“Ah,” I said, sinking back onto my pillows, “that seems like it would be a hard sell among modern physicists.”From Roland in Moonlight by David Bentley Hart..
“I’m not interested in being a salesman,” said Roland. “My interest isn’t scientiﬁc, after all. I’m just as happy to call that interval between inﬁnite actuality and inﬁnite potentiality the realm of Fairy, or the Dreamtime. I do wonder, though, whether the actualization of a world in the conventional consciousness of any given age might have a retroactive effect. Whether the past is in some sense changing with every new conformation of the cosmos in thought. Or perhaps, it might be better to say, whether the past as we know it, and as it connects to the conventional picture of the present, is changing. I mean, we know that in a sense entanglement is as much a temporal as a spatial inseparability and…” His voice trailed away.
From the “Stanton Lecture 8: The Surprise of the Imagined” by John Milbank (drawing heavily on Stephen Clark):
It is common to the entire Biblical and Classical legacy to recognise that, as Stephen R.L. Clark put it, ‘our thoughts are not entirely made by us’. …It is above all Stephen R. L. Clark who has grasped how the question of religious belief in supernatural entities—in gods, angels, daemons and fairies—is intrinsically bound up with the question of the ontological status of our thoughts and imaginings. He begins the highly nuanced and philosophically crucial reflections of his essay ‘How to Believe in Fairies’ with Yeats’ (and Chesterton’s) assumption that one should take seriously perennial folk-beliefs until one has serious reasons to doubt them. And today, he suggests, scepticism concerning the existence of fairies and the like is now on all-fours with scepticism concerning the existence of a mental reality: ‘if desires and beliefs are not real causes, and neither are fairies, why should we not investigate fairies as convenient fictions? If, on the other hand, they are real causes, maybe what we call “fairies” are so too’. He also cites W.Y. Evans Wentz’s summation of Celtic fairy lore: ‘the only verdict which seems reasonable is that the Fairy-Faith belongs to a doctrine of souls’. Clark then goes on to argue that if desires, feelings and beliefs are indeed real, then the phenomenological evidence is that they often tend ‘to arrive’ in our minds with surprisingly intrusive unpredictability and irregularity, as if we were indeed being ‘possessed’. In addition, he points out that moods are readily found to be contagious—such that, one can add, we daily discover that the ‘second world’ of our imagination is not a solipsistic one, but rather one to some degree shareable (as Wittgenstein suggested) through proferred words and gestures which engender communities of feeling. If then, the mental as the imaginary is real at all, then it makes far more logical and evidential sense to treat is as a real ontological sphere rather than a reality somehow ‘inside’ our isolated subjectivities, or ‘epiphenomenally’ produced by bodies as a coating of spectral icing sugar whose metaphysical status is simply begged.
…He then goes on to adumbrate a subtle and ethically acute analysis of the relationship between human emotions and reports and theories concerning fairies. Very often they appear as pagan gods put in their proper, subordinate place: thus they are creatures of unambivalent and abiding loves and hates, not entirely malicious, but completely given over to caprice and impulse, without any regard for ends, since their destiny is to live forever within time and they do not trouble themselves concerning eternal destiny. As Clark suggests, the temptation of ‘new age thinking’ as inaugurated by Yeats (and which Clark, as a Christian, discusses with a unique patience and degree of sympathy) as he himself half-knew, is for human beings wholly to give themselves over to these real influences, in reaction against a technocratic world in league with a falsely disenchanted (and so denatured) modern Christianity. We would then start to inhabit an amoral world of vivid, random emotions, beauty divorced from the good, and heroic, sacrificial violence, accompanied by startling symbols – since, as we saw Hume taught, feeling and image are always twinned. Clark appropriately cites William Blake’s warning against returned Druidry in Britain: ‘gods are visions of the eternal attributes, or divine names, which when erected into gods become destructive of humanity. …For when separated from man or humanity, who is Jesus the saviour, the vine of eternity, they are thieves and rebels, they are destroyers’. Certainly, human beings need to be open to all ‘influences’, on pain of being the prisoners of a few ‘material’ ones; but this openness is dangerous unless we are supremely receptive to the unifying influence of God and of the Divine Humanity which (as Blake finally realised, with a developed orthodoxy that anticipates sophiology and is not at all gnostic) guards against the influence of a distorted and itself ‘druidically’ idolatrous monotheistic influence which would sacrifice the Creation to the Creator.
In this context Clark notes that, traditionally speaking, the fairy-realm has been associated not just with a carefree innocence and endless festival, but also with disillusionment, aridity and sterility. This concurs with the fact, that as the Irish scholar John Carey has noted, Celtic Christianity tended to locate the sidhe alternatively as unfallen human beings or as chastised pagan gods or yet again as half-fallen angels. In keeping, perhaps, with the first reading, Clark suggests in the conclusion of his essay that there can be ‘third fairies’, perhaps rather like Tolkien’s elves, who combine joy with a tinge of sadness, and so point beyond earthly paradisal timelessness towards the real spiritual Good of eternity which is the active contemplation of infinite love.
…[Clark’s] own insight that fairies are now on one fairy-footing with all other fantasies, including human thoughts as such, would rather suggest that …one not only ‘can’ but must believe in fairies (and so forth) in order to go on believing in the reality of the very thoughts that we think. For if thoughts are ireducibly real as thoughts, transcending all matter, then they must come from outside us and finally from above us. And if imaginings are real as imaginings, irreducible to physical motions, sensations or intentional abstractions, then they must belong in, and derive from a real dream-world like the one twice visited by Alice: the mundus imaginalis of the near-Orient.
Full text of this lecture available here.
I have put the Longaevi or longlivers into a separate chapter because their place of residence is ambiguous between air and Earth. Whether they are important enough to justify this arrangement is another question. In a sense, if I may risk the oxymoron, their unimportance is their importance. They are marginal, fugitive creatures. They are perhaps the only creatures to whom the Model does not assign, as it were, an oficial status. Herein lies their imaginative value. They soften the classic severity of the huge design. They intrude a welcome hint of wildness and uncertainty into a universe that is in danger of being a little too self-explanatory, too luminous.
I take for them the name Longaevi from Martianus Capella, who mentions ‘dancing companies of Longaevi who haunt woods, glades, and groves, and lakes and springs and brooks; whose names are Pans, Fauns … Satyrs, Silvans, Nymphs….’ Bernardus Silvestris, without using the word Longaevi, describes similar creatures—’Silvans, Pans, and Nerei’—as having ‘a longer life’ (than ours), though they are not immortal. They are innocent—’of blameless conversation’—and have bodies of elemental purity.
The alternative would have been to call them Fairies. But that word, tarnished by pantomime and bad children’s books with worse illustrations, would have been dangerous as the title of a chapter. It might encourage us to bring to the subject some ready-made, modern concept of a Fairy and to read the old texts the in the light of it. Naturally, the proper method is the reverse; we must go to the texts with an open mind and learn from them what the word fairy meant to our ancestors.
C.S. Lewis from the opening of chapter VI in The Discarded Image (entitled “The Longaevi”). This book is a collection of his lectures introducing the world of Medieval and Renaissance literature.
In desperation, since knocking wasn’t working, he began to kick the door and bang his head against it. Then a beautiful girl came to the window, her hair sky-blue, her face white as a waxen image. Her eyes were closed and her hands were folded across her chest, and without moving her lips she said, in a tiny voice that seemed to come from the world beyond, “There is no one in this house. They are all dead.”
“Open the door yourself, at least!” begged Pinocchio, weeping.
“I too am dead.”
“Dead? But then what are you doing there at the window?”
“I am waiting for the coffin to come and carry me away.” As soon as she had uttered those words, the girl disappeared, and the window closed again without a sound.
“Oh, Beautiful Girl with Sky-Blue Hair,” yelled Pinocchio, “for pity’s sake open the door! Have mercy on a poor boy chased by murd—”
But he was unable to finish the word, for he felt himself being seized by the neck, and he heard two familiar voices growl menacingly: “You won’t get away again!”
…When the Beautiful Girl with Sky-Blue Hair came to her window again, she was moved to pity by the sight of that poor wretch, dangling by his neck, dancing a jig with the north wind. She brought her hands together three times, making three soft claps. Her signal was followed by a great beating of wings, as an enormous falcon hurtled down from the sky and landed on the windowsill. “What is your command, my lovely Fairy?” said the Falcon, lowering his beak in a gesture of reverence. (For it just so happens that the Girl with Sky-Blue Hair was nothing other than the kindest of fairies, one who had dwelt in and around that forest for more than a thousand years.)
“Do you see that puppet dangling from a branch of the Big Oak?”
“I see him.”
“Now then: fly to him at once, use your powerful beak to tear apart the knot that keeps him suspended in the air, and lay him out gently on the grass, there at the foot of the tree.”
From Geoffrey Brock’s translation of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi (1826–1890).