Don’t you see yon bonnie, bonnie road
That lies across the ferny brae?
That is the road to fair Elfland
Where you and I this night must go.
Take the Third Road!
Happy Beltane, everybody!
Welcome to First of May: this big, abundant, sexy, mysterious fertility holiday!
The more you know about Beltane, the more there is to know about it. It is such with any high day: that they give themselves up to us, dimension opening upon dimension, as we keep meeting them. They make us more alive to celebrate them, because they are about the growth of the world, and also because they challenge us to grow: to answer for how we are and have been and where we intend to go, like a knight at the edge of a wood.
This holiday Beltane, first May, May Day, absolutely surges with life. Exactly six months across the Wheel of the Year from Hallowe’en, it’s that high day’s light twin, its mirror image: as much as Samhain is about death, Beltane is about life—the rising and making of life in its absolute teeming shaggy luxuriant fullness. But Beltane has this in common with its opposite number, that both are portals: porous places between times and realms. At Samhain, there is emphasis on the permeable cell wall between our world and the world of the dead. But at Beltane, it’s the wall between our world and the world of Faerie that grows thin. The intense green of Beltane is not just the grass stains on your clothes from making out in the woods and fields: that thick fluid bright living liquid green of the sun shining through the fat new leaves in the forest is the slightly subaquatic green light of Faerie. In addition to being a fertility holiday, Beltane is a fairy holiday, fraught with magic and possibility. That is important also to know.
Faerie, Fae, Elfland, the Underliving, whatever you presume to call it, looms close at Beltane. Time isn’t linear there, and the laws of cause and effect aren’t the same. Although that world may not be always happy, the music is good: around Beltane, I am drawn to old fairy ballads like a bee to nectar: to their inscrutable airs of mystery and alternating sorrow and joy, for the possibility of loss and gain and change, like in the song of Thomas the Rhymer.
There are many versions of the ballad, but here are the bones: the musician Thomas meets a lady in green riding her white horse through the forest. She tells him she will take him to Elfland, and there they ride to for forty days and forty nights, out of time under a sky where there is neither sun nor moon, wading the horse knee deep through a river of blood that is the life force of all the world. The lady tells Thomas that he will stay with her for seven years in Elfland and during that time he cannot speak or he will never be able to go home. What takes place during that time we can only guess, but at the end of the seven years the lady gives him a gift: that he will be a prophet able to speak only the truth. He becomes known as True Thomas until the end of his days.
On the ride to Elfland, Thomas and the lady come to two roads: a narrow road beset with briars, and a wide smooth avenue. ‘That one is the road to Heaven,’ says the lady of the narrow rocky one, ‘and that one is the path to Hell, although most people convince themselves otherwise.’ Thomas’s heart sinks. ‘But Thomas,’ she says, ‘can’t you see the bonnie road that lies through the ferns? That one is the road for us.’ And they ride this green road, a road of leaves and flowers, life and shadows and light, all the way to Elfland.
I don’t think two roads are enough ever, for fairies or for humans. The great tragedy of the prologue trilogy of Star Wars—besides that it disappointed an entire generation of 1970s and ‘80s children—is that Anakin, child of promise and talent with so much to offer, is presented with only two paths: the practice of the Jedi, which though disciplined and valiant would have him renounce the love in his heart as weak attachment; and the path of the Sith, which would utterly free his emotions but for which he would lose all discrimination. Any third way he would have to find independently, without a school or teacher. The story arc offers none, and the polarization destroys Anakin.
The two roads have ready answers: come this way to discipline the love out of yourself; or, come that where you receive no friction to follow any impulse. Even the good Jedi system, sure of its own completeness, has lost the ability to evolve, ask questions, and adapt, calcifying ‘til it cannot accommodate or reconcile the power of a human heart. George Lucas does not give Anakin the capacity or resources to negotiate a middle way for himself, through his own discernment and experience.
Love, and a life of love, is not easy: it is full of shadows and mysteries. Marina Stern writes, ‘We each have a fairy nature as part of our being. Love is part of that fairy-nature.’ Love is that bonnie fairy road. When you mistake it for a weakness, you become less alive; when you confuse its beauty with ease and gratification, you slide into a place where you are spoiled and where you never grow. But nobody can rightly do the work for you: love for others and love for yourself are tangles that you are never finished untying.
The third road, perplexing as it is, is the road for fairies and for those who would fully be human. It’s the road where you have to find your own way. There is no theology here, only magic which you don’t always understand. You realize the limitations of your teachers, go through seasons of loss of faith, accept wisdom when you can get it, struggle in darkness, have periods flooded with light and joy. Sometimes, like Thomas, the only strategy you have is to keep your mouth shut.
What happened those seven years in Elfland is Thomas’s story, and can’t be part of the ballad, for it is not ours to know. But know this: there are always more than two roads. Anyone who has been on both the others has known this, or hopes it. If you take the third, you will have to make your own decisions on it. No-one can give you all the answers, and you might—you will—get lost sometimes. But when you come out of it, you will have earned the ability to speak the truth.
And she took me away and she gave me the gift of prophecy. I don’t know if everything I say is truth, but I am closer to truth than once I was.
Blessed and bonnie be your road!
Photograph by Jeff Frazier, www.jefffrazier.com