Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Those Who Purport to Believe in Fairies

ECCENTRICITY, n. A method of distinction so cheap that fools employ it to accentuate their incapacity.

Curse you Ambrose Bierce! Before I read the Devil's Dictionary I used to be a big fan of eccentricity, of the 'Old English Eccentric' school in particular. I used to regale anyone who would listen with anecdotes about Vivian Stanshall and secretly want to be him (despite the fact that the man felt himself so isolated, lonely and valium-addled that he very probably burnt himself to death) and like many fans of The Fall I wasn't sure if I was interested because of the music or because of the latest irascible capers of Mark E Smith, who I also wanted to be (premature toothlessness, temper tantrums and Multiple Sclerosis aside).

I suppose that's what makes someone a hero - someone who you wouldn't mind, just for a while at least, being in order to know first hand what is was to have achieved what they achieved.

It's not fashionable to admit to having heroes, it's seen as a bit of a denial of self, I suppose, and as you grow older people's personas tend to become a little more see-through and obviously PR-orientated - but we all still have heroes, don't we?

I've got plenty of heroes me, most of them musical: Nick Cave, Julian Cope, Yan and Noble from British Sea Power, Kate Bush, Liz Frazer and Robin Guthrie, and more. Literary ones like Alasdair Grey, BS Johnson and Kurt Vonnegut. Arty ones. Personal ones. I've a few heroes amongst folklorists too, Katherine Briggs of course, Caryl Churchill, Alan Lee and Brian Froud among them.

Brian Froud's website is here and is well worth a look at. I have found his art, designs and writing very inspiring for a long time. I enjoyed films that he has been a part of, such as Labyrinth and the Dark Crystal, and I think his book with Alan Lee, Faeries, is a brilliant visual companion to Katherine Briggs' Dictionary and a perfect primer-level book on British folklore in it's own right.

But I do get a sinking feeling when reading the following on his website's FAQ:


Where do Brian and Wendy get their ideas?

Both Brian and Wendy are inspired by the land they live in and by their experiences and interactions with faerie. Brian is deeply read in world mythology and folklore especially that of the British Isles. He enjoys reading primarily non-fiction: psychology, anthropology, sociology, metaphysics and literary criticism.

Does Brian actually believe in and see faeries?

Yes he does; his pictures are his experience of the world of faerie. But more important, he believes that you can too.

How can I see faeries?

Brian talks about how to connect with faerie in GOOD FAERIES/BAD FAERIES. He also has created a way to help you connect with specific faerie energies in THE FAERIES' ORACLE, a book and oracle card set designed by Brian and written by Jessica Macbeth.

I just find this a terrific disappointment, and I'm very suspicious of such claims for a variety of reasons.

1) I think it might be a bit of a con ("Talk with Fairies like Brian can - using his book and oracle card set - only £16.50 on Amazon").

2) It seems to fit Ambrose's definition of distinction cheaply bought, not only is Alan a brilliant designer and artist, not only is he a smashing interpreter of the creatures that feature in these tales, but he sees them and interacts with them as well!

3) I think it cheapens the man's genuine talents and achievements to make such boasts, and I also think it cheapens the stories too - the general idea from certain quarters seems to be that to appreciate them to the full you have to actually believe them. Being an atheist in matters of belief in the supernatural I strongly defy those who suggest that they must somehow automatically appreciate the stories more because of 'belief'.

If Oliver Twist and The Lord of the Rings and Gormenghast can be appreciated to the full whilst acknowledging that they are works of imagination and that the characters and events in them are not real, why can't the same be said of any work of religion and folklore? I've no way of proving it, but I suspect that I have my emotions stirred by The Skriker, or Yallery Brown or any other quality work of folklore as much as someone who purports to believe in fairies. I think I can appreciate the story of Exodus as much as anyone who believes in God. I can appreciate what Joan of Arc did without telling everyone I was her in a past life.

It's as if credit to an active and powerful imagination is somehow mundane or boring. What's impressive to me about Brian's art is all the research, the expression, the costuming, the anatomical quirks, the whole interpretive process that went into his work.

Isn't that more than impressive enough?

Wouldn't an honest appraisal of what processes he went through be more interesting than the hokum of "his pictures are his experience of the world of faerie"?

I don't pretend to be a folklorist of Brian's calibre, and I repeat that I respect the man's art as possessing a great deal of the mood and substance that I get myself from reading about Jenny Greenteeth, or Merrows, or Phooka, or many of the other creatures of folklore. Beyond that though I think that it is a body of work of fantasy and imagination, and I find the claims of genuine experience to have the whiff of snake oil and/or self delusion about them. I can't understand why crediting his own impressive imagination, obvious enthusiasm for the subject and technical discipline isn't more than enough for him.

I suppose I'm still in love with eccentricity, but this particular claim to distinction seems a cheap step too far.

3 comments:

KateW said...

Your comments about belief and fairies raises important questions about the connection between the marketplace and the imagination. I am not a huge Froud fan -- they seem a bit too "done" to me. They have a sort of manufactured, make people think more about how they were done than what they are, kind of quality.
But what do I know? All art is manufactured.
Anyway, your blog is funny and smart. I am adding it to my list of blog links.

Rima said...

Hello... just stumbled here and am glad.
So pleased to find an interesting nest of folkeloreish things.. and also to find someone who shares my views on Brian Froud's work. I also really respect his talent, particularly his earlier works (such as the fabulous Master Snickup's Cloak) .. but find the whole faerie world business too sickeningly tacky and, yes, it is a shame. His newer work is also well drawn but I agree with Kate that it is a bit too shiny.
People sometimes compare my illustrations to his, which is odd because they are not at all alike... I guess just because my world is a folkloric one too..
Anyway, enough waffle, I will add you to my links as well :)
All the best from Scotland
Rima

Dave Allen said...

Blimey - if I knew I actually had readers I'd update more often.

I'll have to go and see if I can find any example's of Rima's art now...