“Tiny Fairies: J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Errantry” and Martyn Skinner’s Sir Elfadore and Mabyna” by Dale Nelson

Many will remember Sørina Higgins’ playfully entitled paper, ‘King Arthur was an Elf!’, which she has described as “the seed” of The Inklings and King Arthur. But how have various Arthurian writers down the ages envisaged elves – and other ‘folk’? Earlier in the series, Dale Nelson introduced us to Lewis’s young friend, Martyn Skinner, and the lively futuristic epic poem Lewis encouraged him to write, The Return of King Arthur. Now Dale takes us back to the 1930s to encounter Skinner’s first book, another long poem in a distinctly different Arthurian setting, with intriguing points of contact with both Lewis’s scholarship and, especially, Tolkien’s varying practice and theory.

David Llewellyn Dodds, Guest Editor


C. S. Lewis is notorious for writing so engagingly about dozens of authors in English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama that readers have hastened to read them, only to be disappointed; but Lewis could make you ashamed of yourself if you liked the Nimphidia of Michael Drayton (1563-1631): it is “dear to some who do not care for ‘faerie’ and hateful to all who do.”

Well!

J. R. R. Tolkien discussed the fairy-story in decay, in which the “glamour of Elfland” has become “mere finesse,” and invisibility has become “a fragility that could hide in a cowslip.” Shakespeare (in A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and Drayton shared in the guilt for this.

“Drayton’s Nymphidia is, considered as a fairy-story (a story about fairies), one of the worst ever written.  The palace of Oberon has walls of spider’s legs…The knight Pigwiggen rides on a frisky earwig, and sends his love, Queen Mab, a bracelet of emmets’ eyes, making an assignation in a cowslip-flower.  But the tale that is told amid all this prettiness is a dull story of intrigue and sly go-betweens” (J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-stories”).

Image from Andrew Lang’s The Olive Fairy Book

At last, drinking the waters of Lethe brings the men, if not the ladies, forgetfulness, so that court life can go on.  Tolkien growls,

“It would have been better if Lethe had swallowed the whole affair.”

With two such formidable witnesses as Lewis and Tolkien against the genre of tiny fairies, we might, without further inquiry, dismiss it without qualm – perhaps retaining a fondness for the Shakespeare play, wherein the tininess of the fairies is conveniently neglected once Nick Bottom is on the scene.

But let’s recollect the subtitle of Drayton’s poem, which is “Court of Fayrie.”  This suggests that the poem doesn’t mean to be taken as a story of heroic adventures and otherworldly enchantment, but, as Tolkien says, as a burlesque epic of assignations and marital intrigues (also of minuscule combats due to jealousy).

Martyn Skinner’s Sir Elfadore and Mabyna (privately printed, 1935) takes up Drayton’s aaabcccb rhyme scheme and, if you like, the “prettiness” of Nimphidia / Nymphidia: here, a dewdrop is a mirror, snail shells are watercraft, and the mice that pull Elfadore’s chariot are descendants of those who – in allusion to the nursery rhyme — “ran up and down the clock.”   But while the insect-like fairies and their trappings remain, Skinner’s story is more worthy than Drayton’s.

Sir Elfadore’s love, Mabyna, lady-in-waiting upon the fairy queen, has been abducted by a gnome, Frecklebrass.  At Oberon’s command, everyone dresses mournfully.  Compared to the fairies, the gnome is as big as a hill, or as big as the Cyclops was to Odysseus, and his environs of toadstool and squirrel-bones is a dismal enough demesne.  We don’t learn about Mabyna’s capture till almost halfway through the poem, but have been prepared for a story of chivalric rescue by a reference to the medieval Faërie-poem of Sir Orfeo and Heurodis.  Skinner’s poem, for all its light-hearted invention of a miniature world, celebrates love and courage, even though with tongue in cheek.

Stout was that elf, and once had stood
Beneath a hive of bees, and view’d
Where drones, and wings of drones were strew’d;
            But e’en that elf half doubted
When, to that clearing now drawn nigher,
Far round he saw what trophies dire
Of monstrous strength and monstrous ire
Were in its moonlight routed.

Detail from The Fairy-Feller’s Master Stroke, by Richard Dadd

Skinner’s poem is four cantos in 42 pages of verse.  Some or all of it is reprinted in Skinner’s Alms for Oblivion: Passages Selected from His Fine Long Poems by Martyn Skinner (1983), which I have not seen.

Image by Pauline Baynes, for “Errantry”

Tolkien himself didn’t resist the attraction of tiny-fairy writing, as readers of “Errantry” will remember.  In The Adventures of Tom Bombadil (1962), “Errantry” is attributed to Bilbo Baggins.  Now Bilbo was acquainted with, and liked by, the Elves of Rivendell, and he knew much of their lore, but still he could compose this lively mock-epic, apparently without provoking grave offense.

It seems that we may interpret those “facts” thus: according to Tolkien, the matter of Faërie is a high thing, worthy to be the object of poetic genius and disciplined craftsmanship; but artistic liberty extends to works that include verbal play and the charm of the fanciful.  Anyone who likes “Errantry” might also like this poem by Skinner.  Indeed, I wondered if Skinner might have been inspired, not only by Drayton’s Nymphidia, but by Tolkien’s poem, which was published originally in the Oxford Magazine in 1933.

Readers will be wondering if Lewis or Tolkien ever read Sir Elfadore and Mabyna.  I doubt that Tolkien did.  However, Lewis might have read it.  Lewis’s library contained all (so far as I’m aware) of Skinner’s other books of poetry that had been published in CSL’s lifetime: namely, the three volumes of Letters to Malaya; Two Colloquies; and the three books eventually united in the 1966 Return of Arthur.   Lewis might not have owned Sir Elfadore and Mabyna, because it had been printed in, I suppose, a small edition, but he might have been able to borrow a copy from Skinner.  No allusion to such borrowing and reading, however, appears in Lewis’s published letters.  Skinner was personally acquainted with Lewis and Joy.  Perhaps Skinner brought along a copy to the Kilns once, Lewis and Joy read it, and then the Lewises and Skinner talked about it, and Skinner took it home again.  I hope something like this did happen.

Image from Andrew Lang’s The Green Fairy Book

Sir Elfadore and Mabyna won an entry in the 1990-1995 Supplement at the back of the New Arthurian Encyclopedia (ed. Norris J. Lacy, 1996), but its Arthurian claims must rest upon passing references to Avalon, Camelot, Sir Tor, the “Stroke of Dolour,” Sir Lancelot, and Sir Tristram.  It’s an enjoyable revival of, and improvement on much of, the miniature-fairy genre.


Dale Nelson’s collection of ghostly tales, Lady Stanhope’s Manuscript and Other Stories, was published in Fall 2017 under Douglas Anderson’s Nodens Books imprint, which will also publish his J. R. R. Tolkien: Studies in Reception this year. Nelson is a columnist for CSL: The Bulletin of the New York C. S. Lewis Society and the Tolkienian newsletter Beyond Bree.

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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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33 Responses to “Tiny Fairies: J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Errantry” and Martyn Skinner’s Sir Elfadore and Mabyna” by Dale Nelson

  1. Perhaps (and I leave as long a pause as I can without people thinking that I have left to do something else…) perhaps one of the unhappy effects of the history of disenchantment in the western world is that the fairies really have shrunk and become more childish.

    Liked by 1 person

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      I’m not sure how related this may be, but, reading Dale’s contribution, Kipling’s story, “The Bridge-Builders” (1893: collected in The Day’s Work, 1898) sprang to mind – I won’t say more about why, to avoid spoilers. (I will note it is available online, and Tony Addison takes an hour and forty minutes to read it aloud, at LibriVox – I’m not sure I am, but I expect a lot of you are quicker silent readers…. The Kipling Society online Readers’ Guide article looks interesting – once one knows the story.) The size – and character – of Kipling’s Puck, whom we’ve already discussed a bit, hereabouts, may come in interestingly, too!

      We know how curiously Arthur Conan Doyle was impressed by the supposed evidence of tiny fairies…

      Liked by 1 person

    • It would be an interesting digital humanities project to track the height of fairies over time. As “giants” are fey, I don’t know if that would skew everything.
      I wonder about this disenchangment…. But perhaps it is the same “movement” that makes “folk literature” become “children’s literature,” moving to the nursery like old furniture. So Bunyan becomes a kid’s tale over time, as do fairy tales.

      Liked by 2 people

      • hannahdemiranda3 says:

        I was also wondering about the reasons for those diminishing sizes – disenchantment as in moving anything supernatural to the realm of subjective fantasy?
        And would there be any historical links between angels and elves/fairies?

        Liked by 1 person

        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          There is the interesting parallel in Shakespeare’s Tempest, with the apparently variable size (and shape(s)!) of Ariel and his… cohorts.

          I need to do my rereading again – someone, somewhere – Tolkien in “On Fairy-Stories” or Lewis in a talk or essay? – comments on Lang including a version of part of Gulliver’s Travels in one of his Fairy books, apparently ‘merely’ on account of drastic size difference…

          I have not got very far in the free Dutch adaptation of Thomas Hood’s 1866 translation of Ernest L’Épine’s La Légende de Croquemitaine I am reading to see whether there are giant spiders or diminutive knights, but it occurred to me that things like the spiders of Mirk Wood in The Hobbit and Shelob in The Lord of the Rings have the effect of making halflings, Smeagol, dwarves, and even wood elves seem tiny in comparison, giving an effect like the illustrations included above!

          Liked by 2 people

          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            Thinking further – and more clearly – the Wood Elves and, over however many years, Gollum, would have an experience with respect to giant spiders more like that of tiny fairies – of being used to them as a distinct, monstrous danger – whereas they would come as terrible surprises to dwarves and hobbits – even, in practice, to second-generation hobbits like Frodo and Sam who would have heard of such things from Bilbo.

            A striking Arthurian example of somewhat analogous sudden surprise is the experience of Wart of Merlin’s ‘teaching by becoming’ in T.H. White’s The Sword and the Stone (1938) – which I suspect owes something to the story of Taliesin and various poetry attributed to him (as, I also suspect. do features of Masefield’s Midnight Folk and Box of Delights). This Taliesinic ‘becoming tiny’ is also a feature of Williams’s Arthurian poetry from the late 1920s-early 1930s on, and of David Jones’s In Parenthesis of the same period (published 1937).

            Like

            • You ready for this: I haven’t read T.H. White! Or at least not since childhood. I struggled with the silent “w” in “sword” on the cover and left it behind after a first read.
              I’m sure there is a “tinyologist” somewhere in the world that could help us out!

              Like

              • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

                I wish I were philologist enough to say how that ‘w’ got silent – it’s still sounded in the Dutch and German equivalents (and probably the other Germanic languages – ?). I only knew the Disney version until I was grown up – and have seen it repeatedly since, to the extent of not being reliable about differences without some concerted rereading! I think as a boy I preferred the movie Camelot, with Real People, and also indebted to White – which left me looking forward to The Once and Future King… Alas, not as good as I expected, after reading The Sword in the Stone – I really should try all the parts in original separate issue. My first White was his translation of the Bestiary – which I still love and look things up in, frequently!

                Long live the ‘tinyologists’!

                Like

          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            Croquemitaine update: so far, I’ve read of a seven-year-old sneaking out at night to explore and encountering three lion cubs more or less his size – and their mother; a tournament where one of the challengers is descended from Goliath and himself a giant (with a gigantic steed); and Mitaine, Charlemagne’s great-niece and god-daughter whom at 8 he encourages to dress like a boy and become one of his pages – which persuades me we are indeed headed for giant spiders. A pattern of disproportionately large opponents, making children or adult knights seem tiny by comparison…

            Like

            • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

              I got the grand-niece part wrong… Strangely, the great spider is much bigger in Dore’s illustration than the text (‘big as your two fists’) and their deaths are different, too – though both are low-key in comparison with Frodo and Sam’s similar encounter with Shelob. Dore’s 15 spiders at the inn are also almost all much bigger than a knight’s ‘two fists’, with no obvious textual basis. In what is in many ways a very darkly, nastily comical book, Dore’s illustrations are often more darkly comical than the text. He also makes Mitaine look a lot older than the text’s “eight” in various illustrations. Whew!

              Mitaine is given a major part in the Battle of Roncesvalles (still at eight!). Before that, she single-handedly persuasively delivers a huge “ghostly squadron” consisting mostly of armed knights from captivity, whom she also calls her “prisoners” and who accompany her back to Charlemagne’s camp, but instead of going on to help like the Dead of Dunharrow in The Lord of the Rings, they who have been allowed by “heaven” to pass “the Day of the Dead” on earth, vanish. “On seeing this, Charlemagne sank on his knees; his example was followed by all the rest, and Turpin recited the prayers of the dead.” Is there some topos or folk motif behind this and Tolkien (beyond perhaps a sort of typological play with the ‘harrowing of hell’)?

              Among other things, this variously astonishing and shocking work makes me realize I know far too little about mid-Nineteenth-century French and English writing, illustration, and publishing!

              Like

        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          Also in this context, Lewis writes a regular young American correspondent, “Martin”, on 10 July 1957, “The eldila are meant to be angels not fairies” – but we do not know Martin’s ideas about the (possible) size(s) of fairies…

          More strikingly, he had written “Sarah” on 16 January 1954, “Irish people, believing in both, are much more afraid of fairies than of ghosts.” Again, alas, without detail as to the size-range of fairies in such living Irish perception.

          Like

          • hannahdemiranda3 says:

            The eldila in his space trilogy? Would that be like the medieval concept of the seven planetary spheres held up by angels? And might there be any link there to Michael Ward’s Narnia code or is that way to far-fetched? I did find this interesting question & quote: “There is a remarkable similarity between the characteristics of C.S. Lewis’s “eldila” and Tolkien’s Maiar/Ainur (eg Gandalf).” (http://forum.barrowdowns.com/showthread.php?t=1608).

            Like

            • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

              Yes, those eldila. Indeed – but as manifest on the surface of Malacandra in Out of the Silent Planet. It would interesting to know what made Martin think it might be fairy – and how much more detail Lewis went into concerning the ‘longaevi’ in his lectures than he does in their fine distillation in The Discarded Image.

              Liked by 1 person

  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I am really tantalized now about how the relationship of the familiar Arthurian characters and of the tiny fairies in Skinner compare to, or contrast with, the situation in A Midsummer Night’s Dream!

    I wonder whether Skinner may have presented copies anywhere in Oxford – such as, the English Faculty Library, or even the Bodleian: they would then have been available to Inklings who became aware of them.

    Like

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Ach, the Good Folk… lured into an agreement error, I was, seemingly….: compares, contrasts.

      Liked by 1 person

    • This response, David, makes me think I need to do a VENN diagram of some complexity, with circles for:
      1. Arthurian motifs
      2. Faerie
      3. Shakespeare
      4. 19th c. fantasy
      5. Contemporary fairy stories

      Like

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        That would be awesome! (But probably an aw(e)ful lot of work, too!)

        Like

        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          Maybe we need another specialized circle for ‘Halflings’ in an expanded sense – not least with an eye to ‘Neo-Halflingism’: The Hobbit (1937), Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (premiere, 1937, general release 1938), The Wizard of Oz (1939) with its Munchkins – ! I suppose Hobberdy Dick and Lindgren’s The Tomten would fit best, here – and perhaps even Pär Lagerkvist’s parabolic Renaissance historical novel, Dvärgen [“The Dwarf”] (1944; English translation, 1958) – and Narnia.

          Like

  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I know she was variously attentive to Tolkien’s work, but I don’t know enough about Katharine Mary Briggs to know how much ‘we’ know about her contacts with (future) Inklings throughout the earlier part (or half?) of her life. Her “Biographical History” at the Archives Hub (conveniently linked from her Wikipedia article) includes, “In 1918 Katharine went up to Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, to read English. After obtaining her B.A. degree in 1922 […] She studied Folklore and the history of seventeenth century England. […] After the [Second World] War she went back to Oxford to gain her D.Phil. by a thesis on Folklore in seventeenth century literature. Having obtained this degree, she went on to publish a book called The Personnel of Fairyland about British Fairies.” The Wikipediast supplies 1953 as its publication date. I remember her fame in the 1970s, but never realized then that her second book (in the Wikip. list, anyway) was the vivid and delightful ‘little person’ novel, Hobberdy Dick (1955). (It seems to have been reissued by Faber in 2009 in the ‘Faber Finds’ series and to be available at least as ‘Print on Demand’.)

    Like

    • hannahdemiranda3 says:

      I just found this interesting article: https://www.bartleby.com/essay/Illusion-and-Fairies-in-Shakespeares-A-Midsummer-F36WU6ZTC with a lot of Katharine M. Briggs’s thoughts/theories on the sources, sizes and ambiguityof Shakespeare’s fairies!

      Like

    • dalejamesnelson says:

      CSL said, of K. M. Briggs’s Hobberdy Dick, “good, but either Kipling or de la Mare, if they had had the idea, wd. have made a heavenly book of it, and hers is not quite good enough” (letter to Ruth Pitter 31 Jan. 1956).

      Dale Nelson

      Like

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Ha – interesting! I haven’t read enough de la Mare prose fiction to imagine what that might be like – but, then again, having read Puck of Pook’s Hill and Rewards and Fairies with delight more than once, I’m not sure I can imagine how differently Kipling would have done it! I thoroughly enjoyed it, in any case.

        I wonder what Lewis would have thought of Astrid Lindgren and Harald Wiberg’s The Tomten (1960) – or did think, if he saw the English translation (1961)? Or if he knew its source, Viktor Ryberg’s poem, ‘Tomten’ (1881) in any of the three English translations as noted as having appeared during his lifetime, in its Wikipedia article.

        Here’s the one I can find online quickly:

        https://archive.org/stream/anthologyofswedi00stor#page/114/mode/2up

        He could even have seen a 1941 film of it (though presumably without translation!):

        Like

  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I am inspired to start collecting examples of what I might call ‘Neo-Tinyism’… In the first chapter of The Search (1934: 1958 abridgement), C.P. Snow’s narrator, Miles, recalls having learned of Bohr models of atoms, from a teacher putting it in terms of “It’s as though you had different solar systems”: “It must have been soon after this that I let myself steep in the fantasies that come to many imaginative children nowadays. Why should not the electron contain worlds smaller than itself, carrying perhaps inconceivably minute replicas of ourselves?” That was 30 years before Horton Hears a Who! And Masefield’s The Midnight Folk (1927) had already included a scene prophetic of The Voyage of the Dawn-treader, but with a difference: “how little he was; he was no bigger than the water-mice.” His Box of Delights (1935) freely expands on this ‘going small’. Both of Masefield’s have, I think, a debt to Andersen, as do Godfried Boman’s Erik of het Klein Insectenboek [‘Erik or The Little Insect Book’] (1941) and Wonderlijke Nachten [‘Wonderful Nights’] (1949), neither, sadly, translated into English, a fate apparently shared by Annie M.G. Schmidt’s Wiplala (1957) – though the 2014 film version (which I have not seen) enjoyed English-language release as Help! I’ve Shrunk the Family in 2016. By 1957, Mary Norton’s The Borrowers (1952) – admired by Lewis – had had the first of its five sequels, The Borrowers Afield (1955). Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wind in the Door (1973), with its farandolae, preceded the last of these, The Borrowers Avenged (1982). But Richard Matheson’s The Shrinking Man appeared the year before Wiplala, 1956, while the film version of it, The Incredible Shrinking Man effectively coincided (1957).

    Like

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Interesting in this connection is MacDonald’s discourse to dreamer Lewis in chapter 13 of The Great Divorce (1945) on the size of hell – including the footnote “This method of travel [“increasing in size”] also I learned from the ‘scientifictionists.'”

      I wonder if increasing familiarity with and popularity of the Shewings of Julian of Norwich – “He shewed me a little thing, the quantity of an hazel-nut, in the palm of my hand; and it was as round as a ball. I looked thereupon with eye of my understanding, and thought: What may this be? And it was answered generally thus: it is all that is made” – has contributed a lot to Christian ‘Neo-Tinyism’?

      Like

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        It would be interesting to see if one could find a clear interaction between the development of microscopy and literary ‘tinyism’ in the late 17th century and thereafter – does anyone know if someone’s already done this, long since?

        Like

        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          Pope notably attributes the “Machinery” of ‘The Rape of the Lock’ (1712-17), not to microscopy, but says, “These Machines I determined to raise on a very new and odd foundation, the Rosicrucian doctrine of Spirits” – referring the dedicatee to “a French book call’d Le Comte de Gabalis”. The Wikipedia article, “Comte de Gabalis” (as “last edited on 2 December 2017”) rewards reading, including its citing an essay in Airy Nothings: Imagining the Otherworld of Faerie from the Middle Ages to the Age of Reason: Essays in Honour of Alasdair A. MacDonald, ed. K.E. Olsen & J.R. Veenstra (Leiden: Brill, 2013)!

          The mistaken interpretation of microscopical investigation contributes to Tristram (that Arthurian name!) Shandy’s discussion of homunculi in Sterne’s comical pseudo-autobiography by him (1759-67).

          Like

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      There is also the curious Stuart Little (1945) by E.B. White, and the more purely ‘Animal Neo-Tinyism’ of his Charotte’s Web (1952) and Margery Sharp’s The Rescuers (1959) and its 8 sequels.

      Like

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      I wonder where Chesterton’s Questing Slug fits in? – assuming it’s tiny and not a Patricia Highsmith “Quest for the ‘Blank Claveringi'” monstrosity!

      Meanwhile, examples of ‘tinyist’-related imagery in the novels of Charles Williams accrue in my mind: the importance of Ariel’s song, “Where the bee sucks, there suck I”, in his first written novel which we only know in its fifth-published form, Shadows of Ecstasy; the disquieting discovery by the artist in his last novel, All Hallows’ Eve, that he has somehow made his followers and indeed Simon himself look something like beetles seen from the back in his portrait of that apparently wondrous healer – and Simon’s approval of this!; and the striking ant-imagery – connected with the Graal! – in the ‘prophecy’ of Prester John in his first published novel, War in Heaven.

      Like

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