I took a walk in Boase Wood the other morning, though not by the usual path. The right road was closed for maintenance. The other road took me through the forest, still grey and cold from an early frost. As I plodded down the path—wood chips now, leading to a stand of pine trees—I felt myself suddenly incongruous, a monstrous thing in tweeds blundering through some unknown and largely unnoticed world.
There’s a well-known illustration by Arthur Rackham in which the forest people, or fairies or sprites or goblins or whatever they are—the things that live in the roots of trees—are clambering up to get a view at the fabulous Man who is strolling through their forest. Even the trees themselves are watching, as the fairy folk hold up their young so they can see this strange monstrosity in a frock coat, with a stovepipe hat and spats.
The illustration is the frontispiece for J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (1910), and bears the title: “Kensington Gardens are in London, where the King lives.”
And the Man is, in fact, no other than Edward VII himself. This provides the basis for the strange juxtaposition of the dapper monarch and the twisted tree people; for most children reading the book, a king is as marvellous a fiction as the fairies, and about as likely to be seen on the day to day.
The image recalls Andrew Lang’s introduction of Bonnie Prince Charlie into his semi-satirical conte, Prince Ricardo of Pantouflia (1893); Lang seems to have assumed that a historical figure in children’s fiction is no less magical and mysterious than a fairy tale prince. Rather more recently, Doctor Who fights bizarre space monsters alongside real historical figures in carefully reproduced historical settings—and this is, remember, a television show for children.
Thus Rackham combines the two fables—there are fairies in the woods, and there is a king in London—into the same image; they occupy the same imaginative space for the child reader.
Yet the preposterousness of it makes sense. There is a childish logic to Rackham’s illustration: if the King lives in London, and the Kensington Gardens are in London, then (one supposes) the king must be in Kensington Gardens, and the people who live there will come out to see him, the same as if he were in Hampton or Edinburgh. That they happen to be fairies is, according to this way of thinking, almost beside the point.
For a grown-up viewing the image, however, Rackham has created a striking visual dedoublement. On the one hand, the viewer shares the experience of the child, calmly accepting the images as a whole, the king and the Kensington fairies. The viewer is standing behind the fairies, a bit larger than they are, perhaps, crowding with them at the barrier to get a glimpse of the promenading monarch. On the other hand, the grown-up also identifies with the king, and realises the weird juxtaposition of the image—and this is unsettling.
The King has his gloved hand raised in salute, but it is not clear from the image whether he is aware of his grotesque audience, or whether he is hailing one of his human, grown-up subjects. What is clear is that the King is the spectacle, and the fairies are gathering to see him pass. The fairies are bent and twisted in true Rackham style, almost indistinguishable from the roots and rats and trees around them. Their marked contrast with the careful lines of the King accentuate his strangeness. Like Alice in Looking-Glass world, the King is a fabulous monster, a thing of myths and stories, clumping around in daylight to the delight and wonder of the garden’s inhabitants.
It’s often said that fairies depict the Other, people and cultures not like the storyteller, people who are Not Us. This line of thinking sees tales of goblins and forest dwellers and fairies as being inherently racist, or at least used to promote racism and bigotry. There’s some truth in that, as far as it goes. But it would be wrong to presume that’s all the fairies are, or that that’s the only reason someone would choose to tell stories about them. The fairies reveal mankind as the great interloper. We—not they—are the fantastic Others, wrenching round the world with tools and words. Any living thing subtly shifts and alters the place it lives in. Only a person could think up something so preposterous, so flamboyantly against the pattern of nature, as to put a king in Kensington Gardens.
Stories and words emerge from this impulse towards the preposterous. We feel a need to codify the world around us, aligning it into syllables and shaping the syllables into stories, or sermons, or spreadsheets. It depends on who’s doing the shaping, really. The words themselves are monstrous things, ludicrous and defiant as the King’s well-brushed silk hat. So much writing and so many words seem false when they try to conjure an order that isn’t there.
A story allows us to have a controllable place in which we can order our own fancies with the simplicity of a child viewing Rackham’s image. We arrange words to suit our own proclivities. It’s easier to write things we like, things that reassure us by presenting the world as we want it to be—whether cheery and welcoming or gritty and hostile makes no difference—than to accept the world as it is, and to acknowledge our own, ludicrous unfitness for it. “Truth, of course, must of necessity be stranger than fiction,” said Chesterton, “for we have made fiction to suit ourselves.”
The spaces we live in, after all, are changing. If you’re paying attention, it’s easy enough to see why people believed there were fairies in the woods and along the shore, sometimes malevolent, sometimes kind. Looking at the constant shifting of leaves and branches, sand and water, it’s almost easier to believe that someone has been this way since we came here last—undoing our work and removing our traces. Quantum theorists say we change things just by looking at them. We also change things by clumping through them, or walking past them, snapping off branches or sitting down. Other people make their own changes. And the place changes itself. Words can’t keep pace with all that.
It’s odd, but I find I can almost never write about a place while I’m living there. Only once I’ve moved away and started living somewhere quite different, the memories—sights, and smells, and sounds, the whole tactile memory of being in a space—find their way into stories or songs. Perhaps by that time the place itself has become like the words: a bright, flashing abstraction. In the actual, physical place, the slowly shifting materiality is overwhelming. One can’t help but feel a bit cowed by it, a bit dislocated—like a king in Kensington Gardens.
I decided to go home the way I came, striking my way up the same path, Only I couldn’t find the pine woods, or even the barrier—which had certainly been there this morning—pointing back to the right road. Instead, I found a brass plaque on the wall with a name: Law Park Wood. No place I’d ever heard of.