Gilbert and Sullivan Archive



David Duffey: Sarah Mankowski wrote: "But there is one thing I've never understood: How was Iolanthe able to give Strephon all that wonderful mothering from the bottom of a stream? Her exile predates his birth."

I have always been amused by speculating on the inconstancies regarding the chorus of fairies as conceived by Gilbert. The idea that there might be a tadpole-like life cycle, with a fairy (or half a fairy) emerging from the stream in adult form is attractive. Otherwise, do they appear fully formed with an apparent age of seventeen at the moment of birth?

Then, in respect of many of the Strephons I've seen - and been - the upper half has not often appeared younger than the lower.

Barri Soreil: Kind Sir,

Iolanthe was not compelled by fairy law to stay at the bottom of the stream...she was "given all the pleasant places of the earth to dwell in." She was certainly able to emerge and mother Strephon for whatever amount of time a fairy/mortal babe might require.

In addition, may I point out that Strephon's upper half (fairy) and his lower half (mortal) should not appear any different to a viewer when his true chronological age is only 25! It is as he ages in the mortal world that this difference would become apparent.

Tom Shepard: I assume it is clear that the bottom of the stream does NOT mean that Iolanthe and Strephon were in over their heads and under water; only that they were downstream, as it were. Although Iolanthe emerges soaking wet, she certainly has been breathing air for the past 24 years. But then the prospect of Strephon being fully formed from the waist up as his lower half develops from infancy through puberty and into adulthood: this is a type of speculation I have never before encountered.

Thank God Gilbert didn't worry too hard about being inconsistent. Someone, I don't remember who (very likely the astronomer royal) said once that "Inconsistency is the hobgoblin of small minds." I find that phrase perfectly consistent with my beliefs. Ronald Orenstein: I think (mind, I say, I THINK) it was Ralph Waldo Emerson. NEILOE: Emerson, actually Harriet Meyer: Emerson is right! *A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.* [and style manual committees]

Judith Weirs: And why shouldn't they be living under water?? Lots of respectable water nymphs, sprites, mermaids etc. live under water. So why not this particular species of fairies also?

Barri Soreil: Obviously you don't have a love for fairytales or for the science fiction/fantasy genre.

It is not essential that fairies have oxygen to breathe. This is a mortal necessity. Since Strephon's upper half was fairy, he should also have had this capability. This still does not indicate that they spent the entire time until Iolanthe was pardoned underwater!
Sarah Mankowski: Iolanthe, being fairy, could live at the bottom of a stream for twenty-five years or a thousand years. Strephon's fairy half would certainly keep him from drowning, but I think that it would be most uncomfortable for his human half.

But when I wrote that spur-of-the-moment question, I was neglecting the obvious, and I'm absolutely shocked that no one noticed my mistake. Iolanthe clearly says that she came to live in the stream, to be near her son. So I think we can assume that she only moved into the steam, once Strephon became a shepherd. Robert Jones: But why a stream? Why not a warm, dry tree? Or a barn? Sheep must surely make better cohabitants than frogs. Which brings me to my question. The Fairy Queen states that she'll never have peace of mind until she knows why Iolanthe went to live among the frogs. Did she ever find out, or does she yet lie awake at night - while Willis snores tunefully beside her - wondering about frogs?

And why "on her head"?

Arthur Robinson: I think this was discussed a while ago. Doing something (e.g., time in prison) "on your head" means breezing through it. Gilbert used this phrase in a MOUNTEBANKS song, and I recently saw it used in an e-mail by a technologically advanced classmate of mine, so apparently some people still use the phrase.

In fact, I've suspected that one reason Iolanthe has been "at the bottom" of the stream is for the verbal contrast--not quite a pun--of "on her head, at the bottom." Maybe that's far-fetched. It also may create problems, as in the line from YEOMEN that, according to Martyn Green, Phoebe once misspoke:

WILFRED. Fairfax, who--
PHOEBE. Whom thou hast just shot through the bottom, and who lies at the head of the river.

Neil Ellenoff: Robert Jones wrote: 'And why "on her head"?'

Because what the fairy queen really said was "If you marry a mortal, let it be on your head"
(This is a New Yorkism )

Judith Weis: It is not a matter of requiring oxygen or not. All of the world's aquatic animals need oxygen, and obtain it by some kind of gills. There is no problem for fairies to have gills as well as lungs. And since it is Strephon's upper half which is immortal, he would have had gills there too. No problem for Iolanthe and Strephon to live at the bottom of a stream.

Tom Shepard: Whoa, gang, ....let's all take one deep breath and one giant step backward: we have suddenly entered into a new realm of speculation in which Iolanthe lives underwater and breathes with her gills!!!!! We'd better watch out for the Finale Ultimo when all the Peers sprout both a set of wings and a set of gills. We might have them then dive into the stream instead of ascending to Fairyland.

Sarah Mankowski: They can give Private Willis his own chorus of bull frogs.

Tom, I'm laughing so hard, I can barely type!

Theodore C Rice:


Wasn't there a class of characters in Star Trek who were equipped with both systems? I seem to remember one who had gills below the ears, but perhaps it's only wishful thinking....

Judith Weis: I don't remember - maybe there were. I know of a number of different types of fishes that can breathe air when the dissolved oxygen in the water gets too low, or when the water dries up... but I guess this topic is more suitable for one of my other e-lists...

And then of course there were the frogs, who, before they completely metamorphosed had both gills and lungs.

Enough of biology...

David Goldberg: Even so - it is said that Iolanthe 'went to live among the frogs'. Frogs must come up to breathe air; therefore, so did Iolanthe. Gilbert could have said that Iolanthe went to live among the fish or among the bottom crawlers, but perhaps anticipating this objection, he wisely did not.
Neil Ellenoff: Personally, I have always felt that Gilbert used frogs to make her punishment sound as unpleasant as possible without being gross.

Arthur Robinson: This sounds like the Mafia sending people to "sleep with the fish."

It also reminds me of when my sisters and I put on a marionette Iolanthe. As the Iolanthe puppet emerged from the stream, we heard from the audience the voice of a small girl inquiring: "Fish?"

Sam L. Clapp: Wait JUST a second. I hope you all are just being dreadfully literal and right-brain, (Whoops, that's left-brain. It's such a toil being bilateral!) but am I the only one who saw the appropriateness of the FQ's line: "I shall never...etc., I. went to live among the frogs" in a letter sent to a friend studying in France? A far worse punishment I could not imagine!

Bill Kelly: Fairly metabolism is based on the silicon rather than the carbon atom. They do require oxygen; but rather than exhale carbon dioxide, they shed silicon dioxide in the form of tiny quartz scales. This dandruff-like substance is what we know as pixie or fairy dust. Usually it is completely inert by the time it falls into mortal hands; but as James Barrie for one discovered, occasionally it retains fairy enzymes that have an unusual effect on humans.

Mary Finn: This post of Bill's reminded of a piece I wrote for the 1990 program of a production of IOLANTHE at MIT. (It seemed funnier at the time.) Please keep in mind that I majored in Physics in my misspent youth. Ahem.

We Do To Have A Notion!

by D.L. Fairy, et. al.

April 21, 1990


Recent advances towards understanding the basic structure of matter cast serious doubt on the work of W.S. Gilbert [1], which stated that the equation of motion for dainty little fairies is unsolvable. In this paper, the authors suggest that fairies will be found to obey Newtonian mechanics (ie: F = M*a), providing that the appropriate forces can de defined. For fairies, these include not only the familiar forces of gravity, friction, etc., but also the force of magic. Magic is hypothesized to be proportional to daintiness, an as-yet undiscovered sub-atomic particle. The theory of the existence of such a particle is supported by frequent references in the literature to "fairy dust." [2] [3] [4]

Spontaneous collisions between two or more highly excited fairies sometimes occur in nature. [5] By creating conditions favorable to such events (ie: rehearsing on a small stage), the authors were able to observe several of these collisions within a relatively short period of time. It was found that although moderate energy fairy-fairy interactions produce a great deal of invective, little or no daintiness can be detected.

Clearly, in order to better understand daintiness, and therefore magic, it will be necessary to design and build a super-fairy-collider. Several obstacles to such a plan are discussed, including lack of government funding, and strong opposition from the Fairy Queen.

Updated 28 November 1997