- Nathaniel Hawthorne Main Street (1852)
I have always been taken with this ‘request’ of Hawthorne’s, urging a need for changing one’s perspective to get a better understanding. We are often so immersed in a common, ordinary perspective – rendered out of habit, sustained by its practical efficiency and reinforced by our failure to remain awake in the course of everyday life – that to remove ourselves to ‘another bench’ may seem ‘unnecessary’ and even ‘disturbing’ to us. Yet the ‘other bench’ carries revelatory potential, and once we take advantage of it, can contribute to a more universal compassion. Gaining a different perspective allows us to see the world and ourselves more fully, from a wider variety of angles. It is a valuable experience, one that should be indulged in whenever possible, as many of our problems would begin to dissipate if we could but ‘remove ourselves to that other bench’ and see things in a different cast of ‘light and shadow.’
Fantasy – as an imaginative mode – is one way of “removing to this other bench” and seeing things from different perspectives. To engage in Fantasy is to imagine or experience ‘another world,’ one that is different from our ordinary lived-in worlds, but capable of speaking to our lives in potentially significant ways; metaphorically and by way of analogy. We can read a fantasy story or watch a fantasy film, through it entering into an alternate reality. We can have a ‘flight of fantasy’ and imagine things that are beyond the usual scope of our lived-experience and that may be inspiring; possibly even revelatory—if the fantasizing is not a ‘mere escape.’ However we engage in fantasy, it has the potential to contribute to a widening perspective on the world and a better understanding of ourselves and others.
An old friend of mine used to say that Fantasy is like rising, flying or being lifted by inspiration up above the trees of a Forest and from there – from that new vantage point – seeing broader, often far-off horizons within which a life could be authentically lived. The ‘Forest’ in this simile represents our everyday lived-in worlds and then those worlds – cultural, social and historical – that establish those horizons. While ‘good’ in an ordinary sense; grounding us in practical ways of living while orienting us to our culture’s rules and parameters, these circumscribed horizons can and probably should be transcended as we grow and mature; as they are merely ‘ours’ – if we are to achieve a wider, deeper, broader perspective for living our brief lives.
For me, the Faeryfolk of Celtic traditions have been a long-standing fantasy motif. I was first introduced to the lore of the Faeryfolk by reading W. B Yeats’ The Celtic Twilight (1905) when I was fourteen and then, a couple years later, Lady Gregory’s Gods and Fighting Men. As I got into Celtic spirituality, mysticism and mythology, ten to thirty years later, I found the stories of the Faeryfolk to be central to the myths and mysticism of the Celts. The Faery always seemed to ‘be there,’ whether present in the story or not, and I used to think of myself as ‘faery-haunted;’ albeit in an imaginative rather than a superstitious sense—whenever engaged with a Faery story. Their being ‘hidden’ and yet ‘present’ is what I find most intriguing; they live in caves, under lakes, behind waterfalls and in the great earthen mounds scattered across the Celtic landscape. Yet, they are also ‘right beside us,’ in a world just ‘beyond’ that which is invisible to most of us most of the time. Though I did not start writing stories about them until I was in my thirties, I’ve spent decades playing with a kind of ‘faery poetics;’ exploring symbols, icons, metaphors and themes that characterize the Faery world.
Under various names and guises, the Faeryfolk have a deep and rich mythology associated with them. Some writers have imagined them to have been the prehistoric inhabitants of what are now Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England, and there may be some ‘truth’ to this. The Faeryfolk may be a mythologized memory of the prehistoric peoples of the later Celtic lands. Legends say the Faeryfolk made an agreement with the incomers – the Celts in the Iron Age – to live ‘beyond the sídhe (pronounced “shay”), while the Celts settled the more ‘ordinary’ lands. Perhaps his story is a trace-memory of that time; a myth that ‘remembers’ an event of the past? Their place in the Celtic world is runed by the old Irish name for them: Sluagh-Sídhe (pronounced “slew-ah-shay;”) which means “People of the Sídhe; (i.e., ‘mounds and hillocks, etc., in which they were said to live). They are often associated – if not identified – with the Tuatha Dé Danaan (pronounced “too-ha jay don-awn”) “the People of the Goddess Danu;” She being one of the “All-Mother” figures in Celtic myths; i.e., “The Great Goddess.” They are said to have been of slightly smaller stature than the Celts, but definitely ‘small humanoid’ peoples; not ‘insect sized’ and able to hide under flowers in the garden! As Caitlín & John Matthews once said in their Encyclopedia of Celtic Wisdom (1994):
“The name ‘faery’ has acquired unfortunate connotations, evoking images of butterfly winged and saccharine creatures slightly bigger than insects. If we are to have any understanding of the people of the sídhe in Celtic tradition, we must erase such connotations and understand that they have a far greater stature and power than we can conceive. Immortal, able to pass between the worlds at will, with resources that seem magical to humans, they appear as major protagonists in Celtic tradition, both then and now.” (388)
Two of the themes touched upon here – that the Faery are “immortal” and that they have magical abilities – are central to Faery lore. As characters in the stories that have come down to us, the Faery do seem to be somewhat ‘more than human.'
Faeryfolk, whether considered to be human beings or some other kind of being, lived in an “otherworld” into which humans could pass and sometimes return from, by stepping on a “stray sod” or passing through a “thin place” between our world and theirs. Dwelling in hillsides and under mounds, in tunnels and caves, as well as at stone circles, crossroads, sacred springs and wells, the Sluagh-Sídhe (“slew-ah shay”) exist in a world parallel to ours into which we can sometimes ‘see’ and even experience, especially at the end-of-year harvest festival of Samhain (31 October; pronounced “sow-en”), when the veil between the worlds becomes ‘thin’ for a night. They have special trees and crags, ‘huts’ and other places that are sacred to them, and at which they may be occasionally encountered. Of their sacred trees, Dairmuid Mac Manus declared, in his classic book, Irish Earth Folk (1959), that “The fairy folk are quite discriminating in their choice of trees, and the site of each tree is an important matter.” (48) They favor Oak, Ash, Rowan and Thorn trees as well as the Hazelnut; which features in tales of haunted pools where sacred salmon live under the boughs of a magical Hazelnut Tree. At such a pool, one could gain wisdom! As to the importance of the Hazelnut and the Blackthorn – another favorite of the Faery – Dairmuid Mac Manus said:
“The hazel, one of the most important of all, goes back in Irish mythology to an honoured place in the dim mists of the past. Then the hazel nut was the repository of all knowledge, as was the apple in Eden. No wonder the ancient gods and the spirits of today are reputed to revere and care for it. Of the other trees, fairies do well in cherishing the blackthorn, for it is one of the loveliest trees in the Irish countryside, especially in early spring when its masses of bright, white flowers contrast so strongly with its leafless black twigs; and the toughness of its branches is proverbial.” (46-47)
Trees were long-respected and protected in Celtic countries in part because they were sacred to the Faeryfolk. Strange encounters were often had at trees that were ‘Faery-haunted,’ for good or ill. For while the Faeryfolk were known as “the Gentle People,” being great friends and advocates of those befriended by them, if crossed they could be quite nasty; playing tricks on those who crossed them—all such antics aiming, however, at revealing their being misused or betrayed, and then requiring recompense being paid and justice being done.
Another key theme in the folklore of the Faeryfolk is their close association with music. They are said to be expert musicians and singers, the harp and later the fiddle being their favorite instruments of choice. Their presence is often associated with a mystical music; the coel-sidhe – (“kay-ole-shay;” the “music of the sidhe). Tom Cowan said in his fascinating book, Fire in the Head (1993), that:
“For the Celts, both Pagan and Christian, the encounter with Faerie is often heralded by ethereal music, usually described as “the most beautiful music” ever heard, or “like no human music.” Indeed, sweet Faery music is an essential component of the Otherworld. It can lull mortals into an enchanted sleep or a shamanic state of consciousness. … the music is often heard on lonely roads, late at night, or in the forests, emerging from the Hollow Hills or from deep within the earth.” (72)
It is the coel-sidhe that I was alluding to in my story “Foundations at Ross Falls (20 March 1997), wherein the characters heard mysterious music while leaving a rustic waterfall at night; though in the story the characters think the music sounds like that of monks chanting an office in Latin down at the base of the secluded, rustic waterfall.
One of my favorite Faery themes – being a scribbler (a writer and poet) – is that of a mortal being carried away into the otherworld and kept in thrall to the Faeryfolk – e.g., usually a Faery Queen – after a time being returned to this world with magical powers or creative gifts; enabled by their encounter with Faery to become great poets, healers or wise advisors to their communities. Stories such as this were often used to account for the genius and creativity of a musician or poet – i.e., they were said to be ‘Faery Gifted.’ For myself, such these tales played into my evolving poetics of “The Muse;” i.e., the ‘source of inspiration and creativity’ in us. The ‘Faery Queen’ in these stories I see as a metaphor for this ‘source.’ Many of the story elements that resonate with me most in Faery lore allude to the process and experience of entering a creative state and being inspired. That you can step on a ‘stray sod’ and slip into the Faery-world metaphors my experience of wakening into an imaginative state of mind and through poetic belief being inspired to write and compose.
Another common theme is of encounters with the Faery in strange, abandoned places. Ruins are favorite haunts of the Faeryfolk! Such tales take one to the limits of the known landscape, opening the hearer to fantastic ideals and conceptions. The strangeness to which Faery stories point oft begin with experiences in which someone exclaims—“I was at x and there was this interesting, strange ‘presence’ there, and …”
“I found an abandoned house off-trail from where I usually walk, and …”
“I was looking out my window, and the mist and streetlight made me feel so strange, that …”
All such experiences evoke, for me, what I sometimes call ‘faery consciousness;’ a ‘state’ in which I am open to Mystery; to the mysterious—that which is ‘beyond knowing,’ whether or not we will ever come to understand it. It is a neurological, psychological and bio-physical state; not a ‘supernatural’ one—grounded in the organic chemistry that makes us what we are as evolved and evolving spiritual beings with a deep history in the planetary biosphere. It is a psychological and emotional ‘mood.’ Faery consciousness is that state in which I am imaginatively prone to experiencing the world as ‘haunted’ by a presence that I best en-word in Faery themes. It gives rise to a mythic way of speaking about experiences of Wonder and Awe. Wonder and Awe point to Mystery, and this is what the use of Faery themes in my own writing does for me; it points, it alludes, it surprises me into a better awareness and attention to Earth & Cosmos. (for examples of such stories, see a brief list: “Faery Stories and Poems” – at the end of this blog)
These are only a few of the many interesting and engaging themes and ideas associated with the Faeryfolk, others including stories of “Faery Forts,” “Faery Doctors,” “Faery Paths,” “Faery Islands” and much, much more. Overall, the folklore of the Faeryfolk constitutes a deep story-world with which we may engage on a variety of levels; literary, spiritual and existential. While the Faeryfolk have been ‘believed in’ for many centuries as ‘real, existing’ beings, I relate to them as ‘real imaginary’ beings. They inhabit my imagination and come to the fore when I am telling stories about ‘border;’ i.e., ‘liminal’ – experiences. In almost fifty years I have found no evidence of their existence outside my imagination or beyond the cultural contexts in which their tales arose. Stories of the Faeryfolk are fictional and as such evoke in me a powerful sense of what lies beyond our comprehension, but which is still constitutive of our lived-in worlds. The Faery World is a Fantasy World, stories about it contributing in many cases to the hope for a better world in which suffering and hatred have been diminished – if not transcended – and where abundance and wellness prevail for all who live there. The Faery World is often conflated with the idea of ‘Paradise!’ Whether they ‘actually exist’ – outside the imagination – I leave to others to debate.
The Sluagh-Sídhe rune for me the presence of Mystery in our lived-in-worlds. They are one fictional, imaginative cypher for what is beyond what we understand as the human animals we are; beyond what we have discovered – via the arts and sciences – about Earth & Cosmos and ourselves as a manifestation of the processes of Nature. When Faery appear in a story or poem I’ve read or written, they are often touchstones of epiphanic experience; those sudden moments of being lifted ‘out of ourselves’ or into a ‘higher’ understanding, if only for a moment. They point to the limits even of the imagination! Their presence in a story may ignite experiences of self-transcendence. When I am reading or writing a story or poem, and the Faery make a sudden appearance, I feel lifted out of the ordinary rounds of the day and invited to move toward something extra-ordinary! Their appearance is a potential moment of wakening to the Wonder and Awe that it is always possible for us as human animals to experience.
Wonder is that state of openness to what-is; often awakening us – waking us up in the midst of the everyday – in the presence of something beautiful, curious, or beyond our current comprehension. That experience of being ‘Stopped in our tracks;’ stunned by a beautiful sunset or by the intricacies of a wildflower, a sea star, or the thoughts given rise to by something we have just read or something a friend or mentor has just said, is a key rune of the state of Wonder. Awe is a similar state, but more associated with experiences in which there is some threat to our mortal existence. As Wonder is to the Beautiful, so Awe is to the Sublime. When caught out in a thunder & lightning storm, for instance – as I have oft been – hiking some woodland trail, one’s consciousness can be transformed by the experience into a state of Awe. It is a sublime – not simply beautiful – experience. While there is a beauty in the storm, there is also clear danger. It is therefore sublime.
Mystery backgrounds all that is, and while I have often used cyphers for Mystery drawn from our rational scientific understanding of Earth & Cosmos in my writing, stories about the Faeryfolk sometimes work just as well to take me – and the narrative – beyond what I think I understand; as well as that which I may have come to take for granted, if I’m not careful—in the world around me. Often when experiencing Mystery, there is that certain ‘namelessness’ of the experience that I associate with ‘border’ or ‘liminal’ experiences. There’s a “Wow,” perhaps, or a deep, silent response to it. There is Wonder, and sometimes Awe. But once I return to my-self and begin to word-out the experience, mythic words come to the fore along with concepts and words drawn from the sciences, arts or philosophy. For me, mythic words simply arise out of long association and study as one possible option for the developing and unfolding of the narrative in which I am engaged. At that moment, I have a choice to make as to what to do as the narrative continues unfolding—and I oft find it wisening to go with the Faery metaphor. Whether I am en-wording Wonder & Awe in mystic runes or naturalistic poetics, I am engaging cyphers of Mystery.
Faery Stories and Poems—
Here are a few of the more recent stories and poems at this blog that have faery themes:
“Patrick and the Faery” (17 March 2018) – in this poem, Saint Patrick and the Faeryfolk are dancing and celebrating the Vernal Equinox together; something they probably would not have done when Patrick was alive. The idea here is that in the Otherworld we get over our provincialism and narrow-minded conceptions of what it is to be human, holy, etc. – and can embrace those we might have demonized, despised or mistrusted in this life. Would that we could more often attain to this level of wisdom in this life!
“Old Nicholas at Ross Falls” (6 December 2018) – here Saint Nicholas appears as one of the Faeryfolk as he and his Americanized complement ‘Santa Claus’ often did in the 19th century. The poem is a visionary experience at “Ross Falls” – at the opening of the Winter Solstice Season.
“A Winter Wakening” (20 December 2018) – this blog, which provides an intro to the story of “Nicholas and the Elves” that I have been developing and writing about for 30 years, presents the story of Runa Luna, the Mistress of Tara Lough, who comes to the mythic ‘top of the world’ – “Tara Lough” being the home of Nicholas and the Elves in the tale – as the parallel in my stories to the ‘Mrs. Claus’ character in our modern secular ‘holiday’ stories. Runa Luna is a Faery Mistress, and her advent at Tara Lough will no doubt be significant to my ongoing stories about Nicholas and the Faeryfolk who are his fellow collaborators in the Dream of the Winter Solstice and the Thirteen Dayes of Yule.
“Gone Faerying at Ross Falls” (23 June 2019) – this poem is the third of four set at “Ross Falls” to have a faery theme. This is another dreamed vision-quest poem, ending with an invitation to sing along with the Faeryfolk: “twindle-too-le-ley-hey-nune.”
A Brief Bibliography of Sources
Here are a few of the sources that have informed my faery poetics over the years. They are less ‘fanciful’ than many books purporting to be about ‘fairies,’ being truer to the historical mythological contexts out of which the folklore of the Faeryfolk arose. I include here books dealing with the mythic peoples of the Celtic countries as well as with the Faeryfolk; the wider mythology being a helpful context in which to understand the Faery. Just be aware that the tales of the Faery have come down to us via a Christian culture, and as such there is a certain amount of religious superstition as well as demonizing of the Faery in the stories that has to be filtered out.
Evans‑Wentz, Walter Y. The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries
(Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1978)
Gantz, J. (ed. and trans.) Mabinogion
(Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1976; 1965)
Gregory, Lady Cúchulainn of Luirthemne: The Story of the Men of the Red Branch of Ulster
(Gerrard’s Cross: Colin Smythe, 1970)
Gregory, Lady Gods and Fighting Men: The Story of the Tuatha Dé Danann and the
Fiana of Ireland
(Gerrard’s Cross: Colin Smythe, 1976)
MacManus, Dairmaid Irish Earth Folk
(New York: Devon‑Adair, 1959)
MacManus, Dairmuid A. The Middle Kingdom: The Faery World of Ireland
Yeats, William Bulter Irish Faery and Folk Tales
(Dorset Press, 1987)
 J. R. R. Tolkien, in his essay “On Faery Stories” critiqued the notion that all fantasy is ‘escapist’ while also defending the need to have a means of ‘escape,'e.g., when we are enmired in dehumanizing situations and living in repressive conditions in the world. (see the essay in a number of volumes, including Tales from the Perilous Realm [Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008; p 335 – 374])
 By this analogy, a genre like the 19th and 20th century ‘social novel’ describes life in the Forest. It deals with the social constructs, cultural mores, values and everything else inscribed by our horizons in the Forest. The social novel tells stories about the ‘realistic’ adventures, conflicts and experiences to be had as well as the decisions to be made in the ordinary world that potentially lead the characters to some degree of self-realization. It explores our struggle to live – even survive – within the Forest. A ‘fantasy novel,’ by contrast, takes place in a ‘different lived world’ and can perhaps be understood as happening in ‘another [part of the] Forest’ that we do not see until the ‘jump’ makes it possible to envision. Both genres give us insight into our lives and the living out of our aspirations, dreams and hopes.
 See Dairmuid Mac Manus Irish Earth Folk (1959), pp. 144-145 and Tom Cowan Fire in the Head (1993; p 15) for allusions to this idea.
 This ‘diminution’ – making the Faery small, which reached its culmination in the late 19th and early 20th century; and which is reflected in modern ‘fairy stories’ (e.g., Peter Pan and Tinkerbell; note the difference in spelling) is the end result of the transition of one mythology to another; in this case, from Pagan to Christian mythology. The good spirits and supernatural helpers of an older mythology often become the downsized (literally!) tricksters and evil spirits in the new mythology. In the case of the Faeryfolk, it is a diminution caused by their mythology being superseded by that of Christianity.
 Stray Sod” – Tom Cowan said in Fire in the Head (1993) that “Sometimes a person stumbles into Faery by making a wrong turn on a well-known path or, as the Irish say, stepping upon a “stray sod.” (15)
 For a reference to “thin places” see Edward Sellner’s Wisdom of the Celtic Saints (1993, p 11)
 When I was a teenager – after reading Yeats and Lady Gregory – I imagined that the coffin holes in the sides of a railroad tunnel outside my hometown were ‘doorways’ into the Faery World! I would often go there to have imagined meetings with them.
 Samhain – often misunderstood, this is the “Night of the Dead” in the Celtic calendar; 31 October, when the Sídhe open up. Far from being a night filled with ‘black magic’ and ‘devil-worship’ (as it is often hijacked to represent in pop culture media) it was a night for remembering and communing with the dead; the Celts believing it possible to meet-up with the souls of people and animals you have known in this life who are now gone “over the sídhe and into the Otherworld.” It was a night for remembrance of the dead; those of your family and friends who had died in the previous year. A haunted night between the end of the old year (at dusk on 31 October) and the beginning of a New Year (at dawn on 1 November), it is a night for making restitution and paying debts, You could seek forgiveness with those with whom you had not been able to be reconciled in life; they could be given offerings of food and written confessions, taken up to the bonfires on the hills and burned. This is the historical touchstone of our debased, commercialized practice of “Trick or Treat.” It was a time for reconciliation with enemies, and then seeking the runes of a “new start” or perhaps some degree of personal transfiguration, as 1 November was “New Years’ Day” in the old traditions.
 See pp. 464 – 478 in Tales from the Seasons (Authorhouse, 2008). This experience – which is based on something that actually happened to friends of mine and I while out hiking years ago – is also alluded to in “The Calling of Ross Falls” (22 September 2018). Three of the four poems about Ross Falls (so far) are faery-themed.
 Tom Cowan, in Fire in the Head 1993, relates one of these stories; that of the Poet Thomas the Rhymer (p 73)
 See my blog “A Musing Life” (2 February 2018) at this site for reflections on my ‘life with the Muse;’ the quest to become a mature, creative person.
 On my own fascination with ruins, see my blog “Ruins and the Harvest: Autumn Themes” (23 September 2011).
 I would urge that the realms of the imagination are part of ‘what is.’