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.