‘War fairies’- fairyland’s role in the Great War

crg

Captain Robert Graves, author of Goodbye to all that.

The outbreak of the Great War in August 1914 meant the advent of total war for all the denizens of the British Isles.  The fairies, just as much as the human population of Britain, had a potential contribution to make to the war effort.  Faery could perform two opposing roles for the Empire: as a refuge from the conflict or as a recruiting tool; by the time of the Armistice in November 1918, both roles had been exploited.

RG

Robert Graves by John Aldridge, National Portrait Gallery, London.

“We’ll be fairies soon”- Art, violence and faery

Fairyland as a sanctuary from violence and destruction is something I’ve discussed before in connection with Bernard Sleigh and his Map of Fairyland.  The arts could offer individual and national solace and escape.

Several poets found personal comfort in images of a pastoral, playful otherworld and in turn they offered the same to their readers. Irish poet Francis Ledwidge imagined fairy jollity, with dancing amongst the trees, and wondered in the poem Fairies “What are we but fairies too,/ Living but in dreams alone,/ Or at the most, but children still,/ Innocent and overgrown?” His fairyland was a place of eternal summer and abundance of flowers and fruit, a place of rest, love and pleasure- see for example the verse Lanawn shee.  Robert Graves seemed to want to run away become a fairy in verses like Cherry time or “I’d love to be a fairy’s child.”

Of course, the detailed vision varied from poet to poet.  Graves’ fays were very much those of the late Victorian nursery- feminine, winged and small.  Ivor Gurney wrote of such tiny beings too, before the sobering experience of life at the front.  Ledwidge drew on his Irish heritage and the Tuatha de Danaan of the Celtic myths shaped the characters of his verse; his fairies can be sad and dangerous as well as joyous.  Predominantly, Rose Fyleman’s verse is deeply imbued with childlike playfulness; her narrators and subjects join the fairies’ games.

Rose Fyleman

For all that yearning for escapism, there was, too, an acute awareness that the humans’ world was not like Faery and that “No fairy aid can save them now” (Ledwidge, Lanawn shee).  Fyleman too was aware that after the war it might not be possible to return to the dreams of the Edwardian nursery (There used to be fairies in Germany).  In this poem the fairies function as a conscience for the human population, albeit one that has failed in respect of the Germans by being unable to prevent the outbreak of war.  In consequence, the fairies have disappeared from the Kaiser’s lands.

The visual arts also contributed to boosting the nation’s flagging morale. In two earlier postings I’ve discussed the 1914 painting The piper of dreams by Estella Canziani and craftsman Bernard Sleigh’s An Ancient Mappe of Fairyland, Newly Discovered and Set ForthThese works simply evoked an atmosphere and provided scope for individual fantasy without any explicit allusions to the conflict.

44VAD2

The fairies go to war

Rarely, the fairies were harnessed directly to the war effort itself.  There are two notable examples to consider.  In May 1917 poet Eleanor Gray published a short verse drama entitled The war fairies.  The piece was dedicated to her niece and godchild Muriel Harrowing, who had volunteered for service as a war nurse as early as August 1914; all proceeds from sale of Gray’s slim booklet were to go to the British Red Cross.  This was the contemporary context to her work, but her choice of material seems to have been much more personal.  It’s notable that Gray’s 1927 collection of poems, Alfieri, was dedicated to the Irish mystic and visionary AE, who himself wrote about and painted fairies.

In The war fairies the fays Viola and Mignon are distressed by the conflict in the human world.  They lament the sounds that shake the air and terrify the lilies ; the fairies can no longer enjoy their revels because of the tears and sighs of mortals.  At the same time there seems to be nothing they can do to help: they are “such mites of gossamer” that men pay them no attention.

Nevertheless, Viola is determined to find a way to “help the giant folk whose foolish eyes/ Too dull are to be ‘ware of us.”  The two fairies quickly resolve to combine to “chase the monster now devouring all the milk and honey o’ the world, leaving it void of joy.”  They unite in a dance to “chase the cruel thing/ Into a quagmire.”

At this point Queen Titania appears, asking why her fairies are in tears.  They explain what they have seen: “Young hopes are blighted, nerveless lie young hands/ Pulseless young hearts, strong hearts are struck with eld/ Love silent lies/ Its eloquence is quelled.” They’ve witnessed young soldiers dying, calling out for Home and Mother, and have been moved to act.

Titania’s advice is to stay out of mortals’ love of strife, but the two little fairies are committed to try to help with Love.  The queen warns them that, by doing so and leaving Elfland, they will become hybrid creatures, made partly human by gaining a soul, but as such unable ever to return.  Viola and Mignon are not discouraged: “We’ve seen new beauty, Queen, nor can forego its sadness.”  They rally to their side a chorus of elves who are willing to help.  These elves confirm that they are ready “To fold up/ Your spangled garments- to put off your crowns” and to replace them with red crosses, aprons and stout hearts.

Titania protests at the loss of her attendants, but they are all inspired to sacrifice their pleasure for the sorrows of the human world and to go to “weave chains of love throughout the lands, binding all equally in bonds of brotherhood… In toil unwearied, love to consummate.”  Titania has to accept their mission and bids them farewell as they go to sow love in hearts where wrath and sin dwell.  The scene ends with the elves dancing as they say goodbye to the velvet sward and rippling stream, “to moths and owls and fireflies bright… We leave you for a higher flight.”

It’s interesting to contrast Gray’s vision of wartime faerie to Rose Fyleman’s.  As in Fyleman’s poem, the fays have a moral role to play, but in Gray’s story they actively engage with the human world and make a difference.  Curiously, though, the end result is the same for them- they cease to be fairies- although in The war fairies Viola, Mignon and their companions are not extinguished but become mortal, partaking of the joys (and sorrows) of earthly life.

Gray’s little play is entirely free of jingoism and hatred of the ‘Hun.’  It does not name any foe- except perhaps the violent nature of men as a race- and it aspires to a humanist love for all.  The fairies become nurses, not soldiers, and will bring help to the injured whatever their nationality.  Very different is the second fairy play to appear that year.

raf-poster-1918

In Spring 1917 the Germans began to use Gotha heavy bombers to carry out air raids against the South-East of England.  In fact, Eleanor Gray had penned a response to the aerial attacks upon London, the poem Zeppelin nights, which cried out that “Men slept. A mighty rape/ Seized, smote- and left them dead.”  As a consequence of the intensification of the air campaign, Rose Patry wrote the play Britain’s defenders, or Peggy’s peep into Fairyland, a fairy play, which was published with a musical score in autumn that year.

In Britain’s defenders young Peggy and her sister Betty sneak out of bed and into a nearby dell in the hope of seeing fairies dancing in a fairy ring.  Instead they see various fairies of the natural world, along with Britannia, leading in the Moon as a prisoner.  The Moon’s offence has been to shine at night and to show the German bombers the way over the Channel to South East England.  The assembled fairies sing:

“On naughty Moon, you are in disgrace,

Mind you be good and hide your face;

When Gothas o’er the North Sea fly,

Go bye-bye, go bye-bye.”

The Moon’s defence is that “the horrid old Kaiser” has taken advantage of her light and that she’s being unfairly blamed, when the Sun and stars are not, yet have also shone.  Britannia calms this squabbling but insists “we must do something to stop these intruders.”  In response, each fairy in turn offers to contribute their particular abilities to Britain’s defence: the Wind Fairy will blow mighty gales that push the pilots off course; the Snow Fairy will send blinding blizzards and Jack Frost will freeze the planes’ petrol; the Wave Fairy will stir up mountainous waves, the Will of the Wisp will lure German pilots to land in bogs and the Rain Fairy will send veils to hide the Moon.  There’s some concern that the rain will also make mud that will hinder the troops at the front, but the Rain Fairy promises to keep the downpours away from the trenches and the Sun promises to dry out the ground in Flanders.  Various patriotic declarations and a verse of ‘God save the king’ follow.

Finally, the Will of the Wisp discovers Betty and Peggy asleep behind a bush.  Britannia asks the fairies to carry them safely home as they are “only two of the myriads of children you must help me to protect.”  The fairies pick up the slumbering girls singing:

“Fairy bells are ringing,

‘Forward to the fray.’

Fairy bands are mustering,

Through the night and day.

Fairy voices calling,

‘Britain needs your aid,’ Fairy echoes falling

‘She shall be obeyed.’”

Then the short play ends with the fairies carrying the girls out in procession and singing a final stirring song:

“Hear our Fairy ding-dong-bell.

We who love our island well,

When our foes approach our land,

Marshal we our fairy band.

Wave and Wind and Mist and Rain,

Make the Gothas’ journey vain.

Britain, dear, we’ll give to thee

Lasting peace and victory.”

Summary

At the distance of one hundred years we can smile indulgently at patriotic fervour of Britain’s defenders, but Rose Patry clearly saw no necessary contradiction between the best interests of fairyland and the national interest of Britain.  Nor did she hesitate to to banish Titania and instate Britannia as the fairy queen.  Of course, we should be mistaken to view fairies as wholly benign and peaceable.  We might like to think of them as pacifist vegetarians, but the traditional fays do not hesitate to use violence against humans nor to fight amongst themselves.

Neither of these plays are great works of drama, but they are a fascinating glimpse of  different aspects of the national mood in the last year of the Great War.

zep

Advertisements

The crimson fairy and the red

red f

Red winter rose fairy by Rachel Anderson

The older literature often mentions fairies of varying colours: white, red, green and others.  Is this just a matter of clothing- or does it go deeper?  As an illustration, in the Elizabethan play Buggbears we are told that there are “sondry names by which we do call them [i.e. the fairies]; some are called … the whyte and red fearye.”  (1565, line 47) From Camden’s Britannia we learn of a cunning woman’s charm used in Ireland to treat the sickness called ‘esane’:

“Against all maladies and mischiefs whatsoever the women have effectual enchantments or charms, as they suppose, divided and parted amongst them, each one her several enchantment, and the same of divers forces: unto whom every man according as his mischance requireth speedeth himself for help. They say alwaies both before and after their charms a Pater Noster, and an Ave Maria. [If a man has a fall and becomes sick] there is sent a woman skilful in that kind unto the said place, and there she saith on this wise: ‘I call thee P. from the East and West, South and North, from the forests, woods, rivers, meeres, the wilde wood-fayries, white, red, black etc.’  and withal bolteth out certain short prayers. Then returneth she home unto the sick party, to try whither it be the disease called Esane, which they are of opinion is sent by the Fairies, and whispereth a certain odd prayer with a Pater Noster into his ear, putteth some coles into a pot full of fair water, and so giveth more certain judgment of the disease than many of our physicians can.”    (Britannia vol.4 p.470).

The question I want examine in this post is this: is this merely a matter a choice of fairy clothing (which I’ve posted about before) or are the colours of these fairies more significant and symbolic?

Fairy clothing colours

As many readers will know, the archetypal fairy colour is green and it is primarily a matter of dress.  Some variation is admitted; for example Mary Lewes has said that in North Wales the fairies wear scarlet (Queer side of things, p.119) and elsewhere she said that they wore white, but green for special occasions (Stranger than fiction p.160).  Certainly, so synonymous is green with the fays that it’s said to be bad luck for humans to wear the colour, as they might face fairy reprisals.  This is why Sir Walter Scott asked in Alice Brand “who may dare on wold to wear/ The fairies’ fatal green?”  In his book Goblin tales of Lancashire Victorian folklorist James Bowker recorded that the local name for the fairies was ‘The Greenies’ or the Hill Folk.  This probably relates to their dress, although not conclusively.

Analysis of recent sightings in Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing fairies, and in the 2017 Fairy Census, reveals that around one third of fairies seen are dressed in green.  Twenty per cent wear brown, twelve per cent red and ten per cent white or cream.  A scattering of other colours- blue, yellow, black- account for the rest.  These results seem fairly consistent with the written sources, all of which suggest that fairies are mostly seen in ‘earth tones.’ For example, in the Merry wives of Windsor, Shakespeare enumerated “fairies black, grey, green and white” and also “Fairies white and green.” (Acts V, 5 & IV, 4).

Although we instantly think of dwarves and gnomes in scarlet, red doesn’t actually feature very often in reports.  We have Mary Lewes’ mention and Sidney Addy’s statement that fairies (and witches) wear a red mantle with a hood that completely covers them (Household tales p.134).  In older material red is often found, in fact, as the colour that repels fairies- for example, red threads are tied round the necks of children and cattle to protect them and in one lowland Scottish ritual, a suspected changeling child is wrapped in red cloth and held over a rowan fire to drive it out (Aitken p.12).  I wonder if part of the prominence of red in our minds now comes from Scandinavian sources on tomte and nisse.  Nevertheless, pixies are believed to be red-headed (Tongue Somerset folklore p.113) and it may be in this sense that other fays are ‘red.’

WAYSIDE_08

Cicely Mary Barker, White bindweed fairy, from ‘Flower fairies of the wayside’

“Poor little greenie…”

The possibility that the colour refers to complexion and not clothing is an important one, yet it can’t always be satisfactorily resolved from the sources.  Hugh Miller described a ‘green woman’ with a goblin child who went door to door bathing her babe in human infants’ blood and another ‘green lady’ who spread small pox (Scenes and legends p.15).  As already remarked, in Goblin tales of Lancashire James Bowler calls the ‘hill folk’ of that county ‘the greenies.’  Something more sinister starts to creep in, though.  Janet Bord tells the story of a lost fairy child found at Middleton in Teesdale who has green clothes and red eyes and it is also reported that Shetland fairies are of a yellow complexion, with red eyes and green teeth.  These latter faes are, by the way, dressed uniformly in grey with brown mittens (it is, after all, a long way north).

Turning to pale fairies, the references are numerous in literature and folk lore.  Heywood had ‘white nymphs’ and Ben Jonson ‘white fays.’  In Shropshire and Somerset ‘white ladies’ haunted various locations- often watery.  Donald MacKenzie tells a Scottish wonder tale of a war between the White and Black Fairies on the Spey.  Much more than with Shakespeare, we seem to have a good/bad dichotomy symbolised here.  It may have antecedents in the Norse Edda’s light and dark elves, the former being pure of colour and dressed in white and silver garments.  Much, much later Thomas Keightley was informed by a country girl that the Norfolk ‘frairies’ always wore white.

As Mary Lewes already stated, white is a colour very often associated with the clothing of the Welsh tylwyth teg.  Fairies sighted at Frenifawr in Pembrokeshire rode small white horses and were dressed in white or red; a charming story from Aberaeron on Cardigan Bay tells how a pipe player called John Davies met a group of fairy women one night and almost married one.  He could tell they were fays because they were all in white and their dresses (this was in 1860) came only to their knees (!)  Sadly he was interrupted and they all disappeared down some stairs leading underground before the nuptials could be agreed.  These women sound charming and harmless,  but there’s more to white garments than just clean clothing.

A story dated 1903 from the Welsh borders suggests this.  An old woman living at Trellech described the fairies as being fairly small with “queer complexions.”  They were the size of a six year old child, barefoot, dressed in white with lovely white skin, but also white hair and white eyes too.  From some earlier point in Victorian times there comes the story of John Jones, a farm labourer of Perthrhys farm near Aberystwyth.  Walking home across Rhosrhydd Moor one moonlit night he realised two boys were following him.  Although it was late, he at first assumed they were just local youths messing around.  However, the boys then quit the road and started to dance in an “unearthly” manner.  Jones realised that they were both “perfectly white.”

These last images (like the red eyed fays in Teesdale and Shetland) are naturally disturbing to us, rendering the fairies instantly more monstrous and threatening. Whilst (as my choice of illustrations show) we tend to think of ‘red’ as sexual or dangerous and ‘white’ as pure and innocent, the contrast might just as reasonably be between ‘living’ and ‘dead.’  Perhaps deliberately, both connotations are evoked by the traditional fairy green, suggestive of vibrant growth and of decay.  The fairy colours are, I’m sure, significant- and are symbolic of many attributes- danger, violence, sexuality and mortality.

Further reading

I also discussed fairy clothes in my 2017 book British fairies.  

Fairy lore in ‘Outlander’

claire and changeling

I have recently published an article in Faerie Magazine describing the significance of standing stones and stone circles in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series.  The standing stones of Craigh na Dun are central to the story, but there are other fairy incidents in the series that deserve our close attention.

Changeling children

The first scenario involves the finding of a changeling child; this that takes place in the first TV series episode 10 (‘By the pricking of my thumbs’) and in chapter 24 of the book Outlander (which was originally published as Cross Stitch).

These infants are traditionally called shag-bairns or shargies in Scotland.  I’m not sure of the etymology; there’s a Lincolnshire fairy beast called the ‘shagfoal’ which may be related, although this very possibly has connotations of the naturally shaggy nature of the creature; perhaps elvish bairns are also curiously hairy for their age.  Changeling elves usually are described as being thin, wizened and yellow in appearance but abnormal hairiness is not a typical characteristic, as far as I know.

In chapter 24 Claire Fraser is gathering plants in the woods with Geilis Duncan when she finds a baby laid in a hollowed rock, accompanied by a bowl of milk and some wild flowers tied with red thread.  The child looks very ill and, in fact, dies very shortly afterwards.  Claire’s outraged to find the infant abandoned but Geilis tells her not to interfere: the family will be in the vicinity and the child has been left out because it’s believed to have been changed by the fairies, an impression probably arising from the fact that its behaviour has changed and it has started to cry and fuss all the time.  Infants who ceased to develop (who ‘dwined’) and who were constantly grizzling (winicky) were prime suspects of elvish substitution.

In the story, where the baby is found is a fairy knoll and the hope is that the Wee Folk, seeing one of their tribe exposed to the elements, will swap it back and that the parents will be able to retrieve their own child the next morning.  As ever Claire wants to intervene but she is restrained first by Geilis and then Jamie.

The episode is a good representation of Scottish beliefs: James Napier in 1879 described how in the west of Scotland the practice was to take a suspected changeling to a fairy haunt- somewhere where the wind is heard to sough in a peculiar way in the trees, a place that is often near to a cairn, stone circle, green mound or dell.  With certain ritual words the parents would then leave it, along with an offering of bread, milk, cheese, eggs and the flesh or fish or fowl.  They would wait for an hour or two until after midnight and return to where the baby had been left in full expectation that the offering would have been taken and that this would be a sign that the fairies had accepted their own back again and had restored the human babe.  The Outlander account could almost be modelled upon Napier’s description.  The mention of red thread is also authentic as this was used to protect children and cattle from being taken by the fairies; it would be tied around their necks as a sort of amulet. (Napier, Folk lore or superstitious beliefs in the west of Scotland within this century).  The offering of milk is authentic, for the fairies’ love of dairy products is well known, and the hollowed rock also fits with tradition (although often it was milk and beer that were poured into cup-shaped stones as offerings to the fairy folk.)

Gabaldon captures effectively the desperate response of many communities to the possibility of an elf being substituted for a healthy child.  In what may appear to border upon irrationality, there was a conviction that only by forceful means could the changeling be expelled and the real baby recovered.  This undoubtedly led to a good deal of child abuse- not just exposure but burning, drowning and beating.  For example, in one Cornish case the frantic mother recruited her neighbours too to help her batter the pixie-substitute with brooms before leaving it overnight by a church stile.  In the Outlander episode the infant dies, although not directly at the hands of its parents.  Another Scottish remedy was what was called ‘nine mother’s meat’- the anxious parent would visit nine other mothers in her vicinity and beg from them each the gift of three different sorts of food which, being fed to a sickly child, would save it from abduction.

In Outlander this superstitious and powerless mood is reflected in the fact that Jamie Fraser, whilst being a rational man whose tutor taught him German, Latin and Greek and who has studied history and philosophy in France, will neither sleep on a fairy hill at night nor dare to contradict his neighbours in the matter of the taking of children by the fairies.

Changeling Baby Closeup

An t’each uisge– the water horse

The second mythical creature that appears in the first book, albeit a little more briefly, is the ‘water horse.’  It features in two separate chapters of Cross Stitch, although the second addresses more contemporary ideas of monsters and legend.

In chapter 18 Rupert tells stories to the encamped Highlanders.  One concerns the waterhorse of Loch Garve, who takes a fancy to a human wife and carries the woman to his home beneath the waves.  It’s icy and unhappy down there. so he gets a human builder to construct a fireplace for her so that she can warm herself by her hearth and cook proper hot human food, instead of subsisting upon snails and waterweed like her husband.  In the next chapter Claire actually sees the waterhorse, except in the story it’s the Loch Ness monster, a prehistoric plesiosaur risen from the depths.

Diana Gabaldon’s version of the waterhorse is a good deal more benign that the folklore original.  It’s true that the traditional kelpie carries off humans on its back, but this is not for the purpose of abducting a likely wife but rather with a view to drowning and consuming the hapless rider.  Often all that remains are the victim’s heart and lungs, which are washed ashore by the side of the haunted loch.  The true waterhorse– and related beasts- are all dreaded for their penchant for devouring unwary travellers and careless children.  Some will set out to charm and seduce mortal females, but this is only as a preliminary to their destruction.  No serious or long term affection is involved.

Whereas the changeling incident in Outlander confronts the harsh treatment of sickly children in earlier times, the fresh water monster is rationalised and made benign and thoughtful.

Kelpie-2

Further reading

You can read my Outlander article here (FM#44_StandingStones).  I discussed fairies and megaliths more generally in a much earlier posting on the blog, too, and also covered the subject in my book, British fairies.

Fairy wells

Goblin harvest amelia bowerley

Goblin harvest by Amelia Bowerley

“The Fairy Well of Lagnanay-
Lie nearer me, I tremble so,
Una, I’ve heard wise women say
(Hearken to my tale of woe)-
That if before the dews arise,
True maiden in its icy flow
With pure hand bathe her bosom thrice,
Three lady-brackens pluck likewise,
And three times round the fountain go,
She straight forgets her tears and sighs.”

The fairy well of Lagnanay, Samuel Ferguson

I have discussed in a previous post how some fairies have an aversion to running water.  In contrast, though, still water has strong faery and magical properties and is, as hitherto described, the home of quite a few (largely fearsome) fays- the ‘meremaids’ of pools and lakes.

I want to look at the supernatural nature of ponds and wells in this posting.  A folklore example of this that comes from East Yorkshire records how a troublesome bogle in Holderness was banished to a well, since called Robin Round Cap Well.  In lowland Scotland the story was told of a girl who sat spinning wool on a distaff by a well when she looked in a saw a pot of gold beneath the surface.  She marked the spot with her spindle and ran to tell her father.  He suspected it was just fairy glamour intended to trap and drown her and, sure enough, when they returned to the place, the moor was covered in distaffs.  Nonetheless, twelve men in green appeared and returned her original spindle with its wool all spun.  Author Rose Fyleman was aware of the fay powers of water and, in The second adventure of the rainbow cat, the cat is given a bottle of fairy water from a magic well that bestows the ability to see through walls.

me_fairy_well

Writer and designer Feral Strumpet at the holy well at Mount Grace Priory, Osmotherly.

Holy (fairy) wells

Britain once was covered with ‘holy’ wells, many of which had no Christian association at all.  They were wishing wells, places of prediction, and very many are likely to have been so regarded for millenia. These sites often still exist, but their supernatural links are now mostly forgotten; they are muddy springs in fields or neglected wells by roadsides.  They still have a strong attraction for many, nonetheless.

Respect was shown to fairy wells in various ways.  Offerings of pins were made at Bradwell in Derbyshire on Easter Sunday and at Wooler in Northumberland, whenever a person wanted a wish to come true.  At various sites in Scotland, both buttons and pins were left.  Perhaps the most famous of these was the so-called ‘Cheese Well’ on top of Minchmuir, Peebles-shire, into which locals threw pieces of cheese for the guardian fairies.  Given the fays’ well known liking for dairy products, such offerings seem entirely appropriate; the same can’t be said about the pins, though, as iron is always regarded as an effective way of repelling our good neighbours.

Healing wells

The wells had health giving properties, too, so that if a child had gone into a decline and was no longer thriving (it was ‘shargie’ and had been afflicted by ‘the fairy’) leaving a child overnight near a well would cure it.  At Wooler, too, sickly children would be dipped in the well’s waters and bread and cheese left as an offering.  If it was suspected that the child had in fact been substituted for a fairy changeling, well water might again be part of the remedy.  At Chapel Euny in West Cornwall the way to expel a changeling and restore a human child was to dip the suspect infant in the well on the first three Wednesdays in May.  Both the time of day and the time of year are particularly fay, as has been described before.

Given the supernatural properties of well water, it is unsurprising that they should be used to imbue the human children abducted by the fairies with fay properties.  This is only evidenced in literature rather than folklore, but an excellent example is in the Scottish verse Kilmeny by James Hogg.  She’s dipped in the waters of life to ensure that her youth and beauty never fade.  

hannah-titania-jewelry-fairy-well-222531971

Poet, artist, musician Hannah Titania at her fairy well

Conclusions and further reading

There’s a complex and (as ever) contrary relationship between the faeries and water.  It can be the medium in which they live, it can be protective against them and it can be used by them for magical purposes.

Many of us instinctively sense the links between fays, wells and some sort of supernatural presence.  Fairies’ association with natural features may be part of this; perhaps the mysterious appearance of fresh water from underground had mysterious and magical qualities that also encouraged links to the Good Folk.  The Tiddy Mun of the East Anglian fens, for example, was believed to control the flood waters and had to be propitiated with offerings of water.  Fresh water can be both potion and poison; which will apply seems unpredictable and to depend very much upon place and personality.

 

Fairy rings

outhwaite fairy ring

Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, The fairy ring

“We’ll trace the lower grounds/ When Fayries in their Ringlets there

Doe daunce their nightly rounds.”   Michael Drayton, The queste of Cynthia

Fungi are closely associated with the fays- for example, it is said in Wales that mushrooms serve as fairy parasols- and, as is widely known, fairy rings mark the sites of the fairies’ nocturnal dancing.  This fact could easily be proved: set up a stick in a ring overnight and it would be found knocked down by the fays the next morning.

Lost landscape features

The rings used to be much more widespread than today, and much more noticeable. They appeared in all kinds of fields except those sown with corn.  Modern farming practices, with increased cultivation and use of fertilisers and pesticides, has drastically reduced the evidence, but we can get an idea of what our predecessors would have seen from the writings of naturalist Robert Plot.  Discussing the Staffordshire countryside in the late seventeenth century, he describes rings that were forty or fifty yards in diameter, often encircled by a rim between a foot and a yard wide.  These rims might be bare, or the grass might have a russet, singed colour.  The grass within could also be brown but was more often dark green.  Plot sought to explain the rings scientifically, blaming moles or penned cattle, but given their size and distinctness, it is unsurprising that others would readily resort to supernatural causation.

Changes in and intensification of agriculture have largely eradicated fairy rings from fields.  A large ring still existed as late as 1875 at Quebec House between Seagrave and Sileby in Leicestershire, but the very fact that it was remarked upon shows how rare they had become, even by this date.  Writing about Mid-Wales in 1911, Jonathan Caredig Davies remarked that the rings (cylchau y tylwyth teg in Welsh) had been numerous when he was a boy about forty years earlier.  It had been believed to be bad luck to enter them, but by the early twentieth century he found this superstition had entirely died out- no doubt a combination of waning belief and the disappearance of the rings themselves.

The rings were a mysterious feature that had demanded explanation.  As they vanished, the need for a justification of their presence and persistence also disappeared.  In his account of the Folklore of Hereford and Worcester, for example, writer Roy Palmer made an explicit link between rings and belief.  The fairy faith was a long time dying, he wrote, lasting until the early twentieth century.  Palmer went on to note that fairy rings were still pointed out at Stanford on Teme in the late 18th century and at Ledbury in the late 19th.

anderson fairy revels

Respecting rings

A variety of fairy beliefs attached to the rings.  It was widely believed that they should not be cultivated.  Grazing them and, even more importantly, ploughing them, was strongly discouraged: a Scottish ballad warned that-

“He wha tills the fairies’ green

Nae luck shall hae;

And he wha spills the faries’ ring

Betide him want and wae;

For weirdless days and weary nights

Are his til his deein’ day!”

Anyone foolish enough to ignore such advice would find their cattle struck down with murrain. In any case, it was also widely believed that any attempt to eradicate the rings would fail.  Ploughing could not remove them and they would return immediately, as was said to have happened with two rings in the churchyard at Pulverbatch in Shropshire.

Just as those who interfere with rings will suffer, it was believed that those that cared for them would be rewarded: as the Scottish rhyme promised, “an easy death shall dee.”

Large and lasting rings were once notable landscape features and attracted their own mythology.  For example, the famous ring at Brington village in Northamptonshire couldn’t be ploughed out and possessed supernatural properties.  If you ran around it nine times on the first night of a new moon, you would be able to hear the fairies feasting below the ground.

An aura of magic attaches itself to fairy rings, therefore.  Mostly the tendency is to avoid them: in Shropshire people used to be reluctant to use those parts of a church graveyard marked with rings.  To sleep in one is especially perilous- you are at considerable risk of being ‘taken’ by the fairies.  There’s a bit of good news though- May Day dew collected from a fairy ring is said to be excellent for preserving youthful skin.

IRO Ring

Ida Rentoul Outhwaite

Further reading

See ‘Fairy ground,’ chapter 12 of my British fairiesfor further discussion of aspects of this subject.  See too my posting on fairy plants.

Fairies and flowing water

Siegfried & The Rhinemaidens

Arthur Rackham, Rhine maidens

One curious aspect of fairy lore is the antipathy that some fairies have for water.  This only applies in certain situations, however, and may not be a general rule.

Water as a fairy necessity

Fairies, like humans, require water for basic necessities.  It’s pretty certain that they drink it: they are reputed to drink dew at the very least.  Without doubt they use water for bathing: there are numerous folk lore records of fairies expecting householders to leave out bowls of fresh water for them at night so that they and children may wash: plenty of examples are to be found in Rhys, Celtic folklore  (pp.56, 110, 151, 198, 221 & 240).  There’s also a story of fairies surprised one morning in a bathing spa in Ilkley.

According to the seventeenth century pamphlet, Robin Goodfellow, his mad pranks and merry jests, if no clean water was left out for the fairies’ night time ablutions, the usual reprisal would follow:

“we wash our children in their pottage, milk or beer or whatever we find: for the sluts that have not such things fitting we wash their faces and hands with a gilded child’s clout or else carry them to some river and duck them over head and ears.”

Similar stories are found across the country as far north as the Scottish Highlands: for example, in one Shetland example a trow mother washes her baby’s nappies in the water in which barley is soaking.

It hardly need be said that certain fairies live in water and plainly cannot have any objection to their natural environment.  Both fresh and salt water are inhabited, as I’ve discussed in previous posts on inland and marine mermaids.

Another fay link with water is found in the Scottish bean-nighe (the washer woman) and the related caointeach (the keener).  Both foretell deaths by washing clothes or winding sheets at fords or in streams; plainly they are not adverse to contact with running fresh water.   In fact, it’s said that power can be gained over the bean-nighe if you are able to come between her and the stream, indicating that her magic potential in some way derives from the water course.

Lastly, it’s worth recalling the fragments of evidence that children taken by the fairies can be somehow imbued with fairy magic not just by the application of green ointment but by dipping in certain springs and pools.

Fairy fear of water

Nevertheless, there is also evidence of fairies objecting to water that is flowing.  This is confirmed  by Evans-Wentz (p.38) for Ireland and for South West Scotland at least by J. F. Campbell in Popular tales of the west Highlands (volume 2, page 69).   The hideous nuckelavee of Orkney is a venomous creature, part human and part horse, but it couldn’t abide fresh water, meaning that it never came out in the rain and could be escaped by leaping a burn.  A dramatic example of this aversion comes from North Yorkshire: in Mulgrave Wood near Whitby lived a bogle or boggart by the name of Jeanie.  One day she chased a farmer who was riding by.  He galloped desperately for the nearest brook to escape her: just as she caught up with him and lashed out with her wand, his steed leapt the river.  Jeanie sliced the horse in half.  The front part, bearing the rider, fell on the far side and was safe, whilst Jeanie had to make do with the hind legs and haunches.

Any flowing watercourse will form an insurmountable barrier, it seems, but even more antithetical to the fays is water that flows in a southerly direction.  This is shown from a couple of accounts.  One way of expelling a changeling and recovering a human child from the fays that was practiced in the north east of Scotland was to wash the infant’s clothes in a south draining spring and then lay them to dry in the sun; if the clothes disappeared it meant that the fairies had accepted them and that the child would have been restored.  Secondly, in a previous post I have discussed the diagnosis of fairy-inflicted illnesses by ‘girdle-measuring.’  One practitioner I mentioned, Jennet Pearson, would wash the girdle in a south-flowing stream before treating the sick person.

There is also evidence that the high tide line on a beach had a similar barring effect on supernatural pursuers.  In the Highland story of Luran, he stole a goblet from the sith and escaped his angry pursuers by making for the shore.

There are contradictions to this, though.  In Superstitions of the Highlands J. F. Campbell expressed his opinion that running water was no barrier to fairies (p.50); a possible compromise position is Evelyn Simpson’s idea that it is only bad fairies who are obstructed, whilst well-intentioned ones may pass over unhindered (see Folklore in lowland Scotland, p.107).  Sometimes, too, it appears that even plain water can repel our good neighbours.  George Henderson has recounted a folk-tale from the isle of Uist in the Scottish Highlands in which the fairies are depicted calling at the door of a house for a ‘cake’ to come out to them: the inmates threw water on the cake, and it replied: ‘I can’t go, I am undone.’ (Survivals of belief amongst the Celts, 1911, p.219)  Here plain water seems enough to dispel the fairies’ magic.

I’ve written before about the contrary nature of much fairy lore.  It seems that there’ll always be exceptions to any rule we try to identify, but even so we may say that, in most cases, a river or stream will provide an effective barrier between you and supernatural harm.

undine

Arthur Rackham, Undine

Stone rows and fairy rings

Walter Jenks, Fairy ring

Walter Jenks, The fairy ring

Just back from a break in the West Country.  We first spent a few days in North Cornwall, staying in the Landmark Trust‘s splendid property, The College, in Week St Mary, which was built as a Tudor grammar school.

mwm

From there we visited the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in Boscastle.  This is highly recommended: it’s not a huge place but it’s packed with intelligent and fascinating displays.  It takes a serious and enquiring view of the subject- with only a few mentions of he who shall not be named (HP).  It’s rather out of the way, but well worth the effort to travel there.

woodland-wish

‘Woodland wish’ by Kate Monkman- a postcard from the Museum collection.

Next we headed to Dartmoor to visit megalithic sites old and new.  We stayed at another Landmark property, the Chapel at Lettaford- extra enticing as artist Brian Froud lives only just down the road.  The moors were pretty dry after our long, hot English summer and were covered in tiny fairy rings of orange mushrooms.  At first I’d boldly marched across the turf, but then I found myself alert to the potential danger and weaving around the circles!  As an early birthday present, I picked up a copy of a new book, Old Stones, from Arcturus Books in Totnes.  It looks bound to be the inspiration of yet more rambles across that “wild and windy moor.”

down tor

The cairn circle and stone row at Down Tor, Dartmoor

Who is Titania?

Vivien-Leigh-as-Titania-in-A-Midsummer-Nights-Dream

Vivien Leigh as Titania in Midsummer night’s dream

For many of us today, Titania has become the archetype of the fairy queen, if not of female fairies as a class.  Her origins seem to be Elizabethan.  In 1590 Edmond Spenser made his Faerie Queen a descendant of Titania, but the character was most explicitly and effectively introduced into fairy-lore by William Shakespeare in Midsummer night’s dream.  She was not a traditional character of British folklore (as her name might, in any case, suggest) and the playwright was certainly very well aware of the British equivalent: Queen Mab features prominently in a famous speech by Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, which was first performed in 1597. The Dream was written in 1605; did Shakespeare merely want a bit of variety or did he have other motives for creating a new faery monarch?

Diana

Somewhat like the name of her consort Oberon, Titania’s name is more descriptive than personal.  ‘Titania’ simply means that she is born of Titans- though this naturally begs some very important questions.  Roman writer Ovid tells us in The Metamorphoses that Titania is another name or aspect of the goddess Diana.  The latter was the Roman deity responsible for childbirth and, as such, there are some parallels with Queen Mab the midwife.  The Romans also linked Diana to the Greek goddess Artemis, who was primarily a goddess of nature, particularly of springs and water courses (she was, for example, known as Limnaia, ‘lady of the lake’, a name which for us now is freighted with resonances of Morgan le Fay and other fay maidens and such like nymphs).  In her guise as goddess of woods and water, Artemis had obvious parallels with native nature spirits and the association makes considerable sense.  However, Shakespeare had already used ‘Diana’ as a character in All’s well that ends well, five years previously to The dream, so perhaps again he merely sought variety- or had pursued the links even more deeply.

Edwin_Landseer Titania_and_Bottom

Edwin Landseer, Titania and Bottom, 1851

The Titans

Diana was descended from Titans, a heritage which takes us back to the roots of Greek mythology.  The Titans were a race of giants born of Uranus and Ge (heaven and earth).  Amongst their numbers were the male gods Oceanus, Cronus, Hyperion, Prometheus and Atlas; amongst the goddesses were numbered Thea, Phoebe and Rhea.  The inter-relationships and identities of these beings are far from fixed in the myths, but we need not be concerned with the detail.  It is the general tenor of the stories that’s significant: they contain a variety of fruitful themes and concepts.

Cronus is often seen as the chief of the Titans.  He led a revolt against Zeus and the Olympian gods and was defeated and displaced, being banished with all his kind to imprisonment in Tartarus.  It’s said that Cronus now sleeps eternally on some Western island, and as such his myth has very likely contributed to the growth of the story of King Arthur sleeping in Avalon.  The sister of Cronus was Rhea, but she was also his wife and so mother of a pantheon including Zeus, Poseidon, Hera and others.  In this role Rhea is commonly identified with another goddess, Cybele, who was in turn worshipped across the ancient world as the Great Mother Goddess.  She is another deity of nature, fertility and wild places and, as such, fairly readily linked to a fairy queen of groves and springs.

The daughter of the famous Titan Atlas was the equally well-known Calypso, nymph of the island of Ogygia.  It was she who detained Odysseus for seven years and tried to prevent him ever returning home with promises of immortality.   The time-scale and the reward must trigger for us thoughts of detention in fairyland.

In summary then, these divine female Titans all have attributes and rich associations which provoke thoughts of British equivalents and which tie local beings into a wider and more powerful mythology.  It may be for these reasons that Shakespeare chose the name Titania: she brought with her connotations of power and antiquity.

Shakespeare’s fairy queen

Rather like Artemis/ Diana, Shakespeare’s fairy queen is intimately associated with the natural environment.  Her quarrel with Oberon disrupts the weather and the growing of the crops.  This is summarised by Titania when she tells Bottom that:

“I am a spirit of no common rate./ The summer still doth tend upon my state.” (Act III, scene i)

She rules over the seasons and they follow her moods.

In due course, naturally, the character of Titania took on a life of her own.  The name was taken up by others and became accepted as the appropriate appellation: for example, in Thomas Dekker’s play The whore of Babylon in 1607.

The new queen inherited much of the wanton sexuality of fairies generally and especially that of Queen Mab, giving us the erotically tinged imagery of Fuseli and Simmons as illustrated below.  The buxom wenches of the paintings are ironic given the fact that Artemis, one of Titania’s forms, was also known as a goddess of chastity who was in conflict with Aphrodite (who, in fact, is also of Titan ancestry).

1-there-sleeps-titania-john-simmons

John Simmons, There sleeps Titania

Titania and Bottom c.1790 by Henry Fuseli 1741-1825

Titania and Bottom c.1790 Henry Fuseli 1741-1825

Further reading

This posting was inspired by a reading of Geoffrey Ashe’s excellent Camelot and the vision of Albion.  Robert Graves in The white goddess also has a good deal to say about Cronus and the rest.

See too my consideration of the identity of Shakespeare’s Ariel.

The legacy of Cottingley

elsie and frances

Elsie Wright & Frances Griffiths, by t’beck.

The photographs of fairies taken one hundred years ago by Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths at Cottingley, West Yorkshire have a significant place in fairy-lore.   They represented a severe dent in the reputation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but possibly made the careers of his collaborators Geoffrey Hodson and Edward Gardner.  Since the pictures were exposed as fakes, the story of credulous grown men being outwitted by photos taken by teenagers armed only with some card, hat pins and a box brownie camera has been readily deployed to suggest the wider gullibility and foolishness of those adults who choose to believe in fairies.

Some also contend that belief in fairies was killed outright by the incident- and that this happened as far back as the early 1920s when the pictures first appeared. The much more recent exposure of images as false therefore came as little surprise to anyone.  In a 1994 article in History workshop journal Alex Owen described the Cottingley case as “one of the last manifestations of a glorious Victorian and Edwardian fairy tradition.” Rosa Lyster, writing on Quartz.com,  remarked that “Eventually, people stopped caring about the fairies. Interest in the supernatural was on the wane, and Doyle was looking increasingly unhinged. The girls produced no more photographs, and the public moved on.”

All of this comment is of a piece with the oft-argued contention that fairies never existed in the first place and that fairy belief, in the modern age, is dead and buried.  Except, of course, that it’s not- and any search of the internet or of books for sale on Amazon will amply prove this (witness the present blog and my own book British fairies).

elsie 1915

Elsie in 1915

We know now that Elsie and Frances copied their pictures from Princess Mary’s Gift Book and cut them out on Windsor and Newton board.  We know it was all a hoax- but still people are producing their versions and imitations of the Cottingley pictures.  These may just be an homage to a famous photographic forgery, but they are also defiant celebrations of continued belief in the face of what some might regard as fatally damning evidence.  The fact that Cottingley wasn’t real doesn’t matter at all; it portrayed something which lots of people remain convinced is real.  Richard Sugg has recently put it this way:

“With the 1983 confessions of both women, many might have assumed that the fairy tale was over… But the cousins somehow created a new kind of fairy folklore… Some stories are tough.  They manage continually to recreate and re-energise themselves; and the Cottingley affair did just that.” (Magical folk, 2017, p.62)

Richard might equally well have observed that the fairies too are tough and can continually regenerate and survive.  The modern manifestations of the Cottingley images are proof of that.

frances

Frances and the fairies, 1917

The paradox of the Cottingley pictures is that, although they look dodgy and now are known to be so, this does not seem to discourage anyone.  They retain their own unique mystique because they remain a powerful symbol of something evanescent that numerous people long to experience.  Frances and Elsie were impelled by a wish to recreate their dreams and no-one thinks the less of them for that.  In fact, lots of people today still want to imitate them.

Fraud busters

It’s interesting to see how many people have been inspired to copy the Cottingley images and their stated reasons for doing so.  Some certainly are commenting upon the Cottingley story itself, such as Manuel Carballal on his blog El ojo critico (The critical eye), who experimented with the techniques used to explore how the pictures were faked:

Marcos Carballal

It’s notable, though,  how unimportant this aspect of the story seems to many.  There’s a fascinating narrative to be had concerning two country lasses’ ability to make fools of older and purportedly wiser establishment men like Doyle, but the majority of imitators are not inspired by that.  Of course, deception was never the girls’ intention.  They made the pictures for themselves and it was a chain of wholly unforeseeable events triggered by Elsie’s mum that gave the images their publicity and notoriety.  What seems to attract people is not so much the international publicity, but the original innocent motivation- the yearning for contact with the supernatural.

Imitation and flattery

It’s fascinating to note how closely most of the modern image makers have stuck to the original pictures.  They depict a single person encountering a fae in natural surroundings.  As will be seen below, and on the separate Cottingley gallery page, Nonchalant Concern even used the same titles for the photographs as in the published versions of those by Frances and Elsie.  At the same time, though, none of these pictures are direct imitations and- very definitely- none are presented to us as actual fairy snaps.  Just as with the originals- before Gardner, Doyle and the rest got involved, that is- the pictures have been taken for the amusement of the makers and those with whom they choose to share them.  They are knowingly faked- forgeries of forgeries, if you like- but somehow that only serves to demonstrate the lasting mystique of the originals.

Queen Mary's gift book

illustration from Princess Mary’s Gift Book, c.1914

One thing that most of the pictures do have in common is the fairies themselves.  Many of the creators seem to have taken the trouble to copy the feminine Edwardian period fairies utilised by Frances and Elsie (there are quite a few Cicely Mary Barker flower fairies in evidence).  It’s probably a significant comment upon our fairy iconography (and on the power of the Cottingley story) that winged, female fays in frocks continue to be our accepted idea of a fae, even a century later.  In one case, though, there is a slightly more contemporary feel: it seems possible that, in one of her photographs of her friend Elodie, Eleonore Bridge has used one of Alan Lee’s faeries from his joint book of that titled published with Brian Froud in 1978.

Furthermore, it may be worth remarking that almost without exception the models are female and that so too, predominantly, are the photographers.  This may tell us something either about fairy belief or about amateur photography (or both, I won’t commit myself).  The preference for white dresses is noticeable; this may have a good deal to do with improving the contrast in a black and white image, but there are of course echoes of the 1910s outfits worn by Frances and Elsie as well, too, as suggestions of girlish innocence and simplicity- part and parcel, perhaps, of a belief in fays?  Bows and flowers in the hair add to the period and juvenile feel.

A fairy tale- and a true story

At Notley Green School, Essex, in January 2018 the Year Two pupils studied the Cottingley story.  I was surprised to learn this has a place in the National Curriculum, but it turns out that the organisation Film Education has produced Years 1 and 2 study materials linked to the film Fairy tale- a true story.  The kids then produced their own imitations-

 

The Film Education module is aimed at primary school kids and takes the film as a starting point for asking questions such as ‘where do fairies come from?’ and ‘what do people believe about them?’  The material addresses such issues as the risks of visiting fairyland and the differing theories on fairy origins.  It discusses some fairy traditions and looks at the Cottingley events, as well as encouraging the children to make their own cut out fairies and fairy photos.  I was impressed; anything that promotes interest in the subject has to be welcomed.

Thackley school in Bradford obviously undertook a similar project, but using Photoshop instead of paper cutouts.

thackley

‘Where dreams merge with reality’

A brief examination of Cottingley related images on the internet will of course reveal that far more adults are fascinated than children.  Many are deliberately undertaking photography projects that honour and echo the original pictures. For example,   Katherine Alcock says that she wanted to create not fantasy but realistic fairy images, if that’s not entirely contradictory!

alcock

Katherine converted the image to black and white and manipulated it digitally to make it appear more grainy and vintage.  TekMagica on Flickr went even further to produce some strikingly ‘authentic’ looking images, which are helped by the girls’ clothes, which look appropriate to the fifties or sixties.

Eleonore Bridge is a fairy believer herself, as well as a keen photographer, and her motivation was to record “A magical moment where dreams merge with reality with hopes of creating a future where there is no contesting that fairies really do exist.”

elodie 1

elodie 3

elodie 2

Plenty of people, like the school children, just wanted to have fun with these pictures.  Here’s a selection- with more featured in a separate Cottingley gallery.

plastic hippo

Plastic Hippo on Pinsdaddy

bondart

Image by Bondart

frances_anf_the_fairies_by_nonchalantconcern

Frances and the fairies by Nonchalant Concern (see the original above)

fairy_tracking_by_hazelcurse-

Fairy tracking by Hazel Curse
cottingley_fairie_by_dark__shepherd-d365k5e
Cottingley fairie by Dark Shepherd

cottingley_fairies_14_

from a Cottingley series by Victoria Emma Thompson

remember_cottingley_i_by_japanfanzz-d2yb7k8

Remember Cottingley by Japan Fanzz

the_cottingley_fairies_by_marschons

The Cottingley fairies by Marschons

the_meeting_by_shutterbugsteff

The meeting by Shutterbug Steff

Kelli

The Cottingley fairies by Kelli, entry for DP Challenge

kelliali_full_

Promotional photo for ‘One day at a time’ by Kelli Ali

soot sprite

By Soot Sprite

cat

Finally- the stuff of horror: a cat attacks some fays on a bed of four leaf clover.  For this hilarious nightmare we must thank Susan Sanford at artsparktheatre.blogspot.com.

Do you believe in fairies?

What unites these Cottingley inspired images, I believe, is not just an underlying wish for the whole story to have been true but also a playful and celebratory spirit.  We know we’re dealing with deliberate fakes, but people are enjoying their creativity and the chance to engage imaginatively with fairies.  There are, of course, plenty of other photographs of fairies available online, but the status of most of these is never so clear.  I’ll restrict myself to one example, which is quite well-known as it has been used as an illustration in Janet Bord’s book, Fairies- real encounters with little people.  It’s another black and white image, in the tradition of Cottingley perhaps, but it much more deliberately presents itself as genuine: it shows a nude young woman in a wood meeting what appear to be two naked Action Men at the foot of a tree.  The website strange history analyses the background to this picture and pretty comprehensively demolishes its credibility.

Scansione1-594x1024

The Cottingley replicas illustrated here and in the gallery are immune to this sort of debunking.  Thereby they demonstrate the demonstrate the resilience of myth and our need for fantasy and escape.

Only simpletons believe…?

goldsmith

Beatrice Goldsmith, Watching the fairies, 1925

One longstanding response to fairy belief is to allege that it is the habit of the immature and the weak minded.  Only children, fools and the elderly accept that fairies exist, but by their very nature they are uniformly credulous and silly and their opinions deserve no respect.  In fact, their views demonstrate why these groups need to be looked after by wiser and cleverer men.  Not the least of the reasons for this is that, with their uncritical and simple view of the world, they will be uniquely liable to being tricked and cheated.

Old wives’ tales

This sort of argument has been advanced since the late sixteenth century.  Parallel with it until the late seventeenth century was a comparable but separate argument that fairy belief was the product of Roman Catholic superstition and, as such, the faeries had been banished by rational Protestant faith.  This was linked closely to the belief in witches.  I’ve discussed these sectarian controversies in other posts and needn’t say more about the matter here.

The prevailing view of fairy believers was set out very early on.  In 1584 in The discovery of witchcraft Reginald Scot alleged that:

“these bugs speciallie are spied and feared by sicke folkes, children, women, and cowards, which through weakness of mind and body are shaken with vain dreams and continuall feare…” (Book VII, chapter XV)

This summarises the prejudices against believers concisely.  Fairies were a delusion of the “common people” and of “manie foolish folke,” as Scot added in the Epistle to his book.  The ‘rational’ view of the situation hasn’t altered much since.  John Penry, describing Wales in 1587, attacked the reverence of the “silly people” for the tylwyth teg.  King James in his Daemonologie of 1597 likewise condemned the beliefs of ‘the innocent sort’ and ‘sundry simple creatures’ (chapter V).  The sort of person meant by this was predominantly female and old: for example, George Puttenham in The arte of English poesie (1589) alludes to “the opinion of Nurses” who thought that fairies swapped babies for changelings.

Into the next century the prejudice remained the same.  Only the “ignorant” would hold such views, alleged Thomas Cooper in The mystery of witchcraft (1617).  John Webster, writing in 1677, agreed in blaming “the superstitious credulity and ignorant fancies of the People.” (The displaying of supposed witchcraft, p.279).  Writing in 1605 Thomas Heywood has a character in his play, If you know not me, you know nobody, reminisce in these terms:

“Ha, ha! I smile at my owne foolery/ Now I remember mine old grandmother/ Would talk of fairies and hobgoblins.”

In Leviathan in 1651 Hobbes summarised these views succinctly: the fairy belief was all a matter of old wive’s fables and-

“the fairies have no existence but in the fancies of ignorant people.”

This attitude- that only the simple and poorly educated would be taken in by fairy tales- has persisted right up to the present.  It’s often found in the Victorian folklore collections, perhaps dressed up as a reference to the ignorance  ‘country people’ or ‘peasants’ (many of whom will necessarily be ‘old’) without the implicit assumptions about such folk being spelled out or, as in William Thornber’s history of Blackpool from 1837 there’s reference to “the heated imaginations of the credulous” with the exactly same connotations.

Fairy frauds

The outcome of such impressionable stupidity did not seem in doubt to sophisticated writers- or to some cynical criminals.  In The alchemist of 1610 Ben Jonson has a dandy called Dapper stripped of his “worldly pelf” by the confidence trickster Subtle; he is convinced he is meeting the fairy queen, but is told that he cannot enter her presence bearing any money or jewellery.  The same plot theme was used by Robert Amin in his play The valiant Welshman which appeared in 1615.  Once again a dupe is divested of his finery, his doublet, rapier, cloak and hose, before he can meet the fairy queen.  Her majesty runs off with it all.

These plays may seem like witty inventions, but they reflect reality.  Judith Phillips in the early 1590s robbed and humiliated various people in the Winchester area by claiming that the fairy queen could guide them to hidden treasure (see The Brideling, Sadling and Ryding of a Rich Churle in Hampshire, 1594).  Early in the next century a London couple called the Wests for a number of years successfully operated a racket tricking greedy and gullible clients out of money and goods with stories of winning the favour of the king and queen of fairy- provided they laid on banquets and supplied sufficiently rich gifts for them in advance (see The cozenages of the Wests, 1613).

richard_doyle_fairy_tree_

Richard Doyle, The fairy tree.

A more recent example of fairy belief being used to dupe the unwary comes from Jacqueline Simpson’s Folklore of the Welsh Border (1976).  She mentions that one highway-man devised a method of horse-theft that relied upon beliefs in fairy music played in underground dwellings.  The robber would lie with his ear to the ground by the road; when a horseman came past he would ask what was wrong and be told that the prostrate figure was listening to  the fairies dancing.  The rider would dismount to listen too and, of course, as soon as he was stretched on the turf, he would find that his horse was being ridden off full speed (p.50).

Another view

In the opinion of many worldly wise men, then, fairy belief is a matter for weak-minded females and for those who need to be protected from themselves.  These prejudices plainly persist and are still powerful enough to ruin the reputation of esteemed public figures- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle being a good example following his involvement in the Cottingley fairy photo case.

It is possible, nevertheless, to express these opinions differently.  It has often been said that it is children who are best suited to seeing fairies because of their innocence and openness.  For example in his poem, For a child, American author Joyce Kilmer explains how a little boy “sees with eyes by ignorance made keen/ The fauns and elves whom older eyes disperse…”

It is also a fact that females are more likely to experience fairy encounters.  Drawing upon recent evidence such as Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing fairies and the Fairy census 2014-2017, it’s possible to calculate that females are twice as likely to see fairies as males, although this varies according to age group.  Amongst children girls three times more frequently report seeing fairies than boys; amongst adults just over sixty per cent of sightings are by women.  Now, it’s probably reasonable to suggest that gender stereotyping and social pressure may have a good deal to do with the imbalance in reporting; women may not ‘naturally’ be more inclined to see fairies, but they may feel fewer inhibitions about sharing their experiences, whereas men may feel that such admissions are neither ‘rational’ nor ‘manly.’  For the same reasons, women might perhaps be more willing to label an anomalous experience as a fairy encounter than some men might. Contributions to the recent Fairy census were from females in seventy per cent of cases and it was also noticeable that the proportion of children reporting sightings was higher than in earlier surveys- although this may have to do more with use of digital media than with frequency of encounters with fay folk.

In the 1920s Welsh author Mary Lewes made a further argument for taking fairy belief seriously.  In the pleasingly titled The queer side of things she suggested that there had to be real grounds for so persistent and consistent a concept.  She couldn’t accept that all the witnesses were hallucinating or exaggerating.  To me, this seems a reasonable stance to take.  People have shared these experiences for centuries and, for that reason alone, the phenomenon needs to be taken seriously.

To conclude, the sixteenth and seventeenth century dismissals of fairy sightings may contain more truth than their authors knew.  I am sure that neither I nor any of my readers will consider themselves silly, foolish or gullible for their interest in fairy phenomena.

Further reading

My posting on the physical or psychical nature of fairies touches on some of the same issues as this one.

Elsie Gregory, Children watching fairies dancing

elsie-gregory-children-watching-fairies-dancing