‘The unseelie court- war’ by Jasmine Becket-Griffith
I have discussed fae mortality and violence previously; here I examine the context within which fairy deaths might occur.
According to some traditional folklore accounts, there are fairy kings and queens; we know some of their names from literary sources, of course: they include Oberon, Mab and Titania. There is next to no evidence, though, on these monarchs’ kingdoms. Is there a single realm or many within the island of Britain? We do not know, but the partial information we have on fairy armies and fairy battles supports the suspicion that there are numerous warring tribes or polities. This would not be in the least surprising, given reports of endemic violence from Ireland and Brittany (See Evans Wentz, Fairy Faith, 44, 46, 50, 55, 57, 74, 207 & 211).
Fairies are often described as looking like soldiers in eighteenth and nineteenth century British sources. For example, an old Cornish woman quoted by Robert Hunt compared them to “little sodgers.” We should not, however, be misled by these accounts. All they’re really telling us is that the beings sighted were wearing red (and possibly green) jackets; British soldiers at this time were, of course, called the ‘red coats’ and provided a ready analogy for witnesses (for example Hunt, Popular Romances, 118; Bord, Fairies, 32).
From time to time, nonetheless, armed fays have been sighted. The trows on Orkney have sometimes been spotted wearing armour. A boy abducted by the fairies on Islay in exchange for a changeling was eventually freed by his blacksmith father and returned home; it transpired that he had learned how to forge swords whilst he was away “under the hill.” Lastly, at the opposite end of the country, a host of spriggans encountered by smugglers on the beach of Mounts Bay at Eastern Green, just outside Penzance, were armed with bows and arrows, spears and slings and were organised in rank and file with marching music provided by pipes, cymbals and tambourines (Briggs, Dictionary, p.132).
This Cornish report leads us to the second very frequent type of report from witnesses. It’s quite common for people to see fairies en masse, apparently drilling like bodies of soldiers. There were said to be scores or even hundreds on the Eastern Green; several very similar examples come from the Isle of Man. In one case a man saw an ‘army’ dressed in red; in a second two men met a fairy army on the road at Mull. They were all dressed in red caps and coats, some mounted, some on foot, and they so filled the highway that the men had to climb over the hedge and wait for quite some time for the host to pass. A third experience, dated to about 1830, involved a man later to become a member of the Manx Parliament, the House of Keys. Out one October night on the way to a harvest supper he and a friend saw a supernatural light in a field, within which a “great crowd of little beings” dressed in red “moved back and forth amid the circle of light, as they formed into order like troops drilling.” Lastly, on Mellor Moor on the Pennines near Blackburn during the mid-eighteenth century, fairies were often said to appear “in military array … their revolutions conforming in every respect to the movement of modern troops.” (See Bord, Fairies, pp.36 & 42; Wentz p.133).
In an incident at Lochaweside in Argyll, a shepherd carrying a lost sheep home saw a cave in a rock face where he’d never seen one before. Plainly suspecting it was a fairy location, he put his knife into a gap in the rock before taking his time studying what was inside. What he saw was a collection of weapons, including guns and swords. Just then the sheep started to escape and, in dashing to catch it, the shepherd dislodged the knife. When he looked again, the cave was gone and he saw only bare rock. The disappearance of the weapons cache only confirmed the impression that this was no earthly armoury.
What are these troops exercising for? Why have they hoarded all these arms? Direct accounts of fairy fighting are much rarer. We are told by Mrs Bray that there was a protracted war between the pixies and the fairies for control of Devonshire and Dartmoor. We also read of a woman lost in mist who saw a pixie battle being fought on the ramparts of Castle-an-Dinas in mid-Cornwall (though, when the fog cleared, though, there was no trace of any fighting).
The best example comes from Wales, though:
“There is a tradition among the Glamorgan peasantry of a fairy battle fought on the mountain between Merthyr and Aberdare, in which the pigmy combatants were on horseback. There appeared to be two armies, one of which was mounted on milk-white steeds, and the other on horses of jet-black. They rode at each other with the utmost fury and their swords could be seen flashing in the air like so many penknife blades. The army on the white horses won the day, and drove the black-mounted force from the field. The whole scene then disappeared in a light mist.” (Wirt Sikes, British Goblins, p.107)
What is especially interesting about this is the fact that there is also a tale of conflict between the white fairy king and the black at Strath Spey in Scotland. They are said to be locked in perpetual struggle over the white king’s wife. This story may give us a hint as to the fairies’ motivation for their aggression. For the Spey kings, the prize is possession of a woman; Shakespeare may take us a little nearer the truth with his notion in Midsummer Night’s Dream of Oberon and Titania feuding over a changeling boy. It seems very like that the motive for fairy wars is control of resources- and for the faes those contested assets are human, whether it is produce they can steal from us or individuals whom they can abduct.
Finally, in one way or another, humans are intimately associated with fairy warfare. For our penultimate example we return to the Isle of Man.
“A woman walking over Barrule met two fairy armies going to battle, which was to begin on the ringing of a bell; she pulled the bell, and in consequence both armies attacked her, and kept her prisoner for three years, when she escaped.”
Lastly, at Loch Gruinart on Islay a battle was fought in August 1598 between the MacLeans and the MacDonalds. Just before the two sides clashed, the MacLean chief was approached by a “tiny fellow of the brownie order” who offered his services in the coming fighting. The MacLean dismissed help from someone so diminutive, so the ‘Black Elf’ went off to the MacDonald camp and made the same proposal, which was gratefully accepted. The additional one hundred warriors tilted the odds in favour of the MacDonalds and, in fact, it was the Black Elf who killed the MacLean leader.