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?

 

Why Old Magic was Innocent, According to C.S. Lewis

As I’ve mentioned, That Hideous Strength dealt with a number of things, and there is one of them I’d like to explore more in depth, as it is a topic that interests me a lot and is relevant to the general enjoyment of literature and other of my favorite works such as Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and Arthurian tales such as The Once and Future King by T.H. White and the more recent Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley, which I hope to begin soon.

Through the character of Arthur Dimble, a professor of ancient languages and mythology, C.S. Lewis speculates on the role and place of magic in ancient times as contrasted with its place today. Here is an abbreviated version of the discussion on the subject between Dimble and his wife:

“Everything is getting more itself and more different from everything else all the time….[For a man like Merlin] there were still possibilities for a man of that age which there aren’t for a man of ours. The Earth itself was more like an animal in those days. And mental processes were much more like physical actions. And there were–well, Neutrals [spirits] knocking about…A conscious being is either obeying God or disobeying Him. But there might be things neutral in relation us [humans]….There used to be things on this Earth pursuing their own business, so to speak.”

“I think there was room for them then, but the universe has come more to a point.”

“In Merlin’s time…though you could still use that sort of life in the universe innocently, you couldn’t do it safely. The things weren’t bad in themselves, but they were already bad for us….Like polygamy. It wasn’t wrong for Abraham, but one can’t help feeling that even he lost something by it.”

“Merlin…is the last vestige of an old order in which matter and spirit were, from our modern point of view, confused. For him every operation on Nature is a kind of personal contact, like coaxing a child or stroking one’s horse. After him came the modern man to whom Nature is something dead–a machine to be worked, and taken to bits if it won’t work the way he pleases.”

(from That Hideous Strength, p. 284-285)

Lewis, who like Dimble, was an expert in languages and in English literature especially would have encountered this issue theologically and in explaining the value of the myths from various cultures that engrossed him so much.

His answer regarding the status of pre-Christian or early post-Christian magic is that the world was a bit different back then, when distinctions about power and agency were perhaps less clear. It was a time, he says, when angels or other spirits may not have had a position towards humans and when the spiritual, even animal, realities of nature could be tapped into innocently, though he adds not safely. Continue reading

5 Books that Led to My Conversion

Uc2JTTW9vaMCNine years ago, while I was an undergraduate, I converted to Catholicism. Most people know that about me, and a lot of people think it’s strange, and that’s okay. 

I read a lot then and I read a lot now; here are five books that helped me on my way (in addition to the numerous actual people I observed and whose example and conversation affected me):

  1. The Confessions of St. Augustine
    1. Granted, this great saint and theologian was trained in rhetoric in the classical Roman educational style, but his language draws the reader right in. He is so forthright in telling his own wrong-doings, the thought-process of his conversion and in describing the nature of God and how he discovered it.
    2. It’s near-impossible not to be captivated by Augustine’s style and emotion as unfolds the story. There is a lot I identified with and a lot that I learned that Augustine puts into words rather well.
    3. “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you, O Lord.”
  2. After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre
    1. A tour-de-force modern classic of philosophy that goes through the history of the Enlightenment moral philosophers to explain why moral/ethical discourse today has gone astray and why we often have difficulty just talking to one another about it.
    2. He criticizes the Enlightenment, destroys relativism as a fall-back and proposes a modern Aristotelianism.
    3. When I was pondering the casual relativism so rampant on college campuses, no other book dealt with the philosophical difficulties therein so well or so broadly. In many ways, this book was for me intellectual permission to set a stance, to reject the proposition that there is no truth, but while maintaining respect for others.
    4. Interestingly, MacIntyre was not Catholic when he wrote this, but he did later convert.
  3. The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown

Continue reading

Yes, Deep, hidden meaning in books and movies is really there

image

From Prospero's books

I was snot-faced in high school. I loved to sneer at novels in english class and say, “if the meaning is so deep and hidden, maybe it’s not really there. Maybe it’s just a story.”

Well, if myself today could teach a lesson to myself back then, it would be that “yes, it’s really there, and probably more than you think.”

Having written myself a good bit, I know that no one bothers to concoct a whole story and characters and plot points for no reason at all. Whatever conflicts and relationships the author finds compelling and powerful will be the  plot and choices available to the characters. Writing a novel, play or movie is hard work, and no one undertakes it just for the heck of it.

Every choice of clothing, setting, tone, obstacle is selected to have a certain mood in order to create meaning and connection in the reader’s imagination. An author tells a story because he or she deeply believes that it is worth telling. And the things that we think are worth telling others are the most significant facets of reality. Continue reading