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Robin: Poetry about fairies goes back many centuries. Back in the fourteenth century, the father of English poetry, Geoffrey Chaucer, mentioned fairies in the Canterbury Tales. The Wife of Bath describes the fairies as a vanished breed, which I see as one expression of the ancient tendency of every human generation to believe that they are less romantic and more sceptical than the last.

When good King Arthur ruled in ancient days
(A king that every Briton loves to praise)
This was a land brim-full of fairy folk.
The Elf-Queen and her courtiers joined and broke
Their elfin dance on many a green mead,
Or so was the opinion once, I read,
Hundreds of years ago, in days of yore.
But no one now sees fairies any more.

Fairies actually do appear in two anonymous mediaeval poems, Sir Orfeo and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Sir Orfeo rescues his wife from the fairy king, in an English retelling of the Orpheus myth. The Green Knight is recognized by King’s Arthur’s men as a were fade – mediaeval for a faerie man. The knight has green hair, green skin, and green clothes, bears a giant axe in one hand, and a holly bob in the other.

The Green Knight

Two centuries later, Sweet Will Shakespeare wrote enchanting fairy lyrics for the fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and for Ariel in The Tempest.

Where the bee sucks, there suck I
In a cowslip’s bell I lie;
There I couch when owls do cry.
On the bat’s back I do fly
After summer merrily:
Merrily, merrily shall I live now
Under the blossom that hangs on the bough.

Oberon’s speech “I know a bank whereon the wild thyme grows” is one of Shakespeare’s best-loved verses.

From the same time, Edmund Spenser’s long poem The Faerie Queen is set in Faerieland and presents the Virtues through the doings of the Arthurian knights. The Faerie Queen, Gloriana, is Queen Elizabeth I in allegorical disguise. She sends forth the knights on their adventures from her romantic feudal court.

Robert Herrick in the next century wrote poems on Oberon’s Palace and Feast, while Michael Drayton wrote a mock-epic, Nymphidia; here he describes the fairy palace:

This palace standeth in the air,
By necromancy placed there,
That it no tempests needs to fear,
Which way soe’er it blow it.
And somewhat southward toward the noon,
Whence lies a way up to the moon,
And thence the Fairy can as soon
Pass to the earth below it.

The walls of spiders’ legs are made,
Well mortised and finely laid;
He was the master of his trade
It curiously builded;
The windows of the eyes of cats,
And for the roof, instead of slats,
Is covered with the skins of bats,
With moonshine that are gilded.

In the eighteenth century fairy poetry was represented by Thomas Tickell’s Kensington Gardens, which reveals the secret history of the London park. Again fairies are consigned to the distant past:

The landscape now so sweet we well may praise:
But far, far sweeter in its ancient days,
Far sweeter was it, when its peopled ground
With fairy domes and dazzling towers was crown’d.
Where in the midst those verdant pillars spring,
Rose the proud palace of the Elfin king…
Their midnight pranks the sprightly fairies play’d
On every hill, and danc’d in every shade.
But, foes to sun-shine, most they took delight
In dells and dales conceal’d from human sight:

These fairies of Kensington Gardens are revived in The Little White Bird in the early twentieth century, when they befriend the baby Peter Pan.

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Peter Pan in Scarlet coverRobin: Peter Pan in Scarlet is set many years after Peter Pan. Wendy and the Lost Boys, now quite dreadfully grown up, are having dreams about Neverland and fear it is in danger. They decide to return, but how? They try catching a fairy in Kensington Gardens by running about with butterfly nets but naturally only catch insects. Then they decide to coax a baby to laugh, a much easier plan. Fireflyer is hatched from the laugh, “a tiny, bluish mite with red hair and eyes the colour of honey”.

Fireflyer seems to automatically produce the fairy dust which Wendy and the Lost Boys need to fly to Neverland, once they have (rather unbelievably) regained childhood. He is always hungry, and though first fed on ice cream and scones, also eats letters and musical notes. He notably devours a cargo hold of onions and becomes as round and heavy as a cricket ball. He is a wonderful liar and very vain; in particular he doesn’t like to admit he doesn’t know much. He loves being the centre of attention and adds a new piece of fake fairy lore: “Fairies die if you ignore them.” He becomes fascinated by the stories about Tinker Bell and longs to meet her. In the end, he finds her in the most unexpected place.

Meanwhile, there is something very wrong with Neverland – its eternal summer has turned to autumn – its summer green turned to scarlet and gold. The lagoon has been poisoned – all the mermaids are dead and the pirate ship floats deserted on its waters. The fairies have divided into two factions, blue and red, and are at war.

At the waterfall the explorers see a cloud of glittering colour which they take for rainbows in spray. “One by one, the individual specks of colour separated and floated down, like rose petals at the end of summer. They brushed their upturned faces; settled on their shoulders. More and more fell: a light now of flaking colour. Like snow it mesmerized them – a dizzying downward whirl of prettiness. Instead of spray from the waterfall they could feel only the soft touch of a thousand thousand velvety fragments of loveliness. It piled up in their hair; it filled their ears and pockets; it tugged on their clothes. Tugged?
“Fairies!” cried Tootles delightedly. “Thousands of fairies!”
Suddenly the snow was a blizzard. Delight was replaced by unease then, just as quickly, by fear. The snowfall of tiny bodies showed no sign of stopping.”
The children are in danger as the fairies demand to know which side they support and they are baffled as they have no idea what is happening. Peter says the fairies are fighting over their favourite colour. Only his improvisation of a multicolored banner throws the fairy army into confusion.

The fairies reappear later and inadvertently save the children from ravening beasts. “Claws and teeth were useless against such an onslaught. The gaping jaws were soon crammed solid with prickly fairies; paws were soon pinned to the ground.” No doubt about it, these Neverland fairies are unnerving. They are compared to a spinning tornado-funnel, to a swarm of locusts, and to ants that think with a single brain. They are called “hooligan fairies”. They are utterly single-minded and cannot be reasoned with.

Of course most of the book is about the adventures of Peter and his party. The fairies, except for Fireflyer, play very little part. When Neverland heals, they call a truce, although for a while there are still “marauding bands of dandies”; you will also be glad to know also that mermaids eventually return to the lagoon.

Escape from the Carnivale coverColumbine: This exciting story is part of the Never Land series introduced by Peter and the Starcatchers. In this book the mermaids of Mermaid Lagoon have golden skins with green hair and tails. They are telepathic, but have learned to speak Mollusk and English. They have a beautiful and stern leader, Teacher. Surf and Aqua are playful young mermaids, identical except for their hair decorations.

Surf is looking for pearls with her twin sister Aqua and her friend Little Scallop of the Mollusk Tribe when she is captured by the crew of the Carnivale. The Carnivale is a carnival ship, a travelling show, and the captain plans to keep the mermaid as a star attraction. He imprisons her in a tank on deck along with various freakish sea creatures. Surf is especially scared by a scissorfish which tries to cut her long hair.

Little Scallop devises a clever plan to free her, using dolphins to distract the crew while James of the Lost Boys climbs aboard the ship. Meanwhile Hook and his pirates, currently shipless, build a raft with the intention of taking the Carnivale for themselves.

Columbine: This book starts with the weird premise that fairies are born from a baby’s first laugh. Barrie said in Peter Pan: “When a baby laughed for the first time, the laughter broke into a thousand pieces and they all went skipping about, and that was the beginning of fairies.” Whatever you may think about that, latterly, it seems, each baby’s first laugh produces just one fairy – it may be a Great Wanded fairy or a Lesser Wanded fairy or a Spell-Casting fairy or a Giant Shimmering fairy – or occasionally a Never fairy. The others stay where they are created, but the laugh which becomes a Never fairy sets off across the sea to hunt down Never Land, the roving island. So does Prilla arrive at Fairy Haven in Never Land, and the other fairies are breathless to see which “talent” she will belong to. But Prilla does not seem to know, so they try to help her by showing her around. As the members of a talent stick together and Prilla feels rather left out and lonely. She feels different from the other fairies, and she is. Not incomplete – as the mean Vidia suggests – but rather more involved with humanity than they are, as will become clearer when her talent is finally revealed.

A terrible hurricane causes havoc on the island. The Home Tree, where most of the fairies live, is uprooted, fairies are scattered and hurt, Mother Dove badly injured and her egg incinerated by a lightning bolt. This is a disaster, because it is Mother Dove’s egg which keeps Never Land and its different peoples eternally young. Queen Clarion asks Prilla, Rani, a water-talent fairy, and Vidia, a fast-flying-talent fairy, to ask the dragon Kyto’s help in restoring the egg. He is a mean dragon, so they must first find three precious objects for his hoard (dragons love hoards). Prilla thus gets to see quite a bit of Never Land – especially the pirates and the mermaids and the mountain. This is Prilla’s story, so of course she saves the day in the end, when all seems lost because of Kyto’s exceptional meanness.

Despite some odd ideas, this is a beautifully written book with an engaging, unpredictable story and strong characters. There is a direct sequel: ”Fairy Haven and the Quest for the Wand” in which Rani tries to keep a promise to a mermaid, and finds out that there is a reason Never Land fairies don’t have magic wands. The world of Pixie Hollow appears in other books too, though these are by far the best. For more see: Never Fairies by Disney

Columbine: The short but haunting and elegaic book will charm all ages.

Capri Beach Club is deserted one baking August except for 12-year-old best friends Hailey and Claire, and Raymond, the student who runs the snack bar. A fierce storm swamps the swimming pool and leaves behind a mermaid, Aquamarine. Hailey sees her huddling in a corner when she takes a swim in the murky pool, and sprinkles some marinated herring in the pool to tempt her to the surface. Aquamarine takes exception to being stared at, and is rather rude to the girls. However, she needs their help as she has fallen in love with Raymond, the first human boy she has ever seen – it is a bit of a weakness with mermaids…

“Her voice was as cool and fresh as bubbles rising from the ocean. She was as beautiful as a pearl, with a faint turquoise tinge to her skin and eyes so blue they were the exact same colour as the deepest sea.” She has silvery hair and tail, and slight webbing between her fingers.

The girls tell her she must go back to the ocean as the pool is due to be drained, but “they couldn’t know that a mermaid in love is more irrational than a jellyfish and more stubborn than a barnacle.”

The girls manage to arrange a date for her with Raymond, pretending she is a cousin of theirs, and find a wheelchair and a dress for her so that she can disguise her mermaidness. After that, Aquamarine promises, she will leave. Raymond is immediately enchanted by her, and Aquamarine gives him a shell, saying he need only speak her name into it and she will hear. He sees her next day and realises what she is: “Raymond’s eyes shone even brighter when he looked at her.”

But no mermaid can stay long out of the sea and Aquamarine comes close to fading away before the girls carry her back to the ocean.

Columbine: The first book about Fred the mermaid loses no time in establishing that this is a series aimed at more mature readers, with its crude references to mating and its frequent salty language. It is that curious hybrid, a modern romance novel.

Fred (Frederica really) is a rather gruff, graceless heroine. No sitting on rocks and singing in the moonlight for her. At 29, a marine biologist working at the aquarium in Boston, she is not looking for love. But that doesn’t mean it’s not going to come knocking.

Fred has known that she is a mermaid most of her life – the kind that has legs on land, as it seems is usual for merpeople in this particular fantasy world. As well as the tail, her mermaid heritage has given her green hair and made her super-strong. It also enables her to speak to the fish telepathically, which is handy in her work, although they can be rather demanding.

Sleeping with the Fishes opens with an embarassing conversation between Fred and her parents. Both her parents are fully human, so it comes as no surprise to her to learn that her biological father was just a passing fancy of her mother’s, who just happened to walk out of the sea one day. It came as a surprise to me that she hadn’t bothered to find out before she was 29, but I suppose that’s because she’s generally so taciturn and self-involved.

Her best friend Jonas is the only one outside the family who knows her secret, until she is spotted in the aquarium tank by a new colleague working late. Fortunately Thomas adores mermaids. Though he’s not too keen on Prince Artur of the Black Sea, a merman who claims Fred as his subject, but that’s probably just rivalry over Fred.

The two of them insist that Fred joins them in their endeavour to discover the cause of the pollution in Boston Harbour. Which turns out to be quite disgusting, by the way – though I cannot see how it drew Prince Artur to Boston, as it seems too local a matter. It is a familiar plotline too – fairy and human teaming up against the wicked developers.

This should be a light and entertaining read, but it’s not really. Or not for everyone. Even overlooking the crudity and “ickiness”, the plot is too thin and unconvincing, and the characters generally unlikeable.

Swimming without a Net, the second book in the series, is set partly in the Caymans, where Fred the mermaid finally meets more of her kind, and I’m not sure she’ll like what she sees. It’s hard to please that girl. Prince Artur and the “water-fellow” Thomas are still hanging around, and Fred is still undecided whether to be romantic with either of them. (yawn)

The big question of the book is – should merpeople, of whom we learned there are about a million worldwide, go on leading a secret existence or proclaim themselves to the world in the interest of saving the oceans? Surely humans wouldn’t continue to foul the waters if they knew people, even if somewhat fishy, were living in them? Hmmm…

If you liked the first book, you might bother reading this one – unlike me…

Columbine: This is the background to the series: Back in the mists of time, Neptune, the King of the Merfolk, fell in love with and married a mortal. Because it ended badly, the tempestuous monarch forbade all relations between merpeople and humans, insisting that any humans who had contact with them should be given a memory drug to make them forget. The ban has done little to lessen the attraction between the two peoples – on the contrary, young merpeople find the “forbidden love” especially romantic.

Over thirteen years before The Tail of Emily Windsnap starts, a couple of boats had got lost and capsized during a regatta yacht race. Some mermen helped the humans to land, and somehow, despite the rules, this was the beginning of a series of meetings which led to love and marriage for one couple, Jake, a merman poet, and Penny, a girl from the seaside town of Brightport. The illegal marriage could not be kept secret, and Neptune was furious. Jake was thrown into underwater prison and Penny heavily and repeatedly dosed with the drug.

These books are about their daughter Emily, who is quite unaware of her heritage.

Sometimes when there is a first person narrator, that person seems to know or understand about lots of other things that are going on and be extra-specially perceptive. But not Emily Windsnap. As Emily speaks through the books, her preoccupation with her own interests and worries narrows the focus of the fantasy. This perhaps adds to the books’ strong appeal, explaining why young readers have said it is like being there yourself.

There are several ingenious and improbable parallels between the undersea and land societies, with courts, and prisons, and especially, of course, “Mermaid School”, which is quite entertaining, with its classes in Shipwreck Studies with Geography Reef Trips, Diving & Dance, Beauty & Deportment, Siren Stories &c. I also liked the young mermaid’s bedroom with a big pink sponge instead of a cushion! But there are also some brief but haunting descriptions of the beautiful underwater world.

The other characters, although interesting, are rather sketchily drawn, all through Emily’s eyes. Emily is impulsive and insecure, with strong opinions about people. It was amusing to see Emily herself through Mandy’s eyes in the second book! Emily’s more foolhardy actions can be hard to understand – I found myself crying “No, don’t do that!” quite a few times – and sometimes have awful consequences. But on the whole she is pretty lucky! All three books end in hopeful reconciliations.

The books in the series are:
The Tail of Emily Windsnap
Emily Windsnap and the Monster from the Deep
Emily Windsnap and the Castle in the Mist

Columbine: The Tail of Emily Windsnap is the first in the series about a young half-mermaid.

Do you find it hard to believe that a 12-year old human girl has never been completely immersed in water? [Robin: I have known some sailors like that…] Emily Windsnap, who narrates her own story, explains that her mother, despite living on a boat(!) in a town called Brightport, is nervous of water and has refused to let her learn to swim, and that she has never had a bath because there is only room for a shower in their cramped living quarters. Unluckily, as it turns out…

When attending swimming lessons with the rest of her class at her new school, Emily has a shock when her legs start seizing up in the water. In the light of this experience it seems extremely rash of non-swimmer Emily to jump into the harbour water later that day when no one is around, but after an initial panic: “OK, so my legs had joined together. And fine, now they had disappeared completely. So what? It was good. It was… right” In this surprising fashion Emily learns she is a mermaid – or rather, a semi-mer, with a tail in the water and legs on land.

She is thrilled to meet a full mermaid, Shona Silkfin, out in the bay and to learn of a whole colony of merpeople quite close by – even a mermaid school! Shona soon becomes her best friend, which is nice because Emily has had trouble making friends at her new land school. They explore the underwater world together, including a mysterious wreck. Shona even smuggles her into mermaid school, introducing her as a visiting cousin.

Emily still has troubles on land, however, as she now has to get out of swimming lessons somehow, and her former friend Mandy seems determined to make her life miserable. She is also wondering about her absent father and why her mother cannot remember him.

When Emily finally meets her father (I was again a little staggered at the rashness of her action), she finds that he feels deserted too, and likens himself to the forsaken merman whose poem he has on his wall (unfairly, but then you have too much time to fret in a cell).

Emily’s determination to reunite her family leads to a confrontation with the equally obstinate King Neptune. The entrance of Neptune is one of the most thrilling moments of the book.

The next book is Emily Windsnap and the Monster from the Deep.

Columbine: Emily Windsnap and the Monster from the Deep is the second in the series about the young half-mermaid.

Emily Windsnap, Shona Silkfin and their parents, plus Millie the psychic, have arrived at their new home, Allpoints Island in the heart of the Bermuda Triangle. It is an enchanting place but Emily wastes little time getting into trouble yet again!

Emily is so eager to impress her new classmates that she is prepared to trespass in the forbidden lagoon, even though she does not plan to wake the destructive Kraken early from its hundred year sleep. Far from a Sleeping Beauty, the Kraken is Neptune’s pet monster, used by him to drag ships underwater. But this time even Neptune cannot control him, and you can imagine how pleased the irascible king is about that! It looks as though the only haven for merfolk and humans to live together in peace will be shaken apart before our friends have even settled in.

The narration of this book is shared between Emily, as before, and her former schoolmate Mandy. But surely, you’re thinking, Mandy is back in rainy old Brightport, miles and miles away from the Bermuda Triangle! Well, by an extraordinary coincidence, Mandy’s family (all pretty awful!) have won a cruise holiday in the Caribbean. I suspected some explanation for the coincidence would be forthcoming – some hanky-panky behind the scenes – but if so, we don’t get to hear about it in this book. Grumpy Mandy and her parents are the first victims of the Kraken, and are rescued by Emily. In return, they plan to capture her to exhibit her in Brightport (I told you they were awful).

The next book is Emily Windsnap and the Castle in the Mist.

Columbine: Emily Windsnap and the Castle in the Mist is the third in the series about the young half-mermaid.

This book starts right back at the time of Neptune’s wedding. He and his human bride exchange rings, a diamond ring representing the earth, a pearl ring representing the sea, symbols of the harmonious union between the two. Neptune magically enchants the rings so that they can only be worn by a happy mer/human couple, or their child.

Both rings are believed to have been lost since the disastrous ending of the marriage, but when Emily Windsnap finds the diamond ring buried in the sand after the affair with the monster, they realize the Kraken must have had it all the time. Neptune wants the ring back, but Emily cannot take it off – part of the enchantment. Neptune’s fury creates a storm which transports Emily and her boat far away to the castle in the mist, where she finds another semi-mer and learns the secret power of the rings.