Posts Tagged ‘Faerie’

 

There are distinct similarities between the Calypso episode in The Odyssey, and the Border Ballad, Thomas the Rhymer.
Both Odysseus/Ulysses and Thomas, were taken for seven/eight years; they were taken ‘out of the world’; they were taken by a woman of other-than-human nature; they were to be their lover.

The gods intervened in Odysseus/Ulysses’ case, and under threat of Zeus’ anger Calypso was forced to relinquish her captive. She did it with better grace than Odysseus/Ulysses’ own sojourn had been with her. But perhaps it was the normality, the Penelope-and-marriage bond that was being promoted – much as it was the superiority of Athens, and Athen’s justice, was being sold big in the last of The Orestia, The Libation Bearers, by Aeschylus, in later centuries.

As for Thomas, he went along gladly with her.

There is a moment in verses 16, 17 and 18 of the ballad that he maintains his own integrity.
She offered him an apple:
‘Take this for thy wages, true Thomas;
It will give thee a tongue that can never lie.’

‘My tongue is mine ain,’ true Thomas said;
‘A gudely gift you wad gie to me!
I neither dought to buy or sell,
At fair or tryst where I may be.

‘I dought neither speak to prince nor peer,
Nor ask of grace from fair layde.’

And her reply?

‘Now hold your peace!’ the lady said,
‘For as I say, so it must be.’

He admits he hardly had been to able to wheedle or lie (‘dought’) to begin with; her gift changed little. What is implied here is that for such as this he had gone with her.

They reach a point on the way where three roads branch off:

‘O see ye not yon narrow road,
So thick beset with thorns and briers?
That is the path of righteousness,
Though after it few enquires.

‘And see ye not that braid braid road,
That lies across the lily leven?
That is the road of wickedness,
Though some call it the road to heaven.

And, I have to admit, I love the salty humour here: the lily lawn road to wickedness. What a paradox! Wickedness as heavenly, that too! And the road to righteousness… the ‘narrow way’ of the church, so little sought. Satire sits with wry humour.
What of the other road, though?

‘And see you not that bonny road
That winds about the ferny brae?
That is the road to fair Elfland,
Where thou and I this night maun gae.

And there is that ‘thou’, the intimate address, crashing in after the more distanced, explanatory, discursive, and descriptive converse. The winding road along the brae – not over, not at the foot of; no straight Roman or military road; no trudging, sun or wind and rain-blasted heath.
The road winds, it does not follow logic or argument, it is not, therefore, a reasonable or rational place to where they go.
When Maddy Prior, of Steeleye Span sings this, the music becomes delicate, low key, the line becomes ‘that bonny, bonny road’.

Elfland? The Land of Faerie? Is there a difference?
We know nothing of the Elf Queen from the song, except that she has a timeless quality, can appear to whom she chooses. And that there are restrictions, differences on behaviour, perhaps etiquette, between the two realms of our life and their world. Thomas is warned not to speak whilst there.
Calyspo, similarly, has that timeless quality of the gods; she can appear forever youthful.

Thomas initially address as the Queen of Heaven. She takes pains to deny that title:

‘O no, O no, Thomas’ she said,
‘That name does not belang to me;
I am but the Queen of fair Elfland,
That am hither come to visit thee.

Calypso is given a geneology, and her place in Olympus detailed and plotted.In another ballad, Tamlane, there is another abduction into that other place. Tamlane reveals he can be saved, if his lover, fair Janet, trusts in him despite the magical transformations the Queen of Fairies puts him through to regain him. In fact she faces down her father and all his knights when she is found to be pregnant with Tamlane’s child.
The Queen of Fairies, we also learn from this ballad, must pay a tribute to Hell every seven years.
The Faerie were not as automonous as the Elfen folk, it would appear.

 

For Odysseus/Ulysses his sojourn seems to have been a sexual enslavement.

The interlude with Circe was of a completely different nature, here Hermes stepped in with his gift of Moly, advice, foreknowledge. The relationship was based on agreement, forced maybe, but accepted.
The nature of Thomas’ relationship appears different. As the ballad begins it seems very much as though he had been wilfully negligent of his duties, almost inviting the tryst. The sexual element is down-played, as in all the Border Ballads. It could be said, however, that sexual jealousy lays at the root of many. Theirs was a tightly constricted society, both in terms of gender roles, and socially and economically. A woman’s role was very much that of home-maker, mother, griever. She was bride-wealth, cement for family truces, essential networker binding all together against a common enemy.
In this environment, a woman riding out, choosing her own mate; of a man idling, eschewing duty and obligation, this was dangerous, even more lawless than family-feuding which recognised strict family loyalties.
It could be argued that only in such a tightly controlled and constricted environment could that third road be found.

It is interesting to see Thomas’ vow of a seven-year silence from speech, whilst in Elfland. It is like an apprenticeship. What was his craft? His art? It was supposedly to be able to propheci, to put second-sight, clairvoyance, into verbal forms.

What was the apprenticeship of Odysseus/Ulysses? What was his craft? It is impossible to see the Calypso incident apart from the whole mythic pattern of the ‘wandering.’ But it is significant that straight from Calypso’s isle he (just about) got to the isle of Nausicca. It is there he told his tale for the first time. That telling could be what his apprenticeship was about.
A muse ascription hovers around these two tellings.

In the novel,  Jonathon Strange and Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke, we read how the people of faerie left the human world ‘three hundred years’ ago.’ Mr Norrell constantly throws this out.
The book is set about 1805 onwards, which gives us…  the early 1500s.
What is significant about this time?
If we set the date at the breaking away of the English church from Rome, Catholocism, the Reformation, we perhaps see a connection.

What is especially noticeable and surprising about Catholicism to a non-Catholic, is the emphasis on the world as cherished, made by God; of the body as also cherished. It is a religion of ceremony and celebration.
To the Protestant, the body is despised, it is to be ignored, hated, and trampled beneath the grey whispy vapour of the undefined spirit. It is a religion where the person is to cower alone and undefended by intermediaries, angels etc, before God himself.
Similarly with the world: where the Catholic church encourages all to cherish the earth, the Protestant church denigrates it.

It is ‘interesting’ that the tales of Faery stopped being made, told, when the Protestant church  became dominant.
Faery has very many elements that settle  well within Catholicism’s cherishment-programme. Its history of mariolatry resonates here also, as if with a more distant memory, of a bell rung in another realm.
But which realm resonates to which? Does Faery take from Catholicism, more than Catholicism from Faery? Is Faery a tarnished-glass reflection of elements of Catholicism? Or do certain elements come from similar roots?

Faery have a healthy sexual attitude, when compared to both churches.
Although the Catholic church cherishes the body, it is only so more believers can be born to worship God. And let us not forget the likes of the flagellants, the celibacy of the priesthood, and what it does to one’s behaviour in a world full of more explicit temptations. Who could forget that.

I suspect that that other road along the brae will be well sought-after, in the coming years of hardship.

 

Advertisements