One of the most remarkable developments in the world of entertainment over the last 50 years has been the elevation of certain types of children’s literature to the status of adult entertainment.
The comic book heroes of my childhood – Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, and many others – are now adult movie best sellers. So too are the children’s stories of J.R.R. Tolkien. Even the film versions of the C.S. Lewis children’s stories attract a large adult audience.
The Great Chain of Being: A Christian rendition
from the book Rhetorica Christiana
by the Mexican-born Fray Diego de Valades.
At the very same time, the age in which we now live treats religious belief as a childish illusion and prides itself in having overcome the silly superstitions of the past. How to reconcile such seemingly opposite trends? Perhaps Chesterton was right when he opined that a person who did not believe in God would believe in anything. Certainly, when the old certainties about the objectivity of truth are demolished, the subjective nature of all belief is likely to greatly enhance our credulity. As the Cole Porter song says, “anything goes”. But perhaps that is the wrong approach to the subject. Might it not be that the appeal of the magical and “other-worldly” is simply an inexpungible part of our nature?
In that case, watching a Superman film is not all that far removed, perhaps, from a village scene of several hundred years ago where the exploits of Thomas the Rhymer or Tam Lin were sung or recited to a receptive adult audience. For without question, the precursor to the modern works of fantasy is the ancient world of those spirit-creatures whom C.S. Lewis, quoting an ancient source, calls the Longaevi – the long-lived ones.
Included here are the fairies, elves, dwarfs and other such creatures bearing some resemblance to the human form but, usually, on a diminutive scale. Included too are those of unspecified form, like the Sidhe of Irish mythology.
Of course, today’s fairies are somewhat tame compared with their ancestors. The usual modern depiction is of tiny, gossamer-winged ladies with wands, distributing goodness wherever they go. The fairies of old were much more dangerous creatures. Not only were they responsible for a great deal of ordinary mischief – nasty natural events like whirlwinds – but also for much more serious things such as stealing or changing children and even taking human lives. Think of those stories about changelings, or of W.B. Yeats’ poem, The Host of the Air, where the Sidhe (ancient and dangerous spirits of sky and earth) take away a young bride.
The dark side of the fairy world is very apparent in the story of Thomas the Rymer, who disappears and is bound in the service of the Elf-Queen for seven years. The journey to her kingdom involves travel through a terrible landscape:
O they rade on, and farther on,
And they waded thro rivers aboon the knee,
And they saw neither sun nor moon,
But they heard the roaring of the sea.
It was mirk mirk night, and there was nae stern light,
And they waded thro red blude to the knee;
For a’ the blude that’s shed on earth
Rins thro the springs o that countrie.
One has the impression of the Longaevi existing more or less parasitically on human suffering and death.
Of course, it is popularly believed that the Longaevi are a medieval invention, along with witches, magicians, and so on. Nothing could be further from the truth. Far from “inventing” mythical creatures, the scholars and scribes of the middle ages inherited them, mostly from the classical, pre-Christian era.
C.S. Lewis makes this point in his work on medieval literature, The Discarded Image. The medieval scholars were bookish, by which Lewis means that they took whatever literature they had inherited from the past as inviolable – it could be copied but not changed or dismissed.
An excellent example of this attitude is given by Helen Waddell in her famous work on the Desert Fathers. Some medieval scribe in a monastery was given the task of copying out a work by the fifth-century Roman writer, Rutilius Namatianus. This particular work heaped scorn on the Christian religion (although Rutilius may have converted at some stage) and the scribe faithfully copied out the hateful text, word for word. At the very end, though, he added a footnote: “Canes rabiosi diaboli” – “one of the Devil’s mad dogs”!
But there is another reason why the medieval scholars were not prepared to ignore the Longaevi. In Plato’s Timaeus – one of the few Platonic texts available to medieval scholars – we have this explanation for the creation of the world:
“Let us therefore state the reason why the framer of this universe of change framed it at all. He was good, and what is good has no particle of envy in it; being therefore without envy he wished all things to be as like himself as possible.”
Now, if not to Plato himself then certainly to the Neoplatonists who followed him, what this meant was that the ideal Absolute, in order to be ideal, must express all possibilities of being, thus existing beyond all possibilities of enhancement or diminution. This, in turn, led to a concept called the “Great Chain of Being”. Here we must imagine a hierarchy of being, with God at the top and stones and other inanimate objects at the bottom. Humans are towards the upper end, jellyfish towards the lower.
Importantly though, there can be no gaps – that is, no niches where there is the possibility of some form of existence without its actuality. For the early scholars, then, one had to allow for the possibility of creatures somewhat below the angels but not quite human or animal.
Opinions differed. Some scholars thought that the Longaevi might be angels who, at the time of the rebellion, were neither on Lucifer’s side nor Michael’s. Others thought that they were a third rational species, existing between angels and humans. By the time of James the First in England, though, the Longaevi were regarded as a species of devil and denounced.
If you want a paradox, consider this. At about the same time that Edmund Spenser wrote The Faerie Queene in honour of Elizabeth I, old women were being burnt to death for supposedly consorting with fairy folk and “the Queen of Elfame”.
We have a remarkable poem from the Church of England Bishop, Richard Corbet (1582–1635), which laments the demise of the fairies in England. He supposes the fairies to be of Catholic leaning and links their demise to the dissolution of the monasteries:
Farewell, rewards and fairies,
Good housewives now may say,
For now foul sluts in dairies
Do fare as well as they.
And though they sweep their hearths no less
Than maids were wont to do,
Yet who of late for cleanness
Finds sixpence in her shoe?
Lament, lament, old Abbeys,
The Fairies’ lost command!
They did but change Priests’ babies,
But some have changed your land.
And all your children, sprung from thence,
Are now grown Puritans,
Who live as Changelings ever since
For love of your demesnes.
At morning and at evening both
You merry were and glad,
So little care of sleep or sloth
These pretty ladies had;
When Tom came home from labour,
Or Cis to milking rose,
Then merrily went their tabor,
And nimbly went their toes.
Witness those rings and roundelays
Of theirs, which yet remain,
Were footed in Queen Mary’s days
On many a grassy plain;
But since of late, Elizabeth,
And later, James came in,
They never danced on any heath
As when the time hath been.
By which we note the Fairies
Were of the old Profession.
Their songs were ‘Ave Mary’s’,
Their dances were Procession.
But now, alas, they all are dead;
Or gone beyond the seas;
Or farther for Religion fled;
Or else they take their ease.
A tell-tale in their company
They never could endure!
And whoso kept not secretly
Their mirth, was punished, sure;
It was a just and Christian deed
To pinch such black and blue.
Oh how the commonwealth doth want
Such Justices as you!
Corbet’s poem is usually regarded as a bit of light-hearted humour, but surely there is a little sting there – a lament for what might have been without the Puritans.
It was popularly believed that the fairies had fled, first to Wales and Scotland, then to Ireland, their last stronghold. Indeed, C.S. Lewis recounts that the housemaid in his childhood home in Ireland had spoken of seeing them. In my own childhood too, our elderly Irish-born neighbours spoke confidently of their existence.
I leave with you this final reflection. If you think that the old notion of the “Great Chain of Being” is now dead, think again. Almost daily in the media someone announces that this forest or that reef must be protected to “maintain biodiversity”. Why is a forest of say, 80 species better or more complete than one with 20? “Because it is more diverse”, people say.
But that does not answer the question because the argument is circular. “Because the gene pool is greater” say the Darwinists. But this, too, is circular. Why is a bigger gene pool better? Because it allows for more diversity.
The simple fact of the matter is that we value diversity in itself. St Thomas Aquinas was of the opinion that a world comprised of one angel and a stone was more complete than a world containing two angels. We cannot blame the ancients, then, if they took the argument a step further and ensured that all ecological niches, including spiritual ones, were filled.
Fairies increase diversity! Can we have a “National Recovery Plan for Threatened Longaevi”? We might even get a new series from David Attenborough: The Life of Elves.