“I will diminish and go into the west”- the fate of the fairies

 

fairydeparture15-mounstroussite

Artist unknown, ‘A fairy departure’

Fairy-kind has always had a strong association with the past.  In my previous posting on their clothing, I noted the common tendency to imagine fairies in antiquated fashions typical of earlier eras.  This temporal distance seems to have had the function of emphasising or marking their separation from humankind.

Fairies are ‘things of the past’ in another sense: they have frequently been thought of as a race that is no more seen or that has departed from these lands.  By way of illustration of this, Katherine Briggs entitled one of her books ‘The vanishing people.’  Some readers may also call to mind the fact that Tolkien concludes Lord of the Rings with a departure of the elves into the west.  He built upon well established foundations.

This idea that fairies have disappeared or are no longer present in Britain has been a feature of fairy-lore for centuries.  Chaucer, for example, had the Wife of Bath on her journey to Canterbury begin her story thus:

“In th’olde dayes of the king Arthour,

Of which that Britons speken greet honour,

All was this land fulfild of fayerye.

The elf-queen, with hir joly companye,

Daunced ful ofte in many a grene mede;

This was the olde opinion, as I rede,

I speke of manye hundred yeres ago;

But now can no man see none elves mo.”

Later writers have repeated this theme.  For example, in The Faithful shepherdess (III 1) Fletcher expressed the view that “Methinks there are no goblins, and men’s talk/ That in these Woods the Nimble Fairies walk/ Are fables.”

It would be fair to say that the citations given so far probably reflect the urban, educated, cultured view, in contrast to the beliefs of ‘simple’ country folk, but traditional folk tales have also featured and explained the reduction in the sightings of our supernatural neighbours.  For example, there is the Scottish story of ‘The departure of the fairies’ recounted by Hugh Miller in The Old Red Sandstone, p. 251.

‘On a Sabbath morning, all the inmates of a little hamlet had gone to church, except a herd-boy, and a little girl, his sister, who were lounging beside one of the cottages, when just as the shadow of the garden-dial had fallen on the line of noon, they saw a long cavalcade ascending out of the ravine, through the wooded hollow. It winded among the knolls and bushes, and turning round the northern gable of the cottage, beside which the sole spectators of the scene were stationed, began to ascend the eminence towards the south. The horses were shaggy diminutive things, speckled dun and grey; the riders stunted, misgrown, ugly creatures, attired in antique jerkins of plaid, long grey clokes, and little red caps, from under which their wild uncombed locks shot out over their cheeks and foreheads. The boy and his sister stood gazing in utter dismay and astonishment, as rider after rider, each more uncouth and dwarfish than the other which had preceded it, passed the cottage and disappeared among the brushwood, which at that period covered the hill, until at length the entire rout, except the last rider, who lingered a few yards behind the others, had gone by. “What are you, little manie? and where are ye going?” inquired the boy, his curiosity getting the better of his fears and his prudence. “Not of the race of Adam,” said the creature, turning for a moment in its saddle, “the people of peace shall never more be seen in Scotland.”‘

Touring Wales in late Victorian times, Professor John Rhys was several times told that fairies were no longer encountered in the countryside.  They had been seen ‘daily’ by shepherds “in the age of faith gone by,” in the “fairy days”- but no more (Rhys, pp.115 & 125).

The reasons for the fairies’ departure tend to be related but curiously antagonistic:

  • they are driven away by the sound of new church bells- see for example Briggs, Dictionary, p.95;
  • they have been displaced by the clergy (in Chaucer’s plainly satirical lines): “For now the grete charitee and prayeres/ Of limitours and othere holy freres, … This maketh that ther been no fayeryes./ For ther as wont to walken was an elf,/ Ther walketh now the limitour him-self;”
  • they have been deliberately exorcised: it was explained to John Rhys (pp.221/228) that the fairies did not appear as in a “former age” because they had been cast out (ffrymu) for a period of centuries and would not be back during ‘our time.’  It is interesting that this ejection, albeit long, was considered a temporary state- a reason for some to be hopeful, perhaps; or,
  • they leave because the catholic faith has been replaced.  In his story The Dymchurch Flit Rudyard Kipling ascribes the fairies’ flight to the ill-will generated by religious dissension and the sense that they were no longer welcome and did not belong: “Fair or foul, we must flit out o’ this, for Merry England’s done with, an’ we’re reckoned among the Images”  (Puck of Pook’s Hill, p.267).  The poem, Farewell, rewards and fairies, by  Richard Corbet (1582–1635) is mentioned in the same book by Kipling and encapsulates these ideas: “the Fairies/  Were of the old Profession./ Their songs were ‘Ave Mary’s’,/ Their dances were Procession./ But now, alas, they all are dead; Or gone beyond the seas.”  It is well worth examining the whole poem.

dymchurch

Arthur Rackham, illustration of the Dymchurch flit.

The combined shrinking and retreat of fairies and their realms reached a point in the twentieth century where many writers could declare their epitaphs.  For example, in Puck of Pook’s Hill, published in 1908, Rudyard Kipling has his character Puck admit that “The People of the Hills have all left.  I saw them come into Old England and I saw them go. Giants, trolls, kelpies, brownies, goblins, imps; … good people, little people … pixies, nixies and gnomes and the rest- gone, all gone!”  (p.10).  Katherine Briggs began the first chapter of The fairies in tradition and literature by observing how, since the late Middle Ages at least, fairy beliefs “have been supposed to belong to the last generation and to be lost to the present one,” but still the tradition lingered on.  However, she seemed to have lost heart in The anatomy of puck (p.11), admitting that “the fairies, who descended perhaps from gods older than those the druids worshipped, who were so long lamented as lost and so slow to go, have gone, now and forever.”

Nevertheless, the announcement of the demise of faery may have proved premature.  As Janet Bord wrote in Fairies- real encounters with little people (1998), “the changes that have occurred in this century have not resulted in the complete extinction of the fairies: they have survived, because people still see them.” The changes to which she referred are the impact of technology, the loss of importance of traditional beliefs and the loss of traditional knowledge.  The cultural influences of the media and a decline in sympathy with the natural environment has led to a diminution in fairy belief, but not its destruction.  For many people, “fairy lore is still alive in the background of their existence.”

The rise of alternative spiritualities has definitely contributed to this tenacity of belief.  In his book on the Cottingley fairy photographs, The coming of the fairies, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle quoted with approval from the writings of Theosophist Edward Gardner.  The latter wrote that:

“For the most part, amid the busy commercialism of modern times, the fact of their existence has faded to a shadow, and a most delightful and charming field of nature study has too long been veiled. In this twentieth century there is promise of the world stepping out of some of its darker shadows. Maybe it is an indication that we are reaching the silver lining of the clouds when we find ourselves suddenly presented with actual photographs of these enchanting little creatures- relegated long since to the realm of the imaginary and fanciful.”

Gardner, Doyle and Geoffrey Hodson all waxed lyrical in the early decades of the century about beings existing at ‘higher levels of vibrations’ and similar.  They renewed the foundations for a belief in the existence and visibility of fairies which persists.  Diane Purkis in her book Troublesome things (chapter 10) was harsh on modern manifestations of fairy belief.  She wrote scathingly that a “few sad, mummified Victorian fairies survive, pressed in the pages of the Past Times catalogue, perhaps.  Some people are devoted to these little corpses, tending them devotedly, but they obstinately refuse to flourish, they have no roots and no branches, no real resonance.”  She rejects these remnants as being mere “revenants, wraiths, sad simplified ghosts.”

I will leave it to readers to decide on the validity of these dismissive words.  A glance at the abundance of fairy websites, and the shops and magazines offering a wealth of fairy related products, must give some reason to doubt Purkis’ scorn.  It would not be wrong to agree with Katherine Briggs that fairy tradition at least lingers, even today; perhaps, in fact, a more vigorous verb is justified-burgeons, perhaps?

“Urchins, ouphs and fairies, green and white”-fairy clothing

ar-elves

Arthur Rackham, ‘To make my small elves coats’, Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1908

“Wee folk, good folk, trooping all together,

Green jacket, red cap and white owl’s feather.”

William Allingham, The fairies, 1850

What does a fairy wear?  Nowadays we may well envisage a small girl in a pink tutu with a star tipped wand.  As regular readers will anticipate, this was decidedly not our ancestors’ image of faery kind.  It was, nonetheless, very much as conventional.

There were some who regarded fairies as, in many respects, indistinguishable from their human neighbours.  For example, the Reverend Kirk in chapter five of The secret commonwealth asserted that “Their Apparell … is like that of the People and Countrey under which they live: so are they seen to wear Plaids and variegated Garments in the Highlands of Scotland, and Suanochs therefore in Ireland.”  Other evidence from Scotland confirms this.  At her witchcraft trial on 1576 Bessie Dunlop described the fairies she had conversed with: the men dressed as gentlemen, the women in plaids; a later account of the departure of the fairies also has them attired in plaids (with red caps); J. G. Campbell likewise mentions fairies in blue Highland bonnets.

More commonly, there was always something about their dress which betrayed fairy-kind to the humans who encountered them.  Sometimes it was the style of the garments, more often it was the colour.  William Bottrell in Traditions and hearthside stories of West Cornwall states that the typical appearance of the pobel vean was “dressed in bright green nether garments, sky-blue jackets, three cornered hats on the men and pointed ones on the ladies, all decked out with lace and silver bells.”  There is, then, a resemblance to (antique) human fashions combined with distinctive hues.  This tendency to dress in the style of a century before is underlined by the story of the fairy market on Blackdown near Taunton- “Their habits used to be of red, blue or green, according to the way of old country garb, with high crowned hats” (Keightley p.294).

The quintessential and identifying fairy hue was green.  For example, John Campbell of Barra in the Highlands told a story of  woman seen dressed in green, observing “no woman would be clad in such a colour except a fairy woman.”  Indeed, the ‘green gowns’ was a fairly common euphemism employed to avoid too closely naming the good neighbours.

In about two thirds of the cases where the colour of garments is noted in an account, it is green.  Bourne in Antiquitates vulgares  from 1725 states that they were “always clad in green” and, whilst this overstates the popular view, accounts from Cornwall through Wales and northern England and up to the Highlands repeatedly confirm the fairy preference.  In his Remains of Nithsdale and Galloway Song Robert Cromek embellishes this slightly, describing “mantles of green cloth inlaid with flowers” and “green pantaloons buttoned with bobs of silk and sandals of silver.”  J. F. Campbell found accounts in his Popular Tales of the West Highlands of fairies in kilts, but these were green and matched by green conical hats.

Some readers will recall that green was the skin tone of the mysterious ‘fairy’ children discovered at Woolpit in Suffolk in the 1100s.  Katherine Briggs has suggested that the colour relates to death- and there may be something in this.  Identity with nature and plant life might be another association.

Popular as green was, it was by no means exclusive.  Other traditional choices were:

  • red– Evans Wentz recorded Welsh fairies in “gaudy colours (mostly red)”, in “soldiers’ clothes” with red caps and some pixies at Land’s End in red cloaks (pp.142, 155 & 181).  Professor John Rhys found that Welsh witnesses in Victorian times often referred to the Tylwyth Teg ‘the red coats’ by way of euphemism;
  • white– Welsh informants told Evans Wentz that the Tylwyth Teg were ‘always’ clothed in white and Thomas Heywood in his Hierarchie of the blessed angels employs ‘white nymphs’ as a euphemism for the fairies (p.507);
  • blue– for example, Sikes in British goblins (chapter V, part iii) describes the Tylwyth Teg seen at the ‘Place of strife,’ Trefeglws, Llanidloes, Montgomeryshire, as “the old elves of the blue petticoats.” In the Suffolk story, Brother Mike, the fairies appear in blue coats, yellow breeches and red caps;
  • other– on Shetland the ‘grey neighbours’ are grey clad goblins.  Walter Scott records Border fairies clad in “heath brown or lichen dyed garments.”  John Rhys learned that the fairy women of Cardigan dressed “gorgeously in white, while the men were content with garments of a dark grey colour, usually including knee-breeches.” Meanwhile, around the River Teifi, the fairy women were said to dress “like foreigners, in short cotton dresses reaching only to the knee-joint.”  He felt this was exceptional, as generally fairy dresses had very long trains and local girls who dressed in a more showy fashion would be likened to the Tylwyth Teg.  At the other extreme, some supernatural beings traditionally abandon human clothing altogether and appear dressed in skins or leaves (Briggs, Dictionary, pp.110-11).  In the hands of poets, an opposite tendency applies and clothing can become highly elaborate and literary.  For instance John Beaumont in 1705 decked out his fairies in “loose Network Gowns, tied with a black sash about their middles, and within the Network appeared a Gown of a Golden Colour… they had white Linnen Caps on, with lace about three Fingers breadth, and over it they had a Black loose Network Hood” (A treatise of spirits).

To summarise the matter of preferred clothing colours, we may quote the words of John Walsh of Netherbury, Dorset; in 1566 he was suspected of witchcraft and gave evidence. He stated “that there be iii kinds of fairies- white, green and black.  Whereof the blacke fairies is the worst…”

Lastly, some supernaturals, the hobgoblins and brownies, dispensed with clothing altogether, relying on their hairiness or coarse skin.  For them, the gift of clothes was the ultimate insult which drove them away from their chosen home.  You may recall Dobby the house elf of Hogwarts school, dressed in an old tea-towel.  Joanne Rowling knew her folklore.

Authors and artists aside, the folklore conception of fairy dress was of relatively simple garments. Susan Swapper of Rye told her 1610 witchcraft trial that the fairy woman she met dressed in a ‘green petticoat’ and plainness seems to be the norm- as in accounts of ‘long green robes.’  Sometimes something more elaborate is suggested; Angus Macleod of Harris in 1877 relayed his mother’s description of fairies dancing: “Bell-helmets of blue silk covered their heads, and garments of green satin covered their bodies and sandals of yellow membrane covered their feet” (Wentz p.116).

A particular identifying feature, indeed, was the fairy’s cap.  It is regularly mentioned, most often red, although blue and yellow are also recorded, and again allusions occur from the south-west through Wales and the north-west up into Scotland.  The shape is often pointed or conical- for example, a mid-twentieth century encounter near Perth was with a “wee green man with peakit boots and a cap like an old gramophone horn on his head.”  The same informant ten years later had a rather more prosaic sighting of two small men in bowler hats…

By the twentieth century, conceptions of the style of fairy clothing had shifted away from the traditional forms to something much more influenced by art- both high and popular.  Strains of whimsy and of floaty, flimsy ballerina type garments became pervasive, as typified perhaps by Cicely Mary Barker, whose fairies were, in the main, genteel young ladies, dressed perhaps for an Edwardian fancy dress party.

edwardian-fairies

To summarise, descriptions of fairy clothing tended to fall into one of three categories:

  • the otherness of the fairies was emphasised by the brightly coloured and elaborate nature of their attire;
  • likewise, their otherness was indicated by the fact that they wore clothes of an earlier era: to the Victorians they appeared dressed in the fashions of mid-eighteenth century Georgians; or,
  • by way of contrast, the very vicinity and intimate proximity of the ‘good neighbours’ was shown by the fact that they wore garments almost identical to those of human kind.

Lastly, readers will doubtless have observed how long-established one image is: the pixie or gnome dressed in his green jacket and red, pointy cap is deeply ingrained in the British imagination.

 

Fairy language

elvsh.

What language do fairies speak?  If we were to ask  J. R. R. Tolkien and his many admirers, we would of course be advised ‘Elvish’- the languages of Quenya and Sildarin that Tolkien forged out of Finnish and Welsh.  These languages are fascinating intellectual feats, but they are modern, academic inventions; they do not reflect our predecessors’ views on the matter.  What does folklore have to tell us about elvish speech?

The normal rule is that fairies will speak the same language as their human neighbours. Reverend Kirk states this explicitly in The Secret Commonwealth (section 5).

“Their Apparell and Speech is like that of the People and Countrey under which they live: … They speak but litle, and that by way of whistling, clear, not rough. The verie Divels conjured in any Countrey, do answer in the Language of the Place; yet sometimes the Subterraneans speak more distinctly than at other times.”

John Rhys relayed a story of a mermaid from North Wales in which the reporter observed sceptically “we do not know what language is used by sea maidens … but this one, this time at any rate, it is said, spoke very good Welsh” (Brython, vol.1, p.82).

This situation is to be expected, in that communication would otherwise be very difficult- if not impossible- and interaction very much reduced.  Most of our fairy tales are founded upon intercourse between humans and fairies, so that mutual intelligibility is vital.  The ability to converse means that humans may overhear or engage in conversations (Wentz pp.96, 101, 10, 110, 140 & 155) and also may hear or even participate in songs (Wentz pp.92, 98 & 112). It follows then that the fairies speak the local language or, even dialect.  They speak Gaelic in the Highlands, Welsh in Wales and English in England- and going further an Exmoor fairy sounds just like a Somerset peasant (Ruth Tongue, County Folklore, vol.VIII, p.117).

Given a widespread belief that some fairies at least were of smaller stature than the human population, they have voices to match.   Kirk has already implied this, but other sources are clearer on the point.  At Gors Goch, Cardiganshire, little beings came to a farm house at night asking for shelter in “thin, silvery voices ” (Wentz p.155).  The pixies encountered on Selena Moor near St Buryan squeaked with little voices (Briggs, Dictionary, p.142).

Much of British fairy-lore depends upon the ability of humans and supernaturals to have contact and to form relationships.  Nevertheless, the fairies’ speech is sometimes said to be incomprehensible or, even, not to resemble human speech at all.  Wirt Sikes in British goblins recorded that Thomas William of Hafodafel, Blaenau Gwent, met a fairy procession and “heard them talking together in a noisy, jabbering way; but no-one could distinguish the words.”  Other witnesses from Wales state the same: “they did not understand a word that was said; not a syllable did they comprehend…” whilst in another couple of encounters we are assured “it was not Welsh and she did not think it was English” (John Rhys, pp.272, 277 & 279).

John Aubrey told a tale of his former schoolmaster, Mr Hart, who in 1633 came across a “faiery dance” (a green circle on the grass of the Wiltshire downs) and saw there sprites who were “making all manner of odd noyses.”  They objected to his intrusion and swarmed at him, “making a quick humming noyse all the time.”  Lastly, a nineteenth century account from Ilkley of fairies surprised bathing tells that they were “making a chatter and jabber thoroughly unintelligible.”  The noise, it was said, was “not unlike a disturbed nest of young partridges” (Briggs, Tradition, pp.133-4).  These latter descriptions bring to mind small, insect-like beings, perhaps.

Finally, we must note the very curious tale told of Elidyr by Gerald of Wales.  Elidyr, as a boy, was one day escorted into an underground realm and subsequently spent much time there with the fairies. Years later, as a priest, he told his tale and, in particular, that:

“He had made himself acquainted with the language of that nation, the words of which, in his younger days, he used to recite, which, as the bishop often had informed me, were very conformable to the Greek idiom. When they asked for water, they said Ydor ydorum, which meant bring water, for ydor in their language, as well as in the Greek, signifies water, from whence vessels for water are called ydrie; and dwr also, in the British language, signifies water. When they wanted salt they said, Halgein ydorum, ‘bring salt’: salt is called als in Greek, and halen in British, for that language, from the length of time which the Britons (then called Trojans, and afterwards Britons, from Brito, their leader) remained in Greece after the destruction of Troy, became, in many instances, similar to the Greek.

It is remarkable that so many languages should correspond in one word, als in Greek, halen in British, and halgein in the Irish tongue, the g being inserted; sal in Latin, because, as Priscian says, ‘the s is placed in some words instead of an aspirate,’ as als in Greek is called sal in Latin, emi – semi, epta – septem – sel in French – the A being changed into E – salt in English, by the addition of T to the Latin; sout, in the Teutonic language: there are therefore seven or eight languages agreeing in this one word. If a scrupulous inquirer should ask my opinion of the relation here inserted, I answer with Augustine, ‘that the divine miracles are to be admired, not discussed.’ Nor do I, by denial, place bounds to the divine power, nor, by assent, insolently extend what cannot be extended. But I always call to mind the saying of St. Jerome; ‘You will find,’ says he, ‘many things incredible and improbable, which nevertheless are true; for nature cannot in any respect prevail against the lord of nature.’ These things, therefore, and similar contingencies, I should place, according to the opinion of Augustine, among those particulars which are neither to be affirmed, nor too positively denied.”

From all that we can tell, the clerk in question appears to be concocting his elvish tongue out of elements of Welsh and Irish, with perhaps some awareness of Latin and Greek in the background.  It is not, therefore, to be relied upon very much as an account of traditional beliefs.  A better summary may be to say that, in general, fairies were regarded in many respects as being identical or similar to humans (not just in speech, but also in form, diet, dress and conduct).  Sometimes, however, their otherworldly aspect dominated, and their speech was as alien as their magical abilities.