Faeries & Sylphs in Wessex: the writing of John Cowper Powys

John Cowper Powys, author

Today, the name of writer John Cowper Powys (1872-1963) will be unfamiliar to most people. He was, nevertheless, a prolific writer of novels and poetry and was (and is) highly regarded by those who know his work. Part of his fall from favour may be related to the fact that none of his novels seem to be under 500 pages in length (although that’s never been a problem with Tolkien…)

The landscape, history and mythology of Wessex are at the centre of much of Powys’ work (despite his Welsh-ness). The supernatural penetrated his thinking and, even, his everyday life. Powys was inspired by Thomas Hardy’s Wessex (the counties of Dorset, Somerset and western Hampshire) and he celebrated the region’s inherent mystery and antiquity- for example, one of his novels is Maiden Castle (1936), named after the Iron Age hillfort south of Dorchester. In the novel, this site is where is the character Uryen tries to raise the ancient gods. The fort is huge and impressive and has inspired other artists- for example, composer John Ireland‘s 1921 orchestral work Mai Dun and photographs and paintings by Paul Nash. The latter called the fort “the largest and most perfect earthwork in the world. To say it is the finest in Dorset is, perhaps, enough, for in no part of any country, I believe – not even in Wiltshire, where Avebury stands – can be found so complete a sequence of hill architecture…” He sensed its powerful aura too- its unsettling spirit of place- “Its presence to-day, after the immense passage of time, is miraculously undisturbed; the huge contours strike awe into even the most vulgar mind; the impervious nitwits who climbed on to the monoliths of Stonehenge to be photographed, slink out of the shadow of the Maiden uneasily.”

Paul Nash, Maiden Castle, 1943

Returning to John Cowper Powys, the author had a highly intimate relationship with faery-lore. Admittedly, he wrote a good deal of poetry that was very conventional in its approach. For example, in To Thomas Hardy he described how “fairy fingers ring the flowery bells,” he demanded in On the Downs- “Squeeze out the cowslip wine, O fairy hands!” and in To W B Yeats he imagined a time “when woods were free/ To elfin feet and fairy minstrelsy.”

In these poems Powys’ fairies are the very familiar faes of late Victorian verse: they are tiny, winged and frail (he addresses a straw blown in the wind as a “wandering elf”- although this image also brings to mind the habit of Highland Scottish fairies of travelling in small whirlwinds). The fae beings of Powys’ verse care for nature (clearing slugs and snails from blackthorn leaves in Fairies’ Song) and they are both inspiration and illusion.

However, there was a deeper and more powerful undercurrent in his verse. In his Autobiography, published in 1934, Powys described Wordsworth’s “cerebral mystical passion for young women.” He saw this as being intimately bound up with the Romantic poet’s abnormally sensual sensitivity to the elements and, Powys declared, Wordsworth wanted his girls to be “elemental.”

Elsewhere in the same book, Powys confessed to being a “nympholept or sylpholept” himself. He was powerfully attracted to slim, sylph-like young females and he was perfectly open in his books about this “erotic obsession.” His ideal sylph had long, slender thighs, narrow boyish hips and “ankles of ravishing perfection”- “as fragile as wild anemones.” Sylphs are, of course, the elemental beings of the air who form part of the mythology of Paracelsus. For Powys, these faery beings were a constant source of desire and distraction. His poem Blasphemy is addressed to a “fairy form [and] flower-like face” with “piteous tender breast.” He asks her “Why did you come with your childish grace/ And trouble my heart’s rest?” A verse written To my friends curses them because they “have driven the fairies far away/ Lest their white limbs should hide the heavenly crown.” For Powys, the fairies truly were succubi or lhiannan shee, supernatural lovers who haunted and possessed their human lovers.

This desire for thin nymphets is entwined with Powys’ perception that the great god Pan and all his retinue are still present and active in the world. A poem about Montacute House in Somerset assures us that “Here, undisturbed may dusky Dryads dream/ That Pan with all his music haunteth still…” Of course, Pan is alive still in Arcadia in Greece as well: his pipes are heard by all that heed, for “the beautiful must always last/ Secure from change” (Odi Profanum). For Powys, Pan is the god of lusty passion for nymphs (indeed, in his poem The Truth? he called on people to drop their masks and to admit that they were all, really, “satyrs shamelessly/ Goblins, Imps and Elves”). At the same time, though, Pan is also the deity of the natural world, found in plants, clouds and waters, driving life and fertility in everything.

Faery Dealings

Rackham, A Fairy Market

Transacting business with the faeries can be a process beset by problems that significantly reduce the apparent advantages that might be gained by humans through such dealings.

As I discussed in a previous post, the faes can indulge in spontaneous and gratuitous acts of kindness. A man from Anglesey, for instance, woke up one morning to find that his shirt had been washed overnight by the tylwyth teg, and besides which they had left him half a crown (two shillings and sixpence) wrapped up in the garment. Such acts as these are unpredictable and sporadic, so little reliance can- or should- be placed on them, and the favour is easy to lose.

The fairies can decide to undertake substantial tasks for some, but it would probably be unwise to found any thoughts of prosperity- or to make plans for the future- based upon their assistance. A farmer at Dunvegan on the Isle of Skye unwittingly employed three faery men to help with his harvest. They reaped a field and put the corn in stooks in the record time of just a few hours, but they would not associate with any of the other farm workers and they complained bitterly about their working conditions: about their bread, their drink and their employer. The farmer discovered how disgruntled these mysterious workers were by having his son eavesdrop on their conversations. He very was lucky indeed that this spying didn’t have an unfavourable outcome- as was the case for one farmer on Colonsay. He benefited considerably from the fact that every year the local faeries would voluntarily harvest and stack the crops in his fields. He never saw who bestowed such a favour upon him and, eventually, consumed by curiosity, he stayed up one night to see who was doing the work. A host of faeries appeared and the farmer tried to count them: this proved such an insult to his supernatural helpers’ generosity that he never had their aid again.

Faeries will, inexplicably and without invitation, undertake quite onerous chores on farms. Perhaps it is this that explains their parallel tendency to make free with the property of their human neighbours. For example, on Shetland, one family had a cooking kettle that the trows simply borrowed (or, we might say, took) for a whole year. It was a trow habit too to ‘borrow’ islanders’ boats. This was vexing enough, no doubt, but the trows never tied them up again when they’d finished with them, and simply left them loose in the harbour or unsecured on the beach. Indeed, human households often left buckets of water out for the trows as they had discovered that this was a way of preventing them interfering with other household utensils.

The trows will also enter into commercial transactions with humans, but their way of doing deals does not resemble our own. A tinker was wandering the islands selling metalware when he saw a small dark man standing by a door that led inside a mound. This man (clearly a trow) enquired what was for sale: the tinker replied that he had plates, bowls and cups in his basket. Suddenly, he found himself inside the hillock; as suddenly, he was outside again with his basket entirely emptied of goods- but with five gold sovereigns in their place. It’s not a normal way of conducting business for us, but it’s how the trow folk do it.

Compare another case, in which a Shetland fiddler was employed by some trows to provide music at a wedding in Norway. They carried him there in a boat at record speed, but after the festivities the man was told that if he wanted to be rowed back home again, he would have to pay for the privilege with one of his stock of cows. Reluctantly, he agreed, but as he was so far from home he felt he had very little choice. When the man got back to his family, he discovered his one night away had actually been three years. He was very angry at this and resolved that he was not going to pay for the return journey. Nevertheless, within a week or so the fiddler found that one of his cows was sickly and had stopped eating and drinking. The man realised that, in fact, it was only the form of a cow that survived and that the real beast had already been taken by the trows in exercise of their bargain.

Even a more straightforward bargain can turn out to have its alarming aspects. In Keightley’s Fairy Mythology there’s a Manx story called the ‘Fairy Chapman,’ which he borrowed from Waldron’s guide to the Isle of Man:

“A man being desirous of disposing of a horse he had at that time no great occasion for, and riding him to market for that purpose, was accosted in passing over the mountains by a little man in a plain dress, who asked him if he would sell his horse. “‘Tis the design I am going on,” replied he: on which the other desired to know the price. “Eight pounds,” said he. “No,” returned the purchaser, “I will give no more than seven, which if you will take, here is your money.” The owner thinking he had bid pretty fair, agreed with him, and the money being told out, the one dismounted and the other got on the back of the horse, which he had no sooner done than both beast and rider sunk into the earth immediately, leaving the person who had made the bargain in the utmost terror and consternation. As soon as he had a little recovered himself, he went directly to the parson of the parish, and related what had passed, desiring he would give his opinion whether he ought to make use of the money he had received or not. To which he replied, that as he had made a fair bargain, and no way circumvented nor endeavoured to circumvent the buyer, he saw no reason to believe, in case it was an evil spirit, it could have any power over him. On this assurance, he went home well satisfied, and nothing afterwards happened to give him any disquiet concerning this affair. This was told to Waldron by the person to whom it happened.”

Fairy Mythology, 398-399

My recent book, How Things Work in Faery, contains extended discussion of all these puzzling aspects of the faery economy.

Shargie bairns and tacharans: more thoughts on Scottish changelings

Arthur Rackham

I recently came across a valuable Scottish folklore resource, the website A Kist of Riches, www.tobarandualchais.co.uk. This provided a range of new accounts of changelings to supplement my recent book on changelings, Middle Earth Cuckoos. The website features hundreds of recordings, many in Gaelic: a changeling in Scots is a “shargie” or “shag” bairn, in Gaelic a tacharan or siofra/ siobhra.

The two main issues dealt with by the folklore on changelings are the identifying features of the faery substitutes and the ways of getting rid of them and retrieving the original babies. C. F. Gordon-Cumming, describing the Hebrides in 1883 recorded that:

“changelings are idiot children, wizened and emaciated, yet their utter childishness blends with occasional flashes of mother wit to convince people that it is a fairy child.”

What’s more, changelings tend to cry constantly and to have appetites and thirsts that can never be satisfied.

The sort of behaviour that will indicate unequivocally that the individual in the cradle is a great deal older than its bodily form might suggest include a range of adult actions, such as sticking out the tongue and blowing raspberries. A very common Scottish story concerns a visitor to a house to whom the changeling reveals himself. The tacharan might play tunes on a length of straw like a pipe, or on the chanter of bagpipes, or he might share a drop of whisky with the stranger. In one instance from the Isle of Lewis, once the parents had gone out the baby transformed into an old bearded man who then entertained a visiting tailor by playing on a pair of tongs. In another example, from Lochbroom, the child used to leap out of bed when the adults were absent, take on the form of a man and would then perform labour around the farm in return for meals. Another common Highland story concerns a changeling who asks a visiting cobbler to make him a pair of boots or shoes “that will fit a child but which will be fit for a king.”

A preternatural ability to speak is very likely to disclose the changeling’s truly aged nature. One on Skye ate constantly but only ever used one phrase “muc dhearg” (red pig). A local healer was able to drive him off by threatening him with a sword and responding “the devil’s red pig” (“Muc dhearg an Diabhail.”)

One tacharan, at Blairgowrie in Perthshire, on being expelled by the parents disappeared up the chimney, but not before saying that “he would have liked to have known his mother better.” At first glance, this might appear to be a polite and complimentary expression of regret, but I strongly suspect that it was meant to be quite the opposite- as the hearers would have instantly understood. This elderly faery male, in the guise of a baby, would have been enjoying regular breast feeds from the human woman, so his parting jibe was really a cruel reminder of what they had harboured in the literal bosom of the family.

Even so, as in one case reported from Llandwrgan in Wales, the exchange might not be spotted for months in the case of very young babies. In newborns, it would naturally take some while for the precocious or bad tempered nature of the substituted child to manifest itself; this is why it was often said that, at first, the changeling was undetectable because it looked exactly like the stolen child.

Although, of course, the presence of the changeling necessarily indicates the absence of the family’s original child, the presence of a shargie was not always entirely negative. One child at Gart na Damh on Islay was wholly dependent upon the care of its grandmother, and spent all its time lying in a specially constructed bed, but so long as it was alive and living with the family, they prospered. As soon as it died, their luck changed. In another case from Islay the child was seven feet tall and had never risen from its cradle, even though it was nineteen years old. One day the exasperated father set fire to the crib to drive the changeling out- which succeeded, but all the cows died too.

Once it has been realised by a family that the creature in the cradle is not their beloved baby, most parents not unnaturally want to be rid of it, especially because the belief is that the departure of the changeling will be matched by the reciprocal return of the human infant. The usual means of achieving this is to make life as unpleasant as possible for the shargie.

Remedies include beating with a stick and whipping; threatening the child with a pin or knife; throwing it off a cliff; by exposing it outside overnight (a faery knoll being an especially good spot) or by leaving it on a rock on the seashore as the tide comes in, or feeding the suspect child with porridge with “something added” (perhaps salt or an objectionable herb such as mothan/ pearlwort). Telling the faery that its home was on fire could well provoke it into leaping out of the cradle and running home. Another Shetland remedy was to scatter earth on the floor from a basket and then to sweep it out of the house, along with the trow changeling.

Fire is perennially viewed as a good cure, as has already been seen. One Shetland boy who became very lazy was exposed as a trow changeling (as least so far as his family were concerned) when the father set fire to his bed and the boy suddenly leapt energetically from it.

Across Scotland, perhaps the commonest means of exposing a ‘shargie bairn’ was to place horse dung on a griddle or shovel, put the baby on top of that, and then hold them over the fire. This combination of noisome substance and heat was guaranteed to send the changeling shooting up the chimney. Other responses by the child to this mistreatment- which would only serve to confirm the creature’s true nature- were curses and swearing or, in one instance, throwing sods of earth from the roof back down the chimney.

Once the true baby was restored, wise precautions then would be to tie a red thread around its wrist and to nail a horseshoe over the door. These sorts of precaution ought, obviously, to have been taken in advance- given the very widespread fear of faery takings- but given the stress and distraction of looking after a new baby (especially where there were other children to care for or a farm to run) it’s understandable how they could be overlooked just for a moment, allowing the ever watchful faes their chance.