Friday, 17 June 2016


I had the good fortune recently to be able to attend the fourth annual Tolkien lecture at Pembroke College, Oxford, delivered by the inspiring writer, editor, artist, and my dear friend, Terri Windling. There can be few if any who are better read in fantasy literature both old and new, and her lecture, 'Reflections on Fantasy Literature in the Post-Tolkien Era' developed into an eloquent and heartfelt plea for 'slower, deeper, more numinous' fantasy. Terri set a challenge to all those of us who write, read, review and love modern fantasy: Tolkien's themes of epic conflict between forces of good and evil echoed the two great wars of the 20th century; his work was at the time both ground-breaking and relevant.  Can we writing today find themes relevant to the problems our 21st century world now faces, such as the ecological and social disasters triggered by climate change?  You can hear Terri speak by clicking the link below.

What does this mean?  Should we be hunting for a theme and wrapping some fantasy around it?  Of course not. You can't fake sincerity. Message-led fiction of whatever variety is rarely successful. Where there are exceptions (I'll give you 'Black Beauty') it's when such books emerge from long-held inner meditations and conviction. But as John Keats said, 'if poetry come not as naturally as the leaves to the tree, it had better not come at all.'  By this he didn't mean 'don't write unless you're inspired'; he means that the words you write must spring from the truth within you. It can't be forced. But if there's no truth, you are short-changing the reader and cheating yourself.

So - can fantasy say anything true or profound?  This sort of doubt levelled at fantasy was once levelled at all fiction. What makes a writer choose one genre over another, anyway?  Why are some drawn to contemporary fiction, others to historical fiction, fantasy or thrillers? I know and admire a number of authors who can handle a variety of forms, but there are many like myself who stick to a single last.  I began writing fairy tales when I was ten, and I've been faithful ever since. This doesn’t mean I haven’t had qualms.  I’ve asked myself, in the past, what relevance tales of magic and fantasy have or can have to the problems of life.  Can they ever really be serious?  Shouldn’t I – shouldn’t I? – be writing something more meaningful? 

I do find meaning in fairy tales. They offer the kind of metaphorical, personal, elusive meaning that poetry affords: and I have come to the conclusion that what is done with a whole heart, with love, and with as much truth as I can personally muster, must be good enough.  More than that is out of my control.  I have no choice.  There is in writing, as in all art, something that feels remarkably like outside inspiration: a fierce compulsion that grasps you by the hair and demands and absolutely requires: this is what you will write about. This, and this alone. If you disobey it you feel restless, haunted. You can't forget or ignore it.  You can't turn your back and decide to write about something else.  (If you try, it's likely to go dead on you.)

The problem is that the divine or daemonic impulse only takes you so far.  It sets you going and then leaves you to stumble along on your own, as best you can.  If you’re lucky you’ll get occasional vivid flashes to light your path, but for the rest, you need to learn the craft. You need technique, patience, persistence and the ability to learn from criticism.  This applies no matter what type of fiction you happen to have fallen in love with. 

But it’s good to be aware of the particular pitfalls of your chosen genre.  I wouldn’t like to speak for others, but in the early stages of my career as a fantasy writer I was anxious about the possibility of getting carried away by colourful but superficial effects, and forgetting or neglecting emotional truth. Fairies are after all notorious for their cold hearts.  John Keats, something of a touchstone of mine, warns us in 'La Belle Dame Sans Merci' that playing with magic is perilous. The faerie lady's kisses may suck the living soul out of you; the magic casement opens on faerie seas 'forlorn', and:  'Forlorn! the very word is like a bell/That tolls me back from thee to my sole self...'  Fancy, says Keats, is a 'deceitful elf'.  Fantasy needs to keep faith with reality, to have at least one foot on solid ground while at the same time leading us away, lifting our eyes to the blue horizon, the edge of the known world, the white spaces on the map.  That sense of never-attainable mystery, as Terri reminds us in her lecture, is one of the things which brings us back again and again to breathe the air of Narnia, Earthsea, and Middle Earth.

Characters, too, need space to breathe and live.  I don't know about you but I'm far more interested in Aragorn as Strider, the weatherbeaten ranger from the North, than I would be if I only knew him as the heroic King of Gondor.  Ulysses is more than a hero island-hopping from one marvellous adventure to another; he's a war-weary veteran desperate to get home.  Malory’s Lancelot isn’t just the best knight in the world and a hero sans reproche, he’s a breathing, fallible man torn between his honour and his sense of sin, his love for Arthur and his love for Guinevere.  He knows he’s unworthy of the Holy Grail – so when he’s finally allowed to perform a miracle of healing, he reacts with uncontrollable tears, weeping ‘like a child that has been beaten’.

'Slower, deeper, more numinous fantasy'? Yes, please.

Picture credits

La Belle Dame Sans Merci by Walter Crane, wikimedia commons
La Belle Dame Sans Merci by Frank Dicksee, wikimedia commons

Picture credit: Thomas Rhymer by Joseph Noel Paton

Thursday, 2 June 2016

'Malefice' - A guest post by novelist Leslie Wilson

The first witches I encountered were Macbeth's hags, and I was only five. That was because my mother, who was training to be a primary school teacher, had helped stage a glove puppet performance of the play, and afterwards I got her puppet to play with. She had a papier-maché head with bulging eyes and a hooked nose (of course), a lot of grey woollen hair, a pointy hat made of felt and a black dress under a rather elegant sleeveless purple satin overdress decorated with silver stars, testament to my mother's sense of style. You can't be terrified of a witch who lives in your toy box, and I just thought she was fun, as well as giving me the opportunity to happily (and incorrectly) chant 'Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble'.

The creature who did give me nightmares was the Witch Baby from 'Old Peter's Russian Tales,' with her iron teeth and insatiable appetite.

'Eaten the father, eaten the mother,
And now to eat the little brother.'

The thought of those pointed iron teeth (sharpened with a file) continued to be a terror to me, and it still wakes a residual shiver on me now. It's allied to the vampire fear, I suppose; something that looks human opens its mouth and there are the teeth all ready to eat you with.
In 1990, I found myself writing a poem I only partly understood, and called Hecate. It contained this verse:

This year, the night wrapped her
velvet around me
sheltered my
naked white flesh
- yet once I fled
devouring, iron-toothed hags -
this year
I have turned to the
shadows for healing.

And I said to myself: 'I'm going to write a novel about a witch.'
I wanted an English witch; a witch out of history, and preferably local, so I phoned up the County Archivist's office in Reading and asked if they had any record of witch prosecutions. The man I spoke to told me about Mabel Modwyn, of Waltham St Lawrence: 'widowe abact 68 years old arraigned for witch craft at Redding 29th Feb: and condemned on the 5th of March, 1655. Shee lived at ye south-wist cornr. of lower Innings in ye cornr. next to Binfield'.

Old house, Waltham St Lawrence, copyright David Wilson

The man couldn't understand why I was so delighted with this very scant piece of information. Clearly, if I'd been a historian it would have been disappointing, but it gave me a place to visit, and a period; from having the whole of English history to choose from, I had been given a date that was highly congenial to me, since it was within the Commonwealth period, which has always deeply interested me. It was also a period of great social upheaval. I was told that there was a typed book of extracts from the Waltham Parish Register in the library, and there I found the brief paragraph about Mabel again, and just below it, the story of a suicide who was secretly buried in the churchyard by her son and female relations. And that gave me the first chapter of my novel: my witch's daughter and son-in-law in the churchyard at midnight, fighting the flint-laden Berkshire clay with their spades. I sat down and wrote that chapter; it poured out of me and needed very little editing later on. I changed the witch's name, however, as it seemed to me that there was something slightly comedic about Mabell, particularly with two lls at the end.

Waltham St Lawrence Church

The story of witchcraft is about the intersection of fairytale/folkore and history; it's about economic factors and social stresses, but also about long-held beliefs which one might call peri-religious, since they use Judaeo-Christian imagery, but are not, emphatically, the official doctrines of the Church. I'd thought I was going to write about the Great Witchhunt of the seventeenth century, but I soon discovered that it never really took off in England, not even when James the First came south from witch-hunting Scotland and introduced a much stiffer Witchcraft Act. The witches in Macbeth are probably a compliment to his beliefs. Only in a couple of cases, such as Matthew Hopkins's Essex witchhunt or the case of the Pendle Hill witches, did England see the active seeking out of possible witches and the naming of other witches by unfortunates under torture. As for the organised witch-cult of popular fantasy, there is no evidence for it.*

In England, witch accusations were a sporadic thing, and didn't inevitably end in conviction; when it did, the offenders were sometimes mildly dealt with by the Church courts, sometimes they were swum in ponds and drowned (which proved their innocence, since the water wasn't supposed to accept a witch; floating was evidence of guilt). Sometimes they were brought to court for maleficent witchcraft, and in a few cases, hanged. They were not burned alive (though the bodies sometimes were, which in an era that believed in bodily resurrection was just as bad). But it demonstrates how sparsely distributed English witch prosecutions were that people believed a witch would burn, and it's on record that once even a judge thought that was the penalty, and had to be corrected, in open court, by his clerk.

So, you might think, not much drama there. Yet drama can be just as powerful with a restricted cast, on a small stage, and the stresses and murderous tensions within a small community are the very stuff of drama, particularly when you're dealing with people whose lives are so very different from our own.

A German friend, who'd spent a year travelling in Latin America between university and starting work, told me that he came to small villages and towns that made him understand 'One Hundred Years of Solitude', because they simply had a different kind of reality. I kept that in my head while I was writing the book. This was a world without street lamps, for one thing, when if there was no moon the only light the poor had was a rushlight (a rush dipped in tallow). Anyone who's stayed anywhere in the depths of the country knows about that all-encompassing darkness, though street lamps have largely banished it (and the stars, though not, where I live, moonlight) from modern European life. What might be in those deep velvet shadows beyond the reach of the faint, fragile rush-light, or even the extinguishable candles of the wealthy? I can well remember the terror of the dark in our Victorian house in Kendal, where my mother and brother did see a ghost, though I never did, a little old lady who walked up and down the stairs.

To investigate those shadows, I turned to broadside ballads, as well as reading historical accounts of witch beliefs in England. When I went to Cecil Sharp house to read them, the librarian told me that they were the 'tabloids' of that time. I think we have a better parallel nowadays, in the stories that go viral on the Internet. Those stories went viral more slowly, as diseases moved more slowly before the age of jet travel; they trudged along the muddy roads of England in pedlar's packs, but they spread. So everyone knew that the Devil sometimes came to poverty-stricken old women, and sometimes old men, and bargained for their souls, the price of which was truly pitiful: often no more than about a penny a day for the rest of their lives, but also the power to harm their fellow creatures as well, and many an old creature scraped a living through her neighbours' nervousness about offending her (or him), and thus escaped starvation. The witch story had its utility - up to a point.

The image we often have of this scenario is the 'harmless old woman' wrongly accused, but the harm occurred, and if the victims had offended the woman, and if she'd scowled, or shaken her fist, or even worse, gone off muttering 'you'll pay for this', there was the story all ready to apply to the events. So when my witch, Alice was refused 'yeaste to make beere', when her bees were stolen by her neighbour, when she was insulted by the village no-good drunk, and the Squire's servant refused to buy her honey, her revenge was terrible; the butter turned rancid (offences against butter ranked high in the tally of witch's crimes, incidentally, hardly surprising when butter-making was such a difficult, chancy business, particularly in summer), a child's hands suddenly turned the wrong way round and couldn't be mended till she'd been made to scratch the witch's cheek; a beam fell on the offending servant's head, children and livestock died, the bee-stealer was lamed all along one side of her body, and the village drunk was pursued through the night-time lanes by the witch's black dog, with coal-red eyes. Alice once made a man walk on his two feet all the way up a wall and across the ceiling upside down, like a fly (drawn from a broadside ballad), but that was outside the village and only she knew about it.

Hare familiar

It's easy to patronise these beliefs, looking back from what we believe to be a more scientifically-oriented age, but throughout history human beings have made up narratives about the world and how it operates, and what we might nowadays dismiss as myths were as widely accepted in those days as narratives about strokes, hysteria, the effect of warmth on lactic products, and chance accidents would be nowadays. In any case, those other narratives still play in our modern world; horoscopes, 'healers' and 'dieticians' who diagnose by swinging a pendulum over you, fear of a single magpie, of the ladder over the pavement, touching wood - only we can reach for rationalism if we get spooked by these things, an option that wasn't so available to our forbears.

If you weren't sure who had harmed you, or you thought you knew, but wanted your suspicions confirmed, you could turn to a 'cunning person', analogous to witch doctors in Africa (though there, nowadays pentecostalist pastors are often involved). They used magic and quasi-religious rituals, many of them undoubtedly of great antiquity and pre-Christian, though Christian symbols were incorporated to placate the Church authorities. They found treasures and stolen property, undertook healings (some of them fairly scary, such as dragging people through bushes). The marjority of them were men, and sometimes middle-class men, too, but there were cunning women also. And they fingered witches. In England the cunning person's evidence was often crucial if a witch was brought to trial. In Scotland and continental Europe, the Great Witchhunt of continental Europe and Scotland scooped up cunning folk along with witches, which has confused many people's ideas of what a witch was. That's not to say that cunning folk weren't prosecuted for dubious magic in England - they were, and were even referred to as witches, sometimes 'white witches', but in England, it was very rare, though it did sometimes happen, that a cunning person was accused of maleficent witchcraft; ie, harming property and people and sometimes causing death. I did use this scenario, however, and therefore it was part of the story that the community has turned against Alice. People did say that 'you can't trust cunning folk.' They were slightly outside the community. Alice has always been lonely. But the key to her death lies in the relationships that have turned toxic.

Lychgate, Waltham St Lawrence (where coffins used to rest).

This story, then is about a woman who loved Alice and wished she didn't, a clergyman who turned his coat to match the times, a Royalist one moment, a Parliamentarian the next (like the Vicar of Bray), who loathed himself, about a mean-spirited, pernicketty woman with a skeleton in the family closet, a man with a grudge, a churchwarden with a guilty secret - all of whom have come to believe that the death of an old woman will make them safe. In that way, at least, the English witchhunt is related to the Continental orgies of torture and judicial murder. Norman Cohn, in his introduction to  his history of the Great Witchhunt, 'Europe's Inner Demons', drew an analogy between that and the Holocaust, the 'Final Solution.' You find someone to wipe out, and then everything will go well, that's the story. We know it too well. Gretel pushes the witch into the oven and she turns to ashes, sister and brother return home. and not only have they found pearls and jewels in the witch's house, but the evil stepmother who wanted to get rid of them has died. The newly wealthy children are received only by their own penitent and joyful father. It's one of the most dangerous stories we tell ourselves. Alice knows that her death is mostly to do with the people who send her to the gallows; their fears, their hatreds, their darkness. 'You needed the harm,' she says to the Vicar.

But in the end, she's worn down, forced to accept her role in the fairytale.  'If I believe what they believe,' she thinks, 'I will not be completely cast out.' She's a human being; she needs her community, even if it means accepting that she's evil and has done the Devil's work. Indeed, one of the issues that fascinated me in writing the book was the way in which people do confess to crimes in 'appropriate' ways, and the ways in which guilt can be foisted onto people.

Talking to the Vicar in her cell, Alice says: 'You talk about truth and falsehood as if they could be weighed out like dried peas. But you don't really want the truth, nobody does. We all want short weight, and have it made up with falsehood. Then we feel safe.' In fact, only one person in the novel really wants the truth in all its bewildering complexity; Alice's daughter, Big Margaret, who begins by hating her mother, but who does find a measure of compassion and understanding through reflecting on Alice's story, particularly the last chapters. I wrote those in a kind of trance-state, just letting the words out onto the page. That is the strange thing altogether about this book. It's solidly rooted in research, but I've never been so little aware of the process of writing. It's the weirdest book I ever wrote, when I turned to the shadows.

Malefice is now available as a Kindle book (see this link)

Visit Leslie at her website:

*For information about the witch cult fraud, see

Picture credits:

Hansel and Gretel - from a copy of Grimm's Fairy Tales, 1907, owned by Leslie Wilson
All photos copyright David Wilson

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Tiny Fairies

I am not entirely sure why tiny flower fairies are currently regarded by so many adults with such dislike.  Believe me, they are: I was present at a session at the World Fantasy Convention in London in 2013 when a number of high-profile panel members reviled the Victorians for their infantilisation of the fairies. Maybe it’s something to do with the Celtic revival and the perennial desire – which I emphatically share – to get fantasy and fairy tales taken seriously, to present them as fit for grown-up attention. This is often done by emphasising the folk-roots of fairy tales and their relevance to adult concerns such as death and sex.  I do get it.  Frivolous tinselly things with wings hardly cut it in this context. The Flower Fairies, or pixies such as the one I read about as a child in Enid Blyton’s ‘A Story-Party at Green Hedges’, who painted the tips of the daisies pink – I didn't really mind them and I still don't, but how can these compare with the sexy Queen of Elphame?  Well, I want to defend the Victorians. They were not responsible for the invention of the diminutive fairies so deeply unfashionable today. Indeed, my mission in this post is to convince you that tiny fairies are nothing to be ashamed of and that their ancestry is as ancient as that of any other supernatural being.

If you think about it even for a moment it's obvious that miniature fairies have been around for much longer than the Victorians. Our first stop is 1597, when Shakespeare’s Mercutio takes off in his long, exhilarating riff about Queen Mab:

She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes
In shape no bigger than an agate-stone
On the forefinger of an alderman,
Drawn with a team of little atomies
Over men’s noses as they lie asleep.
Her wagon spokes made of long spinners legs,
The cover, of the wings of grasshoppers;
Her traces, of the moonshine’s watery beams,
Her collars, of the smallest spider web,
Her whip, of cricket’s bone, the lash of film,
Her wagoner, a small grey-coated gnat,
Not half so big as a round little worm
Pricked from the lazy finger of a maid.
Her chariot is an empty hazelnut
Made by the joiner squirrel or old grub,
Time out of mind the fairies’ coachmaker...

And that’s not even half of it. Ebullient, unstoppable, Mercutio just keeps on going – telling how Mab tickles, blisters and frightens men and women with dreams, till finally, reverting from literary fancy to folklore, he identifies her with hobgoblins and the Nightmare – and of course, sex:

This is that very Mab
That plaits the manes of horses in the night,
And bakes the elflocks in foul sluttish hairs,
Which once untangled much misfortune bodes,
This is that hag, when maids lie on their backs
That presses them and learns them first to bear,
Making them women of good carriage.

It really is this magnificent flight of fancy which establishes Mercutio’s charisma, and lends such poignancy to his death. 

Shakespeare clearly expected his audiences to be unfazed by tiny Queen Mab, or by the notion that the lesser fairies of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ might ‘creep into acorn-cups’, or that Ariel in ‘The Tempest’ might lie in a cowslip’s bell or ride on a bat’s back. Of course the actors playing such characters were adult-human-sized – although probably at least some of the non-speaking fairies were children, as in many performances today. The point is that Shakespeare asks his audience to imagine that his fairies are tiny, and there would be little point to this if the notion of miniature fairies had been an unfamiliar one.  It wasn’t.  Even in Shakespeare's day, tiny fairies had already been around for a long time.

Twelfth-to-thirteenth century Gervase of Tilbury tells a number of supernatural or fairy tales in his Otia Imperiala written to amuse the Holy Roman Emperor, Otto IV.  One of these is about some tiny English fairy creatures he names ‘Portunes’.  Here is a translation of his account, taken from Thomas Keightley’s ‘The Fairy Mythology’(1828):

It is their nature to embrace the simple life of comfortable farmers, and when on account of their domestic work, they are sitting up at night, when the doors are shut, they warm themselves by the fire, and take little frogs out of their bosom, roast them on the coals and eat them. They have the countenance of old men, with wrinkled cheeks, and they are of a very small stature, not being quite half an inch high.

Half an inch – about one and a quarter centimetres – is startlingly small, and Keightley suggests at this point that by a copyist’s error, pollicis – ‘thumb’ – has been subsituted for pedis –‘foot’. Six inches high would seem much more credible for a creature capable of roasting little frogs.  Gervase continues:

They wear little patched coats, and if anything is to be carried into the house, or any laborious work  is to be done, they lend a hand, and finish it sooner than any man could.  It is their nature to have the power to serve, but not to injure. They have, however, one mode of annoying. When in the uncertain shades of night the English are riding anywhere alone, the Portune sometimes invisibly joins the horseman, and when he has accompanied him a good while, he at last takes the reins, and leads the horse into a neighbouring slough; and when he is fixed and floundering in it, the Portune goes off with a loud laugh, and by sport of this sort he mocks the simplicity of mankind.

This sort of behaviour is just what we expect of Puck or Robin Goodfellow in the 16th century, three hundred years later. House-fairies are generally quite small. An example is the Grimms’ tale of ‘The Elves and the Shoemaker’. In the original German text the tiny shoemakers are ‘zwei kleine niedliche nackte Männlein’, ‘two pretty little naked men’, and the title is ‘Die Wichtelmännchen’, which Margaret Hunt in 1884 chose to translate as ‘The Elves’ – but such creatures more properly belong with the Scots brownies, English boggarts, and the Scandinavian nisses and tomtes.  According to Keightley, the Norwegian Nis is ‘of the size of a one-year-old child, but has the face of an old man.’ Nisses dress in grey, wear pointed red caps, help in house and farmyard, and can be seen in winter jumping about the yard in the moonlight. They are mischievous. The Swedish Tomte can be much smaller:

In Sweden the Tomte is sometimes seen at noon, in summer, slowly and stealthily dragging a straw or an ear of corn.  A farmer, seeing him thus engaged, laughed and said, ‘What difference does it make if you bring that away or nothing?’  The Tomte in displeasure left his farm and went to that of his neighbour; and with him went all prosperity from him who had made light of him, and passed over to the other farmer.

Gervase of Tilbury’s much earlier Portunes seem to be house fairies of this same type. 

In the account of his journey through Wales in 1188, Gerald of Wales tells the story of Elidor, a twelve year-old boy who, hiding from his cruel teacher by a river bank, was rescued by ‘two little men of pygmy stature’ who led him away into a subterranean fairyland inhabited by many other pygmies ‘of the smallest stature, but well-proportioned for their size’ who rode on horses the size of greyhounds.  In another legend related by the 12th century courtier Walter Map, a British king called Herla meets an unnamed, goat-footed pygmy king who dwells in splendid underground halls: ‘a pygmy in his low stature, not above that of a monkey’; and John Bourchier, Lord Berners, translating the French romance ‘Huon of Bordeaux’ in the early 16th century, describes the fairy King Oberon as only three feet high, with a beautiful face.

Shakespeare’s Oberon is apparently of human size – nothing in the text of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ directly suggests otherwise – but Shakespeare may well have read ‘Huon of Bordeaux’, so we cannot be sure: it’s possible he imagined all the fairies to be of less than human stature, varying only in degree. After all, Titania sends her fairies on miniature errands –

Some to kill cankers in the musk-rose buds,
Some war with rere-mice for their leathern wings,
To make my small elves coats…

Then fashion caught on. The folklorist Katherine Briggs writes in her 1959 book ‘The Anatomy of Puck’: ‘In the beginning of the Jacobean times, a little school of friends among the poets, Drayton, Browne, Herrick, and the almost unknown Simon Steward, caught by the deliciousness of Shakespeare’s fairies, and coming from counties where the small fairies belonged to local tradition, [my italics] amused themselves and each other by writing fantasies on littleness.’  In 1625 Robert Herrick (best known for ‘Gather ye rosebuds while ye may’) tells in his poem ‘Oberon’s Feast’ how Oberon sits at a mushroom table and quaffs a dewdrop from a violet:

And now we must imagine, first
The elves present, to quench his thirst,
A pure seed-pearl of infant dew
Brought and besweetened in a blue
And pregnant violet (etc etc…)

And Michael Drayton’s mock-heroic ‘Nimphidia’ (1627) describes the diminutive knight Pigwiggen arming himself with a cockleshell shield, a hornet’s-sting rapier and a beetle’s head helmet, before riding to the fray on a frisky earwig.  In his ‘The Muses Elyzium’, 1630, a fairy wedding gown is composed ‘Of Ransie, Pincke and Primrose leaves’, while Browne has fairies who teach ‘the little birds to build their nests’ and serve up banquets of stuffed grasshoppers, roast ants, soused fleas and chine of dormouse. Enough already! Stop blaming the Victorians.

You might suppose that this kind of whimsy is a consequence of the decline of an actual belief in fairies and it may partly be so: but the whimsy lies more in the treatment than in the size of the creatures.  People still could and did believe in tiny fairies and find them frightening. Katherine Briggs cites several 17th century spells to summon fairies and conjure them into a crystal glass:

An excellent way to gett a Fayrie …
First gett an broad square christall or venus glass in length and breadth 3 inches, then lay that glass or christall in the blood of a white henne 3 wednesdayes or 3 fridayes…

And: God.Saday.Eloy.Iskyros.Adonay. Sabaoth.that thou appear presently.meekly.and any creature. and to this I and.vertue.of.our.Lord.Jesus.Christ…

This particular spell goes on for pages, employing as safeguards every name of God and the Trinity which the magician can think up.  The fairy may have been small, to be conjurable into a crystal glass three inches square, but her conjuror was clearly terrified of her.

I’ve said enough, I hope, to show that the diminutive fairies of late nineteenth and early twentieth century children’s fiction weren’t a Victorian invention.  Tiny fairies have always been with us, and flower fairies appear to have originated with Shakespeare, Herrick and Drayton.  Certainly by late Victorian times, at least for the educated classes, all terror had departed from the word ‘fairy’, and the troupes of little girls who danced in pantomimes dressed as gauzy-winged fairies in frilly dresses were purely decorative.  But even Victorian flower fairies are not always as milk-and-watery as you might suppose. In George MacDonald’s 1858 fantasy novel 'Phantastes' the hero Anodos finds himself in fairyland and strolls at evening though a cottage garden at the edges of an enchanted wood full of beauty and horror. There are flower fairies in the garden, but they are a wild bunch.

The whole garden was like a carnival… From the cups or bells of the tall flowers, as from balconies, some looked down on the masses below, now bursting with laughter, now grave as owls; but, even in their deepest solemnity, seeming only to be waiting for the next laugh.  Some were launched on a little marshy stream at the bottom, on boats chosen from the heaps of last year’s leaves …

Anodos witnesses a fairy funeral procession for a primrose ‘whose death Pocket [one of the other flower fairies] had hastened by biting her stalk’ and then, in true fairy fashion:

The party which had gone towards the house rushed out again, shouting and screaming with laughter. Half of them were on the cat’s back, and half more held on by her fur and tail, or ran beside her; till, more coming to their help, the furious cat was held fast; and they proceeded to pick the sparks out of her with thorns and pins, which they handled like harpoons. 

 MacDonald’s flower fairies are feral, amoral, unpredictable. As Anodos walks deeper into the forest, things become more sinister: the path is lined by glowing flowers:

From the lilies, from the campanulas, from the foxgloves, and every bell-shaped flower, curious little figures  shot up their heads, peeped at me, and drew back.  They seemed to inhabit threm as snails their shells, but I was sure some of them were intruders, and belonged to the gnomes or goblin fairies, who inhabit the ground and earthy creeping plants. From the cups of Arum lilies, creatures with great heads and grotesque faces shot up like Jack-in-the-Box, and made grimaces at me; or rose slowly and slily over the edge of the cup and spouted water at me, slipping suddenly back  … and I heard them saying to each other, evidently intending me to hear … ‘Look at him!  Look at him!  He has begun a story without a beginning, and it wll never have any end. He! he! he! Look at him!’

No wonder Anodos soon finds that ‘a vague sense of discomfort possessed me, as if some evil thing were wandering about in my neighbourhood…’ (Which indeed there is.)

Summing up: tiny fairies shouldn’t be regarded simply as childish, Victorian to modern inventions.  I can’t help thinking that household fairies such as brownies and boggarts and nisses may have descended from the even more ancient household gods – the Latin lares and penates, or the teraphim which Rachel stole from her father Laban without telling her husband Jacob. In one of the more comic episodes of the Bible, Laban pursues and catches the errant family and demands his gods back:

Jacob did not know that Rachel had stolen the gods. So  Laban went into Jacob’s tent, and Leah’s tent and that of the two slave girls, but he found nothing.  When he came out of Leah’s tent, he went into Rachel’s. Now she had taken the household gods and put them in the camel bag and was sitting on them. Laban went through everything in the tent and found nothing.  Rachel said to her father, ‘Do not take it amiss, sir, that I cannot rise in your presence: the common lot of woman is upon me.’ So for all his search, Laban did not find his household gods. [Genesis 31, 33-35]

These gods must have been small and portable, probably small fired-clay images like the ones pictured below.  The other common lot of woman was to do cook and clean and bear children: if the household gods could help with that, no wonder Rachel wanted to keep them. (Her sister Leah was probably in on the theft too.) Compared with Jehovah, the little household gods weren’t much, but they were personal, friendly and domestic: as imbued with imagined personality as a child’s teddybear – and as interested in the fortunes of their possessors.

Picture credits:
Fairy Song, Arthur Rackham
Puck and Fairy, Arthur Rackham
Elves and Shoemaker, prob. by George Cruickshank
Fairies Attacking a Bat, John Anster Fitzgerald
The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania, Sir Joseph Noel Paton
Fairy Banquet, John Anster Fitzgerald
Death of a Fairy, John Anster Gitzgerald
Teraphim from Ur, probably similar to those Rachel hid:

Saturday, 7 May 2016

The Weirdstone of Talybont and FIRST LIGHT

On a bright spring day last year I was sitting on a bank beside a deep-cut track high up in the Brecon Beacons.  I’d walked far enough, but my husband David wanted to get to the top of the next little peak. He went on ahead with our brown-spotted Dalmatian dog Polly. I sat on the bank admiring the view over the Talybont reservoir, when a blue sparkle caught my eye.  From the track near my feet I picked up an extraordinary stone. It had weathered out of the layers of old red sandstone of which the hill was formed, tumbled on to the track and split in two – probably not long before, for the break was still sharp-edged and clean. On each of the fractured faces was traced a glittering blue lozenge. My mind leaped to a much-loved childhood classic.  ‘It’s a Weirdstone’, I thought... 

It so happened that a week later I was at the Jodrell Bank Observatory in Cheshire,  listening to Alan Garner argue with forthright wit and passion that there is no fracture, no true gap between the arts and the sciences.  All human creative endeavour is part of a whole – as my stone was before it split in two. 

And a month later I was honoured (to my great surprise and delight) by an invitation to contribute to ‘First Light’, a collection of essays written in celebration of Garner’s 80th birthday. I was frankly awed by the other contributors. Not only writers but archeologists, physicists, artists, historians – Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, Francis Pryor, Rowan Williams: the list runs on.  

As I wrote of how Alan Garner’s books had changed my imaginative life, it was the finding of the Weirdstone that opened the way into what I wanted to say and how to say it. I shan’t repeat any of that, but here’s something I didn’t include in the essay: as soon as I picked that stone up, it was as if I’d entered a world of fiction.  I looked up the track to the place where it vanished over the skyline, a quarter of a mile away.  High on the sharp summit to its right I could see the distant figures of David, and Polly the dog.  I waved to David. He waved back, then pointed. You remember how in ‘The Weirdstone of Brisingamen’ the svart-alfar come pouring out of the Devil’s Grave to attack the children, Colin and Susan?  Right on cue, over the skyline came a band of goblin riders – half a dozen of them, bucketing down the track on little buzzing black motorcycles, the sun glinting off their black helmets.  

I knew what they were but the dog didn’t, and she didn’t like the look of them.  And she could tell they were heading my way. Within seconds of their appearance she was hurtling down the hillside after them, racing to my aid, as white against the green as the standard of Theoden King himself (if I may change fantasies for a moment).  It was terribly funny but also very heroic and touching.  With Polly pounding up behind, the goblin riders reached me and passed,  each raising a gauntleted hand  in courteous acknowlegement.  

These things do happen if you pick up Weirdstones. Coincidence and magic seem to follow Alan Garner as seagulls follow ploughs. 

I haven’t had time yet to read all of the essays in ‘First Light’, but enough to be able to tell you it’s a treasure trove. You’ll find essays by Elizabeth and Joseph Garner, by Teresa Anderson, the Director of the Discovery Centre at Jodrell Bank, by Philip Pullman, Elizabeth Wein, Bel Mooney, Robert Macfarlane… by David Almond, Frank Cottrell Boyce and Amanda Craig… and of course by the editor Erica Wagner, whose marvellous idea it was. It was crowd-funded, published by Unbound, and testifies to the extraordinary impact of Alan Garner as a writer and a man on so many different people in so many different walks of life.