March 29, 2021

F is for Faerie

         (My A-Z Blog Challenge theme this year is Mythical and Imaginary Places.)
        The Realm of Faerie is the place inhabited by fairies, of course, but that can mean different things to different people in different times and places.  There is the modern fantasy aimed at children which sees Fairyland as a sort of magical paradise, where everything is sweet and pretty — but let’s set that aside and look deeper.  Many cultures have a concept of a world inhabited by supernatural beings, but the archetypal version of Faerie is that of Celtic mythology, where it is a realm both everywhere and nowhere, both beautiful and perilous.
        Although Faerie is sometimes thought of as existing over there somewhere, where its borders could possibly be drawn on a map, more often it is seen as superimposed on our own geography.  It could be encountered anywhere, although there are usually specific liminal places where the realms come close and the borders are more permeable.  Caves, the wilderness, and the ocean are all possible places for encounters with Faerie, as well as mysterious places such as prehistoric mounds and megaliths, and mushroom rings.  Sleep, too, is often a time when a person can move between the mortal world and Faerie.  Faerie is often imagined as being underground, although once you get there it certainly doesn’t seem dark or enclosed like it’s inside a cave.
        In addition to that amorphous geography, time is also different in Faerie, so that a day spent there can be a year in the mortal world, and a person can spend a few years in Faerie, only to return to their own home and discover that a hundred years have passed and all their friends and family are dead and gone.  Moreover, a visit to Faerie can be perilous not only because of the dangers of time travel, but also because of the dangers of the fairies themselves.  These beings were traditionally viewed not as the cute and sparkly little things of much children’s media today, but as powerful, soulless beings who might be benevolent, but were more often amoral, and could be downright malicious.  However, their realm was usually seen as beautiful, eternally fertile and summery, and dazzling to the ordinary human.  Occasionally all this beauty was attributed to glamours which turn out to be cruel illusion, but often there is a tension between the allure of the perfect Faerie paradise, and the love of home and family with all their flaws.  My current work in progress, inspired by the legend of Tam Lin, explores many of these themes.
        Like Eden, most of the earlier visual illustrations of Faerie are merely the setting in which famous characters are placed, such as Titania and Oberon from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  As such, they don’t always show any particular sense of magic in the place.  Today’s first illustration is an illustration of Titania, but includes weird and wonderful arches of bats and imps to mark this scene as somewhere clearly magical and not normal.  The second piece illustrates the idea of fairies as diminutive, so that the Realm of Faerie is hidden from view because it’s small and therefore easily overlooked.  Fairies retain their connection with wilderness, however, in being found primarily in nature, even though in the modern imagination that nature may be a cultivated garden.
        The third piece is an unusual one by Turner, who’s usually a terribly serious landscape artist.  To be honest, I’m not usually much of a Turner fan because I dislike the smudgy lack of detail he cultivated as his trademark.  However, I think it actually works in this piece, which depicts “Queen Mab’s Cave,” Mab being another famous fairy.  Turner’s style evokes the disorienting brilliance, hazy mystery, and almost hallucinogenic light of Faerie.  It’s impossible to get a grasp on these fairies, or pin down this strange, ethereal place.  I still don’t really like it, but it makes sense to feel uncomfortable with the otherness of Faerie.
        That association of mist and disorientation with Faerie is also present in the next piece, in which we see only a human man looking lost and puzzled.  The title of the piece tells us that he’s just seen a fairy (specifically a Norwegian huldra).  So this illustrates the quality of Faerie that it is here and not here, glimpsed and then lost again, leaving the one who sees it forever changed.
        Because northern European ideas of Faerie associate it so closely with nature and wilderness, I thought it was interesting to include this Persian miniature that illustrates a fairy’s palace garden, meticulously groomed and maintained with artificial pavilions and water features amid the architecture.  On the other hand, I’ve also included a painting that isn’t supposed to depict Faerie at all; it’s simply a landscape picture of a stone arch on Mackinac Island, Michigan.  This place was called Fairy Arch, and I think it counts as a good illustration of Faerie because of the way the painter has composed his view so that the arch becomes a natural, mysterious portal to a bright world glimpsed beyond.  (Alas, the arch was destroyed in the mid-2oth century, so you can no longer get to Faerie that way.)
        And my final illustration for you today is a map of Fairyland imagined as the place where all magical, mythical, and imaginary stories take place: a sort of "Land of Make-Believe."  It includes locations associated with Greek myths, traditional fairy tales, Arthurian legend, and such modern (at the time) children’s stories as Peter Pan and The Water Babies.  This also brings us to the idea of Fairyland as a fit place for children, despite the sex and violence that were so much a part of the original myths of Faerie.
        I have a number of previous posts that might be of interest: if you’re curious about the etymology and the different connotations of different spelling variants (and are looking for a little more Words of the Month action), check out Fairy vs Faerie.  If you want some poetry about Faerie, look at my posts on La Belle Dame Sans Merci and The Stolen Child.
        The MORAL of Faerie: Eternal happiness can really be kind of sad when you’re alone. 
              OR:  If you believe in fairies, wave your handkerchief and clap your hands… and carry cold iron at all times.
        So, if you were invited to visit Faerie, would you go?

[Pictures: Titania Sleeping, painting by Richard Dadd, mid-19th century (Image from Wikimedia Commons);

Under the Dock Leaves, drawing by Richard Doyle, 1878 (Image from The British Museum);

Queen Mab’s Cave, painting by Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1846 (Image from Tate);

Huldra Forsvant (The Fairy that Disappeared), painting by Theodor Kittelsen, c.1900-1910 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);

The Youth of Rum is Entertained in a Garden by a Fairy and her Maidens, illustration from Amir Khusrau, 1597-98 (Image from The Met);

Fairy Arch, Mackinac Island, painting by Henry Chapman Ford, 1874 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);

An anciente mappe of Fairyland, by Bernard Sleigh, 1917 (Image from Leventhal Map & Education Center).]


Olga Godim said...

I think I might go to Fairy, on one condition - if they cure diseases. And if they have internet and computers. Think they do?

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Ha ha, I'm pretty sure they don't have computers -- but perhaps they have magic that works the same way!

Lisa said...

I say faerie is down inside my deep purple morning glories! There is a bright light from them and I don't know how it happens. Bees go in for pollen and I have photos of them emerging covered in glowing pollen! But, when I think of faerie, I think more of being fooled like eating goblin food. They might be like the fairies in Labyrinth!

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Lisa, you are so right about the light inside morning glories! There's definitely magic there. The original definition of "fairy" in English was "enchantment," as in being fooled, so you're in agreement with the oldest versions.

Gail M Baugniet - Author said...

The Fairy Arch is a wonderful jumping-off point for any writer's imagination. And, yes, I would go to faerie land for a visit and hope to return to write about it, although a land without bats would be best.

Frédérique said...

Pretty illustrations! Love the one with the arch.

JadeLi said...

I enjoyed all of the images. I wonder why Turner decided to to do a faerie painting? I'm not sure I'd go to the land of faerie, but I have always wanted to see the faeries dancing at night with mice and frogs without them knowing I'm watching.

My "F" Tull song for today:

Deborah Weber said...

Once again your moral(s) crack me up. Carry iron indeed. I would definitely want to visit, but I'd really want to take a friend along, to confer with to make sure I was answering properly and not mistakenly promising anything I was clueless about.

The second illustration, which is like best, is most like what I imagine the fairy world to be like. But I'm also really taken by the sighting of the Norwegian Huldra - it's really evocative.

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Jade, I think seeing them without them knowing is probably the best -- although if they do discover you they will probably be terribly angry and wreak a terrible revenge!
Deborah, bringing a friend seems like a great way to mitigate some of the dangers.

Timothy S. Brannan said...

Now this place is very familiar to me.
Most of my posts this month have been about faerie creatures.

Tim Brannan, The Other Side: 2021: The A to Z of Monsters

Ronel Janse van Vuuren said...

One of my daily haunts :-)

Ronel visiting for the A-Z Challenge with an A-Z of Faerie: Fickle High Fae