The Rain Will Make A Door I: Introducing British Fairy Traditions

The television adaptation of Susanna Clarke’s 2004 debut novel Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell has - quite rightly - been well received by reviewers and fans of the book alike. Achieving a 90% on Rotten Tomatoes, Rolling Stone claimed it ‘the TV fantasy of 2015’, while the AV Club praised it as being ‘as charming, and as dark, as it could ever hope to be.’ 

In short, if you haven’t seen it yet - acquire yourself a Netflix account and treat yourself. If you are in any way fond of magic, period drama, intrigue, faerie, or simply a brilliantly told story, I thoroughly recommend it. 

I raise JS&MrN on this blog not to review it myself, however, but because it is story intimately tied to notions of English magic and English history. It concerns itself with magics of both the ‘respectable’ sort (that cannot help but bring to mind the ceremonial lodge business of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn) and the wild forgotten older magic of pacts with powerful and potentially unstable or even malevolent spirits. Magics as discussed in books, the magic as found in books, and even the magic of books, names and legends themselves. Magics of the stones, the rivers, the fruit trees, and the rain. Magics of fairy tales and faerie abductions. Magics as bounded by academia, government, library doors, decorum, and domesticity. Magics torn open by revolutionary zeal, scattered to the winds by the cannons of war. Magic lying just behind each and every mirror in the land.

It is difficult to imagine a series more suitable to act as a companion for exploring the history of magic. Fiction itself can be the patchwork rendering, the human tale of what is lost upon waking from the dream of history. To listen carefully, compassionately, and with the knowledge of the otherworldly past imparted by our foremothers, we may begin to derive understanding from the swirl of narrative swallowed into the rose at our mouths.

And so, to give all fair due and honor to the Good Folk, I would like to begin by discussing fairies.

For a broad introduction to fairy traditions of the British Isles, we may look to Professor Ronald Hutton, and his presentation for Manx National Heritage. Professor Hutton presents us with several essential points. He stresses the keynote of danger and tension between human and fairy worlds; considering accounts of fairies not simply as stories but as encounter-narratives. In this manner, the methodologies of witch-trial history begin to already present themselves as useful. 

The dear professor praises K.M. Briggs’ great endeavours of folkloric classification, as well as presenting both the allure and the shortcomings of attempting a natural history of the fae. With that said, Hutton also stresses the regionality of fairy traditions and presents a rough tripartite zoning of the British Isles: distinguishing the 'prosperous nucleated villages' of Southern and Eastern England, with their basically well-behaved and entertaining fairies, from the sterner more potentially threatening Gentry Below of the North, the far South-West and the Lowlands of Scotland; and distinguishing both from the seriously feared faeries of the Highlands, Ireland and the Isle of Man, who blighted crops and humans alike.

Hutton adumbrates some generalities of British fairy traditions extant before the Shakespearean popularisation of the twee butterfly-winged gossamer brigade: their appearance, habitat, habits, and power. He stresses the rise and power of fairy abduction narratives from the sixteenth century onwards. He assesses various schools of thought on the origin and place of fairies - whether they were fallen angels, ghosts of the especially wicked or powerful, or something else - and finds them also different from the nature spirits and deities of pagan mythology; instead emphasising the uniqueness, bewilderment, and potential for danger characteristic of fairies’ relationships with humanity.

A couple of especially “Norellite” concepts emerge in particular.

Professor Hutton continually returns to the exploration of the value of telling stories about fairies - the cultural and sociological significances of the affective encounter-narratives, customs, and rituals of British fairy traditions. He extolls the work of Jeremy Hart, focusing on ‘the imaginative and emotional needs helped by telling stories about fairies’, arguing that such beings and stories about them can offer ‘emotionally satisfying answers’ to fundamentally personal questions: “why did she leave me?”, “why do I keep getting lost in this familiar field?”, and even “why don’t I love my baby?” Partly due to the difficulty of isolating and securing fairies to study in laboratory conditions, folklorists have moved away from taxonomic endeavours such as Briggs’, towards looking at the fairy impact upon humans. They are, in the sense with which the doctors Segundus and Honeyfoot coin it, writing and researching their own ‘human tales’. 

In speaking of the ministrations of Lady Pole and Arabella Strange, we come to a further point of intersection between Clarke’s story and British history, as Hutton troubles the whys of changelings. While it makes perfect sense that fairies might steal children, it makes little sense why they would substitute replacements. This is taken as evidence of deeper mysteries of faerie incoherence to humans. Yet Clarke’s answer - for the Gentleman to use the moss-oak in a less-than-fully-consensual bargain - conjures and re-emphasises the inventively sadistic tendencies and indeed the demonic compacts of the Good People Under the Hill.

Overall, the character of the Fae is spoken of in terms of preying upon humanity and its endeavours and artifices. There is clearly a self-styled moral streak at least pretended to by fairies: persecuting and punishing the promiscuous and (heaven’s forfend) the poorly dressed. Yet Hutton also makes clear this torment is less about redeeming or improving humankind, than the ease of taunting the easily off-guard. The lost are considered trespassers, the ignorant taken as disrespectful and insulting. Conversely, when humans interfere with faerie, especially in seeking to control them, the fairy become murderously angry, spiteful and vicious. The Gentleman with the thistledown hair certainly demonstrates such proclivities; his baffling dream-logic, alien leaps of reasoning, obviously lack of understanding of modern politics, pinpoint mood-swings and bizarre favors and vendettas betraying a being not of the human world. 

Finally, a downright diabolic facet of fairy folk tradition is also heavily emphasised. Hutton even claims of those seeking to profit from fairy interaction, such as acquiring a fairy familiar, that ‘such a relationship was regarded by most of the British pre-1600 as somewhere between making a pact with the Devil and cosying up to a criminal gang.’ With their capricious power, bizarre appearance and invisibility, ’baffling and scary’ behaviour, strange tastes, and oddly-bureaucratic adherence to the power of words - especially the performative utterances of prophecy, magic, and promises - the demonology of the Good Folk is enshrined as a key component of such traditions. 

The Rain Will Make A Door II: How To See Spirits