Walter Jenks Morgan, Where rural elves and fairies dwell
“Following the footsteps
Of a rag doll dance
We are entranced
We all know that fairies love dancing. They have regularly been seen, dancing in meadows, glades, buildings and at wells. Literary authority Minor White Latham even goes so far as to say that dancing “amounted almost to a natural means of locomotion” for them (Elizabethan fairies, p.100). Fairy dances are known too as a primary way in which humans are enticed into fairyland and become lost to the mortal world. In this posting, I want to examine why humans seem to fall again and again for the trick and what the consequences of this gullibility may be for them.
All reports agree that fairies are enthusiastic and talented dancers. That being the case, people were often drawn inexorably to watch them. There are several accounts from Wales indicating that a recognised community pastime was to go to see the tylwyth teg dancing. For example, after Sunday evening service at the church at Corwrion, near Bethesda, members of the congregation would go to a place called Pen y Bonc to mingle with the fairies as they danced. The same was the case around Llanberis, Penmachno and Beddgelert, although it was acknowledged that getting too close was risky.
The peril to be guarded against was being drawn into the dancing circle. We know that fairy music in itself can be bewitching; combined with dancing in which you can also participate, it can be nigh on irresistible- and the sensation was addictive. Edward Jones of Pencwm, Llanrhystid, one night saw a fairy dance on Trichrug Hill. He described how “he felt his feet lifted up and his body light.” A farmer living at Llwyn On in Nant y Bettws came across the tylwyth teg dancing in a meadow at Cwellyn Lake. He found that
“little by little he was led on by the enchanting sweetness of their music, and the liveliness of their playing, until he had got with their circle. Soon, some kind of spell passed over him so that he lost his knowledge of the place and found himself in a country, the most beautiful he’d ever seen, where everybody spent their time in mirth and rejoicing. He had been there seven years, but it seemed but a night’s dream…”
Little wonder then that dancers can be seduced away and never return.
These are the joys of elvish dancing. Given what we know about faerie, we must expect there to be woes- and there are. As the previous passage has already implied, the differential passage of time in Faerie and the mortal world can be one of the most serious problems for the dancer. Here are just a handful of examples of a very widely reported issue.
- A Scottish man taken into a dance under a hill was rescued a year and a day later, but he thought he was still dancing his first dance. He was only convinced of the length of his absence by seeing how his clothes had been rubbed to rags by the barrel of whisky he’d been carrying on his shoulder. In a comparable story from Bruan near Wick the man was only convinced of the duration of his absence by seeing how his baby had grown into a toddler. Likewise, a Welsh dancer was baffled how his brand-new shoes had been worn away;
- Two brothers from Strathspey heard fairy music from a sithean, a fairy hill. One wanted to enter, the other did not. The one who joined the dance was lost and his brother was only able to rescue him a year and day later, protected by a rowan cross on his clothes. The dancer thought he’d stayed only half an hour or a single reel;
- two men on the Isle of Man joined a fairy dance in a house. After a while one went outside to relieve himself against the wall of the cottage; it instantly disappeared- along with his companion inside- and he was only rescued seven years later, at which point he complained about having to go home so soon;
- A man from Haven near Pembridge in Herefordshire was lost for twenty-three years in a fairy ring- but thought it just minutes; and,
- A Perthshire man rescued after a year and a day declared he’d only had a single dance and was not yet tired. When he got outside the fairy hill, he collapsed with exhaustion. A Welsh man who was rescued was reduced to a mere skeleton, but immediately asked after the lost cow he’d set out to find a year before.
As will also be apparent from these accounts, getting away is no simple matter either. Friends and relatives will need determination and patience to recover the lost dancer. Precise timing is essential; often the rescue must be effected a year and a day exactly after the disappearance and the rescuer must be protected so that he isn’t also taken: iron or some other magical material will be needed to stop the fairies seizing the person or sealing them within the fairy hill. Other precautions include pages from the Bible sewn into the clothes and the ensuring that only one foot is put into the circle of the dance. The fairies will resist strongly, so more than one helper may be needed to pull the victim out of the circle.
For many of those who return from the dance, there is a double disappointment of resumption of their everyday life after the heady pleasure of fairyland and, quite often, the shock of losses that have occurred whilst they have been away: parents may have died, loved ones may have married someone else. Thus Scottish writer James Cririe captured the allure and the terror in his 1803 book, Scottish scenery:
“At times, around and on that verdant hill,/ If common fame in ought can be believed,/ What fairy forms illusive mock the eye,/ In airy rings alternate lost and seen./ All robed in green, they mix and sportive weave,/ The mazy dance to music’s melting sound;/ Their tiny forms seen by the silent moon/ With wonder fill the gazing swain aghast/ While fear with sweat his shaking limbs bedews,/ Lest chang’d his form and carried far away to distant climes or to fairy halls.”