Monday, April 15, 2013

What I Mean by "Merrie England"

A lot has been said about why fairy tales take place "once upon a time."

The consensus, at least as I have seen it, is that the vagueness allows the fairy tale to take place at all times and any time, making it accessible to all people throughout the ages.

It also shows that the "once" and the "time" of the story are parallel places and times, a fantasy world where we are asked to suspend our disbelief and play along with the magical, absurd, and pure evil things that can and do happen.

The idyllic pastoral way of life depicted fancifully in fairy tales is hard to pinpoint historically, though research like scholar Ronald Hutton's shows that some aspects of Merrie England did exist before Puritanism.

While "real" life--as opposed to reality in fairy tales--is far more complex (those that  mean us harm are not clearly ugly; goodness does not shine through a benefactor; and justice is never quite as satisfying), fairy tales distill truths about our living world.

Skeptics scoff to call anything magical, but what is the birth of a child?  In this context, the word "magical" falls way short of the mark.  So in fairy tales, a train of fairies and angels attend a baby's christening.

Trees die and drop their leaves in the fall but resurrect in the spring, when blossoms appear on their branches.  So in fairy tales precious gems grow on trees and gardens bloom overnight.

Men kill other men without reason, and through violence and disease our loved ones are robbed from us before their time.  So in fairy tales, hideous trolls live under bridges and obstinately block the way, frustrating the crucial journey.

But I believe in the Merrie England of fairy tales in yet another way.  Its no-time-but-any-time-and-all-time suggests there is reality outside our senses.  If it isn't historical it is because it transcends history.  Something of this effect is tackled by Charles Williams in his Arthurian cycle, in which a Utopian Logres peaks for a time as part of a larger empire.  In The Lord of the Rings, the wisest and saddest of characters are always looking West, either for a sunken Atlantis or Blessed Realm with fragile ties to the physical world.

Boucher, Shepherd piping to a Shepherdess

Michael Moorcock critiques the worldview incarnate in Merrie England as having no place in modern fantasy.  On the contrary, I think fantasy in any other context is just pageantry, flashing magician's tricks and astounding colors, entertainment without substance.

Merrie England stirs in us two things: (1) the idea that common and everyday occurrences have deeper meanings and (2) that the reason we are restless is because there is an ideal world (whether it existed or not, whether it can be achieved or not) for which our hearts ache.


  1. "Common and everyday occurrences have deeper meaning.." in part because of the reality beyond our senses! :) I love this little post. It's so perfect for spring..when there is so much going on beneath the mud that we won't see for weeks and weeks!

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  3. Wow, this reminds me of Plato's theory of forms. And I bet all those people who philosophise and say fairy tales are pointless think Plato is worthwhile. Ipso facto, everyone loves fairy tales! =P xxx

  4. Very nice, thanks for sharing this. I'm new to this concept of "Merrie England."

    Apropos of A.L. Loveday's remark above on Plato (which I quite like): What would Plato be without the myths and stories? Story and imagination are springboards for philosophizing. (Or can be.)

  5. This is exceptionally beautiful--and I wholeheartedly agree. I haven't read Mr. Moorcock, but the worldview of Merrie England is ageless, and anyone trying to escape it entirely is limiting themselves to this often absurd and insubstantive--and certainly transient--age.

    1. Wow, four -ly adverbs in one paragraph. I need to work on restraint. :P

  6. I love this post! Thanks for challenging the notion of the foreignness of magic because life, in many ways, is already miraculous


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