“The swart fairy of the mine”- industrial elves

lee dwarfs

Alan Lee, Dwarfs, from Faeries

There’s lots of evidence for fairies being just as active as humans in extracting the earth’s resources and in manufacturing.  This may jar somewhat with the notion of winged flower fairies, but that convention forgets the fact that gnomes, as first imagined by Paracelsus, are very intimately connected to the mineral riches of the earth.

Going underground

There are two principal industrial activities in which fairies are involved.  These are metal working and mining.  The fays mine for both coal and ores and they have been associated with the tin mines of the South West of England, the lead mines of the Long Mynd in Shropshire and with the copper mines of Cumberland and North Yorkshire.

There are two principal types of mine fairy- the knockers of the South West of England (also called ‘nuggies,’ ‘bockles,’ ‘gathons’ or ‘buccas’) are very well known.  In the coal and metal ore mines of Wales, we find the coblynau (i.e. goblins).  Other named mine spirits are the Blue-Cap of the Northumberland coalmines, a very strong being who moved the wheeled coal tubs on the underground railways, and the Cutty Soams of County Durham, who were mine bogles, known for their vengeful mischief- which included such pranks as cutting the traces (or ‘soams’) on the underground coal wagons.

Despite the differing regional names, it seems safe to treat most of these beings as one underground species.  The knockers and coblynau are very hard working sprites who are frequently heard but very seldom seen; the sounds of their picks, their wheelbarrows and the falls of stone they cause is heard deep in mines.  Occasionally they may be spotted working or lounging near the entrances to mines, and those who have seen them describe beings the size of a one or two-year-old child (about eighteen inches high), with large heads and ugly old men’s faces; they are dressed just like human miners.  Blue Cap apparently has no physical form, but his presence is indicated by a light blue flame which settles on the wagons he moves.  The other exception is the mine pixy ‘gathon’ (if Mrs Bray is to be believed, at any rate).  She describes him as naked and fat, with large ears and a long bushy tail (Peeps at Pixies, p.10).

The mine sprites have diminutive tools and equipment matching that of the human miners and labour tirelessly- digging, transporting and winding their coal and ore to the surface.  In the masque The fairies’ farewell, presented at Coleorton on Candlemas Day 1618, we hear a further description of the fairies’ labours:

“blacke faeries … ye dancing spiritts of the Pittes: … helpe them hole & drive sharp theire Picks & their moindrils, keepe away the dampe & keepe in theire Candles, draine the Sough & hold them out of ye hollows…”

Wirt Sykes, in British Goblins (p.24)claimed that all this frenetic subterranean labour  was just for show but accomplished nothing at all. The writer of A pleasant treatise of witches (1673) explained that this was because these mine elves “busy themselves chiefly in imitating the operations men … these seem to laugh, to be cloathed like workmen, to dig the earth, and to do many things they do not, mocking sometimes the workmen but seldome or never hurting them.”

These views might be correct- or it might instead be the case that human observers never saw any evidence of tangible results in this world.  Blue-Cap is the exception here, as he assisted the human miners and, perfectly reasonably, expected to be paid for his work at the same rate as every other ‘putter’ who moved the coal around the tramways.  Rather like fairies borrowing flour from householders, he insisted upon being given the exact agreed sum and would refuse underpaid wages or leave behind any surplus.  Evidently, Blue Caps were not brownies and neither toiled for free nor accepted very modest payment in kind.

These spirits never worked in the mines on Saturdays or on Christian holidays and, in respect for this, the miners too would avoid working on the same days.  The sprites also objected to whistling and to use of the sign of the cross, which were therefore proscribed.

The knockers will guide favoured miners to good seams or lodes by various means.  Where no excavation has yet been started they may indicate promising places to dig.  The sprites may dance in rings to indicate spots where men will strike rich ore.  Digging wherever a will o’ the wisp is seen is also reputed to lead you to a profitable lode.  The Reverend Edmund Jones of Gwent gives a very interesting account of a version of this habit.  One morning a William Evans of Hafod-y-dafel in the parish was crossing the Beacon Mountain when he saw an opencast coal mine where none existed.  The fairies were cutting coal, filling sacks and loading horses.  This vision is unexplained and, on the face of it, is merely a kind of fairy pantomime, serving no discernible purpose.  However, another report from Wales suggests a different interpretation.  Lewis Morris, a correspondent of the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1754, described how, before Esgair y Mwyn lead mine was discovered near Pontrhydfendigaid in Cardiganshire, the local fairies had been observed (and heard) by many people to be hard at work, both day and night.  When the mine was established in 1751, though, they disappeared.  The same was also the case at Llwyn Llwyd lead mine near Ysbyty Ystwyth, not far from Esgair y Mwyn.  These two cases suggest that the Brecon Beacons vision may well have been an indication of a rich coal seam just beneath the surface (a prediction similar to the incident of the fairy railway sighted on the Isle of Man that I mentioned in a recent post).

Once a new mine has been started, through their tapping underground the fairies point the way to mineral riches.  They will also warn of impending disaster- often by making three distinct knocks against the rock.  Generally, then, their presence is welcomed by miners- their noises are not found alarming and it’s said to be good luck to see the pixies dancing in the adit of a mine.

The sounds made by knockers can be prolonged and are not easily explained by other means.  For example, at Llwyn Llwyd voices, blasting, clearing spoil, levelling roadways, boring, pick-axeing and (most notably) pumping were all heard- when there were no pumps working within a mile of the shafts and when, in any case, pumps were very quiet when in operation.  Although they may sometimes be heard just once a month or once a year, in 1799 in some mines on Anglesey the knockers were heard repeatedly over a period of weeks.

As with all supernatural helpers, the knockers are averse to humans being too inquisitive.  Although the sounds of their work indicate how and where to dig, if miners stop their work to listen to the knockers, they will also cease their labours.  If they’re overlooked, they may pelt stones at the spies- or simply vanish.  The sounds of their excavations may point to rich veins of ore- or they may just be mischievous and meant to mislead.

As with many fairy types, those who offend them or try to take advantage of them will be punished and those miners who betray the source of their good fortune will lose the knockers’ favour.  At the same time, they claimed a share of human property.  This might just be a small portion of the miners’ food or of their candle tallow, but there are also accounts of bargains struck whereby the knockers were promised some of the profits of a rich vein in return for guidance locating it.  It hardly needs to be said that reneging on such deals would lead to ruin and even death, whilst boasting of fairy aid in finding rich seams of ore will guarantee that the good fortune is lost.  Mrs Bray’s mine pixy, Gathon, is depicted as a typical prank-playing sprite, but he also helps the oppressed and the poor, a not uncommon fairy trait.

The fairies may also be found in coal pits; from Scotland we have a report that from time to time they would leave their tiny tools behind as physical evidence of their labours.  We have one account from Derbyshire in the nineteenth century of the colliers of Curbar leaving a share of the coal they dug for the fairies to ensure good luck.

In some way, then, whether they were mining themselves or simply oversaw the shafts, these local fairies had a close interest in the industry.

Heavy metals

Despite Sykes’ doubts about the productiveness of fairy labours, it seems very reasonable to suppose that ore and coal were extracted and that these formed the raw materials of other enterprises in fairyland.

In The Secret Commonwealth the Reverend Robert Kirk reports that the fairies “strike Hammers, and do such lyke Services within the little Hillocks they most haunt” (chapter 1).  The trows of Shetland are particularly renowned for their skills working brass, iron and other metals and they have been known to pass on these skills to fortunate human children who have been taken to live with them ‘under the hill.’  As I’ve noted before, it’s a curious contradiction that we can have reports of these metalworking abilities at the same time as being repeatedly assured that fairies loath and avoid items made of iron.

The only way of reconciling these two accounts is to assume that man-made iron is anathema to them but that their own products, imbued in some way with Faery properties, are harmless.  Certainly we hear of fairies having cutlery for eating and drinking vessels of precious metals- and of course brownies will undertake all sorts of farm tasks for humans- such as reaping corn and hay- that unavoidably involve the use of iron and steel tools.

Conclusion

As I’ve argued before, fairy society is a good deal more complex and more industrious than we might initially assume.  Whether they’re farming, mining or at market, trading the fruits of those labours, the fays can work just as hard as humans and be just as interested in commerce.

gnome

Brian Froud, A gnome.
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Farming fairies

C A Doyle -fairy-folk-celebrating-around-plough

Charles Altamont Doyle, Fairy folk celebrating around a plough

Our conventional view of the faeries is of a people of wild or wooded places whose life is one long round of leisure and pleasure- dancing, feasting and the like.  At the same time, we don’t tend to imagine them having any concerns with bread-winning or the means of production- indeed, a strong antipathy for such occupations has often been imagined.  There’s a widespread rhyme in Scotland to the effect that:

Where the scythe cuts and the sock (plough) rives,/ Hae done wi’ fairies and bee-bykes.”

This gloomy view is mistaken.  To begin with, a moment’s reflection will remind us of the farm labouring brownies, for example, and when the sources are examined, consistent fairy links to agriculture are revealed- as are their interests in manufacture, mining, cloth-making, building and the like.  The fairy economy is as complex as our own.

Fairies are often believed to rely solely upon stolen dairy products and corn, preying on them “as do Crowes and Mice” as Robert Kirk put it (Secret Commonwealth c.1).  In fact, they have been observed actively involving themselves in all aspects of farming.  As I’ve discussed before, they have their own goats and other livestock.  These are distinctly different from humans’ beasts, although the faeries may also acquire ours, sometimes by surreptitiously luring them away and sometimes slightly more honestly.  In the book A pleasant treatise of witches, the author recounted a story he had heard of a pregnant sow that was fed daily by the fairies with bread and milk.  When farrowing time came, they clearly felt they were entitled to the fruit of their investment in the pig: they took all the piglets but left their value in silver behind.  This wasn’t theft, but it wasn’t a normal purchase either and, as such, is the epitome of Faery.  It’s non-consensual for the human farmer, it asserts a presumed right over our goods and, yet, there is something in exchange.

We know too from the reports of visitors that the fays have their own fields and orchards in fairyland underground, but most witnesses of course don’t see them there.  The Reverend Kirk believed that our landscape here and there showed the marks of the fairies’ cultivation from a time that preceded the country’s occupation by humankind:

“Albeit, when severall Countreys were uninhabited by us, these had their easy Tillage above Ground, as we now.  The Print of those Furrows do yet remaine to be seen on the Shoulders of very high Hills, which was done when champayn Ground was Wood and Forrest.” (chapter 2)

The fairies have since retreated to their subterranean realms which means that, usually, the fays are only to be encountered participating in human farming activities.  In fact, they have shown an interest in our pastoral and dairy production, in fruit growing, in horticulture and in the cultivation of grain crops.

god-speed-the-plough-charles-altamont-doyle

Charles Altamont Doyle, God speed the plough

Fairies in the corn fields

It’s often reported that the fairies bake their own bread- bread of superlative flavour- and of course the grain for that has to come from somewhere.  It’s not all stolen, by any means, although there are plenty of stories from across England of fairies filching corn, grain by grain, from granaries, whilst on the island of Islay it’s said that the local fairies claim the top grain from every stalk- and will have harvested it in well before the farmer enters the field with his scythes.

Some fairies seem to play some sort of protective role towards human cultivation, being almost like minor agricultural deities.  Across England, for example, there’s a host of sprites whose sole function seems to be guarding orchards, fruit bushes and nut groves from the depredations of thieves and children.  From Scotland, we have the curious tale of ‘Jeanie’s Granny.’  When she was a child, Jeanie’s grandmother got up one night to steal some newly harvested grain so as to feed her horse.  When she got to the fields, she saw a tiny woman hopping from stook to stook; the child became scared and ran home without stealing any corn.  In another story from Dartmoor, a man was annoyed to find that all his stooks of harvested corn were disturbed over night.  He decided to watch the following night to see what the cause might be and , just as he had suspected, pixies appeared and began to pull all the stooks into one corner of the field.  Very possibly this was being done by them as the first age of building a rick, but the pixies were too small to make a good job of it and the farmer interrupted them- at which point they vanished.  (They might alternatively have been preparing to steal the crop, which would have been much more in character: in a story from Ardnamurchan in the Highlands, a man outwitted the fairies who’d been reaping his crop at night by leaving a wise old man in the field.  When fairies appeared and started to harvest the grain, he then counted their number out loud and by this simple means banished them forever.)

Garden gnomes

We also come across lots of fairies working in gardens and vegetable patches.  These are the beings often described as gnomes and it seems that their dedication to plant life is so great that they will cultivate human plots merely for the satisfaction of seeing healthy fruit and vegetables.  The most curious story comes from West Yorkshire from about 1850.  A man called Henry Roundell of Washburn Dale near Harrogate got up early to hoe the weeds in his crop of turnips.  When he reached his field, he was astonished to discover every row being hoed by a host of tiny men in green, all of them singing shrilly.  As soon as he entered the field, they fled like scattered birds.

a-scarecrow-charles-altamont-doyle

Charles Altamont Doyle, A scarecrow

Dairy fairies

There’s a definite close association between fairies and cattle- and that may not be just because they want to consume their milk and cream.  For example, William Bottrell recounts the story of Rosy, the fine red milk cow of the Pendar family of Baranhual farm in Penwith.  She gave twice the milk of the other cows, but would often disappear from the farm in the evenings.  Eventually, Molly the milkmaid discovered the reason: a four-leaf clover was included in the pad of herbs she used to carry the milk pail on her head and it enabled her to see that the cow was surrounded by dancing fairies, who were taking turns to milk her and stroking and tickling the beast in between.  The cow was evidently very happy in their company.  The farmer’s wife decided to wash the cow’s udders in brine to terminate the fairy thefts, but the only result was that Rosy ceased to give any milk at all.

A related account from Sutherland in the far north of Scotland is the reminiscence of an old woman who, as a small girl, had gone out with her mother one summer evening to tend the cows in the field.  She was able to see small green people playing near the cattle, although her mother saw nothing (G. Sutherland, Folklore gleanings, p.22).  As stated at the start, there’s a definite affinity between the little people and cows which benefits the milk yield.

Scottish ‘brownies’

The classic farming fairy is the domestic brownie, who will undertake all the tasks necessary to run a human smallholding.  He’ll tend the cattle and sheep, milk the cows, reap the crops, thresh the grain and involve himself in all other aspects of processing the produce of the farm.  Brownies help out on a permanent basis with farming tasks, but other fairy types can be recruited to provide ‘temporary labour’ in times of need.  From North-East Scotland there’s the story of the ‘Red Cappies’ who were called on to assist with threshing grain.  Generally across the Highlands you’ll find the Gaelic tradition of the ceaird-chomuinn (‘association craft’) whereby people can be endowed with particular skills by the faes, such as the ability to undertake prodigious feats of ploughing, sowing and harrowing.

Over and above the familiar English brownie and Lowland Scottish broonie, there’s a host of other (Highland) Scottish beings with particular farming connections who are also worth examining:

  • gruagach- this being looks after the cattle of a farm or a village, for which duties she receives a daily bowl of whey or a regular offering of milk poured out over a holed stone or special slab of rock.  She has long golden hair and is dressed in green.  She sings to the cattle and keeps them safe from all disease or accident.  She is very strong and in one story a gruagach killed itself through overwork, trying to thrash an entire barn full of corn in one night.  Like many of her kind, if she’s offered clothes she’ll desert a farm and if her regular helping of milk is forgotten, she’ll wreak havoc, turning the cows into the crops and such like;
  • glaistig- this being is often portrayed as a violent hag, but her more benign aspect is as a dairy maid and cow-herd, seldom being seen but using her powerful voice to keep the cattle in check.  She’s said to be a human woman who’s been placed under a fairy enchantment and thereby has acquired a fairy nature.  For this reason, the glaistig can sometimes shape-shift into the form of a dog to better herd and protect the livestock.  She lives on farms but is a solitary being.  She expects a pail of milk nightly and will react angrily if this is withheld or forgotten.  In some places milk is also offered at other important points in the farming year, such as when the cattle are first left out overnight each year and when they are brought inside for winter;
  • urisk- a brownie-like spirit who lives in wild places but who will undertake farm chores in return for a bowl of cream.  He is very strong and clever and can be savage if provoked.  The urisk is said to be half-human and half-fay;
  • King Broonie- on Orkney, a type of trow that particularly took care of a farm’s corn.  He objected to being watched and, if he felt that he was being spied upon, would scatter the ricks;
  • hogboon- a Shetland version of the brownie who undertakes agricultural labouring tasks in return for food.  The name derives from the Norse haug bui, meaning mound-dweller, because they were believed to inhabit the ancient burial mounds;
  • gunna– is another sort of brownie who cares for cattle and keeps them away from cliffs and out of the fields of growing crops.  He is very thin, with long yellow hair, and is dressed only in a fox skin; and,
  • bodachan sabhaill (the little old man of the barn) is a spirit who will help older farmers with their threshing.

What I think is particularly striking about this group of beings is how many of them are semi-wild sprites, often with a parallel reputation for violent acts, and yet they’re entrusted with a farm’s valuable assets.  Of course, the farmers don’t recruit them: the faery cowherds are generally inherited or volunteer themselves, but it is nonetheless a curious relationship.  The spirit of the wilderness accommodates itself to the human subjugation of the landscape.

c a doyle eavesdroppers

Charles Altamont Doyle, Eavesdroppers

Summary

In conclusion, although our tendency is to imagine carefree and pleasure loving fairies, the reality is often more complex.  They grow their own food, like any community must, and many are very hard working- even on behalf of human kind and in return for quite informal arrangements as to recompense.

“Under a broad bank”- fairy portals

paton belle dame

Sir Noel Paton, The Belle Dame sans merci

I have previously discussed visits to fairylands underground; in this post I want to briefly examine the entrances to those places- the portals where a human might most likely encounter a fay being.

The folklore, literary sources and popular ballads are very consistent in the identifying the sorts of places or environments in which a meeting with a fae is likely.  What appears to unify the locations is the fact that they all share a solitary or unique feature; they will stand out in the landscape.  These distinctive sites are as follows:

  • lone trees– a tree standing isolated in a prominent position is noticeable and memorable in any case, but very often marks a fae portal.  For instance, Thomas of Erceldoune meets the fairy queen at the ‘Eildon tree’ (in one version of the poem it is described as a “dern tree”- that is ‘hidden’ or ‘secret’).  In the romance of the same name, knight Sir Launfal is approached by two fairy maidens whilst sitting in the shade of a tree one hot undrentide during the feast of Trinity (late May or early June).  In the Scottish ballad of Allison Gross, a man is turned into a dragon (or ‘worm’) by witch Alison and is left to coil himself around a tree.  Lone trees are magical,  definitely.  However, we can go further and suggest that these fairy trees are very likely to be either may (hawthorn) trees, as these are notorious fairy haunts, and apple trees.  In the ballad of Young Tamlane he’s carried off by the elfin queen having fallen asleep underneath an apple and the wife of Sir Orfeo is stolen away from her husband by the fairies whilst sitting one early May morning in an orchard, beneath an “ympe tree”- a grafted apple.
  • free standing hills- fairies are well known to live under burial mounds and it appears that distinct and conspicuous hills of any description will be likely fairy spots at which contact can be made.  English poets Thomas Campion and Thomas Browne both imagined the fairy queen regally seated upon a grassy knoll (“All ladies that do sleep” and Britannia’s Pastorals, Book I, Song II, lines 396-404) whilst in folklore many everyday activities conducted upon a fairy hill could prove dangerous for humans, whether that was cutting turf, sitting, playing or just sleeping.
  • grassy banks and slopes- these are often mentioned specifically, but could very well just be part of a fairy hill rather than a separate feature in the landscape; it’s not always clear.  Thomas of Erceldoune lay down on Huntlie bank on a May morning ; in the ballad of Thomas the Rhymer we hear that he reclines on a grassy bank.  There’s a definite suggestion that part of the process may involve a tired person lying down to rest, drifting off to sleep, and, in that semi-conscious state, being able to make contact with faery.  In the medieval poem Piers Plowman the narrator is out on the Malvern Hills on a May morning; “weori of wandringe” he went to rest “undur a brod banke bi a bourne syde.”  It is then that he beholds “a ferly- a feyrie” (a wonder of fairy origin).  In Edmund Spencer’s poem The Faery Queen Prince Arthur similarly lies down to sleep on verdant grass after wandering in a forest and has a vision of the Fairy Queen lying down beside him (Book I, canto IX, stanzas 13-14).  Elsewhere in his epic Spenser imagines that “Nymphes and Faeries by banckes did sit”- there is clearly a close association here between faes and these slightly secluded locations (Book I, canto X, stanza 65).
  • Daisies- the magical communion with Faery is further enhanced, it seems, it there are daisies on the bank.  In Allison Gross the fairy queen comes to sit on a “gowany bank” near to where the frightful worm coils about the tree.  It may be significant too that in the ballad of Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight the wicked knight comes to the maid when she sits in her bower on the first of May, surrounded by daisies.  They are one of the archetypal fairy flowers.

It will be evident from these examples that, whilst the place is important, the time of day (undrentideand the time of year (very typically early May/ Beltane) are also highly significant in bringing about an encounter.  Combine all the right factors and a meeting with a faery is a very strong possibility.

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Katherine Cameron, Thomas the Rhymer

A nation underground- subterranean fairies

Rackham Kensington Gdns

Arthur Rackham, from Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens

In this post I want to return to the question of fairy dwellings and fairyland.  Fairyland is very often conceived of as a place below the ground surface; here I want to examine that in considerable detail.

The idea of a subterranean Faery is something that has long been embedded in both folklore and literature.  For example, in a masque presented for Queen Elizabeth by the Earl of Hertford in 1591 we are introduced to the monarch:

“I that abide in places underground,/ Aureola, the Queene of Fairy land…”

Much later, the Duchess of Newcastle imagined that “The Fairy Queen’s large Kingdome got by birth/ Is the circled centre of the Earth,” a place bejewelled with all the gems and ores we might anticipate to find in a mine.

Without doubt, this hidden realm would be a place of mystery.  John Aubrey in the late seventeenth century wrote that:

“Some were led away by fairies, as was a Hind riding upon Hackpen… So was a shepherd of Mr Brown of Winterbourne Abbas… the ground opened and he was brought to strange places underground.”

I want to go too to those strange places, to discover the way and to see what’s there.

How to get access

It’s very widely accepted that fairyland is subterranean, but that raises a host of problems.  How deep is it?  Where are the access points?

It’s also very widely believed that one very common location for fairy dwellings is under small hills.  This is especially common in Scotland, where many small mounds are called ‘fairy knowe’ or ‘knolls.’ An alternative name for the trows of Shetland is the ‘hill men.’ These hills may be natural mounds or they may be prehistoric burial tumuli.  Neolithic barrows are regarded as fairy homes from Yorkshire right up to Sutherland and including the Isle of Man.

Either way, the fairies aren’t buried very deep and getting in presents less challenges.  Very few people ever simply pick up a spade and start digging (wisely, as it’s very likely to have serious repercussions).  More often they wait for a door to reveal itself: this may happen at special times of year such as Halloween or perhaps because there’s a special celebration taking place within the hill and the doors are thrown open to let out the heat and noise.  The simple and direct approach was employed by one poor East Yorkshire man in the story of the White Powder.  He was instructed simply to walk up to the door of the mound and to knock three times to be granted entry and led into the presence of the fairy queen.

In some people’s opinion, fairyland is a good deal deeper than the thickness of some turfs.  Its location therefore won’t be at all obvious and it follows that the ways in will be equally well concealed.  For example, the pixies of Dartmoor are believed to live beneath the bogs that cover that landscape.  This is an excellent strategy for keeping unwelcome visitors away, although there is some suggestion that rabbit holes on the moor may be a way in to this particular wonderland.  There are a lot to try though…

Normally, the road to fairyland is a lot better concealed and a lot more forbidding.  A variety of entrances have been identified:

  • beneath river banks- this is known especially in Wales, as in the story of Elidyr, who is taken by two little men under the hollow bank of a river;
  • under standing stones- this perpetuates the prehistoric link seen with barrows and is a legend linked with various sites including the Rollright Stones in Oxfordshire. In the Welsh tale of Einion and Olwen fairyland is accessed by an oval stone and then by a path and stairs, which are illuminated by a whitish-blue glow radiating from the steps themselves;
  • beneath Roman ruins- the remains of a military encampment high on Mellor Moor near Blackburn were said to be the ruins of a fairy city that had sunk beneath the ground due to an earthquake. The disappeared metropolis was still inhabitable, though, and church bells could sometimes be heard ringing beneath the turf;
  • under lakes- a fairy woman was seen to come and go from beneath the waters of Llyn Rhosddu on the Isle of Anglesey;
  • in a well- in Cornish fairy tale of Cherry of Zennor the girl Cherry is employed as a maid in a house that might itself be in fairyland, but she also sees her fairy master dancing when she looks down into a well in the garden;
  • behind waterfalls- the queen of the Craven fairies is reputed to live concealed behind Jennet’s Foss, near to Malham;
  • in cliffs- another inaccessible route into faery is from a cave in a cliff face. Cornishman Richard Vingoe entered fairyland this way at a spot near Land’s End.  Many hours of walking eventually led him to a “pleasant looking country”;
  • through deep caverns- Gervase of Tilbury, in his Otia Imperialia, described how a swine herd lost a pregnant sow and decided to look for her in the Peak Cavern near Peveril castle in Derbyshire. He wandered a long way until he emerged into a new country.  At Cwm Mabus near Llanrhystyd in Wales there are caves called Craig Rhydderch where the tylwyth teg are said to live and at Llanymynech near Oswestry is Ogo Hole, another entrance to faery;
  • the place called by the Scots ‘Mirryland’ or ‘Maidenland’ is said to be beneath a mountain;
  • in one Welsh account from 1860 a man called John Davies of Aberayron joined a fairy dance on Cilcennin Hill and spent the whole night with the tylwyth teg.  The revel was only disturbed the next morning by an old woman following the sound of music- at which the fairies all disappeared down some steps leading underground;
  • down long tunnels- the Green Children of Woolpit followed a long tunnel or passageway until they came out into the Suffolk landscape.

Whatever the exact route in, it is often long and dark.  The journey to faery may take several days (forty in the case of Thomas the Rhymer) and may involve difficult passages of wading through deep waters.  In the story of Cornish maid Anne Jefferies, she is snatched up and carried through the air, whirling through space with a sound like the buzzing of a thousand bees in her ears.  The fairy tale of Cherry of Zennor in one sense makes its fairyland real by presenting it as a pleasant manor house and gardens, but it is reached by a route very like the underground passages- Cherry is led down long lanes, shaded by high hedges and is carried over several streams before, after much travel, she and her fairy master arrive at their destination.

it’s worth lastly noting that tunnels sometimes provide the access from the human world to fairylands that are also on the earth surface.  These are frequently seen in Wales, where passages lead out onto an isle in a lake or to an offshore island in the sea.

How do we see?

Given that fairyland is far below ground, how do we see anything once we’re there?  Is Faery the “darksome den” that Golding described in his translation of Ovid, or is it bright? This is one of the greatest puzzles, but the sources are quite uniform in telling us what the conditions are, even if they don’t explain them to us.

The Green Children described a place without a sun, but where there was a “degree of light like that which is after sunset.”  In the poem Huon of Bordeaux we are told that it is the gold and silver with which the buildings are constructed that illuminate the place.  In the story of King Herla, faery is entered through a cave in a high cliff and (more reasonably) is lit by many torches.

Elidyr described the fairyland he visited as “obscure, not illuminated with the light of the full sun.”  Rather, the days were cloudy and the nights very dark without either moon or stars.  It’s cool and dim in fairyland.  The visitor to Faery in the story of the White Powder also reported that the light there was “indifferent, as it is with us in the twilight.”  Perhaps because of this dinginess, the people of ‘St Martin’s Land,’ where the Green Children were born, were all of a green tinge.

In contrast, Sir Orfeo’s fairyland, reached after a journey of three miles or so starting beneath a rock, was “as bright so sonne on somers day.”  Likewise, after a long dark passage, the land under the Peak District was bright and open.  Equally, the swineherd described by Gervase of Tilbury found that the place he reached was enjoying its summer, and that the harvest was taking place, whereas he had left winter behind him on the earth’s surface.

What do we see?

The fairyland found underground is largely indistinguishable from the land left behind on the surface.  There are pastures, fields and orchards, where crops grow, sheep graze and fruit and flowers grow in abundance.  There are birds in the air and woods full of game.  The land may be quite level, an open plain without hills but threaded by rivers running between lakes.  The fairyland visited by Einion and Olwen fairyland was a fine, wooded, fertile country extending for miles underground and dotted with mansions and with well-watered, lush pastures.  An early nineteenth century account from Nithsdale tells of a ‘delicious country’ with fields of ripening corn and ‘looping burnies’ reached by a door halfway up the sunny side of a fairy knoll.

There are palaces and castles, like any medieval royal city (although in Faery these may be made from precious metals and gems) but there are ordinary civic amenities too.  Thomas Keightley recalled a conversation with a young woman in Norfolk who told him that the fairies were a people dressed in white who lived underground where they built houses, bridges and other edifices.  Proof of this comes from a commonly told Welsh story of a man who’s reproved by a hitherto unknown fairy neighbour for pouring his household slops down the other’s chimney.  Invited to place his foot on the other’s, the human sees that, far beneath his front yard, there is a street of houses he had never seen before.  These are just ordinary fairy cottages deep beneath an ordinary Welsh farmer’s cottage.

According to some Scottish stories, we may also see the start of three roads: the thorny road of the righteous to heaven, the broad road of the wicked to hell and a bonny looking road finally leading to Faery.  These ‘ferlies’ (wonders) are described in the ballads Thomas the Rhymer, Young Tamlane and The Queen of Elfland’s Nourice.

There is an interesting last detail in the story of Anne Jefferies.  When she first encounters the fairies in her Cornish home, they are ‘the little people’ only a few inches tall, but in Faery they are all of normal human size (or else Anne has shrunk).  The fairy master in Cherry of Zennor looks tiny when seen at the bottom of the well  in the garden but resumes his human dimensions when he returns to the house.

Getting home again

This can be as hard as getting into fairy in the first place.  Some people, we must confess, never make it back to where they started.  The Green Children, dazzled by the heat and light of the surface, became bewildered and were completely unable to find the entrance to the passage from which they emerged.

For others the process can be relatively straightforward, albeit with longer term implications.  Richard Vingoe was led to a carn near Nanjizel where he emerged into the air.  He was so exhausted by the journey that he slept for a week and, if fact, was never the same again.

Elidyr was able to come and go from his faery, visiting his mother as he wished, until he tried to steal a golden ball from his fairy friends.  He was pursued and the ball was recovered, after which he could never find again the entrance in the river bank, even though he searched for a year.

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Arthur Rackham, from Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens

Conclusions

In many respects fairyland underground is a mirror image of our earth surface world- and this includes the climate.  Of course, there are also traditions that make it less homely and familiar, such as those which view it as some sort of land of the dead and those which treat it as far more magical and strange.

Lewis Carroll on pixies

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One of Brian Froud’s bad fairies.

In this post I feature a paragraph of juvenilia from the family journal ‘The Rectory Umbrella’ which was ‘published’ by Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson) and his brothers and sisters between 1850 and 1853 to entertain themselves and their parents.  The piece is of interest as an early work of fantasy by the future author of the Alice stories as well as being an example of Victorian ideas on pixies.

The text appears under the sub-title: ‘Zoological papers‘ and makes fun of the learned scientific, academic style (with footnotes).

Zoological papers: Pixies

“The origin of this curious race of creatures is not at present known: the best description we can collect of them is this, that they are a species of fairies about two feet high (1), of small and graceful figure; they are covered in a dark reddish kind of fur; the general expression of their faces is sweetness and good humour; the former quality is probably the reason why foxes are so fond of eating them. From Coleridge we learn the following additional facts; that they have ‘filmy pinions’ something like dragon flies’ wings, that they ‘sip the furze-flower’s fragrant dew’ (that, however, could only be for breakfast, as it would dry up before dinner-time), and that they are wont to ‘flash their faery feet in gamesome prank,’ or, in more common language, ‘to dance the polka (2) like winking.’

From an old English legend (3) which, as it is familiar with our readers, we need not here repeat, we learn that they have a strong affection for raw turnips, decidedly a more vulgar sort of food than ‘fragrant dew’; and from their using churns and kettles we conjecture that they are not unacquainted with tea, milk, butter &c. They are tolerably good architects, though their houses must unavoidably have something the appearance of large dog kennels, and they go to market occasionally, though from what source they get the money for this purpose has hitherto remained an unexplained mystery. This is all the information we have been able to collect on this interesting subject.

(1) So they are described by the inhabitants of Devonshire, who occasionally see them.

(2) Or any other step.

(3) A tradition, introduced into notice by the Editor.”

Now, it seems very likely that Carroll must have been reading Mrs Bray.  Her book, The Borders of the Tamar and the Tavy , was published in 1836 and describes, in a series of letters to the poet Robert Southey, the traditions, legends and superstitions that surround the North Dartmoor town of Tavistock.  This is the most likely source for most of Carroll’s information: Mrs Bray’s children’s book, A Peep at the Pixies, or Legends of the West, didn’t appear until 1854.

His fairy lore is on the whole, sound (excepting, I think, the turnips… as he confesses himself)  We do know that there was longstanding animosity between the Dartmoor foxes and pixies, which led to an ever-increasing effort by the latter to protect themselves.  The foxes hunted the pixies, digging them out of their underground homes and devouring them.  The pixies  responded by making iron shelters- which may, indeed, as Carroll suggests, look like dog kennels (R. King, ‘Folklore of Devonshire,’ Fraser’s Magazine, vol.8, 1873, p.781).

We know very well the fairies’ partiality for dairy products such as butter and milk, and it had long been a poetic conceit that tiny rural beings would drink dew and nectar from flowers.  We are also very familiar with their love of dance.  The use of kettles and the like is quite conventional: one common set of stories involves fairies seeking human aid to mend some basic item of domestic equipment- a stool or a ‘ped’ used to remove loaves from ovens; they made their own butter as well as stealing ours and would have needed a fully equipped kitchen for these tasks.  Tales of fairies at markets are also well-known, although their habit is often to thieve from the stalls rather than to buy.  In the frequent accounts of midwives who have cared for a fairy baby and, in the process, touched an eye with fairy ointment, the women are exposed when they spy a fairy at the market, whether buying or shoplifting.  Fairies often had gold, it is true, whether to purchase goods or to make gifts to chosen favourites.  Many writers have speculated about its source: was this money merely leaves and pebbles disguised by glamour (as was not unknown) or was it real currency, perhaps discovered by the fays underground?  Fairies were said to have abilities to help humans locate buried treasure, certainly, and access to ancient hoards might explain the unusual coins that often made up their payments.

Carroll’s pixies coincide very much with tradition, then, and even his jokey invention of their foxy fur coats is not entirely unheard of, as we know from more recent fairy sightings.  Nevertheless, the winged pixy is something of a surprise (though see Brian Froud’s image below) as is the description of them as always jolly.  As readers will know, they have a great tendency to mischief- hence the term ‘pixy-led.’

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Another Froud pixie

Fairies and elder trees

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Cicely Mary Barker, from Flower fairies of the trees, 1961

In one of my earliest postings, I discussed the curious link between fairies and elder trees.  I’d like to return to that with some fresh evidence, mainly drawn from the Isle of Man.

Elder trees are widely seen as having some sort of magical or spiritual properties.  For example, in Herefordshire there was a taboo upon burning elder wood for fear of bringing misfortune, whilst its inner rind was used to cure cows of jaundice.  Witches were said to dislike the tree, so its pith was fed to those believed to have been bewitched.   In Shropshire elder was never used as firewood as it would bring misfortune, even death, to the household.  The wood shouldn’t even be brought into the house, as it could cause a cow to lose its calf, nor should cattle be driven with an elder stick.  The juice of the plant would be used to protect the threshold and the hearth.

On the Isle of Man,  the same ideas prevailed as on the British mainland.  Whilst the tree was said to be the haunt of the fairies, it repelled witches and, accordingly, there was hardly to be found an old well (tholtan in Manx) near which there didn’t grow an elder tree, according to Agnes Herbert in a guide to the island written in 1909.  If you carried elder leaves with you, the islanders believed, you would be protected against witchcraft.

These are but the first indications of the supernatural associations of the tramman tree on the island.  The fairies live in the trees and when the branches of the trees are seen to bend in the wind at night, it is in fact the fairies riding upon them.  Given their status as fairy residences, interference with the trees can be dangerous.  Evans Wentz heard the story of a woman from Arbory parish who one dark night accidentally collided with a tramman.  She was instantly smitten with a terrible swelling which all her neighbours agreed was the consequence of offending the fays by her clumsiness.  Another local account told of a man who cut down an elder and was driven to suicide by the aggrieved fairies, Walter Gill recorded in 1932.

The Manx fairies living in the ‘tramman’ are plainly very similar to the Old Lady of the Elder tree that I described before.  It’s not clear, though, whether or not they’re identical.  The Old Lady seems to personify the tree in some way- to be its spirit- whilst the Manx fays live in, or at least gather in, the elders, but may not actually embody them.  Regardless of the detail, the supernatural associations are very clear and persistent and- what’s more-  can be seen across Northern Europe from Denmark to the British Isles.

elderberry

Cicely Mary Barker, The elderberry fairy, from Flower fairies of the autumn, 1926

Neverland and fairyland- J. M. Barrie, Peter Pan and British fairy tradition

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One of Arthur Rackham’s illustrations of Barrie’s story

This is a slightly amended version of an earlier post, re-posted because the old one was getting bombarded with spam!

Scottish author, J. M. Barrie, is renowned as the creator of Peter Pan, the central character of a play of that name and of two stories Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (1906) and Peter and Wendy (1911).  I would argue that his work has had a profound influence subsequently upon popular conceptions and conventions regarding faery.  A good deal of Barrie’s material on fairies was drawn from British tradition, in which respect he can’t be criticised.  However, it is what he invented that has probably had to be most profound effect on representations of genre.

Barrie and tradition

The traditional elements in his descriptions of fairy kind include the following:

  • language- Barrie has Tinker Bell speaking a language incomprehensible to human children (although Peter pan has learned it).  Her speech is like “the loveliest tinkle of golden bells” and is also described as high-pitched squeaking.  This fits well with many older descriptions of fairy speech;
  • dancing- the fairies’ favourite pastime is dancing and by their waltzing around they create fairy rings.  Mushrooms left in the circle are seats not tidied away by their servants, according to Barrie (a first hint of his cute tendencies).  When they are happy, they “feel dancey.”  When they are troubled, they are “undancey”;
  • not working- Barrie is inconsistent in this.  He declares that “they never do anything useful… They look tremendously busy, you know, as if they had not a moment to spare, but if you were to ask them what they were doing, they could not tell you.” Elsewhere, he has them milking their cows, building and repairing pots and pans.  This uncertainty as to the exact nature of the fairy economy is long-standing;
  • glamour- Barrie’s fairies employ magic to disguise their houses and to hide themselves.  This is a standard fairy trait and Barrie tells us that pretending to be something else is “one of their best tricks.  They usually pretend to be flowers”;
  • diminutive- Barrie’s fairies are all small– Tinker Bell for example is “no longer than your hand, but still growing.”
  • concealment– Barrie’s fairy folk are shy of human contact, only appearing after dark and when the gates are locked in Kensington Gardens and disguising themselves as flowers if they are caught in the open;
  • alien- “Fairies indeed are strange” and it is only the half-boy, Peter Pan, who really comprehends them and knows that, often times, the only way to communicate with them is in the rough physical language they use themselves.  He often cuffs them and gives them a good hiding, according to Barrie; and,
  • bad temperament– in Tinker bell’s vindictive jealously of Wendy and in their use of physical chastisements, Barrie’s fairies are very traditional.  They tweak Peter’s nose when he sleeps across a fairy path; they ‘mischief’ those they take against.  “Nearly all the nasty accidents you meet with in the Gardens occur because the fairies have taken an ill-will against you and so it behoves you to be careful what you say about them…”  “If the fairies see you … they will mischief you- stab you to death, or compel you to nurse their children, or turn you into something tedious, like an evergreen oak.”  Of Tinker Bell, Barrie explains that she “was not all bad: or, rather, she was all bad just now, but, on the other hand, sometimes she was all good.  Fairies have to be one thing or the other, because being so small they unfortunately have room for one feeling only at a time.  They are, however, allowed to change, only it must be a compete change.”  For regular readers, these accounts of abductions, violence and the need to speak circumspectly will be very familiar.

Barrie’s inventions

Significant aspects of the character and abilities of Tinker Bell have nothing to do with British tradition though.  Barrie’s most notable inventions include:

  • fairy-dust- this enables fairies to fly.  It covers Tinker Bell and rubs off; we are not told what it is;
  • fairy light- every fairy gives off a very bright light.  She cannot control it (“about the only thing they can’t do”) but “it just goes out of itself when she falls asleep;”
  • fairies nest in trees, we are told, although Barrie also has them occupying more conventional houses and palaces arranged in streets too;
  • they are closely linked to flowers– there is some traditional material here, in the association with natural life and verdancy, but for Barrie “they dress exactly like flowers and change with the seasons, putting on white when lilies are in and blue for bluebells, and so on.  They like crocus and hyacinth time best of all as they are partial to a bit of colour, but tulips (except the white ones, which are fairy cradles) they consider too garish…”

PP

Fairies and children

For Barrie, there was a very close link between children and fairies.  This manifests in three ways:

  • they are born from babies’ laughter- “when they first baby laughed for the first time, its laugh broke into a thousand pieces and they all went skipping about and that was the beginning of the fairies.”  Every time a child is born, another fairy will appear;
  • they are particularly drawn to children:  Barrie tells us that “it is frightfully difficult to know much about fairies, and about the only thing known for certain is that there are fairies wherever there are children… They can’t resist following the children…”
  • childrens’ disbelief in fairies kills them.  A fairy’s life is short in any case, although “they are so little that a short time seems a good while to them.”  Worse, though, is the fact that “children know such a lot now, they soon don’t believe in fairies ad every time a child says ‘I don’t believe in fairies’ there is a fairy that drops down dead.”

The bond between the delicate and pretty fairies and children that Barrie conjures fits ill with much of the rest of the delineation of their characters- the pinching, the grudges and the cruelty, but it is the ‘natural’ association between infancy and faery that has proved abiding.

Finally, it is also notable that Barrie was not immune to the quasi-adult treatment of fairies that had pervaded much Victorian literature and art.  There is a curious and uncomfortable tension between Peter, Tinker Bell and Wendy, with the two females competing for the attention of and the right to care for Peter.  Tink herself is introduced thus: she was “exquisitely gowned in a skeleton leaf cut low and square, through which her figure could be seen to the best advantage.  She was slightly inclined to embonpoint.”  Later Wendy describes her cattily as “an abandoned little creature” and that aura of wantonness pervades the character.  All in all, Tinker Bell appears to be an adult.  She is “quite a common fairy” and is not very polite, using “offensive” and “impudent” language to Wendy in their squabble over Peter.  This might be read as sexual possessiveness, or it might be the childhood exclusiveness of ‘the best friend.’

Further reading

In other posts I have examined the impact of other famous literary works on traditional British fairylore, books including Harry Potter, the Water Babies and the works of Mrs Ewing.

‘Horse and hattock’- Fairy motion- Part Two

Scott Ariel & Caliban

David Scott, Ariel and Caliban, 1837.

In a previous post I examined evidence indicating that the fays have a distinctive gliding motion.  Implicit in that is the possibility that they may be hovering above the surface of the ground, rather than being in contact and taking steps.  It sounds from the reports as though they may not actually be flying, nor are they walking.  In this post I return to the subject and pull together all the clues in traditional folklore on the subject of fairy locomotion.

Since the eighteenth century it has become very difficult to conceive of fairies without also picturing wings.  Winged fairies are now consistently seen by witnesses- as in the recent Fairy Census- but the older folklore generally doesn’t describe them like this.  How they get about then is not clear.

Fairies on foot

We know that the brownies definitely get around on foot.  For instance, there’s a common story of a devoted domestic sprite in Scotland who walked daily from his dwelling to the house to which he was attached, crossing a stream by stepping stones on the way.  One day, when the weather was bad and the water levels had risen, the people in the house didn’t expect to see him because the river was too treacherous to cross- but he impressed them with his commitment to his duties by walking a long distance out of his way in order to cross by a bridge.  Plainly, if levitation or flight had been an option- he would have used it.

We also hear of fairies moving house.  When they do so, they tend to move in a conventional human manner, with horses and carts.  In one sighting from Sutherland during the late 1860s the witness saw three carts laden with furniture and other household possessions being dragged over the moorland where there was no road and in a direction in which no human habitation lay.  When the church bells drove the pixies out of their home at Withypool on Exmoor, they borrowed a local farmer’s horse and cart to make the move.  Various other isolated mentions of fays using carts and carriages can be found.

The same methods are, of course, used when the fairies decide to abandon a place.  On the Isle of Man, when the flour mill was built at Colby, the local fairies gave up their former haunts.  Early one morning they were seen climbing up into the mists and solitude of the mountain glens, with their household goods on their backs.

The only exception to these very mundane images comes from the Reverend Robert Kirk.  In The secret commonwealth he described in chapter two how:

“They remove to other Lodgings at the Beginning of each Quarter of the Year … Their chamælion-lyke Bodies swim in the Air near the Earth with Bag and Bagadge…”

This quaint image is certainly highly suggestive of that floating motion I described in my previous posting.  Nonetheless, there’s no suggestion of ‘teleporting’ from one location to another, nor of flight as such.

It’s worth mentioning here too the fact that some fays will also put to sea in boats, whether for pleasure trips or for fishing. Either way, they are expected to be tied to exactly the same forms of locomotion as humans.

Mounted fairies

Besides wagons and coaches, another very well known use of horses by the fairies is in the so-called ‘fairy rade’ in which the group often termed the ‘trooping fairies’ process about the countryside.  Fairies will also hunt on horseback  and there are frequent reports of this- especially from the Isle of Man.  Yet again, though, there is some suggestion here of weightlessness.  Describing the Nithsdale fairies, Cromek said that they rode steeds “whose hoof would not print the new ploughed land or dash the dew from the crop of a harebell” and that they never deviated from straight lines in their travels, going straight through hedges and across corn fields to their destinations without leaving a trace on the crops.

The fairies keep their own horses, but they will also ride human steeds at night (tying their manes in ‘elf-locks’ and on the Isle of Man they’ve even been known to commandeer people to ride around on).

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Richard Doyle

Flying fairies?

The nearest we come to some indication of winged flight is a couple of Victorian descriptions of encounters.  An example from West Yorkshire dates to about 1850.  A man called Henry Roundell, of Washburn Dale near Harrogate, got up early one day to hoe his turnips.  When he reached the field, he was astonished to discover that every row was being hoed by a host of tiny men in green, all of them singing in shrill cracked voices “like a lot of field crickets.”   As soon as he tried to climb over the stile into the field, they fled ‘like flocks of partridges.’  Another nineteenth century account from nearby Ilkley tells of a crowd of fairies surprised whilst bathing in the local spa baths.  The caretaker of the wells cried out in astonishment and “away the whole tribe went, helter skelter, toppling and tumbling, head over heels, heels over heeds, and all the while making a noise not unlike a disturbed nest of young partridges.”  As they fled there was a whirring noise, which sounds very like startled wings, but we are told that “the fairies were “bounding over the walls like squirrels.”  In fact, if you look closely at both accounts, there’s no suggestion that they actually flew away like birds- merely that the startled commotion sounded similar to this.

Some fays (hobs and pixies) can transform themselves into birds, as we have see when discussing fairy shapeshifters, but this is a rare ability and is definitely not a widespread means of travel.

Magical flight

Can fairies fly then?  The answer is- yes, but not with wings.  The vast majority of British fairies have never been believed to have wings, in any case, but they don’t need them because they (or certain groups of them at least) can get around very well without.  They are able to fly through the air by magical means; there seem to be three or four separate ways of achieving this.

One is by means of a simple spell.  Various forms of words are recorded: naming the location to which you want to go might be enough in some cases.  On other occasions, a magic formula is required, and the commonest of which we hear is the cry of “Horse and hattock!”  It’s never made clear why these words are used, but we can hazard a few guesses.  It’s known that fays can enchant plant stems to ride like horses through the air.  For example Scottish poet Alexander Montgomerie mentions “When our good nighbours doe ryd … Some buckled on a bunwand, and some on a been” in his verse The Flyting between Montgomerie and Polwart (1585).  Now, a hattock is no longer an everyday word in English, but it means a sheaf or stook of corn, so perhaps what we have here is a spell to turn a wheat or barley stem into a mount.  There is of course an evident connection with witches’ broomsticks here, although it seems the fairies have a great deal more choices of flight available to them.

In Scotland and Ireland the fairy host, the sluagh, ride around the night sky, sometimes transporting hapless humans with them.  It seems that this is how they get about, as no other form of transport is ever mentioned.  For example, Sandy Gunn, of Houstry, near Dunbeath in the far north of Scotland, set out one summer morning sometime in the 1870s to visit his sister Betty.  He never arrived at her house and did not return home in the evening.  In fact, it wasn’t until the middle of the next day that he appeared, with a strange tale to tell.  Walking up a hill called Cnoc-an-Crask he’d felt a gentle breeze.  He’d lost his footing and been carried up into the air.  All day and all night he flew across the country, before being gently returned to the same spot the next morning.  In this case the flight seems to have been used mischievously (or even, perhaps, as a treat for the hapless human).  In another case the flight is pure mischief, teasing and scaring the victim.  A man at Fleshwick on the Isle of Man was caught up one night and transported over the fields until he got to the cliff edge, where the fays suddenly deposited him.

Flight could also be used as a punishment against one who’d offended or annoyed the sith.  A Perthshire herdsman who had prevented the fairies carrying off a newborn child and its mother was promptly carried off through the air for six or seven miles and back again before being unceremoniously dropped down through the smoke hole of his father’s cottage.  Here the aerial abduction is plainly a punishment for thwarting the fairies’ wills.

Similar stories come from Wales, too, and from them we learn that this form of flight is not necessarily pleasant for the human taken along.  The Welsh fairies travel either above, in the middle of or below the wind.  Above is a giddy and terrible sensation, whilst below involves being dragged through bush and brake.  This was plainly the  experience of one man whose case was described by the Reverend Edmund Jones in the late eighteenth century.  A hunting party visited a pub kept by Richard the tailor, “one who resorted to the company of fairies.”  One of the group went outside to relieve himself and was snatched up by a passing fairy band.  He was with them all night, being carried all the way from Monmouthshire to Newport and back again.  When he reappeared the next morning he “looked like he’d been pulled through thorns and briars.”  He felt very ill and said that for part of his journey he had been insensible.  Evidently he had been travelling below the wind (Jones, The appearance of evil, no.68).

A very similar – and vivid- description was given by Reginald Scot in his Discoverie of witchcraft of 1584 (Book III, c.IV):

“many such have been taken away by the said spirits for a fortnight or a month together, being carried with them in chariots through the air, over hills and dales, rocks and precipices, and passing over many countries and nations in the silence of the night, bereaved of their sense and commonly of their members to boot.”

The flying ‘chariots’ is a unique feature (although, as stated, we sometimes hear of ordinary terrestrial carriages and coaches) but Scot’s depiction of the effect of these prolonged aerial abductions certainly fits very well with the Rev. Jones’.  A Manx commentator described those taken as being carried ‘insensible’ through the sky.  Doubtless many of us might faint at the experience.

Naturally, some humans are exhilarated by the experience of flight and the novelty of visiting strange places in far lands.  Others are keen to try it at first, but then find it’s not as enjoyable as they had hoped.  A weaver joined the sluagh by pronouncing the magic words over his loom beam.  To begin with all went well, until he saw the host flying off a precipice.  At this point his courage failed him, he dropped to the ground and had to carry the beam all the way home on his shoulder

Next, a magical item can be used by the fairies to move around.  In a story from Herefordshire, a boy lost in the woods finally comes across a cottage and is taken in by the two women living there.  Later that night they put on white caps and fly off to a fairy dance.  He uses a third spare cap to follow them, although he’s later admonished by them for his impudence.

Finally, fairies can travel in a whirlwind.  This is again well known from Scotland and Ireland, but is also reported from as far away as Cornwall.  The use of these eddies of wind by which to move about seem to offer the fairies two advantages: firstly, they are fast and secondly they will blind humans who encounter them, maintaining the fairies’ concealment and, perhaps, allowing them to conduct a bit of surreptitious thieving on the way.

Further reading

See my earlier post on fairy motion and too chapter 13 of my British fairies for a discussion of fairy pathways.

 

 

 

 

Not all nymphs are nice… Arthur Machen and fairyland

A_Naiad_or_Hylas_with_a_Nymph_by_John_William_Waterhouse_(1893)

J. M. Waterhouse, A naiad, or Hylas and the nymph, 1893

Welsh born writer Arthur Machen (1863-1947) is best known for his Gothic horror novels, but beyond this he believed that the humdrum visible world conceals a more mysterious and strange reality.  Fairylore was just one element of his wide reading that he combined into this vision.

Turanians

In his second volume of autobiography, Things Near and Far, published in 1923, Machen acknowledged the rational explanations for fairy belief and for the origins of fairies (later set out in detail by Lewis Spence in British Fairy Origins of 1946):

“I am well aware, of course, of the various explanations of the fairy mythology; the fairies are the gods of the heathen come down into the world: Diana becomes Titania.  Or the fairies are a fantasy on the small dark people who dwelt in the land before the coming of the Celts; or they are elementals- spirits of the four elements: there are all these accounts, and for all I know, may be true, each in its measure.”

Machen dismissed the more intangible of these scientific interpretations, but he was strongly attracted by the idea of ‘little people’ who still survived in out of the way places.  Sometimes they were an actual, existing population: in his short story The Turanians Machen describes a girl spying upon a gypsy encampment-  they are “strange-wood-folk”

“gabbling to one another in their singsong speech … [a] people of curious aspect, short and squat, high-cheek-boned, with dingy yellow skin and long almond eyes.”

“Though everybody called them gipsies, they were in reality Turanian metal-workers, degenerated into wandering tinkers; their ancestors had fashioned the bronze battle-axes, and they mended pots and kettles.”

These Turanians are slightly exotic perhaps (if you’re unfamiliar with them) but they’re ordinary humans otherwise.

However, in other stories, Machen’s Turanians could become something far more primitive and alien.  They could then provide a convenient vehicle for Machen’s peculiar form of horror and the feature persistently in his novels.  In The Novel of the Black Seal (1895) one character expands upon this:

“I was especially drawn to consider the stories of the fairies, the good folk of the Celtic races.  Just as our remote ancestors called the dreaded beings “fair” and “good” precisely because they dreaded them, so they had dressed them up in charming forms, knowing the truth to be the reverse.  Literature too had gone early to work, and had lent a powerful hand in the transformation, so that the playful elves of Shakespeare are already far removed from the true original and the real horror is disguised in a form of prankish mischief.”

Machen followed the theories of Scottish folklorist David MacRitchie (1851-1925), which were set out most fully in his book, The testimony of tradition.  He traced the feys back to dwarfish Lapps or Eskimos.  From linguistics and anthropology came the label ‘Turanians,’ which denotes the Ural-Altai family of languages, including Finnish and Turkish, and which was used to denote an ancient and primitive culture from central Asia.  These peoples composed the aboriginal population of Europe before the fair-haired Aryans arrived and drove them north and west into the remotest recesses of the land.  Amongst those influential authors who promoted this idea were Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Sabine Baring-Gould and Madame Blavatsky, founder of Theosophy, who stated in The secret doctrine that the Turanians “were typified by the dwarf (dwergar).”

Machen was very taken with these theories.  For him the Turanians are the prehistoric inhabitants of the country, cave dwellers who have retreated before the advance of modern humans.  They feature in a number of his stories, such as the Red Hand (1895), in which a murder is committed with a flint blade and ancient hieroglyphs are found near the victim.  The elusiveness of the prehistoric peoples explains the myth of invisible fairies; their activities explain many ‘fairy phenomena’ such as flint arrow ‘elf-bolts,’ the changeling belief and the idea of witches’ sabbats.  Thus in the Novel of the Black Seal an inscription on the seal in the unknown characters of the ‘Little People’ is half seriously suggested to be  in language of ‘the Tylwyth Teg’ and the physical traces of their culture and activities are taken to be ‘fairy.’

All this comes together fully in Machen’s short story The Shining Pyramid (1906): a girl thought to have ‘gone with the fairies’ has in fact been abducted by a primitive race surviving in the Brecon Beacons.  They send cryptic messages through flint arrowhead characters and ultimately torture and sacrifice the girl.  Machen’s character Dyson explains to his friend how he realised what had actually happened:

“The hint came from the old name of the fairies, ‘the little people’ and the very probable belief that they represent a tradition of the prehistoric Turanian inhabitants of the country who were cave dwellers… [they were] under four feet in height, accustomed to live in darkness, possessing stone instruments and [with] a Mongolian cast of features.”

Despite this euhemerism and rationalism, albeit infused with violence and mystery, in his work Machen also showed great interest in the mystic, pagan, occult and romantic aspects of faery. Elsewhere he wrote that “belief in fairies and belief in the Stock Exchange as bestowers of happiness were equally vain, but the latter was ugly as well as inept.”  His work is thoroughly imbued with an awareness of, and awe for, faery; fairies may be illusory, but the mere suggestion of them endows his work with tension and glamour.  Machen repeatedly makes reference to fairy languages and to the dread power of our supernatural neighbours, for example in his best known novel, The hill of dreams, and in the story The White People.  

The line dividing these literal ‘little people’ from the little folk of faery legend is not always clearly defined in Machen’s work.  An example of this is the 1926 story Out of the earth.  It purports to describe real events in West Wales during the Great War.  There have been reports of the local children turning aggressive and attacking visiting children.  Investigation suggests that what is being experienced is actually a communication of the upheavals and violence in the human world to what might be called fairyland:

“They were only visible, only audible, to children and the childlike… These little people of the earth rise up and rejoice in these times of ours.  For they are glad, as the Welshman said, when they know that men follow their ways.”

It’s notable too that in his 1917 story The terror Machen had also envisaged the turmoil of the war infecting the animal population, with farm livestock turning horrifically against their owners.

In due course Machen’s idea of a horrific and primitive aboriginal culture was taken up by H. P. Lovecraft.  In The horror at Red Hook, for example,  a character reflects that:

“these hellish vestiges of old Turanian-Asiatic magic and fertility-cults were even now wholly dead he could not for a moment suppose, and he frequently wondered how much older and how much blacker than the very worst of the muttered tales some of them might really be.”

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Graham Ovenden, The meeting, 1972, Nasher Museum of Art, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina

The meaning of ‘faery’

In Machen’s writing the word ‘faery’ seems to have three distinct, but layered or related, meanings.  This is well-illustrated by sampling its usage in his novels, especially 1922’s The secret glory.  

‘Faery’ can imply something merely curious, unusual and lovely.  This may be applied to things as trivial as a young couple in awe as they discover London, to the metropolis that the same couple uncover for the first time, or to a salad in a French restaurant; but it also, more poetically, describes a snowbound scene as a “white fairyland,” and he sees in a sunset sky “golden lances [that] glittered in a field of faerie green” as well as “the green of the faery seas.” This usage shades imperceptibly into a sense of something mysterious, magical and beautiful, as in “the faery hills and woods and valleys of the West.” More specifically, those seas reappear in a reference to “ships of the saints, without oar or sail, afloat on the faery sea, seeking the Glassy Isle” -that is, the isle of Avalon, Ynys Wytrin at Glastonbury; and Machen also mentions to the “faery apple-garths in Avalon.”

Machen’s work is full of references to Celtic myth and to the intertwined Arthurian romances, so it is inevitable that it he would see “images of the fairies in his eyes” too.  In The secret glory the main character Ambrose Meyrick comes from Wales, where

“there were stories of the magic people who rose all gleaming from the pools in lonely woods; who gave more than mortal bliss to those who loved them; who could tell the secrets of that land where flame was the most material substance; whose inhabitants dwelt in palpitating or quivering colours or in the notes of a wonderful melody.”

Meyrick meets with a mysterious fiddler whose music “was like fairies dancing” and he has a lover, Nelly Foran, who is a girl from the West of Ireland “nurtured on the wonderful old legends of the saints and the fairies.”

Machen even seems to have invented his own fairylore, telling the story of the Emperor Nightingale (Eos Amherawdur in Welsh) who ruled over all the kings of the tylwydd teg.

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Nymph V by Giuditta-R

“In the time of the fairies”

There are also authentic elements of traditional lore concerning the fair folk, the tylwydd teg, scattered throughout Machen’s writing.  For example, in Opening the door (1931) a man seems to be abducted by the fairies for six weeks when he steps through an old and neglected door at the end of his garden.  The white people incorporates a classic description of a visit to fairyland: a young man out hunting follows a white stag until it disappears.  He realises it has entered a door in a large, round hill and he continues his pursuit into the darkness within.

“And all of a sudden it got light. and there was the sky, and the sun shining and birds singing in the trees, and there was a beautiful fountain.  And by the fountain a lovely lady was sitting, who was the queen of the fairies, and she told him that she had changed herself into a stag to bring him there because she loved him so much.”

Many of Machen’s themes are dark and bleak and it follows that he was an advocate of a more traditional and ambivalent view of our ‘good neighbours.’  For example, in his 1917 story The terror a child’s mysterious death might prove to be the work of the tylwyth teg: “‘unless it was The People that had done it.’ The Celtic fairies are still malignant.”  In Change (1936), a child on holiday in West Wales is apparently snatched by the fairies and a wizened changeling left in his stead.  Likewise, the child disappearance at the core of The shining pyramid is initially thought to be another fairy kidnapping, but it turns out that the ‘little people’ responsible are not supernatural beings but primitive troglodytes.

In all these stories the traditional source material is reworked by Machen.  His mentions of folklore are allusive and are reprocessed as horror and magical mystery.  Hence, in The White People the central character learns magical charms from her nurse: she is taught certain gestures– how to touch her eyes, lips and hair in a “peculiar way”- and to repeat:

“the old words of the fairy language, so that I might be sure I had not been carried away.”

Repeatedly in his work, Machen explores the idea that another world is not far from our own.  Whether that is the world of the Holy Grail, the realm of pagan gods who are still powerful and present, or the land of Faerie, it is a powerful source of mystery and enchantment.

Machen’s fairylands

Throughout his autobiographical books Machen invoked landscape comparisons with faery.  As a boy, he always saw the area around his home “as a kind of fairyland” whilst oddly shaped stones caused him to fall into a reverie, “as if it had been a fragment of paradise of fairyland.”

This romantic response to natural features lasted throughout the author’s life and appears in his written works.  The Holy Mountain in the “enchanted land” around Abergaveny was “a mountain peak in fairyland;” beyond that town the hills surge up into the “sharp peaks of the order of the fairies” towards Llanthony and The Tump, or Twyn Barlwm, near Merthyr Tydfil was to Machen “a faery dome.”  He recalled walking in the Wentwood Forest in Monmouthshire, “under suns that rose from the holy seas of faery and sank down behind magic hills.”

In contrast, London could seem like a “goblin city” to Machen, although even there he could find mystery and enchantment: October mists in Notting Hill Gate made “the plane trees in the back gardens droop down from fairyland.”  A bird’s song in a garden evoked “the blessed faery realm beyond the woods of earth, where the wounds of men are healed.”

Ovenden, illustration to Machen's 'White people'

Graham Ovenden, illustration for ‘The White People‘, Arthur Machen, 1982.

Dark & bright nymphs

The mentions of faery in the last section were sources of comfort and images of beauty.  In his fiction, fairies are more often associated with danger and horror.

In Machen’s unsettling and brooding story, The White People, a girl recounts strange magical discoveries in her secret journal.  She describes meeting mysterious supernatural beings, such as ‘the white people’ and ‘the nymphs.’  She’s instructed by her nurse in “the old words of the fairy language” as a protection against being taken.  The girl also learns how to summon the nymphs and discovers that:

“I might meet them in all kinds of places and how they would always help me, and I must always look for them and find them in all sorts of strange shapes and appearances.  And without the nymphs I could never have found the secret and without them none of the other things could happen … there were two kinds, the bright and the dark, and both were very lovely and very wonderful, and some people saw one kind and some only the other, but some saw them both.  But usually the dark appeared first and the bright ones came afterwards, and there were extraordinary tales about them.”

Eventually, the girl goes to a pool and summons the nymphs. Previously, dipping her feet in the cold waters of the pool had seemed as if the nymphs were kissing them, but the tone then shifts in a sinister and menacing way:

“The dark nymph, Alanna, came and she turned the pool of water into a pool of fire…”

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Nymph by Giuditta-R

The hill of dreams

In Machen’s masterpiece, The Hill of Dreams, the hero Lucian becomes lost in a strange landscape: “all afternoon his eyes had looked on glamour, he had strayed in fairyland …like the hero of a fairy-book.”  Ultimately he wanders into “outland and occult territory,” to “the woods beyond the world,to that vague territory that haunts all dreams.”  Ancient hill forts are described as ‘fairy-hills’ ‘faerie bulwarks’ and ‘fairy raths’ and even the capital city can be imagined as the site of “dolmen and menhir … gigantic, terrible.  All London was one grey temple of an awful rite, rung with a ring of wizard stones.”

Lucian’s preference is for alchemy, Cabala and Dark Age history- for “a land laid waste, Britain deserted by the legions, the rare pavements riven by frost, Celtic magic still brooding on the wild hills and in the black depths of the forest…” He wonders if he’s descended from ‘the little people’ and whether “there were some drop of fairy blood in his body that made him foreign and strange to the world.”  Lucian is drawn to the ‘fairy bulwarks’ of a Roman camp (the ‘hill of dreams’) and becomes bewitched by a beautiful young woman called Annie who speaks “wonderful, unknown words”- apparently an unintelligible, possibly fairy, language.  She dismisses it as “only nonsense that the nurses sing to the children” but it becomes apparent that there is more to it than that, that it is in fact some form of enchantment.

Throughout this and his other booksMachen’s descriptions of the Gwent countryside are vivid, intense and charged with otherworldly meaning.  Lucian follows an unknown lane “hoping he had found the way to fairyland.”  He scrambles up to the old Roman fort crowning a hill near his home and falls asleep on a hot summer’s afternoon, hearing “the old wood-whisper or … the singing of the fauns.”  This results, it seems, in his possession by fauns, nymphs or witches.  He has become some sort of changeling.  He realises that he was been watched by unknown figures and that “they” are a woman and “her awful companions, who had never grown old through all the ages.”  Hideous shapes in the wood “called and beckoned to him” and it is ultimately revealed that Annie is somehow Queen of the Sabbath and a moonlight enchantress.  She is no longer “the symbol of all mystic womanhood” and his beloved; rather- alarmingly- “jets of flame issued from her breasts” and she drinks his soul in an infernal, orgiastic rite.

Further reading

I’ve discussed how a link was created between British fairies and classical nymphs in a previous posting.  I highly recommend the works of Arthur Machen to readers: Penguin produce an accessible collection including The White Peopleand The Hill of Dreams is another good starting point.

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Nymph IV by Giuditta-R

 

Enchanted gardens (with fairies at the bottom)

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Cicely Mary Barker, The pine tree fairy, c.1940, Laing Art Gallery

I recently caught the end of an exhibition at the William Morris Gallery, near to where I live in East London.  The theme of the show was ‘The enchanted garden’  but there was, unexpectedly, a strong fairy theme alongside the pictorial  paean to English garden paradises.

Amongst the pictures displayed were several of the original flower fairy illustrations by Cicely Mary Barker, which were a delight to see.  They were much larger than I might have anticipated.  There was also ‘A fairy’ by Lucien Pisarro and the delightful ‘Jorinda and Joringel’ a painting illustrating a scene from one of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales by Mark Lancelot Symons, a painter who produced a number of fairy works and who deserves greater attention.

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Lucien Pissaro, The fairy, 1894

The convention is for us to imagine fairies in the countryside- dancing in meadows and on high moors- and leaving fairy rings behind- or secreted in woodland glades.  This is all perfectly correct: these are the secluded places where traditional fairy sightings have occurred and they have been reinforced in our imaginations by writers like William Shakespeare.  In the last century and a half, though, writers have also moved the fairy folk into (urban) back gardens.  They have become, perhaps, the outside equivalent of the domestic brownie.

Most famous for this must be Rose Amy Fyleman (1877-1957) whose first published work, There are fairies at the bottom of our garden, appeared in May 1917. She brought Faery right into the lives of her readers, imagining the fairy court assembling to dance behind the gardener’s shed and casting the imagined little girl reading the poem as the fairy queen herself.

Fyleman was not alone though in relocating fairies so much closer to home, nor was she the first to make the move.  English poet Philip Bourke Marston (1850-1887) repeatedly swapped between the ideas of fairies and flowers in gardens in poems such as Flower fairies, Garden fairies and Before and after the flower birth.  It’s never entirely clear whether they are real fairies or the spirits of flowers, for their silver laughter and singing are described, as are their “sudden scents.”

“Flower fairies- have you found them,
When the summer’s dusk is falling.
With the glow-worms watching round them,
Have you heard them softly calling?”

American poet Madison Julius Cawein (1865- 1914) also wrote extensively on fairy themes; in ‘Fairies’ he imagines Puck in a garden, travelling “Down the garden-ways … on a beetle’s back” whilst in Unmasked he too realises that the blooms outside his house are really fairies in disguise.  Lastly, another US poet, Arthur Peterson, in a verse entitled Halloween 1916 assembled Puck and the “blithe fairies”, who are the spirits of the summer flowers, to dance together to mark the coming of autumn with its frosts.

“… we came unto a garden,

Bright within a gloomy forest…

And I saw, as we grew nearer,

That the flowers so blue and golden

Were but little men and women,

Who amongst the green did shine.

But ‘twas marvellous the resemblance

Their bright figures bore to blossoms…”

Symons, Mark Lancelot, 1887-1935; Jorinda and Jorindal

Mark Symons, Jorinda and Joringel, Reading art gallery