An invitation from the fairies

The Changeling & the Trolls by John Bauer

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Art by John Anster ''Fairy'' Fitzgerald

Please join us on Monday night (UK time) to see what the Modern Fairies interdisciplinary art project has been up to.

''I Shall Go Into a Hare,'' music by Fay Hield, drawing by Jackie Morries

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."

The Modern Fairies website & blog is here. My posts about the project are here and here.


I Shall Go Into a Hare....

In the Land of the Faires by John Anster Fitzgerald

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.

Flint Hall at the University of Sheffield

A fairy ring

"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.

Ben, Marry, and Jackie's notebooks

Andy and Lucy fall into enchantment

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...

Calling the spirits...

...conjured by cello, viola, bass, and banjo...by mandolin, squeezebox, saw, and voice...

Calling the fairies.

...by artist's pencil and composer's pen.

Calling the ghost hounds and the geese...

Jackie and Fay plot witchery

''I shall go into a hare,'' Fay sings.

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...

Fairy tales and fairies' tales.

Sarah finds fairies in cyberspace.

...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?

Andy and Carolyne pull the project's research all together

Fairies Dancing by William Blake

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.

The magic of music

The magic of play

Wait! Wait! by Arthur Rackham

The magic of collaboration.

The magic of song

The magic of sound.

The magic of word and film

Twilight Fantasy by Edward Robert Huges

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 magic shaped by an artist's hands.

The magic that swims across the page.

The magic that takes on a life of its own.

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.

The Spiegeltent at the Festival of the Mind

Marry sings an old, old tale...

...while Fay, Lucy, Ewan, and Ben summon the fairies to our modern world

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.

Hare by Jackie Morris

Fay's banjo

Tales  Songs  and Hares

I Shall Go Into the Hare

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.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Sheep 1

Sheep 2

I was away with the Modern Fairies last week, which I'll tell you more about in a following post. Today, I'd like to kick off the morning with music by some of my colleagues on the Modern Fairies team....

Above: "I'd Rather Be Tending My Sheep," sung by Lucy Farrell and her three fellow-members of The Furrow Collective: Rachel Newton, Emily Portman, and Alasdair Roberts. Lucy found this song in Ruth L. Tongue’s book, The Chime Child, about folksingers and songs in Somerset.  (More information here.) The animated video was created by Marry Waterson, another member of the Modern Fairies group.

Below: Lucy sings the traditional ballad "Polly Vaughn" at the Square Chapel Arts Centre in Halifax, West Yorkshire. The song appeared on The Furrow Collective's second album, Wild Hog (2016). Their third album can be pre-ordered here; and Lucy is at work on songs for a solo album, forthcoming next year.

Above: a wonderful rendition of "Raggle Taggle Gyspy" (Child Ballad #200) sung by Fay Hield: folk musician, scholar, and the fearless leader of Modern Fairies. Fay has performed with The Full English, BACCApella, The Witches of Elswick, and her own fine band, The Hurricane Party. I highly recommend her three solo albums (Orefo, Looking Glass, and Old Adam), and her TED talk, "Why aren't we all folksingers?"

We heard Inge Thomson's latest album two weeks ago: Northern Flyway, inspired by birds in nature and myth. Here is another song from the album, "No Barriers, No Borders," sung by Inge. She also performs with Drop the Box, Crows' Bones, and the Karine Polwart Trio; and she has released two haunting solo albums (Shipwrecks & Static and Da Fishing Hands) rooted in her love of the natural world and her upbringing in the Shetlands.

Above: "Death of a Gull" by Ben Nicholls' genre-busting trio, Kings of the South Seas, with Richard Warren and Evan Jenkins. The song is from the group's second album, Franklin, a glorious cycle of ballads inspired by Lord Franklin's doomed expedition to the Arctic in 1845. (For more information, I recommend the "Making of the Album" video here.) Ben has also performed with The Full English, the Seth Lakeman Band, and the Nadine Shah Band.

Below: "Martha" by Duotone: cellist, composer, and multi-instrumentalist Barney Morse-Brown. Barney has performed with Maya Youseff, Birdy,  Jackie Oates, Eliza Carthy, Chris Wood, The Imagined Village and others, in addition to his distinctive solo work. The exquisite piece below is from Duotone's fourth album, A Life Reappearing.

Above: "Two Wolves," written and sung by Marry Waterson, with guitarist David A. Jaycock. Marry is a poet and artist as well as a singer, using the voice as her primary instrument. ("I sing my tales into existence," she says.) She has collaborated with many musicians -- including other members of the Waterson-Carthy folk clan -- and released four albums of bewitching songs: Death had Quicker Wings Than Love and Two Wolves with Jaycock; Hidden and The Days That Shaped Me with Oliver Knight.

Below: "Sophrsyne," written and sung by mutli-instrumentalist Ewan MacPherson, with Lauren MacColl on fiddle. (Sophrosyne is an ancient Greek concept defined as the quality of wise moderation, "knowing the limits which nature fixes for human conduct and keeping within them.") Ewan is a founding member Salt House (featured in a previous post), Firbo, RoughCoastAudio, and the MMH Trio; he's performed with the Battlefield Band, Breabach, Malinky, Ranarim, Shooglenifty, Salsa Celtica, The Treacherous Orchestra, and numerous other groups and musicians; and he's also recorded two fine solo albums, Norther and Fetch!, which I highly recommend.

Sheep 3

Sheep 4


Modern Fairies

In the Dark Forest by Arthur Rackham

Fairies in Oxford

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...

Modern Fairies team, Oxford University, July 2018

Barney, Marry, Patience, Ewan and Fay the Modern Fairies workshop, Oxford

The fairy circle

Music begins to emerge

The Modern Fairies workshop, Oxford

Fay works on a song

...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

Now here's a toast to the fairies, modern and old. May we do right by their tales.

Here's to the fairies!

Frolicking fairies by Arthur Rackham

Fairy art by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939). The photographs above were taken by me, Jackie Morris, and other members of the Modern Fairies project.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

The Fairy Queen by Alan Lee

I'm about to head up to Sheffield for the second group meeting of the Modern Fairies & Loathly Ladies project, so let's start the week with some fairy ballads drawn from Francis James Child's masterwork: The English & Scottish Popular Ballads, published in five volumes from 1882 to 1898.

Above: "Tam Lin" (Child Ballad #39) performed by Anais Mitchell and Jefferson Hammer, from their album of Child Ballads (2013). Some UK reviews remarked on the oddness of hearing a Scottish border ballad sung in American accents, forgetting that these songs travelled across the ocean on immigrant ships and took root in North America (especially in the Appalachian region), where they are now part of the traditional songbook of America and Canada too. This version of the song omits verses explaining that Tam Lin is not a fairy (or "shade") himself, but a human knight in thrall to the Fairy Queen. For the full story, go here.

Below: an Appalachian version of "Thomas the Rhymer" (Child Ballad #37), performed by Scottish folk musician Archie Fisher. The recording is from Big Bend Killing: The Appalachian Ballad Tradition (2017).

Green Woman by Alan Lee

Above: "King Orfeo" (Child Ballad #19) performed by Scottish folk musician Emily Smith. The song can be found on her fine album Echoes (2104).

Below: "Twa Sisters" (Child Ballad #10) performed by English folk musician Emily Portman, from her enchanting album The Glamoury (2010). While there's not a fairy in this ballad per se, the enchanted harp at the end of the song is surely filled with fairy magic.

Fairies of the Wood by Alan Lee

Above, in the Loathly Lady catagory: "King Henry" (Child Ballad #32) performed by the great British folk musician Martin Carthy. The song appeared on his classic album Sweet Wivelsfield (1974).

Below: "The Elfin Knight" (Child Ballad #2) peformed by the Celtic-Nordic group The Boann Quartet. They've released a whole album of fairy music, Old Celtic & Nordic Ballads (2012).

Roverandom by Alan Lee

The drawings above are by my friend and neighbor Alan Lee, a man who certainly knows a thing or two about fairies. For more on fairies in legend, lore, and literature, go here. For the history of Child and his ballads, go here. And for literary interpretations of the ballads (in novel, short story, and picture book form), go here.