Wednesday, 19 October 2011

The Truth about Faeries

Yes, we are still at the Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens...

The main exhibit at the museum was called The Truth about Faeries.  It was in a large room, with some sort of fairyland hut for the kiddie-winkies to flap about in their faerie wings.  Vivien and I inspected every inch of the room except that particular part, having left our wings at home.  I was frustrated at not being able to take photos, because there were some beautiful things on display.  Instead I got out my notebook and scribbled five pages of names of authors and artists.  I've spent the last few days looking up those names on the Internet, trying to make sense of it all.   I'm not sure I've got there, but I'll share what I learned. 

I did think it was very sweet of Vivien when she, in all seriousness, politely asked me if I believed in faeries.  I actually had the impression that she was prepared to hear me say I did!  It's one of the ways in which I think most Brits are far more courteous than Americans; they generally allow you to have your own view, even if they don't agree at all.   I think that's really lovely and it's one of the nicer things about living here - I get to have my own opinion without having to join the debating society.

However, I had to admit that, no, I don't believe in faeries at all, but I do see why the idea is so attractive to children - and adults - and that the artistic attempts to represent faeries are incredibly beautiful.  She then stated that, being a scientist, she didn't believe in faeries either.  It was originally the pictures that I wanted to share, but as I looked up the names, I found a slightly different story emerged.  I don't think I can tell the story accurately, but perhaps some of this will interest you enough to do some more reading.   In order to present this information to you, I've put the names into chronological order (I definitely am a left-brained person, sadly.  I've always wished for more artistic gifts.)  I found some fun things, or at least they were fun to me!

Edmund Spenser (1552-1599) was an English poet in the time of Elizabeth I.  His most famous work is called The Faerie Queenea celebration of the Tudors and specifically, Elizabeth.  I would call it long and tedious, but I did find one thing we all know that he wrote because we often use the phrase 'without rhyme or reason'.  It was about asking Elizabeth for payment long overdue: 

I was promis'd on a time,
To have a reason for my rhyme:
But from that time unto this season,
I had neither rhyme or reason.

He got his money!

Shakespeare (1564-1615).  Obviously, I don't need to tell you who this man was or that he wrote a brilliant play about faeries (I'm rather fond of the British spelling, you'll notice) called Midsummer Night's Dream.  If you want to read more about the faeries in this play, this link might interest you.   I can't stand Shakespeare as a rule.  I don't understand what I read or hear, but this play is an exception.  If you've not seen it, I would recommend the film with Michelle Pfeiffer.  I'm sure I've mentioned it before, but if you've not read Bill Bryson's book, Shakespeare: The World as a Stage,  you've missed a treat.

Alexander Pope (1688-1744) was another English poet.  He seems to have specialised in satire which made him somewhat unpopular at times.  His link to faeries isn't immediately obvious.  However, it appears that in his poem, The Rape of the Lock, he makes fun of a squabble between some aristocrats of his day, likening it to a war between the gods; somewhere I read that there is a 'continuum between mythology and fairy tales'.  In this poem he introduces the term, sylphPope was apparently quoted as saying he thought woodland sprites and the like were perhaps dead socialites who didn't want to give up their earthly delights.  This last link gives a reasonable history of the mention of faeries, I believe.  However, they do seem to take their topic far more seriously than I.  Pope, by the way, was the man who gave us 'a little learning is a dangerous thing'...

Charles Perrault (1628-1703) was a French author who took tales from folk lore and created the new literary genre of fairy tales, with a book called the Tales of Mother Goose.    Interestingly, he was friends with a man, Philippe Quinault, who is said to have created the new genre of music, opera.  The Sunderland exhibit said that Perrault wrote
Mother Goose for the royal court.  Whilst he was influential in the court of Louis XIV and did write pieces for specific people earlier in his career, according to Wikipedia, the Mother Goose stories were written for his children after he lost his influential position.  It was lovely to be reminded of  "Little Red Riding Hood" (Le Petit Chaperon Rouge),  "Cinderella" (Cendrillon), Puss in Boots (Le Chat Botté) and   Bluebeard (La Barbe bleue).  Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, says she loves reading - and re-reading - children's books.  After investigating all this faerie tale stuff, I'm thinking I need to renew my acquaintance with these stories as well!

"Sleeping Princess" by Viktor Vasnetsov;  Perrault also gave us this story.

William Blake (1757-1827) was a poet, painter and a printmaker (I think that's the same as an engraver, but I'm not certain).  I suspect he was also completely crackers, though he was undeniably creative and gifted.  He had visions all his life.   He seems to have been very religious, but he also believed in 'free love' and incorporated faeries - 'rulers of the vegetable world - into his 'idiosyncratic cosmology'.  I've always known the two lines of his famous poem: "Tyger!  Tyger! burning bright in the forests of the night!"  When I was a kid I thought it was fun to scare myself with this, but on the whole I find Blake as a person altogether too scary for fun.

Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing (1786, William Blake)

Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), was a Scottish novelist whose name most people have heard.   I was sad to read in the Wikipedia entry that his popularity waned as Jane Austen's rose.  I remember from our visit to the Writers' Museum in Edinburgh that he died fairly broke.   Scott wrote about the 'fairies of popular superstition' in the Tale of Tamlane, part of his Minstrelsy of the Scottish BorderI confess that I, too, would rather read Jane Austen.  It is a shame he died poor, but then he does have that glorious monument in Edinburgh!

Scott's monument is the pointed spire; Bill Bryson says it looks
like a gothic rocketship and I have to agree.

Brothers Grimm - Jacob (1785-1863) Wilhelm (1786-1859) were actually academics in the field of language and cultural research, not just a couple of creepy guys like I thought as a child.  They collected folklore and published the famous Grimm's Fairy Tales in 1812.  When I was given that book at about age 7-8, I read it front to back but never returned.  Some of the stories really frightened me!

In doing all this research, however, I enjoyed being reminded of the stories of  "Cinderella" (Aschenputtel), "The Frog Prince" (Der Froschkönig), "Hansel and Gretel" (Hänsel und Gretel), "Rapunzel", "Rumpelstiltskin"  (Rumpelstilzchen), "Sleeping Beauty" (Dornröschen), and "Snow White" (Schneewittchen).   The thing is, I do find them to all teach little girls to be helpless and wait for a man to come rescue her, or at least to  be sure to marry 'well'.  Also, beware older women, they are often evil witches (you bet we are!)


Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875) is perhaps Denmark's most famous export, author of just classics as "The Steadfast Tin Soldier", "Thumbelina", "The Snow Queen", "The Little Match Girl", "The Ugly Duckling", "The Little Mermaid", "The Emperor's New Clothes", and "The Princess and the Pea".  I must admit to not having read the first one, but Bill remembers it.  However, I think the Princess and the Pea might be my all time favourite fairy tale.  Even more now that I see it acted out several times a week here in Britain. 

I have commented how I find the staff in Tynemouth shops to be quite snooty.  A business transaction can rarely just be about a paying client having an ordinary request fulfilled and then making payment.  The transaction has to be about the staff member - nearly always a woman.  My perception is that she will require me to acknowledge that she is actually far too important for this menial job, that she is my social superior and that I must somehow pay obeisance to this superiority before she will condescend to grant my humble request.   It may well be entirely my imagination, but I see Princesses complaining about Peas in their body language, their attitudes and their studied accents.  I think this 'desperately middle class' hauteur is one of the less attractive aspects of British culture.  I know that the key to dealing with this is simply to be even more arrogant than she and to somehow snub her as a simple shop assistant.  I've seen some horrific snobs talking down to the store clerk or waitress who serves them; it's no wonder service in Britain is appalling.  I'm a fairly demanding customer (it's an American trait, I'm afraid), but this snobbery business is too ugly for me to stomach.  I don't want an obsequious salesperson either, I just want to do a business transaction.

I found it amusing to read the commentary that Andersen himself felt nervous amongst the the 'serene, secure and cultivated Danish bourgeoisie' and saw himself as sensitive enough to feel a pea through twenty mattresses.  Given that I'm the one who remarks on the haughty salesclerks (it's part of the definition!), perhaps I am the princess, after all!

No comments: