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
- 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,

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,

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,

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,

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,

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:

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