Thursday, 24 July 2014

Lewis Carroll on 'Pixies'





I have no idea where Lewis Carroll picked up the notion that pixies are covered in fur; I suspect he made it up: but I thought readers of this blog might enjoy this amusing little piece of juvenilia from Carroll's family journal 'The Rectory Umbrella.  It appears under the sub-title: 'Zoological papers' and the point - if point there be - is the straight-faced, mock-academic style (with footnotes).

Zoological papers: Pixies

The origin of this curious race of creatures is not at present known: the best description we can collect of them is this, that they are a species of fairies about two feet high[1], of small and graceful figure; they are covered in a dark reddish kind of fur; the general expression of their faces is sweetness and good humour; the former quality is probably the reason why foxes are so fond of eating them. From Coleridge we learn the following additional facts; that they have ‘filmy pinions’ something like dragon flies’ wings, that they ‘sip the furze-flower’s fragrant dew’ (that, however, could only be for breakfast, as it would dry up before dinner-time), and that they are wont to ‘flash their faery feet in gamesome prank,’ or, in more common language, ‘to dance the polka[2] like winking.’

From an old English legend[3] which, as it is familiar with our readers, we need not here repeat, we learn that they have a strong affection for raw turnips, decidedly a more vulgar sort of food than ‘fragrant dew’; and from their using churns and kettles we conjecture that they are not unacquainted with tea, milk, butter &cc. They are tolerably good architects, though their houses must unavoidably have something the appearance of large dog kennels, and they go to market occasionally, though from what source they get the money for this purpose has hitherto remained an unexplained mystery. This is all the information we have been able to collect on this interesting subject. 


[1] So they are described by the inhabitants of Devonshire, who occasionally see them.
[2] Or any other step.
[3] A tradition, introduced into notice by the Editor.


Wednesday, 16 July 2014

The Hounds of Spring

For personal reasons I'm finding it difficult to keep up with the blog at the moment, so I hope you'll excuse the reappearance of a post which first appeared here in June 2012. 

 


Poetry – I love the stuff – I have masses of it by heart – but once in a while it’s fun to be a little irreverent, don’t you think?  A few days ago, I found myself chanting William Morris’s sonorous ‘Two red roses across the moon’ – like this –

There was a lady lived in a hall
Large in the eyes and slim and tall,
And ever she sung from noon to noon,
Two red roses across the moon.

       and suddenly caught myself snorting.

There was a knight came riding by
In early spring, when the roads were dry;
And he heard that lady sing at the noon,
Two red roses across the moon.

The lady had clearly been infected with an ear worm.  Through the entire poem, these are the only words she – compulsively – speaks.  The knight catches it too; he spurs off to battle:

You scarce could see for the scarlet and blue,
A golden helm or a golden shoe,
So he cried, as the fight grew thick at the noon,
Two red roses across the moon!

Inspired by the lady’s song, the knight and his gold side win:
Verily then the gold won through

The huddled spears of the scarlet and blue,
And they cried, as they cut them down at the noon
Two
- but you got it. After which, the knight and the lady get together.  I wonder how their domestic life went? 
“Pass the salt, dear.”
Two red roses across the moon.”

It’s utterly ludicrous, and I don’t know why it works, but in its faux-medieval, stained-glass, Pre-Raphaelite way, it actually does.  I may smile.  But I like it.

Maybe it’s a grace of the Victorian era, that they didn’t mind being totally, and I mean totally over the top?  And now we’re all too self conscious and expect poetry to be a lyrical baring of the soul and take itself seriously, for heavens sake?  In which case, what do we make of this?

But the Raven still beguiling all my fancy into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird, and bust, and door,
Then upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore –
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt and ominous bird of yore
Meant in croaking “Nevermore.”

Now the normal human reaction would be for Poe to jump up screaming: “Oh my god, a huge bird just flew in at my window!” and rush for a broom or something, to try and prod it out.  But Poe the narrator isn’t normal, he’s a Victorian Gothic poet, and he sees at once that the Raven is a supernatural portent – and he’s comfortable enough with that idea to pull up a velvet cushion and sit trying to work it all out.

Thus I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom’s core;
This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining

 
- at ease, mark you, at ease! -

On the cushion’s velvet lining that the lamplight gloated oe’r,
But whose velvet violet lining with the lamplight gloating o’er
She shall press, ah, nevermore.

I doubt if any modern poet would dare to introduce a ‘fowl with fiery eyes’ into a serious poem; and those elaborate feminine internal rhymes are incredibly dangerous and could topple the poem over into absurdity at any moment. Poe must know this!  But he has nerves of steel and keeps his balance.

You’ll notice a common element of these two poems: the refrain.  Refrains – I would venture – have gone out of fashion. Here’s another brilliant Victorian poem which employs one.  By Longfellow, this time:

The shades of night were falling fast
When through an Alpine village passed
A youth, who bore, mid snow and ice,
A banner with a strange device,
Excelsior!

Well, there you go.

His brow was sad; his eye beneath
Flashed like a falchion from its sheath,
And like a silver clarion rung
The accents of that unknown tongue,
Excelsior!

While Morris's ‘red roses’ lady was stuck in her castle, the similarly afflicted youth sets out across the mountains – a bit of stereotyping going on there, I fear – but anyway, like the lady, Longfellow’s youth has no other conversation going.

“Oh stay,” the maiden said, “and rest
Thy weary head upon this breast!”
A tear stood in his bright blue eye,
But still he answered, with a sigh,
Excelsior! 



James Thurber’s illustrations demonstrate that he, too, couldn’t resist the unintentionally comic side of all this.

“Beware the pine tree’s withered branch!
Beware the awful avalanche!”
This was the peasant’s last Goodnight,
A voice replied, far up the height,
Excelsior!



But of course the mysterious youth perishes.  Here he lies dead in the snow, surrounded by the monks of St Bernard and one of Thurber’s lugubrious dogs:

A traveller, by the faithful hound
Half-buried in the snow was found,
Still grasping, in his hand of ice,
That banner with the strange device,
Excelsior!

There in the twilight cold and gray,
Lifeless, but beautiful he lay,
And from the sky, serene and far,
A voice fell like a falling star:
Excelsior!



As for the hounds of spring, they of course come from the Chorus from 'Atalanta in Calydon', by that most over-the-top of all Victorian poets, Charles Algernon Swinburne – and here he is, in full throated ease:

When the hounds of spring are on winter’s traces,
The mother of months in meadow or plain
Fills the shadows and windy places
With lisp of leaves and ripple of rain;
And the brown bright nightingale amorous
Is half assuaged for Itylus
For the Thracian ships and the foreign faces
The tongueless vigil, and all the pain.

Yes, he assumes we know a lot about Greek myths, but why shouldn’t he?  And even if we didn’t, how beautiful is this?

For winter’s rains and ruins are over,
And all the season of snows and sins
The days dividing lover and lover,
The light that loses, the night that wins;
And time remembered is grief forgotten,
And frosts are slain and flowers begotten
And in green underwood and cover
  Blossom by blossom the spring begins.

I admire the Victorians.  I admire their passion, their sensitivity and their love of beauty, and I really don’t care if they are sometimes a bit over the top and make me smile – and I don’t think they’d care either. We need more moments of unguarded passion in our lives - and less caution and cynicism...

Enjoy the summer!

Picture credits: James Thurber, 'The Thurber Carnival', Penguin 1965

Sunday, 6 July 2014

White Ladies


 

In my book, 'Dark Angels' (US title 'The Shadow Hunt'), the 11th century castle of La Motte Rouge, placed in a fictitious part of the Welsh Marches, is haunted by a mournful White Lady who wanders the courtyard on dark and misty nights, wringing her hands and moaning softly.  She's creepy but harmless, she's forgotten her own name, and in my recent short story 'By Fynnon Ddu', published in the Sussex Folklore Centre's journal GRAMARYE, I was able to confirm my long-held suspicion that she is the diminished pagan spirit of the spring which feeds the castle's cistern - and is older, much older, than the castle in which she is now contained.  The various (Christian) inhabitants now regard her with attitudes ranging from fear to pity.  In this shortened extract my young hero, Wolf, encounters her late one night:

In the faint moonlight Wolf could see the yard - an expanse of greyish mud. He hurried across, and was about to slip around the corner of the Hall, where the huddled buildings made a darkness as intense as ink - when instinct made him pause, and a woman stepped around the corner from the opposite direction.   She was wrapped in flimsy clothing for this time of night: fluttering white garments with a light veil pulled across her face. She must be a lady of the household, one of Lady Agnes' women, though he hadn't noticed anyone like her at supper. Mist blew around her as she swayed towards him and murmured [something] in a melancholy, musical voice.

...'What's your name, lady?' he asked gently.  But the question seemed to distress her.'I can't remember', she moaned, swaying in a sort of absent-minded dance. 'Gwae fi! I can't remember!'

...Wolf stared at her feet.  She had crossed that dirty yard right behind him. His own shoes were clotted with mud. Yet there wasn't a single stain on her little white slippers.  




White Ladies are a bit different from other ghosts. In an article called The White Lady of Britain and Ireland, by Jane C Beck (Folklore, Vol 81, 1970), Beck argues that “the modern day ghost known as the White Lady … is …a creature with a heritage reaching back to the darkest recesses of time.  Although her most usual form today is that of a gliding spectre, some of the acts she performs recall her earlier condition as a deity.”

Ghost stories often come complete with ‘explanations’ for the apparition - explanations which usually feel contrived.  Frequently they involve some sort of crime: the ghost is unable to rest because it is either the victim or the perpetrator.  White ladies are often described as murdered brides or sweethearts, or else girls who have drowned themselves for love. They are frequently associated with water. A story from Yorkshire, reported in 1823, tells how a lovely maiden robed in white is to be seen on Hallowe’en at the spot where the rivers Hodge and Dove meet, standing with her golden hair streaming and her arm around the neck of a white doe. From Somerset, Ruth Tongue describes an apparition called the White Lady of Wellow,

… who haunts St Julian’s Well, now in a cottage garden.  She played the part of a banshee to the Lords of Hungerford, but she seems to have been a well spirit rather than a ghost.  The Lake Lady of Orchardleigh is another white lady who is rather a fairy than a ghost.  But the most fairy-like of the three is the White Rider of Corfe, who…gallops along the road on a white horse, turns clean aside by a field gate and into the middle of a meadow, where she vanishes.  I was told about her by some old-age pensioners in the Blackdown Hills in 1946.  One of them said. “She shone like a dewdrop,” and another of them, “T’was like liddle bells all a-chime.”

In Wales there are apparently two types of white ladies, the Dynes Mewn Gwyn or lady in white, and the ladi wen: the first is a true ghost; the second is an apparition which haunts the place where someone has died a violent death. Not all White Ladies are harmless.  Jane Beck tells of one which appeared at Ogmore Castle near Bridgend, Glamorgan, where she was believed to guard a treasure under the tower floor.  One man was brave enough to speak to her; she gave permission to take half the treasure and showed him where it lay, but when he was so greedy as to return for the rest:

The White Lady then set upon him, and to his dismay, he found she had claws instead of fingers, and with these she nearly tore him to pieces. 


Jacob Grimm, in his Teutonic Mythology, talks of the White Lady as someone who

… appears in many houses when a member of the family is about to die, and …is thought to be the ancestress of the race.  She is sometimes seen at night tending and nursing the children… She wears a white robe, or is clad half in white, half in black; her feet are concealed by yellow or green shoes.  In her hand she usually carries a bunch of keys or a golden spinning wheel.



I’m strongly reminded of Princess Irene’s great-great (ever-so-many-greats) grandmother in George MacDonald’s ‘The Princess and the Goblin’, a beautiful woman with long white hair who can seem both old and young, who inhabits the top floor of the castle tower, and sits spinning her magical moony wheel.  When Irene climbs the tower steps and taps at the door:

“Come in, Irene,” said the sweet voice.

The princess opened the door and entered.  There was the moonlight streaming in at the window, and in the middle of the moonlight sat the old lady in her black dress with the white lace, and her silvery hair mingling with the moonlight, so that you could not have told which was which.

And is the Lady of the Lake, in the Morte D’Arthur, a White Lady?  She is seen by Arthur and Merlin ‘going upon the lake,’ and although it is not actually her arm ‘clothed in white samite’, which brandishes the sword Excalibur above the water, she does tell Arthur that the sword belongs to her. Whose is the arm, then?  We never find out.
In John Masefield’s wonderful wintry book “The Box of Delights’, there’s a passage which well combines the ambiguous mystery and dread of the White Lady.  Kay Harker is out on the Roman Road on a night ‘as black as a pocket’ and sees something white moving towards him:

He remembered, that Cook had said, there was a White Lady who “walked” out Duke’s Brook way.  This thing that was coming was a White Lady… but supposing it was a White Wolf, standing on its hind legs and ready to pounce.  It looked like a wolf; its teeth were gleaming. Then the moon shone out again; he saw that it was a White Lady who held her hand in a peculiar way, so that he could see a large ring, with a glittering ‘longways cross’ on it.

“Come Kay,” she said, “you must not stay here; the Wolves are running: listen.”

Significantly the White Lady (who in this case is wholly benevolent) is still believed by Cook to haunt a water course: Duke’s Brook.  John Masefield’s fiction is full of folklore, in which he clearly took great delight: his White Lady runs true to type.


Before the Romans came to Britain, the British appear to have worshipped the deities – many or mainly female – of rivers, streams, springs and pools. Most of their names, like that of my White Lady, must have been forgotten, but we still know Sabrina of the River Severn, and Sulis, who gave her name to Aquae Sulis, the hot springs at Bath. To the waters of these springs, pools and rivers, the British made offerings – just as we still throw coins into fountains – and many is the bronze or iron age sword which has been recovered from river beds and marshlands.  How many Bediveres have thrown precious weapons to the Lady of the Lake?  And what did they hope to receive in return? Health?  Wealth? Victory?  
 
I like White Ladies – beautiful, eerie creatures draped in moonlight, trailing clouds of grief and longing for those far-away ages when they still had the power to bless and to curse.




Picture credits:

The Somnambulist, by John Everett Millais
The Woman in White, by Frederick Walker, image courtesy of The Victorian Web
Irene's Grandmother, by Arthur Hughes; illustration from The Princess and the Goblin by George Macdonald
Sulis Minerva in the Museum of Bath by Akalvin at Wikimedia Commons. Original uploader was Akalvin at de.wikipedia

Monday, 23 June 2014

GRAMARYE



I'm more than happy to tell you all that this fifth issue of Gramarye,  journal of the Sussex Centre for Folklore, Fairytales and Fantasy, contains  a brand new short story by me called  'By Fynnon Ddu'.  Much of it is told as a dialogue between a water spirit  and a hearth-hob or brownie - and it takes place in an imaginary part of the Welsh Marches towards the end of the 11th century. It's a prequel to my novel 'Dark Angels',  in which these same characters reappear a century later.  (You can do this with supernatural characters: it's fun!)  This is how it begins...



The hearth-hob of the place called Hen Gaer crouched in long soaking grass at the edge of the old well, Fynnon Ddu, watching for frogs.

Hen Gaer wasn't much.  It was a tumble of stones, a cluster of hawthorns growing on a rise between the river ford and the old stone road the Welsh called  Sarn Helen. It was brambles, and sudden pockets of bog, and the sound of hidden water.  It was parched lines in the turf on a summer day.  For a thousand years folk had come here and built their huts and houses, lived and left and been forgotten. 

And now new people had arrived and set to work.



As always happens, this story owes much to other writing which I've grown up with and loved - Harold Monro's poem 'Overheard On a Salt Marsh' is one - but especially Rudyard Kipling's 'Puck of Pook's Hill' and 'Rewards and Fairies'.  Like Kipling I was interested in trying to suggest, as well as magic, a sense of deep time: the layers upon layers of history that lie thick as centuries of  leaf mould in the British landscape.

And one of those delightful things happened while I was writing it: I found out something I hadn't known before. I found out the reason why the sad, ghostly White Lady in 'Dark Angels is so obsessed with her inability to enter the Christian chapel of the early Norman castle, La Motte Rouge.

Besides my story (perfectly matched with a beautiful illustration  by Brian Froud) there is much else in this journal to fascinate, educate and amuse - including a piece by my fellow-editor and partner in crime at Unsettling Wonder,  John Patrick Padziora - see below.  Here's the list of contents, and the link in case you feel you'd like to buy!

Issue 5 of Gramarye, the Centre’s journal for folklore, fairy tales and fantasy, is now available to purchase here. The journal is designed to appeal to both academics and the interested public.
This issue’s contents include:
  • ‘The Case of the Ebony Horse’ (Part I), Ruth B. Bottigheimer
  • ‘By Fynnon Ddu’, Katherine Langrish
  • ‘Fairy-Tale Adaptation in Jim Henson’s “The Storyteller”‘, John Pazdziora
  • ‘Two Tales from Odds and Sods‘, Stephen Badman
  • ‘”Iron is Stronger than Grief, but Love is Stronger than Iron”: Reading Fairy-Tale Emotions through Words and Illustrations’, Maria Nikolajeva
  • ‘My Favourite Rhymes and Stories when I was Young: Idaho Folklore in the 1940s’, D.L. Ashliman
  • A review of Fairy Tales Transformed? Twenty-First-Century Adaptations and the Politics of Wonder and Reading, Translating, Rewriting: Angela Carter’s Translational Poetics, Sadhana Naithani
  • A review of The Legend of Spring-heeled Jack: Victorian Urban Folklore and Popular Cultures, Scott Wood
  • A review of The Golden Age of Folk and Fairy Tales: From the Brothers Grimm to Andrew Lang, Lili Sarnyai
  • A review of xo Orpheus: Fifty New Myths, Catriona McAra

    Not to mention images by Walter Crane, Edmund Dulac, Charles Folkard, Brian Froud, Warwick Goble, Arthur Rackham and Binette Schroeder.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

The Lost Kings of Faeryland



Who reigns in fairyland?  Many modern fantasies concern themselves with the fate of doomed but brilliant young men in thrall to a beautiful, capricious and often cruel faerie Queen.  Often it’s the heroine’s role to try and rescue the young man, who would be her own boyfriend or lover if only he were free.  Examples are Holly Black’s fantastic ‘Tithe’ and Melissa Marr's 'Wicked Lovely'.

This particular theme has its source in the 16th century ballads ‘Tam Lin’, 'Thomas of Ercildoune' and ‘Thomas the Rhymer’ – especially the former: Janet saves her lover Tam Lin from the worst possible fate (hellfire) by her bravery and single-mindedness.  She goes to Miles Cross at midnight and waits for the Seelie Court to go riding by, seizes Tam Lin from his horse and holds on to him while he is transformed into a number of horrifying shapes.  At last he appears in his own shape, a naked man, and Janet casts her cloak around him and claims him as her own true love, while the furious fairy queen can only threaten and rage.

The story, in which a woman rescues a man, is popular today partly because we got tired of the stereotype of ‘man rescues woman’.  We want strong women, and in this legend we get double offerings: staunch Janet, and the powerful Queen of Fays.  I was looking for a good picture to illustrate the modern notion of a fairy queen - vengeful, beautiful, dangerous - and came across this electrifying photo of Maria Callas as Medea, taken in Dallas, Texas, 1958.  (And yes, Medea is a witch queen rather than a faery queen, but same difference.)


Of course, a strong heroine doesn’t mean the male characters need to be weak. Tam Lin in the ballad is far from effeminate – the very first verse warns maidens to keep away from him, and he rapidly gets Janet pregnant – but let’s face it, there’s something sexy about a handsome young man in bondage to a cruel queen, and sexy goes down well in YA fiction… and so we’ve all got used to it: Faeryland is ruled by a capricious, dangerous queen.  And the idea of the tithe to hell, the sacrifice of the young man, meshes with the figure of the Corn King or Year King made familiar by Sir James Fraser’s ‘The Golden Bough’: in a parable of the corn which springs up and dies each year, the vigorous young king marries the Earth Goddess and is sacrificed at the end of his short term. (I don't expect many teenagers have ever heard of 'The Golden Bough', and modern scholars doubt if Corn Kings were ever sacrificed, and in archeological or anthropological circles, the whole idea has been pretty well discredited: but it’s a good story and is there in the back of a lot of fantasy writers’ minds, I'm sure.)


All this is something of a preamble: I want to point out that fairyland hasn’t always been this way.  As far as I can discover - after many years of reading early texts -  the all-powerful Faerie Queen never existed in the popular imagination before the 16th century, when Queen Elizabeth I was lauded by Edmund Spenser as Gloriana, the Faerie Queen herself. Prior to that, for centuries upon centuries, in a reflection of what English people saw about them and regarded as the natural order, Fairyland was ruled by kings.

Pwyll meets Arawn; 19th C. illustration


The Welsh Annwn was ruled by King Arawn, whom Pwyll Prince of Dyfed meets in the Mabinogion.  Annwn is the underworld: the kingdoms of death and faery are closely blended throughout the early medieval period and right through into the 16th century.  After an incident out stag-hunting when the mortal prince Pwyll mistakenly chases off Arawn’s white-coated, red-eared hounds in favour of his own pack, he offers Arawn recompense and friendship. In a bargain reminiscent of Gawain’s with the Green Knight, King Arawn suggests an identity swap:  Pwyll is to take Arawn’s place in his kingdom, and at the end of the year must face and fight Arawn’s enemy King Hafgan.


‘I will set thee in Annwn in my stead, and the fairest lady thou didst ever see I will set to sleep with thee each night, and my form and semblance upon thee, so that [no man] shall know that thou art not I.  And that,’ said he, ‘till the end of a year from tomorrow, and our tryst then in this very place.’
‘Aye,’ [Pwyll] replied, ‘though I be there till the end of the year, what guidance shall I have to find the man thou tellest of?’
‘A year from tonight,’ said he, ‘there is a tryst between him and me, at the ford. And be thou there in my likeness,’ said he. ‘And one blow only thou art to give him; he will not survive it. And though he ask thee to give him another, give it not, however he entreat thee.’
The Mabinogion, trans. Gwyn Jones, Thomas Jones


Like Gawain, Pwyll is courteous and canny enough to refrain from sexual intercourse with the beautiful lady, who is of course Arawn’s wife: ‘the moment they got into bed, he turned his face to the bedside and his back towards her… not a single night to the year’s end was different from what that first night was.’ At the end of the year he rides to the ford, meets King Hafgan and strikes the single blow that fells him ‘with a mortal wound’.  These proofs of faith impress Arawn, and thenceforth he and Pwyll are constant friends.



In the medieval metrical romance ‘Sir Orfeo’ which blends Celtic and English fairy lore with the Greek myth of Orpheus, the fairy king is clearly Pluto, lord of the dead – though he is not named.  In the very early Irish tale, ‘The Wooing of Etain’, the beautiful Etain is stolen away by a fairy king called Midir.  And in a legend related by the 12th century courtier Walter Map, a British king called Herla is invited to a wedding by an unnamed, goat-footed pygmy king who rules underground halls of unutterable splendour:


[They] entered a cave in a high cliff, and after an interval of darkness, passed, in a light which seemed to proceed not from sun or moon, but from a multitude of lamps, to the mansion of the pigmy. Here the wedding was celebrated … and when leave was granted, Herla departed laden with gifts and presents of horses, dogs [and] hawks… The pigmy then escorted them as far as the place where darkness began, and then presented the king with a small blood-hound to carry, strictly enjoining him that on no account must any of his train dismount until that dog leapt from the arms of his bearer… Within a short space Herla arrived once more at the light of the sun and at his kingdom, where he accosted an old shepherd and asked for news of his Queen, naming her. The shepherd gazed at him in astonishment and said: ‘Sir, I can hardly understand your speech, for you are a Briton and I a Saxon, but they say… that long ago, there was a Queen of that name over the very ancient Britons, who was the wife of King Herla; and he, the story says, disappeared in company with a pigmy at this very cliff, and was never seen on earth again…’

The king, who thought he had made a stay of but three days, could scarce sit his horse for amazement. Some of his company, forgetting the pigmy’s orders, dismounted before the dog had alighted, and in a moment fell into dust. Whereupon the king… warned the rest under pain of a like fate not to touch the earth before the alighting of the dog.  The dog has not yet alighted. And the story says that this King Herla still holds on his mad course with his band in eternal wanderings, without stop or stay.

                Walter Map, De Nugis Curialium, trans. MR James





Also pygmy-sized is the Fairy King in the French fairy romance ‘Huon of Bordeaux’: Auberon, a dwarf with the face of beautiful child – whose name resurfaces in 'A Midsummer Night’s Dream' as Oberon.  Here’s his description in the translation by Lord Berners, who was Governor of Calais for Henry VIII, and whiled away his spare time translating French histories and romances into English. The hero of the tale, Sir Huon, is on his way to Babylon, when he is warned of the dangers of a magical wood:


You must pass through a wood, sixteen leagues in length, but the way is so full of magic and strange things that such as pass that way are lost. In that wood abideth the King of Fairyland named Oberon: he is but three feet high, and crooked shouldered, but he hath an angelic visage, so that there is no mortal man that seeth him but that taketh great pleasure in beholding his face. … He will find the way to speak to you, and if you speak to him you are lost forever: and you will ever find him before you…


Huon determines to risk the wood, and once under the shade of the trees:


 
…the dwarf of the fairies, King Oberon, came riding by, wearing a gown so rich that it were marvel to recount… and garnished with precious stones whose clearness shone like the sun. He had a goodly bow in his hand, and his arrows after the same sort, and these had such a property that they could hit any beast in the world.  Moreover, he had about his neck a rich horn, hung by two laces of gold… and whosoever heard it, if he were a hundred days journey thereof, should come at the pleasure of him that blew it. … Therewith the dwarf began to cry aloud and said, ‘Ye fourteen men that pass by my wood, God keep you all. I desire you to speak with me, and I conjure you by Almighty God, and by the Christendom that you have received, and by all that God has made, answer me.’
Hearing the dwarf speak, Huon and his company…rode away as fast as they were able, and the dwarf was sorrowful and angry, so he set one of his fingers on his horn, out of which there issued a wind and a tempest so great that it bore down the trees. …Then suddenly a great river appeared before them that ran swifter than the birds did fly; and the water was black and perilous…
Huon of Bordeax, trans. Lord Berners, retold by R Steele


But this is all enchantment; and when Huon eventually speaks to Oberon, he wins his friendship and alliance.  


These early fairy kings rule over lands which are usually underground, and there is a pervading sense of loss that hangs about them. Except for Oberon (who though he claims to be the son of the Lady of the Secret Isle and Julius Caesar, yet has a place reserved for him in Paradise), they are clearly pagan kings: there is no sense that they will ever attain to a Christian heaven.  Their lands are lands of shadow. Moreover, there’s an interesting hint in all of these stories of substitution, of succession. The Wooing of Etain
 contains references to identity swaps.  In the Mabinogion, Pwyll becomes Arawn for a whole year, and is afterwards so closely identified with him in friendship that his name is changed to ‘Pwyll Head of Annwn’.  (In the 19th century illustration of their meeting, shown above, the artist has made their black and white figures seem like linked opposites, sunlight and shadow, darkness and light.)  In Walter Map's 12th century tale, after visiting the pygmy king’s halls, King Herla finds himself hundreds of years in the future.  He cannot dismount from his horse without crumbling to dust, and therefore still rides the Welsh border hills at the head of his troop of knights. The pygmy king vanishes from the tale: in some sense, Herla has replaced him.  And even in the late medieval romance of Duke Huon, at Oberon’s death Huon and his wife Esclaramond become King and Queen of Faeryland (much to the wrath of King Arthur, who hoped to succeed).  Rudyard Kipling must have read this romance, it’s behind this fabulous piece of writing in his story ‘Weland’s Sword’ in Puck of Pook’s Hill:


“Butterfly wings, indeed! I’ve seen Sir Huon and a troop of his people setting out from Tintagel Castle for Hy-Brasil in the teeth of a sou-westerly gale, with the spray flying all over the Castle, and the Horses of the Hills wild with fright. Out they’d go in a lull, screaming like gulls, and back they’d be driven five good miles inland before they could come head to wind again. Butterfly wings! It was Magic – Magic as black as Merlin could make it, and the whole sea was green fire and white foam with singing mermaids in it. And the Horses of the Hills picked their way from one wave to another by the lightning flashes. That was how it was in the old days!”


And in its companion story ‘Cold Iron’, from Rewards and Fairies, Puck tells the children about ‘Sir Huon of Bordeaux – he succeeded King Oberon.  He had been a bold knight once, but he was lost on the road to Babylon, a long while back…’


There it is again, you see? - that hint of loss in all these stories.  In a tale called ‘The Sons of the Dead Woman’, Walter Map tells of a Breton knight who buried his wife and then saw her one evening dancing in a gloomy valley, in a ring of maidens. When the fairy king steals Orfeo’s wife, she is mourned as dead. And yet, tantalisingly, the dead may not be dead, but stolen away into some other dimension, some fairy realm of half-existence. This is the fantasy of grief. And of course time runs differently there: if you visit, you risk losing yourself forever.








This 12th century fairyland, the mysterious underground kingdom of the dead or half-dead, is the fairyland I wrote about in my book ‘Dark Angels’ (The Shadow Hunt’ in the USA).  One of the characters, the troubadour knight Lord Hugo, lost his wife seven years before the book opens.  

“The night she died – it was New Year’s Eve, and the candles burned so low and blue, and we heard over and over again the sound of thunder.  That was the Mesnie Furieuse – the Wild Host – riding over the valleys.  Between the old year and the new, between life and death – don’t you think, when the soul is loosening from the body, the elves can steal it?”

So I sent my young hero Wolf searching for Hugo's lost wife through the cramped tunnels of the old lead mines under the local mountain, Devil's Edge, to confront the lord of the underworld himself: with unexpected consequences, as this trailer for the book suggests.










Picture credits: Huon of Bordeaux illustrations by Fred Mason, 1895