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Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

Where can we live but days?

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Oberon in Exile
A few entries ago I was maundering on about the 'Fairies Farewell' by Richard Corbett (1582-1665), a poem that includes the following lines:

By which wee note the fairies
Were of the old profession:
Their songs were Ave Maries,
Their dances were procession.
But now, alas! they all are dead,
Or gone beyond the seas,
Or farther for religion fled,
Or else they take their ease.

This morning I was reminded of this by a gloss in for the June Eclogue of Spenser's Shepheardes Calendar (1579), which gives a rather eccentric etymology for the word "elfes" as deriving from the Guelfes (as in the Guelphs of Florence - suitably Italianate and scheming), and adds moreover that they are the invention of "bald Friers and knavish shavelings", designed to distract the common people from the falsehood of the Catholic religion.

A couple of things strike me here. One is a Chaucerian echo: the association of Friars and Fay also crops up at the beginning of the Wife of Bath's tale:

I speke of manye hundred yeres ago.
But now kan no man se none elves mo,
For now the grete charitee and prayeres
Of lymytours and othere hooly freres,
That serchen every lond and every streem,
As thikke as motes in the sonne-beem,

That shouldn't surprise us, if Spenser was indeed the author of his own notes to the Calendar, since he was a big Chaucer fanboy, although whereas he associates friars and fairies, Chaucer gives us friars as the fairies' mundane replacement. But that brings us to the other point, which is that the elves are always in the past. If friars are currently plentiful, fairies came before friars; if the monasteries have just been dissolved and the friaries fried, then the fairies turn Catholic.

Even at this date, they are also associated with what John Clute calls a "thinning" of the world. "For oh, for oh, the hobbyhorse is forgot!", as the possibly-recusant Shakespeare has more than one character say, while Spenser himself in the May eclogue tussles (in the persons of a tolerant and a strict shepherd named Palinode and Piers) over his feelings about May Day festivities. The world has been left a more prosaic place by the passing of such things - at least, until Spenser finds a way to bring Faerie and St George triumphantly back home in Protestant guise in 1590.

Kipling put much of that feeling into "Dymchurch Flit", which is where I came in with the other post. Kipling assumes that the fairies have gone abroad - "beyond the seas" in Corbett's phrase - a tradition continued by the Catholic Tolkien at the end of The Lord of the Rings. But Kipling also made room for another tradition, which is that the fairies went into exile not abroad but at home, simply slipping from human sight. I think I first came across this idea circa 1976, while listening to the Horslips album The Book of Invasions (and particularly the track "Sideways to the Sun"), though after that I found it everywhere. Ousted by the Milesians, the Tuatha Dé Danann take up a second career as the Sidhe, shunting the poor old Fir Bolg even further down the line into obscurity. Magic helps in this kind of move, but there is a magic-free version of the same idea, which gives rise to Kipling's "Dark People", the small-statured, pre-Celtic, aboriginal inhabitants of Britain, whose lives consist mainly of crouching in the heather and licking trees for their delicious moss. What magic did for the Tuatha, the Dark People do for themselves through stealth and woodcraft. These people featured in Rosemary Sutcliff too - although whether she got the idea from Kipling or elsewhere I'm not sure. The whole '"Waves of Invasion Each One Displacing the Last" meme was popular at the time - and is also of course the basis for Diana Wynne Jones's Power of Three. On reflection I'm not sure whether either Kipling or Sutcliff actually says that the Dark People are the origin of fairy beliefs - and indeed in Kipling's case it would be difficult, since he gives a different explanation as well - or whether I just heard it floating by on the Zeitgeist.

It occurs to me just now that this is all probably in Diane Purkiss or Jeremy Harte, but since I've maundered so long, I will let it stand.


Whenever I hear about the fairies going beyond the seas, I am put in mind of the expulsion of Jews and of some earlier association of Jews with very particular magics. I have totally no grounding for this, however, just a vague wonder.

Now that's a very interesting thought! And well worth looking into.

(no subject) - la_marquise_de_, 2012-02-11 10:39 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steepholm, 2012-02-11 11:09 am (UTC)(Expand)
Huh. I think there may well be something in that.

It occurs to me that one common dialect word for fairies is "Pharisees". I can see how that could happen simply in terms of the sound of the word, but maybe it's telling that it did.

M. A. Lower, Contributions to Literature, pp.156-57 - shows Biblical Pharisees and fairies being confused. Of course, that's a long time after the expulsion of the Jews, which itself happened before "fairy" entered the English language, but still interesting.

(no subject) - gillpolack, 2012-02-12 06:34 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steepholm, 2012-02-12 08:16 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - gillpolack, 2012-02-12 12:00 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steepholm, 2012-02-12 01:16 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - gillpolack, 2012-02-12 11:27 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steepholm, 2012-02-12 11:54 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - gillpolack, 2012-02-13 12:48 am (UTC)(Expand)
I read something... was it Durrell? on the history of South Africa, and for many years the San people (Bushmen) were just such a myth until somebody found them alive and well in the Kalahari desert.

I'm now expecting any Little People to pop up on the Burren or anything, but maybe genetic studies will show what became of them. I'll have to re-read Sykes "Blood of the Isles" and Oppenheimers "Origins of the British".

I expect we're what became of them, but that's because I've been seduced by the integrationist meme rather than the "each wave wiping out the last" one - at least for now!

Analogous wonderings surround the Neanderthals, but that's probably going back too far for an unbroken tradition to have survived...

Edited at 2012-02-11 10:33 am (UTC)

(no subject) - veronica_milvus, 2012-02-11 12:09 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steepholm, 2012-02-11 02:10 pm (UTC)(Expand)
I've forgotten, do the elves in The Perilous Gard actually have magic, or is it more about drugging their captives? And how long have they been underground? (I'd like to think it was the villainous Tudor invasion that drove them into hiding, but I have a feeling it's been longer than that.)

They certainly peddle drugs, but I'm not sure whether there's magic on top of that. But maybe it's a false opposition? If someone offers you something to make the love of your life fall in love with you, is that a drug or a magic potion? I doubt Kate would have found the distinction very meaningful.

I think those fairies had been underground for quite a while, but I've not read the book very recently.

(no subject) - sovay, 2012-02-11 05:08 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steepholm, 2012-02-11 05:27 pm (UTC)(Expand)
OK... can't resist the Icelandic legend now (incidentally Iceland is the only place I ever met a university lecturer who believed in elves):

One morning when the world was young, God decided to go and have breakfast with Adam and Eve. He came unexpected, but Eve rushed around setting an extra place and they sat down. Gesturing at the half-dozen children at the table, God asked "Are these all your children?"
"Yes", said Eve, but this was untrue. She had as many children outside in the yard, but when God called, she had not finished washing them, and being ashamed that God should see the dirty ones, she bade them hide in the yard and not show themselves until the guest was gone. This God knew well, and was displeased that she should think to fool him. He said "What man hides from God, God will also hide from man" and went his way (having presumably finished his bacon and fried bread).
From that day, the unwashed children of Eve, whom we call elves, have not been visible to humans unless they want to be. God, in compassion that their mother had been ashamed of them, gave them great beauty, far beyond their human kindred. But it did not diminish their bitterness against their mother and the children she preferred. It is true they do not forget either that we are kin, and sometimes they will do favours to men, but they can turn nasty very quickly. They do not forget either that they once lived in houses, and often hang about the dwellings of men, but their own homes are in hillsides and they sometimes kidnap human babies (and musicians) to take there.
They are bitter against God too, and turned down the chance of living in heaven with him after death, bartering their eternal life for a life of hundreds of years here on earth. Yet he left a way back for them; an elf who marries a human in church regains his or her immortal soul, though in exchange for a normal lifespan.


I'd not heard that one! It sounds a first cousin of the tradition that the elves are fellow-travelling angels who fell with Satan but not all the way: hence their requirement to pay a tithe to hell. But also as if that's somehow got mixed up with something Biblical about unfavoured siblings (Cain? Ham? Ishmael? Esau?).

It sounds a first cousin of the tradition that the elves are fellow-travelling angels who fell with Satan but not all the way: hence their requirement to pay a tithe to hell.

I always think that Elizabeth Goudge's Linnets and Valerians (1964) uses a variant of this story, but it makes the fallen angels human ancestors and the fairies are again the diminished gods:

"They lived on this earth before ever the good God thought to make men and women. They was the elves and the gnomes and the giants, the fairy folk. That's to say in England we call 'em the fairy folk, but the Master tells me that in other countries they was called the gods and that the Greeks gave 'em names, Pan, Orpheus, Persephone and other names I don't call to mind. But gods or fairies, maid, 'twas the same breed, and all of 'em with silver in their blood. Then, if so be you've read your Bible, you'll know there was war in heaven, the good angels fighting the bad angels. The bad angels was cast down to earth and a few of the good 'uns, them that was that angry they couldn't loose their hold, fell down to earth too, holding to the throats of the bad 'uns. So then there was three breeds, the golden-hearted angels, and the black-hearted, and the fairy folk with the silver in their blood."

[. . .] There was a long pause, and then Nan said, "So the silver in your blood is fairy power?"

"That be right, maid," said Ezra. "And it be the power to make music and paint pictures and write poetry."

(no subject) - steepholm, 2012-02-11 05:29 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - sovay, 2012-02-11 05:35 pm (UTC)(Expand)
This conversation, and the examples, put me in mind of two things: the "ubi sunt" trope of Anglo Saxon poetry, that I've always, btw, assumed was where Tolkien got it from, and, indirectly that rather awesome poem/song by "Fiona McLeod"/William Sharp, that my mum used to sing to me: "How beautiful they are / the lordly ones / Who live in the hills / The hollow hills" etc

I'm sure Tolkien took that straight from Anglo-Saxon, although he could have found it in other places too. And what a wonderful song to be sung by one's mother! It beats Wee Willy Winkie into a cocked hat, is all I can say.

I think I first came across this idea circa 1976, while listening to the Horslips album The Book of Invasions (and particularly the track "Sideways to the Sun"), though after that I found it everywhere.

I think I may have seen it first in Elizabeth Marie Pope's The Perilous Gard (1971), which is very explicit about the magic-free version:

[edited to remove italics, so it will be legible]

And then suddenly the old nightmare sense that there was something she had missed, something she should understand, something urgent, something she ought to be doing, was back on her, stronger than ever—and it was concerned in some way with the Lady in the Green. The redheaded woman had started chattering again about golden crowns and magical cups, but Kate did not really hear what she was saying. Her mind seemed full of other voices, all crying confusedly together, just as they had in her dream: Randal's voice singing "Down in the stone O, but not in the stone," maddeningly, over and over; Dorothy's voice asking, "Why should we trouble ourselves with the saints? Those that rule over the Well were here in the land many and many a hundred years before them"; Master Roger's voice still talking gravely of the heathen gods: "The stories of the Fairy Folk are only memories of the old heathen gods, overlaid with fantasies and superstitions"' and then—suddenly, cutting through the confusion—a stillness without word or sound, like a thought taking shape in the depths of her own mind.

Not heathen gods, she thought. There were never any heathen gods. There were only heathen people who believed in them.

Not heathen gods: people.

That was it. People. Heathen people.

But what difference would that make? The heathen people were gone too, long ago.

And yet—and yet—surely in the beginning there must have been heathen people who wanted to keep on worshipping the old gods. Not common heathen people. True believers, lore masters, priests and priestesses, great folk who hated the New Faith, with followers and friends in high places who could help to hide them from the power of the Church. Why should they not go on meeting in secret, passing down the old knowledge and the old arts to their children? Half their cults had been secret and mysterious even in their own day; it would not seem strange to them. They might dwindle and diminish more and more as time went on, but perhaps always remembering the old worship, lingering abut the old holy places, carrying on the old rites and ceremonies as well as they could. And if they kept themselves to wild solitary caves and woods, living off the land on what their secret followers gave them—

Kate turned back to the redheaded woman.

"Tell me," she said, "does anybody in the village ever leave out food for the Fairy Folk?"