Fairy Games and Pastimes

elves & Fs
Ida Rentoul Outhwaite- ‘Elves & Fairies’

I’ve written before about fairy sports.  Here I’d like to highlight some more light-hearted- though perhaps no less competitive- faery pastimes.  Both the examples come from the work of fairy poet Michael Drayton.

Firstly, a game we all will know.  In the Sixth Nymphal of The Muse’s Elisium, woodman Silvius describes:

“The Dryads, Hamadryads, the Satyres and the Fawnes

Oft play at Hyde and Seeke before me on the Lawnes,

The frisking Fayry oft when horned Cinthia shines

Before me as I walke dance wanton Matachynes…”

The ‘matachin’ is a sixteenth century sword dance related to the modern English morris dance (and it may be worthwhile noting that in Household Tales of 1895, Sidney Addy states that, at Curbar in Derbyshire, the fairies were dancing morris dances whenever they were sighted by locals).  As for ‘hide and seek,’ this is perhaps the earliest reference to this still popular children’s game.

Rather more mysterious are two other allusions made by Drayton in The Muse’s Elisium:

“And whilst the Nimphes that neare this place,

Disposed were to play

At Barly-breake and Prison-base,

Doe passe the time away:”

This passage is in the The First Nymphal; in the Third Nymphal we read these lines:

“At Barly-breake they play

Merrily all the day,

At night themselves they lay

Upon the soft leaves.”

What’s more, in the first book of Poly-Olbion, Drayton also mentions these games:

“The wanton Wood-Nymphs mixt with her light-footed Fawnes,

To lead the rurall routs about the goodly Lawnds,

As over Holt and Heath, as thorough Frith and Fell;

And oft at Barly-breake, and Prison-base, to tell

(In carrolds as they course) each other all the joyes…”

“The frisking fairies there, as on the light air borne,

Oft run at barley break upon the ears of corn,

And catching drops of dew in their lascivious chaces,

Do cast the liquid pearle in one another’s faces.”

Here we have references to two apparently related games, neither of which immediately sound very familiar today.  Barley-break is mentioned very often in Tudor and Stuart poetry and plays, which must attest to its contemporary popularity as a game for young couples (although it seems it could also refer to a circle dance- or the game could partly comprise dancing).

The nature of the game barley-break was, luckily, described at great length for us by Sir Philip Sydney in his Arcadia (I, 158), from which this is only an excerpt:

“Then couples three be straight allotted there

They of both ends the middle two do fly;

The two that in the mid place Hell called were,

Must strive, with waiting foot and watching eye,

To catch of them, and them to Hell to bear,

That they, as well as they, Hell may supply.”

Three couples play, with one pair confined to a central area called Hell.  The others have dare to get as near to Hell as possible, without being caught by one of the middle pair.  The catchers are required to hold hands at all times, but the other pairs can separate in order to stay free.  The game is over when all pairs have been caught and had a spell in Hell.

That barley-break might be a suitable pastime for supernatural woodland beings is confirmed by Richard Braithwaite’s play, A Strappado for the Divell (1615):

“Wood-haunting satyrs now their minions seeke,

And having found them, play at barley-breake,

Where delight makes the night short (though long) …”

brett
Molly Brett, from the series ‘Pixie Playthings’

Meanwhile, the game called ‘base, originally ‘Prison Bars,’ is a closely related activity.  Two parties, holding hands, face each other, and the aim is to catch an opponent who tries to run towards the opposite side’s base.  Thus, in Henry Chettle’s Tragedy of Hoffman- or, A Revenge for a Father (1602), Lucibella tells Ferdinand:

“Doe but stand here, I’ll run a little course

At base, or barley-break, or some such toye,

To catch the fellow, and come backe againe…”

In essence, both games are a sort of ‘tag.’ They stress the lively, physical and team-oriented nature of faery games.  Spenser in The Faery Queen mentions this aspect of ‘base’:

“So ran they all as they had been at bace,

They being chased, that did others chace.” (V, viii, 5)

The Legend of St Gregory of the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century gives us even more of an insight into the game:

“He wende in a day to plawe [play]

As the children don atte bars [i.e. at prison base]

A cours he took with a felawe,

Gregorie the swiftere was,

After him he leop pas wel gode,

With honden seyseth with skept [skill?]

That other was unblithe of mode [in an unhappy mood]

For tene [grief] of heart sore he wepte

And ran home as he wer wode [mad].”

In short, fairy games were energetic and exciting- just like their dancing and they were an excuse for young people to enjoy physical exercise and close contact with each other.  Given the known sensuous nature of faery kind, this is just what we might expect.

Further Reading

See my recently released book, Faeryfor more discussion of fairy leisure and entertainment.