Fairy lovers- passion and peril

Brian Froud, ‘The Leanan-Sidhe,’ from Faeries

As many humans have discovered, having a faery lover can prove to be a terrible burden and strain.  Although you might initially feel a great sense of joy, pride and accomplishment, this often vanishes as the true cost of your lover becomes apparent.

The attraction is simply explained.  Fairy women are renowned to be great beauties– which is why, in Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra, the Roman general greets the Egyptian queen as a “great fairy” (IV, 8).  To describe her as a fae is the only way of doing justice to her looks.  As well as beauty, fairy lovers and wives can bring advantages, such as supernatural skills and knowledge, but they can be demanding and jealous lovers too.

The Manx female fairy called the lhiannan shee is a very good example of this.  Dora Broome (Fairy Tales from the Isle of Man 36) describes one such lhiannan shee.  She woes her chosen man by leaving him a chest full of gold and a golden length of mermaid’s hair, but she also hangs around his home, sighing and trying to catch his eye, which the man knows could be fateful for him.  He decides to get married, thinking that this will put her off, but the plan doesn’t work.  The fairy woman continues to hang around, disturbing the newly wed couple, until the husband eventually catches sight of the fairy’s lovely face looking through the window.  She was “more beautiful than moonlight on water or the first primrose in Spring.”  The man falls under her spell instantly and abandons his wife for seven years.  When he finally returns, his wife has remarried and her first husband has been reduced to a white haired, haggard wreck- and can never escape his fairy pursuer. 

Broome says that the charms against a lhiannan shee are to say the Lord’s prayer quickly if you glimpse her and to always carry with you a magical object, such as twig of cuirn (rowan or mountain ash) or a fish bone called a bollan.  Both are highly effective at repelling fairies, apparently.  Powerful protection is needed, though, because “the face of the Fairy Woman is lovelier than a dream and lonelier than a sea-bird’s cry.”   

In another story, The Fisherman and the Ben-Varrey, Broome describes how a mermaid with lovely blue eyes and golden hair has a similarly bewitching effect on a poor man.  She gives him a chest of old golden coins and the sound of her voice as she sings on the rocks on the shore is so enticing that he would join her and drown had it not been for his wife locking the door.  The money turns out to be a curse, because everyone assumes it must be stolen, whilst the family end up poorer than ever because the fisherman stops fishing, believing he has wealth for life.  By luck, all the money is lost- which lifts the spell- but it’s clear that sooner or later the ben-varrey would have claimed him.

The lhiannan shee’s influence upon a man can be malign, causing him to waste away and to lose his wits and friends.  For example, a large burly man took up with a fairy woman.  He started to share all his food and drink with her, often putting his cup behind him so that she could drink (even though no-one else saw her).  As time passed, he began to laugh and talk to himself when alone (or so it seemed to others).  He also became paranoid about people trying to listen in to his conversations with her- although he claimed that the shee girl was telling him when he was being spied upon. It is particularly dangerous to speak to one, as it puts you at her mercy: in late Victorian times a man described meeting one in the fields near Rushen on Man and being very tempted to chat to her because she was so charming and lovely, but he knew not to do so because a friend of his had done this and had then been haunted by her, with the shee woman even following him into pubs and drinking his beer.

In 1904, a Manx author was able to identify at least half a dozen known lhiannan shees on the island. One at Glendowan was living with a man; another at Sorby had been seen chasing her husband and several others had been sighted wandering (or prowling) on their own, for example at Port Erin, where she was seen walking up the mountain.

The lhiannan shee is especially notable for the fact that she pursued and attached herself to men.  This proximity often came to be termed ‘haunting’ because it was too intense and obsessive and, both on Man and in the Highlands, there are stories of men who fled overseas to escape their fairy lovers, only to find that they had followed them across oceans. The Scottish and Manx shee women are extreme cases, but any fairy relationship can prove burdensome and demanding for the human partner. In Wales, as is known from numerous stories, winning the fae woman in the first place can be difficult (see the accounts about tempting them with bread) and the marriage is almost always subject to strict obligations or taboos. Normally, these involve keeping iron away from the fairy female, but there’s a very similar tale told of Dolgellau pool. A fairy would bathe there on summer evenings and Hugh Evans dared to spy on her- and fell in love. She consented to marry on the stipulation that he would allow her to continue to go off alone at nights and never interfere or ask questions about this. He agreed, but then became consumed with curiosity and tried to follow her one night. Hugh fell and broke his leg doing this and, once she had nursed him back to health, she left him forever.

In one Scottish story, the relentlessness of the fairy attachment is starkly revealed. A shepherd heard pipes playing and had to follow the sound of music. He was drawn onwards for weeks, months, seasons, living on roots and berries as he wandered. Finally he crossed the sea and, on the far shore, was met by a piper dressed in green who invited him to accept the love of a faery girl who had seen him with his flocks and had lured him to this place.

Many of the faery lovers I have described in previous posts can seem more passive, assigned the sorts of roles and attitudes allocated to women in the past.  On the surface this may be true, but it underestimates their power and planning.

Hans Zatzka

I have several times before mentioned the fairy women Tryamour in the story of Sir Launfal.  She is not unique.  In the Lay of Graelent, for example, the young knight is riding in a forest one May day when he comes upon a naked maiden bathing in a fountain, with her clothes hanging nearby on a bush.  He seizes them, in response to which she calls him by name and asks him to at least leave her shift. Graelent relents and allows her to come out of the water and dress, but then he’s overcome with lust and “did with her what he pleased.”  After what amounts to a rape, he begs her pardon, which she grants, before revealing that she had gone to the forest with the express intention of meeting him.  She then offers him fine clothes and money on condition that he binds himself to her and keeps their relationship secret.  Ultimately, the lady raises Graelent from death and disappears with him (strongly suggestive of Arthur and Morgan le Fay and clearly indicative of her fairy nature). This final departure to fairyland is repeated in Sir Launfal.

The Lay of Guingamor is quite similar.  The knight is hunting in a forest when he finds a maiden bathing in a spring and combing her hair (rather like a mermaid).  She is “long limbed and softly rounded” and, once again, he snatches her clothes to bring her within his power.  As before, though, it seems that her presence is far from accidental.  She addresses him by name and promises him love and gifts.  Guingamor then accompanies her to her palace, where a stay of three days lasts for three hundred years in human time.  These distortions in time as a familiar feature of passage between dimensions.

Finally, the lay called Le chevalier qui fist parler les cons et les culs involves another hunting knight discovering three nymphs bathing in a fountain.  They are “so seeming wise and beautiful, one might surmise that they were fairies in mortal guise.”  As soon as the knight’s squire sees the fays’ “white charms, their pretty bosoms, haunches, arms” he (yet again) snatches their clothes and rides off.  It is his master who restores their dresses to them, in return for which he is granted three powers- to be welcome everywhere and to be able to make “parler les cons et les culs” (to make cunts and arses talk…). A bizarre gift, but there you go…

It will have been noted from the previous paragraphs that fairy lovers are, in the British Isles, predominantly female.  Whereas Ireland has the gean cannah, the love talker, as a male equivalent to the leanan-sidhe, there are really no equivalent terrestrial beings in Britain.  There is, however, the northern Scottish tradition of male selkies, who will form sexual relationships with human women and father children.  Often, though, these relationships are brief and, not uncommonly, they’re non-consensual.  Selkie men seem prone to impregnating human women and abandoning them (see my posting on the chapter on selkies in my book Beyond Faery and, too, the ballad the Selkie of Sule Skerry).

Further Reading

There’s more discussion and examples of the lhiannan shee in my book Faery whilst in Beyond Faery I give extended consideration to the problems of human relationships with merfolk. My new book, Love and Sex in Faeryland, examines this subject at length.

‘Leanan Sidhe’ by Starfire-666 on Deviant Art, after Brian Froud in Good Faeries, Bad Faeries.

Christina Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’- faery lore and art

ArthurRackham_GoblinMarket_100
Arthur Rackham, Goblin Market

Christina Rossetti’s poem, Goblin Market, which was published in 1862, is primarily a work of literary genius.  Its rich, intoxicating language and hypnotic rhythm and refrains carry the reader along irresistibly.  It is a long poem, too long to reproduce in full here, but I provide a link to the whole text and cite here the first few lines:

“Morning and evening
Maids heard the goblins cry:
“Come buy our orchard fruits,
Come buy, come buy:
Apples and quinces,
Lemons and oranges,
Plump unpeck’d cherries,
Melons and raspberries,
Bloom-down-cheek’d peaches,
Swart-headed mulberries,
Wild free-born cranberries,
Crab-apples, dewberries,
Pine-apples, blackberries,
Apricots, strawberries;
All ripe together
In summer weather,
Morns that pass by,
Fair eves that fly;
Come buy, come buy:
Our grapes fresh from the vine,
Pomegranates full and fine,
Dates and sharp bullaces,
Rare pears and greengages,
Damsons and bilberries,
Taste them and try:
Currants and gooseberries,
Bright-fire-like barberries,
Figs to fill your mouth,
Citrons from the South,
Sweet to tongue and sound to eye;
Come buy, come buy.”

Goblin harvest amelia bowerley
Amelia Bowerly

The plot of the poem is quite easily summarised.  Two young sisters live together, supporting themselves by farming a smallholding.  Where their parents or relatives are, we never learn; the two girls are self-sufficient and independent.

Every evening the goblin men pass near their cottage, crying out their wares in tempting tones.  Sensible sister Lizzie knows that the goblins must be ignored; her sister Laura is weak and wants to taste the fruit.  She is reminded by Lizzie of the fate of Jeanie, who partook of the fairy food and then faded away and died, but she succumbs to their temptations and meets the goblins with their juicy, perfumed fruit- melons, cherries, pears and grapes.

frank adams
Frank Adams

However, once Laura has tasted the forbidden fruit, she cannot hear or see the goblin men again, and she begins to pine away just like Jeanie.  Lizzie realises there is only one way to save her sister: she goes one evening to meet the goblins, pays for their fruit but refuses to eat it.  In anger they smear her face with the juice, trying to get her to give in and taste it, but she is resolute and, by defying them, manages to drive the goblins off.

Lizzie returns home and her sister is able to lick the juice of her face.  Now, though, she finds it bitter, the goblin spell is broken and she is saved.

Hilda Koe
Laura & Lizzie by Hilda Koe (active 1895-1901)

What I’d like to do now is to pick out a handful of the more authentic fairy themes that run through Rossetti’s verse.  As I’ve said, the author was not concerned with producing a folklore document, so these elements are not prominent, but they are there, not wholly overwhelmed by her message of Christian self-sacrifice and familial love.

Firstly, there’s the central concept of the fairy temptation and its damaging impact upon the victim.  Rossetti handles this in a unique manner, with the faes becoming invisible and inaudible once they have seduced a human soul, but the idea of seeking to capture our spirits and the profound physical and psychological toll that faery contact can take will be familiar to many readers by now.  Once Laura has tasted faery food and faery pleasures, she cannot rest easy in this world: she longs to return to fairyland, but finds herself cruelly excluded.  She is left ‘elf-addled,’ weeping, wasting away, her hair becoming thin and grey.

goble
Warwick Goble

Lizzie goes to confront the goblins- and because she refuses to sit and eat with them, she is maltreated:

“They trod and hustled her,
Elbow’d and jostled her,
Claw’d with their nails,
Barking, mewing, hissing, mocking,
Tore her gown and soil’d her stocking,
Twitch’d her hair out by the roots,
Stamp’d upon her tender feet…
One may lead a horse to water,
Twenty cannot make him drink.
Though the goblins cuff’d and caught her,
Coax’d and fought her,
Bullied and besought her,
Scratch’d her, pinch’d her black as ink,
Kick’d and knock’d her,
Maul’d and mock’d her,
Lizzie utter’d not a word;”

This vicious treatment is very typically faery: they like to get their way; they like to have the upper hand over humans and, when they do not, they will often punish us physically, with pinches, slaps and scratches.  As I’ve described in my recent book, FayerieTudor and Elizabethan verse is full of this rough handling of neglectful servants or ungrateful housewives.  It’s also important to stress how much the faes may be enraged by those who insult or offend them.  This isn’t just a matter of being rude, but of failing to comply with their rigid rules on conduct.  By refusing to eat, and so resisting their charms,  Lizzie is violating fundamental (if unspoken) assumptions about human/ faery relations.  Their reaction is predictable.

hilda hechle
Hilda Hechle

One last apparent strand in the poem, which modern critics don’t avoid, is what seems to be a strong undercurrent of lesbian incest between Lizzie and Laura.  For example, Rossetti describes them asleep in their humble home:

“Golden head by golden head,
Like two pigeons in one nest
Folded in each other’s wings,
They lay down in their curtain’d bed:
Like two blossoms on one stem,
Like two flakes of new-fall’n snow,
Like two wands of ivory
Tipp’d with gold for awful kings.
Moon and stars gaz’d in at them,
Wind sang to them lullaby,
Lumbering owls forbore to fly,
Not a bat flapp’d to and fro
Round their rest:
Cheek to cheek and breast to breast
Lock’d together in one nest.”

If nothing else, these lines bring out the sister solidarity of the pair- their self-contained and self sufficient nature living without family or other evident links within their community.   This status outside of the rest of human society is very important to Rossetti’s plot: it leaves Laura and Lizzie acutely vulnerable to the charms of the goblin men.  Recently, I have been reading Simon Young’s collection of some of the fairy stories of North Cornish writer Enys Tregarthen (Enys Tregarthen’s Folklore Tales: A Selection, ed. Young, 2017).  What is especially noticeable about many of these is how they start by telling us that the main character is a spinster or widow, living isolated on the moors or cliffs.  The solitary situation of these women makes them more likely to be contacted by piskies- more open to communication with them.  It’s the same in Rossetti’s work: the sisters have to fend for themselves.

Returning to the plot, there is a second and climactic moment in the poem when Lizzie returns, besmeared with juice from the fruit, and cries out to her sister:

“Did you miss me?
Come and kiss me.
Never mind my bruises,
Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices
Squeez’d from goblin fruits for you,
Goblin pulp and goblin dew.
Eat me, drink me, love me;
Laura, make much of me…”

Contemporary audiences find it hard to avoid reading something sexual into these highly carnal and luxurious words, although I suspect that upright church-going Rossetti would have been shocked by such imputations.  Nevertheless, the sexual nature of Faery is something I’ve often described, so such a theme is entirely appropriate.  The whole poem is sensuous, not to say sensual, and concentrates upon bodily pleasure and yielding to the senses as a way of submitting to the faery thrall.  To add to this, Laura buys the fruit from the goblins with a lock of her golden hair because she has no money.  That physical, personal contribution reminds us of the bargains often made between fairies and humans- sex- a part of the physical self- exchanged for power and knowledge.

c-rossetti-golden-head
Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Summary

Goblin Market is not really about goblins, or the world of the supernatural, but it has some interesting aspects- over and above being an extremely accomplished poem.  You can read more about fairy cruelty, faery rules of conduct and the effect of faery contact upon humankind in my recent book, Faery.  For another exploration of the poem, see Neil Rushton’s blog, Dead but Dreaming.

I have previously examined John Keat’s La Belle Dame sans Merci and discussed the fairy works of other authors such as Lord Dunsany, Arthur Machen, Maurice Hewlett and Algernon Blackwood.

Fairy Sexuality

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Working on my next book (on faery beasts)with my publishers, the question of ‘hetero-normativity’ was raised by my editor with respect to fairy sexuality.  All the examples of relationships I gave were male and female: were there no gay fays?

This is a valid question- and perhaps a surprising one in that we are all aware that ‘fairy’ has come to be used as another word for gay.  The latter share a common history, too, in that they originated as insults (gay used to be used of prostitutes and suggested promiscuity; fairy implied an effeminate male) but have since been adopted with pride.

If we rely on the folklore record, all we’ll find is heterosexual fairies and merfolk.  Does this reflect actual folk belief or the beliefs of those recording folktales?  I strongly suspect that the latter is the case. Many of the early recorders of fairy-lore were clergymen, who undertook it as a suitable hobby.  It is hardly surprising, especially where those church ministers were Scottish Presbyterian, that anything in the least morally suspect would be suppressed.   In a sense, it is surprising that any information about the lhiannan-shee, the fairy lover, was preserved, but perhaps her loose morals and malign effect upon her victims was worth recording as an example of demonic corruption.  Beyond that was asking too much, even so.

Other early folklorists came from academia, and I suspect that a keen sense of academic and social propriety may once again have encouraged them to draw a veil over any stories they considered ‘unfit’ to print (if they were told such stories by their informants at all).  All in all, a variety of factors probably conspired to conceal the less ‘acceptable’ elements in folklore.

I was fascinated, then, to read Maurice Hewlett’s Lore of Proserpine. Although published in 1913, in his final ‘Summary Chapter’ he described fairy relationships:

“Love with them is a wild and wonderful rapture in all its manifestations, and without regard necessarily to sex.  I never, in all my life, saw a more beautiful expression of it than in the two females whom I saw greet and embrace on Parliament Hill.  Their motions to each other, their looks and their clinging were beyond expression tender and swift.”

Hewlett refers to an incident in his earlier chapter ‘The Soul at the Window.’  Out one night on Hampstead Heath, he saw a group of fairies meet, and:

“I saw one greeting between two females.  They ran together and stopped short within touching distance.  They looked brightly and intently at each other, and leaning forward approached their cheeks til they touched.  They touched by the right, they touched by the left.  Then they took hands and drew together.  By a charming movement of confidence, one nestled to the side of the other and, resting her head, looked up and laughed.  The taller embraced her with her arm and held her for a moment.  The swiftness of the act and its gracefulness were beautiful to see.  Then they ran hand in hand to the others…”

Hewlett’s book is fiction, but he could acknowledge same sex devotion between fairies a century ago.

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Sir Ian McKellen, ‘Gandalf,’ as a Fairy Queen

In an earlier post, A fay of colour- diversity in Faery I questioned the very powerful presumption that faes are predominantly white and fair haired.  Plentiful evidence suggests that earlier generations made no such assumptions and that, indeed, Tudor and Stuart beliefs could encompass some radically different concepts of faery.  Just as in race, so in sexuality: what we have is a silence in our sources, not a denial.

 

“Full beautiful, a faery’s child”- age and consent in fairy land

froud-8

“Oh, the fairies!/ Whoa, the fairies.! Nothing but splendour,/ And feminine gender.”

The conventional conception of fairies is that they are female and that they are young and attractive.  I am as guilty as others in perpetuating this: in both The Elder Queen and in the recent Albion awake! my central characters are fairy women, invested with strength, allure and passion.  These are powerful and abiding archetypes; they make for good story lines, but they may also be a source of confusion in our correct analysis of fairylore.

Victorian fairies

Since Victorian times the dominant trend in fairy lore has been to make the fairies more and more diminutive- especially in theatrical representations.  We may blame J M Barrie and Tinkerbell for this, but the miniaturising  theme was far wider than just one author.

fuseli-oberon-t
Henry Fuseli, Oberon and Titania a caption

There have always been small fairies, but in earlier times they were generally conceived as being adults of small stature rather than infants of normal height.  It must be noted that the term ‘elf’ popularly denoted tininess from the late eighteenth century at least (for instance in Blake and Keats).  That notwithstanding, until the early nineteenth century representations of fairies tended to treat them as adults.  In the case of painter Henry Fuseli, indeed, his fairy maids are women of a notably self-aware and unsettling character.

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

However, it was during the Victorian period that the representation of fairies degenerated through childlike figures to cloying cuteness.  During the same period, too, Victorian culture separated out ‘the child’ as distinct from adults and elevated the innocence of childhood. Previously children were merely small people; they have since become a separate social and cultural category.   James Kincaid has argued that the modern concepts of sexuality were created by the Victorians as entwined with their notions of the uncorrupted infant.   The result, he suggested, was that childhood and innocence have become idealised, fetishised and eroticised in everyday culture (Erotic innocence, Duke University Press, 1998).  He asserts that writers such as Lewis Caroll and J M Barrie absorbed this erotic idealising of children and “drove [it] into our cultural foundations.”

I would suggest that there have been a number of consequences of these cultural trends for our perceptions of fairyland:

  • we have tended to lose sight of the former nature of fairies.  As they have increasingly become little girls, some of the more sinister aspects to their characters have been elided;
  • despite what I have just said, a powerful tension has arisen between the ‘child’ fairy and the earlier imagery- for example the fairies of Shakespeare and, even more strongly, Keats.  The result was the projection of adult emotions and motivations and (my key focus here) sexuality onto fairies who were now often conceived as infants; and,
  • the 19th century use of children as fairies in theatrical performances, giving public visibility to girls acting on stage and, perhaps, portraying inappropriate roles.

Let me address the last point in more detail.  Advances in stagecraft enabled Victorian theatres to offer magical spectaculars, with fairies flying, disappearing and posing behind veils of magical mist.  Actresses had a reputation for lax morals, already, and there was some public concern over the impact upon the young girls employed to portray fairies.  Would the exposure “convert them into coquettes before they have even reached their teens?” asked the Pall Mall Gazette in 1885.  Regardless of the impact upon the girls themselves, Eileen Barlee in Pantomime waifs (1884) fretted that they were “Dressed in the airiest and, alas!, the scantiest of costumes … and many were in flesh-coloured tights.” They were presented to audiences as nearly naked or apparently so.  The verse at the top of the posting reflects this sense of sexualisation; it is taken from a music hall song quoted by Lionel Lambourne in the catalogue to the Royal Academy’s 1997 exhibition of Victorian fairy painting.

These stage performances may all have been perfectly innocent in themselves, but the reactions of the viewers are another matter.  I am reminded of Graham Greene’s scurrilous and scandalous review of Shirley Temple in the film Wee Willie Winkie, published in the magazine  Night and day in October 1937.  He commented provocatively that Temple was being presented as “a fancy little piece” and a “complete totsy.”  Her admirers, Greene alleged, were middle aged men and clergymen who would respond to her “dubious coquetry.”  Their respectable predecessors of a generation or two earlier, the Dean of Barchester and Mayor of Casterbridge,  may well have felt the same about Fairy Phoebe and her hosts whom they saw on stage.  What is involved, perhaps, is a ‘sanctioned’ opportunity to regard the young actresses.*

Twentieth century fairies

This may all seem hyper-alert, but let me give a few examples.  Firstly, an account of a supernatural encounter recorded by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in The coming of the fairies  (1922).  He supports his case for the reality of the Cottingley fairies with other evidence of their existence.   He relates how two respectable gentlemen visited a hill in Dorset:

“I was walking with my companion … when to my astonishment I saw a number of what I thought to be very small children, about a score in number, and all dressed in little gaily-coloured short skirts, their legs being bare. Their hands were joined, and all held up, as they merrily danced round in a perfect circle. We stood watching them, when in an instant they all vanished from our sight. My companion told me they were fairies, and that they often came to that particular part to hold their revels. It may be our presence disturbed them.”

In a more recent version of the same event, there are some telling differences. The walkers witnessed: “a group of about twenty young girls …  naked except for a little gaily coloured short skirt that lifted up from time to time on the gentle breeze.”  The changes may well be entirely unconscious, but it seems to me that the tone here has changed from being a mere account of a curious experience; indeed, the tenor of the second version is not unique.  Geoffrey Hodson was a theosophist and fairy-hunter who discovered elves all over Europe.  He wrote of his journeys in two books, The Kingdom of faerie (1930) and Fairies at work and play (1927).  I will quote from each respectively.

  • Cotswolds, 1925- of devas he says that “The actual form and manner are those of a vivacious school girl.”
  • At Geneva he tells us that “A particular fairy I am observing is a fascinating and charming creature … The face resembles that of a very pretty young country girl.”  Another deva had the form of a “a fresh young country girl.”
  • In Lancashire in 1921 he was surrounded by dancing fairies, the leader of whom has a “form …  perfectly modelled and rounded, like that of a young girl.”  We are assured that “There are no angles in the transcendently beautiful form.”
  • A deva met in a pine forest near Geneva in 1926 was “like a lovely young girl, in thin white drapery through which the form can be seen.”  Another such is “definitely female and always nude… Her form is always entrancingly beautiful.”

Hodson in his writing repeatedly discloses a sexualised response to the visions he experiences, in one cases admitting that it was only by an effort of will that he did not allow himself to be seduced by the allure of one rounded young spirit.

We may seem more aware of sexuality in texts now, but as Diane Purkiss warns us in her 2000 study, Troublesome things,  “We in the post-modern world are apt to be convinced that sex is at the bottom of everything, that we know far more about sex than the Victorians did, and that we can read their unconsciousness like a book.  These are all dangerous thoughts.  Just because sex seems to us at the bottom of everything, does not mean that this is equally true for all others; just because we know a lot more about our own sexualities (and do we really?) does not mean we know a lot about Victorian sexualities; just because we read something in a text doesn’t mean it is there for everyone.”

Jasmine

Despite these words of caution, Purkiss concedes that some artists of the period trod an uncertain line between eroticism and harmlessness.  She proposes, for example, that some of Cicely Mary Barker’s Flower fairies hover in this uncertain interstice.  Mostly, these are demure illustrations, although sometimes perhaps Barker does allow what may be interpreted as some risque off-the-shoulder looks.  This hint of the other world of faery did not escape Barker’s biographer, Janet Laing; in her book, Cicely Mary Barker, (Penguin, 1995), Laing describes one alphabet fairy as follows:

“The more mystical and sensual side of fairy land is epitomised by the Jasmine fairy.  In the heat of the summer the ‘cool green bower’ and ‘sweet scented flowers’ are particularly seductive.” (p.55)

As I suggested in an earlier post, Arthur Rackham too appears to have taken advantage of the ‘value-free’ environment of Faerie to indulge in pictures of girls in see-through frocks and careless deshabille; witness this illustration of Midsummer Night’s Dream.

puck_and_a_fairy_rackham
Arthur Rackham, Puck and the fairy

As discussed in that previous post, depicting fairies seems to have been treated by many artists as a licence to adapt classical nudes to a more domestic scene, a wisp or two of gauze maintaining an illusion of modesty and decorum.

Furthermore, it may be worth remarking that all these child like ‘forms’ (whether presented as ‘art’, on stage or in the Cotswolds) are simultaneously naked or scantily attired and independent of adult society.  Those factors combined may well have served to liberate the response of some observers from the normal social and moral restraints.  Without doubt, the consequence has been that we have ended up confused and uncomfortable with aspects of our fairy lore.

The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries weren’t all irredeemable tweeness amongst fairies.  For example, Christina Rossetti wrote the strange and disturbing Goblin Market, a poem that, as Diane Purkiss neatly expresses it, “restores fully a sense of the otherness and menace of the fairy world.”  More recently, the huge international popularity of Tolkien’s stories of elves and dwarves has helped to provide a much needed corrective to the saccharine flower fairies of the Edwardian nursery.  Legolas and Arwen have revived the Norse and Celtic  traditions of human sized and mature fairies.  Their robust combativeness and sexuality are a welcome reminder of older visions of the supernatural and are redressing the balance of imagery in the popular imagination.

We are left with a puzzling dichotomy in the conventions as to representations of faery in the twenty-first century.  A short search on the internet readily confirms this.  On the one hand we have the sexy faery babe, as represented here by a picture created by Bente Schlick.

bente-schlick

In contrast, there are the images of fairies as the embodiment of childhood innocence, for which I have selected an image ‘Caught by a sunbeam’ by artists Josephine Wall.

josephine-wall-caught-by-sunbeam

Lastly, there are the mature, self-possessed and possibly dangerous fairy women found in Brian Froud’s work.  Fairy maids in corsets with heaving cleavages are not rare, but they are hugely outnumbered by the more fey images, it has to be admitted.  The newly established convention that fairies are perfect manifestations of physical attractiveness and/ or innocence stand in stark contrast to older conceptions.  Fairies maidens were renowned in folk-lore for their alluring beauty, but they often suffered defects that betrayed their real nature: they might have cow’s tails, cloven feet beneath their long dresses, fingerless hands or hollow backs.  These aspects of fairy nature are very seldom found now in the idealised portrayals that are so prevalent- Froud’s pictures being something of an exception in their honest naturalism and occasional disturbing honesty about the  ‘average’ physique (pot bellies and drooping breasts).  The main problem with these paragons of prettiness is that they are one dimensional.  Deprived of the darker, more dangerous aspects of traditional fairy nature, they become merely decorative- charming but devoid of deeper meaning.

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In conclusion, it may be argued that our ‘use’ of the fairy myth has changed in recent centuries.  Whereas fairies were originally the causes of unexplained events and a source of supernatural protection and help, they have increasingly become the vehicles for our fantasies- a convenient way of expressing issues that might not otherwise be tackled.

* By way of a footnote: as a result of the comments in his review, Graham Greene was sued by Fox Entertainments and by Shirley Temple’s parents.  They demanded damages for his libellous insinuations and a trial in the High Court concluded that the images were entirely decent and innocent and that the claimants were therefore entitled to an award of £3500 compensation from the magazine and the author.  Night and day went into insolvency; Greene fled the country for Mexico, where he wrote his most admired work, The power and the glory.  Literature’s gain, perhaps…

Further reading

I discuss questions of fairy beauty and fairy sexuality and fairy passion again in other posts.  The text of this post is a version of a chapter that appears in my new book, British fairies.

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Sex and the fairy

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Arthur Rackham, illustration from Milton’s ‘Comus’

As I suggested in the previous post on fairies in John Keats’ poetry, sex and sexuality are strong elements in (adult) fairylore.  Maureen Duffy, in her extensive and detailed study of fairies in literature, The erotic world of faery (Cardinal, 1989), describes how fairies are an embodiment of repressed desires.  Folk culture favoured greater sexual freedom than the church could sanction, and fairy tales allowed writers to deal with taboo subjects and taboo desires in an indirect way.  Duffy notes that malignant spirits are more common than benevolent ones and she links the latter to a cheerful and open sexuality.

Fairy folk appear to have some kind of role as facilitators or instigators of human sexual relations.  In my next post on Queen Mab I note her apparent role in instructing innocent virgins.  Ben Jonson hints that house elves have some sort of role in enabling wenches to spend time with their lovers: in his Masque of Love Restored one of Robin Goodfellow’s roles is to sweep hearths, clean houses and generally do the chores for the maids “whilst they are at hot-cockles.” I do not think this is merely a reference to them playing the children’s game akin to Blind Man’s Bluff!  Even more explicit is John Lyly in Act II of The Maid’s Metamorphosis.  The ‘third fairy’ recounts his pastimes:

“When I feel a girl asleep,

Underneath her frock I peep,

There to sport, and there I play.

Then I bite her like a flea,

And about I skip.”

It is certainly undeniable that there is often close sexual dependency between fairies and humans.  Fairy women often seek out human partners, a theme I borrowed in my novel The elder queenand the literary and visual representations of fairies are frequently more or less sexualised.  In this post I want to examine fairies in art in a little more detail, making particular reference to the twentieth century artists Arthur Rackham and Brian Froud.  In Victorian Painting (Phaidon, 1999, p.194) Lionel Lambourne describes how “many paintings … [were] saved from indecorum by the pretence that the women depicted were not scantily dressed real women but innocuous fairies, tastefully ‘veiled’ in the trappings of allegory or myth.”  This allowed artists to show naked and attractive young women without (once again) violating social taboos.  I want to discuss Rackham and Froud as successors of this approach.

Both artists depict goblins in very much the same way- as grotesque, mischievous beings.  They also both depict fairies as being quite distinct- as female and human like.  Nevertheless, there are significant differences in their portrayals.  Rackham’s fairies are young women with long hair- coy, slim, alluring- semi-naked or in see-through clothing.  An example of this preference of Rackham’s is an illustration to the story of Rip van Winkle, titled ‘These fairy mountains.’  It depicts a scene on a peak in the Catskills range.  I cannot help but notice that, whilst the ‘goblin’ figures are fully clothed, in a manner suitable to the altitude and climate, the fairies are posed partially and only very lightly dressed, giving the illustrator a good opportunity to show us some juvenile semi-nudity (see below).  This apparently provides confirmation of Lambourne’s observation on some of the parameters within which Victorian artists worked..

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Brian Froud‘s fairies are often young, but not always, and they seem much more self-possessed or even self absorbed.  They engage with the viewer, they have their own sense of humour and their sexuality is their own.

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Brian Froud, ‘Fairy princess’

Of course, there is nearly a century separating the pictures and Brian Froud’s art is likely to be ‘post-feminist.’  I’d argue there is more, though.  Before there was sci-fi, there was fairy art, and the aim of both is to depict unreal things- generally as if they were actually real- either because the artist or the viewer (or both) wish to imagine it so.  Fantasy art can portray things that are impossible (such as Froud’s half-frog fairies) or it can present idealised images- how we would wish ‘faery’ to be; and it is often overtly sexual or suggestive of sexuality.  Fairy maids were in the past allowed to be sexy because they were outside the structures of family and society (for example, they could independently choose human partners).  They were allowed to express what would otherwise not have been permitted to the artist or to a young woman at the time.  Those constraints are much diminished now and I think that explains the difference in atmosphere between Rackham’s work and Froud’s.  The art of both is attractive, but the messages are very different.

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Brian Froud, ‘Here we are, what can you see?’

Further reading

An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).  I consider the changing image and gender stereotypes of fairies in a later post looking at developments since Victorian times.

I have examined the faery art of Brian Froud separately, whilst in other posts I have also discussed questions of fairy sexuality and what we consider to be beauty amongst fairykind.