Dreaming While Awake


by Mike Jay

(excerpted from Darklore Volume 8, available from Amazon US and Amazon UK)

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In February 1758 the 90-year-old Charles Lullin, a retired Swiss civil servant whose sight had been progressively failing since a cataract operation five years before, began to see considerably more than he had become accustomed to. For the next several months he was visited in his apartment by a silent procession of figures, invisible to everyone but him: young men in magnificent cloaks, perfectly coiffured ladies carrying boxes on their heads, girls dancing in silks and ribbons. These visions were recorded and published in 1760 by his grandson, the naturalist Charles Bonnet, after whom the syndrome of hallucinations in the elderly and partially sighted would much later be named.

This celebrated case is one of the founding studies in the science of hallucinations, and frames the subject in distinctive ways. Most significantly, it has no link with mental illness: Lullin’s eyesight may have dimmed but his cognitive faculties were perfectly sharp, and he had no difficulty recognising his hallucinations as unreal. His experience was clearly different in kind from those experienced in psychoses such as schizophrenia: rather, it highlights the remarkable range of organic conditions, from neurological disorders to drug effects, of ‘hallucinations in the sane’.

Much has been learned in the intervening century about the brain states and optical processes that lie behind such experiences, but the old question remains: what, if anything, do such hallucinations have to tell us? They cannot be dismissed as symptoms of insanity, and nor are they purely random sensory data: on the contrary, their content is curiously consistent. Miniature people, for example, are a common sight for those with Charles Bonnet syndrome: Oliver Sacks recalls a patient who was accompanied for a couple of weeks by ‘little people a few inches high, like elves or fairies, with little green caps, climbing up the sides of her wheelchair’ 1. These little folk are also witnessed in many other circumstances: by sufferers from migraine, epilepsy or Parkinson’s disease, those on mind-altering drugs such as DMT (dimethyltryptamine) or magic mushrooms, or in withdrawal from alcohol or sedatives. These are wildly different causes, but the miniature people they generate are strikingly similar. They share many curious but consistent qualities: a tendency to appear in groups, for example, or arrayed in phalanxes (‘numerosity’), to wear headgear or exotic dress, and to go about their business autonomously, paying no attention to the subject’s attempts to interact with them. Who are these little people? Do they have a message for us? And if not, what is the meaning of ... Read More »

The Looming Robot Revolution

Above you'll find a fascinating one hour overview of the current state-of-the-art of robotics technology, with some of the world leaders in this endeavour giving five minute summaries of their work, then sitting down to discuss the issues involved.


  • Russ Tedrake - Director, Center for Robotics, MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab
  • Sangbae Kim - MIT Biomimetic Robotics Lab
  • Mick Mountz - Founder, Kiva Systems
  • Gill Pratt - Program Manager, DARPA Robotics Challenge, DARPA Defense Sciences
  • Marc Raibert - Founder, Boston Dynamics
  • Radhika Nagpal - Self-organizing Systems Research and Robotics Group, Harvard University
  • That by itself is meaty enough. But why stop there, when we can take a closer look at the specifics of these projects? Step through them all, examining to what degree they're driving us towards utopia or oblivion; or both at the same time. Pausing occasionally to take a look at related issues during our journey across the robotic landscape of the present and near-future.

    We start then with the latest video of MIT's Cheetah, in full, showing off its LIDAR vision upgrades that enable it to quickly identify and jump over obstacles:

    And here we have the Chinese clone of Boston Dynamics' Big Dog:

    Robotics technology has reached the point now where we are rapidly progressing beyond our simple mechanistic visions to far more complex horizons, and using nature as a guidebook to travel there. That is the essence of biomimicry, and Sangbae Kim's talk in particular demonstrates that pathway.

    As has been the case with so much of technological progress, the principle sponsors and early adaptors are military. They have the big funding grants, and the long term vision.

    Here's your literal metaphor for the relationship between technology and war made 'flesh': Cujo - a robotic "pack mule" that automatically follows wherever this

Review: Ex Machina

Caleb, Ava and Nathan from Ex Machina

One day the AIs are going to look back on us the same way we look at fossil skeletons on the plains of Africa. An upright ape living in dust with crude language and tools, all set for extinction.

The future reality of artificial intelligence seemed to edge a little closer this week with the news that Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking and Steve Wozniak - along with 1000 researchers - had put their name to an open letter calling for a ban on AI in robotic warfare systems. Meanwhile, in TV and movies we’ve seen an influx of AI-themed stories such as Person of Interest, Her, the upcoming Westworld, and now the science fiction film Ex Machina.

In Ex Machina, we join Caleb, a young coder at a Google-like search engine company (‘Bluebook’) as he finds out that he has won a competition to spend a week with the genius CEO of the company, Nathan (who wrote the company’s search algorithm as a 13-year-old wunderkind). On arriving at the reclusive CEO's sprawling, wilderness estate, Caleb discovers that he has been recruited to test perhaps the greatest technological development of all time: the creation of an artificial intelligence, embodied in a humanoid robot named Ava.

If you’ve created a conscious machine it’s not the history of man… that’s the history of Gods.

However, as the week progresses Caleb finds himself to be as much of a test subject as Ava, as he is watched on closed circuit monitors while interacting with this non-human intelligence - and as Nathan’s darker side emerges, Caleb is left wondering how much of what he is experiencing is manipulation, and how much is the truth.

Written and directed by Alex Garland, author of The Beach and the pen behind the movie scripts for the apocalyptic sci-fi movies 28 Days Later and Sunshine, Ex Machina is a wonderful meditation on one of the great philosophical questions: what is consciousness/self-awareness, and are we even capable of judging it in anyone but ourselves (in Descartes words, ‘I think, therefore I am’, as the limit of our knowledge on consciousness). As such a couple of thought experiments related to consciousness are mentioned during the movie, such as the Turing Test, and the Knowledge Argument, aka ‘Mary in the Black and White Room’ - this latter in particular almost serves as a template for the script itself.

Here's the trailer:

The very small cast (basically just 4 actors, only 3 of whom have speaking roles - Caleb, Nathan and Ava) and one location may have been partly decided upon for budgeting reasons (though the elegant design and special effects certainly weren’t skimped on), but in truth these elements provide the power of Ex Machina, enhancing the feeling of close personal interaction between ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ intelligence, and also projecting the feeling of imprisonment upon the viewer themselves.

Because as much as Ex Machina is about what it is to be a conscious being, the storyline goes a level deeper to ask what it is to have ‘free will’, but be subjugated. And whether Garland meant it to or not, the film riffs on overarching themes of male dominance and women as objects: ‘artificial’ beings created by a male ‘god’, kept imprisoned and repressed, and used for sexual gratification (although to be fair, Nathan notes that in adding a vagina to a robot, he also added ‘pleasure circuits’ for the artificial consciousness to experience).

Another key question raised by Ex Machina is one which we may have to answer fairly soon: at what point does an AI transition from being an object - a piece of technology - to being an entity, with associated rights. Nathan is most certainly an asshole, but from one point of view (AI as a technological object) all he is doing is modifying and upgrading machines.

From the other point of view (AI as an autonomous consciousness deserving of its own rights) he is basically exploiting and, to an extent, ‘killing off’ conscious entities. It was quite interesting (and shocking) to me how easily I abandoned any human ‘allegiance’ while watching this film, and sided with the machine intelligence - to the extent that I was happily expecting a crime to be committed against a technology genius, for the ‘crime’ of upgrading his machines.

The movie certainly doesn’t break a lot of new ground, with its roots in the archetypal Frankenstein story. Ava at times seems a century-old echo of Maria from Metropolis, and any fan of Bladerunner will probably also see similarities to both the physicality of ’pleasure-model’ Pris and the elegant intelligence of Rachael throughout Ex Machina. And when Caleb gets so far down the rabbit-hole that he starts wondering if he also is a robot - with implanted memories, fooled into believing he is human - we cannot help but see some of Deckard. (Even Nathan’s use of the massive data behind search engine queries as the basis for creating the machine-intelligence of Ava was foreshadowed by the TV show Person of Interest.)

Ex Machina - Caleb checks to see if he is a robot

Where Ex Machina hits the mark is in the afore-mentioned personal (and at times, claustrophobic) nature of the film, ably assisted by a fantastic ambient soundtrack (co-created by former Portishead member Geoff Barrow ). Garland’s debut in the directing chair is an impressive one, subtly keeping the viewer in close contact with the actors’ thoughts, often through facial expression alone, as well as capable of creating some highly memorable moments (one surreal dance scene could be straight out of a Kubrick movie...see below). Ex Machina is a slow burn, which is perfect for an exploration of what it is to be ‘human’ - but if you like ‘splodey action stuff, this movie may not be for you. If you’re a deep thinker about consciousness and artificial intelligence, you’ll likely love it.

Garland doesn’t dumb things down, showing good taste in the exposition and putting his trust in the intelligence of viewers. For example, at one point where Nathan is lying, in your head you know Ava has analysed his micro gestures and knows he is lying, but a less confident film-maker might have had her explicitly say “Lie” (the way in which she responsed to half-truths earlier in the film when interacting with Caleb). Instead, Garland just has her give a little half-smile, and the viewer knows what this means.

Nathan too, while quite obviously the antagonist of the story, is still fleshed out as a real person rather than a cartoon villain....we're intrigued by him and what makes him tick beneath that dominating, alpha-male geek persona. His heavy drinking perhaps may be a clue that the things he is doing are having an impact on his soul.

The only part of the film where I noticed overt exposition was when Nathan asked Caleb to tell him what the Turing Test means - but this was probably a key enough point to warrant it, and it was done smoothly (Nathan doesn’t need to be educated; he asks Caleb to be sure Caleb understands).

Ex Machina is superbly cast, with top-shelf performances from the few actors involved: Oscar Isaac embodies the intellectually superior, alpha-male tech-bro Nathan, while Domhnall Gleeson's Caleb portrays the flipside - a compassionate, deep thinker, with an inner strength. Sonoya Mizuno was given a tough job with the line-less Kyoko, but does an excellent job in mixing subservience with her sporadic threatening coldness. And Alicia Vikander is stunning as Ava - the perfect match of a new AI's fierce intelligence mixed with a newborn innocence, brought to life with nice subtle touches through her movements and speech patterns to only *just* give the slightest hint that the character is something other than human.

There may be some who will argue that certain elements of the plot reinforce negative tropes concerning both women and artificial intelligence. This may be a warranted to an extent - however, to go in the opposite direction at these times may well have stereotyped women and AI even more so. Sometimes you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Overall Ex Machina is a beautifully designed, shot and acted film, on a fascinating topic that is certainly in the spotlight at this point in history. Highly recommended.

(Apologies for the vagueness throughout the review - just trying to avoid spoilers. Would very much enjoy a discussion of some of the details of the film in the comments section though)

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The Ancient Mountain of Light

This week the Nature website featured a commentary from Indonesian science journalist Dyna Rochmyaningsih, warning that nationalism, rather than science, may be driving some recent projects in her homeland. One of the projects she mentions is the archaeological work being done at Gunung Padang, with some alleged discoveries that would make Indonesia home to Earth’s oldest discovered civilization (possibly 25,000 years old).

Gunung Padang seems likely to feature in alternative historian Graham Hancock's upcoming book Magicians of the Gods, which will certainly bring these claims to a much wider audience in the West - though we have been discussing it here on the Daily Grail for two years now. In last year's release of our anthology Darklore, Martin J. Clemens wrote an article on the Gunung Padang discovery, and at that time he too warned that "some Indonesian leaders want to establish their country as the birthplace of Asian culture, and they tend to seek out storylines that confirm that bias."

Given the commentary in Nature, I thought it would be worth reproducing Martin's essay in full here at the Grail (excerpted from Darklore Volume 8)


Gunung Padang (Creative Commons, Mohammad Fadli)

The Ancient Mountain of Light

by Martin J. Clemens

In the science world, much of the research is inaccessible to the layman. If the concepts being studied aren’t orders of magnitude over the heads of the general public, then the means to participate are just not available, whether due to cost or physical location. There are exceptions, however, such as astronomy. In fact, amateur astronomers have been integral to progress in the field, and professional scientists welcome their input, often using their backyard observations as a starting point in the process of discovering some of the most interesting objects and events in the night sky.

Archaeology is sometimes thought of in those same terms, though that really depends on who you ask. Archaeology is the study of human activity in the past, through observation and analysis of the effects of material culture. Essentially, that means that archaeologists look at artefacts and locations and try to determine what those items mean within the context of the particular culture in question. It can be a difficult process, and it requires those who undertake it to be well-read in the humanities, and to have a background in the physical sciences. They must be experts on history, and be conversant in psychology, biology and sometimes physics. But these things aren’t exclusive to archaeologists. Anyone can be well-read on the humanities. Many laymen are experts on history and are conversant in biology and physics. And since almost every archaeological find is ultimately dependent on subjective interpretation, it would seem that the field is more open than some would like to think.

The products of archaeology are not the artefacts and ancient buildings that they study; the product is the information gleaned from those items. The dusty trinkets and buried structures are the tools archaeologists use to measure the impact lost cultures had on their environment, and on the members of their societies. The problem arises when that story, or stories as the case may be, don’t readily betray the secrets of their originators. Even among the so-called experts, agreement is hard to come by, and when those who look in on the golden circle from the outside get into the fray, things can get messy.

In the world of archaeology, there are some basic truths that form the foundation of the study. One of those truths is the general anthropological timeline, which outlines not only the progression of human development, from the early emergence out of Africa, to our spread throughout Asia and Europe and eventually Australia and the Americas. Other foundational elements include the individual demographics and histories of all of the various civilizations that existed between then and now. But that timeline is only a truth in so far as the majority believe it to be…and there are other voices in the crowd.

It has generally been thought that our ancestors began building monuments and structures for ritual purposes at a specific time in our history. That time is roughly 9000 years ago, or in the 7th millennium BCE. The prevailing wisdom of archaeology says that disparate cultures across Europe and Asia began developing the skills necessary to construct long lasting works of art and primitive architecture using stone as a medium around this time. There were probably many failed starts and half-developed projects that never saw the light of day, but of the examples we know about, the oldest are apparently no older than about 7000 years, indicating that it took roughly 2000 years to hone our skills. By about 5000 years ago, we were building sophisticated structures like Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England, and thus our progression from primitive hunter-gatherer societies to agrarian societies with the time and wherewithal to develop a culture of our own was well underway.

One important aspect of the above, is the implied idea that these skills were developed independently by different cultures. Each culture, we’re told, invented, practised and perfected their techniques on their own, with little to no help from other peoples. This is the accepted wisdom.

There are elements of the archaeological record that would seem to disagree however. One of those elements is a megalithic/Neolithic site in the ... Read More »

Strange & Norrell : V - The Raven King


Susanna Clarke's 2004 historical fantasy novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell has been adapted into a seven part television series by Peter Harness, recently finished on BBC One and currently airing on BBC America. John Reppion plucks out some of the more easily disentangled fragments of folklore, magic, and the like from the book (and the show) and takes a closer look at them.

All posts in this series:

V - The Raven King

Strange & Norrell (the novel) is divided into three volumes: the first is Mr. Norrell, the second Jonathan Strange, and the third is entitled John Uskglass. In the novel, The History and Practice of English Magic is a book written by Jonathan Strange and published in 1816 by John Murray. The third volume of Strange & Norrell opens with Strange's prologue to his book which is a summation of what is known of John Uskglass - the magician they called the Raven King.

In the last months of 1110 a strange army appeared in Northern England. It was first heard of near a place called Penlaw some twenty or thirty miles north-west of Newcastle. No one could say where it had come from –it was generally supposed to be an invasion of Scots or Danes or perhaps even of French.

By early December the army had taken Newcastle and Durham and was riding west. It came to Allendale, a small stone settlement that stands high among the hills of Northumbria, and camped one night on the edge of a moor outside the town.

The farming people of Allendale (a real and extant village in Northumberland, settled since prehistoric times - known today for its flaming tar barrel hurling New Year's celebrations), anxious to befriend the army, sent a party of young beautiful women ("a company of brave Judiths") to make contact, and peace, with the force. There on the moor the women found a host of curious looking soldiers, wrapped in black cloaks, lying on the ground looking like corpses, with ravens roosting on and around them. One soldier stood up and one brave Allendale woman stepped forward to kiss him. They kissed, and kissed, and then they danced, and danced.

This went on for some time until she became heated with the dance and paused for a moment to take off her cloak. Then her companions saw that drops of blood, like beads of sweat, were forming on her arms, face and legs, and falling on to the snow. This sight terrified them and so they ran away. The strange army never entered Allendale. It rode on in the night towards Carlisle. The next day the townspeople went cautiously up to the fields where the army had camped. There they found the girl, her body entirely white and drained of blood while the snow around her was stained bright red.

By these signs they recognized the Daoine Sidhe –the Fairy Host.

The fairy army fought many battles and won them all. By late December hey held Newcastle, Durham, Carlisle, Lancaster (which was burnt to the ground), and were at York. In January the fae army met that of King Henry I at Newark on the banks of the River Trent. The King lost.

The King and his counsellors waited for some chieftain or king to step forward.

The ranks of the Daoine Sidhe parted and someone appeared. He was rather less than fifteen years old. Like the Daoine Sidhe he was dressed in ragged clothes of coarse black wool. Like them his dark hair was long and straight.

He was pale and handsome and solemn-faced, yet it was clear to everyone present that he was human, not fairy.

King Henry asked the boy his name.

The boy replied that he had none.*

King Henry asked him why he made war on England.

The boy said that he was the only surviving member of an aristocratic Norman family who had been granted lands in the north of England by King Henry's father, William the Conqueror. The men of the family had been deprived of their lands and their lives by a wicked enemy named Hubert de Cotentin. The boy said that some years before his father had appealed to William II (King Henry's brother and predecessor) for justice, but had received none. Shortly afterwards his father had been murdered. The boy said that he himself had been taken by Hubert's men while still a baby and abandoned in the forest. But the Daoine Sidhe had found him and taken him to live with them in Faerie. Now he had returned.

He had settled it in his own mind that the stretch of England which lay between the Tweed and the Trent was a just recompense for the failure of the Norman kings to avenge the murders of his family. For this reason and no other King Henry was suffered to retain the southern half of his kingdom.

That day he began his unbroken reign of more than three hundred years.

In a 2004 interview with BBC Nottingham Susanna Clarke was asked whether her master magician, the Raven King, was based upon any historical figure.

The Raven King had an odd genesis. Ursula Le Guin has a magician in the Earthsea trilogy who has no name: the Grey Mage of Plan, whose magic was so dubious, his name was forgotten. And there’s a magician in The Lord of the Rings, right at the very end, who comes out of Mordor to do battle against our heroes, and no one knows his name because he himself has forgotten it. I thought this was rather cool, and when I was developing my magicians, I wanted one without a name. Unfortunately I hadn’t quite understood what would happen if I had a major character without a name. The consequence has been that he has acquired more names than most people: the Raven King, John Uskglass, the Black King, the King of the North and a fairy name that no one can pronounce. [1]

While the initial seeds of Clarke's John Uskglass may have been literary, the Raven King's roots stretch deep into the fertile soil of English history and folklore.

Puck is a name we are most familiar with today from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream - that "shrewd and knavish sprite", "that merry wanderer of the night", and entertainer of Oberon, the fairy king. Puck pre-dates the Bard by a long way however.

Parallel words exist in many ancient languages - puca in Old English, puki in Old Norse, puke in Swedish, puge in Danish, puks in Low German, pukis in Latvia and Lithuania -- mostly with the original meaning of a demon, devil or evil and malignant spirit. [2]

When not being applied generally to household sprites (the kind that helped with chores in exchange for an offering of food and/or drink which was left by the hearth for them), Puck is then the name of one particular fae who also uses the alias Robin/Robyn Goodfellow. This fairy was portrayed in a 1785 painting by William Blake in which he resembles the Greek God Pan, and an 1841 painting by Richard Dadd as a human-looking child. [3] Post his role in Shakespeare's play, Puck/Robyn found himself the subject of many 17th century ballads in which he was often portrayed as the son of Oberon and an English woman. [4] A creature of several names then, and neither wholly human nor fairy.

Writing as Strange upon Uskglass, Clarke gives us:

The boy said that he was already a king in Faerie. He named the fairy king who was his overlord. No one understood.

The accompanying footnote reads:

The name of this Daoine Sidhe King was particularly long and difficult. Traditionally he has always been known as Oberon.

A connection to Oberon, as (foster) father hinted at, at least.

In chapter one of her 1933 work The God of Witches, entitled "The Horned God", Dr. Margaret Murray wrote the following:

The most interesting of all the names for the god is Robin, which when given to Puck is Robin Goodfellow. It is so common a term for the "Devil" as to be almost a generic name for him "Some Robin the Divell, or I wot not what spirit of the Ayre". Dame Alice Kyteler called her god, Robin Artisson, and the Somerset witches cried out "Robin" when summoning their Grandmaster to a meeting, or even when about to make a private incantation. [5]

While Murray's writings are viewed by many as rather fanciful these days there is, nonetheless, value in her cataloguing of these matters and, I would also argue, in her interpretation of things (even if she did get a little carried away at times). She goes on:

A fact, noted by many writers and still unexplained, is the connection between Robin Goodfellow and Robin Hood. Grimm remarks on it but gives no reason for his opinion, though the evidence shows that the connection is there. The cult of Robin Hood was widespread both geographically and in time, which suggests that he was more than a local hero in the places where his legend occurs, In Scotland as well as England Robin Hood was well known, and he belonged essentially to the people, not to the nobles. [6]

In his 1895 essay The Devil and His Imps: An Etymological Inquisition, Charles P. G. Scot wrote briefly upon the connections and confusions between Hood and Goodfellow:

Robin Hood seems to have been sometimes confused in kitchen tales with Robin Good-fellow, and so to have been regarded in the light of a fairy -or in the dark of a goblin. Reginald Scot, speaking of Hudgin, a German goblin, says:


There goe as manie tales upon this Hudgin, in some parts of Germanie, as there did in England of Robin Good-fellow. But this Hudgin was so called, bicaufe he alwaies ware a cap or a hood; and therefore I thinke it was Robin Hood.

1584 R. SCOT, Discourse upon divels and spirits, ch. 2I (app. to Discoverie of witchcraft, repr. I886, p. 438; ed. i65I, p. 374).


Keightly, no conclusive authority, mentions Robin Hood as an other name for Puck or Robin Goodfellow:
Puck . . . his various appellations: these are Puck, Robin Goodfellow, Robin Hood, Hobgoblin.

1828 T. K[EIGHTLEY], Fairy mythology, 2: i 8. [7]

The oldest surviving document mentioning Robin/Robyn/Robe Hood (also Hod, Hode, Whood, Wood, and so on) is a 14th century poem entitled The Vision Concerning Piers Plowman which alludes fleetingly to the "rhymes of Robin Hood" - therefore suggesting that the tales were already well told and known. The real Robin Hood (if there ever was one) is long obscured by the hundreds, if not thousands, of tellings, re-tellings, and re-imaginings of his life and deeds which continue to entertain into the present day. There are at least three sites in England which claim to be the outlaw's final resting place and though Sherwood, Nottingham is the location most of us automatically associate with Robin, many historians now believe that Yorkshire was his (or his tale's) place of origin.

Robin [Hood] has been presented as a personification of the Green Man (he was always dressed in Lincoln Green), a folk character with fairy origins, a political rebel, and even a Witch-Cult figure. [8]

Though a yeoman in the earliest ballads, the idea of Robin Hood being the rightful Earl of Huntingdon, robbed of his title by scheming family members who abandoned him as an infant, goes back to the late 16th century at least. Robin is supposed then to have been raised by Gilbert Whitehand (a now largely overlooked member of the Merry Men), and schooled by him in the ways of the bow and the staff. In later versions Robin it is said to have quarrelled with the king (almost always King John by this point, though an unspecific Edward in the original tales) and was forced to flee north, taking refuge in Sherwood Forest. [9]

Compare this with Strange's account of John d'Uskglass' origins: the entitled noble, abandoned as a child, raised and schooled so well he bettered his master, living in the north while the true king remains in the south. (I could go on, bringing in other sources but for the constraints of time and word-count).

I am not suggesting that Susanna Clarke meant in any way to deliberately base The Raven King upon Robin Hood or Robyn Goodfellow, merely that such figures - complex, elusive, many-named, trickster-ish , champions of "otherness" who live and operate outside the normal rules and constraints of society - are now and always have been part of the English psyche.

Robin Hood is a greatly sanitised version of the archetype, the Raven King a darker, more alien, and dangerous one. Lincoln Green and Raven Black.

There is, of course, also the shared avian nomenculture: the Robin and the Raven. The former having recently been voted the National Bird of Britain, the latter not even making the top ten. The Robin is a cheery, plucky bird that reminds us of Christmas and all the Victorian trappings and customs we carry with the season (consciously or not). The raven is a midnight-hued carrion eater with an IQ comparable to that of a primate, long associated with omens, magic and witch-craft. The raven represents the ancient, the untamed, the occult while the robin represents whimsy, nature at it's back-garden level, and the familiar. England may try to maintain its Victorian composure, try to keep up appearances, but in the fields, and on the concrete roofs of blocks of flats, along the motorways, and even in the Tower of London, the ravens watch and wait.

All of Man’s works, all his cities, all his empires, all his monuments will one day crumble to dust. Even the houses of my own dear readers must –though it be for just one day, one hour be ruined and become houses where the stones are mortared with moonlight, windowed with starlight and furnished with the dusty wind. It is said that in that day, in that hour, our houses become the possessions of the Raven King. Though we bewail the end of English magic and say it is long gone from us and inquire of each other how it was possible that we came to lose something so precious, let us not forget that it also waits for us at England's end and one day we will no more be able to escape the Raven King than, in this present Age, we can bring him back. -- The History and Practice of English Magic by Jonathan Strange, pub. John Murray, London, 1816.


*When he was a child in Faerie the Sidhe had called him a word in their own language which, we are told, meant "Starling", but he had already abandoned that name by the time he entered England. Later he took to calling himself by his father's name John d'Uskglass but in the early part of his reign he was known simply by one of the many titles his friends or enemies gave him: the King; the Raven King; the Black King; the King in the North.


[1] http://www.bbc.co.uk/nottingham/content/articles/2004/09/15/entertainmen...
[2] Gillian Edwards (1974) Hobgoblin and sweet Puck : fairy names and natures
[3] [4] http://boldoutlaw.com/puckrobin/puckages.html
[5] [6] Margaret Murray (1933) The God of Witches
[7] Charles P. G. Scott (1895) The Devil and His Imps: An Etymological Inquisition http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/2935696.pdf?acceptTC=true
[8] Marc Alexander (2002) A Companion to the Folklore Myths and Customs of Britain
[9] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Fitzooth

Strange & Norrell : IV- Magic and Madness


Susanna Clarke's 2004 historical fantasy novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell has been adapted into a seven part television series by Peter Harness, currently airing on BBC One and BBC America. John Reppion plucks out some of the more easily disentangled fragments of folklore, magic, and the like from the book (and the show) and takes a closer look at them.

All posts in this series:

IV - Magic and Madness

"I am not at all surprised that you could not help His Majesty," said Mr Norrell. "I do not believe that even the Aureate magicians could cure madness. In fact I am not sure that they tried. They seem to have considered madness in quite a different light. They held madmen in a sort of reverence and thought they knew things sane men did not –things which might be useful to a magician. There are stories of both Ralph Stokesey and Catherine of Winchester consulting with madmen."

"But it was not only magicians, surely?" said Strange. "Fairies too had a strong interest in madmen. I am sure I remember reading that somewhere."

"Yes, indeed! Some of our most important writers have remarked upon the strong resemblance between madmen and fairies. Both are well known for talking without sense or connexion."

Talking without (seeming) sense or connection, in the world of Strange & Norrell, is one effect of what is referred to only as a "muffling spell" - an enchantment signified by a phantom rose at the mouth of the subject (to those magically inclined enough to see it). The apparent nonsense spoken by those thus enchanted in the book and television series proves, in fact, to be old Fairy and Folk Tales which, though unrelated to what the person is trying to say, are nevertheless coherently told. So it is that those who have had a muffling spell cast upon them may appear insane but not (necessarily) be so. Clearly, this can be read as a metaphor for depression, and any number of mental health conditions in which the sufferer feels unable to articulate their problems, or is unable to imagine them being understood (or taken seriously) if they do so.

Madness and otherness are themes that run throughout Strange & Norrell. In one footnote we are given a note on the thoughts of Richard Chaston (1620-95), an author who the practical magician Mr. Gilbert Norrell agrees with (on this matter, at least):

Chaston wrote that men and Fairies both contain within them a faculty of reason and a faculty of magic. In men reason is strong and magic is weak. With fairies is the other way round: magic comes very naturally to them, but by human standards they are barely sane.

Here then, magic seems to be the very opposite of reason, but does that make it madness?

In Clarke's world fairies and Faerie may seem at first to be the opposite of Englishmen and England but, in fact, (as Chanston hints) they prove to be more like mirror images of the same; their characteristics merely inverted.

Strange & Norrell draws on various Romantic literary traditions and is set during the Romantic Era - an era when England was itself ruled over by "mad" King George III. The self-elected poster-boy of Romanticism Lord Byron was infamously described as "mad, bad, and dangerous to know" by Lady Caroline Lamb; a phrase which has become synonymous with hell-raising, raucous, rebellious behaviour ever since. Madness then, was and is an important part of the Romantic aesthetic.

Poets cultivated the association among insanity, eccentricity, and genius in their life-styles and their work to distinguish themselves from the philistine public and from writers of lesser talent. [...] Two general reasons for the prevalence of genuine and feigned madness in this period were the increased acceptability of public displays of emotion and the cult of the genius poet. [1]

Yet while Byron's madness may have been something of an affectation, other poets such as William Blake, and Friedrich Hölderlin did unquestionably struggle with their mental health (the latter almost certainly being schizophrenic). Another was John Clare, the "Peasant Poet" from Northampton, who was in and out of asylums for much of his adult life.

In 1837 he was admitted to Dr Allen’s High Beech asylum near Epping and was reported as being “full of many strange delusions”. He thought he was a prize fighter and that he had two wives, Patty and Mary [a girl Clare fell in love with as a boy but who, in reality, he seems to have never had any actual relationship with]. He started to claim he was Lord Byron. There is an interesting letter that Dr Allen wrote about Clare to The Times in 1840:

It is most singular that ever since he came… the moment he gets pen or pencil in hand he begins to write most poetical effusions. Yet he has never been able to obtain in conversation, nor even in writing prose, the appearance of sanity for two minutes or two lines together, and yet there is no indication of insanity in any of his poetry.

An interesting picture of Clare during [his time at Northampton Asylum circa 1860] comes from the asylum superintendent, Dr Nesbitt, who wrote of his condition:

It was characterised by visionary ideas and hallucinations. For instance he may be said to have lost his own personal identity as with the gravity of truth he would maintain that he had written the works of Byron, and Sir Walter Scott, that he was Nelson and Wellington, that he had fought and won the battle of Waterloo, that he had had his head shot off at this battle, whilst he was totally unable to explain the process by which it had been again affixed to his body. [2]

Clare's own affliction apparently working as the mirror opposite of the muffling spell of Clarke's world - him being able to speak with absolute clarity and mastery through one medium alone. The madman as genius in his single field of specialisation.

In a paper published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine in 2001, Allan Beveridge wrote the following:

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, two major factors contributed to the awakening interest in the art of the insane—the Romantic movement, which identified madness as an exalted state allowing access to hidden realms; and the emergence of the asylum, which provided a location for the production of patient-art. Romanticism saw madness as a privileged condition: the madman, unrestrained by reason or by social convention, was perceived as having access to profound truths. The Romantics emphasized subjectivity and individualism, and hailed the madman as a hero, voyaging to new planes of reality. Although the equation of madness and genius originated with Plato, it was only in the nineteenth century that it became an important feature of cultural discourse. From the proposition that the genius was a kind of madman it was logical to ask whether the mad themselves create works of genius. [3]

The art of the insane, along the art of children, and the "primitive" art of other cultures, were studied and admired by the likes of the Expressionists and the Surrealists. To them such art represented an absolute break from the conventions of western formalism - from the established etiquette and symbolism of art as it stood (just as the wild magic of fairies contrasts with Mr. Norrell's controlled, formalised English Magic). In the first Surrealist Manifesto, André Breton, the leading theorist of the movement, wrote:

The confidences of madmen: I would spend my life in provoking them. They are people of a scrupulous honesty, and whose innocence is equalled only by mine.

A quotation worthy of Lord Byron himself in terms of its apparent pomposity.

One cannot write of magic, madness, fairies, and art and not include the tragic, talented Richard Dadd.

Richard Dadd was born August 1, 1817 in Chatham, Kent, England. At age 13 the family moved to London, and in 1837, Dadd, age 20, was admitted to the Royal Academy of Art. Dadd showed talent at the Academy and gathered a number of painterly friends, known collectively as 'The Clique'. He won several awards while at the Academy, and began exhibiting his work during his first year.

In 1841, he received a commission to do the woodblock illustrations for a book called the Book of British Ballads, as well as an oil painting called Titania Sleeping, which is perhaps the best example of his early work. Overall, his style was not particularly remarkable, no more so than any other moderately gifted painter in Victorian England during the stylistic phase now referred to as "The Fairy School". [4]

In 1842 Richard Dadd set out on the not-yet-quite-out-of-fashion Grand Tour (of Europe and the Middle East) with Sir Thomas Phillips, who had employed the artist to document his travels. All went well until the duo reached Egypt where Phillips and others believed that Dadd must have caught sunstroke. Dadd himself was under a rather different impression however, namely that he had been possessed by the ancient Egyptian God Osiris. Osiris is the God of the afterlife, of the dead, and, perhaps crucially, of the underworld (the connections between Hades, Hell, the classical underworld, and Faerie having already been discussed in part previously).

Upon his return to England Richard was clearly changed and troubled. He was taken by his family to rural Kent for a bit of rest, relaxation, and recuperation. There, in August 1843, Dadd took a knife and murdered his father, who he now believed was not his father at all but a supernatural double (a "fetch", or a "waff", as some might say). Richard fled the country but was arrested just outside Paris when he attempted a second murder, this time with a straight razor. Dadd confessed to killing his father and was returned to England, where he was committed to the criminal department of Bethlem psychiatric hospital, better known to many as Bedlam.

The Fairy Feller's Master Stroke

In Bedlam (and later in the equally infamous Broadmoor Hospital where he died in 1886) Richard Dadd was encouraged to continue with his painting. His artwork was, as is perhaps to be expected, somewhat changed ("possess[ing] a strange compelling quality absent from the work he completed when sane", according to Beveridge[5]) but it was no less wonderful. So wonderful in fact that in 1855 the then Head Steward at Bedlam, George Henry Haydon, asked Dadd if he would paint a picture for him. Dadd spent nine years on the painting - a canvass measuring a mere 54 x 39.5 cm (21 x 15.5 inches) - which, though it remained unfinished in his eyes, now hangs in London's world famous Tate Gallery. The painting (shown above) is entitled The Fairy Feller's Master Stroke and is described on the Tate website thusly:

With the exception of Shakespeare's Oberon and Titania, who appear in the top half of the picture, the figures are drawn entirely from the artist's imagination. The main focus of the painting is the Fairy Feller himself, who raises his axe in readiness to split a large chestnut which will be used to construct Queen Mabs' new fairy carriage. In the centre of the picture the white-bearded patriarch raises his right hand, commanding the woodsman not to strike a blow until the signal is given. Meanwhile the rest of the fairy band looks on in anticipation, anxious to see whether the woodsman will succeed in splitting the nut with one stroke.

The magician-like figure of the patriarch wears a triple crown, which seems to be a reference to the Pope. Dadd saw the Pope during a visit to Rome in 1843 and was apparently overcome by an urge to attack him. Although the patriarch may be interpreted as a father figure, the tiny apothecary, brandishing a mortar and pestle in the top right of the picture, is in fact a portrait of the artist's father, Robert Dadd. [6]

Yes, Dadd's father was depicted by the artist among the fairies.

Dadd's dad put to work in Faerie

In the very first issue of the Tate magazine, Tate Etc, published in May 2004 (four months before Strange & Norrell), the German Capitalist Realist painter and photographer Sigmar Polke (1941–2010) wrote a piece on Dadd's Fairy Feller's Master Stroke entitled "Private View". While I do not pretend to be familiar with Polke, either as a painter or a writer, there are nevertheless perhaps some insights to be gained from an artist's perspective on Dadd and his master-work. Here are a couple of choice quotations from the piece:

I’ve known Richard Dadd’s The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke 1855–64 since the 1970s. When I look at it again today, it’s as if I were looking into a tapestry and losing my way. Its composition is quite unlike any other Victorian fairy painting. The point of view is not clearly defined. Instead, the individual elements appear to be linked by almost invisible forces.

At that time, the fantasy life of fairies – from Grimm to Shakespeare – enjoyed widespread popularity as an imaginary world fully integrated into reality. Dadd’s appropriation of this world is, however, neither kitsch, nor facile, nor garrulous, because it does not obey the then current pictorial conventions. Nor does his vision echo the spirited confections of popular draughtsman J.J. Grandville’s fantastic book Un Autre Monde 1844. Instead, one senses the extraordinary intensity of an enduring dialogue between the artist and the universe of figures that he created. Isolated from the outside world, he painted the picture for the director of the hospital. Did he perhaps want to present it as proof of his sanity?

A strange idea; attempting to prove one's sanity by creating a hyper-realistic representation of Faerie.

In the final paragraph Polke talks briefly about Dadd's madness but in place of a conclusion to the piece there is, instead, a rather curious quotation.

One more curlicue, a whorl, my coda follows in the form of an ancient Celtic saying:

A city lasts three years,
A dog outlives three cities,
A horse outlasts three dogs,
A person outlives three horses,
A donkey outlives three people,
A wild goose outlives three donkeys,
A crow outlives three wild geese,
A hart outlives three crows,
A raven outlives three harts,
And the Phoenix outlives three ravens. [7]

I have not been able to find the source of the quotation and I'm left wondering exactly what Polke was trying to communicate, and whether he was freely able to do so.

In Strange & Norrell madness and magic may not be the same thing but they are bedfellows nonetheless; each having some bearing and effect upon the other. Even so...

There were remarkably few spells for curing madness. Indeed he had found only one, and even then he was not sure that was what it was meant for. It was a prescription in Ormskirk's Revelations of Thirty-Six Other Worlds. Ormskirk said that it would dispel illusions and correct wrong ideas. Strange took out the book and read through the spell again. It was a peculiarly obscure piece of magic, consisting only of the following words:

"Place the moon at his eyes and her whiteness shall devour the false sights the deceiver has placed there.
Place a swarm of bees at his ears. Bees love truth and will destroy the deceiver's lies.
Place salt in his mouth lest the deceiver attempt to delight him with the taste of honey or disgust him with the taste of ashes.
Nail his hand with an iron nail so that he shall not raise it to do the deceiver's bidding.
Place his heart in a secret place so that all his desires shall be his own and the deceiver shall find no hold there.
Memorandum. The colour red may be found beneficial.”

However, as Strange read it through, he was forced to admit that he had not the least idea what it meant.


[1] Laura Dabundo (2009) Encyclopedia of romanticism: culture in Britain, 1780s-1830s
[2] http://www.rcpsych.ac.uk/healthadvice/bookreviews/books/johnclare/review...
[3] Allan Beveridge (2001) "A disquieting feeling of strangeness?: the art of the mentally ill" http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1282252/
[4] http://www.popsubculture.com/pop/bio_project/richard_dadd.html
[5] Allan Beveridge (2001) "A disquieting feeling of strangeness?: the art of the mentally ill" http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1282252/
[6] http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/dadd-the-fairy-fellers-master-stroke...
[7] Sigmar Polke (2004) "Private View" http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/articles/tate-etc-issue-1

Uplifting Civilisation 2: The Atemporal People's Republic

We Were Always the Monolith.

This is a loose sequel, as the title may suggest, to an earlier post: Uplifting Civilisation into the 22nd Century... and Beyond! That post largely concerned itself with sketching out a future where humanity and the coming AI have joined together, along with some Uplifted Animals, to form a next-level, pluralistic space faring civilisation. Putting forward the idea of a truly posthuman culture that was an attempt to offer up...

[a] vision to help chart a course through the current extinction crisis towards a twenty-second century full of sentient beings in space; a living universe populated with the physical and virtual, human, machine and animal, and multiple combinations of them all. And that's just for starters. Science only knows what comes after that.


The territory of the future moves beyond a human-machine civilisation, to a richer, space faring cyborg ecology.”

In this post I want to look forwards once more by looking backwards to our earliest origins – to cast our vision over that entire timeline, no less - and see how naturally we've merged the biological and the technological to get here, and will only continue to do so.

To draft an “Atemporal People's Republic” that stretches from what we know of our first tool-using ancestor species to what we imagine our posthuman descendants will be and sideways to ... Read More »

Strange & Norrell : III - Away with the Fairies


Susanna Clarke's 2004 historical fantasy novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell has been adapted into a seven part television series by Peter Harness, currently airing on BBC One and BBC America. John Reppion plucks out some of the more easily disentangled fragments of folklore, magic, and the like from the book (and the show) and takes a closer look at them.

All posts in this series:

III – Away with the Fairies

In Strange & Norrell the practical magician Mr. Gilbert Norrell is very much anti-fairy and warns strongly against consulting with, or employing, them:

"A more poisonous race or one more inimical to England has never existed. There have been far too many magicians too idle or ignorant to pursue a proper course of study, who instead bent all their energies upon acquiring a fairy-servant and when they had got such a servant they depended upon him to complete all their business for them. English history is full of such men and some, I am glad to say, were punished for it as they deserved. Look at Bloodworth."

Simon Bloodworth's tale is given in one of Clarke's many wonderful footnotes (in chapter five of the book) and mentioned briefly in episode five of Harness' television adaptation. According to Clarke, Bloodworth was a non too impressive 14th century magician from Bradford on Avon who was one day unexpectedly offered the services of a fairy calling himself Buckler.

"As every English schoolchild nowadays can tell you, Bloodworth would have done better to have inquired further and to have probed a little deeper into who, precisely, Buckler was, and why, exactly, he had come out of Faerie with no other aim than to become the servant of a third-rate English magician".

Buckler did ever more and ever better magic upon Bloodworth's behalf and as he did so he grew stronger. Soon the fairy took on a larger, more human, appearance (“his thin, piebald fox-face became a pale and handsome human one") which he claimed to be his true form, the former being merely an enchantment.

Then “on a fine May morning in 1310 when Bloodworth was away from home Mrs Bloodworth discovered a tall cupboard standing in the corner of her kitchen where no cupboard had ever been before. When she asked Buckler about it, he said immediately that it was a magical cupboard and that he had brought it there".

Buckler told Mrs. Bloodworth than it pained him to see her and her daughters slaving away washing and cleaning all day long. If she would but step into the cupboard, he said, she would be transported to a place where she might learn spells which "would make any work finished in an instant, make her appear beautiful in the eyes of all who beheld her, make large piles of gold appear whenever she wished it, make her husband obey her in all things" and so on and so on.

"Seventeen people entered Buckler's cupboard that morning and were never seen again in England; among them were Mrs Bloodworth, her two youngest daughters, her two maids and two manservants, Mrs Bloodworth's uncle and six neighbours".

Two hundred years later, author of De Tractatu Magicarum Linguarum (On the Subject of Magical Languages), the magician Dr. Martin Pale entered Faerie and visited the brughs of fairies Cold Henry and John Hollyshoes. In the latter the doctor found an eight year old girl washing a great pile of dirty dishes. She said she had been told that when the things were clean she could go home to England. The girl thought she had been washing-up for two weeks or so and would be done in a day or two more. Pale recorded that the girl told him name as Anne Bloodworth.

The danger of humans being lost, trapped, or even imprisoned in Faerie is a recurring theme throughout the old folk-tales of England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and beyond. In the 15th century romance of Thomas the Rhymer the titular character meets and falls in love with the beautiful Queen of Elfland, travelling willingly with her upon a milk-white horse whose mane hung with bells. In his collection Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry, William Butler Yeats wrote the following, more detailed and much less pleasant sounding, description of what may be considered the same arrangement:

The Leanhaun Shee (fairy mistress), seeks the love of mortals. If they refuse, she must be their slave; if they consent, they are hers, and can only escape by finding another to take their place. The fairy lives on their life, and they waste away. Death is no escape from her. She is the Gaelic muse, for she gives inspiration to those she persecutes. The Gaelic poets die young, for she is restless, and will not let them remain long on earth – this malignant phantom. [1]

Others like Burd Ellen, sister of Rowland in the old English Fairy Tale Childe Rowland, stray into the Other Lands entirely by accident. Burd Ellen unintentionally ran around a church widdershins (anti-clockwise) and disappeared - taken to the Dark Tower by the King of Elfland. After seeking advice from the great magician Merlin, Rowland set out on a rather bloody quest to rescue his sister. One must never eat or drink in Faerie, as Merlin warns:

“Bite no bit, and drink no drop, however hungry or thirsty you are; drink a drop, or bite a bit, while in Elfland you be, and never will you see Middle Earth again" [2]

If fairy food is eaten then the devourer will be bound to remain in the Other Lands for an allotted time, just as Persephone daughter of Zeus and Demeter was doomed to remain half a year in Hades (the Greek Underworld which it may be noted shares characteristics with both Faerie and its near neighbour Hell) by the consumption of food there.* This seems to have become a steadfast “fact” of fairy lore but, for my part, I cannot find reference earlier than Childe Rowland relating specifically to the fae.

Robert Kirk's 1691 book The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies is regarded by many as one of the most important works on fairy lore ever committed to paper, yet it contains no reference to the perils of dining upon fairy foods. Kirk, it is said, paid a heavy price for his involvement with the fairy folk, however. In his introduction to the 1893 edition the renowned folklorist Andrew Lang gave the following biographical account of the author and his strange demise.

The Rev. Robert Kirk, the author of The Secret Commonwealth, was a student of theology at St. Andrews: his Master's degree, however, he took at Edinburgh. He was (and this is notable) the youngest and seventh son of Mr. James Kirk, minister of Aberfoyle, the place familiar to all readers of Rob Roy. As a seventh son, he was, no doubt, specially gifted, and in The Secret Commonwealth he lays some stress on […] By his first wife he had a son, Colin Kirk, W.S.; by his second wife, a son who was minister of Dornoch. He died (if he did die, which is disputed) in 1692, aged about fifty-one; his tomb was inscribed --

Linguæ Hiberniæ Lumen.

The tomb, in Scott's time, was to be seen in the cast end of the churchyard of Aberfoyle; but the ashes of Mr. Kirk are not there. His successor, the Rev. Dr. Grahame, in his Sketches of Picturesque Scenery, informs us that, as Mr. Kirk was walking on a dun-shi, or fairy-hill, in his neighbourhood, he sunk down in a swoon, which was taken for death. " After the ceremony of a seeming funeral," writes Scott, "the form of the Rev. Robert Kirk appeared to a relation, and commanded him to go to Grahame of Duchray. 'Say to Duchray, who is my cousin as well as your own, that I am not dead, but a captive in Fairyland; and only one chance remains for my liberation. When the posthumous child, of which my wife has been delivered since my disappearance, shall be brought to baptism, I will appear in the room, when, if Duchray shall throw over my head the knife or dirk which he holds in his hand, I may be restored to society; but if this is neglected, I am lost for ever.'" True to his tryst, Mr. Kirk did appear at the christening and "was visibly seen;" but Duchray was so astonished that he did not throw his dirk over the head of the appearance, and to society Mr. Kirk has not yet been restored. This is extremely to be regretted, as he could now add matter of much importance to his treatise. Neither history nor tradition has more to tell about Mr. Robert Kirk, who seems to have been a man of good family, a student, and, as his book shows, an innocent and learned person. [3]

The form that fell down as if in death upon Aberfoyle's Fairy Knowe was thought then to have been a “stock” or “fetch” or “waff”: a mere magical facsimile of Kirk, created by the fairies to trick mortals into believing he had died while he was in fact in the Other Lands. [4]

Besides washing-up then, what do these humans do while they're in Faerie? Well, many seem to spend an awful lot of time dancing.

It is, of course, to be noted that the modern Greek superstition of the Nereids, who carry off mortal girls to dance with them till they pine away, answers to some of our Fairy legends. [5]

Again, these are the words of Andrew Lang in his introductory notes to The Secret Commonwealth. "The Twelve Dancing Princesses" (or "The Worn-Out Dancing Shoes" or "The Shoes that were Danced to Pieces") is a German fairy tale originally published by the Brothers Grimm in 1812. In the story the princesses all sleep every night in the same locked room. Every morning, much to the confusion of the staff and their father the king, their dancing shoes are found to be worn through. This, it transpires is because every night the princesses sneak through a trapdoor in their bedroom floor down into the Fairy Realm where they travel to a fairy castle and dance with twelve fairy princes. Once discovered and proved this leads to the fae princes each being cursed for the same length of time they kept the young women dancing.

According to Mrs. Ella Mary Leather's 1913 collection The Folklore and Witchcraft of Herefordshire, girls were still dancing themselves (almost) to death in Faerie in the late 19th century. A seventy five year old woman told Mrs. Leather that she remembered her mother telling of a first cousin of hers who was so passionately fond of dancing she who would visit any dance she heard of and could get to. One evening the young woman was walking home from such an occasion when she heard beautiful music coming from within a fairy ring (elferingewort "elf-ring" in Middle English, ronds de sorciers "sorcerers' rings” in French, and Hexenringe "witches' rings" in German). Dancing into the ring, she immediately disappeared. Guessing what must have happened to her dance-crazed daughter, the mother knew that the only way to get her back was to wait outside the ring exactly one year after the vanishing. This she did and when her child reappeared suddenly within the ring the mother seized her in silence (so as not to bring herself to the attention of the fairies) and dragged her back into England. The young woman thought less than a day had elapsed – time in Faerie passing much slower than it does in our own realm. Mrs. Leather was told that the young woman went to work as a shop assistant in the market town of Kington, but was for the rest of her life prone to seeing fairies who would, apparently, steal from the shop. Though she warned the fairies they would be found out, the woman was careful not to say that she could see them in case, as in the tale of the "Fairy Ointment", she was subsequently blinded by them. [6]

In Strange & Norrell, just as in tragic “true” tales such as those of Robertus Kirk and the dancing girl of Kington, Fairy Tale endings cannot be counted on it seems. In a letter to Mr. John Murray, on December 31st, 1816 (possibly unsent), the practical magician Jonathan Strange wrote:

Stories of magicians freeing captives from Faerie are few and far between. I cannot now recall a single one. Somewhere in one of his books Martin Pale describes how fairies can grow tired of their human guests and expel them without warning from the brugh; the poor captives find themselves back home, but hundreds of years after they left it.

Whether little Anne Bloodworth ever made it back to England remains unrecorded.

*See also Fairy Milk & Alien Smoothies: Excerpt from Joshua Cutchin's 'A Trojan Feast' here on Daily Grail.


[1] W. B. Yeats (1888) Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/yeats/fip/fip23.htm
[2] Joseph Jacobs (1890) English Fairy Tales http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/eng/eft/
[3] Robert Kirk and Andrew Lang (1893) The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/sce/sce02.htm
[4] Marc Alexander (2002) A Companion to the Folklore Myths and Customs of Britain
[5] Robert Kirk and Andrew Lang (1893) The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies
[6] Jennifer Westwood and Jacqueline Simpson (2006) The Lore of the Land

Strange & Norrell : II - On Fairies and Witchcraft


Susanna Clarke's 2004 historical fantasy novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell has been adapted into a seven part television series currently airing on the BBC (beginning on BBC America June 14th). John Reppion plucks out some of the more easily disentangled fragments of folklore, magic, and the like from the book (and the show) and takes a closer look at them.

All posts in this series:

II – On Fairies and Witchcraft

The word fairy derives from Middle English faierie (also fayerye, feirie, fairie), a direct borrowing from Old French faerie (Modern French féerie) meaning the land, realm, or characteristic activity (i.e. enchantment) of the legendary people of folklore and romance called (in Old French) faie or fee (Modern French fée). In Johnathan Strange & Mr. Norrell Faerie (or the Other Lands as some magicians call them), the home of the fairies, is an Otherworld realm connected to England by magical means. Clarke's Faerie is a large land with many kingdoms and territories. There is Lost-Hope the home (or brugh) of the fairy known only as The Gentleman With The Thistle-Down Hair, which at times borders or intersects with real world locations such as Sir Walter Pole's Harley-street home. The Gentleman's other kingdoms include The City of Iron Angels, and a place called Blue Castles. There is Pity-Me (“a miserable little place" according to The Gentleman) which, oddly enough, has the name of a real village in Durham, England; "a whimsical name bestowed in the 19th century on a place considered desolate, exposed or difficult to cultivate" according to the Oxford Dictionary of British Place Names. There is also Untold Blessings ("a fine place, with dark, impenetrable forests, lonely mountains and uncrossable seas"). John Usglass – the almighty 12th century magician known as the Raven King – is held to have possessed three kingdoms: one in England, one in Faerie (the name of which is not given) and "a strange country on the far side of Hell" sometimes called the Bitter Lands. Indeed, relations between Faerie and Hell are well established, not least in Scottish folk tradition where “the teind” (tithe) must be paid by the former to the latter every seven years. Mortals who have strayed into the Other Lands are sometimes taken as payment as hinted at in the 16th century ballad of Tam Lin and the 15th century romance of Thomas the Rhymer (itself later condensed into a ballad). Though the teind itself is not mentioned in Susanna Clarke's book, it is briefly referred to in the third episode of the television series.

It may surprise you to learn that, in Britain, consorting with fairies was once a capital offence. Midwife Bessie Dunlop, a resident of Dalry, Scotland was burned at the stake in 1576 after admitting receiving magical tuition from a fae Queen of the "Court of Elphyne" (elfland or fairyland). [1] Allison Peirson (or Pearson) of Fife, Scotland was likewise punished for the same offence seven years later. In a 1583 ballad written about the then Bishop of St. Andrews, Patrick Adamson, the Scottish balladeer Robert Semphill makes reference to the scandal surrounding the trial of Allison Pearson when it was discovered that Adamson had sought advice from the magician (or witch as the court called her). In Semphill's ballad he has Pearson taking part in the Fairy Rade (Ride?) described in Thomas Keighley's 1870 work The Fairy Mythology thusly:

“The Fairy Rade, or procession, was a matter of great importance. It took place on the coming in of summer, awl the peasantry, by using the precaution of placing a branch of rowan over their door, might safely gaze on the cavalcade, as with music sounding, bridles ringing, and voices mingling, it pursued its way from place to place.” [2]

Semphill's version the trooping of the fae seems to have been mixed up with the witches Sabbath, the event even taking place on Halloween rather than the eve of the Summer. The 16th and 17th centuries – while at the tail end of the Golden Age of Magic in Strange & Norrell – were not a good period to be a practitioner of magic in Britain. In England, Scotland and Ireland, a series of Witchcraft Acts enshrined into law the punishment (usually death, sometimes incarceration) of individuals practising, or claiming to practice magic. Many books were written upon the subject of magic and the detection of those who practised it at the time and among them was King James VI of Scotland (later also James I of England)'s Daemonologie, In Forme of a Dialogie (written as a conversation between two characters named Philomathes and Epistemon). Published in 1599 the work was divided into three parts, the last of which is entitled The Description Of All These Kindes Of Spirites That Troubles Men Or Women. In the fifth chapter of this book, The Description Of The Fourth Kinde Of Spirites Called The Phairie: What Is Possible Therein, And What Is But Illusiones, Epistemon makes it clear that he (and therefore King James) believes that fairies and the Other Lands are mere illusions created by the Devil to trick humans. The old beliefs, stories, and practices are dismissed in one fell swoop: anything non-Christian is automatically anti-Christian and therefore the work of the Arch Fiend itself. Faerie and Hell no longer near neighbours but, in the eyes of the King and his loyal subjects, the self same place. So it was that for centuries there was no magic in Britain, only Witchcraft. No magicians, only witches.

Witches (as opposed to magicians) are mentioned as such only two or three times in Strange & Norrell, the practical magician Mr. Gilbert Norrell describing them as “those half-fairy, half-human women to whom malicious people were used to apply when they wished to harm their neighbours". Clearly they are, or were, not respectable in Norrell's estimation but then he is a man who disapproves of almost all magic that is not done by himself. Are, or were, there then any female magicians? The story of The Master of Nottingham's daughter, an adventure concerning a magical ring and a wicked sorceress named Margaret Ford, appears in a one of Susanna Clarke's ample footnotes for Chapter Twenty-five. It is quite a long story very much in the Fairy Tale tradition but, at its conclusion, we are given the following information:

“There is another version of this story which contains no magic ring, no eternally-burning wood, no phoenix –no miracles at all, in fact. According to this version Margaret Ford and the Master of Nottingham's daughter (whose name was Donata Torel) were not enemies at all, but the leaders of a fellowship of female magicians that flourished in Nottinghamshire in the twelfth century. Hugh Torel, the Master of Nottingham, opposed the fellowship and took great pains to destroy it (though his own daughter was a member). He very nearly succeeded, until the women left their homes and fathers and husbands and went to live in the woods under the protection of Thomas Godbless, a much greater magician than Hugh Torel. This less colourful version of the story has never been as popular as the other but it is this version which Jonathan Strange said was the true and which he included in The History and Practice of English Magic.”

The world of gentlemen magicians is an undeniably patriarchal one then, yet so too was the historical era in which Strange & Norrell is set. Even so, it is perhaps interesting to note that the enchanting Fairy Queen, ruler of Faerie of our own traditions, seems to have been replaced by Clarke with a host of male fairy Kings, Dukes, and so on. In Strange & Norrell's alternative history the witch-trails never happened; magic instead being, if not celebrated, then feared and respected during the Raven King's reign over Northern England (the area between the rivers Tweed and Trent) which lasted from 1111 up until his disappearance in 1434. Even so with magic in decline, both in employment generally and in potency when employed, in the centuries after the Raven King's departure, it seems people did find cause to speak and write against it. Published in 1698 skeptical magio-historian Valentine Munday's The Blue Book: being an attempt to expose the most prevalent lies and common deceptions practised by English magicians upon the King's subjects and upon each other denied the existence of the Other Lands entirely and stated that anyone who claimed to have visited them was, not in league with Satan as King James would have had them, but merely a liar. In the mannerly world of Strange & Norrell the ruining of his or her reputation seems to be very worst punishment that could be levelled against any magician then.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monkcastle,_North_Ayrshire#Bessie_Dunlop_o...
[2] http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/tfm/

Fairy Milk & Alien Smoothies: Excerpt from Joshua Cutchin's 'A Trojan Feast'

Remember the "Milk: It does a body good" commercials from the 80's, featuring celebrities holding a glass of whole-some cow juice in one hand, while sporting an unashamedly white mustache? Now Nutrition Science has done a complete 180° turn-over, and no doubt you are friends with at least one obnoxious health-obsessed hipster, who would just cringe in horror if he or she ever caught you grabbing a carton of pasteurized whole-milk at the supermarket.

In Medieval times there was also a certain caution against milk --but not for the reasons you might think. You see, milk was one of the favorite drinks of the fey folk, and as such many old wives' tales warned against accepting any offering of milk or any other kind of ingestible from these trickstery entities, lest you become bewitched by them and entrapped in their magical realm forever --of course, the same folk tales also warned about never EVER offending the fairie-kind, so either way you were pretty much screwed…

The exchange of liquids and food-stuffs between mortal men and fairies didn't end with the Industrial Revolution and the dawn of Materialism; it merely 'transmogrified' to adapt with the new times, and instead of wine offered by an enchanting wood elf, now we have card-board tasting pancakes handed down by humanoids traveling in silvery saucers. Trying to find the connective thread --if any-- between ancient folklore and modern witness accounts, Fortean researcher Joshua Cutchin managed to mix it all up to cook "A Trojan Feast: The Food and Drink Offerings of Aliens, Faeries, and Sasquatch" [Amazon US & UK], which was published last month and has already gathered praised reviews all over the Fortean blogosphere.

And just to whet your esoteric appetite, here's a small morsel from the chapter about liquids. Mind you, this is only a fraction of the complete chapter, stripped from all the footnotes Joshua was careful to include in the text.

Get it while it's hot!


Milk, a staple of life since time immemorial, is common in faerie lore. Practically all of the fae folk accept milk as an offering, are quick to steal it from farmers, and occasionally offer it directly to humans (recall the man who died for rejecting the banshee’s buttermilk).

It isn’t always animal milk that faeries offer, however. In one Scandinavian folktale, a young cowherd was fending off sleep when a faerie happened upon him. “You look hungry,” she said seductively. “Come, I’ll give you something to drink. Take a suck, if you dare.” She presented her breast and somehow enticed the young man to suckle, whereupon he fell into a trance and “stayed there for an eternity.” Somehow he eventually extricated himself from this awkward position, possessing only a foggy memory of the encounter.

Even more enticing was the milk of the Milk-White Milch Cow, a fae bovine with the miraculous ability to never run dry. Any Celtic family lucky enough to happen upon her could drink her milk and be made healthy, wise, or happy, depending upon one’s needs.

In the early 1970s in Veracruz, Mexico, several child disappearances were attributed to the chaneques, small elemental faeries similar to the aforementioned duendes. One child was Arturo Gutierrez, who disappeared at age six after going on a hike with his uncle. The uncle was awaiting trial for murder when the boy reappeared 33 days later in perfect health, saying that he had “been living with the little men. They gave me food and milk with honey in it. We played a lot of games. I was very happy.”

As mentioned earlier, there are very few stories where Sasquatch offer liquids, presumably because—if one adopts the biological ape theory—they lack the sophistication to create drinking vessels. Nonetheless, there are still a few interesting connections to make with folklore and anecdotes. Just as Milk-White Milch Cow guarded her magical liquid of life, so Tsonoqua holds a special elixir of her own. According to folklorist Cheryl Shearar, if Tsonoqua was slain, her skull could be turned into a wash basin, one whose “water gives children anointed with it remarkable strength. She occasionally endows select, fortunate and clever individuals with great wealth.”
Several reports exist of hairy hominids suckling humans. Circa 1200, a baby was stolen from its nanny in Sienra, Spain. A hastily organized rescue party quickly located the boy, who was “happily sucking one of the tits” of the serrana, or wild woman. There is some dispute as to whether or not this account is describing a bear, although such behavior would seem unlikely from a wild animal. One Indian news source ran a story, no less suspect, of an alleged Yeti abduction that ended in an unfortunate man being “forcibly breastfed.” He described the milk as “sour with a mixture of bitterness.”

There is also no shortage of extraterrestrial cases where witnesses allegedly consume milk or a “milky” substance.

  • A 52-year-old repeat experiencer in Dagestan, Russia, awoke one night in 1990 to find two humanoids dressed head-to-toe in tight-fitting suits. One held a bottle of “some unknown whitish liquid” which she was forced to swallow. The entities disappeared immediately afterward. She later remarked that the beverage tasted like sour milk.
  • In 2007, one witness recalled an incident some 33 years earlier when Grey aliens entered the bedroom and administered “some white liquid that had the appearance of milk but had a horrible chemical taste.” The witness remembers a Grey alien, larger than its compatriots, hovering close by and communicating good intentions.
  • Researcher Albert Rosales had direct correspondence from “Margaret,” a mother in Queensland, Australia, involved in multiple encounters. Margaret reported that in 1993 her daughter claimed to have met a “tall woman” who had come through the window and given her “cake and pink milk to drink in a large goblet.” Though it is possible these were simple childish flights of fancy, the mother had seen several shadowy figures moving through the home around the time of the incident, and once even caught a glimpse of a tall woman on their property.
  • “Godre Ray King” wrote in 1934’s Unveiled Mysteries that he had encountered “Saint Germain” four years prior while working at California’s Mount Shasta. King, whose real name was Guy Warren Ballard, said that Saint Germain was an immortal being who gave him a peculiar creamy fluid to drink called “Life—Omnipresent Life.” He also consumed a golden beverage with the consistency of honey. Ballard would later found the “I AM” Activity, a New Age organization.

* * * * * * * * * * *
Excerpt from "Chapter 4 - Food: Liquid"
Reprinted with permission from A TROJAN FEAST by JOSHUA CUTCHIN
Copyright © 2015 Joshua Cutchin. All rights reserved.