by Jamie Lutton
– For The Capitol Hill Times –
I was at work last week at my bookshop, when a woman traded in her daughter’s books that she had outgrown. Among them were a lot of flimsy children’s books with fairy folk in them, readers meant for first or second graders. Fairies, always girl fairies, having various adventures.
We all know what fairies look like. We picture Tinkerbelle, tiny, about three inches high or so, in skimpy outfits, magical, temperamental, with wings like dragonflies. But fairies did not always look like this. This is a construct that comes from Ireland’s myths and stories about the little people. During the Elizabethan era, this was transmitted south into English mythology. Shakespeare picked it up, and put fairies into his play “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The Fairy king and queen are fully human sized, but their attendant fairies are small, invisible, and can sit in flowers. “The Tempest,” has a human sized fairy Ariel, who is more like the older fairies – magical, invisible, mischievous – but the fairies of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” prevail in cultural memory, influencing story telling from then on.
Fairies are said to be tiny, usually invisible to humans, occupying the night world, dangerous, spiteful, and willful. But centuries before that, fairy folk were large and feared cold iron and cold steel. They lived on the fringes of human society, had to be placated with gifts, and slipped back and forth into the fairy world.
They also were a focus for romantic fascination. The new Christian Church suppressed the old religions and they were morphed into tales of the fairy folk.
“Thomas The Rhymer,” a ballad by an anonymous bard centuries before Shakespeare, gives a good example of this. The Queen of Elfland appears as a beautiful woman dressed in green on a white horse covered with hundreds of little bells. After an enchanted kiss, she kidnaps Thomas, and shows him the three paths: the path to hell, the path to heaven, and the path to fairyland.
In an epic song written by Marie of France about 1190, titled “Lanval,” a fairy princess takes a lover who was a poor knight in King Arthur’s court and showers him with gifts. He is forbidden to say where the gifts come from, or to reveal that she is his lover. Maidens and married women in the court try to seduce him, and he is punished by Guinevere for refusing her advances. This is an obvious copy of the tale of Potiphar’s wife and Joseph in the book of Genesis.
When the knight is on trial, as he has been libeled by Guinevere, he refuses to speak of his fairy lover, saying he has no lover, till he is threatened with death. He then confesses all. Magically at this moment, the fairy princess shows up on horseback to rescue him. He jumps on the back of his horse and they whisk off to Avalon.
In both cases the fairy princess rides on horseback and whisks the mortal man away. This is a reversal of most ancient romances, where the man rescues his fair lady. The gist of this is that fairies, or elf queens are not only human sized, but also powerful creatures who must be obeyed by mortal men.
Looking further back in history, past dark ages and the Roman occupation of England, these fairy folk seem to be cultural memories of bronze aged Celtic peoples who lingered the longest in the British Isles, holding out from the waves of invasions by the Anglo Saxons and Norman people. Driven back to mountainsides and deep forests, the local peoples remembered them as magical, hiding from mortal man, disliking cold iron, the weapons used by the invaders.
We would have more of the stories about them and their ways, if the Norman French Christian church had not burned the Anglo Saxon books, suppressing a culture that had existed there before the 1066 invasion. Only fragments remain, mostly known from writings that refereed to them by Norman monks.
So, the tiny fairies that occupy children’s books are dim memories of memories, of people who occupied England before waves of exterminations destroyed them and their stories.
The elf queen in “Thomas The Rhymer” is the direct inspiration for both the bad magical witches in the Narnia stories by C.S. Lewis, and Galadriel in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of The Rings.” The elf queen in this old ballad, and others like them cast a long shadow on 20th century epic fantasy.
Sadly, only a few traces remain in everyday life of the Celts that came before the Norman-French and Anglo-Saxons.
Have you ever seen someone knock on wood when they utter out loud something bad that might happen? This is one of the last traces of summoning the spirits of the trees to protect you from a bad outcome.
Jamie Lutton own Twice Sold Tales. Visit her blog, Booksellersvrsbestsellers.blogspot.com online for more essays.