Catching fairies- human abductions of fairy kind

colli

from the series ‘Catching fairies’ by Matt Collishaw

“The fairies have lost a fairy,
They don’t know what to do;
The rumours about her vary,
And all of them can’t be true.
They say she stood on a lily,
And fell in its depths immense;
But I don’t think she’d be so silly,
For she was a fairy of sense!”

Trial by Jury by Menella Bute Smedley

We are very familiar with the idea of fairy folk stealing humans, whether that is infants swapped for changelings or older men and women taken as lovers, wet-nurses and midwives (see the earlier posting on abductions or chapter 21 of my British fairies). There is also some evidence of the reverse process- for fairies being captured by humans.

As might be expected, fairies are captured extremely rarely and when it happens it seems to be a combination of extremely good luck, cunning and agility.  In two poems, Europe and The fairy, William Blake describes catching fairies in his hat.  In the former verse, he does this “as boys knock down a butterfly.”  Blake used the same butterfly simile in the latter poem, which describes how:

“So a Fairy sung/ From the leaves I sprung/ He leaped from the spray, to flee away/ But in my hat I caught/ He shall soon be taught.”

Speed and surprise are essential to catching a magical creature.

These incidents of fairy capture break down into three types, depending upon their outcomes:

  1. the captive fairy dies- in the Suffolk story ‘Brother Mike’ a fairy is caught by a farmer in the act of stealing corn from his barn.  He puts the creature in his hat and takes back to the farmhouse for the amusement of his children.  The captive is tethered to the kitchen window and there he pines away and dies, refusing all food. This compares to the story of the Green Children, also from Suffolk.  These two infants strayed from faery into the human world; the boy of the pair soon died of grief. From Cheshire and Shropshire come tales of the water fairy called the asrai. This mysterious being, in the form of a young, naked woman, is from time to time dredged in fishing nets from lakes and meres.  When exposed to the air they never last long, simply melting away in the bottom of the fishing boat before it reaches the shore.
  2. the captive fairy is forced to act against her will- Near Lochaber in Scotland a man somehow captured a malevolent glaistig that had haunted the neighbourhood.  He imprisoned it in an outhouse and, as a condition of its release, made it swear to leave the area and to no longer molest the population.  He and his family were thereafter cursed with bad luck for his  efforts.  A Welsh story from Llanberis concerns a lake maiden, a gwrag annwn, who is lured ashore with an apple and caught by a man.  She agrees under compulsion to marry him, but the marriage is subject to conditions which, as always happens in these stories, were eventually breached.  Lastly, from the Isle of Skye there comes an account of mass compulsion. A builder was asked to construct a byre to hold 365 cows at Minguinish.  When he had finished the walls, he realised that he knew of no way of roofing over the vast space.  Heading home, he encountered and caught a fairy.  He was immediately besieged by other fairies seeking to release their companion; the terms of his ransom were that they roofed the Great Byre, which they did overnight.
  3. the captive fairy escapes- the most numerous of these accounts culminate in the fairy’s return home.  Sometimes, as with the Green Children, the fairy is simply lost and is taken in by humans.  This is the case in the Cornish story of Coleman Gray.  The pixie boy is found wandering and distressed and is cared for by a human family, until one day he hears his mother calling and returns to her.  More often the fairy is caught, although not always intentionally.  An account from Dartmoor describes how a woman returning from market met a pixie gambolling on the path in front of her.  She snatched it up, put it in her empty basket and latched the lid. For a while he complained loudly in a strange tongue.  When he fell silent, she opened the lid to check on him and found that he had disappeared.  From Lancashire there comes a story of two poachers who were out ferreting and who, instead of rabbits, flushed two fairies from a burrow into their sacks.  They were so alarmed by the voices crying out from inside the sacks that they dropped them and ran home.  The next day the sacks were retrieved, empty and neatly folded.  It seems that the fairies bore no ill will for the incident; likewise in the story of Skillywidden, a pixie captured at Treridge near Zennor, the fairy does not seem too put out by his ordeal.  A farmer was cutting furze when he spotted the young pixie asleep.  He scooped it up and took it home where it played contentedly by the hearth with his children.  However, one day when they all slipped outside to play, the pixie’s parents appeared searching for him and he readily went home with them.  Readers may note that there is a farm called Skillywadden to the south of Trendrine Hill where this incident took place; this may therefore be prime fairy catching country…

It is also notable from these examples how often it is the case that a juvenile fairy is caught.  Presumably the reason for this is quite simply that they are less cautious and less alert to danger than their parents.  Secondly, whilst contact with fairies is generally something to be discouraged, in most of these cases there are no ill consequences for the captors; in fact, in several cases the human children play with the fairy child on terms of amity and equality.  In some of the other cases, it appears that the fairies may have accepted that it was their own want of care or simple bad luck that led to their capture and, as a result, no vengeance is exacted.

asrai

An asrai, by Clayscence
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Cobwebs and cloth- fairy spinning and weaving

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A witch conjures a storm with her distaff

“Swiftly turn the murmuring wheel!
Night has brought the welcome hour,
When the weary fingers feel
Help, as if from faery power;
Dewy night o’ershades the ground;
Turn the swift wheel round and round!”

William Wordsworth, Song of the spinning wheel

I have written previously on the fairy economy on this blog and in my book British fairies (chapter 9) but there is one craft activity that seems to be particularly associated with the denizens of faery: this is the making of thread and the weaving of garments.

I have recently been reading Hobgoblin and sweet puck, a book by Gillian Edwards from 1974, which examines fairylore through the origins of names and terminology.  It’s an interesting and entertaining book if you can track down a copy.  She noted that the fairies may be traced back through early medieval fees/ fatae to the original Three Fates of classical mythology.  They spin and sever the threads of our lives, so creating an ancient link between cloth making and the supernatural.

Much later, the Reverend Kirk has this to say of the sidh folk’s skill:

“Ther Women are said to Spine very fine, to Dy, to Tossue, and Embroyder: but whither it is as manuall Operation of substantiall refined Stuffs, with apt and solid Instruments, or only curious Cob-webs, impalpable Rainbows, and a fantastic Imitation of the Actions of more terrestricall Mortalls, since it transcended all the Senses of the Seere to discerne whither, I leave to conjecture as I found it.” (Secret Commonwealth c.5)

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Quite a few other sources confirm the connection.  Brownies performing household tasks will often undertake stages of the cloth making process, for instance dressing hemp (though at the same time their aversion to linen is to be recalled), carding wool and spinning tow (coarse hemp fibres used for ropes and the like).  The fairies are said to spin with mountain flax (according to Addy in Household Tales).

In his Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands (p.15) J. G. Campbell recorded that typical activities within the fairy ‘brughs’ included spinning and weaving.  In Evans Wentz (Fairy faith p.98) there is an account from Skye of fairies heard ‘waulking’ (that is, fulling) some cloth and singing as they do so.  At Green Hollow in Argyllshire there was reputed to be a cloth dying factory operated by the fairies of Lennox.  When humans tried to steal the secrets of their natural plant dyes, it is said that the cloth workers concealed all their materials and fled.  The hidden materials still stain the waters of a local pool.

The loireag is a Highland fairy specifically responsible for overseeing the making of cloth through all its stages, from loom to fulling. She was a stickler for the traditional methods and standards, apparently.  Offerings of milk were made by home producers to propitiate her.  Another Scottish spirit, the gyre-carlin, had comparable links to cloth-making.  It was said that, if unspun flax was not removed from the distaff at the end of the year, she would steal it all.  Conversely, if asked by a woman for the endowment of skill in spinning, she would enable the recipient to do three to four times as much work as other spinners.

Logically, of course, fairies had to be able to manufacture cloth and garments.  Their royal courts and nobility are marked for their sumptuary splendour and robes, gowns and other costumes of green are central to many accounts.  It is only really the Dobbies who are habitually naked or dressed in rags.

Nonetheless, this skill is not what might be anticipated, as it seems too settled and domesticated for the wild fairies of uninhibited Nature.  Perhaps the transformation of raw plant or animal materials successively into thread and then into garments was remarkable and impressive enough at some stage to give it an almost magical mystique.  There are sources which lend some support to such a theory.  In Hobgoblin and sweet Puck Gillian Edwards notes that in Sweden the word dverg means both dwarf and spider.  The dwarves too are said to have been famed for their spinning and weaving skills and to have taught these to humans.  The gossamer webs seen in autumn are further evidence of their craft, she suggests.  The miser who spied on the fairies at the Gump near St Just in Cornwall was overpowered and tied up; in the morning he found himself on the moor covered in spiders’ gossamer threads.  From the Isle of Man comes a story of a woman who went to a river bank and called upon the spiders to help her with spinning clothes (Briggs, Dictionary, p.138).  There appears to be here some equation between the almost miraculous manufacture of webs by unseen creatures and fairy abilities.  There could too be some aspect of fairy ‘glamour’ in all this.

Thread and cloth making are not only marvellous, the process may also be perilous according to fairy tales.  On the one hand, fairies may enter your home to carry out these tasks.  Such an intrusion is not just a trespass, but risks too close a contact with these unpredictable beings, and measures had to be taken to prevent it.  Several Manx tales warn how a failure to disengage the drive band on a spinning wheel before retiring to bed enables the fairies to come into a house overnight to use it for their own purposes. By inviting them in, albeit indirectly, you are placing potentially yourself in the power of the ‘Li’l fellas.’ In the Highlands, this precaution was Christianised and it was said that the band should be disengaged on a Saturday night to prevent fairy spinning early on a Sunday (Sabbath) morning.  It was believed to be the solitary female creatures the glaisteag and the gyre-carlin who would most commonly attempt to enter human homes to spin, causing nuisance and considerable noise through the night.

The danger of spinning can be greater still, though.  A number of fairy stories pair fairies’ spinning skills with a task imposed upon a human that can be both impossible and fatal if it is not completed.  The British examples are:

  • in Habetrot a girl must prove her female skill at the spinning wheel or face some unspecified punishment by her mother.  A fairy woman named Habetrot (whom Briggs calls the patron spirit of spinning) appears and assists her, along with a team of helpers including Scantlie Mab;
  • in Tom-Tit-Trot a girl has to spin a large quantity of yarn overnight or face beheading by the king.  The imp Tom-Tit-Trot helps her on condition that she belongs to him unless she can guess his name.  Fortunately she overhears it and is saved;
  • Sili-go-Dwt, Trwtyn-Tratyn, Terry-Top, Perrifool and Whuppity-Stoorie are all similar tales in which an elf helps with spinning and demands a forfeit unless its name is guessed;
  • Evans-Wentz relays a tale (p.97) of a girl who is abducted by the sidh folk under a hillock and is told that she will be held there until she has spun all the wool in a large sack and eaten all the meal in a huge chest.  Neither diminish and she faces eternal confinement and labour until another captive soul tells her to rub spit on her left eyelid every morning.  By so doing, she makes daily inroads into the wool and meal and finally escapes;
  • in the story if Welsh girl Eilian (told by John Rhys, Celtic folklore p.212), she was obliged to become the wife of a fairy man when she failed to finish the large quantity of wool he had demanded that she spin.  This would have meant she was trapped in Faery forever and could never have returned home to her family;
  • Addy in Household tales has a couple of similar impossible tasks imposed upon young women.  In one, a cruel old woman imprisons girls to work for her.  One is required to make twenty one shirts in a day- or face being “clammed” (dialect for pinched, that quintessential fairy punishment).  She is assisted by a kindly fairy, who later helps her escape; and,
  • lastly, readers may recall the Grimm’s comparable story of Rumplestiltskin.  A girl is imprisoned by the king in a tower and has to spin straw into gold on pain of death. The eponymous sprite helps her, first in return for her necklace and then demands her first born child- unless she can guess his name.

There is also a curious Scottish ballad called The elfin knight in which the fairies appear to be associated with superlative mastery of the tailoring craft.  A human maid is told that the only way she has any hope of marrying the fairy knight is:

“Thou must shape a serk to me/ Without any cut or heme, quoth he/ Thou must shape it knife and sheerlesse/ And also sew it needle-threedlesse.”

This impossible task is combined with a comparable demand to sow and harvest a field subject to unachievable conditions.  Needless to say the shirt is never made and the girl doesn’t get the boy.

rumpelstiltskin_louisrhead2

 

The stories listed above link two curious themes.   One is the power of knowing a fairy being’s personal name.  If you possess it, you can overcome and escape the creature; if not, you face perpetual subjection (see too chapter 19 of my British fairies).  Intertwined with this is the obligation to perform an almost unattainable feat on pain of death (or, again, of fairy enslavement).  Quite how these came to be involved with spinning skills is rather hard to explain.  Perhaps there is some notion of exacting a high fee for the teaching of the fairies’ remarkable craft knowledge.

One might offer a Marxist interpretation of these stories, arguing that we have in these stories a critique of the loss of artisan craft-skills through the imposition of mass production and commercial deadlines.  Individuality is lost as the worker is subjected to the anonymous discipline of the factory proletariat, with sanctions for failing to meet the capitalist’s production targets…  There may be some fun to be had here.  Certainly it seems significant that these accounts feature some of the very few individuated and named fairy characters.

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Habetrot

Two tribes- good and bad fairy folk

nils blommer-fairies-of-the-meadow-1850

Nils Blommer, Fairies of the meadow,1850

There are many types of fairy creature, but what are conventionally imagined when we think of fairies are what have been called the communal, mound or sometimes trooping fairies.  Many of the other, solitary fairies, have a tendency to be antagonistic to humans- if not downright fatal.  Folk lore evidence also indicate that there is a broad dichotomy within the communal fairies between good and evil.

This distinction can be traced back to the earliest times.  In the Viking Age the Scandinavians spoke of two classes of elf inhabiting Alfheim (literally ‘elfhome’- that is, fairy land).  These were the liosalfar (the fair or light elves) and the dockalfar (the dark elves).  The latter lived underground and were said to be ‘blacker than pitch.’  Their temperaments reflected their colouring.  There are also references to svartalfar (another species of ‘dark elf’ going by the name alone- svart = swarthy) but these appear in fact to be dwarves rather than elves.

In much later Scottish fairy lore a clear distinction is recognised between the seelie and unseelie courts.  The seelie court comprises the kindly, benevolent fairies who help the the elderly and the poor, assist the hard working, comfort the distressed and reward good deeds.  These ‘guid fairies’ can, nonetheless, act vindictively against humans if they feel that they have been slighted.

Secondly, there is the unseelie court, which is made up of the host of the unsanctified dead.  They catch stray humans and make them fire elf shots at other people or at cattle.  These ‘wicked wichts’ inflict harm unprovoked and will carry off unbaptised children.  They might harshly shave men they caught and the particularly resented those who dressed in the fairy colour of green.  Some of the solitary and deadly Scottish fairy beasts seem to be numbered amongst the unseelie court.

John Rhys said that the Welsh tylwyth teg could be both good and bad.  Investigating the beliefs of the area north west of Snowdon, he was told that around Nant y Bettws the fairies “were thieves without their like.”  They would steal milk, cheese and butter from farms and would pick pockets at the local markets.  Alongside them, though, there lived another branch of the ‘fair family’ who were distinctly more beautiful and who always treated their human neighbours with honesty and goodness (Celtic folklore p.83).

In England there is some small trace of such a tradition, though it is only to be found in a couple of allusions in literature. The Reverend Thomas Jackson, in A treatise concerning the original of unbelief (1625), wrote this (although he ascribed all such tales to satanic delusion):

“Thus are Fayries, from difference of events ascribed to them, divided into good and bad, when as it is but one and the same malignant fiend that meddles in both…”

His indication of two differing temperaments is also reflected in George Gascoigne’s The Buggbears published in 1565:

“… the white and read fearye… some lovely and amyable, some felowly and friendly, some constant, some mutable, of hylls, wodes and dales, of waters and brookes, we coonyng in that art can ken them by their lookes.”

Lewis Spence (Fairy tradition in Britain p.130) derives the British division into good and bad fairies from the distinction made in Ireland between the Tuatha de Danaan and the Fomorians.  It seems to me more likely that the influence of the Norse myths as recorded in Gylfaginning above was just as strong, if not more significant.  Perhaps the Gaelic and Norse strands combined in Scotland, resulting in the persistence of belief in the two distinct courts or tribes.

The other point to stress is that all fairies are potentially mischievous or malicious.  Some only act in this manner; others will be well-disposed most of the time but may be swift to be offended or irritated.  Plainly caution and good manners are required in any dealings with the supernatural, as I have warned before (see previous posts and my book British Fairies).

liosalf

One of the liosalfar, by Zephyrant

Of muggles and boggarts- and other fantastic beasts

the-bogles-in-the-courtyard-from-the-golden-ball-in-english-fairy-F3DMYA

The bogles in the courtyard, by Arthur Rackham

Following my recent remarks upon the authentic origins of Dobby and the other house-elves of the Harry Potter series, in this post I’m offering a few more thoughts and comments upon some of Joanne Rowling’s words and characters.

We’ll start with Muggles, non-magic folk.  There are several websites out there offering perfectly reasonable theories as to where she derived this from.  One site, for example,  proposes a word with a very long pedigree that has meant tail, young woman and, more recently, ‘joint.’  None of these have any magical or supernatural connotations, plainly.

However, it is well known that Rowling did thorough research whilst writing the Potter series.  Perhaps she came across this tale from the West of Scotland, recorded by J. G. Campbell and also printed by Lewis Spence.  A boy who was believed to be a changeling was sent by one household to seek the loan of a corn sieve from neighbours.  He met the son of that household, who was also a fairy changeling.  The latter told him to make his request in ‘honest language’ (i.e. fairy speak) as they thought they were alone together.  The child sent on the errand therefore said:

“The muggle maggle wants the loan of the black luggle laggle, to take the maggle from the grain.”

If his first words describe his ‘mother’ back at home, then perhaps we see her being identified as a ‘muggle (that is, human or non-fairy) woman/ housewife.’  This little story doesn’t have much at all to tell us about fairy language, but it might suggest a source for Rowling’s usage.

As for boggarts, we are on much firmer ground here.  The boggart is a well known type of British fairy creature.  It is one of a larger class known by a variety of related names- bogies, bogles and bugs.  Boggarts are probably amongst the more pleasant of the breed.  They are all solitary fairies, but boggarts tend to live like brownies in close proximity to human households.  Unlike brownies, they don’t seem to do much work around the farmstead but rather occupy themselves by being a nuisance, making noises and causing disturbance much like a poltergeist.  Rowling’s boggarts are shape-shifters and, on the whole, more malevolent.  She seems to have borrowed these characteristics, but not the name, from the boggarts close relatives.  Bogies range in behaviour from mischievous through frightening to downright dangerous.  They can change their appearance and often torment humans.  Bogles are evil goblins, although at least one is known to focus upon punishing petty criminals.  Bogg beasts are also a malicious kind of goblin, almost a demon in behaviour.  As readers will have seen, J. K. Rowling used traditional fairy characteristics, but preferred to apply the boggart name to the particular creature she imagined.

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Bogles causing mischief, by Arthur Rackham

In The prisoner of Azkaban in Harry Potter’s third year at Hogwarts his class learns about hinky-punks in their ‘Defence against the dark arts’ lessons with Remus Lupin.  These creatures are again borrowings by J. K. Rowling from authentic British tradition.  They are a form of will-of-the-wisp found around the Somerset/ Devon borders and they will lead night-time travellers astray, sometimes luring them into bogs and ponds.  The hinky-punk is believed to have only one leg and one eye.

Fairy healers? Some further thoughts on Ronald Hutton’s ‘The witch.’

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High Fairy Healer, from the card game Rage of Bahamut

In his new book, The witch, Ronald Hutton argues for a close link between local cunning folk (what he prefers to call ‘service magicians’ who assist their local communities) and the fairies, who frequently taught these individuals their healing powers.  He cites numerous examples, most of witch come from Scottish witch trials (there is only a handful of English examples).

As I have mentioned previously, I am troubled by the fact that this evidence is from one very unique source or environment.  What is the folklore evidence of fairy healing other than that linked to witchcraft?  There seems to be very little.  I can think of only a handful of instances even remotely resembling what the accused healers described:

  • in Layamon’s Brut the elf queen Argante takes the wounded Arthur to Avalon to heal him- and the same history describes how elves bestowed upon Arthur the gifts of good luck and other qualities at his birth (acting as the original fairy god-mothers);
  • there are a couple of stories from Shetland of the healing abilities of the trows.  One relates an incident when they were seen treating a jaundiced trow infant by pouring water over it- a human stole the bowl used and was able then to cure jaundice in humans.  In another story ointment is stolen from the trows which proves efficacious for any human injury.  What is particularly notable about these accounts is that they are almost unique in describing fairies succumbing to illnesses and curing themselves;
  • the Welsh tale of the fairy wife of Llyn y Fan Fach follows the usual course of such tales.  The gwrag annwn is persuaded to marry a human male, but eventually he violates the conditions of their betrothal and she abandons him.  However, in this particular instance, she maintains regular contact with her three sons, to whom she teaches healing skills.  They became  the renowned physicians of Myddfai;
  • in the Cornish story of the old man of Cury, the hero of the title rescues a mermaid stranded by the tide.  In gratitude for carrying her back to the sea, the mermaid offers to give him any three things he cares to request.  He asked, not for wealth, but for the abilities to charm away sickness, to break the spells of witchcraft, and to discover thieves and restore stolen property;
  • in the ballad of The son of the knight of green vesture a cow herd is visited by a fairy maid and is offered various magical objects, each in exchange for a cow. He swaps one of his kine for a jewel that heals sores;
  • as I have discussed previously, there are a few sites around Britain which are associated with fairies and healing- wells and standing stones and such like.  For example, the ‘Hob Hole’ on the North Yorkshire coast was said to be inhabited by a ‘hob’ who could cure whooping cough if asked; the fairies’ ‘dripping cave’ at Craig-a-Chowie in Ross-shire could cure deafness.  A particularly interesting story attaches to the Fairies Well near Blackpool (from Spence, The fairy tradition in Britain, p.156).  The water of the well was known locally to be good for the treatment of weak eyes.  A mother whose daughter’s eyesight seemed to be failing went to the well to fill a bottle.  There she met a small green man who gave her a box of ointment to apply to the child.  Before treating her daughter, the mother put some of the salve on her own eye, without ill-effect.  She therefore applied it to the girl, who was cured.  So far, this is a happy tale of a benevolent fairy bestowing his healing power out of pure goodwill.  However, there is a sequel.  Some time later, the mother saw the same little man at the market.  She thanked him for the cure; he was angry and demanded to know with which eye she saw him.  She was promptly blinded, as happens in all such stories of midwives and wet nurses.  It appears, therefore, that her offence was to apply the ointment to anyone but the person for whom it was intended;
  • in the French romance, Huon of Bordeaux, which was only translated in English in the later sixteenth century, there is a reference to a healing horn given to fairy king Oberon by four fairy ‘godmothers.’  Hearing a blast upon it will make the sickest man whole and sound instantly; and,
  • much later Scottish sources describe the sidh folk giving certain craft and musical skills to favoured humans (see Evans-Wentz for the examples of this).

And that’s pretty much it.  There is some evidence of magical healing powers, therefore, but next to none of passing on these abilities to humans.  If we take out the literary instances, we have a very sparse list indeed: we are left with the ointment from Blackpool, the Cornish tale concerning a mermaid rather than a fairy and the story of the fairy mother teaching her children at Myddfai (all of which have unique elements to them) along with the examples of healing at wells and caves (none of which contain any suggestion that the resident sprite ever showed any inclination to pass on its knowledge of cures). Usually, fairies are associated with harming humans, with blighting livestock and with bringing ill-fortune (see too chapter 20 of my British fairies).

The other notable feature of the witch cases is that the healing power claimed to have been acquired from the fairies was frequently specifically an ability to cure fairy blights. Unlike the range of ills cured by fairy wells and such like, the fairies only passed on remedies to harm caused by their own actions.  This is odd, not to say traitorous, behaviour on the fairies’ part.  Once again it makes me suncomfortable about these claims.  Why then was it that the suspect witches mentioned this beneficial gift?

There are 23 cases of witchcraft listed by Hutton.  Of these half involve claims by the healers of fairy teaching.  He notes too that about 80% of the defendants are women.  He speculates whether women were more likely to identify with supernatural helpers, whether they were more likely to be taken to court or whether they were most likely to be local magicians.  We cannot answer these questions, sadly.  It is notable that these cases peaked in the early modern period and were in decline by the eighteenth century, by which time magicians were believed to learn not from the fairies but from books and from the masters.

There were incontestably ‘wise wives’ in Scotland, dynion hysbys in Wales and ‘cunning folk’ in England who acted generally as healers within their communities and who sometimes offered to treat those who had been ‘blasted’ or blighted by the fairies (or whose livestock had).  It is far from apparent to what extent these individuals claimed to have acquired their abilities or treatments as the result of some special compact with ‘the good neighbours.’

Looking at the cases themselves, it is striking that, as well as claiming supernaturally derived knowledge, the alleged witches also often gave accounts of being visited in their homes by fairies (sometimes even by the fairy queen herself) or, alternatively, they might visit the fairies under their hills.  These contacts often occurred at night and they not infrequently led to long term sexual relationships.  In these regular and deliberate contacts, the witchcraft suspects were unusually honoured.  The witch cases may be abnormal because of the insistence by the human partner upon these regular and intimate contacts over an extended period.  I wonder, in fact, if this may indicate something significant about this handful of defendants.

It seems to me that there may be two explanations for the statements made by the suspected witches.  The first may be that there was something distinctive about the individual claimants themselves.  They have departed from fairy-lore conventions in making themselves ‘stars of the show’ by claiming these special associations.  Might they have ended up under arrest and accused by their neighbours because they had a tendency to boast, even because they had some sort of mental health problem that attracted attention in their villages and small towns?  Claims of fairy favour and love might equally have been a way of claiming some sort of status in their communities and, as noted, most of the accused were women who may well have felt economically and socially disadvantaged within the strictures of a strictly Presbyterian, hierarchical and patriarchal society.

As stated, these cases are at odds with the overall trend of recorded fairy belief, which ought to make us cautious about the claims.  Given that our ‘good neighbours’ were known for their proclivity for afflicting humans, it was presumably not a great leap of imagination to propose that, with the proper propitiations and knowledge, the fairies could help take off those curses.  It is interesting, too, that only a few ventured to lay claim to such powers; they constitute a minority of a minority, from whose accounts it may not be safe to conclude that it was widely believed that fairies passed on whatever medical skills they possessed to humankind.

The explanation outlined in the last couple of paragraphs may at least explain some of the elaboration in these accounts.  My second proposed explanation for the claims to fairy-taught powers is a great deal simpler and may be far more probable.  Many of the cures used by these healers (drinking water in which ‘elf-arrows’ had been immersed, magic circles, use of metal blades) were very far from new; they can be traced right back to Anglo-Saxon cures for elf afflictions.  They appear therefore to be traditional cures handed down over generations.  If this is correct, the accused witches plainly learned their craft from someone else- a relative or skilled teacher.  Alleging that the fairies taught them their knowledge protected the real, living sources of their remedies.   Once they were in the hands of the authorities, the accused probably realised that their prospects of acquittal were limited; what could be more understandable then than to try to protect family members and others from the same fate?  The fairies were never going to be arrested and burned.  This may be a far better explanation of these anomalous claims.

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Fairies flitting

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To be clear at the outset, this posting is not about fairies fluttering from flower to flower on their gauzy wings.  In the dialect of northern England, and certainly south Yorkshire where I grew up, a flit is a move of home.  Common enough with humans, it is, surprisingly, something for which fairy kind is also known, contradicting preconceptions of their timeless presence in particular localities,  under certain distinctive fairy hills, in groves or near standing stones.

Our best and most picturesque account comes from the Rev. Robert Kirk in the Secret Commonwealth.  In chapter 2 he describes how:

“They remove to other Lodgings at the Beginning of each Quarter of the Year, so traversing till Doomsday, being imputent and [impotent of?] staying in one Place, and finding some Ease by so purning [journeying] and changing Habitations. Their chamælion-lyke Bodies swim in the Air near the Earth with Bag and Bagadge; and at such revolution of Time, Seers, or Men of the second sight, (Fæmales being seldome so qualified) have very terrifying Encounters with them, even on High Ways; who therefoir uswally shune to travell abroad at these four Seasons of the Year…”

Aside from the wandering tendency of the sidh folk, what is noticeable too is that they seem tied to the points in the human calendar when leases tended to expire (although it might fairly be remarked that these themselves mark the major seasonal festivals of the year- the solstices and equinoxes.  Secondly, there is the quaintly appealing image of the fairies floating along with their luggage.  Given their magical powers, you might suppose there were easier ways to move house.

This constant motion may, perhaps, explain some of the fairies’ notorious elusiveness. Over and above a natural preference for change, there are a few other reasons why fairies might change their residences:

  • they are driven from their homes- the supernaturals may find themselves obliged to move either because they no longer feel welcome in their abode or because physical conditions there have become intolerable.  The first situation tends to arise with brownies- well meaning householders will try to give them clothes as a reward for their hard work or in pity at their nakedness, but this always causes offence and can lead to loss of the being’s voluntary labouring.  The second impulse for departure is very frequently the noise of church bells, which the creatures can find unbearable.  Such stories come from Inkberrow in Worcestershire and from Exmoor.  The pixies residing on a farm at Withypool had to retreat to the other side of Winsford Hill, a distance of around four to five miles, to escape the sound of the ‘ding-dongs.’  For this they begged use of the farmer’s cart and horses, another instance of the very physical inconvenience caused to them (just like us).
  • they flit with their families- I have mentioned this before: sometimes humans can find their supernatural housemates (typically boggarts) so vexing that they resolve the move away and leave them.  This always proves impossible; at some point during the removal it will be discovered that the entire household including the sprite has packed up and is on the move: a voice from within the cart piled high with belongings will confirm “aye, we’re flitting.”  Very frequently the response to this is simply to turn round and head back to the old, familiar home.

These rather aberrational accounts make fairies seem much like us: their tenancies expire, their neighbours get on their nerves and, rather than sorting out the problem where they are, they move on.  It humanises and domesticates them as well, in several of the cases, as stressing their inextricable links with humankind.

Perhaps the other aspect of these reports is to instil in us an expectation and acceptance that fairies may remove themselves from our locale.  For many hundreds of years it has been said that ‘fairies used to be seen round here- but no longer.’  Herein lies the reason: they have not ceased to exist, they have simply moved elsewhere.  The explanation helps sustain the belief; we don’t see them anymore, but someone else does now and- perhaps- some others might move into our neighbourhood soon if we’re lucky.

Green children and fairy maids- The medieval roots of British fairy traditions

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I have just finished reading Professor Ronald Hutton’s new book The witch.  As is obvious from the title, this is an in-depth study of witches and witchcraft from ancient times up until the close of the witch trials in the seventeenth century.  In fact, it is more of a work of historiography, surveying the research and theories of other scholars, than a pure history of the subject.  Chapter 8 concerns witches and fairies- hence my interest; I have written on this before myself on this blog and in my book British fairies.

Hutton considers the links between local magicians and healers and the fairies; he also gives an outline of the evolution of British fairy lore as crystallised in its fullest form in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.  It is his sketch of the development of the mythology that I wish to examine in this posting.

Hutton proposes that there were seven key elements to British fairy belief in the middle ages.  These all seem to have been in place by 1200 at the latest, but it is reasonable to suppose that they originate a good deal earlier, perhaps even pre-Conquest (see for this my posting on Anglo-Saxon elves).  The main twelfth century sources are a verse history of Britain composed by Layamon (c.1200), chronicles written by Ralph of Coggeshall (died 1200) and William of Newbury (1136-98- and who is also called Newburgh and Newbridge), De nugis curialium by Walter Map (1140- 1210), the tour of Wales by Gerald of Wales (1146-1223) and Otia Imperialia by Gervase of Tilbury (1150-1228).  These contain various ‘fairy’ stories and accounts of recent supernatural events and encounters.

These key fairy-lore features are as follows:

  • the fairies inhabit a parallel world- several stories illustrate this.  The underground realm of fairyland is visited in the stories of Elidyr and King Herla whilst the Green Children of Woolpit stray into rural Suffolk from there.  A notable feature that is several times mentioned is the curious half-light that prevails in faery; there is neither sun nor moon, but a dim luminosity like torchlight;
  • they have the ability to enter our world and steal children– Ralph of Coggeshall’s story of ‘Malekin’ demonstrates this.  She was stolen by the fairies from a cornfield where her mother was working during harvest; rather like a ghost she could contact the human world but not return to it;
  • there are portals to faery- in the account of Elidyr he enters fairyland by a river bank; in King Herla it is a cave in a cliff; the Green Children follow a long tunnel that leads them out of ‘St Martin’s Land.’  William of Newbury locates a fairy feast under a barrow, a quintessential fairy locale;
  • beautiful fairy women– they dance at night and will sometimes wed humans- but always subject to conditions that are inevitably broken.  The story of Wild Edric epitomises the irresistible beauty of the fairy bride and her unavoidable loss (see later).  In Layamon’s Brut the lovely elf queen Argante takes Arthur to Avalon after the battle of Camlann to heal and care for him.  Readers may also recall the ‘aelfscyne’ or elf-bright women of Saxon myth I have described before.  Lastly,  there is evidence suggesting that the fairy women could have their own independent sexuality (or be loose and lustful to medieval minds) as well as being beautiful.  There are menacing accounts in thirteenth century sources of elf women visiting men at night as succubi.  The sister of the Green Children grew up, it was said, to have quite lax morals- an indicator perhaps of her fairy birth (although one might equally suggest that her conduct was a reaction to the shock of becoming an orphan and a refugee);
  • green colour- the Green Children at Woolpit emerged into this Middle Earth green tinged and would only eat green beans at first, although their colour faded as their diet changed;
  • the fairies can bless or torment humans- according to the historian Layamon, King Arthur was blessed by elves at his birth (our earliest fairy godmother account). Conversely, Gervase of Tilbury tells of a fairy horn stolen by a hunter in Gloucestershire.  It brings with it bad luck and the man is executed for his theft; and,
  • they may live in human homes- Gervase of Tilbury tells of the ‘portunes’ who closely resemble brownies.  They work on farms, doing any work required however hard; they serve the household but never injure them and, at nights, they enter the house and cook frogs on the fire.

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Queen Argante

These are Hutton’s seven core aspects of British fairylore.  From the medieval accounts I think we can add at least eleven more:

  • time passes differently in faery- when King Herla returns to the human world he is warned not to step from his horse until a small dog given to him has leaped to the ground.  A couple of his retinue forget this and dismount from their steeds; they instantly crumble to dust for he has been away several hundred years, although to him it seemed but hours.  It is said that he and his company are still riding, waiting for the dog to jump down.  The story of Malekin also has a typical feature: she has been seven years in fairyland, she says, and must remain another seven before she may return home.  Seven is a common magic number in faery measurements of time.  A delay of a year between events is also seen.  King Herla celebrates his wedding and, a year later, visits the king of faery to celebrate his.  The same commitment to meet a year later also appears in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight;
  • feasting– is a major fairy fairy pastime, as in the stories of King Herla and the account by William of Newbury of a fairy cup stolen from a banquet under a barrow;
  • mischief- although generally benevolent, the portunes do like to play tricks on humans by leading their horses into ponds when they are out riding at night.  A thirteenth century sermon also speaks of  ‘all such ben led at night with gobelyn and erreth hither and thither’.
  • diminutive size– clearly some fairies, such as the fairy maidens and wives, approach normal stature; nonetheless, the portunes are said to be only a half inch high (probably a mistake for half a foot/ 6″) and the fairies in King Herla are described as apes, pygmies, dwarves and half human size.  The fairies met by Elidyr are likewise small, but by contrast the Green Children, the fairies under the barrow seen in William of Newbury’s story and the bearers of the fairy horn in Gloucestershire are all of normal proportions.  At the other extreme, indeed, the fairy maidens seen dancing by Wild Edric described as being taller and larger than human women;
  • marriage subject to conditions- as mentioned above, fairy maids will wed human husbands, but there is always a catch.  In Wild Edric the hero was warned never to mention her sisters; of course, he did, and she promptly left.  Walter Map described the experience of Gwestin of Gwestiniog, who captured a fairy wife at Llangorse Lake in the Brecon Beacons (De nugis II, xi).  She lived with him and raised a family, but he was told never to strike her with a bridle.  Eventually, accidentally, this happened and forthwith she and all but one of the children disappeared.  This is the first of many such stories from Wales;
  • warnings- Gervase describes the ‘grant’ which is a foal-like creature which warns villagers of fire;
  • honesty & keeping promises is vital to fairy-kind.  This an element in King Herla (and in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight); it is also seen in the story of Elidyr, who reported that the supernatural people he met never took oaths and abhorred lying;
  • fairies disappear at will (as in the story of King Herla) and generally remain invisible to normal human sight (as with the changeling Malekin).  This concealment can be overcome in two ways.  A person might apply a magic ointment.  Gervase of Tilbury mentions this in an account of the dracae water spirits of Brittany.  It is a regular feature of later British fairylore and may either have been imported from Brittany or may share the same ‘Celtic’ origin. Alternatively, it may be possible to obtain the second sight through contact with a ‘seer.’  This again is a feature of later lore (see Evans-Wentz for example) but in the life of the hermit Bartholomew who lived on the island of Farne in the late twelfth century the saint is told that he may see swarms of demons by placing his foot upon that of another, so that it seems this technique had a long pedigree;
  • foreknowledge of events- this supernatural power is mentioned in the story of King Herla;
  • a liking of dairy products- in Gerald of Wales’ account of Elidyr’s childhood visits to fairyland, he mentions their vegetarian diet and their preference for junkets.  This later became a significant theme in Elizabethan literature; and,
  • they may need human help, especially at child birth.  Gervase of Tilbury’s story of the Breton dracae also features the theme of the midwife to the fairies, later a regular element in many fairytales.

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All of these characteristics will be recognised in later fairylore and all have been described in previous postings and in my book British fairies.  However, Ronald Hutton suggests that what we would recognise as the British fairy tradition didn’t fully emerge for another 300 years or so, and that it depended upon the assimilation of continental motifs.  He suggests two in particular that were late arrivals in British folk belief:

  • the changeling idea- the idea of substituting a fairy for a human child is, he proposes, an import from Northern Europe.  As we have seen with the story of Malekin, the risk of fairies stealing human children was already well established in Britain at an early date, as was a close affinity between fairies and children- witness the Green Children or the story of Elidyr.  It is not entirely clear then whether we simply lack the evidence of the substituted stock or aged elf or whether this was indeed a last detail borrowed from abroad and added to the established tradition;
  • visiting houses and dairies at night, rewarding the clean and neat and punishing the dirty.  Hutton believes that this derives from continental myths of the good company of ‘the lady’ who could bring blessings to homes.  He may be right in this, but again many of the elements for this belief were plainly already in place- the presence of portunes in some homes and the liking for milk and cream- so that it needed little external influence for the ideas to coalesce; and,
  • fay maids–  Hutton proposes that these beings were inspired by literature.  It is quite true that chivalric romance is full of magical, semi-human women such as Morgan le Fay, but as we have already seen they were well known to British audiences at a much earlier date and may have contributed to Arthurian legend just as well as being derived from it.

On the evidence I have set out, I am inclined to think that the British fairy tradition evolved in recognisable form a good deal earlier than Professor Hutton suggested, although it seems incontestable that continental influences may have helped to refine and emphasise certain themes.

Brownies in literature- from Mrs Ewing to Dobby

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The brownie is one of the most intriguing creatures of British folklore.  Fairies can seem alien and elusive, seldom seen and dangerous when they are encountered, whereas the brownie is domestic, helpful and ever-present.  I have described this homely presence in many northern British homes and farmsteads in my book British fairies and in an earlier post; what I wish to discuss here is the literary history of the brownie- and how we arrived at the characters of Dobby, Winky and Creacher in the Harry Potter series of novels.

One of the earliest appearances of the brownie in literature (as opposed to folklore) is in the work of Victorian children’s writer Mrs Juliana Horatia Ewing, who was born in Yorkshire in 1841.  Whilst growing up she often acted as storyteller to the rest of her family and, aged 23, her best-known story, The Brownies, was published in the Monthly Packet with illustrations by George Cruikshank.

The Brownies and the related story, Lob-lie-by-the-fire (1874) both ostensibly concern household elves, and relay much traditional lore about them, but in Lob the lob is revealed to be just the orphaned stable boy John Brown whilst in The Brownies we are let in on the secret well before the end that “All children are Brownies” and that “there [are] no brownies but children.”  In fact, Mrs Ewing was far more interested in teaching children to be helpful and obedient to their parents than she was in recording authentic folklore.

In The Brownies two lazy and selfish boys called Tommy and Johnnie are taught the virtues of helping their widowed father with his trade and household chores:

“The Brownies, or, as they are sometimes called, the Small Folk, the Little People, or the Good People, are a race of tiny beings who domesticate themselves in a house of which some grown-up human being pays the rent and taxes…  When they are idle and mischievous, they are called Boggarts, and are a curse to the house they live in. When they are useful and considerate, they are Brownies, and are a much-coveted blessing… in time these Little People are Brownies no longer. They grow up into men and women.”

When Tommy and Johnnie have learned their lesson and begin to help their father, good luck returns to the house:

“Before long Tommy began to work for the farmers, and Baby grew up into a Brownie, and made (as girls are apt to make) the best house-sprite of all. For, in the Brownie’s habits of self-denial, thoughtfulness, consideration, and the art of little kindnesses, boys are, I am afraid, as a general rule, somewhat behindhand with their sisters… For these Brownies -young ladies!- are much desired as wives, whereas a man might as well marry an old witch as a young Boggartess.”

Mrs Ewing knew her folklore very well, even she did not apply it directly in her stories.  Brownies, lobs and hobs bring good fortune.  For the expense of a bowl of water, milk or cream and some fresh bread, the house-elf would do the work of many servants: sweeping and laying the fire, setting out breakfast, tidying rooms, weeding the garden, threshing the corn, cleaning the stable, cutting wood, thinning the turnips and lifting potatoes.  Householders knew not to alienate their brownies: they were not to reward them with clothes or money, they were to show them respect and they knew not to boast or gossip about them, not to spy upon their labours and not to preach to them.  If these precepts were respected, a farmstead would thrive.  In Lob-lie-by-the-fire it was believed that the lob’s presence meant that the crops improved, the hens laid well, rats did not eat the ducklings, no fowl were stolen and the butter churned better.

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The next significant appearance of brownies was in the work of Canadian illustrator Palmer Cox (1840-1924). He produced a series of brownie titles which have been claimed as “the first commercial comic books.”  Each of these dozen books were prefaced by a brief statement that:

“Brownies, like fairies and goblins, are imaginary little sprites, who are supposed to delight in harmless pranks and helpful deeds.  They work and sport while weary households sleep, and never allow themselves to be seen by mortal eyes.”

This is a fair summary of the established lore, but it is not reflected in the books themselves, which comprise numerous illustrations interspersed amongst verse- for example, here is the ‘Brownies’ ride’ from The Brownies: their book of 1887:

“One night a cunning Brownie band/ Was roaming through a farmer’s land/ And while the rogues went prying round/ The farmer’s mare at rest they found.”

A few of the series titles and chapter headings will illustrate how far Cox had travelled from authenticity.  In the first book, The Brownies, readers were entertained by brownies on skates, bicycles and roller skates, brownies playing tennis and baseball and brownies enjoying canoeing and tobogganing and visiting a gym, the seaside and a toy shop.  In 1890’s Another brownie book readers were amused by brownies fishing, kite flying, yacht racing, learning to swim and dance and attending a fancy ball.  And so on; the books were immensely popular and were used by some forty companies including Kodak (the ‘box brownie’ camera) and Proctor and Gamble.

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In The brownies and Prince Florimel brownies are described as being the size of twelve year olds, often perching on fences and hiding adroitly whenever danger threatens. This conforms to conventional imagery, but as will have been seen in the verse quoted earlier, Cox has them partaking of their adventures in swarms, more like pixies or spriggans than the solitary creatures they were originally conceived as.  In the same story, by the way, the fairies are ruled by Queen Titania and are tiny; they “never grew old and always remained beautiful.  Their loveliness of face and form was beyond all description.  Just try to think of the prettiest girl you ever saw.  Well, even the plainest of these fairies were ever so much prettier.”

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In the 1920s and ’30s Enid Blyton adopted brownies as the subjects of several children’s books, including The book of the brownies, The little brownie house, Snicker the brownie, The brownie who pulled faces, My first nature book- brownie magic and several others. The first book mentioned seems typical: naughty brownies Hop, Skip and Jump are always playing tricks; they are then tricked themselves by Witch Green Eyes into helping her to abduct fairy princess Peronel.  For this the three are expelled from fairyland and set out on an adventure to rescue her.  Very much like Cox, Blyton’s fairies seem a good deal more like pixies than the traditional solitary creatures who labour on farms.

It was not until the late 1990s and the appearance of the Harry Potter series that brownies were restored to something resembling their original character in children’s literature.  J K Rowling had plainly studied folklore and the history of alchemy and magic quite extensively before writing her books; this is demonstrated by her treatment of Dobby and the other house-elves.  The name Dobby is not Rowling’s invention.  The native brownie of East Anglia was called Mr (or Master) Dobbs; in Yorkshire he was Dobby and further north in Northumberland and the Borders, he (or she) was called Dobie.

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In the series,  house-elves are depicted as magical creatures who are intensely devoted and loyal to those designated as their masters.  House-elves serve wizards and witches, usually being found in the employment of old wizarding families and bound to do everything that their masters command- unless they are freed. A house-elf can only be freed when their master presents them with clothes (a classic fairy tale trope).  In part due to their absolute obedience, house-elves are treated very brutally by their owners: they have no rights of their own and are viewed as servants without feeling or emotions. To symbolise this, they usually wear makeshift clothes made from found objects such as pillowcases and rags (again, typical of the traditional brownie). These garments can become quite filthy, yet-  as a further expression of the fact that they have no needs other than those specifically allowed to them by their masters- the house-elf will not clean them.  Indeed, so subservient are they that house-elves will torture and maim themselves if they think they have displeased their master.

Large numbers of house-elves are also employed at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.  They work the kitchens, preparing feasts for the entire school. They also move luggage to and from rooms and clean the dormitories and other areas. 

The Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare (S.P.E.W.) was group founded by Hogwarts student Hermione Granger in response to what she saw as gross injustice in the treatment of house elves during the quidditch world cup.  Despite attracting little interest or sympathy in her campaign from fellow students, Hermione persisted, employing tactics such as badge-making and petitioning, albeit with very little effect. Eventually, she started knitting hats and socks which she left lying around, hoping to free some unsuspecting elf who picked them up and put them on while cleaning the common room.  In due course, the elves became angry at Hermione’s attempts at liberation by stealth. The friendliest house-elves working at the school, Dobby and Winky, were considered disgraces by the rest of their colleagues; this is due to Dobby accepting payment and a holiday whilst Winky despairs after she loses her master, turning to drink and doing no work. 

Rowling’s are serious and rounded characters.  She preserves the significance of clothes to their release and incorporates the brownies’ work ethic, although the element of enslavement against which Hermione campaigns is not derived from British tradition.

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Charles Kingsley & ‘The water babies’

“and so there may be fairies in the world, and they may be just what makes the world go round…”

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The water babies can be an uncomfortable read today.  It is racist against the Irish, Turks and Jews, amongst others; it satirises a range of religious, political and scientific beliefs (for example, spiritualism) in a manner we would consider alien to a bedtime story, and it is unceasingly moralistic and dogmatic.  For all that, it is innovative and original in many respects and has some attractive features.  Kingsley calls it a fairy tale and it certainly has fairies as major characters, but in fact they bear very little resemblance to any fairies before or since.  How serious he’s being is also left in doubt: he denies a serious intent but defies those who disbelieve in fairies- “That is a very rash, dangerous word, that ‘cannot’; and if people use it too often, the Queen of all the Fairies … is apt to astonish them suddenly by showing them, that though they say she cannot, yet she can, and what is more, will, whether they approve or not.”

There are three major fairy characters in the book (although we learn at the end that they are all the same supernatural being).  One is the “great fairy” Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid and another is “the loveliest fairy in the world” Mrs. Doasyou wouldbedoneby.  Their names are sufficient to indicate their roles.  The third is the Queen of the Fairies.  caring for the poor and sick.  Her subordinate fairies likewise help and protect the weak and vulnerable, specifically chimney sweep Tom, as will be seen.

Tom is treated badly by his master Grimes.  He runs away and drowns accidentally whilst bathing in a stream.  The drowning is a transformation, although it does not appear such to those left behind in the mortal world:  “they found a black thing in the water, and said it was Tom’s body, and that he had been drowned.  They were utterly mistaken.  Tom was quite alive; and cleaner, and merrier, than he ever had been.  The fairies had washed him, you see, in the swift river, so thoroughly, that not only his dirt, but his whole husk and shell had been washed quite off him…”  Tom becomes a ‘water baby.’  Thereafter, (as pictured below) the fairies guard him against injury and accident although all this is done without “his seeing their fair faces or feeling their gentle hands.”

warwick goble

One major responsibility of the fairies is to save abused children from their cruel situations.  They are all transformed into happy water babies like Tom: “All the little children whom the good fairies take to, because their cruel mothers and fathers will not; all who are untaught and brought up heathens, and all who come to grief by ill-usage or ignorance or neglect; all the little children who are overlaid, or given gin when they are young, or are let to drink out of hot kettles, or to fall into the fire; all the little children in alleys and courts, and tumble-down cottages, who die by fever, and cholera, and measles, and scarlatina, and nasty complaints which no one has any business to have, and which no one will have some day, when folks have common sense; and all the little children who have been killed by cruel masters and wicked soldiers; they were all there…”

Fairies are, therefore, a form of social conscience for Victorian Britain; they are also an instrument of moral pedagogy.  Throughout the book Tom is guided by criticism, warning, guidance, punishment and reward, so that he is able to grow into a responsible and well-behaved adult.  This he does by finally forgiving and redeeming Grimes.  Then Tom is fit to be united in adult life with his sweetheart Ellie.

These fairies as moral instructors bear scant resemblance to the native fairy.  Traditional elves operated a strict moral code, but it was largely in their own interest.  They aimed at changing humans for their own benefit and gain, not for the personal improvement of the human.  In contrast, in The water babies the fairies act as ministers of divine justice; they are more like angels than elves.

There are, nonetheless, a couple of respects in which Kingsley’s fairies behave like the fairies of folklore.  Firstly, there is the use of glamour.  The fairy queen is first met disguised as an old Irishwoman- an omnipresent one, it must be conceded, who sees and judges all wrongdoing.

Secondly, there is Kingsley’s equation between death and fairy abduction.  Tom falls into the water and into a delightful sleep.  This is explained very simply: “It was merely that the fairies took him.” Something similar happens to Ellie when she falls and bumps her head on a rock.  “And, after a week, one moonlight night, the fairies came flying in at the window and brought her such a pretty pair of wings that she could not help putting them on…”  (see illustration below)

ellies wings

The salvation of children from cruelty, and their transformation into water babies, is a comparable process, but clearly with heavy Christian overtones.  Kingsley was, in fact, an Anglican minister and his fairy tale is in reality a parable.  He has dressed up divine characters as fairies, perhaps to make them more accessible and appealing to his junior audience, but he is preaching at them all the same.  With this story we have travelled a long way from the traditional British fairy lore that I have described in other postings: we are safely within the nursery and far from the sexuality and cruelty of much fairy behaviour.  We are, too, concerned with improving and educating children to make them fit to take their place as adults within the British Empire; we have abandoned the fairies’ selfish preoccupations with their own interests and pleasures.

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Above, ‘A land baby’ by John Collier, 1899; the other illustrations in this posting are from the 1929 MacMillan edition of The water babies, illustrated by Warwick Goble.