The fairies’ whirl

Arthur John Black, Fairies' whirl

Arthur John Black, The fairies’ whirl

As I’ve described before, fairies traditionally travel in whirlwinds.  This mode of travel can act partly as a cover for human abductions and partly as a form of concealment.  It appears to have been considered essentially faery, so much so that the magic necessary to achieve it might even be imparted to whoever or whatever is carried along in the fairy eddy: for example, a farmer living on the island of Tiree saw one of his sheep being whirled up into the sky by a gust of wind.  He was so certain that the fairies had done this that, when the sheep came to be slaughtered, he refused to eat any of its meat- plainly because he considered it tainted in some manner.

We know, too, that one of the fairies’ favourite and most distinctive pastimes is their circle dancing.  It follows, therefore, that there are some grounds for arguing that a spinning motion may be inherent in fairy movement.  There is more explicit evidence that this may be the case.

Some older evidence

My earliest example is from mid-Wales in 1862.  Two carters, David Evans and Evan Lewis, were travelling from Brecon to New Quay in Ceredigion with wagon-loads of timber.  At Maestwynog, one August afternoon, they saw some small people climbing to the top of a distant hill.  There they danced in a circle for a while, but then began to spiral into the centre, “like a gimblet screw.”  Then, successively, the figures disappeared into the ground.  The dancing beforehand reinforces the sense that circular motion may be especially fay, but this sighting takes the matter further.

A changeling child who had been exposed at Sorbie in Galloway was put in a basket over the cottage fire to drive it away and retrieve the human baby that the fairies had taken.  The changeling shrieked and cursed and spat- and then spiralled up through the smoke hole in the roof “like a corkscrew.”

In Victorian times, two men were out walking one night on the Isle of Man when they saw the figure of a woman dressed all in white standing in the angle of the wall just opposite a church gate. When one of the two man went across to speak to her she took him by the arm and spun him round and round till he was dizzy, and then let go of him so suddenly that he nearly fell down on the road. The marks of her fingers remained on his arm up to the day of his death as dark imprints on the biceps.  In another Manx example, a very troublesome buggane was described as “whirling like a spinning wheel” on top of a mountain.  He then came to meet an old woman who had expressed the opinion that he ought to be chastened for his many pranks “whirring like a spinning wheel.” [‘Old Nance and the Buggane’- see http://www.feegan.com]

Modern examples

Much more recent sightings suggest that this corkscrew motion was not unusual.  A woman from Monmouthshire twice saw fairies- in 1945 and 1949- and each time they appeared to her as a whirling shape before the individual fairy was visible.  The fays have also been seen to “spin round and round at a tremendous speed, and then vanish at the peak.”  Some others did the same “spiralling upwards with a sound like the soughing of the wind.”  The spinning motion can be imparted to objects they’re standing on too (such as a bowl of tulips).  [Marjorie Johnson, Seeing Fairies, pp.47, 106, 155, 212 & 297]

The more traditional whirlwinds are still seen too, out on country roads but also in modern urban environments. An art school student from North Carolina saw a figure inside a tiny vortex only one foot high and a factory security guard saw them in dust devils as a child. [Seeing fairies, p. 229 and Fairy Census numbers 346 & 419]

Summary

In previous posts I’ve addressed the question of how fairies move about: do they rely upon magic, for instance, or do they use their own forms of transport?  The few cases discussed here open up some intriguing new avenues for investigation.  Other examples of spinning motion have probably been recorded; perhaps readers know of others?

Grace Jones, fairy dance c.1920

Grace Jones, The fairy dance, c.1920

For more on the anatomy and physiology of faery kind, see my book The Faery Lifecycle, published in 2021.

faery-lifecycle-cover

Lewis Carroll on pixies

pixie brian froud

One of Brian Froud’s bad fairies.

In this post I feature a paragraph of juvenilia from the family journal ‘The Rectory Umbrella’ which was ‘published’ by Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson) and his brothers and sisters between 1850 and 1853 to entertain themselves and their parents.  The piece is of interest as an early work of fantasy by the future author of the Alice stories as well as being an example of Victorian ideas on pixies.

The text appears under the sub-title: ‘Zoological papers‘ and makes fun of the learned scientific, academic style (with footnotes).

Zoological papers: Pixies

“The origin of this curious race of creatures is not at present known: the best description we can collect of them is this, that they are a species of fairies about two feet high (1), of small and graceful figure; they are covered in a dark reddish kind of fur; the general expression of their faces is sweetness and good humour; the former quality is probably the reason why foxes are so fond of eating them. From Coleridge we learn the following additional facts; that they have ‘filmy pinions’ something like dragon flies’ wings, that they ‘sip the furze-flower’s fragrant dew’ (that, however, could only be for breakfast, as it would dry up before dinner-time), and that they are wont to ‘flash their faery feet in gamesome prank,’ or, in more common language, ‘to dance the polka (2) like winking.’

From an old English legend (3) which, as it is familiar with our readers, we need not here repeat, we learn that they have a strong affection for raw turnips, decidedly a more vulgar sort of food than ‘fragrant dew’; and from their using churns and kettles we conjecture that they are not unacquainted with tea, milk, butter &c. They are tolerably good architects, though their houses must unavoidably have something the appearance of large dog kennels, and they go to market occasionally, though from what source they get the money for this purpose has hitherto remained an unexplained mystery. This is all the information we have been able to collect on this interesting subject.

(1) So they are described by the inhabitants of Devonshire, who occasionally see them.

(2) Or any other step.

(3) A tradition, introduced into notice by the Editor.”

Now, it seems very likely that Carroll must have been reading Mrs Bray.  Her book, The Borders of the Tamar and the Tavy , was published in 1836 and describes, in a series of letters to the poet Robert Southey, the traditions, legends and superstitions that surround the North Dartmoor town of Tavistock.  This is the most likely source for most of Carroll’s information: Mrs Bray’s children’s book, A Peep at the Pixies, or Legends of the West, didn’t appear until 1854.

His fairy lore is on the whole, sound (excepting, I think, the turnips… as he confesses himself)  We do know that there was longstanding animosity between the Dartmoor foxes and pixies, which led to an ever-increasing effort by the latter to protect themselves.  The foxes hunted the pixies, digging them out of their underground homes and devouring them.  The pixies  responded by making iron shelters- which may, indeed, as Carroll suggests, look like dog kennels (R. King, ‘Folklore of Devonshire,’ Fraser’s Magazine, vol.8, 1873, p.781).

We know very well the fairies’ partiality for dairy products such as butter and milk, and it had long been a poetic conceit that tiny rural beings would drink dew and nectar from flowers.  We are also very familiar with their love of dance.  The use of kettles and the like is quite conventional: one common set of stories involves fairies seeking human aid to mend some basic item of domestic equipment- a stool or a ‘ped’ used to remove loaves from ovens; they made their own butter as well as stealing ours and would have needed a fully equipped kitchen for these tasks.  Tales of fairies at markets are also well-known, although their habit is often to thieve from the stalls rather than to buy.  In the frequent accounts of midwives who have cared for a fairy baby and, in the process, touched an eye with fairy ointment, the women are exposed when they spy a fairy at the market, whether buying or shoplifting.  Fairies often had gold, it is true, whether to purchase goods or to make gifts to chosen favourites.  Many writers have speculated about its source: was this money merely leaves and pebbles disguised by glamour (as was not unknown) or was it real currency, perhaps discovered by the fays underground?  Fairies were said to have abilities to help humans locate buried treasure, certainly, and access to ancient hoards might explain the unusual coins that often made up their payments.

Carroll’s pixies coincide very much with tradition, then, and even his jokey invention of their foxy fur coats is not entirely unheard of, as we know from more recent fairy sightings.  Nevertheless, the winged pixy is something of a surprise (though see Brian Froud’s image below) as is the description of them as always jolly.  As readers will know, they have a great tendency to mischief- hence the term ‘pixy-led.’

pixy

Another Froud pixie

Further reading

Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and ‘Through the Looking Glass’ are classics and well worth reading if you’ve not already, albeit not fairy stories in any conventional sense.  I have also enjoyed reading Sean Conroy’s recent book, Alice in the Underground: Lewis Carroll and Alice in Modern Culturea book which examines many of the debated questions of Carroll’s life and work.  My own British Pixies (2021) looks at all aspects of the folklore of the pixies of South West England.

‘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.