‘Eco-Fairies’- old or new?

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A recent book on modern paganism and fairy belief, Magic and Witchery in the Modern West (Feraro and White, 2019), suggested that many of the contemporary conceptions of fairies as planetary guardians and green protectors came not from age-old faery tradition but from books like Cicely Mary Barker’s flower fairies, books that adult pagans had seen as and absorbed as children.  Is this really true?  Is the view of faeries as green champions really so recent and untraditional a development?

In fact, there is a reasonable amount of evidence to indicate that faeries have been connected with nature conservation and environmental causes for a quite long time.  For example, there is a widespread popular story of a woodcutter just about to fell a tree who is stopped by the appearance of a fairy being from beneath the ground.  This is described as having happened as far apart in Britain as Northamptonshire and Nithsdale in the Scottish Borders.  The idea of faeries as active defenders of the natural world was therefore accepted in folk belief from at least the start of the nineteenth century, a situation that was reflected in the literature of the time.  In his 1810 poem Alice Brand, Sir Walter Scott had the elfin king demand:

“Why sounds yon stroke on the beech and oak,

Our moonlight circle’s screen,

Or who comes here to chase the deer,

Beloved of our Elfin Queen?”

In the ballad of Tam Lin, the young Tam appears to his lover-to-be, Janet, after she plucks a rose in the forest.  He complains that she has taken the flower without his permission.  Similarly, in the ballad Hynde Etin complaint is made by the fairy when nuts are picked, “For I’m the guardian of the wood/ and ye maun [must] let it be.”  Whether this is environmental stewardship or cases of trespass on private land is not entirely clear, but the faeries are evidently highly protective of their natural resources.  We might see those faeries that protect (human) orchards and nut groves, such as Owd Goggie, in a similar light.

Lastly, an article carried by the Welsh Western Mail in September 1878 described the industry that had brought prosperity to Nant y Glo and Blaenau, in Gwent, albeit at the cost of the local woodlands.  The extensive tree-felling was dated back some ninety years to the time when ironworking first started in the area and demand for charcoal expanded steeply.  Before then, we are told, the fairies had protected the trees of the hills and valleys thereabouts.  These were yr tylwyth teg yn y coed, the fairies of the wood, who often used to be seen assembled under the female oaks there, and who guarded the trees and harmed those that felled them.  Sadly, however, they couldn’t resist against the “inroads of a gross material civilisation” (as the writer called it, even then) and they were driven off west into less spoiled parts of the Principality.  These sentiments might surprise us from a Victorian, but they demonstrate that environmental awareness, and a sense of the faeries’ role as eco-guardians, might not be that new.

Jacobean Precedents

As far back as the start of the seventeenth century, in fact, there is evidence of the fairies being seen as friends and protectors of wildlife and the natural world.  Sir William Browne in Britannia’s Pastorals imagined the fairies

“Teaching the little birds to build their nests,/ And in their singing how to keepen rests…”

The ‘eco-fairy’ as a concept is not new, therefore, even if the label is.  An examination of the folklore and literary sources discloses three interrelated functions that the faes were believed to undertake: they cared for small mammals and birds; they had a special link with certain flowers and trees and, lastly, they assumed a more general supervisory role over the natural world, keeping it in balance and preventing over-exploitation and pollution.

Fairies’ Furry Friends

Fairies not only lived and played in the countryside- according to Victorian poetry they talked to the birds, taught them how to sing and kept their eggs warm in the nest by curling up to sleep beside them.  Poet Rose Fyleman, famous for There’s a Fairy at the Bottom of my Garden, in her verse A Fairy Went A-Marketing, imagined how a fae might buy pet fish and birds and then set them free.  For Fyleman, fairies and wildlife were best of friends, with robins serving as a page in the fairy court and tiny faes living contentedly in flowers.

Verse and popular conceptions went hand in hand, as there are reported encounters with fairies helping birds find berries in the snow and looking after wildlife in wintry weather.  Early Victorian child poet, Annie Isabella Brown, imagined fairies describing how:

“We gathered flannel-mullen leaves,

Against the winter’s cold;

To keep the little dormouse warm,

Within its hedgerow hold.”

Poet Menella Bute Smedley also imagined the fairies “twisting threads of bloom and light” to make butterflies’ wings.

Flower Fairies

Just as there was active supernatural involvement with the animal kingdom, folk tradition identifies two aspects to the relationship between fairies and plants. They are attracted to certain herbs, whether supernaturally or for merely utilitarian reasons (foxgloves, for example, are called fairy gloves and fairy thimbles) and, secondly, the fairies are said inhabit certain trees, such as oaks, thorns and elders.  It was a relatively easy transition from these associations to come up with the idea of flower fairies as popularised by artists Cicely Baker and Margaret Tarrant, but the foundations of this twentieth century phenomenon are much deeper and older (see Lewis Spence, British Fairy Tradition, pp.178-80).

It looks as though the first step towards the flower fairy idea was to emphasise the affinity between fairies and particular flowers.  Next, it was an easy step to conceive of the spirits living in those flowers and the miniaturisation of the fairies popularised by Shakespeare and his contemporaries assisted with this.  Inevitably, too, the fairy character began to be softened by association with bloom, scent and colour.

This change seems to have proceeded from the seventeenth century, judging by scattered indications in our literature.  For instance, William Browne (1588-1643) in his verse The Rose imagined that “the nimble fairies by the pale-faced moon/ Water’d the root and kissed her pretty shade.”  From the eighteenth century there is good literary evidence for the idea of fairies taking up residence in flowers.  Coleridge, for example, described “Fays/ That sweetly nestle in the foxglove bells.” His contemporary George Darley imagined little fairies with scented wings emerging at night from blossoms and flitting from flower to flower enjoying nectar like wine (George Darley (1795-1846), What the Toys do at Night and The Elf Toper).

By the late nineteenth century this idea was exceedingly widespread: American poet Madison Julius Cawein repeatedly housed his fays in toadstools or in blooms and in his adult fairy tale, Phantastes, Scottish author George MacDonald described how “the flowers die because the fairies go away, not that the fairies disappear because the flowers die.  The flowers seem a sort of house for them, or outer bodies, which they can put on and off when they please… you would see a strange resemblance, almost a oneness between the flower and the fairy… [but] whether all flowers have fairies, I cannot determine.”  When J. M. Barrie adopted these ideas for Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, he was simply making use of an already well-established idea- although the success of his books and plays took it to a much wider audience.

Consequent upon inhabiting flowers, other connections were seen- for example, gardens become an ideal place to see fairies according to the poetry of Philip Bourke Marston and others.  It was also during the nineteenth century that the fairies’ role as conservers of plant life was crystallised.  In The Fairy’s Promise Edwin Arnold had fairies promise to help a love-sick poet because “Thou hast never plucked daisy or heather bell/ From the emerald braes where the fairies dwell.”   The fairies’ floral duties are spelled out in detail in The Wounded Daisy by Menella Bate Smedley.  They are to be found at work in the corners of meadows:

“Perhaps you’ll see them… setting the lilies steady,
Before they begin to grow;
Or getting the rosebuds ready
Before it is time to blow.
A fairy was mending a daisy
Which someone had torn in half…”

According to numerous nineteenth century poets the fairies shaped and inspired growth and, even, taught the plants how to grow at special schools over the winter.

Finally, Menella Bute Smedley made an important leap by involving humans as partners in the task of caring for the natural world:

“Then pull up the weeds with a will,/ And fairies will cherish the flowers.” (A Slight Confusion)

There are, then, two conceptions of the exact interrelationship between fairies and the natural world.  The first is that they exist simply as a part of the natural world and its processes.  The second, and more significant, is that they act as ‘guardians of nature’, actively watching over plants, animals and the earth as a whole and keeping the intricate systems in balance.

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Fairies and the Green Revolution

Many contemporary writers on fairy matters stress how the faes are opposed to intensive agriculture, to overuse of fertilisers, to pollution and to general environmental degradation.  It would be easy to imagine that these ideas have been imported into the faery faith since the 1960s, but the examples given so far make it abundantly clear that they were present in folklore and, thence it would seem, in literature, well before any conception of the harms of over-intensive cultivation even occurred to the scientific community.

Fairies have always been linked more closely to rural and uncultivated locations than to towns, although it would be wrong to suggest that they’re never seen in urban places (and the evidence of the recent Fairy Census and of the witness accounts recorded in Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing Fairies both suggest this is changing anyway).  Even in the countryside, though, they’re not a people solely of wild places and woods.  They often live and work around human farms (the Hobs and the Brownie type of spirit) and they frequently take advantage of the human environment, using mills and dancing in pastures and meadows at night.  There is no antipathy with agriculture as such, therefore.

That said, ideas of fairies as a champion of more traditional, organic, self-sufficient production date back to the mid-nineteenth century at the very latest.  For example, folklorist Evans Wentz in the 1900s heard in Scotland that the Highland clearances also drove off the sith.  Highlander John Dunbar of Invereen told him that “no one sees them now because every place on this parish where they used to appear has been put into sheep and deer and grouse and shooting.”  A vision of them fighting with sheep was seen, in fact, as a premonition of what was the follow (Evans Wentz, Fairy Faith, 94).

Conclusion

Works such as Peter Pan and the various Flower Fairies books unquestionably popularised the conception of the fairy as protector and champion of nature, but these ideas had been around since Elizabethan times and had been consolidating during the Victorian period. Such perceptions of the faeries are, arguably, as traditional as notions of them dancing in rings and stealing children.  The ‘green fairy’ is not some hippy, environmentalist creation, grafted on in recent decades, but is a fundamental element of the nature of Faery.

Margaret Tarrant, Brimstone Fairy

For further discussion of the environmental role of faeries, see my more recent post on the relationship of faeries to the natural world and my book Faeries and the Natural World (2021):

“Let me grab your soul away”- faeries, souls and the dead

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John Anster Fitzgerald, Fairy passage

Fairies and the dead have always had some ill-defined relationship, but in an account of folk beliefs in North East Scotland, I came across this fascinating note:

“It is said that, if a person dies of consumption, the fairies steal the soul from the body and animate another person with it.” (Shaw, The history of the province of Moray, 1827, p.278)

In the far north of Scotland, fairy abductions of humans can include not just a physical kidnapping but the abstraction of a person’s vital essence, leaving an inanimate stock behind: their soul is in Faery and a lifeless shell remains.  Related to this may be the Shetland belief that trows can only appear in human form if they can find someone who’s not been protected by a ‘saining’ or blessing. There is one story in which two trows attend a Yule dance in the form of two small boys whose mother had forgotten to bless them before she went out for the night’s festivities.  When they were exposed for what they were, the trows vanished from the dance, but the boys didn’t return to their beds.  They were found the next day dead in a deep snowdrift.  Fairy ‘possession’ can lead to real or simulated death, then, as well as following on from it.

Virtuous Pagans?

This particular Scottish manifestation is unique, but the idea that fairies (or, at least, some of them) have an association with the souls of the dead is widespread in the British Isles.  It has been speculated that the pixies of the south-west might be the souls of unbaptised children, or those delivered stillborn, or perhaps the spirits of virtuous druids and other non-Christians.  The mine sprites (the ‘knockers’ in the South West) were the souls of ancient miners and there are traces of a belief that bees and moths were spirits in some form.  In Wales as well the tylwyth teg were thought to be the spirits of virtuous druids who had died in pre-Christian times, whilst on the Isle of Man the belief was that the fairies represented the souls of those who died before the Flood (see Evans Wentz, Fairy Faith, pp.183, 169, 179, 177, 178, 147 & 123).

Faery Dogs

In Yorkshire, the supernatural hounds called the Gabriel Ratchets were believed to be the form taken by infants who died before baptism; they would circle their parents home overhead at night.  Other ‘faery beasts’ such as the black dogs, shugs and shocks were regarded as portents of death in the counties where they were seen.  The Welsh equivalent of these hounds, called the Cwn Annwn (roughly, the hounds of hell) were ban dogs employed for the pursuit of the souls of those who had died either unbaptised or unshriven.

Faery Limbo

Certain people- those who died early, unexpectedly or by violence- would go to live with the fairies in a sort of limbo.  This is a concept found across Britain in folklore, ballad and poetry from at least the Middle Ages.  Sir Walter Scott used it in his ballad ‘Alice Brand’ which is incorporated into his novel The Lady of the Lake.  Alice and her lover Richard are hiding in the greenwood; the Elfin King hears them cutting his trees and sends a goblin to chastise them:

“Up, Urgan, up! to yon mortal hie,

 For thou wert christen’d man:

For cross or sign thou wilt not fly,

 For mutter’d word or ban.”

When the goblin finds the pair, Alice confronts him and asks how he fell under the king’s power.  He replies:

“It was between the night and day,

 When the Fairy King has power,

That I sunk down in a sinful fray,

And ’twixt life and death, was snatch’d away

To the joyless Elfin bower.”

Alice is then able to release from this captive state by making the sign of the cross three times.

Witches’ Faery Helpers

What appeared so frequently in verse and story merely reflected genuine folk belief, as is confirmed by the evidence given by several Scottish witchcraft suspects.  For example, Alison Peirson told her inquisitors that several deceased members of her family were to be found in the court of Elphame, including her uncle William Simpson; Andro Man claimed that he knew “sindrie dead men in thair cumpanie” (one of whom was the late King James IV, who had died at the Battle of Flodden).  Bessy Dunlop revealed that the laird of Auchenreath, who had died nine years previously, was to be seen amongst the fairy rade whilst her particular ‘familiar,’ a man called Thom Reid, had fallen at the battle of Pinkie some 29 years earlier.  Elspeth Reoch’s fairy intermediary was a relative called John Stewart, who had been murdered at sunset- a violent and early death at a liminal time of day.

Lewis Spence examines some of the thought behind these folklore traditions in his classic British Fairy Origins.  The soul is often conceived as a small person and it is easy to understand how the little folk and the spirit homunculus might become confused.  Walter Evans-Wentz, in The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, also espoused the theory that (some at least of) the fairies are the souls of the dead, something which he set within a wider Celtic ‘Legend of the Dead.’  He said that:

“the striking likenesses constantly appearing in our evidence between the ordinary apparitional fairies and the ghosts of the dead show that there is often no essential and sometimes no distinguishable difference between these two orders of beings, nor between the world of the dead and fairyland.” (Spence pp.68, 70 & 80; Evans Wentz pp.280 & 493)

The Reverend Robert Kirk in the Secret Commonwealth goes so far as to argue that, whilst the bodies of the dead lie in their graves in the churchyard, their souls inhabit the fairy knowes that are so often found in proximity to Highland churches.  He confirmed that fairies were, therefore, believed by some with the second sight to be “departed souls, attending awhile in this inferior state, and clothed with Bodies procured through their Almsdeeds in this Lyfe… but if any were so impious as to have given no Alms, they say when the Souls of such do depart, they sleep in an unactive state till they resume the terrestrial Bodies again.”  Other seers believed that the souls of the dying people became wraiths, and the apparitions of black dogs which I mentioned earlier, and yet others were convinced that the fairies were “a numerous People by themselves, having their own polities.”  He mentioned too other beliefs that people’s “Souls goe to the Sith when dislodged” and that some will “go to the Siths (or People at Rest, and in respect of us, in Peace) before the natural Period of their Lyfe expire…”  These ideas seem very clearly to be identical with the idea that those murdered or otherwise killed violently end up in faery.  Seventeenth century Scottish opinion on the nature of fairykind was divided then, but it was apparently as common to see them as some manifestation of human dead as it was to consider them to be a separate form of life.

Poet Robert Sempill put these ideas into verse, describing how one suspected witch:

“names our nyboris sex or sewin, (6 or 7)

That we belevit had bene in heawin.”

The crimson fairy and the red

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Red winter rose fairy by Rachel Anderson

The older literature often mentions fairies of varying colours: white, red, green and others.  Is this just a matter of clothing- or does it go deeper?  As an illustration, in the Elizabethan play Buggbears we are told that there are “sondry names by which we do call them [i.e. the fairies]; some are called … the whyte and red fearye.”  (1565, line 47) From Camden’s Britannia we learn of a cunning woman’s charm used in Ireland to treat the sickness called ‘esane’:

“Against all maladies and mischiefs whatsoever the women have effectual enchantments or charms, as they suppose, divided and parted amongst them, each one her several enchantment, and the same of divers forces: unto whom every man according as his mischance requireth speedeth himself for help. They say alwaies both before and after their charms a Pater Noster, and an Ave Maria. [If a man has a fall and becomes sick] there is sent a woman skilful in that kind unto the said place, and there she saith on this wise: ‘I call thee P. from the East and West, South and North, from the forests, woods, rivers, meeres, the wilde wood-fayries, white, red, black etc.’  and withal bolteth out certain short prayers. Then returneth she home unto the sick party, to try whither it be the disease called Esane, which they are of opinion is sent by the Fairies, and whispereth a certain odd prayer with a Pater Noster into his ear, putteth some coles into a pot full of fair water, and so giveth more certain judgment of the disease than many of our physicians can.”    (Britannia vol.4 p.470).

The question I want examine in this post is this: is this merely a matter a choice of fairy clothing (which I’ve posted about before) or are the colours of these fairies more significant and symbolic?

Fairy clothing colours

As many readers will know, the archetypal fairy colour is green and it is primarily a matter of dress.  Some variation is admitted; for example Mary Lewes has said that in North Wales the fairies wear scarlet (Queer side of things, p.119) and elsewhere she said that they wore white, but green for special occasions (Stranger than fiction p.160).  Certainly, so synonymous is green with the fays that it’s said to be bad luck for humans to wear the colour, as they might face fairy reprisals.  This is why Sir Walter Scott asked in Alice Brand “who may dare on wold to wear/ The fairies’ fatal green?”  In his book Goblin tales of Lancashire Victorian folklorist James Bowker recorded that the local name for the fairies was ‘The Greenies’ or the Hill Folk.  This probably relates to their dress, although not conclusively.

Analysis of recent sightings in Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing fairies, and in the 2017 Fairy Census, reveals that around one third of fairies seen are dressed in green.  Twenty per cent wear brown, twelve per cent red and ten per cent white or cream.  A scattering of other colours- blue, yellow, black- account for the rest.  These results seem fairly consistent with the written sources, all of which suggest that fairies are mostly seen in ‘earth tones.’ For example, in the Merry wives of Windsor, Shakespeare enumerated “fairies black, grey, green and white” and also “Fairies white and green.” (Acts V, 5 & IV, 4).

Although we instantly think of dwarves and gnomes in scarlet, red doesn’t actually feature very often in reports.  We have Mary Lewes’ mention and Sidney Addy’s statement that fairies (and witches) wear a red mantle with a hood that completely covers them (Household tales p.134).  In older material red is often found, in fact, as the colour that repels fairies- for example, red threads are tied round the necks of children and cattle to protect them and in one lowland Scottish ritual, a suspected changeling child is wrapped in red cloth and held over a rowan fire to drive it out (Aitken p.12).  I wonder if part of the prominence of red in our minds now comes from Scandinavian sources on tomte and nisse.  Nevertheless, pixies are believed to be red-headed (Tongue Somerset folklore p.113) and it may be in this sense that other fays are ‘red.’

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Cicely Mary Barker, White bindweed fairy, from ‘Flower fairies of the wayside’

“Poor little greenie…”

The possibility that the colour refers to complexion and not clothing is an important one, yet it can’t always be satisfactorily resolved from the sources.  Hugh Miller described a ‘green woman’ with a goblin child who went door to door bathing her babe in human infants’ blood and another ‘green lady’ who spread small pox (Scenes and legends p.15).  As already remarked, in Goblin tales of Lancashire James Bowler calls the ‘hill folk’ of that county ‘the greenies.’  Something more sinister starts to creep in, though.  Janet Bord tells the story of a lost fairy child found at Middleton in Teesdale who has green clothes and red eyes and it is also reported that Shetland fairies are of a yellow complexion, with red eyes and green teeth.  These latter faes are, by the way, dressed uniformly in grey with brown mittens (it is, after all, a long way north).

Thirdly, a comparable account comes from the Isle of Man.  A boy woke up one night hungry and decided to sneak into the kitchen to steal a freshly baked ‘bonnag’ (bannock).  Sitting before the fire, warming his hands, was a hideous fairy man with claw like hands and staring red eyes; the child ran swiftly back to bed.

Turning to pale fairies, the references are numerous in literature and folk lore.  Heywood had ‘white nymphs’ and Ben Jonson ‘white fays.’  In Shropshire and Somerset ‘white ladies’ haunted various locations- often watery.  Donald MacKenzie tells a Scottish wonder tale of a war between the White and Black Fairies on the Spey.  Much more than with Shakespeare, we seem to have a good/bad dichotomy symbolised here.  It may have antecedents in the Norse Edda’s light and dark elves, the former being pure of colour and dressed in white and silver garments.  Much, much later Thomas Keightley was informed by a country girl that the Norfolk ‘frairies’ always wore white.

As Mary Lewes already stated, white is a colour very often associated with the clothing of the Welsh tylwyth teg.  Fairies sighted at Frenifawr in Pembrokeshire rode small white horses and were dressed in white or red; a charming story from Aberaeron on Cardigan Bay tells how a pipe player called John Davies met a group of fairy women one night and almost married one.  He could tell they were fays because they were all in white and their dresses (this was in 1860) came only to their knees (!)  Sadly he was interrupted and they all disappeared down some stairs leading underground before the nuptials could be agreed.  These women sound charming and harmless,  but there’s more to white garments than just clean clothing.

A story dated 1903 from the Welsh borders suggests this.  An old woman living at Trellech described the fairies as being fairly small with “queer complexions.”  They were the size of a six year old child, barefoot, dressed in white with lovely white skin, but also white hair and white eyes too.  From some earlier point in Victorian times there comes the story of John Jones, a farm labourer of Perthrhys farm near Aberystwyth.  Walking home across Rhosrhydd Moor one moonlit night he realised two boys were following him.  Although it was late, he at first assumed they were just local youths messing around.  However, the boys then quit the road and started to dance in an “unearthly” manner.  Jones realised that they were both “perfectly white.”  Perhaps these white fays go some way to explaining the full significance of the ‘white spirit’ with which accused witch Joan Willimot claimed she had cursed the Earl of Rutland’s son.  The ‘mere-maids’ labelled ‘white ladies’ might also be less benign than they initially sound.

These last images (like the red eyed fays in Teesdale and on Man and Shetland) are naturally disturbing to us, rendering the fairies instantly more monstrous and threatening. Whilst (as my choice of illustrations show) we tend to think of ‘red’ as sexual or dangerous and ‘white’ as pure and innocent, the contrast might just as reasonably be between ‘living’ and ‘dead.’  Perhaps deliberately, both connotations are evoked by the traditional fairy green, suggestive of vibrant growth and of decay.  The fairy colours are, I’m sure, significant- and are symbolic of many attributes- danger, violence, sexuality and mortality.

Further reading

See my posting on the treatment of fairy complexion in Tudor and Stuart drama and what that says about their vision of Faery.  I also discussed fairy clothes in my 2017 book British fairies.