I’ve discussed previously the rich folklore and mythological foundations of the writing of Alan Garner. I received a copy of his latest book, Treacle Walker, for Christmas and have just finished it.
Treacle Walker is another strange tale that is deeply embedded in the legends and magic of the British past. A boy called Joe is visited by a rag and bone man, Walker. He swaps some old pyjamas for an old vase and a stone. Both turn out to have mysterious properties. The stone (a ‘donkey stone’) can keep evil entities out of a house. The pot contains the remnants of some green-violet ointment; Joe touches a little of this by accident to an eye and acquires what Walker calls “the glamourie“- he can see things that are otherwise invisible. Through the power of the second sight he has acquired, Joe meets a strange character who lives in the boggy land at the foot of the hill below the farm where the boy lives. This being, called Thin Amren, sleep submerged beneath the marshy water.
Walker starts to visit Joe. He produces a bone pipe from his magical pouch (called his Corr Bolg, a term from Irish myth meaning ‘Crane Bag’) and plays a tune “with wings, trampling things, tightened strings, boggarts and bogles and brags on their feet; the man in the oak, sickness and fever…” When Joe tries to play it, it produces a note like a cuckoo’s call.
Joe asks Walker where he’s from. He tells Joe that he comes from “the Country of the Summer Stars,” although he concedes that “Here on this Middle-Yard is good moundland enough.” What he means by this becomes clear a little later, when Joe follows what he thinks are the tracks of the rag and bone cart, which lead him to a grassy hillock. Sitting on it in moonlight, he hears the bone pipe playing under the mound beneath him.
Everything eventually comes to a dramatic climax involving Thin Amren and a giant, fearsome Cuckoo. At the conclusion, Joe takes over Walker’s role as the mysterious rag and bone man.
The book is dense with references to faerylore and myth which are not expanded upon in the text. Regular readers will be very familiar with the green faery ointment which can bestow the second sight on humans, thereby dispelling faery glamour. Highly evocative is that music that can stir bogles to dancing. Some may recall that the cuckoo has faery connections that we no longer fully understand. As for Walker’s home under a mound– you will know too how often faeries live in hollow hills. His mention of the ‘Middle Yard’ derives from Middle English ‘middle geard‘ and means, simply, Middle Earth, this world in which we live now. Walker meanwhile, echoes Taliesin in the Song of Taliesin: “my original country is the region of the summer stars.” The links between the stars and the tylwyth teg are another allusive aspect of British faerylore.
Treacle Walker is a very short book- only 150 pages long- and features only a handful of characters. Its plot and structure are therefore nowhere near as complex as other books by Garner I’ve discussed, but I’m sure it will repay multiple reads.
In a comment on my recent posting, How to Spot the Tylwyth Teg, a reader suggested that we mortals generally have an innate sense that there is something ‘wrong’ or ‘different’ with any faery individual we might meet- without there being any tell-tale signs immediately obvious.
My strong inclination was to agree with this. It set me thinking, though, and I went back to some of the reported sightings to see what the experiences of actual witnesses were. Looking at examples drawn fairly randomly from Janet Bord’s Fairies and from Evans Wentz’ Fairy Faith, it looks as though I might have been wrong. In the recorded encounters, there is almost always something odd that alerts the person right away to the potential non-human nature of the being they have seen or met. In the Bodfari example, which triggered this enquiry, it seems that it was the beings’ height and the speed of their dancing which aroused curiosity and suspicion. Likewise some other dancing faes seen at Stowmarket in Suffolk moved silently and seemed “light and shadowy, not like solid bodies.” Two faery ‘boys’ seen at night on Rhosrhydd Moor, near Aberystwyth, were “perfectly white and very nimble” which is what caused the man to suspect they were supernatural. Faeries spotted near Maestwynog, Carmarthenshire, in August 1862, attracted attention because of the speed of their movement, their strange spiralling dancing and their ability to vanish and then re-appear. A strange light associated with the figures- as seen by one witness on the Isle of Man, might be another factor. Generalising, odd behaviour in an odd location at an odd hour of the day, plus some oddity of appearance, will all combine to alert the viewer to the fact that something is out of the ordinary. It is then that the feeling of ‘alien-ness’ creeps upon them; during World War Two, a soldier based on the island of Hoy, Orkney, saw some wild men dancing on a cliff top during a storm. The circumstances and their look led first to bewilderment- and then to an effort to explain the apparition by categorising it as a faery sighting. (Bord pages 31, 35, 38, 40, 41, 51)
The clues can be as simple as the person’s clothing. John Campbell of Barra told Evans Wentz that he saw a woman clad in green “and imagined that no woman would be clad in that colour except a fairy woman.” He expanded on his reasoning a short while later in their conversation, stating that the general belief was that “the fairies were more of the nature of spirits than men made of flesh and blood- but they so appeared to the naked eye that no difference could be marked in their forms from that of any human being, except that they were more diminutive.” (Evans Wentz, 103 & 104).
Sometimes, even prolonged exposure to a being who didn’t seem ‘quite right’ was not enough for the witness to get over the presumption that they’re with a fellow-human. Catherine Jones of Llanfair on Ynys Mon (Anglesey) told Evans Wentz of the following incident when she was 24 years old:
“I was coming home at about half-past ten at night from Cemaes, on the path to Simdda Wen, where I was in service, when there appeared just before me a very pretty young lady of ordinary size. I had no fear, and when I came up to her put out my hand to touch her, but my hand and arm went right through her form. I could not understand this, and so tried to touch her repeatedly with the same result; there was no solid substance in the body, yet it remained beside me, and was as beautiful a young lady as I ever saw. When I reached the door of the house where I was to stop, she was still with me. Then I said “Good night” to her. No response being made, I asked, “Why do you not speak?” And at this she disappeared. Nothing happened afterwards, and I always put this beautiful young lady down as one of the tylwyth teg.” (Evans Wentz, 141-142)
These examples could be multiplied, but the evidence seems reasonably consistent. There are certainly cases where a close sighting allows no scope for doubt, because the individual met with is so distinctly not human. Otherwise, there are clues which, put together over a period of time drive the observer to conclude that the only ‘reasonable’ explanation is a glimpse of Faery. It seems that the intuition is in finding the best answer for what’s been seen, rather than an a priori ‘gut-feeling’ that the person spotted is ‘other.’
Of course, there are plentiful tales which plunge straight into the action- along the lines of ‘A man was visited by a fairy woman…’ In these accounts, the fact that the faery nature of the other party is not remarked upon might possibly be evidence to support the idea that we humans have a ‘second sense’ about these things. In these cases, they already instantly knew who or what they were dealing with, so there was no need for the narrator to waste time describing their surprise, confusion, etc. This may be so, but the start of these stories are curtailed and don’t permit us to determine the preliminaries.
As a general summary, therefore, the definition or designation of the individual encountered as ‘Faery’ tends to follow ‘incriminating’ evidence, rather than being an instinct or intuition.
What’s the difference between angels and faeries? This is a question which, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, seemed far less settled than may be the case today. An astrological chart found in a manuscript in the Ashmolean Museum, Cambridge, for example, states that people born under Jupiter and Sagittarius will have good fortune, will be prosperous on long journeys and will enjoy “many visions, [being] apt to see fairie spirits and Angels and to converse with them.” [MS Ashmole 363 f.70r]
That there was not necessarily any hard and fast difference between the two types of supernatural entity comes over most clearly from the records of those who tried to contact and converse with angels or faeries. As angels derived from an incorruptible celestial region, there were perceived to be major barriers in the way of contact between them and mortals. One way of overcoming this was to trap the angel in a crystal; another was for the human to go through lengthy and rigorous rituals of purification before trying to summon an angel, so that they to some degree approached the angel in material purity before they were in contact.
As I’ve described before, identical procedures were followed in order to successfully contact and control a faery. Abstinence and cleansing would be required and crystals were actively employed. In summoning and binding faeries too, Christian invocations and charms would be employed. For example, the spell to conjure up the faery called Elaby Gathen found in British Library manuscript MS Sloane 1727 called on the spirit “in the name of the father, of the sonne, and of the holy ghost,” naming too Tetragrammaton (i.e. YHWH- Jehovah), Emanuel, Messiah, Alpha and Omega, the Blessed Virgin, Elohim and many other such Hebrew names. As I remarked previously, all of this religious terminology would be assiduously intoned, even if the plan was to summon and secure a faery being in order to have sex with her…
It’s not wholly clear from the earlier sources exactly how the faeries were categorised in relation to angels. Paracelsus, for example, saw them as distinct: there were angels, devils, the souls of the dead and elementals (which included the subterranean gnomes and the airy sylphs). His theories were rather individual, though. Others from that period weren’t always so strict or precise in differentiating the two. The Elizabethan magician John Dee, working with his scryer Edward Kelley, made contact (they believed) with angels. Dee did this to gain secret information and wisdom from the heavenly beings; much of this was imparted to the pair in the angelic language, which they called Enochian. It’s worth remarking that hidden knowledge and warnings of future events have often been sought from faeries- and that they too are often said to speak their own tongue.
Later evidence suggests that many people thought of the faeries as much more closely related to the angels than Paracelsus had supposed. The evidence of this comes from Evans Wentz’ Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries. Quite a few witnesses told him that the faeries numbered amongst the fallen angels. When Lucifer led his rebellion against god, a large number of angels followed him. Many descended into hell with Satan but some were trapped between heaven and hell at the point that the gates of each were closed. These angels became the faes- too good for Hell, too bad for Heaven. The faeries understood themselves to be “the seed of the Proud One,” cursed to hide in holes on the earth surface until Judgment Day settles their uncertain fate (see Evans Wentz pages 85, 105, 109, 115, 129 & 154). These ideas are found as far back as English manuscripts from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries (The South English Legendary and Life of Adam & Eve).
Evans Wentz heard these accounts across the Hebrides, on Barra and Harris, and it is very likely that his witnesses were Gaelic speaking Catholics, preserving folk tradition of much earlier generations. However, he also heard the same story on the Isle of Man (perhaps a remnant of Celtic Catholicism) and also from a woman in Pembrokeshire, less likely to have preserved pre-Reformation ideas. In contrast, the faeries as fallen angels doesn’t appear to have been a concept known in England by the time Victorian collectors were recording accounts.
That said, there is some indication from folk magical practices that the faeries’ status as relatives of the devil and demons was known. ‘Witch marks’ are commonly found in churches and, later, in domestic buildings, not just houses but barns and stables. They were used to protect doors and windows, including keyholes- and we know that faeries regularly entered homes through the keyholes- see, for example, John Clare’s poem ‘January’ from the Shepherd’s Calendar (1827):
“And how the other tiny things Will leave their moonlight meadow-rings, And, unperceiv’d, through key-holes creep, When all around have sunk to sleep,
To feast on what the cotter leaves, Mice are not reckon’d greater thieves. They take away, as well as eat, And still the housewife’s eye they cheat,
In spite of all the folks that swarm In cottage small and larger farm; They through each key-hole pop and pop, Like wasps into a grocer’s shop, With all the things that they can win From chance to put their plunder in; — As shells of walnuts, split in two By crows, who with the kernels flew; Or acorn-cups, by stock-doves pluck’d, Or egg-shells by a cuckoo suck’d;”
The marks- typically circles and letter-like shapes scratched in plaster, wood or stone- were also made to protect dark places in houses- the very types of places that were believed to be haunted by ‘nursery sprites‘ such as Tom Poker and Rawhead and Bloodybones.
Currently, most individuals- if asked- would probably agree that, whilst they are both from other dimensions, angels and faeries are of different orders, with very different characters, habits and purposes. All the same, this is not a hard and fast distinction. There are certainly observers who treat the two types of supernatural as very closely related. I wonder if this has been encouraged, at least in part, by the more modern tendency to portray faeries as winged. Angels have been depicted with wings since the early medieval period (at least). Faeries only really gained their wings in popular imagination and art from the late eighteenth century onwards, as I’ve described elsewhere. When our medieval forebears saw a connection, it was based on something other than form, it seems. On this point, it’s worth observing that John Clare’s faeries are very tiny indeed, another marked contrast between the traditional image of the faes and that of angels.
On related issues, I’ve previously discussed two questions which often arise online in discussions about Faery: the position of faeries in the Christian world view and the question whether the faes have some divine purpose within that.
I have discussed faery beasts and faery livestock before a few times, but one aspect of this subject has been neglected until now. That is the curious matter of magical cows.
In Wales, these supernaturally productive beasts are typically from the herd known as the gwartheg y llyn, the lake cattle (and, in other words, the ‘faery cows,’ given that many of the tylwyth teg are thought to dwell under lynnoedd or lakes.) An example of such a beast is the so-called fuwch gyfeiliorn (stray cow) of Llyn Barfog, which was found alone by a farmer, was rounded up and was incorporated by him with the rest of his herd. She bred very well and gave plentiful milk, cheese and butter. After some years, the man felt she had reached the end of her productivity and he began to fatten her for slaughter. The cow, being magical, overheard his plans and promptly left for the lake from whence she’d come- taking with her all her calves; in some accounts, she was called back by her owner, one of the gwragedd annwn or lake women (see, for example, Sikes, British Goblins, 36-37)
An extension of the idea of the highly productive faery cow is the magically bountiful cow. Across Britain it is quite common to find folk accounts of cows that suddenly appear and produce plentiful quantities of milk, feeding an entire community for a period of time until, normally, someone abuses the cow’s generosity- and it vanishes. One such animal was the faery cow of Cefn Bannog. She appeared suddenly and was able to produce milk enough for all who had need of it. Whether people turned up with jugs or bowls or buckets, she could fill them without being exhausted. Eventually, though, this never-ending supply of milk was abused by a person with a sieve; the cow could never fill the container to the brim, of course, and, in anger and despair, she went to the a lake two miles away, taking her two calves with her, and was never seen again in the district. Similar stories are known in England, as well, for example at Audlem in Cheshire, at Stanion in Northamptonshire, at Kirkham and Whittingham Moors, both in Lancashire, and in Warwickshire. At Stanion, Kirkham and Whittingham, the mistreatment of the cow led to its death of a broken heart and the local churches displayed a rib of the beast in testimony to her beneficence. In Scotland, an identical story is told of the white cow of Calanais (Calanish) on Lewis.
These stories usually say that the origin of the beast was mysterious, but a few explain where she came from. In Shropshire, on Stapeley Hill, near the megalithic monument called Mitchell’s Fold, a cow appeared in a time of dire drought and famine. She had been sent by the faery queen to feed the local people until conditions improved; a faery woman was turned into a cow for the duration, apparently (not a pleasant experience, presumably, but such is the power of the faery queen over her subjects). Again, the cow would appear twice a day to supply all households with their needs so long as they only came with one receptacle each day. Eventually, a witch arrived who had replaced the bottom of her pail with a sieve. The faery cow realised it was being abused; firstly, she kicked the witch, so that she became rooted to the ground. Then the cow disappeared, leaving the local people bereft. In revenge, a cairn of stones was piled up around the witch who had injured them so cruelly (Byegones, July 1893, 118-119).
In British Goblins, Wirt Sikes also gives an intriguing variant of the Llyn Barfog story:
“The milk-white milch cow gave enough of milk to every one who desired it; and however frequently milked, or by whatever number of persons, she was never found deficient. All persons who drank of her milk were healed of every illness; from fools they became wise; and from being wicked, became happy. This cow went round the world; and wherever she appeared, she filled with milk all the vessels that could be found, leaving calves behind her for all the wise and happy. It was from her that all the milch cows in the world were obtained. After traversing through the island of Britain, for the benefit and blessing of country and kindred, she reached the Vale of Towy; where, tempted by her fine appearance and superior condition, the natives sought to kill and eat her; but just as they were proceeding to effect their purpose, she vanished from between their hands, and was never seen again. A house still remains in the locality, called Y Fuwch Laethwen Lefrith (The Milk-white Milch Cow.)”
(British Goblins, 38)
This faery intervention in human affairs in order to help them is not entirely unknown. Assistance with tasks to individuals and to specific households by hobs and brownies is, of course, pretty familiar. Help to large groups and whole communities is much less common, but readers might possibly recall the decision of one Scottish faery queen to help the women of the world by bestowing wisdom upon them, something I highlighted in a previous post. Nevertheless, one element will be familiar- and that is the warning never to try to take advantage of or to trick the faes. This can only ever led to loss and regret.
The faery power of conjuring delusion is usually termed ‘glamour.’ It’s worth knowing something about the origins and etymology of this word, because this tells us a good deal about our ancestors’ understanding of the nature and use of this form of magic.
The word is originally Scots and was introduced into the literary English by Sir Walter Scott. It’s a corrupt form of the word ‘grammar’ and is related to the noun ‘gramarye’ (which sometimes appears in texts as ‘glomery’) and thence to the French grimoire. The latter is a spell book, which clearly shows us that ‘glamour’ was originally conceived as being a form of verbal spell or charm.
Originally, glamour was not considered to be unique to faery kind. It could be cast by witches, wizards and, most intriguingly, by gypsies. One early example of its use is in the eighteenth-century ballad Johnny Faa (first printed by Ritson in Scottish Songs (1794) vol.2, 177): “As soon as they saw her well far’d face, They coost the glamer o’er her.” Johnny Faa is the king of gypsies who is best known today from the folk song the Raggle Taggle Gypsies. Other uses are found in works by Allan Ramsay, for instance the 1720 poem The Rise & Fall of Stocks:
“Like Belzie when he nicks a witch,
Wha sells her saul she may be rich;
He, finding this the bait to damn her,
Casts o’er her e’en his cheating glamour:”
In the 1721 Glossary to his poems, Ramsay gives this definition of the word: “When devils, wizards or jugglers deceive the sight, they are said to cast glamour o’er the eyes of the spectator.” At the end of the same century, Robert Burns confirmed the associations seen so far: “Ye gipsy-gang that deal in glamor, And you, deep-read in hell’s black grammar, Warlocks and witches.” (R. Burns Poems, 2nd edition, 1793, vol.2, 220)
The Paisley poet Ebenezer Picken used an interesting compound term in 1813, referring to a ‘glamour gift:’
“May be some wily lass has had the airt,
Wi’ spells, an’ charms, to win our Robin’s heart;
An’ hauds him, wi’ her Glaumour gift, sae fell.”
(Picken, Misc. Poems, vol.1, 21)
This would seem to imply an innate talent rather than something acquired, whether by learning or reading.
Despite these frequent Scots uses in published works, it was really Sir Walter Scott that popularised the term to the entire British reading public. In 1805, in the Lay of Last Minstrel (Canto 3, verse 9), he gave an extended illustration of the word in close association with an elf, thereby irrevocably linking the two:
“The iron band, the iron clasp,
Resisted long the elfin grasp:
For when the first he had undone
It closed as he the next begun.
Those iron clasps, that iron band,
Would not yield to unchristen’d hand
Till he smear’d the cover o’er
With the Borderer’s curdled gore;
A moment then the volume spread,
And one short spell therein he read:
It had much of glamour might;
Could make a ladye seem a knight;
The cobwebs on a dungeon wall
Seem tapestry in lordly hall;
A nut-shell seem a gilded barge,
A sheeling seem a palace large,
And youth seem age, and age seem youth:
All was delusion, nought was truth.”
Here, glamour is a ‘might,’ a power possessed by the character. Scott expanded upon the nature of glamour further in his Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft of 1830, when in letter three he wrote that “This species of Witchcraft is well known in Scotland as the glamour, or deceptio visus, and was supposed to be a special attribute of the race of Gipsies.”
The word was now established in the wider English tongue. In 1832, US author John Pendleton Kennedy used it in his novel, Swallow Barn (c.30): “It was like casting a spell of ‘gramarie’ over his opponents.” In 1859, Lord Tennyson took up the term in the poem Enid in Idylls of King, when making reference to Blodeuwedd in the Mabinogion: “That maiden in the tale, Whom Gwydion made by glamour out of flowers.”
The nature of glamour is to deceive or to defeat humans’ sense of vision. In the ballad Hind Etin, the eponymous faery hero abducts a woman using a spell: “He’s coosten a mist before them all/ And away this lady has ta’en.” However, although much of the evidence indicates that glamour is purely to do with visual illusions, there is one incident, recorded by Evans Wentz, which suggests that it is a more complete deception of human senses. The story was related to him one Christmas Day morning by a Mrs Dinah Moore of Glen Meay on the Isle of Man:
“I heard of a man and wife who had no children. One night the man was out on horseback and heard a little baby crying beside the road. He got off his horse to get the baby, and, taking it home, went to give it to his wife, and it was only a block of wood. And then the old fairies were outside yelling [in Manx] at the man: “Eash un oie, s’cheap t’ou mollit!” (Age one night, how easily thou art deceived!).”
Fairy Faith p.127
Typical faery deployments of glamour are to make people believe that they are in grand homes or halls, that they’ve been offered delicate and delicious food or that they have been given faery gold. What they will have really experienced is, respectively, a cave, some dung or some dried leaves. The example given by Evans-Wentz would appear to imply that glamour is more than a superficial disguise but can alter the very fabric of an item so that it is no longer its natural self but takes on all the characteristics of whatever substance or object the faeries wish it to resemble.
Using their power of “mirage,” as Lewis Spence termed it, the fae seem to be able to transform the look and feel of physical items for as long as they wish. Very typically, though, the delusion will be withdrawn in an instant- the purported palace or fine feast vanishing suddenly. In Campbell’s Popular Tales of the West Highlands, he recounts the story of The Daughter of the King of Underwaves, in which the fairy woman conjured up a magnificent castle where she and Diarmuid, the mortal man who had fallen for her, lived contentedly for several days. He, however, began to pine for his friends and his hunting hounds, so she abandoned him, taking away the illusion in a moment. Diarmuid was left lying in a damp mossy hole on the moor, just as happens to Welsh men who have visit what I’ve called the ‘glamour houses’ of the tylwyth teg. (J. F. Campbell, Popular Tales, vol.3, 421)