Fairy Lovers

Sep 09, 2020

Fairies in the British folklore tradition are spirits of nature: they are as ancient as wind and rain, manifestations of the living spirit in all organic matter. They are spirits of place, inhabiting certain trees, hillocks, rock formations, rivers, lakes; and they are embodiments of the numinous quality of nature that we feel but can never adequately describe -- except through the metaphor of myth, which tells the truth but tells it slantwise…

These words, from Terri Windling, capture the magic and mystery of fairies, and their connection to ourselves and the world. Their slantwise nature, however, means we need to have our wits about us in order to make sense of what they give us. This really hits the nerve of the Wrackline concept - the relationships between the physical and spiritual, the understood and the unknown.


Relationships between humans and fairies are complex. Many tales are about humans or fairies willingly crossing into the other’s world such as ‘The Fairy King’s Courtship’, sung by Malinky, or humans being seduced or abducted into the fairy realm. Such transitions are often subject to strict rules which seem to favour the fairies – that the human should not eat or drink in the fairy world or they’ll never be able to return to their own , or that lovers should not meet in public, or at certain times. Many tales include one of the lovers breaking the rules and their efforts to work round the consequences. The classic Steeleye Span version of ‘Thomas the Rhymer’ covers the deal made between the fairy queen and Thomas, describing the mixture of gift and consequence he receives as a result of their encounter. ‘Tam Lin’, sung here by Fairport Convention, is perhaps the most well-known. With the help of his human lover, Tam Lin thwarts the Fairy Queen’s plan to make him the tithe that fairies are required to offer to hell every seven years.

We can speculate on what prompted the characterisation in fairy stories – moralising on the consequences of seeking gratification in a world where one doesn’t naturally belong; the dangers of being seduced by strange and beautiful people; the need to explain the unusual - or we could even consider they represent genuine supernatural experiences. Exploring what it is that still resonates with people today was the basis of the Modern Fairies project which has underpinned and influenced Wrackline hugely. On that project, we looked at the value of losing oneself in another realm - in art perhaps, to see another side.


At the very start of the Modern Fairies project, I felt there weren’t enough fairy ballads and I wanted to add to the pot. After reading various story outlines supplied by Carolyne Larrington I settled on the tale of Sir Launfal. A surface reading showed it has all the necessary ingredients - love, seduction, power, wealth, feasting and so I set to work adapting the 16th century 6014 word-long Middle English Breton lay written by Thomas Chestre into a Tam Lin/Thomas the Rhymer comrade.This was easier said than done, but I found the process fascinating, and as it was part of a research project, reflected on the stages more thoroughly than I ordinarily would..

Firstly I tried to read the original. That was frustrating, even with a helpful glossary supplied here.So, I copied it into an excel spreadsheet and set about translation. I spent a few hours just looking for patterns and swapping them out with find and replace. For example, all the y’s turned to i’s and some whole words that appear often - like ‘seyde’ to ‘said’. After a while, I found I was getting into the way the sounds were formed and I could read the text fairly clearly.


By this time, I had gathered the gist of what was going on but didn’t really have a grasp of the whole story so I went through and summarised what was happening in each of the 87 verses in my own words.


I like a long ballad, but 87 verses is too long, even for me. So next came the task of squashing the plot nto a more manageable size. I began grouping verses with an overarching action and I entirely cut one section about his exquisite fighting skill which seemed a little irrelevant - this got it down to 19 elements. Now each new ‘verse’ was made up of several verses from the original, all consisting of 12 lines. I went through each block and drew on the original words to pull a material together that covered the core of what I wanted to get across. This included direct action, but also capturing some of the poetry of the original to ensure the words themselves weren’t lost in this distillation process. Some of the groupings were too complex, so by the end of all this I was back up to 31 verses…


I spent much time with these words, condensing and refining, but felt I was getting a bit stuck in an ever-shrinking view. To understand what kind of structure I should aim for I looked back to the traditional versions of ‘Tam Lin’, ‘Thomas the Rhymer’ and two similarly epic songs I had previously worked up,‘Sir Orfeo’ and ‘Kemp Owen’. A quick analysis, including word counts, characters, settings, synopsis etc… clearly showed that there was too much going on, and merely trying to condense all the different characters and side events in the ballad wasn’t going to make a successful song. I began cutting whole swathes of the story to keep a central narrative for the ballad.

At this point, I realised I had been so caught up in tweaking that I needed to step back and establish what I wanted to say. This moves deeper than understanding the plot, to the emotional response it engenders. I put everything I’d done to one side and summarised the story from memory. Against each major action, I put my emotional response, looking into the characters, what they were doing and why. This was the moment I clicked with the song, when I saw what it was worth. For me, the story is about generosity, loyalty, honour and honesty - the most important element being the nature of justice - Launfal is tried by both the court and the fairy realm and vindicated for his actions by both. His honesty, even when breaking a fairy rule, was for a gallant reason, rather than personal reward, and so judged accordingly. I returned to the verse editing with a clearer purpose as to why I was cutting or shaping individual lines as I had a focus for the overarching messages I wanted to draw out.

Once I had a full draft in verse form I sent it to Carolyne Larrington and Sarah Hesketh who both provided useful comments and poetic tweaking. It was at this point that I realised I had neglected to consider a tune.I had been writing to generic structure, heavily influenced by the original metre. While traditional songs tend to stick to one repeated melody, I decided to use a technique stolen from Jon Boden, to use instrumental tunes with A and B parts to break up the flow. I thought back to the original form with its 12 line verses, and wanted to try something a bit less 4 square than might be predictable. That’s when the idea of using the Black Joak hit me - Joaks are unusual because they have different numbers of bars in the A and B parts, giving a nice flow and change of pace. I also just really love the tune. Of course, all the work Carolyne, Sarah and I had put into the 4 line stanzas was severely affected, but it gave a fresh frame to jiggle the words around again. These big changes really helped the words to settle and become something new rather than a lesser version of what they had been. The important elements kept rising to the surface and the parts that are not needed got sliced away. What I deemed ‘important’ might be a part of the plot, but they might as well be a poetic phrase, where a word falls on the tune, or an idea carried from the original. The A and B sections create larger chapters within the song that shift with the changing scenes. The words took some time to settle into place but over the course of a few months I have got it to a shape that I am happy to share. I do hope that the song keeps moving though, and that others might take it up and shape it to their own tongue - keeping the important parts and rounding off the awkward corners. I know it will keep changing as I continue to sing it.


'Brother and Sister' by Terri Windling

‘Night Journey’ is built from a poem by the wonderful Terri Windling. I worked alongside Terri on the Modern Fairies project and though we talked a lot and shared many ideas, we didn’t directly collaborate on any particular words or pieces of music. Knowing how much Terri loves music, and wanting to give her something back for all the lessons she taught me through our time together, I went back to her work after the project was over and worked with her words. Here is what Terri has to say about her poem, which you can read in full here:

'Night Journey' is a call to step out of ordinary human life and into the magic of the wild world. I wrote the poem on Dartmoor, where I live, and so the journey moves from a small wooded 'coombe' (meaning 'a narrow valley' in the old Devon dialect) up to the tors of the open moor, where a mysterious figure waits: an ancient guardian of the land. The call comes at night, during the witching hour, when even familiar landmarks, clothed in darkness, can seem uncanny. Night, said the photographer Brassaï, "disturbs and surprises us with its strangeness. It liberates forces within us which are dominated by our reason during the daytime." Following the call into the night means stepping out into the unknown, embracing uncertainty, and opening one's heart to wonder and change.
On the surface level, the story here is of a journey into the Faerie realm. On a metaphorical level, it also represents those times in life when we let go of plans, lists, schedules, and all the other ways we try to control our lives and follow our deepest instincts into new ways of living, working, or loving. For me, the poem also relates to the creative process. As a writer, I make pages of notes and plans as I begin a new story or novel, but then there always comes a point when I must set all that aside and simply let the tale lead where it wants to go. Following a new and unknown path is never easy or comfortable, but I've learned over the years to trust the story...which, I suppose, means trusting myself.

In a similar vein, I undertook setting this song as a bit of a task. The goal to please Terri, the ‘to do list’ fitting the words to a tune. Once I started on the path of making the music though, the magic in the words caught me and the joy of following that path into the weird and wonderful unknown became manifest. This, and Sarah Hesketh’s ‘When She Comes’, are my first attempts to set contemporary poetry to music. The words feel different to traditional texts, but by spending time with them, getting to know them, and finding my place I have found a way to embrace modern writing and hear my voice resonating within it.

I am a very practical person, but also, I like to think, a creative one. The processes I went through to make these two songs tap into both sides. There is work to do in maing music, but it is not all nuts and bolts. Engaging with mystical ideas and unknown spaces through the production of art shaped me and helped me make some sense of myself. I hope they, and the rest of the album, has an impact upon you too. You can here snippets of all the songs below - and hear them in full at a streamed gig on album launch day - 11th September at 8pm UK time, and for a short while afterwards on my Facebook and Youtube pages

Order Wrackline here

Thanks to John Nicholson for his immense practical and emotional support in putting these together, writing blogs is time consuming and hard work!

Header image @St.Borg