Thinking about Fairies

On my bookshelf, the one that stands by my computer desk, there is a copy of John Crowley’s Little, Big. It’s almost time to reread it. I heard, somewhere or other, about a couple that read it out loud every few years, and I thought, what a wonderful way to pass the time. Because Little, Big really is poetry. It just happens to be poetry in novel form.

I was thinking about fairies today, about what makes us so interested in them. I think they  represent the possibility of magic itself. Fairies don’t make magic, they are magic. They show us an alternative magical reality that we desire, but that also frightens us, because it’s both more beautiful and more dangerous than ours. We want to dance in the fairy hill (who wouldn’t dance in the fairy hill?), but it might mean losing a hundred years, all of our family and friends. Fairies give you everything and exact a terrible price. (They give you the gift of poetry, but you have to serve the Fairy Queen for seven years and then tell the truth, even to attractive women.)

I think that aspect of the fairies is captured in one of the iconic fairy poems: W.B. Yeats’ “The Stolen Child,” which I’ll include below. I’ll also include a musical version of it by The Waterboys. I listened to that version over and over again, when I was in college.

Here is Yeats’ poem:

Where dips the rocky highland
Of Sleuth Wood in the lake,
There lies a leafy island
Where flapping herons wake
The drowsy water rats;
There we’ve hid our faery vats,
Full of beriess
And of reddest stolen cherries.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand.
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

Where the wave of moonlight glosses
The dim gray sands with light,
Far off by furthest Rosses
We foot it all the night,
Weaving olden dances,
Mingling hands and mingling glances
Till the moon has taken flight;
To and fro we leap
And chase the frothy bubbles,
While the world is full of troubles
And anxious in its sleep.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

Where the wandering water gushes
From the hills above Glen-Car,
In pools among the rushes
That scarce could bathe a star,
We seek for slumbering trout
And whispering in their ears
Give them unquiet dreams;
Leaning softly out
From ferns that drop their tears
Over the young streams.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

Away with us he’s going,
The solemn-eyed:
He’ll hear no more the lowing
Of the calves on the warm hillside
Or the kettle on the hob
Sing peace into his breast,
Or see the brown mice bob
Round and round the oatmeal chest.
For he comes, the human child,
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
From a world more full of weeping than he can understand.

And here is the musical version:

Tonight I am very tired, and I’m still thinking of the concept of sanctuary.  Both Crowley’s novel and Yeats’ poem function in that way for me. They are sanctuaries, telling me that there is more to the world than I can understand: there are magical possibilities in it.

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6 Responses to Thinking about Fairies

  1. Yolande Webster says:

    Little, Big is one of my favorite books.

  2. I don’t think the fairies make up the rules about being a poet; I think you do have to give up a certain amount of your life to it, and swear to tell the truth. It’s just in fairyland these things appear more literal than in our world.

  3. My heart leapt when I saw “Little Big” on your blog today. It is my favourite book of all time. I have read it many many times since I discovered it when I was eighteen years old. At that time I had just escaped oppressive parents and was living on next to nothing in a shabby Victorian house in a big city. I discovered the music of Nick Drake at the same time. Both things have sustained me through my life ever since, and the novel always reminds me of rainy days, cups of herbal tea, and a song of freedom in my heart. I’m sure the text magically changes as you age and grow wiser. Every time I read the book I see something different; take different revelations from it. It is a beautiful piece. I love all Crowley’s books but this one is his finest. I love the Waterboys too :0)

  4. Have you heard Loreena McKennitt’s version of the song?

  5. Bill Pearson says:

    Did you know the new Waterboys CD that comes out in a couple of days (UK) is all W.B.Yeats?
    – ‘An Appointment with Mr Yeats’ sees the words of W B Yeats, one of Ireland’s greatest literary sons, merged with the music of The Waterboys, one of Britain and Ireland’s greatest rock bands, in a truly unique and ambitious musical undertaking.- There’s a short video on the Amazon UK site about it.

  6. “It’s just in fairyland these things appear more literal than in our world.” Yes! Fairies are so literal . . .

    I have heard the Loreena McKennitt version, and that’s my other favorite version! 🙂 I had no idea about the new Waterboys CD. I love Yeats! I will definitely have to get that one.

    And I believe that Crowley is one of the greats of our generation. When I see him at cons, I’m always way too awed to talk to him as though he were a human being. 🙂

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