Hallo, me darling ones. Here at last is a photo of me, Herman Newt, with Axol O’tl, who spoke to us last time so memorably. I am here alone today to talk of fairies and elves, and despite the slander and defamation of character, I’m adopting a fairly newt-ral stance on it, tiny amphibious fingers clinging to the bark of a partially submerged branch, body flat, tail dragging in the ooze.
In th’olde dayes of the Kyng Arthour,
of which the Britons speken greet honour,
al was this land fulfild of fairye
The elf-queene with her joly compaignye
Daunced ful ofte in many a grene mede,
This was the old opinion, as I rede…
Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales
That’s the start of the Wife of Bath. It tells us newts a lot about Chaucer’s times and his view of what was then to him, Britain’s past; and however distant or recent the past described, it might as well as well have been ancient, so strange the people and scenes described in the written and oral traditions of the time seemed to the Normanised English people of his day. As the Wife of Bath points out, elves were no longer to be seen in her day in England. These days, most people take this to mean that elves, along with fairies, never really existed, although some believers in parallel universes might believe that they were ‘supernatural’ beings viewed sometimes when the magic was right, and now in occultus. Yet although I have not checked every instance of elves in texts, so far nothing disturbs my sense that all references to elves in the pre-Renaissance texts and the oral traditions were to real solid flesh and blood human beings. Periodic reworking of texts as their language became old-fashioned, quaint and sometimes inaccessible, introduced hermeneutical errors which were woven into the fabric of the tales giving them a magical or miraculous atmosphere that they did not have for their original authors.
If in a song the ‘elf-king’s daughter did appear…’ an ambiguity arises for some listeners accustomed to eerie tales – ‘did appear’ can mean ‘appeared suddenly’ or ‘became briefly visible’ implying ‘out of thin air’. So a magical attribute is imputed to the elf, which then is said to have the magical power to appear and disappear at will. This makes it a supernatural being, and for those who don’t believe in such things, throws doubts on the possible value of the entire document dealing with elves, fairies and the like. I shudder to think how often such judgments have deprived us in the centuries following of truthful historical texts that could have told us so much discarded to be lost or burnt because a conqueror did not believe them…
Let’s imagine that the authors of these old texts that mention elves did not think of them as supernatural beings, but as real flesh and blood people with the ordinary powers of mortals. How does that song go? Steele-Eye Span used to sing it, and very nicely too, with eerie, supernatural wailing music in the back ground… I think it was on ‘All Around My Hat’.
A knight he rode his lonely way
Thinking about his wedding day
As he rode by a forest near
the Elf-king’s daughter did appear
Out she stepped from the Elfin band
smiling she held out her hand,
Welcome sir knight, why such speed
Come with me the dance to lead…
So far nothing magical at all, but the word ‘appear’ does become a little ambiguous when we hear that it’s an elf doing it. But watch what happens in the refrain:
Dance dance, follow me,
all around the greenwood tree
Dance dance, while you may,
tomorrow is your dying day
Dance with me, Dance with me…
Is this elf prophecying (a magical act but one that quite real prophets can do) or is she threatening (implying that she could bring about his death ) ? If it’s an elf, you can accuse it of anything, and any reconstruction of its song undertaken in the past when elves were feared would make the sinister worst of it. If it were not an elf, it might be easy to believe that his dying might be her intention from a quite unmagical murder, ‘dance with me and/or I’ll kill you’, but it’s also possible that it’s not a dying at all. There are I believe many instances of ritual and ceremony that are referred to in words that subsequent historians have mistaken for words for death and killing, because of semantic shifts that we now have no records of. We talk of ‘gilded’ youths, but no longer remember that gilding was the same as schooling. For some people the only instances of attention from the guilds they belonged to was at their birth and at their death, so for them any guild ceremony was likely to be a funeral. Think of Kells, Cille, and Kil-, all meaning ‘church’. Think of the Irish ‘bas’ death and compare with imbas, the Cornish abbas words to do with religion that changed meaning as they travelled. So it’s possible that this song records that in the two languages of the knight and the elf, the elfin word for a wedding was like the knight’s word for dying. (I see linguistic confusion like this in The Taming of the Shrew, where the bride is forced to learn to call the sun the moon just to please her husband.)
In the song this elf offers the knight spurs of gold, a shirt of moon-bleached silk, and a crown of gold, which may have been wedding gifts (in which case it’s a garbled wedding song, in which a fatal misunderstanding between bride and groom resulted in a murder, or a gift of recruitment – the elf trying to recruit a knight whose loyalties are elsewhere. She lives in the forest, she has all the trappings of high and courtly civilisation and she wishes to enlist a knight. I believe it might be an initiatory ceremony, in which the traditional three gifts are tokens: the spurs signifying a horse and a place in her cavalry, the shirt her livery or uniform, and the crown a series of intitations amounting to an education, with a crown to certify him a leaned knight. Our knight refuses to dance and refuses the first two gifts, but he wants the crown, and therefore she proclaims that ‘a plague of death shall follow’ him. Now that’s a fairly nasty accusation to make about someone who isn’t here to defend herself. Maybe it was a ‘series of ceremonies’. Here’s how it was carried out anyway:
‘Between his shoulders a blow she dealt,
such a blow he never felt’
Now if he couldn’t feel it, it didn’t hurt him, did it. So maybe she wasn’t dealing death, just ‘killing’ him softly (ie, initiating him) with a ritual stroke in preparation for his marriage.
There’ll be more on this subject soon.