Oxford University, July 2018
Modern Fairies (& Loathly Ladies) is a year-long project bringing folk musicians, folklorists, poets, artists, and filmmakers together to explore Britain's stories of the Twilight Realm and their meaning in modern life.
The project was created by folksinger/ musicologist Fay Hield, with folklorist and medieval literature scholar Carolyne Larrington (author of The Land of the Green Man: A Journey Through the Supernatural Landscapes of the British Isles). The rest of the team is Patience Agbabi, Lucy Farrell, Sarah Hesketh, Jim Lockey, Ewan MacPherson, Jackie Morris, Barney Morse Brown, Ben Nicholls, Inge Thomson, Marry Waterson and me, with administrative and production support from Andy Bell (of Hudson Records) and Stephen Hadley.
In July we began the project with a gathering of the working group at St. John's College, Oxford University...
...and this week we'll be meeting up at the University of Sheffield. We're travelling to Sheffield from all over the country -- books, pens, drawing pencils, cameras, and instruments in hand -- to see what happens when a group of artists collaborate with the notoriously tricksy Fair Folk.
If you live near Sheffield, please come to a "Fairy Gathering" on Thursday evening, September 28th, at The Spiegeltent, Barker's Pool. It's a free event, running from 5.30 to 7pm as part of Sheffield's Festival of the Mind. We'll discuss the project, present work-in-progress, and then ask you to join us in a discussion on fairies in life and art. For more information, go here.
To keep up with the project over the year, and for notification of other public events, please visit the Modern Fairies website & blog, Twitter page, or Facebook page. I'll also write further posts for Myth & Moor as our work evolves.
Now here's a toast to the fairies, modern and old. May we do right by their tales.
Fairy art by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939). The photographs above were taken by me, Jackie Morris, and other members of the Modern Fairies project.
Sheffield University, September 2018
Last week I took a train up north for the second meeting of the Modern Fairies working group. Our project started in July with a workshop at Oxford University, and then we'd carried on working from our different parts of the country (England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales) until it was time to meet up again.
Now we were coming to the University of Sheffield with a wide range of works-in-progress to share: songs and poems and other creations exploring the many facets of fairy lore. We brought tales of shape-shifters and shadow hauntings....of strange happenings at the edge of perception...of the fractured nature of fairy time and the power of magic in the old wild places...of white ravens, green children, witch hares, otter brides, and ghostly hounds crumbling into the dust...and of fairies infesting the planes of World War II and the depths of the internet.
"The earliest storytellers were magi, seers, bards, griots, shamans," writes novelist Ben Okri. "They were, it would seem, as old as time, and as terrifying to gaze upon as the mysteries with which they wrestled. They wrestled with mysteries and transformed them into myths which coded the world and helped the community to live through one more darkness, with eyes wide open and hearts set alight."
In this project we're looking at Britain's fairy tradition, seeing what such stories have to tell us today. To do our work well, perhaps we must all become griots or shamans ourselves, steeped in Mystery, letting the old tales speak through us as they will.
Music is one of the Mysteries to me. I love folk music in all its forms, and yet I am not a musician myself -- so in Sheffield I listen, spell-bound and enchanted, as music rises from the corners of the workspace. New songs are born...take shape...take flight...
...conjured by cello, viola, bass, and banjo...by mandolin, squeezebox, saw, and voice...
...by artist's pencil and composer's pen.
I've never worked on a project like this before. I've collaborated many times, yes, but always with fellow writers and illustrators in the publishing field...
...never with artists from such a wide range of backgrounds, disciplines, and genres. It's an interesting brief, but a daunting one, pushing me out of my comfort zone. I know how to write a book, a story, an essay...but a song? a spoken word narrative?
I am married to a theater director, so I know very well that performative arts are very different than the literary arts, created in a very different way. I have to ignore my usual working methods, throw out all my preconceived ideas and approach the work (as my husband likes to say) with a "beginner's mind." I am walking in unknown territory...a perfect metaphor for walking into Faerie itself.
I'm reminded of these words by Ursula Le Guin about magical tales in all their forms:
"Fantasy is a different approach to reality, an alternative technique for apprehending and coping with existence," she said. "It is not anti-rational, but para-rational; not realistic but surrealistic, a heightening of reality. In Freud's terminology, it employs primary, not secondary process thinking. It employs archetypes, which, as Jung warned us, are dangerous things. Fantasy is nearer to poetry, to mysticism, and to insanity than naturalistic fiction is. It is a wilderness, and those who go there should not feel too safe."
No, I don't feel safe. Why should I feel safe? The Faerie Realm is a dangerous one. But I do feel inspired, and awed by the creativity around me. I am happy to be on this journey.
The creativity produced by this team could, I swear, power the lights of the city. Our days in Sheffield fairly crackle with energy, with ideas emerging, shape-shifting, coalescing into song, art, and story. I find that I keep turning to my companions to say: I don't want the week to end.
But it does end, of course. On the final eve, we share some of our work-in-progress with a small audience in a Spiegeltent at The Festival of the Mind...and this is a bit nerve-wracking too. We're all used to presenting work in completed form: a book, CD, a canvas or show, honed and polished. A work-in-progress is a rough, raw thing. What on earth would an audience make of it all?
The fairies are clearly with us that night, and every one of them is in Trickster mode: microphones don't work, other tech goes wrong...but none of that matters in the end. When Ewan sings of fairy shadows, and Lucy of the shifting properties of time, and Marry of the Green Children legend, and Fay of turning from woman to hare, the old stories come to life again. Perhaps they had never really died.
And so, the journey continues. Our next meeting is in Newcastle in January, then we're aiming for a public presentation (of some kind) at The Sage in Gateshead in late April. If you'd like to keep up the project's evolution, please visit the Modern Fairies website and blog, Facebook page, and Twitter page.
I'll continue to post on our progress here too, and share our discoveries with you.
The Modern Fairies team is: Fay Hield, Carolyne Larrington, Lucy Farrell, Sarah Hesketh, Jim Lockey, Ewan MacPherson, Jackie Morris, Barney Morse Brown, Ben Nicholls, Marry Waterson and me, all pictured above, plus Patience Agbabi and Inge Thomson, who could not join us in Sheffield. Andy Bell (of Hudson Records) and Stephen Hadley provide adminstrative and production support for the project.
Credits: The beautiful drawings & notebooks belong to Jackie Morris. The "hare woman" oil paint sketch is one of mine. The four fairy paintings are by John Anster Fitzgerald (1819-1906), William Blake (1757-1827), Arthur Rackham (1867-1939), and Edward Robert Hughes (1851-1914). The photographs were taken by me, Jackie, Fay, Marry, and others on the Modern Fairies team. They are identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) All rights to the imagery and text pictured here are reserved by their makers.
Online Live Screening, November 2018
Please join us on Monday night, 19 November, 6 pm UK time, to see what the Modern Fairies interdisciplinary art project has been up to.
The paintings above are by John Bauer (1882-1918 ) and John Anster "Fairy" Fitzgerald (1819-1906). The sketchbook drawing is by Jackie Morris, for Fay Hield'a song-in-progress, "I Shall Go Into a Hare."
Dartmoor to Newcastle, January 2019
I'm currently on a train that's rolling from Dartmoor in south-west England to Newcastle in the far north-east, heading to the next Modern Fairies gathering at the Sage Theatre in Gateshead. I've been off-line due to health issues, but once again I am back on feet, a little shakey but up and moving, and I will do my best report on our journey into the Faerie Realm in the days ahead.
I love taking day-long train journeys, which hold a magic of their own, for time itself seems suspended in the liminal space between "here" and "there." As myth, folklore, and fairy tales remind us, the space between any two things is a traditional place of enchantment: a bridge between two banks of a river, the silvery light between night and day, the elusive moment between dreaming and waking, the instant of change in shape-shifting transformation ... and all those interstitial realms where cultures, myths, landscapes, languages, art forms, and genres meet. Modern Fairies was designed from the start as a cross-discipline, cross-genre project, so the cultural edgelands where we gather to work is the perfect place for summoning the Fair Folk.
In some old tales, you must cross running water at least three times to enter into Faerieland. I crossed the River Exe early this morning, the River Aire moments ago, and will end the journey across the River Tyne. "We are often like rivers," writes Gretel Ehrlich, "careless and forceful, timid and dangerous, lucid and muddied, eddying, gleaming, still. Lovers, farmers, and artists have one thing in common, at least: a fear of 'dry spells,' dormant periods in which we do no blooming, internal droughts only the waters of imagination and psychic release can civilize."
The "waters of imagination" that run through Faerie are notoriously strange and dangerous, and one never quite knows just where they'll lead. We must carry salt and acorns in our pocket, wear hawthorne or rowan leaves in our hair, and we must not eat or drink the fairies' food. If we have our wits about us, answer all riddles, mark our trail with feathers and stones, we'll come safely home again. Probably.
So now let's go. The gateway stands open. The moon is rising. I'll meet you there.
The art above is by Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac, Alan Lee, and Charles Vess.
Dartmoor to Newcastle, April 2019
Today, I'm on a train heading north to work on Modern Fairies again -- a day-long ride from Devon in the south-west to Newcastle in the north-east. We're reaching the end of Modern Fairies -- a year-long research project into the intersection of folklore with modern folk music and other contemporary art forms -- so it's time to present our work in four public performances at the Sage Theatre in Gateshead this weekend.
Where did the year go? The old tales say that time passes strangely in Faerieland -- and indeed, it seems just a short while ago that we had our first meeting at St John's College in Oxford...while at the same time it feels like I've known my lovely colleagues on this project forever. The first performance of the show is tomorrow night -- bringing changelings, selkies, whist hounds, witch-hares, green children and other elements of the old British fairy tradition to life -- in a concert hall that couldn't be more urban, iron-bound, and contemporary. Yikes. Wish us luck.
I'll put together a proper long post about the show when it's all over, and I've caught my breath. I've been remiss in writing about our work on the project over the winter -- I've been dealing with health issues once again, and blog-writing takes a back seat when that happens. But I do want to share the experience here, and reflect on the journey we've just been through. I feel changed by this work in ways both large and small...and it's not even over yet.
If you're anywhere near Newcastle/Gateshead, please join us for this presentation of works inspired by British fairy lore -- an assemblege of music, spoken word, visual art, performance art, projections, shadow puppets and more. I can safely guarantee that you won't have seen anything quite like this show before...and the show might never appear in this form again. Blink, and like fairy gold, it's gone.
Catch it if you can.
Sage Theatre preparation, Gateshead, April 2019
Sage Theatre show, Gateshead, April 2019
The film and music above is "Of Land and Story: The Process of Forgetting and Rembering" by Ewan MacPherson -- with guest musicians Barney Morse-Brown on cello and Lauren MacColl on viola, and a mix of spoken word sampled from Dr. Martin Shaw, Angus Maclean, Dr. Mark Fox, Magi McGlyn, Donald Ross, William Walker, Ella Walker, Brian Froud, and Jay Griffiths.
The photograpphs of the Modern Fairies performance are by Elly Lucas.
Soundpost in Dungworth, Sheffield, May 2019
Myth & Moor will be on hiatus for the next week and a bit, because I'll be on the road again.
This time, I'm heading up to Scotland for the Symposium on Fantasy & the Fantastic at the University of Glasgow (Friday, May 10) -- where I'm giving the Keynote address on The Power of Storytelling: Re-creating the World Through Fantasy. It is a subject I feel rather passionate about, and if you're anywhere near Glasgow, please do come. The talk is open to all (not just Symposium partipants), and the tickets are free but you need to book them as space is limited. You'll find more information here.
On May 11th & 12th, I'll be in Dungworth, Sheffield for a Soundpost folk music gathering & singing weekend, where several of us from the Modern Fairies project will be giving workshops on how to use folk tales as a source of creative inspiration in music, writing, and art. In the video below, Fay Hield explains all. Please join us if you possibly can. (The song Marry Waterson is singing in the background of this video, by the way, is based on a gorgeous fairy poem by our own Jane Yolen.)
I'll be back in my Devon studio, and back here at Myth & Moor, on Thursday, May 16 -- and wish you all good, creative days ahead.
Remember in the midst of dire news headlines and daily chaos that seeds are stretching upwards through the soil, bluebells are nodding in the wind, a fox slips by unseen in the shadows, and the world is still a magical place.
Dartmoor, October 2019
Tim Dalling, Ewan MacPherson and me on Hound Tor during a Dartmoor work session to brainstorm ideas for future Modern Fairies shows. The photograph was taken by Alan Lee. What a wonderful week that was.....
Sheffield, November 2019
On Friday night the selkies will be climbing on land at the Kelham Island Museum in Sheffield....
If you are anywhere nearby, please join Fay Hield, Lucy Farrell, Duotone (Barney Morse-Brown), and me for The Secrets of the Selkies: an evening of music and spoken word about the seal people and the lore of the sea.
This event, sponsored by the University of Sheffield's Being Human Festival, continues one of the threads of work developed by Fay, Lucy, Inge Thomson and me for the Modern Fairies project. (Sadly, Inge can't be with us on Friday -- but Barney, who was also on the project, will bring his own considerable magic to the evening.) I'm so looking forward to seeing my MF colleagues again, and weaving spells of sea salt, music, and language.
All are welcome, and the tickets are free. For bookings and more information, go here.
The lovely selkie art by above is by Natalie Reid, created for the Modern Fairies project.
Being Human Festival, Sheffield, November 2019
Above: Putting our selkie show together in an upper room at the Kelham Island Museum. The titles of possible songs and spoken word pieces are scribbled onto pieces of paper, spread across the floor, and then moved around as the structure of the evening's performance slowly takes shape.
Below: Photographs from the show...which also had film projections and animated selkie art mixed into the music and stories.
The Modern Fairies project continues to ripple outward, August 2020
As many of you know, I spent much of 2018 - 2019 happily immersed in the Modern Fairies project, an arts and research initiative which brought folk musicians, artists, writers, folklorists and filmmakers together to create works exploring what Britian's folklore tradition means to us in the modern world. After twelve months of research and collaboration, the project ended with a concert and multi-media presentation at the Sage Theatre in Gateshead/Newcastle (Spring 2019), but my MF colleagues are continuing to develop this material in a number of interesting ways -- the most recent of which is Wrackline, a gorgeous, deeply magical new album by the distinguished folksinger, songwriter, and music scholar Fay Hield.
In the run-up to Wrackline's release next month, Fay is publishing posts highlighting the album's six folklore themes -- beginning with tales of witches (and other women) who cast themselves into the shapes of hares.
Above: A short video in which Fay introduces the concept of the new album.
Below: "Hare Spell," from Wrackline. As Fay explains:
"In exploring the mythical supernatural on the Modern Fairies project I became excited by the question of real magic and belief, and spent some time looking at magical acts themselves, rather than the stories about them. Inge Thomson and I chatted about the nature of spells and where the magic lay. Words are commonly seen to hold power, but as musicians, we wondered how we could draw this out through sound. We toyed with the relationship of music to language noticing that pitches are conveniently given letter names. That evening at the very first meeting of the Modern Fairies [at Oxford University, Summer 2018], we mused about how music could come out of the words themselves.
"I needed a spell, a real one that held magic. Jackie Morris gave me some words about a hare and a little digging showed that it comes from Isobel Gowdie, the wife of John Gilbert, likely a cottar in Auldearn, near Inverness. Isobel was tried in 1662 during the witchcraft trials and her confession gives a clear account, seemingly uncoerced, into her activities with the devil and visiting the king of the fairie. She includes several spells and chants used to conduct her own magic, including this spell to turn the utterer into a hare to do the devil’s work."
Below: "When She Comes," a second hare song which grew from a collaboration between Fay and poet Sarah Hesketh. Sarah writes:
"As I sat and listened to Fay transform her reading about Isobel Gowdie into song, I found myself really drawn into the story she was beginning to tell through the music. Here were two characters -- a woman and a hare -- with an incredibly strange and intimate relationship. Fay's song 'Hare Spell' was a glimpse into that relationship from Isobel's point of view; but what, I wondered, did the hare have to say about it all? How did he feel about having his body appropriated for her eldritch purposes? Was this a kind of hi-jacking or was there something more complex and consensual going on between the two of them? I wanted to explore the idea that the hare might be more than just a passive vessel for Isobel's adventures, and how it might feel for him to have to say goodbye as she decided to return to her own body."
The words are by Sarah and the music by Fay, with underlying chordal structures created by Ben Nicholls and Inge Thomson for Modern Fairies project, then further developed by Sam Sweeney and Rob Harbron for Wrackline. This is the Modern Fairies version, recorded at The Sage performance in April 2019. It was one my favourite songs from the show, bringing a lump to my throat every time I heard it. (Lyrics here.)
Keep an eye on Fay's blog in the weeks ahead if you'd like to know more about the magical songs on Wrackline (including one that I contributed lyrics to).
Another thread of work that emerged from the Modern Fairies project was inspired by selkie (seal people) lore -- including songs created by Lucy Farrell, Inge Thompson, Barney Morse-Brown and Fay, presented in the final Modern Fairies show with art by Natalie Reid.
In the Autumn 2019, four of us from the project (Lucy, Fay, Barney, and me) reunited to present The Secrets of the Selkies: an evening of song and story at the Being Human Festival in Sheffield. During the week leading to festival, as the others ordered and rehearsed their music, my job as a writer/editor was to weave poems and monologues between the songs to join them into a common narrative, examining classic "selkie bride" folk tales from several characters' point of view. I don't know what the evening was like from the audience, but from the stage it felt like pure magic ... ending with choral singing of the selkie's call by everyone in the hall.
Above: A screen projection produced by Lucy -- with Natalie's art, Lucy's music, and selkie encounters describe Inge (who grew up on Fair Isle) and others.
Below: A video by Tim James capturing a collage of moments from The Secrets of the Selkies.