The Fairy Faith in English Music

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I’ve written previously about Rutland Boughton, the (original) Glastonbury Festival and the use of Arthurian and Faery themes in opera and song.  Here I expand further on this theme within British classical music.

Arnold Bax

Arnold Bax (1883-1953) was a British composer for whom fairy and Celtic themes were of major significance.  From his time as a student at the Royal Academy of Music between 1900 and 1905 Bax was greatly attracted to Ireland and Celtic folklore.

Bax & the Celtic Twilight

Soon after his graduation, Bax departed from classical influences and deliberately adopted what he conceived of as a Celtic idiom.  His infatuation with the newly revived ‘Celtic’ culture, and with the island of Ireland, must be understood within the broader context of the  fin-de-siècle artistic and spiritual fashions upon which the composer’s youthful imagination was nourished.

The latest aesthetic fashions tended to favour anything exotic and which contrasted with common-place concerns and the practicalities of everyday life. Theosophy, Eastern mysticism, French Symbolism and the spiritual Celticism that was so much in vogue in the 1890s all contributed important strands to the artistic culture of the time, while in the not too distant background was the Pre-Raphaelite medievalism of Rossetti and William Morris. There was much talk of neo-paganism and a strong interest in the occult.  Undoubtedly, too, a large part of the general appeal of these subjects was that their potent atmosphere of sexuality. To this can be added, particularly for a musician, the impact of Wagnerian music drama, the daring novelties of Strauss and, a decade or so later, the lavish splendours of the Russian ballet.

Bax was intoxicated with all of this intellectual ferment and Celticism in particular dominated his imagination for a time and led directly to his fascination with Ireland.  Even so, as we shall see, he remained equally susceptible to the exuberant and decadent poetry of Swinburne, and to the exotic influence of Russia. They were all just different aspects of the same extravagant sources of inspiration and they all left their mark on his music.

W.B. Yeats was, of course, the high priest of this Celticism and Bax duly came under his spell. In 1902, he says, he read The Wanderings of Usheen (Oisin), “and in a moment the Celt within me stood revealed.” In attempting to explain what he meant by this rhetorical phrase Bax has told us that, in his opinion, “the Celt- although he knew more clearly than most races the difference between dreams and reality- deliberately chose to follow the dream.” As there was “a tireless hunter of dreams” in his own make-up, Bax concluded that behind his everyday English exterior there must exist an inner Celtic self. His recognition of the true nature of this inner self, he insisted, he owed to Yeats.  The poet’s influence was “the key that opened the gate of the Celtic wonderland to my wide-eyed youth,” and it was shortly after his first discovery of Niamh, Oisin and the enchanted islands in the western seas that Bax visited Ireland for the first time. The composer never doubted what the country had given him. If Yeats’ particular brand of Irish Celticism allowed Bax to focus his adolescent emotions , and to recognise what he believed was his ‘Celtic self,’ then the country itself provided him with a physical setting for his fantasies. “My dream became localised,” he said. Ireland represented that dream for him, although very evidently Bax saw the country through an idealistic haze:

“I went to Ireland as a boy of nineteen in great spiritual excitement and once there my existence was at first so unrelated to material actualities that I find it difficult to remember it in any clarity. I do not think I saw men and women passing me on the roads as real figures of flesh and blood; I looked through them back to their archetypes, and even Dublin itself seemed peopled by gods and heroic shapes from the past.”

Bax travelled extensively in the country and, for some years before the Great War, had homes both in England and in Ireland. So great was his identification with, and immersion in, the country and its cultural heritage that he even wrote Irish poetry under the pseudonym of Dermot O’Byrne.  Bax’s brother also lived in Dublin during the period and through him the composer got to know mystic poet and painter AE (George Russell) and had contact with the city’s influential circle of  Theosophists.

The result of this infatuation with Ireland can be heard in the music Bax composed during this phase of his life. “In part at least I rid myself of the sway of Wagner and Strauss,” he later said, “and began to write Irishly, using figures and melodies of a definitely Celtic curve,” although he never made any use of actual folk songs. The Irish influence is clear from the titles of works like A Connemara Revel (1904) and An Irish Overture (1905), while Cathleen-ni-Hoolihan, also of 1905, and Into the Twilight of 1908, clearly reflect his interest in Yeats. Nonetheless, despite his contact with, and sympathy for, the Gaelic-speaking population, his music always belonged to the “non-existent Ireland of the Celtic Twilight.”

For his first important work, A Celtic Song Cycle of 1904, Bax chose to set poems by the Scottish writer Fiona Macleod, and he produced about a dozen or so other songs to her verses in the years immediately following .  Fiona Macleod was, after Yeats, the greatest populariser of Celticism at the end of the nineteenth century (readers may recall that Boughton was similarly influenced), even though the writing is now virtually unknown. Her work was arguably as much an inspiration for Bax at this period in his life as was the work of Yeats, although he never acknowledged this explicitly. As we’ve seen before, no such writer actually existed, because Fiona Macleod was in truth the Celtic alter ego of William Sharp, the Scottish literary critic, biographer and novelist. Bax met Sharp in due course and the influence of Sharp’s verse on the music he composed in the first decade of the century is very strong.

Fairy Music

In 1908 Bax began a working on trilogy of tone poems called Eire (Into the Twilight; In the Faëry Hills and Roscatha). A review of In the Faëry Hills in the Manchester Guardian said that “Mr Bax has happily suggested the appropriate atmosphere of mystery” and the Musical Times praised “a mystic glamour that could not fail to be felt by the listener.”

Into the Twilight began as life as a sketch for an orchestral interlude in Bax’s projected opera, Déirdre, based on the life of the tragic Irish heroine. Only the opening passages of Into the Twilight were actually newly written in 1908; much of the rest of the tone poem was a re-composition of one of Bax’s student works, Cathleen-ni-Hoolihan, which was composed between 1903 and 1905.

In the Faëry Hills, to which the composer gave the alternative Irish title An Sluagh Sidhe (The Fairy Host), was inspired by Yeat’s The Wanderings of Oisin.  Bax wrote of the origin of the piece itself that “I got this mood under Mount Brandon with all W B [Yeats]’s magic about me – no credit to me of course because I was possessed by Kerry’s self”. He wrote in a programme note for the work that he had sought “to suggest the revelries of the ‘Hidden People’ in the inmost deeps and hollow hills of Ireland”.

In The Wanderings of Oisin the fairy princess Niamh falls in love with the Irish hero, Oisin, and his poetry, and persuades him to join her in the immortal islands. He sings to the immortals what he conceives to be a song of joy, but his audience finds mere earthly joy intolerable:

“But when I sang of human joy
A sorrow wrapped each merry face,
And, Patrick! by your beard, they wept,
Until one came, a tearful boy;
A sadder creature never stept
Than this strange human bard,” he cried;
And caught the silver harp away…”

The immortals then sweep Oisin into “a wild and sudden dance” that “mocked at Time and Fate and Chance”.  The basic idea of a mortal being enticed away by supernatural forces is paralleled in several of Bax’s orchestral works of the same period, for example The Garden of Fand (1913-16) and in some Greek influenced works we shall now examine.

Pagan Music

Despite the importance of Yeats’ mystic and fairy poetry to Bax’s music, the influences the composer drew upon were actually much broader and deeper.  His works are inspired by Irish and Arthurian myth, Scottish and Norse mythology, English folk tradition and by classical Greek legends.  Indeed, Bax himself once scathingly dismissed the ‘Celtic twilight’ of the contemporary writers as “all bunk derived by English journalists from the spurious Ossian and the title of an early work by Yeats. Primitive Celtic colours are bright and jewelled.”  He wanted to suggest that he was more interested in the raw, original sources than in modern imitations.

Bax’s pagan Greek influences are channelled through 19th-century English literature such as Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound and several works by Swinburne.  The latter’s recreation of this pagan world introduced a fresh element of ecstasy into English poetry which obviously had an enormous appeal for Bax, whose own youthful outpourings, both musical and literary, were marked by their intense passion.

Another of Bax’s scores, The Happy Forest (1914), bears a title taken from a prose-poem by Herbert Farjeon which was itself influenced by the Idylls of Theocritus, known as the ‘father’ of Greek pastoral poetry.  Bax used Farjeon as a point of departure for painting a musical impression of another enchanted wood filled with “the phantasmagoria of nature. Dryads, sylphs, fauns and satyrs abound- perhaps the goat-foot god may be there, but no man or woman.”

The most important of his scores from this time, Spring Fire (1913), was based largely on the first chorus of Algernon Swinburne’s Atalanta in Calydon, quotations from which appear at the head of each movement in the score. Completed at Tintagel and published in 1865, Swinburne’s poetic drama retold the Greek myth of the killing of the wild Calydonian boar by a band of heroes, that includes the huntress Atalanta. Bax was concerned with the earthier, primitive aspects of Greek mythology: the erotic capers of silvan demigods, the orgiastic frolics of the bacchantes and the followers of Pan, and the annual regeneration of nature.

Elemental phenomena- such as wild landscapes and seas- also had a very powerful effect upon him. His friend Mary Gleaves recalled that Bax had an “almost erotic” empathy with trees, and there are sexual connotations to his sea music as well. Bax himself acknowledged the non-Celtic nature of the ideas behind Spring Fire and the other scores and stated that ‘the true ecstasy of spring’ and the ‘affirmation of life’ were Hellenic concepts, foreign to the Celt: “Pan and Apollo, if ever they wandered so far from the Hesperidean garden as this icy Ierne, were banished at once in a reek of blood and mist and fire…”

These pagan scores date from the period just before the Great War, when there was a distinct artistic vogue for ‘pagan’ subjects. Nijinsky’s production of L’après-midi d’un faune was first performed in 1912, and The Rite of Spring in 1913. Other works of the period are Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé (1910) and Skryabin’s Prometheus (1913). Thus, in creating the finest of his pre-war compositions, Bax was not only embodying his own ‘adolescent dreams’ but responding to a broader trend.

Nympholepsy

The classical Greek influence is especially strong and relevant in one piece.  Originally a work for solo piano, Nympholept was completed by Bax in July 1912.  The title derives from Greek νυμφόληπτος (numpholēptos), one who suffers from nympholepsy, which is the state of rapture inspired by nymphs, and on the manuscript of the piece Bax wrote:

“The tale telleth how one walking at summer-dawn in haunted woods was beguiled by the nymphs, and, meshed in their shining and perilous dances, was rapt away for ever into the sunlight life of the wild-wood.”

The title was taken by Bax from a poem of 1894 by Algernon Swinburne, which describes a “perilous pagan enchantment haunting the midsummer forest.” In 1951, Bax further recorded that Swinburne’s poem was about the “panic induced by noonday silence in the woods.”  There is indeed a fevered noonday atmosphere to the verse, with its invocations of Pan and the pulse of being pervading everything:

“In the naked and nymph-like feet of the dawn… / And in each life living, O thou the God who art all.”

The manuscript of the orchestral version has an additional note by Bax, a quotation from George Meredith’s poem The Woods of Westermain, which conjures up further images of the goddess, imps and enchantment:

“Enter these enchanted woods/ You who dare…”

Robert Browning also wrote a poem entitled Numpholeptos, and Bax himself had written one called Nympholept, which is dated 26th February 1912- five months before the piano score was completed.  It was eventually published by him anonymously in Love Poems of a Musician (London, 1923) and tells how the narrator “chased all day the elfin bride” through a forest.  Browning too asks “What fairy track do I explore?” in his description of his obsessive love.  The equation between classical nymphs and native fairies is one that has been made since Tudor times, meaning that, in literary and musical terms, the terms can be interchangeable.

Regrettably, Bax’s optimistic yearning for an imaginary Arcadian existence (what he dismissed as “the ivory tower of my youth” in 1949) was soon to be swept away by the harsh realities of the The Great War, the Easter Rising in Ireland and, on a more personal level, the disintegration of his marriage. Never again in his music was Bax to visit the world of classical antiquity, or to recapture the mood of unadulterated happiness and elation.

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John Ireland

For Arnold Bax, the love of myth and fairy lore was an intellectual matter; for fellow composer John Ireland (1869- 1962) it was real and physical, the product of personal sensation and experience.  He once declared of himself: “I am a Pagan.  A Pagan I was born and a Pagan I shall remain- that is the foundation of religion.”

Arthur Machen

“They told me Pan was dead, but I,

Oft marvelled who it was that sang

Down the green valleys languidly

Where the grey elder thickets hang…”

A key factor in Ireland’s philosophy and music was the writing of Welsh novelist, Arthur Machen.  The composer first came across his work when he picked up a copy of The House of Souls at Preston railway station in 1906.  He said that he instantly bought it and instantly loved it: its impact upon him was as important as had been reading De Quincey’s Confessions of an Opium Eater.

Nearly thirty years later Ireland was to get to know Machen personally, but the author’s world of fantasy and mystery had had an immediate effect upon him.  Machen’s books have been described as a “catalyst” for Ireland, something which “infused” his compositions.  He himself declared that his music could not be understood unless the listener had also read Machen’s stories.

For Ireland, Machen had the status of a “seer.” The composer’s interest in magic and the unknown were ignited by reading his stories and he shared with the author a belief in the subconscious or ‘racial memory,’ the idea that through ancient sites such as barrows and standing stones he could connect to an ancient mysticism.  At Chanctonbury Ring and Maiden Castle hillforts, for example, Ireland believed that he could still detect traces of the early rites that had been performed there.

Ireland was especially fascinated by ritual and by the occult.  He shared this, too, with Machen, who was a member of the Golden Dawn along with Yeats, Aleister Crowley, Bram Stoker and fellow fantasy novelist Algernon Blackwood.  Ireland’s particular devotion was to Pan.  In 1952 he said that:

“The Great God Pan has departed from this planet, driven hence by the mastery of the material and the machine over mankind.”

The composer was not alone in this fascination (as we have already seen from Arnold Bax).  From the 1880s until the 1940s there was something of an artistic cult for the ancient god, as is witnessed in poetry (Walter de la Mare’s They told me (see above) and Sorcery, Swinburne’s Palace of Pan, Robert Browning’s Pan and Luna and Elizabeth Browning’s A Musical Instrument) and in novels (such works as Francis Bourdillon’s A Lost God, E. F. Benson’s The Man Who Went Too Far and Saki’s The Music on the Hill.)  Aleister Crowley wrote a ‘Hymn to Pan’ and the rural god even appears in Kenneth Graham’s Wind in the Willows, in the chapter entitled ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’ (later the title of an album by Pink Floyd). Pan had an aura of decadence and Ireland was definitely attracted to the god’s darker side- the very same aspect that was celebrated by Machen.

Arthur Machen was not, of course, John Ireland’s sole influence.  He drew musically upon the spirit of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and he also found John Brand’s Observations on Popular Antiquities, a rich source of English fairy lore and folk tradition, a further valuable inspiration.  The fairy author, Sylvia Townsend Warner, who happened also to be a relative of Machen, was another influence, her concerns with physical and mental ecstasy matching Ireland’s own.

The Hill of Dreams

Ireland found Machen’s novel The Hill of Dreams intensely compelling and reckoned that it deserved a place in the ‘literary hierarchy.’  It never ceased to be a source of inspiration for him.  It is the strange story of a young man who seems to come into contact with an ancient cult at an overgrown hill fort and who is eventually claimed by the satyrs and witches who haunt the place.  The book probably helped shape Ireland’s piano concerto, Mai-Dun, which takes its title from the name Thomas Hardy used for Maiden Castle.

The mood of intoxicating summer heat, fevered sexual dreams and pagan mystery invoked here are exactly what Bax was trying to emulate in Nympholept.

Ovenden, illustration to Machen's 'White people'

Graham Ovenden, The White People

The White People

“What voice is that I hear,

Crying across the pool?

It is the voice of Pan you hear,

Crying his sorceries shrill and clear”

Walter de la Mare, Sorcery

One of the stories in Machen’s House of Souls is the remarkable White People, an account by a young girl of her encounters with mysterious white people (who may be fairies), her discovery of a lost altar to Pan and the revelation of hidden mysteries to her by water nymphs, fae spirits who may seem charming and harmless in some aspects, but fierce in others (see Bax earlier).  Ireland said that this haunting story had “astounding qualities” at which he “never ceased to marvel.”

The story directly inspired three very short piano suites written in 1913 by Ireland, Island Spell, Moon-Glade and Scarlet Ceremonies, which he grouped together under the title DecorationsScarlet Ceremonies took its title directly from The White People.  Two of its movements are headed by citations from poet Arthur Symons; for example, Island Spell begins:

“I would wash the dust of the world in a soft green flood,

Here, between sea and sea in the fairy wood,

I have found a delicate, wave-green solitude…”

The third song borrows some lines from Machen:

“Then there are the ceremonies, which are all of them important, but some are more delightful than others: there are White Ceremonies, and the Green Ceremonies, and the Scarlet Ceremonies.  The Scarlet Ceremonies are the best…”

Ireland’s fascination with pagan ritual is also demonstrated by 1913’s brief prelude for orchestra, Forgotten Rite, a composition that has been said to be permeated with Machen’s notion of a “world beyond the walls;” with the proximity of the supernatural.  The Rite was particularly inspired by the ancient landscapes of Guernsey, an island that Ireland described as being especially ‘Machenish,’ and it also invokes Pan.   In Sarnia (1940) Ireland pursued this theme, celebrating the ecstasy of communing with nature.  This ‘Island Sequence’ comprises three piano pieces, ‘Le Catioroc’ (a Guernsey headland crowned by the impressive Le Trepied dolmen), ‘In a May Morning’ and ‘Song of the Springtides,’ the being latter prefaced by a quotation from Swinburne.  The ritualistic mood again derives from Machen’s novel The Great God Pan.

le_trepied_megalithic_burial_chamber

Le Trepied

John Ireland and the Fairies

As I stated earlier, Ireland’s pagan and mystic fascinations came not just from reading (unlike Bax).  He lived his occult and faery beliefs.

In 1933 John Ireland was visiting the South Downs in Sussex. He was working on a new composition and walked high up on top the Downs to visit a ruined chapel called Friday’s Church.  Ireland was irritated to find that he was not alone.  A group of children dressed in white appeared near him and started to dance.  He watched them for some time before it began to dawn upon him that the infants made no sound and their feet upon the turf were silent.  He looked away, briefly distracted, and when he looked back- they had vanished.  He was convinced that he had had a fairy experience.  He wrote about it in detail to Machen, whose laconic reply was:

“Oh, so you’ve seen them too?”

Ireland’s piano concerto Legend was the product of this experience.

In conclusion

As I’ve suggested before, the impact of the fairy faith upon British culture is deep and persistent: it’s given rise to musicals, operas, epic novels and to plays.  All I can do, finally, is to encourage readers to go to the works of art themselves.  Read Machen and Macleod, read Blackwood and Swinburne; try the compositions of Bax and Ireland.  Sylvia Townsend Warner’s book of her own fairy tales, Kingdoms of Elfin, is also very entertaining.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘The Immortal Hour’- Avalon, Opera & Faerie

Immortal-Hour

‘The Immortal Hour’

My consideration of the period of the First World War and its impact on visions of faery continues with this posting on the work of Rutland Boughton.  He may be unknown to almost all readers, but he’s a fascinating subject for many reasons- for his fae operas, for his radical political views and as the founder of the original Glastonbury Festival.

He’s been described as a “socialist, patriot, musician and domestic genius, an agnostic of deep religious feeling and a man of many contradictory characteristics.”

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The young Boughton by Christina Walshe

Boughton was born in Aylesbury in 1878.  His family ran a grocer’s shop which was not particularly successful, meaning that his schooling and prospects were limited.  However, through luck and hard work, he managed to establish the musical career he had aspired to and, by the early 1900s, he was developing a reputation as a teacher and composer.  He was working in Birmingham and his experience there with choirs convinced him of “the immense civilising influence of music and he began to feel that music, and art generally, might one day succeed where religion had failed.”  He pursued these thoughts in a book, Music Drama of the Future, in 1911.  He had become aware of:

“the truly popular nature of all the greatest art and of the fact that the greatest artists acquire their superhuman power by acting as the expression of the ‘oversoul’ of a people.”

Boughton was a great admirer of Wagner and argued that he had chosen folk subjects for his operas (such as the Rheingold) because these myths had been produced by this ‘oversoul.’

British legend and British drama

Music Drama of the Future formed a sort of manifesto for Boughton.  He wanted to produce heroic music dramas based upon the British ‘national scriptures’- stories like the legends of King Arthur which were the birth right of the British people.  In addition, he wanted to create a national theatre where this might be done and which might lie at the heart of a larger community.  He argued that previous attempts at communes had failed because they lacked a religious centre- a function that this new theatre could perform.  He realised that he needed to find a “civically conscious” place where he could co-operate with the inhabitants to develop a “new city” focused on the drama venue.

Around this time too, Boughton began to collaborate with writer Reginald Buckley.  They shared a mutual love of Wagner, Ruskin, Milton, Dante and Tennyson and each wanted to write ‘music drama.’  Buckley had already written a text called Arthur of Britain and had been searching for a composer.  Boughton had already identified the Arthurian myths as a subject. He saw them as the “best tap into the mystical heart of Great Britain.”

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A social experiment

There were various false starts in the plan for establishing the national theatre.  Boughton proposed a summer school at Hindhead in 1912 and then went on to consider Letchworth Garden City as a possible setting for his experiment.  By 1913, however, he’d chosen Glastonbury in Somerset as the best location in which to found his “English Bayreuth” and moved into a large house called Chalice Well where he also opened a school of music and drama.  The aim of this was to train local singers, instrumentalists and dancers so that they could perform in the festivals, which would take place four times a year, at Easter, Whitsuntide, August and at Christmas. His plans were ambitious and unusual: he envisaged a festival linked to a commune for artists who preferred a country life and who felt that they should earn their livings through art combined with running a co-operative farm.  In 1916 he wrote that “the whole business is for me as much a sociological as an aesthetic thing.”  He and Buckley wanted to control the performances of their works completely, but they also wanted to involve the local community actively in all aspects of the festivals- performing, designing clothes and scenery and choreographing dances.

Boughton was evidently ahead of his time- a fact demonstrated by his unconventional love life.  He had married in 1903 but the marriage had not been wise or successful.  Whilst in Birmingham he had formed a relationship with a music lover called Christine Walshe and in 1911 he left his wife and moved in with Christina.

The first Glastonbury Festival of Music Drama and Mystic Drama opened on August 5th 1914- the day after Britain entered the First World War.  It featured performances of ‘A chapel in Lyonesse’ based on a poem by William Morris and the Immortal Hour, based on the faery play of that name by Scottish poet Fiona Macleod (real name, William Sharp).  We’ll discuss this opera in more detail later, but it proved extremely popular and has been called “England’s greatest fairy opera.”  The Immortal Hour was performed again at Easter 1915 and again in August 1916.  That summer saw the first performance too of Boughton and Buckley’s opera The Round Table.

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 ‘Music of the duration’

Just as the 1916 Festival ended, Boughton received his call-up papers from the Army.  He appealed this to a tribunal, on the grounds that his work in Glastonbury was “of national importance.”  In this he may have found encouragement from Lloyd George who, in 1916, had asked “Why should we not sing during the war?” He had been speaking in support for the annual eisteddfod but Boughton might well have drawn a parallel with his own English venture.

The authorities did not accept Boughton’s case- even though he argued that the Glastonbury festivals could draw money away from Bayreuth and Oberammergau- and for the next two years the festival was suspended whilst he served King and country.  It has to be admitted, though, that whilst other artists like Tolkien, Ledwidge or Graves served on the front line, Boughton never did.  He was bandmaster of a succession of regiments. Nevertheless, when in December 1918 The Times newspaper reviewed the music composed during the war it recognised Boughton’s contribution to the ‘artistic war effort’.

 

Morris, Carey Boynes, 1882-1968; Rutland Boughton (1878-1960)

The older Boughton

Return to Avalon

As soon as the war was over, Boughton began planning the revival of the festival.  He moved to a new and larger house called Mount Avalon which served as a school and hostel and at the first post-war festival, in August 1920, he presented The Immortal Hour, The Round Table and the new opera written with Buckley, The Birth of Arthur. 

 The revived festival as an idea, and the individual performances, attracted great praise and encouragement, but there was too a universal feeling that it could not grow as it should so long as it was staged in the cramped Assembly Rooms in Glastonbury High Street, in which there was neither space for larger audiences nor for the performers.  Nonetheless, there were great hopes for the future and admiration for the way all the performers were able to contribute- as well as to develop their skills.  The Times had, for example, been impressed how the school’s teachers had “discovered the children of the town to be fairies, nymphs, water sprites and elves.”

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The festival continued until 1927 but steadily declined, despite successful national tours.  A major contributing factor was Boughton’s ‘adulterous’ circumstances combined with his left-wing opinions.  In 1923 he separated from Christina and moved in with one of his local pupils, a woman called Kathleen.  This was scandalous in the Glastonbury of the 1920s- pupils were withdrawn from the schools and money was withheld for developing a dedicated theatre in the town.  Money, too, had always been a problem: the festival launched with appeals for funds and always made a loss.  Eventually the festival company went into liquidation; nevertheless, it had presented 350 stage performances and 100 concerts during its existence and permanently had an effect on the little town of Glastonbury.  As many readers will know, the town itself is now a centre for alternative spirituality and lifestyles- a place where today Boughton’s love life would scarcely raise an eyebrow; secondly, as all readers will surely know, there is the modern Glastonbury Festival; organiser Michael Eavis must have derived some inspiration for this from the 1920s forerunner (even though the present day event is not, strictly, in Glastonbury at all, but several miles east).

In November 1927 Boughton moved to a smallholding at Kilcot on the edge of the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire, where he and Kathleen raised a family, kept pigs, goats and hens and grew vegetables and cider apples.  From this point on, his career also sank steadily into obscurity- something he ascribed (perhaps with a hint of paranoia) to his political views.

RB&Kath1934

Rutland & Kathleen in later life

Politics

The early 1920s Boughton was involved with the London Labour Choral Union.  Along with Herbert Morrison, he believed that “working class music making could be an invigorating element in Socialist politics and culture.”   The choral union was indeed a vital part of Labour Party culture until it was cut as an unaffordable luxury.

Before then, though, Boughton had joined the Communist Party, expressing his belief in organised control by the workers.  He identified personally with this because he felt that, as a composer, he had very little control over the fruits of his labour.  Boughton resigned from the Party in 1929 because he felt he had been undervalued and underused, but rejoined in 1945, only to quit again in 1956 over the invasion of Hungary.

It was only very late in his life that Boughton returned to the Arthurian Cycle, which he had largely abandoned after the death of Buckley in 1919.  He wrote the final two operas, Galahad and Avalon, in the mid-1940s.  The final scene of Avalon shows his continuing belief in Socialist principles: the Lady of the Lake reveals three visions of the past, present and future to the dying King Arthur.  These are the star of Bethlehem, the white star of hope shining over his own land and, finally, a red star that will rise in the east.  At the outset, the composer had seen Arthur as “an essentially British fount of inspiration” but clearly over the decades it changed from Wagnerian epic to a political tract with strong religious overtones.  The cycle as a whole may not be a success, but it has been described as “an extraordinary demonstration of artistic courage and determination- a ruin perhaps, but undeniably impressive.”  Certainly, the cycle to many seemed to represent the raison d’etre of a national festival founded in Avalon; the dramas were the source of the festival’s vitality and its justification.

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William Sharp- the artist formerly known as Fiona Macleod

Faeryland

“I have gone out and seen the lands of Faery/ And have found sorrow and peace and beauty there.” (Dreams within dreams, Fiona Macleod)

Myth and faerie magic suffuse much of Boughton’s work.  They are of course present in the Arthurian cycle, but he also wrote a range of other songs and operas based on fairy poems.  These include Faery people, based on a poem by Mary Webb, and a large number of poems by Fiona Macleod, amongst which are Dalua and Avalon, part of Boughton’s Six Celtic Choruses. 

The most important of these latter works is The Immortal Hour.  Christina Walshe was very influential in developing Boughton’s taste for Irish and Scottish mythology; she was half Irish and was a great supporter of the ‘Celtic revival.’ Boughton studied Hebridean folk songs before writing the music for The Hour and, whilst he was absent in the army in September 1918, she arranged performances of W. B. Yeats’ play The land of heart’s desire and of The Immortal Hour.

Fiona Macleod was the secret pseudonym of William Sharp (1855-1905), something kept secret during his lifetime. Sharp was a Scottish author, a prolific writer of poetry, plays and literary biography.  He was much involved in the ‘Celtic revival’ in Scotland and became familiar with W. B. Yeats.  Like Yeats, he was a member of Alistair Crowley’s Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.  Consonant with these occult interests, Macleod/ Sharp wrote a great deal of mystical and mythical verse, amongst which are small a number with an explicit fairy theme, including The bugles of dreamland, The hills of Ruel, The moon child, The lords of shadow, Dreams within dreams and The last fay.  Sharp was plainly very familiar with the key elements of Gaelic fairy belief and with the overall mood of magic and sadness that pervades Celtic legend.  These are powerful elements in the Immortal Hour,  which is a verse drama of some seventy pages concerned with Celtic myths of the sidh folk and based on the Irish story Tochmarc Étaíne, the ‘Wooing of Etain.’

Macleod’s Immortal Hour has been described as being ideal for Boughton as it was “a legend only half told, with meanings hinted at, never spoken out.”  This left him free to mould the work into any musical shape that appealed.  He did so, but still left much to the audience’s imaginations.  As The Times acknowledged in 1919, “the vague imagery of Fiona Macleod was easy to catch in music- and easy to dissipate.” Boughton had captured it effectively.  Whilst the original play was “visionary and vague” the opera was visionary but not vague- full of tunes that haunt you.

Macleod’s play is very short- only two brief acts- and not a great deal happens in it.  In the first act fairy princess Etain and High King of Ireland, Eochaid, are brought together by fairy trickster Dalua.  In the second act Etain’s former lover, Midir, comes from faery in search of her.  She remembers her former life and departs with him and Dalua casts a spell of death over Eochaid.  The drama is perhaps best known for the recurring ‘fairy song’:

“How beautiful they are, the lordly ones, who dwell in the hills, in the hollow hills.”

Mary Webb’s poem ‘Fairy led’ was used as the basis for Boughton’s ‘Fairy song:’

“The fairy people flouted me,
Mocked me, shouted me–
They chased me down the dreamy hill and beat me with a wand.
Within the wood they found me, put spells on me and bound me
And left me at the edge of day in John the Miller’s pond.

Beneath the eerie starlight
Their hair shone curd-white;
Their bodies were all twisted like a lichened apple-tree;
Feather-light and swift they moved,
And never one the other loved,
For all were full of ancient dreams and dark designs on me.

With noise of leafy singing
And white wands swinging,
They marched away amid the grass that swayed to let them through.
Between the yellow tansies
Their eyes, like purple pansies,
Peered back on me before they passed all trackless in the dew.”

Final thoughts

Boughton combined many intriguing characteristics- he was a social radical, he was interested in self sufficiency and communal living, he had an intense spirituality without being conventionally religious and he recognised the potential power of music, poetry and myth in our lives.  Boughton reasserted the place of the Arthurian legends and of Avalon in British culture in the twentieth century and, significantly for us here, he is a notable example of the power of Faery in art.

Further reading

I’ve written more about the impact of the fairy faith on British music, on the composers Arnold Bax and John Ireland.  This essay should be read in conjunction with my discussions of Tolkien, Bernard Sleigh and his map of faery and the role of the arts during the Great War.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Art Nouveau fairies

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Charles Rennie Mackintosh, In fairyland (1897)

The summer issue of Faerie magazine (now Enchanted Living) is to be an art nouveau special.  Here’s my own brief survey of the influence of this art style on depictions of faery.

Myth and symbolism are central to the Art Nouveau.  The style was based around forms and images drawn from the natural world, but its themes came from folklore, romance and legend.  This means that many of the most famous Art Nouveau artists are also known as fairy artists.

Arthur Rackham

I’ll start with the most famous of all, Arthur Rackham.  His work as an illustrator gave him many opportunities to depict faery scenes and he is very closely associated with books that have supernatural, magical or fantasy themes.  Amongst these well-known series of illustrations are Shakespeare’s plays A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest, Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, Rudyard Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill, Milton’s poem Comus, The Romance of King Arthur, the story of Undine and several collections of fairy tales and fairy ballads, including those by the Brothers Grimm.

undine

As an English artist, Rackham was strongly influenced by many earlier British artistic movements, such as the Pre-Raphaelites, William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement and Aubrey Beardsley. All of these had regularly incorporated magical and mythical themes into their works- especially the romances of King Arthur and the Norse sagas.  If art nouveau is defined by its sinuous lines and flowing organic shapes, we can see how Rackham fits within the genre: his images are identifiable by their twisting foliage, swirling draperies and stylised natural forms.  A picture such as Undine typifies this mix of elegant, swirling line and a veiled erotic rapture.

The Glasgow Four

rose
Frances Macdonald, The spirit of the rose  (1900)

The most important centre for Art Nouveau in Britain was in Glasgow, focussed around the so-called ‘Group of Four’- Charles Rennie Mackintosh, his wife Margaret, her sister Frances and her husband James Herbert MacNair.  The work of Margaret and Frances MacDonald (as they were before they married) is full of mysticism, symbolism, Celtic imagery and subject matter drawn from literature and folk tales.  Their art has the highly characteristic flowing lines and organic shapes of Art Nouveau and is strikingly beautiful and unique, with elongated figures and rich imagery, such as lush crimson roses and elegant faery queens.

fairies-1898
Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Fairies, 1898

Frances created many memorable and elegant images of magical women, including Girl and Butterflies, The Spirit of the Rose, Ill Omen: Girl in the East Wind with Ravens Crossing the Moon, The Woman Standing Behind the Sun, The Sleeping Princess, and The Moonlit Garden.  There are strong elements of eroticism and of female power in much of Frances’ art.  Her older sister Margaret also painted many enigmatic pictures, such as The Mysterious Garden, The Heart of the Rose, ‘O ye, all ye that walk in the willow-wood’ (based on a poem by Dante Gabriel Rossetti), The Sleeping Princess, The May Queen and The Silver Apples of the Moon.  This last painting takes its title from a poem by W. B. Yeats, The Song of the Wandering Aengus (1899) which describes how a young man once caught a fish that turned into a faery girl with apple blossom in her hair; as an old man he longs to find her again and to walk together plucking “The silver apples of the moon, The golden apples of the sun.”  Yeats was a mystic and folklore expert who had conversations with the faery queen of Sligo and was regularly visited by elemental spirits.  His early poems are suffused throughout with the ancient Irish myths of the Tuatha De Danaan, the fairy family of Dana with their tragic heroines and warrior queens like Etain and The Morrigan.  Yeats’ 1893 collection of verse was titled The Rose and I feel sure that his mystical imagery of the proud, sad, secret red rose in turn inspired the Glasgow Four, for whom the flower became a kind of icon.

tamlaine
Enter James Herbert MacNair, Tamlaine (1905)

The two MacDonald sisters influenced their husbands in turn.  For example, James MacNair painted a picture Tamlaine based upon the Scottish faery ballad, Young Tamlane, in which a girl falls in love with a human boy kidnapped by the fairies and rescues him from the captivity of the jealous fairy queen.  MacNair also invented his own mythology, such as the picture Y sighlu, which seems to show an enchantress in a cave.

part-seen-imagined-part-1896-charles-rennie-mackintosh
Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Part seen, part imagined, 1896

Lastly, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, although he is mainly famed for his furniture and for his architecture (such as Hill House and the School of Art in Glasgow), also painted lush pictures of roses and of mysterious tall women, such as In Fairyland, Fairies and the fae vision of Part Seen, Part Imagined, all illustrated here.

Cayley Robinson

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In the wood so green (1893)

The last artist I’ll discuss is nowhere near as famous as his Glasgow counterparts, although he also taught at the Glasgow School of Art.  This is Frederick Cayley Robinson (1862-1927), a painter influenced by Edward Burne-Jones, but who developed his own very personal and individual style.  His pictures are not ornately decorative like those of the MacNairs and Mackintoshes.  Rather, Robinson produced simple, spare watercolour paintings and book illustrations and designed costume and sets for the theatre.  For example, he worked on a 1909 staging of Maeterlinck’s play The Blue Bird, creating some stunning and memorable designs.  Margaret MacDonald Mackintosh also drew inspiration from Maeterlinck’s Seven Princesses. 

bc
The beautiful castle (1894)

Amongst Cayley Robinson’s notable faery paintings are In the Wood So Green, an Arthurian incident in which a woman stands alone amongst trees, as a haloed knight rides past her in the background; The Beautiful Castle, another pseudo-medieval setting; the strange druidic scene entitled The Oak Addresses the Spirits of the Trees, the utopian, arcadian The Kingdom of the Future and The Spirit Water, a portrait of a dark-haired naiad.

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The Spirit Water

Art Nouveau was a relatively short-lived artistic movement, but it produced a wealth of images which still captivate our imaginations today- not only because they are beautiful, but because they are full of enchanted and otherworldly beings who can lead us into a world of romance and enigma.

frederick cayley robinson oak spirit trees
The Oak addresses the Spirits of the Trees (1920)

Further Reading

For further discussion, see my book Fairy Art of the Twentieth Century

 

Anti-Paracelsus- the man who messed up Faery?

Paracelsus

Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim (known as Paracelsus) was a German doctor, alchemist and astrologer.  He was born near Zurich in 1493 and died in Salzburg in 1541.  He is significant to those interested in fairylore for his theory of the spirits of the four elements.

What’s in a name?

Von Hohenheim was a vain and combative man.  There was little in his nature to ingratiate himself with others: he was abusive, conceited and determined to break with tradition.  Typical of this attitude is the fact that he called himself Paracelsus.  Celsus was a respected Roman physician of the 1st century BC; von Hohenheim had declared himself ‘Greater than Celsus.’  In our field of fairylore one of the most respected and widely known figures is the author Katharine Briggs.  Many readers will know her name and may very likely own one of her books- I started my own fairy investigations with a copy of her Dictionary of fairies.  To act like Paracelsus, then, would for me to decide henceforth to call myself ‘Better than Briggs.’

I don’t have either the confidence or the effrontery of Paracelsus, but it tells us a lot about the man.  He knew best- in everything- and previous authorities were worthless.  In contrast, Katharine Briggs was an academic, a careful scholar who had a referenced source for everything she wrote, and I still constantly refer to her books.  Nonetheless, we should recall that she was largely a collator of other people’s work (especially in her best-known books).  I believe we should always use Briggs as our starting point but then proceed to the sources she drew upon rather than just quoting Briggs herself- and let’s not forget that these sources were folklore collections that were often, themselves, already second or third hand from the experiences described.

Briggs,_K

Katharine Mary Briggs

If there is one chink in Brigg’s intellectual armour, it is her friendship with and confidence in the Somerset folklorist Ruth Tongue.  It is pretty widely accepted now that Tongue made up a good deal of her material.  She got away with this because, of course, no-one could dispute whether or not she had interviewed some elderly farmer’s wife and for a long time no-one doubted that she had.  In a sense, then, Tongue was much like Paracelsus- she created a mythology which many successors have taken seriously when it did not deserve that respect.

The four elementals

Back to the great Paracelsus.  In his book On nymphs, sylphs, pygmies and salamanders and other spirits he set out his theories on the supernatural world (De nymphis, sylphis, pygmaeis et salamandris et de caeteribus spiritibus, published 1566). He believed that the whole universe was endowed with life and that the intermediate state between the material and the non-material was peopled with real beings associated with the four elements.

Paracelsus was a good Catholic and he stressed the role of God in creating these ‘elementals.’  Part of the divine purpose had been to ensure that no part of the universe was void and without life, but Paracelsus felt there was more to it than that.  The elementals have important functions to perform in the universe (as we’ll see in a little while); he believed that they were vitally necessary and had not been created in vain.  In addition, they exist to prove the marvels of the works of God and Paracelsus therefore argued that our proper response to this is to study them very closely and to learn all that we can about them.

According to Paracelsus, there are four species of elemental .  He used a variety of names for them, even in so short a book as De nymphis.  There are the undines or nymphs of water, the sylphs (a word he invented- it may derive from Greek silphe, meaning grub, or be a contraction of sylvestris nymphi) of the air, the fiery salamanders or vulcani and the pygmies or gnomes of the earth (whom he also called the mountain mannikins).  Once again, the word ‘gnome’ was apparently invented by Paracelsus.  The name was derived by Paracelsus from Greek, either gnōmē (intelligence)- because the gnomes revealed information about hidden treasures- or ge nomos (earth dwelling).  Nevertheless, they are Paracelsus’ invention and so, as Katherine Briggs wrote in the Dictionary of fairies, gnomes “belong rather to dead science than to folk tradition.”

Paracelsus went to great lengths to stress that these elementals that he imagined are not pure spirits.  They are composite spirit-men, very similar in many ways to humans, but not descended from Adam and Eve.  They are more like humans than beasts, but they are neither.  They resemble us both physically and in their personalities.

The elementals’ flesh is more subtle than ours and can’t be grasped or bound; they can travel through solid objects.  Nonetheless, in many respects they are people just like us.  They need food, drink and clothing; they have children, they suffer diseases and other health complaints and, although long-lived, they will eventually die.  The elementals walk about just as we do, albeit at much greater speeds.  Like us they are witty, rich, clever, poor, dumb or talkative.  They make tools, they have government, they formulate laws.  They rest and sleep like us; they have their night and day and their seasons.  They are “queer and marvellous” creatures whose major difference to humans is that they have no souls.  Nevertheless, Paracelsus rejected any idea that the elementals are devils or demons; they crave salvation and by marrying a human can receive a soul and thereby be saved.

Paracelsus described his imaginary water, fire, mountain and wind people in detail.  The undines look very like us, living in brooks and pools.  The sylphs are crude, coarse, longer and stronger than we are; their food is like ours- the herbs of the woods which they inhabit.  They are shy and fugitive.  Gnomes are about half the size of humans, and build their houses under the earth. The vulcani are long, narrow and lean.  They appear fiery and they melt and forge metals.

Paracelsus believed that the elementals are rational and ought to be treated with respect.  We can enter into bargains with them and they may give us money.  They do not mix with each other but live solely within their own elements; however, as the human world is compounded of all of the elements, they are able to interact with humans.  The nymphs most resemble humans and are known to marry and interbreed with them.  They have to be treated well, though, as if offended they will rapidly return to their own element.  Likewise gnomes will serve people, providing them with money and knowledge and guiding them to rich resources, but they can deal out blows, too, and will disappear under their mountains at the least provocation.

The elementals have two vital functions, according to Paracelsus: they indicate and warn of future events, such as political and economic upheavals, and they act as guardians over nature.  Specifically the nature spirits- especially the salamanders- make and protect “tremendous treasures in tremendous quantities.”   They steadily reveal these to humans, thereby explaining why it is that we slowly discover new mineral sources and lodes of precious metal.

That’s a summary of De nymphis and I’ve probably already more devoted more space to Paracelsus’ ideas than they deserve, in the circumstances.  Now, we’re all entitled to our fantasies, but the problems arise when people mistake them for scientific fact or for received wisdom.  Both misconceptions have befallen Paracelsus.  What may best be described as a speculation has matured into the status of a report from the otherworld.

sylphs

Pixies and pygmies

Paracelsus’ ideas were widely disseminated, both through the reading of his work and through the thought of other thinkers who drew upon him.  Amongst those who followed his fourfold classification of Faery were Eliphas Levy, Madame Blavatsky (founder of Theosophy), W. B. Yeats, Evans Wentz, Rudolf Steiner and Geoffrey Hodson.

Unorthodox and individual as his ideas were, Paracelsus’ four-fold division of nature took hold.  Proof of this is to be found in our usage of the word gnome.  He may have made it up, but on the continent it became associated with the dwarves of Teutonic and Scandinavian mythology and gradually came to act as an alternative label for them.  Dwarf, gnome and goblin are now virtually interchangeable in everyday speech.

Just as he invented his own theories in medicine, Paracelsus invented his own folklore.  Others added to this subsequently, Montfaucon de Villars (in Le comte de Gabalis, 1670) and Eliphas Levi being particular culprits and adding considerably to Paracelsus’ original fantasies from the Kabbalah.

undine 1909

Arthur Rackham, Undine, 1909

Paracelsus and folk tradition

Now, we already know that classical mythology had started to taint native beliefs as a result of the renaissance rediscovery of Greek and Roman legends.  British fairies were regularly made synonymous with Mediterranean fauns and such like:

“You mountain nymphs which in the desarts reign/ Cease off your hasty chase of savage beasts…/ You driades and light-foot Satyri/ You gracious Fairies, which at even-tide,/ Your closets leave with heavenly beauty stored…” (The tragedy of Locrine, 1594); or,

“some are of fyre, and some of the ayre,/ Some watrye and some earthly, and some golden and fayre/ Some lyke unto sylver…” (The Buggbears, George Gascoigne, 1565)

Paracelsus only compounded this trend, but the real problem with his idea of the elementals is that it has next to no basis in folk tradition- nor, perhaps, should we expect it to do so, given Paracelsus’ addiction to rejecting received wisdom.

There are certainly some familiar elements in what he wrote.  He’d spent a lot of time in mines and was doubtless aware of the spirit called the kobold in Germany and knocker in Cornwall; the gnome bears some considerable resemblance to these and fairies too have long been linked to buried treasure.  His undine brides are very like the fairy wives of Welsh folk stories (and other myths).

As his four elementals are partly derived from classical myth, and partly from his own imagination, the difficulty for many subsequent writers has been fitting his ideas in with conventionally recognised fairy tribes.  This has often proved an inevitable and considerable challenge and the result frequently is the incorporation into family-trees of strangers and aliens who just don’t belong there.  Gnomes are one example of this.  As I’ve just said, some similarities can be detected with Germanic dwarves, but in Britain- other than the very localised ‘knockers-‘ there’s really nothing similar.  The Anglo-Saxon word for dwarf, dweorg, was able to mutate into derrickdenoting a West Country sort of pixy, precisely because there was no need for anything resembling a dwarf as such.

The ‘undine’ is something like a mermaid and vaguely resembles a meremaid such as Jenny Green-teeth, but in truth it’s only the fact that they all live in water that unites them.  As for salamanders, there’s honestly nothing remotely like them in British fairy-lore.  The result is that many authors have to rope in Greek nymphs and nereids, rusalkas and any other types they can in order to provide examples of Paracelsus’ four forms.

WOODNYMPH

Charles M Russell, Wood nymph

Paracelsus’ legacy

The achievement of On nymphs etc is that later readers took it too seriously.  It has been treated as a scientific study by a respected Renaissance authority and many have felt that it has to be given the respect due to such a seminal text and incorporated into existing fairy belief.  In fact, in trying to accommodate it with traditional fairy-lore, the tendency has been for Paracelsus’ fantasies to obscure the original material.  Many writers have agonised over fitting elementals and elves together, to the detriment of the latter.

Geoffrey Hodson in Fairies at work and play is an example of this.  He offers us multiple categories of faery beings, including elves, brownies, mannikins (a term he may have borrowed from Paracelsus), the four elementals and devas (borrowed from Hindu belief through Theosophy).  He tries to be scientific and taxonomic, but his list is pretty confusing.  In fact, in modern fairy belief there’s considerable confusion over the exact nature of fairies and I suspect that a lot of this is due to the attempts to incorporate Paracelsus’ categories.

Many contemporary writers feel obliged to try to offer their readers some sort of classification of fairy kind and struggle to find a scheme that includes both brownies, pixies and the four elementals.  They won’t sit together satisfactorily- and this is, of course, because Paracelsus dreamed up his classification with very little reference to tradition (well, German, Northern European tradition: he obviously knew his classical mythology).  It’s very easy to find modern guides to faery which are primarily structured around the four elementals (works by Cassandra Eason, Edain McCoy, Ted Andrews, Dora Kunz, Harmonia Saille, Victoria Hunt and Emily Carding might all be cited).  Readers are offered detailed analyses of the four classes along with procedures, spells and rituals for contacting and working with them.  I’ve even seen ‘water babies’ suggested as a form of beach fairy found playing in the surf, which appears to be promoting Charles Kingsley‘s story far above its station to the status of authentic folklore source.

Praise for Paracelsus?

Is there anything good to say about the book De nymphis?  It’s certainly a good and convincing read, it’s true, but there may be a more substantive benefit.

One aspect of Paracelsus’ description will strike a chord with many: that’s his vision of elementals as guardians of nature.  As we have faced increasing environmental degradation, this role for the fairies has been deliberately promoted.  For many writers, it is close to being their principle function.  As a single example, Rae Beth in The way into faerie describes how the fairies’ dancing keeps “the whole web of Nature in balance and harmony.”  This focus upon ecosystems and natural processes cannot be faulted.

However, in the process (and I particularly blame the Theosophists here) the identification of fairies with the elementals and with finer workings of botany and biochemistry has tended to diminish them until they’re not much more than molecules and minerals moving through the xylem and phloem.  This trend may have been initiated, however unwittingly, by Paracelsus, but it’s diverged even from his ideas.  He was quite clear that the elementals are people, just like us, with their moods and aspirations, whereas some more recent writing has stripped them of this individuality.

Modern scientific thinking makes us want to order and arrange things logically and neatly and the writing of Paracelsus provides an apparent starting point for doing this.  The thing is, though, a great deal of it’s nonsense, and I think we should all be a lot happier if we just ditched it and stuck to the observation and experience of tradition.

Further Reading

I discuss Paracelsus work and its impact at greater length in my books Fayerieon Tudor and Stuart faerylore, and in my study Nymphology.

‘Just made up?’ The problem of fairy physicality

hutton lear glimpse

Charles Hutton Lear, A glimpse of the fairies, 

There is a body of opinion that fairies have no fixed, physical form and that when they appear to us they shape themselves to our expectations.  This notion first seems to be mentioned in a fairy context by W B Yeats in his introduction to Fairy and folk tales of the Irish peasantry (1888).  Many generations of mystics and occult writers have acknowledged the existence of spiritual beings, he wrote- beings “who have no inherent form but change according to their whim, or the mind that sees them.”

Thought forms

Yeats did not originate this idea.  Early on, Theosophists had formulated the concept of ‘thought forms.’  Mahatma Koot Humi, one of Madame Blavatsky’s mentors and inspirations, wrote that “thoughts are things… they are real entities.”  This idea was elaborated by Charles Leadbeater and Annie Besant in a book, Thought forms, in 1905; they asserted that thoughts produced a radiating vibration conveying their emotion and also had a floating form.  The idea was then transferred nature spirits and elementals.  To become visible, they assume etheric bodies, which are shaped by folklore stories and human imaginations.  Robert Ogilvie Crombie of Findhorn explained that, although its natural form is a swirl of light, an elemental “can put on any of these thought forms and then appear personified as that particular being … elf, gnome, faun, fairy and so on.”[1]  Edward Gardner had a related but different conception.  He believed that Elsie and Frances at Cottingley had abilities akin to mediums.  They could materialist the fairies they photographed through ectoplasm, which was the explanation for their contemporary appearance.

The idea of the thought form was developed in relation to fairies by Geoffrey Hodson in Angels and the new race (1929)He asserted that fairies have no physical body but are formed of light, albeit along the ‘same model’ as humans.  In The kingdom of the gods in 1952 Hodson elaborated on these ideas: the archetype for the fairy form was the human body and their appearance was further determined by our expectations as to what we might see.

These ideas still prevail.  In Signe Pike’s 2009 book Faery tale she interviewed artist Brian Froud who told her (p.91):

“It’s often thought that faeries use our own thought patterns to manifest themselves.  For example, when a faery appears to a person, it will typically look quite similar to the creatures you see in storybooks.  This is because if you were to see a ball of energy, would you really know it was a faery?  No.  So they try to ‘speak’ our visual language.  We see wings, and flowing dresses, and heads and eyes.  The problem is, we think we’re just making it up.”

Likewise in The faery faith by Serena Roney-Dougal, she discusses how our psyche may create some of the things we see (pp.67-71).

Solid- or see-through illusions?

I have to admit that I feel uncomfortable with this idea, for several reasons:

  • It seems to introduce an insurmountable circularity into the situation.  If it is argued that fairies look like we expect them to look, it’s hard to establish a point at which our ‘preconceptions’ were first conceived, as no-one will ever see an ‘original’ or ‘authentic’ fairy;
  • There are compelling reports of ‘fairies’ that look nothing like our expectations: see for example some of the experiences in Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing fairies or some of the pixies described in Jon Dathen’s Somerset faeries and pixies;
  • The argument may seem to operate as a legitimate cover for those who claim to have seen fays when all they are describing are the products of their own over-active imaginations.  Their alleged visions are just repetitions of images they have derived from Enid Blyton’s stories,  from J. M. Barrie’s play script and from their nursery books.

Lastly, and most importantly, the theory is hard to square with cases which appear to be accounts of genuine encounters with solid and physical fays.  If fairies are solely balls of energy it’s difficult to reconcile this with the cases where their physical presence was either central to the plot or appeared already to be established before the human encountered them.  I am thinking here of the cases where humans and fays have entered into sexual relationships and where children have been borne of these pairings- children who often must be physically delivered by human midwives attending a faery knoll.  I also am thinking of cases where fairy celebrations have been stumbled upon accidentally by people- the many cases where the fairies have been found dancing and then lured in human partners, or the stories of fairy feasts discovered under fairy hills. In one story told by William of Newburgh, readers may recall, the man who discovered the celebration also managed to make off with a gold cup.  Elsewhere I have discussed the transmission of fairy powers by the medium of touch.  As a last example, I note Morgan Daimler’s discussion of fairy familiars on p.162 of her Fairy faithshe stresses that these familiars were “clearly visible to the witch as tangible presences, not dreams or see-through illusions…  they were real-world manifestations that were seen, heard, and spoken to, in the waking world.”

These are all very solid incidents where the human form of the fairies was central to the incident and also, as I’ve suggested, already established independent of any Schrödinger like observation.

Mccubbin, what the little girl saw in the bush

Frederick McCubbin, What the little girl saw in the bush, 1904

Summary

Our forebears definitely conceived of the fays as real and tangible- and so consistent in their appearance that classification into standard groups was possible and remained applicable over hundreds of years.  Any mutability in their appearance was purely of their own making- the result of their magic and glamour.

There were , of course, many who dismissed faeries as entirely illusory and imaginary, but this was for quite different reasons.  Rationalists challenged fairy belief on the grounds that it was self-delusion:

“Rainbow castles in the air/ Fit enough for fays and elves/ But not for mortals like ourselves.” (Martin Farquhar Tuppe, Liberty- Equality- Fraternity); or,

“That which belongs to neither heaven nor hell./ A wreath of mist, a bubble of the stream;/ Twixt a waking thought and dream…” (Sir Walter Scott, The kelpy).

All of that said, if fairies are but mutable forms responding to our own thoughts, it would explain their evolution in recent centuries, whereby they have acquired wands and wings and come to look like the leprechauns and flower fairies of contemporary culture.

This is a very difficult area and I can’t offer any definitive metaphysical solutions.  What do readers feel?  In short, do fairies look like fairies because they have a consistent and identifiable appearance or because they match themselves to whatever they find in our heads- be that Cicely Mary Barker or Henry Fuseli?

Further reading

I look at the question of fairy weight again in another posting whilst my posting on the question of who believes in fairies touches on related questions of belief and reality.  Whether or not fairy form changes according to our expectations, it’s certain that some fairies can shape-shift themselves.

‘Come unto these yellow sands’- seaside fairies

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Thomas Maybank, ‘Come unto these yellow sands’ (1906)

It is generally (perfectly correctly) our assumption that fairies and elves are beings of woodland and groves.  They may from time to time be found out on rough moorland (pixies and spriggans in the south west of England) or even in human homes and farm buildings (brownies) but we very rarely imagine them at the seaside.  This is mistaken; they have been sighted there and this post presents the scattered evidence for this.

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Richard Dadd, ‘Come unto these yellow sands’ (1841)

Shakespearean fairies

Although in classical mythology the Nereids and Oceanids were marine nymphs, there is only a little traditional British material locating supernaturals on the seashore (for example, at Newlyn in Cornwall the bucca living on the strand had to be offered a share of the catch by fishermen hoping for success) and it is probably Shakespeare in The Tempest who first created the association in the popular mind.  In Act 1 scene 2, Ariel famously sings:

“Come unto these yellow sands,
And then take hands:
Curtsied when you have, and kiss’d
The wild waves whist,
Foot it featly here and there;
And, sweet sprites, the burthen bear.
Hark, hark!”

Here we have the conventional fairy circle dance transposed from a glade or meadow, where a fairy ring springs up, to the strand-a novelty that appears to be almost entirely the playwright’s invention.  Milton seems to have imitated this scene in Comus: “And on the Tawny Sands and Shelves, Trip the pert Fairies and the dapper Elves” (lines 117-118).  Without doubt, Shakespeare’s song has provided inspiration to painters ever since, as is illustrated here, and it seems to have created a lasting acceptance that fairies might quite properly be encountered so far from their normal haunts.  Scenes from The Tempest and, of course, Midsummer Night’s Dream were standard fare for Victorian fairy artists, but also we find seashore sprites unconnected with these famous plays.

Yellowsands_Huskisson
Robert Huskisson, ‘Come unto these yellow sands,’ (1847)

Victorian fairies

From the early nineteenth century we have the painting Fairies on the seashore by Henry Howard (see below).  What exactly this tropical scene illustrates is uncertain; it may be his own idea, it may be drawn from literature: Ann Radcliffe in The mysteries of Udolpho (1794) wrote some lines about a sea nymph, who sings:

“Where e’er ye are who love my lay/ Come when red sunset tints the wave,

To the still sands, where fairies play,/ There in cool seas, I love to lave.”

Around the same time Elizabeth Landon wrote an entire poem entitled Fairies on the seashore, which features flower, rainbow and music fairies as well as a sea fairy riding in a nautilus shell in the moonlight.

tarrant sea shore fs

Yeats and the seaside sidhe

In the late nineteenth century it seems likely that W. B. Yeats drew upon native Irish tradition, rather than any English literary or artistic works, when in 1889 he wrote his famous poem The stolen child.  It is voiced by fairies who are abducting a human infant- they tempt the child to accompany them to where:

“the moon glosses/ The dim grey sands with light/ Far off by furthest Rosses/ We foot it all the night,/ Weaving olden dances.”

The scene is Rosses Sands in County Sligo, a place known as a “great fairy locality” according to Yeats himself.  It would be easy enough to assume that these lines were simply the work of a great poetic imagination, but this would be mistaken.  Yeats, like his friends William Russell (AE) and Ella Young, actually met fairies. In his collected letters he tells of an encounter at the Rosses that took place about the time that the verse was composed, when he met and conversed with the queen of fairy and her troop.  In this respect, Yeats prefigures our last evidence by several decades.

fairies on sea shore henry howard

Seashore fairies, Henry Howard (1769-1847)

Fays on holiday?

Finally, in the twentieth century, we have actual sightings of fairies on the beach recorded, incidents which appear to exactly replicate Thomas Maybank’s 1906 version of Ariel’s song (rather than Margaret Tarrant’s more Peter Pan-ish and homely image).  In July 1921 Geoffrey Hodson saw some “queer little elf-like forms” playing on the beach at Blackpool.  They had elfish faces, large heads and ears, little round bodies, short thin legs with webbed feet and were three to six inches tall.  They played amongst the seaweed and stones, but did not go in the water; they seemed unconcerned by the presence of human holidaymakers (Fairies at work and playchapter 1).  In Conan Doyle’s Coming of the fairies, published in the same year, he reproduced an account by Mrs Ethel Wilson of Worthing of seeing fairies on the beach on sunny days: they were like little dolls with beautiful bright hair, she told him.  Unlike Hodson’s elves, these beings played in the sea and rode on the waves, constantly moving and dancing about.  These are fascinating sightings, though it is inescapable that the fays seem to have travelled to the coast very much in tandem with British day-trippers.

Much more recent sightings have confirmed that this link persists, rare as it is.  A Mrs Clara Reed was on holiday at Looe in Cornwall in 1943 when she saw a sea fairy, dressed in a skirt of shells with a bodice of seaweed and shells round her neck.  She spoke with the fairy at the water’s edge, and was told the future: that her sick husband would not die.  A flying fairy being was also seen hovering on the beach in British Columbia during the 1970s (Johnson, Seeing fairies, p.125; Fairy Census no.194).

To conclude, the evidence is patchy and much of it is from literature rather than folklore, but the indication is that fairies might be found in any natural scene, from the sea shore to the mountain top.  If we conceive of them as nature spirits, this would of course be exactly what we would expect.

Further reading

An expanded version of this text will appear in my next book, Faeries, which will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide next year.

‘A hidden tongue’- Fairy song and speech

 

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Ella Young

“Sweet voices call us through the air;

New languages we understand.

Is this our own world, grown so fair?

Sir Knight, we are in Fairy-Land!”

(In fairyland, by Lucy Larcom)

I have written previously about fairy language  and discussing the question in chapter 3 of my British fairies.  I wish to return to this subject to discuss some intriguing evidence.

Fairy talk

The typical treatment of the matter of fairy speech in the literature is either to use it as a source of humour or to regard it as a area so obscure and insoluble that little meaningful can be said.  The two extremes are illustrated by the following authorities.  Ben Jonson in The alchemist opted for the frivolous and mocking approach.  His elves enter crying “Titi, titi, titi…” which allegedly means “Pinch him or he will never confess.”  Dapper, the dupe of this scene, declares that he has told the truth, to which the elves respond “Ti, ti, ti, ti, to, ta”- ‘he does equivocate.’  Similar nonsense is spouted by the fairies in Thomas Randolph’s Amyntas of 1632.  You wonder whether this is all just a play on the name Titania.

The other view may be represented by the Reverend Edmund Jones, in his discussion of contemporary fairy beliefs in Gwent in the 1770s (A geographical, historical and religious account of the parish of Aberystruth). His description is typical of many of the Welsh texts and accounts of about that time: he states that the fairies are often heard talking together “but the words are seldom heard” (p.69).  This is either because they were indistinct, or because they were spoken in neither Welsh nor English.  We learn that Scottish brownies are “a’ rough but the mouth”- that is, they may be hairy but they speak softly. Conversely once, on Shetland, a girl saw a ‘grey woman’ wandering and “making a noise like scolding” in a “hidden tongue.”  Here the speech reported was both harsh to hear as well as incomprehensible.

“Around my head for ever,/ I hear small voices speak/ In tongues I cannot follow,/ I know not what they seek.” (Dora Sigerson Shorter, The man who stood on sleeping grass).

All that we can gather, then, is that fairy speech neither sounds like ours nor is it comprehensible.  It may be recognisable, nonetheless, as language: in the story of the Fairy revels on the Gump at St. Just (Hunt, Popular romances of the West of England, p.85) an old man hears fairies on the Gump singing hymns “in a language unknown.”   Even so, fay speech has also been said to be high-pitched or even bird-like.  Walter de la Mare in one poem describes bands of fairies “chattering like grasshoppers” (The ruin); in another, The unfinished dream, he overhears them “talking their unearthly scattered talk together…  Ageless in mien and speech.”  This perhaps captures the experience, but none of it helps us much in discovering the exact nature of fairy language- nor in actual communication with our good neighbours.

The evidence of Ella Young

We have, though, the testimony of Irish seer and poet Ella Young (see At the gates of dawn, 2011).  She heard fairy music and song and tried to record the words she heard.  If her account provides a half accurate transcription of actual speech, we would have the most tantalising evidence we possess for the language of the Irish sidhe folk (at least).  Young kept an account in her diary for the summer of 1917 in which she described what she had heard in the far northwest of Ireland.  On August 28th she heard ‘a great litany of chants and responses with words in an unknown language’- “Abaktha… nyetho… wyehoo.”  On September 1st a chorus sang the word “Beeya” repeatedly; this was followed on October 9th by chanting “Balaclóo… Beeya…” and it culminated on October 17th with an extended ‘Gregorian chant’ of which she recorded what she could:

“Hy bermillu, hy dramel, heroó, wyehóobilik, kyeyóubilik, wyehóo, balalóo…”

This may of course all be the product of a deluded mind: on September 8th Young wrote quite frankly that “my head has been for several days quite normal” as a consequence of which she had heard neither music nor song from the sidhe people.  All we can say is that, if it is genuine, it is untainted testimony of fairy speech.  Young’s experiences predate Tolkien and his confection of elvish languages from Welsh and Finnish; there could be no imitation of his pervasive influence nor, for that matter, does Gaelic appear to have shaped what she heard.  If her snatches of verse resemble anything at all, it’s some Algonquin tongue from New England.  It’s worth recording that Young was not alone in her claims to have met and conversed with fairies.  As respected a figure as poet William Butler Yeats made the same claims at the same time.

The words transcribed by Young may be complete nonsense; in practical terms, without a ‘Rosetta stone’ to give us a key to translation, they might as well be gobbledegook.  Nevertheless, it is an intriguing account and readers must draw their own conclusions…  The words of poet Philip Dayre are a fitting conclusion to this note.  In his verse, An invocation, he calls on the fairies to return to earth, asking:

“Who to human tongues shall teach,

That forgotten fairy speech,

By whose aid the world of old,

Did with Nature commune hold?”

Restoration of this lost unity might be the reward awaiting the person who finds that fairy Rosetta stone.

And with that, Namárië

Further reading

I have also posted a general discussion of fairy speech as well as some thoughts on fairy names.  The languages used is fairy naming is another fascinating subject for me.

An expanded version of this text will appear in my next book, Faeries, which will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide next year.

 yeats

“A witchery of sound”- ‘ceol sidhe’ or fairy music

ceol sidhe

‘Flute fairy’ by Svetlana Chezhina

“There’s many feet on the moor to-night, and they fall so light as they turn and pass,
So light and true that they shake no dew from the featherfew and the hungry grass.
I drank no sup and I broke no crumb of their food, but dumb at their feast sat I;
For their dancing feet and their piping sweet, now I sit and greet till I’m like to die.

Oh kind, kind folk, to the words you spoke I shut my ears and I would not hear!
And now all day what my own kin say falls sad and strange on my careless ear;
For I’m listening, listening, all day long to a fairy song that is blown to me,
Over the broom and the canna’s bloom, and I know the doom of the Ceol-Sidhe.

I take no care now for bee or bird, for a voice I’ve heard that is sweeter yet.
My wheel stands idle: at death or bridal apart I stand and my prayers forget.
When Ulick speaks of my wild-rose cheeks and his kind love seeks out my heart that’s cold,
I take no care though he speaks me fair for the new love casts out the love that’s cold.

I take no care for the blessed prayer, for my mother’s hand or my mother’s call.
There ever rings in my ear and sings, a voice more dear and more sweet than all.
Cold, cold’s my breast, and broke’s my rest, and oh it’s blest to be dead I’d be,
Held safe and fast from the fairy blast, and deaf at last to the Ceol-Sidhe!”

This poem, ‘The fairy music’ by Nora Chesson Hopper, captures the enchantment and other worldliness that it is associated with fairy music.  Previously I have discussed the fairies’ liking for music and song and what seems to be the generally pleasure-seeking nature of their existence (see my earlier posting on  fairy pastimes as well as chapter 11 of my British fairies).  According to John Dunbar of Invereen, one of folklorist Walter Evans-Wentz’ Highland informants, the fairies were “awful for music, and used to be heard often playing the bagpipes.” (The fairy faith in Celtic countriesp.95)

Fairy musical skill

What I would like to do now in this posting is to discuss the actual nature and sound of that fairy music, based upon the first hand testimonies of those who have claimed to have been fortunate enough to have heard it.  Nonetheless, there are a number of themes associated with fairy music which we may quickly recap:

  • the music is often heard coming from particular knolls, hills or barrows, in which the fairies are taken to reside.  This is a very common local story and it can be found from the Fairy Knowe on Skye to the ‘music barrows’ of southern England, for example at Bincombe Down and Culliford Tree in Dorset and Wick Moor, near Stogursey in Somerset.
  • fairy musical skills and even instruments can be granted to fortunate humans.  There are several sets of bagpipes in Scotland alleged to be fairy gifts.  Fairy musical ability could be a blessing that made a man and his heirs rich (Evans- Wentz p.103). It could also be a curse, too: the favoured one might die young, being taken back by the fairies to play for them (Evans-Wentz p.40).
  • conversely, talented human musicians were from time to time abducted to satisfy the powerful fairy need for music and dance.  Almost always they met the fate of all who tarry in Faery.  They believed that they had played for just a night, but find all transformed on their return home.
  • fairy music can have magical or enchanting power- for example, from Ireland come stories of those who, on hearing it, felt compelled to dance- and then had to continue until they dropped from sheer exhaustion (Evans-Wentz p.69).  Coleridge in his poem The eolian harp described “Such a soft floating witchery of sound/ As twilight Elfins make;”  deliberately or not, a spell seemed to be cast upon the listening human; and,
  • occasionally, humans are able to commit a fairy tune to memory and contribute it to the mortal repertoire.  One such is Be nort da deks o’ Voe from Shetland. Two Welsh examples are Cân y tylwyth teg and Ffarwel Ned Pugh (see Wirt Sikes, British goblins c.7 and also Evans Wentz Fairy faith pp.118 & 131- two examples from Man).

The last two points are of particular significance into an enquiry into what fairy music actually sounds like.  Most of our older sources are not very helpful on this.  In his history of Aberystruth parish, the Reverend Edmund Jones in 1779 is typical of the vague descriptions normally found: “everyone said [the music] was low and pleasant, but none could ever learn the tune.”  Gathering evidence for his book The fairy faith in Celtic countriesEvans-Wentz was told that fairy music consisted of tunes not of this world, unlike anything a mortal man ever heard (pp.124 & 24), being the finest, grandest and most beautiful kind (pp.32, 47 & 57).  Evans-Wentz was informed that it often continued over an extended period- an hour or even a whole night.

Ninfa

‘A little night music’ by David Delamare

The sound of fairy music

Evidently the otherworldly nature of the music gave witnesses problems when they later tried to describe their experiences.  The testimony of those of a more artistic temperament might therefore prove more enlightening.  Poet and mystic George Russell (AE) told Evans-Wentz that he first listened to the music in the air on a hillside in County Sligo.  He heard “what seemed to be the sound of bells, and was trying to understand these aerial clashings in which wind seemed to break upon wind in an ever-changing musical silvery sound.” (p.61)  This leads us much closer to the reality and, in fact, the best account comes from a close friend of Russell and his wife, the visionary writer Ella Young.  Over the summer of 1917 and into 1918 she repeatedly heard the ceol sidhe, which in her opinion surpassed human symphonies.  Interestingly the very same description was used on the Isle of Man in the 1720s (Simon Young and Ceri Houlbrook, Magical folk, 2018p.173).

The fairy music was, Young said, “orchestral and of amazing richness and complexity.”  The melodies could be exquisite, sometimes like very fast reels, at others slow and wistful.  On August 27th 1917 she described “a certain monotony like slow moving waves with a running melody on the crests.”  Interwoven with this might be voices singing in an unknown tongue, either solo or resembling Gregorian chant.  Young noted “delicate and intricate rhythms” in a variety of tempos, including “music of stricken anvils.”  She heard a “myriad, myriad instruments” among which she mentioned cymbals, bells (both silvery tinkling and deep tolling), trumpets, harps, violins, drums, pipes, organs and bagpipes.  Several times, though, she could not compare the sound to anything she knew from earthly ensembles; she heard “very high notes- higher than any human instrument could produce,” “something like a Jew’s harp” and “a curious reedy instrument.”  Again, Young was not alone in this: George Waldron recorded that on Man in the 1720s islanders would hear “Musick, as could proceed from no earthly instruments” (Magical folk, p.173).

Despite her eloquence and sensitivity, Young struggled to give a clear account; it was “not music I can describe… it is beyond words.”   Moreover, she found it “difficult to recall this music and the sensation it creates.”  Nevertheless, she wrote (in terms similar to Russell’s) that the orchestral sound resembled a “wave or gush of wind” and that its effect was to create “a sense of freedom and exultation.”

Young harboured some doubts over her aural visions.  She wrote on September 9th 1917 that “my head has been for several days quite normal,” but then she heard the sounds again and concluded “I think the singing in my head was really astral.” In other words, its origin was aethereal and unearthly.  She believed that all could hear the same if only they drew closer to nature and had a peaceful and patient heart.

It is difficult to know quite what to make of this.  Young herself admitted concerns over her own sanity, but at the same time W. B. Yeats and both AE and his wife heard the same “faery chimes” and “solemn undertone” of song.  Furthermore, as noted earlier, these experiences could last for hours; this lessens the likelihood that they can be dismissed as temporary auditory delusions.  Either these witnesses all hallucinated together or these highly detailed and circumstantial experiences record some actual sensations.  The consensus, at least amongst poets, was certainly to confirm that pipes and, particularly, bells were characteristic of fairy music (see for example Ceol sidhe by Francis Ledwidge or Fairy ring by Abbie Farwell Brown).

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Cicely Mary Barker, ‘Fairy orchestra’

The soft low music of the tribe

In conclusion, whatever its nature, the idea of fairy music has always had an aura of mystery and enchantment and, as such, has always attracted poets.  The opening verse from Nora Hopper embodied this, but even a poet like Rose Fyleman, whose fairy verse was generally very anodyne and was aimed at a junior audience, could still suggest a little of that magical strangeness; here’s her poem ‘Fairy music’:

“When the fiddlers play their tunes you may sometimes hear,
Very softly chiming in, magically clear,
Magically high and sweet, the tiny crystal notes
Of fairy voices bubbling free from tiny fairy throats.

When birds at break of day chant their morning prayers,
Or on sunny afternoons pipe ecstatic airs,
Comes an added rush of sound to the silver din-
Songs of fairy troubadours gaily joining in.

When athwart the drowsy fields summer twilight falls,
Through the tranquil air there float elfin madrigals,
And in wild November nights, on the winds astride,
Fairy hosts go rushing by, singing as they ride.

Every dream that mortals dream, sleeping or awake,
Every lovely fragile hope- these the fairies take,
Delicately fashion them and give them back again
In tender, limpid melodies that charm the hearts of men.”

Perhaps our best response is to hope to share Ella Young’s experiences and to know for ourselves that “This astral music is very much in sound delicately beautiful.”  As Irish poet William Sharp wrote in his verse The nine desires, it is “The desire of the poet, the soft, low music of the Tribe of the Green Mantles.”

Further reading

There are words to accompany this music, too, and I describe Young’s experience of that in a separate post on fairy speech and song.

An expanded version of this text will appear in my next book, Faeries, which will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide next year.

 

 

Girdle measuring and fairy healing- some curious folk beliefs

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As I have described fairy blights before in a post and in chapter 20 of my 2017 book British fairies, it was widely accepted in the British Isles that fairies could inflict harm upon humans, whether by striking them with illness or disability or by abducting them.  This illness was so familiar as to be known as ‘the fairy;’ the symptoms might also be described as being ‘fairy- taken’ or ‘haunted by a fairy.’  This being the case, medical practitioners had to be able to respond to the condition.

Symptoms

In 1677 John Webster in his book The displaying of supposed witchcraft  had this to say on the belief:

“… the common people, if they have any sort of Epilepsie, Palsie, Convulsions, and the like do presently perswade themselves they are bewitched, fore-spoken, blasted, fairy-taken or haunted with some evil spirit and the like…” (p.323)

Clearly a range of maladies might be ascribed to supernatural causes, but it appears that ‘fairy-taken’ often had a more precise identity.  Speaking of Ireland, W. B. Yeats described how in the late-nineteenth century men and women would be ‘taken.’  This very often happened to women soon after childbirth, but it was also common for sufferers to take to their beds, perhaps for weeks, for years (frequently for the magically significant period of seven years, but sometimes for decades) or for the remainder of their lives, lying in a state of unconsciousness, as if in a dream or trance.  During this time they were believed to be living in Faery.  (Yeats, note 39 to Lady Gregory’s Visions and beliefs in the West of Ireland pp.287-8).

I’m not in any position to diagnose this coma-like state but it seems to have had consistent, recognisable symptoms.  Yeats’ description also helps to explain a detail of the record of the accusation made against Isobel Sinclair, an alleged witch, who was tried on Orkney in 1633.  The court heard that she had been “six times controlled with the fairy.”  In light of the above, we may conclude she had half a dozen periods of illness when she was unconscious and assumed by her family and neighbours to have been abducted to ‘Elfame.’

Treatment

Healers offered to diagnose and treat cases of ‘taken’ individuals.  Very frequently this was done by means of ‘measuring.’  This was an ancient practice worldwide, but in Western Europe  it can be traced back at least to the time of Pliny.  It was used in England until the late sixteenth century and in parts of Wales into the nineteenth century.  A change in the size of a girdle or belt could indicate that a person had been invaded by a fairy or evil spirit; clearly there are suggestions of demonic possession in this.  Charms and prayers could exorcise the spirit, although the belt might also be cut up as part of the cure.  In Ireland headaches were treated by measuring the sufferer’s head, whilst in Wales a range of conditions including depression, jaundice, nervous complaints, consumption and witchcraft were all detected by means of ritual measurement from the elbow to finger tip or by tying a cloth or rope around the body or limbs.

Girdle measuring was definitely used to identify and to help cure those taken by the fairies.  Here are a few examples:

  • in 1438 Agnes Hancock in Somerset was treating children afflicted with ‘feyry’ by inspecting their girdles or shoes;
  • in 1566 Elizabeth Mortlock of Pampesford, Cambridgeshire did the same.  She repeated a series of Catholic prayers, and then measured the child’s girdle from her elbow to her thumb, asking god to confirm if the girl was haunted with a fairy.  If the girdle or belt was shorter than usual, the affliction was clear and she had assisted several children in this manner;
  • in about 1570 Jennet Peterson was accused before the ecclesiastical court at Durham of using witchcraft.  According to Robert Duncan of Wallsend she practiced the “measuring of belts to preserve folks from the farye.”  Jennet seemed to make a good living by identifying and curing fairy blights upon her neighbours;
  • Lady Gregory (see citation above, p.237, but see generally her chapter IV, ‘Away’) told a story of a changeling child that seemed to be thriving until a neighbour called into the house.  She proposed to measure her child and the changeling with the string from her apron.  From that point on the infant did not thrive and was always screaming.

Once the ‘feyry’ had been diagnosed, presumably various talismans and charms would then have been used to drive off the malign elf or fairy.

Further reading

I have discussed the difficult issue of ‘fairy healing‘ further in another post.  An expanded version of this text will appear in my next book, Faeries, which will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide next year.

“Even lovers drown”- mermaids and faery

Rackham Mermaids

Arthur Rackham, ‘They have sea green hair’ from ‘Three Golden Apples’

“A mermaid found a swimming lad,

Picked him for her own,

Pressed his body to her body,

Laughed; and plunging down

Forgot in cruel happiness

That even lovers drown.”

W. B. Yeats, ‘The mermaid’ from The Tower, 1928

It is not, of course, possible to undertake a serious taxonomy of imaginary beasts, but personally I have never considered mermaids to be fairies: they cannot disappear, they have no magical powers (mostly) and they are often at the mercy of humans.  They seem too solid and physical; fairies are terrestrial whilst mermaids are marine.  They are semi-human, with some supernatural qualities, but they are not in the same dimension are fairies, I would contend.

Types of sea spirit

As stated, a phylogeny of creatures that are the products of mythology rather than biology is futile, but we can still offer some sort of classification and analysis:

  • mermaids and mermen are part human, part fish and are found around the coasts of England and Wales;
  • seal people including the selkies of Orkney and Shetland and the roane of the Highlands and islands are humans who can assume a seal skin to move through the sea.  Comparable are the merrows of Ireland.

Mermaids and seal people are often captured and made into the wives of human males, the mermaids by being stranded at low tide and the seal maidens by having their seal skins found and hidden after they have shed them on the shore.  These wives always pine for the sea and, eventually, escape back to it.

Ashore, mermaids are usually helpless and are at the mercy of the men who find them.  If they are assisted back into the sea, they may well grant magical protection to their saviours; if aid is refused, the men may be cursed.

Mermaid wisdom

The lure of mermaids for men appears to be their semi-naked state, their beauty- and most notably their hair- and their strange gnomic sayings, which added to their mysterious aura.  One of the more comprehensible sayings is recorded as follows: a mermaid surfaced to see the funeral of a young woman passing on the shore.  She called out-

“If they wad drink nettles in March/ And eat muggons in May/ Sae mony braw maidens/ Wadna gang to the clay.” (R. Chambers, Popular rhymes of Scotland, 1870, p.331)

The advice in this case seems sound: nettles, taken as tea or soup, are diuretic and are a good source of minerals and vitamins; mugwort is both a tonic and vermifuge.

Doubtless mermaids and fairies both were invented by our ancestors to explain sudden and inexplicable illness (see too my next post) and storms, drownings and disappearances.  There must, too, be some measure of anthropomorphising of seals, glimpsed floating in the waves and mistaken for humans.

Generally, mermaids lack magical abilities, although their deaths may provoke (or be avenged by) storms.  In some cases they can control the waves by their words; in other instances their power is not innate but derives from an article such as a cap or a leather mantle.

Some mermaids, beautiful as they may seem, are in truth monsters who lure fishermen to their deaths.  For Yeats, as seen in the verse above, this may be through a combination of accident and neglect.  Sometimes, too, these unions need not be tragic, as with the mermaid of Zennor in Penwith who lured away Mathey Trewella to live with her; he was lost to his human friends and relations but apparently did not perish.  Indeed, Cornish mermaids are generally more fairy-like in their attributes.  In the story of ‘Lutey and the mermaid’ a fisherman of Cury on the Lizard was granted three wishes by a stranded mermaid whom he rescued.  Likewise in the ‘Old man of Cury’ a mermaid found and returned to the waves at Kynance Cove provided a magical comb by which she could be summoned to provide arcane knowledge to her saviour.  For these stories see Robert Hunt’s Popular Romances of the West of England.

Fresh water beasts

Mermaids and selkies are strictly salt water beings.  A variety of fresh water spirits or monsters are identified by folklore, such as Jenny Greenteeth who drags children into ponds, and kelpies.  There are also marine monsters (see my earlier post on fairy beasts).  All of these have only one characteristic- destroying human life- and they lack any personality and society like fairies ‘proper.’  That said, in north-west England is found the Asrai, an aquatic fairy occasionally dredged in nets from pools and lakes, but which melts away in the air very quickly.  In Wales the Gwragedd Annwn are lake maidens who emerge from inland waters and occasionally marry young men- but always on their own terms and subject to their own conditions, which are ultimately always breached by their husbands, causing the water fairy to return home forever.

Froud MM

Brian Froud, A mermaid

Further reading

Wirt Sikes in British Goblins (1880) devotes his third chapter to the gwragedd annwn, recounting various folk tales and, in passing, observing that these fresh water sprites exist in the absence of mermaids in Welsh mythology.  Katherine Briggs provides full details of all these stories and others concerning selkies in her Dictionary of fairies ; she also directs readers to Sea enchantresses by Gwen Benwell and Arthur Waugh (London 1961).  An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).  I have posted more recently on freshwater mere-maids, on the asrai, a particularly vulnerable type of British fresh water fairy, and on the variety of supernatural water beasts.  Mermaids are more than pretty faces, though: see too my post on mermaid wisdom.

Lastly, Charles Kingsley in The water babies had his own unique slant on the idea of the marine fairy and I have examined this separately.