Modern Fairies at Festival of the Mind - Sheffield, September 2018

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The plaintive sounds of the cello, double bass, and the eerie notes of the saw, swift sketches of hares, geese and hounds, running through the pages of a notebook. Strange photos of urban fairies, glimpsed in city streets and parks. Snippets from voices from far back in the past, remembering a time before the fairies vanished from view, before they were just shapes glimpsed from the corner of the eye. Shadows that detach and slip away, and dance away over the hills. Spells summoning the unseen, or allowing humans to slide into animal form, to run or fly into the night.

Modern Fairies artists, writers and musicians and the research team met at Sheffield University on September 26-7th, and prepared to share their work in progress in the University Festival of the Mind Spiegeltent on the afternoon of the 27th. This was an exciting opportunity for the artists to take forward their creative collaborations on the work that began in Oxford in July.

Different themes are beginning to emerge in their engagements with the traditional tales of fairies and loathly ladies; some tales and details seized the imagination. Among these are: the idea of the changeling, the baby that suddenly becomes other, alien even to its loving mother’s eyes; the story of the Green Children, lost and strange in an unfamiliar place where the food and language, even the sun is different. The enigma of the operation fairy-time versus our-world time – the subjective experience of time as lived is worked into music and poems; the legend of King Herla who visited the king of the underworld thousands of years ago and who since then has never found rest is one of these. So too is a parallel reality, glimpsed out of the corner of the eye, or between sleep and waking, in strange and uncertain lights.

Magic animals, the harbingers of the fairy world at work, like the white raven and the hare, came to life in the workshop and the sharing; the quirky testament of the Scots witch, Isobel Gowdie, and the elemental spirits – gremlins and fairies – at work in the cockpits of pilots fighting in the Battle of Britain were explored, juxtaposed with the legendary war between the fairies of Somerset and Devon. We saw fairies on Instagram, heard of fairy testimonies and witness interviews, and listened to Calling Song, that invites and enchants audiences to join the sharing.

What would the audience make of the manifold aspects of the fairy world that were conjured up for them in the magical Spiegeltent on this sunny evening? Around seventy people were there to see the first fruits of the project, and they had some striking questions and comments for the artists as the show progressed and feedback was solicited. Fairies as hallucinations, taking on different cultural forms when substances are ingested were mentioned, stories of visions among fighter pilots also as culturally various were shared. Someone noted how the changeling story chimes with contemporary anxieties about vaccination and emerging developmental deficits. Despite a few technical hiccups, the audience was enthusiastic and the artists were re-energised by this warm reception, eagerly anticipating how the project would grow and blossom across different media before the next sharing at the Sage in January.

Steven Hadley interviewed the artists to hear how their creative thinking had developed in the last couple of months, showing how collaboration in the creation of poems, lyrics, images and tunes was made possible through online sharing. At the Spiegeltent we collected feedback, both written and filmed, from the audience which will form the basis for our research into how audiences respond to these themes and their transformations, and – in the next stage – how the artists will take on board what this first audience had to say. One member of the audience asked whether any of the artists had had encounters with fairies, so we turned the question back round, asking the audience to let us know on their forms whether they had had such experiences.

One interesting comment from a man on the way out of the Spiegeltent: he said that ‘he just loved hearing the stories’. That, perhaps in itself, shows us how much old stories continue to be new, relevant and challenging in today’s world.

Carolyne

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