Fairy Ballads and Rhymes

Ballads

Hot on the heels of Fayerieanother new book- this time, on the traditional British ballads and rhymes concerned with Faery.  In the course of writing Fayerie, I made particular use of the early modern English and Scots ballads, songs such as Young Tamlane, Thomas Rhymer and the Elfin Knight, and realised that there was no one book which brought together all of those lyrics concerned just with the supernatural.  Now there is.

Britain is rich in its heritage of traditional ballads, most of which date from the seventeenth century or earlier. Around twenty of these take fairies and fairyland as their primary theme. Accordingly, these songs are valuable sources of information on late medieval and early modern fairy beliefs. This new book provides an overview of fairy lore in the ballads, accompanied by edited texts for all the key lyrics, supplemented by notes that put each narrative in its wider context.

In addition, British traditional rhymes dealing with fairy-lore are collected together, along with a selection of verses and songs ascribed to the fairies themselves.  We are all familiar with little couplets like ‘Fairy folks are in old oaks;’ these little catchphrases stick in our memories, quite deliberately, because they were designed to do just that: children in particular needed to be alerted to the places in the landscape where dangerous fairies lurked and punchy little verses did the trick.  There are lots recorded but, once again, they have not before been collected together.  The same is true of the subject of the third chapter of the new book; this features songs and poems composed by fairies themselves.  Once again, bringing them together emphasises the degree to which verse is central to fairy discourse.  These texts are often overlooked as a body of literature in their own right, but this book takes the opportunity to focus upon them and what they can tell us about human and faery society.

The book is a companion to my other volumes of fae poetry, ‘Victorian Fairy Verse‘ and ‘Fayerie- Fairies and Fairyland in Tudor and Stuart Verse.’  It reveals a world that is harsher than we might anticipate.  The book is available as a paperback or e-book through Amazon/KDP.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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The Oak addresses the Spirits of the Trees (1920)

Further Reading

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

 

“Under a broad bank”- fairy portals

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Sir Noel Paton, The Belle Dame sans merci

I have previously discussed visits to fairylands underground; in this post I want to briefly examine the entrances to those places- the portals where a human might most likely encounter a fay being.

The folklore, literary sources and popular ballads are very consistent in the identifying the sorts of places or environments in which a meeting with a fae is likely.  What appears to unify the locations is the fact that they all share a solitary or unique feature; they will stand out in the landscape.  These distinctive sites are as follows:

  • lone trees– a tree standing isolated in a prominent position is noticeable and memorable in any case, but very often marks a fae portal.  For instance, Thomas of Erceldoune meets the fairy queen at the ‘Eildon tree’ (in one version of the poem it is described as a “dern tree”- that is ‘hidden’ or ‘secret’).  In the romance of the same name, knight Sir Launfal is approached by two fairy maidens whilst sitting in the shade of a tree one hot undrentide during the feast of Trinity (late May or early June).  In the Scottish ballad of Allison Gross, a man is turned into a dragon (or ‘worm’) by witch Alison and is left to coil himself around a tree.  Lone trees are magical,  definitely.  However, we can go further and suggest that these fairy trees are very likely to be either may (hawthorn) trees, as these are notorious fairy haunts, and apple trees.  In the ballad of Young Tamlane he’s carried off by the elfin queen having fallen asleep underneath an apple and the wife of Sir Orfeo is stolen away from her husband by the fairies whilst sitting one early May morning in an orchard, beneath an “ympe tree”- a grafted apple.
  • free standing hills- fairies are well known to live under burial mounds and it appears that distinct and conspicuous hills of any description will be likely fairy spots at which contact can be made.  English poets Thomas Campion and Thomas Browne both imagined the fairy queen regally seated upon a grassy knoll (“All ladies that do sleep” and Britannia’s Pastorals, Book I, Song II, lines 396-404) whilst in folklore many everyday activities conducted upon a fairy hill could prove dangerous for humans, whether that was cutting turf, sitting, playing or just sleeping.
  • grassy banks and slopes- these are often mentioned specifically, but could very well just be part of a fairy hill rather than a separate feature in the landscape; it’s not always clear.  Thomas of Erceldoune lay down on Huntlie bank on a May morning ; in the ballad of Thomas the Rhymer we hear that he reclines on a grassy bank.  There’s a definite suggestion that part of the process may involve a tired person lying down to rest, drifting off to sleep, and, in that semi-conscious state, being able to make contact with faery.  In the medieval poem Piers Plowman the narrator is out on the Malvern Hills on a May morning; “weori of wandringe” he went to rest “undur a brod banke bi a bourne syde.”  It is then that he beholds “a ferly- a feyrie” (a wonder of fairy origin).  In Edmund Spencer’s poem The Faery Queen Prince Arthur similarly lies down to sleep on verdant grass after wandering in a forest and has a vision of the Fairy Queen lying down beside him (Book I, canto IX, stanzas 13-14).  Elsewhere in his epic Spenser imagines that “Nymphes and Faeries by banckes did sit”- there is clearly a close association here between faes and these slightly secluded locations (Book I, canto X, stanza 65).
  • Daisies- the magical communion with Faery is further enhanced, it seems, it there are daisies on the bank.  In Allison Gross the fairy queen comes to sit on a “gowany bank” near to where the frightful worm coils about the tree.  It may be significant too that in the ballad of Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight the wicked knight comes to the maid when she sits in her bower on the first of May, surrounded by daisies.  They are one of the archetypal fairy flowers.

It will be evident from these examples that, whilst the place is important, the time of day (undrentideand the time of year (very typically early May/ Beltane) are also highly significant in bringing about an encounter.  Combine all the right factors and a meeting with a faery is a very strong possibility.

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Katherine Cameron, Thomas the Rhymer

A nation underground- subterranean fairies

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Arthur Rackham, from Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens

In this post I want to return to the question of fairy dwellings and fairyland.  Fairyland is very often conceived of as a place below the ground surface; here I want to examine that in considerable detail.

The idea of a subterranean Faery is something that has long been embedded in both folklore and literature.  For example, in a masque presented for Queen Elizabeth by the Earl of Hertford in 1591 we are introduced to the monarch:

“I that abide in places underground,/ Aureola, the Queene of Fairy land…”

Much later, the Duchess of Newcastle imagined that “The Fairy Queen’s large Kingdome got by birth/ Is the circled centre of the Earth,” a place bejewelled with all the gems and ores we might anticipate to find in a mine.

Without doubt, this hidden realm would be a place of mystery.  John Aubrey in the late seventeenth century wrote that:

“Some were led away by fairies, as was a Hind riding upon Hackpen… So was a shepherd of Mr Brown of Winterbourne Abbas… the ground opened and he was brought to strange places underground.”

I want to go too to those strange places, to discover the way and to see what’s there.

How to get access

It’s very widely accepted that fairyland is subterranean, but that raises a host of problems.  How deep is it?  Where are the access points?

It’s also very widely believed that one very common location for fairy dwellings is under small hills.  This is especially common in Scotland, where many small mounds are called ‘fairy knowe’ or ‘knolls.’ An alternative name for the trows of Shetland is the ‘hill men.’ These hills may be natural mounds or they may be prehistoric burial tumuli.  Neolithic barrows are regarded as fairy homes from Yorkshire right up to Sutherland and including the Isle of Man.

Either way, the fairies aren’t buried very deep and getting in presents less challenges.  Very few people ever simply pick up a spade and start digging (wisely, as it’s very likely to have serious repercussions).  More often they wait for a door to reveal itself: this may happen at special times of year such as Halloween or perhaps because there’s a special celebration taking place within the hill and the doors are thrown open to let out the heat and noise.  The simple and direct approach was employed by one poor East Yorkshire man in the story of the White Powder.  He was instructed simply to walk up to the door of the mound and to knock three times to be granted entry and led into the presence of the fairy queen.

In some people’s opinion, fairyland is a good deal deeper than the thickness of some turfs.  Its location therefore won’t be at all obvious and it follows that the ways in will be equally well concealed.  For example, the pixies of Dartmoor are believed to live beneath the bogs that cover that landscape.  This is an excellent strategy for keeping unwelcome visitors away, although there is some suggestion that rabbit holes on the moor may be a way in to this particular wonderland.  There are a lot to try though…

Normally, the road to fairyland is a lot better concealed and a lot more forbidding.  A variety of entrances have been identified:

  • beneath river banks- this is known especially in Wales, as in the story of Elidyr, who is taken by two little men under the hollow bank of a river;
  • under standing stones- this perpetuates the prehistoric link seen with barrows and is a legend linked with various sites including the Rollright Stones in Oxfordshire. In the Welsh tale of Einion and Olwen fairyland is accessed by an oval stone and then by a path and stairs, which are illuminated by a whitish-blue glow radiating from the steps themselves;
  • beneath Roman ruins- the remains of a military encampment high on Mellor Moor near Blackburn were said to be the ruins of a fairy city that had sunk beneath the ground due to an earthquake. The disappeared metropolis was still inhabitable, though, and church bells could sometimes be heard ringing beneath the turf;
  • under lakes- a fairy woman was seen to come and go from beneath the waters of Llyn Rhosddu on the Isle of Anglesey;
  • in a well- in Cornish fairy tale of Cherry of Zennor the girl Cherry is employed as a maid in a house that might itself be in fairyland, but she also sees her fairy master dancing when she looks down into a well in the garden;
  • behind waterfalls- the queen of the Craven fairies is reputed to live concealed behind Jennet’s Foss, near to Malham;
  • in cliffs- another inaccessible route into faery is from a cave in a cliff face. Cornishman Richard Vingoe entered fairyland this way at a spot near Land’s End.  Many hours of walking eventually led him to a “pleasant looking country”;
  • through deep caverns- Gervase of Tilbury, in his Otia Imperialia, described how a swine herd lost a pregnant sow and decided to look for her in the Peak Cavern near Peveril castle in Derbyshire. He wandered a long way until he emerged into a new country.  At Cwm Mabus near Llanrhystyd in Wales there are caves called Craig Rhydderch where the tylwyth teg are said to live and at Llanymynech near Oswestry is Ogo Hole, another entrance to faery;
  • the place called by the Scots ‘Mirryland’ or ‘Maidenland’ is said to be beneath a mountain;
  • in one Welsh account from 1860 a man called John Davies of Aberayron joined a fairy dance on Cilcennin Hill and spent the whole night with the tylwyth teg.  The revel was only disturbed the next morning by an old woman following the sound of music- at which the fairies all disappeared down some steps leading underground;
  • down long tunnels- the Green Children of Woolpit followed a long tunnel or passageway until they came out into the Suffolk landscape.

Whatever the exact route in, it is often long and dark.  The journey to faery may take several days (forty in the case of Thomas the Rhymer) and may involve difficult passages of wading through deep waters.  In the story of Cornish maid Anne Jefferies, she is snatched up and carried through the air, whirling through space with a sound like the buzzing of a thousand bees in her ears.  The fairy tale of Cherry of Zennor in one sense makes its fairyland real by presenting it as a pleasant manor house and gardens, but it is reached by a route very like the underground passages- Cherry is led down long lanes, shaded by high hedges and is carried over several streams before, after much travel, she and her fairy master arrive at their destination.

it’s worth lastly noting that tunnels sometimes provide the access from the human world to fairylands that are also on the earth surface.  These are frequently seen in Wales, where passages lead out onto an isle in a lake or to an offshore island in the sea.

How do we see?

Given that fairyland is far below ground, how do we see anything once we’re there?  Is Faery the “darksome den” that Golding described in his translation of Ovid, or is it bright? This is one of the greatest puzzles, but the sources are quite uniform in telling us what the conditions are, even if they don’t explain them to us.

The Green Children described a place without a sun, but where there was a “degree of light like that which is after sunset.”  In the poem Huon of Bordeaux we are told that it is the gold and silver with which the buildings are constructed that illuminate the place.  In the story of King Herla, faery is entered through a cave in a high cliff and (more reasonably) is lit by many torches.

Elidyr described the fairyland he visited as “obscure, not illuminated with the light of the full sun.”  Rather, the days were cloudy and the nights very dark without either moon or stars.  It’s cool and dim in fairyland.  The visitor to Faery in the story of the White Powder also reported that the light there was “indifferent, as it is with us in the twilight.”  Perhaps because of this dinginess, the people of ‘St Martin’s Land,’ where the Green Children were born, were all of a green tinge.

In contrast, Sir Orfeo’s fairyland, reached after a journey of three miles or so starting beneath a rock, was “as bright so sonne on somers day.”  Likewise, after a long dark passage, the land under the Peak District was bright and open.  Equally, the swineherd described by Gervase of Tilbury found that the place he reached was enjoying its summer, and that the harvest was taking place, whereas he had left winter behind him on the earth’s surface.

What do we see?

The fairyland found underground is largely indistinguishable from the land left behind on the surface.  There are pastures, fields and orchards, where crops grow, sheep graze and fruit and flowers grow in abundance.  There are birds in the air and woods full of game.  The land may be quite level, an open plain without hills but threaded by rivers running between lakes.  The fairyland visited by Einion and Olwen fairyland was a fine, wooded, fertile country extending for miles underground and dotted with mansions and with well-watered, lush pastures.  An early nineteenth century account from Nithsdale tells of a ‘delicious country’ with fields of ripening corn and ‘looping burnies’ reached by a door halfway up the sunny side of a fairy knoll.

There are palaces and castles, like any medieval royal city (although in Faery these may be made from precious metals and gems) but there are ordinary civic amenities too.  Thomas Keightley recalled a conversation with a young woman in Norfolk who told him that the fairies were a people dressed in white who lived underground where they built houses, bridges and other edifices.  Proof of this comes from a commonly told Welsh story of a man who’s reproved by a hitherto unknown fairy neighbour for pouring his household slops down the other’s chimney.  Invited to place his foot on the other’s, the human sees that, far beneath his front yard, there is a street of houses he had never seen before.  These are just ordinary fairy cottages deep beneath an ordinary Welsh farmer’s cottage.

Some of the later British descriptions moved away from rolling verdant countryside to focus upon the dwellings of the fays.  For example, in the case of the ‘White Powder,’ the man visited the court of the fairy queen “in a fair hall.”  On the Isle of man, a traveller crossing Skyhill at night was taken inside the hill, where he saw a large hall with a grand feast in progress.  Likewise the so-called ‘Fairy Boy of Leith’ (account published 1684) told of visiting the fairies under a hill between Edinburgh and Leith and there enjoying music and feasting.  He entered through “a great pair of gates” and found “brave, large rooms as well accommodated as any in Scotland.”  Aberdeen man Andro Man, arrested on suspicion of witchcraft in 1598, told his interrogators that when he entered the residence of the fairy queen, he had noted in particular their “fair coverit” tables.

According to some Scottish stories, we may also see the start of three roads: the thorny road of the righteous to heaven, the broad road of the wicked to hell and a bonny looking road finally leading to Faery.  These ‘ferlies’ (wonders) are described in the old Scots  ballads Thomas the Rhymer, Young Tamlane and The Queen of Elfland’s Nourice.

There is an interesting last detail in the story of Anne Jefferies.  When she first encounters the fairies in her Cornish home, they are ‘the little people’ only a few inches tall, but in Faery they are all of normal human size (or else Anne has shrunk).  The fairy master in Cherry of Zennor looks tiny when seen at the bottom of the well  in the garden but resumes his human dimensions when he returns to the house.

Getting home again

This can be as hard as getting into fairy in the first place.  Some people, we must confess, never make it back to where they started.  The Green Children, dazzled by the heat and light of the surface, became bewildered and were completely unable to find the entrance to the passage from which they emerged.

For others the process can be relatively straightforward, albeit with longer term implications.  Richard Vingoe was led to a carn near Nanjizel where he emerged into the air.  He was so exhausted by the journey that he slept for a week and, if fact, was never the same again.

Elidyr was able to come and go from his faery, visiting his mother as he wished, until he tried to steal a golden ball from his fairy friends.  He was pursued and the ball was recovered, after which he could never find again the entrance in the river bank, even though he searched for a year.

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Arthur Rackham, from Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens

Conclusions

In many respects fairyland underground is a mirror image of our earth surface world- and this includes the climate.  Of course, there are also traditions that make it less homely and familiar, such as those which view it as some sort of land of the dead and those which treat it as far more magical and strange.