Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Thrown Snake Skins and Lords and Ladies

Hot as it was last week (back home in Romania), I was doing some digging, preparing a bed for sowing over-wintering broad beans, when I came across a thrown snake skin.

That in itself is not unusual (we have lots of snakes on the small-holding and I am quite happy about that - they keep the rodent population down and do no harm to the plants - and it is always thrilling when one comes gliding up onto the balcony to give a quick once over to the outdoor kitchen), but this was a complete skin rather than a fragment.

I suspect it was recently cast.

Looking at it I thought of the lines Oberon delivers in A Midsummer Nights Dream.

And there the snake throws her enamell'd skin,
Weed wide enough to wrap a fairy in.

It was beautifully 'enamalled', the reflecting sheen of light suggesting rainbows and brittle glazes: I could easily imagine a rare and expensive cloak made of this material wrapped around some not-so-delicate beauty parading the cat walks of Milan or London.

But however beautiful, it is still a strange item to choose to wrap anything in. Humans generally regard snakes, at best, with suspicion, if not downright hostility. They have associations with evil (certainly in Christian/Muslim/Judaic based cultures). Hypnotic maybe, but to deceive - the snake in the grass. "All the joy of the worm."

The reptilian head and the dragonish scales, all still visible on this thrown skin.

Why does Shakespeare give Oberon this particular image to say?

Whatever the Victorian Romantics and children's book writers have done to fairy myths, 'The Fair Ones' (sorry, stealing a Pratchett construction there) must have been a potent force in the lives of ordinary, country dwelling people at one time.

And that force was not benign innocence: Look at Puck, at his "jolly" antics - leading people off the road at night to get them lost; pulling people through briars (most modern town dwellers really have no idea of how awful it is to find yourself in a briar patch); getting a horse sexually excited to laugh at its enormous errection and frustration; making an old woman fall over by shifting the stool from under her (again, no National Health Service, or hospitals - a broken bone could leave you crippled and in pain, for life).

Fairies are part of the natural world, and the 'Natural World' is not governed by systems of morality.

Oberon's snake skin is a beautiful thing - and a dark reminder of the true nature of the world in which he lived.

One of the things Terry Pratchett's Lords and Ladies catches for me is this world of cruelty hidden behind the glamour and excitement of what was once called 'the high life' - a world most ordinary people read about through rose coloured glasses on the pages of daily papers, glossy magazines (snake skin enamal?) and the never ending chain of chat shows.

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