‘The fairest of the fair’- Fae beauty

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‘Take the fair face of woman,’ Sophie Anderson

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

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

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

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

Fairies in folklore

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

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

Goblins in art

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

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Cover of a seventeenth century chapbook

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

puck

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

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John Simmons, A fairy lying on a leaf

Nubile fairies

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

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

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

these fairy mountains

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

Flower fairies

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

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Cicely Mary Barker, The poppy flower fairy

Modern fairies

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

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

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Helen Jacobs, A fleet of fairies

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Gladys Checkley postcard (c.1950)

Further reading

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

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Fairies: two new book reviews

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I have recently finished reading two fay related books both of which deserve a mention.  Morgan Daimler‘s Fairies- a guide to the Celtic fair folk, is a very useful basic handbook to have in your collection.  I have added it to be list of books on my fairy bookshelf.

I also recently picked up and read Faery tale, published by Signe Pike in 2010. I know I’m rather slow at getting round to this one, but… (I can’t think of an excuse).  Pike’s book is a pleasant read, a whirlwind tour through the British Isles (and Mexico) in search of fairies and fairy experts.  She visited several places I have yet to see myself, so I enjoyed her descriptions of Man, the west of Ireland and north Scotland, although at the same time I have visited the Chalice Well at Glastonbury numerous times and knew that her description made it sound far bigger than it really is…  The real value of the book, I’d say, is the interviews with locals with special knowledge, such as artist Brian Froud down on Dartmoor.  The book’s in the bargain bins now so if you see it, by all means give it a read.

Contrary fairies

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Arthur Rackham, The fairies have a tiff with the birds

One thing that any regular reader of these pages- or of any materials on fairy-lore- will soon notice is that Faery is a place where contradictions are rife. Renowned fairy expert Katharine Briggs seems to have recognised this problem when she wrote that “it is possible for most people to keep two quite irreconcilable beliefs alive at the same time.” (The anatomy of Puck, p.5)  Morgan Daimler has recently said something very similar: ”

“When it comes to Fairy the only generality we can make is that we can’t easily make any generalities.” (Fairies- a guide to the Celtic fair folk p.173)

Inconsistency and uncertainty seem par for the course in fairy studies.  There is a distinct lack of consensus as to the appearance of the fays (their height, their facial features, the presence or absence of wings) or regarding their dress.  I have discussed the range of opinion on these matters before on this blog and in chapters 1, 5 and 28 of my book British fairies.  Of course, one might fairly observe that a non-human, presented with a selection of humans of varying age, ethnicity and dressed in their traditional, indigenous costume, might be equally puzzled to determine what the ‘typical’ human looks like.  There are many sorts of fairies, so the lack of consistency in reports need not trouble us.

Non-believers will say that inconsistency in accounts is hardly remarkable, given that we’re discussing a wholly imaginary set of beings.  The believer, in contrast, may explain the contradictions  by pointing to the variety of fairy forms, their magical abilities and their well-known sense of mischief.  Janet Bord argues as much in her book Fairies: real encounters with the little people: discrepancies in descriptions of fairies’ height may all be put down to their use of glamour and illusion.  The agnostic researcher, wishing to take a more ‘scientific’ approach, and to aiming to discover the reason and logic behind fairy belief, might search for social and psychological explanations.

The biggest problem for any form of rational analysis of fairy accounts is the existence of downright irreconcilable differences between descriptions.  I shall highlight just four here to demonstrate my point.

Iron taboo

Iron is well-known as a material that repels fairies. A child in a cradle can be protected by scissors hung over it; shears placed in a chimney prevent fairy incursions by that route and a wise traveller will carry metal with them, even something as small as a pin, as a defence against supernatural encounters.  Tales are often told of rescues of abducted spouses from fairy hills; the rescuer will place his knife at the threshold in order to stop the entrance to the hill re-closing and trapping him.  This list could be extended considerably, but the principle is very well established. However, how do we explain fairies using metal tools- which they often do, as evidenced in the stories of human help being sought to repair demanded pails, pick axes and the like?  Even more aberrant, perhaps, there is a Shetland story of an abducted boy who returns home skilled in making scythes, a craft he has learned whilst living with the trows (see for example Magical folk pp.38, 133 & 135).

The fairies’ faith

Religion is another source of contraries, as I have mentioned in a recent posting.  The fairies are generally regarded as being heathens, or at least irreligious.  On that basis, charms that are just as efficacious as a piece of iron include a page from the Bible, the sign of the cross or the invocation of God or the saints.  Prompt baptism of a newborn will guard against its theft as a changeling.  This all seems quite reasonable, until it is set alongside other traditions that treat the fairies as being perfectly orthodox Christian folk, conducting christenings and the like, or as beings concerned for their place in creation and worried over whether they will share in the Christian salvation. Once again, both cannot apply, but a compromise is almost impossible (see Magical folk pp.120, 127 & 135).

Time in fairyland

The passing of time is a significant feature of many stories of fairyland.  I have alluded to this previously and it is pretty well known that time in Faery can pass at a different rate to time in the mortal world.  A night spent under a fairy knoll may transpire to have been a year or ten, or a century, in the ‘real’ world.  As might be imagined, the consequence of this for the returning visitor can be disastrous and tragic.  And yet- this is not always a problem.  Some visitors come and go without ill-effects; a midwife may be taken to attend a fairy birth and return home the same night; a husband may go to rescue his wife from the beneath the fairy hill and will do so in ‘real time.’  The fairies themselves may come and go from our world without difficulty.

Fairy food

I have remarked before that fairies can be described both as vegetarians and as keen hunters.  Lastly, still on the issue of diet, how about fairy attitudes to bread?  This may sound bizarre, but it was widely believed in Britain that carrying a crust was a sure way of protecting yourself from malign influences.  Witness Robert Herrick’s brief rhyme:

“If ye feare to be affrighted,

When ye are (by chance) benighted,

In your pocket for a trust

Carrie nothing but a Crust:

For that holy piece of Bread,

Charmes the danger, and the dread.”

This may perhaps relate originally to carrying consecrated host, but it seems that ultimately any old slice of Hovis would do.  Now contrast the situation in Wales.  John Rhys tells of lake maidens (gwragedd annwn) lured to tryst with a mortal man by the offer of bread.  They are fussy though: not any old piiece of bara brith will do.  First the bread is too hard “Cras dy fara“, then too soft “Llaith dy fara,” until finally a happy medium is found and true love blossoms (Rhys, Celtic folklorepp.3-6 & 27-30).

Inconclusions

It is not possible to be didactic, especially on the subject of beings who are invisible and secretive.  Contacts with them are rare and always fleeting, so any impressions formed will always be uncertain and unconfirmed.  As I’ve suggested, the want of congruity throughout the reports may seem to give excellent grounds for rejecting them all as fictions.  What is odd, though, is that these tales derive from a period when there was a genuine and widespread belief in (and fear of) fairies.  This being so, you might expect the folk stories to provide listeners with consistent and coherent statements about the supernaturals, so that audiences might be forewarned and forearmed.  The lack of correspondence between accounts might even be argued to be an indicator of authenticity.

We’ll summarise with the words of some fairy experts. Brian Froud, renowned fairy artist, was interviewed by Signe Pike for her 2010 book Faery tale.  He described to Pike his reaction to his first investigations into faery:

“At first I thought, I don’t know… all this sounds a bit weird… and at the same time, a lot of it sounded like common sense.  It’s very typical of faery, actually.  In one way it simplified everything for me, and at the same time, it suddenly made everything very complicated.” (p.86)

Fairies are often regarded as being creatures of the ‘betwixt and between’ (see for example Storm Faerywolf’s book on the fairy tradition of that title).  If this is so, it’s only fitting that our knowledge about them should, in the same way, be indeterminate and unsettled.  It’s typical too of the fairies to want to withhold something from us- whether it’s their name or full knowledge of their personalities.  I’ll conclude this brief survey of contrariety with some very fitting words from the first paragraph of the first chapter of Morgan Daimler’s recent bookNoting the conflicting descriptions of fairies, she states:

“None of them are wrong, and none of them are exactly right either, and that’s your first lesson about Fairy: it is in all ways and always a contradiction.”

The tooth fairy- a modern myth

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A typical tooth fairy image…

At Christmas I wrote about the origins of Santa’s elves; in this posting I want to look at that other modern fairy myth, the tooth fairy.  The tooth fairy belief in the Western and in Western-influenced cultures tells that, when a child loses one of their baby teeth, they should place it under their pillow before bed and the tooth fairy will visit while they sleep, replacing the lost tooth with a small payment.

Norse origins

In northern Europe, there is an ancient tradition of tand-fé or tooth fee, which was paid when a child lost its first tooth.  This  is recorded as early as the Icelandic Poetic Edda, in which there is reference in verse 5 of Grimnismol (‘The sayings of Grimnir’) to a ‘tooth gift’- in this case, Freyr was given Alfheim by the gods (which certainly beats our 6d under the pillow).

Later, in medieval England, children were encouraged to burn their milk teeth so as to protect themselves from hardship in the afterlife. It was believed that children who did not do so would spend eternity searching for the teeth after death; a related idea was that (as with any shed bodily part) if a witch were to get hold of a shed tooth, it could give them power over the former owner, therefore its destruction was advisable.

Viking warriors are said to have paid children for their shed milk-teeth: these, and other articles belonging to infants, were believed to bring good luck in battle and so were strung around their necks. There is some evidence that trolls may have been blamed for toothache in Finland and Scandinavia.

It is clear that from a very early date there was a supernatural association with an infant’s first teeth.  This may have been related to the process of maturing and the child’s loss of dependence and innocence; the teeth themselves may have been believed to have carried with them some sort of spiritual power that could protect or be used for evil.  There was personal and social value in this.

The modern tooth fairy

The modern version of these traditions, in which a fairy rewards the infant, has been dated to the twentieth century. However, amongst the earliest references is an entry written by in the ‘Household Hints’ section of the Chicago Daily Tribune during 1908:

Tooth Fairy:  Many a refractory child will allow a loose tooth to be removed if he knows about the Tooth Fairy. If he takes his little tooth and puts it under the pillow when he goes to bed the Tooth Fairy will come in the night and take it away, and in its place will leave some little gift. It is a nice plan for mothers to visit the five cent counter and lay in a supply of articles to be used on such occasions.”

Earlier still, in 1902 American poet Amos Russel Wells (1862-1933) published a poem Tom’s tooth on the subject, indicating that there was already an association between fairies and teeth in North America by the close of the nineteenth century:

“The word went forth in Fairyland,
(From ugly fays, in sooth!)
“Young Tom’s had too much candy;
He needs an aching tooth!”

So Fever hurried from the south,
And from the west came Grumps,
And from the east came Puffy Face,
And from the north came Thumps.

They quickly spied a hollow tooth
(Where Tom had failed to brush);
They clapped their little, impish hands,
And made a silent rush.

They thumped the tooth, they banged the tooth,
The mocking, cruel crew;
They rasped the nerve, they ground the nerve,
They pierced it through and through.

From nine o’clock till twelve o’clock
They racked the groaning child,
Till Tom was “almost crazy,”
His mother, “fairly wild.”

At length between his moans and cries
Young Tom was heard to say,
“I’ll give my teeth less candy,
And brush them twice a day.”

Bang, bang! The impish fairy four
Each dealt a parting thwack,
Then off they flew, east, west, north, south,
And nevermore came back.”

What is the tooth fairy?

The fairy is generally conceived of as a small winged female being.  Its function appears to be to comfort a child for the pain and distress involved in the loss of teeth.  It may be clear to regular readers of this blog that this conjunction of ideas can only really have occurred in the nineteenth century when the tiny, winged, friendly fay had become well-established, and probably only in the USA where a variety of existing European traditions might meet each other and be mixed together.

It seems from research that children tend to realise that the tooth fairy is an imaginary being around the ages of five and seven years old.  This maturing attitude often affects belief in similar gift bearing beings like Santa Claus and the Easter bunny at the same time.  However the cultural and commercial forces that served to propagate the story during the last century also serve to perpetuate it as a pleasant childhood myth.

In other (south) European countries there seems to be a relatively recent story of a rodent (rat or mouse) exchanging milk teeth for money or some other gift.  World-wide, too, related ceremonies mark the loss of milk teeth.

Overall, the tooth fairy, and most particularly its very close association with children of a young age, demonstrates the way that fairy belief has been devalued and disarmed. These modern nursery fairies are wholly beneficent and friendly; they are to be welcomed, not feared; they are saccharine confections vastly removed from the original folk beliefs related to milk teeth and from the nature of traditional fairies.  Nonetheless, perhaps the tooth fairy deserves some sort of grudging respect from us for her ability to spread globally and her tenacious survival in the modern wold, where other fairy species have weakened and disappeared.

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Another delightful tooth fairy, from Colourbox.

 

‘Something in that witching face’- kelpies and mermaids

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Caffieri, ‘Young siren’

A long time ago, in an early posting on this blog, I discussed mermaids; I want now to return to the subject with some further reflections and information.

The little mermaid

Just like fairies, elves and pixies, it is very notable how the popular image of mermaids has improved and how they are coming to be regarded as wholly cute and attractive figures of myth.  The illustrations to this posting by Hector Caffieri demonstrate an early stage in this trend; perhaps the best known contemporary example might be Disney’s Ariel, the little mermaid.  In passing, it may be worthwhile making an additional observation on visual conventions.  The cartoon Ariel, for one, is sanitised and winsome.  Caffieri’s ‘Siren’ above is likewise a small girl, but it’s notable how the standard image has changed in the last century or so.  Today, the fish scales extend to the waist; in Victorian times (as can be seen) they often started somewhat lower, requiring a more discrete treatment (or perhaps a chance for a little titillation).

Today, mermaids are viewed wholly as figures suitable for children to like, draw and to imitate, with mermaid tails being a widely available form of fun beach wear.  It seems very likely that this more benign idea is derived from Hans Christian Andersen’s 1837 story of The little mermaid.  The main character in this is presented as a model of Christian self sacrifice and goodness and has doubtless had a pervasive influence commensurate with the story’s popularity.  For modern generations, the aforementioned cartoon version of the story from Disney has profoundly influenced popular views of marine supernaturals since its release in 1989.  Other symptoms of these revised views of merfolk may be the 1984 film Splash starring Daryl Hannah and the very recent appearance of female entertainers playing mermaids for parties and corporate events.

Folklore mermaids

Whilst terrestrial fairies have been the subject of prettification and miniaturisation since the late sixteenth century,  this process has only been applied to mermaids during the last century and a half.  The consequence is that a great deal more of the older folklore attitudes survive, both in stories and in poetry.  Mermaids are still supernatural creatures deserving of awe, fear and mistrust.  Kindliness was never one of the mermaid’s traditional traits and it is still not how other supernatural water beasts are perceived.  In this respect, the dependable J K Rowling gives us a depiction more observant of folklore in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (there called grindylows).  It may be easier for us to identify with and to find attractive qualities in a being that lives solely on land; mermaids live in a different element in which a human cannot survive and this important distinction may help to preserve their distance from us and our healthy respect for that difference.

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Caffieri,  ‘Siren’ (Bonhams)

It’s also inescapable that most mermaids are depicted as young, beautiful, naked women.  There’s probably a lot of psychology here if you’d like to find it.  This iconography may tell us about relations between men and women: the separation between elements may be a metaphor for the difference between the sexes.  It may equally just have something to say about sex more generally- that physical attraction is powerful, but dangerous; that we are entering a new and exposing environment when we entrust ourselves to another individual; that the lure of the strange and mysterious is strong but perilous.   As with all supernatural partners, love for mermaids is enticing but full of risk: what is placed in jeopardy may be long term happiness, your present way of living and connections or, even, life itself.

Irish poet Francis Hackett (1883-1962) captured many of the conventional traits of the mermaid in his poem Sea dawn:

“From Wicklow to the throb of dawn
I walked out to the sea alone
And by the black rocks came upon
A being from a world unknown.

As proud she sat as any queen
On high, and naked as the air:
Her limbs were lustrous, and a sheen
Of sea-gold flowed from her flowing hair.

And as the spreading sea did swell
With dawns strange and brimming light
Her little breasts arose and fell
As if in concord with the sight.

Faint was the sea sound that she made
Of little waves that melt in sand
While with her honey hair she played
And arched the mirror in her hand.”

This evocation of adolescent allure may well now trigger thoughts of the recent controversy concerning J. M. Waterhouse’s painting Hylas and the nymphs and its temporary removal from the walls of Manchester City Art Gallery.  Both the picture and Hackett’s verse are of a piece and represent one powerful current of thought on mermaids and their nature.

Common mermaid themes

Across the world, there are several themes common to tales of merfolk.  The principal of these are as follows:

  • they can predict the future (see John Rhys, Celtic folklorethough very often this knowledge is dispensed in cryptic terms;
  • they can grant magical powers to those they favour (see for example The old man of Cury in Hunt’s Popular romances of the West of England);
  • they can punish those who offend them or who injure those whom they protect (see Hunt’s stories of the mermaid in Padstow Harbour and of The mermaid’s vengeance);
  • they can assume normal human form by magical means; and,
  • they can become involved in love affairs with mortals, whether that involves living for a while on land with the human or luring the human beneath the waves.  The outcomes are seldom good (see Matthew Arnold, The merman’s lament).

As is the case in contact with all supernatural beings, involvement with merfolk is generally risky and involves an imbalance of power.  Romantic attachments can be fatal whilst any information or ability gained from them is only obtained through coercion, whether that is bribery or physical force.

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An art nouveau mermaid or water sprite

Water monsters

To repeat, as with the improvement in the character of fairies, the changed perception of merfolk is a relatively recent amelioration.  Evidence of the earlier, much more dangerous, nature of these beings is still to be found in the Scottish accounts of water horses (associated with salt water), water bulls and other water beasts like kelpies, which are found in freshwater lochs.  Their main occupation, it seems, is seducing mortals and luring them to their doom.  James Hogg’s 1819 poem The mermaid is representative of this:  the Maid of the Crystal Wave lures a young man to ‘places he should not have been and sights he should not have seen’ and it proves to be his ruin.  Similarly in Charles Mackay’s 1851 ballad The Kelpie of Corryevreckan a handsome stranger on a horse rides off with love-struck Jessie, but then plunges beneath the waves with her, so that she is found drowned the next day.  Poet Joseph Rodman Drake in his verse, To a friend, described travellers being terrorised by “the kelpie’s fang.”

It is notable that whilst mermaids might accidentally drown their lovers, it is not generally their intention, whereas the character of the water beasts is specifically to seek out humans in order to destroy them.  In light of this, there is perhaps a case for excluding the latter from the category of ‘fairies.’ Mermaids are semi-human in form; the kelpie can take on human form whilst the water horses appear as animals alone and may be better described as monsters.

Lastly, what is particularly notable is the Highland Scottish link between water creatures and horses.  Exactly why this should have been made is far from clear, but it is to be found across Northern Europe in Scandinavian folklore, from Iceland through to Denmark.  It seems very likely that Viking settlement introduced this idea into the north of Scotland.

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J W Waterhouse, ‘Sketch for a mermaid’, 1892.

Further reading

As mentioned, I posted before on mermaids and water beasts and I have also discussed the fleeting and vulnerable asrai.  See too my discussion of Charles’ Kingsley’s famous novel, The water babies.

Staring elf

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‘Tinker bell’,* by artist Brian Froud

Blá nótt yfir himininn 
Blá nótt yfir mér 
Horf-inn út um gluggann 
Minn með hendur 
Faldar undir kinn 
Hugsum daginn minn 
Í dag og í gær 
Blá náttfötin klæða mig Í 
Beint upp í rúm 
Breiði mjúku sængina 
Loka Augunum 
Ég fel hausinn minn undir sæng 
Starir á mig lítill álfur 
Hleypur að mér en hreyfist ekki 
Úr stað – sjálfur 
Starálfur 

“Blue night over the sky, blue night over me, disappeared out of the window. Me, with my hands, hidden under my cheek, I think about my day, today and yesterday. I put on my blue night-clothes, go straight to bed. I pull the soft covers over, close my eyes, I hide my head under the covers. A little elf stares at me, runs towards me but doesn’t move from his place – from himself- a staring elf.”

These are the lyrics for the haunting song Starálfur by  Icelandic band, Sigur Ros.  I was entranced the first time I heard it- and for two reasons.  One is that it’s beautiful (which is reason enough for most fans of the band, obviously) and secondly because of what else the lyrics of the song evoked for me.  As a life-long lover of fairy lore, I wanted to know what the wider significance of that staring elf might be.

Icelandic elves

Some of you will know that the alfar, the Icelandic elves, are still very much still alive and well in present day Iceland.  Descendants of the Norse light and dark elves, they live under large rocks and hillocks and they are still treated with consideration and respect.  These same  alfar are also the distant relatives of our own English elves.

So, why is the elf in the song staring?  It may be conscience, perhaps, or just a dream, but it’s worth noting that one theme of Icelandic fairylore is that at certain times of year, and especially over the period of Christmas and the New Year, the elves will be abroad and may enter human homes.  Food and drink should be left out for them and they should be made to feel welcome (some readers may recall that a similar story applies to the trows of Shetland, and given their shared Norse heritage it is likely that the origins of both beliefs are shared).  Be that as it may, perhaps what’s described in this song is that presence of an elf in the home over the long winter nights.  Equally, it might merely evoke that feeling that the invisible people are always alongside us, watching and judging us; perhaps it is better that we are not aware of them, observing our actions, so perhaps this is why the speaker reflects upon his recent actions…

In the British Isles, we do not expect to be confronted with elves at such close quarters; they are usually banished to woods and even wilder, further places.  Even the house haunting brownie tended to keep discretely out of the way and did its chores at night.  This proximity, this invasion, is disturbing then.

Nightmares

What vocalist and composer Jón Þór Birgisson had in mind when he wrote this song, I don’t know; but I can say why it is affecting and memorable to me.  There are several abiding themes of fairlore that are evoked for me by the lyrics:

  • night is a time of peril, when our Good Neighbours are abroad.  In the song it’s not clear if that “blá nótt” is a glorious sky full of stars and the swirling Northern Lights, or something blacker and more brooding. Night is properly their time, and that is when humans should be at home and asleep.  During the hours of darkness the fairies dance and feast, disappearing at the first sign of dawn.  If we trespass upon their time, we should expect to be punished;
  • Nightmares can be brought to us by the fays at night.  Queen Mab is the elf most known for this; she is known as the midwife of dreams.  The dreams she brings may be pleasurable, but they may too be fearful and dismaying.  Fuseli’s painting of The nightmare captures this aspect of supernaturally induced dreams perfectly;
  • Following from this, I cannot help but see the creature sitting on the woman, pressing down upon her, as that Staring Elf.  What is disturbing and alarming about the song’s apparently benign image is the incursion of Faery into the home, into the safety and security of the warm bed.  The speaker pulls the covers over his head, seeking for cosy reassurance; instead he’s faced with an implacable and threatening presence.

There is, therefore, a curious disparity between the aetherial beauty of the music and the looming menace of the elf- always advancing, always imminent.  Perhaps that’s the epitome of the nightmare, in which the fear is ever unresolved- you fall from heights, you’re chased by beasts- but never die.  Both the tune and the images conjured will perpetually haunt me.

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Henry Fuseli, ‘The Nightmare’, 1781

* A closing note on the headline illustration by Brian Froud.  Froud’s representation of Tinkerbell, one of several paintings based upon Peter Panis perhaps the best of all works of art inspired by this play.  Any reading of the story has to confess that Tink is not a pleasant character- she’s jealous and vengeful and she tries to kill Wendy.  Disney’s blonde, busty, fluttering Tinkerbell wholly fails to capture the true character of the book.

Further reading

On her blog Morgan Daimler has written an interesting comparison of the alfar and the Irish sidhepointing out the surprising number of parallels between the two.

 

Fairy festivals and seasons

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Cicely Mary Barker, The mountain ash fairy

“They thought me, once, a magic tree

Of wondrous lucky charm,

And at the door they planted me

To keep the house from harm.”

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

Evidence

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

May Day

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

Midsummer

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

Margaret Tarrant-Midsummer Night

Margaret Tarrant, Midsummer night

Halloween

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

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

Other festivals

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

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

John Duncan, The riders of the sidhe.

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

My fairy philosophy

As regular visitors or long term readers of this blog may know, I have written three novels with a supernatural/ fairy theme.  Considering about these, I thought it might be helpful for me to be explicit about my approach to the subject- to outline some of the fundamental ideas that lie behind my postings.  Indeed, I realised that when I wrote the three novels (all of which predate British fairies, my factual study of the subject published last summer), I had not clearly or systematically expressed even to myself what exactly it was that I believed.

elder queen

As a preamble, the stories in question are The elder queenwhich is set in present day Devon and involves encounters between unemployed farm labourer Darren Carter and Saran, the eponymous ‘fairy queen’; Albion awake! a fantasy that mingles time travel to meet William Blake, Gerard Winstanley and other radical figures alongside contact with the Fairy Queen Maeve; and lastly a children’s story, The Derrickconcerning a summer holiday meeting in Dorset between a boy and members of the local fairy ‘tribe’ called Derricks.

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So, surveying what I have written, what are my fundamental preconceptions about fairy kind? What assumptions and prejudices may I be carrying over into my interpretation of the folklore sources?  The key features that come out seem quite consistent:

  • fairies are present here and now.  All my books have contemporary settings and the fae folk I have imagined are resident amongst us (if perhaps in more marginal areas) but they are not of the present.  Their speech and material culture is all slightly adrift from ours and there can be misunderstanding on both sides as a consequence;
  • fairies are like humans– they are of the same stature and form- no wings, therefore- although they may be marked out by the colour of their hair or their eyes.  Their lifespan is very different, however: in Albion awake! Maeve, whilst appearing to be a woman in her late thirties, is actually at least 5000 years old.  The Derrick is likewise ancient: you may recall how changelings are caught out with the ‘brewery of egg shells,’ causing them to exclaim how they have seen forests grown from acorns and die again.  Such are the timescales I imagine for my fay protagonists;
  • fairies are prepared to interact with humans- socially, intellectually and, quite often, sexually.  There may well be an element of exploitation by them in this- especially as-
  • they like to protect their privacy- fairies will tolerate contact with humans on their terms and at the times and places of their choosing.  Nonetheless, they wish to hold themselves apart from us, and resent any uninvited intrusion;
  • they are not to be antagonised or ignored– it follows from the above that trespasses into fairy territory may be punished (as Darren Carter discovers when he stumbles upon a fairy dance).  Attracting the antipathy of fairy kind is to be avoided because:
  • they are powerful- they have magical powers and they will not hesitate from using force against offending humans.  Darren experiences this, against himself and against others who threaten to disturb the fairy’s world.  In The Derrick an attempt to steal fairy gold leads to devastating retribution.  In Albion awake! Maeve can enable humans to travel through time and space.  Manipulating the human world is a matter of course to them;
  • the fairies have their own aims, objectives and agenda- this follows from what has already been said.  Interaction with humans is undertaken for their own ends.  It may be pleasurable (the sex) but it serves other, greater purposes too;
  • fairies expect respect and compliance with their wishes;
  • the fairies are a timeless part of the land.  It seems to come naturally to me to associate them with standing stones, burial mounds and other monuments and this is a feature repeated in all three stories: in The Elder Queen Darren meets Saran in an ancient ’round;’ in Albion awake! we variously encounter Maeve at Hambledon Hill hillfort, at the London Stone and at Boudicca’s Grave on Hampstead Heath.   The action of The Derrick is focused around yet another Iron Age fortification.  This intimate tie with the land and with ancient features of the landscape extends into the fairies’ attitude to pollution and environmental change.  Predictably, they don’t like it.  Queen Maeve concerns herself with preventing an extension to the runway of Heathrow Airport; Saran and her people forcibly disrupt attempts at fracking. My fairies are, it seems, eco-warriors.

That’s a summary of the key themes and characteristics that I realise unite all three books.  Unavoidably, too, they will shape my approach to my non-fiction writing too.

Central to all of the above is respect for tradition, as recorded in folklore and fairy tales.  My recommended bookshelf of fairy books describes what I think of as some of the essential texts you should have.

albion

‘Come unto these yellow sands’- seaside fairies

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

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

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

Shakespearean fairies

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

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

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

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

Victorian fairies

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

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

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

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

tarrant sea shore fs

Yeats and the seaside sidhe

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

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

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

fairies on sea shore henry howard

Seashore fairies, Henry Howard (1769-1847)

Fays on holiday?

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

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

Why do elves have pointed ears?

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

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

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

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

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