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.