The article was written by David Halpin of Circle Stories
I recently read Alan Garner’s excellent book The Owl Service.
I won’t spoil the story in case people want to look it up and read it themselves but the premise behind it is interesting when it comes to examining both fairy lore and fairies themselves.
In this case we will have to be aware that using the term ‘fairy’ has a connotation for people which is only the surface level of how they are rooted in landscape and myth.
Also, it’s worth keeping in mind that ‘fairy’ does not only refer to one class of non-human being but potentially a whole diversity of otherworldly forms, including the place or places of fairy.
What is interesting is how here in Ireland many fairy encounters might reflect a recurring conflict, property or aspect of a tradition and local population.
This draws the fairy experience from the personal, through to the communal, and into the mythic and collective memory.
This can seem like an abstract concept but, for me, it is only because of how hard it is to define the fairy purpose that this is so: folklore tells us that fairies are outside of our understanding of time in the first place.
It is akin to tying ourselves in knots if we try to restrict ‘themselves’ to how our physicality shapes and filters our sensory experience.
In The Owl Service something archaic and powerful is occurring: the myths associated with the location where the story is set begin to manifest through the characters who live there.
The novel is set in Wales and so the archetypes which appear feature in the Mabinogi.
The main narrative they unconsciously re-enact involves that of Blodeuwedd, a woman created from flowers and oak by the magicians Math and Gwydion.
She is made for a man who is cursed to take no human wife but she ultimately betrays him for another man.
Blodeuedd is then transformed into an owl for inducing her lover to kill her husband.
There is much more to the myth, obviously, but in The Owl Service three teenagers in contemporary times find that the myth is recurring again through their lives and it is hinted that it is a never ending cycle which will repeat again once this story has completed.
Of course, the idea that we relive mythic narratives all the time is nothing new. Thinkers like Joseph Campbell, for example, have written extensively on this subject with ‘the hero’s journey’ motif perhaps most identifiable in this context.
However, it is the agency and individual consciousness of the mythic archetypes which separate the fairy aspect from the more philosophical and perhaps abstract understanding of such concepts.
In Irish fairy lore, for example, fairies often appear in the form of communal fears or concerns such as the association with the dangers of childbirth at a time when infant mortality and that of pregnant women was very high.
There is an interesting reversal here, though, in that it is usually the human midwife who helps the supernatural being as opposed to the other way around.
One explanation for this is that it is a psychological reinforcement regarding the strength of women themselves and their ability to overcome the dangers of labour.
We can see a similar emergence with respect to the sickness of animals thought to have been struck by elf shot or fairy darts. The fear of the community encompasses the folkloric traditions of fairy association in this instance with various remedies and cures carried on in order to thwart the evil or negative influence.
Again, the security of knowing that a particular ‘spell’ or work of a bean feasa or fairy doctor can overcome the sickness creates a communal strength and confidence even within the landscape where such perils lie permanently on the periphery of daily life.
These fairy dangers seem steadfast in Irish folklore to the point where fairies seem to lose any sense of individual identity and instead occupy a force akin to what Garner writes about in The Owl Service. It is the archetype of fairy behaviour and influence which penetrates into the consciousness of the community, as opposed to any single fairy being.
Perhaps the mythic influence is inescapable for all of us and it is a matter of using the stories and wisdom in order to transition ourselves to a more beneficial place in our own personal narrative.
Understanding the lore as a construct or landscape in which we can navigate ourselves past dangers and pitfalls is why such stories remain so potent and relevant.
And yet, we still have the enigma of fairy and mythic agency to explain: often it is the beings of the Otherworld who deign to pass us on the wisdom in the first place.
So, do we put this down to the deeper wisdom of our subconscious or should we go further and perhaps consider that there is a plethora of further levels and worlds awaiting us once we find the way in?
I don’t have any answers but I do enjoy thinking about such questions!
(C.) David Halpin.