The Terror of Faerie

Of late, I have been dwelling a little upon the fearfulness of fairies. We recently read a book out loud as a family that played a part in these ruminations. The Perilous Gard is a young adult novel by Elizabeth Marie Pope that was awarded the Newbery Honor in 1975. It is set in the final years of Mary Tudor, during which time, we learn, only one of the old hidden holy places remained under the control of the fairy folk. This story follows the adventures of a courageous and faithful Katherine (Kate) Sutton as she is ultimately imprisoned deep underground among “the good people” for a period of several weeks before the story’s climax when she lives through her own experience of the ballad of Tam Lin. This song from the Scottish Borders dates to at least 1549 and revolves around the rescue of Tam Lin by his true love from the Queen of the Fairies.

I’ll return to this story twice more below, but next I want to establish the depth of fairy horror by pointing to a concurrence that I have observed between two of my most respected authorities on fairy folk: C. S. Lewis and Stephen R. L. Clark. When Lewis identifies three kinds of fairies within the medieval imagination, the first of these is a fearful terror:

The ‘swart Faery’ in [Milton’s] Comus is classified among horrors. This is one strand in the tradition. Beowulf ranks the elves along with ettins and giants as the enemies of God. . . .I have myself stayed at a lonely place in Ireland which was said to be haunted both by a ghost and by the (euphemistically so called) ‘good people’. But I was given to understand it was the fairies rather than the ghost that induced my neighbours to give it such a wide berth at night.

Although the philosopher Stephen Clark is writing with an entirely different purpose and approach than Lewis, he also distinguishes three types of fairies. While Lewis starts his list deeply back within the medieval imagination and moves forward, Clark’s account starts with the vision of the poet William Butler Yeats (as an inheritor of the romantic tradition of the 19th century) and works backward through time into the medieval imagination. The fearful fairies that start the list from Lewis share a terrible resemblance to Clark’s second category of fairies:

Our ancestors did not share the romantic or secular illusion that all beauty was good, or that temptations were, at worst, only good things that got in the way of better. The beauty of fairies is an illusion that the fairies do not share: one common story is of the human midwife, called to assist a fairy birth, who touches her own eye with the ointment meant for the baby. She then sees ‘the truth’, that the mother ‘lay on a bundle of rushes and withered ferns in a large cave’, and not in a palace. To see the fairies is to see a terrible beauty: to see with fairy sight is to see the worthlessness, the smallness not only of mortal matters but of their own. In a real and horrid sense, those caught up by fairies are not in a dream, but have been ‘disillusioned’.

These fairies are worse than dead. They know the world to be a dead world, but they are not capable of entering death. All that they can do is maintain a false beauty for all those who are willing to be deceived while they themselves endure the horror of a long life by a sheer power of the will and an all-embracing love of ritual, dance, and the wild hunt. Such “disillusioned” fairies were closely associated with the dead in much of medieval thought. As C. S. Lewis points out:

The identity, or close connection between the Fairies and the dead was certainly believed in, for witches con­fessed to seeing the dead among the Fairies. Answers to leading questions under torture naturally tell us nothing about the beliefs of the accused; but they are good evidence for the beliefs of the accusers.

Of course, I don’t know anything directly about any kinds of fairies—be they terrible, playful, or lovely. However, we all know something about disillusionment, and we all know something about a false life that only masquerades as life. We might all understand something, therefore, of fairies who consort with ghosts and who can take us over death’s threshold.

Stephen Clark ultimately rejects Yeats “romantic view . . .of fairies as the sweet, everlasting voices of the natural world.” For him, fairies are more alien and terrible than even the life of the natural world that we now know. Despite this, Clark does grant that there may be a third kind of fairy: one that combines something of nature’s ancient horror and nature’s eternal beauty so that we are both disillusioned but also invited, thereby, into an enchantment with whatever ageless good it is that all of nature gestures toward. Clark suggests that, in two opposing ways, “both first and second fairies point towards that vision, and their message is one of neither natural enjoyment nor disillusioned despair.” The fairies of the medieval imagination that Lewis lists second (smaller than humans and known for their ceaseless secret reveries) are not that dissimilar from the “everlasting voices of the natural world” that Yeats celebrates and that Clark rejects as too romantic. For Lewis, this “vision startles by its other­ness,” and these fairies provide those who surprise them with “a momentary glimpse” of “a gaiety and daintiness to which our own laborious life is simply irrelevant.” While the vision of Yeats may need to be tempered by more otherness, the liveliness of nature does seem to be a common denominator here.

Interestingly, if the first and second fairies identified by Clark and Lewis are much the same (just listed in opposite order), perhaps both authors recognize something similar, as well, for their third kind of fairies. As noted, Clark suggests a third fairy that somehow disillusions us (shows us the frivolity of every meaning that we might try to give to the natural world) while still inviting us to behold with wonder the life and beauty of nature—a life and beauty that do not belong to us and that point to something eternal beyond themselves. They draw us, that is, beyond or within everything that we encounter in our current transitory world. The third and last fairy kind that Lewis identifies are the Fairy Damsels or the High Fairies. These are the most human-like of all and can even share life with humans—sometimes including marriage and child rearing. They are other-worldly, and yet they call to us from within all the stuff of this world and even from within ourselves. They dwell, perhaps, where the sight of our single eye is wedded to the myriad good sensations of this fleeting world. Here we find that the boundaries between gods, goddesses, angels, and humans are porous.

Chart comparing lists from “The Longaevi” chapter in The Discarded Image by C. S. Lewis and “How to Believe in Fairies” from Inquiry: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy 30 (4):337 – 355 (1987) by Stephen R. L Clark.

To have described and even to have aligned, in some sense, these three fairy kinds as listed by Stephen Clark and C. S. Lewis does not mean that either one thought of these as distinct kinds of fairies or of their lists as exhaustive.

Lewis actually finds all three in Milton, although he doubts that they were conscious category distinctions in Milton’s own mind. They were just part of the immensely complex imaginative “tradition which the Middle Ages had bequeathed to him and his public.” Lewis notes of these three modes of fairy life:

Each serves a different poetic purpose. In each [Milton] confidently expects from his readers a different response to the word fairy. They were equally conditioned to all three responses and could be relied on to make the right one at each place.

Clark, on the other hand, is exploring the modern and Romantic imagination a little more fully in his essay as well as the metaphysical foundation for the existence of fairies and of ourselves. Clark would likely agree with Lewis that all three “kinds” of fairies exist within their respective places in the stories that we encounter and inhabit. They even, more than likely, shift for us from one kind to another depending on our own capacities and needs. While they have lives of their own, we find them only in so far as there is some real intertwinement with our own lives:

If fairies are regularly, even if eccentrically, seen, then fairies are, on Berkeleian terms, as real as any other ideas. The only serious question is whether the percepts encountered in visionary trance are signals to us of other spirits, other centres of experience within the infinite and eternal. The evidence of such spirits where we ordinarily expect them (in our fellow humans and fellow animals) is that . . .they can be to us the ‘words’ of a perceptual language such that what is present to another spirit is also present to us. It is in the possibility of awakening or echoing that other spirit in our spirit that we come to believe in that other’s reality in itself. . . .If we can momentarily or more lastingly awaken the fairy spirit in us, and feel it to be at once a solid and an alien presence, we may conclude that fairies are also real. . . .If a broadly spiritist metaphysics is ultimately found to be false, then there have never really been any fairies: but in that case there have never ‘really’ been any human persons either.

I suspect that virtually no one in modern societies has the capacity to “momentarily or more lastingly awaken the fairy spirit in us, and feel it to be at once a solid and an alien presence.” We might be capable, as the poet Yeats was, of a pale “romantic view . . .of fairies as the sweet, everlasting voices of the natural world,” but we are hardly ready to see our fellow creatures in this cosmos as something more alive and potentially more terrible than what we know of ourselves.

Lewis was once impressed by Tolkien over lunch when Tolkien described how “the strength of the hills is not ours.” Tolkien was thinking in a pastoral and somewhat romantic vein of those generations who had lived entirely in the same small valley, taking their entire bodily life from its soil and streams. Tolkien says that it is no wonder that these people could see the naiads and dryads of their home turf. In stark contrast to this, Pope’s story, The Perilous Gard, reverses this image. Instead of people living a life, generation after generation, that is imbued with the “strength of the hills” surrounding them (and somehow in communion with the hills and streams themselves), Pope depicts a fairy kingdom deep within a hillside where the crushing sense of the hills overhead (as endless piles of undulating stone) is a nauseating terror to any humans who must enter the kingdom. This terror is called “the weight,” and it drives human captives mad with the sense of being entombed and crushed out of existence as they suffer deep within “the strenght of the hills.” Within the stone halls of this fairy mound, the fairy queen offers relief in the form of a drink each day that renders this buried life as an endless bliss to those humans unfortunate enough to have been sold into service there.

Of course, Tolkien would have understood and loved such a contrast between “the strength of the hills” as, on the one hand, a benevolent presence surrounding and sustaining us for generations and this same strength, on the other hand, as a terrible weight that breaks our minds and leaves us begging to spend our days within a soft and gentle illusion. Both Tolkien and Lewis would have appreciated that the medieval imagination was capable of holding two such visions together and that fairies might help to mediate this dual vision to us of both glory and fall. Tolkien’s own stories, of course, contain not only the high elves such as Galadriel and Elrond but the wood elves who live deep underground, stock their cellars with the best human wine, and make merry amid the murkiness of a deep forest filled with mammoth spiders and even more sinister spirits.

Our modern imaginations, however, have lost both capacities to a substantial degree. In some sense, Christianity made the hills friendly to us, and we then turned this friendship, during the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, into an opportunity to exploit the hills. Having lost any sense that the hills have a life of their own, we lost their presence as both terrible and life-giving (in anything more than a crass material sense). A simply romantic idea of the hills as having a “sweet, everlasting voice” of their own, is actually dependent upon this way in which Christianity—and then the post-Christian accelerations of technology and a worldwide  marketplace—made it possible for us to mistakenly consider the hills as nothing but, at first, domesticated and friendly neighbors and finally as just “raw materials.” This all aligns perfectly with Wendell Berry’s study of Lady Nature and how we have brutally removed her from the natural world. In his essay “The Presence of Nature in the Natural World: A Long Conversation,” Berry starts his study with an observation from C. S. Lewis about our brutal removal of Lady Nature from our world, then unpacks the entire literary history of her earlier presence and eventual loss.

Berry, in this and many other works, has insisted that our modern delight in “pristine nature” as the place for vacation from our working world is only the reverse side of the same coin as our confinement within air conditioned homes and vehicles while our fuel consumption, industrial expansions, and agribusiness decimate our entire globe. Vacations are only one more way of commodifying our world which otherwise barely enters our consciousness except as a reservoir of inert resources that we vaguely hope our experts are adequately measuring and safeguarding within acceptable margins of risk and error. In contrast to these two sides of the modern coin—romanticism and nihilism—Berry describes a healthy (and long lost) relationship to Lady Nature as a living neighbor and a stern moral instructor. She was, he claims, the most firm and effective teacher enjoyed by all of our ancestors. Lady Nature was not a doting grandmother but a regal figure, and we are blinded by the loss of her tutelage among our world of either “natural resources” or “pristine wilderness.”

This figure of Lady Nature that Lewis and Berry recognized within the early years of English literature is more akin to the High Fairies of Lewis or the ones that Clark says can both disillusion and enchant us at one and the same time. As I’ve noted, these high fairies occupy a true and mythic realm that overlaps with gods, goddesses, and angels. As David Bentley Hart has recently written of humans:

As a species, we learned to tell stories about the gods long before it ever occurred to us to tell stories about ourselves. . . .It was a very long time indeed before we began to realize that we had tales to tell from which the gods might be absent. . . .Until that moment (which no doubt lasted a great many centuries), the only “histories” of which we were conscious were accounts of events that had happened in some time beyond time, before and outside and above the passing hours by which our days are measured: in illo tempore, as Eliade liked to say, or “once upon a time”—or really, it might be more accurate to say, not in “time” (tempus, chronos) at all, but rather in that “age” (aevum, aion) that lies in the interval between time and eternity. And even then, well after it had become conceivable for us to undertake “histories” in the sense in which we use the term now—records of our remembered adventures in ordinary time—still our most natural narrative idiom for making sense of our place in the world remained myth. It was, in a sense, the gods who first taught us to speak of ourselves as the paradoxical or divided beings we are, at once placed within nature but also somehow set apart from it. They called to us out of the world’s high and hidden places. . . .All of this was the fruit of that immemorial commerce of identities that once long ago existed between them and us. . . .And, frankly, it is only so long as we remember the communion we enjoyed with them in illo tempore that our histories have any real meaning at all; it is only so long as we remember those myths that we can take full account of what it is that makes us human.

From “Sensus Plenior: On gods and mortals” in Leaves in the Wind (Hart’s subscription periodical) on 31 August 2022.

Amid such a mythic world, the fairies of some modes probably paid us humans far less mind than the gods did (or than some of the high fairies). Most accounts of those who still live with fairies today depict them as tenacious, lingering remnants of this mythic life that out of which we found our own humanity. Many of the Irish to this day tell stories of “the strey” that the good people can put upon those who don’t show a proper deference to their remaining sacred places. Those normal Christian people that have shared their lands with fairies for centuries have, typically, been content enough to grant whatever respect might be demanded by them. This may have even played a part in making the fairies themselves less terrible with time. In 1691, the Presbyterian minister and Celtic language scholar Robert Kirk opened his book The Secret Commonwealth: Of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies with a theory about why the Irish gave the name “good people” to the fairies:

These siths, or fairies, they call “sleagh maith,” or “the good people,” it would seem, to prevent the dint of their ill attempts, for the Irish use to bless all they fear harm of.

This brings me back to the fairies that held Kate Sutton and her true love captive in Pope’s story The Perilous Gard. They were pagan and kept the church bells from being rung.* They were mixed up not only with the long lineage of a human family (who they made to serve them in some sense) but with another more insidious creature who may have been something like a druid priest who had cheated death by finding a kind of life among the fairies. Kate’s slowly developing relationship with the Fairy Queen is my favorite element of the story. It’s not possible to expound this without giving away too much of a book that you might enjoy with your children. Even without that concern, there is probably not much that can be said outside of a good story about a devoutly Christian girl who shares about the power of Christ with the Fairy Queen who is ultimately uncomprehending unless perhaps it is some glimpse of Christ’s kenosis that the queen sees within Kate herself. Whatever this commerce might be, it is clear that both Kate and the Fairy Queen give much to each other in their exchanges. And whatever Kate receives from the queen of the fairies is certainly found within the terror of an awful and inhuman life and the final threat of a deep and soul-killing revenge.

A 14th century illustration with Morgan giving Arthur the fake Excalibur. From the British Library copy of Suite de Merlin or the Post-Vulgate suite (MS 38117) one of two surviving copies of the text that is the source for part of Malory’s Morte Arthu, attributed to Robert de Boron but believed to have been compiled by a later author. Attributed to the Master of St Benoit’s workshop.

*Note: This triangulation between paganism, the world of fairy, and Christianity is another subject unto itself. As Lewis says, part of why the classical pagan may be less terrifying to Christians than the fairy realm might simply be that it is more distant from us:

The native figures are not, even now, quite so innocuous as the classical. I think the reason is that the classical figures stand further—certainly in time and perhaps in other ways too—even from our half­ beliefs, and therefore from even our imagined fears. If Wordsworth found the idea of seeing Proteus rise from the sea attractive, this was partly because he felt perfectly certain he never would.

. . .One might have expected the High Fairies to have been expelled by science; I think they were actually expelled by a darken­ing of superstition. Such were the efforts to find a socket into which the Fairies would fit. No agreement was achieved. As long as the Fairies remained at all they remained evasive.

Some Christians have told stories of Christian fairies. The historical Bishop Caenchomrac (a late 9th century Irish saint) is even said to have left his human parish in his old age to join a fairy monastery that he had frequented during his life and that served a most beautiful liturgy faithfully at the bottom of a nearby lake. Some scholars insist that all such accounts are just examples of the latent colonialism that Christianity has always exhibited in its eagerness to erase the local beliefs and life of any people who take up Christ. There is good reason to think that this thesis is far too narrow, but that is all too much to expound upon here in this endnote. I’ll simply leave off by pointing out that one of today’s great living admirers of fairies, David Bentley Hart, describes fairies as most certainly having always responded to the cultural developments of their human neighbors slowly over time—even claiming that European fairies have come to find socialism to be a very good way of life (see Roland in Moonlight). In his presentation, this would just seem to be a kind of natural extension of all neighborly influences, not necessarily tyrannical or pernicious on the part of us humans, be we Christians or socialists or what have you.

Illustrating from 1316 of Merlin’s conception. British Library MS Additional 10292 fol. 77v.

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