Dark Green - Some Disturbing Thoughts about Faeries
© Jeremy Harte 1998
Published Samhain 1998
The sleep of reason produces monsters; inversions, caricatures of what we know to be right and sensible. Sometimes the fancies of the night seem more substantial than the sober thoughts of daytime. The dreams of a folklorist are especially subject to this kind of inversion. Consider two magazine pieces published by that Victorian litterateur, Grant Allen of Haslemere. One is a serious contribution to folklore scholarship, while the other is its dark parody. But the night-time version is far more revealing. It says a great deal about the mind of its author; but it also tells us something about a hidden strand in twentieth-century paganism.
Novelist, freethinker and evolutionary theorist, Allen was much in tune with the spirit of his times, and had mastered an easy style which could be turned to most themes. In a piece for the Cornhill Magazine he addressed the subject of fairies. It was very curious that the English peasantry should believe with such tenacity in creatures who did not exist; at least, as far as he was concerned they did not exist. What could have inspired the idea of fairies? They were a little people, who used flint arrowheads and dreaded iron. That suggested Stone Age man, about whom so much had recently been discovered. They were to be met with in grassy hillocks, the ancient burial mounds of that people. So fairies were the ghosts of Neolithic man, dimly remembered and feared by subsequent races. QED, thought Grant Allen, or at least the rational side of him did.
But there was another side to him, which had its say in a short story written ten years later. Rudolph Reeve, 'a journalist and a man of science' - which means a transferred version of the author himself - is staying at a country house in the New Forest. A long barrow dominates the neighbouring heath. At supper, the little girl of the house - who has been listening to old rustics and gypsies, contrary to her mother's instructions - tells how lights are seen on the barrow at night, and that something can be felt down there, faint and dim, clutching at the living. The guests retire for bed, Rudolph among them, once he has taken a sleeping draught - a preparation of cannabis. He overestimates the dose.
Waking in the night, he feels compelled to return to the old mound on the heath, to walk around it widdershins, and to call on it to open. The black passage into the hills opens up for him, and he is at once surrounded by the ghosts of savages - naked, hideous and cruel. They urge him on towards their leader, a skeletal figure, who is waiting to drink the hot blood of the living. Shadowy cords bind him fast: Rudolph feels the savages rush at him with their flint knives, whose blades are not ghostly but real. With an effort, he pulls out his own knife, which being iron repels the elfish creatures, and stumbles out of the mound onto the open heath, where he collapses until found by a search party the next morning.
Odd dreams to haunt the imagination of a freethinker and materialist. Grant Allen's interest in the fairy domain seems to have been revived by two books, both of which came out the year before Pallinghurst Barrow was written, and which are both woven into its narrative. One is the English Fairy Tales of Joseph Jacobs, which includes a retelling of the legend of Childe Roland, the young prince who goes in search of his sister - who has been abducted by the King of Elfland - and finds her in a green hill. Jacobs discusses this hill in the context of Maes Howe and other chambered tombs.
'You've seen MacRitchie's latest work, I suppose?', says one of the guests at dinner. The other book of the moment, The Testimony of Tradition , was an attempt to explain the fairies on rational grounds. They were a stunted hairy race, driven into wild places by the more successful iron-wielding warriors of later tribes; their earth-houses, built like hut-circles roofed over with turf, looked like little hills or barrows, and so inspired the tradition of their living underground. MacRitchie worked out his ideas with infectious enthusiasm; fairies who enter a houses through a chimney are a misunderstanding of primitive Picts swarming in and out of their houses through the smokehole, and so on. The theory raised a stir among members of the Folklore Society, and there was much argument for and against it until a later generation of researchers grew weary of attempts to explain away legends in this fashion. MacRitchie had pillaged details out of context and piled them together in a composite narrative, a technique later brought to perfection by Margaret Murray, but one which ceased to command much assent from scholars.
MacRitchie's theory aimed to strip away the supernatural glamour from fairyland and leave a historical residue behind. Curiously, the most cogent opposition to it came from a fellow Scot - Andrew Lang - who was the only member of the Folklore Society with a commitment to psychic research. Having admitted to himself that supernatural claims might be genuine, he was less likely than his colleagues to be charmed by a theory which could only give them the status of truth by recasting them as historical misunderstandings. The Testimony of Tradition is, on the face of it, a sensible historical hypothesis. And yet by claiming that fairies are in some sense real, it prompts some much more subversive readings. Grant Allen had picked up on these. He was not the only one.
William Gregg was a professor of ethnology - a fictional one: we are back in a short story, this time by Arthur Machen. 'But amidst these more sober and accurate studies I always detected a something hidden, a longing and desire for some object to which he did not allude'.. He has found an ancient stone with strange lettering on it, and on learning that the same writing has been found on the grey hills of the Welsh border, he moves house to Monmouthshire. There Gregg plunges into the study of fairy lore, and soon realises that the playful and charming tales told of the little people were merely a disguise for something older and far more grim. The abductions and murders attributed to them were real enough, and have been occurring from a remote period until the present day. Soon after, he insists on taking as servant an idiot boy. This child was born about eight months after his mother had been found, weeping like a lost soul, on the grey hills. He is subject to fits, in which he talks a strange jargon, to which the professor listens intently, and whose words are neither Welsh nor English. At length, after the longest of the boy's fits, he is carried into Gregg's study, and there in the still of the night the professor speaks the words which bring the idiot child into awareness of his true ancestry, which is subhuman, formless, and possessed of supernatural powers. Vindicated in his hypothesis, Gregg sets out the next morning for the grey hills: and is heard of no more.
After this, the Little People took hold of Machen's imagination; as well as this account in The Black Seal, they feature in The Great God Pan , where there is more of the demon and less of the fairy in their character. In The White People they are invoked by a young girl, innocently unconscious of the horrible things with which she is trading. Slowly, her nurse is teaching her certain dances and games - old country customs, which have queer effects; and, growing up in a lonely country, she has no contact with the outside world who can tell her what she is really doing.
Wild and lonely country, which lies at the heart of all these narratives, is particularly prominent in No-Man's Land , John Buchan's reworking of the theme. Buchan follows MacRitchie in favouring a Scots setting, and also in excluding the supernatural from the story. Graves of St. Chads, an Oxford man, is talking to one of his students about traditions of the Brownie and the Picts. He is shown an eccentric's scrapbook, one which starts with extracts from local folklore, but continues with newspaper cuttings reporting the disappearance of young girls, and the horrible deaths of men in lonely shielings. Thoughts of this recur to him as he goes on a fishing holiday to a mountainous district on the edge of the Highland Line. The old shepherd with whom he is lodging tells stories of faces in the mist and footsteps round the house at night; he is almost driven mad by the thought that there are devils in the hills, and by way of proof he shows what has been left during a raid on his sheepfold - a stone arrowhead. The adventure continues with Graves' capture by the Folk of the Hills, and his imprisonment in the caverns which are their hiding place. The sister of his friend the shepherd is also brought into these underground chambers; she is prepared as a human sacrifice, but at this climactic moment the hillside is shattered by a rockfall, and they both break free. In Oxford, Graves is met by universal disbelief, and he destroys himself in repeated attempts to return to the hills in search of proof.
The Folk in Buchan's story are a natural race of men; and yet everything about the way in which they are presented hints at something more eerie. Their small outlines, rough and hairy, are seen fleetingly against a background of darkness and mist; they inspire a frantic loathing and dread. MacRitchie's work, which set out to strip away superstitious accretions from a real origin, has been subverted: here, the members of his Pictish race are described as if they were devils incarnate.
Surprisingly, the next scholarly work in the series - one which does purport to deal with incarnate devils - paints a very prosaic picture of them. In The God of the Witches , Margaret Murray's view of the Neolithic survivors is a domestic one. True, she speaks of the fear and horror which they inspired among town-dwellers, but the home life of the fairy race is much more humdrum. They sit milking their cattle, or spinning within the shelter of their turf-covered huts; occasionally they drop in on a villager to run off some weaving on the loom or borrow a cup of oatmeal. A little under the average height, they are nevertheless dressed in contemporary clothes, more or less elaborately according to rank, and can mingle with a crowd of villagers without suspicion. There is often intermarriage between the two communities. In the Tudor period, the fairy folk become completely absorbed into the main population, after their traditional pastures have been taken over by the expansion of sheep-farming.
This is a far cry from Buchan's hellish dwarfs, but there is better yet to come. Writing as an amateur anthropologist - and as someone with practical experience of natives in the jungles of Malaya - Gerald Gardner was content to accept everything that his predecessors had written about the ways of the little people of the heath. The underground huts, the matriarchal queen, the poisoned flint arrowheads: all the usual references feature once more in Witchcraft Today . Following Murray - and Charles Leland's Aradia before her - he takes it for granted that the race of fairies was also that of the witches. With each invasion of the land, the dispossessed were driven into the abandoned places, and every stratum from Stone Age tribesmen to the last pagans found themselves in a common bond. Unlike the earlier scholars, Gardner was convinced that the little heath people really had strange powers. Isolated from the world, ancient and inbred, they had kept the skills in magic which were once the common property of primitive man. Arthur Machen had said much the same thing, only his language was that of the supernaturalist, whereas Gardner used the breezy scientific terms of parapsychology. And how does he come to know these things about the ancient race? Because he has seen them. After centuries of intermarriage and secret survival, the blood of the little heath people flows in the veins of witches in the New Forest coven. Gerald Gardner, Doctor of Philosophy, has met and danced with the fairies.
So the line between day and night, scholarship and fiction, ceases to be a boundary. The Gardner who writes Witchcraft Today is also the author of High Magic's Aid , and both books are about the same thing. But then supernaturalist fiction has always relied on the language of scholarship to lend it authority. Sometimes this is a mere trick of style, like Buchan's meticulous citation of passages from the fictitious Allerfoot Advertiser to report the doings of his frightful Folk. Sometimes the literary technique conceals something deeper. The scholar's search to understand - to collate fragments, to uncover a pattern - there is something occult about this. M.R. James, with his haunted antiquaries, understood it well. The bibliophiles and dons in his stories do not encounter the supernatural by accident, but go looking for it, unwisely deciphering old manuscripts, and investigating ruins that had better remained untouched. A story like The Treasure of Abbot Thomas is divided between the learned fancy of a Latin cryptogram, and the description of what it leads to: which is something old, and deformed, and underground - but these are themes with which we are already familiar.
James was himself a working antiquary: he is not setting out to denigrate his own profession. But the search for knowledge, whose details he could so easily imagine, served irresistably as a metaphor of the quest for forbidden knowledge. What is true for James' erudite gentlemen applies even more to the protagonists in Arthur Machen, who deals explicitly with occult enquiries. 'A somewhat extensive course of miscellaneous and obsolete reading had done a good deal to prepare the way... I was now and then startled by facts that would not square with orthodox scientific opinion, and by discoveries that seemed to hint at something still hidden for all our research'. That sounds uncommonly like pagan scholarship, or even earth mysteries. 'More particularly I became convinced that much of the folk-lore of the world is but an exaggerated account of events that really happened, and I was especially drawn to consider the stories of the fairies...' But Professor Gregg, as we have seen, did not live to publish his results in The Ley Hunter or Fortean Times .
Moreover, the occult search itself often feels as if it were an image of something else - particularly in Machen, whose narratives are charged with a fearful yet enticing mystery, a vile degrading secret, that is somehow a very physical secret. In short - and after all, this is the 1890s - he is playing with ideas of sexuality. Not that this explains everything. The descent into the fairy's hole is more than an oblique reference to sex, and in any case our great-grandparents can hardly have been as mixed up over the whole business as this suggests, or we wouldn't be here today. But there are certainly key emotions associated with sexuality which for Machen lie at the heart of the mystery, and his Little People are, among other things, the demon partners of the Sabbath. This becomes yet more disturbing, especially for the modern reader, when the story centres on a child. The girl in The White People is being coached in odd, slightly repellent games by a trusted adult, who takes advantage of her innocence. In this way she is initiated - into magic, as it happens; but it could easily be an initiation of the other sort.
Revulsion can take many forms. John Buchan - who wouldn't have recognised a sexual sub-text if it rose up and hit him - speaks repeatedly of the horrors of being close to his Folk, of being touched by them. They are an ancient, degenerate race, and it is this that both panics and excites the hero, in a way that adds emotional stimulus to an otherwise naturalistic narrative. It is clear that the beauty of the clean Scots moors is being violated by the presence, hidden underground, of deformed natives. If there is imagery of sex and the body here, it is mediated at second hand through the much more powerful language of nationalism and racial purity. The nation is a body whose recesses are being contaminated by the presence of unclean things, things that ought to have stayed in the remote past or, failing that, the Colonies. For many years archaeologists had been thrilling their readers with the idea that here - in Hampstead, Hove and other unlikely places - primitive man had once capered and shrieked in his cannibal orgies. That was all safely long ago. But what if it were not? When Grant Allen's hero sees what lies in the old barrow his first thought is that 'they were savages, yet they were ghosts. The two most terrible and dreaded foes of civilised experience seemed combined at once in them'.
This is the deep horror behind the many horrors of H.P. Lovecraft. He writes of archaic, monstrous inhabitants of wild places, found in caverns beneath the hills and among the stone circles which crown the hills of New England - Lovecraft's New England, at any rate. Something can be gleaned of their nature from local folklore, and they are eager celebrants at the rites held on those hills around the bonfires of May Eve - a night when people disappear, and are not seen again. So far we are on familiar ground: Lovecraft, like Grant Allen, has obligingly left a paper trail of references to earlier works, and The Great God Pan and The Witch-Cult in Western Europe are among them.
But it is racial decay which forms the mainspring of his tales. The villagers in The Dunwich Horror have sunk into a sordid stew of imbecility, perversity and disgrace: even so, they are a cut above the witch Whateleys, whose intercourse with strange things on the hills has bred a half-human youngster with an unhealthy interest in the Necronomicon . In The Shadow Over Innsmouth , the townsfolk have degenerated so far that they are intermediate between man and fish. The voodoo worshippers in The Call of Cthulhu are a low type of mongrels, mentally aberrant, and easily captured as they cavort naked between a blazing bonfore and the corpses of their victims. There is a peculiarly American spin to all this. Lovecraft cannot decide which he dreads more, cross-breeding with the blacks, or inbreeding among the whites who, left behind in the westward march of progress, have got themselves mixed up with old Indian traditions.
There is a great deal in The Call of Cthulhu which simply follows the anthropological ideas of the time. Sir James Frazer would have seen nothing odd in collating traditions from the West Greenland coast, a ritual practised in the swamps of Louisiana, and carvings on a Pacific island to make some point about primitive man. The results, admittedly, would have surprised him: but the idea of interpreting the early history of the race through archaic survivals was not new.
The shadowy implications of survival in folklore - the thought that tradition may refer to things which it is better not to know about - are present in other writers. Algernon Blackwood peoples the landscape of The Trod with various rural types who pass on hereditary secrets about a fairy path on the moor, where women vanish. The topography of the story is not dissimilar to that of No-Man's Land : here, too, a train carries a young sportsman northwards, the fertile Midlands give way to bleak moorland, the locals drop hints that all is not as tranquil as it might seem on the hills. Empty landscapes - indeed, almost any rural landscapes - can be frightening to those who are not used to them. Many townspeople retain a subliminal faith in what might be called the Wicker Man theory of country life. Those rustics may seem all right on the surface, but in the winter, when the tourist season is over, they get together where no-one can see them and perform ancient rites. Probably involving someone's disappearance. That, after all, is just what they used to say about the Jews and the gypsies, in the days when they were socially marginalised - and country people are marginalised now.
Not everything about fairies is charming; and when people write stories in which the secret people are brought in to act out their innermost dreams and fears, the results can often be more revealing than was intended. Academic scholarship, of course, is not intended to be revealing - but it is; and the theory that fairies were a surviving race would never have enjoyed the popularity which it did, had it not appealed subconsciously. It inspired a whole genre of literature, but more importantly, in its last years it inspired a myth. It is the story of an old man, a great enquirer into ancient things, who lived in a house on the borders of a vast and empty heath. In that wilderness there was an eerie stump of a dead tree, beneath which he used to sit and mull over tales of days gone by, when magic was worked by the mysterious race of the wise. All this time, though he did not know it, he was seen by the secret watchers of the elder race; and the time came when they took him to join them... But he did not vanish from this earth, as others had done before him. Indeed, Gardner continued to deal with his publishers from the same New Forest address. Which is probably just as well for modern witchcraft.
Like many another researcher in this field, I have a debt of gratitude to John Michell - and particularly for his kindness when in sending me, quite unsolicited, a copy of his 1983 reprint of Grant Allen's Pallinghurst Barrow , in the hope that I would find it interesting. Without that, and the subsequent enquries which it inspired, this article would not have happened.