Impossible Spaces: Finding Their Way to the Queen of Fairyland

Posted by jessicageorge on October 27, 2013 in Guest Blog, Jessica George tagged with ,

As the stories in Impossible Spaces illustrate—from the claustrophobic, role-switching psychodrama of Daisy Black’s ‘The Carrier’ to Douglas Thompson’s exploration of split selves, ‘Multiplicity’—one of the most interesting aspects of impossible spaces in fiction is the transformation they may occasion in those who inhabit or journey between them.

In the third of my Impossible Spaces blog tour posts, I’m going to talk about an impossible space which will always leave the traveller irrevocably changed: fairyland. The same goes for fairy rings, fairy mounds, or any of the other places in which the fairies are usually encountered. They’re often found at boundary locations —shorelines;1 fairy mounds, associated with crossings into the land of the dead2—or in spaces that themselves exist in a kind of in-between state, such as the defamiliarised domestic space of the house at night.3 The fairies, too, provided a focal point for Victorian anxieties about other boundaries; national, ‘racial’, and ‘human’. The ‘Pygmy Theory’ or ‘Turanian Dwarf Theory’ put forward by David MacRitchie posited that traditional fairylore constituted a folk memory of aboriginal Britons who had been driven underground by the invading Celts.4 And as evidence of humanity’s distant past, the fairies came to represent the blurring of boundaries between the ‘human’ and the pre-human—and between so called ‘civilised’ and ‘savage’ peoples. As Carole G. Silver has written, the fairies and dwarves who appeared in the British cultural imaginary post-Darwin ‘raised and played on cultural anxieties’ surrounding both the loss of ‘human’ centrality in a Darwinian world, and the end of empire.5 Katharine Briggs bemoaned the ‘whimsicality’ of depictions of fairies in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, suggesting that, at this period, ‘every care was taken to render [the fairies] unalarming’,6 but the work of Arthur Machen, at least, gives us a rather less innocuous version of the fairies, or Little People, and their realm. Their aspect may sometimes be ambiguous, but it is never devoid of the sinister.

The most frequently discussed of Machen’s Little People stories, the ‘Novel of the Black Seal’, offers a fairly straightforward picture of evolutionary horror, with abject, pre-human creatures performing unspeakable acts that endanger civilised members of society; the same is true of ‘The Shining Pyramid’ and ‘The Red Hand’. One of the most interesting aspects of these stories, though, is their portrayal of landscape—in particular, their transformation of what, in his autobiography, Machen had called an ‘enchanted land’. Even here, Twm Barlwm was ‘ the memorial of peoples that dwelt in [the] region before the Celts left the Land of Summer’; in the fiction, the sense of breathless wonder that had Machen comparing the local mountains to something out of a ‘fairy tale’ became a source of terror, instead.7 The setting of the ‘Novel of the Black Seal’ is ‘an olden land of mystery and dread[…]as if all was long ago and forgotten by the living outside’.8 The boundaries between past and future, life and death, wear thin here; and the suggestion that this is somewhere one may become stuck in time recalls those traditional fairy stories where the unfortunate mortal, entranced by fairy ‘merriment’ for what seems like a few minutes, returns home afterward to find that he has been absent for decades and his house is now inhabited by strangers, his friends and family dead and gone.9 Entrance into fairyland entails the dissolving of certainties; it irrevocably alters the identities of those who pass between the worlds. In these three stories, it is the knowledge of human origins—made flesh in the abhuman bodies of the Little People—that effects this alteration. The ‘Novel of the Black Seal”s Professor Gregg suffers a ‘desperate and horrible’ fate from which there will be no coming back,10 and it is hinted that the Little People may have transfigured him into some nonhuman form. In ‘The Shining Pyramid’, a kidnapped girl named Annie Trevor is ‘no longer fit for earth’ once the Little People are finished with her;11 and the unfortunate Selby, the only character in ‘The Red Hand’ to see them, ends up a nervous wreck.12

View from the mountain surrounding Twm Barlwm. Image copyright Leigh William 2013.

Similarly, though less straightforwardly horrifically, transformed, are two figures mentioned in the later short story, ‘The White People’. The central portion of the story, the ‘Green Book’ narrative, recounts in the first person the experiences of a young girl who, on long walks taken from her stultifyingly respectable home, travels into another realm, one which we must assume to be that of the titular ‘White People’ or ‘nymphs’.13 The surrounding commentary—in the form of a conversation between two men who have read the book after the girl’s eventual suicide—frames the story in terms of ‘evil’;14 but the Green Book narrative can be read to undercut this interpretation through its vividness and its reinterpretation of the Christian origin story. The discourse that surrounds the Green Book narrative contains the seed of this contradiction, when the learned Ambrose explains that

holiness works on lines that were natural once; it is an effort to recover the ecstasy that was before the Fall. But sin is an effort to gain the ecstasy and the knowledge that pertain alone to angels, and in making this effort man becomes a demon.

Certainly, those figures from the Green Book narrative who visit fairyland and are forever changed by it might seem to be punished for straying outside the human sphere. The girl who takes grass, flowers, and stones from a fairy hollow, finding that in the human world they appear to be precious stones, is borne away by the sinister ‘black man’.15 The man seduced by the fairy queen, on returning to the human world, ‘would never kiss any other lady because he had kissed the queen of the fairies, and he would never drink common wine any more, because he had drunk enchanted wine’.16 And yet this enchanting realm partakes also of the Edenic. The Green Book narrator, after her visits, in fact lays claim to a privileged knowledge of the Genesis story, saying, ‘I had remembered the story I had quite forgotten before, and in the story the two figures are called Adam and Eve, and only those who know the story understand what they mean’.17 The familiar anxiety around human origins is raised here—but the project of ‘holiness’ is also called into question. It becomes clear that the quest for human origins—for a prelapsarian state of being—and what Ambrose calls ‘the taking of heaven by storm’ are one and the same.18

Machen would return to the theme in the late novel, The Green Round. It did not rate highly in Machen’s assessment of his own work: he called it a ‘bad little book’.19 It offers, however, an interesting development of this idea of fairyland. Places, in The Green Round, are never stable, never fixed. Those who ‘find their way to the Queen of Fairyland’20 don’t undergo a physical journey, like the narrator of ‘The White People’, but experience a transfiguration of the everyday. The ordinary urban landscape of London becomes a haunt of malicious Little People and a site of supernatural violence; the ‘modest’ apartments occupied by the protagonist, Hillyer, and his staid landlady become a ‘gorgeous palace’, filled with light and music.21 But it is through texts—as in ‘The White People’, with its central Green Book, perhaps—that the most interesting transmutations take place. Hillyer—a scholar engaged in recherche folkloric studies, and haunted by a sinister fairy or dwarf—runs across an ‘odd little book’ entitled A London Walk during the course of his studies.22 This book details the transformation of ordinary buildings into ‘magical habitations[…]more desirable to the eye than the fabled pleasure dome of the Eastern potentate’ that can be achieved simply by viewing them at an unaccustomed hour of the day.23 In a lengthy series of quotations from this text, Hillyer finds the suggestion of ‘very far off’ lands viewed from London streets; of trees whose roots appear to flourish in the soil of Paradise’.24 The aim of those who seek to accomplish such a transformation of the perceived world deliberately is ‘to restore the delights of the primal Paradise‘—to recover an original ecstasy.25 And if we read The Green Round in conjunction with ‘The White People’, whose themes it echoes, then this ‘Paradise’ becomes also the ‘heaven’ whose invasion Ambrose feared. The conjunction of places, then, becomes a conjunction of present, past, and possible future. Journeys between them become a moral undertaking; the quest for knowledge of human origins both dangerous and ‘holy’.

Machen posited a hidden spiritual world behind the ‘veil’ of the one which we inhabit.26 The wonder of this other world is in danger of being revealed as horror by researches into humanity’s past—and the horror may be escaped by a withdrawal from knowledge. Hillyer’s torment begins with a physical journey, and is ended by a retreat both physical and mental—he abandons his strange studies, leaves the country, and is at length heard of ‘doing very fairly well’.27 In Machen, then, journeys into fairyland—towards the human past—always end with the traveller being irrevocably, and perhaps fatally, changed. But his work always acknowledges an attraction to forbidden knowledge and forbidden journeys, one which pulls away from the often reactionary morality it espouses at the most literal level. It expresses a deep ambivalence about knowledge. The world, seen as it really is, may be a thing of horror—but it also gives access to a privileged and original realm of experience.

1 Carole G. Silver, Strange and Secret Peoples: Fairies and Victorian Consciousness (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 90-91.

2 Ibid., p 171.

3 Katharine Briggs, The Fairies in Tradition and Literature (London: Routledge Classics, 2002), p. 119.

4 David MacRitchie, The Testimony of Tradition (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, 1890), pp. 87-88, p. 100

5 Silver, pp. 146-147.

6 Briggs, pp. 248-249.

7 Arthur Machen, The Autobiography of Arthur Machen, (London: Richards Press, 1951), p. 18.

8 Arthur Machen, ‘Novel of the Black Seal’ in The White People and Other Weird Stories, ed. by S. T. Joshi (London: Penguin, 2011), pp. 29-66 (p. 54).

9 Briggs, pp. 123-124.

10 Machen, ‘Novel of the Black Seal’, p. 55.

11 Arthur Machen, ‘The Shining Pyramid’, in The Great God Pan (Cardigan: Parthian, 2010), pp 77-110 (p. 110).

12 Arthur Machen, ‘The Red Hand’, in The White People and Other Weird Stories, ed. by S. T. Joshi (London: Penguin, 2011), pp. 83-110 (p. 109).

13 Arthur Machen, ‘The White People’, in The Great God Pan (Cardigan: Parthian, 2010), pp. 111-166 (p. 163).

14 Ibid., pp. 117-123.

15 Ibid., p. 136.

16 Ibid., p. 142.

17 Ibid., p. 160.

18 Ibid., p. 117.

19 Mark Valentine, ‘Introduction,’ in Arthur Machen, The Green Round (Horam, East Sussex: Tartarus Press, 2000), pp. v-xii (p. v).

20 Arthur Machen, The Green Round (Horam, East Sussex: Tartarus Press, 2000), p. 75.

21 Ibid., p. 94.

22 Ibid., p. 69.

23 Ibid., pp. 51-52.

24 Ibid., p. 52.

25 Ibid., p. 53.

26 Arthur Machen, ‘The Great God Pan,’ in The Great God Pan (Cardigan: Parthian, 2010), pp. pp. 1-76 (p. 5).

27 Machen, The Green Round, p. 121.

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