‘The prettiest face’- fairy sexuality

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Sir Joseph Noel Paton, The reconciliation of Oberon & Titania

“Tension mars the prettiest face-/ Sex in fairyland!” (Heaven 17, ‘Play to win,’ Penthouse & pavement, 1981)

I have written before about the location of faery and how the fairies may pass their time there.  These discussions have, of course, accepted that fairyland is a physical place.  In this post I want to explore the idea that it also exists within the human (male) psyche. When conceived by artists and writers, faery is often a ‘house of fun,’ it is a ‘stately pleasure dome.’

Fairyland is a place full of nudes disporting, as we see in the works of painters Noel Paton, John Simmons, John McKirdy Duncan, Richard Dadd, Robert Huskisson and (to demonstrate that it was not all men) Emiline Dell.  Paton’s canvases in particular are alive with naked, writhing flesh, conveying to us an idea that Faery is a place of constant and unbridled pleasure.

Peter Blake

Given that artists repeatedly populate Faery with naked bodies, we are driven to enquire- is it Eden or is it an orgy?  It’s true that some artists expressly consider their imagined worlds to be places of innocence, free of self-consciousness.

For example, Peter Blake painted a series of fairy paintings in the mid-1970s , both portraits and larger canvasses.  Blake saw children and fairies as sharing an enchanting naivety, which was translated into the nature of his pictures, in which the nudity is devoid of sexuality and is simply a natural, almost tribal, state.  That said, his image of Titania, a naked adolescent who has decorated her breasts and pubic hair with plants and found items, suggests something both more aware and more self-possessed.  In addition, close examination of several of his pictures will reveal naked, shadowy figures, cavorting and contorting in the margins and the background.  Placid as the main characters see, there is passion and disturbance very near.

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Peter Blake, Poppy fairy

Many contemporary images of fairies tend to take a more overtly sexualised approach.  This is entirely understandable, given that much of our literature depicts them as uninhibited- as petulant, lascivious children even…

Medieval fairies

Generally, the traditional view of fairies was as wanton and libidinous.  In the romance of Sir Launval, the knight encounters the fairy woman Tryamour reclining upon a couch in a pavilion.  It is a summer’s day and:

“For hete her clothes down sche dede/ Almest to her gerdyl stede,/ Than lay sche uncovert./ Sche was as whyt as lylye yn May/ Or snow that sneweth yn wynterys day./ He segh never non so pert…”

Presented with this alluring prospect, Sir Launval responds predictably and “For play, lytylle they sclepte that nygt.”

Robert Herrick is equally explicit in his poem Oberon’s feast.  The fairy king enters his bed chamber:

“and now he finds
His moon-tann’d Mab, as somewhat sick,
And (love knows) tender as a chick.
Upon six plump dandillions, high-
Rear’d, lies her elvish majesty:
Whose woolly bubbles seem’d to drown
Her Mabship in obedient down.”

Oberon approaches the bed, which is decorated thus:

“The fringe about this are those threads
Broke at the loss of maidenheads:
And, all behung with these, pure pearls,
Dropp’d from the eyes of ravish’d girls
Or writhing brides ; when (panting) they
Give unto love the straiter way.
For music now, he has the cries
Of feigned lost virginities;
The which the elves make to excite
A more unconquered appetite.
The king’s undrest ; and now upon
The gnat’s watchword the elves are gone.
And now the bed, and Mab possess’d
Of this great little kingly guest;
We’ll nobly think, what’s to be done,
He’ll do no doubt ; this flax is spun.”

The Victorians and later

Despite the bawdy example of their predecessors, and despite the excess of nubile flesh in their painting, Victorian writers were more circumspect. There is little in nineteenth century literature to match the visual art.  Like much of his fairy-themed verse, John KeatsBelle dame sans merci is suggestive of sexual passion: a young man encounters a beautiful, wide-eyed maid, a fairy child, who enchants with a song of love before:

“She took me to her elfin grot,
And there she gazed and sighed deep,
And there I shut her wild sad eyes-
So kissed to sleep.

And there we slumbered on the moss…”

This coy ‘slumber’ is in stark contrast to the explicitness of Sir Launfal.  Christina Rossetti’s Goblin market is also notable for its intense and sensual tone, but its evocations of sisterly incest do not involve the hideous and violent goblins.

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Brian Froud, Nippers in the orchard

Twentieth century fays

During the twentieth century, whilst the art has more recently become more adult and explicit, fairy verse has largely fallen from favour (except for the consumption of children).  About the only ‘adult’ example of which I’m aware is from The temptation by American poet Clark Ashton Smith, an undeniably erotic verse:

“Exile fays with childish bosoms,
And their undevirginate
Vulvas wrought like budding blossoms
Cool and small and delicate…”

As you’ll see from the entire poem, Smith was plainly fantasising about faery as bacchanalian orgy.  Some of this mood is to be found reflected in the crowded pictures of Brian Froud.   His fays are cheerfully and unashamedly sexual.  In addition, whilst representations of fairyland are often images of youth and perfection, Froud prefers imperfection- age, maturity and non-classical variety.

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Fairies and mushrooms, Brian Froud- I need hardly point out the phallic mushrooms and the (seemingly) drug-addled girl

Diversity in faery

Even so, alongside the wide hips and pendulous breasts, alongside the range of ages, there are still plenty of nymphs in our imaginary faery, bevies of adolescent and petite beauties who conform to more classical conceptions as well as being accommodated by with more contemporary and liberal views.  As stated earlier, the question must be, here, whether these nymphs represent a primal innocence or whether they speak of a more complex sexuality.

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Alan Lee, Faerie, 1978

The modern faery can be a living community, with young and old.  The situation in nineteenth century art was, by contrast, rather more puzzling.  Many Victorian painters filled their scenes with a variety of sizes and types of fairy.  Whilst some were grotesques, these figures were mostly adult males and females, albeit of a range of statures; examples will be found in the paintings of Richard Dadd, John Simmons, Robert Huskisson and Noel Paton (to name but a few), all of whom imagined a vast variety of forms and sizes of fairy.  Sometimes infants are present, but these are often more like cherubs than real children (as in Midsummer Eve by E. R. Hughes for instance) and as such these figures indicate the classical origins of much of the Victorian style.  Richard Doyle was one of the very few who included definite children in his pictures; they appeared mostly as pages to the fairy court, though, and were accordingly very tiny.   It is only in more recent fairy art work that identifiably juvenile and teenaged faeries have appeared.

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Alan Lee, a bluebell faery

Faery has always been sexualised by humans.  The Victorians, in their different theatrical representations of fairyland, went further and juvenilised it.  What was then seen only on the stage has in recent decades appeared in painting and illustration. Froud and Lee offer us strikingly distinct visualisations of such a world.  Lee’s actually quite demure fays are black eyed and alarming in their self absorption; there is a ferocity and menace in their solitary nakedness- and even that nakedness must be a warning, when we consider the deathly blue skin of the bluebell fay above.  They are a visual reminder that contact with fairies, and especially contact with a fairy lover, could be fatal.

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Alan Lee, the cover illustration to Faeries, 1978.

Froud’s world is, on the whole, more whimsical, but there are perturbing undercurrents. His vision is frequently crowded and carnal; the atmosphere is febrile.  It is an environment where sexuality is flaunted and voluptuous; sexual awareness is pervasive and it does not seem to be the preserve of the maturer members of the fleshly throng. Everything here is promiscuous, polyamorous and uninhibited.  It’s also notable that a higher proportion of his fays seem to be female- self-possessed and confident, perhaps, as you might expect a fairy queen to be.

When I consider Froud’s images, I am reminded of those backgrounds to Peter Blake’s fairy scenes, where less distinct figures cavort and celebrate in the murk in comparable abandon.  The latter’s pictures are very nearly contemporary with the first designs from the former, so that it seems unlikely that Blake inspired Froud directly, but the parallel is striking nonetheless and may say something about contemporary ideas.  Both painters referred to the crammed nature of their canvases too: in 1997 Blake described how-

“As the fairies ooze to the front of the picture, they hear who’s looking at the painting and they stop and look out.  A group of them stare straight out at you, involving the viewer.”

Interviewed by Signe Pike for her book Faery tale in 2009, Froud said something very similar: there is-

“typically a central figure… and around the edges of the picture come crowding all of these faces.  It’s like they all want to be in the painting.  They don’t jostle… but they all sort of… get in.” (p.89)

There’s a more direct engagement here than in many of the Victorian pictures.  We are being invited, seduced, into their world.

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Dicky Doyle, A fairy and an elf kissing, British Library.

Duality in fairy

To conclude, there seem today to be two main styles for the representation of faery by visual artists.  One is in the tradition Victorian painter Richard Doyle and the later children’s book illustrators: it is a vision of fairy as a place of charming, harmless pleasure, and of sexless innocence.  The fays are often little girls and everything is pretty and safe.  Josephine Wall’s intricate and kaleidoscopic paintings might fall into this category.

It also strikes me here how often we read in contemporary books how it is children, because of their innocence, who are most likely to be able to see fairies.  This thinking has prevailed since at least the time of the Cottingley fairy photographs: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was anxious to obtain further pictures from the two girls because he feared that their encroaching adolescence might soon mean that they would lose their clairvoyance.  Edward Gardner wrote to Doyle  expressing his concern that one of them might soon fall in love and then “hey presto!”, the fairy encounters would be at an end.  How curious it is that sex could become the antithesis of faery, rather than than one of its defining features, as seen repeatedly in earlier art and literature.

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Josephine Wall, The wood fairy

In contrast, as discussed at length here, there is a darker, more traditional and more sensual vision: we are lured in with enticing looks, but indulging ourselves may be a risk.  A contemporary artist who embodies much of what has been discussed- the frames crowded with figures, the nudity, the atmosphere of pagan mystery- may be Mia Araujo.

Further reading

I have also discussed questions of sexuality in fairyland in various earlier posts, including consideration of sex and sexuality in the poetry of William Blake and John Keats, some thoughts on ideas of fairy beauty, on representations of sex in the art of Arthur Rackham and Brian Froud and a wider discussion of our evolving views of gender and age in Faery.  For those desirous of an actual sexual encounter with a fay, I recommend a look at my posting on the fairy rules of love.

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Fairies and culture

 

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‘Ferdinand and Ariel,’ by John Millais

Whatever our view of the existence of fairies and of a supernatural realm, there can be no denying the profound impact of faery (or the idea of it) upon our art and culture.  The reason for all this creativity, it seems to me, is that faery as a subject is so rich and complex.  Fairies can offer artists every emotion- sexual obsession, love, fear, jealousy, unbounded joy, mystery and mysticism- the list is lengthy.

Fae themes have been persistently rich sources of inspiration for a range of artists, whether in literature, song or the visual arts.  I’ll present a few examples, though I’m sure that proof is scarcely needed:

  • On the stage– whether inspiring the high art of Shakespeare or pantomimes and popular plays such as Peter Pan;
  • Novels and short stories (for both adults and children), from Charles Kingsley and George MacDonald through Enid Blyton, Beatrix Potter and E. M. Nesbit to Tolkien to Alan Garner;
  • Romance and myth– fairy themes are strong throughout many of the Arthurian myths and related stories, including the Welsh Mabinogion;
  • Poetry– from Robert Herrick and Michael Drayton through Keats and Blake to Walter de la Mare and Ivor Gurney;
  • Painting- from Fuseli to Froud;
  • Illustration– from Rossetti and Burne-Jones through Edmund Dulac, Arthur Rackham and Henry Justice Ford to Cicely Mary Barker and Margaret Tarrant;
  • Sculpture– for example the puppets of Wendy Froud or the wire creations of Robin Wright;
  • Film and cartoon–  we have both fictional films, such as Disney’s Peter Pan or The Dark Crystal, as well as documentaries and ‘factual’ stories based upon the Cottingley case; and,
  • Music– ranging from ballet, opera, ballads, light opera (Gilbert and Sullivan) to contemporary rock (Led Zeppelin or Sigur Ros).

Of course, the additional value of all of the above is that they are a supplement to the folklore evidence.  Just as much as traditional stories of fairies gathered by folklorists in the field, these various media give us a view of contemporary beliefs on the conduct and appearance of the fays.

What’s more, fairy works have inspired other fairy art.  For example Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream has inspired many works of art (by Paton, Dadd, Millais and many others).  In particular, it inspired a painting by Thomas Stothard,  Titania and Oberon, which in turn inspired a poem by Elizabeth Landon, The fairy queen sleeping.  In just the same way in 1825 Louisa Anne Meredith wrote The enchanted island in response to seeing the painting of the same name by Francis Darby; “’Tis the fairies’ home” the verse declares.

I’ll make a radical suggestion: even were fairies not to exist, their impact upon human culture would be almost undiminished.  We might even propose that, even if fairies did not exist, it would have been necessary to invent them to provide ourselves with such rich and fruitful veins of imagery and ideas.

The fairies have inspired our creativity for centuries, whether the source of that inspiration is our own imaginations or is an external supernatural force.  The power of this creative stimulus is expressly acknowledged by artists working in this genre.  It is not just a matter of the work produced, but of the transformative impact upon the artists themselves.   Interviewed by Signe Pike in Faery talepainter Brian Froud said that many of his readers and fans feel that with a rediscovery of their fairy faith:

“they feel they are coming home. They tell me they want to go away and write, or make something…”

His wife agreed: “often people have a creative response to our work.”  She starts her puppet workshops with meditation, within which “you do actually, genuinely, touch faeryland- you’re in it, whether you realise it or not.  So when you come back, and make a figure, it’s imbued with its own personality.”  In the act of imaginative creation, it would seem, there is a re-creation of the creator (Pike, 2010, pp.86-66).

In his introduction to David Riche’s Art of faery (2003), Froud argued that “Fairies mediate art, the mysterious moments of our creative relationship with the world.”  Whilst the twentieth century had emphasised our alienation from the world, the resurgence of visionary fairy art in its last decades and into the new millennium suggests the reversal of this and through that “the beginning of a spiritual journey. To paint fairies is not childish- but it could certainly said to be childlike- in its openness to creative and emotional impulses.”

Our culture is richer for fairies; we are richer for fairies….

Further reading

Neil Rushton on his dead but dreaming blog on WordPress provides a very useful overview of the entire world history of fairy art.

Is there a fairy queen?

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Queen Titania, by John Simmons

This question may seem a shocking challenge to accepted conventions, but reflecting recently upon a couple of postings concerning the queens of elfland made on Living liminally by Morgan Daimler, I suddenly began to wonder whether we really mean the words we use when we so casually discuss the ‘fairy kingdom,’ the ‘faery realm,’  the seelie and unseelie ‘courts‘ and the king and queen of fairy.

Elsewhere, in her recent book Fairies, Morgan observes that “the social structure does seem to operate as a hierarchy ruled ultimately by Kings and Queens.” (p.61)    This is quite true, but as I have suggested before in my post on woodland elves, the idea of fairy royalty is very much a projection of medieval structures by medieval writers.  The idea was first seen in such poems as Huon of Bordeaux, King Herla, Sir Orfeo and in the verse of Chaucer: Sir Thopas and the prologue to the Wife of Bath’s tale.  Two centuries later, Spenser, Shakespeare and Herrick cemented the idea in our culture.  Neil Rushton has recently reiterated this interpretation in a posting on his ‘Dead but dreaming’ blog, Faeries in the Arthurian landscapein which he observes that:

“The stories were consumed by the small proportion of literate population, and were codified accordingly to suit their social expectations. The appearance of characters with supernatural qualities within these stories had, therefore, to adhere to certain doctrines, which would be acceptable to their social mores and belief systems.”

As Neil implies, when we think of fairies now we almost unconsciously and automatically conjure images of Arthurian knights and ladies and all the structures of precedence and privilege that go with them.  This is habit, but is it any more than that?

Fairy reign

We are very used, then, to thinking of Queen Mab and of Oberon and Titania.  But what need, though, do the faes really have of rulers?  In the Middle Ages, monarchs were required to perform several purposes within their simpler states:

  • to lead the people in armed conflict- as I have described previously, war amongst the fairies may jar with our conventional views of them, but the possibility is mentioned in a few sources and might therefore justify some sort of war chief;
  • to dispense justice- we are aware of no laws as such in Faery, although there are clearly codes of behaviour that they impose (upon humans at least) and the infringement of which (by humans) is subject to sanction.  Parallel with this distinct morality, there is a general atmosphere of unrestrained impulsiveness;
  • to organise society- it’s hard to tell what, if any, structure there is within fairy society.  If we regard them as nature spirits, then they are all at the level of worker bees, it would appear.  A few authorities have proposed hierarchies, although this normally seems to involve different forms of supernatural beings as against different ranks: see for example Geoffrey Hodson or two interviews with ‘Irish seers’ conducted by Evans-Wentz- one with George William Rusell (AE) and a second with an unnamed Mrs X of County Dublin (Fairy faith in Celtic countries pp.60-66 and 242-3).  You’ll see the differences in size in John Simmons’ painting below;
  • to act as some sort of religious leader or high priest(ess).  I explored the puzzling matter of fairy religion not long ago; it is an area of considerable doubt.

None of these functions seem especially essential to Faery as we generally conceive it.  Is the title of ‘queen’ therefore redundant, or at best merely a convenient honorary title?

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There sleeps Titania, by John Simmons

Secret commonwealth

Let’s consider the views of the Reverend Robert Kirk, who certainly seems to have been well placed to know what he was talking about.  Writing in the late 1680s, he titled his justly famous book The secret commonwealth of elves, fauns and fairies.  A ‘commonwealth’ can merely denote a nation state or polity, but it can also more narrowly have the meaning of ‘republic.’  Given that he cannot but have been aware of the English Parliamentary ‘Commonwealth’ that succeeded the execution of Charles I in 1649, I think it’s inescapable that this was the connotation intended by Kirk when he chose to describe his subject matter.  That seems undeniable when we read at the head of chapter 7 that “They are said to have aristocraticall Rulers and Laws, but no discernible Religion, Love or Devotion towards God…  they disappear whenever they hear his Name invocked…”   We note Kirk’s belief in their aversion to church and religion, but also his conviction that they inhabit some sort of democracy regulated by rules of conduct of some description.

Rank or honour?

Perhaps those termed king and queen in Faery are simply those of the most distinguished character or the greatest magical power.  This was my conception of Queen Maeve in my story Albion awake!  In chapter 9, in response to being called Fairy Queen, Maeve replies:

“So you call me- but if I am a queen, I have no dominion.  I have powers, but I do not reign.  My people are a commonwealth- a secret commonwealth.”

Plainly I’ve stolen her phrase here!  Later she calls her people her ‘Nation Underground.’  I’ll let you track that reference down yourselves!

In conclusion, the main influence upon our conceptions of Faery as a stratified and monarchical society, with a royal family, a court, nobility and attendants, seems to be European society during the medieval period, channeled through contemporary literature.  Whether we are thinking of mythical Iron Age Ireland, Chaucer’s England or the France of Chretien de Troyes or Marie de France, their aristocratic society provided a model that was unthinkingly imposed upon fairyland.  It seems unlikely that the ‘common folk’ necessarily shared this; indeed, a large number of fairies were independent and individual characters or were conceived as members of their own, very local community.  Should we continue to talk of kings and queens then, or is it simply habit?  Do the terms have anything to do with contemporary perceptions of fairy?  What do readers think?

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‘Queen Mab,’ Henry Meynell Rheam

Hand charms and faery

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Henry Justice Ford, The enchantment, 

The above image is an illustration to the ‘Story of Ciccu’ in Andrew Lang’s Pink fairy book of 1897.  Henry Justice Ford chose to illustrate a scene in which three sleeping brothers are endowed with gifts by three fairy women who come upon them.  You will observe the fairies’ curious hand gestures.

These put me in mind of lines from Tennyson’s poem Merlin and Vivien, which forms part of his Idylls of the King.  The young woman, Vivien/ Nimue, wishes to learn the elderly magician’s skills from him, especially one charm of “woven paces and waving hands.”  She slowly wears him down with promises of her love until he is “overtalked and overworn” and, against his better judgment, tells her the charm she wishes so much to know.  Almost immediately she employs it to imprison him for infinity in an oak tree.

In both these examples we have fairy women “waving hands” to cast spells.  I know that various individual gestures and movements  have magical or spiritual power.  These are very often now labelled in Hindi ‘mudras’ and ‘bandhas’- terms borrowed from yoga practice when surely there must be native equivalents (?).  I have been able to find less about series of gestures with both hands at once.  It appears that the technique may involve creating certain significant or powerful shapes, or tracing certain signs in the air. Mostly what I have encountered relates to static positions, rather than to the  “waving of hands” described by Nimue.

Can readers add to this? Has anyone encountered other faery examples of this practice?

Further reading

Other ways of working charms and/ or acquiring or wielding fairy magic include fern seed, spell books, incantations and other verbal charms, ointment and simple touch.

‘A geography of trees’- wood elves in myth and popular culture

 

Female_HalfElf

“… like a wind out of fairy-land
Where little people live
Who need no geography
But trees.”           (Hilda Conkling [1910-86], Geography, 1920)

Today probably most people, if asked, would imagine elves and fairies gambolling in a woodland setting.  This appears to have become a very strong convention within our popular visual culture, yet it is not traditional to British fairy lore (despite a few links between fairies and particular trees, most notably in Gaelic speaking areas where the fairy thorn has particular power and significance- see for examples poems of this name by Samuel Ferguson and Dora Sigerson Shorter). I wish therefore in this posting to examine how this prevalent image came about.

Shakespeare

Although the fairy king Oberon is met in a forest in the thirteenth century romance epic Huon of Bordeuax, but I believe the primary source of our close association between fairies and forests is Shakespeare, both the ‘wood near Athens’ which features in Midsummer night’s dream and in which Titania, Oberon, Puck and the other fairies make their home, and the open woodland of Windsor Great Park that features in the Merry Wives of Windsor and which is the scene of Falstaff’s believed encounter with the fairy queen and her train.  Whilst their ultimate roots may lie with the dryads and hamadryads of classical myth, it was these theatrical presentations of fairies that first really fixed the woodland elf in the English speaking public’s imagination.  Much subsequent literature and visual art has cemented the pairing to the extent that it appears inevitable, but there is little trace of it in older sources or in British folklore.

British fairy homes

The British fairy, according to older writers, could be found in a variety of locations.  They frequented mountains, caverns, meadows and fields, fountains, heaths and greens, hills and downland, groves and woods.  Generally, they were more likely to be found in ‘wild places.’ Residence underground- whether in caves or under hills- is a commonly featured preference and I have often mentioned the presence of fairies under knolls and barrows.  Woods feature in these sources, it’s perfectly true, but they are far from the most commonly mentioned locations.  (I have considered here Reginald Scot, Burton’s Anatomy of melancholy, Bourne’s Antiquitates vulgares and a few medieval texts.)  The South English legendary of the thirteenth or fourteenth century is especially interesting reading in this connection: elves are seen, we are informed, “by daye much in wodes… and bi nightes ope heighe dounes…”- in other words, they frequent woods during the day (presumably for concealment from human eyes) but resort to open hill tops at night for their revelries.

A particularly relevant source is the Welsh minister, the Reverend Edmund Jones. In his 1780 history of the superstitions of Aberystruth parish he recorded the contemporary views locally on the most likely locations for seeing fairies.  They did not like open, plain or marshy places, he reported, but preferred those that were dry and near to or shaded by spreading branches, particularly those of hazel and oak trees (The appearance of evil, para.56).  Jones’ description fits the open oak parkland of Windsor perfectly, where Falstaff is duped by those merry wives and their gang of children disguised as elves.  It’s also notable that Wirt Sikes in his British goblins locates the Welsh elves (ellyllon) in groves and valleys.  In Wales at least, then, an open wooded landscape was believed in popular tradition to be the fairies’ preferred habitat.

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John Anster Fitzgerald, The enchanted forest

Woodland fays

Woods were one of the favoured resorts for the fairy folk, then, but not their sole preserve.  It seems to be in Victorian times that woodland elves became the cliche that we encounter today.  I have (for better or ill) read a lot of Victorian fairy verse and certain stereotyped images are very well worn: moonlight, dancing in rings, woodland glades.  Here are just a few examples to indicate what you’ll see ad nauseam.  The connection begins to appear in the eighteenth century (see for example the “fairy glade” of Sir James Beattie’s The minstrel and The palace of fortune by Sir William Jones, 1769). References multiply throughout the next hundred years and into the last century: the “sylvan nook where fairies dwell” of Janet Hamilton’s Pictures of memory; Ann Radcliffe’s “woodlands dear” and “forest walks” in Athlin and The glow-worm; the “woodways wild” of Madison Julius Cawein’s Prologue and the “fairy wood” in his Elfin; the “woodland fays” that appear in George Pope Morris’ Croton Mode.  By then well-established, these fays persisted into the twentieth century, in “some dark and mystic glade” of Tennessee Williams’ Under April rain or the “nymphs of a dark forest” of Edna St Vincent Millay.  All of this imagery transferred to the visual arts, too, especially to the illustrations of children’s books.

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Margaret Tarrant, ‘The fairy way’

Tolkien’s elves

Once this image was embedded in the culture, it proved almost impossible to eradicate.  J. R. R. Tolkien absorbed it and the Silvan or Wood Elves of Lord of the Rings are the result; Galadriel is one of the Galadhrim (the tree people) of Lorien.  Tolkien’s influence in recent decades has been extensive and powerful.  An example might be Led Zeppelin, whose own highly influential Stairway to heaven invokes images of fairyland where “the forests shall echo with laughter.”  The pervasive idea was that the natural habitat of the fairy is the forest.

It might not be inappropriate to conclude with more lines from infant prodigy Hilda Conkling.  In If I could tell you the way she described how-

“Down through the forest to the river
I wander…
Fairies live here;
They know no sorrow.
Birds, winds,
They are the only people.
If I could tell you the way to this place,
You would sell your house and your land
For silver or a little gold,
You would sail up the river,
Tie your boat to the Black Stone,
Build a leaf-hut, make a twig-fire,
Gather mushrooms, drink spring-water,
Live alone and sing to yourself
For a year and a year and a year!”

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Margaret Tarrant, The fairies market, 1921

Further reading

For a wider consideration of the relationship between fays and trees, see Neil Rushton’s posting on dead but dreaming on the metaphysics of fairy trees.

 

 

‘The fairest of the fair’- Fae beauty

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‘Take the fair face of woman,’ Sophie Anderson

“It was late on an eve in midsummer,
I fell sleeping on the green,
And when I awoke in wonder, I saw
What few mortal men have seen.

Changelings, fays and sprites,
A mighty swarm, all had taken to the air,
And before them passed their Fairy Queen,
She.. the fairest of the fair…”

(from He who would dream of fairyland, by Micheal Patrick Hearn)

I posted not too long ago a comment upon the convention of fairies’ pointy ears, in response to an examination of the question by Morgan Daimler.  I thought more about it, and about conceptions of fairy beauty in general, and decided to review our evolving iconography on this subject.  I have written about fairy physiology, their height and physical form, but I had neglected to discuss that most obvious of features, their faces!

Fairies in folklore

For centuries humans have found the physical charms of fairy men and women irresistible.  Whether it is the many alluring fairy queens of whom we read in medieval romances, the Irish leanan sidhe and her male counterpart gean canach, or long-haired mermaids on the shore, all are so desirable that we would abandon all we know to be with a fairy lover.  Fae beauty is said to exceed that of humans- this is the case with the elf-wife of Wild Edric in the twelfth century story of his fate; the same was the case in Wales in the accounts of the lake maidens and the girls of the tylwyth teg (the fair family) who lured men into their dances (Rhys, Celtic folklorepp.3, 23 & 44 and pp.85-6 & 90 respectively).

Overall, the folklore evidence seems to be that there were types of fairy known to be ugly or deformed- spinner Habetrot‘s distended bottom lip, misshapen through years of pulling thread- springs to mind; and then there were the rest of the elves and fairies, whose features were at least unremarkable or normal and, not infrequently, surpassing human looks.  The fays might be shorter in stature than us, but they were not regarded as any less fair.  Mentions of some repulsive feature- an extra-long tooth or a malformed nose- do not seem to include pointed ears.  Also largely lacking from the folklore of Britain and Ireland is the combination of beauty and deformity that is found in the Danish elle-maids, who may have gorgeous faces but hollow backs or cows’ tails.  The only British example of this type I can bring to mind is the Highland glaistig, a lovely woman who wears a long green dress- that conceals her hooved feet.

Goblins in art

The folklore dichotomy between ‘fair’ and ‘foul’ fairy types is found in our visual arts too.

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Cover of a seventeenth century chapbook

Popular depictions of fairies date right back to the sixteenth century and certain conventions were fixed even then.  One type of fairy consistently found is the hairy Puck-like creature- also known as Robin Goodfellow.  He derives substantially from classical images of the satyr, often with horns and with the pointed ears of a goat.

puck

This image stayed with us for centuries.  Although we may later have spoken about goblins, possibly even elves,  the way they were represented stayed very much the same: they were ugly, if not grotesque, and only partially human.  There are many examples, such as in pictures of Shakespeare’s character Puck by Sir Joshua Reynolds or Henry Fuseli or in paintings of other scenes from  Midsummer night’s dream, for instance, The reconciliation of Oberon and Titania or Oberon and the mermaid, both by Sir Noel Paton.

simmons fairy lying on a leaf

John Simmons, A fairy lying on a leaf

Nubile fairies

The second strand in our art also, I feel sure, derives ultimately from classical art.  In contrast to those satyrs and fauns, the Greeks envisaged naiads, dryads and other nymphs.  They were almost always young, naked women, and later British art- especially in the Victorian period-  is full of nude nubiles with long hair.  These are the young females who sprout wings and acquire wands during the nineteenth century.  As I’ve suggested in a discussion of fairies on the stage and in art, this honouring of classical models may also have been an excuse to produce a little soft porn for the consumer art market, but it was all very tastefully done.

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Arthur Rackham, ‘Fairy song,’ illustration to A midsummer night’s dream.

For some time these two fairy types were held apart, so that the females were pretty and petite and indisputably human, whilst the elves, goblins (and later pixies) had some distinguishing feature that clearly denoted their otherness- often it was the ears, although they could be simply oversized (as in the work of Hutton Lear), or bat-like (Paton, Reconciliation of Oberon and Titania).  Sometimes the heads and bodies might be misshapen, for example by being exaggeratedly rounded.  Arthur Rackham’s work typifies these contrasting poles, as shown in the example below, ‘These fairy mountains.’ At the same time, though, we start to see in some of Rackham’s work an amalgamation of the two types, as in Fairy song above.

these fairy mountains

It’s not always easy to be sure about the physical characteristics of the fairies, either because the maidens have abundant locks or because (in the case of John Anster Fitzgerald) they wear odd, close fitting hats and caps.  That said, it is quite common for those hats to be strangely shaped, with flaps and points much resembling animal ears (Richard Dadd is another example of this style).  We should also note the paintings of Henry Fuseli, whose fairies are women, it’s quite true, but whose faces are often sharp and caricatured, sometimes with disturbingly black eyes.

Flower fairies

By and large, though, the two distinct strains of fairy representation remained separate until the twentieth century.  What then followed was huge popularity of the ‘flower fairy‘ and, as many readers will know, there was nothing in the least supernatural or alarming about the creatures drawn by Margaret Tarrant and Cicely Mary Barker.  The riot of Victorian nudes disappeared to be replaced by nice demure little girls from Croydon with bobbed 1920s hair and pretty party frocks (Ida Rentoul Outhwaite in Australia is another exemplar of this genre).  Meanwhile, the pixies and goblins perhaps became a little quainter and less wicked as children’s book illustration increasingly became the venue for fairy art (see, for example, the work of Rosa Petherick- amongst many).

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Cicely Mary Barker, The poppy flower fairy

Modern fairies

I think it is only much later in the twentieth century that elements of the ‘Puck’ seeped into the drawing of the ‘fairy’ to give us the elves we’d instantly recognise today.  When English artists Alan Lee and Brian Froud drew their celebrated Faeries in 1978 they gave pointed ears to all the fays they drew.  Indisputably, the illustrations in this book (and its many successors) have been extraordinarily influential upon subsequent popular conceptions.

There’s nothing in Tolkien’s books about pointed ears (whether on the hobbits or on the notedly handsome elves) which could form a link in this chain of influence.  In fact, setting aside Tarrant and Barker (despite the huge and continuing popularity of their work) I think that it is other children’s illustrators of the mid-twentieth century who form the iconographic link between artists of the 1960s and ’70s and the Victorian antecedents.  In the innumerable illustrations for children’s books showing fairies, elves and pixies, we witness the final merging of the lovely female fairy and the cute pixy.  There are considerable numbers of these- too many to enumerate here- but as examples I will mention Gladys Checkley, Helen Jacobs and Rene Cloke, all of whose pictures will have introduced young children from the 1930s through to the 1960s to the idea of diminutive, dragonfly-winged fairies with pointed ears.  From these pictures it was a very short step to Galadriel and Legolas as we unavoidably envisage them today.

Jacobs a fleet of fairies

Helen Jacobs, A fleet of fairies

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Gladys Checkley postcard (c.1950)

Further reading

Ideals of fairy beauty (and of sexuality, which tends, inseparably, to be connected to this) are matters I have discussed several times before.  I have compared the work of Rackham and Froud  and I have examined our evolving representations of fairy age and gender.

Fairy festivals and seasons

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Cicely Mary Barker, The mountain ash fairy

“They thought me, once, a magic tree

Of wondrous lucky charm,

And at the door they planted me

To keep the house from harm.”

In a recent post I described the best days of the week to see fairies (or to avoid them).  There are also certain times of the year when they are more likely to be abroad in the mortal world, and when encounters are more likely- whether for good or ill.  (I should confess at the start that I’ve broken my rule and included material from Ireland here, because it is so consistent with that of the British Isles.)

Evidence

The bulk of the evidence on festivals and seasons comes from Scotland and Ireland.  There is a little from Man, a couple of odd instances from England and Cornwall and from Wales all we really know is that there were three ‘spirit nights’, the Teir nos ysprydnos, when it was believed that supernatural beings of all descriptions were abroad (these were May Day, Midsummer Eve and Halloween). Despite any deficiencies, the accounts are nonetheless consistent.  Two festivals stand out across Britain and Ireland- these are May Day and Halloween.  On these occasions the fairies would be out and about in the world, partly for pleasure, sometimes because they moved home at these important times of the year.

May Day

On May Day fires were lit to scare away the fairies.  This was done in Ireland, Scotland and on Man, where it was expressly the gorse that was burned.  Both in Ireland and Man it was believed to be unlucky to give fire away to a neighbour at this time- perhaps because the protection from fairies was being dissipated.  On Man, too, rowan, primroses and green boughs were gathered and laid before the doors of houses, stables and cattle sheds to exclude the fairies.  The reason for these precautions seems to have been that this festival was the time when the fairies re-emerged after winter and held their first dances of the year.  As they were freshly abroad in the world, again, they were deemed particularly dangerous.  It was said to be unwise to draw water from a well for a drink after sunset.  In Ireland, it was believed too that the sidhe would try to steal butter at this time of year; in Scotland, they stole milk from the cows.  Also in Ireland it was considered that cutting blackthorn at this season would attract ill-fortune.  In the worst cases, a sudden death would be regarded as an indicator of an abduction.

Midsummer

The next major seasonal festival of the year was Midsummer, but this has fewer fairy associations.  In Ireland Beltaine fires were lit and once again these acted as barriers or discouragements to the sidhe folk.

Margaret Tarrant-Midsummer Night

Margaret Tarrant, Midsummer night

Halloween

It was at Halloween (Samhain) that supernatural forces again became particularity dangerous.  On this night the fairy folk were abroad once more, their last major excursion of the year, and mortals had to take precautions.  In Ireland it was thought that the sidhe moved home on this night, whilst in Scotland the fairy court enjoyed its last processional ride (or rade).  In the Outer Hebrides the season was said to be even more perilous as it was then that the fairy hosts fought amongst themselves, whilst in England this was the time of the year when the Wild Hunt rode through the nighttime skies of the South West.  A person out on Halloween was in grave danger of being swept up with the fairy throng. The only way that the rade could be seen by a mortal without peril was to have rowan hung at their door (hence my use of the verse and illustration by Cicely Mary Barker at the head of this post).  In Ireland offerings of food were left out near raths and other fairy sites in order to deflect their enmity.  Conversely, it was said that this was the best time of year to rescue those abducted, as the doors of the fairy hills would be open.

Even if you did not encounter the fairies, the countryside could be tainted.  For this reason, in Cornwall and in Ireland the advice was not to eat brambles after the end of October.  As in May, cutting blackthorn was discouraged too in November.  As at the start of the growing year, so at the end, torches were lit in the Highlands to keep the sidhe folk away.

Other festivals

Other dates with fairy links are Whitsuntide, when holy water was sprinkled inside Irish homes to ward off the sidhe and the season of Yule on Shetland, during which it was believed that the trows (trolls) would wander the island and enter human homes.  In fact, the Highland community served by the Reverend Robert Kirk during the late seventeenth century regarded all the quarter days (Candlemas, May Day, Lammas and Halloween) as risky times when there was fairy danger.

Duncan, John, 1866-1945; The Riders of the Sidhe

John Duncan, The riders of the sidhe.

Whereas the evidence on days and times of day was rather less conclusive, it is possible with some certainty to point to festivals and seasons of the year, liminal turning points in the calendar, during which the portals to the supernatural open, or at least become more porous, allowing far greater access from one side to the other.

‘Come unto these yellow sands’- seaside fairies

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Thomas Maybank, ‘Come unto these yellow sands’ (1906)

It is generally (perfectly correctly) our assumption that fairies and elves are beings of woodland and groves.  They may from time to time be found out on rough moorland (pixies and spriggans in the south west of England) or even in human homes and farm buildings (brownies) but we very rarely imagine them at the seaside.  This is mistaken; they have been sighted there and this post presents the scattered evidence for this.

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Richard Dadd, ‘Come unto these yellow sands’ (1841)

Shakespearean fairies

Although in classical mythology the Nereids and Oceanids were marine nymphs, there is only a little traditional British material locating supernaturals on the seashore (for example, at Newlyn in Cornwall the bucca living on the strand had to be offered a share of the catch by fishermen hoping for success) and it is probably Shakespeare in The Tempest who first created the association in the popular mind.  In Act 1 scene 2, Ariel famously sings:

“Come unto these yellow sands,
And then take hands:
Curtsied when you have, and kiss’d
The wild waves whist,
Foot it featly here and there;
And, sweet sprites, the burthen bear.
Hark, hark!”

Here we have the conventional fairy circle dance transposed from a glade or meadow, where a fairy ring springs up, to the strand-a novelty that appears to be almost entirely the playwright’s invention.  Milton seems to have imitated this scene in Comus: “And on the Tawny Sands and Shelves, Trip the pert Fairies and the dapper Elves” (lines 117-118).  Without doubt, Shakespeare’s song has provided inspiration to painters ever since, as is illustrated here, and it seems to have created a lasting acceptance that fairies might quite properly be encountered so far from their normal haunts.  Scenes from The Tempest and, of course, Midsummer Night’s Dream were standard fare for Victorian fairy artists, but also we find seashore sprites unconnected with these famous plays.

Yellowsands_Huskisson
Robert Huskisson, ‘Come unto these yellow sands,’ (1847)

Victorian fairies

From the early nineteenth century we have the painting Fairies on the seashore by Henry Howard (see below).  What exactly this tropical scene illustrates is uncertain; it may be his own idea, it may be drawn from literature: Ann Radcliffe in The mysteries of Udolpho (1794) wrote some lines about a sea nymph, who sings:

“Where e’er ye are who love my lay/ Come when red sunset tints the wave,

To the still sands, where fairies play,/ There in cool seas, I love to lave.”

Around the same time Elizabeth Landon wrote an entire poem entitled Fairies on the seashore, which features flower, rainbow and music fairies as well as a sea fairy riding in a nautilus shell in the moonlight.

tarrant sea shore fs

Yeats and the seaside sidhe

In the late nineteenth century it seems likely that W. B. Yeats drew upon native Irish tradition, rather than any English literary or artistic works, when in 1889 he wrote his famous poem The stolen child.  It is voiced by fairies who are abducting a human infant- they tempt the child to accompany them to where:

“the moon glosses/ The dim grey sands with light/ Far off by furthest Rosses/ We foot it all the night,/ Weaving olden dances.”

The scene is Rosses Sands in County Sligo, a place known as a “great fairy locality” according to Yeats himself.  It would be easy enough to assume that these lines were simply the work of a great poetic imagination, but this would be mistaken.  Yeats, like his friends William Russell (AE) and Ella Young, actually met fairies. In his collected letters he tells of an encounter at the Rosses that took place about the time that the verse was composed, when he met and conversed with the queen of fairy and her troop.  In this respect, Yeats prefigures our last evidence by several decades.

fairies on sea shore henry howard

Seashore fairies, Henry Howard (1769-1847)

Fays on holiday?

Finally, in the twentieth century, we have actual sightings of fairies on the beach recorded, incidents which appear to exactly replicate Thomas Maybank’s 1906 version of Ariel’s song (rather than Margaret Tarrant’s more Peter Pan-ish and homely image).  In July 1921 Geoffrey Hodson saw some “queer little elf-like forms” playing on the beach at Blackpool.  They had elfish faces, large heads and ears, little round bodies, short thin legs with webbed feet and were three to six inches tall.  They played amongst the seaweed and stones, but did not go in the water; they seemed unconcerned by the presence of human holidaymakers (Fairies at work and playchapter 1).  In Conan Doyle’s Coming of the fairies, published in the same year, he reproduced an account by Mrs Ethel Wilson of Worthing of seeing fairies on the beach on sunny days: they were like little dolls with beautiful bright hair, she told him.  Unlike Hodson’s elves, these beings played in the sea and rode on the waves, constantly moving and dancing about.  These are fascinating sightings, though it is inescapable that the fays seem to have travelled to the coast very much in tandem with British day-trippers.

To conclude, the evidence is patchy and much of it is from literature rather than folklore, but the indication is that fairies might be found in any natural scene, from the sea shore to the mountain top.  If we conceive of them as nature spirits, this would of course be exactly what we would expect.

Why do elves have pointed ears?

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Image from https://clayscence.deviantart.com/art/Asrai-533408670

Author and fairy expert Morgan Daimler has asked a very important question in a recent posting on her blog.  Although I have written myself about fairy physiology, this particular question is one that I have overlooked.

The posting is a very thorough and valuable examination of a fascinating aspect of the subject and Morgan rightly, I think, suggests Christian influence as the source of this feature.

I’ve been conducting my own research recently into the evolution of contemporary views of faerie, and reading the piece made me look back at my record of twentieth century sightings. It’s fascinating to note that pointed ears are mentioned by the likes of Hodson and Conan Doyle, but only in a very small percentage of cases. Long noses are just as common, and we also read about big ears and no ears. A couple of references to ‘elfish’ faces probably suggest that the conventions were well established as early (at least) as the 1920s, just as Morgan have stated in her own discussion.

Suffice to say, pointy ears are embedded in popular iconography, but it’s probably not a traditional conception and its origins seem to be a source to some degree hostile to the fairy belief.  I return to consideration of this question and of the canons of fairy beauty (in the eyes of human artists at least) in another post.

‘Santa’s little helpers’ – the origins of the Christmas elves

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Norman Rockwell, Santa with elves, 1922

Santa’s elves are the result of the combination of a number of traditions. Santa Claus himself is of course much older, deriving from the historical figure of St. Nicholas of Myra but with attributes added from several European Christmas traditions, particularly the English Father Christmas and the Dutch Sinterklaas. The association of Christmas presents with elves has precedents in Swedish and Danish folklore.

First sightings

The Christmas elf as such first appeared in literature in 1850 when Louisa May Alcott completed, but never published, a book entitled Christmas elves.  The American political magazine Harper’s Weekly (1857-1916) featured in its Christmas edition for 1857 a poem The wonders of Santa Claus which recounts that he:

“Keeps a great many elves at work/ All working with all their might/ To make a million of pretty things/ Cakes, sugar-plums and things/ To fill the stockings, hung up you know,/ By the little girls and boys…”

The image of the elves in the workshop was popularised by Godey’s Lady’s Book, an American women’s magazine published 1830-1878.  The front cover illustration of its 1873 Christmas issue showed Santa surrounded by toys and elves with the caption, “Here we have an idea of the preparations that are made to supply the young folks with toys at Christmas time.” At this time Godey’s magazine played a major role in influencing the Christmas traditions that were developing in the USA: for example, the cover of its 1850 Christmas issue featured the first widely circulated picture of the modern Christmas tree. Additional impetus was given to the idea of Christmas elves by Austin Thompson’s 1876 play The House of Santa Claus: a Christmas fairy show for Sunday schools.  In fact, in Clement Clarke Moore’s earlier poem of 1823, A visit from St. Nicholas (more commonly known today as ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas), Santa Claus himself was described as being “chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf.”

Scandinavian origins

These literary and commercial strands mingled with Scandinavian ideas brought to North America by immigrants.  Prior to the influence of St. Nicholas in Sweden, the job of giving out gifts had been done by the Yule Goat. By 1891, however, the saint had become so well known that he could no longer be excluded from the festival; he became merged with the tomten, which were supernatural farm guardians closely akin to the British brownie, dobby or hob (tomte means ‘homestead man’).

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A jultomte & horse

tomte, or nisse, is a Nordic mythological creature that closely associated with the winter solstice and the Christmas season.  It’s generally described as being a small male, about 90 cm/ 36 inches tall, with a long white beard and a conical or knitted cap in red or some other bright colour. Their appearance is rather like our modern convention of the garden gnome. In Swedish and Danish folklore the creatures are solitary, residing in the pantry or barn, and tend to be mischievous.  However, they are also very hardworking, being responsible for the protection and welfare of a farmstead and, particularly, caring for the livestock.  The nisse/ tomte was a very familiar creature in Scandinavian folklore and, with the romanticising and collection of folklore during the 19th century, it gained even greater popularity.  (NB: nisse derives from Nils/ Nicholas, further underlining the intermingling of traditions.)

Jultomten_1895

As already mentioned, in the Nordic folklore traditions associated with Christmas the tomte is often accompanied by the Yule goat (julbocken). The pair appeared on Christmas Eve, knocking on doors and handing out presents. The nisse also delivered gifts at the door, but was more commonly seen with a pig, another popular Christmas symbol in Scandinavia.  It is customary to leave out a bowl of porridge with butter in gratitude for the services rendered by the creature. Then, in the 1840s, the farm nisse became the bearer of Christmas presents in Denmark, and was then called julenisse (Yule Nisse).

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Tomten & gingerbread, by Jenny Nystrom.

In 1881, the Swedish magazine Ny Illustrerad Tidning published Viktor Rydberg’s poem Tomten, illustrated by Jenny Nyström.  She took the traditional Swedish folk character and turned it into a friendly white-bearded, red-capped figure that has come to be associated with Christmas ever since. Shortly afterwards, and obviously influenced by the emerging Father Christmas traditions as well as by the new Danish tradition, a variant of the nisse/tomte, called the jultomte in Sweden and julenisse in Norway, started delivering Christmas presents in those countries, taking over the role from the traditional julbock.

Still today in Scandinavia the nisse/ tomte are pictured on Christmas cards, calendars and house and garden decorations, often with a horse or cat, or riding on a goat or in a sled pulled by a goat. The julenisse tends now to be adult sized , rather than being the height of a child, as was the older tradition.

Glædelig_Jul,_ca_1917

Also caught up in this legend making was another myth, that of ‘Santa’s little helper.’  This seems to be derived from the German companions to Santa Claus, who include Knecht Ruprecht (boy Rupert).  The idea of a child assistant has become mingled with that of fairy bringers of presents to help produce our present ideas.

Disney and since

In the USA these varied concepts also became mixed with the less rustic and more childlike images of fairies and elves derived from more recent British tradition.  The result was that Santa Claus’ elves steadily lost their beards and became more infantile and saccharine.  Walt Disney’s 1932 cartoon Santa’s workshop was a stage in this process, depicting ‘Santa’s little helpers’ as white bearded elves in green hats and costumes.  An autonomous body of lore has begun to accrue around these creatures now, with their ‘traditional’ names purporting to include such dismal examples as Alabaster Snowball, Bushy Evergreen and (I regret to say) Sugarplum Mary.  There is of course very little traditional material in these current stories: the whole idea is alien to the British tradition as it was imported into North America and it has evolved a long way beyond the Nordic elements. Nevertheless, the image has developed a life of its own with such films as Elf (2003) and it continues to evolve, as much through popular as commercial influence.

Glædelig_Jul,_1885