Three Wishes: your dreams fulfilled by faeries?

Jessie Wilcox Smith, Cinderella

A cliché of faery lore is that the fairies grant our wishes, often in threes because this is a magical and significant number (at least in Christian tradition).  This is more the substance of fairy-tales and fairy godmother stories than authentic British folklore, but it’s not entirely without foundation in native accounts.

Mermaids seem especially prone to granting triple wishes.  Furthermore, as the Cornish story of Lutey and the mermaid demonstrates, mermaid vengeance may be postponed (as I recently described for the faeries too).  The mermaid first granted Lutey three wishes as a reward for returning her to the sea when she’d become stranded, but then refused to let go of him when they were in the surf, instead trying to drag him under the water.  The barking of his dog and the sight of his cottage on the shore broke her spell, and with a flash of his knife he forced her to let him go.  Nevertheless, the mermaid promised to return after nine (three times three) years- which she did, seizing him from a fishing boat out at sea.  The mermaid in the related Cornish story, The Old Man of Cury, grants a single wish, as does the Manx mermaid who falls for a man who woos her with gifts of apples.

John Bauer, Syv ønsker, The Seven Wishes

The fairy women of Scotland seem especially inclined to grant wishes to humans.  These skills may be taught, or exchanged for sex, or they may be given as rewards.  Often, the grant is offered conditionally: the recipient can have either ‘ingenuity without advantage’ or ‘advantage without ingenuity.’  One will be clever and highly skilled, but will never be rich; the other will make the man prosperous, but he will be stupid.  Abilities in crafts or music are often bestowed; even a great skill in thieving can be granted, apparently.  Sometimes, too, these awards are not really gifts at all, and a price may be exacted, which can even be the eventual forfeit of the human him or herself.  We saw this with Lutey; in the Scottish tale of Peter Waters of Caithness, he met a fairy woman at a well and she spontaneously offered to endow him with great prowess, either as a preacher or as a piper.  He chose to be a piper and she even gave him a set of pipes.  All she asked was that, in return, they meet again after seven years.  In the meantime, he won great fame and fortune for his music but when he duly returned to meet her at the well, he was never seen again (J. G. Campbell, Superstitions).

An unusual Scottish Gaelic story builds upon this general idea.  The fairy queen (who is generally identified with Fann, the embodiment of skill) was grieved by the lack of wisdom amongst many women in the world.  She therefore breathed on the fairy flax plant and issued a summons to every woman in the world to come to her knoll to be endowed with wisdom.  Many came and the queen appeared before them, carrying a limpet in which there was the ais or skill of wisdom.  Each woman was invited to drink from the shell, according to her faith and desire.  Sadly, the cup ran dry before all could drink (Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, vol.2).

There are other ways to get what you want from fairies though.  At Bewcastle, in Cumbria, there is a stone to which you can whisper your secret wishes; the fairies will then help you.  In several other instances, wishes are granted and skills bestowed as the result of bargains- although these deals are not always willing entered into by the faeries.  A boy who stripped turf from a faery knoll was persuaded to replace it on the basis that he would be helped in making the best chanter possible for his bagpipes.  A girl who agreed not to tether her cows on a knoll was then directed to grazing that never ceased and produced very rich milk.  Equally, a man who stuck his knife in the doorway of a faery hill refused to remove it until he had been granted piping skills.

All in all, there is a curious transactional relationship between humans and supernaturals. The faeries constantly and unrepentantly steal from us and use our property and possessions, but they will spontaneously grant valuable knowledge and skills or make gifts of gold. They will reward good deeds but at the same time lavish wealth on favourites who may seem to be chosen at random. In some cases love motivates their actions; in other cases they find themselves forced begrudgingly to comply. It’s a complex exchange of generosity and obligation, part of the tangled and frequently tortuous relationship that we have forged with the over the last thousand years or more of cohabitation on these islands.

Weber, Christmas Fairy

British Pixies

I am very pleased to announce the arrival of a new book, British Pixies, which has been published by Green Magic, who also released by British Fairies back in 2017 and, much more recently, The Great God Pan.

This new book is a short study of the pixie populations of the South West of England, of Somerset, Devon and Cornwall, looking at all aspects of their nature and behaviour- their appearance, clothes, habits and tricks. They are particularly notorious for pixie leading, as I have discussed before.

Here I include a poem I found quite recently, The Pisky Gleaner by Nora Hopper Chesson, which was published in the Cornhill Magazine, vol.9, issue 51, September 1900.

The verse is unusual for the view it presents of the pisky/ pixie, which is essentially to treat it as a sort of puck or brownie, labouring on a human farm in return for a share of human food. It seems to do this for love of a human female, an unusual vision of faery in which it is far more likely for a desired person to be abducted into Faery than the other way round. The idea of the pisky being banished by his own kind for loving a mortal is not Chesson’s invention: on the Isle of Man one explanation of the origin of the fynoderee, a hairy hob type creature who works on human farms, is that he was expelled from Faery for just such a passion. The fynoderee is transformed into a beast as part of his punishment; the pisky of the poem seems to have taken on human form as a disguise. Chesson’s pisky is somewhat saddened and subject to human control, very much unlike the bulk of his race, who are independent, carefree and wild (although there are traces, in Cornwall, of a so-called ‘brown piskie’ who lived and worked in human mills and farms).

Chesson’s pisky has some similarities to those drawn by Rene Cloke and Lorna Steele, in the accompanying postcards, which reflect the benign and friendly view of pixies which has tended to prevail for the last century or more. As I describe in the new book, though, though, they are a far more robust- even cruel- folk who treat humans very much as a source of fun rather than the object of romantic attachment. Worse still are those fiercer pixies called the spriggans, who jealously and violently guard their hoards of gold amongst the ancient standing stones of west Cornwall. The authentic pixie folklore is really a great deal more complex, and more interesting, than the tourist souvenir pixie that we tend to encounter today.

Although they only came to wider public attention with the writings of Mrs Anne Bray in mid-Victorian times (Peeps at Pixies etc), the pixies are a distinct and fascinating family of faeries with a longstanding tradition in their homelands and they are highly deserving of close study. British Pixies is out now from all good vendors of fine literature…

Psychedelic Faeryland

In a previous posting I looked at the influence of British folklore and myths on musician Marc Bolan, as well as mentioning his personal devotion to the Great God Pan. Here I offer another brief glimpse of mythology and legend at work in contemporary rock.

The first album released by Pink Floyd in August 1967 was Piper at the Gates of Dawn. The title is taken from chapter seven of Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows, a strange, slightly hallucinogenic episode in which Ratty and Mole meet the Great God Pan on an island, isolated at the end of a side branch of the river where they live. It’s dawn and they are drawn inexorably into his presence, struck dumb with awe and reverence.

As late as July that year, the intended title of the album was Projection, but frontman Syd Barrett decided instead to borrow the name from one of his favourite books. Moreover, Barrett claimed to have had a dream, or vision, in which he met Pan (and other characters from the book) and the Great God had disclosed to him the secrets of the workings of Nature. To some extent, even, he believed that this encounter had resulted in him being an earthly embodiment of the deity.

The album tracks themselves didn’t refer to Pan, but there were still mythological references. The song Matilda Mother describes a child being read to in bed and the impact the fairy stories and their imagery have on his/ her imagination:

“Wandering and dreaming
The words have different meaning
Yes they did

For all the time spent in that room
The doll’s house, darkness, old perfume
And fairy stories held me high on
Clouds of sunlight floating by
Oh mother, tell me more
Tell me more”

Secondly, we have Barrett’s song The Gnome, apparently drawing upon Grimm’s Fairy Tales and the work of J R R Tolkien, but full of traditional faery images and conventions. It concerns:

“A gnome named Grimble Gromble
And little gnomes stay in their homes
Eating, sleeping
Drinking their wine
He wore a scarlet tunic
A blue green hood, it looked quite good
He had a big adventure
Amidst the grass, fresh air at last
Wining, dining
Biding his time…”

As is well known, Barrett succumbed to drug use and was ejected from Pink Floyd before becoming a virtual recluse. Reading the lyrics, this may not entirely surprise us, but the songs also confirm the persistent and powerful influence of Pan and Faery in the British imagination, especially during the late 1960s and early ’70s.

How to Conjure and Control a Faery Lover

Jean Baptiste Monge

A number of documents from the sixteenth century include spells for conjuring up fairy women for sex.  This may strike us as shocking and surprising, but the fact that a several separate texts have survived suggests that it was an activity in which a number of magicians were interested.

Spells to gain power over human women are known, as are spells to control spirits; the combination of the two activities is therefore not wholly unpredictable, especially given the well-known desirability of faery women to which I have made reference in numerous other postings.

There seem to be a number of motivating factors involved in these conjurations.  Undeniably, possession and control over a supernatural beauty for the purposes of sexual enjoyment are top of the list, doubtless intertwined with a very male attitude to females and towards being able to boast about your magical (and sexual) skills.  Once conjured, though, the fairy women could provide other benefits, because they had supernatural knowledge that could enrich the magician. In this, they can be rather like faery brides- though as will become clear, those casting the spells discussed here don’t seem to have been interested in any sort of long-term relationship. 

Balancing this, nonetheless, it is very clear that the risks inherent in such operations were well known and that the need for careful management of the interaction- and fairly prompt dismissal of the faery- were fully appreciated.

The spells are surrounded by the typical precautions that many magicians employed: chalk circles may be drawn; the magus will have bathed and abstained from alcohol or sex for a period of time beforehand; clean linen will be laid on a table bearing a candle and (in this particular instance) on the bed; incense or other perfumes will be employed.  A wand or a crystal ball may also be required to assist in the ritual, and the proper day of the week, point in the lunar cycle and time must be observed.

The fairy is then summoned, invoking a variety of holy names and images that are meant to subdue and constrain the spirit.  The king and queen of fairies may also be called upon to assist, through their powers and virtues and through the faith and obedience owed to them by the individual fairies, so that they rank equally alongside the Trinity and the Virgin Mary.  Given the date- and that all of this is post-Reformation- is doubly surprising.  Given that all these Christian trappings are being deployed just to have sex with a supernatural might be regarded as triply surprising.

Three separate magical operations have been preserved.  The first is to be found in Reginald Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft of 1584.  After the ritual preparations, the magus sits in a circle and proceeds as follows:

“… then beginne your conjuration as followeth here, and saie: I conjure thee Sibylia, O gentle virgine of fairies, by the mercie of the Holie-ghost, and by the dreadfull daie of doome, and by their vertues and powers; … and by the king and queene of fairies, and their vertues, and by the faith and obedience that thou bearest unto them… I conjure thee O Sibylia, O blessed and beautifull virgine, by all the riall words aforesaid; I conjure thee Sibylia by all their vertues to appeare in that circle before me visible, in the forme and shape of a beautifull woman in a bright and vesture white, adorned and garnished most faire, and to appeare to me quicklie without deceipt or tarrieng, and that thou faile not to fulfill my will & desire effectuallie. For I will choose thee to be my blessed virgine, & will have common copulation with thee. Therefore make hast & speed to come unto me, and to appeare as I said before: to whome be honour and glorie for ever and ever, Amen.”

Discoverie of Witchcraft Book 13, c.8.

This may have to be repeated as many as four times until Sibylia appears, but Scot assures us she will, after which she must be bound by the holy names not to leave or become invisible until she is given leave to do so.  Then, as Scot describes, she is asked by the conjurer “to give me good counsell at all times, and to come by treasures hidden in the earth, and all other things that is to doo me pleasure, and to fulfill my will, without anie deceipt or tarrieng; nor yet that thou shalt have anie power of my bodie or soule, earthlie or ghostlie, nor yet to perish so much of my bodie as one haire of my head.”

Gerda Wegener, from Les Delassements d’Eros, 1925

The other spells all resemble Scot’s, more or less.  A second is to be found in a manuscript in the British Library.  It recommends performing the spell on a Friday and that the magus should draw two touching chalk circles, in one of which is “a faire bed with new washed shetes, swet and well smyllinge.” A clean table stands in the other circle, on which is fresh water and bread.   The virgin spirits Michel, Chicam and Burfee are then summoned to appear and to obey the magician’s will.  One of them is commanded to lie on the bed. 

A Latin incantation is repeated three times, after which the three faery women will appear, bearing food and wine.  Nonetheless, the magician is warned:

“eate not with them. But thou shalle se oneof them that is fayrest and she shall make ye no chere. Then pryvily put thy sceptre to the hight of hir face and stand in the circle and kisse hir and say to hir… I conjure you, virgin, by the sceptre and the truth by virtue of which you have come here that you hasten to give to me a ring of invisibility and to approach this bed without delay and lie down nude by that venerable name which you discern in my sceptre… and, unless you make every assuagement you can without fraud or harm or illusion or bodily wound, that you do not depart from me until I desire to give you the licence and loose you by my own volition…”

The magus is warned to take the ring from the faery before lying down with her, otherwise he will not be able to receive it (it seems because he will no longer be pure).  The other faeries are sent away then, after which the man is advised to “go naked to bede. Ly on the righte side of the bed and she on the lyfte sid of the bed and do what yow wilt. But aske note whether she be a Spirit or a woman, for then she well spaeke no mor to the. And she shall do thee no harm. Then lycans hir in the mornyng to go and she will com agayn when thou callst hir.”

The third magical operation is set out in a manuscript now to be found in Folger Library in Washington.  It is very similar to the others, except that it is a lot more detailed and is concerned with conjuring the presence of “the seven sisters of the fairies,” who are called Lilia, Hestilia, Fata, Sola, Afrya, Julia and Venulla. 

There are four spells.  The first summons the sisters into the magician’s presence and constrains them to bring him treasure as well as to give him information as to the location of buried treasure and how to destroy any beings guarding that.  They are also all required to “have bountiful copulation” with him as he chooses, without having any power over his body or being able to delude him.

The second spell enables the conjurer to call one of the fairy virgins to his bed whenever he wants to have pleasure with her. The ritual requires chalk circles and a freshly made bed and summons a “bountiful maid and virgin before me in a green gown and beautiful apparel, who will not fail to fulfil my will and desire effectually.” She is ordered to “Come quickly” because he wants carnal copulation with her.

The third spell deals with the faery once she has appeared.  She is required to lie down on the bed “quietly and gently without fraud, hurt or guile” and without doing any harm to him, as well as departing when she’s told to do so.  When the faery is present, the man is advised (once again) to lie down on her left-hand side and to do whatever he pleases (or can).  The magician is reassured that, now she has been bound, the faery is just a woman and that he need not fear her.  Even more importantly, he’s assured that he will never have encountered “so pleasant a creature or lively a woman in bed.”  The magician is then advised that, having “fulfilled thy will and desire with her, thou mayst reason with her of any manner of things thou desirest to and in all kind of questions you list to demand of her.”  As we see again, physical pleasure can be combined with the acquisition of wisdom and material wealth.  Even so, the man is warned not to ask her any questions about herself, or to speak to anyone else about their contacts- or to otherwise disclose them.  However fantastic the sex, great self-control must be exercised in this respect.

The fourth spell sends the faery back where she came from, there to rest until the magician fancies seeing her again.

A number of elements in these texts should be very familiar to readers: there’s the allusion to the danger of consuming faery food, the link between faeries and buried treasure, the need to keep quiet about the benefits derived from association with a faery and, lastly, the distinguishing green robe that she wears (albeit briefly, of course…)

The spells are at the same time both risibly adolescent and depressingly chauvinist.  On the one hand, there’s the emphasis placed upon the fairy being a virgin: Scot, for example, is particularly concerned with conjuring “the blessed virgins,” the fairies Sibylia, Milia and Achilia and, interestingly, the British Library manuscript is also concerned with a trinity of faery virgins.  I presume that the deflowering of the faery is part of her subjugation to the human magus.  Alongside this repeated emphasis upon her purity, the faery lover is still guaranteed to be the best lover he will ever have gone to bed with: “For beauty and bounty neither queen nor empress in all the whole world is able to countervail her, for I have diverse times proved her and had her with me.”  Even so, there is an odd note of bathos, too- an admission of reality perhaps- when the author of the text states that the magician will be able to do “with her whatsoever you please or canst do…”  It seems that aspiration may run ahead of performance for those possibly too young or too old…

Gerda Wegener, ‘The Pastimes of Eros,’ 1925

Sources & Further Reading

If you’d like to know more about these conjurations, you can consult the original texts which are reproduced as follows:

Reginald Scot: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/60766/60766-h/60766-h.htm

The British Library manuscript, Sloane 3850, ff.143-166 is discussed in a journal article: https://journalhosting.ucalgary.ca/index.php/opuscula/article/download/36310/29268/0

The Folger Library manuscript MS Xd 234 is also in an article:

https://dokumen.tips/documents/the-binding-of-the-fairies-frederika-bain.html

I have also included the texts in the appendix to my most recent book, Love and Sex in Faeryland.

Incubi and Succubi

Henry Fuseli, An Incubus Leaving Two Girls

It will have been noted from my last posting on fairy lovers that they are, in the British Isles, predominantly female- other than the northern Scottish tradition of male selkies, who will form sexual relationships with human women and father children. 

Older literature often makes reference to incubi and succubi, male and female spirits or demons who take on human form to lie with women and men at night.  These beings have ancient roots, both classical and in the Middle East, and are clearly not identical (or even closely related) to our own faery lovers.  This notwithstanding, the terminology has come to be used indiscriminately (as with nymphs and satyrs) so that there may be some confusion between the two.  Reginald Scot included incubus amongst his list of fairy beings in the Discoverie of Witchcraft of 1584 (in Book 7 c.15 and the ‘Discourse’ c.11). Scot was generally sceptical about all supernatural phenomena, though, and it is very clear from the ‘Shepherd’s Dream’ in William Warner’s Albion’s England (1612) that the poet was inclined to suspect that the incubus, “that begets dadlesse babes on girles asleepe” was just a cover for a much simpler explanation for pregnancies out of marriage.

British faery lovers tend to be involved on a longer-term basis with human partners, rather than simply using them for sexual purposes, but there is some native evidence for a purely carnal faery visitant.  I have previously described the nightmare or hag, a species of being that has also been identified more narrowly with Mab and even Puck.  These are the best known, but not entirely the only, examples of succubi in British tradition. (Note that Reginald Scot regarded the nightmare as a purely physical affliction though).

In Robert of Gloucester’s Metrical Chronicle (composed between about 1260 and 1300) there is an account given of the conception of Merlin.  His mother described how an unknown but very handsome man used to come to see her at night and, in due course, she found herself pregnant- never having slept with a man.  Amazed by this story, the king sought his counsellors’ advice, and they confirmed that there were ‘wights’ called elves (both male and female) who were known to act like this and to visit men and women at night. 

Þe clerkes sede þat it is in philosofie yfounde

Þat þer beþ in þe eyr an hey ver fram þe grounde  

As a maner gostes wiȝtes as it be

& me may þem ofte an erþe in wilde studes yse

& ofte in mannes forme wommen hii comeþ to

& ofte in wimmen forme hii comeþ to men al so

Þat men clupeþ eluene & parauenture in þis manere

On of hom in þis womman biȝet þis child here.”

This passage is, in fact, fairly easy to read. NB: the letter þ is simply ‘th’ whilst ȝ functions as a ‘y’ or sometimes as a guttural ‘g.’  The verb ‘clypeth’ simply means ‘call.’

“The clerks said (to the king) that it’s accepted by science

That there are, high in the air and far above the ground,

Beings that resemble ghosts

(Whom you can often see in wild, wooded places

And who often come in the shape of men to women

And who in women’s form visit men too)

That we call elves; perhaps in this way

One of them got this woman here pregnant with this child (Merlin).”

Robert of Gloucester was, almost certainly, a learned monk, and his background and education may well have shaped his Chronicle.  Furthermore, he was elaborating the legend of Merlin’s birth that had already been told by Geoffrey of Monmouth and several others.  We may wonder, then, whether this is a literary and scholastic view of elves or derives from folk belief. Notably, from the previous century there’s a story of a handsome fairy male who seduced a young woman at Dunwich (Life of William of Norwich, by Thomas of Monmouth).

However, the religious text titled Dives and Pauper, which dates to about 1405, very much confirms that the conceptions of elves set out by Robert of Gloucester reflect a more popular belief.  In the twenty-first chapter we are told how:

“The fende … may transfigure hym into lykenesse of man or woman by sufferaunce of god, for mannys synne and womans. And the fendes that tempt folk to lecherie be moste besy to appere in mannys likenes & womans to do lecherie with folk & so bringe them to lecherye. And in speche of folke: they be cleped elvys, but in Latyne whan they appeir in mannis lykenes: they be cleped Incubi. And whane they appier in lykenesse of wymen: they be cleped succubi…”

The idea of fairy men appearing in women’s beds and seducing them in fact proved to be a long lasting one.  Puck, or Robin Goodfellow, was the offspring of just such a union, according to the story of his Mad Pranks and Merry Jests, published in 1628.

Rather more interesting is the account of Goodwin Wharton (1653-1704) of his dealings with a woman called Mary Parrish and her contacts in the fairy kingdom of Lowlands, which lies beneath Hounslow Heath, west of London.  The story is mainly one of a wealthy man being cheated by a woman who holds out hopes of faery power, but it has a sexual element too.

Parrish told Wharton that the recently widowed faery queen, Queen Penelope LaGard, had taken a fancy to him and wished to marry him and make him the new king of Lowlands.  Although plans for face-to-face meetings kept falling through, Wharton had proved so irresistible to Penelope that for some weeks she had secretly visited him at night and had sex with him whilst he was asleep.  Despite his unconscious state, they had intercourse multiple times nightly, a revelation that explained the great tiredness and backache that had recently afflicted him.

Thinking about this, Wharton realised that he remembered one occasion on which they had had sex three times in a row; on the third occasion, the queen had “sucked up her breath” just as they both reached orgasm, the effect of which had been to extract “the very substance of the marrow” from his bones, leaving him drained nearly to the point of death.  This statement accords well with traditional medical beliefs, that saw sperm as a special kind of ‘marrow’ or vital energy.  Queen Penelope was exactly like a succubus, sapping Wharton’s strength.

Fuseli, Queen Mab and Two Girls

For more details on the subject of faery loves, see my new book Love and Sex in Faeryland.

Fairy lovers- passion and peril

Brian Froud, ‘The Leanan-Sidhe,’ from Faeries

As many humans have discovered, having a faery lover can prove to be a terrible burden and strain.  Although you might initially feel a great sense of joy, pride and accomplishment, this often vanishes as the true cost of your lover becomes apparent.

The attraction is simply explained.  Fairy women are renowned to be great beauties– which is why, in Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra, the Roman general greets the Egyptian queen as a “great fairy” (IV, 8).  To describe her as a fae is the only way of doing justice to her looks.  As well as beauty, fairy lovers and wives can bring advantages, such as supernatural skills and knowledge, but they can be demanding and jealous lovers too.

The Manx female fairy called the lhiannan shee is a very good example of this.  Dora Broome (Fairy Tales from the Isle of Man 36) describes one such lhiannan shee.  She woes her chosen man by leaving him a chest full of gold and a golden length of mermaid’s hair, but she also hangs around his home, sighing and trying to catch his eye, which the man knows could be fateful for him.  He decides to get married, thinking that this will put her off, but the plan doesn’t work.  The fairy woman continues to hang around, disturbing the newly wed couple, until the husband eventually catches sight of the fairy’s lovely face looking through the window.  She was “more beautiful than moonlight on water or the first primrose in Spring.”  The man falls under her spell instantly and abandons his wife for seven years.  When he finally returns, his wife has remarried and her first husband has been reduced to a white haired, haggard wreck- and can never escape his fairy pursuer. 

Broome says that the charms against a lhiannan shee are to say the Lord’s prayer quickly if you glimpse her and to always carry with you a magical object, such as twig of cuirn (rowan or mountain ash) or a fish bone called a bollan.  Both are highly effective at repelling fairies, apparently.  Powerful protection is needed, though, because “the face of the Fairy Woman is lovelier than a dream and lonelier than a sea-bird’s cry.”   

In another story, The Fisherman and the Ben-Varrey, Broome describes how a mermaid with lovely blue eyes and golden hair has a similarly bewitching effect on a poor man.  She gives him a chest of old golden coins and the sound of her voice as she sings on the rocks on the shore is so enticing that he would join her and drown had it not been for his wife locking the door.  The money turns out to be a curse, because everyone assumes it must be stolen, whilst the family end up poorer than ever because the fisherman stops fishing, believing he has wealth for life.  By luck, all the money is lost- which lifts the spell- but it’s clear that sooner or later the ben-varrey would have claimed him.

The lhiannan shee’s influence upon a man can be malign, causing him to waste away and to lose his wits and friends.  For example, a large burly man took up with a fairy woman.  He started to share all his food and drink with her, often putting his cup behind him so that she could drink (even though no-one else saw her).  As time passed, he began to laugh and talk to himself when alone (or so it seemed to others).  He also became paranoid about people trying to listen in to his conversations with her- although he claimed that the shee girl was telling him when he was being spied upon. It is particularly dangerous to speak to one, as it puts you at her mercy: in late Victorian times a man described meeting one in the fields near Rushen on Man and being very tempted to chat to her because she was so charming and lovely, but he knew not to do so because a friend of his had done this and had then been haunted by her, with the shee woman even following him into pubs and drinking his beer.

In 1904, a Manx author was able to identify at least half a dozen known lhiannan shees on the island. One at Glendowan was living with a man; another at Sorby had been seen chasing her husband and several others had been sighted wandering (or prowling) on their own, for example at Port Erin, where she was seen walking up the mountain.

The lhiannan shee is especially notable for the fact that she pursued and attached herself to men.  This proximity often came to be termed ‘haunting’ because it was too intense and obsessive and, both on Man and in the Highlands, there are stories of men who fled overseas to escape their fairy lovers, only to find that they had followed them across oceans. The Scottish and Manx shee women are extreme cases, but any fairy relationship can prove burdensome and demanding for the human partner. In Wales, as is known from numerous stories, winning the fae woman in the first place can be difficult (see the accounts about tempting them with bread) and the marriage is almost always subject to strict obligations or taboos. Normally, these involve keeping iron away from the fairy female, but there’s a very similar tale told of Dolgellau pool. A fairy would bathe there on summer evenings and Hugh Evans dared to spy on her- and fell in love. She consented to marry on the stipulation that he would allow her to continue to go off alone at nights and never interfere or ask questions about this. He agreed, but then became consumed with curiosity and tried to follow her one night. Hugh fell and broke his leg doing this and, once she had nursed him back to health, she left him forever.

In one Scottish story, the relentlessness of the fairy attachment is starkly revealed. A shepherd heard pipes playing and had to follow the sound of music. He was drawn onwards for weeks, months, seasons, living on roots and berries as he wandered. Finally he crossed the sea and, on the far shore, was met by a piper dressed in green who invited him to accept the love of a faery girl who had seen him with his flocks and had lured him to this place.

Many of the faery lovers I have described in previous posts can seem more passive, assigned the sorts of roles and attitudes allocated to women in the past.  On the surface this may be true, but it underestimates their power and planning.

Hans Zatzka

I have several times before mentioned the fairy women Tryamour in the story of Sir Launfal.  She is not unique.  In the Lay of Graelent, for example, the young knight is riding in a forest one May day when he comes upon a naked maiden bathing in a fountain, with her clothes hanging nearby on a bush.  He seizes them, in response to which she calls him by name and asks him to at least leave her shift. Graelent relents and allows her to come out of the water and dress, but then he’s overcome with lust and “did with her what he pleased.”  After what amounts to a rape, he begs her pardon, which she grants, before revealing that she had gone to the forest with the express intention of meeting him.  She then offers him fine clothes and money on condition that he binds himself to her and keeps their relationship secret.  Ultimately, the lady raises Graelent from death and disappears with him (strongly suggestive of Arthur and Morgan le Fay and clearly indicative of her fairy nature). This final departure to fairyland is repeated in Sir Launfal.

The Lay of Guingamor is quite similar.  The knight is hunting in a forest when he finds a maiden bathing in a spring and combing her hair (rather like a mermaid).  She is “long limbed and softly rounded” and, once again, he snatches her clothes to bring her within his power.  As before, though, it seems that her presence is far from accidental.  She addresses him by name and promises him love and gifts.  Guingamor then accompanies her to her palace, where a stay of three days lasts for three hundred years in human time.  These distortions in time as a familiar feature of passage between dimensions.

Finally, the lay called Le chevalier qui fist parler les cons et les culs involves another hunting knight discovering three nymphs bathing in a fountain.  They are “so seeming wise and beautiful, one might surmise that they were fairies in mortal guise.”  As soon as the knight’s squire sees the fays’ “white charms, their pretty bosoms, haunches, arms” he (yet again) snatches their clothes and rides off.  It is his master who restores their dresses to them, in return for which he is granted three powers- to be welcome everywhere and to be able to make “parler les cons et les culs” (to make cunts and arses talk…). A bizarre gift, but there you go…

It will have been noted from the previous paragraphs that fairy lovers are, in the British Isles, predominantly female.  Whereas Ireland has the gean cannah, the love talker, as a male equivalent to the leanan-sidhe, there are really no equivalent terrestrial beings in Britain.  There is, however, the northern Scottish tradition of male selkies, who will form sexual relationships with human women and father children.  Often, though, these relationships are brief and, not uncommonly, they’re non-consensual.  Selkie men seem prone to impregnating human women and abandoning them (see my posting on the chapter on selkies in my book Beyond Faery and, too, the ballad the Selkie of Sule Skerry).

Further Reading

There’s more discussion and examples of the lhiannan shee in my book Faery whilst in Beyond Faery I give extended consideration to the problems of human relationships with merfolk. My new book, Love and Sex in Faeryland, examines this subject at length.

‘Leanan Sidhe’ by Starfire-666 on Deviant Art, after Brian Froud in Good Faeries, Bad Faeries.

Pan & Nymphs in ‘The Lore of Proserpine’

Rodolphe Julian, Pan

Recently I reread Maurice Hewlett’s fantastic collection of fairy tales from 1913, Lore of Proserpine, and was reminded of the author’s rather idiosyncratic view of fairies and classical nymphs.  In his taxonomy, there is little difference between the two.  I might add that the book is also suffused with the cult of the Great God Pan, a aspect of paganism that had considerable vogue amongst artists, musicians and writers during the late Victorian period and the first decades of the twentieth century, as I have described in my new book The Great God Pan and as I also mentioned last year in Nymphology.

The Lore of Proserpine is fiction, but it purports to be a record a series of episodes over the narrator’s life when he had faery encounters.  The earliest was when he was a school-boy in his early teens and saw a dryad in a woodland glade.  He describes how:

“I was now looking upon a Dryad. I was looking certainly at a spirit informed. A being, irradiate and quivering with life and joy of life, stood dipt to the breast in the brake; stood so, bathing in the light; stood so, preening herself like a pigeon on the roof-edge, and saw me and took no heed.

She had appeared, or had been manifest to me, quite suddenly. At one moment I saw the avenue of lit green, at another she was dipt in it. I could describe her now, at this distance of time—a radiant young female thing, fiercely favoured, smiling with a fierce joy, with a gleam of fierce light in her narrowed eyes. Upon her body and face was the hue of the sun’s red beam; her hair, loose and fanned out behind her head, was of the colour of natural silk, but diaphanous as well as burnished, so that while the surfaces glittered like spun glass the deeps of it were translucent and showed the fire behind.  Her garment was thin and grey, and it clung to her like a bark, seemed to grow upon her as a creeping stone-weed grows…”

The dryad had emanated, he believed, from the oak trees of the wood, and shared some of the trees’ characteristics.  We meet another dryad much later in the book, this time associated with an oceanid.  Hewlett tells the story of a family living on the wild Cheviot Hills on the English-Scottish border.  The mother of the family had been brought home by her sailor husband.  Her origins were never discussed, but they seem clear from the fact that:

“It was told that until Miranda King was brought in, sea-birds had never been seen in Dryhopedale. It was said that they came on that very night when George King the younger came home, and she with him, carrying his bundle and her own. It was said that they had never since left the hamlet, and that when Miranda went out of doors, she was followed by clouds of them whichever way she turned.”

In turn, Miranda’s son brings home a dryad he has discovered and fallen for in a wood deep in the hills.  He had been to the wood before, but “He had had a fright, had been smitten by that sudden gripe of fear which palsies limbs and freezes blood, which the ancients called the Stroke of Pan, and we still call Panic after them.” However, driven by a deep need and identification, he overcomes his terror and goes back to the wood to find dryad wife.  His mother confirms the two women’s affinity: “I am of the sea and she of the fell, but we are the same nation.  We are not of yours, but you can make us so.”

A strange, dramatic struggle follows in which the ‘King of the Wood’ (Pan), tries to reclaim his handmaiden from the young shepherd who has abducted her.  He nearly succeeds and the girl, called Mabilla By-the-Wood, was nearly “resumed into her first state” (in other words, she nearly became the spirit of a beech tree once again) but her husband pursues and rescues her.

In some respects, then, nymphs only look like humans.  Hewlett’s nymphs are animalistic, soulless beings- but they can be transformed to something more like a human woman through marriage to a human man. Describing Mabilla By-the-Wood, he says that:

“her eyes were large, grey in colour, but, as I have said, unintelligent, like an animal’s, which to us always seem unintelligent…  Everything about her seemed to him to be quite what one would have expected, until one came, so to speak, in touch with her soul. That, if it lay behind her inscrutable, sightless and dumb eyes, betrayed her. There was no hint of it. Human in form, visibly and tangibly human, no soul sat in her great eyes that a man could discern.”

Franz Stuck, Pan beobachtet Kentaurenpaar

Pan is present in the story as the mysterious and violent King of the Wood, possessive of the spirits of the trees. Hewlett also recognises the deity’s suzerainty over terrestrial fairies. As he says, “Pan in potent in nearly all land solitudes,” whilst Artemis “is certainly ruler of the spirits of the air and water.” He continues:

“The legions of Artemis are all female, though on earth men as well as women worship her; the legions of Pan are all male, though on earth he can chasten women as well as men. But Pan can do nothing against Artemis, nor she anything against him or any of his. The decree or swift deed of either is respected by the other. They are not, then, as earthly kings, leaders of their hosts to battle against their neighbours. Fairies fight and marshal themselves for war; Mr. Wentz has several cases of the kind. But Pan and Artemis have no share in these warfares. Queen Mab is one of the many names, and points to one of the many manifestations of Artemis; the Lady of the Lake is another.”

Here we have references to the division of the woodland folk into Pan and his satyrs and the various nymphs. We also have Mab and the Lady of the Lake treated as, to all intents and purposes, nymphs or naiads. Artemis is the Greek goddess of the wilderness, wild animals and the moon. Her Roman equivalent was Diana, who was very often linked with fairies and whose name was frequently interchangeable with Titania. These passages from the Lore of Proserpine are clear evidence of the confusion between classical and native myth to which I alluded at the start. This is something by no means unique to Hewlett, and is by no means a recent phenomenon, but it was a rich source of inspiration.

Penny Ross, Spring Fairy

Elsewhere in his book, Hewlett quotes Plato’s Phædrus: “Beloved Pan, and all ye other gods who haunt this place….” and then continues “Beloved Pan! My knowledge of Pan was of the vaguest, and yet more than once or twice did I utter that prayer wandering alone the playing field, or watching the evening mist roll down the Thames Valley and blot up the elm trees, thick and white, clinging to the day like a fleece. The third Iliad again I have never forgotten…” He, like so many public school boys of his generation, absorbed the Greek classics at a young age and often knew them better than their own native traditions. Confusion and cross-fertilisation were almost inevitable. Nevertheless, Pan was a real presence for Hewlett, like so many other writers of that period: “I had had good reason to know the awfulness of Pan.”

I have examined Pan, nymphs and fairies in previous postings. I shall return to the content of Hewlett’s Lore of Proserpine in the near future. I have also discussed Pan in literature and art on one of my other WordPress blogs.

Bouguereau, Nympha & Satyr

Great God Pan & Faery

I am very pleased to announce the publication of my latest book, The Great God Pan, by Green Magic Publishing, who back in 2017 were kind enough to publish my first fairy study, British Fairies.

The origins of the latest book lie partly in the research I did for 2020’s Nymphology, but also in my wider reading of fantasy writers such as Algernon Blackwood and Arthur Machen.  As some readers will already know, Machen himself wrote a story called The Great God Pan; the title wasn’t his, it comes from ancient legend, so I felt entitled to use it too!

The new book, Great God Pan, is a study of the development of the cult of Pan, tracing its origins from ancient Greece and following the faith through the Renaissance to late Victorian times, when it had a major revival.  This period is the main focus of the book, with reference to writers such as Oscar Wilde, Aleister Crowley, Dion Fortune and others.

Moony, Enchanted Wood

Now, you’d be entitled to think that the goat god Pan hasn’t got a lot to do with fairies, but the situation’s rather more complex than we might expect.  Let’s start towards the end…

In 1878 Walter Besant published the short story Titania’s Farewell.  As the title tells us, the story’s focus is the departure of the fairies from British shores, something witnessed by a human who finds himself surrounded by the fairies late one night in the New Forest.  Reflecting the next day on his enchanted experience, the narrator asks himself:

“Reality! Ideal! Why, which is which? The old nature worship goes on as ever.  Great God Pan never dies.”

He seems to be very clear in his own mind that fairies are nature spirits and that they are intimately linked by this to Pan himself.  The fairies of the story, in fact, don’t quite see it as simply as this. Addressing his court, King Oberon says that the fairies can’t flee from Britain to either Greece or Italy.  This is because those places are:

“haunted by beings far different from ourselves- Bacchus and his noisy crew.  You would not like to associate with him.  Satyrs there are- monsters of most uncomely appearance and their manners are detestable.  Dryads there are in the woods, and Naiads by their fountains; but you would not like them.  They drowned fair young Hylas.  When did we drown fair youth?” 

The British fairies can’t go to these Mediterranean lands, then; they are ‘Teutonic elves’ as Oberon says.  But they can’t go to Germany either, because there the woods are full of goblins and they’ve filled up their buildings with “clumsy plaster casts of the Fauns of the Latin hills.”

All of this leaves Oberon sounding very much like a jingoistic Victorian English gentleman, for whom all foreigners are simply frightful, with their beastly artistic pretensions and artistic temperaments. 

John Philip Wagner, Little Pan’s Dance

In truth, British faery folk weren’t always seen as being so very different from classical beings, as I described a long time ago in a post on the impact of the Renaissance on the British fairy faith.  For example, in The Faithful Shepherdess of 1609, John Fletcher described ‘fairy ground’ where the fairies dance in these terms:

“No Shepherd’s way lies here; ‘tis hallowed ground;

No maid seeks here her strayed cow or sheep,

Fairies, fawns and satyrs do it keep.”

The influence of Greek and Latin legend actually dates much earlier than that.

We can, in fact, go right back as early as St Augustine’s City of God, of the early fifth century.  He briefly discusses some Gaulish fairies called dusii, whom he treated as being identical with “Silvans and Pans, commonly called incubi, [who] often misbehave towards women and succeed in accomplishing their lustful desires to have intercourse with them.”  These are beings who seduce human women, usually coming to them when they are asleep at night, and in their highly sexed nature they link backwards to Pan, inveterate pursuer of nymphs in the groves of Arcady, and forward to the faery lovers of more modern times.

St Augustine’s ‘pans’ might also be called fauns or wood sprites.  In about 1000, Bishop Burchard of Worms laid down a penance for any country people who expressed belief in the existence of such ‘sylvans’ or satyrs or who made offerings to them.  A later English version of this same text, dating from the 13th century, repeated the same warnings, but called them fauns.

In the twelfth century Thomas of Monmouth described how a young virgin living in Dunwich in Suffolk was assaulted at night by a spirit in the form of a handsome young man who appeared in her bedroom and sought to tempt and seduce her.  He’s called “one of those beings whom they call fairies and incubi [faunos dicunt et incubi.]”  As this shows, faun and fairy were interchangeable words.

These country spirits may have Latin names, but they are very plainly what we’d call fairies, as is the case with John Lydgate’s Troy Book, written during the fifteenth century and first published in 1513.  He refers to the:

“diverse goddis of þe wodis grene [who]

Appere þere, called Satiry,

Bycornys eke [too], fawny and incubi,

þat causen ofte men to falle in rage.”

The ‘rage’ to which Lydgate refers is, of course, the panic that Pan can induce in flocks, herds and people.  The Troy Book was based on Guido delle Colonne’s Historia destructionis Troiae (A History of the fall of Troy), from which Lydgate inherited his “multos satiros faunosque bicornes” (many satyrs and two horned fauns).

These fauns/ fairies of the Middle Ages behaved in all the ways that remain familiar to us today.  As well as trying to seduce suitable boys and girls, they offered rich goods that were only glamour, they liked to play tricks on humans and they also took children and left changelings. 

Into early modern times, the terminology remained interchangeable.  As I’ve discussed before, Reginald Scot in The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584)made a list of supernatural beings that included “satyrs, pans, fauns… nymphs… incubuses;”  William Prynne in Histrio-Matrix of 1633, a Puritan attack on the theatre, complained of people dressing up as “Satyres, Silvanes, Muses, Nymphes, Furies, Hobgoblins, Fairies, Fates… which Christians should not name, much less resemble.”

As these last examples remind us, fairies and nymphs were consistently conflated or confused, as I’ve discussed before in postings and in Nymphology.  These associations further embed into British faerylore the conjunction of fairies with girlish sexuality- something which can also be seen in much of the art associated with pan and the satyrs.

The intermingling of classical and native beings continues even to this day.  For example, in his book Good Faeries, Bad Faeries, Brian Froud included Pan in the good half and a ‘Small Pan or Slight Panic,’ in the bad section. The former, ‘Poetic Pan,’ can materialise in many different places and, if humans come into contact with him, will arouse in them erotic impulses, abandonment to poetic emotions and intense feelings of spiritual connection to nature. Froud warns us, however, to take care, “for his influence is overwhelming.”  In the second half of the book, the small Pan is the “irresistible child of the great Pan himself [who] hides himself away in secret nooks and crannies, ready to leap out in pursuit of the unwary (especially pretty young girls and attractive goats).  His presence causes minor pandemonium and slight panic, so be cautious of things that pop out suddenly from hidden places.”

John Philip Wagner, Little Pan

I am also posting articles related to this book one of my other WordPress blogs, John Kruse blog.

Margaret Thompson- tile artist (and other pottery pixies)

Do You Believe? - WMODA | Wiener Museum
Fairies at a Christening

Back in October, we were out of lockdown long enough for a short holiday, which took us up to the West Midlands. We stayed near Ironbridge and visited the Jackfield tile museum there. Of all the early industrial sites amongst the complex of museums in the Ironbridge Gorge area, Jackfield is my favourite simply because it’s the most attractive- especially the reconstructed pubs and shops which were entirely tiled in Victorian and Edwardian times.

A new exhibit was the mural by Margaret Thompson shown above. It was very common in the early decades of the twentieth century to decorate children’s wards in hospitals with large, colourful tile pictures- bright, cheerful and very easily kept clean. Often they were themed on nursery rhymes and fairy tales; this design derives more from the artist’s imagination alone- at the same time, it is fairly typical of faery designs of its time.

Margaret E. Thompson trained in applied design at Goldsmith’s Art Institute in the late 1890s and became an artist and designer working in the Art Nouveau style. Her background was that of an artist rather than a commercial designer, but she was quickly recruited by Doulton’s pottery at Lambeth, London.

Thompson’s specialisms were faience murals and vases with fairy tale motifs. Her initial output for Doulton comprised unique vases with designs exhibiting many similarities to those of Arthur Rackham and Mabel Lucy Attwell (see below). In due course she moved on to work on ceramic tiles for children’s wards in hospitals across the world, for example in the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UCL Hospital, Bloomsbury, London and St Thomas’s Hospital, London. Other examples of her faery themed work are illustrated below; a number of Thompson’s works are held in the Victoria and Albert museum collection- most date from the period 1900-1905.

Mabel Lucie Attwell

Mabel Lucie Attwell (1879-1964) is perhaps one of the best known and popular artists of the inter-war period. In part this was due to her very keen business sense; in part because she diversified across a range of products. She is best remembered for her book illustrations and other graphic materials, but she also produced a range of pottery items, which is why she’s featured here.

I discussed Attwell’s career in my recent book Fairy Art of the Twentieth Century. She was born in the East End of London and attended several art schools before launching into her commercial career. She started out supplying work to magazines and, because this proved very popular, was soon contributing plates for children’s books such as The Water Babies and Peter Pan, as well as designing postcards.

Attwell was a rapid and prolific worker and quickly became a household name. She honed her ‘brand’ further still when she devised the toy-like characters called ‘Boo-Boos.’ These were round little pixies in green, with pointed caps, antennae and ears. The Boo-Boos first appeared in story books, but Attwell went on to produce a range of themed products- pottery figurines, wall hangings and plaques, night lights, jigsaws, bed linen, dolls , biscuit tins, money boxes and such like.

Attwell was much influenced at the start of her career by the work of her close friend, Hilda Cowham, another fairy artist. Between 1924 and 1935, both women were both employed by Shelley Potteries, Stoke on Trent, who were producers of Art Deco style fine china. They provided the company with images and designs for nursery ware. The standing of these two artists is attested by these commissions, because previously potteries had relied solely upon their own in-house artists for designs. 

The cute and cuddly babies, little girls and pixies that Attwell churned out are not to my taste, but they are a significant example of mid-twentieth century perceptions of Faery, alongside the flower fairies of Cicely Mary Barker and Margaret Tarrant and the sometimes more sinister designs of Arthur Rackham. Whether we like them or not, and whether we regard them as great art, it can’t be denied that they shaped contemporary attitudes to fairies and made a significant contribution to the process in which our perceptions of our Good Neighbours shifted away from a dangerous and independent presence to a far more saccharine and approachable image.

A cup from the Attwell range for Shelley

As I’ve argued before, fairy art has been very influential upon us in the way we visualise every aspect of fairyland. See too my posting on the Wedgwood designs of Daisy Makeig-Jones and the details of my 2020 book, Fairy Art of the Twentieth Century.

Sylvia Townsend Warner- Of Cats and Elfins

For Christmas I received this collection of short stories by Sylvia Townsend Warner. Split into two sections- one on fairies, one on cats (!)- it complements her book, Kingdoms of Elfin, which I have reviewed before.

As a fan of both cats and elves, the book is highly recommended. It’s a pleasant read- and a thought provoking one too. There’s a general introduction to Warner’s views on the inhabitants of Faery, followed by her unusual little tales. Her opinions on fairy-kind as a whole are well worth noting.

In many respect, Warner’s elfins are very similar to those we know. For example, they frequent meadows where they “dance mushrooms into rings” and the island of Britain is divided up into kingdoms ruled over by fairy queens, such as Elfame. Warner’s belief was that fairies are, eventually, mortal. They can die of old age and they can die, too, by misadventure- for example, by drowning, poisoning or hanging.

Warner’s elfins have a very low estimation of humankind. We are noisy, rude, dirty and, worst of all, dim. Her fae are smaller than humans, winged and able to ‘put on’ invisibility. As a result, she observed that:

“It is sometimes said that we have but our own obtuseness to blame for not seeing fairies more often than we do; but this is to attach too much importance to our idiosyncrasies, even to such a well-established, long-standing idiosyncrasy as obtuseness; for if we fail to see the fairies, it is not because we are too stupid to see them, but because they are too clever to allow themselves to be seen by us.”

Of Cats & Elfins, ‘The Kingdom of Elfin.’

All in all, Warner’s elves don’t reckon much to us human beings. In her story ‘The Narrative of Events Preceding the Death of Queen Ermine,’ it is remarked that “Mortals are not logical animals.” The courtier who makes this observation expands upon his experience a little later, explaining the essential difference between human and fairy kind (the possession of consciences): “We [that is, the fae] have no need of them. We have reason. But they are part of the mortal apparatus, as tails are to cats…” In the story ‘The Duke of Orkney’s Leonardo,’ we are told a little more about Elfin morality. They are “untrammeled by that petted plague of mortals, conscience, [so] they never reproached or regretted, entered into explanations or lied.” Faery is a world of guilt-free Enlightenment, it would seem. In the same story, Warner has a nice little joke at human gullibility: of fairy princess Lief, she remarks sardonically that:

“If she had believed in witches she would have believed he was under a spell; but Caithness was full of witches- mortals all, derided by rational Elfins.”

The fairy view of people is summarised by Warner in these terms:

“It is a sad fact, but undeniable: the Kingdom of Elfin has a very poor opinion of humankind. I suppose we must seem to them shocking boors, uncouth, noisy, ill-bred and disgustingly oversized. It is only the fairies with a taste for low company, like Puck and the Brownies… that make a practice of familiarity. And it is to be observed that they, for choice, frequent the simple and rustic part of mankind and avoid professors and students of folklore…”

Of Cats & Elfins, ‘The Kingdom of Elfin.’

As she notes, those humans who go out consciously looking for traces of the faeries tend to be disappointed- or are the victims of fairy vindictiveness. Warner confronts the fact that, when they do have contact with us, it is frequently an unpleasant experience for the mortals. They may give us a nasty fright, or:

“Often they go further, causing them to fall into languishing sicknesses, harrying them with ignominious accidents and even pursuing them unto death. They commonly employ one or two methods: blasting or shooting with an elf-bolt…”

Of Cats & Elfins, ‘The Kingdom of Elfin.’

According to Warner, three groups, nevertheless, have a good chance of meeting faeries on happier terms. These are country women with new born babies, young children and handsome men. Mothers are taken because “the fairies think that the plodding and bovine nature of human kind is peculiarly well adapted to provide reliable old-fashioned nurses for fairy babes.”

Children are abducted either because they are wanted as a tithe for the devil (according to one theory) or because they enjoy the company of children and taking care of them (which she thinks more likely). This sits uncomfortably with a entirely typical faery episode in ‘The Narrative of Events Preceding the Death of Queen Ermine’ in which local children are punished for trespassing on the queen’s land. Most suffer pinchings, scratching and hair pullings, but some of the fairies get rather carried away in their duties- “driving the marauders into wasps’ nests, jerking them off boughs into nettlebeds, alluring them to toadstools or gay wreaths of deadly nightshade.” The resultant death toll is quite high.

As for men, fairy women take them as husbands. Warner notes, though, that the reverse is seldom the case. Although fairy men will seduce human women, “no earthly woman’s charms have been powerful enough to bind a fairy to her in honorable matrimony.” In large measure, she ascribes this to the fairy temperament:

“Their amorousness is proverbial and no doubt the fairies who married mortal husbands were induced to this rash step by the violence of their passions, coupled with a romantic and high-flown notion that there is something very fine about defying convention. Once married, however, they make admirable wives.”

Of Cats & Elfins, ‘The Kingdom of Elfin.’

On the whole, though, fairies are an unromantic lot and are incapable of falling heavily for another: “Elfins find such love burdensome and mistrust it.” If only humans could be as calm and rational… The other remark to make upon Warner’s Elfins is their diversity. The author was a lesbian with a life-long partner and in the story ‘The Duke of Orkney’s Leonardo’ she imagined a gay husband and his wife, neither of them prepared to conform to the stereo-types expected of them.

Raphael, Mary F., A Wood Nymph; Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum

The last story in the Cats and Elfins collection is ‘Stay, Corydon, Thou Swain.’ In many ways it is my favourite, although it is strictly not about Elfins but about nymphs. In short, it concerns a Mr Mulready, a draper in Wells in Somerset. He is a highly respectable widower who sings in the Baptist chapel choir. One evening the choir has been practicing the madrigal by Wilbye that provides the story’s title. The words of the verse stick in Mulready’s mind:

“Thy nymph is light and shadow-like

For if thou follow her, she’ll fly from thee,

But if thou fly from her, she’ll follow thee.”

Then, “All of a sudden, Mr Mulready found himself wondering about nymphs, and wondering, too, in a very serious and pertinacious way. He had never, to his knowledge, given a though to these strange beings before and yet it now seemed to him that he had an idea of them both clear and pleasant- as though perhaps in childhood he had been taken to see one. He wished to see a nymph again… What he felt was more than a whim: it was an earnest desire, a mental craving…”

The next day he realises that he has a nymph working in his shop, a pale young girl called Edna Cave. He asks to come out for a bicycle ride the next evening and they agree to cycle to Merley Wood, the other side of Glastonbury (there is a real Merley Wood, but it’s near Wimbourne in Dorset- definitely not an evening’s ride from Wells). Mulready knows the wood- and has always been a little nervous of its atmosphere, but as he tells himself: “When one has a nymph vouchsafed one for a whole evening, one does not boggle over details. He was extremely happy and excited at the thought of such a shy and rare being becoming his companion.”

They ride to the wood on a beautiful summer’s evening. Edna Cave is exactly the company the older man had hoped for : “He had already a general idea of how a nymph should behave: she would be rather quiet and take a great interest in flowers.” This is exactly what Edna does. They sit happily together under blackthorn blossom on the edge of the wood, saying little, but very content, until it is late and starting to get quite dark. Mr Mulready encourages them to leave and they are just walking back to their bikes when Edna turns around and walks back towards the blackthorn:

“She put out her hands. He thought she was going to break off a spray… And then, in a moment, she disappeared.”

Edna vanishes, leaving Mulready stunned and panicked. There is no trace of her at all- and he has to face returning to Wells with this shattering news. This wonderful mystery is exactly what I sought to celebrate in my book Nymphology published last year; it is, as well, a fine end to the Elfin section of Warner’s collection.