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 »
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.
(Previous in this series:
Strange and Norrell I – The Language of Birds
Strange and Norrell II – On Fairies and Witchcraft )
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. 
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" 
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 --
ROBERTUS KIRK, A.M.
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. 
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. 
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. 
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. 
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.
 W. B. Yeats (1888) Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/yeats/fip/fip23.htm
 Joseph Jacobs (1890) English Fairy Tales http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/eng/eft/
 Robert Kirk and Andrew Lang (1893) The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/sce/sce02.htm
 Marc Alexander (2002) A Companion to the Folklore Myths and Customs of Britain
 Robert Kirk and Andrew Lang (1893) The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies
 Jennifer Westwood and Jacqueline Simpson (2006) The Lore of the Land
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.
(Previous in this series: Strange and Norrell I - The Language of the Birds)
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).  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.” 
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.