The pretext for writing this post is that, working with publisher Green Magic on some new faery books, we decided to ‘rebrand’ all the titles they’d issued with new covers using artwork by Arthur Rackham. Rackham is instantly recognisable to many readers, his work is topical and attractive- and it’s largely out of copyright!
I’ve discussed aspects of Rackham‘s work before, both on this blog and in my book Faery Art of the Twentieth Century; what I want to focus on here is the way that art can shape our perceptions. Firstly, as my title suggests, there are essentially two sorts of faery-being featured in all of Rackham’s faery illustrations. There is a slender young female with long hair, dressed in flowing robes (or sometimes nothing)- a faery- and there is a small ugly man in quasi-medieval clothes- a pixie, goblin or gnome. The new cover of British Pixiesgives a good idea of the latter. Some of Rackham’s nude, juvenile nymphs are to be seen on the cover of my Love and Sex in Faeryland.
Regular visitors to this blog will be aware that Rackham’s bipartite arrangement of the Faery world is not reflected by British tradition. There are, of course, attractive female faeries and surly looking pixies, but the faery clans of the British Isles are far more complex than that: every region has its particular family, race or species of fae being and there is little reason to suppose that males take just the one form and females another.
At the same time, it’s only fair to acknowledge that Rackham wasn’t creating his designs without foundation. What he drew upon, though, was not folklore but literature. We need only think of the sexy faery women of medieval romances such as Sir Launfal or the small and misshapen faery kings of Huon of Bordeaux or King Herla to understand where he found his models. As an illustrator of faery tales and legends, this is to be expected.
The dichotomy of type that Rackham established so effectively through the commercial and artistic success of his designs was taken on in turn by many of the children’s illustrators of the mid-twentieth century- artists such as Rosa Petherick, Susan Pearse or Agnes Richardson- and the iconography came to be embedded in our collective psyche. Because of Rackham, I suggest, we can now only think of faeries within these parameters, divided into these two rough categories- elegant, pretty and girly/ ugly, stunted and male. This is something of an exaggeration, but not a huge one. More recently, the Middle Earth elves of Peter Jackson’s film have contributed the blonde, noble warrior elf as well; but in a sense this is just an elaboration of Rackham’s largely female faery clan.
These images are pervasive and persistent. That might sound improbable again, but consider this. A recent book on modern paganism and fairy belief, Magic and Witchery in the Modern West (Feraro and White, 2019), found that many of the contemporary conceptions of fairies as planetary guardians and green protectors came not from age-old faery tradition but from images and ideas in books like Cicely Mary Barker’s flower fairy series, that adult pagans had seen and absorbed as children.
We get very similar evidence from the Fairy Census (2014-17). When witnesses reached for adjectives to describe what they saw, they often chose to make comparisons with popular representations of faery-kind. Five people likened the beings they saw to Disney characters; four referred to pictures by Brian Froud. One tree spirit was said to have looked like Gollum (i.e. in the films). Looking further back, terms borrowed from Paracelsus were co-opted- sylph and, especially, gnome. Favourite films and beloved books make a powerful impression, very possibly shaping in advance what we expect to see. Of course, they provide a vocabulary, a point of reference, which is why witnesses often allude to the creatures they see looking like leprechauns, goblins, brownies and “the classic gnome” even though they may be using labels that are alien to place where the sighting occurred, mistaken, imprecise or simply unhelpful. Goblins and brownies are good examples here, in that the traditional descriptions of these tend to be of very large and hairy beings; often, now, the words are chosen to denote a small, brown pixie type being, one who is often the personification of Paracelsus’ very unhelpful ‘gnome’ character. The interaction between what we expect to see and what we may then actually see is a complex psychological well beyond my comfort zone, but it is at least clear how mass market imagery, especially that absorbed at an impressionable age, will enter our subconscious.
The new books, Manx Faeries and The Faery Lifecycle, are due to be published later this month.
Back in October, we were out of lockdown long enough for a short holiday, which took us up to the West Midlands. We stayed near Ironbridge and visited the Jackfield tile museum there. Of all the early industrial sites amongst the complex of museums in the Ironbridge Gorge area, Jackfield is my favourite simply because it’s the most attractive- especially the reconstructed pubs and shops which were entirely tiled in Victorian and Edwardian times.
A new exhibit was the mural by Margaret Thompson shown above. It was very common in the early decades of the twentieth century to decorate children’s wards in hospitals with large, colourful tile pictures- bright, cheerful and very easily kept clean. Often they were themed on nursery rhymes and fairy tales; this design derives more from the artist’s imagination alone- at the same time, it is fairly typical of faery designs of its time.
Margaret E. Thompson trained in applied design at Goldsmith’s Art Institute in the late 1890s and became an artist and designer working in the Art Nouveau style. Her background was that of an artist rather than a commercial designer, but she was quickly recruited by Doulton’s pottery at Lambeth, London.
Thompson’s specialisms were faience murals and vases with fairy tale motifs. Her initial output for Doulton comprised unique vases with designs exhibiting many similarities to those of Arthur Rackham and Mabel Lucy Attwell (see below). In due course she moved on to work on ceramic tiles for children’s wards in hospitals across the world, for example in the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UCL Hospital, Bloomsbury, London and St Thomas’s Hospital, London. Other examples of her faery themed work are illustrated below; a number of Thompson’s works are held in the Victoria and Albert museum collection- most date from the period 1900-1905.
Mabel Lucie Attwell
Mabel Lucie Attwell (1879-1964) is perhaps one of the best known and popular artists of the inter-war period. In part this was due to her very keen business sense; in part because she diversified across a range of products. She is best remembered for her book illustrations and other graphic materials, but she also produced a range of pottery items, which is why she’s featured here.
I discussed Attwell’s career in my recent book Fairy Art of the Twentieth Century. She was born in the East End of London and attended several art schools before launching into her commercial career. She started out supplying work to magazines and, because this proved very popular, was soon contributing plates for children’s books such as The Water Babiesand Peter Pan, as well as designing postcards.
Attwell was a rapid and prolific worker and quickly became a household name. She honed her ‘brand’ further still when she devised the toy-like characters called ‘Boo-Boos.’ These were round little pixies in green, with pointed caps, antennae and ears. The Boo-Boos first appeared in story books, but Attwell went on to produce a range of themed products- pottery figurines, wall hangings and plaques, night lights, jigsaws, bed linen, dolls , biscuit tins, money boxes and such like.
Attwell was much influenced at the start of her career by the work of her close friend, Hilda Cowham, another fairy artist. Between 1924 and 1935, both women were both employed by Shelley Potteries, Stoke on Trent, who were producers of Art Deco style fine china. They provided the company with images and designs for nursery ware. The standing of these two artists is attested by these commissions, because previously potteries had relied solely upon their own in-house artists for designs.
The cute and cuddly babies, little girls and pixies that Attwell churned out are not to my taste, but they are a significant example of mid-twentieth century perceptions of Faery, alongside the flower fairies of Cicely Mary Barker and Margaret Tarrant and the sometimes more sinister designs of Arthur Rackham. Whether we like them or not, and whether we regard them as great art, it can’t be denied that they shaped contemporary attitudes to fairies and made a significant contribution to the process in which our perceptions of our Good Neighbours shifted away from a dangerous and independent presence to a far more saccharine and approachable image.
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.
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.
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, BritishFairy 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.
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).
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.
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):
In a previous post I have discussed the close links between fairies and elder trees. As a seasonal posting today, I’m examining fairies and their relationship to holly.
I was recently browsing the journal, Welsh Outlook- A Monthly Journal of National Social Progress, in the collection of the National Library of Wales. The title doesn’t sound too promising for those searching for faerylore, but luckily I wasn’t put off. In volume 2, issue 10 (October 1915) there was an article on Snowdon Folklore, which recounted the story of Merfyn Ffowc, a shepherd.
Merfyn got lost in a thick mist on the mountains near Cwn Llan and, after wandering for some time, he heard a voice crying out in distress from higher above him. He clambered up a steep rock-face to find a small woman trapped in a cleft into which she had slipped. She was dressed in green, with silver shoes, and spoke a language he couldn’t understand- evidently a fairy. He carried her down the cliff and, almost as soon as they had reached the bottom, two men appeared, calling out for ‘Silifrit.’ Appreciative of Merfyn’s rescue, they presented him with a holly staff as a sign of their gratitude, and almost instantly vanished.
It turned out that this staff was lucky. Within the year Merfyn married a rich widow and his flocks expanded amazingly: every ewe gave him two lambs. It seems, however, that he didn’t fully appreciate (or recognise) the role of the fairy gift in his good fortune. As a result, he was caught one night in a terrible storm as he returned home from an evening drinking in Beddgelert and he lost his holly staff in the raging wind and rain. With the stick went all Merfyn’s new prosperity: all his sheep were washed away in the floods and he ended up poorer than he had started.
The holly staff seems to have had a magical significance for the fairy donors- as other examples will show. As for the fairy’s name, this type of name is something I’ve discussed in an earlier posting as well as in my book Famous Fairies.
The Welsh story immediately reminded me of another one, much older and from the other side of Britain. On June 17th 1499 in Norwich, John and Agnes Clerk and their daughter, Marion, appeared before a church court accused of sorcery. The family lived in Great Ashfield in Suffolk where the daughter had developed a reputation as a healer, soothsayer and finder of buried treasure. Marion immediately confessed everything, admitting that the fairies helped her whenever she needed information. Amongst their assistance was a holly stick that they had given her: her mother had taken it to the church on Palm Sunday, mixed up with the palm fronds, to be blessed, and Marion then used the stick to find treasure.
Two cases; two holly sticks from the faeries. What more do we know about the connection between this tree and the Good Folk? The plain answer has to be: not a lot. Katharine Briggs mentions in her Dictionary of Fairies that the holly is a fairy tree, along with the better known elder, oak and rowan, but she does not offer us more than this. In the traditional Scots ballad of The Elfin Knight, holly is mentioned in the refrain in two versions of the song: for example, “Sing green bush, holly and ivy.” See versions K & L in Child’s Ballads– these two refrains strongly indicate a faery or supernatural association with the shrub.
Robert Graves, in The White Goddess, gives a very full treatment of the magical and mythical significance of this shrub. He finds associations with the legends of King Arthur, Robin Hood and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. He also traces much deeper Druidic, Classical and Biblical links. None of these are specifically fae, but the symbolic power of the tree seems very clear.
Reverting to British folklore, in the Scottish Highlands, holly is recorded as having been used to ward off the sith folk at New Year. Perhaps its potency derives from its prickles (cut gorse is used in another story to defend against the faeries), from its evergreen (and therefore ‘immortal’) qualities and from its red berries. Just as with the rowan, which is regularly used as a protection against faery attack, red is a very powerful and defensive colour.
As I have described before, the countryside is full of shrubs and herbs that have positive and negative fairy associations. I have discussed the elder tree in an earlier post and I examine other faery plants in chapter 5 of my book Faery (2020).
For more on the faeries’ interactions with nature, see my book Faeries and the Natural World (2021):
As I describe in the book, a great deal has been written about the Victorian fairy painters like Richard Dadd, Sir Noel Paton and Dickie Doyle, but there has been much less focus on their successors in the next century. This may partly be because most of the art of the twentieth century was not ‘fine art’ (oil paintings hung in galleries) but was illustration instead- and that for children’s books. The major artists of the genre, Cicely Mary Barker and Margaret Tarrant (of flower fairy fame), Ida Rentoul Outhwaite and Mabel Lucie Attwell, have been the subjects of biographies and monographs on their work, but most of the other artists and their work is more neglected. That many were women, who were dealing with ‘female’ subjects (i.e. drawing fairies for children) may have contributed considerably to this lack of attention.
In this book I try to begin to redress the balance by providing short biographies of all the artists I have been able to identify, along with descriptions of their work. In addition, I put the fairy art of last century in the context of what preceded it and identify the main themes and styles used in fairy imagery.
Twentieth century fairy art was shaped by the Victorian pictures and, in turn, the way that all of us imagine fairies has been moulded by the vision of those twentieth century artists. So many elements of fairy iconography that we tend to take for granted- flower fairies; round pixies dressed in green; female faes and male goblins and gnomes; pointy hats and shoes; tiny size and childish looks- all come from the twentieth century illustrators. They created a fairyland that was, by and large, very safe and welcoming for children. Not all of these artists were very talented, but even in their reduction of Faery to the lowest common denominators, they have something significant to tell us about the way that our parents, grandparents and great grandparents understood the fairy world.
Fairy art evolved over the century, of course. For at least decade it continued Victorian styles and themes before, after the First World War, new formats for children’s books and new media (most notably postcards) provided new markets and new design possibilities for artists. This reorientation of the genre to purely juvenile audiences- and the need for images that were instantly attractive and commercially viable- had a major impact on fairy art. Much of it lost the edge of threat- and sexuality- that characterised earlier representations. Critic Susan Casteras has remarked how painters like Tarrant, Barker and Attwell tried to ‘revive’ Victorian fairy painting, but did so only by portraying fairies who were winged, child-like and sometimes chubby- fairies who were adult neither in their form nor their behaviour. (Casteras in M. Brown, Picturing Children, 2017, 139).
That fairy illustrations created for children’s books need not necessarily be devoid of darker themes is demonstrated by the work of Arthur Rackham, but after his death in 1939 the anodyne and the harmless took hold for several decades.
It was only with the appearance of Faeries by Brian Froud and Alan Lee that a more authentic atmosphere was restored to depictions of Faery. This has continued since- alongside less challenging images.
These expressions of personal taste aside, the fact remains that twentieth century fairy art is rich and multitudinous. Because the artists created their works for reproduction on mass produced media such as postcards and greetings cards, there are far more images to absorb than was the case in Victorian times. There’s a wealth of art out there, waiting to be discovered and appreciated.
It’s frequently said that children are especially able to see the fairies- perhaps because of their innate innocence, perhaps because they are endowed with a sort of second sight and so are open to wonder and magic and are not closed off mentally by rationality and ‘good sense,’ as adults can be.
Children’s Second Sight
The folklore evidence as to the existence of special powers in children is equivocal. The sheer number of accounts that could be analysed mean that a statistical test of this is impractical, so I rely on my anecdotal impression of all the reports I’ve read to say that there’s no special bias towards infants: any one of any age and any sex is liable to see the Good Folk, it seems from the folk stories. However, we can be a bit more scientific about the more recent reports. Consolidating the cases of sightings from the Fairy Census and from Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing Fairies, it’s possible to say that around a third of witnesses were children. Of these, about 80% were girls.
What do the above statistics tell us? Well, for developed countries, the proportion of children seems high. In the UK, those under 18 make up about 21% of the population; in the USA it’s 24%, whilst 14% of the German population are 17 and under. It seems, then, that children are indeed now slightly more likely to experience a fairy encounter; and girls are obviously significantly more likely. Whether this is reflective of genuine differences, or of a sexist tendency for it to be acceptable for female children to express such ideas, and for boys not to do so, is much less clear.
Acquiring Second Sight
On the whole, though, age appears to be much less a factor in seeing fairies than other influences. Doubtless a pre-existing predisposition to belief- even an expectation that a fairy might be seen- must help. In earlier generations, other explanations for being able to see supernaturals were advanced. For example, those born on a Sunday were said to be more prone to second sight (Keightley, Fairy Mythology, p.81); others said that it was those born early in the morning who acquired the gift (Spence, British Fairy Tradition, p.160). Some people might be genetically more likely to have these experiences; others may acquire the second sight as a gift from the fairies.
The fact seems to be that some people are lucky enough to have the second sight and the majority of others are not. The ability does not discriminate by any physical factors. For example, Martin Martin, touring the Hebridean islands in the eighteenth century, reported the local belief that not only children, but horses and cows as well, were all believed to be endowed with the ability to see the sith folk
The differential nature of the gift is demonstrated very well in an account from Sutherland in the far north of Scotland. In 1937 an old woman told a folklorist how, as a small girl, she had gone out with her mother one summer evening to tend the cows in the field. The little girl was able to see small green people playing near the cattle, although her mother saw nothing. Very possibly, however, if the mother had held her daughter’s hand, she would have seen the Good Folk- it’s very common for the sight to be easily transferred by contact in this manner.
Sightings by Children
Now, to turn to my illustrations, which are largely taken from postcards and books of the 1920s and 1930s. What will be apparent instantly is that the authors and artists of this period were quite blase about the experience of contact with the faes. Although, as I have explained several times in previous postings, people (especially children) are very vulnerable to abduction, you might know nothing of this danger from these pictures. Instead, it’s all rather charming and lovely. Kids- and in particular girls- are encouraged to hope for these encounters and to plunge into them without hesitation.
Suggesting to anyone, especially guileless infants, that a free and easy approach to fairy contact is advisable seems- in light of all the folklore evidence- to be extremely unwise, even reckless. Clearly, by the interwar period, the fairies had been reduced in the minds of many to harmless and probably unreal little beings- just perfect for amusing little girls. Margaret Tarrant- presumably in a play upon the name of the junior girl guiding organisation, the Brownies, and the domestic fairies of British tradition, also called brownies– seems to actively promote contact as a harmless pastime for young Guides. The human Brownies were so-called (I assume) because they were encouraged and expected to undertake lots of little household chores for mother (just like their supernatural counterparts); the risk is, of course, that they’ll be kidnapped and made into slaves for the fairies.
There’s seldom a hint in all these images that any wariness is required. A few suggest a hesitation on the child’s part, or a sensible inclination to spy from a place of concealment, but most of the subjects make no attempt to protect themselves, or appear to experience any apprehension. All I can say is- you have been warned….
The fairy themed children’s books and postcards that were so abundant during the interwar period enriched our visual culture immensely- I’m thinking especially of the work of Cicely Mary Barker and Margaret Tarrant and their flower fairy illustrations but, as this post shows, many other artists were active during those decades as well.
However, these artists showed little awareness of or respect for British folk tradition and the fairies they promoted to the card buying public were almost exclusively sweet and harmless. Nevertheless, others (such as Marjorie Johnson) maintained actual contact with Faery and, as some of the recent encounters in the Fairy Census demonstrate, the Good Folk are still temperamental and potentially perilous.
“Be careful how ye speake here o’ the Wee Folk/ Or they will play such pranks on thee and thine/ Nae doubt, they dae a lot of good whiles/ But if provoked, they can be maist unkind.” (Henry Terrell, The wee folk of Menteith, p.46)
Some months ago I posted about my personal views of the nature and conduct of fairy-kind. I’d like to say a little more about my view of their general character and interaction with human kind, as I think it will inform an understanding of my own approach to the subject in these postings.
All things nice?
I’ve written in the past about certain modern, cute manifestations of fairy kind: Santa’s elves for example and the Tooth Fairy. As those of you who read these comments will no doubt have detected, I have little time for such sugary figures. I have an affection for the flower fairy art of Cicely Mary Barker and Margaret Tarrant, and even (sometimes) the plump cuddly creations of Mabel Lucy Atwell, but my own conception of their identity and activities is very different.
The genre of imagery shown below is part of our problem with fairies: because of Shakespeare and his contemporaries and successors, we have come to see them as cuddly and sweet and ideally suited to little girls. This is a gross underestimation and misconception. Perhaps Graham Ovenden’s painting at the head of this post is most appropriate: there’s beauty, but there’s something beneath, in that distracted self-absorbed look.
A darker view?
My view of Faery is rather darker and I’d summarise their main personality traits as follows. I’ll use some characters from my own books to illustrate these convictions, or preconceptions (or prejudices!) of mine:
the fairies are a serious and scary people. I don’t conceive of them as small, either physically or in their activities. This will be apparent from my postings on this site and from all my fictional creations, but most strongly, perhaps, in the person of Maeve in Albion awake!I’d hesitate to antagonise or patronise her: I may have imagined her as smaller of stature, but there’s no doubting her formidable determination;
they can’t be taken for granted and must be treated with all due respect and caution. Their good will can’t be bought;
their resemblance to us should not be mistaken for affinity. They may look like us physically, but they are unlike us and any resemblance should not put us off our guard;
they are strong and independent. They have their own agenda and their own rules by which they live. We shouldn’t presume to know their plans or to have much hope of changing them;
they are reserved and won’t reveal themselves readily;
they are content to live separately from us- indeed, they would prefer to do so- but sometimes necessity obliges them to make contact. We should not imagine that they want to ‘help’ us or that they ‘love’ humankind. To my mind that sort of attitude tends towards complacency and overconfidence. In Albion awake!, for example, main character John Bullen is permitted to call upon Maeve’s assistance in times of great need, but no more. That doesn’t inhibit her in appearing in his flat whenever she has need to make use of him, though; and that’s the core of the human/fairy interaction, to my mind. They make use of us and they may grant us the occasional favour, but there is an notable imbalance of power. In my novel The elder queenthe fairies (‘the sky children’) show kindness to Darren Carter, but I’d probably conceive that as pity for the shambling wreck that he makes of his life towards the midpoint of the book- he’s drug addicted, divorced and indebted, homeless and jobless. He’s an object of their charity; there’s a good deal of condescension but little of the equality of friends.
Key to the fairy character is their mutability. How a particular individual human may be treated seems often to be a matter of whim; a fay’s mood is seldom predictable. (I’d argue that this apparent lack of consistency may be more to do with our ignorance of their habits and thinking than any waywardness on their part). Possible interactions with humans therefore cover a complete spectrum from good to bad. The fairy may be:
evasive and secretive- or at the very least indifferent. Whether this arises from fear of humankind, or contempt for mortals, is debatable;
generous and helpful. Certain favourites may, inexplicably, be adopted and given regular gifts of money or valuable skills or rewards (such as a never ending supply of flour or beer);
even-handed and scrupulously fair. Sometimes faes will ask to borrow some household item or provision; they will always return it and, if a food stuff has been loaned, they will insist upon a full and equivalent restitution, and occasionally more than that;
cruel and spiteful. A human may deserve their bad treatment, possibly because of some conceived slight to or neglect of the fairies; alternatively, there may be little explanation for the maltreatment dished out- other than it amuses the faeries.
The last category of interaction is naturally the most concerning, as it can be unheralded and undeserved torment- sometimes culminating in death. If I’m being cautious in my advice on approaches to fairies, I would always advise that you proceed on the assumption that the response you will get may be a rebuff or worse. If I was asked to summarise the most negative aspects of faery character, I would say that they were exploitative. Humankind are very often viewed as a resource, something to be used. They may take our foodstuffs, they may make use of our possessions or occupy our homes. Parasitic might be an even harsher adjective. Fairy-kind can bake, churn, spin, forge metals and all the rest; but why labour when people have done the work already? In this frame of mind, we can interpret changeling children as cuckoos: why look after the weak and infirm when you can take a healthy infant and leave the really hard care to a human?
I expand upon many of these traits in my other postings and in my 2017 book British fairies. My general advice, though, would always be to approach our Good Neighbours with great caution: if they are friendly and bountiful, count your blessings and enjoy your good luck (keeping it strictly secret). If they do not seem approachable, accept it and keep a respectful distance. Don’t pester, don’t expect, don’t assume. Don’t mix up smaller size and beautiful looks with cuteness and harmlessness; as I titled a previous post- not all nymphs are nice.
My forthcoming book, Faery, from Llewellyn Worldwide, will delve even further into the complex nature of the fae personality.
I have often mentioned before how the robust elf of British tradition has undergone a transformation over the last few centuries into a tiny, winged being. In this post I’d like to identify some culprits for this process.
Who are we going to blame?
The perception that the frightening and serious fairies of the British Middle Ages had undergone a change at some stage had been with me in vague terms for many years. Recently, however, I finally got round to reading Minor White Latham’s 1930 book, Elizabethan Fairies. His study crystallised my thoughts and confirmed what I had always suspected: that William Shakespeare is the major culprit and that 1594/5 marks the turning point in our perception of Faery. Later poets followed the bard’s lead, but it was Midsummer Night’s Dream that started the trend.
The idea of small fairies was definitely well-established before our major playwrights and poets got their hands on the subject. For example, from Reginald Scot’s list of fairies, found in his book The discoverie of witchcraft of 1584, we know there was traditional belief in a character called Tom Thumb. This may surprise British readers, at least, for we think of him as a leading character in pantomimes and nursery stories. This elf was small, as the name tells us: “but an inch in height, or a quarter of a span” according to a chapbook published in 1630 (a span is the distance from the thumb tip to the little finger tip- standardised at 9″ in imperial measurements). In his play, The sad shepherd, Ben Jonson also described “span long Elves” carrying changelings (1637, Act II, scene 8)- I might point out that, if you think about it, this should be impossible.
Child sized fays
Generally, it was accepted that there might be both adult sized fairies and those that were shorter, perhaps only appearing like children. We see both of these in Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor, of 1599, when an adult woman, Mrs Anne Page, decides to play a trick on Falstaff: she dresses her daughter Nan as the fairy queen, accompanied by some attendants- her “little son” and some other children disguised as “urchins, ouphs and fairies, green and white” (Act IV, scene 4). Nan is a young woman of marriageable age- in her mid- to late-teens perhaps; her court would appear to be infants under ten. From this episode it seems apparent that a variety of sizes were accepted as normal in Faery by Elizabethan audiences but that the ouphs (elves) and fairies that were seen might very commonly be the size of young children: in The woman’s prize, for example, Beaumont and Fletcher have a character threaten that “children of five year old, like little fairies, will pinch thee into motley.” (Act II, scene 2)
A few thoughts on the word on ‘urchin’ that’ used in the play as a substitute term for fairy. The word comes from the French, herisson, meaning hedgehog, and it was apparently adopted because of the habit of certain fays (especially pixies) of shape-shifting into the form of hedgehogs. The terms were for a while interchangeable, until ‘urchin’ increasingly became attached to poor and misbehaving boys (by way of spiteful and prank filled pixies, I assume). The word is also used to denote fays by Thomas Nashe in Strange Newes (1592), in which he equates “fairies and night urchins,” in the anonymous play The mayde’s metamorphosis of 1600 and in Thomas Dekker’s Whore of Babylon (1607).
Another regularly used term that likewise has some connotations of smallness is ‘puppet.’ This featured in Robert Greene’s James IV of 1594, where Oberon, king of the fairies, is described as “not so big as the king of Clubs” and his subjects as being “Puppets,” and it appeared regularly subsequently: in The Tempest in 1611 Shakespeare called fays “demi-puppets;” the term’s also used in Randolph’s Amyntas in 1632 and in Henry More’s An antidote against atheism of 1653 (referring to the “dancing places of those little Puppet-Spirits” in Book III, chapter 11). In The mayde’s metamorphosis there’s also reference to “mawmets” tripping lightly as a bee. The word has the same sense of a puppet-like being and certainly conveys an idea of diminutive statute- as underlined in Amyntas, where a fairy wife might be sought for in a nutshell.
The Dream performed at Dewey Mountain, New York, 2017; picture from Adirondack Daily Enterprise
This vocabulary all implies a changing attitude to fairies: that they coming to be seen as tiny, inoffensive, pretty, charming. We’ve run ahead of ourselves slightly, though, and ought to retrace our steps to 1595 and the first production of Midsummer Night’s Dream. Latham has this to say of Shakespeare’s use of fairy themes:
“That the disappearance of the fairies as credible entities should have been hastened by the influence of Shakespeare is one of the greatest ironies of their history. Of all the Elizabethans who made mention of them, there is no one who showed himself more cognizant of the belief in their existence, and no one who featured more prominently their traditional power and activities.” (p.177)
Latham goes on to enumerate the traditional fairy-lore in Shakespeare’s plays: their dangerous enchantments; their substitution of changelings; their pranks- sometimes harmless, sometimes malicious; their generosity to favourites; their midnight dances; their pinching of those who fail to meet their standards; their pixy-leading. All of this authentic material was, however, overwhelmed and displaced by what he created in the Dream. Latham summarises this ‘new Elizabethan’ fairy very succinctly:
“Diminutive, pleasing, and picturesque sprites, with small garden names and small garden affairs, associated with moon-beams and butterflies, they present themselves as a new race of fairies, as different from the popular fairies of tradition as are those fairies from the fays of the medieval romances. ” (p.180)
The medieval fays are the magician women like Morgan le Fay, in some respects related to Titania, but not reigning over a fairy kingdom and much more engaged in the affairs of human kind. What became the conventional fairy after the Dream was this, according to Latham:
they were subjected to a royal court and lost their independent status;
they’re devoted to making the world happier and more beautiful, without imposing any taboos and codes or exacting any penalties;
they dislike and avoid disturbance and disruption;
they love children and are solicitous of the welfare of all humans;
they are “extravagantly” attached to flowers, tending them, named after them, decorated with them; and,
they’ve shrunk. No longer are they infant sized, now they’re tiny: they can hide in acorns; they make their coats from bats’ wings; their fans are butterfly wings; they may drown in a bee’s honey bag should it burst.
It’s these last two characteristics, combined with their new, benign, nature, that marks the real departure for British fairies. Worse still, they have become comic and ridiculous (as in the whole episode involving Titania and Bottom). Their dignity and their stature had been diminished and they had become an entirely new race of spirits.
The earliest example of this change came almost immediately from Shakespeare himself, in Romeo and Juliet. In Mercutio’s famous description of Queen Mab, she is reduced to a being “In shape no bigger than an agate stone/ On the forefinger of an alderman.” Other poets then picked up upon the conceit of a minute fairy and had great fun with it. During the first decades of the next century, several notable writers fixed the idea in the public imagination. These included most notably:
Edward Fairfax, in his 1600 translation of Torquato Tasso’s Godfrey of Bulloigne, was an early adopter of Shakespeare’s new vision of Faery. His fays are tiny enough to sit under “every trembling leaf” and they are intimately associated with blossoms: for example “Among the nymphs, the fairies, leaves and flowers” (Book 4, stanza 18 and Book 17, stanza 61);
Michael Drayton, author of such works as Nimphidia and The Muses’ Elizium, in which fairies use acorn cups as boats, ride upon earwigs and make wedding dresses from primrose leaves. In his 1613 Poly Olbion, Drayton imagines frisking fairies “as on the light air borne/ Oft run at barley break upon the corn/ And catching drops of dew.” In the Eighth Nymphal the abiding impression of tininess is expressed directly: “Why, by her smallness you may find,/ That she is of the fairy kind”;
William Browne– the third book of his Britannia’s pastorals (c.1625) revels in the possibilities of microscopic fays, whose bread is hazelnut kernels, whose wash basins are sea shells and who dine upon the udders of mice and hornet’s eggs; and,
Robert Herrick (1591- 1674), in whose verses “dwarfish Fairyes elves” dine off mushrooms, instead of tables, upon single grains of wheat, washed down with drops of dew. His Queen Mab’s bed is formed of six dandelion heads, with curtains of gossamer. In his 1648 collection Hesperides, Herrick includes five fairy poems for which he is particularly remembered: Oberon’s Feast, Oberon’s Palace, Oberon’s Chapel (or the Fairy Temple), The Fairies and The Beggar to Mab, the Fairy Queen. All are easily accessible and give an authentic picture of the British fairy as it was conceived after Midsummer Night’s Dream.
These depictions pretty much sealed the fate of the fays. They were now without question “pygmies” (Peter Heylyn, Cosmographie (1648), Book IV, p.196; Milton, Paradise lost (1667), Book IX, line 634). They are, too, irredeemably linked to images of cuteness and harmlessness: for example in the 1660’s ballad The spring’s glory, “The fairies are tripping and lambs are skipping, /Pretty birds chirping in the wood do sing.”
One last citation will do, which is from the Poems and fancies of Margaret, Duchess of Newcastle, published in 1653. The book is full of fairies and they are uniformly minute, evidently inspired by Drayton and Herrick. Queen Mab and “all her fairy fry” dance on mole hills, sit under flowers and eat off mushrooms spread with spiders’ webs instead of table cloths (Pastime in fairyland).
So it is, that little girls in petal like dresses have become fixed in our minds- not just on the stage but in the work of many artists (not least Cicely Mary Barker, Margaret Tarrant and the many other children’s book illustrators of the mid-twentieth century). In a recent post I laid a heavy burden of blame upon Paracelsus for distorting our concepts of the fairy realm; reluctantly, perhaps, this must be shared with William Shakespeare. The trends towards smaller and less fearsome fairies were already present in English culture, doubtless, but Shakespeare’s work accelerated and magnified them, an impact exaggerated further by his very status in the literary world.
2016 production of The Dream by Millennium Charter Academy at Andy Griffith Playhouse, Mount Airy, North Carolina.
See Latham, of course (although the book can be rare and expensive), many of my previous posts and, in my 2017 book British fairies, chapters 1 and 28 particularly. In another posting I’ve also developed some of Latham’s ideas on representations of fairy faces in Tudor drama.
An edited and expanded version of this post will be found in my book Fayerie- Fairies and Fairyland in Tudor and Stuart Verse. See my books page for more information.
Cicely Mary Barker, from Flower fairies of the trees, 1961
In one of my earliest postings, I discussed the curious link between fairies and elder trees. I’d like to return to that with some fresh evidence, mainly drawn from the Isle of Man.
Elder trees are widely seen as having some sort of magical or spiritual properties. For example, in Herefordshire there was a taboo upon burning elder wood for fear of bringing misfortune, whilst its inner rind was used to cure cows of jaundice. Witches were said to dislike the tree, so its pith was fed to those believed to have been bewitched. In Shropshire elder was never used as firewood as it would bring misfortune, even death, to the household. The wood shouldn’t even be brought into the house, as it could cause a cow to lose its calf, nor should cattle be driven with an elder stick. The juice of the plant would be used to protect the threshold and the hearth.
On the Isle of Man, the same ideas prevailed as on the British mainland. Whilst the tree was said to be the haunt of the fairies, it repelled witches and, accordingly, there was hardly to be found an old well (tholtan in Manx) near which there didn’t grow an elder tree, according to Agnes Herbert in a guide to the island written in 1909. If you carried elder leaves with you, the islanders believed, you would be protected against witchcraft.
These are but the first indications of the supernatural associations of the tramman tree on the island. The fairies live in the trees and when the branches of the trees are seen to bend in the wind at night, it is in fact the fairies riding upon them. Given their status as fairy residences, interference with the trees can be dangerous. Evans Wentz heard the story of a woman from Arbory parish who one dark night accidentally collided with a tramman. She was instantly smitten with a terrible swelling which all her neighbours agreed was the consequence of offending the fays by her clumsiness. Another local account told of a man who cut down an elder and was driven to suicide by the aggrieved fairies, Walter Gill recorded in 1932.
The Manx fairies living in the ‘tramman’ are plainly very similar to the Old Lady of the Elder tree that I described before. It’s not clear, though, whether or not they’re identical. The Old Lady seems to personify the tree in some way- to be its spirit- whilst the Manx fays live in, or at least gather in, the elders, but may not actually embody them. Regardless of the detail, the supernatural associations are very clear and persistent and- what’s more- can be seen across Northern Europe from Denmark to the British Isles.
Cicely Mary Barker, The elderberry fairy, from Flower fairies of the autumn, 1926
Cicely Mary Barker, The pine tree fairy, c.1940, Laing Art Gallery
I recently caught the end of an exhibition at the William Morris Gallery, near to where I live in East London. The theme of the show was ‘The enchanted garden’ but there was, unexpectedly, a strong fairy theme alongside the pictorial paean to English garden paradises.
Amongst the pictures displayed were several of the original flower fairy illustrations by Cicely Mary Barker, which were a delight to see. They were much larger than I might have anticipated. There was also ‘A fairy’ by Lucien Pisarro and the delightful ‘Jorinda and Joringel’ a painting illustrating a scene from one of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales by Mark Lancelot Symons, a painter who produced a number of fairy works and who deserves greater attention.
Lucien Pissaro, The fairy, 1894
The convention is for us to imagine fairies in the countryside- dancing in meadows and on high moors- and leaving fairy rings behind- or secreted in woodland glades. This is all perfectly correct: these are the secluded places where traditional fairy sightings have occurred and they have been reinforced in our imaginations by writers like William Shakespeare. In the last century and a half, though, writers have also moved the fairy folk into (urban) back gardens. They have become, perhaps, the outside equivalent of the domestic brownie.
Most famous for this must be Rose Amy Fyleman (1877-1957) whose first published work, There are fairies at the bottom of our garden, appeared in May 1917. She brought Faery right into the lives of her readers, imagining the fairy court assembling to dance behind the gardener’s shed and casting the imagined little girl reading the poem as the fairy queen herself.
Fyleman was not alone though in relocating fairies so much closer to home, nor was she the first to make the move. English poet Philip Bourke Marston (1850-1887) repeatedly swapped between the ideas of fairies and flowers in gardens in poems such as Flower fairies, Garden fairies and Before and after the flower birth. It’s never entirely clear whether they are real fairies or the spirits of flowers, for their silver laughter and singing are described, as are their “sudden scents.”
“Flower fairies- have you found them,
When the summer’s dusk is falling.
With the glow-worms watching round them,
Have you heard them softly calling?”
American poet Madison Julius Cawein (1865- 1914) also wrote extensively on fairy themes; in ‘Fairies’ he imagines Puck in a garden, travelling “Down the garden-ways … on a beetle’s back” whilst in Unmasked he too realises that the blooms outside his house are really fairies in disguise. Lastly, another US poet, Arthur Peterson, in a verse entitled Halloween 1916 assembled Puck and the “blithe fairies”, who are the spirits of the summer flowers, to dance together to mark the coming of autumn with its frosts.
“… we came unto a garden,
Bright within a gloomy forest…
And I saw, as we grew nearer,
That the flowers so blue and golden
Were but little men and women,
Who amongst the green did shine.
But ‘twas marvellous the resemblance
Their bright figures bore to blossoms…”
Mark Symons, Jorinda and Joringel, Reading art gallery