Whilst much is written about the fairy theft of human children, and their substitution for elderly fairy changelings, a lot less is said about the fairies’ own offspring. What do we know about them?
A Low Birth Rate
Starting at the very beginning, the evidence is that fairy births are few and far between and that the whole business of labour and nursing are problematic for our Good Neighbours. For this reason, human midwives are called upon regularly to assist the fairy mother and women newly delivered of children here are frequently abducted to act as nurse maids for fairy infants. In the story of The Fairy Dwelling on Selena Moor, the human abductee Grace informs her former lover, when he asks about children in Faery, that there are:
“Very few indeed,” she replied, “though they are fond of babies, and make great rejoicing when one happens to be born amongst them; and then every little man, however old, is proud to be thought the father.”
Little Girls Lost
Given how precious faery offspring must be, it’s notable how often they seem to get lost. Most encounters with fairy children occur in cases where they have strayed or become lost or separated somehow. For example, one evening on Shetland, a man found a strange straw box in his farmyard. He put it in the house and went to feed his livestock, and when he returned inside, he heard an odd sound from inside the box, a little like “Foddle-dee-foodle-dee-doo” and the sound of feet kicking. A voice called out, asking to be released, and he realised there was a trow child inside. He promptly put the box outside again, hoping and assuming that the parents would return to collect their mislaid offspring.
This case sounds a little neglectful, although the man’s panic may be understood. In another Shetland example, a little trow girl dressed in grey and brown was found lost by a family and was taken in for the night. She slept in the same bed as the human children and, the next morning, heard her mother calling her home and left quite contentedly. In recognition of this care, it appears, the children who shared a bed with the trow girl grew up to be happy and prosperous.
Another faery girl was found lost and alone near Tower Hill, Middleton-in-Teesdale in Northern England. A woman took the child home, sat her by the fire and gave her bread and cheese to eat, but the girl cried so bitterly that woman took pity and returned her to the place by the river where she’d been found and where it was believed that the faeries came to bathe, in the hope that her parents would return for her- and several of stories indicate that they will do just that (see Janet Bord, Fairies, Appendix).
Sometimes the infants are just careless of their own safety, as was the case witha pixie child captured near Zennor, in West Cornwall. A farmer was cutting furze when he spotted a young pixie asleep. The man scooped him up and took him home, where he was named Bobby Griglans by his family. The little boy would play contentedly by the hearth with the family’s children. One day, when all the youngsters had slipped outside to play, the pixie’s parents appeared searching for him and he happily went home with them (Bottrell, Traditions of West Cornwall, vol.1, 74).
Accidents happen, of course, and there is evidence of normal care and parenting too. For example, a fairy child fell ill and her mother approached a housewife living at Longhill, near Whithorn in southwest Scotland, for some milk for the poorly infant. Fairy children can get sick and their families will take care of them.
What do these infants look like? As I have suggested before, fairies’ faces may not always be as we might anticipate. Much of the folklore evidence suggests something very much more alarming than the pretty girls of the illustrators such as Margaret Tarrant (above).
By way of illustration, the lost faery child found at Middleton in Teesdale had green clothes and red eyes- in light of which, perhaps there is negative evidence to hand as well. It is a widespread belief that pretty, fair-haired and blue-eyed human babies are the most vulnerable to being snatched away by the fairies. For example, along the border between England and Wales it was said that “fine and solid” country babies were the ones preferred. It might be proposed that the human infants taken were chosen because they did not look like fairy offspring, with their surprisingly coloured countenances.
When we gather together the scattered evidence, some surprising patterns emerge. The taking of changelings might suggest a want of family feeling on the part of the faes, but their own conduct suggests that they are just as good parents as any humans (and sometimes better, judging by the stories of the fairies providing child-care for our neglected infants).
Secondly, whilst we can often assume that the fairies are all lovely to behold, if we put together the different stories, we discover hints of something different. Some look just like us; others very definitely do not.
Fairy foodstuffs are mysterious. Eating or drinking within fairyland is widely accepted to be a way of ensuring that you cannot escape back to your home: you take fairy nature within yourself- and therefore you must abstain from meals whilst visiting. Sometimes, a wise friend might warn a person of the risks before they go- as was the case with a Ross-shire midwife called to a delivery in the knoll at Big Strath; sometimes the help comes from someone already there in Faerie. In the Hertfordshire fairy-tale of the Green Lady, a girl working as a servant for the green (fairy) woman is warned by fish in a well where she draws water not to eat the household’s food.
What is odd, though, is that the converse of this rule is that, if you encounter fairy food and drink in the human world, refusing to eat it is the perilous thing.
Always say yes
There are numerous examples of the potentially fatal consequences of not accepting fairy hospitality in this world. The ill-effects may, indeed, be more to do with the offence taken by not eating what you’re offered rather than any quality inherent in the goods themselves. The mildest response may be that the fairies exact an indirect revenge. On the Isle of Arran two men were ploughing up some fresh land and one joked that the fairies should feed them in recognition of their hard labour. They duly found a table laid at the head of the field, but neither dared eat what had been provided, because of which the field never produced any crops.
A person may suffer physically, though. The least may be physical chastisement: in one story from Devon a ploughman mended a fairy’s broken baking peel; cider was left in thanks, which the man happily drank. His plough boy refused it- and was pinched mercilessly.
In comparison, in one Scottish account a ploughman felt thirsty and, hearing a butter churn, wished out loud for a drink from it. A woman in green appeared and offered him some fresh buttermilk. He refused this because her clothing made him suspect her supernatural nature. She told him that, after a year had passed, he’d not be needing a drink at all and, sure enough, within twelve months he was dead. A similar fate befell a man from the Isle of Man who refused to eat some oatmeal porridge offered by the fairies.
There is also a variant of the Scottish story involving two men working near a fairy knoll: one refuses the butter milk and dies within the year; the other drinks it gladly and is further rewarded with a wish- which was never to drown. In a third such incident a man from the Isle of Harris passed a fairy knoll at Bearnairidh and heard churning. He was thirsty and wished for a drink, but when a woman in green appeared and offered him fresh milk, he refused it. She cursed him and, very shortly afterwards, he took a boat but drowned when it sank.
Intriguingly, it seems that the outright refusal to accept the offered food is what offends, rather than the details of the manner its consumption. There is a record of an elderly Scottish woman called Nanzy who had long had friendly dealings with her local fairies. She often met them when she was out and about and they gave her presents, such as rolls of fairy butter. Now, she was too respectable a Christian woman to actually eat this, good as it looked, so she instead used for other household purposes. These aren’t specified in the account, but must have included greasing pans and such like. Given that there are stories of horses dying for refusing to touch fairy food, the indication is that even accepting a foodstuff from the faes and then feeding it to your pigs would not insult them.
Feast or foul?
What’s the food like, though? Accounts vary. A man from Dornoch in Sutherland was taken by the fairies and flew with them. After this ordeal, they gave him beef, bread and fish to eat, but he complained afterwards that it was like “so much cork.”
This report is confirmed, amply, by others: a Perthshire woman who was abducted by the fairies said that the food she was offered looked very tempting, but that when she saw through the glamour, it was “only the refuse of the earth.” Another Scottish abductee said grace over such a meal and then realised that it was nothing but horse dung.
In the majority of accounts, we’re told nothing about the meal itself, and have to assume that it was exactly like any human repast. At the other end of the scale, one Scottish writer states that fairy bread tastes like the finest wheaten loaf mixed with honey and wine.
A final account fits better with this last report than those that allege that fairy food is nothing but inedible rubbish. Two Shetland fishermen were caught by a storm and had to land their boat on the uninhabited island of Linga. After a few days, conditions improved and one of them men took the boat, deserting his companion Thom. However, that night Thom found a trow banquet taking place in the hut where he was sheltering. The trows tried to chase him off but he resisted and fired his gun, causing the supernatural assembly to vanish, but leaving behind all their food. He was able to survive extremely well on this for many days until his girlfriend sailed to find him. She had been suspicious when the companion, Willie, returned alone and had tried to marry her, so she carried out a search.
What’s the best advice to stay safe, then? It seems to be this: if you’re here in this dimension and encounter a fairy, you can (and probably should) consume whatever you’re offered without any qualms. If you have entered their dimension, it seems that any food present there will have been transformed too and ingesting it will be very risky. Of course, navigating refusal diplomatically when you’re in someone else’s home is another matter again…
Fairy partners were extremely attractive, but love for a fairy could be portrayed as obsessive, something that caused the human to sicken and to pine, as we see from Robert Armin’s The Valiant Welshman (1615, Act II, scene 5):
“Oh, the intolerable paine that I suffer from the love of the fairy Queen! My heeles are all kybde [bruised] in the very heate of my affection, that runnes down into my legges; methinks I could eat up a whole Baker’s shoppe at a meale, to be eased of this love.”
Fairies were desirable partners simply because of their physical beauty. However, a fairy’s lover could hope for great favour still- and the lover of the fairy queen (the most beauteous of all her kind) would naturally be even more highly honoured and rewarded. At the same time, though, these supernaturals could prove to be possessive and demanding lovers- and vengeful if they felt neglected or slighted.
The trade-off between sex and gain, passion and pain, was therefore a difficult one, as we see from both folklore record and from romantic fiction.
The Scottish Evidence
Andro Man of Aberdeen was tried for witchcraft in 1598. He disclosed a relationship with the fairy queen that involved both her worship (he and others assembled and kissed her “airrs” in reverence) but also regular sexual contact. He said of her:
“the queen is very plesand, and wilbe auld and young quhen scho pleissis; scho mackis any king quhom she pleisis and leyis with any scho lykis.”
One of those whom the queen liked was Man. Over a period of thirty years, he said, he had “conversit with hir bodily.” In other words, he ‘lay with her’ and, as a result of these “carnal dealings” they had had “diverse bairnis” whom he’d since visited in fairyland/ elphame.
Over and above these numerous infants, Man had gained materially: he learned to diagnose and cure diseases in cattle and humans and he was taught charms to steal milk and corn, or to protect his neighbours’ fields against such fairy thefts.
Sex with a fairy often appears to have been the price (and the conduit) for supernatural powers. Isobell Strathaquin, also from Aberdeen, was tried in the January of the previous year to Andro Man; she told the court that she acquired powers in this manner: she “learnit it at [from] ane elf man quha lay with hir.”
Elspeth Reoch of Orkney also gained the second sight from two fairy men, but it involved sexual harassment by one of them. She told her 1616 trial that two men had approached her and called her “ane prettie” before giving her a charm to enable her to see the faes. Later “ane farie man” called John Stewart came to her on two successive nights and ‘dealt with her,’ not allowing her to sleep and promising a “guidly fe” is she agreed to have sex with him. She held out against his blandishments until the third night, when he touched her breast and them seemed to lie with her. The next day she was struck dumb (in order to conceal the source of her prophetic powers) and had to wander the town and beg for her living, offering people the knowledge she received through her second sight.
Sometimes, it has to be admitted, boasting can come into these accounts. Isobel Gowdie, from Auldearn near Nairn, was tried as a witch in 1662. During her confession she seems to mock or tease her accusers with her account of the huge proportions of the devil’s ‘member.’ They were pressing her for confessions and they got them, with Isobel all the while expressing her modesty and Christian timidity over describing such shocking acts.
Sex in the Stories
The exchange of sex and skill is common between fairy and mortal. In the poem and ballads of the same name, Thomas of Erceldoune was relaxing outside in the sunshine one day when he was approached by the gorgeous fairy queen. After some resistance, she consented to lie with him “And, as the story tellus ful right, Seven tymes be hir he lay.” Thomas is moved to these prodigious feats by her physical desirability (and, no doubt, by his own youthful vigour) but there’s a price to pay. Initially after intercourse, the queen loses her beauty and becomes a hideous hag; secondly, her looks and youth may only be restored by her lover agreeing to spend seven years in Faery. Thomas seems to have very little choice about this and has to leave immediately- although on the plus side, his travelling companion is restored to her former loveliness. Once there, the riches start to flow to Thomas. He is elegantly clothed and lives a life of luxurious leisure; what’s more, at the end of his time in Faery, he is endowed by the queen with special abilities. In some versions of the tale, he becomes a skilled harper; in others he gains second sight.
The romance of Sir Launfal is comparable for the trade off between sex and wealth. The fairy lady Tryamour summons the young knight to her in a forest. She is reclining semi-naked in the heat and offers him a rich feast, followed by a sleepless night of sex. The next morning, though, the nature of their transaction becomes clear: she promises to visit him regularly in secret but there are two conditions: “no man alive schalle me se” and, even more onerous:
“thou makst no bost of me…
And, yf thou doost, y warny the before,
Alle my love thou hast forlore.”
Assenting to the terms, he is given fine clothes, horses, armour and attendants and returns to the court of King Arthur. Before, he had been poor and of no account, but now he is rich and gains status and respect.
In due course (albeit for honourable reasons) Launfal discloses his secret lover. As with fairy money, this indiscretion might normally be expected to lose him Tryamour’s affections instantly and irreparably, but in this case she comes to Arthur’s court and carries him off to faery forever.
Fairy love and fairy magical abilities may be bestowed upon the lucky human, but that good fortune is plainly qualified. The gifts are in fact an exchange; there must be a surrender on the part of the mortal recipient, which may be the loss of some of their independence or which may require a complete abandonment of their home, friends and family. Perhaps the prize of fairy love and fairy knowledge are worth paying highly for, but, in earlier times, the cost of the bargain often turned out to be excessive, for fairy contact could prove fatal if revealed to the church and state.
A Note on the Scottish Witch Cases
As I highlighted before in my discussion of Ronald Hutton’s book, The Witch, I still harbour reservations about using the testimony from the Scottish witch trials. I say above that Isobel Gowdie was ‘pressed’ for incriminating evidence. This was literally true: boards were placed on suspects’ legs and piled with rocks. We have a record of one victim of this crying out for it to stop and agreeing to confess whatever the court wanted.
Once these individuals had fallen into the authorities’ hands, their fate was pretty much sealed. The sentence that almost all faced was to be ‘wyrrit and burnit,’ which means that they were tied to a stake, strangled and then burned. For Elspeth Reoch, for example (NBOrcadian readers!) she was taken to the top of Clay Loan in Kirkwall where there is still a small area of grass; several local women suffered the same horrible fate on this spot. We know too that one woman leaped from the top of a high prison tower in Perth to avoid execution.
Faced with the same circumstances, you too might agree to say whatever your inquisitors wanted you to say if it ended the misery. How much can we trust this evidence then? My feeling is that, whilst these might not be personal experiences, they still reflect what society as a whole believed to be the structure and conduct of the fairy folk. If it did not convince the torturers, they might not have accepted it. These confessions reflect the wider understanding of Faery in those days and need not be dismissed out of hand as the individual fantasy of a person desperate to stop the torture.
Finally: I have quite often quoted from the confessions of these individuals. Whenever you read their names, spare a thought for them. The worst that most did was to try to cure people and livestock at a time when medicines and health care were hugely limited. To most of us, I’m sure these hardly sound like crimes, let alone capital offences.
The sluagh are the fairy host in the folklore of the Scottish Highlands. In this region of Britain people may be abducted by being taken inside a fairy hill (a tomhan) or they may be snatched up and carried away by the sluagh. I touched on this subject briefly in my posting on elf-shots, but return to it in more detail now.
The sluagh, or fairy host, is known by several names in Gaelic, all of which give us some clue as to their nature or origin. Lewis Spence calls them the sluagh eotrom, meaning the ‘light’ or ‘aery’ host. This may reflect their flight through the air, or even their physical nature. The Reverend Kirk, meanwhile, distinguishes between the sluagh saoghalta and the sluagh sith. The latter is the ‘fairy host’ and the former the ‘secular’ or ‘worldly’ host. If we understand that ‘sluagh’ more broadly denotes people or population, this makes sense of what Kirk says next: “Souls goe to the Sith when dislodged.” In other words, once earthly people die, they join the fairy host instead (Kirk, Secret Commonwealth, ‘Succinct Accompt,’ 9 (10)).
Flying with the Sluagh
We can learn something more from actual experiences of contact with the host. John MacPhee of Uist was outside his house one night when he heard a sound coming from the West (a notoriously fay direction) like the breaking of the sea. He saw a mass of small men coming in a crowd from that direction and suddenly felt hot, as if a crowd of people had surrounded him and were pressing in, breathing upon him. Then he was carried off at great speed, flying through the air to the graveyard at Dalibrog, seventeen miles distant. For a moment or two he was set down, and the sensation of heat left him. Then the host returned, he felt hot again, and was carried back to his home. After this experience, MacPhee became sickly and thin. The man was evidently ‘elf-addled:’ he suffered some of the typical physical effects of fairy contact and, although the author of the account refers to the host as ‘the dead,’ their living physicality seems very much to contradict this description. The same is true perhaps for those people who are taken repeatedly by the sluagh. Physical mistreatment by the host can be a common experience, with victims being ‘rolled, dragged and trounced in mud and mire and pools.’ This can leave them terrorised and in extreme exhaustion and is often fatal.
The mass nature of the sluagh is apparent. They travel in a multitude- according to one Scottish witness “in great clouds, up and down the face of the world like starlings.” As will be seen from subsequent testimonies, comparisons to flocks of birds or beasts are common. For instance, on Barra Evans Wentz was told that the host went about at midnight, travelling in fine weather against the wind like a covey of birds (Evans Wentz, Fairy Faith, 108).
How they fly
The host travels across the land by several means. They can use whirlwinds, as Scottish witch suspect, Bessie Dunlop, attested. She had been visited by twelve fairy folk who left her in “ane hideous uglie sowche of wind.” A sowche is a sough, a rushing or whistling. This suggests violence, but in the Scottish Highlands these eddies of wind are also called the oiteag sluagh, the host’s breeze, suggestive of something more gentle.
The host can also travel on objects imbued with faery glamour, such as bulrushes, docks, ragwort and withered grass stems. Humans who witness this can imitate the fairies’ actions and transfer their magic power to other items on which to fly, such as ploughs or loom beams. Physical travel is not necessary, though, for a man in Sutherland was taken in spirit one night by the sluagh, even after his friends had forcibly restrained his body to try to prevent his abduction. If a person is called to travel with the sluagh, there is no denying the summons. In another instance, a man on Skye saw the host approaching and begged his friend to hold him tightly to prevent his abduction. Despite the friend’s best efforts, the victim began to ‘hop and dance’ before rising off the ground and being carried a couple of miles.
Why they fly
The reason for these journeys seems to be uniformly malicious. The primary aim is to abduct humans, and secondary purposes are shooting elf-bolts at people and livestock or stealing human property- usually food and drink. Some trows flew all the way from Shetland to Norway to abduct a newly married woman, for example, and some fairies in Moray conveyed a man to Paris, although much more local journeys are far more typical (Evans Wentz, 106).
Another reason for the host’s flight is to meet with enemies and to fight them. There are numerous accounts of the hosts battling in the sky on cold and frosty nights (and especially at Halloween), leaving pools of blood (fuil nan sluagh) on the ground in the morning as testimony to their violent slaughter (Evans Wentz, 91).
Flight might be used to hunt or take people or animals, but the experience of flight itself might be sufficiently unpleasant to be a punishment in itself. A minister in Ross-shire in Scotland had spoken slightingly of the fairies and they exacted their revenge by picking him up and carrying him head over heels through the air.
Defence against the Sluagh
The accounts so far, especially that of the man taken despite the best efforts of his friends to prevent it, might suggest that the sluagh are pretty much invincible and irresistible. This is not the case, fortunately. Very simple measures can defeat them. Two abductions of women on the Isle of Arran were prevented by means of casting a reaping hook up into the mass of little people as they passed overhead, ‘like a swarm of bees.’ Being iron, this instantly released the captive being carried away. Likewise, the use of Christian blessings is effective: a Shetland man flew with the host on a rush by imitating their spell (“Up hors, up hedik, up well ridden bolwind”) and he found himself taken with them to a cottage where a woman was in labour. The plan was to take the new mother if she sneezed three times and no one ‘sained’ her. She sneezed, but the man riding with the trows said ‘bless you’ and prevented her abduction.
These are magical defences; physical means of resistance tend to be much less certain and more risky. Some men were tending the herds at Cornaigbeg Farm on Tiree when they heard something passing them on the road. It sounded like a flock of sheep passing, but one of the dogs became very agitated and chased after it. Eventually the poor hound returned- it had lost all its hair and was torn and bloody, dying soon afterwards. As we’ve seen before, dogs and fairies frequently don’t mix.
Hot on the heels of Fayerie, another new book- this time, on the traditional British ballads and rhymes concerned with Faery. In the course of writing Fayerie, I made particular use of the early modern English and Scots ballads, songs such as Young Tamlane, Thomas Rhymer and the Elfin Knight, and realised that there was no one book which brought together all of those lyrics concerned just with the supernatural. Now there is.
Britain is rich in its heritage of traditional ballads, most of which date from the seventeenth century or earlier. Around twenty of these take fairies and fairyland as their primary theme. Accordingly, these songs are valuable sources of information on late medieval and early modern fairy beliefs. This new book provides an overview of fairy lore in the ballads, accompanied by edited texts for all the key lyrics, supplemented by notes that put each narrative in its wider context.
In addition, British traditional rhymes dealing with fairy-lore are collected together, along with a selection of verses and songs ascribed to the fairies themselves. We are all familiar with little couplets like ‘Fairy folks are in old oaks;’ these little catchphrases stick in our memories, quite deliberately, because they were designed to do just that: children in particular needed to be alerted to the places in the landscape where dangerous fairies lurked and punchy little verses did the trick. There are lots recorded but, once again, they have not before been collected together. The same is true of the subject of the third chapter of the new book; this features songs and poems composed by fairies themselves. Once again, bringing them together emphasises the degree to which verse is central to fairy discourse. These texts are often overlooked as a body of literature in their own right, but this book takes the opportunity to focus upon them and what they can tell us about human and faery society.
Alan Garner is a leading children’s writer, very well known amongst readers of a certain age (i.e. mine), very probably because (like me) they first encountered him at school and then moved on to tackle his complex and intriguing books at home. We read The Owl Service in my first or second year at secondary school; that (and the BBC TV version) made a lasting impression. As an adult, I returned to the books, and found much more wisdom and learning than I had appreciated aged thirteen or fourteen. Despite the passing of the years, I still suffer the acute claustrophobic horror I felt as a boy whenever I reread the episode in which characters crawl through tiny underground passages in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen.
Garner has studied his folklore thoroughly: not just English, but Welsh, Scottish Gaelic, Irish and Norse too. They are woven together into stories aimed at children but offering them sombre and thoughtful messages. What makes the stories so compelling, I think, is that they are clearly woven into the real British landscape. Elidor takes place in and around 1960s Manchester; the Weirdstone and The Moon of Gomrath are intimately located around Alderley Edge in Cheshire and the books even include little maps (just like Tolkien’s) so that you can trace the children’s adventures across the landscape, from feature to feature. Even the title of Elidor, seems to be taken from the Welsh story of Elidyr, who visited faeryland as a boy.
Let’s begin with a few more of those borrowed names. Amongst the blizzard of strangely named characters and creatures we hear of in the stories, there are:
Ymir, originally a primaeval giant in the Norse Edda. Another of his names is Aurgelmir, which Garner also uses, in the form ‘Orgelmir’;
Alfar- these fairy folk are the elves of Norse myth, just as the Huldrafolk, also mentioned in the Weirdstone, are a modern Scandinavian term for the fairies, the ‘hidden folk.’ Garner has a complex and intriguing set of theories concerning the elves. They are warriors, just like Tolkien’s, but they are being driven out of Britain by human pollution, which makes them physically ill and waste away;
Morrigan, an evil witch in the two stories, her name is taken from Irish myth in which she is the ‘Great Queen’ and goddess of war;
Cadellin Silver-Brow is one of the main characters in the stories, a wizard who guards the sleeping knights in a cavern beneath Alderley Edge. Of course, the idea of a sleeping monarch and of an underground realm are deeply interwoven in British myth, making this element even more resonant to readers. Cadellin’s name is lifted straight out of the story of Culhwch and Olwen in the medieval Welsh epic The Mabinogion. In this text, Cadellin is merely mentioned in passing as being the father of Gweir, someone who himself is just part of a very long list of men invoked by Culhwch before King Arthur. From the same list of names Garner also borrowed Kelemon daughter of Kei, whom he makes Celemon, leader of a band of celestial riders in The Moon of Gomrath;
Atlendor is another name found in this list, and is used by Garner for the King of the Elves;
Osla (also called Big Knife) is a character in two of the books in The Mabinogion;
Lodur, a Norse god and Frimla, a goddess;
Fimbulwinter is a storm sent to slow down the heroes of Weirdstone in their quest; it is derived from the mythical Norse Fimbulvetr, which is the ‘great winter’ that precedes Ragnarok and the end of the world;
Grimnir, the ‘masked one’ of the Edda;
Nástrond is Garner’s spirit of darkness. It means ‘corpse strand’ in Old Norse and is the place where the serpent Nidhug chews on the dead- this name is also borrowed by Garner;
Angharad Golden Hand, a goddess/ fairy queen borrowed from the medieval Welsh Mabinogion. In fact, the Owl Service is almost entirely constructed around the Mabinogion story of ‘Math, son of Mathonwy;’ and,
Uthecar is an Irish name lifted by the author from the Cattle Raid of Cooley; and,
Durathor is the adapted name of the four harts that graze at the base of the tree Yggdrasil. These were originally called Dáinn, Dvalinn, Duneyrr and Durathrór; you may notice that someone else has already borrowed the second of these names…
Garner tells us in his concluding ‘Note’ to the Moon of Gomrath that he took many or most of his names from traditional sources, rather than invent them, so that others such as Albanac are probably all to be found somewhere. There was a real William de Albanac connected to the Arthurian legends, who might be Garner’s source.
A variety of place names used by Garner are also derived from ancient British sources. These include:
Logris– this is England, the Logres of Arthurian tradition, coming from the Welsh Lloegr;
Prydein is Britain, the original British word being borrowed and mispronounced by the Romans to give us Britannica;
Sinadon, is the Anglo-Saxon for Snowden;
Minith Bannawg, these are the Grampian Mountains- mynydd being the Welsh for mountain;
Dinsel is Cornwall;
Talebolion, is Ynys Mon or Anglesey; and,
Caer Rigor is mentioned in Gomrath; this place is lifted from the ancient Welsh poem Preiddau Annwn, ‘The Spoils of Britain,’ and it is one of several magical and mysterious castles or fairy palaces along with Caer Sidi. The name means ‘Fort of Numbness.’
Garner’s stories are rich with authentic fairy-lore (albeit shaped to his purposes). There are the light and dark elves of the Norse poems and the herb mothan that is picked by moonlight on “the old straight track” (that is, along one of Alfred Watkins’ ley lines). The plant is an authentic Highland Gaelic cure for faery harm, especially for cattle that have been struck by elf-bolts.
Lastly, two important creatures from British fairy-lore perform significant roles in the two books. The first of these, in Weirdstone, is the fynoderee. This fairy being is simply the Isle of Man version of the brownie or hobgoblin. They live near farms on the island but during the daytime keep out of sight in woods and glens.
The fynoderee is a typical hob. Bigger and broader that a man, he’s very hairy and clumsy but he is a great worker and immensely strong. The fynoderee will labour tirelessly threshing grain overnight, gathering in hay before a storm or rounding up sheep during a blizzard, but like many of his kind, he’s a bit dim, is sensitive to criticism and will reject human clothes if they’re offered.
Secondly, in the Moon of Gomrath, we meet with the terrifying shapeshifter, the brollachan. This monster of Scottish Highland tradition has eyes and a mouth, but otherwise it is simply a dark mass. Because it lacks any definite form, it will try to possess animals and steal their bodies for a while. A creature taken over by the brollachan will darken and have red eyes but it will soon wither and die and the possessor will need to move on. In line with its reputation, the monstrous brollachan almost kills Susan in an effort to destroy her magical powers.
The related bodach also appears, as a sort of armed goblin. Garner has made them even more fearsome than their folklore source. The bodach is the Scottish equivalent of the English bugbear and performs the same functions. They are consistently seen in the vicinity of places where children would be at risk: for example, the bodach an smeididh, ‘the beckoner,’ tries to lure the unwise and the unwary into danger. The corra-loigein looks in at windows at night, scaring children and trying to steal them away. This bodach can only enter a house if it is invited inside in some way; parents therefore stress how important it is for children to be very quiet after dark.
As i mentioned, Garner is hardly alone in borrowing names and ideas from British and European legend; Tolkien did exactly the same. Why I prefer garner myself is the fact that his stories are located in a real landscape. I know that I could, if I wished, get a train and within half a day be in Cheshire, walking on Alderley Edge and seeing the very locations where Colin and Susan had their adventures. Because, too, the books date to my own schooldays, I can identify even more closely with their particular vision of a still post-war England. Elidor is partly set in the uncleared bombsites and slums of inner Manchester, for example.
Anyway, the books are plentifully and cheaply available online. If you do have a read, I hope you enjoy them.
I’ve discussed before the musical Starlight Express by Sir Edward Elgar. As I stated, the 1915 production was based upon the novel, A Prisoner in Fairyland, which was published in June 1913.
The novel was written by Algernon Blackwood (1869-1951), an author who specialised in horror and fantasy themes. Several of his short stories build up mystery and fear using a fairy incident as the foundation for the plot: these include ‘Ancient Lights,’ ‘The Trod,’ ‘The Glamour of the Snow’ and ‘May Day Eve.’ His story, ‘A Touch of Pan,’ is his contribution to the Pan cult of the early twentieth century, which I have also mentioned before. Many of his stories can be read online.
A Prisoner in Fairyland is unlike any of these. It is a gentle, delicate, optimistic story, with some beautiful passages of imaginative description. It is not really about Fairyland at all- at least, not about the fairy realm in the sense in which I use it on this blog.
I know nothing definite about Blackwood’s inspiration, but I can’t help wondering if he saw the 1901 pantomime Bluebell in Fairyland, by Seymour Hicks. This production was definitely seen by J. M. Barrie, and inspired Peter Pan, but the idea that fairyland and dreams are the same, that there is a king waiting in a cave to be woken by children so he can do good in the world, and the fact that golden dust is sprinkled in the children’s eyes (“Eyelids droop and close as darkness falls/ Fairyland is waiting as the dustman calls) all seem very similar to Blackwood’s story (as I’ll show).
The Moral of the Story
Blackwood’s ‘fairyland’ and his references through out to fairies and fairy things is almost unique. As readers may know (especially if you’ve read any of the poems in my Victorian Fairy Verse), ‘fairy’ was used freely by writers from the eighteenth century onwards to denote anything that was small, dainty or cute. Blackwood’s usage derives from this, but it is still wholly his own. What springs to mind is a word no longer used in modern English, but which was, in the past, often to be found in conjunction with fairy- and that is ‘ferly,’ which means a wonder or marvel. It appears, for example, in the sixteenth century Scots drama, The Crying of Ane Playe. The main character, Harry Hobilschowe introduces himself as the play begins, telling us he has just arrived on a whirlwind from Syria, where he:
“lang has bene in þe fary/ Farleis to fynd.”
(he’s spent a long time in fairyland, searching for marvels).
The word is also used at the outset of the Middle English poem, Piers Plowman. Its use here is even more apposite, for Piers associates it with lying down to rest on a grassy bank near Malvern, one summer’s day. He may then have fallen asleep and dreamed- or else he had a vision:
“In a somer sesun, whon softe was the sonne…
Wente I wyde in this world wondres to here;
Bote in a Mayes morwnynge on Malverne hulles
Me bifel a ferly, of fairie, me-thoughte.”
In Blackwood’s story, dreaming is directly associated with access to the fairyland he portrays. Very broadly, the plot involves a successful business man, Henry Rogers, who retires early with the intention of using his wealth on good causes. Rogers takes a holiday with his cousin and his young family at their home in Switzerland and there, in the company of the niece and nephew, rediscovers his childhood dreams. The plot is negligible and the action is entirely concerned with the family’s thoughts, emotions and dreams. In my previous mention of the book, I called it a children’s story; it isn’t: the psychology and philosophy the book contains aren’t intended for younger readers, even though children and their inner life are central to the narrative.
Fairies in Fairyland?
So, are there any fairies in A Prisoner in Fairyland? I must tell you, dear reader, that there are not- and that, in a sense, I was grossly misled when purchasing the book! There are, nevertheless, numerous references to fairies and fairyland, so I need to explain what Blackwood is doing.
There is one scrap of traditional fairylore, it’s true: in chapter 23 he observes that “People lost in fairyland, they say, always forget the outer world of unimportant happenings.” This is quite true, as folklore makes it very clear how a person may become ‘elf-addled.’ Blackwood is using ‘fairyland’ in quite a different sense, however, to that of a place called Faery.
The moral of his story is captured is a single paragraph:
“Only the world today no longer believes in Fairyland… and even the children have become scientific. Perhaps it’s only buried, though. The two ought to run in harness really- opposite interpretations of the universe. One might revive it- here and there perhaps. Without it, all the tenderness seems leaking out of life.” (c.5)
As this may begin to indicate, there are (inevitably) marked traces of Victorian views of Faery in Blackwood’s work. As I have emphasised in my new book, Victorian Fairy Verse, for most writers of the period fairies were synonymous with everything tiny and cute. These underlying assumptions pervade Blackwood’s novel:
“Fairy things, like stars and tenderness, are always small.” (c.31)
“A Fairy blesses because she is a Fairy, not because she turns a pumpkin into a coach and four…” (c.28)
“that raciness and swift mobility, that fluid, protean elasticity of temperament which belonged to the fairy kingdom.” (c.23)
So, what exactly is Blackwood’s fairyland and how do you get there? The answer is very simple. Fairyland is the inner world of fantasy and imagination that we all inhabit during childhood. It is a source of joy and wonder and it is something that many adults mourn: “The world, too, is a great big child that is crying for its Fairyland.” (c.24)
For adults to be able to recover their fairyland, they need two things. They need to be close to children and to share their vivid imaginative life. Rogers is sitting with his niece and nephew on his knees and realises:
“Their plans and schemes netted his feet in fairyland just as surely as the weight of their little warm, soft bodies fastened him to the boulder where he sat. He could not move. He could not go further without their will and leadership.” (c.13)
In their sleep, the children’s spirits leave their bodies and travel on the Starlight Express to a place where starlight is stored. They then use this to heal sick and unhappy adults. “Like Fairies, lit internally with shining lanterns, they flew about their business” (c.16). Rogers, too, learns to join the children in their dreams and to explore this fairyland. It is “a state of mind, open potentially to all, but not to be enjoyed merely for the asking. Like other desirable things, it was to be ‘attained.'” (c.30) Fairyland can be entered only so long as some of its benefits will be taken back to the mortal world.
The Starlight Express
The Express carries dreamers’ souls to and from Faery, where they collect starlight. These are memorable images (in fact, stars and constellations sparkle throughout the prose, producing some passages of great beauty) and they clearly had the potential to capture the popular imagination.
As I mentioned in my preamble, the book appeared in June 1913. By the next summer, the need for Blackwood’s joy and child-like wonder began to seem acute. This explains why it was so quickly adapted as a musical; war-time Britain needed the boost and Blackwood’s text had plenty of uplifting ideas to offer. His key concept was that the uplifting and inspiring thoughts from fairyland must be distributed back to the rest of the world- on “their mission of deliverance.” (c.27) Henry Roger’s cousin is an author and for him the starlight from Faery is inspiration- “a thing of starlight, woods and fairies”- that he may then share with the rest of humanity through his novels: “flakes of thought like fairy seed” (c.27).
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Musical
The 1984 musical of the same name as Elgar and Blackwood’s work shares nothing with it except the name. The modern production was inspired by the Thomas the Tank Engine stories and it is, naturally, about trains, which don’t seem very magical to me.
As I have described before, the theatrical adaptation of Blackwood’s work was one of several Great War plays and musicals that sought to harness Faery to the Imperial war effort. All of these works have fallen into obscurity since- mostly for good reason.
Blackwood’s novel may have been caught up by jingoism, but it predates the war and has something much deeper to say that the others fairy plays of the time. It can be found cheaply on Amazon etc if you want yourself to travel on the Starlight Express.
In my recent book, Fayerie- Fairies and Fairyland in Tudor and Stuart Verse, I discussed how the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was a period during which outside influences began to alter native fairy beliefs profoundly. The Protestant Reformation and the Renaissance were two such, a third was the work of doctor, astrologer and alchemist Paracelsus, whose theories I have examined before.
The impact of these influences, especially that of Paracelsus, may be neatly contained in a single fairy poem, Kensington Gardens by Thomas Tickell (1686-1740). Tickell was born near Carlisle and was a graduate of Oxford. He held various government positions but is mainly recalled as a poet. He produced a translation of Homer’s Iliad, which he published at the very same time as Alexander Pope’s version in 1715, a coincidence which caused some tension between the two. The poem Kensington Gardens appeared in 1722 and is a heroic epic describing the fall of a fairy kingdom that once existed on the land that eventually became the park.
Strictly speaking, the poem should be described as Georgian, but Tickell’s birth and education took place within the Stuart period, and it is doubtless fair to assume that Tickell’s outlook and beliefs belong to the seventeenth century. Kensington Gardens is of interest, therefore, because it encapsulates the mixture of traditional fairy belief and innovation that typified fairies in literature throughout the 1600s.
Tradition in Tickell’s Epic
Concepts of fairy conduct inherited by the author from much earlier include the fairies’ delight in leisure: “Their midnight pranks the sprightly fairies played/ On every hill and danced in every shade.” They rewarded women for their domestic cleanliness:
“When cleanly servants, if we trust old tales,
Beside their wages had good Fairy vailes,
Whole heaps of silver Tokens, nightly paid,
The careful wife, or the neat dairy-maid…”
But they also stole babies, one of whom is Albion, the hero of the story:
“By magic fenc’d, by spells encompass’d round,
No Mortal touch’d this interdicted ground;
No Mortal enter’d, those alone who came
Stolen from the couch of some terrestrial dame:
For oft of babes they robb’d the matron’s bed,
And left some sickly changeling in their stead.”
Albion is a human child brought up by fairies and kept artificially small by them, although he is still noticeably tall at twelve inches in height. He falls in love with the fae Kenna, an affair that precipitates the fall of the fairy realm when Oberon discovers and jealously expels the young man.
Newer elements sit alongside these age-old ideas. Tickell’s king of faery is Oberon. This name has a long continental pedigree but it was made particularly popular in Britain by Shakespeare’s use of it in Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Oberon’s subjects are especially worthy of note. As we have already seen, they are small: they are described as a “pigmy race” elsewhere in the poem. This diminutive stature was a noteworthy development in seventeenth century literature. Small faes had existed before, but Mercutio’s soliloquy on Queen Mab in Romeo and Juliet gave impetus to an elaboration of the possibilities of miniature beings and poets- most importantly Michael Drayton and Robert Herrick- exploited the potential of this idea. Tickell merely observed what was already a convention by the time he wrote.
Lastly, the fairies of Kensington Gardens are said to have “airy forms.” This notion of fairies as insubstantial, as well as tiny, derives directly from the work of Paracelsus. He had proposed in the sixteenth century that the world was supported and kept functioning by elemental beings- the gnomes of the ground, undines of water, salamanders of fire and the sylphs of the air. Parallels could readily be drawn between these creatures that he imagined and the fairies and goblins of native belief, and that is precisely what happened. In his Anatomy of Melancholy of 1621, Robert Burton included a ‘Digression of Spirits’ in which he summarised views about fairies from across Europe. For example, he describes:
“… those Naiades or water Nymphs which have been heretofore conversant about waters and rivers. The water (as Paracelsus thinks) is their Chaos, wherein they live; some call them Fairies… Paracelsus hath several stories of them that have lived and been married to mortal men…”
Later Burton notes Paracelsus’ views on what he classes as “terrestrial devils,” a group which includes “Faunes, Satyrs, Wood-nymphs… Fairies, Robin Goodfellowes, Trulli etc.” Two things are notable from these short passages. Not only has Burton incorporated Paracelsus’ concepts of undines and gnomes; he has liberally strewn his text with classical Greek and Roman terminology. (Burton, Part I, section 2)
Forty years later, in 1665, a new version of Reginald Scot’s well-known book, The Discoverie of Witchcraft, was published. Scot’s 1584 original contains a wealth of fairy information; the new edition was expanded with the addition of ‘A Discourse Concerning the Nature and Substance of Devils and Spirits.’ This new text (like Burton’s) owes a great deal to the new thought of the Renaissance and to Paracelsus’ scientific theories; for example, reference is made to the Neo-Platonists. Fairies are termed “Astral Spirits,” having an “elemental quality.” They live in water, air, flames and under the earth; they have hunger and passions; they wage war and procreate; they have no physical body and can live for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. (Scot, 1665, Book II, cc.1 & 4)
This later text demonstrates how much the new theories about the nature of fairies had infiltrated British thought. These ideas, along with references to nymphs, satyrs and other classical beings, were all indiscriminately mixed together, confusing and reshaping fairy belief for future generations.
Tickell’s poem is symptomatic of its age. His fairies are miniscule, insubstantial forms- a state confirmed in the climactic battle of the war. Albion fights with Fairy Prince Azuriel and their combat seems to be concluded when:
“With his keen sword he cleaves his Fairy foe,
Sheer from the shoulder to the waste he cleaves,
And of one Arm the tott’ring trunk bereaves.”
However, Albion is fighting a fairy, and different rules apply:
“His useless steel brave Albion wields no more,
But sternly smiles, and thinks the combat o’er:
So had it been, had aught of mortal strain,
Or less than Fairy, felt the deadly pain.
But Empyreal forms, howe’er in fight
Gash’d and dismember’d, easily unite…
So did Azuriel’s Arm, if fame say true,
Rejoin the vital trunk whence first it grew;
And, whilst in wonder fixt poor Albion stood,
Plung’d the curst sabre in his heart’s warm blood.”
Albion is struck down and Kenna is unable to revivify him: “the Fates alike deny/
The Dead to live, or Fairy forms to die.”
Ultimately, classical Greek sea god Neptune intervenes in fairy affairs. With a sweep of his trident, he destroys Oberon’s divided, fractious kingdom, leaving only ruins on the site where later the new Hanoverian dynasty created its pleasure gardens and named it after Albion’s love, the ‘Aerial maid’ Kenna.
Oberon’s fairy nation is scattered: “Wing’d with like fear his abdicated bands.” They flee to secluded corners of Britain where they can still be glimpsed from time to time as they “featly foot the green,/ While from their steps a Circling verdure springs.” The fairies are not gone entirely, therefore, but they are scattered.
Tickell concludes his epic with several reminders of the transformed nature of his British fairies. They are small, they are winged and they are sylph-like, aery beings. In fact, a direct link with Paracelsus’ elementals of the air had already been made by rival poet Alexander Pope in The Rape of the Lock, which was published in 1712. He was the first to introduce this term in English literature, but once he had connected “sylphs and sylphids, fays, fairies, genii, elves and daemons,” British fairies could never be the same again.
Tickell had hoped his lengthy poem would be celebrated as a heroic fairy epic- a landmark in national literary history. Sadly, it is largely forgotten now, except amongst enthusiasts of Georgian poetry and, of course, fans of faery. Nonetheless, it’s worth reading- it’s quite entertaining, once you’ve got used to his florid style, and it tells us lots about the fairy faith as one era merged into another.
In conclusion, I’ll repeat what I said at the outset: the seventeenth century was a turning point in British fairy beliefs and Thomas Tickell’s fairy epic encapsulates the old and new ideas that were in ferment.
For more detail of Fayerie and my other faery books, please see my books page.
I am very pleased to announce the publication of my latest book, another annotated anthology entitled Fayerie- Fairies and Fairyland in Tudor and Stuart Verse. Hot on the heels of Victorian Fairy Verse, this offers an annotated selection of poetry from the period along with a detailed introduction.
The Tudor and Stuart period in Britain, the time of Shakespeare, Jonson, Milton, Drayton, Herrick and many others, was a time when fairies featured repeatedly in poetry and drama. The new book is a detailed examination of the fairies of the era, as they are depicted in the verse of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
The book’s divided into three parts. The first part surveys the medieval background- how fairies were portrayed in the romances, poems and other literary works of the Middle Ages. Particular attention is paid to ideas of fairyland and to the kings and queens of Faery.
In the second part I examine Tudor and Stuart fairy knowledge in detail. Drawing on the many plays and poems of the period, a picture is built up of how contemporary people understood and interacted with their fairy neighbours. The book then considers how new ideas were beginning to change fairy belief at this time: changes in religion, science and culture were taking place (most notably the Reformation and the Renaissance) and these had a major impact on popular perceptions of fairies. Lastly in this part of the book, two specific questions are examined: how big were the fairies thought to be and what colour were their clothes- and their bodies?
The third part of the book is an annotated anthology of selected Tudor and Stuart fairy verse. Work is included by Thomas Churchyard, Simeon Steward, Robert Herrick, Michael Drayton and William Warner, amongst others. Overall, rather than just relying on Shakespeare, Jonson and Milton, the book draws on a very wide range of authors, both English and Scots, and includes many little known plays and poems.
Robin Good-fellow, or Puck
Tudor and Stuart Ideas
There is continuity in British fairy belief right through from the twelfth century to present times. Many of the concepts accepted in the Middle Ages are still perfectly recognisable today. These ideas were transmitted to us by the Tudor and Stuart periods, and the elements of their faery faith are very familiar. Here are few examples of core aspects of their belief which are still applicable.
It was well known that fairies were especially beautiful: in a verse written to celebrate the first staging of Massinger’s play The Emperor of the East in 1631, the “matchless features of the Fairy Queen” are praised. Naturally, sexual desire was involved: “that little fairy,/ ‘T has a shrewd, tempting face” says a character in Middleton’s The Spanish Gipsy (1621, I, 5).
Caution was needed in such affairs, though. People of the period well knew that the faes were changeable: you could speak about “that hopeful Elf/ Thy dear, dainty Duckling” but also “that elf/ Of sin and darkness.” The faes could even be invoked to inflict revenge:
“Nay, then, revenge, look big! Elf and Fairy/ Help to revenge the wronged ‘pothecary!” (Massinger, The Picture, II, 1; Middleton, The Triumphs of Truth and The Family of Love, IV, 4)
As I have discussed many times, the fairies would reward diligent servants and housewives (“I have sometimes found money in old shoes” Middleton, The Witch, IV, 1) and would viciously chastise those felt to be lazy and dirty. Pinching was the preferred punishment:
“pricked and pinched me like an urchin” (Middleton, More Dissemblers Besides Women, III, 1)
“The nips of fairies upon maids’ white hips,/ Are not more perfect azure.” (The Witch, I, 2)
Lastly, when not tormenting us mortals, it was very well known that the fairies would dedicate themselves to pleasure: “Fine dancing in such fairy rings” and “sung and danced about me like a fairy.” (Middleton, A Mad World, My Masters, V, 2 & IV, 4).
Fayerie is an ideal companion to my other new book, Fairy Ballads and Rhymes. It is published through Amazon/KDP and is available as an e-book at £7.50 or as a paperback at £12.00. For details of all my faery books (fiction and non-fiction), please see my book page.
In a previous post I discussed the long-standing belief that the fairies are leaving Britain: it is an idea that has persisted through centuries, since at least the time of Chaucer, and which has been backed up by a number of sightings in late Victorian times.
A natural corollary of this idea is that, eventually, there will be only one fairy left, forlorn and forsaken. This figure is found in folk stories and in literature. In this post I want to examine the literature and folklore concerning this lonely being.
Several of the poems by Victorian writer Rosamund Marriott Watson deal with the idea of fairy abandonment of England. The one cited here is especially poignant, emphasising the isolation of the stranded individual.
The Last Fairy
Under the yellow moon, when the young men and maidens pass in the lanes,
Outcast I flit, looking down through the leaves of the elm-trees,
Peering out over the fields as their voices grow fainter;
Furtive and lone
Sometimes I steal through the green rushes down by the river,
Hearing shrill laughter and song while the rosy-limbed bathers
Gleam in the dusk.
Seen, they would pass me disdainful, or stone me unwitting;
No room is left in their hearts for my kinsfolk or me.
Fain would I, too, fading out like a moth in the twilight,
Follow my kin,
Whither I know not, and ever I seek but I find not-
Whither I know not, nor knoweth the wandering swallow;
‘Where are they, where?’
Oft-times I cry; but I hearken in vain for their footsteps,
Always in vain.
High in a last year’s nest, in the boughs of the pine-tree,
Musing I sit, looking up to the deeps of the sky,
Clasping my knees as I watch there and wonder, forsaken;
Ever the hollow sky
Voiceless and vast, and the golden moon silently sailing,
Look on my pain and they care not,
There is none that remembers:
Only the nightingale knows me- she knows and remembers-
Deep in the dusk of the thicket she sorrows for me.
Yet, on the wings of the wind sweeping over the uplands,
Murmuring echoes remembered- the ghosts of old voices
Faint as a dream, and uncertain as cloud-shadowed sunlight,
Fall on mine ear.
Whence do they call me? From golden-dewed valleys forgotten?
Or from the strongholds of eld, where red banners of sunset
Flame o’er the sea?
Or from anear, on the dim airy slopes of the dawn-world,
Over light-flowering meads between daybreak and sunrise
Level and grey?
Truly I know not, but steadfast and longing I listen,
Straining mine ears for the lilt of their tinkling laughter
Sweeter than sheep-bells at even; I watch and I hearken.
O for the summons to sound! for the pipes plaining shrilly,
Calling me home!
This poem is a romantic imagining of the deserted fairy. We get a glimpse of the real experience in the following Scottish account. This sad report of the loneliness of the last fay is told in The Gloaming Bucht, a tale that’s set in the Cheviot Hills near the border with England (from Scottish Fairy and Folk Tales, George Douglas, 1901). The events related may have happened in the late eighteenth century.
“Speakin’ o’ fairies,” quoth Robbie Oliver (an old shepherd, who lived at Southdean in Jedwater, and died about 1830), “I can tell ye about the vera last fairy that was seen hereaway. When my faither, Peter Oliver, was a young man, he lived at Hyndlee, an’ herdit the Brocklaw. Weel, it was the custom to milk the yowes in thae days, an’ my faither was buchtin’ the Brocklaw yowes to twae young, lish, clever hizzies ne nicht i’ the gloamin’. Nae little daffin’ an’ gabbin’ gaed on amang the threesome, I’se warrant ye, till at last, just as it chanced to get darkish, my faither chancit to luik alang the lea at the head o’ the bucht, an’ what did he see but a wee little creaturie a’ clad i’ green, an’ wi’ lang hair, yellow as gowd, hingin’ round its shoulders, comin’ straight for him, whiles gi’en a whink o’ a greet an’ aye atween its hands raisin’ a queer, unyirthly cry: “Hae ye seen Hewie Milburn? Oh! hae ye seen Hewie Milburn?”
Instead of answering the creature, my faither sprang owre the bucht flake, to be near the lasses, saying, “Bliss us a’–what’s that?”
“Ha, ha! Patie lad,” quo’ Bessie Elliot, a free-spoken Liddesdale hempy; “theer a wife com’d for ye the nicht, Patie lad.”
“A wife!” said my faither; “may the Lord keep me frae sic a wife as that,” an’ he confessed till his deein’ day, he was in sic a fear that the hairs o’ his heed stuid up like the hirses of a hurcheon [hedgehog/ urchin]. The creature was nae bigger than a three-year-auld lassie, but feat an’ tight, lith o’ limb, as ony grown woman, an’ its face was the downright perfection o’ beauty, only there was something wild an’ unyirthly in its e’en that couldna be lookit at, faur less describit: it didna molest them, but aye taigilt on about the bucht, now an’ then repeatin’ its cry, “Hae ye seen Hewie Milburn?”
Sae they cam’ to nae ither conclusion than that it had tint [lost] its companion. When my faither an’ the lasses left the bucht, it followed them hame to the Hyndlee kitchen, where they offered it yowe brose, but it wad na tak’ onything, till at last a neer-do-weel callant made as if he wad grip it wi’ a pair o’ reed-het tangs, an’ it appeared to be offendit, an’ gaed awa’ doon the burnside, cryin’ its auld cry eerier an’ waesomer than ever, and disappeared in a bush o’ seggs.”
We have no real idea who Hewie Milburn might be, or how the pair might have come to be separated, but this is definitely a fairy couple (as the height and beauty of the woman attest, as well as the tell-tale green clothes). A related report comes from Caithness. The last fairies ever seen there said to have been were a comely mother with a freckled child with large webbed feet. They were observed to get into a boat and sail away from the shore, never to be seen again.
The Gloaming Bucht– in verse
The Roxburghshire folk story became a source of inspiration to Scottish poets. There is a long poem by James Telfer, who was brought up in the same district, which was inspired by the account, although he diverged quite radically from it with a an exploration of the magical effect of fairy song. The ballad is called The Gloamyne Buchte and can be found in Alexander Whitelaw’s Book of Scottish Ballads (1845).
There is another related poem by William Oliver, also published by Whitelaw and titled ‘The Last Fairy:
There was a voice heard on the fell,
Crying so sadly, "All are gone,
And I must bid this earth farewell;
Oh why should I stay here alone?
Ealie, ealie, oh farewell!
I've sought the brake, I've sought the hill,
The haunted glen and swelling river;
I've sought the fountain, and the rill,
And all are left, and left for ever.
Ealie, ealie, oh farewell!
Where'er the sunbeam tints the spray,
That rises o'er the falling waters,
I've needless, roamed the livelong day,
In search of some of Faerie's daughters.
Ealie, ealie, oh farewell!
Each heather bell, each budding flower,
That blooms in wold, or grassy lea,
Each bosky shaw, each leafy bower,
Is tenantless by all, save me.
Ealie, ealie, oh farewell!
No more now, through the moonlit night,
With tinkling bells, and sounds of mirth,
We hie, and scare the peasant wight,
With strains by far too sweet for earth,
Ealie, ealie, oh farewell!
The new-made mother need not fear
To leave ajar the cottage door;
Alas! we never shall come near,
To change the mortal's infant more.
Ealie, ealie, oh farewell!
No more, when as the eddying wind
Shall whirl the autumn leaves in air,
Shall there be dread, that elfin fiend,
Or troop of wandering fays are there.
Ealie, ealie, oh farewell!
In palaces beneath the lake,
Within the rock, or grassy hill,
No more the sounds of mirth we make,
But all are silent, sad, and still.
Ealie, ealie, oh farewell!
Farewell the ring, where through the dance,
In winding maze, we deftly flew,
Whilst flowing hair, and dress, would glance
With sparkling gems of moonlit dew.
Ealie, ealie, oh farewell!
We were ere mortals had their birth,
And long have watched their growing day;
The light now beams upon the earth,
And warns us that we must away.
Ealie, ealie, oh farewell!
Oh where are Thor and Woden now?
Where Elfin sprite and Duergar gone?
The great are fallen; we needs must bow,
I may not stay, not even alone.
Ealie, ealie, oh farewell!
Ah me, the wandering summer breeze
Shall bear our sighs, where'er it goes,
Or floating 'mid the leafy trees,
Or stealing odours from the rose.
Ealie, ealie, oh farewell!
These sighs, unknown shall touch the heart
And with a secret language speak;
To joy a soothing care impart;
Add tears to smiles on beauty's cheek.
Ealie, ealie, oh farewell!
Farewell, farewell, for I must go
To other realms, to other spheres;
This mortal earth I leave with wo,
With grief, with wailing, and with tears."
Ealie, ealie, oh farewell!
Oliver (1800-1848) was actually from Newcastle upon Tyne and was a singer and songwriter.
Abandoned or Lost?
Apparently, then, some individuals get left behind, although we don’t know whether this is because the fairies leave in haste and accidentally miss out a member of their community or because it was a deliberate act, perhaps because the stranded fairy was a nuisance or a thief. We can’t be sure with the Cheviot or Caithness cases, but in another incident, from Shetland, it appears that a burdensome person might be abandoned. There was a fiddler called Rasnie who often played at trow dances and weddings. One day, not having heard fairy music for some time, he went to the ‘ferrie-knowe’ (the fairy hill) and entered. Inside there was just one old woman remaining; the rest of the trows had fled the preaching of the Gospel on Shetland and gone to live on the Faroes, along with the tangies and the brownies, but they had consciously left her behind.
I’ll close with a second wistful verse, this time by Scottish poet William Sharp, who wrote as Fiona Macleod. The premise here is rather different: that the fay was created by Merlin and cannot now find her maker, but the emotions are the same.
The Last Fay
I have wandered where the cuckoo fills
The woodlands with her magic voice:
I have wandered on the brows of hills
Where the last heavenward larks rejoice:
Far I have wandered by the wave.
By shadowy loch and swaying stream,
But never have I found the grave
Of him who made me a wandering Dream.
If I could find that lonely place
And him who lies asleep therein,
I’d bow my head and kiss his face
And sleep and rest and peace would win.
He made me, he who lies asleep
Hidden in some forgotten spot
Where winds sweep and rains weep
And foot of wayfarer cometh not:
He made me, Merlin, ages ago.
He shaped me in an idle hour,
He made a heart of fire to glow
And hid it in an April shower!
For I am but a shower that calls
A thin sweet song of rain, and pass:
Even the wind-whirled leaf that falls
Lingers awhile within the grass,
But I am blown from hill to vale,
From vale to hill like a bird’s cry
That shepherds hear a far-off wail
And wood folk as a drowsy sigh.
And I am tired, whom Merlin made.
I would lie down in the heart of June
And fall asleep in a leafy shade
And wake not till in the Faery Moon
Merlin shall rise our lord and king,
To leave for aye the tribes of Man,
And let the clarion summons ring
The kingdom of the Immortal Clan.
If but in some green place I’d see
An ancient tangled moss-like beard
And half-buried boulder of a knee
I should not flutter away a feared!
With leap of joy, with low glad cry
I’d sink beside the Sleeper fair:
He would not grudge my fading sigh
In the ancient stillness brooding there.
As a bonus, I’ll add ‘The Complaint of the Last Faun’ by Edward Bulwer Lytton (1803-73). He was a highly successful and popular Victorian author who helped to familiarise the public with occult thinking- with the Rosicrucians, Le Comte de Gabalis, Paracelsus, Swedenborg, salamanders, sylphs and gnomes- all of which were mentioned in his novels Zanoni (1845) and A Strange Story (1862). Here he transposes the last fairy to Greece:
The moon on the Latmos mountain
Her pining vigil keeps;
And ever the silver fountain
In the Dorian valley weeps.
But gone are Endymion’s dreams;
And the crystal lymph
Bewails the nymph
Whose beauty sleeked the streams!
Round Arcady’s oak its green
The Bromian ivy weaves;
But no more is the satyr seen
Laughing out from the glossy leaves.
Hushed is the Lycian lute,
Still grows the seed
Of the Moenale reed,
But the pipe of Pan is mute!
The leaves in the noon-day quiver;
The vines on the mountains wave;
And Tiber rolls his river
As fresh by the Sylvan’s cave.
But my brothers are dead and gone;
And far away
From their graves I stray,
And dream of the past alone!
And the sun of the north is chill;
And keen is the northern gale;
Alas for the Song of the Argive hill;
And the dance in the Cretan vale!
The youth of the earth is o’er,
And its breast is rife
With the teeming life
Of the golden Tribes no more!
My race are more blest than I,
Asleep in their distant bed;
‘Twere better, be sure, to die
Than to mourn for the buried Dead:
To rove by the stranger streams,
At dusk and dawn
A lonely faun,
The last of the Grecian’s dreams.