The Fairy Faith in English Music

bax 1

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.

john-ireland

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not all nymphs are nice… Arthur Machen and fairyland

A_Naiad_or_Hylas_with_a_Nymph_by_John_William_Waterhouse_(1893)

J. M. Waterhouse, A naiad, or Hylas and the nymph, 1893

Welsh born writer Arthur Machen (1863-1947) is best known for his Gothic horror novels, but beyond this he believed that the humdrum visible world conceals a more mysterious and strange reality.  Fairylore was just one element of his wide reading that he combined into this vision.

Turanians

In his second volume of autobiography, Things Near and Far, published in 1923, Machen acknowledged the rational explanations for fairy belief and for the origins of fairies (later set out in detail by Lewis Spence in British Fairy Origins of 1946):

“I am well aware, of course, of the various explanations of the fairy mythology; the fairies are the gods of the heathen come down into the world: Diana becomes Titania.  Or the fairies are a fantasy on the small dark people who dwelt in the land before the coming of the Celts; or they are elementals- spirits of the four elements: there are all these accounts, and for all I know, may be true, each in its measure.”

Machen dismissed the more intangible of these scientific interpretations, but he was strongly attracted by the idea of ‘little people’ who still survived in out of the way places.  Sometimes they were an actual, existing population: in his short story The Turanians Machen describes a girl spying upon a gypsy encampment-  they are “strange-wood-folk”

“gabbling to one another in their singsong speech … [a] people of curious aspect, short and squat, high-cheek-boned, with dingy yellow skin and long almond eyes.”

“Though everybody called them gipsies, they were in reality Turanian metal-workers, degenerated into wandering tinkers; their ancestors had fashioned the bronze battle-axes, and they mended pots and kettles.”

These Turanians are slightly exotic perhaps (if you’re unfamiliar with them) but they’re ordinary humans otherwise.

However, in other stories, Machen’s Turanians could become something far more primitive and alien.  They could then provide a convenient vehicle for Machen’s peculiar form of horror and the feature persistently in his novels.  In The Novel of the Black Seal (1895) one character expands upon this:

“I was especially drawn to consider the stories of the fairies, the good folk of the Celtic races.  Just as our remote ancestors called the dreaded beings “fair” and “good” precisely because they dreaded them, so they had dressed them up in charming forms, knowing the truth to be the reverse.  Literature too had gone early to work, and had lent a powerful hand in the transformation, so that the playful elves of Shakespeare are already far removed from the true original and the real horror is disguised in a form of prankish mischief.”

Machen followed the theories of Scottish folklorist David MacRitchie (1851-1925), which were set out most fully in his book, The testimony of tradition.  He traced the feys back to dwarfish Lapps or Eskimos.  From linguistics and anthropology came the label ‘Turanians,’ which denotes the Ural-Altai family of languages, including Finnish and Turkish, and which was used to denote an ancient and primitive culture from central Asia.  These peoples composed the aboriginal population of Europe before the fair-haired Aryans arrived and drove them north and west into the remotest recesses of the land.  Amongst those influential authors who promoted this idea were Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Sabine Baring-Gould and Madame Blavatsky, founder of Theosophy, who stated in The secret doctrine that the Turanians “were typified by the dwarf (dwergar).”

Machen was very taken with these theories.  For him the Turanians are the prehistoric inhabitants of the country, cave dwellers who have retreated before the advance of modern humans.  They feature in a number of his stories, such as the Red Hand (1895), in which a murder is committed with a flint blade and ancient hieroglyphs are found near the victim.  The elusiveness of the prehistoric peoples explains the myth of invisible fairies; their activities explain many ‘fairy phenomena’ such as flint arrow ‘elf-bolts,’ the changeling belief and the idea of witches’ sabbats.  Thus in the Novel of the Black Seal an inscription on the seal in the unknown characters of the ‘Little People’ is half seriously suggested to be  in language of ‘the Tylwyth Teg’ and the physical traces of their culture and activities are taken to be ‘fairy.’

All this comes together fully in Machen’s short story The Shining Pyramid (1906): a girl thought to have ‘gone with the fairies’ has in fact been abducted by a primitive race surviving in the Brecon Beacons.  They send cryptic messages through flint arrowhead characters and ultimately torture and sacrifice the girl.  Machen’s character Dyson explains to his friend how he realised what had actually happened:

“The hint came from the old name of the fairies, ‘the little people’ and the very probable belief that they represent a tradition of the prehistoric Turanian inhabitants of the country who were cave dwellers… [they were] under four feet in height, accustomed to live in darkness, possessing stone instruments and [with] a Mongolian cast of features.”

Despite this euhemerism and rationalism, albeit infused with violence and mystery, in his work Machen also showed great interest in the mystic, pagan, occult and romantic aspects of faery. Elsewhere he wrote that “belief in fairies and belief in the Stock Exchange as bestowers of happiness were equally vain, but the latter was ugly as well as inept.”  His work is thoroughly imbued with an awareness of, and awe for, faery; fairies may be illusory, but the mere suggestion of them endows his work with tension and glamour.  Machen repeatedly makes reference to fairy languages and to the dread power of our supernatural neighbours, for example in his best known novel, The Hill of Dreams, and in the story The White People.  

The line dividing these literal ‘little people’ from the little folk of faery legend is not always clearly defined in Machen’s work.  An example of this is the 1926 story Out of the Earth.  It purports to describe real events in West Wales during the Great War.  There have been reports of the local children turning aggressive and attacking visiting children.  Investigation suggests that what is being experienced is actually a communication of the upheavals and violence in the human world to what might be called fairyland:

“They were only visible, only audible, to children and the childlike… These little people of the earth rise up and rejoice in these times of ours.  For they are glad, as the Welshman said, when they know that men follow their ways.”

It’s notable too that in his 1917 story The Terror Machen had also envisaged the turmoil of the war infecting the animal population, with farm livestock turning horrifically against their owners.

In due course Machen’s idea of a horrific and primitive aboriginal culture was taken up by H. P. Lovecraft.  In The Horror at Red Hook, for example,  a character reflects that:

“these hellish vestiges of old Turanian-Asiatic magic and fertility-cults were even now wholly dead he could not for a moment suppose, and he frequently wondered how much older and how much blacker than the very worst of the muttered tales some of them might really be.”

the meeting 1972

Graham Ovenden, The meeting, 1972, Nasher Museum of Art, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina

The meaning of ‘faery’

In Machen’s writing the word ‘faery’ seems to have three distinct, but layered or related, meanings.  This is well-illustrated by sampling its usage in his novels, especially 1922’s The Secret Glory.  

‘Faery’ can imply something merely curious, unusual and lovely.  This may be applied to things as trivial as a young couple in awe as they discover London, to the metropolis that the same couple uncover for the first time, or to a salad in a French restaurant; but it also, more poetically, describes a snowbound scene as a “white fairyland,” and he sees in a sunset sky “golden lances [that] glittered in a field of faerie green” as well as “the green of the faery seas.” This usage shades imperceptibly into a sense of something mysterious, magical and beautiful, as in “the faery hills and woods and valleys of the West.” More specifically, those seas reappear in a reference to “ships of the saints, without oar or sail, afloat on the faery sea, seeking the Glassy Isle” -that is, the isle of Avalon, Ynys Wytrin at Glastonbury; and Machen also mentions to the “faery apple-garths in Avalon.”

Machen’s work is full of references to Celtic myth and to the intertwined Arthurian romances, so it is inevitable that it he would see “images of the fairies in his eyes” too.  In The secret glory the main character Ambrose Meyrick comes from Wales, where

“there were stories of the magic people who rose all gleaming from the pools in lonely woods; who gave more than mortal bliss to those who loved them; who could tell the secrets of that land where flame was the most material substance; whose inhabitants dwelt in palpitating or quivering colours or in the notes of a wonderful melody.”

Meyrick meets with a mysterious fiddler whose music “was like fairies dancing” and he has a lover, Nelly Foran, who is a girl from the West of Ireland “nurtured on the wonderful old legends of the saints and the fairies.”

Machen even seems to have invented his own fairylore, telling the story of the Emperor Nightingale (Eos Amherawdur in Welsh) who ruled over all the kings of the tylwydd teg.

nymph-v-

Nymph V by Giuditta-R

“In the time of the fairies”

There are also authentic elements of traditional lore concerning the fair folk, the tylwydd teg, scattered throughout Machen’s writing.  For example, in Opening the door (1931) a man seems to be abducted by the fairies for six weeks when he steps through an old and neglected door at the end of his garden.  The white people incorporates a classic description of a visit to fairyland: a young man out hunting follows a white stag until it disappears.  He realises it has entered a door in a large, round hill and he continues his pursuit into the darkness within.

“And all of a sudden it got light. and there was the sky, and the sun shining and birds singing in the trees, and there was a beautiful fountain.  And by the fountain a lovely lady was sitting, who was the queen of the fairies, and she told him that she had changed herself into a stag to bring him there because she loved him so much.”

Many of Machen’s themes are dark and bleak and it follows that he was an advocate of a more traditional and ambivalent view of our ‘good neighbours.’  For example, in his 1917 story The Terror a child’s mysterious death might prove to be the work of the tylwyth teg: “‘unless it was The People that had done it.’ The Celtic fairies are still malignant.”  In Change (1936), a child on holiday in West Wales is apparently snatched by the fairies and a wizened changeling left in his stead.  Likewise, the child disappearance at the core of The Shining Pyramid is initially thought to be another fairy kidnapping, but it turns out that the ‘little people’ responsible are not supernatural beings but primitive troglodytes.

In all these stories the traditional source material is reworked by Machen.  His mentions of folklore are allusive and are reprocessed as horror and magical mystery.  Hence, in The White People the central character learns magical charms from her nurse: she is taught certain gestures– how to touch her eyes, lips and hair in a “peculiar way”- and to repeat:

“the old words of the fairy language, so that I might be sure I had not been carried away.”

Repeatedly in his work, Machen explores the idea that another world is not far from our own.  Whether that is the world of the Holy Grail, the realm of pagan gods who are still powerful and present, or the land of Faerie, it is a powerful source of mystery and enchantment.

Machen’s fairylands

Throughout his autobiographical books Machen invoked landscape comparisons with faery.  As a boy, he always saw the area around his home “as a kind of fairyland” whilst oddly shaped stones caused him to fall into a reverie, “as if it had been a fragment of paradise of fairyland.”

This romantic response to natural features lasted throughout the author’s life and appears in his written works.  The Holy Mountain in the “enchanted land” around Abergaveny was “a mountain peak in fairyland;” beyond that town the hills surge up into the “sharp peaks of the order of the fairies” towards Llanthony and The Tump, or Twyn Barlwm, near Merthyr Tydfil was to Machen “a faery dome.”  He recalled walking in the Wentwood Forest in Monmouthshire, “under suns that rose from the holy seas of faery and sank down behind magic hills.”

In contrast, London could seem like a “goblin city” to Machen, although even there he could find mystery and enchantment: October mists in Notting Hill Gate made “the plane trees in the back gardens droop down from fairyland.”  A bird’s song in a garden evoked “the blessed faery realm beyond the woods of earth, where the wounds of men are healed.”

Ovenden, illustration to Machen's 'White people'

Graham Ovenden, illustration for ‘The White People‘, Arthur Machen, 1982.

Dark & bright nymphs

The mentions of faery in the last section were sources of comfort and images of beauty.  In his fiction, fairies are more often associated with danger and horror.

In Machen’s unsettling and brooding story, The White People, a girl recounts strange magical discoveries in her secret journal.  She describes meeting mysterious supernatural beings, such as ‘the white people’ and ‘the nymphs.’  She’s instructed by her nurse in “the old words of the fairy language” as a protection against being taken.  The girl also learns how to summon the nymphs and discovers that:

“I might meet them in all kinds of places and how they would always help me, and I must always look for them and find them in all sorts of strange shapes and appearances.  And without the nymphs I could never have found the secret and without them none of the other things could happen … there were two kinds, the bright and the dark, and both were very lovely and very wonderful, and some people saw one kind and some only the other, but some saw them both.  But usually the dark appeared first and the bright ones came afterwards, and there were extraordinary tales about them.”

Eventually, the girl goes to a pool and summons the nymphs. Previously, dipping her feet in the cold waters of the pool had seemed as if the nymphs were kissing them, but the tone then shifts in a sinister and menacing way:

“The dark nymph, Alanna, came and she turned the pool of water into a pool of fire…”

nymph

Nymph by Giuditta-R

The Hill of Dreams

In Machen’s masterpiece, The Hill of Dreams, the hero Lucian becomes lost in a strange landscape: “all afternoon his eyes had looked on glamour, he had strayed in fairyland …like the hero of a fairy-book.”  Ultimately he wanders into “outland and occult territory,” to “the woods beyond the world,to that vague territory that haunts all dreams.”  Ancient hill forts are described as ‘fairy-hills’ ‘faerie bulwarks’ and ‘fairy raths’ and even the capital city can be imagined as the site of “dolmen and menhir … gigantic, terrible.  All London was one grey temple of an awful rite, rung with a ring of wizard stones.”

Lucian’s preference is for alchemy, Cabala and Dark Age history- for “a land laid waste, Britain deserted by the legions, the rare pavements riven by frost, Celtic magic still brooding on the wild hills and in the black depths of the forest…” He wonders if he’s descended from ‘the little people’ and whether “there were some drop of fairy blood in his body that made him foreign and strange to the world.”  Lucian is drawn to the ‘fairy bulwarks’ of a Roman camp (the ‘hill of dreams’) and becomes bewitched by a beautiful young woman called Annie who speaks “wonderful, unknown words”- apparently an unintelligible, possibly fairy, language.  She dismisses it as “only nonsense that the nurses sing to the children” but it becomes apparent that there is more to it than that, that it is in fact some form of enchantment.

Throughout this and his other booksMachen’s descriptions of the Gwent countryside are vivid, intense and charged with otherworldly meaning.  Lucian follows an unknown lane “hoping he had found the way to fairyland.”  He scrambles up to the old Roman fort crowning a hill near his home and falls asleep on a hot summer’s afternoon, hearing “the old wood-whisper or … the singing of the fauns.”  This results, it seems, in his possession by fauns, nymphs or witches.  He has become some sort of changeling.  He realises that he was been watched by unknown figures and that “they” are a woman and “her awful companions, who had never grown old through all the ages.”  Hideous shapes in the wood “called and beckoned to him” and it is ultimately revealed that Annie is somehow Queen of the Sabbath and a moonlight enchantress.  She is no longer “the symbol of all mystic womanhood” and his beloved; rather- alarmingly- “jets of flame issued from her breasts” and she drinks his soul in an infernal, orgiastic rite.

Further reading

I’ve discussed how a link was created between British fairies and classical nymphs in a previous posting.  I highly recommend the works of Arthur Machen to readers: Penguin produce an accessible collection including The White Peopleand The Hill of Dreams is another good starting point.  See too my post on The Fairy Faith in English Music to see how Machen’s writing directly influenced one classical composer.

nymph-iv-

Nymph IV by Giuditta-R