W.B. Yeats: Are fairies real? Myths and The Myth

What are fairies? Are they real?

I’m skimming Yeat’s anthology, “Fairy & Folk Tales of Ireland,” and one for thing, the “wee folk,” “the good people,” or the fairies are actually rather menacing. They are not the beautiful, delicate women with large butterfly wings who sit cross-legged on flower petals. The Irish fairies belong to a different world; Yeats quotes the “peasantry.” They are “fallen angels who were not good enough to be saved, nor bad enough to be lost.”

Fairies leave odd signs like mushroom rings and those careless or luckless enough to wander into their territory are often stolen away for years or sometimes never returned. The fairies must be appeased or they turn children into changelings or drive people mad. But in other stories, they punish wrong-doers and teach lessons to the vain.

What I find particularly interesting is in Yeat’s introduction. Yeats does not directly treat the question of the veracity of these stories.

Instead, he explains that he punts on the question: “The reader will perhaps wonder that in all my notes I have not rationalised a singled hobgoblin. I seek for shelter in the words of Socrates.” [from the Phaedrus, which he quotes at length]

The question is the exact site of an mythical occurrence of Artemis, Socrates:

“The wise are doubtful, and I should not be singular if, like them, I also doubted. I might have a rational explanation that Orithyia was playing with Pharmacia, when a northern gust carried her over the neighboring rocks; and this being the manner of her death, she was said to have been carried away from Boreas….And if he is skeptical about them, and would fain reduce them one after another to the rules of probability, this sort of crude philosophy will take up all his time. Now I have certainly not the time for such inquiries. Shall I tell you why? I must first know about myself…to be curious about that which is not my business, while I am still in ignorance about my own self, would be ridiculous….Therefore, I say farewell to all this; the common opinion is enough for me. For as I was saying, I want to know not about this, but about myself.”

And Yeats says no more on the matter. Which to me is a version of the perspective that true or not, these are myths or stories meant to tell a lesson, meant to show us part of ourselves, part of truth.

Yeats is so willing to learn, tell and enjoy the tales of Irish countryside without much concern for specific verification–a perspective that I honestly find refreshing. As Socrates points out, that’s not what it’s about.

Myths are cultural stories that give shape to how we understand ourselves and our history; they are the geography of the cultural landscape–imparting values, presenting warnings and outlining a structure of what to expect from life and from other people. As Socrates said, he is interested in discovering the truth about himself and the myths help him do that.

 

Two prominent Christian writers in the twentieth century thought very highly of the importance of myth:  J.R.R. Tolkien said to C.S. Lewis, Christianity is not a myth, but “the” myth. He said the Christian faith is an enunciation of the highest truth from which all stories derive their of insight. I think Lewis and Tolkien would agree that the faith is a way of life with meaning.

While materialists may balk at any/every myth, I find this misguided. There needn’t be a massive conflict between acknowledging the atoms and rocks of the world and the meanings for us infused in them.

Returning to fairies, I agree with Yeats and Socrates that is more helpful to leave the status of the myth’s veracity open, at least for the fairies, because true or untrue, they yield insight into human life and nature. And to understand our own little place in the world and our role within it is both demanding and necessary in order to see how to live our own lives well, how best to direct our choices. To use Aristotle’s terms, myths are necessary for our flourishing, to help direct us towards our end-goal or telos.

What are your favorites myths or stories? Which did you grow up with? What values did they emphasize? Did stories affect your development?

 

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Stub: W.B. Yeats on Old Stories

“These folk tales are full of simplicity and musical occurrences for they are literature of a class for whom every incident in the old rut of birth, love, pain and death has cropped up unchanged for centuries, who steep everything in the heart; to whom everything is a symbol….They have few events. They can turn over the incidents of a long life as they sit by the fire. With us, nothing has time to gather meaning.”

-Introduction to “Fairy & Folk Tales of Ireland,” edited by W.B. Yeats

More on this coming…maybe sometime soon. For now. I enjoy the quotation, especially “the old rut of birth, love, pain and death.” It reminds me that things are not new; they are just new to me.

And I appreciate the value of turning incidents over slowly. Time has a value all its own.