from the series ‘Catching fairies’ by Matt Collishaw
“The fairies have lost a fairy,
They don’t know what to do;
The rumours about her vary,
And all of them can’t be true.
They say she stood on a lily,
And fell in its depths immense;
But I don’t think she’d be so silly,
For she was a fairy of sense!”
Trial by Jury by Menella Bute Smedley
We are very familiar with the idea of fairy folk stealing humans, whether that is infants swapped for changelings or older men and women taken as lovers, wet-nurses and midwives (see the earlier posting on being ‘away with the fairies’ or chapter 21 of my British fairies). There is also some evidence of the reverse process- for fairies being captured by humans.
As might be expected, fairies are captured extremely rarely and when it happens it seems to be a combination of extremely good luck, cunning and agility. In two poems, Europe and The fairy, William Blake describes catching fairies in his hat. In the former verse, he does this “as boys knock down a butterfly.” Blake used the same butterfly simile in the latter poem, which describes how:
“So a Fairy sung/ From the leaves I sprung/ He leaped from the spray, to flee away/ But in my hat I caught/ He shall soon be taught.”
Speed and surprise are essential to catching a magical creature, as is reiterated in the poem, The opal dream cave by Katherine Mansfield, which also demonstrates that the long term outcome can be tragic or disappointing:
“In an opal dream cave I found a fairy:
Her wings were frailer than flower petals –
Frailer far than snowflakes.
She was not frightened, but poised on my finger,
Then delicately walked into my hand.
I shut the two palms of my hands together
And held her prisoner.
I carried her out of the opal cave,
Then opened my hands.
First she became thistledown,
Then a mote in a sunbeam,
Then–nothing at all.
Empty now is my opal dream cave. “
The captive fairy stories
These incidents of fairy capture break down into three types, depending upon their outcomes:
- the captive fairy dies- Keeping fairies as playthings in the human world is cruel and dooms them, attractive as it may sound- “I’d like to tame a fairy/ To keep it on a shelf” (The child and the fairies). In the Suffolk story ‘Brother Mike’ a fairy is caught by a farmer in the act of stealing corn from his barn. He puts the creature in his hat and takes back to the farmhouse for the amusement of his children. The captive is tethered to the kitchen window and there he pines away and dies, refusing all food. This compares to the story of the Green Children, also from Suffolk. These two infants strayed from faery into the human world; the boy of the pair soon died of grief. From Cheshire and Shropshire come tales of the water fairy called the asrai. This mysterious being, in the form of a young, naked woman, is from time to time dredged in fishing nets from lakes and meres. When exposed to the air they never last long, simply melting away in the bottom of the fishing boat before it reaches the shore.
- the captive fairy is forced to act against her will- Near Lochaber in Scotland a man somehow captured a malevolent glaistig that had haunted the neighbourhood. He imprisoned it in an outhouse and, as a condition of its release, made it swear to leave the area and to no longer molest the population. He and his family were thereafter cursed with bad luck for his efforts. A Welsh story from Llanberis concerns a lake maiden, a gwrag annwn, who is lured ashore with an apple and caught by a man. She agrees under compulsion to marry him, but the marriage is subject to conditions which, as always happens in these stories, were eventually breached. Lastly, from the Isle of Skye there comes an account of mass compulsion. A builder was asked to construct a byre to hold 365 cows at Minguinish. When he had finished the walls, he realised that he knew of no way of roofing over the vast space. Heading home, he encountered and caught a fairy. He was immediately besieged by other fairies seeking to release their companion; the terms of his ransom were that they roofed the Great Byre, which they did overnight.
- the captive fairy escapes- the most numerous of these accounts culminate in the fairy’s return home. Sometimes, as with the Green Children, the fairy is simply lost and is taken in by humans. This is the case in the Cornish story of Coleman Gray. The pixie boy is found wandering and distressed and is cared for by a human family, until one day he hears his mother calling and returns to her. More often the fairy is caught, although not always intentionally. An account from Dartmoor describes how a woman returning from market met a pixie gambolling on the path in front of her. She snatched it up, put it in her empty basket and latched the lid. For a while he complained loudly in a strange tongue. When he fell silent, she opened the lid to check on him and found that he had disappeared. From Lancashire there comes a story of two poachers who were out ferreting and who, instead of rabbits, flushed two fairies from a burrow into their sacks. They were so alarmed by the voices crying out from inside the sacks that they dropped them and ran home. The next day the sacks were retrieved, empty and neatly folded. It seems that the fairies bore no ill will for the incident; likewise in the story of Skillywidden, a pixie captured at Treridge near Zennor, the fairy does not seem too put out by his ordeal. A farmer was cutting furze when he spotted the young pixie asleep. He scooped it up and took it home where it played contentedly by the hearth with his children. However, one day when they all slipped outside to play, the pixie’s parents appeared searching for him and he readily went home with them. Readers may note that there is a farm called Skillywadden to the south of Trendrine Hill where this incident took place; this may therefore be prime fairy catching country…
It is also notable from these examples how often it is the case that a juvenile fairy is caught. Presumably the reason for this is quite simply that they are less cautious and less alert to danger than their parents. Secondly, whilst contact with fairies is generally something to be discouraged, in most of these cases there are no ill consequences for the captors; in fact, in several cases the human children play with the fairy child on terms of amity and equality. In some of the other cases, it appears that the fairies may have accepted that it was their own want of care or simple bad luck that led to their capture and, as a result, no vengeance is exacted.
An asrai, by Clayscence
An expanded version of this text will appear in my next book, Faeries, which will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide next year.