I’ve written before about fairy sports. Here I’d like to highlight some more light-hearted- though perhaps no less competitive- faery pastimes. Both the examples come from the work of fairy poet Michael Drayton.
Firstly, a game we all will know. In the Sixth Nymphal of The Muse’s Elisium, woodman Silvius describes:
“The Dryads, Hamadryads, the Satyres and the Fawnes
Oft play at Hyde and Seeke before me on the Lawnes,
The frisking Fayry oft when horned Cinthia shines
Before me as I walke dance wanton Matachynes…”
The ‘matachin’ is a sixteenth century sword dance related to the modern English morris dance (and it may be worthwhile noting that in Household Tales of 1895, Sidney Addy states that, at Curbar in Derbyshire, the fairies were dancing morris dances whenever they were sighted by locals). As for ‘hide and seek,’ this is perhaps the earliest reference to this still popular children’s game.
Rather more mysterious are two other allusions made by Drayton in The Muse’s Elisium:
“And whilst the Nimphes that neare this place,
Disposed were to play
At Barly-breake and Prison-base,
Doe passe the time away:”
This passage is in the The First Nymphal; in the Third Nymphal we read these lines:
“At Barly-breake they play
Merrily all the day,
At night themselves they lay
Upon the soft leaves.”
What’s more, in the first book of Poly-Olbion, Drayton also mentions these games:
“The wanton Wood-Nymphs mixt with her light-footed Fawnes,
To lead the rurall routs about the goodly Lawnds,
As over Holt and Heath, as thorough Frith and Fell;
And oft at Barly-breake, and Prison-base, to tell
(In carrolds as they course) each other all the joyes…”
“The frisking fairies there, as on the light air borne,
Oft run at barley break upon the ears of corn,
And catching drops of dew in their lascivious chaces,
Do cast the liquid pearle in one another’s faces.”
Here we have references to two apparently related games, neither of which immediately sound very familiar today. Barley-break is mentioned very often in Tudor and Stuart poetry and plays, which must attest to its contemporary popularity as a game for young couples (although it seems it could also refer to a circle dance- or the game could partly comprise dancing).
The nature of the game barley-break was, luckily, described at great length for us by Sir Philip Sydney in his Arcadia (I, 158), from which this is only an excerpt:
“Then couples three be straight allotted there
They of both ends the middle two do fly;
The two that in the mid place Hell called were,
Must strive, with waiting foot and watching eye,
To catch of them, and them to Hell to bear,
That they, as well as they, Hell may supply.”
Three couples play, with one pair confined to a central area called Hell. The others have dare to get as near to Hell as possible, without being caught by one of the middle pair. The catchers are required to hold hands at all times, but the other pairs can separate in order to stay free. The game is over when all pairs have been caught and had a spell in Hell.
That barley-break might be a suitable pastime for supernatural woodland beings is confirmed by Richard Braithwaite’s play, A Strappado for the Divell (1615):
“Wood-haunting satyrs now their minions seeke,
And having found them, play at barley-breake,
Where delight makes the night short (though long) …”
Meanwhile, the game called ‘base, originally ‘Prison Bars,’ is a closely related activity. Two parties, holding hands, face each other, and the aim is to catch an opponent who tries to run towards the opposite side’s base. Thus, in Henry Chettle’s Tragedy of Hoffman- or, A Revenge for a Father (1602), Lucibella tells Ferdinand:
“Doe but stand here, I’ll run a little course
At base, or barley-break, or some such toye,
To catch the fellow, and come backe againe…”
In essence, both games are a sort of ‘tag.’ They stress the lively, physical and team-oriented nature of faery games. Spenser in The Faery Queen mentions this aspect of ‘base’:
“So ran they all as they had been at bace,
They being chased, that did others chace.” (V, viii, 5)
The Legend of St Gregory of the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century gives us even more of an insight into the game:
“He wende in a day to plawe [play]
As the children don atte bars [i.e. at prison base]
A cours he took with a felawe,
Gregorie the swiftere was,
After him he leop pas wel gode,
With honden seyseth with skept [skill?]
That other was unblithe of mode [in an unhappy mood]
For tene [grief] of heart sore he wepte
And ran home as he wer wode [mad].”
In short, fairy games were energetic and exciting- just like their dancing and they were an excuse for young people to enjoy physical exercise and close contact with each other. Given the known sensuous nature of faery kind, this is just what we might expect.
See my recently released book, Faery, for more discussion of fairy leisure and entertainment.
Michael Aislabie Denham (1801-1859) was an English merchant and collector of folklore. In the early part of his life he conducted his business in Hull; later he set up as a general merchant at Piercebridge, Co. Durham. He collected all sorts of local lore- sayings, songs and folktales- much of which he self-published. After his death many of his works were collected together and republished by the newly established Folklore Society as ‘The Denham Tracts.’
Denham recorded many valuable scraps of material. One of the most fascinating, found in the second volume of the Tracts, is this list of fairies and evil spirits. He drew upon a list already compiled by Reginald Scot in The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584), perhaps supplementing this with another list found in George Gascoigne’s play The Buggbears (1565), and then adding many additional terms of his own, to produce this encyclopaedic inventory.
“Grose observes, too, that those born on Christmas Day cannot see spirits; which is another incontrovertible fact. What a happiness this must have been seventy or eighty years ago and upwards, to those chosen few who had the good luck to be born on the eve of this festival of all festivals; when the whole earth was so overrun with ghosts, boggles, bloody-bones, spirits, demons, ignis fatui, brownies, bugbears, black dogs, spectres, shellycoats, scarecrows, witches, wizards, barguests, Robin-Goodfellows, hags, night-bats, scrags, breaknecks, fantasms, hob- goblins, hobhoulards, boggy-boes, dobbies, hob-thrusts, fetches, kelpies, warlocks, mock-beggars, mum-pokers, Jemmy-burties, urchins, satyrs, pans, fauns, sirens, tritons, centaurs, calcars, nymphs, imps, incubusses, spoorns, men-in- the-oak, hell-wains, fire-drakes, kit-a-can-sticks, Tom-tumblers, melch-dicks, larrs, kitty-witches, hobby-lanthorns, Dick-a-Tuesdays, Elf-fires, Gyl-burnt-tails, knockers, elves, raw- heads, Meg-with-the-wads, old-shocks, ouphs, pad-foots, pixies, pictrees, giants, dwarfs, Tom-pokers, tutgots, snapdragons, sprats, spunks, conjurers, thurses, spurns, tantarrabobs, swaithes, tints, tod-lowries, Jack-in-the-Wads, mormos, changelings, redcaps, yett-hounds, colt-pixies, Tom-thumbs, black-bugs, boggarts, scar-bugs, shag- foals, hodge-pochers, hob-thrushes, bugs, bull-beggars, bygorns, bolls, caddies, bomen, brags, wraithes, waffs, flay-boggarts, fiends, gallytrots, imps, gytrashes, patches, hob-and-lanthorns, gringes, boguests, bonelesses, Peg-powlers, pucks, fays, kidnappers, gally-beggars, hudskins, nickers, madcaps, trolls, robinets, friars’ lanthorns, silkies, cauld-lads, death-hearses, goblins, hob-headlesses, buggaboes, kows or cowes, nickies, nacks, [necks] waiths, miffies, buckles, gholes, sylphs, guests, swarths, freiths, freits, gy -carlins [Gyre-carling], pigmies, chittifaces, nixies, Jinny-burnt-tails, dudmen, hell-hounds, dopple-gangers, boggleboes, bogies, redmen, portunes, grants, hobbits, hobgoblins, brown-men, cowies, dunnies, wirrikows, alholdes, mannikins, follets, korreds, lubberkins, cluricanns, kobolds, leprechauns, kors, mares, korreds, puckles, korigans, sjlvans, succubuses, black-men, shadows, banshees, lian-banshees, clabbernappers, Gabriel-hounds, mawkins, doubles, corpse lights or candles, scrats, mahounds, trows, gnomes, sprites, fates, fiends, sybils, nick-nevins, whitewomen, fairies, thrummy-caps, cutties and nisses, and apparitions of every shape, make, form, fashion, kind and description, that there was not a village in England that had not its own peculiar ghost. Nay, every lone tenement, castle, or mansion-house, which could boast of any antiquity had its bogle, its spectre, or its knocker. The churches, churchyards, and cross-roads, were all haunted. Every green lane had its boulder-stone on which an apparition kept watch at night. Every common had its circle of fairies belonging to it. And there was scarcely a shepherd to be met with who had not seen a spirit! [See Literary Gazette, December 1848, p.849]”
This is a daunting catalogue, impressive (intimidating even) in its length and detail, and a little depressing in the sense that so many of the names now seem unfamiliar. It’s clear how very rich the British fairy tradition once was, and how much has been lost in the last two hundred years.
Names We Know
In this discussion, I’d like to try to edit and order Denham’s rambling, and sometimes repetitive, list. It’s possible, I think, to bring a greater sense of organisation to this jumble of names, the result of which will be (I believe) a clearer sense of the nature of British fairydom. I’ll start by rejecting the words we know perfectly well, like brownies, hobgoblins and dobbies, Robin Goodfellow and puck (and puckle), knockers, pixies, elves/ ouphs, urchins, gnomes, changelings, dwarfs and the trows of Shetland and Orkney. All of these have already had plentiful discussion on this blog.
Words I’ll Ignore
I’ll also reject foreign and/or classical material: the satyrs, pans, fauns, sirens, lars, tritons, centaurs, and nymphs; the continental kobolds, korrigans, foletti, and trolls; the Irish leprechauns and clurichauns. There are also a number of general magical or spirit related terms included that we can safely ignore: calcars (calkers or conjurors), sybils, wizards and witches. Quite a few names for the devil have been excluded, too, such as mahound (a medieval derivation from Mohammed) and tantarrabob, and I’ve passed over a range of words that seem to denote demons or evil spirits, such as imp, spurn/ spoorn, Tom-tumbler, miffies, freiths and freits and mares (as in nightmares).
There is a class of ghostly or ghoulish being included in the list that doesn’t really belong with faeries and goblins. These are the fetches, the spirit or double of a dying person, which are also called swaithes, wraithes, waffs, waiths and dopplegangers. Although there is a definite crossover between apparitions of the dead and the Faery, these entities are distinct from faeries. Denham’s thrummy-caps, and corpse lights or candles, belong in this category too. The death-hearses and hell-wains are what we’d call headless coachmen today, I think, although it’s worth noting in passing that ‘Hellwain’ was used as the name of a witch’s familiar by Christopher Middleton in his play The Witch (Act I, scene 2), in a speech by Hecate which makes direct allusion to the notorious trial of the withes of St Osyth in Essex in 1582. Other familiars invoked in this scene are Puckle and Robin (see the previous paragraph) and Pidgen, who strongly echoes the fairy Pigwiggen in Drayton’s Nymphidia.
Other ghost-like apparitions include scrags, break-necks, spectres, sprats (spirits or sprites) and kitty-witches. With these I have also included the northern ‘silkies’ and ‘cauld-lads’, although in fact these ghost-like beings can be hybrid creatures, possessing several of the characteristics of brownies as well as sometimes acting as a guardian in spirit or, conversely, as a bogle. The best known silky is that of Black Heddon in Northumberland and the most famous Cauld Lad was found at Hilton in the same county.
Denham also included in his inventory the names of supernatural creatures that very evidently aren’t fairies. There are giants, but also snapdragons, and fire-drakes. Fire-breathing serpents plainly don’t have any place in Faery.
A few final odds and ends remain. Denham’s word ‘tutgot’ is not a noun, but an adjective- it means someone who has been seized or possessed by a ‘tut,’ a sort of Lincolnshire goblin. ‘Chittiface’ means baby-faced; perhaps it was a sort of nursery bogie; the ‘gringe’ possibly is related to ‘grinch,’ which means a small thing- another small fiend perhaps. A hudskin is a foolish or clownish fellow (in the Lincolnshire dialect); perhaps it’s in the list for the same reason that madcaps and patches were included. A clabbernapper appears to be nothing more than a gossip; a ‘scrat’ is a Northern dialect term for a hermaphrodite. From these last entries, it looks as though he also included some insults or derogatory terms.
This pruning performed, we can then start to sort out the list that remains. Pre-industrial Britain was teeming with supernatural beings as we can tell, and Denham was possibly right to pity the person who possessed the second sight and who would have been afflicted by visions of hosts of faeries and goblins on all sides. In particular, Denham mentions that those born at Christmas would have had this ability: other days or times of day are also auspicious, such as Sundays or early in the morning.
Boggarts and Bogles
There is a large number of goblin-like beings listed, whose main attribute will be terrifying travellers and those visiting certain locations. Sir Walter Scott characterised these creatures very well as “freakish spirit[s], who delight rather to perplex and frighten mankind than either to serve or seriously to hurt them.” They include boggles, bugbears, boggy-boes, boggleboes, bogies, bugs, bull-beggars, bygorns, bolls, caddies, bomen, boguests, buckles, buggaboes, black-bugs, cutties (female bogles, from Scotland and the Border region), hobhoulards, tints, hodge-pokers, alholds, swarths and black-men (dark entities), mormos, dudmen and scar-bugs. One thing that Denham’s enumeration emphasises is the fact that the element ‘bug’ or ‘bogey’ is particularly applied to these beings- and not just in English, but in Welsh, Gaelic and many other Indo-European languages as well. What we can’t be certain about is how very different these many sprites may have been: Denham has indiscriminately thrown together names taken from all over Britain. Many are very local, meaning that many fewer actual types of bogey may have been identified by our ancestors than this long tally suggests.
Needless to say, the terminology is also not scientifically precise. For example, Denham’s ‘flay-boggarts’ are really a sort of domesticated spirit like a brownie or hobgoblin. They are boggarts, whom we would normally regard as unfriendly, but they live and work on farms like brownies, receiving food and drink in return for their considerable labours. Their willingness to undertake the hardest chores, such as threshing grain, is reflected in the name: the ‘flay-boggart’ is one with a flail, at work in the barn.
Another special category of boggart may be the phantasmal beasts that appear to terrify users of the highway or near certain landmarks such as churches. Amongst these are the numerous black dogs, barguests, old-shocks, pad-foots, pictrees and brags, shag-foals, kows or cowes, gytrashes, grants, gallytrots and gally-beggars. These creatures will appear at night in the form of hounds, calves, cows, donkeys, horses and large shaggy dark beasts of uncertain genus.
The black hounds just mentioned need to be distinguished from those types of hound that fly through the air and often foretell or mark a death. These include Denham’s Gabriel-hounds, yett-hounds and hell-hounds.
Wills of the Wisp
The phenomenon of the spirit light or ignis fatuus that leads people out of their way at night, getting them lost or luring them into bogs, is well-known across Britain and has attracted a variety of colourful local names. Denham uncovered many of these: hobby-lanthorns, Dick-a-Tuesdays, elf-fires, Gyl-burnt-tails, kit-a-can-sticks, Jinny-burnt-tails, Jack-in-the-Wads, friars’ lanthorns, Meg-with-the-wads, hob-and-lanthorns, spunks and Jemmy-burties.
Nursery and Cautionary Sprites
As I recently discussed in my post on Jenny Greenteeth, these creatures exist mainly to scare incautious or recalcitrant children into behaving better and/ or staying away from perilous places such as ponds and riverbanks. They include bloody-bones, raw-heads, Tom-pokers, hob-headlesses, mum-pokers, bonelesses and tod-lowries. Some of these sprites guard orchards and nut groves, amongst whom we reckon the melch-dicks and colt-pixies.
Denham enumerates quite a few fresh water spirits, living in rivers and pools. These include nisses and nixies, Peg-powlers, nickies and nacks. In this connection he quotes a verse from Keightley’s Fairy Mythology:
“Know you the nixies, gay and fair?
Their eyes are black, and green their hair,
They lurk in sedgy waters.”
The ‘white women’ he mentions frequently are spirits believed to be female that haunt springs and wells.
There are some Scots beings in the list, such as the hags nick-nevin and the gyre carlin. Scottish Highland creatures also appear, which include kelpies, shellycoats (a Lowland fresh-water bogle), banshees and lhiannan-shees (the fairy lovers). This more sexual sort of supernatural also includes the incubus and succubus.
There are lastly, some individually named fairy types who deserve a little separate mention:
Dunnies are is a small brownie-like beings found on the Scottish borders, and especially in Northumberland. The most famous is the Hazlerigg Dunnie which has been known to take the form of a horse in order to trick a rider into mounting him, before galloping off and tipping the horseman in a bog. The dunnie is also said to disguise itself as a plough-horse, only to vanish when the ploughman takes him into the stable;
Men-in-the-oak– there are scattered traditional references to this class of faery being. Whether they are a separate class, or just an alternative name for faeries found living in oak woods, is not clear. The ‘pucks’ were known to have frequented such forests, for example (see my Fairy Ballads), but more recently the oak-men have emerged as an independent fairy tribe, as in Beatrix Potter’s Fairy Caravan (1929);
Redcaps– wearing a red cap is a tell-tale sign of a faery across the British Isles, but Denham was probably thinking here of the ‘redcap’ of the Scottish Borders, a malevolent goblin said to dye its headwear in the blood of its victims;
Tom-thumbs– in the seventeenth century Tom Thumb was a small elf well-known to people in ballads and rhymes. Since then, he has been caught up by romance and fairy-tale and has lost almost all his supernatural nature. See my discussion of this in Fayerie;
Hobbits– Denham gives us a fascinating and isolated mention of these beings. We know nothing more about them from British tradition, but a sharp-eyed young professor spotted the word at some point during the 1920s, and the rest is history…; and,
Redmen: these are small, solitary elves of Northamptonshire, often found living near wells or in dells. If caught, he can lead his captor to his hidden hoard of gold.
Denham’s list is a disorganised heap of names but, as can be seen, with a little effort it can be organised to reveal the richness of British faerylore and the many and varied categories of fairy being that have been recognised, with their different habitats and habits. Although confirmation probably wasn’t wanting, all of this only goes to underline how complex British Faery is. One of the Manx witnesses interviewed by Evans Wentz, John Davies of Ballasalla, told him that “There are as many kinds of fairies as populations in our world.” Even when it has been edited and ordered, Denham’s list demonstrates how right Davies was.
I explore all of these further in my books Faeryand (especially) in Beyond Faery (forthcoming) which examines in detail the full range of faery beasts, goblins and hags.
In the Miller’s Tale, in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the author has carpenter Robyn pronounce this blessing over the student, Nicholas:
“I crouche thee from elves and fro wightes.”
Therwith the nyght-spel seyde he anon-rightes
On foure halves of the hous aboute,
And on the tresshfold of the dore withoute:
“Jhesu Crist and seinte Benedight,
Blesse this hous from every wikked wight,
For nyghtes verye, the white pater-noster!”
Robyn recites a standard formula, seemingly, blessing and protecting the house against both elves and ‘wights.’
What’s a Wight?
What is this strange term that is used as sort of equivalent to elves? A wight (wicht in Scots) can either be a human or some supernatural being, typically of the fairy family. Used to describe people like us, it will be encountered in such phrases as “living wight,” “earthly wight” or “mortal wight.” However, the word can also be found in such phrases as “uneardlie [unearthly] wights” (trial of Stephen Maltman, Gargunnock, 1628).
When applied to supernaturals, the term can encompass ghosts as well as a range of other spirits. For example, Robert of Gloucester (1260-1300) in his chronicle of English history described “As a maner gostes, wiȝtes as it be.”
The main significance, however, is fairies, as is clear from Richard Baxter’s The Certainty of the World of Spirits, published in 1625:
“We are not fully certain whether those Aerial Regions have not a third sort of wights that are neither Angels (Good or Fallen) nor souls of Men, and whether these called Fairies and Goblins are not such.”
What, more than the fact that we are discussing fairies, does the word tell us? Firstly, we might remark that ‘wightling’ means a puppet, so that there may be some sense of a tiny being implied. It does not appear, however, that the word in itself has any sense of either good or bad. Both types of fairy can be called ‘wights.’
Scottish witch suspect Bessie Dunlop, who was tried in 1576, had an intermediary, a deceased man called Thom Reid, who put her in touch with the fairies. One time he introduced her to a group of a dozen men and women whom he told her were “gude wychtis that wynnit [lived] in the Court of Elfame.” Another time he showed her a group of mounted men that were “gude wichtis that wer rydand [riding] in Middil-ȝerd [Middle Earth].” The Reverend Robert Kirk, in the Secret Commonwealth, referred to the fairies as “subterranean wights” and “invisible wights,” beings who caused a nuisance with their pranks but who were not malicious. (Kirk, Secret Commonwealth, c.12 & ‘Succinct Accompt’ c.8)
This situation is summarised in a traditional Scottish rhyme:
“Gin ye ca’ me imp or elf
I rede ye look weel to yourself;
Gin ye call me fairy
I’ll work ye muckle tarrie;
Gind guid neibour ye ca’ me
Then guid neibour I will be;
But gin ye ca’ me seelie wicht
I’ll be your freend baith day and nicht.” (see my Fairy Ballads)
What’s fascinating about this is the distinction that’s made between “elf or imp,” which are bad, and a “seelie wicht,” a ‘good wight.’ These positive definitions are crowned by a reference in Gavin Douglas’ Aeneid to “hevinly wightis.” When Bartie Paterson of Dalkeith (tried as a witch in 1607) advised a patient to back up the ointment made of green herbs he’d been given with a prayer to Jesus and all “leving wychtis above and under earth,” we have to presume that Bartie believed those wights to be good and, for that matter, godly, beings.
Frustratingly, this neat dichotomy is illusory, because ‘wicht’ can imply a malign fairy just as much as a good one. Wicked wights are as likely to be members of the ‘unseelie court’ as to be benign. Emphasising how slippery and imprecise the usage can be, we have this remark from the trial of Margaret Sandiesoun on Orkney in April 1635 for witchcraft and sorcery. She was reported to have refused to try to cure a sickly child because “he was takin away be the guid wichtis in the cradle.” The baby has been abducted- so calling the fairies ‘good’ is clearly force of habit, and a nervous deference, and bears no accurate relationship to their actual behaviour.
We meet the seelie and unseelie court again in a lecture given by William Hay in 1564 in which he warned that:
“there are certain women who do say that they have dealings with Diana the queen of fairies. There are others who say that the fairies are demons, and deny having any dealings with them, and say that they hold meetings with a countless multitude of simple women whom they call in our tongue ‘celly vichtys’ [seelie wichts].”
For example, in 1661 a midwife from Dalkeith in Midlothian admitted that, when women were in childbed, she would place a knife under the mattress, sprinkle the bed with salt and then pray for God to “let never a worse wight waken thee…” A woman called Margaret Dickson of Pencaitland in 1643 treated a changeling child who had been taken by “evill wichts.” Edinburgh woman Jonet Boyman in 1572 explained to a family that their child had died because the “sillyie wichts” had found it unsained [unblessed] one day and had blasted it. Lastly, Gargunnock folk healer Stephen Maltman appeared before a church court in 1626 and admitted that he had told a woman how to prevent ‘earthly and unearthly wights’ stealing the milk from her cows.
The dual meaning of the term is underlined by the Reverend Kirk, who also wrote in his book about “fearful wights” and “furious hardie wights,” from whom people might protect themselves with iron. Writing around the same time as Kirk, George Sinclair in Satan’s Invisible World Discovered made reference to prayers for protection from an “ill wight.” (Kirk, Secret Commonwealth, chapters 15, 12 & 4)
Lastly, underlining all these negative associations, in 1836 Robert Allan in Evening Hours bravely declared: “O, what care I for warlock wights,/ Or bogles in the glen at e’en.”
For more on the Darker Side of Faery natures, see my 2021 book:
In one of the very first posts on this blog, I discussed the use of faeries in the verse of English poet John Keats (1795-1821). Here I’m going to focus on one of his greatest poems, and one of the greatest fairy poems of all. I want to examine its meaning and how it has inspired other works of art.
Here’s the text of Keats’ poem, which was written in 1819:
O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.
O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
And the harvest’s done.
I see a lily on thy brow,
With anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.
I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful—a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.
I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan
I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long,
For sidelong would she bend, and sing
A faery’s song.
She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild, and manna-dew,
And sure in language strange she said—
‘I love thee true’.
She took me to her Elfin grot,
And there she wept and sighed full sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four.
And there she lullèd me asleep,
And there I dreamed—Ah! woe betide!—
The latest dream I ever dreamt
On the cold hill side.
I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—‘La Belle Dame sans Merci
Thee hath in thrall!’
I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gapèd wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill’s side.
And this is why I sojourn here,
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.
Like many faery writers and painters, Keats immediately locates his poem in the past: we have a knight riding on horse-back- we know we’re in the Middle Ages, when faeries were much nearer to people than today (or so we always say- see my previous post on this perpetual relegation of the faes to the previous generation). Simultaneously, the medieval context gives Keats’ verse an extra weight and authority. He’s placing himself alongside Malory, Spenser and other poets who’ve written about faery themes, adding to the ‘authenticity’ of what he writes.
Then we meet the faery woman- and she is everything that I’ve described in preceding posts on this blog: she’s beautiful, she’s sexually appealing, she’s also unearthly and deadly. Instantly, it would seem, the knight falls under her spell: making garlands for her in most un-knightly fashion, bearing her on his horse and becoming obsessed entirely with her. She sings to him- and this seems to be part of the spell that she works. Her alien nature is betrayed by her every aspect: her strange speech, her songs, her wild looks. Yet despite these warning signs, and the precipitate nature of their declared love for each other, the knight abandons caution and submits without resistance to her charms.
Two fateful incidents follow quickly. Firstly, the knight eats the food the fairy woman prepares for him; as I have described, consumption of fairy food – and the partaking of fairy nature that comes with it- can often have dire consequences for the human. Secondly, (although Keats is circumspect about this, given the date and style of his poem) the knight has sex with the fae woman in her ‘grot’- her cave or underground home. He has doubly surrendered his body to her power now.
The consequence of the knight’s close contact with faery nature is serious. He dreams his ‘latest,’ his last, dream and (it would seem) he finds himself no longer in the faery woman’s cave but abandoned and alone on a hillside-a common conclusion to stories of fairy encounters: the glamour evaporates and the human is left solitary and bewildered in the wilderness. The knight sees visions of those who have before him fallen under the faery’s spell and he is warned- far too late- of the peril he was in. These cautions are useless to him now, though: he is either ‘elf-addled‘- made sick by his intimate association with the faery- or he is, in fact, dead. The others, certainly, are starved with gaping mouths, and the hapless knight is left ‘alone and palely loitering,’ looking fevered and haggard. He cannot return to or settle back to his earthly life, he cannot escape the fairy woman’s ‘thrall.’ In this state of exile or alienation from his former condition, the knight closely resembles the fairy-abductee Kilmeny, of James Hogg’s nearly contemporary poem of the same name. After her visit to Faery and her return to our world:
“But all the land were in fear and dread,
For they kendna [knew not] whether she was living or dead.
It wasna her hame, and she couldna remain;” (Hogg, Kilmeny, 1813)
Keats’ Belle Dame epitomises some of the aspects of Faery we often downplay. It is common in folklore accounts to find faeries, and mermaids too, taking advantage of humans for their own benefit. This can frequently have dire implications for the human involved, ranging from subjection to terminal decline; the best that might be said of these cases is that the outcome may not be intentional- the fairies’ solipsistic nature may simply fail to register the impact on the mortal party. However, there are plenty of traditional examples of supernatural beings- ranging from boggarts and goblins through to kelpies- whose deliberate aim is to cause harm and injury. Keats’ Belle Dame is one of these- we need look no further than the title of the poem to know this, of course: she is ‘sans merci,’ without mercy.
As the illustrations to this posting demonstrate, Keats’ poem has inspired successive generations of artists. Two stages of the poem are illustrated: either the knight succumbing to the charms of the maiden, or the aftermath of his deadly seduction. The version of this by Frank Cadogan Cowper (1877-1959), an English painter often called the ‘last Pre-Raphaelite’ for his richly coloured historical and legendary paintings which regularly feature captivating, fay-like women, shows the faery maiden arranging her hair whilst the knight lies prostrate before her. She looks wonderfully, callously unconcerned, sitting on the river bank in her glorious dress patterned with red poppies. The blooming poppies that surround the couple suggest a possible origin for his unconsciousness. Henry Meynell Rheam (1859-1920), depicts a similar scene, except that ghostly figures of previous victims are shown hovering behind the rather self-satisfied looking faery. Other artists have focused instead the irresistible allure of the fairy maid, who seems superficially pretty and defenceless. Frank Dicksee’s painting perhaps best encapsulates this first stage of the poem. The fascination of Keats’ work persists even today, as we see from the two canvases by US based fantasy artist, Marc Fishman (b.1971). He emphasises the dangerous sexual allure of the fae woman, with her gauzy, see-through gowns and her wild, perfumed, intoxicating hair. Her emergence from a pool in the first of these also links her to the deadly meremaids I have discussed in the past.
Lastly, the Mediaeval Baebeshave arranged the poem to music, in a haunting rendition (they have done the same too for Kilmeny, and for the Scots ballad of Tam Lin for that matter). For a more general discussion of fairy themes and iconography in nineteenth century poetry, see my recent book, Victorian Fairy Verse. For a detailed examination of the psychological and physical effects of faery contact, see my recently published Faery.
Readers will be very familiar with Brian Froud’s fairy art from books such as Faeries and Good Faeries/ Bad Faeries. Here I want to examine what he believes about the subjects he paints- and how that may influence his creative process.
Froud- and his artistic partner Alan Lee- first came to public attention as ‘faery experts’ with the publication of the illustrated book, Faeries, in 1978. It has been through several editions since, including a twenty-fifth anniversary issue, and the illustrations have for many become synonymous with representations of Faery. This is understandable- there is something very immediate and ‘real’ about their vision of fairies: they are wild and often ugly. Although the two artists portrayed naked and attractive female fairies, including quite young juveniles, as often (if not more frequently) there are mature and deformed beings, hybrids of animals and humans, pixies with malicious faces and sharp fangs, a host of barely human humanoids. The nakedness then serves to emphasise their wild, untamed natures- it isn’t sexual but feral.
Writing in her Introduction to the anniversary edition, Betty Ballantine described faeries as “alien creatures with values and ethics far removed from mankind: they do not think and, most notably, they do not feel, the way that humans do. This is precisely the core of much of their envy of mortals and a source of a good deal of the trouble they cause…” She concluded: “Faerie is a world of dark enchantments, of captivating beauty, of enormous ugliness, of callous superficiality, of humour, mischief, joy and inspiration, of terror, laughter, love and tragedy.” These lines summarise Froud and Lee’s vision exactly.
In his own preface to the anniversary edition, Brian Froud underlined that he and Lee had “wanted to be as true to the subject as possible and to portray fairies as they really are. So, we went back to the original source material and folklore description.” This is the real value of the book Faeries. It is a very attractive ‘coffee-table’ volume to flick through and admire the illustrations, but the text is a faithful abbreviation of the folklore- although the two artists drew their material from across Europe, mixing up British, Irish and continental faes quite indiscriminately.
Froud continued: “we started to produce page after page of wizened faces with sharp little teeth, most of them up to no good. We were painting pictures of faeries with their original power reinstated, not just airy whimsy. We were being true to the fairies themselves and those who have bought the book have instinctively felt that honesty in every painting and drawing.” Here he identified the reader’s response that still draws us to the images, over four decades later. The fairyland of Faeries is sexy, menacing, beautiful, distorted; it is complex and imperfect, it mingles good and evil and, as such, it seems authentic.
Good Faeries, Bad Faeries
After the success of Faeries, Brian Froud became particularly closely associated with fairydom and that link has substantially shaped his career since the late 1970s. His other books include Goblins (1983), Lady Cottington’s Pressed Fairy Book (1994), Good Faeries, Bad Faeries (1998), The Faeries’ Oracle (2000) and Brian Froud’s World of Faerie (2007). With these he has steadily drifted further from the solid base of faerylore that gave Faeries its convincing authority and accuracy and he has increased the whimsy and invention.
In the original Preface to the 1978 book, it is declared that “Only one thing is certain- that nothing is certain. All things are possible in the land of Faerie.” This has more and more become the case for the later books, which are much more works of fantasy fiction than attempts to summarise folklore. Good Faeries, Bad Faeries is a very good example of this. It is a mix of pure personal invention with traditional material and has to be approached with some care as a ‘source’ book. As Froud says in the Preface to the ‘Good’ half of the book, it’s “about the magic in our lives today; it links faeries of the past with faeries of the present and future.” The artwork is still fantastic, but as he tells us “such images grow from my own inner journeys and daily contact with the faeries.” This new book is a product not so much of trips to the library but of undiluted imagination.
It seems clear to me that, since 1978, the artist has absorbed a lot of the more recent ideas about faeries- theories derived not from British folklore but from Theosophy, Spiritualism and from modern Paganism. For example, he states “they are shape shifters, highly mutable, for no faery or nature spirit has a fixed body. In their essence, faeries are abstract structures of flowing energy, formed of an astral matter…” To look at the faeries is “to look at the four elements to which they are aligned: earth, water, fire and air. Faeries are physical manifestations of these basic building blocks of creation and the spiritual custodians of all natural phenomena.” They are “agents of the cosmic mechanics that underlie our world… bringing us messages from the depths inside ourselves and from the cosmos.” They coalesce from “the pure consciousness of the world’s soul” gradually manifesting “in a form eloquent of function, moulded by emotion.” This is a man who’s been reading Geoffrey Hodson, Madame Blavatsky and Paracelsus. As I’ve indicated before, I’m more traditional in my approach to the subject, so I’m not so keen on these passages.
The faeries of Good Faeries, Bad Faeries have been ‘hippified’ too. No longer are they the potentially malicious beings of 1978: they are “agents of self-growth and transformation, embodiments of the healing energies that flow through nature and through ourselves.” Faeries are “a reflection of the inner nature of our souls;” theirs is “a land where wisdom is inseparable from whimsy and where leprechauns dance with angels.” We’re a long way here from the faeries who steal children and kill your cows…
Good Faeries, Bad Faeries is, in consequence, a curious mixture of traditional sprites, new age spirits and beings that are entirely made up by Brian Froud. He deals with such beings as hobs, piskies, grigs, muryans, bodachs, fideals, hobyahs and melsh dick; but also he describes sylphs, angels, undines, pans, fauns and- for some reason- a sphinx (?). He also offers us his own jokey beings, such as the rainbow faery, the buttered toast faery, the pen stealer and the foot fungus faery…
In summary, therefore, Faeries remains a classic and is a recommended book to have in your faery collection- it is attractive as well as genuinely informative. The later books are a delight to look at, but they can’t be treated as guides to Faery equivalent to the 1978 original.
Although I often stress the independent and contrary nature of faery kind, there is a class of spirits whose almost sole purpose seems to be to protect human food resources and to prevent children getting into mischief. Fairy expert Katharine Briggs often called these ‘nursery sprites‘ but this name suggests that they are only found inside houses- as indeed, some are, lurking in dark corners and empty rooms and scaring infants into going to bed and staying quiet, but some of these are found outside too (the pretty self-explanatory ‘Rawhead and Bloodybones’ being one such) and others only exist outside the nursery and the home- hence my preference for ‘cautionary sprites.’
Many of these spirits live in and around orchards and fruit patches, amongst them being Owd Goggie, Lazy Laurence, the Coltpexy and the Gooseberry Wife of the south of England. There is a particular concentration of these beings in the North West of England, however, which will be my focus in this posting. Incredibly large numbers of very local boggarts are recorded in Cheshire, Lancashire and Westmorland, and spill over the Pennine Hills into West Yorkshire and Derbyshire.
Guarding soft fruit and apples is more a southern activity, but further north nut groves are protected from the depredations of children, who are liable to steal the nuts and break the branches, by a range of sprites. We know of Churnmilk Peg, Melch Dick and Nut Nan, who guarded the hazels from theft with threats of burning naughty children with heated pokers. Peg was an old and very ugly hag, who sat in the groves around Malham in North Yorkshire, smoking a pipe. Her name derives from the hazels in their green state, when they’re called churn-milk. All she says is “Smoke! smoke a wooden pipe!/ Getting nuts before they’re ripe!” and if this doesn’t work, she’ll abduct the disobedient youths. Melsh Dick apparently derives his name from the same unripe, ‘mushy’ or ‘mulchy’ nuts; he too will make off with disobedient children. These figures are often assisted in their work by Clap-Cans, a being with no form or substance whose sole purpose is to scare away youngsters by beating on tins with sticks.
It is fascinating to see how the faery world has been recruited to safeguard humans’ assets. Normally, knowing their character, we might expect these supernaturals to be more likely to steal nuts than to defend them and we would certainly not anticipate any willingness to assist humans based upon their usual self-interested attitudes. Here, we must accept that we have encountered a more altruistic spirit.
The capacity in the North West to accept that some faeries will subdue their will entirely to that of the human community, and act wholly in its interests, has had a very curious impact upon the perceived character of the river spirit Jenny Greenteeth and her close relatives- Peg Powler in the Tees, Mary Hosies in the Avon in Lanarkshire, Jenny the Whinney on the Isle of Man, Grindylow Peg, Nelly Longarms, the Nok and many others (including the enigmatic Brook Calf and Star Nell). Traditionally, these rather nasty beings have had one purpose: to lurk in bodies of water and to try to snatch and kill the unwary- most commonly children. Victims will be drowned- but they may also be eaten: Grindylow Peg, for example, has iron teeth for this purpose. They may also be tortured horribly first.
For generations, children have been warned to stay away from stagnant ponds and pools, water-filled pits, mill dams, wells, springs and streams, because these are just the places where Jenny and her sisters wait, hidden perhaps under green weeds (and wearing their green caps), overhanging trees or projecting banks. They need only the slightest opportunity to dart forth, seize the unsuspecting infant and drag them beneath the surface. The floating vegetation closes again and no-one knows of or even suspects the tragedy that has taken place. In this respect, Jenny is very clearly another cautionary spirit. She has, however, experienced ‘mission creep’ in some very surprising ways.
As time has passed, Jenny seems to have infested new bodies of water: since the Industrial Revolution, she has also moved into canals, drainage ditches, culverts and tunnels- in other words, the inland waterways of the industrialised north-west . This, of course, makes perfect sense, for these man-made watercourses are just as perilous for the young as natural features. This change has brought her much more into built up areas, so that Jenny is now known in central Manchester as much as in the countryside. It seems, as well, that once she got used to the town, she expanded her operations further: Jenny has been said to lurk too in old buildings and cemeteries. We might be startled by this abandonment of her watery haunts, but then, in Cheshire she had long been known to lurk in trees in the absence of so many bodies of open water. Jenny has even accommodated herself to human dwellings, in her search for prey: she has been spotted lying in wait in outside toilets, at the top of unlit stairs, in darkened corners and, in Yorkshire, in that quintessential piece of architecture, the ‘coyl-oyl’ (or coal shed).
Not only has Jenny expanded the sites of her operations, she has widened her franchise to incorporate a much wider range of juvenile wrongs. Parents more recently have threatened Jenny’s intervention for far more than getting too near to the edge of a pond. She has started to encroach on the preserve of the nursery sprites, and has been said to punish bad behaviour- a refusal to go to bed, neglect of hair brushing and (most appositely) want of teeth brushing. It seems pretty obvious that some profound confusion has developed here over the exact of nature of Jenny’s green teeth. Her origin in slime covered pools has been forgotten, and it looks as though parents now scare their offspring by suggesting that they’ll end up with green fangs like Jen’s if they don’t pay attention to decent oral hygiene.
In her more recent manifestations there is increasingly little to distinguish Jenny from the host of other ‘nursery sprites,’ beings that include Tom Dockin, Tom Poker and Bannister Doll and then blur into a wider array of alarming boggarts and bogles, such as Bibler Dick, Jonny Cobler, Shagcalf and White Horse, Old Lobb or Lob-Thirst, various phantom dogs and (one of my favourites) the apparition called the Baum Rappit, a scary ghostly rabbit seen near the church in Rochdale. All of these bogies and hobgoblins have a primary function of giving us a shock- and very little more. To return to our starting point, however, Jinny Green-teeth is said to guard orchards around Saddleworth on the Lancashire slopes of the Pennines.
Jenny and the Meremaids
Jenny, meanwhile, has also encroached on the domain of the fresh water mermaids, the ‘meremaids‘ as I’ve termed them before. The fact of this overlap is unremarkable, given the almost identical habitats of each, yet the meremaids have always tended to have a wider scope of operations- at the very least, not being limited to terrifying children.
Several characteristics now applied to Jenny Greenteeth appear to have been transferred from the meremaids. These include appearing only at night, most especially at full moon, guarding buried treasure and (a motif taken from the spirits of larger rivers) claiming an annual sacrifice or tribute of one or more drowned victims.
Earlier, I mentioned how Churnmilk Peg is said to be a terribly ugly hag. Crossover or confusion between female spirits, hags and witches is not at all uncommon and I’ll conclude by noting that in one account, from Preston, Jenny Greenteeth is even said to be seen riding a broomstick.
The multitude of local bogies and sprites, for whom we only have scanty records now, along with their often overlapping activities, makes for fascinating study. I look at the orchard sprites again in my recently published Faeryand give extended consideration to the many boggarts and bogies in the forthcoming companion, Beyond Faery.
Fairies can rarely be described as genuinely friendly to human kind, it is sad to report. They will be lovers and parents of children, it is true, and they may take a liking to an individual and bestow gifts upon them, but the commonest interactions tend to be antagonism or avoidance, as I’ve often described. Amicable relations are very infrequently described, which is why I’ve gathered together the scattered references here.
As might be expected, we are most likely to become acquainted with those faes who live closest to us. In the British Library there’s a seventeenth century manuscript that deals with spirits such as the brownies, hobgoblins and Robin Goodfellows. It explains how these are:
“more familiar and domestical that the others … [which] abide in one place more than another so that almost never depart from some particular houses, as though they were their proper mansions, making in them sundrie noises, rumours, mockeries, gawds and jests, without doing any harm at all, and some have heard them play at gitterns and Jew’s harps and ring bells and to make answer to those that call to them, and speake with certain signes, laughters and merry gestures, so that those of the house come at last to be so familiar and well acquainted with them that they fear them not all.” (MS Harleian 6482)
This comfortable familiarity is reflected in two other stories of such spirits. The first dates from the reign of Richard I, from Dagworth in Suffolk. The manor house of Sir Osbern de Bradwell became the home of a being called Malekin, a small changeling girl who had apparently been abducted from her home in nearby Lavenham by the fairies.
“At first, the knight’s wife and his whole family were exceedingly terrified by her conversation, but having become accustomed to her words and the ridiculous things she did, they talked to her confidently and familiarly, asking her about many things. She spoke in English, according to the dialect of the region, but occasionally even in Latin and discoursed on the Scriptures to the knight’s chaplain… She could be heard and felt, but hardly ever seen, except once when she was seen by a chamber maid in the shape of a very tiny infant who was dressed in a kind of white tunic…”
Malekin also consumed food and drink that was left out for her and was evidently very much a part of the household. Much more recently, something similar is told about Yorkshire farmer George Gilbertson and his family, who shared their home with a boggart (although it was never seen). It was practical joker, as is the way with boggarts, but the children of the house found that it would play happily with them- if they pushed items through a knot hole in a cupboard, the boggart would immediately pop them back out again. The children called this ‘laiking [playing, in Yorkshire dialect] wi’ t’boggart.’ (Keightley, Fairy Mythology, p.307)
Faeries can, therefore, be quite pleasant house guests, as long as you can put up with their high spirits and practical sense of humour. They are often most friendly with domestic staff: Reginald Scot in The Discoverie of Witchcraft described how they would “sport themselves in the night by tumbling and fooling with servants and shepherds in country houses” and Robin Goodfellow (or Puck) was particularly known for his friendliness towards maids, performing their chores for them at night- although this was generally done secretly and anonymously without any suggestion of an amicable, social relationship as well (Scot, 1584, Book III, c.4)
There’s also evidence of faeries befriending lonely servants and farm maids and entertaining them with music, dance and company. I’ll cite three cases, all from the West of Britain. John Rhys tells the story of Eilian of Garth Dorwen, near Carmarthen. She was hired by an elderly couple to help on their farm. Eilian got into the habit of spinning outside in a meadow by moonlight, where the tylwyth teg would visit her and sing and dance as she worked. Eventually, the girl disappeared with the fairies and it later turned out that she had been taken to be a fairy wife. (Rhys, Celtic Folklore, 211-212).
Very close to this story is that of Shui Rhys of Cardiganshire. She looked after her parents’ cows and often stayed out in the fields very late. She was told off by her mother and blamed the spirits: little people in green would come to her, dance and play music around her and speak to her in a language she couldn’t understand. These contacts were allowed to continue, for fear of offending the fairies, but it was a risky strategy and, eventually, Shui disappeared just like Eilian (Sikes, British Goblins 67-69).
The story of Anne Jeffries from Cornwall is comparable to these. She had deliberately gone out, trying to make contact with the fairies by repeating little verses to summon them, and eventually they came to her in her garden. Six little men in green appeared to her one day, showered her with kisses- and then carried her off to Faery. She stayed there only a short while, until a violent dispute arose over her affections, after which she was ejected, but the fairies continued to favour her with healing knowledge and a supply of food.
These examples have to be viewed more ambivalently, as the fairies’ great friendliness to these isolated girls seem to have been a pretext for lulling their suspicions prior to abducting them. These ulterior motives may well sound rather more familiar and fit rather better with the impression of fairy character that most folk accounts give.
Fairies will be amicable and accommodating, therefore, but it seems that it is often done with a view to what might be received in return. Fairy authority Katharine Briggs, in her 1978 book Vanishing People, gave this rather harsh summary of the fairy temperament:
“the kindness of the fairies was often capricious and little mercy mingled with their justice… We are dealing with a pendulous people, trembling on the verge of annihilation, whose mirth is often hollow and whose beauty is precarious and glamorous. From such, no great compassion can be expected.” (p.161)
Fairy friendship is available, therefore, but it should always be approached with caution. Their amity towards humans may not be as open and free as we would expect from other people.
Author Thomas Nashe in his satirical pamphlet of 1596, Have With You To Saffron-Walden, Or, Gabriell Harvey’s hunt is up, memorably mocks his victim by describing how:
“more channels and creases he hath in his face that there be fairy-circles on Salisbury Plain.”
In a few words he highlights for us a fact that we simply don’t appreciate today: that the former, unimproved landscape of agriculture- before intensive weed control and fertilisation- looked completely different to what we see now. For Nashe and his contemporaries, evidence of fairies was everywhere. This confirmed the constant presence of the faeries for many; for others it provoked speculation about the processes of Nature that might generate such striking features.
A century after Nashe, naturalist Robert Plot discussed the English Midlands countryside in his Natural History of Staffordshire (1686). He described rings he had seen that were forty or fifty yards in diameter, often encircled by a rim between a foot and a yard wide. These rims might be bare, or might have a russet, singed colour. The grass within could also be brown but was more often dark green.
Some people blamed lightning for the rings; others put them down to fairies. Robert Burton in The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) recorded these explanations:
“These [the fairies] are they that dance on heaths and greens as Lavater thinks with Tritemius, and as Olaus Magnus adds, [and that] leave that green circle, which we commonly find in plain fields, which others hold to proceed from a meteor falling, or some accidental rankness of the ground, so nature sports herself; they [the dancing faes] are sometimes seen by old women and children. “
Ludwig Lavater (1527-86), in chapter 19 of his book Of ghosts and spirits walking (translated by Robert Harrison in 1572) was sure the cause was dancing fairies, writing that:
“Olaus Magnus in his third booke and eleventh chapter De Gentibus Septentrionalibus, wryteth that even in these our dayes, in many places in the North partes, there are certaine monsters or spirites, whiche taking on them some shape or figure, use (chiefly in the night season) to daunce after the sounde of all manner of instrumentes of musicke: whome the inhabitants call companions, or daunces of Elves, or Fairies.”
Robert Plot, meanwhile, sought to explain the rings scientifically, suggesting that the rings were caused by deer grazing, by moles or by the concentrated dung of penned cattle boosting growth, but given their occasionally huge size and distinctness, and their tendency to appear overnight, it is unsurprising that others would readily suspect supernatural causation.
Living with the Fairy Presence
The prevalence and visibility of rings in the fields of communities that were predominantly rural was bound to have an effect on their thinking. The proximity of the fairies’ dancing places to homes, and the persistence of the rings in sward, led to much apprehension and many precautions against the ever-present fairy peril.
As I have described in my recent book, Fairy Ballads & Rhymes, proper respect for fairy rings was inculcated into children and cultivators through memorable verses- for example:
“he wha’ spoils the fairies’ ring,/ Betide him want and woe,” but
“he wha’ cleans the fairy ring,/ An easy death shall dee.”
In any case, it was often impossible to plough up the rings, as they would just regrow. Acceptance and caution were therefore the better responses; showing the fairies respect whilst, at the same time, not getting too near, was strongly advisable. Children knew that to run around certain rings too many times (usually seven or nine) would put them in the fairies’ power. In an earlier post, for example, I have discussed the particularly notorious reputation of those rings called gallitraps. The tiny fairy girl shown below may look charming and harmless, but don’t be fooled: there may be malice behind those eyes…
I discuss faery rings and other faery places in my recent book, Faery, which- I’m pleased to say- became available to UK buyers from April 1st 2021. For more on the faeries’ interactions with nature, see my book Faeries and the Natural World (2021).
The fairies are everywhere; they are among us, at all times and in all places. When we address them as our Good Neighbours (or ‘Gude Neebers’ in Scots), the reference to their proximity is not idle politeness but a simple statement of fact. This reality was well known to previous generations, but the knowledge has been obscured for us now because of urbanisation and the dislocation of rural traditions. For our ancestors, though, the faeries were ever-present in their environment. Here are two examples.
On Shetland, folklorist Eliza Edmonston recorded in her 1809 book Sketches and Tales of the Shetland Islands (and with some irritation on her part at their gullibility) how amongst the local people:
“the knolls under which these ‘good people’ congregate, the solitary springs whence they fetch water and the especial evenings on which they busy themselves in mundane matters, are all heedfully noted and, at any other risk, avoided.” (p.22)
The daily routines of the trows were known- and human life was organised around them.
Secondly, there is the Clackmannanshire story of the Sautman of Tullibody. The ‘sautman’ was a merchant with a monopoly on the sale of salt- perhaps this was profitable work, or thirsty work, for he was also a drunkard. His wife constantly tried to get him to reform but he paid no attention until, exasperated, she wished the fairies would take her. Ever vigilant and ever willing to interfere maliciously in human affairs, they complied with her wish, snatching her up the chimney of their home. Now, Tullibody is a small town just east of Stirling. The story tells us that the wife was taken to the fairy palace at Cauldhame. This is a hill seven or so miles north of Tullibody (although there is another place of the same name about fifteen miles west, on the way to Aberfoyle, where the Reverend Robert Kirk lived, which might be a candidate). The woman was treated well there- like a queen- and, in due course, returned home to a sobered husband, but the point is that (as in Shetland) this hill was well-known to the people of the area to be a fairy dwelling.
An Enchanted Landscape
For many of us now, the intimate knowledge that our ancestors had of their surroundings is something we can only imagine. That intense familiarity was derived from working and walking within a neighbourhood on a daily basis. Not only would the minute changes of the seasons be known, but every feature of a landscape would be recorded in their memories: where firewood could be found, where there was good pasture, where berries grew and such like. To the inhabitants of such a world, every stone and tree would have its name and stories about them would be passed down from parent to child. It’s been said in recent years that we need to ‘re-enchant’ our world, which has been reduced by science and materialism to a mere source of consumable resources; for our predecessors, their environment was pervaded by enchantment.
Fairy hills, mounds, stones and trees and wells were everywhere, reflecting the fact that people lived side by side with the supernaturals. The need to keep on the right side of the faeries was accentuated by the fact that they weren’t distant and theoretical: they were there, in the next field, looking down from the nearest hill, listening and paying attention to our every action. The faery world interpenetrated our own and, knowing this, people structured their lives to accommodate this fact. As the example from Shetland earlier illustrates so well, we had a relationship rather like an old-fashioned weather house: when the fairies were out and about (at night) we stayed inside out of their way and vice versa. As long as the unspoken rules of time and place were observed, everyone was happy.