Folk-Lore/Volume 8/The Fairy Mythology of English Literature: Its Origin and Nature

Folk-Lore. Volume 8
Number 1. (March) Presidential Address, "The Fairy Mythology of English Literature: Its Origin And Nature" by Alfred Nutt

PRESIDENTIAL ADDRESS.




THE FAIRY MYTHOLOGY OF ENGLISH LITERATURE: ITS ORIGIN AND NATURE.

[The title of the following study is, perhaps, too wide and general in scope. To adequately discuss the origin or nature of English fairy mythology would demand volumes. What I have here done is to essay an explanation of the special part played by fairy mythology in English literature, as well as of the essential conceptions which underlie generally that mythology, and from which it derives force and sanction. The two problems are by no means necessarily connected; but I found that by emphasising certain elements, unduly neglected hitherto, in the fairy creed I was brought into contact with historic facts and conditions which, as it seems to me, adequately explain why England, alone of modern countries, has admitted the fairy world into its highest imaginative literature.

My paper is in reality an outcome of my work in the second volume of the Voyage of Bran. In that volume, which will appear shortly, I discuss the Celtic doctrine of re-birth. I was compelled to form a theory, which would fit the facts, of primitive conceptions of life and sacrifice; compelled also to determine the real nature of the Tuatha de Danann, the ancestors of the fairies believed in to this day by the Irish peasantry. In postulating an agricultural basis for the Tuatha de Danann mythology and ritual I do but find myself in accord with all recent students of mythology in this country. I need but mention the most striking instance of the way in which Mannhardt's teaching has borne fruit in this country: Mr. Farnell's Cults of the Greek Gods. But when I insist upon the dominant nature of the agricultural element in the fairy creed, I by no means deny or overlook the numerous other elements which have entered into it. The latter, however, are, I believe, secondary, the former primary.

I have not thought it necessary to burden this paper with references. As far as English literature is concerned, the facts and instances cited may be found in any good edition of the Midsummer Night's Dream (I have used Mr. E. K. Chambers' edition, London, 1897) or in Halliwell's Illustrations of Shakespeare's Fairy Mythology (London, 1845, ^^ reprinted with additions by Hazlitt, London, 1875). The Irish references will be found in the first volume of my Voyage of Bran (London, 1895), or mainly in the forthcoming second volume.]


Few things are more marvellous in our marvellous poetic literature of the last three centuries than the persistence of the fairy note throughout the whole of its evolution. As we pass on from Shakespeare and his immediate followers to Herrick and Milton, through the last ballad writers to Thomson and Gray, and then note in Percy and Chatterton the beginnings of the romantic revival which culminated in Keats and Coleridge, was continued by Tennyson, the Rossettis, and Mr. Swinburne, until in our own days it has received a fresh accession of life alike from Ireland and from Gaelic Scotland, we are never for long without hearing the horns of Elfland faintly winding, never for long are we denied access to those

"Charmed magic casements opening on the foam
Of perilous seas in faery lands forlorn."

We could not blot out from English poetry its visions of the fairyland without a sense of irreparable loss. No other literature save that of Greece alone can vie with ours in its pictures of the land of fantasy and glamour, or has brought back from that mysterious realm of unfading beauty treasures of more exquisite and enduring charm.

There is no phenomenon without a cause; but in the immense complexity of historical record it is not always easy to detect the true cause, and to trace its growth and working until the result delights us. Let us consider to-night if we may find out why the fairy note rings so perfectly throughout that literature of modern England which has its roots in and which derives the best of its life's blood from the wonderful half-century: 1580- 1630. Reasons, causes must exist, nor—let me here forestall a possible objection—do we wrong genius by seeking to discover them. Rather, I hope, may individual genius, however pre-eminent, acquire fresh claims to our love and gratitude when we note that it is no arbitrary and isolated phenomenon, but stands in necessary relation to the totality of causes and circumstances which have shaped the national character. And, should we find these causes and circumstances still potent for influence, may we not look forward with better confidence to the future of our poetic literature?

Early in the half-century of which I have just spoken, some time between 1590 and 1595, appeared the Midsummer Night's Dream, the crown and glory of English delineation of the fairy world. Scarce any one of Shakespeare's plays has had a literary influence so immediate, so widespread, and so enduring. As pictured by Shakespeare, the fairy realm became, almost at once, a convention of literature in which numberless poets sought inspiration and material. I need only mention Drayton, Ben Jonson, Herrick, Randolph, and Milton himself. Apart from any question of its relation to popular belief, of any grounding in popular fancy, Shakespeare's vision stood by itself, and was accepted as the ideal presentment of fairydom, which, for two centuries at least, has signified to the average Englishman of culture the world depicted in the Midsummer Night's Dream. To this day, works are being produced deriving form and circumstance and inspiration (such as it is) wholly from Shakespeare.

Now if we compare these literary presentations (especially the latest) of Faery, with knowledge derived from study of living folklore, where the latter has retained the fairy belief with any distinctness, we find almost complete disagreement; and if, here and there, a trait seems common. it is either of so general a character as to yield no assured warrant of kinship, or there is reason to suspect contamination of the popular form by the literary ideal derived from and built up out of Shakespeare. Yet if we turn back to the poet of the Midsummer Night's Dream we can detect in his picture all the essentials of the fairy creed as it has appealed, and still appeals, to the faith and fancy of generations more countless than ever acknowledged the sway of any of the great world-religions, we can recover from it the elements of a conception of life and nature older than the most ancient recorded utterance of earth's most ancient races.

Modern commentators have pointed out that Shakespeare drew his account of the fairy world from at least two sources: the folk-belief of his day and the romance literature of the previous four centuries. This or that trait has been referred to one or the other source; the differences between these two have been dwelt upon, and there, as a rule, the discussion has been allowed to rest. What I shall essay to prove is that in reality sixteenth-century folk-belief and mediaeval fairy-romance derive their origin from one and the same set of beliefs and rites; that the differences between them are due to historical and psychological causes, the working of which we can trace; that their reunion, after ages of separation, in the England of the late sixteenth century, is due to the continued working of those same causes; and that as a result of this reunion, which took place in England because in England alone it could take place, English poetry became free of Fairydom, and has thus been enabled to preserve for the modern world a source of joy and beauty which must otherwise have perished.

I observed just now that the modern literary presentation of Faery (which is almost wholly dependent upon Shakespeare) differed essentially from the popular one still living in various districts of Europe, nowhere, perhaps, more tenaciously than in some of the Celtic-speaking portions of these isles. I may here note, according to the latest, and in this respect the best, editor of the Midsummer Night's Dream, Mr. Chambers, what are the characteristics of the Shakespearian fairies. He ranges them as follows:

(a) They form a community under a king and queen. (b) They are exceedingly small, (c) They move with extreme swiftness, (d) They are elemental airy spirits; their brawls incense the wind and moon, and cause tempests; they take a share in the life of nature; live on fruit; deck the cowslips with dewdrops; war with noxious insects and reptiles; overcast the sky with fog, &c. (e) They dance in orbs upon the green. (f) They sing hymns and carols to the moon, (g) They are invisible and apparently immortal, (h) They come forth mainly at night. (i) They fall in love with mortals. (j) They steal babies and leave changelings, (k) They come to bless the best bride-bed and make the increase thereof fortunate.

This order of characteristics is, I make little doubt, what would occur to most well-read Englishmen, and denotes what impressed the fancy of Shakespeare's contemporaries and of the afterworld. The fairy community with its quaintly fantastic parody of human circumstance; the minute size and extreme swiftness of the fairies, which insensibly assimilate them in our mind to the winged insect world—these traits would strike us at first blush; only on second thoughts should we note their share in the life of nature, should we recall their sway over its benign and malign manifestations.

Yet a moment's reflection will convince us that the characteristics upon which Shakespeare seems to lay most stress, which have influenced later poets and story-tellers, and to which his latest editor assigns the first place, are only secondary, and can in no way explain either how the fairy belief arose nor what was its real hold upon popular imagination. The peasant stooping over his spade, toilfully winning his bread from Mother Earth, was scarce so enamoured with the little he knew of kings and queens that he must feign the existence of an invisible realm; nor would the contrast, which touches alike our fantasy and our sense of the ludicrous, between minute size and superhuman power appeal to him. He had far other cause to fear and reverence the fairy world. In his daily struggle with nature he would count upon fairy aid if he performed with due ceremony the ancient ritual handed down to him by his forefathers; but woe betide him if through carelessness or sluttish neglect of these rites he aroused fairy wrath—not help, but hindrance and punishment would be his lot. And if neglect was hateful to these mysterious powers of nature, still more so was prying interference—they work as they list, and when man essays to change and, in his own conceit, to better the old order, the fairy vanishes. All this the peasant knows; it is part of that antique religion of the soil which means so much more to him than our religions do to us, because upon it, as he conceives, depend his and his children's sustenance. But be he as attentive as he may to the rites by which the fairy world may be placated and with which it must be worshipped, there come times and seasons of mysterious calamity, convulsions in the invisible world, and then:

"The ox hath therefore stretch'd his yoke in vain,
The ploughman lost his sweat, and the green corn
Hath rotted ere his youth attain'd a beard;
The fold stands empty in the drowned field,
And crows are fatted with the murrion flock;
***** "No night is now with hymn or carol blest;
Therefore the moon, the governess of floods,
Pale in her anger, washes all the air,
That rheumatic diseases do abound:
And thorough this distemperature we see
The seasons alter."

Such calamities are luckily rare, though, as the peasant full well knows, the powers he dreads and believes in can:

". . . . . overcast the night,
The starry welkin cover up anon
With drooping fog as black as Acheron."

But as a rule they are kindlier disposed; not alone do they war with blight, and fog, and flood, and all powers hostile to the growth of vegetation, but increase of flock and herd, of mankind also, seems good in their eyes—it may be because they know their tithes will be duly paid, and that their own interests are inextricably bound up with that of the mortals whom they aid and mock at, whom they counsel and reprove and befool.

Here let me note that not until the peasant belief has come into the hands of the cultured man do we find the conception of an essential incompatibility between the fairy and the human worlds—of the necessary disappearance of the one before the advance of the other.[1] Chaucer, if I mistake not, first voiced this conception in English literature. In words to be quoted presently he relegates the fairies to a far backward of time, and assigns their disappearance, satirically it is true, to the progress of Christianity. To the peasant, fairydom is part of the necessary machinery by which the scheme of things, as known to him, is ordered and governed; he may wish for less uncanny deities, he could not conceive the world without them; their absence is no cause of rejoicing, rather of anxiety as due to his own neglect of the observances which they expect and which are the price of their favour.

I do not of course claim that the foregoing brief sketch of the psychological basis of the fairy belief found among the peasantry represents the view of it taken by Shakespeare and his contemporaries, but it is based wholly upon evidence they furnish. And if we turn to the bald and scanty notes of English fairy mythology, to which we can with certainty assign a date earlier than the Midsummer Night's Dream, we shall find what may be called the rustic element of the fairy creed insisted upon, proportionately, to a far greater extent than in Shakespeare. Reginald Scot and the few writers who allude to the subject at all ignore entirely the delicate fantastic traits that characterise Shakespeare's elves; they are wanting precisely in what we, with an ideal derived from Shakespeare in our mind, should call the "fairylike" touch; they are rude and coarse and earthy. And, not implicitly but explicitly, a conception of the true nature of these peasant deities found expression in Shakespeare's own days. At the very time the Midsummer Night's Dream was being composed or played, Nash wrote as follows: "The Robin-good-fellows, elfs, fairies, hobgoblins of our latter age, which idolatrous former days and the fantastical world of Greece ycleped Fauns, Satyrs, Dryads, Hamadryads, did most of their pranks in the night"—a passage in which the parallel suggested is far closer and weightier in import than its author imagined.

So far then as regards the popular element in Shakespeare's fairy mythology. In reality it is the same as that testified to by somewhat earlier writers, but touched with the finest spirit alike of grace and of humour, and presented in a form exquisitely poetical. If we seek for the essence of the conception we must needs recognise a series of peasant beliefs and rites of a singularly archaic character. If we further note that, so far as the outward guise and figure of his fairies is concerned, Shakespeare is borne out by a series of testimonies reaching back to the twelfth century Gervase of Tilbury and Gerald the Welshman, who give us glimpses of a world of diminutive and tricky sprites — we need not dwell longer at present upon this aspect of elfland, but can turn to the fay of romance.

That Shakespeare derived from mediaeval romance, that is from the Arthurian cycle, from those secondary works of the Charlemagne cycle, which, like Huon of Bordeaux, were modelled upon the Arthur romances, and from the still later purely literary imitations alike of the Arthur and the Charlemagne stories, that he thence, I say, derived both the idea of a fairy realm reproducing the external aspect of a mediaeval court, and also the name of his fairy king, all this is evident. But the Oberon of romance has been regarded as a being totally different in essence and origin from the Robin Goodfellow, the Puck of peasant belief, and their bringing together in the Midsummer Night's Dream. as an inspiration of individual genius. What I shall hope to show is that the two strands of fiction have a common source, and that their union, or rather reunion, is due to deeper causes than any manifestation, however potent, of genius.

What has hitherto been overlooked, or all too insufficiently noted, is the standing association of the fairy world of mediaeval romantic literature with Arthur. Chaucer, in a passage to which I have already alluded, proclaims this unhesitatingly:

"In the olde daies of the King Arthoure
Of which that Bretons speken grete honoure
Al was this land fulfild of fayerye;
The elf-queen with hyr jolly companye
Danced ful oft in many a greene mede."

We first meet the mediaeval fairy in works of the Arthur cycle; as ladies of the lake and fountain, as dwellers in the far-off island paradise of Avalon, as mistresses of or captives in mysterious castles, the enchantments of which may be raised by the dauntless knight whose guerdon is their love and never-ending bliss, these fantastic beings play a most important part in the world of dream and magic haze peopled by Arthur and his knights and their lady loves. If an instance be needed how vital is the connection between Arthur and Faery, it is furnished by the romance of Huon of Bordeaux. As far as place and circumstance and personages are concerned, this romance belongs wholly to the Charlemagne cycle; in It Oberon makes his first appearance as King of Faery, and it is his rôle to protect and sustain the hero, Huon, with the ceaseless indefatigable indulgence which the supernatural counsellor so often displays towards his mortal protégé alike in heroic legend and in popular tale. He finally leaves him his kingdom; but before Huon can enjoy it Oberon must make peace between him and Arthur. "Sir, you know well that your realme and dignity you gave me after your decease," says the British king. In spite of the Carolingian setting, Huon of Bordeaux is at heart an Arthurian hero; and the teller of his fortunes knew full well that Arthur was the claimant to the throne of Faery, the rightful heir to the lord of fantasy and glamour and illusion.

Dismissing for a while consideration of the Arthurian fay, we may ask what is the Arthurian romance, and whence comes it? I am about to enter debateable ground, and you must take on trust statements the full proof of which would demand more time than we can give this evening. To put it briefly, the Arthurian romance is the Norman-French and Anglo-Norman re-telling of a mass of Celtic fairy tales, partly mythic, partly heroic in the shape under which they became known to the French-speaking world, which reached the latter alike from Brittany and from Wales in the course of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Some of these fairy tales have come down to us in Welsh in a form entirely unaffected by French influence, others more or less affected, whilst some of the Welsh versions are simple translations from the French. The nearest analogues to the Welsh-Breton fairy tales preserved to us partly in a Welsh, but mostly in a French dress, are to be found in Ireland. That country possesses a romantic literature which, so far as interest and antiquity of record are concerned, far surpasses that of Wales, and which, in the majority of cases where comparison is possible, is obviously and undoubtedly more archaic in character. The relation between these two bodies of romantic fiction, Irish and Welsh, has not yet been satisfactorily determined. It seems most likely either that the Welsh tales represent the mythology and heroic legend of a Gaelic race akin to the Irish conquered by the Brythons (Welsh), but, as happens at times, passing their traditions on to their conquerors; or else that the Irish storytellers, the dominant literary class in the Celtic world throughout the sixth, seventh, and eighth centuries, imposed their literature upon Wales. My argument does not require me to discuss which of these two explanations has the most in its favour; in either case we must quit Britain and the woodland glades of Shakespeare’s Arden and turn for a while to Ireland.

Examining the fairy belief of modern Ireland or of Gaelic Scotland, we detect at once a great similarity between it and English folklore, whether recoverable from living tradition or from the testimony of Shakespeare’s literature. Many stories and incidents are common to both, many traits and characteristics of the fairy folk are similar. This is especially the case if we rely upon writers, like Crofton Croker for instance, who were familiar with the English literary tradition and may possibly have been influenced by it. But closer examination and reference to more genuinely popular sources reveal important differences. To cite one marked trait, the Irish fairies are by no means necessarily or universally regarded as minute in stature. Two recent and thoroughly competent observers, one, Mr. Leland Duncan of our Society, working in North Ireland,[2] the other, Mr. Jeremiah Curtin, in South Ireland,[3] agree decisively as to this; fairy and mortal are not thought of as differing in size. But what chiefly impresses the student of Irish fairy tradition is the fact that the fairy folk are far more definitely associated with special districts and localities and tribes and families than is the case in England.

We can detect a social organisation in many respects akin to that of mankind, we can draw up a map of fairy Ireland and say, here rules this chieftain, there that chieftainess has sway—nay more, these potentates of the invisible realm are named, we are informed as to their alliances and relationships, we note that their territory and interests seem at times to tally with those of the great septs which represent the tribal organisation of ancient Ireland. O'Brien is not more definitely connected with Munster, O'Connor with Connaught, than is this or that fairy clan.

If we turn from tradition as still recoverable from the lips of the Irish-speaking population of to-day, and investigate the extremely rich store of romantic narratives which, preserved in MSS. dating from 1100 A.D. to fifty years back, represent an evolution of romance extending over fully 1000 years (for the oldest MSS. carry us back some 200 to 300 years from the date of their transcription), we meet the same supernatural personages as figure in contemporary folklore, playing often the same part, endowed with traits and characteristics of a similar kind. Century by century we can trace them back, their attributes varying in detail, but the essence of their being persisting the same, until at last the very oldest texts present them under an aspect so obviously mythological that every unprejudiced and competent student of Irish tradition has recognised in them the dispossessed inmates of an Irish Pantheon. This mysterious race is known in Irish mythic literature as the Tuatha de Danann, the folk of the goddess Danu, and in some of the very oldest Irish tales, tales certainly 900 perhaps 1,100 years old, they are designated by the very term applied to them by the Irish peasant of to-day, aes sidhe, the folk of the sidhe or fairy hillocks.

The tales in which this wizard race figures fall into two well-defined classes. By far the larger portion are heroic sagas, tales that is which describe and exalt the prowess, valour, and cunning of famous champions or chiefs. There are several well-defined cycles of heroic saga in Irish tradition, and their personages are assigned to periods centuries apart. Yet the Tuatha de Danann figure equally in the various cycles—chiefs and champions die and pass away, not they. Undying, unfading, masters and mistresses of inexhaustible delight, supreme in craft and counsel, they appear again and again as opponents and protectors of mortal heroes, as wooers of mortal maidens, as lady-loves of valiant champions. The part they play in these sagas may be more or less prominent, but its character is always secondary; they exist in the story for the convenience of the mortal hero or heroine, to aid in the accomplishment of the humanly impossible, to act as a foil to mortal valour or beauty, to bestow upon mortal champions or princesses the boon of immortal love.

Such is, all too briefly sketched, the nature of this body of romantic fiction. Whoso is familiar with Arthurian romance detects at once an underlying similarity of conception, plot, and incident. In both, specially, does the woman of the immortal race stand before us in clearer outline and more vivid colouring than the man. Nor is the reason far to seek: the mortal hero is the centre of attraction; the love of the fairy maiden who comes from her wonderland of eternal joys lured by his fame is the most striking token and the highest guerdon of his prowess. To depict her in the most brilliant colours is to effectually heighten his glory.

Both these bodies of romantic fiction are in the main variations upon one set of themes—the love of immortal for mortal, the strife or friendly comradeship between hero and god or fairy.

If now we turn back to the living folk-belief of the Irish peasant after our survey of the mediaeval romantic literature we are seemingly at fault. The fairies are the lineal descendants of the Tuatha de Danann; name and attributes and story can be traced, and yet the outcome is so different. The Irish peasant belief of to-day is agricultural in its scope and intent, as is the English—the Irish fairies are bestowers of increase in flock and herd, protectors and fosterers of vegetation, jealous guardians of ancient country rites. In spite of identity of name and attribute, can these beings be really the same as the courtly, amorous wizard-knights and princesses of the romances? The difference is as great as between Oberon and Puck. And yet, as we have seen, the historical connection is undeniable; in Ireland the unity of the fairy world has never been lost sight of as it has in England.

Hitherto I have brouorht before vou stories in which the Tuatha de Danann play a subordinate part because the mortal hero or heroine has to be glorified. But there exists also a group of stories in which these beings are the sole actors, which are wholly concerned with their fortunes. We are in a position to demonstrate that these stories belong to a very early stratum of Irish mythic literature. After the introduction of Christianity into Ireland the tales told of the Tuatha de Danann, the old gods, seem to have considerably exercised the minds of the literary and priestly classes. They were too widely popular to be discarded — how then should they be dealt with? One way was to minimise the fantastic supernatural element and to present the residuum as the sober history of kings and heroes who had lived in the dim ages before Christ. This way was taken, and a large body of resulting literature has come down to us. But a certain number of fragmentary stories, and one long one, to which this minimising, rationalising process has been applied scarcely, if at all, have also been preserved; and these must obviously be older than the rationalised versions. And as the latter can be traced back to the eighth and ninth centuries, the former must belong to the earliest stages of Irish fiction.

Now if we examine these few remains of Irish mythology as contradistinguished from Irish heroic legend, we no longer find the Tuatha de Danann, as in the latter, figuring mainly as amorous wizards and love-lorn princesses whose chief occupation is to intrigue with or against some mortal hero or heroine—they come before us as the divine dramatis personæ of a series of myths the theme of which is, largely, the agricultural prosperity of Ireland, they are associated with the origin and regulation of agriculture, to them are ascribed the institution of festivals aind ceremonies which are certainly of an agricultural character. I cannot give you the evidence in any detail, but I may quote one or two instances. The mythology told of the struggles of the Tuatha de Danann against other clans of supernatural beings; in one of these struggles they overcome their adversaries and capture their king; about to be slain, he seeks to save his life: he offers that the kine of Ireland shall always be in milk, but this does not avail him; then that the men of Ireland should reap a harvest every quarter of the year, but his foes are inexorable; finally he names the lucky days for ploughing and sowing and reaping, and for this he is spared. The mythology which relates the triumph of the Tuatha de Danann also chronicles their discomfiture at the hands of the sons of Mil; but even after these have established their sway over the whole of visible Ireland and driven the Tuatha de Danann into the shelter of the hollow hill, they still have to make terms with them. The chief of the Tuatha de Danann is the Dagda, and this is what an early storyteller says of him: "Great was the power of the Dagda over the sons of Mil, even after the conquest of Ireland; for his subjects destroyed their corn and milk, so that they must needs make a treaty of peace with the Dagda. Not until then, and thanks to his goodwill, were they able to harvest corn and drink the milk of their cows."

There runs moreover throughout these stories a vein of rude and gross buffoonery which contrasts strongly with the character assigned to the Tuatha de Danann in the heroic sagas.

The true character of this mysterious race may now seem evident, and their substantial identity with the fairy of living peasant lore require no further demonstration. But I must quote one passage which shows that the ancient Irish not only possessed a mythology, but also an organised ritual, and that this ritual was of an agricultural sacrificial nature. Tradition ascribes to Patrick the destruction of Cromm Cruaich and his twelve fellow idols which stood on the plains of Mag Slecht.

Here is what Irish mythic legend has to tell of the worship paid to the Cromm:

"He was their god
***** To him without glory
They would kill their piteous wretched offspring
With much wailing and peril
To pour their blood around Cromm Cruaich.
Milk and corn
They would ask from him
In return for one third of their healthy issue."

Such then are the Irish Tuatha de Danann, beings worshipped at the outset with bloody sacrifices in return for the increase of flock and herd and vegetable growth; associated in the oldest mythological tales with the origin and welfare of agriculture; figuring in the oldest heroic tales as lords of a wonderland of inexhaustible delights, unfading youth, and insatiable love; still the objects of peasant reverence and dread; called to this very day, as they were called centuries ago, and still retaining much of the hierarchical organisation and material equipment due to their incorporation in the higher imaginative literature of the race.

The chain of development which can be followed in Ireland can only be surmised in England; but the Irish analogy allows, I think, the conclusion that the fairy of English romance has the same origin as the Tuatha de Danann wizard hero, or princess of Irish romance, in other words the same ultimate origin as the elf or Puck of peasant belief. Thus Oberon and Puck are members of one clan of supernatural beings and not arbitrarily associated by the genius of Shakespeare.

Here let me forestall a possible objection. Shakespeare's fairies are, it may be said, Teutonic, and only Celtic evidence has been adduced in favour of my thesis. I would answer that, so far as the matter in hand is concerned, the antithesis of Celtic and Teutonic is an imaginary one. I use Celtic evidence because, owing to historical causes I shall touch upon presently, Celtic evidence alone is available. That evidence carries us back to a period long antedating the rise of Christianity; and at that period there was, I believe, substantial agreement between Teuton and Celt in their conception of the processes of nature and in the rites and practices by which the relations between man and nature were regulated. The fairy belief of the modern German peasant is closely akin to that of the modern Irish peasant, not because one has borrowed from the other, but because both go back to a common creed expressing itself in similar ceremonies. The attempt to discriminate modern national characteristics in the older stratum of European folklore is not only idle but mischievous, because based upon the unscientific assumption that existing differences, which are the outcome of comparatively recent historical conditions, have always existed. I will only say that, possibly, the diminutive size of the fairy race belongs more especially to Teutonic tradition as developed within the last 2,000 years, and that in so far the popular element in Shakespeare's fairy world is, possibly, Teutonic rather than Celtic.

No, the fairy creed the characteristics of which I have essayed to indicate, and which I have brought into organic connection with the oldest remains of Celtic mythology, was, I hold, common to all the Aryan-speaking people of Europe, to the ancestors of Greek and Roman and Slavs, as well as to the ancestors of Celts and Teutons. I leave aside the question of its origin—the Aryans may, as my friend Mr. Gomme holds, have taken over and developed the ruder faith of the soil-tilling races whom they subjugated and upon whom they imposed their speech. I content myself with noting that it was the common faith of Aryan-speaking Europeans, and further, that Greeks and Celts have preserved its earliest forms, and have embodied it most largely in the completed fabric of their mythology. Let us hark back to Nash's parallel of elves and Robin Goodfellows with the fauns and satyrs of the fantastical world of Greece. The parallel is a valid and illuminating one, for the fauns and satyrs are of the train of Dionysus, and Dionysus in his oldest aspect is a divinity of growth, vegetable and animal, worshipped, placated, and strengthened for his task, upon the due performance of which depends the material welfare of mankind, by ritual sacrifice.

Dionysus was thus at first a god of much the same nature, and standing on the same plane of development, as, by assumption, the Irish Tuatha de Danann. But in his case the accounts are at once fairly early and extensive, in theirs late and scanty. I have quoted, for instance, almost the only direct piece of information we have concerning the ritual of the Irish gods; that of the Greek god, on the other hand, which survived, in a modified and attenuated form, far down into historic times, is known to us in detail. It undoubtedly consisted originally in an act of sacrifice shared in by all the members of a community, who likewise shared the flesh of the victim, which was applied to invigorate alike the indwelling spirit of vegetation and the participating worshippers, who thus entered into communion with their god. The circumstances of these sacrificial rites were originally of savage horror, and the participants were wrought up to a pitch of the wildest frenzy in which they passed beyond the ordinary limits of sense and effort.

Greek evidence not only allows us to reconstitute this ancient ritual, shared in at one time by all Aryan-speaking Europeans, it also enables us to establish a psychological basis upon which the complex and often apparently inconsistent beliefs connected with the fairy world can be reared and built into an orderly structure of thought and imagination. The object of the sacrifice is to reinforce the life alike of nature and of the worshipper; but this implies a conception, however crude, of unending and ever-changing vital essence persisting under the most diverse manifestations: hence the powers worshipped and appealed to, as they slowly crystallise into definite individualities, are necessarily immortal and as necessarily masters of all shapes—the fairy and his realm are unchanging and unfading, the fairy can assume all forms at will. Again, bestower of life and increase as he is, he must, by definition, be liberal and amorous—alike in romance and popular belief, the fairy clan is characterised by inexhaustible wealth and by an amiable readiness to woo and be wooed. The connection of the fairy world with the rites of rustic agriculture is so natural on this hypothesis as to need no further demonstration; but on any other hypothesis it is difficult if not impossible to explain.

I would only note that the practice of sacrifice has only recently become extinct, even if be extinct. And I would urge that the love of neatness and orderly method so characteristic of the fairy world is easily referable to a time when all the operations of rural life formed part of a definite religious ritual, every jot and tittle of which must be carried out with minute precision. Similarly, the practice of carrying off human children has its roots in the conceptions of the fairy as the lord and giver of life. For, reasoned early man, life is not an inexhaustible product, the fairy must be fed as well as the mortal; hence the necessity for sacrifice, for renewing the stock of vitality which the fairy doled out to his devotee. But this source of supply might be insufficient, and the lords of life might, from the outset, be regarded as on the look-out for fresh supplies; or else, when the practice of sacrifice fell into disuse, the toll levied regularly in the old days upon human life might come to wear in the popular mind the aspect of raids upon human by an unhuman society.

Many of the phenomena of fairydom thus find a reasonable—nay, inevitable—interpretation in the conceptions inherent to the cult; others are referable to the ritual in which it found expression.[4] The participants in these rites met by night; by rapid motion prolonged to exhaustion, by the monotonous repetition of music maddening to the senses, by sudden change from the blackness of night to the fierce flare of torch and bonfire, in short by all the accompaniments of the midnight worship which we know to have characterised the cult of Dionysus among the mountains of Thrace, and which we may surmise to have characterised similar cults elsewhere, they provoked the god-possessed ecstasy in which Maenad and Bassarid, with senses exacerbated to insensibility, rent asunder the living victim and devoured his quivering flesh. The devotees were straightway justified in their faith; for in this state of ecstasy they became one with the object of their worship, his powers and attributes were theirs for the time, they passed to and were free of his wonderland full of every delight that could allure and gratify their senses.

Have we not in rites such as these the source of tales found everywhere in the peasant fairy lore of Europe and represented with special vividness in Celtic folklore? At night the belated wanderer sees the fairy host dancing their rounds in many a green mead; allured by the strange enchantment of the scene he draws near, he enters the round. If he ever reappears, months, years, or even centuries have passed, seeming but minutes to him, so keen and all absorbing has been the joy of that fairy dance. But oftener he never returns and is known to be living on in Faery, in the land of undeath and unalloyed bliss.

Here, if I am right, living tradition has preserved the memory of a cult which the Greek of two thousand years back held to be of immemorial antiquity. Historical mythology and current tradition confirm and interpret each other. Yet it would, I think, be an error to regard the persistence and wide spread of the story as due to the impression made upon the popular mind by the fierce and dark rites of which it is an echo. Rather has it survived because it sums up in one vivid symbol so many aspects of the fairy world. It not only kept alive a memory, it satisfied a psychological demand.

Indeed, when an incident has become an organic portion of a myth—and to do this it must fulfil logical and psychological requirements which are none the less real because they differ from those we should frame—the connection persists so long as the myth retains a spark of life. We saw that the deities which were gradually elaborated out of the primitive spirits of vegetation are essentially amorous and endowed with the power of transformation or reincarnation. A vivid form of expressing this idea is to represent the god amorous of a mortal maiden, and father by her of a semi-divine son whose nature partakes of his own, and who is at times a simple incarnation of himself. What further contributed to the vogue and persistence of this incident was that it lent itself admirably to the purposes of heroic legend; the eponymous founder, the hero par excellence of a race could always be connected in this way with the clan of the immortals. We meet the incident at all stages of development. At times, as in the case of Arthur, or of Cuchulinn, son of Lug, the Irish Apollo-Dionysus, it has become wholly heroicised, and the semi-divine child has to conform to the heroic standard; at other times, as in the case of Merlin, or of Mongan, son of Manannan mac Lir, the Irish sea-god, the wonder-child manifests his divine origin by craft and guile rather than by strength and valour; in especial he possesses the art of shape-shifting, which early man seems to have regarded as the most valuable attribute of godhead. There exists a tract entitled, Robin Goodfellow; His Mad Pranks and Merry Jests, &c. The only known edition bears the date 1628, and it has been much debated if it was composed before or after the Midsummer Night's Dream. Mr. Chambers inclines to the latter opinion. Now in this tract, Robin Goodfellow is son of the fairy king by a maiden whom he came nightly to visit, "but early in the morning he would go his way whither she knew not, he went so suddainly." Later, the son has a vision, in which he beholds the dances and hears the strains of fairyland, and when he awakes he finds lying by his side a scroll, beginning with these words:

"Robin, my only sonne and heire,"

in which the father promises, amongst other gifts:

"Thou hast the power to change thy shape
To horse, to hog, to dog, to ape;"

and assures him:

"If thou observe my just command
One day thou shalt see Fayry Land"

I believe that in this doggrel chap-book we have the worn-down form of the same incident found in the legends of Arthur and Merlin, of Cuchulinn and Mongan, told also in Greek mythology of no less a person than Dionysus, son of Zeus and Semele, the mischievous youth who, as we learn from the Homeric Hymn, amused himself by frightening Greek sailors by transformation tricks of much the same nature as those dear to Puck.

We may now revert to our starting point, to the question why should the fairy world be specially prominent in English literature, a question which, if asked before, has doubtless been answered by unmeaning generalities about national temperament. But national temperament is the outcome of historic conditions and circumstances which exist none the less though we cannot always trace them. In essaying an answer I will pick up the various dropped threads of the investigation and endeavour to weave them into one connected strand.

Mythology presupposes beliefs and also rites in which those beliefs find practical expression. Rites comprise forms of words and symbolic acts. The form of words, the liturgic chant may develop into a narrative, the symbolic act may require explanation and give rise to another narrative. As the intellectual and religious horizon of the worshipping race widens, these narratives are amplified, are differentiated, are enriched with new fancies and conceptions. In course of time the narratives crystallize around special divine beings; and as these latter develop and acquire fresh attributes, so their attendant narrative groups, their myths, may come to transcend the germ whence they have sprung, and to symbolise conceptions of such far wider scope as to obscure the connection between origin and completed growth. This happened in Greece with the Dionysus myths, but not until they had been noted at such a stage as to allow recognition of their true nature. Greek mythology conquered Rome, entirely driving out the old Roman myths (many of which had probably progressed little beyond the agricultural stage), although the religious conservatism of Rome maintained the rites in an archaic form, Rome conquered Southern and much of Western Europe and imposed Greek mythology in Latin dress upon these lands. But in Western Europe Ireland, wholly, and Britain, partly, escaped Roman influence. Celtic mythology, starting from the same basis as Greek Dionysus mythology, was left at liberty to develop upon its own lines. The Greek Dionysiac myths, expanding with the marvellous expansion of the Hellenic genius, grew away from their primitive rustic basis, and connection was broken between the peasant creed and the highest imaginative literature. Celtic mythology developed likewise, but to an extent as far less as the Celt had lagged behind the Greek in the race of civilisation. The old gods, themselves an outcome of the primitive agricultural creed, were transformed into the wizard champions and enchantresses of the romances, but they remained in touch with their earliest forms; the link between the fairy of the peasant and the fairy of literature (for heroic saga is literature although traditional literature) was never wholly snapped; and when the time came for the highest imagination of the race to turn to the old pre-Christian world for inspiration, in these islands alone was there a literary convention which still led back to the wealth of incident and symbol preserved by the folk. In these islands alone, I say, and why? Because the Arthurian romance, that form of imaginative literature which revealed Celtic Mythology to the world, although it entered English later than it did either French or German literature, although France first gave it to all mankind, and Germany bestowed upon it its noblest medieval form, yet here it was at home, on the Continent it was an alien. When the destined hour struck and the slumbering princess of Faery should awake, it was the youngest quester who gave the releasing kiss and won her to be his bride; if we seek their offspring we may find it in the English poetry of the last three centuries.

When the destined hour had struck! for the princess might not be roused from her slumber before the appointed time. We all know the sixteenth century as the age of Renaissance and Reform. But what is implied precisely by these words? For over a thousand years the compromise come to between Christianity and the pre-Christian world had subsisted subject, as are all things, to fluctuation and modification, but retaining, substantially, its outline and animating spirit. At last it yielded before the onslaught of two different forces, sympathetic knowledge of the pre-Christian classic world, and desire to revert to the earliest form of Christianity before the latter had effected its compromise with classic civilisation. The men who had passed through the impact of these forces upon their hearts and brains could no longer look upon the pre-Christian world, under whatever form it appeared to them, with the same eyes as the men of the Middle Ages. It stimulated their curiosity, it touched their imagination, it was fraught to them with problems and possibilities their predecessors never dreamt of. out the literature of the sixteenth century we may note the same pre-occupation with romantic themes which are older than, and outside, Christianity. In Italy, as was but natural, the purely classic side of the revival predominated, and the romantic poems of Pulci, Berni, and Ariosto, are only brilliant examples of conscious literary art; in France, peasant folklore and romance formed the groundwork of the great realistic burlesque in which the chief master of French prose satirised the society of his day and sketched the society of his dreams; in Germany, no supreme literary genius arose to voice the tendency of the age, but there was developed the last of the great impersonal legends of the world, the story of Faustus, ready to the hands of Germany's master poet when he should come, and reminding us that wizardcraft has the same ultimate origin as, and is but the unholy and malign side of, the fairy belief. In England, where Celtic mythology had lived on as the Arthurian romance, where the latter, although a late comer, was at home, where alone literature had not been wholly divorced from folk-belief, Shakespeare created his fairy world.

Since his days, fairydom became, chiefly owing to the perfection of his embodiment, a mere literary convention and gradually lost life and savour. Instead of the simpering puppets—stock properties of a machine-made children's literature—to which the fairies have been degraded, I have brought before you to-night beings of ancient and awful aspect, elemental powers, mighty, capricious, cruel, and benignant as is Nature herself. I believe that the fairy creed, this ancient source of inspiration, of symbolic interpretation of man's relation to nature, is not yet dried up, and that English literature, with its mixed strain of Teutonic and Celtic blood, with its share in the mythologies of both these races, and in especial with its claim to the sole body of mythology and romance, the Celtic, which grew up wholly unaffected by classic culture, is destined to drink deeply of it in the future as in the past, and to find in it the material for new creations of undying beauty.

  1. Mr. Lang calls my attention to the fact that Jeanne d'Arc disbelieved in the fairies whose existence was credited by her fellow-villagers, and beneath whose sacred trees she received the first incitings to her mission. I venture to think the instance confirms what I advance in the text; Jeanne's belief in a higher order of supernatural manifestations was strong enough to carry her beyond her traditional faith, just as the cultured man's higher intellectual knowledge carries him also beyond it.
  2. Folk-Lore, June, 1896.
  3. Cf. Tales of the Fairies, and of the Ghost World, collected from oral tradition in South-West Munster, London, 1895
  4. I again repeal that I do not attempt to account here for all the elements of the fairy creed. But those upon which I lay stress are, I believe, the root and guiding conceptions of this most antique of all faiths.