Of muggles and boggarts- and other fantastic beasts

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The bogles in the courtyard, by Arthur Rackham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bogles causing mischief, by Arthur Rackham

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

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

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High Fairy Healer, from the card game Rage of Bahamut

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fairies flitting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These key fairy-lore features are as follows:

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

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Queen Argante

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

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

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

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

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

Brownies in literature- from Mrs Ewing to Dobby

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PC brownie

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

the-enid-blyton-book-of-brownies

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

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

DOBBY2

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

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

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

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

spew

Charles Kingsley & ‘The water babies’

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

WB goble

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

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

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

warwick goble

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

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

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

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

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

ellies wings

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

the-land-baby-1899 john collier

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

 

 

 

 

“And now the charm’s wound up…”: some spells for elvish enchantment

magic book

This posting offers a small selection of practical fae-related magic for readers.  I have discussed before the composition of the ointment applied to fairy babes. The major drawback to the recipe I suggested was that it is composed of four leaf clover; finding enough of these to produce a quantity sufficient to anoint even an infant is likely to be difficult. Here are some other, perhaps more practical, spells and potions.

Elias Ashmole’s manuscript (MS1406) which is dated around 1600 has a recipe for an unguent for eyes for use when you wish to summon fairies or when your vision of them is not perfect.

“Take one pint of salad oil and put it into a glass vial, but first wash [mix?] it with rose water and marigold water (the flowers to be gathered towards the east).  Wash it till the oil comes white, then put it into the glass vial and then put into it the buds of hollyhock and young hazel, the flowers of marigold and the tops or flowers of wild thyme.  The thyme must be gathered near the side of a hill which fairies frequent. Add, too, some grass picked from a fairy throne found there.  All these put into the oil in the glass and set it to dissolve three days in the sun, and then keep it to thy use.” (Halliwell-Phillips Fairy mythology p.62.)

Most of these ingredients are readily and cheaply available, but there are two catches:

  • You need to be sure that the knoll where you pick your thyme is a favourite haunt of the fairy folk. Sites that are traditionally such spots are a safe bet, naturally, otherwise your own experience and investigation may be required.
  • I confess that I don’t know what a fairy throne is (yet). I assume it is a place on the hill which appears to be a seat where the fairy queen may sit during revels.  Poetry describes such occasions- for example William Browne in Britannia’s pastorals Book I song 2 mentions “A hillock rise, where oft the fairy queen/ At twilight sat, and did command her elves…”  If your confirmed fairy knoll has such a feature too, you’re definitely in business.

Halliwell-Phillips in Fairy mythology of a Midsummer night’s dream also gives a selection of spells from a manuscript in his possession (p.63).  Here is a charm for invisibility which appears very simple:

“Take water and power it on an anthill and immediately look after it and you shall find a stone of divers colours sent from the fairy.  This bear in your right hand and you shall go invisible.”

Another charm is to a summon a fairy, a Latin and English invocation much like that for Oberon described below.  There is a similar spell for expelling fairies from a place where buried treasure is found.  These depend upon magical words combined, most likely with the proper personal preparations (bodily and spiritual purification) and the creation of a chalk circle.  Ashmole’s manuscript has similar very lengthy summoning charms (see Halliwell-Phillips p.62-3).

 

Faustus-gerahmt

A ‘magical miscellany’ contained manuscript in the Bodleian library in Oxford dated to the early seventeenth century [Bod.MS e Mus 173 f.72 V-R] has a similar spell to conjure Oberon into a crystal seeing stone, using Catholic prayers in Latin.  It also has a spell to conjure other fairies employing the ‘rime’ found on a bowl of water which has been left out overnight for the fairies to bathe in (once a common practice, especially in Wales).  I have not provided this, in part because I have not seen the manuscript myself and because it presupposes a key ingredient which- rather like four leaf clover- is in the first place very hard to acquire.  First get your fairies to come and bathe themselves and their children; then hope that it’s a frosty night and the bowl freezes over.

sigillum-dei-ameth

 

J M Barrie and British fairies

arthur_rackham_serpentine

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

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

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

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

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

PP

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

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

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

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

 

Who is Ariel?

Maclise, Daniel, 1806-1870; Priscilla Horton (1818-1895), as Ariel

The character Ariel in Shakespeare’s The Tempest is a distinct departure from the fairies of the playwright’s earlier Midsummer Night’s Dream.  In the latter, Puck is derived straight from British folk tradition with his pranks, his earthy humour and his domestic associations.  Ariel has none of these characteristics.  Where did Shakespeare get his inspiration?  There are three Ariels we must discuss.

Ariel is a Hebrew name.  Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa mentions in De occulta philosophia that “Ariel is the name of an angel, and is the same as the Lion of God.  Sometimes it is also the name of an evil demon and of a city called Ariopolis where the idol of Ariel was worshipped.”(Book III, Part 3)  The name was chosen by medieval and Renaissance magicians and by Neo-Platonist philosophers as a name for one of the sylphs, a being who was sometimes said to be ruler of Africa.  Sylphs are one of the four ‘elementals’, the spirits of the earth, air, fire and water.  The sylphs are the spirits of the air and were said to be capricious, passionate and irascible.  The sylphs’ airy and aerial connections obviously suggested a fairy analogy to playwrights and poets.

In The Tempest the spirit Ariel is enslaved by the sorcerer Prospero.  He can fly at incredible speed (“with a twink”), riding on the clouds and conjuring storms; he can walk on the waves and ride the sharp north wind; he can change his shape.  Ariel is ‘delicate,’ ‘a bird’, a ‘chick,’ he is ‘but air.’  His ‘dainty’ and diminutive nature is emphasised by the song he sings in Act V, scene 1:

“Where the bee sucks, there suck I:
In a cowslip’s bell I lie;
There I couch when owls do cry.
On the bat’s back I do fly
After summer merrily.
Merrily, merrily shall I live now
Under the blossom that hangs on the bough.”

 

ariel, maud tindal atkinson

‘Ariel’ by Maud Tindal Atkinson, 1915

Ariel was formerly imprisoned in a tree by a witch; from this Prospero released him- on conditions of service for a time.  After a period serving Prospero well and faithfully, Ariel is ultimately released: “to the elements be free” (V, 1) and then is “as free as mountain winds.” (II, 1).

Puck is clearly and solidly male, but Ariel is sexless (hence, in theatrical productions, the variation between portraying the character as male or female).  In contrast to Puck’s cheeky cheeriness, Ariel seems subservient and melancholy.  This theme of enslavement perhaps comes from Ariel’s origins in hermetic magic: he is a familiar, a spirit to be conjured and commanded.  He is there to do Prospero’s will and lacks any personality or motivation of his own.  Both captive Ariel and the conjured spirit are controlled by another’s arcane knowledge and skills.

Henry Singleton A

There is a second Ariel in English literature.  In Alexander Pope’s Rape of the lock (1714) Ariel the sylph reappears.  The poem was a mock-heroic commentary upon an actual incident, first written in 1712, and the ‘machinery’ of the sylphs was something of an afterthought for Pope.  Nevertheless, the elementals assume an important role as guardians and attendants to the heroine.  In his introductory letter to Mrs Arabella Fermor that precedes the poem, Pope states that he has drawn upon “a very new and odd Foundation, the Rosicrucian doctrine of spirits.”  He explains to her that, according to these gentlemen, the four elements are inhabited by spirits, the sylphs being “the best condition’d Creatures imaginable. For they say, any mortals may enjoy the most intimate Familiarities with these gentle spirits, upon a Condition very easy to all true Adepts, an inviolate preservation of Chastity.”

Chastity is key to Pope’s plot.  In the poem Ariel’s task is to protect his mistress Belinda’s virtue, but as a sylph he seems ill-suited to do this.  We also learn that women can be reborn as one or other of the elementals depending upon their characteristics during life and that:

“The light Coquettes in Sylphs aloft repair,/ And sport and flutter in the Fields of Air.” (Canto I, lines 65-66)

The sylphs are now explicitly the tiny fairies with insect wings that are so familiar to us. They have ‘transparent forms’ and ‘fluid Bodies half dissolv’d in Light.’ (Canto II lines 59-67.)

In the event, Ariel fails to protect Belinda’s virginity and a symbolic lock of her hair is snipped off by a suitor.  This contrasts with the success of Ariel in The Tempest, who fulfills all of Prospero’s commands.  It is significant that, having failed, Ariel is replaced by Umbriel, a malignant gnome (a daemon of the earth who delights in mischief, according to the Rosicrucian doctrine).

For our purposes in this blog, the importance of these two literary characters is as a symbol of the wider change to the understanding of British fairies.  The traditional types began to be affected from the seventeenth century onwards by concepts of classical, oriental and magical origin, a process with far reaching implications for native belief.

pope

Flower fairies- origins & meaning

gorse-flower-fairy

During the last hundred years or so, fairies have become intimately associated with flowers.  What I want to do in this post is to consider the evidence for such links in traditional folklore beliefs and to discuss how the idea has arisen that fairies are ‘nature spirits’ or ‘guardians of nature’ and have a particular mission to supervise the growth of flowers and other plants, in which work they may resemble bees or ants and are certainly of diminutive dimensions.

Without doubt, one link in the chain connecting fairies to flora is literary.  Shakespeare perhaps initiated the trend with a the fairies in Midsummer Night’s Dream.  One is required to “hang a pearl in every cowslip’s ear” (II, 1).  Of course, we have fairy Peaseblossom in the same play (III, 1) and Oberon’s well-known directions to help Puck find Titania:

“I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight…” (Act II, 1)

In The Tempest Ariel, who sings “Where the bee sucks., there suck I”  The floral motifs are prominent, indicating a closeness to nature generally and the evidence of small statute is also present.  Robert Herrick and Michael Drayton took the matter of scale to extremes, though for reasons of pure fancy: I don’t believe that they sought to reflect any genuine traditions known to them.  British fairies are of a range of sizes, often adult height, quite often the size of children, much more rarely very small (the medieval English ‘portunes’ of just half an inch in height are an exception).

titania-sleeping

Richard Dadd, ‘Titania sleeping,’ 1841, The Louvre 

Herrick imagined a fairy loaf of bread as “A moon-parch’t grain of wheat” washed down with “A pure seed-pearle of infant dew/ Brought and besweetened in a blew/ And pregnant violet” (Oberon’s feast).  Drayton likewise envisaged a fairy palace “The walls of spiders’ legs are made … The windows of the eyes of cats” (Nymphidia).  The conceit of miniature fairies was sustained into the next century by other poets.  For example, in The flower and the leaf John Dryden imagined that a faint track “look’d as lightly press’d, by fairy feet” and William King, like Herrick, surveyed a fairy supper:

“What may they be, fish, flesh of fruit?/ I never saw things so minute./ Sir, a roasted ant is nicely done,/ By one small atom of the sun./ These are flies’ eggs in moonshine poach’d/ This a flea’s thigh, in collops scotched.” (Orpheus and Eurydice)

rowan

Increasingly, then, the convention prevailed that fairies were minuscule, but neither in literature nor in folk tales was there any deep attachment to plant life.  As described previously, fairies most often were attired in green, which may well be symbolic of growth, but there is still scant suggestion of any special purpose as ministers of Mother Nature.  There are quite a few indications of fairies inhabiting trees.  There is the Old Lady of the Elder Tree whom I have mentioned before; from the Outer Hebrides comes a story of a fairy maiden who inhabits a tree on a knoll, once a year appearing to dispense ‘the milk of wisdom’ to local women (L. Spence, British fairy origins pp.101 & 186); also from the Highlands and Western Isles we hear a report of ‘tree spirits’, green elves who are often seen in woodland (Spence p.100).  This is about as good as it gets in British tradition.  Lewis Spence in chapter VI of British fairy origins examined the theory that fairies derived from ‘elementary spirits’ and summed up “all nature spirits are not the same as fairies; nor are all fairies nature spirits.” (p.110)  He further stated that “it is a notable thing that in Great Britain and Ireland the nature spirit remains to us in vestigial form only.  To make a list of British nature spirits as known in our islands today is very … difficult… I can think of no genuinely English earth or tree spirits.” (p.113)  He blames homogenisation into “the common hill-fairy, the standard elf of folk-lore.” (p.114)  On the matter of flowers, s I have described before, there are flowers that are believed particularly to repel or to attract fairies, but the surviving stories do not conceive of fairies living within or overseeing the growth of any flowers.

elder

How then do we explain the rapid ascendancy of the flower fairy?  I think that occult science and mystical philosophy are the source; flower fairies are a product of the thought of Paracelsus and Pseudo-Dionysus.  They are nature spirits, part of a ‘celestial hierarchy,’ and are derived from a system of thought very different to native custom.  I shall examine this theme further in due course.