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  • Review: The Middle Kingdom November 8, 2011

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary, Modern , trackback

    As regular readers will know Beachcombing went a little fairy mad this summer. Indeed, as we speak two academic articles have been accepted for publication and four more are still waiting the judgement of tetchy referees spread out from Edinburgh to the Pacific Coast. In the process of writing these articles he read most twentieth-century books on modern fairies, a surprisingly thin gruel. There is Diane Purkiss’s excellent Troublesome Things, and works by Caroline Sumpter and Carole Silver, not to mention  a few volumes by the delightful Katherine Briggs that are also worth a nod. But really since the Victorians decided to kill fairies with their own particular brand of kindness there have not been many notable monographs. However, one honourable and little known exception to this, that brought Beachcombing much joy in September, is Dermot Mac Manus’s The Middle Kingdom: The Fairie World of Ireland (1973).

    In many ways The Middle Kingdom is the younger brother of Evans-Wentz’s The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries (1911). Certainly, they have something important in common. Their authors were intelligent men who believed in fairies. However, in the case of Evans-Wentz his belief was the result of a flirtation with theosophy and is the forced account of an outsider. Mac Manus though seems much more at ease with the fairies, at least Irish ones. He describes a series of encounters that he had personally verified and that included experiences of his own family members – his great grandfather once, for example, foolishly moved a fairy tree. True there is some cross-pollination from what might be called late-theosophy. Mac Manus was a friend of Yeats and sometimes his vocabulary betrays a rather unIrish way of seeing things: one fairy is put down as an ‘earth elemental’, whatever that is.

    There are chapters on ‘Pranks and Mischief’, ‘The Stray Sod’, ‘Hostile Spirits and Hurtful Spells’, ‘Fairy Ground and Paths’, ‘The Pooka’ (with some enjoyable nonsense about cigarette cards) and a concluding chapter on ‘The Problem of Reality’. The author is not a folklorist in any normal sense, nor is he, at least in this book, a historian. He is not a particularly good thinker either: the final chapter is not memorable. But he is a gifted raconteur and many of the tales he has amassed leave a chill as ‘true’ fairy tales should. Beachcombing concludes with this story that will not leave him in peace and that he tries not to think about on his nocturnal walks.

    Clonmillan Hill has always had a reputation for being connected with the fairies, including the great Shee as well as the lesser Shee-og… The two girls had not got halfway up when the boys who had only gone on a short distance down the Mullingar Road, heard them call out. When the lads looked back they saw that the girls had stopped and were looking earnestly into the field on their right. After a few moments they saw the girls turn back and run down the lane on to the main road again. On reaching the road, the girls went over to a gate opposite the lane and stared into the field beyond it. Then they began urgently beckoning to the boys to join them there. They boys, who were thirty or forty yards away, ran up at once, little dreaming what an extraordinary thing they were about to see.

    Whey they joined the girls at the gate and looked through it, to their utter astonishment they saw, some forty yards away, a group of dark figures of human size standing in a circle about ten yards in diameter. Black capes or shawls were draped over their heads and hung across their shoulders and from there dropped straight down to or into the ground, but with no crease or bend where they reached it. The figures stood so close together that their draperies touched from the shoulders down, making it impossible to see past them. They were quite motionless, even to folds and pleats of their draperies, as if carved out of some black stone, and their heads were erect. Mr Gowran [one of the boys grown up] says emphatically that these black cloaks were not woollen but were made of some very fine cloth that was not shiny, and so could not have been silken either.

    Another remarkable feature was that the whole centre of the circle of figures appeared to be covered by a black cloth at the height of their shoulders. From it rose what seemed to be a chest – or though the children did not think of it at the time, a coffin – and it, too, was covered by the same black material, which lay snugly on the chest and showed its shape clearly. The top of the chest was a foot or a little more above the heads of the surrounding figures. And on the top of this chest lay a set of old Irish bagpipes. Mr Gowran can still describe them in detail and can remember just how they lay. There were three drones each about three feet long, one of which lay towards him and the other two away from him. The bag and the mouthpiece hung down over the side of the box. The drones were of unusual shape and were as thick as a big man’s wrist.

    The children had stood looking at this curious sight for a considerable time, probably two or three minutes, when they saw Dan Jackson, the owner of the field, and his eighteen-year –old son approaching from the field beyond it, which was divided from it by a small ditch and strolled unconcernedly on. It seemed as if they were going to walk up to the figures, but it was soon clear that neither of them saw anything unusual, and after passing within six feet of the dark silent figures, they approached the gate.

    Afraid of being asked awkward questions, and being rather alarmed at what they saw, the four children ran off towards the town just before the two men reached the gate. But the two boys, being bolder than the girls, stopped after they had gone a short distance and peered through the hedge again. They were now alongside the next field and so had to look through the side hedge as well, but they found a gap and saw that the mysterious figures were still quietly standing, but the circle had moved some ten yards further away and was now close to the ditch of the next field, covering the track along which the two men had just passed.

    On balance Beachcombing would rather have spent a weekend with the twins in the Shining hotel than be a mourner at this fairy (?) funeral.

    Beachcombing is always desperate for good fairy books: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com


    8 Nov 2011: Invisible sends in this chilling fairy tale (look out for the weasels) THE TWO PONIES, from Ruth L. Tongue, Forgotten Folk-Tales of the English Counties. ‘When I was fourteen years old, I went as under nursery-maid to the Hall to look after her Ladyship’s two little children. Beautiful little children, Miss Ailsa and Master Ian were, with yellow curls, and pink cheeks. The nurse was Mrs Sinclair, who’d come from the North of Scotland with her Ladyship when she married. She was very severe, but kind with it. She was my mother-in-law later on, and I loved her as much as my own mother. Her son Donald, who was to be my dear husband, was, like me, then just fourteen, and an under-groom. Her Ladyship’s mother sent the children a pair of tiny ponies, all the way from the Shetland Islands, dear, friendly little pets, with heavy coats that mustn’t be clipped. And Donald Sinclair had the sole care of them, and hours and hours of brushing their coats and long tails and manes did he put in, and even the Head Groom, Mr Wooton, allowed they looked a picture. Then, one day when the little children had been led up and down the garden paths (for they had to be held, they were so small, and Donald had Master Ian, and I had Miss Ailsa, and those dear good ponies knew how to walk on and where to go without being led), my Donald said to me, “Lizzie, how can I get a word to her Ladyship?” It wasn’t to be heard of, of course, and it must have been very important, for Donald looked frighted at the very daring of it.  “Won’t Mr Wooton do?” I said. “He is Head Groom, and the proper one to be told.” Donald shook his head.  “Or your mother?” I said.  “He wouldn’t believe me, and give me a guid clout, and ma mither, she’d be all in a terrible fright for the bairns. Oh, what will I do?” says poor Donald, and the tears stood in his eyes. “They’ve tellt me to turn the ponies graze (they were never stable-kept) in yon field fornenst the Oak Wood.” Well, I’d heard Mrs Sinclair myself, and what she thought of the Oak Wood, and I was never to go near it with Miss Ailsa and Master Ian. She believed there was a wicked band of fairies there, black-hearted, and all in black, and they stole pretty little children right away for ever—especially if they had yellow hair. And I took great pains to mind, for I was frighted myself. Her Ladyship was away, and the next morning I slipped down to the stable yard, where I was not supposed to go, unless I had a message, and I got there to say to Mr Wooton that the ponies were not to be used that day. Mr Wooton was giving my poor Donald half a dozen with a leather belt, because their coats were tangled and dirty, and the ponies were worn out. “D’ye call that grooming?” says Mr Wooton, and Donald had been brushing for hours. “I was at the brushing an scraping and strapping for three hours the morn. They’re soaked wi’ sweat,” says my Donald. I was almost crying, too, but remember I mustn’t.       “They’re sweating still, you idle good-for-nought,” says Mr Wooton, giving Donald another cut. “I’ll make a good groom of you yet!”  Now Mr Wooton was really very proud of my Donald, and had trusted him over the heads of other grooms to look after the children and ponies, for a steady, trustworthy boy, as he was. So he lost his temper, and what would have happened I don’t know—perhaps Donald would be turned away from the Hall, but old Mr Venn, the head gardener, came by for water, and he took one look at the ponies, and says straight out, “Did ‘ee tell the lad to graze by Oak Wood? You ought to know better than that. Look at ‘Their’ (fairises’) stirrups in their manes, and the burrs ‘They’ve’ throuned to spoil their tails, and been hard-ridden all night I don’t wonder. You listen to me for once, and ask others why the Oak Wood Pasture is never used.” Donald and me felt much better to find Mr Venn wasn’t blaming him at all, and then they both told him to take the ponies to the lower lawn, where there were apple trees, and sweet grass, and would be under their eyes too—and so could we see them from the nursery window, and the little children liked that. The ponies weren’t ridden that day, but left to dry off in the sun, and rest, while Donald kept watch and was able to give them a brush-down before dark, and pull the burrs from their manes and tails, and untangle the fairises’ stirrup knots.  Next morning, when I looked out, I couldn’t see the little ponies quiet and happy on the lawn, but after breakfast I saw them, and somehow they looked bad—quite different like. Her Ladyship had come the night before, and came out on the terrace to see the ponies was safe and well, and wanted to know why they were there. I had brought the little children down to ride, but the ponies weren’t even saddled yet, and Mrs Sinclair couldn’t think what ailed Donald to be so late, and come to tell her Ladyship so. Now, when she saw the ponies, she caught hold of Miss and Master tight, and tried to stop Donald putting a hand on those fierce, pretty creatures, but her Ladyship was looking too, with a white face, and cried out to him to come to her at once.”I nearly caught them, ma’am,” says Donald, very upset, but she says, “Stay here!” and she steps forward and calls in a clear, brave voice. “There are no bairns here for you to carry away,” and Mrs Sinclair stood by her, and called too, “Tangye! Shoopiltee! I’m naming names! Off with ye, back! Gang awa’ tae the North, noo!” And the fierce, wild ponies were not there any more. Then her Ladyship took my hand, and said, “We need three who love the bairns to call.” And then they called, and I tried, too, and while Donald held the little children, we cried, “Leave Oak Wood, and go—in the Holy name.”  And Mr Venn told us later, the keepers saw the great crowd of black weasels running away to the north, and they couldn’t shoot one, but they brought our own poor, lame, over-ridden little ponies back from the wood. The story dates from 1832. Written down during various visits by a district visitor, and told by a bedridden old housekeeper, aged 85 (verbatim). She was a Mrs Donald Sinclair, but was Warwickshire born. The tale was sent to Miss Tongue’s uncle at Streetley. “The Shetland water-horses appear strangely in an English oak-wood. They seem to have been imported by the lady and the nurse.” Thanks Invisible!