Nils Blommer, Fairies of the meadow,1850
There are many types of fairy creature, but what are conventionally imagined when we think of fairies are what have been called the communal, mound or sometimes trooping fairies. Many of the other, solitary fairies, have a tendency to be antagonistic to humans- if not downright fatal. Folk lore evidence also indicate that there is a broad dichotomy within the communal fairies between good and evil.
This distinction can be traced back to the earliest times. In the Viking Age the Scandinavians spoke of two classes of elf inhabiting Alfheim (literally ‘elfhome’- that is, fairy land). These were the liosalfar (the fair or light elves) and the dockalfar (the dark elves). The latter lived underground and were said to be ‘blacker than pitch.’ Their temperaments reflected their colouring. There are also references to svartalfar (another species of ‘dark elf’ going by the name alone- svart = swarthy) but these appear in fact to be dwarves rather than elves.
These elves, or alfar, are still a significant and vibrant element in Scandinavian folk belief.
Scottish fairy lore
In much later Scottish fairy lore a clear distinction is recognised between the seelie and unseelie courts. The seelie court comprises the kindly, benevolent fairies who help the the elderly and the poor, assist the hard working, comfort the distressed and reward good deeds. These ‘guid fairies’ can, nonetheless, act vindictively against humans if they feel that they have been slighted.
Secondly, there is the unseelie court, which is made up of the host of the unsanctified dead. They catch stray humans and make them fire elf shots at other people or at cattle. These ‘wicked wichts’ inflict harm unprovoked and will carry off unbaptised children. They might harshly shave men they caught and the particularly resented those who dressed in the fairy colour of green. Some of the solitary and deadly Scottish fairy beasts seem to be numbered amongst the unseelie court.
Y tylwyth teg
John Rhys said that the Welsh tylwyth teg could be both good and bad. Investigating the beliefs of the area north west of Snowdon, he was told that around Nant y Bettws the fairies “were thieves without their like.” They would steal milk, cheese and butter from farms and would pick pockets at the local markets. Alongside them, though, there lived another branch of the ‘fair family’ who were distinctly more beautiful and who always treated their human neighbours with honesty and goodness (Celtic folklore p.83).
Good and bad fays in England
In England there is some small trace of such a tradition, though it is only to be found in a couple of allusions in literature. The Reverend Thomas Jackson, in A treatise concerning the original of unbelief (1625), wrote this (although he ascribed all such tales to satanic delusion):
“Thus are Fayries, from difference of events ascribed to them, divided into good and bad, when as it is but one and the same malignant fiend that meddles in both…”
His indication of two differing temperaments is also reflected in George Gascoigne’s The Buggbears published in 1565:
“… the white and read fearye… some lovely and amyable, some felowly and friendly, some constant, some mutable, of hylls, wodes and dales, of waters and brookes, we coonyng in that art can ken them by their lookes.”
Lewis Spence (Fairy tradition in Britain p.130) derives the British division into good and bad fairies from the distinction made in Ireland between the Tuatha de Danaan and the Fomorians. It seems to me more likely that the influence of the Norse myths as recorded in Gylfaginning above was just as strong, if not more significant. Perhaps the Gaelic and Norse strands combined in Scotland, resulting in the persistence of belief in the two distinct courts or tribes.
The other point to stress is that all fairies are potentially mischievous or malicious. Some only act in this manner; others will be well-disposed most of the time but may be swift to be offended or irritated. Plainly caution and good manners are required in any dealings with the supernatural, as I have warned before (see previous posts and my book British Fairies).