Here’s something I wrote for my personal blog about the French Symbolist poet Baudelaire and his relationship to the supernatural. I thought its references to fairies, to the Breton goblins called lutins and to nymphs might be of interest to the readers of ‘British Fairies.’ Baudelaire explores many of the themes we have touched upon, the ill-defined relationship of Faery to the land of the dead, or the abduction and subjection of humans as slaves; all in his inimitable style.
Charles-Pierre Baudelaire was born in Paris in 1821. He came to be one of the leading Symbolist or decadent poets of the period. He is known for exotic, gothic verse that is obsessed with boredom, sin, submission, death, sex and femmes fatales. His themes sound like the classic teenaged/ emo preoccupations, familiar to us now, but in the mid-nineteenth century the poet’s references to Satanism and pagan orgies were shocking, rather than the mere conventions of death-metal. There was also a notable supernatural element to Baudelaire’s poetry, which is what I wish specially to explore here.
Let’s deal with the black magick side of his work first. In his ‘Preface’ to Les Fleurs du Mal, Baudelaire declared “On evil’s pillow Satan Trismegist/ Our ravished senses at his leisure lulls… The Devil holds our strings in puppetry!” At the conclusion of Possessed, he cries…
People can be rendered completely incapable of movement by the fairies. This is generally inflicted as some sort of punishment and can be a short-term measure to remedy a temporary problem- or a long-term state, which is indicative of a completely different state of affairs. Long lasting paralysis is often a sign of fairy abduction.
Frozen on the Spot
A lazy, drunken farm labourer from the Cotswold area of England sneaked away from the harvest work in the fields to drink beer in the sun. He chose a small mound with a hawthorn growing on top as comfortable spot and settled down to relax. However, a crowd of small green beings appeared in front of him. Despite his fear, he found he was completely unable to move. After a while, they disappeared and he recovered the use of his limbs; he needed a drink, but found that all the beer in his flask had also disappeared.
It seems very clear from this account that the shirker had chosen a fairy hill to laze upon. The incident might simply be a case of the fairies stealing alcohol because they fancied their own binge, but it seems more likely that this is an incident of a trespass being punished and- at the same time- a human being chastened for infringing the fairies’ moral code. Whilst the story doesn’t say it explicitly, I reckon we may infer that the shock was such that the man rarely drank afterwards.
Incursion upon the fairies’ reserved places seems constantly to be the cause of cases of paralysis. A farmer of Ffridd Uchaf was returning from Beddgelert fair in Snowdonia. He saw a company of fairies dancing and, whilst he lay in hiding watching them, he fell asleep. As he slumbered, they bound him so tightly that he could not move, after which they covered him over with a veil of gossamer, so that nobody would see him in case he cried out for help. As the man did not return home, his family made a thorough search for him, but in vain. Fortunately, about the same time the next night the fairies returned and freed him and, a little while later, he awoke after sleeping a whole night and a day. He had no idea where he was, and wandered about on the slopes of the Gader and near the Gors Fawr until he heard a cock crow, when he finally realised he was less than a quarter of a mile from his home. This case is comparable to the story of ‘Miser on the Gump at St Just.’ An old man set out one moonlit night to Woon Gumpus, near the village of St Just, where he had heard that the fairies assembled and where he thought he might be able to steal some fairy treasure. The whole fairy court emerged from under ground for a feast and the man hoped to steal some of their gold and silver plates. He was so preoccupied with the precious metals that he neglected to notice that he had been surrounded by spriggans. They threw hundreds of tiny ropes around him and pulled him to the ground, where he was pinched and stung by the entire fairy multitude. At dawn they vanished, leaving him bound with cobwebs on the open moor.
A man who unwittingly stumbled upon a fairy market on the Blackdown Hills in Somerset was mishandled in a similar way. He tried to ride through the crowd of fairies gathered around the numerous stalls and was “crowded and thrust, as when one passes through a throng of people… He found himself in pain and so hastened home; where, being arrived, lameness seized him all on one side, which continued with him as long as he lived, which was for many years…” Although the writer here, Richard Bovet, calls it ‘lameness,’ it seems apparent that the man suffered some sort of paralysis on one side of his body (Pandaemonium 207).
Our last example comes from Torrington in North Devon. One day at the very beginning of June, 1890, a man was working in a wood. At the end of the day he separated from his companions to collect a tool he had left nearby. On bending down to pick it up, a strange feeling came over him; he was unable to move and he heard pixies laughing. He realised he was at their mercy. When he had not returned home by ten o’clock that night, his wife became very alarmed and went out to look for him. She met the man emerging from the wood, soaked to the skin. He explained he had been held under the pixies’ spell for nearly five hours, capable only of crawling along on his hands and knees. It was dark and he had no idea where he was, as a result of which he fell into a stream, which broke the spell. The wood was apparently known for pixie-leading, although this is not really the right term for the man’s experience, which was much more akin to a paralysis.
Several features unite these cases: an action which somehow incurs fairy displeasure and their sanction, which is a loss of bodily function that may vary in terms of its extent and/ or duration. I have called this fairy paralysis; our forebears seem to have called it something else- ‘fairy blast.’
Roughly speaking, there are two main ways in which the fairies make humans sick. One is to shoot us with arrows (elf-shot), which leaves the victim elf-struck (suffering from a stroke). The other is to blast them with an ‘ill-wind’- a condition also sometimes called the evil eye.
The condition was recognised in England, and was often termed ‘the Faerie’ but it is from Scotland that we have the better records of the illness and its cure. The evidence mainly comes from the trial of women suspected of being ‘witches,’ although in reality what they had usually been involved in was folk healing, using herbs, of the sickness caused by fairies and witches. For example, Jonet Andersone of Stirling was tried in 1621: using a shirt worn by the patient and an iron knife, she had diagnosed that the illness had come from ‘a blast of ill wind.’ Likewise, Janet Boyman of Edinburgh told a mother than her child had been blasted with an evil wind by the fairies when they found it in its cradle, unblessed by the mother and therefore unprotected from faery malignity.
In 1662 Jonet Morrisone of Bute was tried for witchcraft. Amongst the evidence against her was an incident where she had told a man that his daughter was paralysed and unable to speak because of “blasting with the faryes,” something she cured with herbs. She had treated at least two others in the same way. Janet Trall of Perth treated a baby that had got “a dint of evil wind” by bathing the infant with water from a south-flowing well. I’ve discussed before the crucial role of water in curing fairy illness and in cures provided to us by the fairies.
On Shetland and Orkney, the trows were also said to cause identical illnesses. The islanders said that an ‘ill wind’ in the face could lead to languor, stupor and loss of appetite.
There were two explanations as to how blasting happened. Healer Catie Watson of Stow explained in 1630 that people were “blasted with the breath of the fairy.” Jonet Morisone, though, said that “blasting is a whirlwind that the fayries raise about that persone quhich they intend to wrong and that, tho’ there were tuentie present, yet it will harme none bot him quhom they were set for.” She went on to explain that the effect of the wind gathered in one place in the body and, unless treated in a timely manner, would cause the victim to ‘shirpe’ (shrivel) away. Janet Boyman in 1572 expanded a little on this: the purpose of the blasting was, in her opinion, to enable the fairies (the “sillyie wychts” as she called them) to abduct the victim. She saw blasting as part of a longer term strategy, therefore, rather than as an immediate response to some offence.
Some close contact was evidently necessary for the blast to be inflicted. I’ll end this discussion with a mention of a Highland Scottish belief that cattle could be paralysed by the so-called ‘fairy mouse.’ The luch-sith was the name for the shrew and it was believed that its presence in pastures could lead to livestock being struck down with the marcachd sith, (fairy riding), a paralysis of the spine brought on by the shrew running across the backs of the cattle when they lay down.
Acquisition of the second sight, and the ability to see through fairy glamour and watch the Good Folk, is a gift many desire. It can come from many sources, some easily achieved (it would appear); many purely fortuitous.
Let’s start with the cases of luck. In one Scottish case, a child left asleep upon a fairy knoll came away from the spot endowed with the second sight. Whether this was a matter of the place alone, or the result of an intervention by the sith folk because they had chosen to favour the infant, we cannot tell. Cromek recorded that a person invited inside a fairy hill to feast with the inhabitants went away afterwards with the second sight, implying that the food itself or perhaps the proximity to the fairies could have been the source. If it was the food, this will of course be in stark contrast to the usual outcome, in which the person eating faery food in Faery becomes trapped there.
Contact with the fairies seems to be fundamental to the transfer, as is seen in Enys Tregarthen’s story of the fairy child Skerry Werry, published in 1940. A lost fairy child was taken in and cared for by a widow on Bodmin Moor. The longer the little girl stayed, the better the old woman’s ‘pixy sight’ became, so that she could see the pisky lights on the moor. The story implies that it was simply Skerry-Werry’s residence that had the effect. More traditionally, as in Tregarthen’s story The Nurse Who Broke Her Promise, which was published in the same year, a human midwife bathing a fairy baby is told not to splash bath water in her eyes (or, even more commonly is asked to anoint the child with ointment, but not touch herself) and a breach of such an injunction is what transfers the magic vision.
A third example is even stranger: an old Somerset woman who used to nurse those who were sick was one day walking to a well for water when a moth brushed against her face. This gave her the pixy-sight and she immediately saw a little man, who asked her to come with him to try to come with him to tend his seriously ill wife. I have mentioned the fairy association with moths before, so this incident has some precedents.
Gifts of second sight from the fairies are certainly reported. Scottish woman Isobel Sinclair was granted such a power, so that she would “know giff thair be any fey bodie in the house” (as her trial on Orkney in February 1633 was told). A substantial part of the case against her was that she was “a dreamer of dreams.”
Elspeth Reoch had been tried fifteen years previously for very similar reasons to Sinclair: she had had contact with the fairies and they had given her ability to see into the future and tell fortunes. Elspeth was instructed in two methods of obtaining the second sight. One was to roast an egg and use the ‘sweat of it’ (the moisture that appeared on the shell, presumably) to wash her hands and then rub her eyes. The second technique was to pick the flower called millefleur and, kneeling on her right knee, to pull the plant between her middle finger and thumb, invoking the Christian trinity.
Once one person had the gift, others could benefit. Contact with them, by touching them or by looking over a shoulder, would reveal the fairies to the second person as well.
Be warned, though. The fairies object to uninvited intrusions and to any behaviour they regard as spying. There is a Victorian report of a case from Wrexham in which a fairy blinded a person just because he looked at it. A very similar account comes from Exmoor: a person who ‘had dealings’ with the pixies later saw them thieving at the market in Minehead. When she protested, she was blinded. Alone, these cases might appear to be truncated versions of the midwife stories mentioned earlier; these nearly always culminate with the midwife spotting the fairy father on a later occasion, whether he is stealing goods at a fair or market or simply out and about in the human world. She addresses him, giving away her secret, and, in response, she is blinded, whether by a breath in the face or some more physical means. However, the Wrexham and Minehead stories both suggest that anyone who has the second sight, for whatever reason, might suffer as a consequence if a fairy objects to it.
Seeing through the fairies’ glamour risks exposing those aspects of their conduct that they might rather keep concealed from us (their propensity for stealing our property perhaps being the least of them). Knowing their secrets can put us in peril, so that it is possibly rash to wish too fervently for knowledge of their hidden world.
I discovered this artist through Sean Conroy’s former blog and had reposted it here. His posts are no longer on WordPress but I found I inherited his images from him when I reblogged the post, so I have reused them with my own text…
Georges Picard (1857-1946) was a French painter and illustrator who produced a number fairy studies. The pictures are distinctive, in part because of Picard’s unique ‘soft-focus’ technique (very much in contrast to the sharp and icy nymphs painted by his close contemporary Bouguereau) and in part because of his cavalier intermixing of fairies, sprites and nymphs, of adult women and small children gambolling together in sunny glades.
Picard’s fairy scenes include A Nymph and Forest Fairies and Nymphs and Cherubim Amongst the Vines at Obernai. His main figures never, honestly, look especially fae: rather, they are adult female nudes painted in the academic style, who are discovered, lightly draped with a thin veil, cavorting in woodland clearings. They look like what they were: Parisian models with fashionable hair styles and jewellery. They are in the company of sprites or fairies in the form of small naked children. This mix of sizes is a trait inherited from many of the British fairy painters who preceded him, such as Noel Paton, as doesn’t tell us much (I don’t believe) about Picard’s fairy philosophy.
Particularly noticeable is Picard’s cheerful jumbling of genres, so that biblical angels appear alongside classical divinities, Graeco-Roman nymphs and dryads disport themselves with native French fées.
Picard also dealt with a fairy theme when he illustrated Alphonse Daudet’s short story Le Conte de Noel, part of the La Fete des Toits (1896). This features a conversation between sparrows, chimneys, the snow and others. We are then introduced to Les Kobolds. For English speakers, the kobolds may best be known from German tradition as mine sprites, related to the Cornish knockers, but they are also household spirits, akin to a British Brownie, that live by the hearth or wood shed and undertake household chores at night. They are small, male and bearded. Daudet introduces them to us as follows:
“c’est-à-dire les esprits familiers de chaque maison qui conduisent Noël à toutes les cheminées où il y a des petits souliers qui attendent.“
“the familiar spirits of each house, who guide Christmas to all the chimneys where little stockings are waiting. “
Christmas (Noel) arrives to deliver presents and says to the fairies “Maintenant, messieurs les kobolds, marchez avec moi sur la pente des toits, nous allons commencer notre distribution.” “Right, gentlemen, come with me across the roof tops, we’re going to start handing out presents.”
Christmas wants, this year, to concentrate on treating the poorest children, but the kobolds object that-
“Avec ton nouveau système, les pauvres seront heureux, mais les riches pleureront. Et dame! un enfant qui pleure n’est plus ni riche ni pauvre. C’est un enfant qui pleure; et il n’y a rien de si triste…”
“With your new system, the poor children will be happy and the rich ones will cry. But, a child who’s crying is neither rich nor poor- it’s simply a weeping child and there’s nothing so sad.”
Picard illustrated this story with two drawings which, despite the text, portrayed the kobolds as semi-naked girls. One wears only her boots, the other a top with a pointed hood, stockings and shoes. This latter sprite leans against a chimney pot, pushing out her bottom and regarding us impishly. Picard had drawn very similar pictures of a little blonde girl playing in a pond, catching frogs, a figure he obviously preferred to the masculine (and possibly ugly) spirits that Daudet had imagined.
The artist drew what pleased him, but in his interpretation of Daudet’s text, as well as in his wider vision of Faery, he was rather misleading. Nonetheless, his pictures, if we examine them attentively, can lead us to new insights into faery-kind. For example, Daudet’s story is a clue that the kobold is an ancestor of Santa’s toy-making elves, with whom we are today so familiar.
For more on the classical nymph, see my newest book Nymphology. There will be more on knockers in my forthcoming book on the ‘Economy of Faery.’ For more on the art of Faery, see my book Fairy Art of the Twentieth Century
I am pleased to announce that my new book, Nymphology- A Brief History of Nymphs, is now available as a Kindle book and paperback through Amazon.
I’ve often discussed the interface between classical and British mythologies, both on this site and in my book Fayerie, but I decided to focus on the subject in a short new volume, examining the meaning and stories of nymphs from the ancient Greek past right up to the present day.
Nymphs have always been about sex, whether that’s the story of Hylas and the Nymphs or it’s the modern day nymphets of Nabokov’s Lolita or adult websites. There’s much more to it than that, though; the nymph is also about healing and poetic inspiration, about religious as well as sexual obsession.
I’ve traced their story from the classical texts and poets, through Morgan Le Fay and the Lady of the Lake, through Spenser, Shakespeare and Michael Drayton’s Nymphidia right up to Nabokov and Pierre Louys’ Chansons de Bilitis. Nymphs are found in paintings and sculptures as well as in literature, and the new book celebrates them all.
The boo is 80 pages long plus illustrations- in the UK it’s £5.50 for the e-book and £7.95 for the paperback copy. For details of all my other books, please see my separate Books page.
I have discussed Lord Dunsany’s 1924 fairy classic, The King of Elfland’s Daughter, in a previous post. Here I put this classic novel in the wider context of Dunsany’s fantasy writing.
My starting point is a phrase that tolls throughout Dunsany’s classic. Elfland is repeatedly described as being ‘beyond the fields we know.’ The phrase appears in the first chapter of the The King of Elfland’s Daughter and numerous times after that; its encapsulation of the mystery beyond the homely and familiar sticks in the memory. I’d like to examine how this concept evolved.
Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany (1878-1957), was an Anglo-Irish writer and dramatist who wrote more than ninety books, including many hundreds of short stories, as well as plays and essays. He achieved great fame and success with his early work. Dunsany was born and raised in London, but lived much of his life in Ireland, where he worked with W. B. Yeats and Lady Gregory. In addition, during the First World War he became familiar with the young poet Francis Ledwidge, who was in his regiment, and promoted his work after he was killed.
The Sword of Welleran
In his earliest books, Dunsany accepted the conventional lore on fairies and their dwellings. For example, in the story The Fortress Unvanquishable (1908), “the race of fairies and the elves and the little scared spirits of the trees and dreams” live in woods; in Poltarnees, of 1910, the country people are “kind to the little woodland things and any rumour of the fairies or old legend.” The wills of the wisp, meanwhile, are depicted quite properly as the denizens of East Anglian marshes in the 1908 story The Kith of the Elf Folk.
Even so, Dunsany’s own unique conception of the location and nature of fairyland was already beginning to form. His 1910 collection, Dreamer’s Tales, touched on this issue in numerous of the stories included in the book. The story Carcassonne concerns an imaginary city to which “the elf-kings with their fairies had first retreated from men, [they] had built it on an evening late in May by blowing their elfin horns.” We’ll hear those horns again, ringing out across Elfland, just as we’ll discover that Faery is a fabulous city just beyond the reach (and vision) of humankind. In the same collection, in the story The Field, the narrator describes walking to escape from the urban sprawl of London. What draws him away from the traffic and noise is the call of country uplands:
“The call is from afar both in leagues and years, for the hills that call are the hills that were, and their voices are the voices of long ago, when the elf-kings still had horns.”
Fairyland is distant in both space and time, it seems. There is a danger of fairyland, and all it represents, being lost. This melancholy theme was the subject of his (very) brief story, The Giant Poppy, which was published in Fifty-One Tales in 1915. It’s so brief I can reproduce it in full:
“I dreamt that I went back to the hills I knew, whence on a clear day you can see the walls of Ilion and the plains of Roncesvalles. There used to be woods along the tops of those hills with clearings in them where the moonlight fell, and there when no one watched the fairies danced.
But there were no woods when I went back, no fairies nor distant glimpse of Ilion or plains of Roncesvalles, only one giant poppy waved in the wind, and as it waved it hummed “Remember not.” And by its oak-like stem a poet sat, dressed like a shepherd and playing an ancient tune softly upon a pipe. I asked him if the fairies had passed that way or anything olden.
He said: “The poppy has grown apace and is killing gods and fairies. Its fumes are suffocating the world, and its roots drain it of its beautiful strength.” And I asked him why he sat on the hills I knew, playing an olden tune.
And he answered: “Because the tune is bad for the poppy, which would otherwise grow more swiftly; and because if the brotherhood of which I am one were to cease to pipe on the hills men would stray over the world and be lost or come to terrible ends. We think we have saved Agamemnon.”
Then he fell to piping again that olden tune, while the wind among the poppy’s sleepy petals murmured “Remember not. Remember not.””
The Book of Wonder
In his next collection, The Book of Wonder, published in 1912, Dunsany developed these ideas much further. In The Probable Adventure of the Three Literary Men, Dunsany describes his trio as heading towards the ‘Dubious Land,’ which is to be found at the edge of the world, overlooking the abyss. On the way, they pass through Rumbly Heath, a place whose “stormy hillocks were the ground-swell and after-wash of the earthquake, lulled for a while.” This is very suggestive (to me, at least!) of the fairy knolls of British folklore.
The idea of Faery as being at the edge of our known universe was elaborated throughout the collection. Pombo the Idolater, in the account of his Injudicious Prayers, travels from London to the village of World’s End, where, at the furthest end of Last Street, he finds steps leading down over the edge of the world to Lonely House, the House of Nowhere and from there over a precipice to the stars and constellations. The Quest of the Queen’s Tears takes its hero, Ackronnion, on a hunt for the Gladsome Beast, which lives underneath fairyland, at the edge of the world. Along with his page, Ackronnion “set out through the fields of fable until they came to Fairyland, a kingdom sunning itself (as all men know) for leagues along the edges of the world.” As they approached, the wind blew in their faces from the void, bringing “a kind of metallic taste from the roving stars.” Ackronnion seeks directions from the Old Man Who Looks After Fairyland, whose house windows look star-ward, away from the world, and he explains how to climb over the edge of the precipice, looking out over space, to find the Gladsome Beast.
The City of Never is a story about a child who visits a dream city that once again stands at the edge of the world, although it can be reached somewhere beyond the Surrey Hills. This ‘Ultimate City’ exists in a perpetual twilight and we’ll encounter this mysterious half-light again in The King of Elfland’s Daughter. It’s also highly reminiscent of the light found in many subterranean fairylands, where a permanent evening exists without sun or moon.
As the quest of Ackronnion for the Gladsome Beast implies, Dunsany was developing his own mythical menagerie as well. He frequently referred to elves, fairies, gnomes (and even centaurs), but he was beginning to play with the established species. As the Three Literary Men head towards the ‘Dubious Land’ across Rumbly Heath, they see “the harmless little mipt, half faery, half gnome, giving shrill contented squeaks on the edge of the world” whilst nuzzling dead white bones. The Hoard of the Gibbelins is concealed within their evil tower which “is joined to Terra Cognita, to the lands we know, by a bridge.” The skilled thief, Nuth, concocts a plan to steal emeralds from the ‘gnoles,’ who live in a wood infested with elves and fairies. The nearest human village (wisely it seems) was “some miles away, with the backs of all its houses turned to the wood and without one window at all facing in that direction. They did not speak of it there…” These creatures may echo, or resemble, imps, goblins and gnomes, but they aren’t quite the same. They are, though, uniformly dangerous. This peril explains the reluctance of humans to even acknowledge their existence, let alone discuss them, and we’ll encounter this attitude once again in the King of Elfland’s Daughter.
As well as the obvious peril of creatures that kill and eat humans, there are other features of Faery that may prevent a person ever returning. As the heroine discovers in Miss Cubbidge and the Dragon of Romance, the passage of time is different:
“But whether the centuries passed her or whether the years, or whether no time at all, she did not know. If anything indicated the passing of time, it was the rhythm of elfin horns blowing upon the heights. If the centuries went by, the spell that bound her gave her also perennial youth…”
The Last Book of Wonder
In his next collection, The Last Book of Wonder, which came out in 1916, Dunsany consolidated this evolving mythology. The jewel thief, Mr Neepy Thang, who features in the story of The Bird of the Difficult Eye, also has to journey to the Edge of the World to steal gems for his clients. He is asked to steal emeralds from the nest of the Bird:
“So Neepy Thang set out. He bought the purple ticket at Victoria Station. He went by Herne Hill, Bromley and Bickley and passed St. Mary Cray. At Eynsford he changed and taking a footpath along a winding valley went wandering into the hills. And at the top of a hill in a little wood, where all the anemones long since were over and the perfume of mint and thyme from outside came drifting in with Thang, he found once more the familiar path, age-old and fair as wonder, that leads to the Edge of the World… he went down that path going further and further from the fields we know… The glamour that is at all times upon those lonely lands that lie at the back of the chalky hills of Kent intensified as he went upon his journeys. Queerer and queerer grew the things that he saw by little World-End Path. Many a twilight descended upon that journey with all their mysteries, many a blaze of stars; many a morning came flaming up to a tinkle of silvern horns; till the outpost elves of Fairyland came in sight and the glittering crests of Fairyland’s three mountains betokened the journey’s end. And so with painful steps (for the shores of the world are covered with huge crystals) he came to the risky seas of Shiroora Shan and saw them pounding to gravel the wreckage of fallen stars, saw them and heard their roar, those shipless seas that between earth and the fairies’ homes heave beneath some huge wind that is none of our four. And there in the darkness on the grizzly coast, for darkness was swooping slantwise down the sky as though with some evil purpose, there stood that lonely, gnarled and deciduous tree. It was a bad place to be found in after dark, and night descended with multitudes of stars, beasts prowling in the blackness gluttered [see any dictionary, but in vain] at Neepy Thang. And there on a lower branch within easy reach he clearly saw the Bird of the Difficult Eye sitting upon the nest for which she is famous. Her face was towards those three inscrutable mountains, far-off on the other side of the risky seas, whose hidden valleys are Fairyland.”
The Long Porter’s Tale shares many similarities. A man called Gerald Jones once, as a child, caught a glimpse of fairyland and heard a fairy song on a Yorkshire Moor. He has longed all his life to witness these again, and is told how he might do so at the Edge of the World in the town of Tong Tong Tarrup, a place known to be visited by elves and gnomes.
“The ways to that town are winding; he took the ticket at Victoria Station that they only give if they know you: he went past Bleth: he went along the Hills of Neol-Hungar and came to the Gap of Poy. All these are in that part of the world that pertains to the fields we know; but beyond the Gap of Poy on those ordinary plains, that so closely resemble Sussex, one first meets the unlikely. A line of common grey hills, the Hills of Sneg, may be seen at the edge of the plain from the Gap of Poy; it is there that the incredible begins, infrequently at first, but happening more and more as you go up the hills.”
Jones is able to gaze out over “the twilight of the World’s Edge” and, in the abyss, he glimpses a fairy woman and hears a snatch of the lost song again- but is then cast out of Tong Tong Tarrup.
“Yet it may be that the devastation wrought by Time is merely local, and that outside the scope of his destruction old songs are still being sung by those that we deem dead. I try to hope so.”
In parallel with these stories, Dunsany wrote others that showed that he built his fantasies upon a solid foundation of authentic fairy lore. The City on Mallington Moor demonstrates this. The narrator has heard of a mythical city that is sometimes seen on a distant English moor, perhaps in the Pennines. He travels there to discover the truth and gets directions from a local shepherd. Setting out, he follows a track that “was no more than the track of a hare- an elf-path, the old man called it, Heaven knows what he meant.” Such narrow paths through gorse and heather are called pixie-paths in Cornwall, so we are clearly heading in the right direction.
A mist descends and the searcher has to lie down in the heather to wait. When the veil of fog lifts, a wondrous oriental city is revealed. It seems to have simply materialised or settled in this remote spot, but the visitor is able to enter its walls, wander its streets and speak to its exotic people. Eventually, he finds a hostel where he can rest for the night and falls asleep to the sound of singing.
The story ends: “A small wind having arisen, I was awakened by a sprig of heather that beat continually against my face. It was morning on Mallington Moor, and the city was quite gone.” This conclusion confirms that Dunsany was well aware of the widespread British folklore tradition of people who stumble across celebrations in houses or find inns in places where they did not think anyone lived. They are well entertained and given a luxurious bed for the night, only to wake the next morning to find themselves asleep on the open moorland.
In 1919 Dunsany published another collection of short stories, Tales of Three Hemispheres, in which he looked “Beyond the fields we know, in the Lands of Dream…” Five years later, he revealed what he had found there.
The King of Elfland’s Daughter
Dunsany’s triumph, The King of Elfland’s Daughter, represents a summation of all his learning and experimentation. The story is set in the Vale of Erl, which “is very near to the border beyond which there is none of the fields we know.” The people living near the border build their houses turned away from it, and refuse to acknowledge that Elfland exists so near to them. Alveric, son of the king of Erl, sets out to seek Lirazel, the king of Elfland’s daughter. To do this, he must cross the “boundary, which is made of twilight, and come to that palace that is only told of in song.” Continually, too, from Elfland, the silver horns ring out and the sound drifts across the twilight barrier, audible to those that wish to hear.
In Elfland, time passes very differently. For the king’s daughter, “time had had no value or meaning … She did not dream what time means to us here.” The damage done by the passing of time to humans, and the fact that Elfland is “unvexed by Time” is a constant refrain of throughout the book. Many of the ideas and themes he had sketched out in his earlier stories were brought to masterful fruition by Dunsany in this novel.
Dunsany lived until 1957, so many books followed The King of Elfland’s Daughter. There is evidence that he lost some of his fairy faith in his later years. His 1939 novel, The Story of Mona Sheehy, concerns a girl who believes that she is daughter of the fairy queen. The book charts how she is disabused of this fantasy and comes to accept the realities of her life. Dunsany’s short story Helping the Fairies (1947) is even more down-to-earth and cynical. A newcomer to the Irish village of Rathgeel has cut down a fairy thorn tree- “one that the Little People had danced round for ages.” All the villagers expect the fairies to have their revenge and to take the man’s luck away. Instead, though, he has a run of incredible good fortune, placing winning bets and making lucrative deals. The villagers become uneasy at the way in which he is insulting the Little People with his prosperity and, in the end, they take matters into their own hands and the stranger is murdered- at which point it can be said that the Little People have exacted their vengeance, just as everyone knew they would.
Despite these two strongly rationalist works, however, Dunsany retained his detailed knowledge of fairy-lore. His 1949 poem, The Fairy Child, is very much in the spirit of verse by W. B. Yeats, Dora Sigerson Shorter or Nora Chesson Hopper (see my Victorian Fairy Verse). It is imbued with the darker perceptions of Faery that are drawn from authentic British and Irish folk tradition. It differs markedly from the fairyland of Lirazel, but is true to its roots; it is a story of abduction and of substitution with a stock or changeling. It’s notable, too, that Dunsany describes Faery as being not being “Heaven or Earth or Hell,” but somewhere else.
From the low white walls and the church’s steeple,
We know that fairies will taken human lovers, especially the Fairy Queen, and we know too that they may prove possessive and vindictive partners (the leannan shee of the Scottish Highlands and the Isle of Man is consistently portrayed this way). One aspect of these relationships that I have not, so far, explored is need, or desire, for the human partner to make a binding commitment to the fairy monarch who is their lover or teacher. Nonetheless, it is a consistent (if not common) aspect of many of these stories- and from an early date.
In the fifteenth century ballad of Thomas of Erceldoune, the hero is approached by the fairy queen one sunny May day when he is out, walking alone in the countryside. He is instantly taken by her beauty and declares, impetuously, “Here my trouth I plight thee,/ Whedur thou wilt to heven or hell…” Initially, this display of subservience appears to have achieved its purpose, because an extended sex session follows. However, shagging the fairy queen isn’t to be undertaken lightly: once she’s recovered from his over-energetic attentions, the queen declares that he’s going with her to fairyland for the next twelve months. There are no ifs or buts about this: “For thy trowthe thou hast me tane,/ Ayene that may ye make no stryfe.” He’s made an oath and bound himself to her- and now he’s stuck with it.
Something similar is found in Thomas Chestre’s Sir Launfal. The knight is summoned into the presence of fairy lady Tryamour and once again a commitment is extracted from the human in the hope of getting inside her bodice (as well as becoming wealthy): she tells him “Yf thou wylt truly to me take,/ And alle wemen for me forsake,/ Ryche I wylle make thee…” This more than just a promise of true love from Sir Launfal. He has to pledge to keep their liaison secret, in return for which, as well as her body, he gets a purse full of gold that will never run out.
These examples from romantic literature are supplemented forcefully by the recorded experiences of men and women suspected of witchcraft in early modern Scotland. It’s a regular, if not frequent, aspect of these cases that contact with the fairies involved some sort of binding commitment by the human. Firstly, in 1576 in Ayrshire Bessie Dunlop admitted that she had met a fairy man called Thom Reid who had asked her to ‘trow’ (trust in) him and give up Christianity, in return for which she would receive livestock and other material assets. She would not do this, but had offered to be true to him in every other way.
Marion Grant of Aberdeen was tried in 1597 for her contacts with a fairy man she called Christsonday. Twelve years previously he had come to her and asked her to call him lord and become his servant- to which Marion consented. Sexual intercourse followed, after which she would be visited by him monthly. She admitted that she worshipped him on her knees and that he had taught her healing powers in return. The next year in the same city Andro Man confessed to a relationship with the fairy queen that had lasted over three decades and had produced a number of children. One sign of his commitment to her had been to kiss her “airss” on Rood-day in harvest the year before.
Margaret Alexander of Livingston in 1647 confessed to a thirty year affair with the fairy king, at the start of which he had required her to renounce her baptism as a demonstration of her commitment to him. Lastly, in 1677 at Inverary, Donald McIlverie was tried for the “horrid crime of corresponding with the devil.” This wasn’t an exchange of letters, of course, but regular visits to a fairy hill where he danced and spoke with the folk living inside. They helped him find stolen goods, in return for which Donald had to agree to keep their involvement secret and, in addition, to tell them his name– which he avoided doing. He knew that this would have bound him irrevocably to them.
More recent examples
Binding promises to the fairies are by no means a thing of the past. They are still to be found in much more recent folklore accounts, although the terms of the commitments seem to have changed somewhat.
In a well-known Scottish story from the nineteenth century, a seal hunter living near John O’Groats is visited one night by a stranger on horse back who urgently wants to agree a sale of seal skins. The hunter readily agrees to go with the man to inspect the skins and climbs up on his horse, but it gallops off at great speed and plunges over a cliff into the sea. They sink down to an underwater realm where the hunter is confronted with a selkie man whom he had seriously injured with his knife earlier that same day. Only the man can heal the wound he has inflicted, which he does (having little option in the circumstances). He is released from the selkies’ cavern, but only after making a solemn oath not to hunt seals again.
In the Scottish story of Whuppity Stoorie a fairy woman cures a family’s sickly pig, but in return she demands their baby- unless they can discover her name. Very close to this is the English tale of Tom Tit Tot, who undertakes to carry out an impossible amount of flax spinning for a young woman, on condition that she will become his- unless she can guess his name.
In the older stories, the pledge to the fairy monarch took the form of a feudal oath of fealty- just as knights would give to their lords and those lords would give to their king. In more modern accounts, it seems that the fairies have moved with the times and the commitment they exact is more contractual in nature: there is an exchange between the parties, however disproportionate the payment demanded by the fairy.
When we read about love affairs with fairy partners, whether of short or long duration, we tend to imagine them in terms familiar to us: in other words, we conceive of an exchange of love and affection and an emotional bond between the parties. Such love matches definitely take place between humans and faes, although I suspect that many human males, at least, have an eye to the material advantages to be gained from these partnerships.
As often, though- and most especially in cases where your lover is a faery monarch- the arrangement ought to be viewed more as a transaction or business deal. To repeat what was said earlier, sex with the faery king or queen may not come for free; a binding commitment may be required and this may be couched in terms rather different to those of the marriage vows.
For further information, see my posting on the hierarchical structure of Faery and see chapter seven of my recent book Faery which deals with ‘Faery Society.’
Deliberate leading astray is a fairy habit almost exclusively found in South West Britain. It is reported about as often in Cornwall and Devon, with about twenty-five per cent of cases taking places in other counties (Dorset and Somerset) and slightly fewer in Wales. Because it is primarily a phenomenon of South-West England, I will use the term pixie-led as a label for the process.
Here I’m only going to describe those fairy beings who, amongst their other activities, enjoy misleading humans. Those supernaturals that appear as moving lights and whose sole function is to mislead- wills of the wisp, Jack o’ Lanterns, Goblin Lanterns and such like- will not be my concern here. This reflects a fairly clear subdivision of types, but it is not perfect or binding. Pucks and Pooks in England and South Wales can often appear in all respects like a will of the wisp, although we know them to be more complex characters in addition to this (see for example, Wirt Sikes, British Goblins, 23).
Pixie-leading is a longstanding fairy practice that is well attested in literature. It can be traced back to the early fourteenth century. Jeremy Harte in Exploring Fairy Traditions (p.26) records a preacher’s sermon that describes one who has been “led at nyght with gobelyn, and erreth hider and thider.” The references multiply from the seventeenth century, for example from Francis Rous, who in his religious text Meditations of Instruction of 1616 compared those who pursue material wealth to:
“they [that] shall stumble into the same ditches, wherein they have seene many of their neighbours wallowing. This makes sport for the divel, and thus is man most truly fayry-led, even led aside by the spirits of darknesse…”
In an identical tone, Thomas Heyrick, in The New Atlantis of 1687, mentioned those who “Vainly like wilder’d men should wander round/ Be lost in senceless shapes on fairy ground” (p.51). Likewise, Beaumont and Fletcher in their play Wit at Several Weapons (c.1620), have a character complain:
“My ways are goblin led and the night elf still draws me from my home.” (II, 2)
Writing in the first half of the 1600s, poet Robert Herrick, a Devonshire parson, advised:
“If ye feare to be affrighted
When ye are (by chance) benighted,
In your Pocket for a trust
Carrie nothing but a Crust:
For that holy piece of Bread,
Charmes the danger, and the dread.”
Christopher Clobbery, who wrote in 1659, warned of “fairy elves who thee mislead … in to the mire, then at thy folly smile/ Yea, clap their hands for joy.” The remedy he advised was simple: “Old country folk, who pixie-leading fear/ Bear bread about them, to prevent harm.”
In the English Midlands, we know from Jabez Allies that you were not pixie-led but ‘poake-ledden,’ something which seems to be confirmed by the experience of Bishop Richard Corbet (author of the poem Rewards and Fairies), who became lost near Bosworth in 1640. He and his party were advised then to “Turne your cloakes/ … for Pucke is busy in these oakes./ If ever wee at Bosworth will be found/ Then turn your cloakes, for this is fairy ground.”
What is Pixie-Leading?
To be pixie-led is a very well-known phrase, but what does it actually entail? There are, in fact, at least half a dozen different experiences which are classed under this heading.
Changing the landscape or hiding the path
Using glamour so that the human victim no longer recognises where they are is the commonest way to confuse and lead astray a person. A few accounts will exemplify this: Once a Week magazine in 1867 reported how a young farmer was pixie-led one evening in an orchard, where he was trapped for two hours. In a Welsh incident, two young women returning to Llandysul from Lampeter fair were led in a field next to their home. They were lost for hours on a bright moonlit night, yards from their house. Lastly, a Cornish man called Glasson, making the short walk from Ludgvan to Gulval near Penzance, got completely lost and went in circles. In all these cases, and more, a familiar place became strange; land marks disappeared and panic set in.
Sometimes, the change made is to conceal the gate out of a field. Often, again, the enclosed space is very familiar to the victim and the moon may be shining, but the means of escape seems to vanish. To add to this, in several Cornish accounts the pixies also frustrate their victims’ attempts to get free by raising the field hedge whenever he finds a lower part he might have been able to climb over (Bottrell, Hearthside Stories, vol.1, p.57 and Enys Tregarthen, Folklore Tales, ‘The Enchanted Field’ (1911)).
In one case, something similar happened inside a house. A Welsh man woke up to see fairies in his bedroom dancing and eating. He tried to wake his wife, but couldn’t, and for four hours just had to watch the festivities. Eventually, the fairies left and he got out of bed to try to see where they had gone. However, he couldn’t find the bedroom door; it was only when he cried out in panic and woke the rest of his family that the spell was broken. For other examples, see Briggs’ Dictionary of Fairies.
Mist and Fog
The pixies are known for their ability to control the weather and this can be used as a way of trapping victims. Men travelling across Dartmoor from Crediton to Exeter were advised that, if a cloud descended, they should strip and sit on their clothes for half an hour or so. The pixies would in due course raise the fog thrown around them. Patience is evidently important in such cases. A woman on the Quantocks became demented with terror when the pixies caused an evening mist to rise suddenly around her, so that she was lost in a field minutes away from her home. For other examples, see Briggs’ Dictionary of Fairies.
The pixies may lure people away from their route with music, thereby getting them lost. This has been reported in Devon and in North Wales.
Just as a person may become trapped in a familiar field, they may step into a fairy ring and fall into the fairies’ power. A Somerset farmer coming home from market was led like this until he ended up exhausted by a briar bush that grew in three counties- a plant which magical properties that seems to have broken the spell he was under. Cornish fairy author Enys Tregarthen has called rings ‘Spriggan Traps.’
Perhaps related to this phenomenon is that of following a ‘piskey-path.’ Enys Tregarthen also described how these mysterious green paths can be seen on cliffs or meandering across the moors, still verdant when the bracken is dry and brown. Writing in 1630 in his View of Devonshire, Thomas Westcote mentioned how a person who got lost on Dartmoor would be “led in a pixy-path.” Here there is some definite, if unclear, link between these paths and being pixie-led.
In one Cornish story a man called Nicholas Annear was punished by the pixies for always rushing and hurrying. One day, he set out for market with his horse and cart. The pixies made it appear that the church tower at his destination was ahead, but he never got there. He drove his cart all day and never arrived.
Who do they pixies do this? They seem to have several motivations. Above all, there’s their love of mischief; they need no reason as such, other than the pleasure in mildly tormenting humans. However, they may feel the person needs to be punished for some reason (as in the case of Nicholas Annear above). If they have been insulted by a person, s/he will be targeted in revenge. For example, a North Yorkshire man who declared that he’d catch a fairy in a bottle was led astray for two hours as a result of his foolhardy boldness. Someone who has taken the fairies’ property will suffer too. A man from Bishop’s Lydeard in the Quantock Hills picked up a fairy grindstone as he was out walking and decided to keep it. A mist descended upon him and he was led through brambles all night. A woman from Selworthy parish on the Exmoor coast of Somerset saw a group of pixies; they were so upset by her intrusion that they led her all over the moor and through the woods. Any trespass upon the fairies’ privacy is bitterly resented.
An isolated example of retribution for trespass comes from Orkney, at the diametrically opposite end of the British Isles to Devon and Cornwall, where most of the accounts are located. In Redland parish on the mainland of Orkney there was a grass ‘gait’ (or path) used by the trows when passing from their hill to the sea shore at twilight. Two men in search of a midwife crossed the path one evening; for this disrespectful act one of them was led far astray by the trows.
Predictably, the pixie attitude to leading someone out of their way is great amusement. They are often said to be heard laughing or, even, clapping their hands with glee. They might sometimes be seen jumping about in front of the victim, mocking their situation (see Evans Wentz, Fairy Faith, 184). A clear indication of the blurring of differences between wills of the wisp and pixie-leading fairies is a description of the Dorset Jack o’ Lantern, who is seen as a ball of light hopping before a person and which sniggers and laughs if a victim is successfully lured into a pond; something very similar was described in Cornish story by Enys Tregarthen (Why Jen Pendogget Changed his Mind (1940)).
As for the human victims, how do they react? Inevitably, they will end up exhausted, frustrated and panic-stricken. They are often said in Cornwall to be left “mizzy-mazey” (Enys Tregarthen, The Enchanted Field). In Devon, the victim is said to be ‘mazed’ as a result, a neat term that is suggestive of being both amazed and lost (in a maze).
The consequences of being pixie-led can be much more serious, though. We’ve heard about terror and a loss of wits. A man who was pixie-led on the Blackdown Hills in Somerset had to be rescued after he was lured into a bog. He was ill for quite some time after this experience. A Devonshire man crossing Dartmoor near Chudleigh was pixie-led by the sound of music. He wandered for hours, trying to locate the source, and eventually collapsed in a faint. When he came round the next morning, he was able to make his way home, but he took to his bed, never rose again and soon afterwards died. In like manner a Welsh man, John Jacob of Bedwellty, was led astray by the fairies one night, following shapes that appeared and then vanished. At last he came to a neighbour’s house and was saved, but he was rendered mute by the experience and soon sickened and died.
If you are pixie-led, what can you do to free yourself? There are several tried and tested remedies.
Turning your clothes
The best known and easiest remedy is to turn an item of clothing- a hat might be turned back to front or a coat, pocket, glove or stocking might be turned inside out. It seems likely that this is effective because it changes your appearance and throws the pixies off the scent or releases you from the enchantment that traps you in a fairy ring. Wise travellers turn their clothes before they set out, so that they will be safe from enchantment throughout their journey. It’s worth adding, though, that in Enys Tregarthen’s story The Pisky Who Rode in a Pocket, the pixie’s presence in the victim’s clothing is the cause of their wandering astray- and the spell is only broken when she turns her pockets, thereby ejecting the mischievous passenger.
Making a Noise
Attracting the attention of other people who’ve not fallen under the pixie spell will work. This is effective in two ways. Either the rescuer calls out in reply to help guide the victim to safety or the pixie-led person makes a noise which attracts rescuers to where she or he is stranded. For instance, Abraham Stocke in Somerset had said that he had no time for pixies. They led him into a swamp one night when he was walking home from brass band practice. Luckily, he had his euphonium with him and was able to play it to alert his family and guide them to him. A person simply coming along and startling the victim out of their bemusement can often be enough to release them (for examples, see Briggs’ Dictionary of Fairies).
It can help to carry something with you to protect yourself against pixie charms during your travels. This could be a cross made from rowan wood, a piece of bread (as we’ve seen already) or a sprig of the plant greater stitchwort. Rowan, or mountain ash, are also well-known for repelling supernaturals beings of all kinds (witches included). The stitchwort is more unusual and seems to be a uniquely Devonian remedy. The flower is called ‘pixies’ in the county and it is believed to be the special property of the pixies. Picking it will upset them, but apparently carrying it with you somehow has the effect of deflecting rather than attracting their ill-will.
Water (as often) can release the bewildered person. Drinking the water from Fitz’s Well, near Okehampton on the northern edge of Dartmoor, dispels the glamour cast by the local pixies. Apparently any running water may have the same effect and, in fact, it is possible that falling in a stream might be sufficient to break the spell.
Summary & Further Reading
Pixie-leading is only really something to be concerned about if you’re out walking in unfamiliar places in Cornwall or Devon. The open moors are the likeliest locations, places where getting lost is, in any case, a considerable risk unless you’re well equipped with a map and compass. Outside this area, it is a remote risk: as we’ve seen from the folklore, there are only isolated cases from North Wales, North Yorkshire and Orkney.
In many ways, as I’ve described, the fairies can treat humans like their playthings and pixie-leading is one of the most acute examples of this. Unlike abductions, though, it is generally a very short-term and harmless experience. People can occasionally be led to perilous spots, such as marshes or cliff tops, and a few react very seriously to the stress of the experience, but for most it is an annoyance and a bit of a fright, but no more.
For another examination of the subject, see Simon Young’s article Pixy Led in Devon and the South West, which is available through Academia.com. I have, of course, read this, but in writing this posting I deliberately sought to reach my own conclusions based on the evidence that I had uncovered. Simon had access to a range of other sources and therefore reaches other useful conclusions on the subject. My posting on Glamour Housesdeals with a related phenomenon, though admittedly a deception by the fairies undertaken for benign purposes.