Fairies in Drag- and other curious stories

I’ve written before about the considerable evidence for diversity in Faery, both of race and of sexuality. Nevertheless, there are some suggestions of intolerance towards similar conduct by humans. There is a curiously inconclusive feeling story in Evans Wentz’ Fairy Faith in the Celtic Countries that I have never been sure how to handle.  It’s set at Barra Head on the Isle of Barra in the Western Hebrides, and it tells how:

“a fairy woman used to come to a man’s window almost every night as though looking to see if the family was home. The man grew suspicious, and decided the fairy woman was watching her chance to steal his wife, so he proposed a plan. It was then (and still is) the custom after thatching a house to rope it across with heather-spun ropes, and, at the time, the man was busy spinning some of them; so he told his wife to take his place that night to spin the heather-rope, and said he would take her place at the spinning-wheel. They were thus placed when the fairy woman made the usual look in at the window, and she seeing that her intention was understood, said to the man, “You are yourself at the spinning-wheel and your wife is spinning the heather-rope.”

Fairy Faith, p.104.

It’s not at all clear from this brief account why the changes of place and work in the cottage foiled the fairy woman so successfully.  However, I recently got a clue from a story told by Edgar MacCulloch about a fairy incident on Guernsey (Guernsey Folklore, 215-7)  This concerns the baking activities of Le Grand and Le Petit Colin, who seem to have been two household fairies known on the island. 

The story goes as follows. A man and his wife occupied a small, simple cottage at St. Brioc. Both of them were kept very busy scraping a living together.  Amongst her occupations was spinning. Nightly, after her husband had already gone to bed, she would sit up late at her spinning wheel by the dim light of the “crâset” (cresset).

While thus occupied one night, she heard a knock at the door, and a voice enquiring whether the oven was hot, and whether a batch of dough might be baked in it. A voice from inside the house asked who was there, and, on hearing that it was Le Petit Colin, the door opened to let him in. She then heard the noise of the dough being placed in the oven, and a conversation between the two, from which she learned that the person already in the house with her was the fairy Le Grand Colin. After a time, the bread was taken out of the oven and the mysterious visitor departed, leaving behind him on the table a nicely baked cake, with an intimation that it was given in return for the use of the oven.

These visits were repeated frequently and at regular intervals and the woman at last mentioned them to her husband. He was immediately seized by a strong desire to witness the events, despite his wife begging him that he should leave them well alone. His will prevailed and it was settled that the next night the husband would take his wife’s place at the wheel, disguised in her clothes, and that she should go to bed. Knowing that her husband could not spin, she didn’t put any flax or wool on the distaff, so as to prevent her husband, in turning the wheel, from spoiling it. He’d not been long at his post, and was pretending to spin, when the expected visitor came. Although the man could see nothing, he heard one of the two say to the other:

“File, filiocque,

Rien en brocque,

Barbe à cé ser

Pas l’autre ser.”

“There’s flax on the distaff,

But nothing is spun;

Tonight, there’s a beard,

T’other night there was none.”

Upon which- both the fairies were heard to quit the house as if in anger, and were never again known to revisit it.

Once again, we have a role reversal, with the man undertaking a female task, and further compounding this action by wearing his wife’s clothes.  What are we to make of these two narratives?

It may be (possibly) that the fairies object to men in drag, but I think it’s really more about changes of appearance and identity defeating or frustrating them.  We know that one of the solutions to being pixie-led is to turn your coat or another garment.  As Katharine Briggs described, turning the clothes works as a change of identity, that frees the individual from the fairy enchantment.  The same theory seems to have been at play in the Scottish Highlands when boys were protected against being abducted by the fairies by means of disguising them in girl’s dresses (see Barbara Fairweather, Folklore of Glencoe and North Lorn, 1974). 

It appears to be the case that the fairies can, in certain circumstances at least, be fairly easily out-witted.  Perhaps, too, the simple action by the human target is an indication to the fairy that she or he knows what’s happening, at which point they decide to abandon their plan because they are likely now to meet resistance.