Changelings: fairy thefts of human children

 

jennet-francis-struggles-with-the-fairies-for-her-baby

“Some night tripping fairy had exchanged/ In cradle clothes our children where they lay…” Shakespeare, Henry IV Part One, Act I, scene 1.

I have several times alluded to the very widespread belief in changelings, but I want to examine it more closely in this posting.  It was an article of the fairy faith throughout the British Isles that our ‘good neighbours’ were not averse to snatching human infants if the opportunity presented itself.  The fairy queen herself, is accused of this crime by Ben Jonson:

“This is she that empties cradles/ Takes out children, puts in ladles.” (Entertainment at Althorpe, 1603).

The fairies were believed to prefer infants with fair hair and pale skin and to take only boys (Rhys p.221; Wentz p.148).  We may recall the child over whom Titania and Oberon squabble in A midsummer night’s dream.  She has newly acquired a servant, “A lovely boy, stolen from an Indian king; She never had so sweet a changeling.”  Oberon wants the youth as his ‘henchman,’ as a ‘knight in his train’ but Titania will not release him (Act II, scene 1).

In place of the stolen human child was left the ‘changeling’, a creature consistently identifiable because it looked like an old man- being ugly, deformed, small, weak and bad-tempered.  Whatever care it received, the substitute remained frail and did not grow, being peevish at all times.  In other words, in earlier times before medical knowledge had developed, if a newborn was discovered to be mentally disabled or defective, this was put down not to congenital or perinatal problems but to a supernatural intervention: the real child had been abducted and an ‘oaf’ (an elf) left in its place (the ‘ouphs’ of Shakespeare’s Merry wives of Windsor are derived from the same source).  Drayton in Nymphidia sumarises the state of sixteenth century popular belief on pediatrics:

“…when a child haps to be got/ Which after proves an idiot/ When folke perceive it thriveth not/ The fault therein to smother;/ Some silly doting brainless caulf/ That understands things by the half/ Say that the fairy left this aulf/ And took away the other” (The court of fairy).

We may also note mention from Wales of a belief that the fairies might pay mortals to steal suitable children for them.  Rhys relates the story of an old woman from Cwm Tawe who was believed in her neighbourhood to abduct healthy babes and replace them with old urchins in return for fairy gold (Rhys p.255).She would enter homes begging for alms and then offer to rock the cradle. Whilst the mother’s back was turned, the fairy whelp hidden beneath her cloak would hastily be swapped for the healthy child and the crone would make her escape.

The stolen children seemed generally to be well cared for and to enjoy life at the fairy court, spending their time in feasting, dancing and music.  Hunt (Popular romances of the West of England) tends to support this in his story of Betty Stogs.  He said it was believed in the ‘high countries’ of Penwith (Morva, Zennor and Towednack) that the fairies would take poorly cared for children and clean them.  This was Stogs’ experience- she neglected her home and her child but the pixies removed it, washed its clothes and left it near the cottage covered in flowers.

There is, too, a little evidence that the fairies sought to make their captives immortal like themselves.  In The faithful shepherdess Fletcher describes how the elves danced at a well by “pale moonshine, dipping often times/ Their stolen children, so to make them free/ From dying flesh and dull mortality” (Act I, Scene 2). This belief may go some way to explain an odd account from Wales of a suspected changeling that had to be dipped daily for three months in a cold spring, the result of which was that it thrived, growing ‘as fast as a gosling’ (Rhys p.256).

The theft of healthy normal babies and their replacement by an aged elf or a defective fairy infant was perceived to be a very common problem, then (note as a further illustration the song The fairy boyby Samuel Lover, 1840, performed by Lucy Ward on her 2011 album Adelphi has to flyNavigator Records).  Children were especially vulnerable in the time before they were baptised and variety of protective measures were deployed.  These included placing bindweed or iron (for example tongs or shears) around the cradle, the burning of leather in the room or the administering to the baby of either milk from a cow grazed on pearl-wort or water in which had been steeped cinders from a fire over which the child had been passed (Wentz, Fairy faith in the Celtic countries, pp.87 & 91).  Sir Walter Scott in Borders minstrelsy reports that another protective was to weave wreathes from oak and ivy withies at the full moon in March.  These were kept for a year and any children showing signs of consumption would be passed thrice through the hoops, thereby ensuring them against further supernatural assaults.

The parents, once the presence of a changeling child had been realised, had to expose the substitute.  If it was an aged fairy, some trick would be performed to get it to reveal itself, such as brewing beer in an egg shell, which would provoke its curiosity.  It would exclaim that it had seen oaks grow from acorns and chickens from eggs, but it had never seen beer brewed in an egg shell (or pasties for the reapers mixed in a shell) .  Sometimes the preternatural knowledge of the changeling might be exposed by chance: Wentz relates one Highland case where the child was seen to leap from its cradle to play the bagpipes when the parents were away.

There were several other means of expelling a changeling.  Salt might be burned as a magical means of repelling it or a shovel might be heated and held before its face.  Magic was resorted to:  the Cornish used a four leafed clover placed upon the ‘winickey’ impostor to recover the abducted baby and from Wales we learn of a curious ritual involving a hen: the mother had to find a black hen without a single white feather and had to kill it; then every window and door in the home except one would be sealed and the whole hen would be set before a wood fire to bake.  At the point that all its feathers fell off, the crimbil child would leave and the rightful infant would have been returned (Rhys p.263).

If these attempts did not succeed and an infant elf was still suspected, far worse treatment could follow, typically placing the baby on a shovel over the fire- but throwing the child in a river, ducking it in cold water daily, neglecting its needs, throwing pieces of iron at it or, lastly, placing it outside at night or on the beach as the tide came in, might also be tried (Wentz pp.111, 146, 171 & 177).  The idea was that the changeling’s cries would summon the fairy parents who would save their child and return the stolen human infant.  Wirt Sikes in British Goblins (1880, c.5) discusses the Welsh tradition of the plentyn newid (the new child) and remarks disapprovingly upon the cruelties from time to time inflicted as a result of this changeling belief.

Some parents, however, accepted the ‘changeling’ as their own and cared for the disabled neonate just as much as they would be expected to do for a healthy baby.  I have mentioned before how a mother who behaved in this manner was rewarded financially by the fairies during the infant’s life.  Another example comes from a Scottish witch trial.  John Ferguson approached Jonit Andirson for advice on his ‘shag-bairn’,   a child the family suspected of being a changeling.  Andirson confirmed their diagnosis and advised that she could not retrieve their baby from the fairies; however, if they cared for the changeling as their own, ‘they would not want.’

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We have seen Ben Jonson’s mention that a ladle would replace the abductee.  This suited his rhyme but is not traditional.  Sometimes, rather than a living being, a ‘stock’ was substituted- a log fashioned in the likeness of the missing person who was, in actuality, ‘away with the fairies.’  This motionless, speechless form (a “a lingering voracious Image” in Kirk’s words) was left at the home in bed to act as a cover for the fact that the man or woman had been taken to fairyland for some purpose- perhaps as a midwife or wet nurse to a fairy mother.  Some readers will recall that in Susanna Clark’s novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, a bog-oak likeness is left in place of Lady Emma Pole who is abducted to dance at the fairy balls.

“From uncleannesse kept”- the cautionary function of fairy tales

shui-rhys-and-the-tylwyth-tegIn his book Religion and the decline of magic Keith Thomas astutely observed that “Fairy faith has a social function, enforcing certain conduct” and that “Fairy beliefs could help to reinforce some of the standards upon which the effective working of society depended” (pp.730 and 732).

There were two main targets for these warnings- children and servants/ wives.  The two groups shared subordinate social positions and could be the subject of rebukes and punishments.  One vehicle for such chastisement was supernatural.

Then, as now, children from time to time needed to be told what was best for them.  A fairy threat to enforce this, especially in situations when adults might be absent, was a valuable support to parents.  A variety of risks and dangers were given fairy personality in the hope of instilling an awed respect and nervous caution.  The perils given terrifying character included:

  • rivers– for example ‘Peg Powler’ on the river Tees, who might drag incautious children from the banks under the waves;
  • ponds– similar drowning dangers, as well as that of lawn-like mats of pond weed, were given identities: Jenny Greenteeth in Lancashire and Cumbria, Grindylow in Yorkshire, Nelly Longarms and the widespread Rawhead and Bloodybones.  In East Anglia the ‘freshwater mermaid’ was especially well known.  There are records of these perilous creatures in the River Gipping in Suffolk and in ponds, pools and meres at Fordham, Cambridgeshire and in Suffolk at Rendlesham and most notably at the Mermaid Pits, Fornham All Saints;
  • unripe fruit in trees– to discourage theft and upset stomachs, infants were warned of Awd Goggie, Lazy Lawrence and the Colt Pixy in orchards; Churnmilk Peg and Melsh Dick guarded Yorkshire nut groves and the Gooseberry Wife, in the form of a huge caterpillar, lay in wait amidst the fruit bushes on the Isle of Wight;
  • domestic store rooms– dangers in the home were protected by Tom Poker in Suffolk and Bloody Bones elsewhere.

Bogies also had the function of getting children to behave themselves and to go to bed. Amongst these so-called nursery bogies were Tankerabogus, Mumpoker and Tom Dockin.

Adults undertaking domestic duties would be chastened by fairy retribution too.  The so-called ‘buttery sprites’ existed as the grownup equivalent to the creatures deployed to terrify children.  A range of chores were policed by supernatural means.  This theme is comprehensively summarised in the Fairies fegaries of 1635:

“And if the house be foule/ Or platter, dishe or bowle/ Up stairs we nimbly creepe/ And finde the sluts asleepe:/ Then we pinch their arms and thighs/ None escapes nor none espies./ But if the house be swepte/ And from uncleannesse kept/ We praise the house and maid/ And surely she is paid:/ For we do use before we go/ To drop a tester in her shoe.”

Servants were warned not to sit up late gossiping but to keep their houses tidy, floors and hearths swept and the embers raked up, dairies spotless and decked with mint, the shelves dusted, the benches wiped down and their pewter well scoured.  Those “foul sluts” who neglected their chores did so on pain of physical punishment: they would be pinched black and blue all over, whilst the obedient and dutiful would be rewarded with a coin in a shoe or pail (see for example Thomas Churchyard, A handful of gladsome verses, 1592 or William Browne, Britannia’s pastorals, Book 1, song 2).  Neglect of the proper domestic offerings to fairies- clean water, milk, bread and the like- led to infliction of the same penalties.

In summary then, fairy beliefs were not just a source of entertainment or explanation of puzzling events; they had a regulatory function.

“Rewards and fairies”- gifts from the Good Neighbours

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Edmund Dulac, ‘Elves and fairies’ (The Tempest)

“It was told me that I should be rich by the fairies” Winter’s Tale, Act III, scene 3.

“although their gifts were sometimes valuable, they were usually wantonly given and unexpectedly resumed.” (Sir Walter Scott, Letters on demonology, letter IV)

In a previous posting I discussed offerings to fairies and noted that the divining line between worship and bargain was a difficult one to define with precision.  I wish to return to this area, discussing here definite gifts from fairykind to humans.

Folklore writer Christine Emerick has pointed out the curious contrast between Celtic fairy gifts and those of the Teutonic elves.  The former look valuable but prove to be worthless, whilst the latter are the reverse.  In British folktales, there is a blending of these extremes.

This unprovoked benevolence could take a variety of forms:

  • Regular gifts of food or money might be found by a lucky individual- for instance, at Willie How barrow in Yorkshire a local man was told he would find a guinea coin on top of the burial mound everyday, so long as he did not disclose his good fortune;
  • A skill might be conferred upon a fortunate recipient, such as the ability to play the bagpipes;
  • A helpful deed might be rewarded: in one Welsh story a farmer removed a rooks nest from a tree near his crops.  It had also overshadowed a fairy ring and they rewarded him for his act.  Providing bathing water for fairy families would likewise receive more than its due;
  • The provision of a service- such as carrying out a repair on a tool or acting as midwife- could be rewarded with more than the payment commensurate with the job.  In another Welsh example, a midwife received a life time’s supply of money for her assistance to the mother.  A curious tale from Ipstones in Staffordshire describes a woman whose child was substituted for a changeling.  Unlike most such maternal victims, she accepted the fairy child imposed upon her and cared for it as her own.  In return, whenever she wished for money, it would appear.  This bounty ceased when the infant sickened and died;
  • As indicated by the last example, a gift or gifts might be given, or the lucky individual might more generally enjoy good luck and prosperity, with good fortune and bounty taking many forms in their lives.  For instance, a highlander who gave his plaid to wrap a newborn fairy baby enjoyed good luck ever afterwards.  A supply of inexhaustible food is variant upon this;
  • there could be the gift of health and healing.  Several sites are linked associated with this: passing a child through the men an tol in Cornwall could cure rickets;  a well at Bugley in Wiltshire relieved sore eyes and the Hob Hole in  North Yorkshire was beneficial against whooping cough in children.  These properties might be conceived of as fairy beneficence or, perhaps, proof of their magic powers; and,
  • lastly, there is the very old concept of the fairy godmother and her gifts to the newborn.  This is recorded as early as the twelfth century in Layamon’s Brut: when King Arthur was born “alven hine ivengen; heo bigolen that child mid galdere swithe stronge”- ‘elves took him; they enchanted that child with magic most strong:’ the fairies gave him riches, long life, prowess and virtues.  These stories remained current in the seventeenth century, when Milton wrote how “at thy birth, the fairy ladies daunc’t upon the hearth/ And sweetly singing round about thy bed/ Strew all their blessings on thy sleeping head” (Vacation exercise).

Gifts were made to children as well as adults; anyone could attract the fairies’ favour and there did not need necessarily to be a specific reason, although exercise of the fairies’ esteemed virtues of generosity and hospitality tended to attract favourable attention: if a human is prepared to give freely s/he may enjoy the same in return.  It did help, though, to accept the first gift readily and without conditions.  Reginald Scot in The discovery of witchcraft (Book III, c.iV) recorded the tradition that fairies would favour servants and shepherds in country houses, “leaving bread, butter and choose sometimes with them, which if they refuse to eat, some mischief shall undoubtedly befall them by means of these fairies…”  Two stories confirm this belief.  A man given some food for mending a fairy’s spade was rewarded with food.  His companion counselled against eating it; the other cheerfully partook and benefitted for the rest of his life as a consequence of his spontaneous and trusting nature.  Similar accounts come from Pensher, County Durham (plough horses die because the farmer refuses to eat the bread and butter left for him) and from Lupton in Westmorland, where the horse that ate the fairy food lived and the other which refused to do so perished.

Sometimes fairy generosity can become excessive, in that they will steal from others to benefit the preferred person.  Neighbours’ barns and granaries may be emptied in order to fill that of the blessed one.

“[they] give me jewels here…  oh, you must not tell though.” (Ben Jonson, The silent woman.)

However, fairy gifts are made subject to a strict rule that they are respected and are not disclosed.  In all the cases so far mentioned, boasting about money from the fairies would guarantee that the bounty would terminate.  In one sad case, a boy who found regular small sums of money was beaten by his father on suspicion of being a thief.  He finally confessed, which instantly ended the family’s good fortune, much to the parents’ bitter regret (Rhys pp.37-38).  Loss of the bounty could be the least of the penalties inflicted for want of discretion though: Massinger in The fatal dowry warns “But not a word of it- ’tis fairies treasure/ Which but revealed brings on the blabber’s ruin” (Act IV, scene 1) whilst in The Honest Man’s Fortune we are likewise reminded of this fact: “fairy favours/ Wholesome if kept, but poison if discovered.”

Closely related to this condition are the gwartheg y llyn,  the lake cattle, which are frequently brought to marriages by lake maidens or which mingle and interbreed with human herds. If (when) the wife is later rejected or insulted, her departure will also inevitably mean the departure of the fairy beasts.  The same is bound to occur if the human farmer tries to slaughter the fairy cattle, as this too will be interpreted as demonstrating a want of respect for the owners/ donors.

Fairies and megaliths

Landscape of the Threshold 1962 by Cecil Collins 1908-1989

Cecil Collins, ‘The landscape of the threshold,’ 1962

There is a longstanding association between the fairies and barrows and megaliths, not just in Britain but across Europe.  In earlier ages the fairy label was habitually chosen for these unexplained monuments.  It may just have been a name- for instance, the Fairy Toot, in Somerset, Elf Howe near Folkton in Yorkshire, Fairy Knowe on Orkney, the Pookeen stone circle (the place of fairies/ pucks) at Clodagh, Co. Cork or the Fairy Stone (La Grand Menhir Brisee) in Brittany- but not infrequently fairies would be regarded as being more actively involved in the making of a site. The Champs les Roches stone rows in Brittany were made by fairies dumping stones they had been carrying; similarly,  Tregomar menhir was dropped by a passing fairy.  The allee couverte at Coat Menez Guen bears the marks of fairy fingers on two of its stones.

The extent of the fairy associations could vary:

  • music and dancing- at Athgreany stone circle in Co. Wicklow the fairies play their pipes there at midnight; the fairies are also said to dance around the Hurle Stane in Northumberland.  Numerous Dorset tumuli are remembered as ‘music barrows’ where, if you sit at midday, you will hear fairy music within- for example at Bottlebrush Down, near Wimbourne and also at Ashmore, Culliford Tree, Bincombe Bumps and Whitcombe;
  • healing- the healing powers ascribed to the unusual holed stone arrangement at Men an Tol, Penwith, derive from the pisky linked to the site; and,
  • dwellings: under stones- most commonly, ancient stones are sites of supernatural habitation, in one way or another.  Passage graves are dwellings themselves- for example in Brittany at Barnenez, La roche aux fees and at La grotte aux fees, which they deliberately wrecked; a Cornish fogou near Constantine was called ‘the pixie house’ and in Ireland several stone circles are classified as lios, fairy forts, for example Grange in Limerick and Lissyviggeen in Kerry.  The Irish legend is, in fact, that after their defeat by the invading Milesians, the fairy tribe of the Tuatha De Danaan retreated into an enchanted kingdom beneath raths and stones- such places as Newgrange, Dowth and Knowth in the Boyne valley now being their abodes.  Ancient stones marking the access to fairyland are a common account throughout the British Isles- a hole or stairs beneath a menhir would lead to the faery realm-see for example my earlier post on fairy dwellings.  The Humberstone in Leicestershire is a fairy dwelling, as too is St John’s Stone in Leicester itself.
  • dwellings: under burial mounds- various ancient burial mounds are recalled in folk memory as the fairies’ homes: examples are to be found on Cley Hill in Wiltshire, at Cauldon Low and Long Low in Staffordshire (upon both of which the fairies were also known to dance,  at the latter on Christmas Eve) and at Hob Hurst’s House, Deepdale and Monsal Dale in Derbyshire.  It may be noted in passing that some of the stones linked with the fairies are in fact the remaining internal elements of tumuli- the so-called cromlechs such as Pentre Ifan in Wales and (it has been suggested) Men an Tol in Penwith.

Given the supernatural link to stones and tumuli, it was inevitable that people would invest the sites with magical powers.  We have seen the curative properties of Men an Tol; conversely in Ireland and Scotland interference with or damage to stones was avoided through fear of fairy revenge.  In Ireland the belief persists that disturbance could lead to crops or the home burning; in the Highlands Rev. Kirk recorded a prohibition upon taking turf or wood from a sithbruaich (a fairy hill).

Standing stones themselves have also been invested with spiritual power.  Whether this is ascribed to their siting upon ley lines, or to fairy residents, it is still an element of our beliefs about standing stones.  This posting is illustrated with a painting by English neo-romantic artist Cecil Collins, one of several works of his in which stones are anthropomorphised (see too Hymn, 1946 and 1956).  These figures could well represent the fairy dwellers within the stones.

“I conjure thee, Sybilia, o gentle virgin of fairies”- how to see fairies

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Arthur Rackham, ‘He played until the room was entirely filled with gnomes,’ Grimms’ fairy tales

In a recent post I considered ways of protecting oneself from supernatural attention. Some people, of course, have always actively wished to attract fairies to themselves and to be able to see them.  Folk tradition recommends a number of ways of doing this:

  • being born with the gift- some people have a natural ability to see fairies.  One of Evans Wentz’ informants felt it was fairly common- one in three people- whereas the Reverend Kirk presented  endowment with the second sight as a far rarer attribute.  In The secret commonwealth he described the ‘tabhaisver’ or seer as having more acute or ‘exalted’ vision than most.  This was “a native Habit in some, descended from their Ancestors, and acquired as ane artificiall Improvement of their natural Sight in others; … for some have this Second Sight transmitted from Father to Sone thorow the whole Family, without their own Consent or others teaching, proceeding only from a Bounty of Providence it seems, or by Compact, or by a complexionall Quality of the first Acquirer” (c.12).  Even with this power though, the seer could only observe fairies provided s/he did not blink.
  • being in touch with nature– Tom Charman, resident of the New Forest, told Arthur Conan Doyle in the early 1920s that his gift of seeing fairies depended upon his being close to nature.  He had seen them as a child but had then lost the gift for some time as he reached adulthood.
  • using a four leaf clover–  as described in an earlier post, a four leaf clover can protect against fairies but it can also reveal them, by dispelling their ‘glamour.’  For example, Evans Wentz was told by an old woman how her nursemaid was able to see ‘scores’ of fairies swarming around her if she slipped a clover leaf into the grass pad used to carry a milk pail on her head (p.177);
  • being in an odd numbered group of people- Wirt Sikes was told by a Monmouth schoolteacher that uneven numbers people were more likely to see fairies and that men were more likely than women (p.106);
  • looking through an ‘elf-bore’– a piece of wood from which a knot has fallen out, leaving a hole through, is an ideal tool for seeing fairies.  Hold the ‘elf-bore’ to your eye and, again, the glamour is dissipated.  Kirk also recommended that the person look backwards through the fir knot (c.12);
  • certain light conditions– as I have described in an earlier post, a person is more likely to see fairies at twilight, allegedly for physiological reasons.  Gathering material in Wales in the late nineteenth century, John Rhys also learned on the Lleyn Peninsula that there was a greater chance of meeting the Tylwyth Teg on days when it was a little misty- when there was a light drizzle called gwlithlaw (dew-rain).  The cynical might remark that this means that most days will be good for seeing fairies in Wales…(!); what is not clear is whether these light conditions are favourable because they make faery more visible or because the Fair Folk prefer a little concealment;
  • physical contact– being in contact either with the fairy or with a seer will transfer their magical sight.  One might place a foot on that of the fairy- John Rhys tells the tale of a Welsh farmer who was accosted outside his home by a fairy male complaining that  the human household’s waste was draining down his chimney and into his house; when the farmer placed his foot on the others, he was able to see below ground a house and a street of which he had never before been aware (p.230).  Alternatively one could touch the seer in some way: Kirk describes how “the usewall Method for a curious Person to get a transient Sight of this otherwise invisible Crew of Subterraneans, (if impotently and over rashly sought,) is to put his [left Foot under the Wizard’s right] Foot, and the Seer’s Hand is put on the Inquirer’s Head, who is to look over the Wizard’s right Shoulder, (which hes ane ill Appearance, as if by this Ceremony ane implicit Surrender were made of all betwixt the Wizard’s Foot and his Hand, ere the Person can be admitted a privado to the Airt;) then will he see a Multitude of Wight’s, like furious hardie Men, flocking to him hastily from all Quarters, as thick as Atoms in the Air” (c.12);
  • spells– magic was the last certain means by which to be able to observe fairies.  it could be used both to attract and then to ‘bind’ them- that is, to stop them disappearing again. In The discoverie of witchcraft Reginald Scot helpfully provides a selection of spells and procedures for these purposes (Book XV, chapter 8 & 9).  Sibylia, the fairy queen, is commanded to appear quickly, and without deceit or tarrying, in a chalk circle before the summoner, “in the form and shape of a beautiful woman in bright and vesture white, adorned and garnished most fair…”  If at first she does not appear, repeat the spell, ‘for doubtless she will come.’  I’ll leave it up to readers to decide whether or not to give this a go…

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“From fairies … guard me!”- talismans against faery folk

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In the modern age, with the prevalent view of fairies as attractive and benign beings with whom we wish to make contact and commune, the concept of charms to protect ourselves from supernatural interference seems alien.  However, as I have described previously, the view of faery was once very far from favourable and prophylactics were widely known.

The folklore evidence offers a variety of means of keeping oneself safe from fairy visitations.  The recorded methods are:

  • iron and steel– the supernatural race cannot abide forged metal in any form: the Reverend Kirk expressed it thus- “Iron hinders all the Opperations of those that travell in the Intrigues of these hidden Dominions.”  In fact, metal is a double protection: the presence of iron items will prevent harm; touching with iron will drive fairies away.  A scythe placed sharpened edge uppermost in a chimney will repel fairies; pins in the swaddling clothes, scissors hung over, or tongs laid upon, a cradle will prevent the substitution of a changeling (partly because the open blades will create a cross shape- see later); an iron bolt or lock on a door will guard a house, an axe placed under the pillow will protect the sleeper and striking a fairy with iron will result in its instant disappearance.  In Wales the story of the fairy wife lost by accidentally striking her with the iron bit on a bridle was extremely common; contact with metal in these cases lost a loved one.  Welsh folklore also records that if iron is thrown at a changeling or at a clinging fairy, the unwelcome presence will instantly be repelled (Rhys pp.23 & 250).  From time to time fairy hills will open and the sound of music will lure humans in; the best protective against never escaping is to place an knife at the exit so that the door cannot close again.  If a person has been lured into dancing with the fairies in a ring, one way of recovering him or her is a touch with iron.  Despite this widely attested aversion to ironmongery, it is curious to note that fairies will be found using metal items- John Rhys records them borrowing griddles and pots in Wales and there are regular stories of fairies asking humans to mend their implements.  For example, a ploughman working in a field at Onehouse, just outside Stowmarket in Suffolk, was approached by a ‘sandy-coloured’ fairy for help mending his ‘peel.’  This was the long handled flat iron used for removing loaves from an oven.  The ploughman easily repaired the broken handle and was very soon rewarded with hot cake fresh from the oven.
  • salt and fish– in Popular romances of the West of England, Robert Hunt records an interesting tale from Cornwall of a cow that was favoured by the fairies for its milk.  When the milkmaid at Bosfrancan farm near St Buryan realised what was happening, she sought advice form a local cunning woman who advised that the pobel vean could not abide the smell of fish or the savour of salt or grease.  Her recommendation was to rub the cows udders with fish brine to prevent the pisky thieving.  The advice worked, but the cow pined for her supernatural friends.  Oddly, as mentioned in an earlier post, fishermen in nearby Newlyn appeased the spriggans with an offering of fish, indicating that the revulsion was not consistent.  In Wales it was said that one means of driving off a changeling was to place salt on a shovel, make the sign of a cross in it and then to heat it over the fire (Rhys p.103);
  • turning clothes– a consistently deployed protection was to ‘turn your coat’, to turn a garment inside out as a way of defending oneself from fairy tricks.  Two Cornish examples from Hunt illustrate the effectiveness of the remedy.  A Mr Tresillian, returning late at night from Penzance to his home in St Levan, came upon the piskies dancing in their rings.  He felt compelled to join them, at which point they swarmed upon him, stinging like bees.  He retained enough presence of mind to turn his glove inside out and threw it at them, which instantly caused the throng to disappear. Secondly, an old widow living at Chy-an-wheal, above Carbis Bay, found that her home was favoured by the thievish spriggans of nearby Trencrom Hill.  They resorted to her cottage to divide up their plunder and rewarded her tolerance of this by leaving her a coin after each visit.  She hatched a plan to get more from them and, one night, secretly turned her shift inside out whilst the spriggans were present.  This enabled her to seize a gold cup from them.  The widow became a wealthy woman as a result, but she could never wear that shift again because, if she did, she suffered agonies.
  • herbs– certain plants are effective in repelling fairies.  These include St John’s Wort, red verbena, daisies, ash, four leaf clover (this plant has the virtue both of dispelling glamour and enabling a person to see fairy folk as well as repelling them), and rowan. For example, a branch of mountain ash will help pull a trapped person out of a fairy ring, as the fairies dread the tree (Rhys pp.85 & 246).  Katherine Briggs suggests that it is the red berries of the plant which have given it its reputation for warding off evil, but it has much wider magical power than this, as Robert Graves explained in The White Goddess chapter 10.  Lastly, Wirt Sikes records in British goblins that a gorse hedge is an excellent protection against unwelcome visitors.
  • running water– fairy folk are unable to cross streams and rivers, so in any pursuit leaping from bank to bank will be a sure escape for the hunted human.  Water courses running south are said to be especially efficacious.  Oddly, nevertheless, fairies seem to have no objection to still water.  They actively seek it out for washing themselves and they are from time to time associated with wells.  For example John Rhys in Celtic foljklore (1901, p.147 & chapter 6) notes the existence of several ‘fairy wells’in Wales which demanded attention from local people, in the absence of which they would overflow or flood.
  • faith– according to suspected witch John Walsh, when he was examined in prison in 1576, fairies only have influence over those whose Christian faith is weak or absent.  It may be questionable how much to rely upon this statement given the position he was in: he understandably wished to deflect the accusations made against him and, accordingly, he wanted to present himself as an orthodox individual resistant to any satanic temptations.  Be that as it may, it was widely known that the sign of the cross would dispel supernatural threats.  Wirt Sikes in British goblins  (p.63) gives an interesting summary of the Welsh beliefs in this respect: “There are special exorcisms and preventive measures to interfere with the fairies in their quest of infants. The most significant of these, throughout Cambria, is a general habit of piety. Any pious exclamation has value as an exorcism; but it will not serve as a preventive.”
  • self-bored stones– according to John Aubrey, if a person could locate stones through which natural erosion had created a hole (sometimes called ‘hag-stones’), they could protect their horses from night-riding by fairies by hanging the stones over each horse’s manger in the stables- or by tying the stone to the stable key.  The fairies would not then be able to pass underneath.
  • touching grass– in his Celtic folklore  John Rhys records a couple of Welsh traditions that a person may save themselves from fairy abduction by seizing hold of grass, apparently because the Tylwyth Teg are prevented from severing blades of grass.

“A votaress of my order”- offerings to fairies

One of the explanations of the belief in fairies is that they are the degraded remnants of former gods, the traces of ancient pantheistic belief in Britain.  The habit of making offerings of one description or another to these beings lends support to this theory but, as we shall see, the evidence presents a confusing picture of what people understood themselves to be doing.  The recorded practices could be worship, or they could even be something akin to a commercial transaction.

The offerings take several forms.  The first is a general gift made to ‘the fairies’ as a sign of respect and propitiation.  Several examples of this come from Scotland: in the Highlands and Islands it was common for milk to be poured on stones with hollows in them in order to ensure the protection of the herds of cattle.  On top of Minchmuir, Peebles-shire, there was  the so-called ‘Cheese Well’ into which locals threw pieces of cheese for the guardian fairies.  If we see the fairies as once having been gods, then these marks of honour aimed at appeasing the ‘good neighbours,’ averting ill fortune and ensuring their continuing good will, appear to be strong confirmation of divine origins.

Similarly, on Lewis farmers would wade out into the waves and pour beer into the sea, invoking the water-spirit Shoney and asking for a good harvest of seaweed for the fields. Comparable conduct was found in the South West of England: miners would give up a portion of their lunches to the ‘knockers’ in the mine, hoping that they would then be led to the best lodes of tin, and at Newlyn the pixies living between low and high water mark, the bucca, would be offered a ‘cast’ of three fish so as to guarantee a good catch in the nets.  These ‘sacrifices’ made with a view to a specific outcome are a very familiar aspects of human interactions with divinities.  They also imply that the fairies possessed some kind of control over the sea and its contents.  This is not a typical fairy attribute, although the Cornish spriggans were said to have power over the weather and could call on thunder and lightning when they wished to.

In England there is an example of a more direct exchange between human and fairy.  There was a belief that elder trees were inhabited by the ‘old lady of the elder tree.‘  If a person wished to cut some branches from a bush, a vow had to be made: ‘Old Lady, if you let me take some of your wood now, you can take some of mine when I’m a tree.’  Omission of this promise could lead to disaster- fire or illness in the household.

Secondly, there are examples of offerings being made in return for which a gift of money might be expected from the fairies.  An example comes from Llanberis, in Snowdonia, from the 1750s: the practice was for farm maids to place a jug of fresh sweet milk and a clean towel on a stone in the morning.  When they later returned, the jug would have been emptied by the Tylwyth Teg and a handful of coins would have been left.  This kind of exchange between humans and fairies is very closely associated with the reports of fairies leaving small sums of silver for chosen people- albeit on the strict condition that they maintain secrecy as to the source of their new found prosperity.  Violation of this would inevitably terminate the fairies’ good favour.  These practices clearly are a kind of bargain as much as an oblation.  An interesting variant on this practice comes from Wirt Sikes in British goblins (p.22).  He tells of  a “servant girl who attended to the cattle on the Trwyn farm, near Abergwyddon, [who] used to take food to ‘Master. Pwca,’ as she called the elf. A bowl of fresh milk and a slice of white bread were the component parts of the goblin’s repast, and were placed on a certain spot where he got them. One night the girl, moved by the spirit of mischief, drank the milk and ate most of the bread, leaving for Master Pwca only water and crusts. Next morning she found that the fastidious fairy had left the food untouched. Not long after, as the girl was passing the lonely spot where she had hitherto left Pwca his food, she was seized under the arm pits by fleshly hands (which, however, she could not see), and subjected to a castigation of a most mortifying character. Simultaneously there fell upon her ear in good set Welsh a warning not to repeat her offence on peril of still worse treatment.”  This might be read as either divine punishment for disrespect or simply revenge for a practical joke.

The exchanges just described were made in the open air or in uninhabited or deserted buildings.  Throughout Britain, though, there was a very similar practice of householders leaving out bread, milk or clean, warm water for the fairies at night.  Once again, a small gift might be anticipated in the morning.  Sometimes, the coins were more like a reward- a clean and neat house was appreciated by the nocturnal visitors and was acknowledged by a couple of coppers.  Some writers were in no doubt as to the nature of these interactions.  Robert Burton, in Anatomy of melancholy (1621), understood fairies to be erstwhile deities “which have been in former times adored with much superstition, with sweeping their houses and setting of a pail of clean water, good victuals and the like, and then they should not be pinched but find money in their shoes and be fortunate in their enterprises.”  Avoidance of punishment was a clear motivation: John Aubrey noted that, until the reign of King James I, country folk were “wont to please the fairies, that they might do no shrewd turnes, by sweeping clean the Hearth and setting by it a dish of fair water and halfe sadd bread, whereon was set a messe of milke sopt with white bread.  And on the morrow they should find a groat” (Remains of Gentilisme & Judaism, 1687 pp.29 & 125).

The last kind of fairy offering we should note is that made to known individual beings- most commonly the brownies and  other domestic hobgoblins of English and lowland Scottish folklore.  A kind of bargain is again involved in these cases.  The brownie undertakes some “drudgery work” in the house or on the farmstead (threshing, mowing, cleaning) and gets remuneration. However, it was fundamental to the transaction that this gift of cream, milk or cake did not seem like a direct payment.  The items were ‘left out’, available for the brownie to find and consume, but they were not explicitly given to the hobgoblin in return for the labours undertaken.  If the offering was too plainly intended for the spirit- the worst  examples being specially-made clothes to cover their hairy nakedness- then the brownie would take offence and would either leave the holding in a huff or, worse still, remain but as a malevolent presence.

An example of this tradition is found in Scot’s Discoverie of witchcraft (1584): “your grandams maides were woont to sett a boll of milke before … Robin Good Fellow for grinding of the malt or mustard and sweeping the house at midnight: and you have heard that he would chafe exceedingly if the maide or the goodwife of the house, having compassion on his nakedness, laid anie clothes for him, besides his messe of white bread and milke which was his standing fee” (Book IV, c.X).   Milton, in L’Allegro, gives a similar account of the country dweller’s stories of brownies:

“Tells how the drudging goblin sweat,
To earn his cream-bowl duly set,
When in one night, ere glimpse of morn,
His shadowy flail hath thresh’d the corn
That ten day-labourers could not end;
Then lies him down, the lubber fiend,
And stretch’d out all the chimney’s length,
Basks at the fire his hairy strength;
And crop-full out of doors he flings,
Ere the first cock his matin rings.”

the_brownies_and_other_tales_

A curious example of domestic interaction between humans and fairies which sits somewhere between the brownie and ‘neatness rewarded’ is a story from Stowmarket in Suffolk, recorded in the mid-nineteenth century.  An old man in the town was regularly visited by the ‘ferriers’ or ‘ferrishers’ (as they were termed in the county) who used to meet in his home; he recalled that they wore long green coats and yellow shoes.  He kept his house scrupulously clean for them and in return the ferriers supplied faggots which they put in his oven and, from time to time, would leave a shilling for him under a chair leg.  When he spoke about these visits, he lost their favour.  It’s hard to say in this account who is more beholden to whom- there’s an equality of exchange which obscures any suggestion of devotion.

The exact relationship between fairies and humans is, on the evidence of these examples, confused and ill-defined.  This need not be too surprising, given that such uncertainty exists as to the origins of the fairy belief.  In the first examples, maintaining the benevolence of the supernatural realm was a key element in the folk customs.  The later examples, though, whilst made in propitiative guise, should really be seen as bargains.  In return for labour or for food a payment is made; the pretence is that these are offerings but actual truth appears to be that the fairies are the supplicants, a relationship that Katherine Briggs identified when she spoke of the ‘dependence of the fairies’ upon humans.

“Fear of little men”-or, ‘How the fairy got her wings’

In William Allingham’s poem The fairies (1883) he gives late expression to a formerly common attitude to fairies:

“Up the airy mountain,/ Down the rushy glen,/ We daren’t go a-hunting/    For fear of little men;/ Wee folk, good folk, Trooping all together;”

fuseli-puck

The traditional terror of fairies and the change in attitudes in more recent times is something I have touched upon before and which I wish to analyse in some more detail.

Until at least the early seventeenth century,  the conventional view of fairy kind was that they were as dangerous as they were intriguing and enticing.   For example, the eller maids of Denmark were beautiful, but also deadly: anyone lured into dancing with them would be danced to death; they would never be able to stop and would perish from exhaustion. Fairies were the causes of disease and stole human children, food and possessions, as I have previously described.

What I wish to examine here is how these fearsome and sometimes fatal creatures could deteriorate into something cloyingly cute and eminently suitable for little girls to imitate. In Religion and the decline of magic (1971) Keith Thomas prefaces his discussion of fairy beliefs by observing that “Today’s children are brought up to think of fairies as diminutive beings of a benevolent disposition, but the fairies of the Middle Ages were neither small nor particularly kindly” (p.724). When was our fearful respect for the fairies replaced by a simpering, indulgent affection?

I have dated the change, as I suggest, to around 1600.  Shakespeare provides us with some evidence of the shift in popular perceptions.  Some commentators view him as the sole culprit, but this is to imbue him with far greater influence and respect than he had at the time.  He may now be seen as a genius and cultural icon, but that was not his status in his lifetime; as a playwright he did not shape views, but he certainly does reflect them.

Take, for example, Midsummer Night’s Dream.  On the one hand there is Puck, whose magic interventions in human affairs might be dismissed as farcically inept, but who should probably best be viewed as mischievous, if not malignant, in his conduct.  He admits to revelling in his tricks, for certain.  At another extreme are the fairies introduced by Titania to Bottom, called Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth and Mustardseed; here we have a first hint of the tiny and harmless beings with whom we are so familiar today.  A sense of these fairies’ size is conveyed by their use of glow-worms as lanterns and their hiding in acorn cups to escape Oberon’s fury.  By contrast, there is the encounter in The Merry Wives of Windsor between Sir John Falstaff and some children disguised as fairies.  They may be small, but that does not in the least detract from the horror he feels: “They are fairies; he that speaks to them shall die: I’ll wink and couch: no man their works must eye” (Act V scene 5).  Lack of stature, for Shakespeare’s contemporaries, still did not of necessity denote weakness or an amenable nature.

What exactly changed, then?  I think that there is a number of causes.  The growth of science and industry, particularly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, removed the justification for and threat of fairies.  Previously, as Geoffrey Parrinder remarked, “they helped explain many of the curious happenings of life” (Witchcraft, Pelican, 1958, p.70). By the later 1600s, this function was being superseded as John Aubrey wrote:

Old wives tales-  Before printing old wives’ tales were ingenious, and since Printing came into fashion, til a little before the Civil-Warres, the ordinary Sort of People were not taught to read; nowadayes bookes are common, and most of the poor people understand letters; and the many good bookes, and a variety of Turnes of affaires; have putt all the old Fables out of doors and the divine art of Printing and Gunpowder have frightened away Robin Goodfellow and the Fayries” (Remains of Gentilisme & Judaisme, 1687-89, p.68).

When they were no longer required to explain illness, they were left as merely decorative and un-threatening.  That said, if fairies had become redundant in this environment, their social function could be preserved by transporting them to other worlds.  This appears to be what has happened: green clad goblins have been translated into the ‘little green men’of science fiction.

Secondly, rationalism and religious scepticism has had a role.  Disbelief in a spirit world is sufficient to kill off fairies entirely, but it has also stopped them being taken seriously.  Once this had happened, their descent into cuteness and whimsy was easy.

Fairy belief for a long time was treated as a thing of the previous generation.  For instance, John Aubrey recalled that “when I was a Boy, our Countrey people would talke much of them…” meaning  ‘Faieries.’  His contemporary, Sir William Temple, said much the same thing, suggesting that fairy belief had only really declined over the previous thirty years or so (i.e. during the mid-seventeenth century).  Robert Burton, writing the Anatomy of melancholy in 1621, shared these opinions:  fairies had been “in former times adored with much superstition” but were now seen only from time to time by old women and children.

Nevertheless, doubt seems to have been well established by the 1580s at least.  The best evidence for this is Reginald Scot’s The discoverie of witchcraft (1584).  The book is an assault upon belief in witches, but he compares this extensively with the parallel belief in a supernatural race of beings.  In his introduction ‘To the reader’ Scot remarks that:

“I should no more prevail herein [i.e., in persuading his audience] than if a hundred years since I should have entreated your predecessors to believe that Robin Goodfellow, that great and ancient bull-beggar, had been a cozening merchant and no devil indeed.  But Robin Goodfellow ceaseth now to be much feared…”

Once again, the fairy faith is a thing of the (distant) past.  Later Scot comments that “By this time all Kentishmen know (a few fooles excepted) that Robin Goodfellow is a knave” (Book XVI, c.7).  Scot’s theme is that such credulity is not just old-fashioned; it is now the preserve of the simple and weak.  He repeats these allegations throughout his text: “the feare of manie foolish folke, the opinion of some that are wise, the want of Robin Goodfellow and the fairies, which were woont to mainteine chat and the common people’s talke in this behalfe … All which toies take such hold upon men’s fansies, as whereby they are lead and entised away from the consideration of true respects, to the condemnation of that which they know not” (The Epistle); likewise- “we are so fond, mistrustful and credulous that we feare more the fables of Robin Goodfellow, astrologers and witches and beleeve more things that are not than things that are.  And the more unpossible a thing is, the more we stand in feare thereof” (Book XI, c.22).

Talk of fairies then, was in Scot’s opinion only fit for “yoong children” and its only purpose was to “deceive and seduce.”  Scot is concerned how many in the past were “cousened and abused” by such tales and he admonishes his readers to remember this:

“But you shall understand that these bugs speciallie are spied and feared of sicke folke, children, women and cowards, which through weakness of mind and body are shaken with vain dreams and continuall feare… But in our childhood our mothers maids have so terrified us with … urchins, elves, hags, fairies… that we are afraid of our own shadowes” (Book VII, c.15).

Scot remained confident in the advance of reason, however:

“And know you this, by the waie, that heretofore Robin Goodfellow and Hobgoblin were as terrible and also as credible to the people as hags and witches be now, and in time to come a witch will be as derided and contemned, and as plainlie perceived, as the illusion and knaverie of Robin Goodfellow…” (Book VII, c.2)

King James I/VI in his Daemonologie (1597) was just as scornful as Scot of any belief in ‘Phairie’ but he did not ascribe it to mere foolishness.  For him, it was more sinister- it was a deception of the devil who had “illuded the senses of sundry simple creatures, in making them beleeve that they saw and harde such thinges as were nothing so indeed.” Although the fairy faith was “one of the illusiones that was risest in the time of Papistrie” it was thankfully in decline in Presbyterian Scotland at the time that he wrote (c.V).

Thirdly, fairy belief dwindled as the natural world was increasingly explored, surveyed and quantified.  When every acre of land was being assessed for its productive value and as a capital asset, the fairies were mapped and measured out of existence.  On a crowded island, no space was left for anything except the tiniest of beings to survive.  In fact, even as early as the first quarter of the seventeenth century, Michael Drayton could equate smallness with fairy nature: in his Eighth Nymphal he declares “Why, by her smallness you may find/ That she is of the fairy kind.”

rape-of-the-lock

The cumulative effect of these societal changes was, as Keith Thomas wrote, that “By the Elizabethan age, fairy lore was primarily a store of mythology rather than a corpus of living beliefs” (Religion and the decline of magic, 1971, p.726).  Deprived of its rationale, the decay set in quickly.  There is a suggestion of flight in Drayton’s Poly-Olbion- “The frisking fairy there, as on the light air borne” (1613, Song XXI) but explicit winged flight is first mentioned in The Rape of the Lock from 1712, in which Alexander Pope imagined fairies “Some to the sun their insect wings unfold/ Waft on the breeze or sink in clouds of gold.”   When, in 1798, Thomas Stothard illustrated Pope’s book with fairies with butterfly wings, the trend was confirmed.  Contemporaneously, we may note a bat winged Puck by Fuseli from 1790 and a tiny winged fairy creature in his illustration of Titania awakening with Bottom dated to 1794. This quickly seems to have become the convention: in subsequent Victorian images fairies are predominantly winged creatures; these wings are either gauzy like dragonflies’ or patterned like butterflies’.

henry-fuseli-titania-awakes-surrounded-by-attendant-faries-1794

All the same, folk belief could still lag well behind popular culture and artistic representations: Ivor Gurney wrote a poem in 1918 that must preserve older Gloucestershire beliefs.  Having waited in a lane at dusk for a lover to return home, he is alarmed by a bustle in the hedgerow:

“Until within the ferny brake/ Stirred patter-feet and silver talk/ That set all horror wide awake-/ I fear the fairy folk.”  (Girl’s Song, September 1918)

There have been stubborn resisters too to the sentimentalising tendency.  Rudyard Kipling in Puck of Pook’s Hill (1908) made clear his feelings; Puck tells Dan and Una (p.14):

“Besides, what you call [fairies] are made up things the People of the Hills have never heard of- little buzzflies with butterfly wings and gauze petticoats, and shiny stars in their hair, and a wand like a school-teacher’s cane for punishing bad boys and rewarding good ones… Can you wonder that the People of the Hills don’t care to be confused with that painty-winged, wand-waving, sugar-and-shake-your-head set of impostors?  Butterfly wings indeed!”

The ultimate result of this decline is some of the twee horrors to be found.  For Christmas, I received a card bearing an illustration by Ida Rentoul Outhwaite.  Along with Cicely Mary Barker, she is one of the prime offenders in the genre loathed by Kipling (and Puck). Amongst her pictures you will find fairies with perfect 1920s bobs and, worse still, gambling with koala bears at drinks parties…

ida-1

The resistance to the sentimentalising tendency continues (see for example the remarks of Cassandra Lobiesk on her website Fae folk: the world of fae- see my links page), but after at least a century, it may sadly be a losing battle.

 

“This enchanted isle”-Romantic visions of fairyland

paul-nash-landscape-of-the-megaliths

On a recent trip to Glastonbury, I visited Gothic Image bookshop in the High Street and picked up a reprinted edition of their publication, This enchanted isle by Peter Woodcock. Originally published in 2000, the book describes itself as a study of ‘the neo-romantic vision from William Blake to the new visionaries.’  Woodcock has written on art and literature and has an interest in the ‘shamanic’ tradition; in this book he traces the influence of William Blake and Samuel Palmer on later writers, artists and film-makers.

I discuss This enchanted isle and the neo-romantic movement in greater detail in an essay on one of my other blogs, johnkruseblog.wordpress.com.  Here, I want to focus solely on the fairy aspects of Woodcock’s subject.

As I have discussed in an earlier posting, William Blake saw all of natural life as being animated by fairies and he perceived elves and fairies filling the fields and hedgerows around his cottage at Felpham.  In this, his acolyte Samuel Palmer was very similar.  He was brought up on stories of fairies, witches and ghosts and imagined supernatural life filling the lanes and woods of rural Dulwich near his home in Walworth on the very edge of London.  Later he moved to Shoreham, the Kentish village which inspired his finest work.  As Palmer’s son, Albert Herbert, later recounted in his biography, Samuel Palmer- life and letters (1892), part of the attraction of the rural hamlet was that traditional folk beliefs  were still held by the residents there (and he preferred the older pastoral poets for the same reason- their close links to romantic rural life).  Palmer readily imagined goblins (that is, brownies) drudging in the thatched barns of Shoreham for the reward of a bowl of cream and happily listened to tales of fairies tripping across the domestic hearths.  There is more than a nod to Milton’s L’Allegro here, inevitable perhaps given Palmer’s great admiration for his verse.

The mystical landscape visions of Blake and Palmer were inherited by various twentieth century artists, foremost amongst whom was Paul Nash. His writings disclose similar responses to the  English countryside; he had a strong sense of the unique character of places and the power of those with links to antiquity.  Of Wittenham Clumps, which he painted repeatedly, he said:

“I felt their importance long before I knew their history…  [The landscape was] full of strange enchantment, on every hand it seemed a beautiful, legendary country, haunted by old gods long forgotten.”

wham-1935

Later in his life, Nash encountered the stones of Avebury.  Initially, he responded to the forms and colours of the stones, saying there was “no question of animism here.”  This changed, however, so that in his essay for Country Life written in May 1937, The life of the inanimate object, he was able to write “it is not a question of a particular stone being the house of the spirit- the stone itself has its spirit, it is alive.”  The idea of animating inanimate objects was very old indeed, “a commonplace in fairy tale and and occurs quite naturally also in most mythologies.”  In English culture, he wrote, the romantic poet Wordsworth payed a major role creating  mythology that gave ‘systematic animation to the inanimate.’

Sketching at Silbury Hill, he recalled that “I felt that I had divined the secret of that paradoxical pyramid.  Such things do happen in England, quite naturally, but they are not recognised for what they are- the true yield of the land, indeed, but also works of art; identical with the intimate spirit inhabiting these gentle fields, yet not the work of chance or the elements, but directed by an intelligent purpose ruled by n authentic vision.”  For Nash there was magic in ancient and significant places that was still real and tangible in the twentieth century.  His art tried to express and to contact those deep forces of the English landscape.

pn-silbury

Woodcock also links the Welsh born writer Arthur Machen (1863-1947) with the neo-romantic movement.  Machen is best known for his Gothic horror novels, but like the others discussed, he believed that the humdrum world conceals a more mysterious and strange reality.  Fairylore was just one element of his wide reading that he combined into his vision.  In his second volume of autobiography, Things near and far, published in 1923, he acknowledges the rational explanations of fairy belief (later set out in detail by Lewis Spence in British fairy origins of 1946):

“I am well aware, of course, of the various explanations of the fairy mythology; the fairies are the goods of the heathen come down into the world: Diana becomes Titania.  Or the fairies are a fantasy on the small dark people who dwelt in the land before the coming of the Celts; or they are elementals- spirits of the four elements: there are all these accounts, and for all I know, may be true, each in its measure.”

Machen knew of these scientific interpretations, but he had little time for them.  In his work he is more interested in the mystic, pagan, occult and romantic aspects of faery. Elsewhere he wrote that “belief in fairies and belief in the Stock Exchange as bestowers of happiness were equally vain, but the latter was ugly as well as inept.”  His work is thoroughly imbued with an awareness of and awe for faery.  He repeatedly makes reference to fairy languages and dread power of our supernatural neighbours.

In Machen’s masterpiece, The hill of dreams, the hero Lucian becomes lost in a strange landscape: “all afternoon his eyes had looked on glamour, he had strayed in fairyland …like the hero of a fairy-book.”  Ultimately he wanders into “outland and occult territory.”  Ancient hill forts are described as ‘fairy-hills’ and ‘fairy raths’ whilst the capital is imagined as the site of “dolmen and menhir … gigantic, terrible.  All London was one grey temple of an awful rite, rung with a ring of wizard stones.”

Lucian’s preference is for alchemy, cabala and Dark Age history, for “a land laid waste, Britain deserted by the legions, the rare pavements riven by frost, Celtic magic still brooding on the wild hills and in the black depths of the forest…” He wonders whether “there were some drop of fairy blood in his body that made him foreign and strange to the world.”  Lucian is drawn to the ‘fairy bulwarks’ of a Roman camp (the ‘hill of dreams’) and becomes bewitched by a beautiful young woman called Annie who speaks “wonderful, unknown words”, apparently an unintelligible, possibly fairy language.  She dismisses it as “only nonsense that the nurses sing to the children” but it becomes apparent that there is more to it than that, that it is in fact some form of enchantment.

In Hill of dreams, Machen’s descriptions of the countryside near Gwent are vivid, intense and charged with otherworldly meaning.  Lucian follows an unknown lane “hoping he had found the way to fairyland.”  He scrambles up to the old Roman fort crowning a hill near his home and falls asleep on a hot summer’s afternoon, hearing “the old wood-whisper or … the singing of the fauns.”  This results, it seems, in his possession by fauns, nymphs or witches.  He realises that he was been watched by unknown figures and that “they” are a woman and “her awful companions, who had never grown old through all the ages.”  Hideous shapes in the wood “called and beckoned to him” and it is ultimately revealed that Annie is somehow Queen of the Sabbath and a moonlight enchantress.

“I will diminish and go into the west”- the fate of the fairies

 

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Artist unknown, ‘A fairy departure’

Fairy-kind has always had a strong association with the past.  In my previous posting on their clothing, I noted the common tendency to imagine fairies in antiquated fashions typical of earlier eras.  This temporal distance seems to have had the function of emphasising or marking their separation from humankind.

Fairies are ‘things of the past’ in another sense: they have frequently been thought of as a race that is no more seen or that has departed from these lands.  By way of illustration of this, Katherine Briggs entitled one of her books ‘The vanishing people.’  Some readers may also call to mind the fact that Tolkien concludes Lord of the Rings with a departure of the elves into the west.  He built upon well established foundations.

This idea that fairies have disappeared or are no longer present in Britain has been a feature of fairy-lore for centuries.  Chaucer, for example, had the Wife of Bath on her journey to Canterbury begin her story thus:

“In th’olde dayes of the king Arthour,

Of which that Britons speken greet honour,

All was this land fulfild of fayerye.

The elf-queen, with hir joly companye,

Daunced ful ofte in many a grene mede;

This was the olde opinion, as I rede,

I speke of manye hundred yeres ago;

But now can no man see none elves mo.”

Later writers have repeated this theme.  For example, in The Faithful shepherdess (III 1) Fletcher expressed the view that “Methinks there are no goblins, and men’s talk/ That in these Woods the Nimble Fairies walk/ Are fables.”

It would be fair to say that the citations given so far probably reflect the urban, educated, cultured view, in contrast to the beliefs of ‘simple’ country folk, but traditional folk tales have also featured and explained the reduction in the sightings of our supernatural neighbours.  For example, there is the Scottish story of ‘The departure of the fairies’ recounted by Hugh Miller in The Old Red Sandstone, p. 251.

‘On a Sabbath morning, all the inmates of a little hamlet had gone to church, except a herd-boy, and a little girl, his sister, who were lounging beside one of the cottages, when just as the shadow of the garden-dial had fallen on the line of noon, they saw a long cavalcade ascending out of the ravine, through the wooded hollow. It winded among the knolls and bushes, and turning round the northern gable of the cottage, beside which the sole spectators of the scene were stationed, began to ascend the eminence towards the south. The horses were shaggy diminutive things, speckled dun and grey; the riders stunted, misgrown, ugly creatures, attired in antique jerkins of plaid, long grey clokes, and little red caps, from under which their wild uncombed locks shot out over their cheeks and foreheads. The boy and his sister stood gazing in utter dismay and astonishment, as rider after rider, each more uncouth and dwarfish than the other which had preceded it, passed the cottage and disappeared among the brushwood, which at that period covered the hill, until at length the entire rout, except the last rider, who lingered a few yards behind the others, had gone by. “What are you, little manie? and where are ye going?” inquired the boy, his curiosity getting the better of his fears and his prudence. “Not of the race of Adam,” said the creature, turning for a moment in its saddle, “the people of peace shall never more be seen in Scotland.”‘

Touring Wales in late Victorian times, Professor John Rhys was several times told that fairies were no longer encountered in the countryside.  They had been seen ‘daily’ by shepherds “in the age of faith gone by,” in the “fairy days”- but no more (Rhys, pp.115 & 125).

The reasons for the fairies’ departure tend to be related but curiously antagonistic:

  • they are driven away by the sound of new church bells- see for example Briggs, Dictionary, p.95;
  • they have been displaced by the clergy (in Chaucer’s plainly satirical lines): “For now the grete charitee and prayeres/ Of limitours and othere holy freres, … This maketh that ther been no fayeryes./ For ther as wont to walken was an elf,/ Ther walketh now the limitour him-self;”
  • they have been deliberately exorcised: it was explained to John Rhys (pp.221/228) that the fairies did not appear as in a “former age” because they had been cast out (ffrymu) for a period of centuries and would not be back during ‘our time.’  It is interesting that this ejection, albeit long, was considered a temporary state- a reason for some to be hopeful, perhaps; or,
  • they leave because the catholic faith has been replaced.  In his story The Dymchurch Flit Rudyard Kipling ascribes the fairies’ flight to the ill-will generated by religious dissension and the sense that they were no longer welcome and did not belong: “Fair or foul, we must flit out o’ this, for Merry England’s done with, an’ we’re reckoned among the Images”  (Puck of Pook’s Hill, p.267).  The poem, Farewell, rewards and fairies, by  Richard Corbet (1582–1635) is mentioned in the same book by Kipling and encapsulates these ideas: “the Fairies/  Were of the old Profession./ Their songs were ‘Ave Mary’s’,/ Their dances were Procession./ But now, alas, they all are dead; Or gone beyond the seas.”  It is well worth examining the whole poem.

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Arthur Rackham, illustration of the Dymchurch flit.

The combined shrinking and retreat of fairies and their realms reached a point in the twentieth century where many writers could declare their epitaphs.  For example, in Puck of Pook’s Hill, published in 1908, Rudyard Kipling has his character Puck admit that “The People of the Hills have all left.  I saw them come into Old England and I saw them go. Giants, trolls, kelpies, brownies, goblins, imps; … good people, little people … pixies, nixies and gnomes and the rest- gone, all gone!”  (p.10).  Katherine Briggs began the first chapter of The fairies in tradition and literature by observing how, since the late Middle Ages at least, fairy beliefs “have been supposed to belong to the last generation and to be lost to the present one,” but still the tradition lingered on.  However, she seemed to have lost heart in The anatomy of puck (p.11), admitting that “the fairies, who descended perhaps from gods older than those the druids worshipped, who were so long lamented as lost and so slow to go, have gone, now and forever.”

Nevertheless, the announcement of the demise of faery may have proved premature.  As Janet Bord wrote in Fairies- real encounters with little people (1998), “the changes that have occurred in this century have not resulted in the complete extinction of the fairies: they have survived, because people still see them.” The changes to which she referred are the impact of technology, the loss of importance of traditional beliefs and the loss of traditional knowledge.  The cultural influences of the media and a decline in sympathy with the natural environment has led to a diminution in fairy belief, but not its destruction.  For many people, “fairy lore is still alive in the background of their existence.”

The rise of alternative spiritualities has definitely contributed to this tenacity of belief.  In his book on the Cottingley fairy photographs, The coming of the fairies, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle quoted with approval from the writings of Theosophist Edward Gardner.  The latter wrote that:

“For the most part, amid the busy commercialism of modern times, the fact of their existence has faded to a shadow, and a most delightful and charming field of nature study has too long been veiled. In this twentieth century there is promise of the world stepping out of some of its darker shadows. Maybe it is an indication that we are reaching the silver lining of the clouds when we find ourselves suddenly presented with actual photographs of these enchanting little creatures- relegated long since to the realm of the imaginary and fanciful.”

Gardner, Doyle and Geoffrey Hodson all waxed lyrical in the early decades of the century about beings existing at ‘higher levels of vibrations’ and similar.  They renewed the foundations for a belief in the existence and visibility of fairies which persists.  Diane Purkis in her book Troublesome things (chapter 10) was harsh on modern manifestations of fairy belief.  She wrote scathingly that a “few sad, mummified Victorian fairies survive, pressed in the pages of the Past Times catalogue, perhaps.  Some people are devoted to these little corpses, tending them devotedly, but they obstinately refuse to flourish, they have no roots and no branches, no real resonance.”  She rejects these remnants as being mere “revenants, wraiths, sad simplified ghosts.”

I will leave it to readers to decide on the validity of these dismissive words.  A glance at the abundance of fairy websites, and the shops and magazines offering a wealth of fairy related products, must give some reason to doubt Purkis’ scorn.  It would not be wrong to agree with Katherine Briggs that fairy tradition at least lingers, even today; perhaps, in fact, a more vigorous verb is justified-burgeons, perhaps?