Fairies and culture

 

Millais_ariel

‘Ferdinand and Ariel,’ by John Millais

Whatever our view of the existence of fairies and of a supernatural realm, there can be no denying the profound impact of faery (or the idea of it) upon our art and culture.  The reason for all this creativity, it seems to me, is that faery as a subject is so rich and complex.  Fairies can offer artists every emotion- sexual obsession, love, fear, jealousy, unbounded joy, mystery and mysticism- the list is lengthy.

Fae themes have been persistently rich sources of inspiration for a range of artists, whether in literature, song or the visual arts.  I’ll present a few examples, though I’m sure that proof is scarcely needed:

  • On the stage– whether inspiring the high art of Shakespeare or pantomimes and popular plays such as Peter Pan.   There was a particular trend for patriotic fairy stage plays during the Great War, which I have discussed;
  • Musicals, such as Edward Elgar’s Starlight Express of 1915 (this is the original production of this title, plainly, and not that by Andrew Lloyd Webber);
  • Novels and short stories (for both adults and children), from Charles Kingsley and George MacDonald through Enid Blyton, Beatrix Potter and E. M. Nesbit to Tolkien to Alan Garner;
  • Romance and myth– fairy themes are strong throughout many of the Arthurian myths and related stories, including the Welsh Mabinogion;
  • Poetry– from Robert Herrick and Michael Drayton through Keats and Blake to Walter de la Mare and Ivor Gurney.  On this blog I have been particularly interested in examining the interaction between fairy verse and the First World War, in the work of Robert Graves, Rose Fyleman, J R R Tolkien and others;
  • Painting- from Fuseli to Peter Blake and Brian Froud;
  • Illustration– from Rossetti and Burne-Jones through Edmund Dulac, Arthur Rackham and Henry Justice Ford to Cicely Mary Barker and Margaret Tarrant;
  • Sculpture– for example the puppets of Wendy Froud or the wire creations of Robin Wright;
  • Film and cartoon–  we have both fictional films, such as Disney’s Peter Pan or The Dark Crystal, as well as documentaries and ‘factual’ stories based upon the Cottingley case; and,
  • Music– ranging from ballet, opera, ballads, symphonies and lieder, light opera (Gilbert and Sullivan) to contemporary rock (Led Zeppelin, Marc Bolan or Sigur Ros).

Of course, the additional value of all of the above is that they are a supplement to the folklore evidence.  Just as much as traditional stories of fairies gathered by folklorists in the field, these various media give us a view of contemporary beliefs on the conduct and appearance of the fays.

What’s more, fairy works have inspired other fairy art.  For example Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream has inspired many works of art (by Paton, Dadd, Millais and many others).  In particular, it inspired a painting by Thomas Stothard,  Titania and Oberon, which in turn inspired a poem by Elizabeth Landon, The fairy queen sleeping.  In just the same way in 1825 Louisa Anne Meredith wrote The enchanted island in response to seeing the painting of the same name by Francis Darby; “’Tis the fairies’ home” the verse declares.

I’ll make a radical suggestion: even were fairies not to exist, their impact upon human culture would be almost undiminished.  We might even propose that, even if fairies did not exist, it would have been necessary to invent them to provide ourselves with such rich and fruitful veins of imagery and ideas.

The fairies have inspired our creativity for centuries, whether the source of that inspiration is our own imaginations or is an external supernatural force.  The power of this creative stimulus is expressly acknowledged by artists working in this genre.  It is not just a matter of the work produced, but of the transformative impact upon the artists themselves.   Interviewed by Signe Pike in Faery talepainter Brian Froud said that many of his readers and fans feel that with a rediscovery of their fairy faith:

“they feel they are coming home. They tell me they want to go away and write, or make something…”

His wife agreed: “often people have a creative response to our work.”  She starts her puppet workshops with meditation, within which “you do actually, genuinely, touch faeryland- you’re in it, whether you realise it or not.  So when you come back, and make a figure, it’s imbued with its own personality.”  In the act of imaginative creation, it would seem, there is a re-creation of the creator (Pike, 2010, pp.86-66).

In his introduction to David Riche’s Art of faery (2003), Froud argued that “Fairies mediate art, the mysterious moments of our creative relationship with the world.”  Whilst the twentieth century had emphasised our alienation from the world, the resurgence of visionary fairy art in its last decades and into the new millennium suggests the reversal of this and through that “the beginning of a spiritual journey. To paint fairies is not childish- but it could certainly said to be childlike- in its openness to creative and emotional impulses.”

Our culture is richer for fairies; we are richer for fairies….

Further reading

Neil Rushton on his dead but dreaming blog on WordPress provides a very useful overview of the entire world history of fairy art.  See too my book Fairy Art of the Twentieth Century  and my posting on fairies in Art Nouveau.

‘Something in that witching face’- kelpies and mermaids

caffieri mermaid

Caffieri, ‘Young siren’

A long time ago, in an early posting on this blog, I discussed mermaids; I want now to return to the subject with some further reflections and information.

The little mermaid

Just like fairies, elves and pixies, it is very notable how the popular image of mermaids has improved and how they are coming to be regarded as wholly cute and attractive figures of myth.  The illustrations to this posting by Hector Caffieri demonstrate an early stage in this trend; perhaps the best known contemporary example might be Disney’s Ariel, the little mermaid.  In passing, it may be worthwhile making an additional observation on visual conventions.  The cartoon Ariel, for one, is sanitised and winsome.  Caffieri’s ‘Siren’ above is likewise a small girl, but it’s notable how the standard image has changed in the last century or so.  Today, the fish scales extend to the waist; in Victorian times (as can be seen) they often started somewhat lower, requiring a more discrete treatment (or perhaps a chance for a little titillation).

Today, mermaids are viewed wholly as figures suitable for children to like, draw and to imitate, with mermaid tails being a widely available form of fun beach wear.  It seems very likely that this more benign idea is derived from Hans Christian Andersen’s 1837 story of The little mermaid.  The main character in this is presented as a model of Christian self sacrifice and goodness and has doubtless had a pervasive influence commensurate with the story’s popularity.  For modern generations, the aforementioned cartoon version of the story from Disney has profoundly influenced popular views of marine supernaturals since its release in 1989.  Other symptoms of these revised views of merfolk may be the 1984 film Splash starring Daryl Hannah and the very recent appearance of female entertainers playing mermaids for parties and corporate events.

Folklore mermaids

Whilst terrestrial fairies have been the subject of prettification and miniaturisation since the late sixteenth century,  this process has only been applied to mermaids during the last century and a half.  The consequence is that a great deal more of the older folklore attitudes survive, both in stories and in poetry.  Mermaids are still supernatural creatures deserving of awe, fear and mistrust.  Kindliness was never one of the mermaid’s traditional traits and it is still not how other supernatural water beasts are perceived.  In this respect, the dependable J K Rowling gives us a depiction more observant of folklore in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (there called grindylows).  It may be easier for us to identify with and to find attractive qualities in a being that lives solely on land; mermaids live in a different element in which a human cannot survive and this important distinction may help to preserve their distance from us and our healthy respect for that difference.

caffieri-hector-1847-1932 a-young-siren

Caffieri,  ‘Siren’ (Bonhams)

It’s also inescapable that most mermaids are depicted as young, beautiful, naked women.  There’s probably a lot of psychology here if you’d like to find it.  This iconography may tell us about relations between men and women: the separation between elements may be a metaphor for the difference between the sexes.  It may equally just have something to say about sex more generally- that physical attraction is powerful, but dangerous; that we are entering a new and exposing environment when we entrust ourselves to another individual; that the lure of the strange and mysterious is strong but perilous.   As with all supernatural partners, love for mermaids is enticing but full of risk: what is placed in jeopardy may be long term happiness, your present way of living and connections or, even, life itself.

Irish poet Francis Hackett (1883-1962) captured many of the conventional traits of the mermaid in his poem Sea dawn:

“From Wicklow to the throb of dawn
I walked out to the sea alone
And by the black rocks came upon
A being from a world unknown.

As proud she sat as any queen
On high, and naked as the air:
Her limbs were lustrous, and a sheen
Of sea-gold flowed from her flowing hair.

And as the spreading sea did swell
With dawns strange and brimming light
Her little breasts arose and fell
As if in concord with the sight.

Faint was the sea sound that she made
Of little waves that melt in sand
While with her honey hair she played
And arched the mirror in her hand.”

This evocation of adolescent allure may well now trigger thoughts of the recent controversy concerning J. M. Waterhouse’s painting Hylas and the nymphs and its temporary removal from the walls of Manchester City Art Gallery.  Both the picture and Hackett’s verse are of a piece and represent one powerful current of thought on mermaids and their nature.

Common mermaid themes

Across the world, there are several themes common to tales of merfolk.  The principal of these are as follows:

  • they can predict the future (see John Rhys, Celtic folklorethough very often this knowledge is dispensed in cryptic terms;
  • they can grant magical powers to those they favour (see for example The old man of Cury in Hunt’s Popular romances of the West of England);
  • they can punish those who offend them or who injure those whom they protect (see Hunt’s stories of the mermaid in Padstow Harbour and of The mermaid’s vengeance);
  • they can assume normal human form by magical means; and,
  • they can become involved in love affairs with mortals, whether that involves living for a while on land with the human or luring the human beneath the waves.  The outcomes are seldom good (see Matthew Arnold, The merman’s lament).

As is the case in contact with all supernatural beings, involvement with merfolk is generally risky and involves an imbalance of power.  Romantic attachments can be fatal whilst any information or ability gained from them is only obtained through coercion, whether that is bribery or physical force.

mucha mermaid

An art nouveau mermaid or water sprite

Water monsters

To repeat, as with the improvement in the character of fairies, the changed perception of merfolk is a relatively recent amelioration.  Evidence of the earlier, much more dangerous, nature of these beings is still to be found in the Scottish accounts of water horses (associated with salt water), water bulls and other water beasts like kelpies, which are found in freshwater lochs.  Their main occupation, it seems, is seducing mortals and luring them to their doom.  James Hogg’s 1819 poem The mermaid is representative of this:  the Maid of the Crystal Wave lures a young man to ‘places he should not have been and sights he should not have seen’ and it proves to be his ruin.  Similarly in Charles Mackay’s 1851 ballad The Kelpie of Corryevreckan a handsome stranger on a horse rides off with love-struck Jessie, but then plunges beneath the waves with her, so that she is found drowned the next day.  Poet Joseph Rodman Drake in his verse, To a friend, described travellers being terrorised by “the kelpie’s fang.”

It is notable that whilst mermaids might accidentally drown their lovers, it is not generally their intention, whereas the character of the water beasts is specifically to seek out humans in order to destroy them.  In light of this, there is perhaps a case for excluding the latter from the category of ‘fairies.’ Mermaids are semi-human in form; the kelpie can take on human form whilst the water horses appear as animals alone and may be better described as monsters.

Lastly, what is particularly notable is the Highland Scottish link between water creatures and horses.  Exactly why this should have been made is far from clear, but it is to be found across Northern Europe in Scandinavian folklore, from Iceland through to Denmark.  It seems very likely that Viking settlement introduced this idea into the north of Scotland.

waterhouse, sketch-for-a-mermaid-1892

J W Waterhouse, ‘Sketch for a mermaid’, 1892.

Further reading

As mentioned, I posted before on the risks of loving mermaids and water beasts and I have also discussed catching the fleeting and vulnerable asrai.  Mermaids are more than pretty faces, though: see my post on mermaid wisdom and my posting on Gwenhidw, the Welsh mermaid queen. See too my discussion of freshwater mere-maids and of of Charles’ Kingsley’s famous novel, The water babies.  

Charles Kingsley & ‘The water babies’

“and so there may be fairies in the world, and they may be just what makes the world go round…”

WB goble

The water babies can be an uncomfortable read today.  It is racist against the Irish, Turks and Jews, amongst others; it satirises a range of religious, political and scientific beliefs (for example, spiritualism) in a manner we would consider alien to a bedtime story, and it is unceasingly moralistic and dogmatic.  For all that, it is innovative and original in many respects and has some attractive features.  Kingsley calls it a fairy tale and it certainly has fairies as major characters, but in fact they bear very little resemblance to any fairies before or since.  How serious he’s being is also left in doubt: he denies a serious intent but defies those who disbelieve in fairies- “That is a very rash, dangerous word, that ‘cannot’; and if people use it too often, the Queen of all the Fairies … is apt to astonish them suddenly by showing them, that though they say she cannot, yet she can, and what is more, will, whether they approve or not.”

The plot

There are three major fairy characters in the book (although we learn at the end that they are all the same supernatural being).  One is the “great fairy” Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid and another is “the loveliest fairy in the world” Mrs. Doasyou wouldbedoneby.  Their names are sufficient to indicate their roles.  The third is the Queen of the Fairies.  caring for the poor and sick.  Her subordinate fairies likewise help and protect the weak and vulnerable, specifically chimney sweep Tom, as will be seen.

Tom is treated badly by his master Grimes.  He runs away and drowns accidentally whilst bathing in a stream.  The drowning is a transformation, although it does not appear such to those left behind in the mortal world:  “they found a black thing in the water, and said it was Tom’s body, and that he had been drowned.  They were utterly mistaken.  Tom was quite alive; and cleaner, and merrier, than he ever had been.  The fairies had washed him, you see, in the swift river, so thoroughly, that not only his dirt, but his whole husk and shell had been washed quite off him…”  Tom becomes a ‘water baby.’  Thereafter, (as pictured below) the fairies guard him against injury and accident although all this is done without “his seeing their fair faces or feeling their gentle hands.”

warwick goble

Abused children

One major responsibility of the fairies is to save abused children from their cruel situations.  They are all transformed into happy water babies like Tom: “All the little children whom the good fairies take to, because their cruel mothers and fathers will not; all who are untaught and brought up heathens, and all who come to grief by ill-usage or ignorance or neglect; all the little children who are overlaid, or given gin when they are young, or are let to drink out of hot kettles, or to fall into the fire; all the little children in alleys and courts, and tumble-down cottages, who die by fever, and cholera, and measles, and scarlatina, and nasty complaints which no one has any business to have, and which no one will have some day, when folks have common sense; and all the little children who have been killed by cruel masters and wicked soldiers; they were all there…”

Fairies are, therefore, a form of social conscience for Victorian Britain; they are also an instrument of moral pedagogy.  Throughout the book Tom is guided by criticism, warning, guidance, punishment and reward, so that he is able to grow into a responsible and well-behaved adult.  This he does by finally forgiving and redeeming Grimes.  Then Tom is fit to be united in adult life with his sweetheart Ellie.

These fairies as moral instructors bear scant resemblance to the native fairy.  Traditional elves operated a strict moral code, but it was largely in their own interest.  They aimed at changing humans for their own benefit and gain, not for the personal improvement of the human.  In contrast, in The water babies the fairies act as ministers of divine justice; they are more like angels than elves.

Fairy tradition

There are, nonetheless, a couple of respects in which Kingsley’s fairies behave like the fairies of folklore.  Firstly, there is the use of glamour.  The fairy queen is first met disguised as an old Irishwoman- an omnipresent one, it must be conceded, who sees and judges all wrongdoing.

Secondly, there is Kingsley’s equation between death and fairy abduction.  Tom falls into the water and into a delightful sleep.  This is explained very simply: “It was merely that the fairies took him.” Something similar happens to Ellie when she falls and bumps her head on a rock.  “And, after a week, one moonlight night, the fairies came flying in at the window and brought her such a pretty pair of wings that she could not help putting them on…”  (see illustration below)

ellies wings

The salvation of children from cruelty, and their transformation into water babies, is a comparable process, but clearly with heavy Christian overtones.  Kingsley was, in fact, an Anglican minister and his fairy tale is in reality a parable.  He has dressed up divine characters as fairies, perhaps to make them more accessible and appealing to his junior audience, but he is preaching at them all the same.  With this story we have travelled a long way from the traditional British fairy lore that I have described in other postings: we are safely within the nursery and far from the sexuality and cruelty of much fairy behaviour.  We are, too, concerned with improving and educating children to make them fit to take their place as adults within the British Empire; we have abandoned the fairies’ selfish preoccupations with their own interests and pleasures.

the-land-baby-1899 john collier

Above, ‘A land baby’ by John Collier, 1899; the other illustrations in this posting are from the 1929 MacMillan edition of The water babies, illustrated by Warwick Goble.

Further reading

I’ve also discussed other Victorian and Edwardian classics of children’s fairy literature- see my postings on the works of Mrs Ewing  and on J. M. Barrie.

 

 

 

 

“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.