C.S. Lewis’s Faerie Lecture, and a Prince Edward Island Folktale

C.S. Lewis at his deskC.S. Lewis gave a lecture on Faeries at the oldest and (arguably) most prestigious university in the English world. He did this lecture often, and he did it with a straight face.

It is, of course, perfectly normal for universities to have programs in folklore now. But when Lewis was an Oxford Don, from the mid-1920s to mid-1950s, few took Faerie seriously in their curriculum. Part of this may be the close nature of folklore–Lewis references people he knew who had had encounters with Faeries–though it may also have been because of the project of Fairyland Disneyfication was already well begun. Lewis, however, was a lover the Little People, from Martianus Capella to George MacDonald, and was especially indebted to Spenser’s Faerie Queene. The Narniad and, to a lesser extent, That Hideous Strength, are Faerie Tales and were influenced by J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, which also drew from the same traditions. For Tolkien and Lewis, Faerie was a serious topic of discussion.

The Discarded Image by CS LewisThe Discarded Image

Much later, Lewis’ Faerie Lecture was printed in The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature. The Discarded Image is truly an introduction to literature of the period, but with a specific purpose. It intends to disenchant modern students of certain notions–like medieval folk thought the world was flat or the universe was very small–while providing these students with the medieval view of the universe, their cosmology. It is a tremendously accessible book, once you get past the fact that Lewis references hundreds of works of literature that you may not have heard of. Once I was able to get over my own inadequacy, I loved this book and rate it as my favourite of Lewis’ nonfiction and the most helpful medieval introduction I’ve ever encountered.

A History of Faerie

About halfway through C.S. Lewis’ presentation of the medieval cosmology that sits behind their theology, history, science, and art, he turns to one aspect of medieval and renaissance life that the model does not fully take into account: Faeries, or as he calls them, “The Longaevi,” the Longlivers. Faerie exists for the pre-modern thinker Medieval Cosmologysomewhere between earth and the heavens, and disappoint anatomical precision–though Faeries are included in books of anatomy and science, in bestiaries and encyclopedias of the period. Indeed, Lewis uses three Milton quotations to roughly categorize Faeries:

  1. The “swart Faery,” which induce horror in those that meet them. These include monsters, nymphs, hags, daemons, Lilith, bugbears, bull-beggars, witches, urchins, elves, satyrs, pans, faunes, sylens, tritons, centaurs, dwarfs, giants, the Incubus, Robin Good fellow, the spoom, the man in the oke, the fire-drake, the puckle,  Tom Thombe, Tom tumbler boneles, and all Faeries that haunt and spook. We may imagine most of these as benign or benevolent or even cute; when considering this category, however, we cannot think of Tolkien or Lewis’ Faery Tales, and certainly not Disney’s.
  2. The “Faery Elves,” taken up in Shakespeare, Drayton, William Brown, and the Little People (“Pigmean Race”) of Milton. The Faeries look like humans, to a point, but are smaller in stature and might be imagined as grotesque or comical. Lewis resists being specific about their size because he argues that the lore of the period assigned no discernible measure itself. For example, Oberon is “big enough to catch a wasp in his arms … and small enough to ride and ant.” Lewis adds that “he might as well have [been] able both to lift an elephant and to ride a fox-terrier” (128). This is a mirthful race of Faerie, known for their dancing and celebrations, which a human may stumble upon by accident. If so, the shy people may alarm an unsuspecting mortal, but they are not horrifying. Indeed, they are alluring and delightful, though Lewis bemoans their “prettification” in the modern period.
  3. The “Fairy Damsels met in Forest wide” are the fey who draw the human into their realm. While other Faeries may be jocular and diminutive or frightening to behold, these Faeries are surprisingly material: full-bodied, beautiful, richly adorned, regal. The “High Faeries” are complex and diverse, and I will leave the reader to find Lewis’ summary, but these Faeries are numenous, “awesome” in the older sense of the word.

PuckLocal Lore

I have just finished the first draft of a Faerie Tale that draws on elements of each of these elements. As a lover of more contemporary fantasy, I drew from the Tolkien-Lewis tradition, with some influence from Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizze, whose Fey in The Spiderwick Chronicles is brilliantly cataloged in Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You.

Beyond these, however, I also drew from some of my local folklore. Unlike the “Fairy Damsels” of high literature or the comic “Faery Elves,” the local lore of Celtic Prince Edward Island is decidedly dark. PEI Gentle Folk are “swart Faery” in Lewis’ first category. While my influence comes from word of mouth growing up, I thought a helpful way to demonstrate Lewis’ first category–the one most foreign to us–was to share one of Prince Edward Island’s Faerie stories. Like poor Roderick, I have been kidnapped by Faeries–though only in a literary sense. I suppose I share this with Lewis, who wrote Faerie into the centre of his curriculum.

How Roderick was Kidnapped by the Fairies

I remember when I was quite a young fellow there lived not far from my father’s house a man by the name of Roderick MacAvinney, I think it was. He was a married man; and with his wife and small family, he lived comfortably on his farm. In meeting and conversing with him, one would not notice anything to distinguish him from other men of Old World Leprecaunhis calling; yet there were whispered tales of strange occurrences in connection with his life, and of remarkable absences from his home.

For a long time we were inclined to credit all this to the imagination of the village gossips; but one night an event took place that fixed the truth of these rumours so firmly in our minds that I, for one, have never since for a moment doubted them.

On this night, a crowd of neighbours, both old and young, gathered at Roderick’s house for a dance. Everything went on merrily, and all were enjoying themselves to the utmost. About ten o’clock Roderick lit the lantern and went out to the barn, as was customary, to see that everything was secure for the night.

When he had been absent about an hour the company became anxious concerning his whereabouts; a party of us determined to investigate, and we sallied forth in search of Roderick; but Roderick was nowhere to be found.

On the further side of the barn we discovered the lighted lantern on the ground, the sole occupant of the place; and, as it had snowed during the early part of the night it was quite easy to discover any tracks. We soon came upon Roderick’s footsteps leading down across the field away from the barn.

At first we concluded that he must have gone to one of the neighbour’s houses; but some of the party following up the footprints noticed something very peculiar about them.

For the first few yards there was nothing to be remarked; but going a little further we perceived that the steps were farther apart, as if head been running, and that the impression in the snow was becoming fainter; proceeding further we found a step only here and there.

On coming to a fence we noticed that the snow had been brushed off the top rail in two spots about three inches apart, as if the toes of two boots had rubbed over it, and beyond the fence the snow was undisturbed.

The party returned to the house; but their mirth was dampened, and time hung heavily on their hands. The old people shook their heads in silent significance, and recalled all the old stories they had heard of people being carried away in some mysterious manner; but nowhere could they find a parallel.

About two o’clock we heard steps coming to the door, and eagerly we all pressed forward to see who it was. Imagine our joy and surprise on beholding Roderick; even the spectacle as he presented. I can see him yet as he burst into the house. His clothes were soaking wet from head to foot, and were coated over with a white crust, which upon further inspection proved to be salt spray. His long hair hung down over his forehead, and his face, deathly pale, presented a wearied and ghastly appearance. After the first few moments of surprise someone ventured the question. “Roderick, where have you been?”

“Oh,” said he, “those cursed fairies have been after me again. They plague me incessantly. I cannot rid myself of them by any means. Tonight, just as I was coming in, two of them seized me, compelled me to drop my lantern, and then took me off to some foreign land. I think it must have been across the Atlantic Ocean, for I never saw so much water before.

“After hurrying me through many strange places they at last turned westward again; and crossing that vast ocean, one of them who seemed to be the leader asked if I would go with him the next time he came. I told him no, and all at once I was immersed in the billows beneath me; and each time I refused his request he ducked me in the briny ocean, and threatened me with more terrible punishments, until at length I was fain to give in, and tell him yes I would go again.

“Very shortly we reached P. E. Island, and they dropped me down just where they had taken me up. So you see my friends, I have had quite a long journey since I left you; but do not envy me — for those fairies are the most cruel and wicked things that have ever been created.”

Source: Sterling Ramsay, Folklore: Prince Edward Island (Charlottetown, PE: Square Deal Publications, 1973), 101-103.

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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39 Responses to C.S. Lewis’s Faerie Lecture, and a Prince Edward Island Folktale

  1. jubilare says:

    I’d rather not meet a fairy, all considered. I like them well enough in lore, but not in person.
    Until recently, I didn’t know of any fairy-lore from my home, but it seems the Cherokee have many such stories, and I am learning. I never heard of fairy-crosses until yesterday.

    Liked by 1 person

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