Of muggles and boggarts- and other fantastic beasts

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The bogles in the courtyard, by Arthur Rackham

Following my recent remarks upon the authentic origins of Dobby and the other house-elves of the Harry Potter series, in this post I’m offering a few more thoughts and comments upon some of Joanne Rowling’s words and characters.

Muggles

We’ll start with Muggles, non-magic folk.  There are several websites out there offering perfectly reasonable theories as to where she derived this from.  One site, for example,  proposes a word with a very long pedigree that has meant tail, young woman and, more recently, ‘joint.’  None of these have any magical or supernatural connotations, plainly.

However, it is well known that Rowling did thorough research whilst writing the Potter series.  Perhaps she came across this tale from the West of Scotland, recorded by J. G. Campbell and also printed by Lewis Spence.  A boy who was believed to be a changeling was sent by one household to seek the loan of a corn sieve from neighbours.  He met the son of that household, who was also a fairy changeling.  The latter told him to make his request in ‘honest language’ (i.e. fairy speak) as they thought they were alone together.  The child sent on the errand therefore said:

“The muggle maggle wants the loan of the black luggle laggle, to take the maggle from the grain.”

If his first words describe his ‘mother’ back at home, then perhaps we see her being identified as a ‘muggle (that is, human or non-fairy) woman/ housewife.’  This little story doesn’t have much at all to tell us about fairy language, but it might suggest a source for Rowling’s usage.

Boggarts

As for boggarts, we are on much firmer ground here.  The boggart is a well known type of British fairy creature.  It is one of a larger class known by a variety of related names- bogies, bogles and bugs.  Boggarts are probably amongst the more pleasant of the breed.  They are all solitary fairies, but boggarts tend to live like brownies in close proximity to human households.  Unlike brownies, they don’t seem to do much work around the farmstead but rather occupy themselves by being a nuisance, making noises and causing disturbance much like a poltergeist.  Rowling’s boggarts are shape-shifters and, on the whole, more malevolent.  She seems to have borrowed these characteristics, but not the name, from the boggarts close relatives.  Bogies range in behaviour from mischievous through frightening to downright dangerous.  They can change their appearance and often torment humans.  Bogles are evil goblins, although at least one is known to focus upon punishing petty criminals.  Bogg beasts are also a malicious kind of goblin, almost a demon in behaviour.  As readers will have seen, J. K. Rowling used traditional fairy characteristics, but preferred to apply the boggart name to the particular creature she imagined.

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Bogles causing mischief, by Arthur Rackham

In The prisoner of Azkaban in Harry Potter’s third year at Hogwarts his class learns about hinky-punks in their ‘Defence against the dark arts’ lessons with Remus Lupin.  These creatures are again borrowings by J. K. Rowling from authentic British tradition.  They are a form of will-of-the-wisp found around the Somerset/ Devon borders and they will lead night-time travellers astray, sometimes luring them into bogs and ponds.  The hinky-punk is believed to have only one leg and one eye.

Brownies in literature- from Mrs Ewing to Dobby

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

“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).

“Urchins, ouphs and fairies, green and white”-fairy clothing

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Arthur Rackham, ‘To make my small elves coats’, Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1908

“Wee folk, good folk, trooping all together,

Green jacket, red cap and white owl’s feather.”

William Allingham, The fairies, 1850

What does a fairy wear?  Nowadays we may well envisage a small girl in a pink tutu with a star tipped wand.  As regular readers will anticipate, this was decidedly not our ancestors’ image of faery kind.  It was, nonetheless, very much as conventional.

Local dress

There were some who regarded fairies as, in many respects, indistinguishable from their human neighbours.  For example, the Reverend Kirk in chapter five of The secret commonwealth asserted that “Their Apparell … is like that of the People and Countrey under which they live: so are they seen to wear Plaids and variegated Garments in the Highlands of Scotland, and Suanochs therefore in Ireland.”  Other evidence from Scotland confirms this.  At her witchcraft trial on 1576 Bessie Dunlop described the fairies she had conversed with: the men dressed as gentlemen, the women in plaids; a later account of the departure of the fairies also has them attired in plaids (with red caps); J. G. Campbell likewise mentions fairies in blue Highland bonnets.

Tell tale clothes

More commonly, there was always something about their dress which betrayed fairy-kind to the humans who encountered them.  Sometimes it was the style of the garments, more often it was the colour.  William Bottrell in Traditions and hearthside stories of West Cornwall states that the typical appearance of the pobel vean was “dressed in bright green nether garments, sky-blue jackets, three cornered hats on the men and pointed ones on the ladies, all decked out with lace and silver bells.”  There is, then, a resemblance to (antique) human fashions combined with distinctive hues.  This tendency to dress in the style of a century before is underlined by the story of the fairy market on Blackdown near Taunton- “Their habits used to be of red, blue or green, according to the way of old country garb, with high crowned hats” (Keightley Fairy mythology p.294).

Fairy colour ways

The quintessential and identifying fairy hue was green.  For example, John Campbell of Barra in the Highlands told a story of  woman seen dressed in green, observing “no woman would be clad in such a colour except a fairy woman.”  Indeed, the ‘green gowns’ was a fairly common euphemism employed to avoid too closely naming the good neighbours.

In about two thirds of the cases where the colour of garments is noted in an account, it is green.  Bourne in Antiquitates vulgares  from 1725 states that they were “always clad in green” and, whilst this overstates the popular view, accounts from Cornwall through Wales and northern England and up to the Highlands repeatedly confirm the fairy preference.  In his Remains of Nithsdale and Galloway Song Robert Cromek embellishes this slightly, describing “mantles of green cloth inlaid with flowers” and “green pantaloons buttoned with bobs of silk and sandals of silver.”  J. F. Campbell found accounts in his Popular Tales of the West Highlands of fairies in kilts, but these were green and matched by green conical hats.

Some readers will recall that green was the skin tone of the mysterious ‘fairy’ children discovered at Woolpit in Suffolk in the 1100s.  Katherine Briggs has suggested that the colour relates to death- and there may be something in this.  Identity with nature and plant life might be another association.

Popular as green was, it was by no means exclusive.  Other traditional choices were:

  • red– Evans Wentz recorded Welsh fairies in “gaudy colours (mostly red)”, in “soldiers’ clothes” with red caps and some pixies at Land’s End in red cloaks (Fairy faith pp.142, 155 & 181).  Professor John Rhys found that Welsh witnesses in Victorian times often referred to the Tylwyth Teg ‘the red coats’ by way of euphemism;
  • white– Welsh informants told Evans Wentz that the Tylwyth Teg were ‘always’ clothed in white and Thomas Heywood in his Hierarchie of the blessed angels employs ‘white nymphs’ as a euphemism for the fairies (p.507);
  • blue– for example, Sikes in British goblins (chapter V, part iii) describes the Tylwyth Teg seen at the ‘Place of strife,’ Trefeglws, Llanidloes, Montgomeryshire, as “the old elves of the blue petticoats.” In the Suffolk story, Brother Mike, the fairies appear in blue coats, yellow breeches and red caps;
  • other– on Shetland the ‘grey neighbours’ are grey clad goblins.  Walter Scott records Border fairies clad in “heath brown or lichen dyed garments.”  John Rhys learned that the fairy women of Cardigan dressed “gorgeously in white, while the men were content with garments of a dark grey colour, usually including knee-breeches.” Meanwhile, around the River Teifi, the fairy women were said to dress “like foreigners, in short cotton dresses reaching only to the knee-joint.”  He felt this was exceptional, as generally fairy dresses had very long trains and local girls who dressed in a more showy fashion would be likened to the Tylwyth Teg.  At the other extreme, some supernatural beings traditionally abandon human clothing altogether and appear dressed in skins or leaves (Briggs, Dictionary, pp.110-11).  In the hands of poets, an opposite tendency applies and clothing can become highly elaborate and literary.  For instance John Beaumont in 1705 decked out his fairies in “loose Network Gowns, tied with a black sash about their middles, and within the Network appeared a Gown of a Golden Colour… they had white Linnen Caps on, with lace about three Fingers breadth, and over it they had a Black loose Network Hood” (A treatise of spirits).

To summarise the matter of preferred clothing colours, we may quote the words of John Walsh of Netherbury, Dorset; in 1566 he was suspected of witchcraft and gave evidence. He stated “that there be iii kinds of fairies- white, green and black.  Whereof the blacke fairies is the worst…”

Oddities and exceptions

Lastly, some supernaturals, the hobgoblins and brownies, dispensed with clothing altogether, relying on their hairiness or coarse skin.  For them, the gift of clothes was the ultimate insult which drove them away from their chosen home.  You may recall Dobby the house elf of Hogwarts school, dressed in an old tea-towel.  Joanne Rowling knew her folklore.

Authors and artists aside, the folklore conception of fairy dress was of relatively simple garments. Susan Swapper of Rye told her 1610 witchcraft trial that the fairy woman she met dressed in a ‘green petticoat’ and plainness seems to be the norm- as in accounts of ‘long green robes.’  Sometimes something more elaborate is suggested; Angus Macleod of Harris in 1877 relayed his mother’s description of fairies dancing: “Bell-helmets of blue silk covered their heads, and garments of green satin covered their bodies and sandals of yellow membrane covered their feet” (Wentz p.116).

Fairy headwear

A particular identifying feature, indeed, was the fairy’s cap.  It is regularly mentioned, most often red, although blue and yellow are also recorded, and again allusions occur from the south-west through Wales and the north-west up into Scotland.  The shape is often pointed or conical- for example, a mid-twentieth century encounter near Perth was with a “wee green man with peakit boots and a cap like an old gramophone horn on his head.”  The same informant ten years later had a rather more prosaic sighting of two small men in bowler hats…

By the twentieth century, conceptions of the style of fairy clothing had shifted away from the traditional forms to something much more influenced by art- both high and popular.  Strains of whimsy and of floaty, flimsy ballerina type garments became pervasive, as typified perhaps by Cicely Mary Barker, whose fairies were, in the main, genteel young ladies, dressed perhaps for an Edwardian fancy dress party.

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Summary

To summarise, descriptions of fairy clothing tended to fall into one of three categories:

  • the otherness of the fairies was emphasised by the brightly coloured and elaborate nature of their attire;
  • likewise, their otherness was indicated by the fact that they wore clothes of an earlier era: to the Victorians they appeared dressed in the fashions of mid-eighteenth century Georgians; or,
  • by way of contrast, the very vicinity and intimate proximity of the ‘good neighbours’ was shown by the fact that they wore garments almost identical to those of human kind.

Lastly, readers will doubtless have observed how long-established one image is: the pixie or gnome dressed in his green jacket and red, pointy cap is deeply ingrained in the British imagination.

Further reading

See too my posting on the significance or symbolism of the different colours of fairy mentioned in folklore.  An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).