On my Fairy Bookshelf: ‘Prisoner in Fairyland’

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Algernon Blackwood (right) during World War I

I’ve discussed before the musical Starlight Express by Sir Edward Elgar.  As I stated, the 1915 production was based upon the novel, A Prisoner in Fairyland, which was published in June 1913.

Background

The novel was written by Algernon Blackwood (1869-1951), an author who specialised in horror and fantasy themes.  Several of his short stories build up mystery and fear using a fairy incident as the foundation for the plot: these include ‘Ancient Lights,’ ‘The Trod,’ ‘The Glamour of the Snow’ and ‘May Day Eve.’  His story, ‘A Touch of Pan,’ is his contribution to the Pan cult of the early twentieth century, which I have also mentioned before.  Many of his stories can be read online.

A Prisoner in Fairyland is unlike any of these.  It is a gentle, delicate, optimistic story, with some beautiful passages of imaginative description.  It is not really about Fairyland at all- at least, not about the fairy realm in the sense in which I use it on this blog.

I know nothing definite about Blackwood’s inspiration, but I can’t help wondering if he saw the 1901 pantomime Bluebell in Fairyland, by Seymour Hicks.  This production was definitely seen by J. M. Barrie, and inspired Peter Pan, but the idea that fairyland and dreams are the same, that there is a king waiting in a cave to be woken by children so he can do good in the world, and the fact that golden dust is sprinkled in the children’s eyes (“Eyelids droop and close as darkness falls/ Fairyland is waiting as the dustman calls) all seem very similar to Blackwood’s story (as I’ll show).

The Moral of the Story

Blackwood’s ‘fairyland’ and his references through out to fairies and fairy things is almost unique.  As readers may know (especially if you’ve read any of the poems in my Victorian Fairy Verse), ‘fairy’ was used freely by writers from the eighteenth century onwards to denote anything that was small, dainty or cute.  Blackwood’s usage derives from this, but it is still wholly his own.  What springs to mind is a word no longer used in modern English, but which was, in the past, often to be found in conjunction with fairy- and that is ‘ferly,’ which means a wonder or marvel.  It appears, for example, in the sixteenth century Scots drama, The Crying of Ane Playe.  The main character, Harry Hobilschowe introduces himself as the play begins, telling us he has just arrived on a whirlwind from Syria, where he:

“lang has bene in þe fary/ Farleis to fynd.”

(he’s spent a long time in fairyland, searching for marvels).

The word is also used at the outset of the Middle English poem, Piers Plowman.  Its use here is even more apposite, for Piers associates it with lying down to rest on a grassy bank near Malvern, one summer’s day.  He may then have fallen asleep and dreamed- or else he had a vision:

“In a somer sesun, whon softe was the sonne…

Wente I wyde in this world wondres to here;

Bote in a Mayes morwnynge on Malverne hulles

Me bifel a ferly, of fairie, me-thoughte.”

In Blackwood’s story, dreaming is directly associated with access to the fairyland he portrays.  Very broadly, the plot involves a successful business man, Henry Rogers, who retires early with the intention of using his wealth on good causes.  Rogers takes a holiday with his cousin and his young family at their home in Switzerland and there, in the company of the niece and nephew, rediscovers his childhood dreams.  The plot is negligible and the action is entirely concerned with the family’s thoughts, emotions and dreams.  In my previous mention of the book, I called it a children’s story; it isn’t: the psychology and philosophy the book contains aren’t intended for younger readers, even though children and their inner life are central to the narrative.

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Blackwood with Sir Edgar Elgar, 1915

Fairies in Fairyland?

So, are there any fairies in A Prisoner in Fairyland?  I must tell you, dear reader, that there are not- and that, in a sense, I was grossly misled when purchasing the book!  There are, nevertheless, numerous references to fairies and fairyland, so I need to explain what Blackwood is doing.

There is one scrap of traditional fairylore, it’s true: in chapter 23 he observes that “People lost in fairyland, they say, always forget the outer world of unimportant happenings.”  This is quite true, as folklore makes it very clear how a person may become ‘elf-addled.’  Blackwood is using ‘fairyland’ in quite a different sense, however, to that of a place called Faery.

The moral of his story is captured is a single paragraph:

“Only the world today no longer believes in Fairyland… and even the children have become scientific.  Perhaps it’s only buried, though.  The two ought to run in harness really- opposite interpretations of the universe.  One might revive it- here and there perhaps.  Without it, all the tenderness seems leaking out of life.” (c.5)

As this may begin to indicate, there are (inevitably) marked traces of Victorian views of Faery in Blackwood’s work.  As I have emphasised in my new book, Victorian Fairy Verse for most writers of the period fairies were synonymous with everything tiny and cute.  These underlying assumptions pervade Blackwood’s novel:

“Fairy things, like stars and tenderness, are always small.” (c.31)

“A Fairy blesses because she is a Fairy, not because she turns a pumpkin into a coach and four…” (c.28)

“that raciness and swift mobility, that fluid, protean elasticity of temperament which belonged to the fairy kingdom.” (c.23)

So, what exactly is Blackwood’s fairyland and how do you get there?  The answer is very simple.  Fairyland is the inner world of fantasy and imagination that we all inhabit during childhood.  It is a source of joy and wonder and it is something that many adults mourn: “The world, too, is a great big child that is crying for its Fairyland.” (c.24)

For adults to be able to recover their fairyland, they need two things.  They need to be close to children and to share their vivid imaginative life.  Rogers is sitting with his niece and nephew on his knees and realises:

“Their plans and schemes netted his feet in fairyland just as surely as the weight of their little warm, soft bodies fastened him to the boulder where he sat.  He could not move.  He could not go further without their will and leadership.” (c.13)

In their sleep, the children’s spirits leave their bodies and travel on the Starlight Express to a place where starlight is stored.  They then use this to heal sick and unhappy adults.  “Like Fairies, lit internally with shining lanterns, they flew about their business” (c.16).  Rogers, too, learns to join the children in their dreams and to explore this fairyland.  It is “a state of mind, open potentially to all, but not to be enjoyed merely for the asking.  Like other desirable things, it was to be ‘attained.'” (c.30) Fairyland can be entered only so long as some of its benefits will be taken back to the mortal world.

The Starlight Express

The Express carries dreamers’ souls to and from Faery, where they collect starlight.  These are memorable images (in fact, stars and constellations sparkle throughout the prose, producing some passages of great beauty) and they clearly had the potential to capture the popular imagination.

As I mentioned in my preamble, the book appeared in June 1913.  By the next summer, the need for Blackwood’s joy and child-like wonder began to seem acute.  This explains why it was so quickly adapted as a musical; war-time Britain needed the boost and Blackwood’s text had plenty of uplifting ideas to offer.   His key concept was that the uplifting and inspiring thoughts from fairyland must be distributed back to the rest of the world- on “their mission of deliverance.” (c.27)  Henry Roger’s cousin is an author and for him the starlight from Faery is inspiration- “a thing of starlight, woods and fairies”- that he may then share with the rest of humanity through his novels: “flakes of thought like fairy seed” (c.27).

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Musical

The 1984 musical of the same name as Elgar and Blackwood’s work shares nothing with it except the name.  The modern production was inspired by the Thomas the Tank Engine stories and it is, naturally, about trains, which don’t seem very magical to me.

Further Reading

As I have described before, the theatrical adaptation of Blackwood’s work was one of several Great War plays and musicals that sought to harness Faery to the Imperial war effort.  All of these works have fallen into obscurity since- mostly for good reason.

Blackwood’s novel may have been caught up by jingoism, but it predates the war and has something much deeper to say that the others fairy plays of the time.  It can be found cheaply on Amazon etc if you want yourself to travel on the Starlight Express.

The real Starlight Express- straight out of fairyland

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The wrong Starlight Express entirely (by Southeastern Youth Theatre Group, Ireland)

We are all familiar with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, Starlight Express; the truth is, though, that its title was not original: it was borrowed from a 1915 composition by Sir Edward Elgar.

The Original Production

Fantasy and horror writer Algernon Blackwood, who has several faery titles to his name, wrote a novel for younger readers in 1913- A Prisoner in Fairyland.  The text was adapted into a play for children by Violet Alice Pearn and, in due course, the idea arose to create a musical from the stage play, as a “piece of Red Cross work for the mind during the first agony of the [first world] war.”  Sir Edward Elgar, the distinguished classical composer, was approached to provide the songs and incidental music.

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Sir Edward Elgar avec son pipe.

Elgar worked to a very short timescale.  He was asked to compose the score on November 11th 1915 and, by recycling ideas from his youth, he had the music ready for rehearsals at the start of December.  The production then opened at the Kingsway Theatre in London on December 29th.  Whilst the music was praised, the adaptation of the book was not regarded as a success by critics, although the target audience of children seemed to enjoy it, and the production ran for only forty performances over just one month before closing.  There had been practical and technical difficulties with the staging and with the loss of key personnel: both the original composer and the intended producer were called up for military service and Elgar himself was unable to conduct when his wife had a car accident days before the opening night.  The main problem, though, was the script.  Blackwood complained to Elgar at “this murder of my simple little play.  Arts and Crafts pretentious rubbish stitched onto your music by a silly crank who has never read the play.”   The play’s sentimental mysticism seemed to the taste of very few.

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Algernon Blackwood

Actually, it seems that the author was not being entirely frank with the composer when he sought to shift the blame like this.  Blackwood and Pearn, the latter being the winner of the Era’s 1913 Playwrights’ Competition for The Minotaur, had in fact begun working together on the adaptation of The Prisoner of Fairyland soon after its publication in 1913 and had sought interest from theatre managements for its production. In fact, Pearn proved to be a prolific dramatist who went on to adapt several other of Blackwood’s works, including Karma- A Reincarnation Play in 1918.  Admittedly, though, she was still something of a novice in 1915, being only 25.

The Stage Play

The plot of the hour-long performance is slender indeed.  The general idea is that, in time of war, only children can provide comfort and restore unity.  Conflict was represented by a troubled family whose children form a secret society and identify themselves with the constellations.  They live in ‘star caves’ and their mission it is to restore harmony to the “wumbled” (worried and muddled) adults by using star dust.

As one song puts it:

“Kiss me again ‘til I sleep and dream

That I’m lost in your fairylands…

For the grown-up folk are troublesome folk

And the book of their childhood is torn,

Is blotted and crumpled and torn!”

Sprites descend from the starlight express and scatter their star dust, crying:

“Unwumble deftly! The world has need of you!

They’ll listen to my song and understand

That exiled over long from fairyland,

The weary world has rather lost its way.”

The fairy plan is to sow earth’s “little gardens of unrest” with joy and trust, thereby to restore “Love, laughter, courage, hope.”

We’ve considered before two other contemporary Great War plays, The War Fairies and Britain’s DefendersThe Starlight Express explores some of the same territory- the function children and fairies may play in restoring peace and harmony- but with fewer direct interventions in human affairs (most notably in the direction of the war) by the Good Folk.

Summary

The play’s failure consigned it to obscurity (although Elgar’s score is still performed and recorded) and this apparently enabled Lloyd Webber to purloin the title without any fear of confusion.  Nevertheless, it’s a fascinating little document attesting yet again the role of fairies during wartime in the early twentieth century as well as providing a further illustration of the influence that faery has had upon music- whatever form that may take: opera, concerto or rock song.

See my review of Blackwood’s Prisoner in Fairyland in a separate posting.