Laughing gnome- the faery attitude to humans


The source of my title, but not very relevant, I know…

What do the fairies think about us?  The view that has emerged in recent decades is that they are concerned to help us, to heal the planet and to better ourselves, but as I’ve indicated in previous posts, the older tradition very frequently discloses a harder, more cynical character.

The attitude of the faes to humans that is exposed in the folk stories can be, at best, dispassionate and can be coolly exploitative in other accounts.  In fact, according to some observers, the fairies regard us with humour or even contempt.


In the 1673 text, A Pleasant Treatise of Witches, the author describes the fays as “little Mimick Elves” who “busy themselves chiefly in imitating the operations of men.”  We shouldn’t mistake this for flattery though: these ‘imitators of men’ seem to laugh, he tells us, “mocking sometimes the workmen [in mines] but seldome or never hurting them.” (p.53)

This bleaker view of fae conduct was repeated in an article in Fraser’s Magazine in 1842 (vol.25, p.317).  In A Sketch of Scottish Diablerie in general the writer observed that most people feel that they imitate human feasts and pastimes in “fiendish mockery” and for some “hellish purpose.”

In this light, an isolated incident in Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing Fairies acquires more meaning and significance.  A Mrs J. Hanley recalled an incident that had occurred when she was a young woman of eighteen.  Walking in the mountains near Bettws-y-coed in North Wales, she had the sensation that she was being followed and turned around.  She saw:

“a little man about two feet high, who looked rather as if he had been put together out of sticks or the twisty roots of gorse.  He seemed too me to be swaggering along, mocking us, I think, as a small boy might so.”

She turned to her companion to point out the extraordinary sight, but the being vanished at that moment (of course).  Nevertheless, she retained the feeling that she and her friend were being watched by several unseen observers and were “the objects of derision.” (p.24)

This is not the only such experience recorded in Johnson’s book.  Other witnesses detected a derisive tone in voices or in the way that fairies laughed at them- although sometimes this amusement may have been merely teasing or even sympathetic. (Johnson pp.25, 58, 68 & 90)

From time to time, fairy contempt for humankind breeds overconfidence.  This can be seen in the ‘Rumpelstiltskin’ class of stories, in which a fairy being holds power over an individual so long as his name can’t be discovered. Contemptuous of the human’s ability to guess the name, the supernatural uses it to himself- and is, of course, overheard.

Why should the fairies have this attitude towards us?  Scottish fairy poet James Hogg may offer part of the explanation.  He was told by shepherd William Laidlaw that he had met with fairies in the Ettrick Forest. Their wild unearthly eyes had-

“turned every one upon him at the same moment and he had heard their mysterious whisperings, of which he knew no word, save now and then the repetition of his name, which was always done with a strain of pity.” (‘Odd characters’ in Shepherd’s Calendar, 1829).

Perhaps this explains the fairy attitude.  Humans are short-lived, they lack magical powers and they spend their time working hard to win the means to live. Compared to the carefree fairy lifestyle, it must seem a comically pitiable existence, hectic with unceasing toil and prematurely ended.  In this context, it’s highly instructive to reread the recollections of Welsh boy Elidyr, who visited faery in the twelfth century.  He recalled to Gerald of Wales that the fairy folk he met had only contempt for humans’ ambition, infidelity and inconstancy.  Later he tried to steal a golden ball from his supernatural hosts; they recovered it from him with expressions of scorn, contempt and derision.  The encounters described above all appear to be modern instances of the same responses.

Further Reading

See my new book, Faery, published by Llewellyn International in March 2020 and see too my previous posts on faery relations with humankind and the overall fairy temperament and attitudes.

For more on the impact of Faery on music, see my 2022 book The Faery Faith in British Music which is available from Amazon, either as an e-book (£5.95) or a paperback (£7.95).

iro- f banquet

Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, A fairy banquet

8 thoughts on “Laughing gnome- the faery attitude to humans

  1. I’m not a religious person, but to play Deity’s advocate perhaps the fae have contempt for us because, like the fallen angels, they envy our gift of free will. By imitating us, perhaps they seek to discover how to obtain that virtue for themselves.


  2. Fairies in different guises have been around far longer and cited in cultures right around the world long before Christianity ever arrived so why assume fae must accord with the constrictions of a monotheistic world-view or that they can be equated to fallen angels or that they somehow lack free will when there is no evidence for such conjecture. Better to think of fae as denizens of some alternate reality or dimension, or a different order of being, that crosses over into our own rather than some sort of demoted Christian devils. Given the greed, contempt, disregard and evil intentions that humans commonly display towards each other and other living creatures, and the destruction we cause in the environment, no wonder fae treat humans with such contempt and ridicule.


    1. I tend to agree that attempts to fit faery into a hierarchy including angels and demons is a fairly recent product of a Christian world view. In fact, it seems that it’s very much a post-Reformation trend: the Catholic church before the mid-sixteenth century had been more accommodating, but when the new sects began to take a much more literal reading of the Bible, the problem of fitting in faeries arose. This period is dealt with very well in chapter 6 of ‘Scottish Fairy Belief’ by Henderson and Cowan. For a couple of hundred years there were many books produced trying to fit the fairies into the Bible in some way- some of which I’ve used myself from time to time. However, I prefer to view faery as an autonomous world operating independently of our philosophies.


  3. Agreed. No matter where you go, be it fairies in England or Jinn in the Middle East or Puckwudgies of North America or the many aboriginal spirits reported here in Australian mythology, there are always accounts of beings or little people from some other autonomous world that intersects with our own own dimension, beings who share many similar features and behaviours to that reported of fairies. Like you said, even the medieval Catholic Church was far more accomodating of the notion of fairies and other realms of being besides our own, so too the existence of revenants and celestial spirits that got about in skyships and occasionally descended to Earth. But with the Reformation and rise of puritanical Protestantism, all such beings were relegated to the demonic realm and fairies became pitiable devilish imps desperately in need of a soul and craving to be like mankind. An interesting parallel today is that fundamentalist Christians do not believe in the existence of extraterrestrial beings and therefore any reports of alien encounters or UFO sightings by necessity are no more than machinations of the Devil.


  4. That’s all well and good, but religious interpretations are a fundamental aspect of folklore, the beliefs of a people, whether Christian or Pre-Christian. They should all be taken into account when tracking how these beliefs might have come into existence in the first place and formed a tradition. For the serious student of folkloristics to reject these aspects based on personal bias and belief in fairies would, to me at least, be intellectually dishonest if one wants to arrive at a more complete, objective picture of a people’s worldview.


    1. Dan

      I think it’s quite correct to say that religious belief (almost overwhelmingly Christian in Western European countries) has shaped folklore beliefs. What I sometimes think is lost is a sense of chronology. It’s easy (and I’ve certainly be guilty of this) to see records of fairy belief as a homogeneous block that has been passed down to us. The truth is, it’s not: it’s an evolving idea that responds to a range of stimuli: changes in the nature of Christian belief is one, as are economic and social developments. It’s wisest for all statements of fairy belief to be analysed for their time and context: a very simple example might be the evidence of Scottish witch suspects subjected to the inquisition of the Presbyterian church, contrasted to the beliefs of Catholic highlanders and, equally, of Catholic Irish witnesses.


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