Friday 20 May 2011

Lost to the Faeries


Many a wonderful YA fantasy of the last decade tells 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 attempt the rescue of the young man, who would be her boyfriend or lover if only he were free.  Examples are Holly Black’s fantastic ‘Tithe’ and its sequels, and Gillian Philip’s equally fantastic ‘Firebrand’. 

This is a theme found in the 16th century ballads ‘Tam Lin’ and ‘Thomas the Rhymer’ – especially the former: Janet saves her lover Tam Lin from the worst possible fate by her bravery and single-mindedness. She goes to Miles Cross at midnight and waits for the Seelie Court to come 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 for her true love, while the furious fairy queen can only threaten and rage.

And the story, in which a woman rescues a man, is popular today partly because we grew tired of the stereotype of ‘man rescues woman’. We want strong women, and in this legend we get double helpings: 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 1958.  (And yes, Medea is a witch queen rather than a faery queen: but same difference.) 

This doesn't mean the male characters are weak. Tam Lin of 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 got used to the idea that Faeryland is ruled by a dangerous queen. And the tithe to hell, the sacrifice of the young man, meshes with the figure of the dying Corn King or Year King made familiar by Sir James Fraser’s ‘The Golden Bough’, and Jessie Weston’s ‘From Ritual to Romance’. Though modern anthropologists have their doubts that such kings were ever sacrificed in reality, the idea is there in the back of a lot of fantasy writers’ minds, I'm sure. It's too dramatic to waste.

All this is something of a preamble: I want to point out that fairyland hasn’t always been this way. In fact I’m not at all sure that the all-powerful Faery Queen even 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, Fairyland was ruled by kings. 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 on into later centuries. 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 pigmy-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.

These early fairy kings rule over lands which are usually underground, and there is a pervading sense of loss that hangs about them.  When Herla visits the pigmy king’s halls, he loses his own time: like Oisin returning from the Land of Youth, he 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.  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 quite 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, 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. In deep grief and hoping against hope he may somehow find her again, he says:

“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?”

Here's a poem I love. It’s by Rudyard Kipling, from ‘Rewards and Fairies’; it’s written in a Sussex dialect, and it speaks poignantly and tenderly of loss and longing.


I was very well pleased with what I knowed,
I reckoned myself no fool –
Till I met with a maid on the Brookland Road
That turned me back to school.

Low down – low down!
Where the liddle green lanterns shine –
Oh! maids, I’ve done with ’ee all but one,
And she can never be mine!

‘Twas right in the middest of a hot June night,
With thunder duntin’ round,
And I seed her face by the fairy light
That beats from off the ground.

She only smiled and she never spoke,
She smiled and went away;
But when she’d gone my heart was broke,
And my wits was clean astray.

Oh! Stop your ringing and let me be –
Let be, O Brookland bells!
You’ll ring Old Goodman out of the sea,
Before I wed one else!

Old Goodman’s farm is rank sea sand
And was this thousand year;
But it shall turn to rich ploughland
Before I change my dear!

Oh! Fairfield Church is water-bound
From Autumn to the Spring,
But it shall turn to high hill ground
Before my bells do ring!

Oh! leave me walk on the Brookland Road
In the thunder and warm rain –
Oh! leave me look where my love goed,
And p’raps I’ll see her again!

Low down – low down!
Where the liddle green lanterns shine –
Oh! maids, I’ve done with ’ee all but one,
And she can never be mine!

Picture credits: 

Riders of the Sidhe, 1911, John Duncan

Maria Callas as Medea, 1958, Dallas, Texas
Orpheus and Euridice by Christian Kratzastein-Stub, 1783 - 1816
Orpheus leading Euridice from the Underworld by Camille Corot


  1. AHa! That picture of Callas was my model for Lady Macbeth when I illustrated it. Isn't it fabulous? Lovely post, full of interesting things!

    James Mayhew

  2. Another striking and informative post, Katherine. A dose of Kipling enriches any morning. Thanks!

    Have you read Troublesome Things: A History of Fairies and Fairy Stories, by Diane Purkiss? I just got it from the library and am very excited.

    And, oh, dear old Jessie Weston! As a colleague of mine says, never has worse scholarship had a longer afterlife. Weston's theories were decisively refuted by the 1920s, but by then Eliot got a hold if it and the damage was done. So now her ideas are everywhere. Admittedly, that sort of fantasy makes for fun reading. But when it's posed as What Really Happened, one can only sigh.

  3. Wonderful post, Katherine. I do prefer the idea of the Fairyland being ruled by a strong, alluring Queen than by a King - I didn't realize that the Queen was more recent.

    Thank you for the poem. Haunting.

    (an aside - I have a recording of Callas singing Medea - she embodies witch-queen/faery-queen. "Electrifying" is the right word.)

  4. Very interesting post. When I looked into faery stories up here in Cumbria, I came across the fact that faery roads,and hills associated in folklore with faerie, are sometimes known to be ancient roads leading to Bronze Age burial mounds.

    This adds another perspective to the idea that people 'stolen by faeries' are grieved for as if dead. Perhaps this is an echo of the Bronze Age funeral procession, diluted through history and changing culture.

  5. Such a wonderful and fascinating post, Kath! Thanks!

  6. Such an interesting post. Quite glad that faerie has been reclaimed from the realm of tiny creatures with wings. The wooing of Etain is so fascinating. Still can't quite make up my mind what it is all about-the turning into a fly and being eaten and given birth to again etc....

  7. It's an astonishing photo, James - must look up your Lady Macbeth! Mr Pond, yes, I do have that book and you'll love it - it's most entertaining. Lynn, I was listening to clips of Callas on Youtube. She was wonderful...
    Esmeraldamac, I'm sure there are echoes of old practices to be found in fairytales, and in fact there's one example of exactly what you suggest in my post of a few weeks back about the Boy in the Golden Cape!
    Nicky, Jongleuse - thanks!

  8. So lovely and packed full of wonder! Great images as well. I've always been fascinated by Tam Lin. Perhaps that will be a theme at Enchanted Conversation some time soon!

  9. Angus (of the WB Yeats poem and Celtic myth) searched the world for Caer Imbormeith (yew berry,)and although she wasn't a queen, she was certainly high spirited and independent. When he did eventually find her, she managed to persuade him to join her as a swan. They flew away together, singing beautiful music that lulled its listeners to sleep.

    Alexander McAll Smith has an excellent book based on this myth. There is also a beautiful scottish lulluby that my mother and grandmother used to sing called 'Dream Angus' :-)

    Thank you for your insights, really fascinating.

  10. There's a little village in Scotland called 'Rosemarkie' which I had the pleasure to live nearby to. On its outskirts is the faerie glen. It is said (and recorded on court documents), that two children saw ten to twenty thousand fairies leaving Scotland to return to their homeland as they were distressed at the violence they encountered here.

    I know little of fairies - but what enchanted me about what the children swore before a judge - was that they mentioned many of the fairies were mounted upon horses. I had no idea little horses were part of fairy culture. It was just a charming image it conjured up when I heard it.


  11. That's beautiful! The People of Peace really acting according to their name.