentioned cymbals, bells (both silvery tinkling and deep tolling), trumpets, harps, violins, drums, pipes, organs and bagpipes.  Several times, though, she could not compare the sound to anything she knew from earthly ensembles; she heard “very high notes- higher than any human instrument could produce,” “something like a Jew’s harp” and “a curious reedy instrument.”  Again, Young was not alone in this: George Waldron recorded that on Man in the 1720s islanders would hear “Musick, as could proceed from no earthly instruments” (Magical folk, p.173).

Despite her eloquence and sensitivity, Young struggled to give a clear account; it was “not music I can describe… it is beyond words.”   Moreover, she found it “difficult to recall this music and the sensation it creates.”  Nevertheless, she wrote (in terms similar to Russell’s) that the orchestral sound resembled a “wave or gush of wind” and that its effect was to create “a sense of freedom and exultation.”

Young harboured some doubts over her aural visions.  She wrote on September 9th 1917 that “my head has been for several days quite normal,” but then she heard the sounds again and concluded “I think the singing in my head was really astral.” In other words, its origin was aethereal and unearthly.  She believed that all could hear the same if only they drew closer to nature and had a peaceful and patient heart.

It is difficult to know quite what to make of this.  Young herself admitted concerns over her own sanity, but at the same time W. B. Yeats and both AE and his wife heard the same “faery chimes” and “solemn undertone” of song.  Furthermore, as noted earlier, these experiences could last for hours; this lessens the likelihood that they can be dismissed as temporary auditory delusions.  Either these witnesses all hallucinated together or these highly detailed and circumstantial experiences record some actual sensations.  The consensus, at least amongst poets, was certainly to confirm that pipes and, particularly, bells were characteristic of fairy music (see for example Ceol sidhe by Francis Ledwidge or Fairy ring by Abbie Farwell Brown).

cicely-mary-barker-fairy orchestra

Cicely Mary Barker, ‘Fairy orchestra’

The soft low music of the tribe

In conclusion, whatever its nature, the idea of fairy music has always had an aura of mystery and enchantment and, as such, has always attracted poets.  The opening verse from Nora Hopper embodied this, but even a poet like Rose Fyleman, whose fairy verse was generally very anodyne and was aimed at a junior audience, could still suggest a little of that magical strangeness; here’s her poem ‘Fairy music’:

“When the fiddlers play their tunes you may sometimes hear,
Very softly chiming in, magically clear,
Magically high and sweet, the tiny crystal notes
Of fairy voices bubbling free from tiny fairy throats.

When birds at break of day chant their morning prayers,
Or on sunny afternoons pipe ecstatic airs,
Comes an added rush of sound to the silver din-
Songs of fairy troubadours gaily joining in.

When athwart the drowsy fields summer twilight falls,
Through the tranquil air there float elfin madrigals,
And in wild November nights, on the winds astride,
Fairy hosts go rushing by, singing as they ride.

Every dream that mortals dream, sleeping or awake,
Every lovely fragile hope- these the fairies take,
Delicately fashion them and give them back again
In tender, limpid melodies that charm the hearts of men.”

Perhaps our best response is to hope to share Ella Young’s experiences and to know for ourselves that “This astral music is very much in sound delicately beautiful.”  As Irish poet William Sharp wrote in his verse The nine desires, it is “The desire of the poet, the soft, low music of the Tribe of the Green Mantles.”

Further reading

There are words to accompany this music, too, and I describe Young’s experience of that in a separate post on fairy speech and song.

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