Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Fairy Mythology

On January 12, 1667, Samuel Pepys records in his diary '...So home to supper, and then to read a little in  Moore's [More's] "Antidote against Atheisme," a pretty book, and so to bed.'

Henry More is labeled a Cambridge Platonist, a category of philosophers distinguished by having a theological background.  Among others, More taught Anne Finch, sister to Heneage Finch, who was part of yesterday's post.

More's book begins 'The grand truth which wee are now to bee imployed about, is the proving that there is a God..'  The book treats witches and superstition along the way.  More's work is tied in to Walter Scott's and William Shakespeare's, in Minor White Latham's "Elizabethan Fairies, the fairies of folklore and the fairies of Shakespeare".

As Latham writes, 'Only in the philosophical and religious treatises, and in discourses proving the existence or nonexistence of witches, as the works of Henry More, Glanvil, John Webster, Edward Fairfax, Harsnet, Hobbes, and Robert Kirk are the fairies of folklore to be found...'

And on Shapespeare: 'By 1648, the fairies of A Midsummer Night's Dream, might well have sat as the models for the fairies mentioned in the Cosmographic of Peter Heylyn, where they are defined as " a pretty kind of little Fiends or Pigmey-Devils, but more inclined to sport than mischief." In 1653, in an Antidote against Atheism by Henry More, the fairies are referred to as "those little Puppet-Spirits, which they call Elves or Fairies."..'

And on Sir Walter Scott:

'In 1802-1803, Sir Walter Scott, in his essay "On the Fairies of Popular Superstition," called attention to the influence of Shakespeare upon the fairies of native tradition. Among the causes which he assigned for the change in the characteristics of the English fairies from those of the traditional dwarfs or berg-elfen of the Gothic and Finnish tribes from whom he would have them derive, he noted " the creative imagination of the sixteenth century " :


Many poets of the sixteenth century, and above all, our immortal Shakespeare, deserting the hackneyed fictions of Greece and Rome, sought for machinery in the superstitions of their native country.



" The fays, which nightly dance upon the wold," were an interesting subject; and the creative imagination of the bard, improving upon the vulgar belief, assigned to them many of those fanciful attributes and occupations, which posterity have since associated with the name of fairy. In such employments, as rearing the drooping flower, and arranging the disordered chamber, the fairies of South Britain gradually lost the harsher character of the dwarfs, or elves. Their choral dances were enlivened by the introduction of the merry goblin Puck, for whose freakish pranks they exchanged their original mischievous propensities. The fairies of Shakespeare, Drayton, and Mennis, therefore, at first exquisite fancy portraits, may be considered as having finally operated a change in the original which gave them birth.


While the fays of South Britain received such attractive and poetical embellishments, those of Scotland, who possessed no such advantage, retained more of their ancient, and appropriate character.


The original folk fairies "of Britain, and more especially hose of Scotland," Scott represented as " retaining the unamiable qualities, and diminutive size, of the Gothic lves."The fairies of England he seems to have regarded s harmless.   Scott's essay is an important document in the history of English fairy mythology, since it is one of the first statements, if not the first; of Shakespeare's influence on the fairies of popular superstition and of Shakespeare's use of Robin Goodfellow, and one of the first statements of the existence, in the 16th century, of two conceptions of fairyland, that of folk tradition and that created by Shakespeare.'

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