When people think of fairies, the image that usually springs to mind is of a delicate ethereal being with flowing hair and a radiant gleam; an uncanny creature, ravishingly beautiful and – depending on the person – either cute and dainty, or tall and ‘perilously fair’. These beings, which humans have supposedly encountered since oral traditions began, are said to reside in an ‘Otherworld’ on the liminal boundaries of our own – a world that some hapless mortals have visited. To think of the Otherworld is to evoke images of shining beauty, of immortality, of swirling mists and dark deeds and mystical spells.
This ravishing beauty which the fairies embody (and their attendant ‘glamour’ or grammarye, their magical webs of illusion) are particularly crucial to our sense of the fairy realm. This beauty may be no more than a visual deception caused by the fairies themselves but it has led to our fervent belief in preternaturally attractive creatures with luminescent skin and eyes that shine like pieces of sky or sea glass. A form of supernatural being we could easily be seduced by, even fall in love with.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that there are many stories, throughout our British history, which speak of men and women taking fairy lovers or simply being left helplessly enchanted by the magic and beauty of a member of that “Other” realm.
Common among these tales are those which speak of the Leanan sidhe, which is often translated as Barrow Lover and denotes those beautiful fairies who take a mortal partner.
Generally these Leanan sidhe are female but there have also been stories of male fairies seducing young human women. Whatever the gender the outcome of this mortal-immortal mingling is usually the same; the mortal love object gradually becomes mad or simply sickens away and dies at a young age, after living a short, turbulent but brilliant life.
Most often the people chosen to be ‘fairy lovers’ are poets and musicians, to whom the fairy appears as a muse; a source of otherworldly inspiration.
In fact many of the great poets of the last three or four hundred years, such as Keats, Shelley and Byron, are thought to have died as a result of the attentions of a Leanan sidhe. These fairies, a sort of Celtic succubus, inspire their mortal lovers and bring them prodigious poetic or musical talent, immense creativity and a fine-tuned appreciation of beauty; while at the same time draining them of vigour, causing them to burn out way before their time. Hence Keats died at the age of 25; Shelley at the age of 19 – and Byron at the age of 36.
On the other hand renowned Irish poet W.B. Yeats lived well into his 70’s – perhaps because he was well versed in folklore and so was unable to be ensnared by the beguiling beauty of the Leanan sidhe? It is a romantic notion, whether it is true or not. Yeats actually mentioned this particular kind of fairy in his book Fairy and Folk Tales of Ireland and declared that the Leanan sidhe “lives upon the vitals of its chosen, and they waste and die. She is of the dreadful solitary fairies. To her have belonged the greatest of the Irish poets, from Oisin down to the last century.”
Poor, doomed Keats wrote a famous poem about the perils of falling in love with a fairy: La Belle Dame sans Merci. In it he writes,
I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful — a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.
There follows a romantic interlude with this beautiful otherworldly being – but things quickly turn sour when the unfortunate man falls asleep and has an awful dream. In it he sees “pale kings and princes too / Pale warriors, death-pale were they all; / They cried – ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci / Thee hath in thrall!’
Horrified, the man realizes they are giving him a warning; but the final verse of the poem hints that the warning came too late, as the young mortal lover remains “in the meads”, a grim figure, “alone and palely loitering”, perhaps waiting for his fairy paramour to return. Anyone familiar with the habits of the leanan sidhe will be well aware that the only likely outcome for the unfortunate mortal is a lonely, bitter death, consumed by longing and desire for a being he can never possess.
The fate which perhaps poor Keats himself was subject to.
Because of the prevalence of premature death in poets such as Keats and some of his contemporaries, and because of the general mythology of destruction and death which surrounds them, the Leanan sidhe are classed as hostile, an evil breed of fairy. But we must not forget that there is another, less grotesque side to them too – after all, while they may cause their mortal victims to suffer from a considerably shortened life span, they do impart great stores of poetic talent and beauty, not to mention a keen appreciation of those most poignant and noble human emotions – love, longing and sorrow. If Keats and his fellow poets truly were inspired by fairy beings and carried off to an early grave as a result, the poetry they left behind stands the test of time and has surely achieved at least some form of immortality. It is arguable that the poets themselves would not have had it any other way; rather a short and gifted life than a lengthy one of literary mediocrity; this is, after all, how such intensely creative types tend to think.
As for the Leanan Sidhe, perhaps they are still among us to this day, drawn to luminously creative souls whom they both inspire and slowly destroy – while at the same time leaving us in possession of a strikingly beautiful literary and musical legacy; otherworldly in its beauty and consummate skill.