“That shrewd and knavish sprite”- the fairy temperament


Is it possible to generalise meaningfully upon the character of a people?  There are, of course, popular conceptions of nations such as the British, Welsh, Irish and Cornish, but how valid are these stereotypes?  Turning to supernatural realms, is it any easier to delineate temperament?  Our ancestors apparently thought so, with the denizens of faery treated as predictably uniform in their conduct and reactions rather than being individuated.

Fairy types

Folk imagination detected distinctly discernible traits to the different ‘species’ of fairies. Certain identifiable types possessed very simple characters indeed, possessed of only a couple of features.  For example:

  • brownies or house elves, which were attached to specific houses or estates, were generally amenable to human proximity and were hard workers, being content with a regular bowl of gruel or fresh milk or water.  Robin Goodfellow is cast in this role in Samuel Rowland’s More knaves yet of 1613.  Robin helps the country wenches “To wash the dishes for some fresh-cheese hier:/ Or set their Pots and Kettles bout the fier.”   Brownies only became upset when presented with a more material reward, such as a suit of clothes, a mistaken kindness which would so offend that they would desert the holding or, sometimes, haunt it destructively like a poltergeist; or,
  • boggarts, bogies and bogles and similar spirits are consistently ill-tempered, tending to mischief that shades into downright malice.  By and large this is their only function- to trick, annoy and to scare, although on occasion there is a moral aspect to the treatment: the Dorset colepexy was a red-eyed goblin colt that would  lead wanderers astray into marshes.  Sometimes this was a punishment for malefaction, such as sealing from orchards.  Hobgoblins, personalised in the character of Puck  in Shakespeare’s Midsummer night’s dream (from whence the title of this post: Act II, scene i), traditionally inhabit the border between brownies and bogies.  They are mischievous creatures, but are generally well-disposed toward humankind and all our frailties.

See too my discussion of the ‘fairy races’ in my post on the Two tribes.


Midsummer Night’s Dream, a fairy meets puck.

The pixies and other trooping fairies, which usually take human form and often are of human stature, have more complex characters than those fairies so far described. Nevertheless, their moods, manners and motivations were conceived to be fairly constant, so consistent indeed that the personality descriptions that follow might almost serve as a human’s guide to dealing with Faery- what conduct to prefer, what to avoid.

Fairy traits

The most typical fairy traits were:

  • a secretive, private disposition.  Spying and intrusion are resented and so is often chastised, frequently by pinching, as befell John Aubrey’s former schoolmaster, Mr Hart, when he intruded upon a fairy dance on the downs near Chippenham.  Any risk of disclosure of their presence is hated by fairies, so that they conceal themselves with the magical power of ‘glamour’ and will punish severely those who breach this. A very common story across the British Isles is of the human who is midwife, nursemaid or fosterer to a fairy child.  S/he is given balm with which to anoint the fairy infant’s eyes, but is cautioned not to put it upon their own.  The inevitable violation accidentally occurs, revealing the true nature of the fairy residence (frequently a ruin or charnel house).  Later the fairies are met at the market and greeted, in response to which the eye touched with glamour is promptly blinded.
  • an aversion to human untidiness and a preference for neatness.  To breach these standards usually leads to a merciless pinching. For example, Rowland has his Robin Goodfellow “bepinch the lazie queane” and John Marston in The Mountebank’s Mask of 1618 alludes to the risk that “lustie Doll, maide of the Dairie,/ Chance to be blew-nipt by the fairie.”  Robert Herrick, in his poem The fairies, succinctly encapsulates the fairy prejudices in their entirety-

“If ye will with Mab find grace/ Set each Platter in his place:/ Rake the fier up, and get/ Water in, ere sun be set./ Wash your Pailes and clense your Dairies;/ Sluts are loathsome to the Fairies:/ Sweep your house: who doth not so,/ Mab will pinch her by the toe.”

  • Herrick also hints at another less well-known fairy character trait: a respect for Christian superstition.  In the verse Ceremony upon Candlemas Eve he warns maidservants to remove all the greenery that had bedecked the Christmas hall before that date otherwise “So many Goblins shall you see.”
  • resentment of meanness and rudeness whilst, conversely, generosity and good manners will be rewarded.  However, presumption is also disliked.  Taking fairy gifts for granted, for example, or disclosing a person’s good fortune to others, will invariably lead to the withdrawal of fairy favour and the loss of the benefits they had bestowed.  The obligation to be circumspect about the source of one’s good luck is reflected in the words of Ben Jonson’s Entertainment at Althorpe.  Fairies presented a gift to the queen but then admonished her “Utter not/ We implore you/ Who did give it, nor wherefore/ And whenever you restore/ Yourself to us, you shall have more.”  Massinger expressed this same warning with greater foreboding in The fatal dowry (IV, 1): “But not a word of it- ’tis fairies’ treasure,/ Which but revealed brings on the blabber’s ruin.”
  • an esteem for a fair and generous nature, honesty and oath keeping, a preparedness to lend and share and a cheerful disposition on the part of human beings.

It will be observed that the code of conduct imposed upon humans is one of opposites and that the fairy nature is likewise a combination of polar contrasts.  For fortunate humans of the desired disposition, though, the fairies will be grateful and kind (subject to the conditions of discretion already specified).

Lastly, it will be noted that the more modern type of fairy (small, winged, associated with flowers) is a far more benign kind of nature spirit altogether.  They are reserved and timid, gentle, kind, harmless and helpful.  The iconography reflects this, with girlish imagery replacing wizened old men as the ‘typical’ fairy.

An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).

12 thoughts on ““That shrewd and knavish sprite”- the fairy temperament

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