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Fairies and Fusiliers

In 1917, the young poet Robert Graves, a veteran of the Battle of the Somme in 1916 alongside J. R. R. Tolkien, released his early verse collection, “Fairies and Fusiliers.” The title is telling, highlighting that the ‘fairy theme’ persisted during the later stages of World War I in the works of one of that era’s most gifted poets.

While many poems in the collection are direct realist pieces, several touch upon folklore or myth, including ‘Babylon,’ ‘The Cruel Moon,’ ‘Finland,’ ‘Faun,’ ‘I’d love to be a Fairy’s child,’ ‘Love and Black Magic,’ and ‘Cherry-Time’ with its recurring refrain ‘And you’ll be fairies soon.’ Although not all these poems have endured in later editions of Graves’s Collected Poems, and some are challenging to find, the 1917 volume unmistakably indicates Graves’s participation in a literary trend that boldly juxtaposed the imagery of fairies with that of modern warfare.

Tolkien vehemently disagreed with the notion that fairy-tales, mythology, and folklore are confined to childhood. He considered myth to be universal and far more significant, rejecting the idea that an affinity for fairy-stories was exclusive to his ‘nursery days.’ While he did develop an interest in fairy-stories as he learned to read before attending school (where he was homeschooled by his mother), Tolkien’s preferences also extended to history, astronomy, botany, grammar, and etymology.

Interestingly, he tended to skip poetry when it was embedded in tales, much like some contemporary readers skip verses in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. However, his appreciation for poems grew during his school years when he studied them in other languages like Latin and Greek. Tolkien asserted that his fondness for fairy-stories matured after he became an adult, sparked further by his experiences during the war. The question arises: How did the war play a role in Tolkien’s fairy-story taste being ‘quickened to full life’?

During the Great War, Tolkien’s planned book, The Trumpets of Faerie, a collection of poems, faced rejection from publishers Sidgwick & Jackson. Nevertheless, Tolkien and his Tea Club, Barrovian Society comrade, Geoffrey Bache Smith, experienced a moderate success with their poems appearing in Oxford Poetry. Tolkien’s contribution, ‘Goblin Feet,’ explores the open road and sprite-like creatures eluding the poet speaker, reminiscent of his poem about Tinfang Warble from the same period.

In contrast, Smith’s piece delves into historical reflection on the ancient roads built by the Romans. However, discontent arose within the Tea Club, Barrovian Society (TCBS) as they considered themselves antithetical to modernism, and reviews of the volume favored the more experimental poets, like editor T.W. Earp. The unfortunate death of admired poet H.R. Freston in action and Smith succumbing to shrapnel wounds in 1916 weighed heavily on their project, creating a sense of adversity against their literary endeavors.

The fantastical faced a looming threat during the Great War, leading some literary critics to argue that the conflict bid farewell to such elements. Robert Graves, coiner of the phrase “goodbye to all that,” expressed this sentiment in a couplet from one of his poems:

Wisdom made him old and wary Banishing the Lords of Faery

Graves’s words capture the prevailing sense that the modern world was displacing the old, a sentiment echoed in Rudyard Kipling’s story in Rewards and Fairies, depicting the fairies’ departure coinciding with the Reformation when old beliefs were discarded. Published in 1910, this story foreshadowed the cultural shift to come. Graves’s collection Fairies and Fusiliers signals the advent of new realism, yet several poems within it, like ‘I’d love to be a Fairy’s child,’ ‘Love and Black Magic,’ ‘Cherry-Time,’ still echo Edwardian and Victorian fairy themes that faced the risk of fading, akin to Tinker Bell on the Edwardian stage due to dwindling belief.

However, this conventional conclusion may warrant reconsideration. Both the readers (young men engaged in the war) and the writers (intellectuals documenting wartime experiences) exhibited a profound interest in various forms of myth, challenging the notion that myth and fantasy were completely ousted by the tide of modernity during the Great War.

Paul Fussell, in his work The Great War and Modern Memory, underscores the prevalence of allegory during World War I, specifically drawing attention to John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Concurrently, the romance quest genre, exemplified by William Morris’s The Well at the World’s End (1896), resonated deeply with the wartime experiences. Fussell notes that although he doesn’t particularly appreciate Morris’s work himself, it left a lasting impact on the literate men who fought in the war between 1914 and 1918. The novel, featuring a young man’s trials, his experiences with love and loss, and his quest for a fabled well in a medieval English setting, served as a powerful and unforgettable source of imagery for a generation grappling with the meanings of heroism, decency, and nobility.

Writers like C.S. Lewis, Hugh Quigley, and Siegfried Sassoon frequently alluded to or framed their wartime experiences in terms of images and episodes from Morris’s influential work. One such evocative moment is the valley of the Dry Tree in Morris’s novel, situated in a desolate amphitheater with a poison pool and scattered dead and mummified pilgrims. Hugh Quigley, in his diary Passchendaele and the Somme: A Diary of 1917, draws parallels between the war-torn landscape and deceased soldiers and Morris’s eerie image of the Dry Tree. This imagery, later echoed by Tolkien in the dry tree of Gondor and the Dead Marshes in The Return of the King, serves as a testament to the enduring impact of Morris’s literary contribution on the collective imagination of those who lived through the war.

While the Great War did contribute to the shift away from the medievalist themes in poetry and art cherished by the Victorians, it is crucial not to exaggerate this inclination, as several qualifications exist. Both before and after the war, modernist writers maintained a profound fascination with myth as a literary mode. Many of them incorporated the imagery of medieval poetry into their own works. Notable examples include Edward Thomas, who penned versions of Celtic and Norse tales, Ezra Pound, captivated, like Tolkien, by the imagery of the Old English poem ‘The Seafarer,’ and T.S. Eliot, extensively versed in medieval Arthurian literature and Frazer’s Golden Bough.

As highlighted by Thomas Honegger, Eliot extolled the ‘mythical method’ as a ‘simple way of controlling, ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history.’ Thus, the allure of myth persisted among modernist writers, ensuring that medieval themes endured even amidst the upheavals brought about by the Great War.

Renuka, a storyteller at heart, weaves threads of imagination and insight to create tapestries of narratives that resonate deeply with readers.

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