By Kevan Manwaring, Teacher in Creative Writing at the University of Portsmouth, Open University, and University of Leicester
Each story featured in the Between Worlds exhibition tells of an encounter between a human and a fairy. The outcomes of these strange, supernatural interactions are mixed; a meeting with a fairy could bring great riches, be they material or creative, but it could also begin a journey towards misfortune or even death. In this post, author Kevan Manwaring examines the double-edged sword of these encounters, and speculates on how the fairy-folk are still influencing authors and artists today.
David Wright, Assistant Curator at Palace Green Library
Encounters with Fairy, in whatever form they take, can bear fruit, albeit of the strange, chancy kind. Even walking into an exhibition can be hazardous. It has long been thought those who chance upon the Fey, whether through a tangle of trees or via one of their fatesome songs or melodies, is doomed to be not long for this world. Like the wayward sister in Elizabeth Barret Browning’s ‘Goblin Market’ (the classic narrative poem of Victorian temptation and taboo-breaking sexuality) or the population of Lud-in-the-Mist (a unique 1920s novel by Russian translator Hope Mirrlees), they have tasted forbidden fruit and nothing in this world will ever satisfy their hunger. Deprived of their otherworldly opiate, they grow ‘fey’, wither and die.
Yet the delights of Fairy are many and if you do succumb, you are in good company. Both the characters and collectors of folk tales, folk lore and songs and customs are prone to catastrophic moments of weakness. Even men of the cloth are not immune.
The essential pattern is this: a wanderer chances upon a strangely-shaped hill from which beautiful music and merry lights emanate. Curiosity piqued, they enter. The unpromising passageway opens out in a dazzling cavern alive with exquisitely-dressed dancers (or sometimes sleeping knights). They get caught up in the festivities – swept off their feet by an alluring partner, or overwhelmed by the irresistible music. Time flies. Before they know it, a cock crows in the distance and all vanishes in a flash. The trespasser is left disorientated – for many hours, sometimes days, weeks, years or even centuries have passed. Often, they find themselves on a chilly hillside with only a hangover to prove something happened, and a tale no-one will believe. But sometimes they are ‘gifted’ (always a dangerously reciprocal arrangement when the euphemistically-called Good Neighbours are involved) with a cup, a song, the sight, an artistic or prophetic gift (or both).
Elements of this archetypal can be seen in the ballad of ‘Thomas the Rhymer’, in the folk tales of Canonbie Dick, the Piper of Ednam’s Knowe, the Fairy Boy of Leith (all from the Scottish Borders) and many others. You find similar tales across Britain and Ireland (and analogues around the world). The critical caveat is: when a remarkable gift is given by the Fey there are always strings attached. The 17th Century Reverend Robert Kirk, Minister of Aberfoyle in the Trossachs, knew this all too well. It was commonly believed he was ‘taken’ by the Sluagh Sith, the ‘People of Peace’, for revealing their secrets in his monograph The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies (1691/1815). Some believe he remains in Elfland to this day.
What are we to make of these folkloric scraps? Are they the tantalising remnants of an ancient indigenous tradition? Cultural curiosities? Old wives’ tales? Well, Fairy Tale scholar Marina Warner would have a thing or two to say about this. It is probably no coincidence that many Fairy stories, dark and disturbing as they originally were, are about the struggle for female emancipation and empowerment. Retold and repurposed over the centuries, their power (and the secret of their resilience) is that they can withstand multiple readings. Like the modern folklore of the ‘alien autopsy’, when the (remarkably fairy-like) specimen is dissected, there is nothing there. Hoaxes feed our hunger for consoling fictions. The author of Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle, no less, was duped by a couple of school-girls in the infamous case of the Cottingley Fairies. He robustly defended them and what they apparently heralded in The Coming of the Fairies (1922). The fact was Doyle was suffering from bereavement and he was not alone: in his case, his son; in the nation’s case, the Lost Generation. In the aftermath of the First World War the placebo of spiritualism was fervently popular. The legacy of his uncle Richard Doyle, a successful Victorian Fairy artist who ended up, like Richard Dadd (artist of ‘The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke’, 1855-64) in an asylum, did not dissuade him.
The bottom line is a brush with Fey got the pencil, pen or brush moving (even as it took its toll). Divine inspiration has been cited as the mark of a true artist since Greek and Roman times when the 9 Muses bestowed their respective gifts upon their chosen one. To court their favour, poets would invoke them at the start of their odes. In enlightened France and Spain, the troubadour wooed his ‘Lady’; in Elizabethan England, Drake, Spenser and Shakespeare, their Faerie Queene. Whoever found Her favour, her ‘laurel’ was a lucky man. And thus continued the gender-dynamic – the apparently high status but ‘passive’ woman recipient to the admiration of the ‘active’ male, perpetuated by a patriarchal establishment. Until the late 20th Century, the Laureateship had been a post occupied by males. There is only a short hop from that tradition to the one Robert Graves invents in his influential but problematic ‘Poetic Grammar of Myth’, The White Goddess (1961), in which he claims all poetic inspiration to be a continuation of a Frazerian Goddess cult.
Such comparativist (and gendered) approaches have been rightly deconstructed in recent years, but there is no denying a long (and active) tradition of poets, artists and musicians finding inspiration in the opposite (and same) sex. Visionary artist and poet William Blake (who had more than his fair share of fairy encounters) said: ‘the nakedness of woman is the work of God’. We personify the masculine or feminine aspects of our personality – give them form, give them names, and sometimes give them agency: the Green Man… the Goddess… Gwynn ap Nudd… the Cailleach… Pagan artists and musicians, poets and writers, actively engage with these and see them as autonomous, powerful presences – not tricks of the mind.
The blind Irish harpist Turlough O’Carolan (1670 –1738) claimed to have received tunes direct from the Queen of the Fairies herself, e.g. The Fairy Queen. WB Yeats sublimated his unreciprocated love for political firebrand Maud Gonne into poems praising Queen Maeve (whom she played on stage, completing the circle). Robert Louis Stevenson, describing the ideas behind The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde talked about ‘the little people of his theatre’ (1888: 124), whom he called Brownies. Operating within his dreams, they bequeath him ideas, details of plot, and even, upon waking, contribute to composition.
Taking the phrase penned by John Dryden, Joseph Addison developed the notion of “the Fairy way of writing” to define the concept of a kind of writing that ‘makes new Worlds of its own, shews us Persons that are not to be found in Being, and represents even the Faculties of the Soul’ (1712). The works of Shakespeare, fusing high and low culture, were the pinnacle of this, according to Pask (2013). In The Merry Wives of Windsor, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest the debt to the Fairy Tradition most directly evident, although the ‘Fairy way of writing’ permeates the Bard’s entire body of work.
A radical reading of Kirk’s 1691 monograph, ostensibly framed as a proto-anthropological and proselytizing treatise charting Highland Fairy beliefs, to, in his own words ‘suppress the impudent and Growing Atheism of this Age’, would be to see it as a taxonomy of the imagination, of the inchoate forces that influence and inspire us in often mysterious ways. To Kirk this was undoubtedly an earnest endeavour, written as a counterblast to the Empiricism and Secularism inimical to his faith. And yet the elusive providence and status of the surviving manuscripts (Rossi, 1949; Sanderson, 1976; Hunter, 2001) and the lingering folk belief that he stepped into his own story (Briggs, 1943; Stewart, 1990) give Kirk and The Secret Commonwealth the quality of a both folklore and a literary device — the ‘Found Manuscript’, the classic trope of Scottish Gothic literature (Baker, 2014).
Yet the ‘Fairy way of writing’ persisted, withstanding the Age of Reason, the Industrial Revolution and Modernism. Fiona Macleod (William Sharp), Lord Dunsany, Poe, Blackwood, Machen … The Great War should have stopped it dead in its tracks, but strangely seemed to have consolidated it, as John Garth explores in Tolkien and the Great War (2011). I see this tradition continuing – throughout the 20th Century into the present day in the works of David Lindsay, Charles Williams, JRR Tolkien, Alan Garner, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Angela Carter, Neil Gaiman, Susanna Clarke, Philip Pullman and many more.
Delving into the Forest Perilous of Fairy can produce creative riches – the artist/author enters the hollow hill of their own unconscious where unimagined treasures, dormant archetypes, and whispering shadows await. You only risk your sanity and your soul. And when (or if) you emerge, decades or centuries may have passed. You have been warned.
Kevan Manwaring is an award-winning author and Creative Writing lecturer for the Open University. For further insight into Kevan’s ongoing work, visit his blog: https://thebardicacademic.wordpress.com/.
- Addison, J. (1712) ‘The Fairy Way of Writing’, The Spectator. 419 (1 July 1712).
- Baker, T.C. (2014) ‘Authentic Inauthenticity: The Found Manuscript. Contemporary Scottish Gothic. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
- Hunter, M. (2001) The Occult Laboratory: magic, science and second sight in late seventeenth-century Scotland. London: Boydell Press.
- Kirk, R. (2006) The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies. New York: New York Review of Books.
- Pask, K. (2013) The Fairy Way of Writing. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.
- Rossi, M. M. (1949) Text-Criticism of Kirk’s Secret Commonwealth.
- Stevenson, R.L. (1888) ‘A Chapter on Dreams’. Scribner’s Magazine. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
- Warner, M (1995) From The Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and their Tellers. London: Vintage.
Entry to Between Worlds: Folklore and Fairytales from Northern Britain is free; opening hours are 10am – 5pm 7 days a week until February 25 2018. Please visit the Palace Green Library website for further information about your visit.