Arthur Rackham, The fairies have a tiff with the birds
One thing that any regular reader of these pages- or of any materials on fairy-lore- will soon notice is that Faery is a place where contradictions are rife. Renowned fairy expert Katharine Briggs seems to have recognised this problem when she wrote that “it is possible for most people to keep two quite irreconcilable beliefs alive at the same time.” (The anatomy of Puck, p.5) Morgan Daimler has recently said something very similar: ”
“When it comes to Fairy the only generality we can make is that we can’t easily make any generalities.” (Fairies- a guide to the Celtic fair folk p.173)
Inconsistency and uncertainty seem par for the course in fairy studies. There is a distinct lack of consensus as to the appearance of the fays (their height, their facial features, the presence or absence of wings) or regarding their dress. I have discussed the range of opinion on these matters before on this blog and in chapters 1, 5 and 28 of my book British fairies. Of course, one might fairly observe that a non-human, presented with a selection of humans of varying age, ethnicity and dressed in their traditional, indigenous costume, might be equally puzzled to determine what the ‘typical’ human looks like. There are many sorts of fairies, so the lack of consistency in reports need not trouble us.
Non-believers will say that inconsistency in accounts is hardly remarkable, given that we’re discussing a wholly imaginary set of beings. The believer, in contrast, may explain the contradictions by pointing to the variety of fairy forms, their magical abilities and their well-known sense of mischief. Janet Bord argues as much in her book Fairies: real encounters with the little people: discrepancies in descriptions of fairies’ height may all be put down to their use of glamour and illusion. The agnostic researcher, wishing to take a more ‘scientific’ approach, and to aiming to discover the reason and logic behind fairy belief, might search for social and psychological explanations.
The biggest problem for any form of rational analysis of fairy accounts is the existence of downright irreconcilable differences between descriptions. I shall highlight just four here to demonstrate my point.
Iron is well-known as a material that repels fairies. A child in a cradle can be protected by scissors hung over it; shears placed in a chimney prevent fairy incursions by that route and a wise traveller will carry metal with them, even something as small as a pin, as a defence against supernatural encounters. Tales are often told of rescues of abducted spouses from fairy hills; the rescuer will place his knife at the threshold in order to stop the entrance to the hill re-closing and trapping him. This list could be extended considerably, but the principle is very well established. However, how do we explain fairies using metal tools- which they often do, as evidenced in the stories of human help being sought to repair demanded pails, pick axes and the like? Even more aberrant, perhaps, there is a Shetland story of an abducted boy who returns home skilled in making scythes, a craft he has learned whilst living with the trows (see for example Magical folk pp.38, 133 & 135).
The fairies’ faith
Religion is another source of contraries, as I have mentioned in a recent posting. The fairies are generally regarded as being heathens, or at least irreligious. On that basis, charms that are just as efficacious as a piece of iron include a page from the Bible, the sign of the cross or the invocation of God or the saints. Prompt baptism of a newborn will guard against its theft as a changeling. This all seems quite reasonable, until it is set alongside other traditions that treat the fairies as being perfectly orthodox Christian folk, conducting christenings and the like, or as beings concerned for their place in creation and worried over whether they will share in the Christian salvation. Once again, both cannot apply, but a compromise is almost impossible (see Magical folk pp.120, 127 & 135).
Time in fairyland
The passing of time is a significant feature of many stories of fairyland. I have alluded to this previously and it is pretty well known that time in Faery can pass at a different rate to time in the mortal world. A night spent under a fairy knoll may transpire to have been a year or ten, or a century, in the ‘real’ world. As might be imagined, the consequence of this for the returning visitor can be disastrous and tragic. And yet- this is not always a problem. Some visitors come and go without ill-effects; a midwife may be taken to attend a fairy birth and return home the same night; a husband may go to rescue his wife from the beneath the fairy hill and will do so in ‘real time.’ The fairies themselves may come and go from our world without difficulty.
I have remarked before that fairies can be described both as vegetarians and as keen hunters. Lastly, still on the issue of diet, how about fairy attitudes to bread? This may sound bizarre, but it was widely believed in Britain that carrying a crust was a sure way of protecting yourself from malign influences. Witness Robert Herrick’s brief rhyme:
“If ye feare to be affrighted,
When ye are (by chance) benighted,
In your pocket for a trust
Carrie nothing but a Crust:
For that holy piece of Bread,
Charmes the danger, and the dread.”
This may perhaps relate originally to carrying consecrated host, but it seems that ultimately any old slice of Hovis would do. Now contrast the situation in Wales. John Rhys tells of lake maidens (gwragedd annwn) lured to tryst with a mortal man by the offer of bread. They are fussy though: not any old piiece of bara brith will do. First the bread is too hard “Cras dy fara“, then too soft “Llaith dy fara,” until finally a happy medium is found and true love blossoms (Rhys, Celtic folklore, pp.3-6 & 27-30).
It is not possible to be didactic, especially on the subject of beings who are invisible and secretive. Contacts with them are rare and always fleeting, so any impressions formed will always be uncertain and unconfirmed. As I’ve suggested, the want of congruity throughout the reports may seem to give excellent grounds for rejecting them all as fictions. What is odd, though, is that these tales derive from a period when there was a genuine and widespread belief in (and fear of) fairies. This being so, you might expect the folk stories to provide listeners with consistent and coherent statements about the supernaturals, so that audiences might be forewarned and forearmed. The lack of correspondence between accounts might even be argued to be an indicator of authenticity.
We’ll summarise with the words of some fairy experts. Brian Froud, renowned fairy artist, was interviewed by Signe Pike for her 2010 book Faery tale. He described to Pike his reaction to his first investigations into faery:
“At first I thought, I don’t know… all this sounds a bit weird… and at the same time, a lot of it sounded like common sense. It’s very typical of faery, actually. In one way it simplified everything for me, and at the same time, it suddenly made everything very complicated.” (p.86)
Fairies are often regarded as being creatures of the ‘betwixt and between’ (see for example Storm Faerywolf’s book on the fairy tradition of that title). If this is so, it’s only fitting that our knowledge about them should, in the same way, be indeterminate and unsettled. It’s typical too of the fairies to want to withhold something from us- whether it’s their name or full knowledge of their personalities. I’ll conclude this brief survey of contrariety with some very fitting words from the first paragraph of the first chapter of Morgan Daimler’s recent book. Noting the conflicting descriptions of fairies, she states:
“None of them are wrong, and none of them are exactly right either, and that’s your first lesson about Fairy: it is in all ways and always a contradiction.”