What’s in a Name? Using the right terms for the faeries

Recently I’ve been researching the pixies of south-west Britain for my book, British Pixies, and, in so doing, encountered serious problems in pinning down the basic terminology used by authors such as Robert Hunt and William Borlase and (presumably) their local Cornish sources.  There are at least five terms used to label the fairy folk of the south-west: pixies, pobel vean (little people), spriggans, knockers and buccas.  A couple of these words seem to be Cornish and, we might be tempted to suggest, are older and more authentic than some of the other terms.  The word pixie/ pisky would seem to be a later import, if we are correct in supposing that it is related to the pucks of England and the pwcca of Wales and is (probably) a Germanic word originally.  The bucca certainly seems to be an identical being.  Some of the folklore writers tried to make distinctions between this multiplicity of words: for instance, the pobel vean were said to be smaller and more beautiful; the knockers lived in mines; the spriggans were ugly and evil.  The truth is, though, that reading the sources, we find the words being used interchangeably, so that Cornish witnesses can speak of knockers as buccas or can use the latter word to denote both pixies and the pobel vean.

Precision seems both impossible and, very probably, unnecessary.  This example is reflective of a wider problem within the British Isles, where successive layers of incoming speech have led to an overlapping vocabulary, which can tempt us into imagining differences (or even similarities) that don’t exist.  Over and above this, of course, there is the additional problem of the faeries not wanting us to know what they really call themselves, for fear of giving us power over them). Here are a few other instances of the taxonomic confusion.

Isle of Man: the island’s fairies are often called the ferrish (singular)/ ferrishyn (plural)This could be a Manx word, but compare it with authentically Manx Celtic terms like mooinjer veggy or sleigh beggey, meaning the little people.  Ferrishyn seems suspiciously similar, to me, to the terms ferishers, feriers, fraries and, even, farisees/ pharisees used in Norfolk and Suffolk in the east of England.  On Orkney and Shetland you might encounter the pronunciation ferries. Recalling the Highland Gaelic tendency to turn a final ‘s’ into ‘sh,’ this could indicate the route by which Manx speakers arrived at ferrish.  Whatever the exact derivation, these are all dialect versions of ‘fairies’ and, as such, aren’t themselves hugely old.  Katherine Briggs drew a comparison with the feorin of the English North West, but, as Simon Young has demonstrated, this is most probably derived from ‘fear’- something that scares you. 

Wales: there seem to be several good, genuine, Welsh words in use, many of them euphemisms. These include tylwyth teg, bendith y mamau (the mother’s blessings), y dynion mwyn (the kind people), y teulu (the tribe), gwragedd anwyl (the beloved women), yr elod (‘the intelligences’- perhaps, the ‘wise’ or ‘all-knowing’ ones), pwcca and ellyllon.  All’s not what it seems, however.  As already mentioned, pwcca could just be a borrowing across the border.  Likewise, ellyllon is simply the Welsh rendering of the English ‘elves’ and even tylwyth teg, ‘the fair folk’ may be a mistaken rendering of fairies, based on the assumption that the core of the English word was ‘fair’ as in good-looking. I need hardly say that y goblin bach, the little goblin, is not a deeply authentic Welsh label.

England: the foregoing sections suggest the invasive power of the English language (which is true) but let’s not forget that Anglo-Saxon was itself steadily overwhelmed by subsequent influxes of Romance and other languages.  Old English ‘elf’ still survives, especially in lowland Scotland, but it generally plays second best to a French import, fay/ fairy, a word which has been adopted as a handy, catch-all labelOther continental importations include goblin, from the French gobelin, and Scandinavian troll (which is the root of the trows of Orkney and Shetland too).  Both goblin and trow seem to have been required because there wasn’t a decent English equivalent.  Anglo-Saxon had used the word dweorg, meaning a small, malicious elf-like being. This vanished from standard English- along with any concept of ‘dwarves’ as a species of supernatural entity.  In Dorset, there is still the derrick, a name that’s derived from dweorg and which is now applied to a little man who’s often said to be a local kind of pixie… 

Much more recently, as I’ve described before, we’ve imported Latin and Greek words like nymph, naiad and siren as extra terms to use in parallel with fairy, elf and mermaid.  We’ve also adopted entirely made-up names, such as gnome and sylph.  As mentioned in a previous posting, these were dreamed up by Paracelsus, but they’ve assumed a place in the language, to the extent that gnomes have even been accepted as a separate genus of fairy being.

These imported names can add variety to texts- and I’m as guilty as any of switching from one to another just to avoid monotony- but they can also create the impression that the landscape is peopled with a dense confusion of different types of being, whereas we may, in most instances, be dealing with only a handful of types.  Broadly, in Britain, we can probably narrow matters down to fairies/ elves and brownies/ hobs/ boggarts.  The rest is probably just a matter of differences of terminology (and this is before we’ve even considered all the very local names that exist: dobbies, powries, dunters, red caps, piskies etc etc)…. 

Emmeline Richardson

‘A geography of trees’- wood elves in myth and popular culture

 

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“… like a wind out of fairy-land
Where little people live
Who need no geography
But trees.”           (Hilda Conkling [1910-86], Geography, 1920)

Today probably most people, if asked, would imagine elves and fairies gambolling in a woodland setting.  This appears to have become a very strong convention within our popular visual culture, yet it is not traditional to British fairy lore (despite a few links between fairies and particular trees, most notably in Gaelic speaking areas where the fairy thorn has particular power and significance- see for examples poems of this name by Samuel Ferguson and Dora Sigerson Shorter). I wish therefore in this posting to examine how this prevalent image came about.

Shakespeare

Although the fairy king Oberon is met in a forest in the thirteenth century romance epic Huon of Bordeuax, but I believe the primary source of our close association between fairies and forests is Shakespeare, both the ‘wood near Athens’ which features in Midsummer night’s dream and in which Titania, Oberon, Puck and the other fairies make their home, and the open woodland of Windsor Great Park that features in the Merry Wives of Windsor and which is the scene of Falstaff’s believed encounter with the fairy queen and her train.  Whilst their ultimate roots may lie with the dryads and hamadryads of classical myth, it was these theatrical presentations of fairies that first really fixed the woodland elf in the English speaking public’s imagination.  Much subsequent literature and visual art has cemented the pairing to the extent that it appears inevitable, but there is little trace of it in older sources or in British folklore.

British fairy homes

The British fairy, according to older writers, could be found in a variety of locations.  They frequented mountains, caverns, meadows and fields, fountains, heaths and greens, hills and downland, groves and woods.  Generally, they were more likely to be found in ‘wild places.’ Residence underground- whether in caves or under hills- is a commonly featured preference and I have often mentioned the presence of fairies under knolls and barrows.  Woods feature in these sources, it’s perfectly true, but they are far from the most commonly mentioned locations.  (I have considered here Reginald Scot, Burton’s Anatomy of melancholy, Bourne’s Antiquitates vulgares and a few medieval texts.)  The South English legendary of the thirteenth or fourteenth century is especially interesting reading in this connection: elves are seen, we are informed, “by daye much in wodes… and bi nightes ope heighe dounes…”- in other words, they frequent woods during the day (presumably for concealment from human eyes) but resort to open hill tops at night for their revelries.

A particularly relevant source is the Welsh minister, the Reverend Edmund Jones. In his 1780 history of the superstitions of Aberystruth parish he recorded the contemporary views locally on the most likely locations for seeing fairies.  They did not like open, plain or marshy places, he reported, but preferred those that were dry and near to or shaded by spreading branches, particularly those of hazel and oak trees (The appearance of evil, para.56).  Jones’ description fits the open oak parkland of Windsor perfectly, where Falstaff is duped by those merry wives and their gang of children disguised as elves.  It’s also notable that Wirt Sikes in his British goblins locates the Welsh elves (ellyllon) in groves and valleys.  In Wales at least, then, an open wooded landscape was believed in popular tradition to be the fairies’ preferred habitat.

EnchantedForest_Fitzgerald

John Anster Fitzgerald, The enchanted forest

Woodland fays

Woods were one of the favoured resorts for the fairy folk, then, but not their sole preserve.  It seems to be in Victorian times that woodland elves became the cliche that we encounter today.  I have (for better or ill) read a lot of Victorian fairy verse and certain stereotyped images are very well worn: moonlight, dancing in rings, woodland glades.  Here are just a few examples to indicate what you’ll see ad nauseam.  The connection begins to appear in the eighteenth century (see for example the “fairy glade” of Sir James Beattie’s The minstrel and The palace of fortune by Sir William Jones, 1769). References multiply throughout the next hundred years and into the last century: the “sylvan nook where fairies dwell” of Janet Hamilton’s Pictures of memory; Ann Radcliffe’s “woodlands dear” and “forest walks” in Athlin and The glow-worm; the “woodways wild” of Madison Julius Cawein’s Prologue and the “fairy wood” in his Elfin; the “woodland fays” that appear in George Pope Morris’ Croton Mode.  By then well-established, these fays persisted into the twentieth century, in “some dark and mystic glade” of Tennessee Williams’ Under April rain or the “nymphs of a dark forest” of Edna St Vincent Millay.  All of this imagery transferred to the visual arts, too, especially to the illustrations of children’s books.

tarrant fairy way

Margaret Tarrant, ‘The fairy way’

Tolkien’s elves

Once this image was embedded in the culture, it proved almost impossible to eradicate.  J. R. R. Tolkien absorbed it and the Silvan or Wood Elves of Lord of the Rings are the result; Galadriel is one of the Galadhrim (the tree people) of Lorien.  Tolkien’s influence in recent decades has been extensive and powerful.  An example might be Led Zeppelin, whose own highly influential Stairway to heaven invokes images of fairyland where “the forests shall echo with laughter.”  The pervasive idea was that the natural habitat of the fairy is the forest.

It might not be inappropriate to conclude with more lines from infant prodigy Hilda Conkling.  In If I could tell you the way she described how-

“Down through the forest to the river
I wander…
Fairies live here;
They know no sorrow.
Birds, winds,
They are the only people.
If I could tell you the way to this place,
You would sell your house and your land
For silver or a little gold,
You would sail up the river,
Tie your boat to the Black Stone,
Build a leaf-hut, make a twig-fire,
Gather mushrooms, drink spring-water,
Live alone and sing to yourself
For a year and a year and a year!”

MWT-G3804-330 Fairies Market

Margaret Tarrant, The fairies market, 1921

Further reading

For a wider consideration of the relationship between fays and trees, see Neil Rushton’s posting on dead but dreaming on the metaphysics of fairy trees.  See my other postings for thoughts on eco-fairies and fairies at the bottom of your garden.

An expanded version of this text will appear in my next book, Faeries, which will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide next year.

 

 

“Queen Mab hath been with you”

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Brian Froud, ‘The queen of the bad fairies’

In my fairy/ fantasy story, Albion Awakeone of the main characters is Maeve (Mab), ‘queen’ of the fairies.  She is a very well known name in literary fairy land, thanks amongst others to Shelley (who calls her ‘Queen of Spells’), Drayton and Shakespeare, and in this post I wanted to outline her traditional character (although my version in the new book is departs from convention in some respects).

Tiny Mab

Mab was generally conceived as being a tiny creature- the archetypal fairy.  She is believed to be derived from the Welsh Mabb, queen of the ellyllon, who were minute elves of grove and vale.  The most famous account of her is in Romeo and Juliet (Act One, scene iv) when Mercutio describes her in the following terms: “She comes in shape no bigger than an agate stone,” galloping at night in a coach made from a nut shell.  This diminutive stature is compounded by Shelley in his poem Queen Mab by an insubstantial and wispy physical form.

Whatever her size, though, Mab is source of disturbance.  Mercutio records that she “gallops night by night through lovers’ brains/ And then they dream of love.”  She is the fairy midwife of dreams and enables sleeping humans to realise their desires in fantasy.

Mischievous Mab

Secondly, Mab is mischievous; witness Mercutio again: she “plats the manes of horses in the night and bakes the elf-locks in foul sluttish hairs.”  She is responsible for undoing domestic chores and pinches and torments lazy servants- for example Ben Jonson in his 1603 ‘Entertainment at Althorpe’ warns that in the dairy Mab can hinder the churning.

Troublesome dreams

This interference in human affairs is taken one stage further, though, according to Mercutio’s description, and in this final aspect we find a link to the sensual, sexual fairy that I have discussed in an earlier posting.  Romeo’s companion recounts that “This is the hag, when maids lie on their backs, that presses them and learns them first to bear, making them women of good carriage.”  To be ‘hag-ridden’ was to suffer nightmares and ‘the hagge’ was conceived to be a hideous witch or succubus who sat on a sleeper’s stomach and caused bad dreams.  For example, in the Mad pranks and merry jests of Robin Goodfellow (1588, Percy Society 1841, p.42) Gull the Fairy describes how “Many times I get on men and women and so lie on their stomachs that I cause them great pain; for which they call me by the name of Hagge and Nightmare.”  This notion is here distorted by Shakespeare into something akin to an incubus seducing- and even educating- virgin girls.

Robert Herrick, in his poem Oberon’s palace, tells of a naked and “moon-tanned” Mab who goes to bed with the elf-king.  These more adult and sinister traits in Mab’s behaviour are something I have chosen to develop in my novel.

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Queen Mab by Henry Fuseli