On the Borders of Faery: the Welsh Bwgan

Bwbachod, by Collette J Ellis

In 1910, researching his seminal Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, Walter Evans Wentz travelled around Wales interviewing witnesses. In North Caernarfonshire, he recorded the local prominence given to belief in bwganod, goblins or bogies. In Montgomeryshire, he met a Mr D. Davies-Williams, who recalled:

“When I was a boy there was very much said… especially about the Bwganod, plural of Bwgan, meaning a sprite, ghost, hobgoblin, or spectre. The Bwganod were supposed to appear at dusk, in various forms, animal and human; and grown-up people as well as children had great fear of them.”

Fairy Faith, 1911, 143 & 145

The bwgan may be unfamiliar to many readers, but it is a fascinating example of one of those supernatural beings that sits on the very borderline between the humanoid and more approachable ‘faery’ (or, strictly, tylwyth teg or ellyll, as we’re discussing Wales) and those creatures that are verging towards being murderous monsters. There are plenty of these across Britain- the redcap of Northern England is another that springs to mind- and their exact classification (if we’re going to try to be scientific about this) is tricky. In my encyclopaedia of faery beasts, Beyond Faery, I elected to place the goblins over the boundary, but- as will become clear- it’s not so easy to be clear cut.

The bwgan has relatives around the British Isles- on the Isle of Man there’s the boaj (The Cambrian, Dec.16th 1887, 6) and in Scotland there’s the bauchan, whose name is very clearly related. They all share similar characteristics: the Welsh term bwgan brain (scare-crow) gives you an idea what we’ll find. The Weekly News & Chronicle for May 2nd 1903 summarised the bwgan as “a terrible something of an ethereal nature,” which nicely captures the amorphous threat and sense of terror that may be associated with it. There’s a nut-wood near Holywell that’s haunted by the Bwgan Coed-y-Nant whilst, in the same county, the Bwgan Nant-y-Cythraul was a sort of ghost that appeared in the form of a man, a hare or a dog (Flintshire Observer, 15/1/1885, 5; Caernarfon & Denbigh Herald, 27/9/1879, 8). Thus, the Amman Valley Chronicle in 1919 offered a further definition: the English ‘bogeyman’ in Welsh finds equivalents in the bwgan, bwbach and the bwcci bo– to which you can compare ‘buggaboo‘ (Chronicle, 15/5/1919, 4).

Bwganod can haunt and they have some kinship to ghosts (and, for that matter, boggarts) and, as such, they can be laid by some form of religious or magical ceremony.

Bwbachod by Graham Howells

The Welsh poet and writer Thomas Gwynn Jones wrote an excellent study of Welsh Folklore & Customs in 1930. He began his chapter on the faeries by distinguishing the tylwyth teg as being “non-ghostly apparitions” in contrast to the bwca, bwci and bwbach that are ghost-like and scary (in Middle Welsh the verb bwbachu means ‘to scare). Elsewhere in the book Gwynn Jones epitomised the bwbach, bwci and bwgan as “haunting spirits, essentially ghosts,” beings whose terrifying potential was enhanced by their shapeshifting abilities (Welsh Folklore & Customs, 32 & 51). The bwbach llwyd of the mountains near Beddgelert could appear as a shepherd on mountain tracks, suddenly disappearing, or would haunt lowland fields, frightening children- who were warned to beware him (just as Mr Davies-Williams recalled of his own youth earlier).

The confusing thing is that the bwbach, which is obviously treated as very similar to the bwgan, can have a far more benign and domestic reputation. Here we need to go back a little earlier than Evans Wentz for a good account of the goblin’s nature. Wirt Sikes, in his British Goblins of 1880, told several stories about the being. At the start of his book, he broadly classified the bwbachod as “household fairies,” which definitely doesn’t sound very ghost-like (p.12). Later, he expanded on this:

“The Bwbach, or Boobach, is the good-natured goblin which does good turns for the tidy Welsh maid, who wins its favour by a certain course of behaviour recommended by long tradition. The maid having swept the kitchen, makes a good fire the last thing at night, and having put the churn, filled with cream, on the whitened hearth, with a basin of fresh cream for the Bwbach on the hob, goes to bed to await the event. In the morning she finds (if she is in luck) that the Bwbach has emptied the basin of cream, and plied the churn-dasher so well that the maid has but to give a thump or two to bring the butter in a great lump. Like the Ellyll which it so much resembles, the Bwbach does not approve of dissenters and their ways, and especially strong is its aversion to total abstainers.”

Sikes, British Goblins, 31

Sikes then went on to tell an amusing story of a bwbach from Ceredigion that took against a Baptist preacher who was a guest in the house it was attached to. The preacher loved his prayers, and not pints of strong ale by a fire with good company, and the bwbach accordingly tormented him until he was driven out of the district. This behaviour might be regarded as ‘haunting,’ but the bwbach’s tricks, pulling away stools and scaring horses, might well remind us of the hobgoblin Puck, whilst Sikes’ general description is incontestably of a being a great deal more like a brownie than a ghost. As Sikes went on to remark:

“The same confusion in outlines which exists regarding our own Bogie and Hobgoblin gives the Bwbach a double character, as a household fairy and as a terrifying phantom. In both aspects it is ludicrous, but in the latter it has dangerous practices. To get into its clutches under certain circumstances is no trifling matter, for it has the power of whisking people off through the air. Its services are brought into requisition for this purpose by troubled ghosts who cannot sleep on account of hidden treasure they want removed; and if they can succeed in getting a mortal to help them in removing the treasure, they employ the Bwbach to transport the mortal through the air…”

Sikes, 32.

Later in the book, the parallels with brownies and boggarts are underlined with the story of the bwbach of Hendrefawr farm in Merioneth. He was a constant nuisance to the family so they decided to move house to escape him. The attempt failed, because the bwbach was found to be ‘flitting‘ with the family and its furniture- something that brownies and hobgoblins do too (Sikes, p.117). Underlining the kinship, Sikes elsewhere stated that “the Bwbach is usually brown, often hairy” (p.133). Later still (p.190), he compared the creature to the pwca, remarking that “It might be urged that this spirit was a Bwbach, if a fairy at all…” With this last remark, we are almost back to square one, as the ambivalent status of the bwbach and bwgan are once again underlined.

As these examples demonstrate, even within a relatively small geographical area, the experiences and definitions of supernatural entities can be quite different- if not contradictory- so that drawing strict lines between ‘species’ and temperaments can be very difficult. Of course, we may well make matters harder for ourselves through a mistaken wish to imbue faeries with only friendly and helpful traits. As the folklore tradition demonstrates repeatedly, there’s an undeniable ‘dark side’ to faery which, if we bear it in mind, may make the negative qualities of the bwbach and bwgan seem far less anomalous.

The bwbach and bwgan are by no means unique in Britain , though. Very similar indeed is the English boggart, a being with an almost identical dual personality. There are plenty of stories of boggarts performing a domestic role equivalent to that of the brownie- undertaking farm chores and living and eating in the farmhouse. Yet this helpful and relatively friendly being can also (as it were, in the wild) prove at the very least terrifying if not outright dangerous. It haunts certain locations, scares travellers, plays malevolent pranks and occasionally inflicts fatal vengeance on those that annoy it. Indeed, the domestic boggart can react with some fury if it feels insulted or underappreciated. The folklore of the British Isles is, therefore, rich and complex. Faery folk are not monochrome characters that are either wholly benevolent or entirely monstrous. They- like us- can be complicated and unpredictable, sometimes good, sometimes very bad.

Bwbachod by Graham Howells

The Fairy Faith in British Music

Saga om ringen, the English edition of Dane Bo Hansson’s album

I have recently published The Faery Faith in British Music, which builds upon some of my previous postings to offer a comprehensive study of the impact of Faery on classical and contemporary music, in musical, operas and symphonies, over the last 150 years. Just as faeries have had a major influence in poetry and in art, they have been surprisingly prevalent in many different genres and styles of music- not just sonatas and concertos, but novelty records, pop songs, folk rock, prog rock, indie, goth and heavy metal. Artists who’ve dealt with faery themes range from the improbable (Cliff Richard) through the well known (Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, Sigur Ros, Queen, Pink Floyd and Marc Bolan) to the obscure- the many thrash metal bands named after characters in the Silmarillion and singing in Elvish or in the Black Speech of the orcs of Mordor (really).

It turns out that the books of J R R Tolkien have had a huge impact on heavy metal around the world. This has been going on since the 1970s (Led Zeppelin sang about ring wraiths in The Battle of Evermore, for example) but it’ll probably come as no surprise to learn that huge impetus was given to this trend by the Peter Jackson films. Here, I’m going to give just one small example of the huge creativity that has been sparked.

Songs and albums have been composed around Middle Earth themes, from thrash metal tracks to entire metal operas. Some artists, however, have reacted to the Tolkien’s epics by wishing to sound as if they actually come from Middle Earth.  Jon Anderson, whom some readers might know as the former vocalist of British prog rock band Yes, in 2006 collaborated with several other musicians and singers, collectively called ‘The Fellowship,’ to record In Elven Lands, a collection of songs played on modern and antique instruments, such as the harp, lute, hurdy-gurdy and crumhorn, that was inspired by the writings of Tolkien.  The haunting track ‘Beware the Wolf’ provides the album with its name: the song follows a hunter “through woven woods in elven lands.”

Interviewed in August 2006 on the Howard Stern radio show in the USA, Anderson stated that he had acquired a spiritual adviser who “helped him see into the fourth dimension.” He also revealed that, since a magic mushroom experience some time previously, he had considered himself to be part of the “elf culture.” These experiences certainly help to explain his involvement in the album.

On the album, ‘The Fellowship’ took a musicological approach to imagining how the songs and tunes of the ancient cultures described by Tolkien might have sounded.  The metre and style he had employed for the verse in the books was copied for the tracks on the album (and, of course, the existence of these songs in the books provide both a template and a justification for all the bands I have mentioned to devise their own versions).  A variety of musical cultures from around the world inspired the different songs on In Elven Lands.  Thus, English folk tradition was drawn upon to represent Hobbit tunes; the elves’ music was based on mediaeval sacred music and the ballads of the troubadours. The music of Numenor was like Elvish- but with added Greek and Macedonian influences. The results are truly striking.  The album cover, too, is notable: it uses an image from a medieval manuscript and Elvish lettering, but generally has a restrained tone, like an album of classical or early music.

The subject matter for the songs on In Elven Lands is drawn from across the numerous writings of Tolkien, not just The Lord of the Rings but The Silmarillion, The Book of Lost Tales and the Unfinished Tales as well.  The resulting tracks feature Quenya, Noldorin and Sindarin lyrics, alongside songs in modern English, Anglo-Saxon, and a kind of Neo-Elvish.  Carvin Knowles, producer of In Elven Lands, has said of the recording process that “[Anderson] was a real sport about singing in Elvish… Hearing Sindarin with his Yorkshire accent is enough to make any fan smile.”  (NB: in fact, Anderson is from Accrington in Lancashire, on the wrong side of the Pennines from Yorkshire, a very important distinction if you’re from either county…!) The Elven Lands album also includes a cover of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Battle of Evermore’, transformed into a slow medieval ballad.

The richness of faery inspired music is astonishing. It is a demonstration of the ways in which Faery continues to enrich our culture– something that is often overlooked by those who dismiss faeries as only fir for little girls in pink dresses, wearing elasticated wings. Tell that to a fan of one of those thrash metal bands singing in Dwarvish… The Faery Faith in British Music is available from Amazon, either as an e-book (£5.95) or a paperback (£7.95).

Don’t Go Near the Water! Some Scots Faery Ballads

Herbert James Draper, A Water Nixie

The Maid and the Fairy

“O, open the door, my honey, my heart,

O, open the door my ain kind dearie;

For dinna ye mind upo’ the time,

We met in the wood at the well sae wearie?

O, gi’e me my ca’stick [cabbage stalk], my dow, my dow, [dove]

O, gi’e me my castick, my ain kind dearie;

For dinna ye mind upo’ the time,

We met in the wood at the well sae weary?

O, gi’e me my brose [oatmeal broth], my dow, my dow,

O gi’e me my brose, my ain kind dearie;

For dinna ye mind upo’ the time,

We met in the wood at the well sae weary?

O, gi’e me my kail, my dow, my dow,

O, gi’e me my kail, my ain kind dearie;

For dinna ye mind upo’ the time,

We met in the wood at the well sae wearie?

O, lay me down, my dow, my dow,

O, lay me down, my ain kind dearie;

For dinna ye mind upo’ the time,

We met in the wood at the well sae wearie?

O, woe to you now, my dow, my dow,

O woe to you now, my wile fause [wicked false] dearie;

And Oh! for the time I had you again,

Plunging the dubs at the well sae wearie!”

This song is sung my some form of water sprite, probably imagined to be male, although this is rare for this kind of fresh water being, as creatures such as Jenny Greenteeth and Nelly Longarms testify. The spirit may have seduced the girl, but certainly now has followed her home and intends to pursue the connection- an encounter which is very likely to be fatal, or at least very perilous, for the mortal. Wearie’s Well is a spot known from another Scots ballad, Lady Isabel and the Elfin Knight (also called ‘As the gowans grow gay‘) in which the faery Knight tries to drown the lady in it.  In this ballad it seems that a young woman previously met with a fairy man when doing her washing at the well.  Now he pleads to be allowed into the house, first for food, then to lie on the bed beside her.  When she refuses to open the door, he warns her to watch out the next time she’s washing her clothes.  This brief and menacing verse reminds us that fairies could be dangerous sexual predators, quite at odds with many modern conceptions of their character and conduct.

Isobel Gloag, The Kiss of the Enchantress

The Mermaid

“To yon fause stream that near the sea

Hides mony a shelve and plum, [deep pool]

And rives wi’ fearful din the stanes,

A witless knicht did come.

The day shines clear- far in he’s gane

Whar shells are silver bright.

Fishes war loupin’ a’ around

And sparklin’ to the light:

Whan as he laved [bathed], sounds cam sae sweet

Frae ilka rock an’ tree,

The brief [word] was out, ’twas him it doomed

The Mermaid’s face to see.

Frae ‘neath a rock, sune, sune she rose,

And stately on she swam,

Stopped in the midst an’ becked [beckoned] and sang

To him to stretch his han’.

Gowden glist the yellow links [her golden hair shone],

That round her neck she’d twine,

Her een war o’ the skyie blue,

Her lips did mock the wine;

The smile upon her bonnie cheek

Was sweeter than the bee;

Her voice excelled the birdies sang

Upon the birchen tree.

Sae couthie, couthie [kindly] did she look,

And meikle had she fleeched [flattered];

Out shot his hand, alas, alas!

Fast in the swirl she screeched.

The Mermaid leuch [laughed], her brief was gane,

And Kelpie’s blast was blawin’,

Fu’ low she duked, ne’er raise again,

For deep, deep was she fawin’ [sinking into].

Aboon the stream his wraith was seen.

Warlocks tirled lang at gloamin’;

That e’en was coarse [rough], the blast blew hoarse.

Ere lang the waves war foamin’.”

This song was collected in Ayrshire and is a splendid account of the deadly freshwater beast called the kelpie.  They are to be found lurking at fords and in deep pools and their mission is to drag down the unwary.  Often, they appear as stray horses which the incautious may mount; sometimes they are met with in female human form, what we might loosely call mermaids. It is in this alluring but deadly form that most artists have chosen to depict them over the last few centuries.

There is a related version of this song in Pinkerton’s Select Scottish Ballads.  It is only a fragment and does not end with the swimmer’s death, although you cannot but suspect that the mermaid’s blandishments are all a stratagem to lure the swimmer to his doom:

“Whar yon clear burn, frae down the loch,

Rins saftlie to the sea,

There latelie bathed, in hete o’ nune,

A squire of valour hie,

He kend nae that the fause Mermaid

There used to beik [bask] and play,

Or he had neir gane to the bathe,

I trow, that dreirie day.

Nae suner had he deft [doffed/ took off] his claiths,

Nae suner ‘gan to swim,

Than up she raised her bonnie face

Aboon the glittering stream.

O comely youth, gin ye will cum

And be my leman deir [loving sweetheart],

Ye sail hae pleasance o’ ilk sort,

Bot any end or feir.

‘I’ll tak’ you to my emrand ha’, [emerald hall]

Wi’ perles lighted round,

Whar ye sail live wi’ luve and me,

And neir by bale be found.’”

The heartless violence of this creature may come as a shock to some readers, but the kelpie’s character is entirely consonant with the overall impression painted by the ballads and by most of our folklore. I have discussed these inland mermaids at length elsewhere, especially in my 2020 book, Beyond Faery.

Vasily Alexandrovich Kotarbinsky, Water Nymph

“I get around”- some oddities of faery travel

I’ve posted several times on faery motion and movement, such as their use of whirlwinds; here I want to look at ways they may be transported by other beings. Although, these days, we tend to assume that faeries fly everywhere, there’s no trace of wings or of fluttering flight in the traditional records. They can, magically, ‘teleport‘ themselves from place to place or enchant items to carry them, it’s perfectly true, but most of the time they get around in very prosaic ways: on their own two feet, or on something else’s four feet.

It’s pretty well known that the faes ride horses (just as the surrounding human population would have done in times past) and these animals are always described as being proportionate to their size. If they’re the size of children, they’ll be mounted on ponies; if they’re seen smaller, the steeds might be as big as greyhounds. Just like humans, too, the faeries will use their horses for all suitable activities: they go out on their annual ‘rades’ in processions of horses, but they’ll also hunt on them, exactly as would human gentry and nobles. The horses are reputed to be very swift (“as fast as the wind”) and to be highly prized, being richly caparisoned when they are taken out.

Jean Baptiste Monge

Needless to say, it’s often easier to make use of someone else’s animals- that way you don’t have to stable or feed them, and it is widely known that faeries do just this, taking horses from farmer’s stables at night and riding them until they’re worn out. This process is frequently accompanied by the knotting of the horses’ manes and tails, at least some of this done ostensibly to provide the diminutive riders with reins and stirrups. These are necessary not just because the riders are often so much tinier than their mounts, but because they like to drive the horses at frenetic pace across the fields and moors. These exertions leave the horses exhausted and covered in a foam of sweat, much to the dismay of their human owners.

So far, so familiar, but it doesn’t stop there. If horses aren’t available, other four-legged beasts will do. On the Isle of Anglesey it was reported that the local tylwyth teg rode donkeys or (to be exact) they gave a mortal man one to ride when he travelled with them; this might, conceivably, have been some sort of joke or put down on their part: they got well-bred steeds and he got a bad tempered ass. Very definitely proportionate to the smaller breed of fae, in Nithsdale in southern Scotland the elves were reported to ride on cats. One assumes they used magic to control their mounts. On Shetland, the trows rode the farmers’ cows. When the cattle were released into the pastures in Spring, if any of them were found to be weak- or collapsed, frothing at the mouth- it was known to be because the trows had been riding it.

Erle Ferronniere, Fee au chat noir

Unlikely as cats sound, they are at least four legged. However, as we know, even two legged victims will do and there are reports from around the Britain Isles of unfortunate human victims being saddled and mounted to act as steeds for faeries overnight. Usually they are forced to carry riders around, although there is one report of a man taken and used as a cart horse in one Scottish sithean. According to the poem, Montgomerie’s Flyting of Polwarth, some of the Scottish elves were known to ride other two legged creatures: “Sum saidlit ane scho aip all grathit into green” (some saddled a she-ape, all clad in green).

Modern fantasy art shows faes riding birds and other wildlife. Pretty as these images are, and despite the fact that we are attracted to them because they emphasise the unity of the faeries with their environment, there is not very much traditional support for the idea. As we’ve just seen, we hear of the elves riding apes, but they must be few and far between in any part of Britain; it’s also reported that the Highland hag, the cailleach bheur, and her follower rides on wolves and swine. The Gyre Carling, another name for the faery queen in Fife, was also said to ride a pig: in one poem she “schup her on ane sow and is her gaitis gane” (she settled herself on a sow and went her ways). Making use of more common mammals and fowls is not reported.

Erle Ferroniere

Much of this suggests that the faeries are stuck in a pre-modern world- often our view of them. We like to romanticise their pre-industrial, rural aspects, whereas the evidence indicates that they move with the times just as their human neighbours do. Faery industry is known- dyeing and milling (for which see my How Things Work in Faery) but more pertinently, contemporary reports indicate that they will use cars, buses and aeroplanes to get around (see Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing Fairies for such sightings). Humans no longer need to employ horse power, although they will use them for special occasions and special purposes; the same would seem to be true of the faes.

Faes and the Natural World

Cicely Bridget Martin, The Fairy in the Meadow, 1909

As I observe in my latest book, Faeries in the Natural World, there is a strong prevailing view at present that the faes are intimately connected to the environment and are actively concerned about pollution and habitat degradation, sometimes working with human intermediaries to mitigate harm and to reverse changes. This view has been around since the 1960s, when the environmental movement first began to appear.

An early literary example of the developing sense that human industrialisation and pollution could actively injure faery kind comes from Alan Garner’s Moon of Gomrath (1963). The elves of this story suffer from “smoke sickness.” They complain that “it is the dirt and ugliness and unclean air that men have worshipped these two hundred years that have driven the lios-alfar [the light elves of Norse myth] to the trackless places and the broken lands… You should hear their lungs. That is what men have done.” This is a clear indictment of human society in the wake of the first environmental classic, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, published in September 1962.

Even before that, though, there was a strong belief that there was antipathy between faes and modern life. Numerous writers from the mid-Victorian period onwards alleged that trains, noise, smoke and general encroachment on the countryside was steadily driving faeries into the remoter and less inhabited spots; Welsh writers in particular argued this, but any more rural location where commerce trespassed- quarrying or mills in the Lake District, the Highlands and on the Isle of Man or Shetland, for example- was recognised as antithetical to the faery and trow populations. The 1909 painting at the head of this post is another illustration; we might be surprised that such a sensitivity comes from the Edwardian period, but there it is: the British artist, Cicely Bridget Martin (1879-1947), could see the contradiction between faery life and the litter left behind by human picnickers. A hundred years later, though, and we would pretty much take such a barbed comment on waste and wildlife damage for granted.

None of this withstanding, the folklore evidence that associates the faeries with an environmentalist position is a good deal more limited than we might anticipate. That’s not to say that evidence for “eco-faeries” doesn’t exist (pixies are described protecting foxes from hunts or caring for wildlife in winter, for example, as well as their sometimes intimate associations with certain trees and flowers) but it can be found alongside the faeries setting up their own mines, mills and dye works and such like (see my recent book, How Things Work in Faery for full details of this). Victorian poets and painters delighted in emphasising the faes’ links to nature: suggesting that they paint butterflies’ wings, for instance, and it is very likely that these images have been influential in shaping subsequent generations’ views of the place of the faeries in the natural world. As much as anything, their ‘green’ credentials derive from the fact that they live in the woods and fields- from which we assume that they must want to defend the natural world. I’d say a fairer reading would be to say that they want to defend their homes and resources from human disruption and invasion; they want to carry on using that land themselves as they choose. As they happen to be have fairly non-industrialised and non-intensive economy, this gives the impression that they are all for sustainability, low carbon and rewilding. I suspect this is really a matter of us humans applying our labels to their motives: coupled with a large degree of guilt.

Certainly, the latter half of the last century saw a steep rise in the perception that the faeries were alarmed over the climate crisis and the degradation of ecosystems- and that they wanted to recruit humans to help halt the damage they were doing. Quite often too, for that matter, Pan and the nymphs of the natural world- and the devas of the Theosophists- were also heard to deliver the same messages. However we may wish to interpret this (as warnings from the supernatural world or, perhaps, as expressions of the human witnesses’ own unconscious worries) the import is the same: the situation is urgent and humans need to take into account the welfare of those beings that can’t express their distress.

Eileen Soper, Silky and the Snail

For fuller discussion of all aspects of the faery relationship to the natural world, see my latest book from Green Magic Publishing. This looks not only at the environmentalism of the faes, but also examines how Faery affects the fertility of humans as well as their livestock, considers how faeries influence the weather, how they interact with a range of wild animals, plants, trees and fungi and the locations with which they are most closely associated in the natural world- not just faery rings but wells, high places and ancient sites.

Spirits of Place: faeries and the land

Eleanor Brickdale, A Sprite

“The green land’s name that a charm encloses,

It never was writ in the traveller’s chart…”

Algernon Charles Swinburne, ‘A Ballad of Dreamland’

In his introduction to the 1974 reprint of Alfred Watkins’ ley line classic, The Old Straight Track, John Michell noted how both Watkins and the Reverend Francis Kilvert invoked the “same genius terrae britannicae” of the red Herefordshire earth.  This genius, the ‘spirit of the British land,’ is very much what we are describing when we discuss British fairies.

The painter Paul Nash sought to discover and free the imprisoned spirit of the land, the motive power that animated the British landscape.  He deeply felt that a spirit of place, a genius loci, inhabited the soil and scenery and that certain poets in particular sensed it.  William Blake, he felt, “perceived among many things the hidden significance of the land he always called Albion”  (Personal Statement, Unit One, 1934).  Poet Herbert Read described Nash as having “profound intuitions” that enabled him to “reveal the immemorial values in the landscape.” He saw “an animistic landscape, the sacred habitation of familiar spirits” in which many natural elements were synthesised in a “druidic ritual” (Read, Paul Nash, Penguin Modern Painters, 1944). Through his strong sense of the character and spirit of individual places, Nash felt that he could witness “another aspect of the accepted world…” In this, he saw himself merely to be continuing a tradition initiated by Wordsworth, who had built up a mythology founded upon a “systematic animation of the inanimate, which attributes life and feeling to non-human nature.”

Intriguingly, Nash repeatedly drew analogies between human life and the lives of trees: he was keenly aware of how the tree was rooted in the soil and dependent upon earth and landscape. In a letter written in August 1912 the painter even went so far as to declare that he painted trees as though they were human because “I sincerely love and worship trees and know that they are people- and wonderfully beautiful people.” These ideas make his comments upon Ivinghoe Beacon, on the Chiltern Hills, more fascinating: it was, he recalled, “an enchanted place… where you might meet anything from a polecat to a dryad.” The woodland spirits were alive and active for Nash.

Nash, Avebury

Elsewhere, Nash wrote that “The idea of giving life to inanimate objects is as old as almost any record of fable.  It has varied in its conception throughout very different histories,” which included fairy lore and mythology.  This “endowment of natural objects, organic but not human, with active powers or personal influences” lies at the core of faery belief, I also believe (Nash, ‘The Life of the Inanimate Object,’ Country Life, May 1st 1937).  The artist had recently visited the Avebury megaliths for the first time and “the holy stones of the Great Circle” had evidently impressed him deeply.  He continued that “it is not a question of a particular stone being the house of the spirit- the stone itself has its spirit, it is alive.” This idea of animating inanimate objects was very old indeed, “a commonplace in fairy tale and which occurs quite naturally also in most mythologies.”  

Sketching at Silbury Hill near Avebury, Nash recalled that:

“I felt that I had divined the secret of that paradoxical pyramid.  Such things do happen in England, quite naturally, but they are not recognised for what they are- the true yield of the land, indeed, but also works of art; identical with the intimate spirit inhabiting these gentle fields, yet not the work of chance or the elements, but directed by an intelligent purpose ruled by an authentic vision.”

(‘A Characteristic,’ Architectural Record, March, 1937, 39-40)

Nash’s revelation at Silbury encouraged him to intensify his search for “A character which frankly disclosed a national inspiration, something whose lineaments seemed almost redolent of place and time within the limits of these shores.”

Nash in the Forest of Dean, 1938

As well as the Avebury complex, Nash was especially devoted to the twin Oxfordshire hills called the Wittenham Clumps, which he returned to paint throughout his life. The legends attached to the Clumps enhanced their mystery for him: one of the hills was an ancient fort where it was said that treasure was buried, guarded by a phantom raven. Beneath the hills were long barrows and an ancient forest. The place had, he said, “a compelling magic.”

Earlier writer Maurice Hewlett had had the same perception as Nash.  In his 1913 novella The Lore of Proserpine, he recorded how “I have seen spirits, beings… and have observed them as part of the landscape, no more extraordinary than grazing cattle or wheeling plover.”  A little later, he added that he regarded them as a “natural fact… a part of the landscape” (‘The Soul at the Window,’ The Lore of Proserpine, 1913). 

As we just saw, Nash discussed the ‘yield’ of the land when describing Silbury. Earlier investigators had (incredibly) dismissed the stone circle and avenues as purely natural features, but he rightly saw them as more than a simple geological formation. Elsewhere he discussed how his art would become preoccupied with “one landscape [and the] flowers and fungi which it yields.” This suggests that, almost like crops or the native fauna and flora, the faery folk are a natural outgrowth of the soil.  I think we can usefully borrow a further term from English land law and talk about the ‘burden’ of the land: this is a term denoting certain costs or obligations that come with a certain body of land.  In faery terms, these will be their right and expectation to be given a share of food products, to be able to use the occupiers’ homes and other buildings and (even) to have certain areas of land set aside and preserved solely for them. They are a continual presence on the land- and a continual influence upon its usage and meaning.

I feel, therefore, that British fairies are in many respects bound up and directly expressive of the landscape within which they live.  Pixies, the tylwyth teg, the ‘yarthkins‘ of East Anglian, they are a part of the terrain in which they reside, they are the animating spirit of those moors, mountains and fens. The wild and aggressive spriggans, buccas and piskies of the south-west arguably manifest the rugged nature of the region they inhabit; so too the tiddy ones or yarthkins of the Fens, rising as they do from the waterways and peaty soils of that region. They are the original and most fundamental yield of the land.

Nash, Bleached Objects

To conclude, I need hardly say that these ideas are not by any means uniquely mine. Well known faery artist Brian Froud, for example, has said that “Faeries are the inner nature of each land and a reflection of the inner nature of our souls.” The people of each nation are shaped by their environment; so too are the supernatural beings of that country and, as a result, there is a continual circular interaction between them all.

Further reading: see too my previous posting on genii loci discussing other aspects of this subject. See too my book, Faeries and the Natural World (2021):

Arthur Rackham- girlies and goblins

The pretext for writing this post is that, working with publisher Green Magic on some new faery books, we decided to ‘rebrand’ all the titles they’d issued with new covers using artwork by Arthur Rackham. Rackham is instantly recognisable to many readers, his work is topical and attractive- and it’s largely out of copyright!

I’ve discussed aspects of Rackham‘s work before, both on this blog and in my book Faery Art of the Twentieth Century; what I want to focus on here is the way that art can shape our perceptions. Firstly, as my title suggests, there are essentially two sorts of faery-being featured in all of Rackham’s faery illustrations. There is a slender young female with long hair, dressed in flowing robes (or sometimes nothing)- a faery- and there is a small ugly man in quasi-medieval clothes- a pixie, goblin or gnome. The new cover of British Pixies gives a good idea of the latter. Some of Rackham’s nude, juvenile nymphs are to be seen on the cover of my Love and Sex in Faeryland.

Regular visitors to this blog will be aware that Rackham’s bipartite arrangement of the Faery world is not reflected by British tradition. There are, of course, attractive female faeries and surly looking pixies, but the faery clans of the British Isles are far more complex than that: every region has its particular family, race or species of fae being and there is little reason to suppose that males take just the one form and females another.

At the same time, it’s only fair to acknowledge that Rackham wasn’t creating his designs without foundation. What he drew upon, though, was not folklore but literature. We need only think of the sexy faery women of medieval romances such as Sir Launfal or the small and misshapen faery kings of Huon of Bordeaux or King Herla to understand where he found his models. As an illustrator of faery tales and legends, this is to be expected.

The dichotomy of type that Rackham established so effectively through the commercial and artistic success of his designs was taken on in turn by many of the children’s illustrators of the mid-twentieth century- artists such as Rosa Petherick, Susan Pearse or Agnes Richardson- and the iconography came to be embedded in our collective psyche. Because of Rackham, I suggest, we can now only think of faeries within these parameters, divided into these two rough categories- elegant, pretty and girly/ ugly, stunted and male. This is something of an exaggeration, but not a huge one. More recently, the Middle Earth elves of Peter Jackson’s film have contributed the blonde, noble warrior elf as well; but in a sense this is just an elaboration of Rackham’s largely female faery clan.

These images are pervasive and persistent. That might sound improbable again, but consider this. A recent book on modern paganism and fairy belief, Magic and Witchery in the Modern West (Feraro and White, 2019), found that many of the contemporary conceptions of fairies as planetary guardians and green protectors came not from age-old faery tradition but from images and ideas in books like Cicely Mary Barker’s flower fairy series, that adult pagans had seen and absorbed as children.

We get very similar evidence from the Fairy Census (2014-17). When witnesses reached for adjectives to describe what they saw, they often chose to make comparisons with popular representations of faery-kind. Five people likened the beings they saw to Disney characters; four referred to pictures by Brian Froud. One tree spirit was said to have looked like Gollum (i.e. in the films). Looking further back, terms borrowed from Paracelsus were co-opted- sylph and, especially, gnome. Favourite films and beloved books make a powerful impression, very possibly shaping in advance what we expect to see. Of course, they provide a vocabulary, a point of reference, which is why witnesses often allude to the creatures they see looking like leprechauns, goblins, brownies and “the classic gnome” even though they may be using labels that are alien to place where the sighting occurred, mistaken, imprecise or simply unhelpful. Goblins and brownies are good examples here, in that the traditional descriptions of these tend to be of very large and hairy beings; often, now, the words are chosen to denote a small, brown pixie type being, one who is often the personification of Paracelsus’ very unhelpful ‘gnome’ character. The interaction between what we expect to see and what we may then actually see is a complex psychological well beyond my comfort zone, but it is at least clear how mass market imagery, especially that absorbed at an impressionable age, will enter our subconscious.

The new books, Manx Faeries and The Faery Lifecycle, are due to be published later this month.

How to Spot a Fairy Part Two: Clothes

As I have discussed in previous posts, you may be able to identify a fairy by their physical appearance (by examining their hair, their eyes, or their physique– whether small or wizened) but they may also be given away by their clothes

Faery clothing is often highly distinctive. Here are a few descriptions from around Britain which may help spotting fairies.  In Yorkshire the fairies are said to be small and to wear short jackets and petticoats, to have bands of red ‘cuddy’ crossed around their legs rather like puttees, and to wear pointed caps like sugar loaves.  I have been unable to find ‘cuddy’ with certainty in dictionaries- my best guess is that it is a dialect version of cude cloth, a sort of fine white material used for wrapping babies at baptism.

The Manx fairies have been sighted several times dressed all in green or in green with red caps- that may be peaked, made of leather and which are adorned with fairy lace.  In one case a ‘fairy bishop’ visited a woman living at South Barrule on the island.  He wore a tricorn hat of the eighteenth-century fashion.  The taste for slightly old-fashioned clothes seems rather common: the fairies encountered at their famous market on the Blackdown Hills wore “old country garb” of red, blue or green and “high crowned hats” (presumably the sort of tall, broad brimmed hats we associate with Puritan and Cavaliers). The Cornish pobel vean “dressed in bright green nether garments, sky-blue jackets, three cornered hats on the men and pointed ones on the ladies, all decked out with lace and silver bells.”

Shetland fairies, meanwhile, have been seen in tight green clothes with green tapered caps.  West Highland fairies too have been described as wearing “sharp caps like [those] which children make of rushes” which rise in a high conical shape.

Some Welsh fairies have been reported as being dressed in red and white, the men with a red triple cap, the women with a light headdress.  Another description is even more elaborate: the tylwyth teg were said to be “beautiful little people,” the girls wearing dresses like rainbows with ribbons in their hair and the males in red triple caps (whatever these may be, exactly).  The same account also said that the women might appear in white, scarlet or in blue petticoats.  In south-east Wales, certainly, in Montgomeryshire, the fairies are known as the ‘old elves of the blue petticoats’ (or trousers), so characteristic were their garments and their colour.

Some other Welsh faeries, seen as recently as 1910, were said to be of the stature of children aged about eight or ten, with brown withered faces and hands like tiny claws.  They wore russet red, some having conical close-fitting caps, others having handkerchiefs tied around their heads.  Interestingly, a widely reproduced story of some fairies seen dancing in Denbighshire in the late 1750s closely resembles details of this.  One summer’s day four children saw some dancers in a field.  There were fifteen or sixteen, dressed in red with red handkerchiefs spotted with yellow on their heads.  The children tried to get nearer, but were scared off when one of the dancers ran towards them with a very fierce expression (Keightley, Fairy Mythology, 414).

The pixies of the south-west of England seem especially prone to wearing antiquated clothes. For example, a male seen at Shaugh Bridge, on the south west edge of Dartmoor, in 1897 was dressed in a pointed hat, doublet and “short knicker things” coloured blue and red; four seen on Dartmoor in 1960 wore similar outfits: red doublets, red pointed caps and long green hose or stockings. The Cornish pixies adopt similar styles: at Penberth Cove the pixie women appeared very grandly in hooped petticoats with furbelows (pleated borders) and trains, fans and feathers.  A group seen in 1830 at St Kea were dressed in red cloaks and tall, black sugar loaf hats of an ‘old-fashioned style.’  William Bottrell recorded that the pobel vean wore three cornered hats and the women were seen in very pointed headwear, all decorated with lace and silver bells.

What seems to tie all these accounts together is, firstly, the bright colours that are preferred.  Most reports originate from country areas in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when garments for most ordinary folk would have been fairly drab.  The colourful costumes bespeak an earlier age and a richer class.  Secondly, the headwear stands out, primarily because it is old-fashioned, whether of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; some of its sounds distinctly odd to us today, but was probably far less unusual to the witnesses.  Even so, the fairies appear to come to us from another dimension and dressed as if they are an aristocracy of another age.

This is anachronistic style of dress is still reflected (to some extent) in the popular renderings of faeries- as illustrated by the pictures included here. Both artists have opted for medieval peasant style hoods with long trailing points or curious ‘ears.’ These allow for some amusing suggestions of faery ears whilst also underlining their essential otherness. If you have read my book from last year, Faery Art of the Twentieth Century, you may recall that this sort of faux-medieval garment became a common indicator of fairies in children’s illustrations from the 1920s onwards.

So, to conclude, how can you spot a faery? Well, the trite and unhelpful answer seems to be: they’ll look like one (!) Their clothing will stand out as peculiar and old fashioned, even if everything else about them blends in. Watch out…

W. Heath Robinson, The Fairy’s Birthday

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.

Fairy Vengeance

Duncan Carse

One of the major perils of crossing the fairies is that they can be very likely to seek vengeance.  They have a vindictive streak, something which is not alleviated at all by their generally indifferent or uncaring attitude towards humankind.  We must add to this the problem that they are immortal: the fairies can wait to get their own back, not just through the perpetrator’s lifetime, but far down the generations (as Professor John Rhys described in Celtic Folklore vol.I, c.VII & vol.II pp.420-25). He speculated whether this delayed gratification was the result of their deathlessness or because some spell prevented prompter action; either way, the fairies can wait and innocent descendants can pay the price for an ancestor’s folly.

Rhys illustrated the vengeful aspect of the faery character with an account from Pantannas, near Beddgelert. A farmer sought to banish the tylwyth teg from his farm by ploughing up all the areas of grass sward (so that, effectively, they had nowhere left to dance). The man immediately began to see apparitions, or hear voices, threatening that Dial a ddaw, ‘Vengeance is coming.’ Soon after, all the farmer’s supply of corn was destroyed by fire, but serious as this loss was, the fairies declared it to be only the beginning of their inexorable and inflexible revenge. The farmer restored the grassy areas and pleaded with the fairies for mercy, and they returned to the land, but the threat of further action was not lifted- it was only postponed to his descendants. A century later, the warning voices were heard again (‘Dial a ddaw‘) and, soon enough, the vengeance was exacted. The son of the family disappeared at night, presumed to have been taken by the tylwyth teg at a fairy ring, and he was not seen again for several generations. When he finally returned, the world was changed and his name was only a dim memory and- as so often happens in Welsh stories- as soon as he touched something in the mortal world, he crumbled away to dust. What we gather from this is that the fairies won’t forget and that, to make matters worse, they are patient, leading to what seems to us humans like harsh and wholly unreasonable punishment meted out against future generations, who may not even understand why they are suffering.

A variety of offences will incur the fairies’ wrath.  I’ve already mentioned their adverse response to disbelief in their existence; other misdemeanours against them include:

  • Attacking the fairies: this is easily the most understandable case, perhaps.  A Norman knight who came upon fairies dancing at Beddgelert sets his hounds upon the happy throng.  His fate was first to get lost.  Then, when he managed to return home, he found his wife with her lover; the two men fought and the malicious knight died (Welsh Outlook, no.11, Nov.1st 1915, 431-2);
  • Even insults to fairies can elicit a severe response: a drunken man on the Isle of Man met some fairies dancing at Laxey. He swore at them and they chased him away by pelting him with gravel. This wasn’t sufficient though: soon his horse and cow died and, within six weeks, he died himself. I’ve mentioned before the Ballad of Mary O’Craignethan, in which a father rescues his kidnapped daughter from the fairy king. This happy outcome is marred, though, by the fact that- in his grief and rage- the father cursed the fairy folk. He is warned that “nane e’er cursed the Seelie Court and ever after thrave.” As predicted, the father dies soon after recovering his beloved Mary;
  • Trespassing on fairy ground: the fairies have been known (at the very least) to blunt farmers’ scythes if they try to mow the grass growing on a fairy ring. In a case reported from South-west Scotland, a farmer’s cow was killed because it had been annoying the fairies by standing on top of their house. Somewhat comparable may be the story of the walnut tree that once grew at Llandyn Hall, Llangollen, around which the faeries met at night to hold their wedding ceremonies.  When it was cut down in the nineteenth century, the faeries took their revenge, it was believed: one of the workmen involved in the felling was killed by a falling branch;
  • Damaging faery goods– usually we read stories in which humans are rewarded for mending broken faery tools. A Devonshire story reverses this. A boy found a pixie peel (baking implement) in a field. He broke it, saying “The pixies won’t bake any more bread.” He was instantly attacked and pinched, and couldn’t open his eyes for days (Folklore, vol.11, 213);
  • Spying: the faeries are notoriously secretive and retiring. A girl given a job as a housemaid by a ‘Green Lady,’ a fairy woman, was warned never to spy on her activities. Of course, the girl did- peeping through a keyhole at her mistress dancing with a bogey- and for this she was blinded (Folklore, vol.7);
  • Kidnapping: at Rudha Ban in Tarbet the wife of the head of the Macfarlane clan fell ill after the birth of a child and couldn’t nurse her baby.  Her husband kidnapped the wife of a local urisk and made her act as wet nurse.  In revenge for this affront, the urisk mutilated the family’s milkmaid.  In turn, he was hanged (Winchester, Traditions of Arrochar and Tarbet, 1916);
  • For attempted murder: at Hawker’s Cove, near Padstow, local man Tristram Bird discovered a mermaid one day whilst he was out hunting seals.  She was sat on a rock, combing her hair and looking as alluring as mermaids can; he instantly desired her and asked her to marry him.  She rejected the proposal and mocked him.  He threatened to shoot her, and she warned him he’d be sorry if he did.  He did- and he was.  Her fired at her and in response she cursed the harbour.  A storm blew up- and a sandbar blocked access from Padstow to the sea;
  • Failing to leave water out for them at night and to make them welcome in your home: when a family forgot one night to put out water, soap and towels for the visiting tylwyth teg, as was habitual, the peeved fairies overturned their stacks of peat outside (Y Cymmrodor, vol.7, 1886);
  • For meanness: a couple out walking on the Isle of Man met a small, crippled man begging.  Whilst the wife would have helped, the husband refused to give him any money, for which he was cursed.  They had a number of children subsequently- all the girls were born without disabilities, but all the boys were disabled just like the beggar (Manx Folklore, 1882-5).  In another Manx story, a man realised that the someone was stealing potatoes from his field after dark. He decided to sit out all night to catch the culprit. He discovered it was the fairies and, by the next morning, he was white and shaking and only able to struggle home and get into his bed, where he soon died. This was the penalty for begrudging a few spuds. A further Manx story concerns a girl baking at Bride.  She forgot the custom of sharing the resulting oat cake with the fairies but when she went up to sleep and got into bed, she received a blow to her face.  She knew this was a message from the fairies, so she went straight back down, baked a new cake and shared it with the Little People (Yn Lioar Manninagh, vol.2).

Some of these incidents are comprehensible, as acts of violence are met with violence.  In the later cases, though the response seems disproportionate to the incitement- but no-one ever suggested that fairies are proportionate people. The best policy is the utmost caution- and the utmost respect: be generous, share with them and at the same time don’t intrude.

Duncan Carse