I. Blue Vision of Depth
‘Blue vision of depth lost in height – sea and sky interblending through luminous haze. The day of spring and the hour morning.
Only sky and sea – one azure enormity… in the fore ripples are catching a silvery light, and threads of foam are swirling. But a little farther off no motion is visible, nor anything save colour: dim warm blue of water widening away to meet into blue of air. Horizon there is none: only distance soaring into space – infinite concavity hovering before you, and hugely arching above you – the colour deepening with the height. But far in the mid-way blue there hangs a faint, faint vision of palace towers, with high roofs horned and curved like moons – some shadowing of splendour strange and old, illumined by sunshine old as memory…
…Those are the glimmering portals of Hôrai the blest; and those are the moony roofs of the Palace of the Dragon King.’
Kwaidan, Lafcadio Hearn
Kwaidan (1904) is a collection of Japanese ghost stories and studies of superstitions about the insect world by Lafcadio Hearn. Hôrai is a legendary place in Japanese mythology known as Mount Penglai by the Chinese. Lafcadio’s ethereal yet beautiful descriptions share surprising parallels with Celtic representations of Fairyland.
Lafcadio says in the books of the Chinese Shin dynasty Hôrai is a place where there is no death, pain or winter. The flowers never fade and the fruits never fail. Enchanted plants heal sickness. A fountain of perpetual youth nourishes grass that quickens the dead. The people eat rice and drink wine out of very small cups that are never empty.
However Lafcadio claims these books were not written by people who have visited Hôrai. Really there are no fruits that forever satisfy the eater, magical grasses that revive the dead, fountains of perpetual youth or cups never empty. It is not true sorrow and death never enter Hôrai or that there is no winter: ‘The winter in Hôrai is cold; and winds then bite to the bone; and the heaping of snow is monstrous on the roofs of the Dragon King.’
The textual descriptions of Hôrai are deceptive as the place itself. Another name for Hôrai is Shinkirō: ‘Mirage.’ Similarly on the surface Fairyland appears a paradisal place. Take for example this description of St Collen’s arrival at the castle of the Brythonic Fairy King, Gwyn ap Nudd:
‘he saw the fairest castle he had ever beheld, and around it the best appointed troops, and numbers of minstrels, and every kind of music of voice and string, and steeds with youths upon them the comeliest in the world, and maidens of elegant aspect, sprightly, light of foot, of graceful apparel, and in the bloom of youth and every magnificence becoming the court of a puissant sovereign…
And Collen went into the castle, and when he came there, the king was sitting in a golden chair. And he welcomed Collen honourably and desired him to eat, assuring him that, besides what he saw, he should have the most luxurious of every dainty and delicacy that the mind could desire, and should be supplied with every drink and liquor that his heart could wish.’
Collen refused to partake in the meal saying “I will not eat the leaves of trees” and disparaged the costumes of Gwyn’s host because their red signified burning and blue coldness. When he threw holy water the castle and its inhabitants disappeared.
Collen saw through the fairies’ glamoury but gained no perception of the deeper reality beneath. In my earliest travels to Gwyn’s castle I found I had to go through a curious combination of sky and sea – an ocean filled with stars. Sometimes I arrived on the shore and sometimes above. The palace’s most distinguishing feature was a lunar crescent on its roof mirroring the bull horns Gwyn wore in an earlier vision of him as a ‘bull of battle.’
Sometimes the palace was alive and thronging with people and there was feasting, singing and mead. Sometimes it was derelict, cold, draped in hoar frost and Gwyn sat with only his hound, Dormach, for company. I voiced this in my poem ‘Gwyn’s Hall’ at midsummer in 2013:
‘Summer here and winter there
My longest day your darkest night
Hoar frost drapes your haunted fortress
Whilst swallows ride my glowing sunlight.
Summer here and winter there
My brightest day your longest night
Whilst blackbirds sing my endless fanfare
Crazy owl streaks across your vaunted midnight.
Winter there and summer here
And I between them like the song
That lies unsung between the years
Between your hall and my brief home.’
My jaw dropped when I read Lafcadio’s words about Hôrai and its blue vision of depth which corresponded so well with my experiences of Fairyland, or as it was earlier known, Annwn ‘the deep.’ Particularly considering on the day of my dedication to Gwyn at Glastonbury Tor he appeared to me as a dragon, something completely unrecorded in known literature, although there are plenty of references to divine shapeshifters taking serpentine form.
Since then I have learnt that although Fairyland can be mind blowingly beautiful it is far from perfect. Its winters and sorrows mirror our own. Its treasures are not indestructible. Its resources are finite. There are no panaceas or such thing as eternal youth.
Fairyland is not free from death, war or political strife. When we die we carry the concerns of thisworld with us and indeed our world passes over into the next. The blue vision of depth is ours in the making and we bear as much responsibility as the gods.
II. Made of Ghost
‘It is an atmosphere peculiar to the place; and, because of it, the sunshine in Hôrai is whiter than any other sunshine – a milky light that never dazzles – astonishingly clear, but very soft. This atmosphere is not of our human period: it is enormously old, so old that I feel afraid when I try to think how old it is; and it is not a mixture of nitrogen and oxygen. It is not made of air at all, but of ghost – the substance of quintillions of quintillions of generations of souls blended into one immense translucency – souls of people who thought in ways never resembling our ways. Whatever mortal man inhales that atmosphere, he takes into his blood the thrilling of these spirits; and they change the senses within him – reshaping his notions of Space and Time – so that he can see only as they used to see, and feel only as they used to feel, and think only as they used to think. Soft as sleep are these changes of sense…’
Kwaidan, Lafcadio Hearn
Gwyn ap Nudd translates as ‘White son of Mist’. His presence can be felt on misty mornings when the cold winter sun is an icy disk moving through a limboland of grey clouds reflected in the river. He and the dead in the smooth white air silently whispering the blurring of borderlines reshaping benches, trees, rivers, hills, the thoughts in our minds.
In Culhwch and Olwen it is said ‘God has put the spirits of the demons of Annwn in him, lest the world be destroyed.’ These words suggest Gwyn physically contains the spirits of Annwn although this may be a gloss on his rulership of them. Taken literally he is made of ghost.
It’s rare in Celtic literature to find links between Fairyland and the dead. It seems possible these connections were repressed by Christian rulers in favour of eternal reward in heaven or punishment in hell to ensure moral conduct. Such acts of repression are represented in St Collen’s supposed banishment of Gwyn and his host.
Gwyn’s role as a gatherer of the dead and King of Fairy provides a clue. Further evidence may be gleaned from Sir Orfeo. This Breton lay displays roots in Brythonic tradition:
‘In Britain in the days of yore
The harpers writ that men should praise
The gallant deeds that were before-
Of such the Britons made their lays.’
The setting is Winchester. Although it is modelled on the story of Orpheus the protagonist, Orfeo, does not descend to the gloomy depths of the Classical underworld to win back his beloved, Heurodis, but enters Fairyland by striding into a rock.
Fairyland is described as a country ‘bright as the summer sun… green vast.’ The knights are ‘bright… with large display / Of gorgeous banners gaily blent’ and the ladies ‘dancing free / In quaint attire… To sound of pipes and minstrelsy.’ Heurodis is amongst them.
Orfeo goes to the castle of the Fairy King who abducted her on May Day many years ago. This is described as a castle tall with a hundred towers of crystal ‘The jewelled stones shed forth a light / Like sunbeams on a summer’s day.’
The Fairy King and Queen are seated on a ‘tabernacle fair and light’ wearing glistening crowns and garments ‘so hot they shone’ ‘He could not gaze.’ The court are got up in ‘rich array.’
This contrasts with a horrifying discovery Orfeo made previously in the castle:
‘Some headless stood upon the ground,
Some had no arms, and some were torn
With dreadful wounds, and some lay bound
Fast to the earth in hap forlorn.
And some full-armed on horses sat,
And some were strangled as at meat,
And some were drowned as in a vat,
And some were burned with fiery heat,
Wives lay in child-bed, maidens sweet…
…Each thus was stolen out of life,
For such the fairies sieze and keep.
And there he saw his darling wife,
Sweet Heurodis as one asleep.’
These lines provide clear evidence of connections between the fairies and the dead. The host of knights, ladies including Heurodis herself is composed of people who have died suddenly or violently. Gwyn is intimately associated with the battle dead and people who have perished of unknown causes were often seen as taken by the fairies.
Orfeo’s task is not only to bring Heurodis back from Fairyland but from the dead. He succeeds through his wit and the power of his music. In Sir Orfeo there is no cruel condition vetoing looking back. He returns from Fairyland, from the Fairy King and Queen and their host bright and shining and made of ghost, to fleshly existence with his wife.
III. The Vision is Fading
‘Evil winds from the West are blowing over Hôrai; and the magical atmosphere, alas! is shrinking away before them. It lingers now in patches only, and bands like those long bright bands of cloud that trail across the landscapes of Japanese painters. Under these threads of the elfish vapour you still can find Hôrai – but not elsewhere… Remember that Hôrai is also called Shinkirō, which signifies Mirage – the Vision of the Intangible. And the Vision is fading – never again to appear save in pictures and poems and dreams…’
Kwaidan, Lafcadio Hearn
It is impossible to imagine a time the Vision has not been under threat. The ancient tribal people who inhabited Britain and those who still exist in small wild pockets across the world living off the land, maintaining old stories, communing with their deities and ancestors, have never been immune to natural disasters or invasions by other people.
Kwaidan was published in 1904. Lafcadio translated most of the stories from old Japanese manuscripts. Yuki-onna was told to him by a farmer and Riki-baka and Hi-Mawara are based on his own experiences. ‘Evil winds from the West are blowing over Hôrai’ suggests Lafcadio thought the introduction of Western institutions posed a threat to Japanese folk beliefs and this motivated him to translate and share them.
Similarly in Britain as the industrial revolution forced country dwellers to move into towns to find factory work the loss of their beliefs prompted a resurgence of interest in folklore. Here in Lancashire folktales collected in the 19th and 20th centuries contain a fascinating admixture of ‘pagan’ Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Christian folk beliefs featuring fairies, boggarts, demons, spectral huntsmen, phantoms and ghosts.
Whilst these stories have not died out, belief in our ability to interact with Fairyland has. Its name, once held in superstitious regard, evokes parodic Barbie Fashion Party Fairytale Palaces with glitzy innocuous fairy god mothers with glitter wands and nothing of its deeper truths: a trend initiated by Shakespeare’s reduction of Queen Mab to diminutive size with butterfly wings and enforced by an era of Victorian twee.
The connection between Fairyland and the dead has been lost. The majority of people in our secularised society do not give much serious thought to where they will go when they die, what it will look like, who will guide them, who will be waiting when they arrive.
Disappointingly the majority of books on shamanism offer little but hypostasised lower, middle and upper worlds, instructions for entering green and leafy glades for pleasant get-togethers with spirit guides and power animals and tips for self development.
The myths and stories of our lands and ancestors make better field guides but are dated. We’ve seen industrial change on a global scale since then, two devastating world wars decimating towns and cities and tearing apart blood lines, and are still embroiled in brutal conflicts.
Before setting off on otherworld journeys we think little of what effect this has had on Fairyland. What great effort it takes to cover over nuclear waste and fracking wells. How much mead is needed to calm the dead forced to go to war for the sake of empire; for a political system founded on the ceaseless exploitation of finite resources to fuel machines of war.
Sunshine old as memory still shines in Fairyland. Go there and you will taste its magic, breath its atmosphere of quintillions of souls. Its Vision may be fading, fragile, fractured, rent by bloody wounds but it is still with us. It is our responsibility to preserve it for generations to come in pictures and poems and dreams; in our creation of thisworld as it passes into the otherworld.