Sir Noel Paton, The Belle Dame sans merci
I have previously discussed visits to fairylands underground; in this post I want to briefly examine the entrances to those places- the portals where a human might most likely encounter a fay being.
The folklore, literary sources and popular ballads are very consistent in the identifying the sorts of places or environments in which a meeting with a fae is likely. What appears to unify the locations is the fact that they all share a solitary or unique feature; they will stand out in the landscape. These distinctive sites are as follows:
- lone trees– a tree standing isolated in a prominent position is noticeable and memorable in any case, but very often marks a fae portal. For instance, Thomas of Erceldoune meets the fairy queen at the ‘Eildon tree’ (in one version of the poem it is described as a “dern tree”- that is ‘hidden’ or ‘secret’). In the romance of the same name, knight Sir Launfal is approached by two fairy maidens whilst sitting in the shade of a tree one hot undrentide during the feast of Trinity (late May or early June). In the Scottish ballad of Allison Gross, a man is turned into a dragon (or ‘worm’) by witch Alison and is left to coil himself around a tree. Lone trees are magical, definitely. However, we can go further and suggest that these fairy trees are very likely to be either may (hawthorn) trees, as these are notorious fairy haunts, and apple trees. In the ballad of Young Tamlane he’s carried off by the elfin queen having fallen asleep underneath an apple and the wife of Sir Orfeo is stolen away from her husband by the fairies whilst sitting one early May morning in an orchard, beneath an “ympe tree”- a grafted apple.
- free standing hills- fairies are well known to live under burial mounds and it appears that distinct and conspicuous hills of any description will be likely fairy spots at which contact can be made. English poets Thomas Campion and Thomas Browne both imagined the fairy queen regally seated upon a grassy knoll (“All ladies that do sleep” and Britannia’s Pastorals, Book I, Song II, lines 396-404) whilst in folklore many everyday activities conducted upon a fairy hill could prove dangerous for humans, whether that was cutting turf, sitting, playing or just sleeping.
- grassy banks and slopes- these are often mentioned specifically, but could very well just be part of a fairy hill rather than a separate feature in the landscape; it’s not always clear. Thomas of Erceldoune lay down on Huntlie bank on a May morning ; in the ballad of Thomas the Rhymer we hear that he reclines on a grassy bank. There’s a definite suggestion that part of the process may involve a tired person lying down to rest, drifting off to sleep, and, in that semi-conscious state, being able to make contact with faery. In the medieval poem Piers Plowman the narrator is out on the Malvern Hills on a May morning; “weori of wandringe” he went to rest “undur a brod banke bi a bourne syde.” It is then that he beholds “a ferly- a feyrie” (a wonder of fairy origin). In Edmund Spencer’s poem The Faery Queen Prince Arthur similarly lies down to sleep on verdant grass after wandering in a forest and has a vision of the Fairy Queen lying down beside him (Book I, canto IX, stanzas 13-14). Elsewhere in his epic Spenser imagines that “Nymphes and Faeries by banckes did sit”- there is clearly a close association here between faes and these slightly secluded locations (Book I, canto X, stanza 65).
- Daisies- the magical communion with Faery is further enhanced, it seems, it there are daisies on the bank. In Allison Gross the fairy queen comes to sit on a “gowany bank” near to where the frightful worm coils about the tree. It may be significant too that in the ballad of Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight the wicked knight comes to the maid when she sits in her bower on the first of May, surrounded by daisies. They are one of the archetypal fairy flowers.
It will be evident from these examples that, whilst the place is important, the time of day (undrentide) and the time of year (very typically early May/ Beltane) are also highly significant in bringing about an encounter. Combine all the right factors and a meeting with a faery is a very strong possibility.