Last week I took a train up north for the second meeting of the Modern Fairies working group. Our project (outlined in a previous post) started 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.