Fayerie- Fairies and Fairyland in Tudor and Stuart Verse


I am very pleased to announce the publication of my latest book, another annotated anthology entitled Fayerie- Fairies and Fairyland in Tudor and Stuart Verse.  Hot on the heels of Victorian Fairy Verse, this offers an annotated selection of poetry from the period along with a detailed introduction.

The Tudor and Stuart period in Britain, the time of Shakespeare, Jonson, Milton, Drayton, Herrick and many others, was a time when fairies featured repeatedly in poetry and drama. The new book is a detailed examination of the fairies of the era, as they are depicted in the verse of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.


The book’s divided into three parts. The first part surveys the medieval background- how fairies were portrayed in the romances, poems and other literary works of the Middle Ages. Particular attention is paid to ideas of fairyland and to the kings and queens of Faery.

In the second part I examine Tudor and Stuart fairy knowledge in detail. Drawing on the many plays and poems of the period, a picture is built up of how contemporary people understood and interacted with their fairy neighbours. The book then considers how new ideas were beginning to change fairy belief at this time: changes in religion, science and culture were taking place (most notably the Reformation and the Renaissance) and these had a major impact on popular perceptions of fairies. Lastly in this part of the book, two specific questions are examined: how big were the fairies thought to be and what colour were their clothes- and their bodies?

The third part of the book is an annotated anthology of selected Tudor and Stuart fairy verse. Work is included by Thomas Churchyard, Simeon Steward, Robert Herrick, Michael Drayton and William Warner, amongst others. Overall, rather than just relying on Shakespeare, Jonson and Milton, the book draws on a very wide range of authors, both English and Scots, and includes many little known plays and poems.

Robin Good-fellow, or Puck

Tudor and Stuart Ideas

There is continuity in British fairy belief right through from the twelfth century to present times.  Many of the concepts accepted in the Middle Ages are still perfectly recognisable today.  These ideas were transmitted to us by the Tudor and Stuart periods, and the elements of their faery faith are very familiar.  Here are few examples of core aspects of their belief which are still applicable.

It was well known that fairies were especially beautiful: in a verse written to celebrate the first staging of Massinger’s play The Emperor of the East in 1631, the “matchless features of the Fairy Queen” are praised.  Naturally, sexual desire was involved: “that little fairy,/ ‘T has a shrewd, tempting face” says a character in Middleton’s The Spanish Gipsy (1621, I, 5).

Caution was needed in such affairs, though.  People of the period well knew that the faes were changeable: you could speak about “that hopeful Elf/ Thy dear, dainty Duckling” but also “that elf/ Of sin and darkness.”  The faes could even be invoked to inflict revenge:

“Nay, then, revenge, look big! Elf and Fairy/ Help to revenge the wronged ‘pothecary!”  (Massinger, The Picture, II, 1; Middleton, The Triumphs of Truth and The Family of Love, IV, 4)

As I have discussed many times, the fairies would reward diligent servants and housewives (“I have sometimes found money in old shoes” Middleton, The Witch, IV, 1) and would viciously chastise those felt to be lazy and dirty.  Pinching was the preferred punishment:

“pricked and pinched me like an urchin” (Middleton, More Dissemblers Besides Women, III, 1)

“The nips of fairies upon maids’ white hips,/ Are not more perfect azure.” (The Witch, I, 2)

Lastly, when not tormenting us mortals, it was very well known that the fairies would dedicate themselves to pleasure: “Fine dancing in such fairy rings” and “sung and danced about me like a fairy.” (Middleton, A Mad World, My Masters, V, 2 & IV, 4).

Further detail

Fayerie is published through Amazon/KDP and is available as an e-book at £7.50 or as a paperback at £12.00.  For details of all my faery books (fiction and non-fiction), please see my book page.

The Last Fairy

J. Torrance’s illustration of the ‘Gloaming Bucht

In a previous post I discussed the long-standing belief that the fairies are leaving Britain: it is an idea that has persisted through centuries, since at least the time of Chaucer, and which has been backed up by a number of sightings in late Victorian times.

A natural corollary of this idea is that, eventually, there will be only one fairy left, forlorn and forsaken.  This figure is found in folk stories and in literature.  In this post I want to examine the literature and folklore concerning this lonely being.

Several of the poems by Victorian writer Rosamund Marriott Watson deal with the idea of fairy abandonment of England.  The one cited here is especially poignant, emphasising the isolation of the stranded individual.

The Last Fairy

Under the yellow moon, when the young men and maidens pass in the lanes,

Outcast I flit, looking down through the leaves of the elm-trees,

Peering out over the fields as their voices grow fainter;

Furtive and lone

Sometimes I steal through the green rushes down by the river,

Hearing shrill laughter and song while the rosy-limbed bathers

Gleam in the dusk.

Seen, they would pass me disdainful, or stone me unwitting;

No room is left in their hearts for my kinsfolk or me.

Fain would I, too, fading out like a moth in the twilight,

Follow my kin,

Whither I know not, and ever I seek but I find not-

Whither I know not, nor knoweth the wandering swallow;

‘Where are they, where?’

Oft-times I cry; but I hearken in vain for their footsteps,

Always in vain.


High in a last year’s nest, in the boughs of the pine-tree,

Musing I sit, looking up to the deeps of the sky,

Clasping my knees as I watch there and wonder, forsaken;

Ever the hollow sky

Voiceless and vast, and the golden moon silently sailing,

Look on my pain and they care not,

There is none that remembers:

Only the nightingale knows me- she knows and remembers-

Deep in the dusk of the thicket she sorrows for me.

Yet, on the wings of the wind sweeping over the uplands,

Fitfully borne,

Murmuring echoes remembered- the ghosts of old voices

Faint as a dream, and uncertain as cloud-shadowed sunlight,

Fall on mine ear.

Whence do they call me? From golden-dewed valleys forgotten?

Or from the strongholds of eld, where red banners of sunset

Flame o’er the sea?

Or from anear, on the dim airy slopes of the dawn-world,

Over light-flowering meads between daybreak and sunrise

Level and grey?

Truly I know not, but steadfast and longing I listen,

Straining mine ears for the lilt of their tinkling laughter

Sweeter than sheep-bells at even; I watch and I hearken.

O for the summons to sound! for the pipes plaining shrilly,

Calling me home!

This poem is a romantic imagining of the deserted fairy.  We get a glimpse of the real experience in the following Scottish account.  This sad report of the loneliness of the last fay is told in The Gloaming Bucht, a tale that’s set in the Cheviot Hills near the border with England (from Scottish Fairy and Folk Tales, George Douglas, 1901).  The events related may have happened in the late eighteenth century.

“Speakin’ o’ fairies,” quoth Robbie Oliver (an old shepherd, who lived at Southdean in Jedwater, and died about 1830), “I can tell ye about the vera last fairy that was seen hereaway. When my faither, Peter Oliver, was a young man, he lived at Hyndlee, an’ herdit the Brocklaw. Weel, it was the custom to milk the yowes in thae days, an’ my faither was buchtin’ the Brocklaw yowes to twae young, lish, clever hizzies ne nicht i’ the gloamin’. Nae little daffin’ an’ gabbin’ gaed on amang the threesome, I’se warrant ye, till at last, just as it chanced to get darkish, my faither chancit to luik alang the lea at the head o’ the bucht, an’ what did he see but a wee little creaturie a’ clad i’ green, an’ wi’ lang hair, yellow as gowd, hingin’ round its shoulders, comin’ straight for him, whiles gi’en a whink o’ a greet an’ aye atween its hands raisin’ a queer, unyirthly cry: “Hae ye seen Hewie Milburn? Oh! hae ye seen Hewie Milburn?”

Instead of answering the creature, my faither sprang owre the bucht flake, to be near the lasses, saying, “Bliss us a’–what’s that?”

“Ha, ha! Patie lad,” quo’ Bessie Elliot, a free-spoken Liddesdale hempy; “theer a wife com’d for ye the nicht, Patie lad.”

“A wife!” said my faither; “may the Lord keep me frae sic a wife as that,” an’ he confessed till his deein’ day, he was in sic a fear that the hairs o’ his heed stuid up like the hirses of a hurcheon [hedgehog/ urchin]. The creature was nae bigger than a three-year-auld lassie, but feat an’ tight, lith o’ limb, as ony grown woman, an’ its face was the downright perfection o’ beauty, only there was something wild an’ unyirthly in its e’en that couldna be lookit at, faur less describit: it didna molest them, but aye taigilt on about the bucht, now an’ then repeatin’ its cry, “Hae ye seen Hewie Milburn?”

Sae they cam’ to nae ither conclusion than that it had tint [lost] its companion. When my faither an’ the lasses left the bucht, it followed them hame to the Hyndlee kitchen, where they offered it yowe brose, but it wad na tak’ onything, till at last a neer-do-weel callant made as if he wad grip it wi’ a pair o’ reed-het tangs, an’ it appeared to be offendit, an’ gaed awa’ doon the burnside, cryin’ its auld cry eerier an’ waesomer than ever, and disappeared in a bush o’ seggs.”

We have no real idea who Hewie Milburn might be, or how the pair might have come to be separated, but this is definitely a fairy couple (as the height and beauty of the woman attest, as well as the tell-tale green clothes).  A related report comes from Caithness.  The last fairies ever seen there said to have been were a comely mother with a freckled child with large webbed feet.  They were observed to get into a boat and sail away from the shore, never to be seen again.

Charles Sims, The Beautiful is Fled

Apparently, then, some individuals get left behind, although we don’t know whether this is because the fairies leave in haste and accidentally miss out a member of their community or because it was a deliberate act, perhaps because the stranded fairy was a nuisance or a thief.  We can’t be sure with the Cheviot or Caithness cases, but in another incident, from Shetland, it appears that a burdensome person might be abandoned.  There was a fiddler called Rasnie who often played at trow dances and weddings.  One day, not having heard fairy music for some time, he went to the ‘ferrie-knowe’ (the fairy hill) and entered.  Inside there was just one old woman remaining; the rest of the trows had fled the preaching of the Gospel on Shetland and gone to live on the Faroes, along with the tangies and the brownies, but they had consciously left her behind.

I’ll close with a second wistful verse, this time by Scottish poet William Sharp, who wrote as Fiona Macleod.  The premise here is rather different: that the fay was created by Merlin and cannot now find her maker, but the emotions are the same.

The Last Fay

I have wandered where the cuckoo fills

The woodlands with her magic voice:

I have wandered on the brows of hills

Where the last heavenward larks rejoice:

Far I have wandered by the wave.

By shadowy loch and swaying stream,

But never have I found the grave

Of him who made me a wandering Dream.

If I could find that lonely place

And him who lies asleep therein,

I’d bow my head and kiss his face

And sleep and rest and peace would win.


He made me, he who lies asleep

Hidden in some forgotten spot

Where winds sweep and rains weep

And foot of wayfarer cometh not:

He made me, Merlin, ages ago.

He shaped me in an idle hour,

He made a heart of fire to glow

And hid it in an April shower!

For I am but a shower that calls

A thin sweet song of rain, and pass:


Even the wind-whirled leaf that falls

Lingers awhile within the grass,

But I am blown from hill to vale,

From vale to hill like a bird’s cry

That shepherds hear a far-off wail

And wood folk as a drowsy sigh.

And I am tired, whom Merlin made.

I would lie down in the heart of June

And fall asleep in a leafy shade

And wake not till in the Faery Moon

Merlin shall rise our lord and king,

To leave for aye the tribes of Man,

And let the clarion summons ring

The kingdom of the Immortal Clan.

If but in some green place I’d see

An ancient tangled moss-like beard

And half-buried boulder of a knee

I should not flutter away a feared!

With leap of joy, with low glad cry

I’d sink beside the Sleeper fair:

He would not grudge my fading sigh

In the ancient stillness brooding there.


Further Reading

If you enjoyed the poems cited in this post, have a look at my new book which is all about Victorian Fairy Verse.

On My Faery Bookshelf: ‘The King of Elfland’s Daughter’ & others


The 1977 album cover

In my recent post about Faery in the music of Mark Bolan and English rock of the 1960s and ’70s, I mentioned the rock opera based upon the 1924 book, The King of Elfland’s Daughter, by Edward Lord Dunsany.

I hadn’t read this, and thought I really should.  Having ordered the book through my local library, my default is now corrected!

The story concerns the land of Erl.  The people there feel neglected and unknown in the world, a situation that could be corrected if only there was magic in their land.  Their prince, Alveric, agrees to resolve this problem and travels through the misty frontier into nearby Elf Land.  There he meets and woos the king’s daughter, Lirazel.

They return to Erl and have a son, who is named Orion.  However, Lirazel cannot adapt to earthly ways and pines for her home.  Eventually, her father calls her back with magic and then hides Elfland from men.

Alveric sets out on a quest to recover his elvish bride, leaving behind his infant child.  Orion grows up to be a naturally skilled hunter in the forests and fields of Erl.  As time passes, and as Alveric heads further and further away in his futile search for his wife, the King of Elfland allows the border of his realm to draw nearer to earth again.  In due course, Orion discovers that unicorns stray over into our fields to graze and he becomes addicted to hunting them.  Inevitably, though, they are very hard to chase and he recruits a troll, Luralu, to help.  Slowly, then, Elfland and Earth are becoming intertwined, building up to the point when the magical world flows over Erl completely and the sundered family are reunited.

The plot of The King of Elfland’s Daughter is simple, but entertaining, and the author makes excellent use of such faery themes as the differential passage of time, but what is most attractive about the novel is its style.  Dunsany’s prose has a stately, poetic elegance; certain phrases are repeated, almost like an incantation, “the fields we know” and the faery palace, that “may be told of only in song.”  This is a feature, too, of traditional ballads (many of which are faery themed) and it gives a dreamlike quality to the majestic progress of the narrative, entirely appropriate to its magical subject matter.  (Dunsany achieved a similar effect in his chronicles of Pegana, too, which in creating an entirely new universe and pantheon, were key sources of inspiration for H P Lovecraft’s Cthulhu).

All in all, it’s a lovely book, and highly recommended.

Other books for your collection

I’ve been catching up on my faery fiction recently, and I can also recommend the following.

The Lore of Proserpine

The Lore of Proserpine was published by Maurice Hewlett in 1913.  It’s an intriguing and elegant read, unlike any other book I have yet found in this subject area.  The work is fiction (we might assume) but it is written as a biographical account of a life-time’s encounters with faery folk.  The ambivalent status of the book, presenting itself as a sober and considered account of supernatural experiences, is part of its attraction.

Hewlett first sees a fairy boy in a wood when he is a child himself.  Regular sightings follow into adulthood, many of these occurring in the ostensibly unpromising surroundings of London, as well as in some of the remoter parts of the British countryside (deep in the Cheviot Hills or on the downs in Wiltshire).  Some of the sightings are presented as personal, others are relayed as reports from witnesses whom Hewlett has interviewed).  It’s full of wise remarks and informed speculations on fairy nature and, at only 130 pages in length and available as a very cheap paperback, it comes with the strongest British Fairies endorsement.


Kingdoms of Elfin

I’ve mentioned it before, in passing, but I should also give honourable mention here to Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Kingdoms of Elfin (1977).  In this book, too, a unique universe of faery is invented, based upon traditional faerylore but moulded by the author to her own vision.  It is a crueller Faery than Dunsany’s, where all is calm and peace, and in that respect is truer to the authentic nature of British fairies.


Fairy Sexuality


Working on my next book (on faery beasts)with my publishers, the question of ‘hetero-normativity’ was raised by my editor with respect to fairy sexuality.  All the examples of relationships I gave were male and female: were there no gay fays?

This is a valid question- and perhaps a surprising one in that we are all aware that ‘fairy’ has come to be used as another word for gay.  The latter share a common history, too, in that they originated as insults (gay used to be used of prostitutes and suggested promiscuity; fairy implied an effeminate male) but have since been adopted with pride.

If we rely on the folklore record, all we’ll find is heterosexual fairies and merfolk.  Does this reflect actual folk belief or the beliefs of those recording folktales?  I strongly suspect that the latter is the case. Many of the early recorders of fairy-lore were clergymen, who undertook it as a suitable hobby.  It is hardly surprising, especially where those church ministers were Scottish Presbyterian, that anything in the least morally suspect would be suppressed.   In a sense, it is surprising that any information about the lhiannan-shee, the fairy lover, was preserved, but perhaps her loose morals and malign effect upon her victims was worth recording as an example of demonic corruption.  Beyond that was asking too much, even so.

Other early folklorists came from academia, and I suspect that a keen sense of academic and social propriety may once again have encouraged them to draw a veil over any stories they considered ‘unfit’ to print (if they were told such stories by their informants at all).  All in all, a variety of factors probably conspired to conceal the less ‘acceptable’ elements in folklore.

I was fascinated, then, to read Maurice Hewlett’s Lore of Proserpine. Although published in 1913, in his final ‘Summary Chapter’ he described fairy relationships:

“Love with them is a wild and wonderful rapture in all its manifestations, and without regard necessarily to sex.  I never, in all my life, saw a more beautiful expression of it than in the two females whom I saw greet and embrace on Parliament Hill.  Their motions to each other, their looks and their clinging were beyond expression tender and swift.”

Hewlett refers to an incident in his earlier chapter ‘The Soul at the Window.’  Out one night on Hampstead Heath, he saw a group of fairies meet, and:

“I saw one greeting between two females.  They ran together and stopped short within touching distance.  They looked brightly and intently at each other, and leaning forward approached their cheeks til they touched.  They touched by the right, they touched by the left.  Then they took hands and drew together.  By a charming movement of confidence, one nestled to the side of the other and, resting her head, looked up and laughed.  The taller embraced her with her arm and held her for a moment.  The swiftness of the act and its gracefulness were beautiful to see.  Then they ran hand in hand to the others…”

Hewlett’s book is fiction, but he could acknowledge same sex devotion between fairies a century ago.

Sir Ian McKellen, ‘Gandalf,’ as a Fairy Queen

In an earlier post, A fay of colour- diversity in Faery I questioned the very powerful presumption that faes are predominantly white and fair haired.  Plentiful evidence suggests that earlier generations made no such assumptions and that, indeed, Tudor and Stuart beliefs could encompass some radically different concepts of faery.  Just as in race, so in sexuality: what we have is a silence in our sources, not a denial.


Gwenhidw- Mermaid Queen of Wales


Many readers will be familiar with The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, by Walter Evans-Wentz.  They might even recall that, in his investigation of Welsh fairy lore, he spoke to a Welsh Justice of the Peace from Carmarthen called David Williams, who proved a rich source of faery facts, despite his sober and respectable position.  In particular, he told Evans-Wentz about the king and queen of the tylwyth teg, whom he named as Gwydion ab Don and his wife Gwenhidw.  Gwydion is a character straight out of the Mabinogion, and he is said to live amongst the stars in Caer Gwydion, one of several magical faery fortresses that are mentioned in Welsh legend.  His wife, meanwhile, is connected to the fluffy white clouds that appear in fine weather and which are called ‘the sheep of Gwenhidw.’

This is a very pretty image, and Evans-Wentz goes on to speculate that this queen has some connection to King Arthur’s queen Guinevere, who is properly Gwenhwyfar, ‘the white ghost’ or spirit.  Ghostly ‘white ladies’ are very common in British folklore, often associated with wells and streams.

The real Gwenhidw

Mr David Williams JP gave Evans-Wentz a very useful lead, but what he had learned as a boy from his mother was a very confused version of the authentic tradition.

Gwenhidw (or Gwenhidwy/ Gwenhudwy) is well known in Welsh folklore.  She is, actually, a morforwyn- a mermaid.  Her name means ‘white enchantment’ or ‘white spell.’ In modern stories she owns a herd of white horses that run along the crests of the waves.  In older versions of the tale, the foaming waves were her ewes and every ninth wave was the ram of the flock.  This conception of the incoming tide is preserved in a sixteenth century poem by Rhys Llywd ap Rhys ap Rhicert in which he described a boat trip to the monastic island of Bardsey (Ynys Enlli) from the Lleyn Peninsula.  The passage is notoriously choppy and he described the sea as:

“haid o ddefaid Gwenhudwy/ a naw hwrdd yn un a hwy”

(a flock of ewes of Gwenhidwy and nine rams with them.”

Another poem of a comparably early date refers to Gwenhidw growing a beard (Ni adaf mal Gwenhudwy/  Ar vy min dyfu barf mwy– “Like G., I no longer grow a beard on my lip.”)  This seems to be an example of the quite widespread British tradition that mermaids are (contrary to popular misconceptions) pretty unattractive to look at- and possibly not even very different to tell from mermen.

Elsewhere in Welsh tradition a flood is termed ‘Gwenhudwy’s oppression’ and the sea is called her ‘plain.’  Lastly, an Elizabethan poem contrasts a man called Rhys Cain to our heroine, saying that he is a ‘feeble magician’ compared to her (wan hydol i Wenhidw).  


What can we conclude from these scattered references?  It emerges that Gwenhidw was once well-known in Wales as a powerful and fearsome mermaid, someone to be dreaded and respected.  If insulted, her vengeance might be savage.

Figuratively, at least, Gwenhidw had flocks of sheep.  At some point (though perhaps only in the family of David Williams JP) a misconception arose and the rolling breakers of the angry sea were substituted by benign fair weather clouds.  This, along with her  marriage to Gwydion, demoted Gwenhidw, but she deserves to be restored to her far more prominent position as sorceress and queen.


Further Reading

An edited and expanded version of this post will be found in my book Fayerie- Fairies and Fairyland in Tudor and Stuart Verse.  See my books page for more information.

Victorian Fairy Verse


A shameless little bit of self-promotion.  I’ve had the idea in my head for a while to pull together a lot of the Victorian poems I’d collected during my research and I’ve finally now published it.

There’s plenty written on Victorian fairy paintings (Christopher Wood, Jeremy Maas and Beatrice Philpotts), and plenty on the literature of Shakespeare’s time (Latham, DeLattre and Halliwell), but strangely nothing on the outpouring of fairy verse in the 19th century that matched the visual art.  That oversight is now corrected.

The Victorian era saw a peak of popular interest in fairies- in art, literature, popular entertainments and in children’s books. Whilst there are several studies that examine Victorian fairy painting, that have been none that are devoted to the fairy poetry of the era. This book showcases the richness and complexity of this genre of nineteenth century verse.

The book contains an introduction to the subject, followed by a brief survey of fairy poetry from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries- writers such as Drayton, Herrick and William Blake. The fairy verse of the nineteenth century is then surveyed in themed chapters, which examine good and bad fairies, mermaids, Irish fairy verse, North American poetry and the twentieth century legacy of these writings. Each chapter includes a brief introduction, biographies of the poets and notes and discussion on each of the poems.Over eighty poets are included, from well-known names such as Ruskin, Tennyson and Rossetti to a host of much less well-known fairy writers.

Some of the poems are sickly sweet- as we might well expect, but some are dramatic or dark.  Writers portrayed the more scary side of faery- the taking of children, the abduction of women, the deadly side of mermaid nature- just as much as they depicted wings and wands.  I’ve discussed the austere and haunting poetry of Scot Fiona Macleod before; here’s a complete contrast, ‘The Sick Fairy’ by Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman:

“Brew some tea o’ cowslips, make some poppy-gruel,

Serve it in a buttercup—ah, ’tis very cruel,

That she is so ailing, pretty Violetta!

Locust, stop your violin, till she’s feeling better.”

This is from her collection Once Upon a Time and Other Child Verses, published in 1897 with illustrations by Etheldred Barry, whose plate to accompany the fairy poem ‘Once Upon a Time’ is reproduced here.  Plainly, we’re a long way here from the sadness and magic of Macleod’s fairy nobility.  Nevertheless, I see Freeman’s poem as being just as valid an expression of Victorian fairy beliefs as anything by the more ‘serious’ writers like MacLeod, Yeats or AE.  Her poems still have something important to tell us about how the Victorians saw fairies.


I’ve included a few works by Tennyson and Rossetti, but mostly I wanted to feature lesser known writers, some of whom were prolific in the genre.  As we’re dealing too with English language verse, I’ve included Irish and North American authors as well.  The former shared many aspects of fairy culture with Britain (as well as being part of the same country at the time); US and Canadian writers drew very heavily on British and Irish roots- to the extent, in fact, that as black literary figures emerged, they too adopted the fairy conventions lock, stock and barrel.

I’ve illustrated the book with line drawing by contemporary artist Gertrude Thomson.  She was a friend of Lewis Carroll, who helped him with his life drawing technique as well as finding child models for him to sketch.  In 1898 she illustrated his book of poems Three Sunsets.

The book’s available now from Amazon/ KDP, £7.50 for the e-book and £14.00 for the paperback.

Victorian Fairy Verse: An Annotated Anthology by [Kruse, John]

See a list of my faery publications (present and planned) here.


A Medieval Faeryland Underground

©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. OjŽda

Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry– April

There is a fascinating glimpse of medieval English views of faerie to be found in a very unexpected place, a Middle English poem called A Disputison By-twene A Cristenemon and a Jew (A Disputation between a Christian and a Jew), which seems to have been written in South West England in the late 1300s.  The religious subject matter sounds unpromising and, given the date and period, the content is what we might expect- a sectarian attack on the Jewish faith and an attempt to convert the fictional Jew of the story (which is successful).

What interests us is that the two disputants are imagined to visit the Jewish heaven.  As the author essentially knew nothing of the Jewish faith (apparently not a disqualification from writing the text), he substituted the next best thing- his ideas on fairyland.  What is depicted, therefore, is how Faery was imagined in the late-fourteenth century.

So, in verse 10, we read that:

fforth heo wenten on the ffeld, To an hul thei bi-heold.

The eorthe cleuet as a scheld, On the grounde grene.”

(They went out into the fields to a hill they saw.  There the green ground broke open before them) .  This idea of a hill opening up to reveal the underground dwelling place of the fairies within, and in particular splendid halls and places of feasting, is very common to British literature and folklore.  In this case they are spared any long entry through tunnels or passages.  Instead, it is a short and comfortable stroll from the earth surface to their destination.

Sone fond thei a stih; thei went ther-on radly;

The Cristene mon hedde ferly, What hit mihte mene.”

(Soon, they found a path and followed it quickly, the Christian man wondering the while what it all might mean.)

After that stih lay a strete, Clene I-Pavet with grete.

Thei fond a maner that was meete, With Murthes ful schene, 

Wel coruen and wrouht, With halles heighe uppon loft.

To a place weore thei brouht, As paradys the clene.

(The path led them to a street, well surfaced with gravel.  They next came across a fine manor-house, full of pleasing delights, very well made and carved and with high halls.  They were brought to a place that seemed as pure as Paradise to them.)

In this hall there are birds singing joyfully and many rich furnishings of expensive cloths and precious metals.  The Christian man is especially impressed by the “Wyndouwes i the walle, Was wonderli I-wrouht.” (Well wrought windows in the walls)  He’d never seen as fine a place on the earth surface, certainly.

Outside this mansion there are wonders too.  “Ther was erbes growen grene, Spices springynge bi-twene” the like of which he’d also never seen.  A thrush was singing sweetly in the garden, amongst the fair flowers that were blooming.  In fact, he sees King Arthur’s round table there: “Hit was a wonderful siht.”  The relationship of Arthur to fairyland is well-established and is something I’ve examined before.

The pair are then invited to dine at a nunnery, where there are fine ladies and squires, all dressed in most fashionable and expensive clothes, and the two visitors agree to stay there and hear tell of adventures.  They wash and go to sit down at tables laid with clean, fresh cloths and:

Riche metes was forth brouht, To alle men that good thouht ;

The Cristen mon wolde nouht, Drynke nor ete.

Ther was wyn ful clere, In mony a feir Maseere,

And other drynkes that weore dere, In Coupes ful gret.

Sithe was schewed hem bi, Murthe and Munstralsy...”

(Rich foods were served, but the Christian man would neither drink nor eat, even though he was offered wine in fair goblets and other drinks in great cups, and there was mirth and minstrelsy in the hall.)  This, of course, is a classic idea: don’t eat the food whilst you’re in Faery or else you’ll never be able to get back.

After this, the story reverts to its anti-Semitic polemic, but it has nevertheless given us a fascinating little glimpse into late medieval fairyland.

©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. OjŽda

Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry- January

Further Reading

An edited and expanded version of this post will be found in my book Fayerie- Fairies and Fairyland in Tudor and Stuart Verse.  See my books page for more information.




On My Fairy Bookshelf: ‘Fairies- A Dangerous History’ and others


On a recent visit to Glastonbury I picked up a couple of fairy texts in Labyrinth Books.

Fairies- A Dangerous History

The first was Fairies- A Dangerous History by Richard Sugg (2018).  This is a handy general history of the subject and Sugg writes in a very stylish and enjoyable manner.  There was not a great deal in the book that was new to me, but there were nonetheless some new facts and cases as well as new perspectives on familiar subjects, that made me reconsider those in a fresh light.  That alone can make a book worthwhile.  The content is selective, rather than comprehensive, but he has chosen interesting angles to illustrate his topic.

As a researcher in this subject, I was (I must confess) somewhat vexed by the fact that Sugg gives no footnotes.  Indeed, although there is a reading list at the end, he often seems to refer in the book to texts that he doesn’t mention in his final bibliography.  This is a little trying, although armed with Google, some creative thinking and some patience, you can track most things down on the world wide interweb.

Other than that (rather specialist) gripe, this is an entertaining and informative book and good value, too.  Sugg also wrote a chapter on the Cottenham fairies in Magical Folk, by Simon Young and Ceri Houlbrook.  Simon recommended the book in the newsletter of the Fairy Investigation Society, which encouraged me to make the purchase.


Hikey Sprites

At the same time in Labyrinth Books, I found Ray Loveday’s Hikey Sprites- the Twilight of a Norfolk Tradition (2009).  Loveday is a Norwich man and he has conducted a personal survey of the surviving fairy beliefs in his home county, interviewing witnesses himself (as well as illustrating the book with charming line drawings).  It’s only 40 pages long, but it’s a fascinating little study into this quite obscure East Anglian spirit, a being that’s got characteristics in common with both wills of the wisp and bogies.  It’s a bit ‘nursery-sprite,’ a bit ‘Hobby lantern’ and a bit goblin.  The booklet was a pleasure to read.

Suffolk Fairylore

Lastly, by mail order, I decided to get Suffolk Fairylore by Francis Young (Lasse Press, 2019); also recommended by Simon Young in the FIS newsletter.  Francis Young is a more academic writer to the previous two (which means, for the fussy amongst us, that the book is fully annotated!) and he provides a thorough analysis of fairy lore in another East Anglian county.

The focus might seem too specialised or limiting, but there are many fascinating stories to be told (such as the Green Children of Woolpit) and Young provides lots of well informed analysis, setting Suffolk fairy lore in a wider context.  I thoroughly enjoyed the book, as well as finding it very useful.


Further Reading

I’ll conclude with a shameless plug: my own new book, Faery: a Guide to the Lore, Magic and World of the Good Folk will be issued by Llewellyn Worldwide in April 2020.  This builds upon the information contained in my British Fairies and offers an even more comprehensive survey of faery folk in the British Isles.  See a full list of my faery titles here.

‘The hair of the dog’- fairies & dogs



Cwn annwn by Cinnamon Stix on Deviant Art

Fairies have a curious relationship to dogs.  They have their own breeds, known as the cu sith in Scottish Gaelic whilst, separately from this, some supernaturals appear in dog form- primarily the black dogs and yeth hounds of English folk tradition.  The faery relationship with dogs domesticated by humans is far less happy however.

Cu Sith

The fairy dogs of the Scottish Highlands are distinctive in appearance: they are green on their back and sides, with a tail that coils over their backs and paws the size of a man’s hands.  Their bark is very loud, capable of scaring cattle to death, and they sound like horses galloping when they run.  Although they can instil terror in a human, to the fairies themselves they are beloved household pets and guard dogs.

Once some men on Barra were guarding their cows when they saw a large dog in the vicinity.  Fearing for the herd’s safety, they tried to strike the dog to scare it off (although one in the group suspected the true nature of the hound and warned against hurting it).  The man who hit the dog was paralysed in his hand and arm and had to be carried home in great pain.  Luckily, a local wise-woman diagnosed the fact that he was suffering fairy revenge and was able to advise on a cure.

Fairy dogs are expert hunters and one human who was favoured by two fairy women was given a fine dog from which nothing ever escaped.  This, of course, is a far less favourable trait where the human is the prey and there are several versions of a story where a woman forcibly retrieves a borrowed cooking pot from the local fairy knoll.  The dogs are set on her and she is hard put to get home in one piece.


Fairy hounds by Roger Garland

Canine Conflict

There is a strong antipathy existing between the dogs kept by humans and the fairies.  It is not clear exactly why this should be so: sometimes the dog is protecting its owner, in other accounts it just seems to be drawn to chase and fight the supernatural being.  Perhaps part of the dislike, which is returned amply by the faeries, is the fact that dogs seem, naturally, to be imbued with the second sight.  In one story from Northumberland, for example, a man’s dog would ‘point’ the fairies which were invisible to its master (although he could hear their music).

Reasonable as this explanation sounds, there is one report that runs counter.  It’s said in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland that the sith folk can induce female dogs and horses to attack their human owners.  The way to render the hounds harmless in such cases of ‘fairy possession’ is to either take blood from their ears or to collar them with a garter.  Similar, perhaps, is the belief in the outer Hebrides that you should never call your dogs by name at night, otherwise a fuath (an evil bogie spirit) will come and summon both the dogs and the owner to follow it.

Mostly, though, the dogs will chase the fairies or fight with them, even to the death.  They seem to have an aversion to every type of supernatural and to be so provoked by them that they cannot be restrained.  Nevertheless, the fairies may be able to thwart the dogs by very simple means: Scottish folklorist J. G. Campbell tells a story about a dog called Luran who tried to stop the sith stealing his master’s crops.  The fairies get away, mockingly saying that he would have caught them if he’d been fed on porridge.  The farmer hears this and changes his dog’s diet.  Still, the farmer’s defeated though, because the hound likes the new food so much that he overeats and is too full up to run- so that still the fairies make their escape, laughing derisively.  A related story from Craignish has the escaping fairy thieves scattering bread behind them, which the pursuing hound stops to gobble up.

Hair off the dog

At Glenmoriston, near Loch Ness, there dwells a hag called the Cailleach a’ Craich.  She haunted a wild, high area where she would waylay and kill road users in a rather curious way.  She would seize the person’s bonnet and dance on it until a hole was worn through- at which point the victim died.  A dog could protect the traveller, but it would be nearly flayed in the process and the owner would be left sick for months.  In a related story (of which several variants survive) a man called Donald, son of Patrick, was sitting by his fire one night when a hideous hag asked for shelter.  She was very large, with one huge tooth, and it was plain that if he fell asleep he would be doomed.  Luckily, his hounds kept her at bay until dawn.

The fairy female called the glaistig induced a similar response from hounds.  A man called Ewan Cameron was crossing some hills at night and got lost.  He saw a light in a hut and approached it, but inside there was a woman, drying herself by the fire and combing her hair. She asked him in but something warned him to decline.  Her invitations got progressively more threatening and, eventually, he decided the only way he could escape was to set his four dogs upon her.  He then managed to flee home.  His three terriers were never seen again; only his greyhound returned to him and it was completely hairless.  Two brothers from Onich, on Loch Linnhe, had a similar experience with a glaistig who visited them at a summer bothy.  She was always troublesome and, one time, tried to grab one of the men.  Their dogs defended them and chased her off; one returned later with only a few tufts of hair on its ears and the other “was like a plucked hen.”  A comparable tale comes from Arran, in which the dog saves its mistress from a hooved woman (very possibly a glaistig) and is mangled and scalped in the process.

The bogies of the Highlands are likewise hated by dogs.  In a story from the Isle of Mull, two men in a shieling hear a terrible screaming in the night, steadily drawing nearer to them.  They go outside armed with sticks but can see nothing.  A dark shape then passes them by and the sound fades.  Their dog, however, makes chase and returns hairless- except for its ears.  The animal’s coat never grew back properly- being replaced by a sort of down.  On Islay a spectre called a fuath lurked in a notorious dell.  One man’s dog fought it, lost all its hair and soon expired.  A bocan (or baucan) that haunted a lonely spot on Arran could be kept at bay with a dog, too.


Cwn annwn by Autumn Estuary

The fearsome Highland water horse, the kelpie, that lived in the River Shin in the north west Highlands could also be beaten and killed by a dog, but (as we’re familiar with now) this would be at the cost of the creature losing all its fur.

Lastly, the fairies themselves might be savaged by hounds- and give as good as they got.  Some men were minding the cow herds at Cornaigbeg on Tiree.  They heard strange noises on the road, which made their dog very agitated.  Something passed them by, sounding like the trampling of a herd of sheep (and which I assume to be the fairy host, the sluagh).  The dog pursued it, but returned with all its hair scraped off and its skin bare and white, except for a few torn and bloody spots. It died very soon afterwards.  In a related incident on Mull, a man travelling after midnight saw a light up in the hills and heard music.  His dog ran off and he continued to his destination, where he arrived, too scared to eat.  Within a short while the dog turned up, but (as ever) it was completely hairless.  It lay down at his feet and promptly died.  On Arran a piper descended into the King’s Caves with his dog; it seems he encountered the fairies there and was overcome.  He never returned, although the dog did, completely bald.


It’s not wholly clear why encounters with faeries have such a drastic effect on dogs.  Probably the loss of the entire coat is symbolic of the violence of the struggle of the faithful pet against the malign supernatural forces.  Whatever the exact explanation, the consistency of these accounts only serves to stress to us the dangerous nature of any such meetings: not only humans can suffer from contact with the fae, but their pets can too.

‘Cherry of Zennor’- a fairy adventure considered


The cliffs near Trereen: Gurnard’s Head with Trereen Dinas promontory fort.

Like the ‘Fairy House on Selena Moor,’ this Cornish tale is taken from Robert Hunt, Popular Romances of the West of England, 1st series, p. 118 et seq.  It’s another lengthy story with many fascinating fairy facets.

“Old Honey lived with his wife and family in a little hut of two rooms and a ‘talfat,’ (sleeping platform) on the cliff side of Trereen in Zennor. The old couple had half a score of children, who were all reared in this place. They lived as they best could on the produce of a few acres of ground, which were too poor to keep even a goat in good heart. The heaps of crogans (limpet shells) about the hut led one to believe that their chief food was limpets and gweans (periwinkles). They had, however, fish and potatoes most days, and pork and broth now and then of a Sunday. At Christmas and the Feast they had white bread. There was not a healthier nor a handsomer family in the parish than Old Honey’s. We are, however, only concerned with one of them, his daughter Cherry. Cherry could run as fast as a hare, and was ever full of frolic and mischief…

[The Penwith peninsula generally is rich with fairylore, and Zennor parish seems to be a hot spot, what with this story, the mermaid of Zennor and the captured pixie SkillywiddenThe area is also endowed with numerous megalithic sites, adding an even greater aura of ancient mystery to the landscape.]

Soon after Cherry got into her teens she became very discontented, because year after year her mother had been promising her a new frock… Cherry was sixteen. One of her playmates had a new dress smartly trimmed with ribbons, and she told Cherry how she had been to Nancledra to the preaching, and how she had ever so many sweethearts who brought her home. This put the volatile Cherry in a fever of desire. She declared to her mother she would go off to the “low countries”  (beyond Towednack) to seek for service, that she might get some clothes like other girls.

[Nancledra village is on the main road south to Penzance on Mount’s Bay, about halfway between north and south coasts. Towednack is smaller and nearer to Zennor.]

Her mother wished her to go to Towednack that she might have the chance of seeing her now and then of a Sunday.  “No, no!” said Cherry, “I’ll never go to live in the parish where the cow ate the bell-rope, and where they have fish and taties (potatoes) every day, and conger-pie of a Sunday, for a change.”


The Highlands and Lowlands of Towednack parish

One fine morning Cherry tied up a few things in a bundle and prepared to start. She promised her father that she would get service as near home as she could, and come home at the earliest opportunity. The old man said she was bewitched, charged her to take care she wasn’t carried away by either the sailors or pirates, and allowed her to depart. Cherry took the road leading (south) to Ludgvan and Gulval. When she lost sight of the chimneys of Trereen (just north of Nancledra), she got out of heart and had a great mind to go home again. But she went on.


Barrow on Lady Downs

At length she came to the “four cross roads” on the Lady Downs, sat herself down on a stone by the road-side, and cried to think of her home, which she might never see again.  Her crying at last came to an end, and she resolved to go home and make the best of it.  When she dried her eyes and held up her head she was surprised to see a gentleman coming towards her- for she couldn’t think where he came from; no one was to be seen on the Downs a few minutes before.  The gentleman wished her “morning,” enquired which was the road to Towednack, and asked Cherry where she was going.

[In another published version of the story, our young heroine at this point idly picks and crushes some fern fronds, the effect of which sees to be to conjure up the faery gentleman . The same book (Frances Olcott, The Book of Elves and Fairies, 1918) includes the poem Mabel on Midsummer Day by Mary Howitt, in which a girl is sent on an errand is warned that it’s a dangerous time of year and she must take care not to offend the Good Folk and neither “pluck the strawberry flower/ Nor break the lady-fern.” ]

“Cherry told the gentleman that she had left home that morning to look for service, but that her heart had failed her, and she was going back over the hills to Zennor again.  “I never expected to meet with such luck as this,” said the gentleman. “I left home this morning to seek for a nice clean girl to keep house for me, and here you are.”

He then told Cherry that he had been recently left a widower, and that he had one dear little boy, of whom Cherry might have charge. Cherry was the very girl that would suit him. She was handsome and cleanly. He could see that her clothes were so mended that the first piece could not be discovered; yet she was as sweet as a rose, and all the water in the sea could not make her cleaner. Poor Cherry said “Yes, sir,” to everything, yet she did not understand one quarter part of what the gentleman said. Her mother had instructed her to say “Yes, sir,” to the parson, or any gentleman, when, like herself, she did not understand them. The gentleman told her he lived but a short way off, down in the low countries; that she would have very little to do but milk the cow and look after the baby; so Cherry consented to go with him.

Away they went; he talking so kindly that Cherry had no notion how time was moving, and she quite forgot the distance she had walked.  At length they were in lanes, so shaded with trees that a checker of sunshine scarcely gleamed on the road. As far as she could see, all was trees and flowers. Sweet briars and honeysuckles perfumed the air, and the reddest of ripe apples hung from the trees over the lane.

Then they came to a stream of water as clear as crystal, which ran across the lane. It was, however, very dark, and Cherry paused to see how she should cross the river. The gentleman put his arm around her waist and carried her over, so that she did not wet her feet.

The lane was getting darker and darker, and narrower and narrower, and they seemed to be going rapidly down hill. Cherry took firm hold of the gentleman’s arm, and thought, as he had been so kind to her, she could go with him to the world’s end.  After walking a little further, the gentleman opened a gate which led into a beautiful garden, and said: “Cherry, my dear, this is the place we live in.”

[This whole journey is highly suggestive of a passage into a faery underworld.  Time seems to stretch, and, although Cornish lanes can be shady between their high stone hedges, this progress downhill and over a stream strongly indicates that the pair are crossing some sort of boundary into another world.  The fecundity of the countryside, in contrast to the bare moors off central Penwith, may be another indicator of this.]

“Cherry could scarcely believe her eyes. She had never seen anything approaching this place for beauty. Flowers of every dye were around her; fruits of all kinds hung above her; and the birds, sweeter of song than any she had ever heard, burst out into a chorus of rejoicing. She had heard granny tell of enchanted places. Could this be one of them? No. The gentleman was as big as the parson; and now a little boy came running down the garden walk shouting: “Papa, papa.”

The child appeared, from his size, to be about two or three years of age; but there was a singular look of age about him. His eyes were brilliant and piercing, and he had a crafty expression. As Cherry said, “He could look anybody down.”  Before Cherry could speak to the child, a very old dry-boned, ugly-looking woman made her appearance, and seizing the child by the arm, dragged him into the house, mumbling and scolding. Before, however, she was lost sight of, the old hag cast one look at Cherry, which shot through her heart “like a gimblet.”

[The man can’t be a fairy because he is human sized, Cherry reasons- he is not one of the ‘pobel vean.’  Nevertheless, the unusual nature of faery eyes is often remarked upon and may be a sure indicator of faery nature.]

“Seeing Cherry somewhat disconcerted, the master explained that the old woman was his late wife’s grandmother: that she would remain with them until Cherry knew her work, and no longer, for she was old and ill-tempered, and must go. At length, having feasted her eyes on the garden, Cherry was taken into the house, and this was yet more beautiful. Flowers of every kind grew everywhere, and the sun seemed to shine everywhere, and yet she did not see the sun.

[Light, without any discernible source for it, is another definitive trait of faery.  Gardens, have, of course, a strong fairy association.]

“Aunt Prudence- so was the old woman named- spread a table in a moment with a great variety of nice things, and Cherry made a hearty supper. She was how directed to go to bed, in a chamber at the top of the house, in which the child was to sleep also. Prudence directed Cherry to keep her eyes closed, whether she could sleep or not, as she might, perchance, see things which she would not like. She was not to speak to the child all night. She was to rise at break of day; then take the boy to a spring in the garden, wash him, and anoint his eyes with an ointment, which she would find in a crystal box in a cleft of the rock, but she was not on any account to touch her own eyes with it. Then Cherry was to call the cow; and having taken a bucket full of milk, to draw a bowl of the last milk for the boy’s breakfast. Cherry was dying with curiosity. She several times began to question the child, but he always stopped her with: “I’ll tell Aunt Prudence.” According to her orders, Cherry was up in the morning early. The little boy conducted the girl to the spring, which flowed in crystal purity from a granite rock, which was covered with ivy and beautiful mosses. The child was duly washed, and his eyes duly anointed. Cherry saw no cow, but her little charge said she must call the cow.”

[The instruction to Cherry to keep her eyes and mouth shut, to anoint the child’s eyes with water from a magical spring and to guard against touching her own with the salve are all quintessential fairy elements.  Numerous stories of midwives visiting Faery involve this plot element.  Not asking questions is another part of the pact that respects and preserves fairy mystery.]

“Pruit! pruit! pruit!” called Cherry, just as she would call the cows at home; when, lo! a beautiful great cow came from amongst the trees, and stood on the bank beside her.  Cherry had no sooner placed her hands on the cow’s teats than four streams of milk flowed down and soon filled the bucket. The boy’s bowl was then filled, and he drank it. This being done, the cow quietly walked away, and Cherry returned to the house to be instructed in her daily work.”

[I’ve discussed before the fairy love of dairy products. This bountiful and vaguely magical beast may be stolen– they’d say borrowed- from a local farmer, or it may be raised by the faes alone.]

“The old woman, Prudence, gave Cherry a capital breakfast, and then informed her that she must keep to the kitchen, and attend to her work there- to scald the milk, make the butter, and clean all the platters and bowls with water and gard (gravel sand). Cherry was charged to avoid curiosity. She was not to go into any other part of the house; she was not to try and open any locked doors.”

[It’s worthwhile remarking how like to servitude is Cherry’s sojourn here.  Most mortals taken to Faery work there as prisoners and slaves.  Cherry’s terms of service may sound better, but her lot seems the same.]

“After her ordinary work was done on the second day, her master required Cherry to help him in the garden, to pick the apples and pears, and to weed the leeks and onions.  Glad was Cherry to get out of the old woman’s sight.  Aunt Prudence always sat with one eye on her knitting, and the other boring through poor Cherry. Now and then she’d grumble: ‘I knew Robin would bring down some fool from Zennor- better for both that she had tarried away.’  Cherry and her master got on famously, though, and whenever Cherry had finished weeding a bed, her master would give her a kiss to show her how pleased he was.”

[Of course, taking human females for sex was the other reason they might be abducted. It may be significant that the fairy man shares a name with Robin Goodfellow]

“After a few days, old Aunt Prudence took Cherry into those parts of the house which she had never seen. They passed through a long dark passage. Cherry was then made to take off her shoes; and they entered a room, the floor of which was like glass, and all round, perched on the shelves, and on the floor, were people, big and small, turned to stone. Of some, there were only the head and shoulders, the arms being cut off; others were perfect. Cherry told the old woman she “wouldn’t cum ony furder for the wurld.” She thought from the first she was got into a land of Small People (i.e. the fairies) underground, only master was like other men; but now she know’d she was with the conjurers, who had turned all these people to stone. She had heard talk on ’em up in Zennor, and she knew they might at any moment wake up and eat her.”

[This scene is highly reminiscent of Sir Orfeo’s visit to the fairy king’s castle in the poem of that name.  The possibility that this faeryland is in fact some sort of abode of the dead is made clear here. The uncertain distinction between fairies and ghosts is common in British folklore: the Cornish pixies are said to be the spirits of dead children and Northern boggarts are almost entirely ghost-like.  Interestingly, we now learn that Cherry is not as simple or as trusting as she might have seemed and has had her suspicions all along- that she is in fact with the small people- an pobel vean.]

“Old Prudence laughed at Cherry, and drove her on, insisted upon her rubbing up a box, “like a coffin on six legs,” until she could see her face in it. Well, Cherry did not want for courage, so she began to rub with a will; the old woman standing by, knitting all the time, calling out every now and then: “Rub! rub! rub! Harder and faster!” At length Cherry got desperate, and giving a violent rub at one of the corners, she nearly upset the box. When, O Lor! it gave out such a doleful, unearthly sound, that Cherry thought all the stone people were coming to life, and with her fright she fell down in a fit. The master heard all this noise, and came in to inquire into the cause of the hubbub. He was in great wrath, kicked old Prudence out of the house for taking Cherry into that shut-up room, carried Cherry into the kitchen, and soon, with some cordial, recovered her senses. Cherry could not remember what had happened; but she knew there was something fearful in the other part of the house. But Cherry was mistress now- old Aunt Prudence was gone. Her master was so kind and loving that a year passed by like a summer day. Occasionally her master left home for a season; then he would return and spend much time in the enchanted apartments, and Cherry was certain she had heard him talking to the stone people. Cherry had everything the human heart could desire; but she was not happy; she would know more of the place and the people. Cherry had discovered that the ointment made the little boy’s eyes bright and strange, and she thought often that he saw more than she did; she would try; yes, she would!”

[The passage of time in faery is notoriously different from that on earth.  As ever, too, curiosity is sure to break the spell, just as with Pandora.]


The barrows on Trendrine Hill, Towednack parish.

“Well, next morning the child was washed, his eyes anointed, and the cow milked; she sent the boy to gather her some flowers in the garden, and taking a “crurn” of ointment, she put it into her eye. Oh, her eye would be burned out of her head if Cherry had not run to the pool beneath the rock to wash her burning eye; when lo! she saw at the bottom of the water hundreds of little people, mostly ladies, playing-and there was her master, as small as the others, playing with them. Everything now looked different about the place. Small people were everywhere, hiding in the flowers sparkling with diamonds, swinging in the trees, and running and leaping under and over the blades of grass. The master never showed himself above the water all day; but at night he rode up to the house like the handsome gentleman she had seen before. He went to the enchanted chamber, and Cherry soon heard the most beautiful music.”

[This kind gentleman is in fact a shape-shifting fairy.  The fairy music that Cherry hears is further confirmation of the supernatural nature of all around her.]

“In the morning her master was off, dressed as if to follow the hounds. He returned at night, left Cherry to herself, and proceeded at once to his private apartments. Thus it was day after day, until Cherry could stand it no longer. So she peeped through the key-hole, and saw her master with lots of ladies, singing; while one dressed like a queen was playing on the coffin. Oh, how madly jealous Cherry became when she saw her master kiss this lovely lady. However, the next day the master remained at home to gather fruit. Cherry was to help him, and when, as usual, he looked to kiss her, she slapped his face, and told him to kiss the Small People, like himself, with whom he played under the water.

So he found out that Cherry had used the ointment. With much sorrow, he told her she must go home, that he would have no spy on his actions, and that Aunt Prudence must come back. Long before day, Cherry was called by her master. He gave her lots of clothes and other things; took her bundle in one hand, and a lantern in the other, and bade her follow him. They went on for miles on miles, all the time going up-hill, through lanes, and narrow passages. When they came at last on level ground, it was near daybreak. He kissed Cherry, told her she was punished for her idle curiosity; but that he would, if she behaved well, come sometimes on the Lady Downs to see her. Saying this, he disappeared. The sun rose, and there was Cherry seated on a granite stone, without a soul within miles of her- a desolate moor having taken the place of a smiling garden. Long, long did Cherry sit in sorrow, but at last she thought she would go home.

[The story culminates in the ejection from Faery for breaking the fairy rules.  This was the fate of Elidyr, amongst others, and Cherry had to be thankful for she was not blinded in the eye she had surreptitiously touched with the ointment.  This is, almost always, the fate of disobedient midwives.]

“Her parents had supposed her dead, and when they saw her, they believed her to be her own ghost. Cherry told her story, which every one doubted, but Cherry never varied her tale, and at last every one believed it. They say Cherry was never afterwards right in her head, and on moonlight nights, until she died, she would wander on to the Lady Downs to look for her master.”

[We end as so many similar stories end (see for example that of Mr Noy and the House on Silena Moor): the visitor to Faery returns home, like one given up ages ago for dead, but can never settle again.  Cherry’s sojourn in Faery has left her ‘elf-addled,’ and she cannot feel happy with mortal things ever again.]


Zennor quoit, visited April 2019.

Further reading

Cornish folklore is replete with accounts of supernatural beings.  In other posts I have examined fairies dancing at a spring, Cornish changelings and abduction by the piskies.