Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Terry and the Bad Fairies, by Steve Gladwin

It's lovely to be invited to write a regular blog here. I hope to share with you a few intriguing ideas and obsessions. So dear reader - let us begin.

Elves are wonderful. They provoke wonder.

You can’t really say what a faerie looks like. It appears only as it desires to. All you see is that illusion, that glamour. Whatever appearance the faerie chooses, gives you your sole reference point. A fairy has you believe what it wants you to believe. Should you fail to understand that lesson ----

Elves are marvellous. They cause marvels.

Many prefer to think of fairies as tiny, delicate wisps, like the Cottingley fairies who danced so prettily around the girls in their starched Victorian white. Or perhaps rosy cheeked mischief makers like Arthur Rackham’s cherubic Puck. In another Rackham picture however, there is a sinister lurking presence in the background of Titania’s bower. This too is Puck. He is no longer so sweet, (if he ever was), but the gleeful servant of his dark master. (My mistress with a monster is in love!)

I learnt to tell the difference early on when I was lucky enough to be given a dream trio of books to study for GCE English. Not only A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but Cider with Rosie and To Kill A Mocking Bird by Harper Lee were gifted to me. In one fell swoop I was taught about magic and illusion, introduced to sex and cider behind a hay cart, and learnt the importance of combatting intolerance and bigotry. I also learnt that faeries could be bad.

Elves are fantastic. They create fantasies

In twenty years of being a pagan druid, I’ve met many people who claim to have seen faeries. Many of these are people whose judgement I trust. I’ve spent many happy performance hours playing and directing versions of Oberon and I still know all his speeches. I was even hand fasted to a Midsummer Night’s Dream theme. I love faeries at their baddest and have little patience with the Victorian flower fairy version. If Oberon and the rest were to begin behaving reasonably, I’d feel let down.

Elves are glamorous. They project glamour.

At the moment I’m writing a book about the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams and faerie. It’s fiction of course, but I was amazed to learn recently that his last unfinished work was to be an opera based on the stories of both Thomas the Rhymer and Tam Lin. It seems to make an eerie sort of sense of my own wild fictional imaginings, but it also unites two of the most well known of the stories of English faerie. Each, however similar, seem to carry an opposite message. On the one hand we have true Thomas of Erceldoune, choosing to follow the Queen of faerie to Elfland, (Childe Ballad 37) but allowed to leave when his own life is forfeit because of the ‘tithe' that must be paid to hell’. On the other there is Tam Lin, the kidnapped Lord of Roxburgh (Childe ballad no 39) made captive in his youth by (maybe even the same) faerie queen. Fair Janet battles for his very soul, as her lover's form switches between lion, serpent and a fierce hot brand.

Elves are enchanting. They weave enchantment.

So are these examples of good and bad faeries?  Or are they just the same faery in different moods? How do we know which version we’re going to meet? Will it be the faeries of the seelie court, -- supposedly the goodies, or those of the unseelie court, who can be as nasty as they come? In my favourite modern fantasy trilogy, The Fionavar Tapestry, Guy Gavriel Kay uses a similar idea by dividing his elves into the Unseelie svart alfar, _ (a name also used by Alan Garner in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen,  and the Seelie like, lios alfar. As he spent a year preparing The Silmarillion with Christopher Tolkein, he was surely in a good place to recognise that there might be more than one side of faerie. 

Elves are terrific. They beget terror.

It’s very clear in which court the 'gentleman with the thistledown hair', belongs in Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. He seems to exist solely to tease and manipulate and destroy. He feasts on exotic and extinct fauna, has a castle surrounded by dead men’s bones and takes great relish in the hunting and destruction of a whole pack of wolves. However his sustained and, more often than not, unwelcome acts of kindness to Stephen Black, show him more quixotic in this instance at least. He is by a long way the villain of the piece. However neither by the end of the book can we be wholly sure of the true nature of the John Uskglass, the Raven King, whose shadowy presence grows throughout the book.  His role is left deliberately ambiguous, with only clues to what he might be when he - Lord Voldemort like, returns in his full power!

Terry Pratchett understood bad faeries better than most. Lords and Ladies has a chill undercurrent throughout, for all the jokes about dwarf Casanovas with step ladders, royal falconers called Hodges aargh and anything done by the magnificently bawdy Nanny Ogg. His faery lords and presiding Lady cannot understand the idea of cruelty because it does not form part of their moral compass. Poking someone harder when they are already being tortured, just seems like a good idea to them. It takes the reader a while to realise that lurking in the background of Lords and Ladies is the faerie plot of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Thus in order to prevent ‘Titania’ from allowing her anger at the royal estrangement to wreck things any further for the human world, ("We are their parents and original'), Nanny Ogg and her dwarf paramour venture underground to have it out with ‘Oberon’. Essentially they request him to have a word with the Mrs. 

Nanny succeeds in the sort of task few would dare try, because, despite all the jokes, she’s a very powerful witch herself. In the end however it is her friend Esme who discovers the only way to beat the queen. Maybe Granny Weatherwax doesn’t understand the concept of defeat. She probably wouldn’t accept it even if she did.

No-one ever said elves are nice

In the last few years of his writing life, Terry Pratchett returned to both the witches and the world of faerie in his Tiffany Aching books. The final book in the series, The Shepherd’s Crown, is the last book of his to be released. I like the idea that like Vaughan Williams, almost the last thing he set down was about faeries.

 There are of course many other characters in literature who have discovered to their cost that a faerie is none of those things it either appears to be, or others have had us believe. Maybe they just needed an Esmerelda Weatherwax in their corner. She could tell a bad faery from a good faery. Elves were all the same as far as she was concerned.

Elves are bad.

Quotations from Lords and Ladies by Terry and Lyn Pratchett 1992

A Midsummer Night's Dream by William Shakespeare

Steve Gladwin

Author of The Seven published by Pont Books 2013
Shortlisted for Tir na n-Og prize 2014

'I really like its rigour, its pace, its wit and the way you step so 'lightly and fiercely through the window between the worlds.'

Kevin Crossley Holland

Find out more about The Seven here.


Kelly McKain said...

Hi Steve, I love this - makes me want to go and re-read the Faerie Queene (if I had the odd several months!). Made me want to share this song with you (which you might know anyway) Enjoy!

Mary Hoffman said...

Me too, Steve. And my latest novel Shakespeare's Ghost, which you and the St Bernards did so much to help bring into the world, features some bad or at least amoral faeries and a version of the Tam Lin story.

Sue Purkiss said...

How intriguing, Mary! Particularly about the St Bernards...

Steve Gladwin said...

Thanks all of you. Lovely to hear from you Kelly - how's the screenplay going? Will enjoy this.
Ah the nonnywrimo St Bernards are legendary Sue. Ever reliable with everything the stuck writer requires in their barrels. The book sounds wonderful Mary.x