and Its Influence on Arthur Machen and Some Other Contemporaneous Gentlemen
By Thomas Kent Miller
[There was] a theme that was to become almost obsessive with Machen,
for he returned to it several times…. From earliest childhood he had been
impressed with the mystical idea that the world is not what it seems to be,
but that there lies behind everyday events and common objects some inner
secret that is the key to the great enigma of man’s existence…. It is the
keynote to nearly all his work, the most important cluåe to the
understanding of his art…
— Philip Van Doren Stern
Prior to the mid-1960s, at least in the United States, which is the region I’m familiar with, leprechauns usually only crossed people’s minds around St. Patrick’s Day. Fairies, elves, dwarves, and trolls were simply not on the radar at all. Then there came a sea-change. Through the astonishing cultural phenomenon that was J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings in 1965 (first by way of the unauthorised Ace paperback edition, and then further propelled by the authorised Ballantine edition), the whole gamut of wee folk became fashionable. It was another one of those periodic moments when a convergence of literature, art, folklore, and lifestyle result in ‘fairy folk being much in the air.’
Generally speaking, the popular image of ‘The Little People’ in the contemporary mind is a positive one; seldom in this day and age does a leprechaun get ‘bad press,’ mischievousness and idleness being the worst that can be attributed to the various fairy races. Not unexpectedly, few modern people give any consideration at all to the ancient Celtic heritage of the cherubic little fellow with gold buckles on his shoes who is emblematic of St. Patrick’s Day. Nor do they give a second thought to the many wonder tales of people of short stature with magical powers that are common in children’s literature. In fact, for well over two centuries, most people would be surprised to learn that fairy tales were something other than stories, in the words of Andrew Lang, ‘intended for children.’
But, once upon a time, there were no fairy tales.
Rather, as early humans exited Africa and moved across all the earth’s landscapes eons ago, they observed, socialised and cooperated, developed language, and became proficient with fire, all the while honing a mobile life style that seasonally alternated between temporary settlements and trekking after great herds of migrating ungulates. Long before the invention of writing, these earliest humans no doubt had imaginations and a predisposition to ‘make-up’ stories.
For those who are partial to the statements of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell these stories would have simply flowed from the reservoir of archetypes that they declared are so fundamental to human life and culture, or, for those who prefer Dean Hamer, perhaps such stories are rooted in our DNA. Many of those early stories doubtlessly centred on aspects of the nature that surrounded these people—on the perceived behaviour, patterns, rhythms, and cycles that permeated all that they knew in the sky, in the forests, plains and glaciers, and in the migratory habits of game they followed.
Another aspect of human nature is the need to embellish. Being attacked by a pride of lions is certainly more interesting than being attacked by one lion. Humans are also complex and have complex world views; there have been innumerable human cultures. Any human culture is multifaceted and subtle, full of rules (and exceptions to those rules) and routines and regulations for virtually every aspect of human life and behaviour.
Observation, imagination, story telling, embellishment, and complexity—from these would have sprung quite likely and early on the notions and descriptions of spirit beings, visible and invisible, that controlled the afore mentioned patterns, rhythms, and cycles—scientific laws being far beyond the purview of these bands of early humans. Humans are also, naturally enough, self-centred and tend to project something of themselves into the beings they imagine. Thus, anthropologist W.Y. Evans-Wentz was able to say, ‘[I]n ancient and in modern times man’s belief in gods, spirits, or fairies has been the direct result of his attempts to explain or to rationalise natural phenomena…the belief in fairies often anthropomorphically reflects the natural environment.’
Once conceived, these spirit beings must have fissioned and evolved into thousands of manifestations that permeated every human culture and successive culture on every habitable continent. Carol Rose lists more than 5,000 invisible and imaginary beings that could well be termed fairies in his main listing of Spirits, Fairies, Leprechauns, and Goblins: An Encyclopedia plus an additional 10,000 in an appendix.
Stories of such beings are pervasive and their origins are manifold and universal. Therefore, in the fullness of time, so to speak, one way or another, we can say with fair certainty that the people who made up the Celtic tribes of northern and central continental Europe had acquired their own brand of spirit beliefs. The lands in which they dwelt doubtless had their fair share of peculiar ruins and archaeological oddities that may or may not have coloured their view of spirits.
Then beginning about 750 B.C.E., these people began immigrating southwest to Brittany and across the English Channel to populate Britain, Scotland, the Isle of Man, Wales, Cornwall, and Ireland (taking control of the existing populations while they were at it). What they found in their new homeland proved startling, however, and the fundamental conception of their spirit beings would necessarily be challenged, complicated, and compromised. They found the hills of their new homeland honeycombed with ancient passages, barrows, cairns, and subterranean tombs and dotted with megalithic stone circles, dolmens, and standing stones—all remnants of a once widespread Neolithic people (4,500-1,500 B.C.E). There were thousands of these structures wherever the Celts traveled all over the British Isles and just across the channel in neighbour Brittany. Whereas it was obvious that these barrows and megaliths were old, the immigrants, of course, had no way of knowing that the last of these structures were built roughly 700 years before their arrival, and that the earliest dated from around 3,000 years earlier than that (dates established by carbon-14).
How transitional Bronze Age populations may or may not have used these structures and whether or not they were still in residence upon the drawn-out arrival of the Celts doesn’t seem to have fazed the new comers in the long run. In the normal process of merely living among these ancient and artificial formations, the immigrants and their children and children’s children naturally needed to explain, rationalise, and reconcile the concrete existence of these structures. Who could have built them, and why? It may even be that the Celts understood that the indigenous population they encountered were not the builders. But it really doesn’t make any difference who in fact built them or what their function really was; all that matters here is the collective consensus of the Celtic culture.
Whatever the reason, a very long time ago the consensus developed, per Evans-Wentz while recounting the many theories of fairy origins, ‘that tumuli, menhirs, and in fact most megalithic monuments…[were] either the abodes or else the favourite haunts of various orders of fairies…and this folk belief appears to be almost the chief one’ upon which hangs the folk extrapolation that a ‘little dark-complexioned aboriginal folk…were supposed to inhabit the barrows, cromlechs, and allees couvertes, and whose cunning, their only effective weapon against the strength of the Aryan invader, earned them a reputation for magical powers.’
From this superimposition of fertile ideas, of the existence of spirit beings on one hand and attempts to conceptualise the vanished builders of the barrows and cromlechs on the other, was born the remarkably similar Pobel Vean of Cornwall, the Sidhe of Ireland, the Brownies of Scotland, the Corrigans of Brittany, the Tylwyth Teg of Wales, and the Mooinjer Veggey of the Isle of Man, to name only a few within the complex fairy hierarchies of these lands. As anthropologist Bernard Wailes and author Robert Wernick have supposed, ‘[The Celts’] fervid imaginations filled the megalithic burial grounds with the ghosts of gods and heroes they had overcome’—and, no doubt, with their own brand of Celtic fairies.
Fairy lore, then, or the belief in a squat, subterranean race of beings with supernatural gifts and living in close relation to nature, seems to have been a consequence of the continental Celts planting their flag on the islands of abandoned barrows, roughly 2,750 years ago. For centuries, as long as these beings were the province of rural folk, the existence of Little People was taken for granted and stories about them were perpetuated orally. Oral tradition was, vitally, the manner by which this preliterate people kept its history and culture alive. As genre authority and anthologist Mike Ashley reminds us in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, ‘[F]airies were once believed to be part of our own world.’ Life and life style revolved around the existence of fairies. Daily routines were regulated by the presumed response of the local fairies, two familiar examples being the leaving of containers of milk or whiskey outside the front door for the fairies’ pleasure or, contrarily, keeping a light in the window at night to ward off their presence.
A collateral aspect of this whole process, however, was that the rural people really didn’t much care for what they had invented and imagined and subsequently believed in. They had created imaginary mischievous, even wicked and mean-spirited, beings who had power over them through magic, and not much good could come of that. From this fear and reticence emerged the compensatory behaviour of avoiding discussion of these beings entirely, or if talking about them was unavoidable, then couching one’s words in conciliatory phrases. After all, you don’t want to rouse the ire of magical beings who live virtually cheek by jowl with you. And from thence probably arose the ‘Good Folk’ and the ‘Little People’ of the Celtic races—of leprechauns and gnomes and elves and suchlike beings.
Thus it must have stood for 1,900 years. Celtic fairy stories (i.e., stories about fairies) being handed down orally during that whole stretch of time without benefit of writing, over and over and over again. Jim Henson, who was a world-class purveyor of fantasy and magic himself, has commented that the rich quality of fairy tales and folk tales have ‘grown richer as they have gone through generations and generations of telling and retelling. [It’s] important [this] flow of information, and energy, and entertainment from the storyteller to his listeners….’ Along similar lines, anthologist Bill Bowers emphasises that supernatural stories are a ‘centuries-old…tradition,’ that no one knows exactly how old they are, and that they are repeated ‘in various versions in various regions…told and retold around countless campfires, before being committed to paper….’
When, around the 12th century, these stories did in fact begin to be set down in writing, it made all the difference in the world. Per author and genre authority Brian Stableford, some of these chroniclers were ‘Walter Map (?1137-1209, Giraldus Cambrensis (c1146-c1223), and Gervase of Tilbury (c1150-c1220).’ Once written, these stories could be and were consciously mimicked, manipulated, elaborated upon with superimposed shadings according to the whims of writers, not for the sake of transmitting or remembering necessary information for the continued welfare of the community, as was a purpose of the oral tales, but for the sake of amusement or to make allegorical points—and the conception of the Celtic fairy began to change radically. Removed from the oral and very serious traditions of country people, fairies became the stuff of dramatists and poets. Stableford informs us that the list of writers who utilised fairies in their works in centuries past is illustrious, including Aristo, Yeats, and Noyes, and we are given to understand that it was Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1596) and, especially, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1594-1596) that ‘provided the definitive imagery’ of fairies.
Meanwhile, not surprisingly, the term ‘fairy tale’ was taking on a meaning of its own far removed from its original sense to the extent that as long ago as two centuries, it was already being generally and unhesitatingly applied to the Brothers Grimm’s Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Stories) despite those two volumes that were derived from oral tradition being conceived and executed as scholarly works complete with prefaces and notes. Then, as Tolkien scholar Douglas A. Anderson explains, ‘[A]fter this process of writing down of oral materials there naturally developed the German kunstmarchen, or “literary fairy tales”—that is, fairy tales artistically composed by a single author rather than stories merely recorded from oral tradition.’ In the latter tradition, only some twenty years after the Grimm’s volumes, Hans Christian Anderson began releasing his booklets unambiguously titled Eventyr, fortalte for Børn (Fairy Tales Told for Children). So, it is not at all surprising that, by the 1890s Andrew Lang could assemble his array of twelve coloured compendiums comprising international children’s fairy tales, from both the folklore and fictional genres, that were more akin to wonder stories and had little to do with the traditional fairies of Celtic roots.
At the same time that numerous writers took liberties with the notion of fairies, numerous illustrators and painters, such as William Blake, Henry Fuseli, Joshua Reynolds, Arthur Rackham, and Howard Pyle, developed their own ideas of what fairies ought and ought not be, frequently through commissions to interpret the written word, and devised innumerable luminous and detailed images, and eventually the popular conception of fairies, especially amongst the Victorians, had evolved and become stylised into tiny, usually naked, winged girls who lived amongst the flowers.
In 1904, J.M. Barrie tells us that Tinker Bell ‘was a fairy, no longer than your hand…exquisitely gowned in a skeleton leaf, cut low and square, through which her figure could be seen to the best advantage.’
By 1920, this image had long been so utterly pervasive and taken for granted that Arthur Conan Doyle was easily duped by the notorious Cottingley photographs.
Then, Walt Disney and his team of animators further enhanced and formalised this image, thereby perpetuating it in the public mind, via ‘The Nutcracker Suite’ sequence of Disney’s 1940 experimental film Fantasia, where ‘[i]t is morning and the [sugar plum] fairies, tiny, perfect creatures with gauzy wings, carrying wands and glowing like fireflies, flit over the flowers, touching them with their wands. As they do so, the petals suddenly sparkle with dew.’ And then the autumn fairies ‘work their magic on the leaves and milkweed pods, followed by the frost fairies and the incredibly beautiful jewel patterns of the snowflakes.’
And, of course, Disney’s 1953 interpretation of Tinkerbell in the animated feature Peter Pan, and her subsequent endless (and still continuing) appearances through movies, television, theme parks, and video media have impacted the popular culture and the popular image of fairies to a degree almost incalculable. (Merely doing a simple search on ‘Tinkerbell’ on Amazon.com, for example, brings up some 3,000 items—from shower curtains to steering wheel covers, from ballet slippers to colouring books, from light-up necklaces to cereal bowls.)
Thus, on one hand, down through the centuries, through at least the first quarter of the twentieth century (and perhaps even to the present), in the rural communities across the Celtic lands, people assumed the existence of Little People and took them very seriously. And, on the other hand, from at least the 12th century on, secular and urbane folklorists, poets, playwrights, and artists were manipulating words and paints and toying with their sprites.
This dichotomy is nicely illustrated by genre anthologist Patricia Craig and throws light on this bifurcation: ‘As English society became more secular and rational, [from the 1890s on]…, the supernatural, in compensation, gained an increasing fascination as a literary topic; whereas…every ruined abbey, deserted house, lichened graveyard, or crumbling wall has a story attached to it—[the existence of the supernatural] was either taken for granted as to seem unworthy of special emphasis, or repudiated, on the other hand, as the residue of a primitive past.’ Folklorist Cassandra Eason makes a similar point: ‘Belief in fairies declined in many parts of the Western world from the late seventeenth century onwards, as a result of the Age of Reason, of Darwinism and of increased industrialisation and urbanisation in the nineteenth century. In an environment removed from nature fairies became fictionalised, sanitised, the province of children or saccharine sentimentality…. But in rural places where Celtic influence remained strong, the little people have never ceased to hold sway.’
As it happened, the end of the nineteenth century was a period, as fin-de-siècle authority Mark Valentine explains, ‘when fairy folk were much in the air. W.B. Yeat’s stories The Celtic Twilight had appeared in 1893 and in 1894 his drama The Land of Heart’s Desire about a young woman spirited away by the fairies, was produced. The Celtic fantasies of “Finona Macleod” (William Sharp) also began in this year, with the volume Pharais, and William Morris…published in 1894 The Wood Beyond the World, a fairy fantasy.’
Many other Victorian authors, naturally, took up their pens to deal with the fairy folk, some by revisiting the old folk claims that the legends of wee folk were in fact distorted stories of the pre-Celtic hangers-on or Neolithic survivors who were forced into hiding by waves of immigrants from the continent—a concept, be it remembered, that was based solely on folklore, regardless of how often it was repeated and despite its deceptive appearance as sound anthropologic theory. For example, Grant Allen’s ‘Pallinghurst Barrow’ appeared in the Illustrated London News in 1892 and John Buchan’s ‘No-Man’s Land’ appeared in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1899. The first, very much in the tradition of the Victorian ghost story, presents the malignant spirits of The Little People of Old Long Barrow on Pallihurst Common who annually become manifest for one night only, the autumnal equinox. Buchan’s creations live on, however, burrowed into Scottish mountains.
In that same decade, in 1895, Welsh author Arthur Machen, a man who wore many hats, to say the least, wrote three short stories of The Little People—’The Shining Pyramid,’ ‘The Novel of the Black Seal,’ and ‘The Red Hand’—that were destined to influence the literature of the supernatural in ways and to a degree he may not have fathomed.
When Machen was born in 1863 into the rural district of Gwent in the community of Caerleon-on-Usk in the south-eastern corner of Wales, The Little People, fairies, and the belief in fairies had not yet faded away. Indeed, fairy lore, passed down orally from generation to generation, was still coin-of-the-realm while Machen was a child. (Though perhaps this was somewhat less so a few years later, when by 1908, an exasperated South Wales school master, W. Jenkyn Thomas, felt the need to publish The Welsh Fairy Book in order to keep his students abreast of the ‘fair family.’)
Later, for some of his fiction, Machen drew heavily upon this special background, lending an air of antiquity and a subtle tactile, almost documentary, quality to his stories.
Indeed, Machen biographer Wesley Sweetser informs us that Machen told his friend Robert Hillyer that ‘this folklore was still a living thing; that, when he visited a town in Wales, the inhabitants still burned a light to keep out the little people.’ Sweetser goes on to explain that oral tradition ‘plays the largest role in his tales of terror and represents an environmental influence. Machen never converts the Tylwyth Teg into benign fairies of the literary tradition followed by Shakespeare and Herrick. He always presents them as dwarfish, malignant creatures, practicing obscene and horrible rites…. Machen was without predecessor in his use of Celtic lore in tales of supernatural horror…. [His] use of legends of the Daione Sidhe of Ireland and Tylwyth Teg of Wales is an outstanding feature of his work…all so characteristic of the Celtic mind.’
Machen himself tells us in the first volume of his autobiography Far Off Things that his work ‘had all been the expression of one formula, one endeavour. What I had been doing was this: I had been inventing tales in which and by which I tried to realise my boyish impression of Gwent…. This, then, was my process: to invent a story which would recreate those vague impressions of wonder and awe and mystery that I myself received from the form and shape of the land of my boyhood and youth…. I always saw it as a kind of fairyland.’
Machen, then, grew to manhood immersed in a community and culture retaining a marked element that still clung to—that simply understood there was—another reality quite different from the day-to-day prosaic one, a reality that existed quite close (‘cheek by jowl’) just on the other side of the veil that you could sometimes see through (and through which sometimes The Little People passed!). Is it any wonder, then, that his whole literary life seemed an attempt to define and explain that other reality, which was, nonetheless, ‘indefinable’? In Hieroglyphics: A Note upon Ecstasy in Literature, he struggled, as he often did, to put words to that other reality: ‘Ecstasy…rapture, beauty, adoration, wonder, awe, mystery, sense of the unknown, desire for the unknown…[a] withdrawal from the common life and common consciousness….’ Happily, through this life-long struggle, he most assuredly succeeded in conveying much of his meaning.
In his second volume of autobiography, Things Near and Far, when discussing ‘The Novel of the Black Seal,’ he tells how he wrote his ‘fairy tale, mixing up the old view that the fairy tales, the stories of the Little People, are in fact traditions of the aborigines of these islands, small, dark men who took refuge under the hills from the invading Celt;…and my view, still newer [my italics], that the fairies may still be found under the hills, and that they are far from being pleasant little people.’
The narrative of the story itself continues the thought: ‘[Regarding] the “good folk” of the Celtic races…I thought I could detect the fringe of embroidery and exaggeration, the fantastic guise, the little people dressed in green and gold sporting in the flowers…. [J]ust as our remote ancestors called the dreadful beings fair and good precisely because they dreaded them, so they had dressed them up in charming forms, knowing the truth to be the very reverse.’
Near the end of his story ‘The Shining Pyramid,’ published in the same year as ‘The Novel of the Black Seal,’ Machen describes The Little People not as ‘the whimsical sprites of some fictions’ and certainly not as cute little folk dressed in green with fedoras and gold buckles, but as ‘things made in the form of men but stunted like children hideously deformed, the faces with the almond eyes burning with evil and unspeakable lusts; [a] ghastly yellow…mass of naked flesh’ And in a fourth story, ‘Out of the Earth,’ (written twenty years later during the Great War), he again describes the fairies as they really are: ‘[T]here in the ditch he saw a swarm of noisome children, horrible little stunted creatures with old men’s faces, with bloated faces, with little sunken eyes, with leering eyes. It was worse than uncovering a brood of snakes or a nest of worms.’
H.P. Lovecraft scholar S. T. Joshi underscores this: ‘Machen knew that the really adventuresome aspect of his theory—or rather, the radical extension of it which he made for fictional purposes—was that “the people still lived in hidden caverns in wild and lonely lands” something he maintained was wildly improbable.’
Author and Machen commentator Cyril Simsa says, ‘Indeed, the forcefulness with which Machen described the prehistoric origins of his fairies was so great, and the reception that his stories received from A.E. Waite and his circle so enthusiastic, one cannot help wondering whether they may not have had an influence on later theories of Margaret Murray, and other proponents of the belief in Neolithic survivals, that underlie so much modern pagan writing.’
In 1923, some of these stories and other of Machen’s seminal works of the supernatural, such as ‘The Great God Pan’ and ‘The Inmost Light,’ came to the attention of the then little-known author of horror tales H.P. Lovecraft, who, as it turned out, became enamoured of Machen’s writing to the degree that he could say in his Supernatural Horror in Literature, ‘Of living creators of cosmic fear raised to its most artistic pitch, few if any can hope to equal the versatile Arthur Machen, author of some dozen tales long and short, in which the elements of hidden horror and brooding fright attain an almost incomparable substance and realistic acuteness.’
Without doubt, it is Lovecraft’s identification and perception of Machen’s use of ‘hidden horror’ that was Machen’s single greatest influence on Lovecraft. Specifically, Lovecraft writes:
“In the episodic novel of The Three Imposters . . . [h]ere we find in its most artistic form a favourite weird conception of the author’s; the notion that beneath the mounds and rocks of the wild Welsh hills dwell subterraneously that squat primitive race whose vestiges give rise to our common folk legends of fairies, elves, and the ‘little people’, and whose acts are even now responsible for certain unexplained disappearances, and occasional substitutions of strange dark ‘changelings’ for normal infants.”
Whereas Lovecraft did not actually use The Little People in his fiction (beyond the occasional aside, such as in ‘The Whisper in the Darkness’ when he has a character make note of ‘the fantastic lore of lurking “Little People” made popular by the magnificent horror-fiction of Arthur Machen’), through his letters and other statements, there is no doubt that the ‘lurking’ and ‘hidden horror’ that Machen’s fairies represented affected the composition of some of his own seminal stories.
Mark Valentine, who is also a Machen biographer, underscores this vital point:
“Machen’s Little people have had a significant impact on the fantastic in fiction. H.P. Lovecraft, one of the most influential horror writers, with a horde of imitators, is best known for his stories of the ‘Cthulhu Mythos’ work in which a race of lurking elder gods and monstrosities from the deep are posited. The first tale in Lovecraft’s loosely connected saga, ‘The Call of Cthulhu,’ is manifestly rooted in Machen’s ‘The Novel of the Black Seal’….”
Lovecraft scholar Robert M. Price says, ‘[T]he depiction of the old ones and their servants lingering on to the present day through the media of degenerate races and their lore represents Lovecraft’s greatest borrowing from Arthur Machen.’
Amongst those who sometimes emulated and built on aspects of that ‘loosely connected saga’ was Lovecraft’s fellow writer of weird tales, correspondent, and friend, Robert E. Howard, who, it is important to note, first became acquainted with the anthropological notion of The Little People quite independently of either Machen or Lovecraft. Howard, feeling a kinship to things Celtic, probably first encountered The Little People, initially in the form of the Picts, around 1918 from a book he found in a New Orleans Library. From internal evidence, Howard scholars Rusty Burke and Patrice Louinet suspect that book might have been the 1909 The Romance of Early British Life: From the Earliest Times to the Coming of the Danes, by G. F. Scott Elliot. In an essay found among Howard’s papers (c. 1920-23), Howard wrote: ‘Later on the great Celtic race swept over Europe and the Picts in their turn fled to the forests and caves, furnishing the basis of fairy tales of gnomes, elves, and other fairies.’
This presumed history of the Picts took hold of Howard very early on. Indeed, the second story he submitted professionally was ‘The Lost Race’ (1927) the titular people being those very Picts that he supposed were driven into hiding. But at this point, there was more archaeological and anthropological about these beings than the supernatural.
Price tells us further: ‘Lovecrafts’s greatest influence on Howard is where he coincides with Machen…. [W]hat seems to have seized Howard’s fancy the most in Machen’s fiction was the notion of the Little People…. Of course they are the models for Lovecraft’s outer ones and other secretive races, but Howard adopts them pretty much as Machen sketched them, which was already terrible enough.’
Howard wrote during a period of a dozen years or so some ‘30 Little People stories, poems and fragments’ [Burke and Louinet] ranging over his entire writing career. Of these, I believe five can be shown to be directly influenced by Machen (or by Machen as filtered through Lovecraft or both), in the sense that The Little People are depicted as thoroughly unwholesome and only a step removed from ‘primordial slime’: The untitled piece found in his papers that has come to be known as ‘The Little People’ (written circa 1928, published 1970), ‘The Children of the Night’ (1931), ‘The People of the Dark’ (1932), ‘Worms of the Earth’ (1932), and ‘The Valley of the Lost’ (written and sold in 1932, published 1967 as ‘The Secret of the Lost Valley’).
Scott Conners, in his contribution to Nyctalops # 10, shows clearly Machen’s influence on Howard:
“The parallels between Machen’s Little People and Howard’s Children of the Night are startling. Both are Mongoloid races that were forced to live underground long ago. They both speak with a repulsive hissing voice and have a distinct affinity to the reptile kingdom. They both worship a black stone and use very small flint knives and mallets which are curiously unbalanced to normal adult hands. They both stole human infants and left behind their own deformed young. They both raped those women who strayed out into the hills, causing them to bear a hybrid offspring. Both were degenerating into the reptilian slime from whence they arose. The main difference is that Howard had his children extinct by the early 1930’s, while Machen has his little people active in the 1890’s….”
These details, in the fictions of both Machen and Howard, it is important to note, in turn correspond to facets of oral tradition noted by Professor John Rhys in his study Celtic Folklore and listed by Sweetser:
[T]he substitution of a fairy, usually dwarfish, wizened and malignant, for an infant in the cradle; the story of the little girl who went away every day to play with the Tylwyth Teg; the old woman who overheard an unintelligible language; the conception of the soul as a pigmy or lizard; the belief in transformations or transmigrations; the idea of the Tylwyth Teg as dwarfs; the fact that fairies were once cannibals; the theory that since fairies are associated with ancient sites, they may have perhaps been real people, such as the Picts, who lived in the Lowlands of Scotland underground or in hillocks.
All the principal Lovecraftian and Howardian scholars are in agreement that Machen’s three stories—’The Novel of the Black Seal’ (1895), ‘The Shining Pyramid’ (1895), and ‘The Red Hand’ (1895)—were undeniably read and then referenced often in letters, articles, and other material by these two authors, and therefore we can be assured that it was at least these stories that lay at the root of the groundbreaking tales of ‘hidden horror and brooding fright’ that issued from their pens. It is also entirely possible that either or both authors may have read ‘Out of the Earth,’ the striking penultimate chapter (written about 1915) to Machen’s Little People saga, the final work being ‘Change’ written and published in 1935-6, too late to have influenced either Lovecraft or Howard.
In all this attempt to show the progression and evolution of the Celtic Little People from prehistoric spirit beings through Celtic oral tradition on to literary and artistic fictions, it has been easy to wander off this trail of bread crumbs and lose sight of the aspect of Machen that is probably the most important. It is at once vital and fundamental, and possibly even counter-intuitive, but Joshi has successfully sensed and pointed out: ‘Behind all this speculative anthropology is the symbolism of the Little People. They are horrible and loathsome, to be sure, but they have at least one advantage over modern human beings—they have retained that primal sacrament (perverted of course, by bestiality and violence) which links them to the beyond.’
With this observation in mind, now let us reflect back on the epigraph of this essay, which was drawn from Philip Van Doren Stern’s introduction to the Knopf edition of Machen’s Tales of Horror and the Supernatural:
“[There was] a theme that was to become almost obsessive with Machen, for he returned to it several times…. From earliest childhood he had been impressed with the mystical idea that the world is not what it seems to be, but that there lies behind everyday events and common objects some inner secret that is the key to the great enigma of man’s existence…. It is the keynote to nearly all his work, the most important clue to the understanding of his art….”
Indeed, Machen himself often made statements to the effect that his goal was ‘to invent a story which would recreate those vague impressions of wonder and awe and mystery that I myself received from the form and shape of the land of my boyhood and youth….’
Thus, we can conclude that Arthur Machen’s natural temperament, bolstered and honed on one hand by the strong natural beauty and mystery of the Gwent environment and, on the other, by the ancient supernatural predilections of the people he lived among during the first twenty years or so of his life, allowed him to easily imagine, easily invent, even assume, those mystical connections that, forsooth, most ‘secular, rational and industrialised’ people are oblivious to.
It is our great good fortune that he succeeded so well in communicating his ‘impressions of wonder and awe and mystery’ to us his readers and admirers.
Sweetser recognised all this when he wrote his much quoted and insightful observation, ‘Figuratively speaking, [Machen] was the product of the union between the Little People and the Roman Legion in the mystic region of Avalon.’
But this is only part of the story, I think, because all these colourful allusions, and even much of his literary output, are assuredly merely the chaff Machen cast off as he traveled along and explored, in a very real sense, ‘that primal sacrament that linked him to the beyond’—that linked him to ‘a panorama of unearthly, of astounding beauty, in deep dells, bowered by overhanging trees, [where] bloomed flowers such as only dreams can show; such deep purples that yet seemed to glow like precious stones with a hidden but ever-present radiance, roses whose hues outshone by any that are to be seen in gardens….’ [Machen, ‘N’]
Anderson, Douglas A. Tales Before Tolkien: The Roots of Modern Fantasy. New York: Ballantine, 2005.
Ashley, Mike. ‘Faerie.’ In The Encyclopedia Of Fantasy, edited by John Clute and John Grant. New York: St Martin’s Press, 1997.
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