Category Archives: fairies

Shakespeare’s Fairies as Dreams

Henry Fuseli - The Nightmare - 1781

Henry Fuseli - The Nightmare - 1781

We see them only at the edge of sight, in dreams, so it’s no wonder that we are often confused by them. But the Bard did a turn with dreams of various sorts, and in his sight was keener than most others. See how he did his research:

Henry Fuseli - Fairy Mab - c1815-20

Henry Fuseli - Fairy Mab - c1815-20

“O, then, I see Queen Mab hath been with you.
She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes
In shape no bigger than an agate-stone
On the fore-finger of an alderman,
Drawn with a team of little atomies
Athwart men’s noses as they lie asleep;”
— William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio’s Speech

But Mab, she seems to have been plucked out of that nowhere we visit each night (which is her realm). But it was good enough for at least one other poet with a gothic tale.

Turner - Queen Mab's Cave

J. M. W. Turner, Queen Mab's Cave, 1846

Behold the chariot of the Fairy Queen!
Celestial coursers paw the unyielding air;
Their filmy pennons at her word they furl
And stop obedient to the reins of light;
These the Queen of Spells drew in;
She spread a charm around the spot,
And, leaning graceful from the ethereal car,
Long did she gaze, and silently,
Upon the slumbering maid.
— Percy Bysshe Shelley, Queen Mab; A Philosophical Poem; With Notes

Arthur Rackham, A Fairy, A Midsummer Night's Dream, 1906

Perhaps even the Bard was confused for there is another with that title named Titania. Or perhaps Faerie is broad enough for multiple monarchs. At any rate, more celebrated than Mab, and older than any modern literature, is Oberon’s consort, whose dreams are made from fairies’ lullabies:

Henry Fuseli - Titania Awakening - 1785-90

Henry Fuseli - Titania Awakening - 1785-90

Weaving spiders, come not here;
Hence, you long-legg’d spinners, hence!
Beetles black, approach not near;
Worm nor snail, do no offence.
— William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream

But it’s well she were asleep, for in other forms that goddess is also the huntress we dare not bother as she bathes:

Hendrick van Balen -- Diana and Actaeon

Hendrick van Balen -- Diana and Actaeon

While Titania is bathing there, in her accustomed place, Cadmus’s grandson, free of his share of the labour, strays with aimless steps through the strange wood, and enters the sacred grove. So the fates would have it. As soon as he reaches the cave mouth dampened by the fountain, the naked nymphs, seeing a man’s face, beat at their breasts and filling the whole wood with their sudden outcry, crowd round Diana to hide her with their bodies. But the goddess stood head and shoulders above all the others. Diana’s face, seen there, while she herself was naked, was the colour of clouds stained by the opposing shafts of sun, or Aurora’s brightness.
— Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book 3

The Meeting of Oberon and Titania, by Arthur Rackham (1905)

Since Theseus is also referenced later in tale, it seems Ovid and Shakespeare had the same dream (or perhaps Shakespeare read rather widely, but that’s between us). At any rate, sweet dreams.

Image Links: Arthur Rackham at ArtsyCraftsy, Henry Fuselli at Art History Archive, Hendrick van Balen at Hellenica

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Fairies Prefer to Fly

Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens: Fallen Leaf, Arthur Rackham.

"There is almost nothing that has such a keen sense of fun as a fallen leaf" from Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens: Fallen Leaf, Arthur Rackham.

We were reviewing the various Arthur Rackham resources in our library (we like to call it that despite its disorganized state) in search of a particular image. The various fairies looked up over the pages to see if they could help. This being winter (and there had been snow), we were surprised that there were still leaves that could be blown.

Exquisite Fairy Dancing by Arthur Rackham

"Exquisite Fairy Dancing " from Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens: Arthur Rackham.

But fairies are nothing if not resourceful and prefer flight to other means of transportation even when they are feeling “dancey.”

A Fairy, Arthur Rackham

A Fairy, Arthur Rackham

At any rate, all the music, dancing and urging towards flight forced us to find the best means of keeping them from causing mayhem or tying up the cats! So we thought that postcards would be a good means of getting the fairies involved in better things than this usual mischief.

Puck and a Fairy (from A Midsummer Night's Dream) by Arthur Rackham

If you need fairies to help you send messages to fellow mortals via postcards, you will find them here.

Image sources: Arthur Rackham

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Fairy Politics in Shakespeare: The Quarrel Between Oberon & Titania

The Meeting of Oberon and Titania, by Arthur Rackham (1905)

The Meeting of Oberon and Titania, by Arthur Rackham (1905)

In Act II Scene 1 of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare walks us right into the middle of an argument:

Ill met by moonlight, proud Titania.

What, jealous Oberon! Fairies, skip hence:
I have forsworn his bed and company.

Tarry, rash wanton: am not I thy lord?

This is more than a marital spat, and more than simply a royal argument since these are gods (albeit diminutive.) Arguments between gods often have cosmic consequences that affect all mortals (like you and me) so it is important that we analyze Faerie politics in this (moon)light.

Puck and a Fairy (from A Midsummer Night's Dream) by Arthur Rackham

Puck and a Fairy (from A Midsummer Night's Dream) by Arthur Rackham

The consequences don’t seem to bother the other fairies very much as earlier in the scene we are treated to banter between Puck and one of Titania’s followers:

Those that Hobgoblin call you and sweet Puck,
You do their work, and they shall have good luck:
Are not you he?

Thou speak’st aright;
I am that merry wanderer of the night.

The argument is ostensibly about a changeling from India in Titania’s train who was the son of one of her priestesses. Oberon desires this child as well, though we who are not brought up in English folktale traditions do not understand exactly why. But apparently followers,  especially imported ones, are the currency of power, and as a result are a matter of highest importance to the powers of Faerie (and as well, come to think of it, our own mortal politics.) We are later revealed a more complex exchange between the two monarchs of Faerie:

But that, forsooth, the bouncing Amazon,
Your buskin’d mistress and your warrior love,
To Theseus must be wedded, and you come
To give their bed joy and prosperity.

How canst thou thus for shame, Titania,
Glance at my credit with Hippolyta,
Knowing I know thy love to Theseus?

Ah! So we are really talking about earthly politics as well. The pending marriage between Theseus and Hippolyta, both earthly powers (albeit mythical) has revealed hidden tensions among the immortals.

There could be much more to be said about the psychology and political motives of the fairies, but I believe it is not entirely possible to analyze these effectively since they are more than likely to resort to magic:

Yet mark’d I where the bolt of Cupid fell:
It fell upon a little western flower,
Before milk-white, now purple with love’s wound,
And maidens call it love-in-idleness.
Fetch me that flower; the herb I shew’d thee once:
The juice of it on sleeping eye-lids laid
Will make or man or woman madly dote
Upon the next live creature that it sees.
Fetch me this herb; and be thou here again
Ere the leviathan can swim a league.

I’ll put a girdle round about the earth
In forty minutes.

This interesting exchange is difficult to understand for those who have forgotten the practice of magic. (Interestingly, it also reveals that there were reasonably accurate clocks in mythical Athenian times, at least among the fairies of  Shakespeare.)

Wake When some vile thing is near, by Warwick Goble

Wake When some vile thing is near, by Warwick Goble

Since this writer has not practiced magic for some years now, he feels it best to avoid further commentary at this point or risk being enmeshed in arguments between unearthly powers.

Image credits: 

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How Did Fairies Get Their Wings?

Mr. Salford and the Albert Memorial in Kensington Garden

"Mr. Salford and the Albert Memorial in Kensington Garden" by Arthur Rackham

Search Google images for “fairies” and you find pages of diminutive human-like magical creatures with insect wings, often with pointed or animal ears and occasionally with antennae. Too often, this stereotypical fairy is at odds with the literature that produced her. No mention of such features appears in any literature preceding Elizabethan England, nor in Shakespeare, nor Spenser and both used fairies in the same manner as greek mythology did, as either nature spirits (nymphs and satyres and the like) or gods rather than magical creatures.

Not that mythical worlds could not conceive of winged beings, but these are in fact quite rare. The only winged beings among the Greeks were Nike and various monsters including Pegasus, and these are individuals rather than classes of beings, and almost none of the anthropomorphic beings prior to the Christian era sprouted wings, though these were found frequently in Etruscan tombs which probably contributed to the popular concept of angels and demons throughout the middle ages up to today. But these are not fairies in the literary tradition, and it is only in that tradition where this image of fairies seems to exist.

The appearance of winged fairies seems to have coincided with the industrial revolution, by which point the concept of the fairy story had been relegated to the nursery since adults were supposed to be rational and no longer deal with such matters, so by the Victorian era the concept of fairy became more childlike, and also linked to formal gardens, and these nature spirits of mythology evolved features drawn from children, insects and flowers. These are certainly very much in evidence in todays popular art of fairies.

Fairy Song (from A Midsummer Night's Dream) by Arthur Rackham

Fairy Song (from A Midsummer Night's Dream) illustrated by Arthur Rackham

It was in keeping with this style that Arthur Rackham provided wings for some of the fairies in his illustrations for A Midsummer Nights Dream. Shakespeare makes no reference in any of their speech. It is, after all, a tale blending greek mythology and English oral tradition of fairy beings so his inclusion of these seem fitting somehow, at least to his Edwardian audience who grew up with Victorian sensibilities.

"The fairies have their tiffs with the birds" from Peter Pan in Kensington Garden illustrated by Arthur Rackham

"The fairies have their tiffs with the birds" from Peter Pan in Kensington Garden illustrated by Arthur Rackham

As well in Peter Pan in Kensington Palace, Rackham also provides these generously even though there is no reference to any of the fairies having wings, but plenty of references to the dealings of these with the birds, who are the only truly winged creatures in the story. Although there is no mention of wings, Barrie’s narrative style is more suggestive than explicit and probably expected this feature of fairies to be assumed by his audience.

Edmund Dulac, Sulamith Wulfing and others also contributed many fairy images, but they were less likely to provide them with non-human appendages, but they certainly did provide them with that necessary magical quality to grant us the sense of wonder that fairies are known to bestow.

Image sources: Rackham gallery at Artsy Craftsy

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