Faeries in Maurice Hewlett’s ‘Lore of Proserpine’

Rheam, Once Upon a Time

“Thus go the fairy kind,

Whither Fate driveth; not as we

Who fight with it, and deem us free

Therefore, and after pine, or strain

Against our prison bars in vain;

For to them Fate is Lord of Life

And Death, and idle is a strife

With such a master …”

Hypsipyle, by Maurice Hewlett

I have discussed before the book The Lore of Proserpine by Maurice Hewlett.  In this post I return to Hewlett’s opinions about the nature of fairies and fairy society.  The book is a curious read, in that it is a work of fiction that seems to be a collection of reports of cases and personal experiences, somewhat akin to Evans-Wentz’ Fairy Faith.  It is, therefore, a set of loosely linked short stories and a quasi-scientific or folklore study of faery kind- yet it rejects the examinations of folklore written by the Grimm Bothers and others:

“Grimm and his colleagues started with a prejudice, that Gods, fairies and the rest have never existed and don’t exist. To them the interest of the inquiry is not what is the nature, what are the laws, of such beings, but what is the nature of the primitive people who imagined the existence of such beings? I very soon found out that Grimm and his colleagues had nothing to tell me.”

This is a rejection by Hewlett of the ‘folklore’ approach to faeries. Rather like this blog, he prefers a different approach and his book is presented as a dissertation on faery ways based upon a lifetime’s personal contacts with fairies. It should be noted though that Hewlett, as a British public-school boy, knows as much about the classical gods of Greece as he does about Puck and Mab.  The former are the “Gods” of the last paragraph. His mythology can seem quite heterodox and confused, but- as I’ve discussed before- that is quite typical of much British folklore.   

Nymphs

A significant part of the book is concerned with sightings of nymphs- and by ‘nymphs’ Hewlett seems to mean the classical beings and not female fairies by another name.  Hewlett (or, rather, the narrator of the book) claims that the open-minded and less sceptical part of his mind has seen naiads and the rest. As a young teenager, he has a vision in an English wood:

“I believed that I was now looking upon a Dryad. I was looking certainly at a spirit informed. A being, irradiate and quivering with life and joy of life, stood dipt to the breast in the brake; stood so, bathing in the light; stood so, preening herself like a pigeon on the roof-edge, and saw me and took no heed.”

A whole chapter is given over to a succession of encounters with Oreads (mountain or hill nymphs) at Broad Chalke in Wiltshire.  Where these events took place can be identified exactly on a map, making the whole episode that much more compelling and real.  Quite where nymphs blend into ‘hill fairies’ or such like, is hard to say.

Miles Willams Mathis, Dryad Child

Faery Kind

Most of the book is concerned with beings Hewlett expressly calls fairies.  Rather like the Reverend Kirk (to whom he refers several times), Hewlett has a very well-developed conception of their nature, life style and morals.

To begin with, fairies are “born whole and in a flash,” they don’t grow up.  They come from another dimension:

“Of this chain of being, then, of which our order is a member, the fairy world is another and more subtle member, subtler in the right sense of the word because it is not burdened with a material envelope. Like man, like the wind, like the rose, it has spirit; but unlike any of the lower orders, of which man is one, it has no sensible wrapping unless deliberately it consents to inhabit one. This, as we know, it frequently does.”

Seen with humans, they don’t fit in, they’re not the same yet, faeries are part of the natural world and belong entirely within it:

“Now, it is a curious thing, accepted by all visionaries, that a supernatural being, a spirit, fairy, not-human creature, if you see it among animals, beasts and birds, on hills or in the folds of hills, among trees, by waters, in fields of flowers, looks at home and evidently is so. The beasts are conscious of it, know it and have no fear of it; the hills and valleys are its familiar places in a way which they will never be to the likes of us. But put a man beside it and it becomes at once supernatural. I have seen spirits, beings, whatever they may be, in empty space, and have observed them as part of the landscape, no more extraordinary than grazing cattle or wheeling plover. Again, I have seen a place thick with them, as thick as a London square in a snow-storm, and a man walk clean through them unaware of their existence, and make them, by that act, a mockery of the senses.”

They are nature spirits: “the fairy kind are really the spirit, essence, substance (what you will) of certain sensible things, such as trees, flowers, wind, water, hills, woods, marshes and the like, that their normal appearance to us is that of these natural phenomena; but that in certain states of mind, perhaps in certain conditions of body, there is a relation established by which we are able to see them on our own terms, as it were, or in our own idiom, and they also to treat with us to some extent, to a large extent, on the same plane or standing-ground.”

These nature spirits have no language, their songs have no words, and they communicate by telepathy.  They may look physically human, but they are utterly different from us in their temperament and consciousness.  They live entirely in the present moment, they don’t dwell on the past or try to peer into the future:

“The whole nature of the creature was strung to one issue only, to that point when she could fling headlong into activity- an activity in which every fibre and faculty would be used. A comparison of the fairy-kind with human beings is never successful, because into our images of human beings we always import self-consciousness. They know what they are doing. Fairies do not. But wait a moment; there is a reason. Human creatures, I think, know what they are doing only too well, because performance never agrees with desire. They know what they are doing because it is never exactly what they meant to do, or what they wanted to do. Now, with fairies, desire to do and performance are instinctive and simultaneous. If they think, they think in action. In this they are far more like animals than human creatures, although the form in which they appear to us, their shape and colouring are like ours, enhanced and refined.”

Hewlett’s fairies have no souls; if you look into their eyes you see the “far, intent, rapt gaze of a wild animal.”  They don’t have a morality we’d recognise, therefore:

“Literature will tell him that fairies are benevolent or mischievous, and tradition, borrowing from literature, will confirm it. The proposition is ridiculous. It would be as wise to say that a gnat is mischievous when it stings you, or a bee benevolent because he cannot prevent you stealing his honey…  That is the pathetic fallacy again; and that is man all over. Will nothing, I wonder, convince him that he is not the centre of the Universe?”

It is, Hewlett asserts, “often said that fairies of both sexes seek our kind because we know more of the pleasure of love than they do.”  However, he warns that “it certainly appears like a standing fact of Nature that when the beings of one order come into commerce with those of another the result will be tragic.”

“Love with them is a wild and wonderful rapture in all its manifestations, and without regard necessarily to sex…  It must be remembered that I am dealing with an order of Nature which knows nothing of our shames and qualms, which is not only unconscious of itself but unconscious of anything but its immediate desire; but I am dealing with it to the understanding of a very different order, to whom it is not enough to do a thing which seems good in its own eyes, but requisite also to be sure of the approbation of its fellow-men. I should create a wrong impression were I to enlarge upon this branch of my subject; I should make my readers call fairies shameful when as a fact they know not the meaning of shame, or reprove them for shamelessness when, indeed, they are luckily without it. I shall make bold to say once for all that as it is absurd to call the lightning cruel, so it is absurd to call shameful those who know nothing about the deformity. No one can know what love means who has not seen the fairies at their loving…” 

In summary, Hewlett calls them “swift, beautiful and apparently ruthless creatures.”

As for their government, Hewlett recognises that they have figures called kings and queens but he states that these are not rulers as such.  They recognise the authority of greater spirits but, in essence, theirs is an anarchy: “The fairies are of a world where Right and Wrong don’t obtain, where Possible and Impossible are the only finger-posts at cross-roads; for the Gods themselves give no moral sanction to desire and hold up no moral check.”

The narrator of this book has encountered very many fairies, but he recognises that he is unusual and very lucky. “The laws which govern the appearance of fairies to mankind or their commerce with men and women seem to be conditioned by the ability of men to perceive them. The senses of men are, figuratively speaking, lenses coloured or shaped by personality.”  In other words, we see what we are conditioned to see- what we expect.  There is a second complication too, which is the fact that “manifestation is not always mutual, [so] that a man may see a fairy without being seen, and conversely, a fairy may be fully aware of mankind or of some man or men without any suspicion of theirs.”

This fundamental soul-less and animal-like quality explains much of the unbridgeable gap that lies between our two species- and why the faeries can seem to act in heartless or inhuman ways.  As beings of nature, they are entirely absorbed within their environment, accepting cold as a fact and tolerating it; enjoying pleasure in the moment when they find it.  One of his first sightings, ‘The Boy in the Wood,’ involves a faery spotted throttling a rabbit. This is being done, slowly and cruelly, just for the pleasure of being able to kill the animal. Hewlett’s fairies don’t worry about the impact of their actions- in consequence of which, in the account of ‘Beckwith’s Case,’ we see a fairy steal a little girl away from her family.  Even though the girl’s father had rescued the fairy and cared for her for many months, she has no qualms about befriending and then abducting the daughter. 

This is the harsh world of Hewlett’s faery- and, truth to tell, it’s not far at all from many of the traits of fae nature we see in the traditional folklore.  As I’ve described before, his stories are told with beauty and sensitivity and I can only recommend the book again.

John Anster Fitzgerald, Cock Robin Defending His Nest

Sylvia Townsend Warner- Of Cats and Elfins

For Christmas I received this collection of short stories by Sylvia Townsend Warner. Split into two sections- one on fairies, one on cats (!)- it complements her book, Kingdoms of Elfin, which I have reviewed before.

As a fan of both cats and elves, the book is highly recommended. It’s a pleasant read- and a thought provoking one too. There’s a general introduction to Warner’s views on the inhabitants of Faery, followed by her unusual little tales. Her opinions on fairy-kind as a whole are well worth noting.

In many respect, Warner’s elfins are very similar to those we know. For example, they frequent meadows where they “dance mushrooms into rings” and the island of Britain is divided up into kingdoms ruled over by fairy queens, such as Elfame. Warner’s belief was that fairies are, eventually, mortal. They can die of old age and they can die, too, by misadventure- for example, by drowning, poisoning or hanging.

Warner’s elfins have a very low estimation of humankind. We are noisy, rude, dirty and, worst of all, dim. Her fae are smaller than humans, winged and able to ‘put on’ invisibility. As a result, she observed that:

“It is sometimes said that we have but our own obtuseness to blame for not seeing fairies more often than we do; but this is to attach too much importance to our idiosyncrasies, even to such a well-established, long-standing idiosyncrasy as obtuseness; for if we fail to see the fairies, it is not because we are too stupid to see them, but because they are too clever to allow themselves to be seen by us.”

Of Cats & Elfins, ‘The Kingdom of Elfin.’

All in all, Warner’s elves don’t reckon much to us human beings. In her story ‘The Narrative of Events Preceding the Death of Queen Ermine,’ it is remarked that “Mortals are not logical animals.” The courtier who makes this observation expands upon his experience a little later, explaining the essential difference between human and fairy kind (the possession of consciences): “We [that is, the fae] have no need of them. We have reason. But they are part of the mortal apparatus, as tails are to cats…” In the story ‘The Duke of Orkney’s Leonardo,’ we are told a little more about Elfin morality. They are “untrammeled by that petted plague of mortals, conscience, [so] they never reproached or regretted, entered into explanations or lied.” Faery is a world of guilt-free Enlightenment, it would seem. In the same story, Warner has a nice little joke at human gullibility: of fairy princess Lief, she remarks sardonically that:

“If she had believed in witches she would have believed he was under a spell; but Caithness was full of witches- mortals all, derided by rational Elfins.”

The fairy view of people is summarised by Warner in these terms:

“It is a sad fact, but undeniable: the Kingdom of Elfin has a very poor opinion of humankind. I suppose we must seem to them shocking boors, uncouth, noisy, ill-bred and disgustingly oversized. It is only the fairies with a taste for low company, like Puck and the Brownies… that make a practice of familiarity. And it is to be observed that they, for choice, frequent the simple and rustic part of mankind and avoid professors and students of folklore…”

Of Cats & Elfins, ‘The Kingdom of Elfin.’

As she notes, those humans who go out consciously looking for traces of the faeries tend to be disappointed- or are the victims of fairy vindictiveness. Warner confronts the fact that, when they do have contact with us, it is frequently an unpleasant experience for the mortals. They may give us a nasty fright, or:

“Often they go further, causing them to fall into languishing sicknesses, harrying them with ignominious accidents and even pursuing them unto death. They commonly employ one or two methods: blasting or shooting with an elf-bolt…”

Of Cats & Elfins, ‘The Kingdom of Elfin.’

According to Warner, three groups, nevertheless, have a good chance of meeting faeries on happier terms. These are country women with new born babies, young children and handsome men. Mothers are taken because “the fairies think that the plodding and bovine nature of human kind is peculiarly well adapted to provide reliable old-fashioned nurses for fairy babes.”

Children are abducted either because they are wanted as a tithe for the devil (according to one theory) or because they enjoy the company of children and taking care of them (which she thinks more likely). This sits uncomfortably with a entirely typical faery episode in ‘The Narrative of Events Preceding the Death of Queen Ermine’ in which local children are punished for trespassing on the queen’s land. Most suffer pinchings, scratching and hair pullings, but some of the fairies get rather carried away in their duties- “driving the marauders into wasps’ nests, jerking them off boughs into nettlebeds, alluring them to toadstools or gay wreaths of deadly nightshade.” The resultant death toll is quite high.

As for men, fairy women take them as husbands. Warner notes, though, that the reverse is seldom the case. Although fairy men will seduce human women, “no earthly woman’s charms have been powerful enough to bind a fairy to her in honorable matrimony.” In large measure, she ascribes this to the fairy temperament:

“Their amorousness is proverbial and no doubt the fairies who married mortal husbands were induced to this rash step by the violence of their passions, coupled with a romantic and high-flown notion that there is something very fine about defying convention. Once married, however, they make admirable wives.”

Of Cats & Elfins, ‘The Kingdom of Elfin.’

On the whole, though, fairies are an unromantic lot and are incapable of falling heavily for another: “Elfins find such love burdensome and mistrust it.” If only humans could be as calm and rational… The other remark to make upon Warner’s Elfins is their diversity. The author was a lesbian with a life-long partner and in the story ‘The Duke of Orkney’s Leonardo’ she imagined a gay husband and his wife, neither of them prepared to conform to the stereo-types expected of them.

Raphael, Mary F., A Wood Nymph; Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum

The last story in the Cats and Elfins collection is ‘Stay, Corydon, Thou Swain.’ In many ways it is my favourite, although it is strictly not about Elfins but about nymphs. In short, it concerns a Mr Mulready, a draper in Wells in Somerset. He is a highly respectable widower who sings in the Baptist chapel choir. One evening the choir has been practicing the madrigal by Wilbye that provides the story’s title. The words of the verse stick in Mulready’s mind:

“Thy nymph is light and shadow-like

For if thou follow her, she’ll fly from thee,

But if thou fly from her, she’ll follow thee.”

Then, “All of a sudden, Mr Mulready found himself wondering about nymphs, and wondering, too, in a very serious and pertinacious way. He had never, to his knowledge, given a though to these strange beings before and yet it now seemed to him that he had an idea of them both clear and pleasant- as though perhaps in childhood he had been taken to see one. He wished to see a nymph again… What he felt was more than a whim: it was an earnest desire, a mental craving…”

The next day he realises that he has a nymph working in his shop, a pale young girl called Edna Cave. He asks to come out for a bicycle ride the next evening and they agree to cycle to Merley Wood, the other side of Glastonbury (there is a real Merley Wood, but it’s near Wimbourne in Dorset- definitely not an evening’s ride from Wells). Mulready knows the wood- and has always been a little nervous of its atmosphere, but as he tells himself: “When one has a nymph vouchsafed one for a whole evening, one does not boggle over details. He was extremely happy and excited at the thought of such a shy and rare being becoming his companion.”

They ride to the wood on a beautiful summer’s evening. Edna Cave is exactly the company the older man had hoped for : “He had already a general idea of how a nymph should behave: she would be rather quiet and take a great interest in flowers.” This is exactly what Edna does. They sit happily together under blackthorn blossom on the edge of the wood, saying little, but very content, until it is late and starting to get quite dark. Mr Mulready encourages them to leave and they are just walking back to their bikes when Edna turns around and walks back towards the blackthorn:

“She put out her hands. He thought she was going to break off a spray… And then, in a moment, she disappeared.”

Edna vanishes, leaving Mulready stunned and panicked. There is no trace of her at all- and he has to face returning to Wells with this shattering news. This wonderful mystery is exactly what I sought to celebrate in my book Nymphology published last year; it is, as well, a fine end to the Elfin section of Warner’s collection.

“To thee I plight my troth”- subjects of the Faerie Queene

titania
Arthur Rackham, Titania- ‘Fairies, away!’ from Midsummer Night’s Dream

We know that fairies will taken human lovers, especially the Fairy Queen, and we know too that they may prove possessive and vindictive partners (the leannan shee of the Scottish Highlands and the Isle of Man is consistently portrayed this way).  One aspect of these relationships that I have not, so far, explored is need, or desire, for the human partner to make a binding commitment to the fairy monarch who is their lover or teacher.  Nonetheless, it is a consistent (if not common) aspect of many of these stories- and from an early date.

Medieval examples

In the fifteenth century ballad of Thomas of Erceldoune, the hero is approached by the fairy queen one sunny May day when he is out, walking alone in the countryside.  He is instantly taken by her beauty and declares, impetuously, “Here my trouth I plight thee,/ Whedur thou wilt to heven or hell…”  Initially, this display of subservience appears to have achieved its purpose, because an extended sex session follows.  However, shagging the fairy queen isn’t to be undertaken lightly: once she’s recovered from his over-energetic attentions, the queen declares that he’s going with her to fairyland for the next twelve months.  There are no ifs or buts about this: “For thy trowthe thou hast me tane,/ Ayene that may ye make no stryfe.”  He’s made an oath and bound himself to her- and now he’s stuck with it.

Something similar is found in Thomas Chestre’s Sir Launfal.  The knight is summoned into the presence of fairy lady Tryamour and once again a commitment is extracted from the human in the hope of getting inside her bodice (as well as becoming wealthy): she tells him “Yf thou wylt truly to me take,/ And alle wemen for me forsake,/ Ryche I wylle make thee…”  This more than just a promise of true love from Sir Launfal.  He has to pledge to keep their liaison secret, in return for which, as well as her body, he gets a purse full of gold that will never run out.

anton romako, girl with moon tiara
Anton Romako, Girl with a Moon Tiara

Scottish cases

These examples from romantic literature are supplemented forcefully by the recorded experiences of men and women suspected of witchcraft in early modern Scotland.  It’s a regular, if not frequent, aspect of these cases that contact with the fairies involved some sort of binding commitment by the human.  Firstly, in 1576 in Ayrshire Bessie Dunlop admitted that she had met a fairy man called Thom Reid who had asked her to ‘trow’ (trust in) him and give up Christianity, in return for which she would receive livestock and other material assets.  She would not do this, but had offered to be true to him in every other way.

Marion Grant of Aberdeen was tried in 1597 for her contacts with a fairy man she called Christsonday.  Twelve years previously he had come to her and asked her to call him lord and become his servant- to which Marion consented.  Sexual intercourse followed, after which she would be visited by him monthly.  She admitted that she worshipped him on her knees and that he had taught her healing powers in return.  The next year in the same city Andro Man confessed to a relationship with the fairy queen that had lasted over three decades and had produced a number of children.  One sign of his commitment to her had been to kiss her “airss” on Rood-day in harvest the year before.

Margaret Alexander of Livingston in 1647 confessed to a thirty year affair with the fairy king, at the start of which he had required her to renounce her baptism as a demonstration of her commitment to him.  Lastly, in 1677 at Inverary, Donald McIlverie was tried for the “horrid crime of corresponding with the devil.”  This wasn’t an exchange of letters, of course, but regular visits to a fairy hill where he danced and spoke with the folk living inside.  They helped him find stolen goods, in return for which Donald had to agree to keep their involvement secret and, in addition, to tell them his name– which he avoided doing.  He knew that this would have bound him irrevocably to them.

More recent examples

Binding promises to the fairies are by no means a thing of the past.  They are still to be found in much more recent folklore accounts, although the terms of the commitments seem to have changed somewhat.

In a well-known Scottish story from the nineteenth century, a seal hunter living near John O’Groats is visited one night by a stranger on horse back who urgently wants to agree a sale of seal skins.  The hunter readily agrees to go with the man to inspect the skins and climbs up on his horse, but it gallops off at great speed and plunges over a cliff into the sea.  They sink down to an underwater realm where the hunter is confronted with a selkie man whom he had seriously injured with his knife earlier that same day.  Only the man can heal the wound he has inflicted, which he does (having little option in the circumstances).  He is released from the selkies’ cavern, but only after making a solemn oath not to hunt seals again.

In the Scottish story of Whuppity Stoorie a fairy woman cures a family’s sickly pig, but in return she demands their baby- unless they can discover her name.  Very close to this is the English tale of Tom Tit Tot, who undertakes to carry out an impossible amount of flax spinning for a young woman, on condition that she will become his- unless she can guess his name.

In the older stories, the pledge to the fairy monarch took the form of a feudal oath of fealty- just as knights would give to their lords and those lords would give to their king.  In more modern accounts, it seems that the fairies have moved with the times and the commitment they exact is more contractual in nature: there is an exchange between the parties, however disproportionate the payment demanded by the fairy.

Final Thoughts

When we read about love affairs with fairy partners, whether of short or long duration, we tend to imagine them in terms familiar to us: in other words, we conceive of an exchange of love and affection and an emotional bond between the parties.  Such love matches definitely take place between humans and faes, although I suspect that many human males, at least, have an eye to the material advantages to be gained from these partnerships.

As often, though- and most especially in cases where your lover is a faery monarch- the arrangement ought to be viewed more as a transaction or business deal.  To repeat what was said earlier, sex with the faery king or queen may not come for free; a binding commitment may be required and this may be couched in terms rather different to those of the marriage vows.

For further information, see my posting on the hierarchical structure of Faery and see chapter seven of my recent book Faery which deals with ‘Faery Society.’

“With white wands swinging”- fairy queens and magic wands

hester margetson

Magic wands

Wands have been symbols of power for millennia.  They denote civic office and, since at least the 1300s, they have symbolised and conveyed magic power.  In the grimoire The Oathbound book of Honorius, hazel and laurel staffs are used for magical operations such as summoning demons.  They are four sided with names and figures written upon them.  In the fourteenth century Italian text, The Key of Solomon, demons are conjured and lost items are found with procedures which involve the use of wands and staffs.  The former are made from hazel or other nut wood, the staffs from elder, cane or rosewood.  They must be of one year’s growth only and must be cut with a single stroke on a propitious day at sunrise.  They should be inscribed with figures on a similarly suitable day and at an auspicious time.  The text recommends that wands should be long enough for a person to draw a circle around themselves.

In the ballad of the same name, the witch Allison Gross makes her magic with a conjurer’s staff:

“Then out she has taken a silver wand
She’s turned her three times round and round
She muttered such words till my strength it did fail
And she’s turned me into an ugly worm.”

In the ballad The Laily Worm and the Mackerel of the Sea, a silver wand is used to reverse the spell and to turn the worm back into a gentle knight.

Both William Lilly and Elias Ashmole, whose rituals for conjuring fairies have been preserved for us, make ample reference to the use of wands in their ceremonies.  Reginald Scot records similar practices in Discourse on witches.

iro- fair flys through night sky

Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, A fairy flies through the night sky.

Fairy wands

Given these magical associations, it was inevitable that those fairies being summoned should acquire their own wands too and this image has certainly become embedded in our iconography and therefore, so it would seem, in our visions of them.

Wands are not mentioned very much in traditional British folklore, but Evans Wentz mentions a Breton tale in which a white fairy wand is used to enter Faery: it is struck twice against a rock in a cross shape in order to open the portal to fairyland. Wentz also suggests that the faes’ wands may be derived from those believed to have been used by druids.  (Fairy faith pp.202 & 343-4; Luzel, Contes popularies, vol.1, p.3 ‘La fille qui se maria un mort’)

The fairy wand makes a central appearance in the traditional story ‘Kate Crackernuts’ which is from Orkney.  Princess Kate was victim of a jealous stepmother, who used magic to cover her good looks with a sheep’s head.  Her stepsister, also called Kate, was angry at what her mother had done; together the two escape from their palace and go to live in another kingdom.   There stepsister Kate discovers that the prince of the realm lies sick in his bed because he goes to dance under the hill with the fairies every night and, even more importantly, that a fairy child in the knoll possesses a wand which will cure her sister.  By rolling hazelnuts, she is able to distract the little boy and seize the wand, enabling her to free her sister of the sheep’s head.  Faithful Kate then cures the elf-addled prince and everyone (of course) then marries and lives happily ever after.

However, Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing fairies provides us with a dozen modern examples of faes wielding wands.  The wand is often the attribute of an individual fairy identified as a fairy queen by witnesses, a distinguished person who will often wear a crown or coronet as well- though in one sighting in a Nottingham dentist’s surgery, a group of ballet dancing fairies each waved a wand.  It should be remarked that the crowns and tiaras seen on the brows of these faery queens may be another human interpolation: as with wands, there’s no necessary reason why the fays should imitate our indicators of rank- nor that these regalia should signify the same things to them, even if they do.

The wands seen by Johnson’s witnesses are noted as being made of silver, gold or crystal; a couple emit light; a quarter of them have stars on the end.  In one case, the wand produces magic- a twist of it by the fairy queen fills a room with other dancing fairies.

The wand seems to have become inseparable from the fairy in the minds of many.  Literature, art and supernatural experiences all reinforce each other.  We perhaps expect to see a wand, meaning that- whatever the fae may actually be holding- there’s a tendency for it to be labelled as a wand regardless.

Here’s Fairy led by English poet Mary Webb (1881-1927) as a closing example of what has shaped our perceptions so powerfully:

“The fairy people flouted me,
Mocked me, shouted me–
They chased me down the dreamy hill and beat me with a wand.
Within the wood they found me, put spells on me and bound me
And left me at the edge of day in John the miller’s pond.

Beneath the eerie starlight
Their hair shone curd-white;
Their bodies were all twisted like a lichened apple-tree;
Feather-light and swift they moved,
And never one the other loved,
For all were full of ancient dreams and dark designs on me.

With noise of leafy singing
And white wands swinging,
They marched away amid the grass that swayed to let them through.
Between the yellow tansies
Their eyes, like purple pansies,
Peered back on me before they passed all trackless in the dew.”

52857-lilac

There’s more on faery magic and its deployment (and a great deal less about pretty girls in lip gloss and eye shadow wielding wands) in my Darker Side of Faery (2021):

darker side

Is there a fairy queen?

2-titania-john-simmons

Queen Titania, by John Simmons

This question may seem a shocking challenge to accepted conventions, but reflecting recently upon a couple of postings concerning the queens of elfland made on Living liminally by Morgan Daimler, I suddenly began to wonder whether we really mean the words we use when we so casually discuss the ‘fairy kingdom,’ the ‘faery realm,’  the seelie and unseelie ‘courts‘ and the king and queen of fairy.

Elsewhere, in her recent book Fairies, Morgan observes that “the social structure does seem to operate as a hierarchy ruled ultimately by Kings and Queens.” (p.61)    This is quite true, but as I have suggested before in my post on woodland elves, the idea of fairy royalty is very much a projection of medieval structures by medieval writers.  The idea was first seen in such poems as Huon of Bordeaux, King Herla, Sir Orfeo and in the verse of Chaucer: Sir Thopas and the prologue to the Wife of Bath’s tale.  Two centuries later, Spenser, Shakespeare and Herrick cemented the idea in our culture.  Neil Rushton has recently reiterated this interpretation in a posting on his ‘Dead but dreaming’ blog, Faeries in the Arthurian landscapein which he observes that:

“The stories were consumed by the small proportion of literate population, and were codified accordingly to suit their social expectations. The appearance of characters with supernatural qualities within these stories had, therefore, to adhere to certain doctrines, which would be acceptable to their social mores and belief systems.”

As Neil implies, when we think of fairies now we almost unconsciously and automatically conjure images of Arthurian knights and ladies and all the structures of precedence and privilege that go with them.  This is habit, but is it any more than that?

Fairy reign

We are very used, then, to thinking of Queen Mab and of Oberon and Titania.  But what need, though, do the faes really have of rulers?  In the Middle Ages, monarchs were required to perform several purposes within their simpler states:

  • to lead the people in armed conflict- as I have described previously, war amongst the fairies may jar with our conventional views of them, but the possibility is mentioned in a few sources and might therefore justify some sort of war chief;
  • to dispense justice- we are aware of no laws as such in Faery, although there are clearly codes of behaviour that they impose (upon humans at least) and the infringement of which (by humans) is subject to sanction.  Parallel with this distinct morality, there is a general atmosphere of unrestrained impulsiveness;
  • to organise society- it’s hard to tell what, if any, structure there is within fairy society.  If we regard them as nature spirits, then they are all at the level of worker bees, it would appear.  A few authorities have proposed hierarchies, although this normally seems to involve different forms of supernatural beings as against different ranks: see for example Geoffrey Hodson or two interviews with ‘Irish seers’ conducted by Evans-Wentz- one with George William Rusell (AE) and a second with an unnamed Mrs X of County Dublin (Fairy faith in Celtic countries pp.60-66 and 242-3).  You’ll see the differences in size in John Simmons’ painting below;
  • to act as some sort of religious leader or high priest(ess).  I explored the puzzling matter of fairy religion not long ago; it is an area of considerable doubt.

None of these functions seem especially essential to Faery as we generally conceive it.  Is the title of ‘queen’ therefore redundant, or at best merely a convenient honorary title?

1-there-sleeps-titania-john-simmons

There sleeps Titania, by John Simmons

Secret commonwealth

Let’s consider the views of the Reverend Robert Kirk, who certainly seems to have been well placed to know what he was talking about.  Writing in the late 1680s, he titled his justly famous book The secret commonwealth of elves, fauns and fairies.  A ‘commonwealth’ can merely denote a nation state or polity, but it can also more narrowly have the meaning of ‘republic.’  Given that he cannot but have been aware of the English Parliamentary ‘Commonwealth’ that succeeded the execution of Charles I in 1649, I think it’s inescapable that this was the connotation intended by Kirk when he chose to describe his subject matter.  That seems undeniable when we read at the head of chapter 7 that “They are said to have aristocraticall Rulers and Laws, but no discernible Religion, Love or Devotion towards God…  they disappear whenever they hear his Name invocked…”   We note Kirk’s belief in their aversion to church and religion, but also his conviction that they inhabit some sort of democracy regulated by rules of conduct of some description.

Much more recently, Theosophist Charles Leadbeater wrote that humans frequently mistook fairy leaders for kings and queens, whereas “In reality the realm of nature spirits needs no kind of government except except the general supervision which is exercised over it [by devas].” (The hidden side of things, 1913, p.147).

Rank or honour?

Perhaps those termed king and queen in Faery are simply those of the most distinguished character or the greatest magical power.  This was my conception of Queen Maeve in my story Albion awake!  In chapter 9, in response to being called Fairy Queen, Maeve replies:

“So you call me- but if I am a queen, I have no dominion.  I have powers, but I do not reign.  My people are a commonwealth- a secret commonwealth.”

Plainly I’ve stolen her phrase here!  Later she calls her people her ‘Nation Underground.’  I’ll let you track that reference down yourselves!

In conclusion, the main influence upon our conceptions of Faery as a stratified and monarchical society, with a royal family, a court, nobility and attendants, seems to be European society during the medieval period, channeled through contemporary literature.  Whether we are thinking of mythical Iron Age Ireland, Chaucer’s England or the France of Chretien de Troyes or Marie de France, their aristocratic society provided a model that was unthinkingly imposed upon fairyland.  It seems unlikely that the ‘common folk’ necessarily shared this; indeed, a large number of fairies were independent and individual characters or were conceived as members of their own, very local community.  Should we continue to talk of kings and queens then, or is it simply habit?  Do the terms have anything to do with contemporary perceptions of fairy?  What do readers think?

Rheam-Queen-Mab-L

‘Queen Mab,’ Henry Meynell Rheam

Further reading

Elsewhere I discuss fairy kings and that famous fairy queen Titania.

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

“Fairies or devils- whatsoe’er you be’-the belief in witches and fairies”

willimot

Fairies and witches have long been seen as linked and comparable, as the title quotation from Thomas Dekker’s The Spanish Moor’s Tragedy illustrates (Act III scene 2).  In his book on witchcraft, Geoffrey Parrinder observed that “there is undoubtedly much similarity between the activities ascribed to fairies and to witches.”  These included the ability to fly, their preference for night time, their thefts of children and the foyson of food and their ability to kill remotely.

These links and crossovers are of longstanding.  For example Chaucer in The Merchants Tale mentions “Pluto, that is the king of faerie” (i, 10101) and Dunbar in The Golden terge also alludes to “Pluto, that elricke incubus/ In cloke of grene…”  One of the charges made by the English against Jean d’Arc was that she had frequented the Fairy Tree at Dompre and had joined in the fairies’ dances.

Witch trials

By the sixteenth century the two beliefs were very confused and intermixed.  Old women were accused of being witches and of flying in the air or dancing with the fairies, even though, as Reginald Scot pointed out, their age and lameness could make them “unapt” for such activities (Discovery of witchcraft Book V c.IX and Book XII c.III).  Fairies attended the witches sabbats and left rings on the grass  whilst the witches would visit the fairy queen in her hill (Daemonologie c.V).  Hecate, the mother witch and the queen of fairy all became compounded in the popular mind, as with the Gyre-Carlin or Nicnevin of Lowland Scotland; she rode at night with her court of ‘nymphs’ and incubi (Sir Walter Scott, Minstrelsy, ‘On fairies’ IV).  Oberon became the ‘king of shadows’ in Midsummer Night’s Dream.  It was believed that the habit of taking of changelings was because the fairies had to pay a tithe of souls to Hell each year.  In George Peele’s Battle of Alcazar “You bastards of the Night and Erebus, Fiends, fairies, hags” are summoned (Act IV, scene 2) and in Spenser’s Epithalamion it is prayed “Ne let the Pouke, nor other evil sprights/ Ne let mischievous witches with their charms/ Ne let hob Goblins, names whose sense we see not/ Fray us with things that be not” (lines 340-3).  Witches obeyed the commands of the fairy queen, Diana or Herodias, according to Scot (Book III c.XVI).  In summary, hell and fairyland became essentially identical and for Reginald Scot the terms fairy and witch were interchangeable.  Likewise for John Lyly, writing Endimion in 1585: for him fairies were synonymous with ‘hags’ and ‘fayre fiendes’ (Act IV, scene 3).

Reformation

To this mix the Reformation added another layer of confusion and prejudice.  Puritans had two objections to faery.  Firstly, it had to be accommodated with scripture and, as the fairies weren’t angels, they had to be devils.  Secondly, fairies were one of the impositions of Rome.  King James VI condemned the belief as “one of the sortes of illusiones … of Papistrie” (Daemonologie, c.V).  In Richard Corbet’s Rewards and fairies “the fairies were of the old profession/ Their songs were Ave Maries/ Their dances were procession.”  Dr Samuel Harsenet, Archbishop of York, in his 1603 Declaration of egregious Popish Impostures called Mercury ‘Prince of the fairies’ and asked “What a world of hel-worke, devil-worke and Elve-worke, had we walking amongst us heere in England” when the Popish mists had fogged our eyes?  Later he declared “These are the times wherein we are sicke, and mad of Robin Goodfellow and the devil, to walke again amongst us…” (pp.134 & 166).

A rational few, such as Reginald Scot, dismissed the belief in witches as delusion and knavery, just as much as the dwindling belief in fairies, and felt sure that in time to come both would be equally ‘derided and contemned’ (Book VII c.II).

Sadly, such rationality was slow to establish itself and in the short term the witch craze swept Britain between about 1550 and 1650.  Diane Purkiss, in The witch in history (1996), has observed how fairy beliefs were converted into witch beliefs and were reproduced in the accusations and confessions of witches.  In fact, a range of materials were recycled by people- plays, ballads, news gossip, chapbooks- to create their own stories and to reflect their own agendas, concerns and conflicts.  For example, Joan Tyrrye applied the common ‘fairy midwife’ story to herself, saying that she was blinded in one eye by a fairy she met in Taunton market.  Others spoke of witches appearing dressed in green, the fairy colour.  The problem was that, in the prevailing intellectual climate, old wives’ tales of fairyland were no longer credible and were instead interpreted as accounts of demons.

Fairy healing

Some ‘cunning folk’ (healers and herbalists) tried to argue that through the fairies they only practiced white magic and that the supernatural help they received was only to cure and to do good.  For example, Bessie Dunlop of Ayrshire was accused in 1578 of sorcery and witchcraft.  She admitted that the fairies had helped her heal sick people (and cattle) and to find lost things.  Likewise, Alison Pearson of Byrehill faced similar charges in 1588: she pleaded that a green man had introduced her to the fairy court and that the fairies had taught her remedies.  Joan Tyrrye of Somerset swore that the fairies gave her only good and godly powers and showed what herbs would rid folk of witchcraft.  John Walsh of Dorset said that he too was taught by the fairies under the hills to recognise and treat those bewitched.

These justifications were often advanced; other examples are Isobel Haldane of Perth in 1623, Agnes Hancock of Somerset in 1438, Andro Man of Aberdeen in 1597, Christian Livingstone of Leith in 1557 and, in 1616, Elspeth Rioch and Katharine Jonesdochter of Orkney.  All claimed to have been taught by the fairies, in Man’s case by the fairy queen herself.  Such a defence seldom helped the accused, even when the supernatural powers acquired were used to alleviate the effects of witchcraft or fairy affliction.  Sir Walter Scott observed sadly that “the Scottish law did not acquit those who accomplished even praiseworthy actions, such as remarkable cures, by mysterious remedies” (Demonology letter VI).  For the accusers there were no ‘good spirits’; the suspected witches had consorted with the devil and there could be but one conclusion: Rioch, Jonesdochter,  Dunlop and Pearson, for instance, were all burned.  In the climate of the time, any contact with fairies rendered the person automatically a witch.  Communication with the fairy court was a primary charge against Alison Pearson and against Jean Weir of Dalkeith in 1670.

It is to be noted that gifts of healing and prophecy are not traditionally associated with faery.  There are a couple of Highland examples of endowment with musical abilities and there is the fictional account of True Thomas the Rhymer, who was given seer’s powers by the fairy queen (despite, as Sir Walter Scott puts it, his objections to “this inconvenient and involuntary adhesion to veracity, which would make him, as he thought, unfit for church or for market, for king’s court or for lady’s bower”).  That these supernatural attributes are ascribed to fairies only in witch trials is a strong indicator that they were being turned to as a less serious justification for the accused’s former activities.

Fairies and familiars

Witches were believed to have familiars who guided and assisted them.  Academic and writer Diane Purkiss has suggested that stories told of brownies and other household fairies were reformulated by those suspicious of witchcraft and were understood instead to be accounts of demonic familiars (see The witch in history pp.135-138 and Troublesome things pp.153-4).  This is definitely explicit in a pamphlet from 1650, The strange witch at Greenwich, that described the mischievous tricks of a particular spirit, such as throwing utensils and clothing around, along with “other such reakes and mad merry pranks,as strange as ever Hobgoblins, pinching fairies and Robin Goodfellow acted in houses in old times among Dairy Wenches and kitchen Maides.”

The records show that these often seemed to have ‘traditional fairy’ names such as Robin, Piggin, Hob and Puckle.  Admitting regular contacts with a fairy would be interpreted and condemned as possessing a familiar.  For example, Joan Willimot of Rutland had a spirit called Pretty blown into her mouth in the shape of a fairy.  It subsequently visited her weekly and identified to her those of her neighbours who were “stricken and forespoken” (i.e. bewitched).  Anne Jefferies of St Teath, Cornwall, was carried off the fairyland by six tiny green men and was given ointment to cure “all distempers, sicknesses and sores” (such as the falling sickness and broken bones) and was also granted the power to make herself invisible at will.  When she was arrested, it was alleged that these fairies were in fact her imps or familiars.  She denied this, saying rather that they quoted scripture to her.

In some cases the supernatural contact seemed more obviously evidence of black magic.  Katherine Munro, Lady Fowlis, “made us of the artillery of Elf-land to destroy her stepson and sister in law” (Walter Scott, Letters on demonology, letter V).  Elf-bolts (flint arrow heads) were fired at pictures or her two victims.  Similarly, Isobel Goudie of Nairn visited the fairy queen’s court and saw Satan and the elves making the arrow heads with which Goudie and other witches then slew various people.  Other such instances from Scottish witch trials are Katherine Ross, 1590, Christiane Roiss, 1577 and Marion McAlester, 1590.  We can see here how fairy beliefs had become interchangeable with witch beliefs, so that elf-shot had been converted into bewitching.

Conclusion

To conclude, it is convenient to quote Sir Walter Scott in his sixth letter on demonology:

“With the fairy popular creed fell, doubtless, many subordinate articles of credulity in England, but the belief in witches kept its ground. It was rooted in the minds of the common people, as well by the easy solution it afforded of much which they found otherwise hard to explain, as in reverence to the Holy Scriptures, in which the word witch, being used in several places, conveyed to those who did not trouble themselves about the nicety of the translation from the Eastern tongues, the inference that the same species of witches were meant as those against whom modern legislation had, in most European nations, directed the punishment of death. These two circumstances furnished the numerous believers in witchcraft with arguments in divinity and law which they conceived irrefragable. They might say to the theologist, Will you not believe in witches? the Scriptures aver their existence;—to the jurisconsult, Will you dispute the existence of a crime against which our own statute-book, and the code of almost all civilized countries, have attested, by laws upon which hundreds and thousands have been convicted, many or even most of whom have, by their judicial confessions, acknowledged their guilt and the justice of their punishment? It is a strange scepticism, they might add, which rejects the evidence of Scripture, of human legislature, and of the accused persons themselves.”

This rational analysis did many poor creatures little good: the Bible commanded that “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” and those clinging to older traditional beliefs and practices could find themselves trapped and accused.  In the early modern period the frame of belief had shifted and no space remained for benign spirits.  Thomas Heywood captured this in Hierarchy of the blessed angels (1635), when he spoke of:

“…wicked spirits, such as we call/ Hobgoblins, Fairies, Satyrs, and those all/ Sathan by strange illusions doth employ…”

Fortunately for the hapless victims of the witch hunts, humanism and scientific rationality eventually displaced Protestant scaremongering.  Nonetheless, once established, the associations between fairy and sorcery were hard to sever: it is surely no coincidence that Shelley labelled his Queen Mab as “queen of spells” in his eponymous poem.

An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).

coven

The summer solstice celebrated by the Cornish coven that also photographed a fairy encounter