Tones of Estrangement in the works of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

"The Child that went with Faeries" : Summary

In an isolated area of southern Ireland lives an impoverished widow and her young children. She guards her children well and with good reason, for nearby is a known haunt of the faerie folk. Plants and trees, known for their natural properties to repel evil, grow about her dilapidated cabin.

One day, her three youngest children go missing. As the light begins to fade, both mother and her eldest daughter are sure that the little ones have been taken by the faeries. At the coming of night, the two anxious women see the lost children coming down the road, but alas there are but two of them, not three.

The children tell that whilst playing by the road that day, a stately carriage came by. Within the carriage sits a beautiful lady. Her voice is 'sweet like a silver bell' and her smile and demeanour 'enchanting'. She bids the youngest boy join her in the carriage and kisses him affectionately. His siblings are envious and wish that it were they who were receiving her attentions. The only thing that disturbs them are the servants, who glare at them maliciously, and the other woman in the carriage; a black woman in exotic dress with angry eyes who appears maliciously amused.

The carriage begins to move and the beautiful lady tosses a red apple to the ground before the two children and they pursue it. The apple keeps evading them by disappearing into bushes and holes in the road, but each time one is lost the lady tosses them a new one to follow. Gradually, they are led all the way up to the haunted hill of the faeries. When they reach it, the carriage vanishes, along with their brother who remained in the carriage.

In the months to follow, the two youngest children will see their lost brother now and again for an instant, as he peeps into the cabin and then is gone. Sometimes he will beckon them to follow. The mother or the eldest sister never see him again. His appearances become infrequent and at last end altogether. He is assumed lost.

One early morning, their mother having left for market at dawn, the youngest daughter wakes to see her long lost brother enter the cabin. He is ragged and pale and looks malnourished, but recognizable. He sits himself by the fire to warm his cold hands. She tries to wake her eldest sister who sleeps beside her. The boy turns to look at her, fearfully. He promptly leaves, never to be seen again.

"Fairy doctors" and the local priest are called in, but to no avail; the boy is gone. No headstone or grave marks his passing where his family might grieve or honour him or extend a prayer for his soul. All that is left to remind them of him is the shadow cast by the haunted hill.

"The Child that went with Faeries" : Analysis

"The Child that went with Faeries" has all the ingredients of a nationalist tale. Firstly, in the introduction, Le Fanu conjures up a sublime Irish landscape with tall mountains, endless bogs, gulches, woodland copses, and heath. Furthermore, we are given a specific location: a cabin along 'a very old and narrow road' which connects the 'Limerick road to Tipperary with the old road from Limerick to Dublin'. The area is 'eastward of the old city of Limerick, about ten Irish miles under the range of mountains known as the Slieveelim hills'. The mountains are 'healthy', the miles are measured by Irish standards and it is reported that an Irish hero once fought gallantly here against King William. This is, ostensibly, a very real location (the landscape of Le Fanu's childhood, in fact), and very Irish, and the tale as such is presented as a true account.

The tale speaks of a known haunt of faeries in the vicinity of the cabin and even the local spiritual authority, in the form of the priest, takes their presence most seriously. We are informed of fairy lore and meticulous detail is given to the measures by which one may repel faeries; plants and artefacts are named and their properties stated.

The mother's pronounced superstitions are not mocked or held to be frivolous or unsubstantiated; she is presented as a most conscientious mother, wary of her children's safety. Her fears are presented as valid and the folklore is thus validated. Her eldest daughter has been well taught in her mother's ways and knows too the peril that goes with the proximity of faeries. The mother has succeeded in passing on the legacy of the traditions that were passed on to her.

The effect of the descriptions of landscape and location and the stress on the folkloric aspects gives the reader a sense of a long-standing tradition and specific cultural identity possessed by the local inhabitants of the area named in the tale. On this level, the tale serves a nationalist purpose by insisting on the splendour of Irish nature and the value of folkloric tradition, as well as a being record of local traditions and culture.

The story is also a tale of haunting. The faeries represent a haunting in that their presence casts a shadow on both landscape, in the form of the physical shadow of the hill, and existence, in the form of the traditions and the fears associated with the faeries. The awareness of their presence has seeped into and affects every aspect of life. There is a terror just below the surface of the story of these strange, otherworldly beings which are able to pass between the world of substance and the world of illusion, life and death, form and spirit. Natural laws do not apply to them. Thus the faeries also represent an "Other".

The dead also haunt. The boy who went with faeries and who has been given up for dead by his family, returns sporadically to the cabin. His youngest siblings alone see him on these visits, as they too have brushed with the faerie realm. The mother and eldest sister do not see him because they have not had contact with the faeries and because of their stout traditions. In years to come, the surviving brother will be haunted by the shadow of the hill with memories of his brother, assumed dead. Thus the faeries and their realm also represent death.

The faerie lady is identified as a temptress in that she uses apples and glamour to distract the children and captures the boy's attention with creature comforts. The young children are enthralled by the spectacle of the faerie procession and do not heed other instincts, despite the warnings. They are too young to have had the full benefit of their mother's wise teachings, to fear and recognize faeries. While they sense the menace in them, they do not understand the implications of the black woman and the grim servants. All they see is the beautiful lady and the wonder that she is. They chase her apples; promises which will not be fulfilled, always out of reach, always enticing, ultimately illusions designed to lead them astray.

Replace the word "fairy" with "foreigner", or even "English", and additional nationalist implications emerge. Supernatural haunting becomes imperial dominance. The pomp and circumstance of the faerie procession become the trappings of an imperialist power. It presumes authority and superiority by virtue of its own long-standing tradition, implied in its 'antique splendour', and by virtue of birth, implied in its aristocratic grandeur. By likening the imperialist power to that of faeries it is rendered without authenticity or substance. Its only value is in appearance. It is unnatural, predatory and malicious. A harsh critique.

The faerie lady's companion is also representative of "Otherness", and suggestive of imperialism, and slavery. It is difficult to assess her role – we must not forget that the account of the encounter with the faeries is filtered through the perceptions of young children. Her exotic, dark countenance frightens the children. While they readily accept the overtures of the beautiful lady, they presume malice in the companion; they sense she is enjoying a private joke, perhaps at their expense.

Yet is it amusement that makes her convulse and shake? Or, rather, is it fear, for the children, that makes her quiver, and fear, of the lady, that makes her stuff her mouth with a handkerchief and stifle the cry of warning that she would utter? Is it anger, as the children sense, that radiates from her eyes or is it horror at what is about to happen?

In the lights of these alternatives, she becomes a figure of tragedy. Her face is described as a 'death's-head' which suggests a warning and a connection to the dead. One is reminded of the funereal adage, "As you are now, so once was I/As I am now, so you shall be". Is she a ghost? Is her colourful, regal attire the echo of an erstwhile independent nation, now in servitude? Is she a warning of what happens to cultures that are absorbed or dominated by other cultures? Alas, her "Otherness" distracts the children from the real threat.

The boy's ragged appearance when he is last sighted shows that his absence has taken its toll. Nothing is real in the faerie realm. He will have found nothing to nourish or sustain him. He cannot return, for he has been "marked" by the faeries and become lost on the border between worlds, between cultures. Thus the boy becomes an "Other", in both worlds; estranged from both.

He is in effect dead. His lack of headstone signifies that he has lost his place in the family history and subsequently his identity. Considered dead, and without an identity, he has ceased to exist. Loss of cultural identity is likened to death. Like the black woman, he has become a ghost.

The morale of the story, seen with this added perspective, is to preserve one's native cultural identity and to teach it to the young, and the tragedy that befalls those who become estranged from their heritage and their culture.

However, a number of questions remain unanswered.

Like so many Gothic, and, indeed, Irish, texts, there is a potential ambivalence which allows different perspectives and does not readily afford a resolution. It is important to remember that Le Fanu enjoys to play with the credibility of the narrator and the perception of the reader. If the children's account of the encounter with the faeries is open to interpretation, what of the rest of the story? Can we rely on the positive portrait of the mother and her traditions or does it contain hidden flaws? Can we rely on the negative portrait of the faeries? Is it only the children who misinterpret "Otherness" or does this apply to their elders as well?

Is the boy dead? Or is he dead because he has embraced another culture? From the very beginning the youngest son is singled out; he is the youngest, fairest and most beautiful of the children. Being different than the rest of his family, did his difference single him out for marginalization and non-existence? Was he an "Other" from the beginning? A "changeling"?

The question that emerges is whether the boy has become estranged through his association with the "faeries" or whether he has been rejected by his own family and culture by association with "Others" and by virtue of his own "Otherness"? Is he as much expelled by his own culture as "taken" by another? The black-and-white world of the folktale reveals shades of grey when appropriated by the gothic. What the inclusion of the black woman suggests, is that there are many forms of "Otherness", many shades of grey, and not just "Us" and "Them".

Few tales by Le Fanu reflect as strongly the torn identity between the English and Irish cultures and the feeling of estrangement, as does this story. It questions what we associate with identity – must our identity be an extension of our heritage? If we are denied an identity, does it mean we have none, that we do not exist? Can we appropriate a definition of ourself and assert our "Otherness" without being rejected?

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