This post is a wee bit late for the solstice, as I was celebrating with friends last weekend, but it’s just in time for other festivals and holidays held around this time, like St. John’s Eve, Ivan Kupala Night, the Dragon Boat Festival, and Gay Pride. I’ll be attending my town’s St. John’s Eve bonfire this weekend, and I hope you all have plans to enjoy the sun wherever you are, too. Happy summer!
There is something inherently fairy-like about the English countryside. Hedgerows, dense and twining, house untold life forms; rolling hills and barren moors are dotted with ancient standing stones fairly vibrating with power; wild cottage gardens abound with deadly monkshood, foxglove, and May bells. All is bathed in the eerie glow of sunlight filtered through clouds that hold the constant threat of rain. The very landscape seems to attest the existence of an otherworld that is fecund, alluring, and yet vaguely threatening, as if nature were bending to the will of man only temporarily, as a lark, and might at any moment burst forth in her full untamed glory. In England, Fairyland is not “over the hills and far away” but immanently present, just beyond the garden gate.
It should come as no surprise, then, that English folklore and fantasy literature has been preoccupied with Fairyland and fairies for centuries. Among the first written references to fairies are found in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. In the Wife of Bath’s tale, they are spoken of as familiar figures of legend thought to belong to bygone times:
In the old days of King Arthur, Of whom Britons speak great honor, All this wide land was land of faery. The elf-queen, with her jolly company, Danced oftentimes on many a green mead; This was the old opinion, as I read. I speak of many hundred years ago; But now no man can see the elves, you know.
“The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” 857-864
As Jeremy Harte writes, though, there is little evidence for a “fairy” tradition as such in British folklore before 1380. Rather, early British folk belief included supernatural beings of all shapes and sizes, including Germanic elves and dwarves, magicians and sorceresses of French medieval romance, and a plethora of creatures endemic to the British Isles such as pucks, piskies, sprites, spriggans, brownies, hobgoblins, and changelings.
The word itself, “fairy,” from the Old French, originally referred to magic, illusion, and enchantment in general, or to the enchanted land that was home to any of a number of supernatural creatures, but not to a particular type of creature. The latter usage was popularized by British writers only after Chaucer, and the folklore that developed around the British fairy combined characteristics from a number of earlier traditions: fairies may be human-sized and beautiful, like Germanic elves, or they may be tiny, like pixies; they may be playfully mischievous, like Robin Goodfellow, or have more sinister intentions, like redcaps and will-o’-the-wisp. In all cases, they are considered to be malevolent towards humans in varying degrees, as the many folk magic wards and protections against them attest.
I see Shakespeare’s Puck as the closest mainstream cultural representation to the folkloric fairy before the twentieth century: sowing mischief and reveling in chaos, he is rendered harmless only by his association with friendlier fairies. One gets the sense that, left to his own devices, he would not be nearly so docile.
And those things do best please me That befal preposterously.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream 3.2.122–3
Puck has a Dionysian air about him — a trickster and a “stranger god” rolled into one — and the perils of Fairyland parallel tales of Bacchic frenzy in ancient Greek literature. While the maenads in Euripides’s Bacchae were driven to dismember Pentheus at Dionysus’s behest, fairies were known to enchant humans into dancing all night long to the point of exhaustion, illness, or death. Newborn babies were in danger of being stolen by fairies, and young women of being kidnapped to serve as fairy midwives, while both were replaced in the human world with changelings or “sham bodies,” which sometimes fooled even loved ones into believing them to be the real thing. If any wanderer in Fairyland were foolish enough to eat fairy food during their stay, they were sure never to return. And if they did somehow manage to make it back to the human world, they were likely to find that years or decades had passed in what had seemed to them to be mere hours in Fairyland, and that their loved ones had died or, worse, forgotten them.
This is loaded lore. In it we find expression of the deepest of human fears: the fear of loss of chaos, of madness, of loss, of the passage of time, of the unknowability of the Other, of no longer belonging — which all amount, finally, to the fear of the unknown and of its uncomfortable closeness. And yet, through it all, an undeniable attraction…
The image of the fairy that prevails in the popular imagination today — the dainty, benign, butterfly-winged creature clad in flower petals, popularized by Walt Disney and available for purchase as a collectable figurine in new age shops the world over — became a convention only during the Victorian era, but the tendency to tame the fairy can already be noted in Elizabethan literature: in Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio’s Queen Mab meddles in human affairs, but her pranks are more quaint than mischievous; the human protagonists of A Midsummer Night’s Dream return from their adventures in Fairyland dazed but unharmed. As J.R.R. Tolkien suggests in his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” this change in the popular image of fairies was a product of “rationalization”: “it seems to become fashionable soon after the great voyages had begun to make the world seem too narrow to hold both men and elves.” There is comfort in the (erroneous) conviction that the unknown may be known, that the wild may be tamed, that chaos must, at the last, be subjugated to the inexorable tyranny of reason.
But the ambiguous fairy and the treacherous Fairyland of British folklore seem to have persisted in the popular imagination despite efforts to suppress them. Even at the peak of popularity of twee Victorian fairies, the English outsider artist Richard Dadd painted them obsessively (from the confines of Bedlam, where he was interred after murdering his father), and Scottish writer William Allingham’s 1883 poem “The Fairies” cast them in a decidedly sinister light:
Up the airy mountain, Down the rushy glen, We daren’t go a-hunting For fear of little men.
The first four lines of the poem were recited nearly a century later, in the 1971 film version of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, by a mysterious tinker, who then warns our protagonist that “nobody ever goes in…and nobody ever comes out” of Wonka’s factory. The connection is apt: Wonka is a twentieth-century Puck if there ever was one, our mischievous, enigmatic, and morally ambiguous guide through the Fairyland of his factory, where those lacking in imagination are punished but left (we assume) relatively unharmed. In traditional British folklore, too, Fairyland seems to wreak especial havoc in the lives of those who would resist its draw, who cling too desperately to the semblance of control.
Before the influence of Tolkien’s work solidified conventions and tropes of modern high fantasy, some British fantasy novelists engaged with a Fairyland both alluring and perilous, in which the lines separating life, death, and dream are blurred and in which time, law, logic, and memory dissolve. Neil Gaiman’s novel Stardust revived this tradition and was what first drew my attention to this alternative strain in fantasy literature. I read it too long ago to write a full review of it here (in fact, I’m probably due for a rereading, if I can manage to get my hands on one of the editions that includes the ethereally beautiful illustrations of Charles Vess). Suffice it to say that Stardust manages to walk the tightrope of light-hearted magic and whimsy without ever toppling over the edge into twee. For further reading, V. E. Schwab has published an excellent review of Starduston Tor.com.
Neil Gaiman has often cited both The King of Elfland’s Daughter by Lord Dunsany and Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees as inspirations for Stardust in particular and as influences on his writing in general. The former is generally acknowledged by fantasy readers as an important early example of the genre, while the latter has been slowly gaining greater recognition in recent years, seemingly thanks in large part to Gaiman’s championing of it in essays and interviews. A book recommended by Gaiman is a near sure-fire hit with me, so I got my hands on both as quickly as I could. Both novels were first published in the 1920s – over a decade before The Hobbit and thirty years before The Fellowship of the Ring – and the tenuous border that separates Fairyland and the human fears it symbolizes from the mortal world figures prominently in both, as it does in Stardust.
The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1924) tells the story of Prince Alveric of Erl, sent at the behest of his people across the border to Elfland to win the heart and hand of the fairy princess Lirazel. Although Lirazel loves Alveric and their son, Orion, and is enchanted by the fleeting beauty of the mortal world, she is unable to adapt to the customs of her new home, and a spell cast by her father, the King of Elfland, eventually compels her back to Elfland. But Alveric is determined to find his queen, even if it means a lifetime spent questing, in the company of madmen and dreamers, for Elfland’s pale-blue peaks — no longer near, as they once were, but impossibly far, and ever-receding. Meanwhile, Orion hears the horns of Elfland blowing in the evening…
Dunsany’s Elfland is unquestionably the treacherous Fairyland of British lore, and the people of Erl seek to be ruled by a magic lord only because they are unaware of the strange dangers that Elfland holds. Those who live nearer the border are not so naïve: when, in the course of his quest, Alveric encounters a leather-worker who refuses even to acknowledge the existence of Elfland, Alveric wonders,
Had the old man been to Elfland in his youth and seen something he greatly feared, perhaps barely escaping from death or an age-long love? […] Did these folk dwelling there at the edge of our world know well the unearthly beauty of all the glories of Elfland, and fear that even to speak of them might be to draw them whither their resolution, barely perhaps, held them back? Or might a word said of the magical land bring it nearer, to make fantastic and elvish the fields we know? To all these ponderings of Alveric there was no answer.
And yet the allure of a land where the unrelenting march of time may be stopped in its tracks proves to be too great for humans to resist. In Elfland, Dunsany writes, even that which is lost to time may be regained:
For it is true, and Alveric knew, that just as the glamour that brightens much of our lives, especially in early years, comes from rumours that reach us from Elfland by various messengers (on whom be blessings and peace), so there returns from our fields to Elfland again, to become a part of all its mystery, all manner of little memories that we have lost and little devoted toys that were treasured once […] here and there Alveric saw again and again those little forsaken things that had been lost from his childhood, dropping through time to the ageless and hourless region of Elfland to be a part of its glory […] Old tunes, old song, old voices, hummed there too, growing fainter and fainter, as though they could not live long in the fields we know.
But the enticements of Elfland for mortals are matched by the appeal of “the fields we know” for the inhabitants of Elfland, who yearn for the “restlessness” of Earth and the magic they see in all that we find mundane. Seeing his daughter yearn for her husband and son, for Earthly dawn and the fleeting beauty of wildflowers, the King of Elfland remembers his late mortal queen:
She would often stray to the hills of Earth to see the may again, or to see the beechwoods in Autumn; and though she stayed but a day when she came to to the fields we know, and was back in the palace beyond the twilight before our sun had set, yet Time found her whenever she came; and so she wore away, and soon she died in Elfland; for she was only a mortal.
The unchanging beauty of Elfland, suspended in an “ageless day,” does not compare to the ephemeral beauty of Earth, and the mortal queen is willing to forsake eternal life and suffer the ravages of time to witness it.
After a visit to “the fields we know,” the troll Lurulu tells his fellow trolls of the charms of the mortal world: of its “wonderful speed,” the changing play of light and shadow and the movement of the stars, and of the quaint absurdity of people who “lived in houses and had a hat immediately above [them] and a chimney higher up, and spoke to dogs and would not speak to pigs.” As Dunsany writes,
He had found more wonder in Earth than we remember, though we also saw these things once for the first time.
Perhaps its fleetingness, the fact that it is ever-changing and impossible to capture, is just what lends the beauty of the mortal world a magic of its own. And after all, humans have their own magic that allows them to stop the rush of time: as Dunsany reminds us, the written word
can mark a dead man’s thought for the wonder of later years, and tell of happenings that are gone clean away, and be a voice for us out of the dark of time, and save many a fragile thing from the pounding of heavy ages; or carry us, over the rolling centuries, even a song from lips long dead on forgotten hills.
The King of Elfland’s Daughter has the tone of a folk tale, and the language is lyrical and mythic, the imagery rich. It even, at times, channels an ambiance of deep poetic mystery that I associate with my childhood memories of hearing certain nursery rhymes and fairy tales read aloud, and which I have only rarely encountered as an adult. Dunsany revives a sense of wonder in me which had, perhaps, like the “forsaken things” of the past, “dropped through time to the ageless and hourless region of Elfland to be a part of its glory.”
Lud-in-the-Mist (1926) is similarly preoccupied with time and mortality and, especially, with the lengths to which humans are willing to go to suppress their fears, willfully ignore questions of life, death, and time, and create illusions of unchangingness and control.Our hero, Nathaniel Chanticleer, is the middle-aged mayor of Lud-in-the-Mist, a prosperous port town and capital of Dorimare, a region that, like Dunsany’s Erl, shares a border with Fairyland. Dorimare was once ruled by the eccentric Duke Aubrey, who, after a coup staged by a merchant class impatient with the Duke’s capriciousness, disappeared into Fairyland, never to return, and has since entered as a mythic figure into Dorimarite folklore. The new regime worships at the altar of the Law, and Fairyland and everything associated with it is considered taboo: Fairyland is known to be dangerous, a place of dream, delusion, and doom, in sharp contrast to the cheerful pragmatism of Lud-in-the-Mist. The country people, we are told, “[do] not always clearly distinguish between the Fairies and the dead. They called them both the ‘Silent People.'”
Mirrlees explores in greater depth than Dunsany the implications of the mortal world’s proximity to Fairyland. It is here that Mirrlees’s writing is at its best, when she is describing in vivid detail the beauty and frivolity of Lud-in-the-Mist, a town striving desperately for conventionality but unable to escape Fairyland’s nearness and its historical and cultural influence, despite the Luddites’ best efforts to suppress it. It is a town whose inhabitants hold annual parties to celebrate the arrival of the Moongrass cheese, drink wild-thyme gin and nibble marzipan; where young ladies learn to embroider wild strawberries on slippers and model still-lives out of butter and dance to the music of Willy Wisp’s fiddle.
The overall tone of Lud-in-the-Mist is decidedly more whimsical than that of The King of Elfland’s Daughter. Mirrlees’s invented oaths (“toasted cheese,” “suffering cats,” “by the Golden Apples of the West”) and character names (Primrose Crabapple, Ambrose Honeysuckle, Ivy Peppercorn, Endymion Leer) rival in whimsy those of Roald Dahl and J.K. Rowling. Our hero, Nathaniel Chanticleer, mayor of Lud-in-the-Mist, reminds me of Bilbo Baggins: funny and lovable, he is at first scandalized by the mere mention of Fairyland, a bit embarrassed by its melodrama, and quite content with his creature comforts and his illusions of control. But once he is sucked into adventure, he discovers himself to be quite disposed to it.
By all appearances, Nathaniel fits perfectly into the reigning cultural milieu of Lud-in-the-Mist: he is jovial, conventional, uncomplicated. But he hides a secret that sets him apart from his fellow Luddites: the memory of hearing, in his youth, a disturbing “Note” produced by an old lute found in an attic — a memory that has haunted him all his adult life. Hearing the Note triggered an existential dread in Nathaniel that has never left him, and the effects of the experience have been far-reaching in his lifestyle and choices:
He was never again the same man. For years that note was the apex of his nightly dreams; the point towards which, by their circuitous and seemingly senseless windings, they had all the time been converging […] The influence that this experience had had upon his attitude to daily life was a curious one. Before he had heard the note he had caused his father some uneasiness by his impatience of routine and his hankering after travel and adventure […] But after he had heard the Note a more stay-at-home and steady young man could not have been found in Lud-in-the-Mist. For it had generated in him what one can only call a wistful yearning after the prosaic things he already possessed. It was as if he thought he had already lost what he was actually holding in his hands.
Nathaniel becomes obsessed with trying to keep time from slipping through his fingers. His existential dread is epitomized in the sound of the cock’s crow,
…which tells of the plough going through the land, the smell of the country, the place bustle of the farm, as happening now, all round one; and which, simultaneously, mourns them as things vanished centuries ago.
When Nathaniel’s son Ranulph reveals that he has eaten fairy fruit — a practice considered so scandalous in Lud-in-the-Mist that it is referred to in polite society only in euphemisms — Nathaniel realizes that it has instilled in Ranulph the same dread that he himself has always felt:
Ranulph’s sobs redoubled. ‘I want to get away! To get away!‘ he moaned. ‘Away? Away from where?’ and there was a touch of impatience in Master Nathaniel’s voice. ‘From…from things happening,‘ sobbed Ranulph. Master Nathaniel’s heart suddenly contracted; but he tried not to understand. ‘Things happening?’ he said in a voice that he endeavoured to make jocular. ‘I don’t think anything very much happens in Lud, does it?’ ‘All the things,’ moaned Ranulph, ‘summer and winter, and days and nights. All the things!’
Nathaniel empathizes with his son, and, when more and more of the youth of Lud-in-the-Mist are seduced into partaking in fairy fruit and lured to Fairyland by a mysterious, Pied Piper-like figure, he is determined to root out the culprits and to bring the children back — even though no-one has been known to return from Fairyland.
What Gaiman characterizes in his introduction as one of Lud-in-the-Mist‘s strengths — the fact that the book “begins as a travelogue or a history, becomes a pastorale, a low comedy, a high comedy, a ghost story and a detective story” — was, in my view, its biggest flaw. The “murder mystery” interlude plopped into the middle of the book, with its investigations, interviews, and courtroom scenes, breaks the pace of the narrative, and the change in tone is jarring. Moreover, there is never any suspense about the identities of the guilty parties. I lost interest a bit in this section, and was impatient to move on to the greater mystery of Duke Aubrey and the disappearance of Ranulph and the Crabapple Blossoms. When Mirrlees finally does take us to Fairyland, our visit there is all too brief. Her vision is original and intriguing: Fairyland is an unsettling place, rich in symbolism, seemingly operating according to a sort of dream-logic and perhaps experienced differently by all who go there. But we spend just ten pages in Fairyland, and the story is rushed to its conclusion afterwards.
Despite the issues with pacing and occasional heavy-handedness — there was far too much talk of the Law with a capital “L” for my liking — the point Mirrlees makes in the “procedural” section of Lud-in-the-Mist is a good one: it is easy to forget how tenuous and sometimes absurd or arbitrary are human notions of law, and how desperately we cling to illusions of control, justice, and reason to shield us from the abyss.
In a climactic scene, a character gives a speech distinguishing trees — which “live and die, but do not know the taste of either life or death” — from man, the “passionate, tragic, rootless tree”:
Alas! he is a creature whose highest privileges are a curse. In his mouth is ever the bitter-sweet taste of life and death, unknown to the trees. Without respite he is dragged by the two wild horses, memory and hope; and he is tormented by a secret he can never tell […] For though they shout it in the market-place, or whisper it in music and poetry, what they say is never the same as what they know, and they are like ghosts charged with a message of tremendous import who can only trail their chains and gibber. Such then are the two tribes. Citizens of Lud-in-the-Mist, to which do you belong? To neither; for you are not serene, majestic, and silent, nor are you restless, passionate, and tragic. I could not turn you into trees; but I had hoped to turn you into men.
In both Lud-in-the-Mist and The King of Elfland’s Daughter, it is ultimately the coming together of Fairyland and the mortal world — literally and figuratively — that rights all wrongs and heals all wounds. Perhaps this, too, is the message of British fairy folklore: Fairyland is both a threat to be feared and an invitation to be heeded.
Our deeply human fears — of death, time, chaos, oblivion — must not be suppressed and ignored; nor must we be consumed by them, and surrender to madness or melancholy.
There is a land where the sun and moon do not shine; where the birds are dreams, the stars are visions, and the immortal flowers spring form the thoughts of death. In that land grows fruit, the juices of which sometimes cause madness, and sometimes manliness; for that fruit is flavoured with life and death, and it is the proper nourishment for the souls of man.
Art is born as we linger on the threshold, in the liminal space between reality and dream, chaos and logic, reason and emotion. We follow Robin Goodfellow into the forest and lose ourselves in grief, lust, nostalgia, drunkenness, madness, euphoria, despair — and we return to the fields we know, to create, to connect, to share, to live on, never forgetting our wanderings in the uncharted countries; indeed, allowing our trip to Fairyland to complicate and enrich our experience of the mortal world in all its fleeting, restless beauty.
If we shadows have offended, Think but this, and all is mended, That you have but slumber’d here While these visions did appear. And this weak and idle theme, No more yielding but a dream, Gentles, do not reprehend: if you pardon, we will mend: And, as I am an honest Puck, If we have unearned luck Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue, We will make amends ere long; Else the Puck a liar call; So, good night unto you all. Give me your hands, if we be friends, And Robin shall restore amends.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream 5.1.2275-90
See image sources in each image’s caption. All images used are in the public domain, protected by fair use, or otherwise licensed for noncommercial reproduction.
The original Wicker Man (1973), which takes place in the days leading up to May Day and climaxes on May Day itself, and includes fictionalized versions of many traditional May Day rituals — also, Christopher Lee
A short documentary from 1953 about May Day celebrations in Padstow, Cornwall and the traditional “obby oss” dance