Tam Lin & escapes from faeryland

The Fairy Host in Tam Lin by Stephanie Pui-Mun Law

A number of Scottish ballads suggest that for human captives in fairyland to escape their captivity can be a violent and terrifying process- especially for the person trying to save them.  There are three primary examples to consider, all of which share close resemblances. 

In the ballad, The Faery Oak of Corriewater, a young man called Elph Irving has been captured by the queen of Elfland to be her cupbearer.  He is said to be “the fairest that earth may see” and, for his seven years’ service, she says that “his wage is a kiss of me” which seems to make it fairly clear that he is as much a sex slave as a domestic servant. It’s notable too that his name is prefixed ‘Elph,’ suggestive of some kind of assimilation to faery-kind through his residence with them. As we know, for humans to eat faery food can lead to a permanent physical change which prevents their return to the mortal world.

Irving’s sister comes to save him.  The fairies are alerted to her approach (“For here comes the smell of some baptised flesh,/ And the sounding of baptised feet”- humans can be smelt by fairies just as much as we can detect them by their distinctive fairy smell) and try to make a getaway on their steeds.  The sister, however, is too fast:

“She linked her brother around,

And called on God, and the steed with a snort

Sank into the gaping ground.

But the fire maun [must] burn, and I maun quake,

And the time that is gone will no more come back.

And she held her brother, and lo! he grow

A wild bull waked in ire;

And she held her brother, and lo! he changed

To a river roaring higher;

And she held her brother, and he became

A flood of the raging fire;

She shrieked and sank, and the wild elves laughed

Till the mountain rang and mire.”

To save her brother, she must be brave and not be intimidated by the transformations he goes through under the power of faery glamour. Sadly, the sister’s courage fails at last moment when Irving turns into the blaze of elfin fire and her chance to save him is lost forever.

Erica Leveque

The story of Tam Lin is very similar to that of the Faery Oak, but the ending is much happier.  Tam is a human boy who, as before, has been taken by the faery queen- perhaps once again for carnal reasons, as he describes himself as “fat and fair of flesh.”  This may, alternatively, relate to the fact that the fairies seem to intend to sacrifice him as their teind (tithe) to the devil.  This fate arises in part from his good looks, but it is also likely to reflect his part-human status; although Tam also states that he too has undergone some sort of transformation and that he is now “a fairy, lyth and limb,” he’s still not entirely one of them and, as such, is easier for the community to lose.

A girl called Janet falls for Tam after she meets him in a wood and gets pregnant.  She wants to rescue him from the fairies, so that she has a father for her child, and he instructs her when, where and how to do it.  She has to snatch him from his horse as the fairy court is out on its Halloween rade- and she must then be prepared for the transformations that will follow:

“They’ll turn me in your arms, Janet,

            An adder and a snake;

            But had [hold] me fast, let me not pass,

            Gin ye wad be my maik [lover/ partner].

            They’ll turn me in your arms, Janet,

            An adder and an ask;

            They’ll turn me in your arms, Janet,

            A bale that burns fast.

            They’ll turn me in your arms, Janet,

            A red-hot gad o’ airn;

            But haud me fast, let me not pass,

            For I’ll do you no harm.

First dip me in a stand o’ milk,

            And then in a stand o’ water;

            But had me fast, let me not pass,

            I’ll be your bairn’s father.

And next they’ll shape me in your arms

            A toad but and an eel;

            But had me fast, nor let me gang,

            As you do love me weel.

            ‘They’ll shape me in your arms, Janet,

            A dove but and a swan,

            And last they’ll shape me in your arms

            A mother-naked man;

            Cast your green mantle over me,

            I’ll be myself again.”

When Janet has rescued Tam, the fairy queen curses her for taking away the bonniest knight in her company: “Shame betide her ill-far’d face,/  And an ill death may she die.”  At the same time, too, the queen wishes she had taken steps to stop Tam’s fancy from straying.  She regrets that she had not taken out his heart, and replaced it with a stone, and that she had not “taen out thy twa grey een,/ Put in twa een o tree” (“Taken out your two grey eyes/ And put in two of wood.”)  This desire to blind Tam so he can’t see humans is an interesting detail of the ballad, because of its comparison to the faery practice of blinding those humans (usually midwives) who have got ointment on their eyes and as a result can see the fairies through their glamour.

Tam Lin by wylielise on deviantart

Our last example of a perilous escape from faery concerns a female captive who is rescued by her father.  The Ballad of Mary o’ Craignethan sees Mary stolen away under the fairy knoll by a fae man.  Her father seeks expert counsel and is advised on the ritual he has to follow to bless (sain) and then release her.  He must go to the fairy oak and there blow his horn three times.  At the first blast, the tree will bend and fall; at the second a silence will fall and an eldritch laugh will ring out.  At the third, a loathsome fiend will appear with “wauchie cheek and wauland ye” (‘a sallow cheek and wildly rolling eyes’). This will be Mary- and her father has to grasp her tightly by the wrists and make the sign of a cross over her:

“syne an ugsome ask in his han’ sho kyth’t

Owerspread wi’ lapper’t blude.”

She’ll appear next as a fearsome newt in his hand, covered in clotted blood.  He mustn’t quail but should then make the sign of the cross again and:

“Syne a sneeran’ [hissing] snake she turn’d roun’ his arm

And ower his bosom slade;

When he the thirden time she sain’t

A burnan bale she grew;

He nam’d ower her the halie name

An’ she flichter’t a milk-white dou [fluttered like a white dove].

He nam’d ower her the halie name

In his han’ was a lily rare;

He nam’d ower her the halie name,

In his han’ was his Mary fair.”

As you’ll have noticed, several transformations are common to all these stories.  Snakes, newts and burning bales seem to have been mentioned because they are likely to scare the rescuer into releasing their loved one; birds will flap wildly to try to escape- and it’s likely, I guess, that the snakes and newts will slither and, once again, alarm the rescuer. What is very clear, though, is that the rescue requires a lot of the human: she or he must not only know the necessary words and ritual; they must also have a very steady nerve and be able to see through the faeries’ glamour and realise that the deadly creatures in their arms are only illusion, and pose no real threat.

Tamlaine by Robert Macnair

‘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):

Monarchy and Hierarchy in Faery

steele

from the Famous Fairies series by Lorna Steele

In Morgan Daimler’s latest book, A New Dictionary of Fairy- A 21st Century Exploration of Celtic and Related Western European Fairies, she remarks that “Fairy is a very feudal system… everything is tied together with debts and obligations and what’s owed to who.” (p.120)  This set me thinking once again about fairy monarchy and how exactly their society is organised, something I’ve tackled before in several postings.

The human societies of the High Middle Ages were, indeed, feudal, in that land was granted in return for services within a rigidly hierarchical and monarchic social structure, from the king down to the lowliest knight.  The system was pyramidal, with the ruler overseeing a multitude of tenants and subtenants across each realm.

How closely does Faery resemble this?  We know of fairy kings and queens, obviously, and we know too of the importance of promises and obligations in fairy relationships.  However- so far as we know- land, and rights over it, form no part of fairy social dynamics and the fairy hierarchy seems to be very flat- perhaps no more than two levels, comprising the monarch and subjects.

So far as we can tell, British fairy monarchs reigned over no highly structured nation nor over any court in which precedence or rank dominated.  Fairy kings and queens were remarkably free of airs and graces.  They undertook the most menial chores for themselves- so, for example, the elf king in the ballad Sir Cawline fights his own duels and does not rely on a champion.  These kings and queens were not averse to entering sexual relationships with the humblest of humans, either.  Margaret Alexander, from Livingston in Scotland, told her 1647 witchcraft trial that the fairy king had taken her as his partner and, even, “laye with her upone the brige” at Linton.  Al fresco sex in the highway with a human commoner is about as far from regal as we can imagine.

Sometimes, intermediaries with the human world might be employed, as was the case with Thom Reid who communicated with Bessie Dunlop on behalf of the fairy queen, but any more elaborate organisation than this seems to have been absent.  The only exception to this statement is the system of multiple ‘elphin courts’ that’s mentioned in some versions of the ballad of Tam Lin (Child versions D, K & G)In two, we read of three courts including a ‘head court’ that is dressed in green and accompanies the queen.  In the third of these renderings, the ranking is more complex, as Tam explains to his human lover, Margret:

“Then the first an court that comes you till

Is published king and queen;

The next an court that comes you till,

It is maidens mony ane.

The next an court that comes you till

Is footmen, grooms and squires;

The next an court that comes you till

Is knights, and I’ll be there.”

In this scheme, we have a very distinct and strict social ordering.  Usually, however, the most that we hear of is some servants, as in the ballad of Leesom Brand, in which the hero goes to the fairy court aged ten to act as a server at the king’s table. Of course, such domestic servants were once quite common in a range of households, and implied no great wealth or status.

Faery society is a very flattened pyramid, therefore, and its individual citizens have an almost compete autonomy- it seems.  Perhaps the problem is that we lack any adequate word to transliterate the fairy term: Donald McIlmichael, tried at Inverary in 1674, said that he had seen an old man inside the fairy hill he visited who “seemed to have preference above the rest” and “seemed to be chief.”  Perhaps there is seniority, priority and respect, but little more than that.

Nevertheless, regardless of the parties, interpersonal relationships in and with Faery are governed by reciprocity.  Good deeds should always be repaid, and to the same degree or value.  If a fairy loans you some flour, always give exactly the same quality and quantity back.  Debts are remembered and will be exacted, even decades later.  It will be obvious that you should never enter into any sort of deal with the fairies unless you are able and willing to fulfil your side.  Default is not an option.

For more information on fairy governance, see chapter 11 of my book, Faery.

Titania by Arthur Rackham

‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’- John Keats’ greatest faery poem

John_William_Waterhouse_-_La_Belle_Dame_sans_Merci_(1893)
John Waterhouse, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, 1893

In one of the very first posts on this blog, I discussed the use of faeries in the verse of English poet John Keats (1795-1821).  Here I’m going to focus on one of his greatest poems, and one of the greatest fairy poems of all.  I want to examine its meaning and how it has inspired other works of art.

cowper, belle dame
Frank Cadogan Cowper, Belle Dame, 1926

Here’s the text of Keats’ poem, which was written in 1819:

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
       Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
       And no birds sing.
O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
       So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
       And the harvest’s done.
I see a lily on thy brow,
       With anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
       Fast withereth too.
I met a lady in the meads,
       Full beautiful—a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
       And her eyes were wild.
I made a garland for her head,
       And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love,
       And made sweet moan
I set her on my pacing steed,
       And nothing else saw all day long,
For sidelong would she bend, and sing
       A faery’s song.
She found me roots of relish sweet,
       And honey wild, and manna-dew,
And sure in language strange she said—
       ‘I love thee true’.
She took me to her Elfin grot,
       And there she wept and sighed full sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
       With kisses four.
And there she lullèd me asleep,
       And there I dreamed—Ah! woe betide!—
The latest dream I ever dreamt
       On the cold hill side.
I saw pale kings and princes too,
       Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—‘La Belle Dame sans Merci
       Thee hath in thrall!’
I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
       With horrid warning gapèd wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
       On the cold hill’s side.
And this is why I sojourn here,
       Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
       And no birds sing.

Henry Meynell Rheam, Belle Dame
Henry Meynell Rheam, La Belle Dame, 1901

Like many faery writers and painters, Keats immediately locates his poem in the past: we have a knight riding on horse-back- we know we’re in the Middle Ages, when faeries were much nearer to people than today (or so we always say- see my previous post on this perpetual relegation of the faes to the previous generation).  Simultaneously, the medieval context gives Keats’ verse an extra weight and authority.  He’s placing himself alongside Malory, Spenser and other poets who’ve written about faery themes, adding to the ‘authenticity’ of what he writes.

Walter_T._Crane_-_La_belle_Dame_Sans_Merci_(1865)
Walter Crane, La Belle Dame, 1865

Then we meet the faery woman- and she is everything that I’ve described in preceding posts on this blog: she’s beautiful, she’s sexually appealing, she’s also unearthly and deadly.  Instantly, it would seem, the knight falls under her spell: making garlands for her in most un-knightly fashion, bearing her on his horse and becoming obsessed entirely with her.  She sings to him- and this seems to be part of the spell that she works.  Her alien nature is betrayed by her every aspect: her strange speech, her songs, her wild looks.  Yet despite these warning signs, and the precipitate nature of their declared love for each other, the knight abandons caution and submits without resistance to her charms.

Dicksee La_Belle_Dam_Sans_Merci 1902
Frank Dicksee, La Belle Dame, 1902

Two fateful incidents follow quickly.  Firstly, the knight eats the food the fairy woman prepares for him; as I have described, consumption of fairy food – and the partaking of fairy nature that comes with it- can often have dire consequences for the human.  Secondly, (although Keats is circumspect about this, given the date and style of his poem) the knight has sex with the fae woman in her ‘grot’- her cave or underground home.  He has doubly surrendered his body to her power now.

hughes, La belle dame sans merci
Arthur Hughes, La Belle Dame, 1863

The consequence of the knight’s close contact with faery nature is serious.  He dreams his ‘latest,’ his last, dream and (it would seem) he finds himself no longer in the faery woman’s cave but abandoned and alone on a hillside-a common conclusion to stories of fairy encounters: the glamour evaporates and the human is left solitary and bewildered in the wilderness.  The knight sees visions of those who have before him fallen under the faery’s spell and he is warned- far too late- of the peril he was in.  These cautions are useless to him now, though: he is either ‘elf-addled‘- made sick by his intimate association with the faery- or he is, in fact, dead.  The others, certainly, are starved with gaping mouths, and the hapless knight is left ‘alone and palely loitering,’ looking fevered and haggard.  He cannot return to or settle back to his earthly life, he cannot escape the fairy woman’s ‘thrall.’  In this state of exile or alienation from his former condition, the knight closely resembles the fairy-abductee Kilmeny, of James Hogg’s nearly contemporary poem of the same name.  After her visit to Faery and her return to our world:

“But all the land were in fear and dread,
For they kendna [knew not] whether she was living or dead.
It wasna her hame, and she couldna remain;” (Hogg, Kilmeny1813)

Keats’ Belle Dame epitomises some of the aspects of Faery we often downplay.  It is common in folklore accounts to find faeries, and mermaids too, taking advantage of humans for their own benefit.  This can frequently have dire implications for the human involved, ranging from subjection to terminal decline; the best that might be said of these cases is that the outcome may not be intentional- the fairies’ solipsistic nature may simply fail to register the impact on the mortal party.  However, there are plenty of traditional examples of supernatural beings- ranging from boggarts and goblins through to kelpies- whose deliberate aim is to cause harm and injury.  Keats’ Belle Dame is one of these- we need look no further than the title of the poem to know this, of course: she is ‘sans merci,’ without mercy.

fishman bd2
Fishman. La Belle Dame

As the illustrations to this posting demonstrate, Keats’ poem has inspired successive generations of artists.  Two stages of the poem are illustrated: either the knight succumbing to the charms of the maiden, or the aftermath of his deadly seduction.  The version of this by Frank Cadogan Cowper (1877-1959), an English painter often called the ‘last Pre-Raphaelite’ for his richly coloured historical and legendary paintings which regularly feature captivating, fay-like women, shows the faery maiden arranging her hair whilst the knight lies prostrate before her.  She looks wonderfully, callously unconcerned, sitting on the river bank in her glorious dress patterned with red poppies.  The blooming poppies that surround the couple suggest a possible origin for his unconsciousness.  Henry Meynell Rheam (1859-1920), depicts a similar scene, except that ghostly figures of previous victims are shown hovering behind the rather self-satisfied looking faery.  Other artists have focused instead the irresistible allure of the fairy maid, who seems superficially pretty and defenceless.  Frank Dicksee’s painting perhaps best encapsulates this first stage of the poem.  The fascination of Keats’ work persists even today, as we see from the two canvases by US based fantasy artist, Marc Fishman (b.1971).  He emphasises the dangerous sexual allure of the fae woman, with her gauzy, see-through gowns and her wild, perfumed, intoxicating hair.  Her emergence from a pool in the first of these also links her to the deadly meremaids I have discussed in the past.

Lastly, the Mediaeval Baebes have arranged the poem to music, in a haunting rendition (they have done the same too for Kilmeny,  and for the Scots ballad of Tam Lin for that matter).  For a more general discussion of fairy themes and iconography in nineteenth century poetry, see my recent book, Victorian Fairy VerseFor a detailed examination of the psychological and physical effects of faery contact, see my recently published Faery.

fishman belle dame
Fishman, La Belle Dame

Fairy Ballads and Rhymes

Ballads

Hot on the heels of Fayerieanother new book- this time, on the traditional British ballads and rhymes concerned with Faery.  In the course of writing Fayerie, I made particular use of the early modern English and Scots ballads, songs such as Young Tamlane, Thomas Rhymer and the Elfin Knight, and realised that there was no one book which brought together all of those lyrics concerned just with the supernatural.  Now there is.

Britain is rich in its heritage of traditional ballads, most of which date from the seventeenth century or earlier. Around twenty of these take fairies and fairyland as their primary theme. Accordingly, these songs are valuable sources of information on late medieval and early modern fairy beliefs. This new book provides an overview of fairy lore in the ballads, accompanied by edited texts for all the key lyrics, supplemented by notes that put each narrative in its wider context.

In addition, British traditional rhymes dealing with fairy-lore are collected together, along with a selection of verses and songs ascribed to the fairies themselves.  We are all familiar with little couplets like ‘Fairy folks are in old oaks;’ these little catchphrases stick in our memories, quite deliberately, because they were designed to do just that: children in particular needed to be alerted to the places in the landscape where dangerous fairies lurked and punchy little verses did the trick.  There are lots recorded but, once again, they have not before been collected together.  The same is true of the subject of the third chapter of the new book; this features songs and poems composed by fairies themselves.  Once again, bringing them together emphasises the degree to which verse is central to fairy discourse.  These texts are often overlooked as a body of literature in their own right, but this book takes the opportunity to focus upon them and what they can tell us about human and faery society.

The book is a companion to my other volumes of fae poetry, ‘Victorian Fairy Verse‘ and ‘Fayerie- Fairies and Fairyland in Tudor and Stuart Verse.’  It reveals a world that is harsher than we might anticipate.  The book is available as a paperback or e-book through Amazon/KDP.

RGF

“That’s Not My Name!”- names, power and secrecy in Faery

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Tam Lin, by Joanna Barnum.

“They forget my name

They call me Hel,

They call me Stacey,

They call me her,

They call me Jane

That’s not my name”

The Ting Tings, ‘That’s not my name’, 2008

In the traditional Scottish ballad of Tam Lin, a handsome human boy has been abducted to Elfland to serve in the fairy queen’s retinue.  His sweetheart, Janet, agrees to help save him and bring him home but he warns her of the obstacles she will face in attempting this.  The fairies will change his form to try to scare her, but additionally he advises her:

“First, they did call me Jack, he said,

And then they called me John,

But since I lived in the fairy court

Tomlin has always been my name.”

These lines very strongly imply that, as part of his kidnapping and detention, a change of name has played a part.

Fairy Names

We know already the power of names in Faery.  Fairies often conceal their names from humans in order to preserve their power, but are as often careless in doing so, meaning that they are outwitted in the end.  Welsh brownie Gwarwyn-a-throt exemplifies this: he is overheard by his intended victim foolishly repeating his name to himself, gloating that it is a secret- and so he is undone.  In another example, also from Walespossession of the fairy maiden’s name constrained her to marry the man who discovered it (Rhys, Celtic Folklore, p.45).

Concealment of identity by this simple strategy is found in another ballad, The Knight and the Shepherd’s Daughter, although in this case a seducer is trying to avoid taking any responsibility for a child he has fathered.  Before he leaves her, the knight is asked for his name by the shepherdess and he responds, evasively:

“Some men do call me Jack, sweetheart,

And some do call me John;

But when I come to the King’s fair court,

They call me Sweet William.”

The lines in these two ballads are obviously very similar; there may well have been borrowing from one song to another, in fact.  Nonetheless, this shouldn’t detract from the significance of personal names in Faery.

On this point, I think that it’s also highly significant that the evidence from the Scottish witch trials of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries regularly refers to the existence of a king and queen of Elfame, but these royal personages never have a personal name.  This could well be because they wished to preserve their power and mystery from us untrustworthy humans.  For that matter, the few names we have for faery royalty- Mab, Oberon, Titania– are all imported from outside the British Isles.  None are authentic, native names.

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“That’s not my name!”- Grumpy fairy by Linda Ravenscroft

Human Names

Similar magic applies to human names, which should in all cases be withheld from the faes.  There is a class of stories to which I’ve referred several times in my posts, the so-called ‘ainsel’ theme, which hinges upon this point.  A human meets a fairy of some description and, on being asked his/her name, cannily responds ‘mi ainsel,’ ‘misen’ or the Gaelic equivalent ‘mi-fhín’ (all meaning ‘myself’).  Some dispute then arises between them, the human fends of the fairy’s attack and injures it, and the fairy flees to complain to a parent or to its companions.  They are unsympathetic, because the aggrieved fae has to admit that it was ‘myself’ who inflicted the harm.  This story involves simple self-preservation, but concealing a name is a more general protection against supernatural control.  Put simply, if the fairies have a grievance against you, it’s harder for them to find you if they don’t have your name!

A name can, therefore, be a source of power and of protection.  It follows-as with Tam Lin- that the fairies could very likely want to change an abductee’s name when that person is safely ‘under the hill,’ so as to make it harder for family and friends to retrieve him or her.  There could well be another aspect to this too, though. The harsh truth is that, for many visitors to Elfame, the experience is an unpleasant and involuntary one.  They are taken as captives and held in servitude, performing chores for the fairies (whether child rearing or kitchen duties) that are never-ending and exhausting.  Such conditions can only be called slavery and it has, of course, been the practice of human slave masters throughout history to rename their slaves, taking away their individuality and rendering them more clearly someone else’s property.  It would make sense for the faes to do the same: if they have a human skivvying in the kitchens, or serving at banquets, they have to be able to call them something, but they may very well wish to avoid using their proper personal names.

Finally, we ought to recognise that fairy expert Lewis Spence felt uncertain about the significance of the lines in Tam Lin.  He had made a wide study of British and world folklore and could not think of other examples of a name change being part of the magical detention of a captive.  Nevertheless, he also observed that in some versions of the ballad Janet has to keep calling out Tam’s name as she undertakes his rescue, further suggesting that there is some spell residing in the unearthly name that has to be broken to free the boy from the fairy queen’s clutches.

Further reading

See my forthcoming book, Faery, from Llewellyn International (March 2020) and my previous postings on silence in faery company, on fairy name taboos and on fairies’ personal names.

grumpy red fairy

“That’s not my name!” Grumpy Red Fairy by Jasmine Becket-Griffith