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Ariel’s song

May 15, 2011

All along the drives of the castle at the moment, there are yellow cowslips nodding in the grass. Rare in areas of intensive farming, where pesticides have decimated wildflowers, they grow happily on our ‘un-improved’ grass verges and wood margins.

Seeing these flowers on the daily journey to school, I have had a song running through my head all week: Ariel’s song, from The Tempest. Shakespeare linked cowslips with fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream as well, which suggests that the association between the two was already well-established by this time (the end of the sixteenth century). What are the origins of the ancient folklore of faerie which is found throughout Britain and Ireland, I wonder? And why have fairies – the Little People, the Wee Folk – so often been imagined as tiny enough to sip nectar from apple blossom or to sleep in a cowslip? Modern assumptions that fairies are a sugary story for children bear no relation to the respect that they were given in the past, size notwithstanding. The dwellers in the sídh, the hollow hills, were to be feared and propitiated.

‘How beautiful they are, the lordly ones, Who dwell in the hills, in the hollow hills,’

runs a poem from 1916, written by Fiona Macleod.

‘….Their limbs are more white than shafts of moonshine, They are more fleet than the March wind. They laugh and are glad and are terrible. When their lances shake and glitter Every green reed quivers. How beautiful they are, how beautiful, The lordly ones in the hollow hills.’

This sounds more like the Elves as imagined by Tolkien than the butterfly-winged whimsies of Disney. But where do these various interpretations stem from? And can we ever come close to the truth of the origins, when oral traditions have been submerged beneath the written word for a thousand years, and folk knowledge devalued over half a millenium by the rise of empirical science? There is a thesis in this. I would love to be the one to research it, for these unanswered questions intrigue me. Meanwhile, since domestic duties keep me away from academic self-indulgence, I content myself with singing Ariel’s song as I pass the cowslips on the school run.

'where the bee sucks'

Where the bee sucks, there suck I:
In a cowslip’s bell I lie;
There I couch when owls do cry.
On the bat’s back I do fly
After summer merrily.
Merrily, merrily shall I live now
Under the blossom that hangs on the bough.
Merrily, merrily shall I live now
Under the blossom that hangs on the bough. 

(The Tempest, Act V sc.I vv.88-96).

'under the blossom that hangs on the bough'

'In a cowslip's bell I lie'

(There is a scratchy but rather delightful 1943 recording of Isobel Baillie singing this here.)

You might also enjoy The lure of the liminal.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. Margaret Lambert permalink
    May 16, 2011 2:07 am

    You are giving me some context to cowslips…my education has huge gaps! One of my grandmothers had Spode’s Cowslip and, since I didn’t inherit it, I bought a tiny creamer in that pattern as a memento. Both grandmothers, mother and a grandaunt all had their Spode patterns, so I chose an old one with wild flowers called Wicker Lane. The flowers may not grow here, but there is something about them which always pleases me.

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      May 16, 2011 10:37 am

      Oh, mine too. The more you learn, the more you realise how little you know, don’t you find?! What pretty china patterns you have. I didn’t know of them before, so thank you for introducing them. I do like the idea of each family member having their own pattern.

  2. May 16, 2011 2:48 pm

    Oh, how magical – in every sense of the words. Cowslips are so pretty and very much part of my childhood. Sadly we don’t see them very often any more.

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      May 16, 2011 3:17 pm

      When I was a girl I barely saw any, although that may have had something to do with the fact that much of my childhood was spent in Australia and South-East Asia. It still feels special to me to see them here.

  3. Toffeeapple permalink
    May 16, 2011 3:27 pm

    What an enchanting song; I was expecting a voice similar to Kathleen Ferrier’s but was delighted to hear differently. Pretty pictures too.

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      May 16, 2011 6:21 pm

      Funnily enough I had Kathleen Ferrier in my head when I started thinking of the song. There don’t seem to be any recordings of her singing it on the Web, though, so maybe I had imagined it. Anyway, Isobel’s voice suits the song very well, I think.

  4. May 17, 2011 3:16 pm

    If you do ever get around to writing this thesis, I’d love to read it! My Celtic Studies background had me reading all sorts of folkloric texts, and they are always intriguing. I am not sure though that it would only be something that you would find in Britain and Ireland… I think most of Europe would have the same sort of figures, but with different names (though fairies would not always be small… even in Ireland they are more often than not known for being tall). Maybe these stories go farther than Europe as well?

    Since you were talking a little about oral and literary culture to do with fairy lore… if you ever want to read a little about the clash between oral culture and literary culture in Ireland, and to do with fairies, I would highly recommend ‘The Burning of Briget Cleary’ by Angela Bourke. The wider context of oral/literary culture is framed by a murder trial from the late 1800s, but it is a very worthwhile and interesting read.
    Henry Glassie’s books about Ballymenone, at the border between Northern Ireland and The Republic of Ireland are interesting too, as when he did his field research there in the 1970s there was still a very strong oral culture there among the older citizens of the area. He collected fairy stories from them (and other kinds of stories) as well.

    Anyway, a really lovely post!

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      May 17, 2011 5:24 pm

      Celtic Studies sounds such a fascinating subject – I am a little jealous! You are quite right of course about the folklore of fairies and elves being very widespread, but I was thinking particularly of the tales I’ve read from the British Isles. As you will know, there are enough traditions here to fill up several theses, without starting on other national variations!

      Thank you for the book recommendations. In return, I wonder if you know the book ‘The Sea Kingdoms’ by Alistair Moffat? It is a history of the British Isles from the perspective of the Celtic races: completely different, in other words, from any other history book I’ve read. He too considers the clash of oral and literary cultures. It’s a brilliantly readable book and hugely thought-provoking.

      • May 19, 2011 3:49 pm

        I’ll definitely have to check that out! Thanks, that sounds really interesting.


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