‘War fairies’- fairyland’s role in the Great War

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Captain Robert Graves, author of Goodbye to all that.

The outbreak of the Great War in August 1914 meant the advent of total war for all the denizens of the British Isles.  The fairies, just as much as the human population of Britain, had a potential contribution to make to the war effort.  Faery could perform two opposing roles for the Empire: as a refuge from the conflict or as a recruiting tool; by the time of the Armistice in November 1918, both roles had been exploited.

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Robert Graves by John Aldridge, National Portrait Gallery, London.

“We’ll be fairies soon”- Art, violence and faery

Fairyland as a sanctuary from violence and destruction is something I’ve discussed before in connection with Bernard Sleigh and his Map of Fairyland.  The arts could offer individual and national solace and escape.

Several poets found personal comfort in images of a pastoral, playful otherworld and in turn they offered the same to their readers. Irish poet Francis Ledwidge imagined fairy jollity, with dancing amongst the trees, and wondered in the poem Fairies “What are we but fairies too,/ Living but in dreams alone,/ Or at the most, but children still,/ Innocent and overgrown?” His fairyland was a place of eternal summer and abundance of flowers and fruit, a place of rest, love and pleasure- see for example the verse Lanawn shee.  Robert Graves seemed to want to run away become a fairy in verses like Cherry time or “I’d love to be a fairy’s child.”

Of course, the detailed vision varied from poet to poet.  Graves’ fays were very much those of the late Victorian nursery- feminine, winged and small.  Ivor Gurney wrote of such tiny beings too, before the sobering experience of life at the front.  Ledwidge drew on his Irish heritage and the Tuatha de Danaan of the Celtic myths shaped the characters of his verse; his fairies can be sad and dangerous as well as joyous.  Predominantly, Rose Fyleman’s verse is deeply imbued with childlike playfulness; her narrators and subjects join the fairies’ games.

Rose Fyleman

For all that yearning for escapism, there was, too, an acute awareness that the humans’ world was not like Faery and that “No fairy aid can save them now” (Ledwidge, Lanawn shee).  Fyleman too was aware that after the war it might not be possible to return to the dreams of the Edwardian nursery (There used to be fairies in Germany).  In this poem the fairies function as a conscience for the human population, albeit one that has failed in respect of the Germans by being unable to prevent the outbreak of war.  In consequence, the fairies have disappeared from the Kaiser’s lands.

The visual arts also contributed to boosting the nation’s flagging morale. In two earlier postings I’ve discussed the 1914 painting The piper of dreams by Estella Canziani and craftsman Bernard Sleigh’s An Ancient Mappe of Fairyland, Newly Discovered and Set ForthThese works simply evoked an atmosphere and provided scope for individual fantasy without any explicit allusions to the conflict.

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The fairies go to war

Rarely, the fairies were harnessed directly to the war effort itself.  There are two notable examples to consider.  In May 1917 poet Eleanor Gray published a short verse drama entitled The war fairies.  The piece was dedicated to her niece and godchild Muriel Harrowing, who had volunteered for service as a war nurse as early as August 1914; all proceeds from sale of Gray’s slim booklet were to go to the British Red Cross.  This was the contemporary context to her work, but her choice of material seems to have been much more personal.  It’s notable that Gray’s 1927 collection of poems, Alfieri, was dedicated to the Irish mystic and visionary AE, who himself wrote about and painted fairies.

In The war fairies the fays Viola and Mignon are distressed by the conflict in the human world.  They lament the sounds that shake the air and terrify the lilies ; the fairies can no longer enjoy their revels because of the tears and sighs of mortals.  At the same time there seems to be nothing they can do to help: they are “such mites of gossamer” that men pay them no attention.

Nevertheless, Viola is determined to find a way to “help the giant folk whose foolish eyes/ Too dull are to be ‘ware of us.”  The two fairies quickly resolve to combine to “chase the monster now devouring all the milk and honey o’ the world, leaving it void of joy.”  They unite in a dance to “chase the cruel thing/ Into a quagmire.”

At this point Queen Titania appears, asking why her fairies are in tears.  They explain what they have seen: “Young hopes are blighted, nerveless lie young hands/ Pulseless young hearts, strong hearts are struck with eld/ Love silent lies/ Its eloquence is quelled.” They’ve witnessed young soldiers dying, calling out for Home and Mother, and have been moved to act.

Titania’s advice is to stay out of mortals’ love of strife, but the two little fairies are committed to try to help with Love.  The queen warns them that, by doing so and leaving Elfland, they will become hybrid creatures, made partly human by gaining a soul, but as such unable ever to return.  Viola and Mignon are not discouraged: “We’ve seen new beauty, Queen, nor can forego its sadness.”  They rally to their side a chorus of elves who are willing to help.  These elves confirm that they are ready “To fold up/ Your spangled garments- to put off your crowns” and to replace them with red crosses, aprons and stout hearts.

Titania protests at the loss of her attendants, but they are all inspired to sacrifice their pleasure for the sorrows of the human world and to go to “weave chains of love throughout the lands, binding all equally in bonds of brotherhood… In toil unwearied, love to consummate.”  Titania has to accept their mission and bids them farewell as they go to sow love in hearts where wrath and sin dwell.  The scene ends with the elves dancing as they say goodbye to the velvet sward and rippling stream, “to moths and owls and fireflies bright… We leave you for a higher flight.”

It’s interesting to contrast Gray’s vision of wartime faerie to Rose Fyleman’s.  As in Fyleman’s poem, the fays have a moral role to play, but in Gray’s story they actively engage with the human world and make a difference.  Curiously, though, the end result is the same for them- they cease to be fairies- although in The war fairies Viola, Mignon and their companions are not extinguished but become mortal, partaking of the joys (and sorrows) of earthly life.

Gray’s little play is entirely free of jingoism and hatred of the ‘Hun.’  It does not name any foe- except perhaps the violent nature of men as a race- and it aspires to a humanist love for all.  The fairies become nurses, not soldiers, and will bring help to the injured whatever their nationality.  Very different is the second fairy play to appear that year.

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In Spring 1917 the Germans began to use Gotha heavy bombers to carry out air raids against the South-East of England.  In fact, Eleanor Gray had penned a response to the aerial attacks upon London, the poem Zeppelin nights, which cried out that “Men slept. A mighty rape/ Seized, smote- and left them dead.”  As a consequence of the intensification of the air campaign, Rose Patry wrote the play Britain’s defenders, or Peggy’s peep into Fairyland, a fairy play, which was published with a musical score in autumn that year.

In Britain’s defenders young Peggy and her sister Betty sneak out of bed and into a nearby dell in the hope of seeing fairies dancing in a fairy ring.  Instead they see various fairies of the natural world, along with Britannia, leading in the Moon as a prisoner.  The Moon’s offence has been to shine at night and to show the German bombers the way over the Channel to South East England.  The assembled fairies sing:

“On naughty Moon, you are in disgrace,

Mind you be good and hide your face;

When Gothas o’er the North Sea fly,

Go bye-bye, go bye-bye.”

The Moon’s defence is that “the horrid old Kaiser” has taken advantage of her light and that she’s being unfairly blamed, when the Sun and stars are not, yet have also shone.  Britannia calms this squabbling but insists “we must do something to stop these intruders.”  In response, each fairy in turn offers to contribute their particular abilities to Britain’s defence: the Wind Fairy will blow mighty gales that push the pilots off course; the Snow Fairy will send blinding blizzards and Jack Frost will freeze the planes’ petrol; the Wave Fairy will stir up mountainous waves, the Will of the Wisp will lure German pilots to land in bogs and the Rain Fairy will send veils to hide the Moon.  There’s some concern that the rain will also make mud that will hinder the troops at the front, but the Rain Fairy promises to keep the downpours away from the trenches and the Sun promises to dry out the ground in Flanders.  Various patriotic declarations and a verse of ‘God save the king’ follow.

Finally, the Will of the Wisp discovers Betty and Peggy asleep behind a bush.  Britannia asks the fairies to carry them safely home as they are “only two of the myriads of children you must help me to protect.”  The fairies pick up the slumbering girls singing:

“Fairy bells are ringing,

‘Forward to the fray.’

Fairy bands are mustering,

Through the night and day.

Fairy voices calling,

‘Britain needs your aid,’ Fairy echoes falling

‘She shall be obeyed.’”

Then the short play ends with the fairies carrying the girls out in procession and singing a final stirring song:

“Hear our Fairy ding-dong-bell.

We who love our island well,

When our foes approach our land,

Marshal we our fairy band.

Wave and Wind and Mist and Rain,

Make the Gothas’ journey vain.

Britain, dear, we’ll give to thee

Lasting peace and victory.”

Summary

At the distance of one hundred years we can smile indulgently at patriotic fervour of Britain’s defenders, but Rose Patry clearly saw no necessary contradiction between the best interests of fairyland and the national interest of Britain.  Nor did she hesitate to banish Titania and instate Britannia as the fairy queen.  Of course, we should be mistaken to view fairies as wholly benign and peaceable.  We might like to think of them as pacifist vegetarians, but the traditional fays do not hesitate to use violence against humans nor to fight amongst themselves.

Neither of these plays are great works of drama, but they are a fascinating glimpse of  different aspects of the national mood in the last year of the Great War.

See too my postings on the composer Rutland Boughton and on J R R Tolkien and the Great War.

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Some Welsh Otherworlds

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Caer Sidi by Sirsur on Deviant Art

In a post last summer I discussed the Welsh tendency to portray fairyland as an island, especially an offshore island that appeared and disappeared unpredictably.  In this post I’m returning to the subject of the Celtic ideas of Faery,  but with a wider perspective.

We have to start with some background.  In Welsh mythology Annwn (Old Welsh Annwfyn) is the commonest term used for the Otherworld, the supernatural dimension.  The word occurs most notably in the title of a poem found in the ‘Book of Taliesin’ and dated roughly to the late 800s- early 1100s- ‘The spoils of Annwn’ (Preiddau Annwn).  This poem describes a journey by King Arthur and three ships full of his men to seize a magical cauldron from Annwn.  The verse touches on many important themes:  there is the Celtic idea of the special food vessel (perhaps a forerunner of the Grail);  the cauldron’s cooking fire is kindled by the breath of nine maidens, a group we must irresistibly associate with Morgan le Fay and the nine virgin priestesses of the Isle de Sein off the Breton coast; there is the use of the magic number seven (only seven men return with Arthur from his voyage- just as only seven men return to Britain with Bran the Blessed in the story ‘Branwen, daughter of Llŷr‘ in the Mabinogion)- and there is the idea of a a fairy fortress, my particular interest here.

Caer Sidi

Arthur’s quest takes him to a stronghold that has various names in the poem.  It is first called Caer Sidi (or Siddi), but it’s also the four-cornered fort, the fort of numbness, the fort of obstruction and the Glass Fort (Caer Wydyr).  Those of us interested in the Arthurian legends could easily be distracted by this last name, which takes us to other mythological sites in the Matter of Britain: to Ynys Witrin, the Isle of Glass, and thence to Glastonbury and Avalon (but that’s another story).

Back to Caer Sidi; this name is translated variously as the Otherworld fort, the spiral fortress and, importantly for us here, the Fairy Fort.  That interpretation derives from a link made between Sidi and the Gaelic sidhe, meaning the Tuatha De Danann, the fairy folk.  Now, it has to be admitted that sidhe properly means ‘peace’ and that it has come to mean ‘fairy’ because it’s an abbreviation of ‘people of peace,’ one of those euphemisms regularly used by people to avoid naming Them directly that I’ve examined before.  It’s not a wholly secure chain of etymology, therefore, but it’s a generally accepted translation and (as I’m no Celtic scholar) I’m content to accept it.

Another Taliesin poem, Kerd Veib am Llyr (Song before the sons of Llyr) also refers to Caer Sidi.  The poet declares that

“Complete is my chair in Caer Sidi/ No-one will be afflicted with disease or old age that may be in it/… Around its borders are the streams of ocean.”

These lines appear to imply that this chair (kadeir- meaning a throne or seat of precedence) is situated on an island and that either the seat or the site confer some sort of eternal youth- that it is a paradise.

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Caer Arianrhod

Magical, or supernatural, forts are popular with the Welsh poets.  Another example that’s worth mentioning is Caer Arianrhod.  This location features in the story of Math fab Mathonwy, also in the Mabinogion.  Arianrhod herself is one of the children of the goddess figure Don, the Welsh equivalents of the Irish goddess Danu and her offspring, the Tuatha De Danann.  The mythology is all very complicated and it’s easy to get lost, but for present purposes it will suffice us to say that forts and fairies seem to be intimately related in Celtic myth.  Another ancient Welsh poem, Kadeir Kerritwen (the Chair of Ceridwen), describes how the River Enfnys flows around Arianrhod’s court: it is, once again, an island, depicted as being physically separated from the rest of the mortal world as a metaphor for its spiritual separation.  I may add that Caer Arianrhod is also a name for the constellation of the Northern Crown, the Corona Borealis.

Now, we’re not talking here about Caernarfon castle- let’s bear that it mind.  These legends were formulated in the ‘Dark Ages’ when there were no stone medieval castles.  Even Norman motte and bailey strongholds of wood and earth would have been too advanced for the period, so what we have to imagine for all of these locations is a traditional British hill fort, somewhere like Maiden Castle or Hambledon Hill.  Of course, as I’ve only recently discussed, there are longstanding fairy associations with ancient sites, whether hill forts, stone circles or barrows.  That’s why, therefore, in my story Albion awake!I had the main characters meet the fairy queen Maeve atop the tumulus on the summit of Hambledon Hill.

So, to return to our theme, Fairyland for the Welsh appears always to have been associated with some identifiable feature in the landscape, whether a prehistoric fortification or an island.  The ‘otherness’ and inaccessibility of each particular site presumably derived from its physical features (man-made or natural)  and also from the aura of mystery attached to it: Iron Age hillforts or Neolithic causewayed camps would have been ancient and inexplicable presences, haunted by the spirits of poorly understood ancestors. Possibly too some memories are preserved of the sacredness of lakes and other bodies of water in Iron Age Celtic worship.  There was a gulf in time, as well as some geographical barrier, that separated the observer from the fairy place.

To conclude, then, the Welsh faerie is somewhere near to us, yet faraway.  It might be found either:

  • on a high hilltop (and you might be reminded here of Arthur Machen’s story The hill of dreams);  and/ or,
  • on an enchanted island in the sea or in an inland lake.  We know that King Arthur sails to Annwn in his ship Prydwen, indicating that Caer Sidi must be doubly remote and inaccessible.  This idea is not uniquely Welsh.  I’ll close with a story from the Scottish Highlands.  In the far north west in Gairloch lies Loch Maree and in that loch there is Eilean Sithain (the fairy island).  On that island is another loch, and in that loch a further island, on which- under a tree- sits the fairy queen, receiving from her people their kain (tithe or tribute) which is paid every seven years to the devil (it was said).  (see J. H. Dixon, Gairloch in North west Ross-shire, 1885, p.159).

Some further reading

I’ve mentioned Robert Graves’ White Goddess before and in it, chapters 5 and 6, he examines the mythology behind the two caers at some length (make what you will of it).

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