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?

 

Wordy Wednesday: The Lake Isle of Innisfree by W.B. Yeats

lake-isle-innisfree-irelandI used to hate poems and most “literature,” even though I loved reading and stories. But by the time I was finishing my undergraduate program, I had finally come to the realization that perhaps, maybe, poetry might be more than gibberish arrangements of the English lexicon.

Since art, faith and culture gracefully co-mingle in practice and in the quest for beauty, truth and goodness, perhaps some poems might be apt for this blog, particularly for their enjoyment.

Without further ado, one of my current favorites, The Lake Isle of Innisfree by William Butler Yeats:

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
Yeats (d. 1939) was Irish and Innisfree is an unihabitated island there that he spent summers on during his childhood. Yeats said he had inspiration once upon being reminded of that place to go there and live as Thoreau did in Walden in the U.S. (He didn’t actually do it though).
I like this poem because I have similar fantasies of living alone in nature like a monastic hermit. And I like the line “peace comes dropping slow,” because it reminds me of the honey which is mentioned in the first stanza.
Well, that’s all. Not an especially “deep, hidden meaning” here,  though I can be game for those too.
What do you think? Can poetry be fun? Is it always mind-mindbogglingly deep? Or perhaps always a load of blarney?

“Thin Places” and the Rest and Understanding in Heaven, from the First Things Blog

This is a version of my cover shot, taken on our honeymoon on our visit to Skellig Michael in Ireland. I loved the imagery of the stairway on the fierce landscape leading up, as if straight to heaven.

This is a version of my cover shot, taken on our honeymoon on our visit to Skellig Michael in Ireland. I loved the imagery of the stairway on the fierce landscape leading up, as if straight to heaven.

I loved this post from Timothy George on the First Things blog, not only because it described Skillig Michael, the Irish island in the cover photo of my blog, so well, a place my husband and I visited on our honeymoon, but because it also included this poem an description of the saints:

      We know not half they sing
Or half they do,
But this we know
They rest and understand.

In this life we have little time for rest. Many, many times we do not understand. But in that place God is preparing for all those who know and love him, there will be rest and there will be understanding.

That is a message that I needed to hear. Far from a land of white clouds and unoffensive harp music, there will be true rest and a fullness of understanding.

And here about Skellig Michael

Five hundred years after the birth of Christ, Celtic monks came to live and worship on this island. Buffeted by howling winds and rough seas, enveloped in fog and rain and mist, they huddled together in the little beehive huts they had constructed out of stone. (These sanctuaries of solitude are weathered but still intact today.) They prayed. They copied the Scriptures and lifted their voices in praise to God, morning, noon, and night. Earlier, St. Antony had retreated to the African desert to preserve a Christianity that was being contaminated by secularized Roman society. Irish monks of the sixth century did not have a desert to flee to, but they did have an ocean. Skellig Michael was the most obscure and distant island of the known world. Shrouded in darkness, it became a lighthouse to the world. From places like Skellig Michael, the Gospel was carried forth by Celtic monks and missionaries

Whole piece here.

Have you ever visited a “thin place” as George refers to it, a place where the truth of heaven seemed to come down and seem almost tangible?