Hawthorne’s Haunted Chamber

When in his middle age Nathaniel Hawthorne had become recognized at last for his two full-length romances[1], The Scarlet Letter (1850) and The House of the Seven Gables (1851), he began to dream an old dream from many years before. In this dream he was still at college, or back at school, where he had been for what seemed a terribly long time while his contemporaries had all left and moved on. It was as if he were arrested in time. And in this dream, he would meet his fellow school-mates or college contemporaries in the street, and he would feel ashamed. At this point the dream would end.

He himself attributed the dream to a phase in his life when, after graduating from Bowdoin College at the age of 21, he returned to his birthplace at Salem, Massachusetts with a vague intention of writing something – stories perhaps – while working in the office of a stage-coach line owned by his maternal uncles, and maybe travelling one day to distant countries. But it seemed to him, as it must have seemed to others, that he had done none of these things, and that he had achieved nothing. The work in his uncles’ office was indefinitely deferred. He never did get to travel overseas until much later. And such writing as he did seemed to him deeply disappointing. He had a juvenile novel called Fanshawe published anonymously, at his own expense, and then recalled as many copies as he could get hold of and burned them. (He became as clear-headed a critic of his own work as anyone has been since.) He wrote sketches and tales, but could not get a publisher interested in putting out a collection of them. He burned the manuscript of another prospective book, and finally seems to have given up hope of publication in book form altogether, settling for piecemeal publication in magazines and Christmas annuals, neither of which paid very well. Moreover, the annuals printed contributions anonymously, so that he could not even acquire a reputation by which to get published more substantially.

He lived with his widowed mother and his two sisters on the third floor of the house owned by one of the uncles, for a period that turned out to be twelve years. His immediate family had been left without means when his father, a ship’s captain, like his father before him, and his father before him, had died of yellow fever in Surinam when he was four years old. Thereafter, the family had to turn to the support of his mother’s family, the Mannings, who were another ancient Massachusetts family like the Hawthornes, but rather more prosperous. It was his Manning uncles who had paid for his education, which consisted of very little of schooling, but did include a college education at Bowdoin, at the time a small new college up in the woods of Maine.

During those years in the Manning house in Salem he began to read, among the annals of the earliest years of settlement in New England, the deeds of his earliest Hawthorne ancestors, brave and stern Puritans as they were – even cruelly so, as it seemed to him.[2] This is as much as to say, the history of the American nation was also, in its earliest beginnings, his own family’s direct history – a family now in long decline, and reduced in his own generation to a condition of dependency. Most of the tales that he wrote are set in New England, either in the 18th century, in the years before the Revolutionary War, as for example “My Kinsman, Major Molineux”, or a hundred years earlier still, as for example “Young Goodman Brown,” which must be set in the period somewhere about the year 1690, just before the communal madness of the notorious Witch Trials. Others such as the ‘Endicott’ stories (“Endicott and the Red Cross;” “The Maypole of Merry Mount”) reach back further still, to the primeval forest of New England, when the first marks that the Puritans made on the North American continent were still raw scars.

Henry Longfellow, a classmate at Bowdoin, and already on the way to becoming the most loved poet in the nation, wrote him a letter in commendation of his first book to be published, Twice-Told Tales (1837). In it, he alluded to Hawthorne’s “lark’s nest” (as he called it) in Salem. “More like an owl’s nest,” Hawthorne wrote in reply; and like the owl, he seldom ventured abroad till after dark:

By some witchcraft or other— for I really cannot assign any reasonable why and wherefore— I have been carried apart from the main current of life, and find it impossible to get back again.  Since we last met— which, I remember, was in Sawtell’s room… —ever since that time, I have secluded myself from society; and yet I never meant any such thing, nor dreamed what sort of life I was going to lead. I have made a captive of myself and put me in a dungeon, and now I cannot find the key to let myself out— and if the door were open, I should be almost afraid to come out.

His sense of bemusement is moving. Yet the accounts that he gives of himself do not quite correspond to the observations of others – just as they overlook certain qualities in himself, perhaps because he takes them for granted. With Hawthorne, it is difficult to know where fact stops and imagination begins, as, in the tales, it is difficult to know where the natural daylight world ends and the twilight supernatural world begins, in stories such as “Young Goodman Brown”, “My Kinsman, Major Molineux”, and “The Wives of the Dead.” But his years in Salem were not quite so secluded as he says, neither within the Manning house, where he was in the company of his sisters and their visitors, nor outside of it, where he frequented the Salem bookstore that stocked the latest novels and enjoyed the company of his Salem friends of the Democratic Party. There would seem also to have been flirtations, and in one case a near-duel over a young woman. And in summer he would ride the stage coaches that his uncles owned, all over New England. Some of his friends later would speak of the silences in his company. These silences un-nerved Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was his neighbour – but then Emerson was already a noted orator. And even Emerson would say that there was no unease in Hawthorne’s silences.  Much later in life he was appointed to the post of American consul in Liverpool, the principle British port to the Americas. The post was a responsible one, and among other things required of him social as well as administrative skills. He never looked forward to the speeches and the social occasions required of him, and even had to prime himself in order to face them. But just as significant of the man was his complete sufficiency for whatever the position required. The appointment had been a political one, the gift of a college friend who had become President of the nation, but it was a notably successful one.

During the period of his long engagement to his future wife (a long engagement made necessary by their lack of the means), he wrote in a letter:

Here sits thy husband [to be] in his old accustomed chamber, where he     used to sit in years gone by, before his soul became acquainted with thine. Here     I have written many tales— many that have been burned to ashes— many that     doubtless deserved the same fate. This deserves to be called a haunted chamber;  for thousands upon thousands of visions have appeared to me in it; and some few     of them have become visible to the world. If ever I should have a biographer, he  ought to make great mention of this chamber in his memoirs, because so much of  my lonely youth was wasted here, and here my mind and character were formed;  and here I have been glad and hopeful, and here I have been despondent; and here

I sat a long, long time, waiting patiently for the world to know me, and sometimes          wondering why it did not know me sooner, or whether it would ever know me at     all— at least, till I were in my grave. And sometimes (for I had no wife then to keep    my heart warm) it seemed as if I were already in the grave… But oftener I was happy—at least as happy as I then knew how to be, or was aware of the possibility of  being.  By and by, the world found me out in my lonely chamber, and called me forth— not, indeed, with a loud roar of acclamation, but rather with a still, small  voice; and forth I went, but found nothing in the world that I thought preferable  to my old solitude, till at length a certain Dove was revealed to me….

The ‘Dove’ of course is Sophia herself. I note that the playfulness with which he refers to her and himself, here in this letter, but he does not back away either from the tenderness of feeling or the nobility of the love that she has opened up for them both. Hawthorne is a writer who meditates his subject; he turns it around and looks at it from different sides. Here, he is coolly aware of himself in that room as a slightly funny, slightly sad spectacle, waiting for the world to hear of him, but coolly aware of the danger of self-pity or self-justification also. In that room he did burn some of his stories, as we have seen. But others of them were tales such as “Young Goodman Brown” and “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” which, though published later, were written there during those twelve years of seclusion, and doing – so he says – nothing much but read, and sit, and then go walking, and they are tales beyond compare. The qualities of the letter to his wife, above, are qualities that he was able to bring to bear on the strange inner states of the characters in his stories: sympathetic, but ever watchful, even of himself. He says that this room in his uncle’s house was his ‘haunted chamber.’ Well yes, perhaps it would have seemed so when it was the place where in his imagination he had penetrated into so many haunted souls, Goodman Brown’s; Reuben Bourne’s, (“Roger Malvin’s Burial”) – even young Robin’s, in “My Kinsman Major Molineux,” or Margaret and Anne’s in “The Wives of the Dead.” (As for Wakefield’s ‘soul,’ in the story of that name, one does not quite know what to say; but whatever it is, he has penetrated it – a sort of condition of soullessness.) It is in Hawthorne’s measure of greatness to understand the paradoxes of the human soul, his own included; and to understand in his own soul that it is possible even a ‘haunted’ state might just be a form of happiness as well.

Hawthorne died in 1864, with the Civil War still continuing, sickened by the supporters of both sides, and by a war which perhaps contributed to a sense of the futility of the last romances that he had been trying to finish.

According to the note that Emerson made in his journal, the Rev. Clarke, who conducted the funeral service said in his address: “Hawthorne had done more justice than any other to the shades of life, shown a sympathy with the crime in our nature, and, like Jesus, was the friend of sinners.” His remarks are no doubt appropriate to the occasion. But they are also seriously worth pondering. What are we to make of the word “crime”, in the phrase “the crime in our nature”?

[1]  Hawthorne called his full-length stories romances, as distinct from novels.

[2]  An ancestor had been one of the hanging judges at the Salem Witch Trials.

If You Seek Their Monument….

Remembering the dead is one of the central attributes of what we call ‘Tradition’.  Indeed, as Chesterton tells us, tradition implies that sort of democracy in which the dead are given a vote.  Remembrance of the dead is a feature of nearly every human society but, historically, it has taken on special significance in the west where belief in the immortality of the individual soul gave it a distinct prominence. Commemoration of the saints, for instance, continues in some Christian traditions to this day, by way of feast days. But, for the great bulk of past humanity in the Christian West, the chief aid to remembrance has been the funerary monument or inscription.

‘In lapidary inscriptions’ said Dr Johnston, ‘no man is under oath’. This is a wise reflection, for few of us wish to speak ill of the dead. I have yet to come across a tombstone whose inscription reads ‘here lays the remains of an evil man’ or something similar.  One of the most famous lapidary inscriptions is that incised upon the tomb of Sir Christopher Wren in St. Paul’s Cathedral, London – Si monumentum requiris circumspice.  This translates as ‘If you seek his monument, look around you’. It is, of course, a very fitting inscription because Sir Christopher Wren designed the Cathedral. It is this idea of kindling a remembrance of some person(s) via general surroundings which I find particularly moving. And no more so than when the surroundings are natural, not human-made.

Landscape as monument

We naturally think of a monument as a work of human hands: a statue, an inscribed tombstone, a public facility such as a sports oval, etc., but perhaps the greatest monuments to those who have gone before us are not to be found in ‘storied urn or animated bust’, as Gray’s Elegy has it, but in nature itself. Here, I am not thinking of large geographic areas, but rather of smaller features of landscape. Naming countries, provinces, or the sites of cities or townships after deceased persons is no guarantee that their memory will be honoured.  Few Victorians wake up each day and think of Queen Victoria and few Sydneysiders pay their respects to Viscount Sydney.  But when we come down to much more specific natural features, the association with past humans is much more obvious and impresses itself upon us to a far greater degree.  Anzac Cove is an obvious example but, of course, it is a monument to many thousands of dead soldiers, not just one person or one family.

It is in these natural sites that the association between the person(s) and the landscape is most intensely felt.  Think, for instance of Dr Johnston’s famous remark upon Iona – the ‘Isle of Columba’: ‘That man is little to be envied … whose piety would not grow warmer among the ruins of Iona’.  Or, to take an even more impressive example, think of that rugged rock, rising sheer from the wild Atlantic off the Irish coast which is known as Skellig Michael – Michael’s Rock.  Here, the very inhospitality of the surroundings – the jagged rocks, the lashing seas, the furious winds and screaming seabirds – evoke the ideal of the Christian monastic lifestyle and lead us directly to the contemplation of the lives of the early monks and of what it means to believe that famous Gospel passage – ‘My Kingdom is not of this world’. A visit to Skellig Michael may not remind us specifically of St. Michael, but it will certainly remind us of those who dedicated the island to him and lived their austere lives in pursuit of an ideal.

But in all the examples I have given above, none has any guarantee of permanency. Just as the Soviets changed St Petersburg into Leningrad (now reversed, thankfully), some future human society, wholly antagonistic to Christianity, may call Skellig Michael something else altogether. And, as Shelley’s Ozymandias attests, even the greatest of human-made monuments finally decay and are forgotten.  Those that have managed to survive from remotest antiquity more often remind us of human folly rather than of human virtue.  Again, it is Dr. Johnston who strikes exactly the right note when he considers the Pyramids to be ‘a monument to the insufficiency of human enjoyment’.

I can think of only one ‘natural’ monument to the dead which is permanent (inasmuch as anything in this world can be) and it is a most unusual monument indeed.  And it will require some introduction.

If you travel the back country roads in almost any part of southern Australia you will invariably come across ruined or abandoned homesteads.  As the nature of agriculture and pastoralism has changed, along with the nature of the markets for primary produce, the amount of land needed to support a farm family has increased markedly. As a result, much amalgamation has occurred, one family now farming an area that may have once supported four or five such families. Concurrent with this has been an increasing trend for present-day farming families to reside in larger country towns, commuting out to the farm each day. This, in part, explains the presence of so many abandoned homesteads.

Those of the more recent past or those built of brick or stone may still be recognisable as dwellings but the site of many earlier homesteads, constructed predominantly from wood, can now only be discerned by a pile of chimney stones or a few scattered bricks.  Indeed, on some sites, even these have gradually been covered by soil or vegetation.  But, in nearly all cases, one legacy from the past always remains.  I am referring to certain hardy and perennial garden plants such as daffodils, jonquils, and lilies, still growing on old garden sites.

An everlasting monument

Each year, in spring, the site of thousands of otherwise unrecognisable homestead sites once again become visible to human eyes, marked out by clusters of flowers.  Indeed, on some sites the vegetative markers are always visible – the leafy extravagance of the agapanthus.  I know of some sites where this annual process of renewal has continued for at least 150 years. Old men have told me that their fathers knew these sites as ruins when they were boys.  The flower testimony, if we may call it that, has survived livestock grazing and the grazing of rabbits and kangaroos, droughts, fires, locust plagues and every conceivable adversity.

We think immediately, when we see such a sight, of some pioneering housewife, now utterly forgotten in the annals of history.  Those flower bulbs or tubers, transported by dray or wagon from distant parts, were a link – perhaps the only enduring link – with a wider civilisation.  They were a tangible reminder, in the midst of the lonely Australian bush, of what the term ‘culture’ meant to a non-Aboriginal Australian.  They evoked memories of loved ones, of childhood, or of distant lands.  They were a statement, too, of the fact that the beauty of nature could be further magnified by human hands.

For us, though, the sight of these flowers evokes other emotions. It is unfashionable now to praise the early pioneers because of some assumed connection between their coming and the demise of the Aborigines.  But, of course, most of these small farmers came after the squatting era and at a time when the Aborigines were already in decline.  And these early settler families, perhaps just as much as those Aboriginal families who had roamed the land before them, are now utterly forgotten, their lives, their labours, and their names unknown.  Perhaps some mouldering tombstone at the local cemetery may record their life and death, but the connection to a particular home site has now been lost.  All that we have, to remind us of the ‘unknown settler’ are those nodding daffodils in spring or the unexpected splash of green leaves as the agapanthus defies the drought-stricken landscape around it.  The sight may cause us to recall those sentiments expressed in Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village or in Gray’s Elegy.

These abandoned sites will not be recorded by the National Trust or any other heritage organisation. Those ageing locals who may have had some knowledge concerning earlier homestead sites are now disappearing one by one and their knowledge dies with them. A few sites may be recorded in local histories but many reach back beyond the available historical resources.

But amidst all these sad reflections on the brevity of human life, the flowers remind us of something far more uplifting.  There is an incurable optimism in the human condition and it is echoed in the annual extravagance of the daffodil and jonquil and lily. ‘Full many a flower’, the poet tells us ‘is born to waste its sweetness on the desert air’. But it is not wasted, even if no human eyes are there to experience it.  From the time of Plato and perhaps earlier our tradition has held that Beauty has an existence outside of the human mind.  The pioneering housewife, tending her little garden in the vastness of the Australian bush, may not have recognised this explicitly, but it is implicit in her actions.  That sentiment, however vague in her mind, finds its realisation each spring in a thousand lonely bush paddocks. Each year, the initial actions of that long dead housewife and mother, in planting and tending her flowers, is commemorated by the plants themselves. In the case of the agapanthus, it is especially fitting that its name derives from the Greek and the literal meaning is ‘love-flower’.

And when the last vestiges of that colossal statue of Ozymandias dissolve forever into the desert sands, those homestead flowers will still produce their seasonal testament.

The Rise and Fall of the Garden Hermit

Johann Baptist Theobald Schmitt: Eremit in Flotbeck.

I first came across the idea of the ornamental or garden hermit in one of Peter Simple’s columns in the Daily Telegraph. Peter Simple was the alias of Michael Wharton and his column, which ran for many decades, was a hugely popular satirical site with a list of characters notable both for their evocative names and their particular social and political pathologies. There was a literary critic called Julian Birdbath, a motoring enthusiast called J. Bonington Jagworth, an orchestra conductor called Sir Jim Gastropodi (who discovered several new Mahler symphonies including The Insufferable and The Interminable), and a psychoanalyst called Dr Heinz Kiosk. Amongst this marvellous cast of characters was one R.S. Viswaswami, a naked Indian hermit or sadhu employed by the Stretchford Council to inhabit its hermitage on an island in Stretchford Park Lake.

I had always assumed that the ornamental hermit was simply a product of Wharton’s immensely fertile imagination.  It is not so!  Recently, I was given a copy of Edith Sitwell’s English Eccentrics (Penguin Books, 1971) and there I found a marvellous essay entitled ‘Ancients and Ornamental Hermits’. Such hermits were, indeed, real, and Sitwell provides examples:

The Hon. Charles Hamilton, whose estate was at Pains’ Hall, near Cobham, Surrey, and who lived in the reign of King George II, was one of these admirers of singularity and silence and, having advertised for a hermit, he built a retreat for this ornamental but retiring person on a steep mound in his estate. …

According to Sitwell, the ‘position statement’ for the job was quite detailed and, to receive the promised remuneration of seven hundred pounds the successful applicant was required

… to continue in the hermitage seven years where he should be provided with a Bible, optical glasses, a mat for his feet, a hassock for his pillow, an hourglass for his timepiece, water for his beverage, and food from the house. He must wear a camlet robe, and never, under any circumstances, must he cut his hair, beard, or nails …

It seems that the successful applicant only lasted three weeks! I wonder why?

In more recent times, there has been an authoritative account of garden hermits by Gordon Campbell entitled The Hermit in the Garden: from Imperial Rome to the Garden Gnome (OUP, 2013). Like me, Campbell’s imagination was fired after he read Edith Sitwell’s account, and so he set out to examine the phenomenon in more detail. There is such a thing as an over-exhaustive account and I have to say that Campbell’s book falls into this category. Nonetheless, it makes fascinating reading and the author is to be commended for his incredible literary detective work. The problem that Campbell has is paucity of well- documented cases contrasted with an abundance of anecdotal evidence. This forces him to consider a huge volume of peripheral information and the reader finds it difficult to keep up with a huge cast of characters – much like a Russian novel!

What clearly emerges, though, is the fact that the ornamental hermit was very much a product of the 18th C or, more precisely, the Georgian era.  There were earlier hermitages, both in England and on the Continent, but they were occupied by genuine hermits or, in some cases, were merely places of retreat for their rich owners. Only in the 18C, it seems, did some of the more wealthy and eccentric landowners consider the idea of hiring ‘fake’ hermits.

Of course, real hermits in the Western Tradition, and not the ornamental type, date back to the late Roman Empire. Amongst the earliest and most famous were the Desert Fathers and I direct the interested reader to a very famous and sympathetic account by Helen Waddell (The Desert Fathers, ).  But, the age of the true hermit came to an end with the Reformation although in the Catholic tradition, hermit-like monks continue to this day (e.g. Carthusians).

Many of the 18th C hermitages described by Campbell were either devoid of ‘hermits’ or were furnished merely with props – dummies dressed as hermits.  In some cases, automata were employed, with the dummy having limited movement via mechanical contrivances. As Campbell points out, this was the age of automata and he gives the quaint example of Jacques de Vaucanson’s defecating duck of 1739 (which was driven by a clockwork mechanism).  But even those hermitages devoid of real or dummy hermits were usually furnished with objects serving as memento mori – reminders of human mortality.  There might be a human skull on a table or even a ruined tomb in the hermitage yard. Often, the particular fit-out of the hermitage was such as to give the impression that the resident hermit had just stepped out to stretch his legs – an open book on the table, eating utensils, etc.

Campbell supposes that the whole phenomenon of the hermitage in this phase of English history was associated with a curious longing or enjoyment of melancholia. It was most certainly not a genuinely religious sentiment which moved rich landholders to construct their hermitages. The enjoyment of the melancholic state is difficult for us to understand but it has something to do with an intense longing for something (we know not what), where the very longing itself is a sort of pleasurable experience. In his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis gives this description of such longing:

…it is that of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and from Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again. Apart from that, and considered only in its quality, it might almost equally well be called a particular kind of unhappiness or grief. But then it is a kind we want.

Perhaps the best example of attempts used to achieve such pensive sadness (and the one used by Campbell) is Milton’s poem, Il Penseroso.  Here are the last ten lines:

And may at last my weary age

Find out the peaceful hermitage,

The hairy gown and mossy cell,

Where I may sit and rightly spell

Of every star that Heav’n doth shew,

And every herb that sips the dew;

Till old experience do attain

To something like prophetic strain.

These pleasures, Melancholy, give,

And I with thee will choose to live.

But, of course, our estate owners wanted to induce such a feeling in a more tangible way and, along with their secluded hermitages, they often had miniature replicas of ruined temples, and moss-covered monuments.

The phenomenon of the ornamental hermit was relatively short lived.  Campbell suggests that growing abolitionist sentiment in England spilt over into other areas, and the idea of keeping someone (even if paid) for display purposes lost favour.  It was regarded as a sort of semi-slavery. Thereafter, the hermitages remained, but without their human occupants.  Eventually, the hermitage became little more than a garden feature – a species of the Folly, perhaps.

It is impossible to get a good understanding of the hermitage phenomenon without considering the whole landscape gardening scheme itself. This, after all, was the era of Capability Brown, of the Arcadian urge, and of an extraordinary interest in large-scale gardening. If you superimpose upon this, the philosophy of Rousseau, then you begin to get a glimmer of some sort of “back to nature” urge which prevailed in tandem with the quest for melancholia. Many of the hermitages were deliberately built in the rustic style and were called ‘root houses’.  They might consist wholly or partly of interwoven tree roots, bound together with wire and provided with doors and windows. Campbell suggests an allusion to an imagined ‘Adam’s House’ in Eden (after the Fall, one imagines the root house would have leaked badly, suffered from white rot, and attracted rats).

Today, we still see faint traces of the whole ‘garden hermit’ phenomenon in the garden gnome or similar figure. Why do people put concrete or pottery gnomes in their garden?  Perhaps it is an attempt to capture some sort of genius loci, the spirit of the place, and to invest the garden with some sort of quasi-spiritual dimension. The same might be said of concrete cherubs, angels and even impish figures. How often, too, do we see concrete or clay tablets bearing poems about being ‘close to God’ in a garden or similar?

But in the end, as it seems to me, the whole phenomenon of the garden hermitage and its attenuated modern alternatives, can be put down to a loss of the true spiritual dimension, not just in human nature, but in all nature. One can see, in the mad eccentricities of the Georgian landowners, a futile attempt to attain some sort of spiritual dimension in their lives.  As C.S. Lewis was to discover in his own life, the experience of melancholia that they sort, the longing for something, was a real quest with a real telos, or end.  But it was not the garden and the hermitage which they needed to tend and cultivate, but their own spiritual lives.  In the century after Georgian landholders had constructed their hermitages, Matthew Arnold correctly diagnosed their pathology:

The Sea of Faith

Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore

Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.

But now I only hear

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,

Retreating, to the breath

Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear

And naked shingles of the world.

(Dover Beach)

And Arnold himself, no less that his Georgian forebears, felt the anguish. He correctly diagnosed its cause but could not accept the one thing that was able to assuage the longing.

Metaphysics and the Realm Of Faerie


Text of the April 2018 Meeting Presentation

There is a certain paradox in modernity concerning the status of spiritual beings.  On the one hand, our scientific age tends to regard all talk of ‘spirits’ as mere hocus pocus or superstition. It is a sort of reversion to medievalism or primitive tribalism. And yet, modern stories, television series and films dealing with ‘spiritual” beings have never been more popular. Indeed, many of the fairy stories or related stories of fantastic beings which were once found in children’s books and comics are now hugely popular amongst adults. ‘Spiritualism’ and the occult is also flourishing.

This suggests some sort of innate ‘need’ for such a category of beings.  In this paper, I wish to explore this area in a little more detail.  I intend to omit from my discussions the special case of the term ‘spirit’ as it applies to the soul in religious belief and, especially, in Christianity.  My main concern will be with what are often termed ‘nature spirits, and I include in this term such entities as fairies, elves, dwarfs, and so on. I give to them the class name ‘faerie’.

In traditional metaphysics – that is, the science of being – it was commonly supposed or postulated that there was a class of being intermediate, as it were, between humans and angels.  That is one explanation of the realm of faerie which we need to look at in some detail. The other common explanation is that the faerie is simply that collection of nature spirits which, in some way act as the active agents in nature.

Let us begin with nature spirits as active agents in nature and go back to the very beginning – in other words, to Homer. It is clear that, in Homeric Greece, what we might call the efficient cause of some natural event was always considered to be a spiritual action, not a material one. The ancient Greeks did not suppose that tree spirits, for instance, were simply tiny anthropomorphic creatures like ‘Gumnut Babies’ who activated the leaves etc. It seems to me that they were much more like Platonic formal causes which were also efficient causes.  By way of example, let’s look at Homer’s taxonomy of waves.


If we take up the action in Iliad, Bk 18 we find that Hector has killed Patroclus and Achilles mourns.  His (Achilles) mother, Thetis, carries the news to all the water –nymphs (of whom she is regent). At this point, we get a remarkable and very beautiful account of all the sea nymphs or Nereids, each one named for a particular attribute. Here are the relevant passages in Chapman’s Homer – that translation which so moved John Keats:


… To her plaints the bright Nereides

Flocked all, how many those dark gulfs soever comprehend.

There Glauce, and Cymodoce, and Spio, did attend,

Nessea, and Cymothoe, and calm Amphithoe,

Thalia, Thoa, Panope, and swift Dynamene,

Actaea, and Limnoria, and Halia the fair,

Famed for the beauty of her eyes, Amathia for her hair, Isera,

Proto, Clymene, and curled Dexamene, –

Pherusa, Doris, and with these the smooth Amphinome,

Chaste Galatea so renowned, and Callianira, came,

With Doto and Orythia, to cheer the mournful dame.

Apseudes likewise visited, and Callianassa gave

Her kind attendance, and with her Agave graced the cave,

Nemertes, Msera, followed, Melita, Ianesse,

With Ianira, and the rest of those Nereides

That in the deep seas make abode; …


Thirty-three names are given, but Hesiod tells us that there are fifty. All are females of great beauty. In considering the names of these spirits of the sea, Hilaire Belloc suggests that they denote types of waves and he credits Homer with such an intimate knowledge of the sea that he can supply a full taxonomy of waves. Thus, for Belloc, Limnoria denotes “the wave that runs along the shore”, although other sources suggest the translation “of the salt marsh” and elect Actaea as the Nereid “of the sea shore”. Certainly, in Chapman’s translation, we get strong hints of the Nereids as waves – “calm Amphithoe … swift Dynamene … curled Dexamene … smooth Amphinome”.


But perhaps it is much more than a mere taxonomy of wave-types.  We need to see the names as representing the ‘informing’ spirits which give each type of wave its particular character. Without this background, such a taxonomy is impossible – waves are merely momentary aspects of moving water, nothing else. This notion of a wave’s ‘spirit’ is difficult for us to comprehend, because the modern ‘scientific’ mode of thought precludes any such descriptions.  The shapes and movements of waves are wholly explicable in terms of natural cause and effect and one cannot impose a particular form on any wave. You need to think of Homer as giving us a description not of the material and short-lived wave-form but rather the actual Platonic Idea of that wave-form. In other words, he sees all of nature sub specie aeternitatis – under the aspect of eternity.


“The wave that runs along the shore” is, perhaps, the most familiar to us. It has a particular character, running up the sand with a sort of hissing noise and pushing a fringe of foam before it.  Its advance and retreat is graceful. It is, in fact the last action of a dying wave, caressing the shore after a journey of who knows how far. John Keats saw it and gave this memorable description to a friend:


The rocks were silent—the wide sea did weave

An untumultuous fringe of silver foam

Along the flat brown sand. I was at home,

(Epistle to John Hamilton Reynolds, last stanza).


There are other reasons to take Belloc’s idea seriously.  The Nereids are by no means the only spirits of the sea. The ancient Greeks had a multitude of sea deities or semi-deities, but none of their names seem so well attuned to the shape of waves.  Take, for instance, Leukothea (white goddess), who saves Odysseus after his shipwreck.  Modern commentaries often suggest she is the spirit of a sea bird – a gannet or gull.  And yet Homer gives her the epithet ‘of the slim ankle’ – a most beautiful description, for we at once associate her with feminine beauty. A Platonic Form perhaps?


Elsewhere in early Greek literature, we get an account of tree spirits and, again, a sort of taxonomy.

Meliae             Oak Trees

Oreads                         Mountain Pines

Meliades                      Fruit Trees

Daphnoi                      Laurel

Balanis                        Ilex

Karyai                         Hazelnut

Moreau                        Mulberry

Hamadryads              Oak Trees (mortal- die with the tree)



Now , as an aside, when you first read the Odyssey in a good translation (I use E.V. Rieu), you have that sense of everything in nature being “brand new” – shining and resplendent and without any defects. It has those “new car” attributes of sight and smell and sound. I want to suggest that this is precisely for the reasons I have given above – Homer sees all nature sub specie aeternitatis.


And now, back to metaphysics. There were, I think, three reasons why early philosophers, both Neoplatonic and Christian, seriously considered the realm of faerie and all three can be sheeted home to Plato, especially in the Timaeus.


We recall that, in this Dialogue, the creator of the world does not do the actual creating but gives the job to the Demiurge – a sort of lesser God, one presumes. The reason is simple.  Plato and the Neo-Platonists who followed him held to a principle that C.S. Lewis has dubbed “the Principle of the Triad”. They reasoned that an all-powerful and perfect God would not be directly involved in the production of mutable nature – it was below his or her station!  Logically, there needed to be a third party.  We might be tempted to see the Christian notion of Angels in this fashion but, of course, the Christian God, as the second Person of the Blessed Trinity, was very much involved in this material world.  Leaving this aside, we can see a possible explanation for intermediate spirits in terms of ‘agents’ for some higher power.


The second possible explanation also comes from Plato. Again, in the Timaeus – one of the few Platonic texts available to the 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 Neo-Platonists who followed him, what this meant was that the ideal Absolute, in order to be ideal, must express all possibilities of being in order to be 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 toward the lower. Importantly though, there can be no gaps – that is, no vacancy 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 (the Medieval name for fairies, elves, etc.) might be angels who, at the time of the rebellion were neither on Lucifer’s side or 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’.


Closely related to the Great Chain of Being is the “Principle of Plenitude” – a name coined by Arthur Lovejoy in his classic work The Great Chain of Being.  Since the creator God is omnipotent, every possible form of existence must be present, as I pointed out in the last paragraph.  To suggest otherwise is to suggest the possibility of some deficiency in power. In other words, all possible niches (I borrow a word from ecologists) must be populated. St Thomas Aquinas famously wrote that “a world comprised of one angel and a stone is more complete than a world containing two angels”.  Does this sound familiar? Indeed, it is a very popular notion in modern ecological thinking.

And so, if you think that the old notions of ‘The Great Chain of Being’ and of “plenitude’ are 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, eighty species better or more complete than one with twenty? “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. 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.

There remains now the difficult business of commenting upon the relationship between the world of faerie and the world of humans.  In today’s children’s books, fairies are tiny, gossamer-winged females with wands who go about the world distributing goodness. It was not so in the past. True enough, when we read Homer, most of his nature spirits seem friendly enough (or quite uninterested in humans).  The exception might be the Erinyes or Furies (the Harpies of Virgil), but they are not really nature spirits in my interpretation of that term.  By the time we get to the Middle Ages though, the faerie folk are much more dangerous.


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. The description of the approach to Elf-land is very reminiscent of Homer’s description of the approach to the underworld. Thomas the Rhymer was almost certainly the inspiration for a famous poem by Keats – La Belle Dame sans Merci.


Perhaps this dangerous aspect of the faerie that we find in old literature and poetry has some link to the Old Testament because there, the spirits of nature in the desert wilderness are decidedly nasty. Spirit creatures like Azazel, Lilith, Seirim and Tanin are truly frightening. The daemons of the Greeks have become demons.  Some scholars suggest that the Old Testament desert spirits are a sort of remnant of Zoroastrian dualism which the Jews would have encountered during the Babylonian captivity. The really horrific demons are nearly always depicted as being either partly formless or combing two forms in some unnatural way. This is the ultimate in devilish anti-Platonism.  Have a look at the famous painting by Bruegel the Elder entitled The  Fall of the Rebel Angels. This captures the idea perfectly.

But there us another possible reason for the idea of the dangerous fairy.  When you read Thomas the Rhymer, it is clear that what the realm of faerie offers is a ‘third way’, between good and evil (not in the Nietzchean sense). In this poem, Thomas is shown three paths – the narrow path to heaven, the broad path to hell and the path to elf-land. The catch is that you surrender your free will if you chose the middle way.  That is why the faerie world is dangerous.

But, for all that, it has to be said that the realm of faerie is full of contradictions and paradoxes.  This is nowhere better illustrated than in the traditional view of fairies that one could still find in Ireland, Scotland and Wales until relatively recent times. There were good and bad fairies but, even with the good fairies, one never quite trusted them.  Perhaps that is why they departed from us!  I leave you with Richard Corbett’s famous poem on that departure:



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!