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Fairies, Children of the Forest and Game of Thrones April 20, 2013

Author: Beach Combing | in : Actualite, Medieval , trackback

Child playing in woods

Beach’s students this semester constrained him to read Game of Thrones and the subsequent avalanche of books which followed on. Are these books any good? Mixed feelings. However, one thing is certain, this blogger’s normal irritation at fantasy fiction wasn’t activated: perhaps because most of the novels are about humans being nasty to each other with a welcome absence of hobbits, orcs and the like. The only fantasy so far (two volumes in) is a microscopic amount of magic, some blue-eyed zombies, a man who can change his face (apparently at will) and three bat-like dragons who have just hatched and who are difficult to take that seriously. Beach was also impressed by the parallels with medieval European history and belief. Cue George Martin’s version of fairies: the Children of the Forest.

Bran (a crippled child) and the castellan Luwin are talking about the children. Bran notes that ‘Old Nan’ (a crone who babysits) ‘says the children knew the songs of the trees, that they could fly like birds and swim like fish and talk to the animals’. This is a post-medieval version of the little folk, of course, that attaches them to vegetation particularly and nature more generally: a Gaia feydom; the Middle Ages as it should have been rather than as it was. Luwin retorts that these children have all died out. But he has something that belonged to them. He pulls out a green jar full of ‘shiny black arrowheads’. Elf-shot, the illness of cattle and sometimes people, was regularly associated with flint ‘fairy’ arrowheads found on the ground: actually Neolithic arrow heads. In short, Martin knows his fairylore. Bran asks for more information.  

Maester Luwin tugged at his chain collar where it chafed against his neck. ‘They were people of the Dawn Age, the very first, before kings and kingdoms,’ he said. ‘In those days, there were no castles or holdfasts, no cities, not so much as a market town to be found between here and the sea of Dorne. There were no men at all. Only the children of the forest dwelt in the lands we now call the Seven Kingdoms. They were a people dark and beautiful, small of stature, no taller than children even when grown to manhood. They lived in the depths of the wood, in caves and crannogs and secret tree towns. Slight as they were, the children were quick and graceful. Male and female hunted together, with weirwood bows and flying snares. Their gods were the gods of the forest, stream and stone, the old gods whose names are secret. Their wise men were called greenseers, and carved strange faces in the weirwoods to keep watch on the woods. How long the children reigned here or where they came from, no man can know.

Luwin goes on, after some debate whether they still exist – a central fairy theme – to explain how they were wiped out by the humans.

But some twelve thousand years ago, the First Men appeared from the east, crossing the Broken Arm of Dorne before it was broken. They came with bronze swords and great leathern shields, riding horses.  No horse had ever been seen on this side of the narrow sea. No doubt the children were as frightened as the First Men were by the faces in the trees. As the First Men carved out the holdfasts and farms, they cut down the faces and gave them to the fire. Horror-struck, the children went to war. The old songs say that the greenseers used dark magics to make the seas rise and sweep away the land, shattering the Arm, but it was too late to close the door. The wars went on until the earth ran red with blood of men and children both, but more children than men, for men were bigger and stronger, and wood and stone and obsidian make a poor match for bronze. Finally, the wise of both races prevailed, and the chiefs and heroes of the First Men met the greenseers and wood dancers amidst the weirwood groves of a small island in the great lake called God’s Eye. They forged the Pact. The First Men were given the coastlands, the high plains and bright meadows, the mountains and bogs, but the deep woods were to remain forever to the children’s, and no more weirwoods were to be put to axe anywhere in the realm. So the gods might bear witness to the signing, every tree on the island was given a face, and afterward, the sacred order of green men was formed to keep watch over the Isle of Faces.

This recalls some of the late nineteenth-century ideas that fairies were a dim memory of an early race of man, who had fled with their Neolithic ways, to highland places and survived there in the wild frightened of iron: MacRitchie was the chief sponsor of this thesis, one that has gradually fallen out of fashion. Then Martin brings in another idea. The notion that the fairies were destroyed by religion.

The Andals were the first, a race of tall, fair-haired warriors who came with steel and fire and the seven pointed star of the new gods painted on their chests. The wars lasted hundreds of years, but in the end the six southron kingdoms all fell before them. Only here, where the King in the North threw back every army that tried to cross the Neck did the rule of the First Men endured. The Andals burnt out the weirwood groves, hacked down the faces, slaughtered the children where they found them, and everywhere proclaimed the triumph of the Seven over the old gods. So the children fled the north…

The Seven is the Protestantism of Martin’s world. Is this, then, some dim echo of the idea that the fairies died in northern Europe as Catholicism fell out of favour? Perhaps. In any case, a raven now flies in through the window with a message attached to its leg. Bran’s father has died: this being Game of Thrones said father had his head hacked off with his own sword on the instruction of a teenager. At that point, the fairies and their arrowheads are understandably forgotten.

Any other fairy thoughts from Game of Thrones and please go easy on the spoilers: Beach has a strong sense that sooner or later he’s going to come face to face (on page) with a Child of the Forest. drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com