Arthur Rackham, Three little men in the woods
Where do fairies live? This seems like an obvious question, but it is one that is not always directly asked. British folklore gives various answers to the query, in part depending on the region from whence the tale derives and in part on the nature of the fairy folk involved. It is important too in answering this question for us distinguish the places the fairies haunt or frequent, such as groves, moors, highways, stone circles and barrows, from their actual dwelling places.
A trite answer to the question of residence might be to respond that the fairies live in ‘Fairyland.’ This would not, in early modern Scotland, have seemed so banal a reply: the fairies’ palaces under the hill were known as Elfame and accordingly we hear about the Court and the Queen of Elfame. For example, in a criminal trial of a suspected witch in 1576 she described the fairies thus “Thai war the gude wychtis that wynnit in the Court of Elfame” (that is- “They were the good folk that dwelled in the Court of ‘Elf-home.’) As will be read in the following paragraphs, though, fairy-land in the main was conceived not as a distinct and parallel realm (other than in the cases discussed in the second bullet point), but as supernatural ‘pockets’ occurring within and between the human world.
The Reverend Kirk assures us in his Secret commonwealth that fairy dwellings are “large and fair,” being illuminated by “fir Lights, continual Lamps and Fires, often seen without Fuel to sustain them.” He explains one reason for our uncertainty as to the nature of these homes: they are “(unless att some odd occasions) unperceavable by vulgar eyes.” In other words, they are protected by glamour and are as a rule invisible (Kirk s.4).
Some writers tended to be quite vague as to exact location. For example, Reginald Scot in The discoverie of witchcraft (1584) simply states that fairies “do principally inhabit the mountains and caverns of the earth,” although their habit is “to make strange apparitions on the earth in meadows or in mountains” (Book III, c.4). It is possible, in fact, to list quite a number of typical fairy homes:
- under or in fairy knolls- this was a belief held widely throughout the British Isles. For example, the fairy knowe or sithein was prevalent in Highland tradition (Wentz Fairy faith pp.86 & 104) but it is also found in Wales: it was said that the smaller Tylwyth teg lived in ‘holes in the hills’ (Wentz p.148) – as did the Cornish pixies at the Gump of St Just. Welsh writer D. Parry-Jones provided very circumstantial evidence as to the routes into the fairies’ homes: “Their habitations were universally believed to be underground, in dimly lit regions, with the entrance to them under a sod, near one of their circles, by some ancient standing stone, under the bank of a river, away on the open moor hidden by bushes, or in the ruins of an old castle, as on Ynys Geinon rock. In the midst of this castle there was a pit with a three-ton stone lying across it, and when they wanted ingress or egress, they uttered a secret word, and lo! the stone lifted, and fell back again of its own accord. From the entrance down to the underground passage they descended along a ladder of twenty-one or –two gold rungs.” (Parry-Jones, Welsh legends & fairy lore, 1953, p.19) The belief prevailed in England, too, for instance the fairies who lived under Hack Pen in Wiltshire, according to Aubrey. He recorded that a shepherd employed by a Mr Brown or Winterbourne Basset had seen the ground open and had been “brought to strange places underground” where music was played. As Aubrey observed of such visitors “never any afterwards enjoy themselves.” (Briggs, Fairies in tradition, p.12; Fairyist, Fairyplaces, Wessex). The strength of the link between elves and hills may be demonstrated by Rudyard Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill. In the story, Puck consistently refers to his nation underground as ‘The People of the Hills.’ Sometimes these hills would open up to reveal a lighted hall within which the fairies danced and into which humans would be lured. This happens, for example, in Thomas Creede’s play of 1600, The wisdome of Dr Dodypol, in which a wine goblet is offered to a traveller by a fairy emerging from a mound in which music is being played. This enchanted realm is ruled by a wizard whose invitation is to “taste the sweetnesse of these heavenly cates, Whilst from the hollow craines of this rocke, Musick shall sound…;” it is his spell that “Made a guilt pallace breake out of the hill, Filled suddenly with troopes of knights and dames, Who daunst and reveld while we sweetly slept…” See too William of Newburgh’s tale of a fairy cup, stolen from a feast in an opened barrow. It appears that any prominent or unusually shaped outcrop or hillock was likely to attract a supernatural association- for example, the Tolcarne rock near Newlyn which was inhabited by a troll-like being (Wentz p.176);
- in an underground realm- a classic description of such a subterranean country is found in the Middle English poem, Sir Orfeo: “When he was in the roche y-go,/ Wele thre mile other mo,/ He com into a fair cuntray,/ As bright soonne somers day,/ Smothe and plain and al grene,/ Hill no dale nas none ysene…” As will be seen, this was a common British conception of fairyland. In Wales the Tylwyth Teg dwelt in such a land or else underneath lakes, in the case of the human sized gwragedd annwn (Wentz p.142, 144 & 147). In light of the latter site, we may be reassured to know that Scottish fairies sensibly preferred “Dwellings underground in dry spots” according to Evan Wentz’s informant John Dunbar of Ivereen (p.95). In England there are two tales of an underground land where fairies live: the St Martin’s Land of the Green Children of Woolpit as told by William of Newburgh and Ralph of Coggeshall. There was no sun, just a constant twilight and the children emerged from it through a long cavern. Gerald of Wales describes a similar world in his tale of Elidor and the Golden Ball- the country was cloudy, yet bright, and at night very dark as there were no moon or stars. In Cornwall, Bottrell collected the story of Richard Vingoe who was taken beneath Trevilley Cliffs at Land’s End and found there an underground world reached by a cavern. Many Welsh tales mention the fairies residing in caves. Likewise in the Welsh tale of Einion and Olwen fairyland is a fine wooded country extending for miles underground and Keightley reports a conversation with a Norfolk girl who advised him that in their expansive subterranean caverns the fairies built “houses, bridges and other edifices.” Access to these lands might be through something as innocuous as a molehill (Wentz pp.161-162; Keightley pp.298 & 306) or by lifting a sod and disappearing (Rhys Celtic folklore p.227);
- in caves and holes– these are particularly associated with hobgoblins, for example Hob Hole and Obtrusch Roque in Yorkshire;
- on enchanted islands off the Pembroke and Carmarthen coasts (Wentz p.147). These fairy islands disappear when approached or may only be seen by standing on an enchanted turf. These isles are the home of the Plant Rhys Dwfn. The tylwyth teg are also said to inhabit an island in a lake near Brecon which is reached by a subterranean passage leading from a door in a rock on the shore, which reveals itself once a year (Parry-Jones, pp.19-20). Another Welsh story mentions an island in a lake known as the ‘Garden of the fairies;’
- in the vicinity of standing stones– fairies were, for example, associated with the Pentre Ifan cromlech in Pembrokeshire whilst in the story of Einion and Olwen fairyland is accessed by a path located under a menhir (Wentz pp.155 & 161). In England, it is told that the Oxfordshire fairies were last seen disappearing under the Rollright Stone circle (Evans, Folklore Journal, 1895). In short, fairies are often inseparable from ancient sites;
- on the shore- in the folklore of Newlyn and Penzance in Cornwall, the tidal shoreline is the home of one family of pixies called the bucca. They are propitiated by the local fishermen with offerings of fish (Wentz pp.174-175);
- in human houses and farms- as is very well known, brownies and similar ‘house elves’ co-habit with humankind. For example, in The hierarchie of blessed angels (1636, p.574) Thomas Haywood stated that pucks and hobgoblins were to be found living “in corners of old houses least frequented/ or beneath stacks of wood.” Some fairies apparently live under the human house (Briggs pp.99-100), “under the door stane” according to Sir Walter Scott (Border minstrelsy p.14), a proximity which can inevitably lead to neighbour disputes. For example, Parry-Jones tells of a farmer in Gwynedd whose habit was to empty his chamber-pot outside his front door every night before bed. One evening a small man appeared and asked him to desist, as the waste was running down his chimney into his house beneath. The farmer complied, blocking up the old door and creating a new one at the opposite side of the cottage, for which he was rewarded by healthy stock and great prosperity;
- in trees- there are only a few traces of this association with individual trees, something that seems more pronounced in Scandinavian and German tales. For example, in the Sad Shepherd Ben Jonson advises that “There, in the stocks of trees, white Faies doe dwell,/ And span-long Elves, that dance about a poole!/ With each a little Changeling, in their armes!/ The airie spirits play with falling starres!/ And mount the Sphere of fire, to kisse the Moone!” In the English fairy-tale ‘The King of the cats’ the nature of these tree dwellings is elaborated considerably: a wanderer at night sees a light streaming from a hollow oak; when he climbs the tree and looks inside, he discovers an interior resembling a church. Readers of earlier posts may recall that I have made reference to the belief in the ‘Old Lady of the Elder Tree’, a spirit inhabiting and guarding these shrubs (The white goddess & the elder queen); you may also be familiar with the rhyme ‘Fairy folks are in old oaks’ and there is some record of a Northern belief in a race called ‘The Oakmen.’ Lastly we should note the “ympe-tre” of the fourteenth century ballad, Sir Orfeo. The term ymp-tree is understood to denote a grafted apple or cherry; sleeping beneath it Orfeo’s wife Heurodis is approached and abducted by the Fairy King. Whether this tree is the King’s home or merely a haunt of his is not clear; for certain plenty of trees were felt to have supernatural links without them being the physical residence of a fairy spirit;
- in woods and forests– as well as residing in certain types of tree, there is a persistent link between elves and woodland, which I have described separately;
- in a ruined structure made by glamour to look grand and well maintained. Examples are the ‘Fairy dwelling on Selena moor’ (actually only a derelict farmhouse) and the illusory palace on Glastonbury Tor visited by St Collen. In a fairy midwife tale recounted by Rhys, a cave is made to look finely furnished when it was really only strewn with rushes and ferns;
- outside on the moors- John Rhys relays an account of the Tylwyth Teg who were said to live amongst ferns in the summer and to shelter amidst the gorse and heather during winter (Celtic folklore p.82); and, finally,
- nowhere- as fairies are spirit visitors to our material world, some consider that they have no habitations here. As such, they deserve human pity and comfort: a fire and clean water at night will ease their roofless wandering (Wentz p.182).
Despite all this evidence of fairies living in wild and natural places, see too my posting on fairy building skills.