Sylvia Townsend Warner- Of Cats and Elfins

For Christmas I received this collection of short stories by Sylvia Townsend Warner. Split into two sections- one on fairies, one on cats (!)- it complements her book, Kingdoms of Elfin, which I have reviewed before.

As a fan of both cats and elves, the book is highly recommended. It’s a pleasant read- and a thought provoking one too. There’s a general introduction to Warner’s views on the inhabitants of Faery, followed by her unusual little tales. Her opinions on fairy-kind as a whole are well worth noting.

In many respect, Warner’s elfins are very similar to those we know. For example, they frequent meadows where they “dance mushrooms into rings” and the island of Britain is divided up into kingdoms ruled over by fairy queens, such as Elfame. Warner’s belief was that fairies are, eventually, mortal. They can die of old age and they can die, too, by misadventure- for example, by drowning, poisoning or hanging.

Warner’s elfins have a very low estimation of humankind. We are noisy, rude, dirty and, worst of all, dim. Her fae are smaller than humans, winged and able to ‘put on’ invisibility. As a result, she observed that:

“It is sometimes said that we have but our own obtuseness to blame for not seeing fairies more often than we do; but this is to attach too much importance to our idiosyncrasies, even to such a well-established, long-standing idiosyncrasy as obtuseness; for if we fail to see the fairies, it is not because we are too stupid to see them, but because they are too clever to allow themselves to be seen by us.”

Of Cats & Elfins, ‘The Kingdom of Elfin.’

All in all, Warner’s elves don’t reckon much to us human beings. In her story ‘The Narrative of Events Preceding the Death of Queen Ermine,’ it is remarked that “Mortals are not logical animals.” The courtier who makes this observation expands upon his experience a little later, explaining the essential difference between human and fairy kind (the possession of consciences): “We [that is, the fae] have no need of them. We have reason. But they are part of the mortal apparatus, as tails are to cats…” In the story ‘The Duke of Orkney’s Leonardo,’ we are told a little more about Elfin morality. They are “untrammeled by that petted plague of mortals, conscience, [so] they never reproached or regretted, entered into explanations or lied.” Faery is a world of guilt-free Enlightenment, it would seem. In the same story, Warner has a nice little joke at human gullibility: of fairy princess Lief, she remarks sardonically that:

“If she had believed in witches she would have believed he was under a spell; but Caithness was full of witches- mortals all, derided by rational Elfins.”

The fairy view of people is summarised by Warner in these terms:

“It is a sad fact, but undeniable: the Kingdom of Elfin has a very poor opinion of humankind. I suppose we must seem to them shocking boors, uncouth, noisy, ill-bred and disgustingly oversized. It is only the fairies with a taste for low company, like Puck and the Brownies… that make a practice of familiarity. And it is to be observed that they, for choice, frequent the simple and rustic part of mankind and avoid professors and students of folklore…”

Of Cats & Elfins, ‘The Kingdom of Elfin.’

As she notes, those humans who go out consciously looking for traces of the faeries tend to be disappointed- or are the victims of fairy vindictiveness. Warner confronts the fact that, when they do have contact with us, it is frequently an unpleasant experience for the mortals. They may give us a nasty fright, or:

“Often they go further, causing them to fall into languishing sicknesses, harrying them with ignominious accidents and even pursuing them unto death. They commonly employ one or two methods: blasting or shooting with an elf-bolt…”

Of Cats & Elfins, ‘The Kingdom of Elfin.’

According to Warner, three groups, nevertheless, have a good chance of meeting faeries on happier terms. These are country women with new born babies, young children and handsome men. Mothers are taken because “the fairies think that the plodding and bovine nature of human kind is peculiarly well adapted to provide reliable old-fashioned nurses for fairy babes.”

Children are abducted either because they are wanted as a tithe for the devil (according to one theory) or because they enjoy the company of children and taking care of them (which she thinks more likely). This sits uncomfortably with a entirely typical faery episode in ‘The Narrative of Events Preceding the Death of Queen Ermine’ in which local children are punished for trespassing on the queen’s land. Most suffer pinchings, scratching and hair pullings, but some of the fairies get rather carried away in their duties- “driving the marauders into wasps’ nests, jerking them off boughs into nettlebeds, alluring them to toadstools or gay wreaths of deadly nightshade.” The resultant death toll is quite high.

As for men, fairy women take them as husbands. Warner notes, though, that the reverse is seldom the case. Although fairy men will seduce human women, “no earthly woman’s charms have been powerful enough to bind a fairy to her in honorable matrimony.” In large measure, she ascribes this to the fairy temperament:

“Their amorousness is proverbial and no doubt the fairies who married mortal husbands were induced to this rash step by the violence of their passions, coupled with a romantic and high-flown notion that there is something very fine about defying convention. Once married, however, they make admirable wives.”

Of Cats & Elfins, ‘The Kingdom of Elfin.’

On the whole, though, fairies are an unromantic lot and are incapable of falling heavily for another: “Elfins find such love burdensome and mistrust it.” If only humans could be as calm and rational… The other remark to make upon Warner’s Elfins is their diversity. The author was a lesbian with a life-long partner and in the story ‘The Duke of Orkney’s Leonardo’ she imagined a gay husband and his wife, neither of them prepared to conform to the stereo-types expected of them.

Raphael, Mary F., A Wood Nymph; Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum

The last story in the Cats and Elfins collection is ‘Stay, Corydon, Thou Swain.’ In many ways it is my favourite, although it is strictly not about Elfins but about nymphs. In short, it concerns a Mr Mulready, a draper in Wells in Somerset. He is a highly respectable widower who sings in the Baptist chapel choir. One evening the choir has been practicing the madrigal by Wilbye that provides the story’s title. The words of the verse stick in Mulready’s mind:

“Thy nymph is light and shadow-like

For if thou follow her, she’ll fly from thee,

But if thou fly from her, she’ll follow thee.”

Then, “All of a sudden, Mr Mulready found himself wondering about nymphs, and wondering, too, in a very serious and pertinacious way. He had never, to his knowledge, given a though to these strange beings before and yet it now seemed to him that he had an idea of them both clear and pleasant- as though perhaps in childhood he had been taken to see one. He wished to see a nymph again… What he felt was more than a whim: it was an earnest desire, a mental craving…”

The next day he realises that he has a nymph working in his shop, a pale young girl called Edna Cave. He asks to come out for a bicycle ride the next evening and they agree to cycle to Merley Wood, the other side of Glastonbury (there is a real Merley Wood, but it’s near Wimbourne in Dorset- definitely not an evening’s ride from Wells). Mulready knows the wood- and has always been a little nervous of its atmosphere, but as he tells himself: “When one has a nymph vouchsafed one for a whole evening, one does not boggle over details. He was extremely happy and excited at the thought of such a shy and rare being becoming his companion.”

They ride to the wood on a beautiful summer’s evening. Edna Cave is exactly the company the older man had hoped for : “He had already a general idea of how a nymph should behave: she would be rather quiet and take a great interest in flowers.” This is exactly what Edna does. They sit happily together under blackthorn blossom on the edge of the wood, saying little, but very content, until it is late and starting to get quite dark. Mr Mulready encourages them to leave and they are just walking back to their bikes when Edna turns around and walks back towards the blackthorn:

“She put out her hands. He thought she was going to break off a spray… And then, in a moment, she disappeared.”

Edna vanishes, leaving Mulready stunned and panicked. There is no trace of her at all- and he has to face returning to Wells with this shattering news. This wonderful mystery is exactly what I sought to celebrate in my book Nymphology published last year; it is, as well, a fine end to the Elfin section of Warner’s collection.

‘An ode to joy’- the fairies and the good old days

Prince-Arthur-and-the-Fairy-Queen

King Arthur and the Fairy Queen, by Henry Fuseli

It is often said that true happiness passed away with the departure of the fairies from our land.  In this posting I want to examine the traditional ties that exist between fairies and the myths Merry England.

Fairies are inextricably linked with joy and merry making in the English/ British tradition.  In many accounts their sole or main occupation is dancing in rings and one persistently identified characteristic of fairyland is joy.  The fairies take a simple, unalloyed pleasure in dance and music, so much so that circle-dancing in the moonlight has become a defining trait.  Accordingly, William Warner’s Albion’s England published in 1602 described how:

“The Elves and Faries, taking fists, did hop a merry Rounde…

The ayrie Sprites, the walking Flares, and Goblins great and small,

Had there good cheare, and companie, and sporte the Devill and all.”

In his 1611 masque Oberon the fairy Ben Jonson celebrates that:

“These are Nights,

Solemn to the shining Rites

Of the Fairy Prince and Knight:

While the Moon their Orgies light…

Stand forth bright Faies and Elves and tune your lays.”

In Milton’s Comus of 1632 we read how:

“And on the Tawny Sands and shelves,

Trip the pert Fairies and the dapper Elves,

By dimpled Brook and Fountain brim,

The Wood-Nymphs deckt with Daisies trim,

Their merry wakes and pastimes keep:

What hath night to do with sleep?” (lines 117-122)

Fairies continued to be associated with innocent pastimes into the nineteenth century, for example in Ann Radcliffe’s poem Air the “Fays of lawn and glade” circle to the merry tabor sound and Paul Dunbar reassured his readers that the fairy rout still shouted, sang and danced their roundelays, even in late Victorian times (Dunbar (1872-1906), The discovery).

Fairies, therefore, may be said to have been synonymous with ‘merry England.’  Unfortunately, the general opinion emerged that those times were over- despite Dunbar’s promises that fairy glee persisted- and this, of course, necessitated the poet’s assurances to the contrary.  Most later writers felt that the fairies had departed, or at least fallen silent, and that Britain had become a less joyful place.  As early as the seventeenth century, indeed, Richard Corbet in Farewell rewards and fairies explicitly blamed the Reformation and the baneful effect of Puritan morality for this:

“At morning and at evening both
You merry were and glad,
So little care of sleep or sloth
These pretty ladies had;
When Tom came home from labour,
Or Cis to milking rose,
Then merrily went their tabor,
And nimbly went their toes.

Witness those rings and roundelays
Of theirs, which yet remain,
Were footed in Queen Mary’s days
On many a grassy plain;
But since of late, Elizabeth,
And later, James came in,
They never danced on any heath
As when the time hath been.”

John Selden expressed the belief most memorably and succinctly: “There never was a merry World since the Fairies left Dancing and the Parson left conjuring” (Selden, Table talk, 1689, c.XCIX). Later the same century John Dryden, in his version of The wife of Bath’s tale, conveyed the same sentiment, but emphasised the intimate connection of the fairies to the British Isles:

“Above the rest our Britain they held dear,

More solemnly they kept their Sabbaths here,

And made more spacious rings, and revelled half the year.

I speak of ancient times, for now the swain

Returning late may pass the wood in vain,

And never hope to see the nightly train:”

The death of ‘Merrie England’ continued to be mourned long after the event.  Thomas Hood lamented that the “Fairies have broke their wands/ And wishing has lost its power!” (Hood (1799-1845), A lake and a fairy boat).  In the ‘Dymchurch flit’ Kipling’s fairies declared “we must flit out of this, for Merry England’s done” (Kipling, Puck of Pook’s Hill, 1906). Folklorists on the Isle of Man in the nineteenth century heard the same stories of the fynoderee: “There has not been a merry world since he lost his ground” ( J. Train, Account of the Isle of Man, vol.2, p.138).  This supernatural Manx being is comparable to the British mainland brownie; he lives on a farmstead and is the source and guarantor of good fortune.  It follows that “The luck of the house is said to depart for ever with the offended phynnod-derree” (William Harrison, Mona miscellany, pp.173-174.)  The same of course is true in England and Scotland: there can be no happiness or contentment on a farm if the brownie is displeased or has disappeared.

To summarise, then, we can only hope to reconnect with joy and good luck if we re-establish contact with our good neighbours.  This was certainly the conviction of William George Russell (AE).  His poem The dream of the children describes how music and wonder are revived:

“For all the hillside was haunted/ By the faery folk, come again.”

Identification of elves with older, happier times holds out to us the hope that they may be restored.  Through the fairies we may recover our innocence, simplicity and sense of community.  The fairies’ unaffected love of dancing and music, their childlike joy in play, imply that our own ability to reconnect with a better, less complex world persists undiminished and may be revived.

http://www.john-howe.com/blog/2011/09/15/the-defining-of-dreams/

Further reading

As well as symbolising and linking us to a ‘merry England’ of the imagination, fairies had another historical role- to explain and contextualise monuments and prehistoric sites that were otherwise mysterious and anomalous.  See my posts on fairies and megaliths and on the use of fairy-lore to explain the past.

Brownies in literature- from Mrs Ewing to Dobby

ewing

The brownie is one of the most intriguing creatures of British folklore.  Fairies can seem alien and elusive, seldom seen and dangerous when they are encountered, whereas the brownie is domestic, helpful and ever-present.  I have described this homely presence in many northern British homes and farmsteads in my book British fairies and in an earlier post on brownies; what I wish to discuss here is the literary history of the brownie- and how we arrived at the characters of Dobby, Winky and Creacher in the Harry Potter series of novels.

Mrs Ewing

One of the earliest appearances of the brownie in literature (as opposed to folklore) is in the work of Victorian children’s writer Mrs Juliana Horatia Ewing, who was born in Yorkshire in 1841.  Whilst growing up she often acted as storyteller to the rest of her family and, aged 23, her best-known story, The Brownies, was published in the Monthly Packet with illustrations by George Cruikshank.

The Brownies and the related story, Lob-lie-by-the-fire (1874) both ostensibly concern household elves, and relay much traditional lore about them, but in Lob the lob is revealed to be just the orphaned stable boy John Brown whilst in The Brownies we are let in on the secret well before the end that “All children are Brownies” and that “there [are] no brownies but children.”  In fact, Mrs Ewing was far more interested in teaching children to be helpful and obedient to their parents than she was in recording authentic folklore.

In The Brownies two lazy and selfish boys called Tommy and Johnnie are taught the virtues of helping their widowed father with his trade and household chores:

“The Brownies, or, as they are sometimes called, the Small Folk, the Little People, or the Good People, are a race of tiny beings who domesticate themselves in a house of which some grown-up human being pays the rent and taxes…  When they are idle and mischievous, they are called Boggarts, and are a curse to the house they live in. When they are useful and considerate, they are Brownies, and are a much-coveted blessing… in time these Little People are Brownies no longer. They grow up into men and women.”

When Tommy and Johnnie have learned their lesson and begin to help their father, good luck returns to the house:

“Before long Tommy began to work for the farmers, and Baby grew up into a Brownie, and made (as girls are apt to make) the best house-sprite of all. For, in the Brownie’s habits of self-denial, thoughtfulness, consideration, and the art of little kindnesses, boys are, I am afraid, as a general rule, somewhat behindhand with their sisters… For these Brownies -young ladies!- are much desired as wives, whereas a man might as well marry an old witch as a young Boggartess.”

Mrs Ewing knew her folklore very well, even she did not apply it directly in her stories.  Brownies, lobs and hobs bring good fortune.  For the expense of a bowl of water, milk or cream and some fresh bread, the house-elf would do the work of many servants: sweeping and laying the fire, setting out breakfast, tidying rooms, weeding the garden, threshing the corn, cleaning the stable, cutting wood, thinning the turnips and lifting potatoes.  Householders knew not to alienate their brownies: they were not to reward them with clothes or money, they were to show them respect and they knew not to boast or gossip about them, not to spy upon their labours and not to preach to them.  If these precepts were respected, a farmstead would thrive.  In Lob-lie-by-the-fire it was believed that the lob’s presence meant that the crops improved, the hens laid well, rats did not eat the ducklings, no fowl were stolen and the butter churned better.

pc4

Palmer Cox

The next significant appearance of brownies was in the work of Canadian illustrator Palmer Cox (1840-1924). He produced a series of brownie titles which have been claimed as “the first commercial comic books.”  Each of these dozen books were prefaced by a brief statement that:

“Brownies, like fairies and goblins, are imaginary little sprites, who are supposed to delight in harmless pranks and helpful deeds.  They work and sport while weary households sleep, and never allow themselves to be seen by mortal eyes.”

This is a fair summary of the established lore, but it is not reflected in the books themselves, which comprise numerous illustrations interspersed amongst verse- for example, here is the ‘Brownies’ ride’ from The Brownies: their book of 1887:

“One night a cunning Brownie band/ Was roaming through a farmer’s land/ And while the rogues went prying round/ The farmer’s mare at rest they found.”

A few of the series titles and chapter headings will illustrate how far Cox had travelled from authenticity.  In the first book, The Brownies, readers were entertained by brownies on skates, bicycles and roller skates, brownies playing tennis and baseball and brownies enjoying canoeing and tobogganing and visiting a gym, the seaside and a toy shop.  In 1890’s Another brownie book readers were amused by brownies fishing, kite flying, yacht racing, learning to swim and dance and attending a fancy ball.  And so on; the books were immensely popular and were used by some forty companies including Kodak (the ‘box brownie’ camera) and Proctor and Gamble.

PC brownie

In The brownies and Prince Florimel brownies are described as being the size of twelve year olds, often perching on fences and hiding adroitly whenever danger threatens. This conforms to conventional imagery, but as will have been seen in the verse quoted earlier, Cox has them partaking of their adventures in swarms, more like pixies or spriggans than the solitary creatures they were originally conceived as.  In the same story, by the way, the fairies are ruled by Queen Titania and are tiny; they “never grew old and always remained beautiful.  Their loveliness of face and form was beyond all description.  Just try to think of the prettiest girl you ever saw.  Well, even the plainest of these fairies were ever so much prettier.”

the-enid-blyton-book-of-brownies

Enid Blyton

In the 1920s and ’30s Enid Blyton adopted brownies as the subjects of several children’s books, including The book of the brownies, The little brownie house, Snicker the brownie, The brownie who pulled faces, My first nature book- brownie magic and several others. The first book mentioned seems typical: naughty brownies Hop, Skip and Jump are always playing tricks; they are then tricked themselves by Witch Green Eyes into helping her to abduct fairy princess Peronel.  For this the three are expelled from fairyland and set out on an adventure to rescue her.  Very much like Cox, Blyton’s fairies seem a good deal more like pixies than the traditional solitary creatures who labour on farms.

J K Rowling

It was not until the late 1990s and the appearance of the Harry Potter series that brownies were restored to something resembling their original character in children’s literature.  J K Rowling had plainly studied folklore and the history of alchemy and magic quite extensively before writing her books; this is demonstrated by her treatment of Dobby and the other house-elves.  The name Dobby is not Rowling’s invention.  The native brownie of East Anglia was called Mr (or Master) Dobbs; in Yorkshire he was Dobby and further north in Northumberland and the Borders, he (or she) was called Dobie.

DOBBY2

In the series,  house-elves are depicted as magical creatures who are intensely devoted and loyal to those designated as their masters.  House-elves serve wizards and witches, usually being found in the employment of old wizarding families and bound to do everything that their masters command- unless they are freed. A house-elf can only be freed when their master presents them with clothes (a classic fairy tale trope).  In part due to their absolute obedience, house-elves are treated very brutally by their owners: they have no rights of their own and are viewed as servants without feeling or emotions. To symbolise this, they usually wear makeshift clothes made from found objects such as pillowcases and rags (again, typical of the traditional brownie). These garments can become quite filthy, yet-  as a further expression of the fact that they have no needs other than those specifically allowed to them by their masters- the house-elf will not clean them.  Indeed, so subservient are they that house-elves will torture and maim themselves if they think they have displeased their master.

Large numbers of house-elves are also employed at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.  They work the kitchens, preparing feasts for the entire school. They also move luggage to and from rooms and clean the dormitories and other areas. 

The Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare (S.P.E.W.) was group founded by Hogwarts student Hermione Granger in response to what she saw as gross injustice in the treatment of house elves during the quidditch world cup.  Despite attracting little interest or sympathy in her campaign from fellow students, Hermione persisted, employing tactics such as badge-making and petitioning, albeit with very little effect. Eventually, she started knitting hats and socks which she left lying around, hoping to free some unsuspecting elf who picked them up and put them on while cleaning the common room.  In due course, the elves became angry at Hermione’s attempts at liberation by stealth. The friendliest house-elves working at the school, Dobby and Winky, were considered disgraces by the rest of their colleagues; this is due to Dobby accepting payment and a holiday whilst Winky despairs after she loses her master, turning to drink and doing no work. 

Rowling’s are serious and rounded characters.  She preserves the significance of clothes to their release and incorporates the brownies’ work ethic, although the element of enslavement against which Hermione campaigns is not derived from British tradition.

spew

Further reading

Other great works of children’s literature with fairy themes are examined in my posts on Charles Kingsley and the Water babies and J. M. Barrie and Peter Pan.

Anglo-Saxon elves

alf

The Norse universe- showing Alfheim where the elves live

It will be obvious that the Saxon immigrants to British shores in the sixth century brought with them an established body of belief on fairies and elves.  What I wish to do in this posting is to attempt to outline the core elements of what that belief might have been, before it interacted with existing insular British beliefs.

Sources

We can form some idea of what our Saxon ancestors might have believed from several sources.  There are their own literary productions- poems, stories and medical texts- which provide valuable information.  There are contemporary Norse texts which examine the Viking pantheon.  Lastly, we may compare more recent Scandinavian- especially Danish- folk beliefs with English fairy stories; where they share elements, we may suggest that these derive from an early, common mythology believed by all the continental Germanic tribes.  Of course, the potential flaw in this approach is that there was later contact through Danish and Norwegian Viking settlement in Britain.  If beliefs are widespread throughout all of England and lowland Scotland- and not limited to the Danelaw, this later influence may be discounted; equally, I might argue that we are still describing Saxon folklore, albeit the beliefs of the later Saxons after the Norse influx had been absorbed (!)  In fact, many of the ideas listed below are found in Wessex, the West Midlands and the North, the Borders and Scottish lowlands, beyond the Norse settlements, so that later imports may not be the best explanation.  Another approach could be to ascribe these common beliefs to a core of Indo-European thought, something that was not unique to Celts, Germans, Slavs or others.   There is, very likely, such a deep shared source: it is probably world wide and very ancient.  In this case, it is still likely that a good number of these ideas were incorporated in to early English belief and were carried into Britain at the time of the settlement.

Norse Alfheim

The old Norse Edda is a good starting point for this examination, as it provides a clear statement of northern Teutonic belief about the elves.  In the early 1200s in Iceland, scholar Snorri Sturluson compiled the so-called prose Edda, a record of the Norse myths and legends.  In Gylfaginning Gylfi describes the heavens and the many splendid places there:

“There is one place that is called Alfheim.  There live the folk called light-elves, but the dark-elves live down in the ground, and they are unlike them in appearance, and even more unlike them in nature.  Light-elves are fairer than the sun to look at, but dark-elves are blacker than pitch.”

These alfar are still active to this day.  Meanwhile, in later British belief we come across stories of Elfame from Lowland Scotland.  It seems inescapable that this ‘elf-home’ is a survival from the earliest English legends.  As for the division into light and dark, good and bad, elves, there are several later references to ‘white fays’ in English literature and one echo that may be particularly significant. Being interrogated on charges of witchcraft in 1566, John Walsh of Netherbury, Dorset told his inquisitors “that there be iii kinds of fairies- white, green and black.  Whereof the blacke fairies is the worst…”  If the colours reflect more than mere choice of costume, there appears here to be a survival of the light/ dark opposition.  In this connection we should also note the Old English term aelfscyne which was applied to women in a couple of texts (Genesis A and the poem Judith).  The word seems to mean something like ‘elf-beautiful’ or even ‘enchantingly bright’; perhaps in the suggestion of light or shining there is a further hint of the light and dark elf dichotomy.

From this limited evidence it may be possible to postulate a basic Anglo-Saxon mythology of an Elf-home, divided between the good (white) elves and the bad (black) elves.  Beyond that, it is not safe to go. Several further varieties of elves- the sae, feld, beorg, dun and munt aelfen- are mentioned in Aelfric’s Glossary,  but it seems very likely that these are actually translations of classical terms such as naiad and hamadryad and that they are not genuine Saxon categories at all.  If this is so, this is a tenth century example of the deleterious effects of classical learning that I described in a previous post.

Elf shot

Luckily, we do possess some direct evidence of Saxon conceptions of the elvish race. They are mentioned in several medical texts as the causes of illnesses, mainly internal pains or mental disturbances.  A spell to cure ‘the stitch’ goes as follows:

“Loud were they, lo, loud, as they rode over the barrow/ … Out little spear, if herein it be/ … To them another I wish to send back/ … a flying dart against them in return./  …if it were gods’ shot, or it were elves’ shot/ Or it were witches’ shot, now I will help you/ This is the remedy…”

‘Elf-shot’ was a recognised cause of disease in later times and was a major diagnosis in the Saxon texts such as Lacnunga.  A selection of herbs were employed in treating both humans and livestock afflicted with these maladies.  The medical texts also refer to aelfsogetha- which appears to be something like bronchitis or heartburn- and to aelfsidenn, which literally means elf-enchantment and seems to be a night fever or nightmares.  There is too a cure for waeteraelfaedle (water-elf sickness) which is characterised by the patient’s livid nails, watering eyes and downcast looks.  This term may denote another subdivision of the elves: in later times in Scotland there was a clear distincton between land (or dressed) and water fairies (see Campbell, Popular tales of the west Highlands, vol.2 p.64).  Equally, though, it might just as well be read as ‘watery elf-sickness’ and so be more concerned with the symptoms than the identity of the agent inflicting the disease.

Olaus Magnus Historia om de nordiska folken

Elves in a fairy knoll

Common elvish traits

Turning to the comparative sources, the attributes shared by English fairies with those of the original English homelands seem to be extensive and to include:

  • living under hills, which will periodically rise or open up to reveal feasting and music within;
  • a love of singing and dancing;
  • a preference for dancing in circles in grassy places, leaving marks on the ground;
  • a love of cleanliness and tidiness, for which humans are rewarded (or punished);
  • causing disease in humans and livestock;
  • the inability to cross running water;
  • a preference for wearing green and red, especially red caps;
  • an aversion to loud noises, which may drive them away;
  • the magic power to make themselves invisible, change their shape, see the future or to confer prosperity;
  • the need to use human midwives;
  • magic power in their names, which must be concealed from humans;
  • a strong link to certain trees, especially oaks.  Elder trees also feature in Danish folklore, which tells of the Old Lady of the Elder Tree who must be appeased before taking wood.  This spirit also appears in Lincolnshire, very strongly suggesting that Danish settlers brought the belief with them to East Anglia;
  • residence in Elfame is perilous, because time passes differently and because their food is unsafe for humans;
  • fairies take children and leave changelings, which may be exposed by cooking tricks or by burning;
  • there is a species of fairy that resides with humans, doing farm-work, stealing fodder and grain from neighbours and becoming so attached to a household that it is impossible to escape them by trying to move away.  Nonetheless, if they are insulted, they will become a nuisance. These are of course the English and Lowland Scots brownies;
  • there are freshwater fairies that are part-horse;
  • there are marine fairies such as mermaids and seal people.

As suggested earlier, the considerable parallels between Danish fairy lore and English tales are indicative of a common source.  The question remains whether that was located in fifth century Angeln before the early English fared forth in their keels, or further back in time and further away in the homelands of the Indo-European peoples.

Anglo-Saxon elves seem to have been imagined as being human in size and shape, but having a semi-divine nature.  Scandinavian elves shared this character and were the subject of sacrifices, aelfblot.  For instance, in Kormaks Saga a wounded man was told to sacrifice a bull and then to take the beast to a mound “in which elves dwell … and redden the outside of the mound with the bull’s blood, and make the elves a feast with the flesh; and you will be healed.”  There are records of comparable practices in Britain.

The evidence indicates that a rich set of beliefs were imported to British shores, there to mingle with the mythology of the residual British population and to produce the complex and developed fairy-lore to which this blog is dedicated.

Further reading

I have considered the early medieval fairy lore of Wales and the fairies of post-Norman England in other posts.

For those readers who want a far more detailed and academic examination of this area, I recommend the work of Alaric Hall, lecturer in medieval English literature at Leeds University.  You will readily find online pdf copies of his book Elves in Anglo-Saxon England and of his PhD thesis from which the book derives.  As his job indicates, his approach is primarily literary and is written from the perspective of an Anglo-Saxonist. If your conversational Mercian is weak, you may not fancy it….!

 

“Of Brownyis and of Boggles, full is this beuk”- the helpful fairies

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For all that has been said in my past posts about the divine, fearsome and sometimes vengeful nature of British fairies, I have mentioned – and many readers will be familiar with- a species of helpful household beings.  This category of supernaturals is often labelled ‘brownies’ but this is one regional variation (of eastern and northern England and the Scottish Lowlands) of a wider class which, as the above quote for Gawain Douglas indicates, includes the hobgoblins, hobs and lobs.  There are also those fairies that are made useful to humans by reason of scaring recalcitrant children (Tom Dockin, Tom Poker, Tommy Rawhead et al)- see my separate posting on these nursery sprites.  Here we are concerned with those beings that render aid voluntarily and devotedly.

These solitary fairies were more or less domesticated, being attached to a family or place.  They were all linked with human habitations and human activities, but the degree of association varied.  There were, for example,:

  • herding fairies like the Highland urisk who cared for cattle and worked in the fields, but lived in or near pools.  Some herded sheep or looked after poultry and the Cornish Browney gathered up bee swarms;
  • barn and household fairies which included the likes of Robin Roundcap of East Yorkshire; Dobie, Dobby and Master Dobbs of the Borders, Northern England and Sussex respectively; the Welsh bwca and bwbachod; the bodachan sabhail of the Highlands, and Old Man Crook and John Tucker of Devon.  These fairies would grind, mow, churn, sweep and wash, riddling corn and sieving flour in the pantry, thresh, run errands (such as fetching a midwife) and give advice- or they would untidy that which was already tidy!  There was a saying ‘Master Dobbs has been helping you’ meaning that a person had done more work than had been expected of them;
  • buttery sprites  and cellar ghosts who guard larders from thieving servants;
  • housework helpers like Habetrot and Scantlie Mab who assisted with spinning and weaving; and,
  • mine fairies: Milton knew of “the swart faery of the mine” by which he meant the knockers and coblynau who help and guide miners (see for example Ritson pp.37-38 Dissertation on fairies).

Most of these creatures were small and hairy, perhaps at most clad in rags.  They worked hard and energetically and expected no direct reward except some clean water, cream, honeycomb or bread left out before the fire, discretely and without announcement.  Any attempt to give clothes (or at least cheap clothes) was never appreciated and could either drive a brownie away or convert it into a boggart, a nuisance brownie who behaved like a poltergeist with mischievous tricks.  Brownies reacted the same way to criticism of their work (see Briggs, Tradition and literature p.34) or if their name was discovered (or an unwanted human name given).

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Brownies could become too attached and too devoted to households.  In Ben Jonson’s The silent woman Dauphine complains that “they haunt me like fairies and give me jewels here; I cannot be rid of them” (Act V scene 1).  This might seem inexplicable were it not for Professor John Rhys , who notes a Cardiganshire belief that:

“once you come across one of the fairies you cannot easily be rid of him, since the fairies were little beings of a very devoted nature.  Once a man had become friendly with one of them, the latter would be present with him almost everywhere he went, until it became a burden to him.” (Celtic folklore p.250).

They might then overstep the mark, stealing from neighbouring farms to supply their own.  Sometimes they exposed lazy servants, but equally they might defend them, as in the instance recounted by Briggs where the brownie left until servants dismissed for laziness by letting him do all the work were reinstated (Briggs, Tradition and literature p.38).

Boggarts and brownies could become such a nuisance to households that a farmer might decide to ‘flit‘ to try to escape from one.  There are widespread versions of this tale in Lincolnshire, Yorkshire and Northumberland.  The decision might be made to move house; the contents would be packed and loaded and the family would set off, only to find that the brownie was with them- so they might as well turn round and stay put (See Keightley Fairy mythology pp.307-8).

Finally, we should note that Brownies are now junior girl-guides.  The name was taken from Juliana Horatia Ewing‘s story of The brownies (1870), in which two children learn that they can be either helpful brownies or lazy boggarts.  Originally Baden-Powell had chosen the name of ‘Rosebuds’, so perhaps it was wisely replaced.

Spirits related to those described here are those that warn humans of danger, such as the Cornish hopper and the Isle of Man houlaa, who both alerted fishermen to approaching storms and the skriker of Yorkshire and Lancashire who warned of death.

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An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).

“Fairies or devils- whatsoe’er you be’-the belief in witches and fairies”

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Fairies and witches have long been seen as linked and comparable, as the title quotation from Thomas Dekker’s The Spanish Moor’s Tragedy illustrates (Act III scene 2).  In his book on witchcraft, Geoffrey Parrinder observed that “there is undoubtedly much similarity between the activities ascribed to fairies and to witches.”  These included the ability to fly, their preference for night time, their thefts of children and the foyson of food and their ability to kill remotely.

These links and crossovers are of longstanding.  For example Chaucer in The Merchants Tale mentions “Pluto, that is the king of faerie” (i, 10101) and Dunbar in The Golden terge also alludes to “Pluto, that elricke incubus/ In cloke of grene…”  One of the charges made by the English against Jean d’Arc was that she had frequented the Fairy Tree at Dompre and had joined in the fairies’ dances.

Witch trials

By the sixteenth century the two beliefs were very confused and intermixed.  Old women were accused of being witches and of flying in the air or dancing with the fairies, even though, as Reginald Scot pointed out, their age and lameness could make them “unapt” for such activities (Discovery of witchcraft Book V c.IX and Book XII c.III).  Fairies attended the witches sabbats and left rings on the grass  whilst the witches would visit the fairy queen in her hill (Daemonologie c.V).  Hecate, the mother witch and the queen of fairy all became compounded in the popular mind, as with the Gyre-Carlin or Nicnevin of Lowland Scotland; she rode at night with her court of ‘nymphs’ and incubi (Sir Walter Scott, Minstrelsy, ‘On fairies’ IV).  Oberon became the ‘king of shadows’ in Midsummer Night’s Dream.  It was believed that the habit of taking of changelings was because the fairies had to pay a tithe of souls to Hell each year.  In George Peele’s Battle of Alcazar “You bastards of the Night and Erebus, Fiends, fairies, hags” are summoned (Act IV, scene 2) and in Spenser’s Epithalamion it is prayed “Ne let the Pouke, nor other evil sprights/ Ne let mischievous witches with their charms/ Ne let hob Goblins, names whose sense we see not/ Fray us with things that be not” (lines 340-3).  Witches obeyed the commands of the fairy queen, Diana or Herodias, according to Scot (Book III c.XVI).  In summary, hell and fairyland became essentially identical and for Reginald Scot the terms fairy and witch were interchangeable.  Likewise for John Lyly, writing Endimion in 1585: for him fairies were synonymous with ‘hags’ and ‘fayre fiendes’ (Act IV, scene 3).

Reformation

To this mix the Reformation added another layer of confusion and prejudice.  Puritans had two objections to faery.  Firstly, it had to be accommodated with scripture and, as the fairies weren’t angels, they had to be devils.  Secondly, fairies were one of the impositions of Rome.  King James VI condemned the belief as “one of the sortes of illusiones … of Papistrie” (Daemonologie, c.V).  In Richard Corbet’s Rewards and fairies “the fairies were of the old profession/ Their songs were Ave Maries/ Their dances were procession.”  Dr Samuel Harsenet, Archbishop of York, in his 1603 Declaration of egregious Popish Impostures called Mercury ‘Prince of the fairies’ and asked “What a world of hel-worke, devil-worke and Elve-worke, had we walking amongst us heere in England” when the Popish mists had fogged our eyes?  Later he declared “These are the times wherein we are sicke, and mad of Robin Goodfellow and the devil, to walke again amongst us…” (pp.134 & 166).

A rational few, such as Reginald Scot, dismissed the belief in witches as delusion and knavery, just as much as the dwindling belief in fairies, and felt sure that in time to come both would be equally ‘derided and contemned’ (Book VII c.II).

Sadly, such rationality was slow to establish itself and in the short term the witch craze swept Britain between about 1550 and 1650.  Diane Purkiss, in The witch in history (1996), has observed how fairy beliefs were converted into witch beliefs and were reproduced in the accusations and confessions of witches.  In fact, a range of materials were recycled by people- plays, ballads, news gossip, chapbooks- to create their own stories and to reflect their own agendas, concerns and conflicts.  For example, Joan Tyrrye applied the common ‘fairy midwife’ story to herself, saying that she was blinded in one eye by a fairy she met in Taunton market.  Others spoke of witches appearing dressed in green, the fairy colour.  The problem was that, in the prevailing intellectual climate, old wives’ tales of fairyland were no longer credible and were instead interpreted as accounts of demons.

Fairy healing

Some ‘cunning folk’ (healers and herbalists) tried to argue that through the fairies they only practiced white magic and that the supernatural help they received was only to cure and to do good.  For example, Bessie Dunlop of Ayrshire was accused in 1578 of sorcery and witchcraft.  She admitted that the fairies had helped her heal sick people (and cattle) and to find lost things.  Likewise, Alison Pearson of Byrehill faced similar charges in 1588: she pleaded that a green man had introduced her to the fairy court and that the fairies had taught her remedies.  Joan Tyrrye of Somerset swore that the fairies gave her only good and godly powers and showed what herbs would rid folk of witchcraft.  John Walsh of Dorset said that he too was taught by the fairies under the hills to recognise and treat those bewitched.

These justifications were often advanced; other examples are Isobel Haldane of Perth in 1623, Agnes Hancock of Somerset in 1438, Andro Man of Aberdeen in 1597, Christian Livingstone of Leith in 1557 and, in 1616, Elspeth Rioch and Katharine Jonesdochter of Orkney.  All claimed to have been taught by the fairies, in Man’s case by the fairy queen herself.  Such a defence seldom helped the accused, even when the supernatural powers acquired were used to alleviate the effects of witchcraft or fairy affliction.  Sir Walter Scott observed sadly that “the Scottish law did not acquit those who accomplished even praiseworthy actions, such as remarkable cures, by mysterious remedies” (Demonology letter VI).  For the accusers there were no ‘good spirits’; the suspected witches had consorted with the devil and there could be but one conclusion: Rioch, Jonesdochter,  Dunlop and Pearson, for instance, were all burned.  In the climate of the time, any contact with fairies rendered the person automatically a witch.  Communication with the fairy court was a primary charge against Alison Pearson and against Jean Weir of Dalkeith in 1670.

It is to be noted that gifts of healing and prophecy are not traditionally associated with faery.  There are a couple of Highland examples of endowment with musical abilities and there is the fictional account of True Thomas the Rhymer, who was given seer’s powers by the fairy queen (despite, as Sir Walter Scott puts it, his objections to “this inconvenient and involuntary adhesion to veracity, which would make him, as he thought, unfit for church or for market, for king’s court or for lady’s bower”).  That these supernatural attributes are ascribed to fairies only in witch trials is a strong indicator that they were being turned to as a less serious justification for the accused’s former activities.

Fairies and familiars

Witches were believed to have familiars who guided and assisted them.  Academic and writer Diane Purkiss has suggested that stories told of brownies and other household fairies were reformulated by those suspicious of witchcraft and were understood instead to be accounts of demonic familiars (see The witch in history pp.135-138 and Troublesome things pp.153-4).  This is definitely explicit in a pamphlet from 1650, The strange witch at Greenwich, that described the mischievous tricks of a particular spirit, such as throwing utensils and clothing around, along with “other such reakes and mad merry pranks,as strange as ever Hobgoblins, pinching fairies and Robin Goodfellow acted in houses in old times among Dairy Wenches and kitchen Maides.”

The records show that these often seemed to have ‘traditional fairy’ names such as Robin, Piggin, Hob and Puckle.  Admitting regular contacts with a fairy would be interpreted and condemned as possessing a familiar.  For example, Joan Willimot of Rutland had a spirit called Pretty blown into her mouth in the shape of a fairy.  It subsequently visited her weekly and identified to her those of her neighbours who were “stricken and forespoken” (i.e. bewitched).  Anne Jefferies of St Teath, Cornwall, was carried off the fairyland by six tiny green men and was given ointment to cure “all distempers, sicknesses and sores” (such as the falling sickness and broken bones) and was also granted the power to make herself invisible at will.  When she was arrested, it was alleged that these fairies were in fact her imps or familiars.  She denied this, saying rather that they quoted scripture to her.

In some cases the supernatural contact seemed more obviously evidence of black magic.  Katherine Munro, Lady Fowlis, “made us of the artillery of Elf-land to destroy her stepson and sister in law” (Walter Scott, Letters on demonology, letter V).  Elf-bolts (flint arrow heads) were fired at pictures or her two victims.  Similarly, Isobel Goudie of Nairn visited the fairy queen’s court and saw Satan and the elves making the arrow heads with which Goudie and other witches then slew various people.  Other such instances from Scottish witch trials are Katherine Ross, 1590, Christiane Roiss, 1577 and Marion McAlester, 1590.  We can see here how fairy beliefs had become interchangeable with witch beliefs, so that elf-shot had been converted into bewitching.

Conclusion

To conclude, it is convenient to quote Sir Walter Scott in his sixth letter on demonology:

“With the fairy popular creed fell, doubtless, many subordinate articles of credulity in England, but the belief in witches kept its ground. It was rooted in the minds of the common people, as well by the easy solution it afforded of much which they found otherwise hard to explain, as in reverence to the Holy Scriptures, in which the word witch, being used in several places, conveyed to those who did not trouble themselves about the nicety of the translation from the Eastern tongues, the inference that the same species of witches were meant as those against whom modern legislation had, in most European nations, directed the punishment of death. These two circumstances furnished the numerous believers in witchcraft with arguments in divinity and law which they conceived irrefragable. They might say to the theologist, Will you not believe in witches? the Scriptures aver their existence;—to the jurisconsult, Will you dispute the existence of a crime against which our own statute-book, and the code of almost all civilized countries, have attested, by laws upon which hundreds and thousands have been convicted, many or even most of whom have, by their judicial confessions, acknowledged their guilt and the justice of their punishment? It is a strange scepticism, they might add, which rejects the evidence of Scripture, of human legislature, and of the accused persons themselves.”

This rational analysis did many poor creatures little good: the Bible commanded that “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” and those clinging to older traditional beliefs and practices could find themselves trapped and accused.  In the early modern period the frame of belief had shifted and no space remained for benign spirits.  Thomas Heywood captured this in Hierarchy of the blessed angels (1635), when he spoke of:

“…wicked spirits, such as we call/ Hobgoblins, Fairies, Satyrs, and those all/ Sathan by strange illusions doth employ…”

Fortunately for the hapless victims of the witch hunts, humanism and scientific rationality eventually displaced Protestant scaremongering.  Nonetheless, once established, the associations between fairy and sorcery were hard to sever: it is surely no coincidence that Shelley labelled his Queen Mab as “queen of spells” in his eponymous poem.

An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).

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The summer solstice celebrated by the Cornish coven that also photographed a fairy encounter