J. M. Waterhouse, A naiad, or Hylas and the nymph, 1893
Welsh born writer Arthur Machen (1863-1947) is best known for his Gothic horror novels, but beyond this he believed that the humdrum visible world conceals a more mysterious and strange reality. Fairylore was just one element of his wide reading that he combined into this vision.
In his second volume of autobiography, Things Near and Far, published in 1923, Machen acknowledged the rational explanations for fairy belief and for the origins of fairies (later set out in detail by Lewis Spence in British Fairy Origins of 1946):
“I am well aware, of course, of the various explanations of the fairy mythology; the fairies are the gods of the heathen come down into the world: Diana becomes Titania. Or the fairies are a fantasy on the small dark people who dwelt in the land before the coming of the Celts; or they are elementals- spirits of the four elements: there are all these accounts, and for all I know, may be true, each in its measure.”
Machen dismissed the more intangible of these scientific interpretations, but he was strongly attracted by the idea of ‘little people’ who still survived in out of the way places. Sometimes they were an actual, existing population: in his short story The Turanians Machen describes a girl spying upon a gypsy encampment- they are “strange-wood-folk”
“gabbling to one another in their singsong speech … [a] people of curious aspect, short and squat, high-cheek-boned, with dingy yellow skin and long almond eyes.”
“Though everybody called them gipsies, they were in reality Turanian metal-workers, degenerated into wandering tinkers; their ancestors had fashioned the bronze battle-axes, and they mended pots and kettles.”
These Turanians are slightly exotic perhaps (if you’re unfamiliar with them) but they’re ordinary humans otherwise.
However, in other stories, Machen’s Turanians could become something far more primitive and alien. They could then provide a convenient vehicle for Machen’s peculiar form of horror and the feature persistently in his novels. In The Novel of the Black Seal (1895) one character expands upon this:
“I was especially drawn to consider the stories of the fairies, the good folk of the Celtic races. Just as our remote ancestors called the dreaded beings “fair” and “good” precisely because they dreaded them, so they had dressed them up in charming forms, knowing the truth to be the reverse. Literature too had gone early to work, and had lent a powerful hand in the transformation, so that the playful elves of Shakespeare are already far removed from the true original and the real horror is disguised in a form of prankish mischief.”
Machen followed the theories of Scottish folklorist David MacRitchie (1851-1925), which were set out most fully in his book, The testimony of tradition. He traced the feys back to dwarfish Lapps or Eskimos. From linguistics and anthropology came the label ‘Turanians,’ which denotes the Ural-Altai family of languages, including Finnish and Turkish, and which was used to denote an ancient and primitive culture from central Asia. These peoples composed the aboriginal population of Europe before the fair-haired Aryans arrived and drove them north and west into the remotest recesses of the land. Amongst those influential authors who promoted this idea were Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Sabine Baring-Gould and Madame Blavatsky, founder of Theosophy, who stated in The secret doctrine that the Turanians “were typified by the dwarf (dwergar).”
Machen was very taken with these theories. For him the Turanians are the prehistoric inhabitants of the country, cave dwellers who have retreated before the advance of modern humans. They feature in a number of his stories, such as the Red Hand (1895), in which a murder is committed with a flint blade and ancient hieroglyphs are found near the victim. The elusiveness of the prehistoric peoples explains the myth of invisible fairies; their activities explain many ‘fairy phenomena’ such as flint arrow ‘elf-bolts,’ the changeling belief and the idea of witches’ sabbats. Thus in the Novel of the Black Seal an inscription on the seal in the unknown characters of the ‘Little People’ is half seriously suggested to be in language of ‘the Tylwyth Teg’ and the physical traces of their culture and activities are taken to be ‘fairy.’
All this comes together fully in Machen’s short story The Shining Pyramid (1906): a girl thought to have ‘gone with the fairies’ has in fact been abducted by a primitive race surviving in the Brecon Beacons. They send cryptic messages through flint arrowhead characters and ultimately torture and sacrifice the girl. Machen’s character Dyson explains to his friend how he realised what had actually happened:
“The hint came from the old name of the fairies, ‘the little people’ and the very probable belief that they represent a tradition of the prehistoric Turanian inhabitants of the country who were cave dwellers… [they were] under four feet in height, accustomed to live in darkness, possessing stone instruments and [with] a Mongolian cast of features.”
Despite this euhemerism and rationalism, albeit infused with violence and mystery, in his work Machen also showed great interest in the mystic, pagan, occult and romantic aspects of faery. Elsewhere he wrote that “belief in fairies and belief in the Stock Exchange as bestowers of happiness were equally vain, but the latter was ugly as well as inept.” His work is thoroughly imbued with an awareness of, and awe for, faery; fairies may be illusory, but the mere suggestion of them endows his work with tension and glamour. Machen repeatedly makes reference to fairy languages and to the dread power of our supernatural neighbours, for example in his best known novel, The Hill of Dreams, and in the story The White People.
The line dividing these literal ‘little people’ from the little folk of faery legend is not always clearly defined in Machen’s work. An example of this is the 1926 story Out of the Earth. It purports to describe real events in West Wales during the Great War. There have been reports of the local children turning aggressive and attacking visiting children. Investigation suggests that what is being experienced is actually a communication of the upheavals and violence in the human world to what might be called fairyland:
“They were only visible, only audible, to children and the childlike… These little people of the earth rise up and rejoice in these times of ours. For they are glad, as the Welshman said, when they know that men follow their ways.”
It’s notable too that in his 1917 story The Terror Machen had also envisaged the turmoil of the war infecting the animal population, with farm livestock turning horrifically against their owners.
In due course Machen’s idea of a horrific and primitive aboriginal culture was taken up by H. P. Lovecraft. In The Horror at Red Hook, for example, a character reflects that:
“these hellish vestiges of old Turanian-Asiatic magic and fertility-cults were even now wholly dead he could not for a moment suppose, and he frequently wondered how much older and how much blacker than the very worst of the muttered tales some of them might really be.”
Graham Ovenden, The meeting, 1972, Nasher Museum of Art, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina
The meaning of ‘faery’
In Machen’s writing the word ‘faery’ seems to have three distinct, but layered or related, meanings. This is well-illustrated by sampling its usage in his novels, especially 1922’s The Secret Glory.
‘Faery’ can imply something merely curious, unusual and lovely. This may be applied to things as trivial as a young couple in awe as they discover London, to the metropolis that the same couple uncover for the first time, or to a salad in a French restaurant; but it also, more poetically, describes a snowbound scene as a “white fairyland,” and he sees in a sunset sky “golden lances [that] glittered in a field of faerie green” as well as “the green of the faery seas.” This usage shades imperceptibly into a sense of something mysterious, magical and beautiful, as in “the faery hills and woods and valleys of the West.” More specifically, those seas reappear in a reference to “ships of the saints, without oar or sail, afloat on the faery sea, seeking the Glassy Isle” -that is, the isle of Avalon, Ynys Wytrin at Glastonbury; and Machen also mentions to the “faery apple-garths in Avalon.”
Machen’s work is full of references to Celtic myth and to the intertwined Arthurian romances, so it is inevitable that it he would see “images of the fairies in his eyes” too. In The secret glory the main character Ambrose Meyrick comes from Wales, where
“there were stories of the magic people who rose all gleaming from the pools in lonely woods; who gave more than mortal bliss to those who loved them; who could tell the secrets of that land where flame was the most material substance; whose inhabitants dwelt in palpitating or quivering colours or in the notes of a wonderful melody.”
Meyrick meets with a mysterious fiddler whose music “was like fairies dancing” and he has a lover, Nelly Foran, who is a girl from the West of Ireland “nurtured on the wonderful old legends of the saints and the fairies.”
Machen even seems to have invented his own fairylore, telling the story of the Emperor Nightingale (Eos Amherawdur in Welsh) who ruled over all the kings of the tylwydd teg.
Nymph V by Giuditta-R
“In the time of the fairies”
There are also authentic elements of traditional lore concerning the fair folk, the tylwydd teg, scattered throughout Machen’s writing. For example, in Opening the door (1931) a man seems to be abducted by the fairies for six weeks when he steps through an old and neglected door at the end of his garden. The white people incorporates a classic description of a visit to fairyland: a young man out hunting follows a white stag until it disappears. He realises it has entered a door in a large, round hill and he continues his pursuit into the darkness within.
“And all of a sudden it got light. and there was the sky, and the sun shining and birds singing in the trees, and there was a beautiful fountain. And by the fountain a lovely lady was sitting, who was the queen of the fairies, and she told him that she had changed herself into a stag to bring him there because she loved him so much.”
Many of Machen’s themes are dark and bleak and it follows that he was an advocate of a more traditional and ambivalent view of our ‘good neighbours.’ For example, in his 1917 story The Terror a child’s mysterious death might prove to be the work of the tylwyth teg: “‘unless it was The People that had done it.’ The Celtic fairies are still malignant.” In Change (1936), a child on holiday in West Wales is apparently snatched by the fairies and a wizened changeling left in his stead. Likewise, the child disappearance at the core of The Shining Pyramid is initially thought to be another fairy kidnapping, but it turns out that the ‘little people’ responsible are not supernatural beings but primitive troglodytes.
In all these stories the traditional source material is reworked by Machen. His mentions of folklore are allusive and are reprocessed as horror and magical mystery. Hence, in The White People the central character learns magical charms from her nurse: she is taught certain gestures– how to touch her eyes, lips and hair in a “peculiar way”- and to repeat:
“the old words of the fairy language, so that I might be sure I had not been carried away.”
Repeatedly in his work, Machen explores the idea that another world is not far from our own. Whether that is the world of the Holy Grail, the realm of pagan gods who are still powerful and present, or the land of Faerie, it is a powerful source of mystery and enchantment.
Throughout his autobiographical books Machen invoked landscape comparisons with faery. As a boy, he always saw the area around his home “as a kind of fairyland” whilst oddly shaped stones caused him to fall into a reverie, “as if it had been a fragment of paradise of fairyland.”
This romantic response to natural features lasted throughout the author’s life and appears in his written works. The Holy Mountain in the “enchanted land” around Abergaveny was “a mountain peak in fairyland;” beyond that town the hills surge up into the “sharp peaks of the order of the fairies” towards Llanthony and The Tump, or Twyn Barlwm, near Merthyr Tydfil was to Machen “a faery dome.” He recalled walking in the Wentwood Forest in Monmouthshire, “under suns that rose from the holy seas of faery and sank down behind magic hills.”
In contrast, London could seem like a “goblin city” to Machen, although even there he could find mystery and enchantment: October mists in Notting Hill Gate made “the plane trees in the back gardens droop down from fairyland.” A bird’s song in a garden evoked “the blessed faery realm beyond the woods of earth, where the wounds of men are healed.”
Graham Ovenden, illustration for ‘The White People‘, Arthur Machen, 1982.
Dark & bright nymphs
The mentions of faery in the last section were sources of comfort and images of beauty. In his fiction, fairies are more often associated with danger and horror.
In Machen’s unsettling and brooding story, The White People, a girl recounts strange magical discoveries in her secret journal. She describes meeting mysterious supernatural beings, such as ‘the white people’ and ‘the nymphs.’ She’s instructed by her nurse in “the old words of the fairy language” as a protection against being taken. The girl also learns how to summon the nymphs and discovers that:
“I might meet them in all kinds of places and how they would always help me, and I must always look for them and find them in all sorts of strange shapes and appearances. And without the nymphs I could never have found the secret and without them none of the other things could happen … there were two kinds, the bright and the dark, and both were very lovely and very wonderful, and some people saw one kind and some only the other, but some saw them both. But usually the dark appeared first and the bright ones came afterwards, and there were extraordinary tales about them.”
Eventually, the girl goes to a pool and summons the nymphs. Previously, dipping her feet in the cold waters of the pool had seemed as if the nymphs were kissing them, but the tone then shifts in a sinister and menacing way:
“The dark nymph, Alanna, came and she turned the pool of water into a pool of fire…”
Nymph by Giuditta-R
The Hill of Dreams
In Machen’s masterpiece, The Hill of Dreams, the hero Lucian becomes lost in a strange landscape: “all afternoon his eyes had looked on glamour, he had strayed in fairyland …like the hero of a fairy-book.” Ultimately he wanders into “outland and occult territory,” to “the woods beyond the world,to that vague territory that haunts all dreams.” Ancient hill forts are described as ‘fairy-hills’ ‘faerie bulwarks’ and ‘fairy raths’ and even the capital city can be imagined as the site of “dolmen and menhir … gigantic, terrible. All London was one grey temple of an awful rite, rung with a ring of wizard stones.”
Lucian’s preference is for alchemy, Cabala and Dark Age history- for “a land laid waste, Britain deserted by the legions, the rare pavements riven by frost, Celtic magic still brooding on the wild hills and in the black depths of the forest…” He wonders if he’s descended from ‘the little people’ and whether “there were some drop of fairy blood in his body that made him foreign and strange to the world.” Lucian is drawn to the ‘fairy bulwarks’ of a Roman camp (the ‘hill of dreams’) and becomes bewitched by a beautiful young woman called Annie who speaks “wonderful, unknown words”- apparently an unintelligible, possibly fairy, language. She dismisses it as “only nonsense that the nurses sing to the children” but it becomes apparent that there is more to it than that, that it is in fact some form of enchantment.
Throughout this and his other books, Machen’s descriptions of the Gwent countryside are vivid, intense and charged with otherworldly meaning. Lucian follows an unknown lane “hoping he had found the way to fairyland.” He scrambles up to the old Roman fort crowning a hill near his home and falls asleep on a hot summer’s afternoon, hearing “the old wood-whisper or … the singing of the fauns.” This results, it seems, in his possession by fauns, nymphs or witches. He has become some sort of changeling. He realises that he was been watched by unknown figures and that “they” are a woman and “her awful companions, who had never grown old through all the ages.” Hideous shapes in the wood “called and beckoned to him” and it is ultimately revealed that Annie is somehow Queen of the Sabbath and a moonlight enchantress. She is no longer “the symbol of all mystic womanhood” and his beloved; rather- alarmingly- “jets of flame issued from her breasts” and she drinks his soul in an infernal, orgiastic rite.
I’ve discussed how a link was created between British fairies and classical nymphs in a previous posting. I highly recommend the works of Arthur Machen to readers: Penguin produce an accessible collection including The White People, and The Hill of Dreams is another good starting point. See too my post on The Fairy Faith in English Music to see how Machen’s writing directly influenced one classical composer.