Ann Jeffries and the Pobel Vean

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Ann Jeffries was the daughter of a poor labouring man, who lived in the parish of St Teath in North Cornwall, between Wadebridge and Tintagel. She was born in 1626, and is supposed to have died in 1698.  The first written references to Ann appeared in March 1647, very soon after her faery experiences in 1645, and she was still alive in 1696 when Moses Pitt wrote about her (see later).

Our main account of her life is found in Hunt’s Popular Romances of the West of England (pages 127-9) from which the following passages are adapted.  

When she was nineteen years old, Ann, who was said to be a remarkably sharp and clever girl, went to live as a servant with the Pitt family. She was said to have been unusually bold and would do things which even boys feared to attempt. In those days everyone in Cornwall believed in fairies (the little folk or pobel vean in Cornish) and everybody feared them. They were the constant subject of gossip and rumour and this talk particularly captured Ann’s imagination and set her longing anxiously to meet with some of them. As a result, she was often out and about after sunset, turning up the fern leaves and looking into the bells of the foxglove to find a fairy, singing all the time this charm:

“Fairy fair and fairy bright;
Come and be my chosen sprite.”

Equally, she never allowed a moonlit night to pass without going down into the nearby valley and, walking beside the stream, she would sing another charm:

“Moon shines bright, waters run clear,
I am here, but where’s my fairy dear?”

The fairies spent a long time testing the poor girl; for, as they told her afterwards, they heard her perfectly well and never lost sight of her; but there they would be, looking on when she was seeking them, and they would run from frond to frond of the ferns, always just ahead of her when she was turning them up its her anxious search.  [NB- ferns are closely associated with faeries and with invisibility.]

One day Ann, having finished her morning’s work, was sitting knitting in the arbour in her master’s garden, when she fancied she heard some one moving aside the branches, as though endeavouring to look in upon her; and she thought it must be her sweetheart, so she resolved to take no notice. Ann went on steadily with her work and no sound was heard but the regular clicking of her knitting-needles. Presently she heard a suppressed laugh, and then again a rustle amidst the branches. The back of the arbour was towards the lane, and to enter the garden it was necessary to walk down the lane to the gate, which was, however, not many yards off.

At last Ann began to feel vexed that the intruder did not show himself, and she said peevishly, half out loud —

“You may stay there till the kueney (or cuney: moss, or mildew) grows on the gate, ere I’ll come to ‘ee.”

There was immediately peculiarly ringing and very musical laughter. Ann knew this wasn’t her lover’s laugh, and she felt afraid. Nonetheless, it was bright day, and she assured herself that no one would do her any mischief, as she knew herself to be a general favourite in the parish. Presently Ann felt sure that she’d heard the garden gate carefully opened and closed, so she waited anxiously. In a few moments she saw, standing at the entrance to the arbour, six little men, all clothed in green. They were beautiful little figures, and had very charming faces, and such bright eyes. The grandest of these visitors, who wore a red feather in his cap, advanced in front the others, and, making a most polite bow to Ann, addressed her familiarly in the kindest words. [Needless to observe, perhaps, the red and green clothes are very typical fairy garb.]

This gentleman looked so sweetly on Ann that she was charmed beyond measure, and she put down her hand as if shake hands with him, but instead he jumped into her palm and she lifted him into her lap. He then, without any more ado, he clambered upon her bosom and neck, and began kissing her. Ann never felt so delighted in her life as while this one little gentleman was playing with her; but presently he called his companion and they all clambered up by her dress as best they could, and kissed her neck, her lips, and her eyes. One of them ran his fingers over her eyes, and she felt as if they had been pricked with a pin. Suddenly Ann became blind, and she felt herself whirled through the air at a great rate. By and by, one of her little companions said something which sounded like “Tear away,” and Ann had her sight at once restored.

Ann found that she was in one of the most beautiful places- temples and palaces of gold and silver; trees laden with fruits and flowers; lakes full of gold and silver fish and the air full of birds of the sweetest song, and the more brilliant colours. Hundreds of ladies and gentlemen were walking about; hundreds more were idling in the most luxurious bowers, the fragrance of the flowers oppressing them with sense of delicious repose. Hundreds were also dancing or engaged in games of various kinds. Ann was, however, surprised to find that these happy people were no longer the small people she’d previously seen. There was now no more than the difference usually seen in a crowd, between their height and her own. Ann found herself arrayed in the most highly-decorated clothes. So grand, indeed, did she appear, that she doubted her identity.

[Ann’s fairyland is very similar to several others that I have described on the blog.  The cottage and garden where Cherry of Zennor lives bears some similarities, but Ann’s palatial surroundings are much closer to some of the medieval descriptions I’ve discussed.]

Ann was constantly attended by her six friends; but the finest gentleman, who had been the first to address her, continued her as her favourite, at which the others appeared to be very jealous. Eventually Ann and her favourite contrived to separate themselves, and they retired into some most lovely gardens, where they were hidden by the luxuriance of the flowers. They passed their time lovingly, and Ann wished this could continue forever. However, just when they were happiest, there was a great noise, and the five other fairies appeared at the head of a great crowd, all in a violent rage. Her lover drew his sword to defend her, but this was soon beaten down, and he lay wounded at her feet. Then the fairy who had blinded her again placed his hands upon her eyes, and all was dark. She heard strange noises, and felt herself whirled about and about, and as if a thousand flies were buzzing around her.

At length her eyes were opened, and Ann found herself on the ground in the arbour where she had been sitting in the morning, and many anxious faces were around her, all conceiving that she was recovering from a fit.  As a result of her faery experience, Ann found that she was endowed with clairvoyance and healing powers.  The first person she cured was her mistress, but her fame soon circulated within Cornwall and beyond.  

Ann had been given ointment by the fairies to cure “all distempers, sicknesses and sores” (such as the falling sickness and broken bones) and she was also granted the power to make herself invisible at will (perhaps the same ointment).  When she was later arrested, it was alleged that these fairies were in fact her imps or familiars. She denied this, saying rather that they had quoted holy scripture to her.  Ann never returned to Faery, but the Little Folk stayed near her, at least for the next few years.

We also have a first-hand account of some aspects of Ann’s story recounted by the son of the family for whom she worked as servant.  This was published in the form of a letter from Moses Pitt to the Right Reverend Father in God, Dr. Edward Fowler, Lord Bishop of Gloucester:

MOSES PITT’S LETTER RESPECTING ANNE JEFFERIES.

“An account of Anne Jefferies, now living in the county of Cornwall, who was fed for six months by a small sort of airy people, called fairies; and of the strange and wonderful cures she performed with salves and medicines she received from them, for which she never took one penny of her patients.”

Anne Jefferies, who was afterwards married to a farm labourer William Warren, was born in the parish of St Teath in December 1626, “and she is still living, 1696, being now in the 70th year of her age.” From the published narrative, we learn that Mr Humphrey Martin was asked by Moses Pitt to visit and examine Anne in 1693. Mr Martin writes, “As for Anne Jefferies, I have been with her the greater part of one day, and did read to her all that you wrote to me; but she would not own anything of it, as concerning the fairies, neither of any of the cures that she did. She answered, that if her own father were now alive, she would not discover to him those things which did happen then to her. I asked her the reason why she would not do it; she replied, that if she should discover it to you, that you would make books or ballads of it; and she said, that she would not have her name spread about the country in books or ballads of such things, if she might have five hundred pounds for it.” [As well as fear for her own reputation, you wonder if there was some fear of disclosing faery secrets as well.]

Mr Pitt’s correspondent went on to say that Anne was so frightened by the visitors she had in the arbour “that she fell into a kind of convulsion fit. But when they found her in this condition they took her into the house and put her to bed, and took great care of her. As soon as she recovered out of her fit, she cried out, ‘They are just gone out of the window- they are just gone out of the window. Do you not see them?'” Anne recovered, and “as soon as she recovered a little strength, she constantly went to church…  She took mighty delight in devotion, and in hearing the Word of God read and preached, although she herself could not read.”

Ann eventually told some portions of her story and cured numerous diseases amongst the people, by means of the powers she had derived from the fairy world. “People of all distempers, sicknesses, sores, and ages, came not only so far off as the Land’s End, but also from London, and were cured by her. She took no moneys of them, nor any reward that ever I knew or heard of, yet had she moneys at all times sufficient to supply her wants [This implies that she is receiving gifts of coins from the faeries].  She neither made nor bought any medicines or salves that ever I saw or heard of, yet wanted them not as she had occasion. She forsook eating our victuals, and was fed by these fairies from that harvest time to the next Christmas day; upon which day she came to our table and said, because it was that day, she would eat some roast beef with us, the which she did- I myself being then at the table.”

The fairies constantly attended upon Ann and they appear to have vied with each other to win her favour. They fed her, as we have been already told and the writer says that on one occasion site she “gave me a piece of her bread, which I did eat, and I think it was the most delicious bread that ever I did eat, either before or since.” Ann could render herself invisible, apparently at will. The fairies would come and dance with her in the orchard. She had a silver cup, given to her by the fairies, which she in turn gave to a local girl called Mary Martyn when she was about four years of age.

At last, “one John Tregeagle, Esq., who was steward to John Earl of Radnor, being a justice of peace in Cornwall, sent his warrant for Anne, and sent her to Bodmin jail, and there kept her a long time.”  Her offence was, apparently, not so much her claims of faery acquaintance (although that was certainly enough to get you into trouble in those days- and, in Scotland, to get you burnt at the stake).  More of a problem for Ann, however, was the fact that she was a staunch Church of England Royalist during the Civil War.  As we have seen, she was very devout, but she insisted on High Church services, which didn’t go down well with the increasingly powerful Puritans.  Possibly even worse than that was the fact that her prophecies for the future all foretold the victory of the King and the triumph of the bishops.  

The fairies had previously given Ann a warning that she would be apprehended.  When they did this, “she asked them if she should hide herself. They answered no; she should fear nothing, but go with the constable. So she went with the constable to the justice, and he sent her to Bodmin jail, and ordered the prison keeper that she should be kept without victuals, and she was so kept, and yet she lived, and that without complaining. But poor Ann lay in jail for a considerable time after; and also Justice Tregeagle, who was her great prosecutor, kept her in his house some time as a prisoner, and that without victuals.”  Apparently, after a year or so in Bodmin’s jail, she was released to a sort of house arrest in the home of the Mayor of Bodmin.  She held out, though, and eventually had to be released without charge, after which she took up a position with Moses Pitt’s widowed aunt in Padstow.

In the course of this account, we have a curious example of the fairies quoting Scripture; I’m not aware of another instance of this. On one occasion Ann, when seated with the family, was called three times. “Of all these three calls of the fairies, none heard them but Ann. After she had been in her chamber some time, she came to us again, with a Bible in her hand, and told us that when she came to the fairies, they said to her, ‘What ! has there been some magistrates and ministers with you, and dissuaded you from coming anymore to us, saying, we are evil spirits, and that it was all a delusion of the devil? Pray, desire them to read that place of Scripture, in the First Epistle of St. John, chap. iv. ver. I, ‘Dearly beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits, whether they are of God;’ and this place of Scripture was turned down so in the said Bible. I told your lordship before, Anne could not read.”

Finally:

“And now, my lord, if your lordship expects that I should give you an account when, and upon what occasion, these fairies forsook our Anne, I must tell your lordship I am ignorant of that. She herself can best tell, if she would be prevailed upon to do so; and the history of it, and the rest of the passages of her life, would be very acceptable and useful to the most curious and inquisitive part of mankind.” (from An Historical Survey of the County of Cornwall, C. S. Gilbert 1817).

Cornwall's Bodmin Jail plans £12.5m Dark Walk attraction
The entrance to Bodmin jail

The Seelie and Unseelie Courts

The Seelie Court by Amarenth

The seelie and unseelie courts of Scottish fairies are a particular feature of the folklore of that country; the clear separation of the faes into good and bad groupings that’s entailed is almost unique in folklore.  Moreover, the notion of the two courts has, in recent years, attracted considerable attention and popularity- notwithstanding the fact that they are not mentioned in the majority of the Scottish faery-lore texts and collections.  Probably the majority of recorded Scottish folklore relates to the Highlands and Islands, the Gaelic (and Norse) speaking regions, which may explain why we have relatively little material documenting the two courts.

The Scots word ‘seelie’ derives from the Anglo-Saxon (ge)sælig/ sællic meaning ‘happy’ or ‘prosperous.’  The evolution of the word in Middle English and Scots seems to have been in two directions.  One sense was ‘pious,’ ‘worthy,’ ‘auspicious’ or ‘blessed.’  The second development extended the meaning incrementally through ‘lucky,’ ‘cheerful,’ ‘innocent,’ and ‘simple,’ from whence it was a short final step to ‘simple-minded,’ as the modern English ‘silly’ denotes.  Because of this evolution, as well as because of the dialectical differences between English and Scots, it is preferable to use ‘seelie’ rather than to try to translate it.  In passing, we might observe that Scots is in many cases far nearer to original Anglo-Saxon than modern English, which has imported so many French and Latin words.

By late medieval and early modern times, ‘seelie’ or ‘seely’ in Scots meant happy or peaceable, as in ‘seely wights,’ and the ‘seely court,’ which was the ‘happy or pleasant court.’  It followed from this that ‘unseelie’ or ‘unsilly’ described something that was unhappy or wretched.  The poet Dunbar referred to Satan’s “unsall meyne” (his “wretched troop of followers”), a phrase which could be a very appropriate term for the fairies; even more significantly, Montgomerie’s description of the fairy court mentioned how “an elf on an ape an unsel begat”- in other words, the pairing gave birth to a wretch or monster.  (Dunbar, Evergreen, i 106; Montgomerie, The Flyting of Polwart)

Scots is the language of Lowland Scotland, and this gives us a sense of the realm of the seelie and unseelie courts.  The unseelie court, therefore, might be expected to include such creatures as the red caps, shellycoat, the brown man of the muirs, the powrie, the dunter, and perhaps a hag like Gentle Annis; the seelie court, meanwhile, included the elves, the brownies and the doonie (see my Beyond Faery for details of many of these). 

The Unseelie Court by Ameluria

Most of our records of the usage of seelie and unseelie courts are not very old.  We are told about them in McPherson’s Primitive Beliefs of North East Scotland (1929) and earlier in Charles Rogers’ Scotland, Social and Domestic (1884); surprisingly, perhaps, there is no mention of the terms in Sir Walter Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Borders (1802) or Letters on Demonology (1830) nor does Cromek allude to the concepts in his Remains of Nithsdale Song (1810).  The ballad Allison Gross refers to the ‘Seelie Court’ but this song was only recorded in 1783- although it might not be unreasonable to see it as being at least two hundred years older. 

A very early example of the use of seelie is to be found in a poem of 1584 by Robert Sempill, entitled Heir Followis the Legend of the Bishop of St. Androis Lyfe, Callit Mr. Patrick Adamsone, Alias Cousteane.  The poem is a biting satire upon the high- ranking churchman of St Andrews, who became a target for criticism and mockery after he used the services of a healer called Alison Pearson to treat various ailments.  She was later convicted as a witch.  Sempill describes at one point:

“Ane carling of the Quene of Phareis,

That ewill win geir to elphyne careis;

Through all Braid Abane scho hes bene,

On horsbak on Hallow ewin;

And ay in seiking certayne nyghtis,

As scho sayis, with sur sillie wychtis…”

This servant of the fairy queen is a ‘carline’ or ‘carling’- a stout and bad-tempered woman and (by extension) a witch.  She is seen riding out across Scotland (Albany) at Halloween with her loyal “sillie wychtis,” making it virtually certain that these ‘seelie wights’ are other members of the queen’s court.

‘Carling’ entered Northern Middle English (and Scots) from Old Norse kerling. The related word in southern English is ‘churl’ (directly from the Anglo-Saxon ceorl with only a minor vowel change).  The hard initial consonant of ‘carline’ indicates the word’s Norse source- and might even imply an origin in the far north, in the Viking kingdom of Orkney and Shetland.

Whilst we’re debating questions of etymology, it’s also useful to consider what ‘court’ may have implied in Scots.  Certainly, it meant the royal court and could, therefore, in context refer to the establishment of the king and queen of Elphame.  The word also meant a retinue, company or troop- perhaps some formal assembly of individuals as against a mere mob.  Andrew Wyntoune, for example, in his Orygynale Cronykil of Scotland (1420) described birds and wild beasts eating carrion as a “fey court”- a ‘doomed company,’ perhaps.

What do these two courts do to earn their names and reputations?  The Gude Fairies or seelie court comprised elves whose numbers were augmented by babies who died of parental abuse, those who fell fighting in just battles and all other good and worthy folk who had, perhaps just the once, lapsed in some way and so could not access heaven.  These good faeries help mankind: they provide bread to the poor and aged, seed corn to the hardworking but unlucky, and gifts to those they favoured- especially those who had themselves helped out the fairies with loans or gifts.  If they are called on to assist a person, the seelie court will do so and will help with daily tasks.  They cheer those afflicted and in despair. 

The ranks of the unseelie court are made up with those who had given themselves up to the devil, bad men who died fighting, unmarried mothers stolen during childbirth and unbaptised babies.  The wicked fairies are always ready to inflict harm and loss.  They might shave victims out of spite, abduct people who placed themselves in their power, steal goods and kill cattle with elf shot.

Be warned, however, that we should not overstate the benignity of even the seelie court.  For example, in the Ballad of Mary O’Craignethan, her father curses the seelie court after his daughter is abducted by a fairy man.  He threatens to cut down their groves in revenge.  The father is advised how to recover his child magically but at the same time he’s warned how unwise it is to make such threats.  He manages to retrieve the young woman, in scenes very like the rescue of Tam Lin, but he soon dies, because “nane e’er curs’d the Seelie Court/ And ever after thrave.”  It was well known in Scotland that conduct like that of Mary’s father could only mean that the person would pine away, having seen all their affairs go to ruin.  An identical fate would befall any person who ploughed up a fairy ring.

The Unseelie Court in Shadowhunters

Fairies in Drag- and other curious stories

I’ve written before about the considerable evidence for diversity in Faery, both of race and of sexuality. Nevertheless, there are some suggestions of intolerance towards similar conduct by humans. There is a curiously inconclusive feeling story in Evans Wentz’ Fairy Faith in the Celtic Countries that I have never been sure how to handle.  It’s set at Barra Head on the Isle of Barra in the Western Hebrides, and it tells how:

“a fairy woman used to come to a man’s window almost every night as though looking to see if the family was home. The man grew suspicious, and decided the fairy woman was watching her chance to steal his wife, so he proposed a plan. It was then (and still is) the custom after thatching a house to rope it across with heather-spun ropes, and, at the time, the man was busy spinning some of them; so he told his wife to take his place that night to spin the heather-rope, and said he would take her place at the spinning-wheel. They were thus placed when the fairy woman made the usual look in at the window, and she seeing that her intention was understood, said to the man, “You are yourself at the spinning-wheel and your wife is spinning the heather-rope.”

Fairy Faith, p.104.

It’s not at all clear from this brief account why the changes of place and work in the cottage foiled the fairy woman so successfully.  However, I recently got a clue from a story told by Edgar MacCulloch about a fairy incident on Guernsey (Guernsey Folklore, 215-7)  This concerns the baking activities of Le Grand and Le Petit Colin, who seem to have been two household fairies known on the island. 

The story goes as follows. A man and his wife occupied a small, simple cottage at St. Brioc. Both of them were kept very busy scraping a living together.  Amongst her occupations was spinning. Nightly, after her husband had already gone to bed, she would sit up late at her spinning wheel by the dim light of the “crâset” (cresset).

While thus occupied one night, she heard a knock at the door, and a voice enquiring whether the oven was hot, and whether a batch of dough might be baked in it. A voice from inside the house asked who was there, and, on hearing that it was Le Petit Colin, the door opened to let him in. She then heard the noise of the dough being placed in the oven, and a conversation between the two, from which she learned that the person already in the house with her was the fairy Le Grand Colin. After a time, the bread was taken out of the oven and the mysterious visitor departed, leaving behind him on the table a nicely baked cake, with an intimation that it was given in return for the use of the oven.

These visits were repeated frequently and at regular intervals and the woman at last mentioned them to her husband. He was immediately seized by a strong desire to witness the events, despite his wife begging him that he should leave them well alone. His will prevailed and it was settled that the next night the husband would take his wife’s place at the wheel, disguised in her clothes, and that she should go to bed. Knowing that her husband could not spin, she didn’t put any flax or wool on the distaff, so as to prevent her husband, in turning the wheel, from spoiling it. He’d not been long at his post, and was pretending to spin, when the expected visitor came. Although the man could see nothing, he heard one of the two say to the other:

“File, filiocque,

Rien en brocque,

Barbe à cé ser

Pas l’autre ser.”

“There’s flax on the distaff,

But nothing is spun;

Tonight, there’s a beard,

T’other night there was none.”

Upon which- both the fairies were heard to quit the house as if in anger, and were never again known to revisit it.

Once again, we have a role reversal, with the man undertaking a female task, and further compounding this action by wearing his wife’s clothes.  What are we to make of these two narratives?

It may be (possibly) that the fairies object to men in drag, but I think it’s really more about changes of appearance and identity defeating or frustrating them.  We know that one of the solutions to being pixie-led is to turn your coat or another garment.  As Katharine Briggs described, turning the clothes works as a change of identity, that frees the individual from the fairy enchantment.  The same theory seems to have been at play in the Scottish Highlands when boys were protected against being abducted by the fairies by means of disguising them in girl’s dresses (see Barbara Fairweather, Folklore of Glencoe and North Lorn, 1974). 

It appears to be the case that the fairies can, in certain circumstances at least, be fairly easily out-witted.  Perhaps, too, the simple action by the human target is an indication to the fairy that she or he knows what’s happening, at which point they decide to abandon their plan because they are likely now to meet resistance.

Faery lore in Kilvert’s Diary

The Reverend Francis Kilvert is known for the diaries he kept between 1870 and 1879, when he was a vicar in various parishes in Herefordshire, along the border with Wales. These records provide valuable evidence of many aspects of rural life at the time- which includes scraps of folklore.

There are scattered references in Kilvert’s entries to faery belief. We can probably label these faery folk as the tylwyth teg, the Welsh fair folk, rather than seeing them as more anglicised beings. The border between Powys and Herefordshire is not sharp break between Welsh and English culture and there are plenty of Welsh place names to be found on the English side: doubtless alongside Welsh folk beliefs.

The rocks at Aberedw

Faery belief was beginning to fade at the time Kilvert wrote. He was told by David Price of Capel-y-ffin that “We don’t see them now because we have more faith in the Lord and don’t think of them.  But I believe the fairies travel yet…”  This was not complete disappearance or extinction, therefore; more, it was a matter of the human eye of faith failing, or being distracted by the Christian teachings heard in the Wesleyan chapels. The fairies were still there, but showed themselves less often than before. In July 1872, for example, Kilvert was told that the fairies had last been seen at the Rocks of Aberedw, in the Wye Valley, south of Builth Wells. The fair folk were, in any case, naturally elusive. Kilvert heard on Midsummer’s Day 1873 how the grandfather of Walter Brown of Marsh had once seen the fairies in a hedge in a lane. Sadly, by the time he had stopped his horse and cart and scrambled off, the tylwyth teg had vanished.

A farm at Llan-pica

At the same time, faery lore was still told to local children. Kilvert noted in October 1870 how boys feared the ‘Goblin Lantern’ and that ‘Hob with his Lantern’ was often seen at Sheepcot Pool at Wernwg. Wills of the wisp were still very real apparitions, therefore, and boys still turned their hats to save themselves from being pulled into faery rings to join their dances. The faeries remained a potent and persistent threat- as proved by the story of a girl from Llan-pica, near Painscastle, who was led astray by them and, it was reported, killed. This violence, especially against a child, is unusual, but the habit of stealing people, especially kids, is of course very familiar.

The tylwyth teg weren’t all bad, by any means. An old man at Rhos Goch Mill used to hear the fairies entering the mill at night and dancing to the sweet music of their fiddles. Indeed, a tune that (for no apparent reason) was titled ‘The Fall of Paris’ had, apparently, been taught to a human by the fairies. The association of the faes with songs and with tunes is very strong, and is known throughout the British Isles, from Wales and the Isle of Man up to Orkney and the Shetlands.

Rhos Goch Mill

Kilvert’s records of the fairies of the Marches, brief as it is, is fascinating, because it combines general and unique features together creating a very specific faerylore for this region- and one that is highly localised, and the more real and believable for the fact that the incidents can be sited so precisely.

Tam Lin & escapes from faeryland

The Fairy Host in Tam Lin by Stephanie Pui-Mun Law

A number of Scottish ballads suggest that for human captives in fairyland to escape their captivity can be a violent and terrifying process- especially for the person trying to save them.  There are three primary examples to consider, all of which share close resemblances. 

In the ballad, The Faery Oak of Corriewater, a young man called Elph Irving has been captured by the queen of Elfland to be her cupbearer.  He is said to be “the fairest that earth may see” and, for his seven years’ service, she says that “his wage is a kiss of me” which seems to make it fairly clear that he is as much a sex slave as a domestic servant. It’s notable too that his name is prefixed ‘Elph,’ suggestive of some kind of assimilation to faery-kind through his residence with them. As we know, for humans to eat faery food can lead to a permanent physical change which prevents their return to the mortal world.

Irving’s sister comes to save him.  The fairies are alerted to her approach (“For here comes the smell of some baptised flesh,/ And the sounding of baptised feet”- humans can be smelt by fairies just as much as we can detect them by their distinctive fairy smell) and try to make a getaway on their steeds.  The sister, however, is too fast:

“She linked her brother around,

And called on God, and the steed with a snort

Sank into the gaping ground.

But the fire maun [must] burn, and I maun quake,

And the time that is gone will no more come back.

And she held her brother, and lo! he grow

A wild bull waked in ire;

And she held her brother, and lo! he changed

To a river roaring higher;

And she held her brother, and he became

A flood of the raging fire;

She shrieked and sank, and the wild elves laughed

Till the mountain rang and mire.”

To save her brother, she must be brave and not be intimidated by the transformations he goes through under the power of faery glamour. Sadly, the sister’s courage fails at last moment when Irving turns into the blaze of elfin fire and her chance to save him is lost forever.

Erica Leveque

The story of Tam Lin is very similar to that of the Faery Oak, but the ending is much happier.  Tam is a human boy who, as before, has been taken by the faery queen- perhaps once again for carnal reasons, as he describes himself as “fat and fair of flesh.”  This may, alternatively, relate to the fact that the fairies seem to intend to sacrifice him as their teind (tithe) to the devil.  This fate arises in part from his good looks, but it is also likely to reflect his part-human status; although Tam also states that he too has undergone some sort of transformation and that he is now “a fairy, lyth and limb,” he’s still not entirely one of them and, as such, is easier for the community to lose.

A girl called Janet falls for Tam after she meets him in a wood and gets pregnant.  She wants to rescue him from the fairies, so that she has a father for her child, and he instructs her when, where and how to do it.  She has to snatch him from his horse as the fairy court is out on its Halloween rade- and she must then be prepared for the transformations that will follow:

“They’ll turn me in your arms, Janet,

            An adder and a snake;

            But had [hold] me fast, let me not pass,

            Gin ye wad be my maik [lover/ partner].

            They’ll turn me in your arms, Janet,

            An adder and an ask;

            They’ll turn me in your arms, Janet,

            A bale that burns fast.

            They’ll turn me in your arms, Janet,

            A red-hot gad o’ airn;

            But haud me fast, let me not pass,

            For I’ll do you no harm.

First dip me in a stand o’ milk,

            And then in a stand o’ water;

            But had me fast, let me not pass,

            I’ll be your bairn’s father.

And next they’ll shape me in your arms

            A toad but and an eel;

            But had me fast, nor let me gang,

            As you do love me weel.

            ‘They’ll shape me in your arms, Janet,

            A dove but and a swan,

            And last they’ll shape me in your arms

            A mother-naked man;

            Cast your green mantle over me,

            I’ll be myself again.”

When Janet has rescued Tam, the fairy queen curses her for taking away the bonniest knight in her company: “Shame betide her ill-far’d face,/  And an ill death may she die.”  At the same time, too, the queen wishes she had taken steps to stop Tam’s fancy from straying.  She regrets that she had not taken out his heart, and replaced it with a stone, and that she had not “taen out thy twa grey een,/ Put in twa een o tree” (“Taken out your two grey eyes/ And put in two of wood.”)  This desire to blind Tam so he can’t see humans is an interesting detail of the ballad, because of its comparison to the faery practice of blinding those humans (usually midwives) who have got ointment on their eyes and as a result can see the fairies through their glamour.

Tam Lin by wylielise on deviantart

Our last example of a perilous escape from faery concerns a female captive who is rescued by her father.  The Ballad of Mary o’ Craignethan sees Mary stolen away under the fairy knoll by a fae man.  Her father seeks expert counsel and is advised on the ritual he has to follow to bless (sain) and then release her.  He must go to the fairy oak and there blow his horn three times.  At the first blast, the tree will bend and fall; at the second a silence will fall and an eldritch laugh will ring out.  At the third, a loathsome fiend will appear with “wauchie cheek and wauland ye” (‘a sallow cheek and wildly rolling eyes’). This will be Mary- and her father has to grasp her tightly by the wrists and make the sign of a cross over her:

“syne an ugsome ask in his han’ sho kyth’t

Owerspread wi’ lapper’t blude.”

She’ll appear next as a fearsome newt in his hand, covered in clotted blood.  He mustn’t quail but should then make the sign of the cross again and:

“Syne a sneeran’ [hissing] snake she turn’d roun’ his arm

And ower his bosom slade;

When he the thirden time she sain’t

A burnan bale she grew;

He nam’d ower her the halie name

An’ she flichter’t a milk-white dou [fluttered like a white dove].

He nam’d ower her the halie name

In his han’ was a lily rare;

He nam’d ower her the halie name,

In his han’ was his Mary fair.”

As you’ll have noticed, several transformations are common to all these stories.  Snakes, newts and burning bales seem to have been mentioned because they are likely to scare the rescuer into releasing their loved one; birds will flap wildly to try to escape- and it’s likely, I guess, that the snakes and newts will slither and, once again, alarm the rescuer. What is very clear, though, is that the rescue requires a lot of the human: she or he must not only know the necessary words and ritual; they must also have a very steady nerve and be able to see through the faeries’ glamour and realise that the deadly creatures in their arms are only illusion, and pose no real threat.

Tamlaine by Robert Macnair