Brownies in literature- from Mrs Ewing to Dobby

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The brownie is one of the most intriguing creatures of British folklore.  Fairies can seem alien and elusive, seldom seen and dangerous when they are encountered, whereas the brownie is domestic, helpful and ever-present.  I have described this homely presence in many northern British homes and farmsteads in my book British fairies and in an earlier post; what I wish to discuss here is the literary history of the brownie- and how we arrived at the characters of Dobby, Winky and Creacher in the Harry Potter series of novels.

One of the earliest appearances of the brownie in literature (as opposed to folklore) is in the work of Victorian children’s writer Mrs Juliana Horatia Ewing, who was born in Yorkshire in 1841.  Whilst growing up she often acted as storyteller to the rest of her family and, aged 23, her best-known story, The Brownies, was published in the Monthly Packet with illustrations by George Cruikshank.

The Brownies and the related story, Lob-lie-by-the-fire (1874) both ostensibly concern household elves, and relay much traditional lore about them, but in Lob the lob is revealed to be just the orphaned stable boy John Brown whilst in The Brownies we are let in on the secret well before the end that “All children are Brownies” and that “there [are] no brownies but children.”  In fact, Mrs Ewing was far more interested in teaching children to be helpful and obedient to their parents than she was in recording authentic folklore.

In The Brownies two lazy and selfish boys called Tommy and Johnnie are taught the virtues of helping their widowed father with his trade and household chores:

“The Brownies, or, as they are sometimes called, the Small Folk, the Little People, or the Good People, are a race of tiny beings who domesticate themselves in a house of which some grown-up human being pays the rent and taxes…  When they are idle and mischievous, they are called Boggarts, and are a curse to the house they live in. When they are useful and considerate, they are Brownies, and are a much-coveted blessing… in time these Little People are Brownies no longer. They grow up into men and women.”

When Tommy and Johnnie have learned their lesson and begin to help their father, good luck returns to the house:

“Before long Tommy began to work for the farmers, and Baby grew up into a Brownie, and made (as girls are apt to make) the best house-sprite of all. For, in the Brownie’s habits of self-denial, thoughtfulness, consideration, and the art of little kindnesses, boys are, I am afraid, as a general rule, somewhat behindhand with their sisters… For these Brownies -young ladies!- are much desired as wives, whereas a man might as well marry an old witch as a young Boggartess.”

Mrs Ewing knew her folklore very well, even she did not apply it directly in her stories.  Brownies, lobs and hobs bring good fortune.  For the expense of a bowl of water, milk or cream and some fresh bread, the house-elf would do the work of many servants: sweeping and laying the fire, setting out breakfast, tidying rooms, weeding the garden, threshing the corn, cleaning the stable, cutting wood, thinning the turnips and lifting potatoes.  Householders knew not to alienate their brownies: they were not to reward them with clothes or money, they were to show them respect and they knew not to boast or gossip about them, not to spy upon their labours and not to preach to them.  If these precepts were respected, a farmstead would thrive.  In Lob-lie-by-the-fire it was believed that the lob’s presence meant that the crops improved, the hens laid well, rats did not eat the ducklings, no fowl were stolen and the butter churned better.

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The next significant appearance of brownies was in the work of Canadian illustrator Palmer Cox (1840-1924). He produced a series of brownie titles which have been claimed as “the first commercial comic books.”  Each of these dozen books were prefaced by a brief statement that:

“Brownies, like fairies and goblins, are imaginary little sprites, who are supposed to delight in harmless pranks and helpful deeds.  They work and sport while weary households sleep, and never allow themselves to be seen by mortal eyes.”

This is a fair summary of the established lore, but it is not reflected in the books themselves, which comprise numerous illustrations interspersed amongst verse- for example, here is the ‘Brownies’ ride’ from The Brownies: their book of 1887:

“One night a cunning Brownie band/ Was roaming through a farmer’s land/ And while the rogues went prying round/ The farmer’s mare at rest they found.”

A few of the series titles and chapter headings will illustrate how far Cox had travelled from authenticity.  In the first book, The Brownies, readers were entertained by brownies on skates, bicycles and roller skates, brownies playing tennis and baseball and brownies enjoying canoeing and tobogganing and visiting a gym, the seaside and a toy shop.  In 1890’s Another brownie book readers were amused by brownies fishing, kite flying, yacht racing, learning to swim and dance and attending a fancy ball.  And so on; the books were immensely popular and were used by some forty companies including Kodak (the ‘box brownie’ camera) and Proctor and Gamble.

PC brownie

In The brownies and Prince Florimel brownies are described as being the size of twelve year olds, often perching on fences and hiding adroitly whenever danger threatens. This conforms to conventional imagery, but as will have been seen in the verse quoted earlier, Cox has them partaking of their adventures in swarms, more like pixies or spriggans than the solitary creatures they were originally conceived as.  In the same story, by the way, the fairies are ruled by Queen Titania and are tiny; they “never grew old and always remained beautiful.  Their loveliness of face and form was beyond all description.  Just try to think of the prettiest girl you ever saw.  Well, even the plainest of these fairies were ever so much prettier.”

the-enid-blyton-book-of-brownies

In the 1920s and ’30s Enid Blyton adopted brownies as the subjects of several children’s books, including The book of the brownies, The little brownie house, Snicker the brownie, The brownie who pulled faces, My first nature book- brownie magic and several others. The first book mentioned seems typical: naughty brownies Hop, Skip and Jump are always playing tricks; they are then tricked themselves by Witch Green Eyes into helping her to abduct fairy princess Peronel.  For this the three are expelled from fairyland and set out on an adventure to rescue her.  Very much like Cox, Blyton’s fairies seem a good deal more like pixies than the traditional solitary creatures who labour on farms.

It was not until the late 1990s and the appearance of the Harry Potter series that brownies were restored to something resembling their original character in children’s literature.  J K Rowling had plainly studied folklore and the history of alchemy and magic quite extensively before writing her books; this is demonstrated by her treatment of Dobby and the other house-elves.

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In the series,  house-elves are depicted as magical creatures who are intensely devoted and loyal to those designated as their masters.  House-elves serve wizards and witches, usually being found in the employment of old wizarding families and bound to do everything that their masters command- unless they are freed. A house-elf can only be freed when their master presents them with clothes (a classic fairy tale trope).  In part due to their absolute obedience, house-elves are treated very brutally by their owners: they have no rights of their own and are viewed as servants without feeling or emotions. To symbolise this, they usually wear makeshift clothes made from found objects such as pillowcases and rags (again, typical of the traditional brownie). These garments can become quite filthy, yet-  as a further expression of the fact that they have no needs other than those specifically allowed to them by their masters- the house-elf will not clean them.  Indeed, so subservient are they that house-elves will torture and maim themselves if they think they have displeased their master.

Large numbers of house-elves are also employed at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.  They work the kitchens, preparing feasts for the entire school. They also move luggage to and from rooms and clean the dormitories and other areas. 

The Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare (S.P.E.W.) was group founded by Hogwarts student Hermione Granger in response to what she saw as gross injustice in the treatment of house elves during the quidditch world cup.  Despite attracting little interest or sympathy in her campaign from fellow students, Hermione persisted, employing tactics such as badge-making and petitioning, albeit with very little effect. Eventually, she started knitting hats and socks which she left lying around, hoping to free some unsuspecting elf who picked them up and put them on while cleaning the common room.  In due course, the elves became angry at Hermione’s attempts at liberation by stealth. The friendliest house-elves working at the school, Dobby and Winky, were considered disgraces by the rest of their colleagues; this is due to Dobby accepting payment and a holiday whilst Winky despairs after she loses her master, turning to drink and doing no work. 

Rowling’s are serious and rounded characters.  She preserves the significance of clothes to their release and incorporates the brownies’ work ethic, although the element of enslavement against which Hermione campaigns is not derived from British tradition.

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Charles Kingsley & ‘The water babies’

“and so there may be fairies in the world, and they may be just what makes the world go round…”

WB goble

The water babies can be an uncomfortable read today.  It is racist against the Irish, Turks and Jews, amongst others; it satirises a range of religious, political and scientific beliefs (for example, spiritualism) in a manner we would consider alien to a bedtime story, and it is unceasingly moralistic and dogmatic.  For all that, it is innovative and original in many respects and has some attractive features.  Kingsley calls it a fairy tale and it certainly has fairies as major characters, but in fact they bear very little resemblance to any fairies before or since.  How serious he’s being is also left in doubt: he denies a serious intent but defies those who disbelieve in fairies- “That is a very rash, dangerous word, that ‘cannot’; and if people use it too often, the Queen of all the Fairies … is apt to astonish them suddenly by showing them, that though they say she cannot, yet she can, and what is more, will, whether they approve or not.”

There are three major fairy characters in the book (although we learn at the end that they are all the same supernatural being).  One is the “great fairy” Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid and another is “the loveliest fairy in the world” Mrs. Doasyou wouldbedoneby.  Their names are sufficient to indicate their roles.  The third is the Queen of the Fairies.  caring for the poor and sick.  Her subordinate fairies likewise help and protect the weak and vulnerable, specifically chimney sweep Tom, as will be seen.

Tom is treated badly by his master Grimes.  He runs away and drowns accidentally whilst bathing in a stream.  The drowning is a transformation, although it does not appear such to those left behind in the mortal world:  “they found a black thing in the water, and said it was Tom’s body, and that he had been drowned.  They were utterly mistaken.  Tom was quite alive; and cleaner, and merrier, than he ever had been.  The fairies had washed him, you see, in the swift river, so thoroughly, that not only his dirt, but his whole husk and shell had been washed quite off him…”  Tom becomes a ‘water baby.’  Thereafter, (as pictured below) the fairies guard him against injury and accident although all this is done without “his seeing their fair faces or feeling their gentle hands.”

warwick goble

One major responsibility of the fairies is to save abused children from their cruel situations.  They are all transformed into happy water babies like Tom: “All the little children whom the good fairies take to, because their cruel mothers and fathers will not; all who are untaught and brought up heathens, and all who come to grief by ill-usage or ignorance or neglect; all the little children who are overlaid, or given gin when they are young, or are let to drink out of hot kettles, or to fall into the fire; all the little children in alleys and courts, and tumble-down cottages, who die by fever, and cholera, and measles, and scarlatina, and nasty complaints which no one has any business to have, and which no one will have some day, when folks have common sense; and all the little children who have been killed by cruel masters and wicked soldiers; they were all there…”

Fairies are, therefore, a form of social conscience for Victorian Britain; they are also an instrument of moral pedagogy.  Throughout the book Tom is guided by criticism, warning, guidance, punishment and reward, so that he is able to grow into a responsible and well-behaved adult.  This he does by finally forgiving and redeeming Grimes.  Then Tom is fit to be united in adult life with his sweetheart Ellie.

These fairies as moral instructors bear scant resemblance to the native fairy.  Traditional elves operated a strict moral code, but it was largely in their own interest.  They aimed at changing humans for their own benefit and gain, not for the personal improvement of the human.  In contrast, in The water babies the fairies act as ministers of divine justice; they are more like angels than elves.

There are, nonetheless, a couple of respects in which Kingsley’s fairies behave like the fairies of folklore.  Firstly, there is the use of glamour.  The fairy queen is first met disguised as an old Irishwoman- an omnipresent one, it must be conceded, who sees and judges all wrongdoing.

Secondly, there is Kingsley’s equation between death and fairy abduction.  Tom falls into the water and into a delightful sleep.  This is explained very simply: “It was merely that the fairies took him.” Something similar happens to Ellie when she falls and bumps her head on a rock.  “And, after a week, one moonlight night, the fairies came flying in at the window and brought her such a pretty pair of wings that she could not help putting them on…”  (see illustration below)

ellies wings

The salvation of children from cruelty, and their transformation into water babies, is a comparable process, but clearly with heavy Christian overtones.  Kingsley was, in fact, an Anglican minister and his fairy tale is in reality a parable.  He has dressed up divine characters as fairies, perhaps to make them more accessible and appealing to his junior audience, but he is preaching at them all the same.  With this story we have travelled a long way from the traditional British fairy lore that I have described in other postings: we are safely within the nursery and far from the sexuality and cruelty of much fairy behaviour.  We are, too, concerned with improving and educating children to make them fit to take their place as adults within the British Empire; we have abandoned the fairies’ selfish preoccupations with their own interests and pleasures.

the-land-baby-1899 john collier

Above, ‘A land baby’ by John Collier, 1899; the other illustrations in this posting are from the 1929 MacMillan edition of The water babies, illustrated by Warwick Goble.

 

 

 

 

“And now the charm’s wound up…”: some spells for elvish enchantment

magic book

This posting offers a small selection of practical fae-related magic for readers.  I have discussed before the composition of the ointment applied to fairy babes. The major drawback to the recipe I suggested was that it is composed of four leaf clover; finding enough of these to produce a quantity sufficient to anoint even an infant is likely to be difficult. Here are some other, perhaps more practical, spells and potions.

Elias Ashmole’s manuscript (MS1406) which is dated around 1600 has a recipe for an unguent for eyes for use when you wish to summon fairies or when your vision of them is not perfect.

“Take one pint of salad oil and put it into a glass vial, but first wash [mix?] it with rose water and marigold water (the flowers to be gathered towards the east).  Wash it till the oil comes white, then put it into the glass vial and then put into it the buds of hollyhock and young hazel, the flowers of marigold and the tops or flowers of wild thyme.  The thyme must be gathered near the side of a hill which fairies frequent. Add, too, some grass picked from a fairy throne found there.  All these put into the oil in the glass and set it to dissolve three days in the sun, and then keep it to thy use.” (Halliwell-Phillips Fairy mythology p.62.)

Most of these ingredients are readily and cheaply available, but there are two catches:

  • You need to be sure that the knoll where you pick your thyme is a favourite haunt of the fairy folk. Sites that are traditionally such spots are a safe bet, naturally, otherwise your own experience and investigation may be required.
  • I confess that I don’t know what a fairy throne is (yet). I assume it is a place on the hill which appears to be a seat where the fairy queen may sit during revels.  Poetry describes such occasions- for example William Browne in Britannia’s pastorals Book I song 2 mentions “A hillock rise, where oft the fairy queen/ At twilight sat, and did command her elves…”  If your confirmed fairy knoll has such a feature too, you’re definitely in business.

Halliwell-Phillips in Fairy mythology of a Midsummer night’s dream also gives a selection of spells from a manuscript in his possession (p.63).  Here is a charm for invisibility which appears very simple:

“Take water and power it on an anthill and immediately look after it and you shall find a stone of divers colours sent from the fairy.  This bear in your right hand and you shall go invisible.”

Another charm is to a summon a fairy, a Latin and English invocation much like that for Oberon described below.  There is a similar spell for expelling fairies from a place where buried treasure is found.  These depend upon magical words combined, most likely with the proper personal preparations (bodily and spiritual purification) and the creation of a chalk circle.  Ashmole’s manuscript has similar very lengthy summoning charms (see Halliwell-Phillips p.62-3).

 

Faustus-gerahmt

A ‘magical miscellany’ contained manuscript in the Bodleian library in Oxford dated to the early seventeenth century [Bod.MS e Mus 173 f.72 V-R] has a similar spell to conjure Oberon into a crystal seeing stone, using Catholic prayers in Latin.  It also has a spell to conjure other fairies employing the ‘rime’ found on a bowl of water which has been left out overnight for the fairies to bathe in (once a common practice, especially in Wales).  I have not provided this, in part because I have not seen the manuscript myself and because it presupposes a key ingredient which- rather like four leaf clover- is in the first place very hard to acquire.  First get your fairies to come and bathe themselves and their children; then hope that it’s a frosty night and the bowl freezes over.

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J M Barrie and British fairies

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Scottish author, J. M. Barrie, is renowned as the creator of Peter Pan, the central character of a play of that name and of two stories Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (1906) and Peter and Wendy (1911).  I would argue that his work has had a profound influence subsequently upon popular conceptions and conventions regarding faery.  A good deal of Barrie’s material on fairies was drawn from British tradition, in which respect he can’t be criticised.  However, it is what he invented that has probably had to be most profound effect on representations of genre.

The traditional elements in his descriptions of fairy kind include the following:

  • language- Barrie has Tinker Bell speaking a language incomprehensible to human children (although Peter pan has learned it).  Her speech is like “the loveliest tinkle of golden bells” and is also described as high-pitched squeaking.  This fits well with many older accounts;
  • dancing- the fairies’ favourite pastime is dancing and by their waltzing around they create fairy rings.  Mushrooms left in the circle are seats not tidied away by their servants, according to Barrie (a first hint of his cute tendencies).  When they are happy, they “feel dancey.”  When they are troubled, they are “undancey”;
  • not working- Barrie is inconsistent in this.  He declares that “they never do anything useful… They look tremendously busy, you know, as if they had not a moment to spare, but if you were to ask them what they were doing, they could not tell you.” Elsewhere, he has them milking their cows, building and repairing pots and pans.  This uncertainty as to the exact nature of the fairy economy is long-standing;
  • glamour- Barrie’s fairies employ magic to disguise their houses and to hide themselves.  This is a standard fairy trait and Barrie tells us that pretending to be something else is “one of their best tricks.  They usually pretend to be flowers”;
  • diminutive- Barrie’s fairies are all small- Tinker Bell for example is “no longer than your hand, but still growing.”
  • concealment– Barrie’s fairy folk are shy of human contact, only appearing after dark and when the gates are locked in Kensington Gardens and disguising themselves as flowers if they are caught in the open;
  • alien- “Fairies indeed are strange” and it is only the half-boy, Peter Pan, who really comprehends them and knows that, often times, the only way to communicate with them is in the rough physical language they use themselves.  He often cuffs them and gives them a good hiding, according to Barrie; and,
  • bad temperament– in Tinker bell’s vindictive jealously of Wendy and in their use of physical chastisements, Barrie’s fairies are very traditional.  They tweak Peter’s nose when he sleeps across a fairy path; they ‘mischief’ those they take against.  “Nearly all the nasty accidents you meet with in the Gardens occur because the fairies have taken an ill-will against you and so it behoves you to be careful what you say about them…”  “If the fairies see you … they will mischief you- stab you to death, or compel you to nurse their children, or turn you into something tedious, like an evergreen oak.”  Of Tinker Bell, Barrie explains that she “was not all bad: or, rather, she was all bad just now, but, on the other hand, sometimes she was all good.  Fairies have to be one thing or the other, because being so small they unfortunately have room for one feeling only at a time.  They are, however, allowed to change, only it must be a compete change.”  For regular readers, these accounts of abductions, violence and the need to speak circumspectly will be very familiar.

Significant aspects of the character and abilities of Tinker Bell have nothing to do with British tradition though.  Barrie’s most notable inventions include:

  • fairy-dust- this enables fairies to fly.  It covers Tinker Bell and rubs off; we are not told what it is;
  • fairy light- every fairy gives off a very bright light.  She cannot control it (“about the only thing they can’t do”) but “it just goes out of itself when she falls asleep;”
  • fairies nest in trees, we are told, although Barrie also has them occupying more conventional houses and palaces arranged in streets too;
  • they are closely linked to flowers- there is some traditional material here, in the association with natural life and verdancy, but for Barrie “they dress exactly like flowers and change with the seasons, putting on white when lilies are in and blue for bluebells, and so on.  They like crocus and hyacinth time best of all as they are partial to a bit of colour, but tulips (except the white ones, which are fairy cradles) they consider too garish…”

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For Barrie, there was a very close link between children and fairies.  This manifests in three ways:

  • they are born from babies’ laughter- “when they first baby laughed for the first time, its laugh broke into a thousand pieces and they all went skipping about and that was the beginning of the fairies.”  Every time a child is born, another fairy will appear;
  • they are particularly drawn to children:  Barrie tells us that “it is frightfully difficult to know much about fairies, and about the only thing known for certain is that there are fairies wherever there are children… They can’t resist following the children…”
  • childrens’ disbelief in fairies kills them.  A fairy’s life is short in any case, although “they are so little that a short time seems a good while to them.”  Worse, though, is the fact that “children know such a lot now, they soon don’t believe in fairies ad every time a child says ‘I don’t believe in fairies’ there is a fairy that drops down dead.”

The bond between the delicate and pretty fairies and children that Barrie conjures fits ill with much of the rest of the delineation of their characters- the pinching, the grudges and the cruelty, but it is the ‘natural’ association between infancy and faery that has proved abiding.

Finally, it is also notable that Barrie was not immune to the quasi-adult treatment of fairies that had pervaded much Victorian literature and art.  There is a curious and uncomfortable tension between Peter, Tinker Bell and Wendy, with the two females competing for the attention of and the right to care for Peter.  Tink herself is introduced thus: she was “exquisitely gowned in a skeleton leaf cut low and square, through which her figure could be seen to the best advantage.  She was slightly inclined to embonpoint.”  Later Wendy describes her cattily as “an abandoned little creature” and that aura of wantonness pervades the character.  All in all, Tinker Bell appears to be an adult.  She is “quite a common fairy” and is not very polite, using “offensive” and “impudent” language to Wendy in their squabble over Peter.  This might be read as sexual possessiveness, or it might be the childhood exclusiveness of ‘the best friend.’

 

Who is Ariel?

Maclise, Daniel, 1806-1870; Priscilla Horton (1818-1895), as Ariel

The character Ariel in Shakespeare’s The Tempest is a distinct departure from the fairies of the playwright’s earlier Midsummer Night’s Dream.  In the latter, Puck is derived straight from British folk tradition with his pranks, his earthy humour and his domestic associations.  Ariel has none of these characteristics.  Where did Shakespeare get his inspiration?  There are three Ariels we must discuss.

Ariel is a Hebrew name.  Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa mentions in De occulta philosophia that “Ariel is the name of an angel, and is the same as the Lion of God.  Sometimes it is also the name of an evil demon and of a city called Ariopolis where the idol of Ariel was worshipped.”(Book III, Part 3)  The name was chosen by medieval and Renaissance magicians and by Neo-Platonist philosophers as a name for one of the sylphs, a being who was sometimes said to be ruler of Africa.  Sylphs are one of the four ‘elementals’, the spirits of the earth, air, fire and water.  The sylphs are the spirits of the air and were said to be capricious, passionate and irascible.  The sylphs’ airy and aerial connections obviously suggested a fairy analogy to playwrights and poets.

In The Tempest the spirit Ariel is enslaved by the sorcerer Prospero.  He can fly at incredible speed (“with a twink”), riding on the clouds and conjuring storms; he can walk on the waves and ride the sharp north wind; he can change his shape.  Ariel is ‘delicate,’ ‘a bird’, a ‘chick,’ he is ‘but air.’  His ‘dainty’ and diminutive nature is emphasised by the song he sings in Act V, scene 1:

“Where the bee sucks, there suck I:
In a cowslip’s bell I lie;
There I couch when owls do cry.
On the bat’s back I do fly
After summer merrily.
Merrily, merrily shall I live now
Under the blossom that hangs on the bough.”

 

ariel, maud tindal atkinson

‘Ariel’ by Maud Tindal Atkinson, 1915

Ariel was formerly imprisoned in a tree by a witch; from this Prospero released him- on conditions of service for a time.  After a period serving Prospero well and faithfully, Ariel is ultimately released: “to the elements be free” (V, 1) and then is “as free as mountain winds.” (II, 1).

Puck is clearly and solidly male, but Ariel is sexless (hence, in theatrical productions, the variation between portraying the character as male or female).  In contrast to Puck’s cheeky cheeriness, Ariel seems subservient and melancholy.  This theme of enslavement perhaps comes from Ariel’s origins in hermetic magic: he is a familiar, a spirit to be conjured and commanded.  He is there to do Prospero’s will and lacks any personality or motivation of his own.  Both captive Ariel and the conjured spirit are controlled by another’s arcane knowledge and skills.

Henry Singleton A

There is a second Ariel in English literature.  In Alexander Pope’s Rape of the lock (1714) Ariel the sylph reappears.  The poem was a mock-heroic commentary upon an actual incident, first written in 1712, and the ‘machinery’ of the sylphs was something of an afterthought for Pope.  Nevertheless, the elementals assume an important role as guardians and attendants to the heroine.  In his introductory letter to Mrs Arabella Fermor that precedes the poem, Pope states that he has drawn upon “a very new and odd Foundation, the Rosicrucian doctrine of spirits.”  He explains to her that, according to these gentlemen, the four elements are inhabited by spirits, the sylphs being “the best condition’d Creatures imaginable. For they say, any mortals may enjoy the most intimate Familiarities with these gentle spirits, upon a Condition very easy to all true Adepts, an inviolate preservation of Chastity.”

Chastity is key to Pope’s plot.  In the poem Ariel’s task is to protect his mistress Belinda’s virtue, but as a sylph he seems ill-suited to do this.  We also learn that women can be reborn as one or other of the elementals depending upon their characteristics during life and that:

“The light Coquettes in Sylphs aloft repair,/ And sport and flutter in the Fields of Air.” (Canto I, lines 65-66)

The sylphs are now explicitly the tiny fairies with insect wings that are so familiar to us. They have ‘transparent forms’ and ‘fluid Bodies half dissolv’d in Light.’ (Canto II lines 59-67.)

In the event, Ariel fails to protect Belinda’s virginity and a symbolic lock of her hair is snipped off by a suitor.  This contrasts with the success of Ariel in The Tempest, who fulfills all of Prospero’s commands.  It is significant that, having failed, Ariel is replaced by Umbriel, a malignant gnome (a daemon of the earth who delights in mischief, according to the Rosicrucian doctrine).

For our purposes in this blog, the importance of these two literary characters is as a symbol of the wider change to the understanding of British fairies.  The traditional types began to be affected from the seventeenth century onwards by concepts of classical, oriental and magical origin, a process with far reaching implications for native belief.

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Flower fairies- origins & meaning

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During the last hundred years or so, fairies have become intimately associated with flowers.  What I want to do in this post is to consider the evidence for such links in traditional folklore beliefs and to discuss how the idea has arisen that fairies are ‘nature spirits’ or ‘guardians of nature’ and have a particular mission to supervise the growth of flowers and other plants, in which work they may resemble bees or ants and are certainly of diminutive dimensions.

Without doubt, one link in the chain connecting fairies to flora is literary.  Shakespeare perhaps initiated the trend with a the fairies in Midsummer Night’s Dream.  One is required to “hang a pearl in every cowslip’s ear” (II, 1).  Of course, we have fairy Peaseblossom in the same play (III, 1) and Oberon’s well-known directions to help Puck find Titania:

“I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight…” (Act II, 1)

In The Tempest Ariel, who sings “Where the bee sucks., there suck I”  The floral motifs are prominent, indicating a closeness to nature generally and the evidence of small statute is also present.  Robert Herrick and Michael Drayton took the matter of scale to extremes, though for reasons of pure fancy: I don’t believe that they sought to reflect any genuine traditions known to them.  British fairies are of a range of sizes, often adult height, quite often the size of children, much more rarely very small (the medieval English ‘portunes’ of just half an inch in height are an exception).

titania-sleeping

Richard Dadd, ‘Titania sleeping,’ 1841, The Louvre 

Herrick imagined a fairy loaf of bread as “A moon-parch’t grain of wheat” washed down with “A pure seed-pearle of infant dew/ Brought and besweetened in a blew/ And pregnant violet” (Oberon’s feast).  Drayton likewise envisaged a fairy palace “The walls of spiders’ legs are made … The windows of the eyes of cats” (Nymphidia).  The conceit of miniature fairies was sustained into the next century by other poets.  For example, in The flower and the leaf John Dryden imagined that a faint track “look’d as lightly press’d, by fairy feet” and William King, like Herrick, surveyed a fairy supper:

“What may they be, fish, flesh of fruit?/ I never saw things so minute./ Sir, a roasted ant is nicely done,/ By one small atom of the sun./ These are flies’ eggs in moonshine poach’d/ This a flea’s thigh, in collops scotched.” (Orpheus and Eurydice)

rowan

Increasingly, then, the convention prevailed that fairies were minuscule, but neither in literature nor in folk tales was there any deep attachment to plant life.  As described previously, fairies most often were attired in green, which may well be symbolic of growth, but there is still scant suggestion of any special purpose as ministers of Mother Nature.  There are quite a few indications of fairies inhabiting trees.  There is the Old Lady of the Elder Tree whom I have mentioned before; from the Outer Hebrides comes a story of a fairy maiden who inhabits a tree on a knoll, once a year appearing to dispense ‘the milk of wisdom’ to local women (L. Spence, British fairy origins pp.101 & 186); also from the Highlands and Western Isles we hear a report of ‘tree spirits’, green elves who are often seen in woodland (Spence p.100).  This is about as good as it gets in British tradition.  Lewis Spence in chapter VI of British fairy origins examined the theory that fairies derived from ‘elementary spirits’ and summed up “all nature spirits are not the same as fairies; nor are all fairies nature spirits.” (p.110)  He further stated that “it is a notable thing that in Great Britain and Ireland the nature spirit remains to us in vestigial form only.  To make a list of British nature spirits as known in our islands today is very … difficult… I can think of no genuinely English earth or tree spirits.” (p.113)  He blames homogenisation into “the common hill-fairy, the standard elf of folk-lore.” (p.114)  On the matter of flowers, s I have described before, there are flowers that are believed particularly to repel or to attract fairies, but the surviving stories do not conceive of fairies living within or overseeing the growth of any flowers.

elder

How then do we explain the rapid ascendancy of the flower fairy?  I think that occult science and mystical philosophy are the source; flower fairies are a product of the thought of Paracelsus and Pseudo-Dionysus.  They are nature spirits, part of a ‘celestial hierarchy,’ and are derived from a system of thought very different to native custom.  I shall examine this theme further in due course.

 

“Full beautiful, a faery’s child”- age and consent in fairy land

froud-8

“Oh, the fairies!/ Whoa, the fairies.! Nothing but splendour,/ And feminine gender.”

The conventional conception of fairies is that they are female and that they are young and attractive.  I am as guilty as others in perpetuating this: in both The Elder Queen and in the recent Albion awake! my central characters are fairy women, invested with strength, allure and passion.  These are powerful and abiding archetypes; they make for good story lines, but they may also be a source of confusion in our correct analysis of fairylore.

Since Victorian times the dominant trend in fairy lore has been to make the fairies more and more diminutive- especially in theatrical representations.  We may blame J M Barrie and Tinkerbell for this, but the miniaturising  theme was far wider than just one author.

fuseli-oberon-t

There have always been small fairies, but in earlier times they were generally conceived as being adults of small stature rather than infants of normal height.  It must be noted that the term ‘elf’ popularly denoted tininess from the late eighteenth century at least (for instance in Blake and Keats).  That notwithstanding, until the early nineteenth century representations of fairies tended to treat them as adults.  In the case of painter Henry Fuseli, indeed, his fairy maids are women of a notably self-aware and unsettling character.

Titania and Bottom c.1790 by Henry Fuseli 1741-1825

However, it was during the Victorian period that the representation of fairies degenerated through childlike figures to cloying cuteness.  During the same period, too, Victorian culture separated out ‘the child’ as distinct from adults and elevated the innocence of childhood. Previously children were merely small people; they have since become a separate social and cultural category.   James Kincaid has argued that the modern concepts of sexuality were created by the Victorians as entwined with their notions of the uncorrupted infant.   The result, he suggested, was that childhood and innocence have become idealised, fetishised and eroticised in everyday culture (Erotic innocence, Duke University Press, 1998).  He asserts that writers such as Lewis Caroll and J M Barrie absorbed this erotic idealising of children and “drove [it] into our cultural foundations.”

I would suggest that there have been a number of consequences of these cultural trends for our perceptions of fairyland:

  • we have tended to lose sight of the former nature of fairies.  As they have increasingly become little girls, some of the more sinister aspects to their characters have been elided;
  • despite what I have just said, a powerful tension has arisen between the ‘child’ fairy and the earlier imagery- for example the fairies of Shakespeare and, even more strongly, Keats.  The result was the projection of adult emotions and motivations and (my key focus here) sexuality onto fairies who were now often conceived as infants; and,
  • the 19th century use of children as fairies in theatrical performances, giving public visibility to girls acting on stage and, perhaps, portraying inappropriate roles.

Let me address the last point in more detail.  Advances in stagecraft enabled Victorian theatres to offer magical spectaculars, with fairies flying, disappearing and posing behind veils of magical mist.  Actresses had a reputation for lax morals, already, and there was some public concern over the impact upon the young girls employed to portray fairies.  Would the exposure “convert them into coquettes before they have even reached their teens?” asked the Pall Mall Gazette in 1885.  Regardless of the impact upon the girls themselves, Eileen Barlee in Pantomime waifs (1884) fretted that they were “Dressed in the airiest and, alas!, the scantiest of costumes … and many were in flesh-coloured tights.” They were presented to audiences as nearly naked or apparently so.  The verse at the top of the posting reflects this sense of sexualisation; it is taken from a music hall song quoted by Lionel Lambourne in the catalogue to the Royal Academy’s 1997 exhibition of Victorian fairy painting.

These stage performances may all have been perfectly innocent in themselves, but the reactions of the viewers are another matter.  I am reminded of Graham Greene’s scurrilous and scandalous review of Shirley Temple in the film Wee Willie Winkie, published in the magazine  Night and day in October 1937.  He commented provocatively that Temple was being presented as “a fancy little piece” and a “complete totsy.”  Her admirers, Greene alleged, were middle aged men and clergymen who would respond to her “dubious coquetry.”  Their respectable predecessors of a generation or two earlier, the Dean of Barchester and Mayor of Casterbridge,  may well have felt the same about Fairy Phoebe and her hosts whom they saw on stage.  What is involved, perhaps, is a ‘sanctioned’ opportunity to regard the young actresses.*

This may all seem hyper-alert, but let me give a few examples.  Firstly, an account of a supernatural encounter recorded by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in The coming of the fairies  (1922).  He supports his case for the reality of the Cottingley fairies with other evidence of their existence.   He relates how two respectable gentlemen visited a hill in Dorset:

“I was walking with my companion … when to my astonishment I saw a number of what I thought to be very small children, about a score in number, and all dressed in little gaily-coloured short skirts, their legs being bare. Their hands were joined, and all held up, as they merrily danced round in a perfect circle. We stood watching them, when in an instant they all vanished from our sight. My companion told me they were fairies, and that they often came to that particular part to hold their revels. It may be our presence disturbed them.”

In a more recent version of the same event, there are some telling differences. The walkers witnessed: “a group of about twenty young girls …  naked except for a little gaily coloured short skirt that lifted up from time to time on the gentle breeze.”  The changes may well be entirely unconscious, but it seems to me that the tone here has changed from being a mere account of a curious experience; indeed, the tenor of the second version is not unique.  Geoffrey Hodson was a theosophist and fairy-hunter who discovered elves all over Europe.  He wrote of his journeys in two books, The Kingdom of faerie (1930) and Fairies at work and play (1927).  I will quote from each respectively.

  • Cotswolds, 1925- of devas he says that “The actual form and manner are those of a vivacious school girl.”
  • At Geneva he tells us that “A particular fairy I am observing is a fascinating and charming creature … The face resembles that of a very pretty young country girl.”  Another deva had the form of a “a fresh young country girl.”
  • In Lancashire in 1921 he was surrounded by dancing fairies, the leader of whom has a “form …  perfectly modelled and rounded, like that of a young girl.”  We are assured that “There are no angles in the transcendently beautiful form.”
  • A deva met in a pine forest near Geneva in 1926 was “like a lovely young girl, in thin white drapery through which the form can be seen.”  Another such is “definitely female and always nude… Her form is always entrancingly beautiful.”

Hodson in his writing repeatedly discloses a sexualised response to the visions he experiences, in one cases admitting that it was only by an effort of will that he did not allow himself to be seduced by the allure of one rounded young spirit.

We may seem more aware of sexuality in texts now, but as Diane Purkiss warns us in her 2000 study, Troublesome things,  “We in the post-modern world are apt to be convinced that sex is at the bottom of everything, that we know far more about sex than the Victorians did, and that we can read their unconsciousness like a book.  These are all dangerous thoughts.  Just because sex seems to us at the bottom of everything, does not mean that this is equally true for all others; just because we know a lot more about our own sexualities (and do we really?) does not mean we know a lot about Victorian sexualities; just because we read something in a text doesn’t mean it is there for everyone.”

Jasmine

Despite these words of caution, Purkiss concedes that some artists of the period trod an uncertain line between eroticism and harmlessness.  She proposes, for example, that some of Cicely Mary Barker’s Flower fairies hover in this uncertain interstice.  Mostly, these are demure illustrations, although sometimes perhaps Barker does allow what may be interpreted as some risque off-the-shoulder looks.  This hint of the other world of faery did not escape Barker’s biographer, Janet Laing; in her book, Cicely Mary Barker, (Penguin, 1995), Laing describes one alphabet fairy as follows:

“The more mystical and sensual side of fairy land is epitomised by the Jasmine fairy.  In the heat of the summer the ‘cool green bower’ and ‘sweet scented flowers’ are particularly seductive.” (p.55)

 

As I suggested in an earlier post, Arthur Rackham too appears to have taken advantage of the ‘value-free’ environment of Faerie to indulge in pictures of girls in see-through frocks and careless deshabille; witness this illustration of Midsummer Night’s Dream.

puck_and_a_fairy_rackham

As discussed in that previous post, depicting fairies seems to have been treated by many artists as a licence to adapt classical nudes to a more domestic scene, a wisp or two of gauze maintaining an illusion of modesty and decorum.

 

Furthermore, it may be worth remarking that all these child like ‘forms’ (whether presented as ‘art’, on stage or in the Cotswolds) are simultaneously naked or scantily attired and independent of adult society.  Those factors combined may well have served to liberate the response of some observers from the normal social and moral restraints.  Without doubt, the consequence has been that we have ended up confused and uncomfortable with aspects of our fairy lore.

The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries weren’t all irredeemable tweeness amongst fairies.  For example, Christina Rossetti wrote the strange and disturbing Goblin Market, a poem that, as Diane Purkiss neatly expresses it, “restores fully a sense of the otherness and menace of the fairy world.”  More recently, the huge international popularity of Tolkien’s stories of elves and dwarves has helped to provide a much needed corrective to the saccharine flower fairies of the Edwardian nursery.  Legolas and Arwen have revived the Norse and Celtic  traditions of human sized and mature fairies.  Their robust combativeness and sexuality are a welcome reminder of older visions of the supernatural and are redressing the balance of imagery in the popular imagination.

We are left with a puzzling dichotomy in the conventions as to representations of faery in the twenty-first century.  A short search on the internet readily confirms this.  On the one hand we have the sexy faery babe, as represented here by a picture created by Bente Schlick.

bente-schlick

In contrast, there are the images of fairies as the embodiment of childhood innocence, for which I have selected an image ‘Caught by a sunbeam’ by artists Josephine Wall.

josephine-wall-caught-by-sunbeam

Lastly, there are the mature, self-possessed and possibly dangerous fairy women found in Brian Froud’s work.  Fairy maids in corsets with heaving cleavages are not rare, but they are hugely outnumbered by the more fey images, it has to be admitted.  The newly established convention that fairies are perfect manifestations of physical attractiveness and/ or innocence stand in stark contrast to older conceptions.  Fairies maidens were renowned in folk-lore for their alluring beauty, but they often suffered defects that betrayed their real nature: they might have cow’s tails, cloven feet beneath their long dresses, fingerless hands or hollow backs.  These aspects of fairy nature are very seldom found now in the idealised portrayals that are so prevalent- Froud’s pictures being something of an exception in their honest naturalism and occasional disturbing honesty about the  ‘average’ physique (pot bellies and drooping breasts).  The main problem with these paragons of prettiness is that they are one dimensional.  Deprived of the darker, more dangerous aspects of traditional fairy nature, they become merely decorative- charming but devoid of deeper meaning.

froud-5

In conclusion, it may be argued that our ‘use’ of the fairy myth has changed in recent centuries.  Whereas fairies were originally the causes of unexplained events and a source of supernatural protection and help, they have increasingly become the vehicles for our fantasies- a convenient way of expressing issues that might not otherwise be tackled.

* By way of a footnote: as a result of the comments in his review, Graham Greene was sued by Fox Entertainments and by Shirley Temple’s parents.  They demanded damages for his libellous insinuations and a trial in the High Court concluded that the images were entirely decent and innocent and that the claimants were therefore entitled to an award of £3500 compensation from the magazine and the author.  Night and day went into insolvency; Greene fled the country for Mexico, where he wrote his most admired work, The power and the glory.  Literature’s gain, perhaps…

This post is a version of a chapter that appears in my new book, British fairies.

BF

British fairies

puck

In times of Brexit, there is a risk that the name of this blog can sound rather chauvinistic, I know.  I deliberately chose to limit myself in my postings to material relating to the fairy beliefs of the island of Britain, for the simple reason that I am reluctant to accept that the beliefs of Ireland or the Isle of Man will have had any persistent or direct influence upon developments over centuries in England, Wales or Scotland.  There are very clear parallels and resemblances, it is undeniable, but this is a matter of common lineage more than regular interchange of ideas.

My interest in ‘pure’ native belief also relates to an area to which I will give more attention in forthcoming posts.  Many modern conceptions of faery are not based upon British tradition, but upon ideas drawn from very different beliefs and cultures.  This leads, I believe, to the contradictions and confusions that I sometimes encounter in contemporary writings on fairy lore.

Despite what I just said, it would be wrong to suppose that British belief is homogenous or consistent.  A body of tradition developed orally in separated communities should not be expected to be entirely uniform or harmonious.  There are many different fairy types and behaviours, but one central aspect of British fairy lore is the sense that the supernatural beings under discussion are as real as the human witnesses.  They may live in a parallel and sometimes invisible dimension, but they can enter this world and interact with people with as much corporeal reality as the people themselves.  This aspect is what has increasingly been lost from recent accounts.

I have just released a new book, British fairies published by Green Magic Publishing, in which all the discussions of my blog posts are brought together and expanded upon in greater detail.  It examines literature, folk lore and art to arrive at a thorough understanding of the nature of British fairies.  I hope some of you will find it a useful and enjoyable read!

BF

“Some war with reremice for their leathern wings”- the facts on fairy violence

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It has become a widespread belief that fairies are wholly benevolent and peaceable beings, to whom violence and antagonism towards humankind is anathema.  This view of the supernatural realm would surprise our predecessors, who had a very different and more complex view of faery.  Older folk lore portrays an other-world very similar to our own, with its own internal conflicts and with a range of responses to human-kind, from friendly to hostile.

  • fairy warfare– it seemed entirely reasonable to earlier generations that the fairies would disagree profoundly and might engage in armed conflict amongst themselves. The Reverend Kirk said that “These Subterraneans have Controversies, Doubts, Disputes, Feuds and Sidings of Parties … they transgress and commit Acts of Injustice and Sin.”  As a result, they have “many disastrous Doings of their own, as … Fighting, Gashes, Wounds and Burialls…”  As evidence of these conflicts, there is a Glamorganshire tradition of a fairy battle fought in the air between Aberdare and Merthyr.  In the Hebrides Evans Wentz reported that it was believed that the fairy hosts always fought at Halloween, as evidence of which a red liquid produced by lichens after frost was believed in fact to be the blood of the fairy fallen.  John Campbell, in his Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands, provides detail of a similar phenomenon.  He describes a substance called elf-blood (fuil siochaire) which is found on the shores of the Hebrides; it is like a dark red stone and is full of holes.  These bloodstones are connected to the red skies of the aurora borealis, which themselves are termed the ‘pool of blood’ and are a sign of fairy fighting above.
  • retributive violence–  I have already in several postings referred to the fact that fairies were believed to impose a strict code of morals and conduct upon humans and to enforce this by forceful means.  There seemed to be little hesitation about battering and injuring those of whom they disapproved.  Offending individuals could certainly expect to be pinched mercilessly; they might also be jostled, assaulted, lamed and (for the offence of seeing through the fairy glamour) blinded.
  • thrashing-  John Campbell recorded a series of curious tales about the conduct of fairy women, which I reproduce here:

“A herdsman at Baile-phuill, in the west end of Tiree, fell asleep on Cnoc Ghrianal, at the eastern base of Heynish Hill, on a fine summer afternoon. He was awakened by a violent slap on the ear. On rubbing his eyes, and looking up, he saw a woman, the most beautiful he had ever seen, in a green dress, with a brooch fastened in at the neck, walking away from him. She went westward and he followed her for some distance, but she vanished, he could not tell how…

A man in Mull, watching in the harvest field at night, saw a woman standing in the middle of a stream that ran past the field. He ran after her, and seemed sometimes to be close upon her, and again to be as far from her as ever. Losing temper he swore himself to the devil that he would follow till he caught her. When he said the words the object of his pursuit allowed herself to be overtaken, and showed her true character by giving him a sound thrashing. Every night after he had to meet her. He was like to fall into a decline through fear of her, and becoming thoroughly tired of the affair, he consulted an old woman of the neighbourhood, who advised him to take with him to the place of the appointment the ploughshare and his brother John. This would keep the Fairy woman from coming near him. The Fairy, however, said to him in a mumbling voice, “You have taken the ploughshare with you to-night, Donald, and big, pock-marked, dirty John your brother,” and catching him she administered a severer thrashing than ever. He went again to the old woman, and this time she made for his protection a thread, which he was to wear about his neck. He put it on, and instead of going to the place of meeting, remained at the fireside. The Fairy came, and, taking him out of the house, gave him a still severer thrashing. Upon this, the wise woman said she would make a chain to protect him against all the powers of darkness, though they came. He put this chain about his neck, and remained by the fireside. He heard a voice calling down the chimney, ‘I cannot come near you to-night, Donald, when the pretty smooth-white is about your neck.’…

A man in Iona, thinking daylight was come, rose and went to a rock to fish. After catching some fish, he observed he had been misled by the clearness of the moonlight, and set off home. On the way, as the night was so fine, he sat down to rest himself on a hillock. He fell asleep, and was awakened by the pulling of the fishing rod, which he had in his hand. He found the rod was being pulled in one direction, and the fish in another. He secured both, and was making off, when he heard sounds behind him as of a woman weeping. On his turning round to her, she said, “Ask news, and you will get news.” He answered, “I put God between us.” When he said this, she caught him and thrashed him soundly. Every night after he was compelled to meet her, and on her repeating the same words and his giving the same answer, was similarly drubbed. To escape from her persecutions he went to the Lowlands. When engaged there cutting drains, he saw a raven on the bank above him. This proved to be his tormentor, and, as usual, she thrashed him. He resolved to go to America. On the eve of his departure, his Fairy mistress met him and said, “You are going away to escape from me. If you see a hooded crow when you land, I am that crow.” On landing in America he saw a crow sitting on a tree, and knew it to be his old enemy. In the end the fairy dame killed him.”

These are odd accounts and a little difficult to explain.  The man is compelled against his will to meet the fairy woman, but is then apparently beaten for doing so.  The battery appears to be either a means of ensuring his obedience by instilling fear- and a hint that the fairy lover does not trust her charms- or it is a punishment for his temerity.  Either way it suggests that fairies can be vindictive and contemptuous, even towards those they favour in some way.

  • cautionary violence– again, in an earlier post I have mentioned those spirits whose primary purpose seems to have been to scare and discipline children so as to encourage them to avoid dangerous locations such as ponds or river banks.  Jenny Greenteeth and Peg Powler weren’t just names, though, nor would they merely give an errant child a fright: they would drag the disobedient infant beneath the water and drown them,
  • unprovoked violence– some supernaturals were malicious by nature and human encounters with them would almost invariably prove fatal.  These include the Highland water horses, the each uisge/ aughisky, the kelpie and the shoopiltree of Shetland, all of which would lure people into mounting them and would then career at speed into a river or lake or into the sea, where the humans would be drowned and/ or devoured.  There were other non-equine but equally maleficent and dangerous water spirits in Scotland, such as the fideal, the fuath, the peallaidh, the muilearteach and the cearb (the killer).  In Wales the llamhigyn y dwr (the water leaper) and the afanc were known.  All of these made a habit of tearing their unfortunate victims to pieces beneath the waves.

A broader perspective on fairy conduct confirms the impression of a fractious, rough and sometimes vicious society.  Many aspects of their culture depended upon violence to some degree:

  • population: as described previously, human children and wives might be taken by force to supplement the fairy race;
  • subsistence: a significant portion of the food and drink consumed in faery was stolen,  usually by stealth but sometimes coercively- for example, in cases where livestock were stolen and then butchered; and,
  • leisure: the fairy idea of fun often involved tormenting people or their livestock- for example, the habit of ‘riding’ horses at night, a practice which left them weak and distressed in the mornings.

As this catalogue shows, traditional folk belief was a great deal less confident in the good nature of fairy kind than is the case with some contemporary commentators.  The best counsel would be to approach with care- or better still to protect oneself with charms and to seek to avoid the ‘good neighbours’ altogether, to be on the safe side. Fairies were regarded as being as variable, unpredictable and potentially vicious as any imperfect human being.

“Cakes & cream”: more thoughts upon the fairy diet

fairy mab fuseli

Queen Mab, by Henry Fuseli

Staying recently on the Devon/ Cornish border, I found an entry in the accommodation guest book from a previous guest.  He had visited a local holy well that is protected by a benign elf, he said, before going on to observe that fairies are veggies and that we should look after the cows grazing on all sides of the cottage.  This set me thinking (about fairies, not cows); what’s the evidence for this assertion?  Are fairies vegetarian, or is this just modern wishful thinking, to fit with prevailing views of fairies as protectors of the environment?

There are two very early sources that suggest that fairies avoid meat:

  • the Green Children of Woolpit in Suffolk, when first found in the early 12th century, were pale, their skin tinged green, and for some time after their discovery they would only eat raw green beans, refusing bread and other food;
  • Gerald of Wales (1188) tells the story of Elidyr who visited fairy land in his youth.  He claimed that these little people “never ate flesh or fish” and instead lived upon various milk dishes, made up into junkets and flavoured with saffron.

The fairy preference for dairy products was well known in Elizabethan folk lore.  Queen Mab loved junkets according to Milton (a junket is a mixture of curds and cream, sweetened and flavoured).  Ben Jonson has her consuming cream, too, and Brownies are conventionally rewarded for their housework with bowls of cream or milk.  The fairies are also known to bake cakes and bread and to drink cider and wine.  There is good evidence, then, that fairies prefer a vegetarian diet, though not a vegan one.

However, there are contradictions and inconsistencies in the sources.  Elidyr also told Gerald that the tiny beings he met kept horses and greyhounds.  The latter are hunting dogs and the elves were plainly equipped for the chase.  In the poem Sir Orfeo the hero meets the king of fairy when he is out hunting wild beasts with his hounds; the king is also said to hunt wild fowl, such as mallards, herons and cormorants, with his falcons. The Gabriel Hounds of Lancashire are fairy dogs; they are also called Gabriel Ratchets, a ratchet being a hound that hunted by scent rather than by sight.  The pursuit of all this game was presumably for some purpose other than mere sport.  We have to assume that the deer, boars and birds that were caught were all eaten and that these particular fairies were very far from veggie.  The bwca living on the beach at Newlyn in west Cornwall were given a share of the catch by local fishermen and they were doubtless expected to eat those fish. The Highland water horses, the cabaill ushtey and the each uisge, both carry off and consume cattle and children, as does the Welsh afanc.  

Each-Uisge

‘Each uisge’ from Villains Wiki

What are we to conclude?  The folklore evidence is not unanimous, but then it seldom is.  There are different sorts of fairy and each will naturally have its own tastes and preferences.  Nonetheless, there is clearly a very old strand of belief that some fairies eat a limited diet excluding flesh, perhaps as an indicator of their otherness or of their sympathetic links to the natural world.