Away with the Fairies...
When you hear a person described as ‘Away with the fairies’, you imagine someone a bit useless. Someone chronically distracted, with a short attention span and no common sense. Someone – if we’re not being polite – a bit batty. It’s a description that’s been attached to me all my life: my mother’s standard explanation for inexplicable behaviour.
‘Never mind Zoë! She’s just away with the fairies again.’
From the time I could toddle, I could get lost anywhere — halfway down the perilous steps of Warwick Tower, halfway through walking the dog, in the middle of a dentist’s appointment, in the middle of the Natural History museum. Even trips to the supermarket were an adventure; I inevitably came adrift from the caravan of parents and siblings somewhere between the cheese counter and the bread aisle and ended up summoned to the customer service desk by a tannoy announcement, where I would have to try to explain myself to my harrassed, annoyed father and the judgemental supermarket staff, who had been forced to perform the same tannoy service on a nearly weekly basis since I was a toddler. My parents started rotating to different shops each week to avoid the repeat embarrassment.
Getting lost was the least of it, though. I misplaced gloves, coats, my lunch, my glasses and my homework at such a rate that it was less a family joke, more a curse. I walked into telegraph poles, tripped over curbs, and fell down holes, hillsides and stairs with depressing regularity. When left with instructions to remove the corned beef stew intended to feed my hard-working family from the oven at precisely four, it was a sure bet that said family would return to find billows of smoke issuing from the kitchen window, the fire alarm shrilling, and the youngest daughter unable to offer any convincing excuse.
Relatives attempted to offer comfort to my frazzled parents: ‘She's young! Maybe she’ll grow out of it?’
(Narrator: The girl I did not grow out of it)
By the time my teens rolled around I hated the term ‘Away with the fairies,’ with a kind of frustrated viciousness. But I had no weapon with which to fight it — I’d brought the label on myself, and I couldn’t seem to shake the behaviour that caused it to stick. What was wrong with me? Why was I so profoundly different, so weird? Why was it so impossible for me to keep my attention on the things that other people found important?
It took me a few years to realise – or rather, to unearth – the answer. It was hidden deep, part of the rich, loamy compost formed of childhood memories and influences from which my personality had sprung.
It turns out...I’m away with the fairies.
There is another meaning for that expression, after all.
‘Come away, O human child!’
When does it happen? When exactly does the extraordinary enchantment begin? Is it all at once, in a flash of transmutation that leaves the child so changed they don’t even remember how they were before?
‘To the waters and the wild’
Or does it creep up on you over years, stealthily transforming each nerve and fibre until nothing is left of that mortal, stolen child?
‘With a faery, hand in hand,’
I don’t know exactly when I first went away with the fairies (or faeries, since I’m quoting Yeats). It probably happened before I can even remember, like so many events which leave an indelible mark. But I can offer up a handful of what those of us in this particular predicament – creative folk, career dreamers, storytellers – are wont to call ‘inciting incidents’.
'For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand.'
The earliest memory is of a big, heavy volume with a dull, old gold cover. After lunchtime at nursery school we were allowed to choose one book from the bookcase in the main room to look at for a quiet half an hour. It was mainly filled with picture and alphabet books, because we were a bit young for anything more advanced. But somehow this massive, gleaming golden tome ended up on the shelves and one day, my arms sagging under the weight, I drew it down.
I couldn’t read it. But I could look at the pictures.
I now believe the illustrations that so captured my imagination were Rackham’s, although I’ve never found a copy of it again, so I can’t be sure. I stared, rapt, slowly turning the pages and soaking in the menacing, jewel-like images of faeries, princesses, goblins, dragons, castles, witches. One image, of a group of ogres in various shades of olive, grey and moss, with knotted limbs, tangled hair and bulging bellies, struck me so hard that I felt the impact like a shock to my brain. When it was time to stop ‘reading’, I would hide the book so that no one else – either teacher or fellow pupil – could discover it and take it away. But inevitably, one day when I went to the book’s hiding place it had gone, probably whisked off to its proper shelf in the school library. Its loss left me bereft, forced to mentally retrace my memories of the pictures so that I wouldn’t forget them, or the way they'd made me feel (result — lost in the supermarket again).
Then there was the night my mother decided to read Oscar Wilde’s poignant ‘The Nightingale and the Rose’ to me. She didn’t realise until too late that it was a tragedy because she thought of Wilde as a comedic writer. But although I did cry over the fate of the nightingale, I also realised that it had to end that way, and puzzled over my feeling of certainty for days as I tried to work out why (result — leaving my coat behind in the cloakroom at school).
Another path to Faeryland was offered by legendary Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, in his beautiful and strange film Laputa, aired on a rainy Sunday afternoon and assumed ‘safe’ by my parents because it was a cartoon. The story had such an effect on me that a lifelong interest in the culture and mythos of Japan was born (result — fell down the stairs while trying to re-enact one of the vital scenes from the climax).
The moment of no return might have been when I was about ten and got my hands on a volume of world folklore and mythology. This contained many wonders, including my first, fiery taste of Beowulf. Although eventually interlibrary loan called the precious book away, Beowulf had impressed itself so perfectly in my brain that when, a year or so later, a secondary school teacher for some bizarre reason handed me a copy of it in the original Middle English and told me to try to read it aloud in front of the class, I fell on it with a glad cry and was able to read it aloud; I already knew what all the words should mean (result — made an enemy of every other child in the class, most of whom became convinced that I was some hellish combination of a witch and a teacher’s pet).
If these sorts of insistent nudgings from Fate, the Cosmos, or the faeries themselves were meant to yield any other result than that of a perpetually dreaming storyteller, I don’t know what it was. Having been called away to other realms so often, how was I ever supposed to fully return?
Large chunks of my conscious and subconscious mind are always occupied Somewhere Else. I shouldn’t think it’s a surprise to anyone reading this that I went on to write books for children and young adults, or that all my work draws strongly on world folklore, mythology and fairy tales. I find satisfaction in retelling or reimagining such familiar stories; part of what makes readers love fantasy is the sense of inevitability, the well-worn archetypes which allow such tales to belong to everyone and no one at the same time.
But what really fascinates me is the liminal spaces within our shared mythos. The unanswered questions, the whys and wherefores that most fairy tales never acknowledge. To be a writer is to be an explorer of the uncharted parts of Faeryland.
Who was the wicked stepmother before she arrived to destroy the lives of her stepchildren, and what forces motivate her to act this way?
Does Beauty truly come to love the Beast, or is her behaviour motivated by pity, or social pressure — or something darker still?
Are Cinderella’s obedience and passivity really the virtues the traditional tale would have us believe?
Who is the monster in the cave? Is he a monster at all, or simply a reflection of our own fears?
Such are the questions which, these days, cause me to walk head first into a telegraph pole, or leave the corned beef stew to burn. The difference is that I’m no longer ashamed to have gone away with the faeries. A little embarrassed from time to time — but these misadventures make good stories in their own right, once the bruises have faded and an emergency pizza dinner has been ordered.
More importantly, I’ve learned that faeryland isn’t some far away fantasy realm after all.
It is, to borrow from Yeats's The Stolen Child again, ‘Where the wave of moonlight glosses […]’ our own ‘unquiet dreams,’ the imaginative landscape which anyone may access with a simple twist in perception. The realm of untold stories and forgotten voices, the narratives which lurk in the shadows cast by the light of heroes.
Faeryland is the complex, evolving and often incomprehensible workings of the human soul and psyche, which allow all of us to take on, in turn, the role of hero or monster within our own story. When we go there we are not escaping from reality but creating new ways of understanding it — and ourselves.
Other people will probably always believe that I’m away with the faeries. And that’s fine. But I – and my fellow writers – will know the truth. I’ve not gone anywhere; I don’t have to. The faeries are here with us, and always have been. You just have to be willing to see them, and follow them, when they're standing right in front of you.