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.

Fairy Rings- in folklore and popular art

margetson
Hester Margetson, Welcome to Fairyland

In this post I return once again to the subject of fairy rings.  I add a little more factual and folklore information to what I’ve written before and then turn to consider how popular twentieth century art has chosen to represent rings.

Margaret Tarrant aka M W Tarrant aka Margaret Winifred Tarrant (English, 1888-1959, b. Battersea, London, England) - Four Fairies  Drawings
Margaret Tarrant

Fungi & Fairies

The origins of fairy rings were extensively debated in the late eighteenth century.  The Gentleman’s Magazine, for a decade from 1788, carried an exchange of correspondence in which readers described and theorised about these curious features in their landscape.  Charles Broughton, writing in 1788, remarked upon the semi-circular marks that appeared consistently in his pasture land.  They had a base of about four yards, he reported, and were half a yard thick (across their width).  Another writer (‘JM’) in 1790 described the circles that appeared in the meadow-land near his home.  They were 6-8 inches broad with a diameter of six to twelve feet and were covered in champignon mushrooms.  He noted that the land hadn’t been ploughed for 19 years and that the cattle were turned in annually to eat the aftermath (the stubble left after cutting the hay). Another letter from 1792 remarked upon the many large fairy rings to be seen in the meadows between Islington and Canonbury, north of London.  The present day inhabitant of the capital will smile wryly over this, as the area is now overlain by Georgian squares and terraces, built not too long after the letter was written.

Both the writers just named ascribed the rings to mushrooms, but subsequent correspondents blamed the effect of horse dung, moles, lightning and, even, the Ancient Britons, who had dug defensive trenches on the sites.  What we can tell, certainly, is that these very noticeable features in the landscape excited public interest and speculation because they were so common and so distinctive.

Attwelll Changeling
Mabel Lucie Attwell, Fairy Changeling

Folklore

The learned gentlemen musing on the formation of the rings all dismissed the fairies as a cause, naturally.  Nonetheless, for generations it had been well-known that the Good Folk were in fact the makers of the marks.  In Devon it was said to be the hoof-marks of ponies that the fairies rode round and round in circles at night that made the circles;  generally though, across Britain, it was the action of dancing feet that was blamed.  For instance, Evans-Wentz (Fairy Faith p.181) was told about a spot near St Just in the far west of Cornwall, called Sea-View Green, where the piskies could regularly be seen dancing on moonlit nights, looking like little children dressed in red cloaks.  Another witness told Evans Wentz that the piskies preferred to ‘play’ in marshy locations and that these round places were locally called ‘pisky beds’ (p.184).

The rings were dangerous places, that was for sure.  Dew should not be gathered from them (as was sometimes done to improve the complexion) and the faes would counteract any magical quality it possessed anyway.  Anyone who stepped accidentally into a ring could be abducted by the fairies.  Great fear about this danger was instilled by parents into children, who retained the dread into their own adult years (see, for example, Wirt Sikes, British Goblins, p.103 for just such a warning from an old Glamorganshire man and also Evans Wentz, Fairy Faith, p.91).  The rings might be a place to which a person was ‘pixy-led’ and then trapped, as was recounted in the story of Einion ac Olwen (Evans Wentz p.161).  The same story notes the distinctiveness of ring too: “a hollow place surrounded by rushes where he saw a number of round rings.”

Margaret Tarrant-Midsummer Night
Margaret Tarrant, Midsummer Eve

Twentieth Century Popular Art

The consensus was that, for many reasons, fairy rings were perilous places.  The best thing was to avoid and respect them.  However, a child would never have learned that serious lesson from the pictures aimed at them in the early twentieth century.  The illustrators of children’s books, as well as printed ephemera such as postcards and greetings cards, all used toadstools as a convenient signifier of the presence of magical beings in their scenes and treated fairy rings- and their occupants- as benign and friendly beings, who only wished to play and dance with children.  Many of the most significant faery artists of the period, such as Margaret Tarrant, Hester Margetson and Ida Rentoul Outhwaite,  propagated this simpler and happier version of Faery.  The Good Folk themselves were reduced to girly winged fairies in dresses and cheeky pixies/ elves in pointed hats and almost all the complexity, peril and moral ambiguity of traditional faery lore was effaced.  Their pictures (and the whole race of flower fairies) remain attractive art even today, but as a guide to folk belief they are misleading.

Do You Believe in Fairies by Margaret Tarrant (1888- 1959)
Margaret Tarrant, Do you believe in fairies?

Further Reading

See my recently released book, Faeryfor more discussion of fairy rings and other fairy places.  For more on the art of Faery, see my book Fairy Art of the Twentieth Century

Fairies Margaret Tarrant - Elfen & Boeken

Illustration by Margaret Tarrant  From "In Wheelabout and Cockalon"

Vintage Children's Print - Margaret Tarrant - Alice and her Fairy Dream - Fairy…
Tarrant, Alice’s Fairy Dream
Hester Margetson
Vintage Hester Margetson book illustration, via Etsy
Hester Margetson

 

Vintage Postcards 706
‘Animated mushrooms’ by Hilda Miller
Chocolate Rabbit Graphics:  Fairyland postcard Beryl Haig 1920.  Free to download for personal use. #free #children #fairy #fairies #fairyland #postcard #vintage #image #graphics #illustration #moon
Beryl Craig (one of a series of very similar images)
Illustration - 'Uninvited Guest' by Florence Mary Anderson c1930 Lots more vintage goodies at vintagebookillustrations.com
Florence Mary Anderson, Uninvited Guest
Grace Jones - "The Fairy Dance" (с.1920) by sofi01, via Flickr
Grace Jones, Fairy Dance, c.1920
画像
Ida Rentoul Outhwaite
Rosa Petherick  Goblins
Rosa Petherick, Goblins

*~❤•❦•:*´Molly Brett`*:•❦•❤~*

And lastly, a cigarette card from W D and H O Wills’ Cigarettes:

-fairy-ring-card

What causes Fairy Rings, from an antique cigarette trading card.

 

For more on faery rings and the faeries’ interactions with nature, see my book Faeries and the Natural World (2021):

Fairy Rings in the Landscape

ifairy001p4

Author Thomas Nashe in his satirical pamphlet of 1596, Have With You To Saffron-Walden, Or, Gabriell Harvey’s hunt is up, memorably mocks his victim by describing how:

“more channels and creases he hath in his face that there be fairy-circles on Salisbury Plain.”

In a few words he highlights for us a fact that we simply don’t appreciate today: that the former, unimproved landscape of agriculture- before intensive weed control and fertilisation- looked completely different to what we see now.  For Nashe and his contemporaries, evidence of fairies was everywhere.  This confirmed the constant presence of the faeries for many; for others it provoked speculation about the processes of Nature that might generate such striking features.

f ring 2

A century after Nashe, naturalist Robert Plot discussed the English Midlands countryside in his Natural History of Staffordshire (1686).  He described rings he had seen that were forty or fifty yards in diameter, often encircled by a rim between a foot and a yard wide.  These rims might be bare, or might have a russet, singed colour.  The grass within could also be brown but was more often dark green.

Fairy-Ring

Some people blamed lightning for the rings; others put them down to fairies. Robert Burton in The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) recorded these explanations:

“These [the fairies] are they that dance on heaths and greens as Lavater thinks with Tritemius, and as Olaus Magnus adds, [and that] leave that green circle, which we commonly find in plain fields, which others hold to proceed from a meteor falling, or some accidental rankness of the ground, so nature sports herself; they [the dancing faes] are sometimes seen by old women and children. “

Ludwig Lavater (1527-86), in chapter 19 of his book Of ghosts and spirits walking (translated by Robert Harrison in 1572) was sure the cause was dancing fairies, writing that:

Olaus Magnus in his third booke and eleventh chapter De Gentibus Septentrionalibus, wryteth that even in these our dayes, in many places in the North partes, there are certaine monsters or spirites, whiche taking on them some shape or figure, use (chiefly in the night season) to daunce after the sounde of all manner of instrumentes of musicke: whome the inhabitants call companions, or daunces of Elves, or Fairies.”

Robert Plot, meanwhile, sought to explain the rings scientifically, suggesting that the rings were caused by deer grazing, by moles or by the concentrated dung of penned cattle boosting growth, but given their occasionally huge size and distinctness, and their tendency to appear overnight, it is unsurprising that others would readily suspect supernatural causation.

Living with the Fairy Presence

The prevalence and visibility of rings in the fields of communities that were predominantly rural was bound to have an effect on their thinking.  The proximity of the fairies’ dancing places to homes, and the persistence of the rings in sward, led to much apprehension and many precautions against the ever-present fairy peril.

As I have described in my recent book, Fairy Ballads & Rhymesproper respect for fairy rings was inculcated into children and cultivators through memorable verses- for example:

“he wha’ spoils the fairies’ ring,/ Betide him want and woe,” but

“he wha’ cleans the fairy ring,/ An easy death shall dee.”

In any case, it was often impossible to plough up the rings, as they would just regrow.  Acceptance and caution were therefore the better responses; showing the fairies respect whilst, at the same time, not getting too near, was strongly advisable.  Children knew that to run around certain rings too many times (usually seven or nine) would put them in the fairies’ power.  In an earlier post, for example, I have discussed the particularly notorious reputation of those rings called gallitrapsThe tiny fairy girl shown below may look charming and harmless, but don’t be fooled: there may be malice behind those eyes…

Further Reading

I discuss faery rings and other faery places in my recent book, Faerywhich- I’m pleased to say- became available to UK buyers from April 1st 2021.  For more on the faeries’ interactions with nature, see my book Faeries and the Natural World (2021).

Maximilian Esposito, Capitolo Primo

Fairy rings

outhwaite fairy ring

Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, The fairy ring

“We’ll trace the lower grounds/ When Fayries in their Ringlets there

Doe daunce their nightly rounds.”   Michael Drayton, The queste of Cynthia

Fungi are closely associated with the fays- for example, it is said in Wales that mushrooms serve as fairy parasols- and, as is widely known, fairy rings mark the sites of the fairies’ nocturnal dancing.  This fact could easily be proved: set up a stick in a ring overnight and it would be found knocked down by the fays the next morning.

Lost landscape features

The rings used to be much more widespread than today, and much more noticeable. They appeared in all kinds of fields except those sown with corn.  Modern farming practices, with increased cultivation and use of fertilisers and pesticides, has drastically reduced the evidence, but we can get an idea of what our predecessors would have seen from the writings of naturalist Robert Plot.  Discussing the Staffordshire countryside in the late seventeenth century, he describes rings that were forty or fifty yards in diameter, often encircled by a rim between a foot and a yard wide.  These rims might be bare, or the grass might have a russet, singed colour.  The grass within could also be brown but was more often dark green.  Plot sought to explain the rings scientifically, blaming moles or penned cattle, but given their size and distinctness, it is unsurprising that others would readily resort to supernatural causation.

Changes in and intensification of agriculture have largely eradicated fairy rings from fields.  A large ring still existed as late as 1875 at Quebec House between Seagrave and Sileby in Leicestershire, but the very fact that it was remarked upon shows how rare they had become, even by this date.  Writing about Mid-Wales in 1911, Jonathan Caredig Davies remarked that the rings (cylchau y tylwyth teg in Welsh) had been numerous when he was a boy about forty years earlier.  It had been believed to be bad luck to enter them, but by the early twentieth century he found this superstition had entirely died out- no doubt a combination of waning belief and the disappearance of the rings themselves.

The rings were a mysterious feature that had demanded explanation.  As they vanished, the need for a justification of their presence and persistence also disappeared.  In his account of the Folklore of Hereford and Worcester, for example, writer Roy Palmer made an explicit link between rings and belief.  The fairy faith was a long time dying, he wrote, lasting until the early twentieth century.  Palmer went on to note that fairy rings were still pointed out at Stanford on Teme in the late 18th century and at Ledbury in the late 19th.

anderson fairy revels

Respecting rings

A variety of fairy beliefs attached to the rings.  It was widely believed that they should not be cultivated.  Grazing them and, even more importantly, ploughing them, was strongly discouraged: a Scottish ballad warned that-

“He wha tills the fairies’ green

Nae luck shall hae;

And he wha spills the faries’ ring

Betide him want and wae;

For weirdless days and weary nights

Are his til his deein’ day!”

Anyone foolish enough to ignore such advice would find their cattle struck down with murrain. In any case, it was also widely believed that any attempt to eradicate the rings would fail.  Ploughing could not remove them and they would return immediately, as was said to have happened with two rings in the churchyard at Pulverbatch in Shropshire.

Just as those who interfere with rings will suffer, it was believed that those that cared for them would be rewarded: as the Scottish rhyme promised, “an easy death shall dee.”

Large and lasting rings were once notable landscape features and attracted their own mythology.  For example, the famous ring at Brington village in Northamptonshire couldn’t be ploughed out and possessed supernatural properties.  If you ran around it nine times on the first night of a new moon, you would be able to hear the fairies feasting below the ground.

An aura of magic attaches itself to fairy rings, therefore.  Mostly the tendency is to avoid them: in Shropshire people used to be reluctant to use those parts of a church graveyard marked with rings.  To sleep in one is especially perilous- you are at considerable risk of being ‘taken’ by the fairies.  There’s a bit of good news though- May Day dew collected from a fairy ring is said to be excellent for preserving youthful skin.

IRO Ring

Ida Rentoul Outhwaite

Further reading

See ‘Fairy ground,’ chapter 12 of my British fairiesfor further discussion of aspects of this subject.  See too my posting on fairy plants.

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

Stone rows and fairy rings

Walter Jenks, Fairy ring

Walter Jenks, The fairy ring

Just back from a break in the West Country.  We first spent a few days in North Cornwall, staying in the Landmark Trust‘s splendid property, The College, in Week St Mary, which was built as a Tudor grammar school.

mwm

From there we visited the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in Boscastle.  This is highly recommended: it’s not a huge place but it’s packed with intelligent and fascinating displays.  It takes a serious and enquiring view of the subject- with only a few mentions of he who shall not be named (HP).  It’s rather out of the way, but well worth the effort to travel there.

woodland-wish

‘Woodland wish’ by Kate Monkman- a postcard from the Museum collection.

Next we headed to Dartmoor to visit megalithic sites old and new.  We stayed at another Landmark property, the Chapel at Lettaford- extra enticing as artist Brian Froud lives only just down the road.  The moors were pretty dry after our long, hot English summer and were covered in tiny fairy rings of orange mushrooms.  At first I’d boldly marched across the turf, but then I found myself alert to the potential danger and weaving around the circles!  As an early birthday present, I picked up a copy of a new book, Old Stones, from Arcturus Books in Totnes.  It looks bound to be the inspiration of yet more rambles across that “wild and windy moor.”

down tor

The cairn circle and stone row at Down Tor, Dartmoor

Eco-fairies- some thoughts

tarrant pink flower fairy

Margaret Tarrant, Pink flower fairy

Nowadays, the association between fairies and the natural world seems obvious and fundamental to their character.  I think this belief is relatively new and that it derives from two sources.

Nature spirits

Firstly, during the last century or so the conception has emerged of fairies as nature spirits, beings whose purpose is to motivate and to shape the processes of nature, most especially the growth of plants.  As such, it might be added, they tend to lose some of their individual personality and become incorporated into those natural systems themselves.

A rural community

The other origin of our idea of ‘nature fairies’ is a great deal older.  Human representations of faery kind have always tended to mirror our own society, hence to medieval people it seemed obvious that the fae would live in a world much like their own, with the same organisation and occupations.  There were fairy kings and queens, and the fairy court went out hunting deer with hounds.  In the Middle Ages, too, we all lived much closer to nature, far more in contact with the cycles of growth, with the seasons and with woods and wildlife.  The fairies accordingly were no different- and whilst human society has rapidly developed in recent centuries, our perceptions of faery have tended to remain rather more fixed.

Be that as it may, it seems right and proper to us that fairies should live in forests and be intimately associated with flowers, trees and springs.  I have discussed these associations in a couple of my own postings on plants and fairy authority Morgan Daimler has also written on aspects of this subject on her own blog.  Reading her thoughts sparked further musings of my own.

fairy dance in a clearing doyle

Richard Doyle, A fairy dance in a clearing.

Fairy rings

Morgan has written about fairy trees and about fairy rings.  She highlights some interesting points which I had overlooked or downplayed.  As is well known, the rings are linked to fairy dancing.  If you read a lot of the British poetry, especially that of the nineteenth century, you would get the impression that dancing in rings is, in fact, pretty much all that fairies do: it’s their defining characteristic, their main habit, their primary purpose or occupation even.  Here are a couple of examples of this genre of verse, which had international appeal:

  • Thomas Hood, English poet, described the fairies as night time revellers who emerge from their flowery chambers-

“With lulling tunes to charm the air serener/ Or dance upon the grass to make it greener.” (The Midsummer fairies)

  • American poet Paul Dunbar likewise pictured how: “nightly they fling their lanterns out, / And shout and shout, they join the rout,/ And sing and sing, within the sweet enchanted ring.”

Now, usually it is said that it is the passing of fairy feet that makes the marks, but Morgan ponders whether instead the fays are drawn to dance by the clearly visible mycelium circles in the grass rather than the causation being the other way round.   This certainly seems just as probable an explanation.

Charming as the sight of fairies tripping all in a circle might be, Morgan rightly emphasises that they are places of danger.  The rings should never be damaged and she  warns that spying on the dances, or joining in with them, may actually be perilous.  These circles may even be traps, she suggests, deliberately set to lure in humans and to abduct them forever- or for extended periods.  Morgan discusses too the disparity in the passage in time between faery and the mortal world; the captive dancer spins at a different rate to the human globe and may return to find their old life long passed.

Round about our coal fire

head piece to chapter VI, ‘Round about our coal fire,’ 1734

One thing is undeniable: and that is that fairies and mushrooms/ toadstools have become an inseparable pairing in the popular imagination.  The earliest example I’ve found is an illustration from the 1734 edition of Round about our coal fire, which incorporates all the key elements of the imagery (dancers, fly agaric, fairy knoll, moonlight).  Little has changed since, although arguably the connection was strengthened considerably during the middle of last century when (it seemed) almost every children’s illustrator produced some variation on the theme.  There are too many to reproduce, but the example by Florence Anderson below repeats many of the key motifs.  The idea has been ramified in various directions too: the poet Madison Cawein, for example, saw toadstools as pixy houses and also imagined “The vat like cups of fungus, filled/ With the rain that fell last night” (Pixy wood).  It’s said in Welsh folklore that the parasol mushrooms act as umbrellas to keep the fairies’ dance-sites dry (Robin Gwyndaf in Narvaez, Good people, 1991).

anderson fairy revels

Florence Mary Anderson, ‘Fairy revels’

Fairy trees

On the subject of fairy trees, Morgan examines the possibility that at least some fairies are tree spirits (or dryads) before turning to look at trees which simply have fairy associations.  As I mentioned in the first paragraph, the question as to whether fairies are plants, or live in plants, or simply prefer to frequent glades and meadows is still a matter of debate.  I have a particular attachment to the old lady of the elder tree, so I was fascinated to read that in Ireland elder sap is believed to grant a second sight of the fairy rade.  Elders and hawthorns both have strong fairy associations and their heady, musky, green sappy scents certainly serve as a sort of incense for me.  Morgan also notes the dual role of the rowan- a spray of foliage can act as a charm against fairy intrusion but also as a means of seeing the good neighbours passing.  I’ve discussed this in another post, but it’s a good example of the ‘contrary’ nature of many fairy things.

Finally, I’ve been flicking through my copy of Evans-Wentz’ Fairy faith in Celtic countries again and I noticed an intriguing little fairy tree fact.  On page 176 he discusses the Cornish fairy that haunts the rock outcrop known as the Newlyn Tolcarne.  The manner in which this spirit was summoned was to pronounce a charm whilst holding three dried leaves in your hand.  These were one each from an ash, an oak and a thorn.  Now, as some of you may instantly cry out: that’s the exclamation used by Rudyard Kipling’s Puck in Puck of Pook’s Hill (and in ‘Tree song‘ in the chapter in the book, Weland’s Forge).  This story predates Evans-Wentz by just a few years, and it seems unlikely that either the old nurse to whom this story is ascribed, or Mr Maddern, a Penzance architect,  who tells it, are likely to be recycling Kipling’s story.  I’m not aware that Kipling ever visited Penwith, so that there’s at least some basis to suppose that these might be traces of a very ancient belief, surviving in both Sussex and Cornwall.  Morgan debates in her recent book Fairies (pp.176-8) whether or not this is an authentic tradition or is one example of a trend she identifies for popular culture to create folklore: if the Cornish example is genuine and is not just the architect mixing up something he’d recently read with something his nurse told him decades earlier, then it seems that ‘oak, ash and thorn’ is far older than Morgan suspected.

frontispiece

The frontispiece to Puck of Pook’s Hill, 1908

Further reading

See too Neil Rushton’s posting on dead but dreaming on the metaphysics of fairy trees.  See too my later comments on the links between fairies and gardens.

‘Peaseblossom and mustard seed’- fairy plants

okun

‘Mother mushroom and her children’ by Edward Okun.

A range of plants have fairy associations, both good and bad.  It is convenient to divide them into three broad types for our discussion.

Trees

We commonly conceive of elves and fairies living in woodland, whilst certain specific tree species have strong links to fairies.  Thorn trees are magical throughout Britain and Ireland.  For instance, Northumbrian fairies are said particularly to prefer dancing around thorns.  From across the border comes a Scottish story of a man ploughing a field who made a special effort to protect an old hawthorn, known to be a fairy meeting place- by leaving an unploughed circle of turf around it- was rewarded with a fairy banquet and a life time’s luck and wisdom in consequence.  I have mentioned before the Old Lady of the Elder Tree as well as the special status of oaks as places for dancing or even as homes.  In The discovery of witchcraft of 1584 Reginald Scot listed the many different types of fairies with which mothers would scare their children (Book VII, chapter XV).  He included “the man in the oke,” a supernatural whose characteristics and habits are now almost entirely lost to us.

rowan

Rowan trees, in contrast, repel fairies.  Rowan set over your door will allow you to watch the fairies riding past without being drawn into their procession and a rowan cross worn about your person will prevent the fairies seizing you.  Both gorse and holly acted as protective barriers to fairies around a home, although it has to be confessed that they keep out humans just as well!

cowslip

Flowers

Today we tend to think immediately of flower fairies, but there is a much older and richer lore of flowers associated with fairies.  Fairy blooms include yellow flowers such as cowslips, broom, primroses and ragwort; the stems of the latter are used like witches’ broomsticks.  Blue bells are protected by fairies, and lone children picking them in woods risk being abducted. Fox gloves are known in Wales as menyg ellyllon, elves’ gloves.  The fairies also favour red campion, forget-me-not, scabious, wild thyme and, more unusually, tulips.

A strange tale from Devon describes how pixies near Tavistock loved to spend their nights in an old woman’s tulip bed and the flowers thrived from their beneficial presence.  When she died her flower bed was converted by the next residents in the cottage to growing parsley and the pixies blighted it.  An unknown plant was used by Dartmoor fairies to heal a servant maid they had previously lamed for refusing to put out water for them at night.  In a similar dual role, it is said that foxglove juice can expel a changeling and cure a child who is suffering from ‘the feyry’- that is, one who has been elf-struck.

The primary protective plant against fairies is St John’s Wort, although verbena is also effective.  I have discussed two other very important fairy plants separately: fern seed can confer invisibility whilst four-leaf clovers can dispel glamour.

primrose

Fungi

The link between fairies and the fairy ring where they are alleged to dance is very well established, but the associations go deeper.  Fairy butter (y menyn tylwyth teg) is a fungus found deep underground in limestone crevices and elf food (bwyd ellyllon) is a poisonous toadstool.  In Northumberland, fairy butter is a soft orange fungus found around the roots of old trees.

The linking of fungi with goblins and elves is well known and of longstanding. Perhaps it partly derives from the dual nature of the mushrooms- they may be edible or poisonous. They are, of course, linked to fairy rings and indicate where the elves have been dancing. One of these is the ‘Fairy Cake Hebeloma’, which is poisonous; another is the highly edible Fairy Ring Champignon.  The sudden appearance of toadstools may seem magical and mysterious.  Their red colouring (for the traditionally red and white spotted fly agaric toadstool) may link them to red fairy clothes whilst their diminutive size may also explain the connection. Robert Herrick in his poem Oberon’s feast imagines “A little mushroom table spread” for the tiny fairy diners and in The fairies’ fegaries “Upon the mushroome’s head/ Our table cloth we spread.”

Puff balls have been called ‘Puck’s fist’ and, in his Fairy mythologyKeightley suggests that ‘Elf’s fist’ was an old Anglo-Saxon name for the mushrooms found in rings.  Wirt Sikes in British goblins relates a Breconshire belief that gifts of fairy bread by the Tylwyth Teg, if not eaten immediately in darkness, will prove to be toadstools in the daylight.

BAL4208

Further reading

In other postings I examine the magical properties of fern seed, I look closely at fairy rings, I discuss the use of clover in the famous green fairy ointment and I consider the ‘flower fairy‘ cult.

“Away with the fairies”-fairy illness and blight

 

bf

Brian Froud, a ‘bad faery’

“Be thee a spirit of health or goblin damned,

Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell…” Hamlet, Act I, scene 4.

Our forebears had to have some way of explaining sudden illness and death, or the birth of a child which gradually was revealed to have mental disabilities.  The cause ascribed for these afflictions, before the development of medical science, was the malign intervention of supernatural beings.  It was the fairies that made people (and their livestock) ill; the benefit of this explanation was that it gave an understanding of an otherwise inexplicable malady and pointed to a solution- the propitiation of the ‘good folk.’

Fairy injuries

It is possible to identify a range of means by which injury was believed to be inflicted:

  • pinching– the slovenly housewife or maid who failed to do her chores and keep the home clean would be punished by the pixies pinching and taunting her; for example in Nimphidia Drayton notes of the house elves that “These make our Girles their sluttery rue/ By pinching them both blacke and blew.”   Hence the source of bruises and cramps might be attributed- in a highly judgmental way!  In Shakespeare’s Merry wives of Windsor the elves are commanded to “pinch the maids as blue as bilberry” wherever fires unraked or hearths unswept were found-“Our radiant Queen hates sluts and sluttery.”  In the same play pinching is the fate to be meted out to Falstaff when he transgresses on the pretended fairy concourse (Act IV scene 3 & V scene 5).
  • jostling and bumping– in a slightly more aggressive version of the former, a person who strayed into fairy precincts or who violated their privacy might be pushed and misused in this manner, perhaps leading to at least partial paralysis.  This was the fate of a farmer who invaded the fairy market on the Blackdown Hills and was left lamed on one side for the remainder of his life (Keightley, Fairy Mythologypp.294-5);
  • a fairy blast or whirlwind might paralyse or be fatal;
  • wasting sickness– afflictions such as consumption might be ascribed to the sufferer being ‘away with the fairies.’ Instead of sleeping in his or her bed, at night the victim would in fact be dancing with the fairies.  This ceaseless energetic activity sapped the strength and led to the person’s decline and death.  It was also believed that sadness at being parted from the fairies during the daytime contributed to the disease’s progress and malignancy.  John Aubrey recorded this belief whilst the Reverend Robert Kirk  describes a woman whom he personally met who, after her encounter with the fairies, was “prettie melanchollyous and silent, hardly ever seen to laugh” (Secret Commonwealth of Elves and Fairies section 15);
  • abduction by means of dancing in fairy rings was a very common explanation of sudden disappearance.  The victim might be lost for ever, might be danced to death (as just described) or might return after a lapse of time (see later).  If the cause of the disappearance was deduced, the person could be rescued from the fairy ring on the anniversary of their disappearance, perhaps by force or by touching with iron;
  • physical assault– a human might be shot with fairy arrows, resulting in total or partial paralysis and/ or death.  These ‘elf bolts’ were the neolithic flint arrow heads turned up by cultivation, thereby giving context to otherwise mysterious artifacts.  Robert Kirk remarked on the use of flint darts against livestock in the Highlands: the cattle would be injured internally without there being any outward sign of a wound, the blow by these elf bolts having “something of the Nature of Thunderbolt subtilty” (s.8).  The resultant paralysis might be used to extract the “purest substance” of the beast for the fairies’ consumption, or might help abduct an individual, as was also the case with the next form of assault-
  • ‘fairy stroke’– the modern ‘stroke’ was then interpreted as the magical wounding of a person.  Rather than attacking with darts, a curse or spell inflicted epilepsy or paralysis and, once again, facilitated the abduction of the victim’s soul.  Kirk described how the fairies would smite “without Paine, as with a Puff of Wind” (s.4);
  • changelings– the specific theft of a human baby and its replacement by an aged elf or a defective fairy infant was perceived to be a very common problem; children were especially vulnerable in the time before they were baptised and variety of protective measures were deployed.  These included bindweed or iron around the cradle, the burning of leather in the room or the administering to the baby of either milk from a cow grazed on pearl-wort or water in which had been steeped cinders from a fire over which the child had been passed (Wentz, Fairy faith in the Celtic countriespp.87 & 91).  If the newborn was discovered to be mentally disabled or defective, this was put down not to congenital or perinatal problems but to a supernatural intervention: the real child had been abducted and an ‘oaf’ (an elf) left in its place (the ‘ouphs’ of Shakespeare’s Merry wives of Windsor are derived from the same source).  The parents, once the presence of a changeling had been realised, had to expose the substitute.  If it was an aged fairy, some trick would be performed to get it to reveal itself, such as brewing beer in an egg shell, which would provoke its curiosity.  Salt might be burned as a magical means of repelling it.  If these attempts did not succeed and an infant elf was still suspected, far worse treatment could follow, typically placing the baby on a shovel over the fire (or at least heating the shovel in its presence)- but throwing the child in a river, ducking it in cold water daily, neglecting its needs, throwing pieces of iron at it or, lastly, placing it outside at night or on the beach as the tide came in, might also be tried.  The least objectionable method was the Cornish use of a four leaf clover to recover the abducted baby (Wentz pp.111, 146, 171 & 177).  The idea was that the changeling’s cries would summon the fairy parents who would save their child and return the stolen human infant.  Wirt Sikes in British Goblins (1880, c.5) discusses the Welsh tradition of the plentyn newid (the new child) and remarks disapprovingly upon the cruelties from time to time inflicted as a result of this changeling belief.  Sometimes, rather than a living being, a ‘stock’ was substituted- a log fashioned in the likeness of the missing person who was, in actuality, ‘away with the fairies.’  This motionless, speechless form (a “a lingering voracious Image” in Kirk’s words) was left at the home in bed to act as a cover for the fact that the man or woman had been taken to fairyland for some purpose- perhaps as a midwife or wet nurse to a fairy mother.  Some readers will recall that in Susanna Clark’s novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, a bog-oak likeness is left in place of Lady Emma Pole who is abducted to dance at the fairy balls.

Finally, it should be noted that a number of other illnesses might also be blamed on fairies, including painful deformities, impetigo, childlessness and certain cattle pests.  For example in the Highlands the spinal paralysis called marcadh sidh was believed to be engendered by fairies riding the livestock at night; indeed in Wales almost any livestock complaint was ascribed to the tylwyth teg (Wentz pp.86, 144 & 158).  It seems that in the late middle ages, a time of high infant mortality, ‘feyry’ was synonymous with childhood illness (see Keith Thomas, Religion and the decline of magic, 1971, p.217).

Time in faery

The passage of time in fairyland was different to that experienced on the earth. Abductees might find, for example, that:

  • a few minutes with the fairies were in truth hours away from their friends- five minutes might turn out to be a year and a day and two hours two generations;
  • a night was equivalent to one year, seven years, twenty years or many generations;
  • a day in faery was in fact, on earth, a a year and a day or even fifty years.

A long absence in fairyland brought many dangers:

  • they might suffer the grief of finding parents deceased and former lovers married in their absence;
  • they might perish as soon as human food passed their lips; or,
  • they might crumble way to dust as soon as they touched a mortal.

These perils emphasise the risks of being ‘away with the fairies’ and how very different fairyland can be to the world of mortal men.  That said, there is no consistency in the stories; there is no standard equivalent between earth time and fairy time and, for some, the time difference did not apply.  Midwives could attend upon fairy mothers and return home the same evening; others who had friendly dealings with the fairy court could come and go at will, just as if they were visiting human friends in their homes.

In conclusion, in the absence of effective medical treatments, earlier generations had little to protect themselves from, or as remedies against, these conditions.  What they did have available were the desperate measures of child abuse described above, traditional herbal medicines and religion.  The Reverend Kirk somewhat scathingly observed how congregations would swell periodically as local people attended church to “sene or hallow themselves, their Corns and Cattell, from the Shots and Stealth of these wandering Tribes.”  In confirmation of this statement, suspected witch John Walsh told his inquisitors in 1566 that fairies only had power over those who lacked religious faith (see Thomas, Religion and the decline of magic, p.724).  The Reverend Kirk also observed that he local country folk called the fairies Sleagh Maith (the Good People), in a further attempt “to prevent the Dint of their ill Attempts” and to deflect “these Arrows that fly in the Dark” (Kirk section 2 and see my previous posting ‘They who must not be named‘). Resort might also be made to local ‘cunning’ folk for a cure.  Just as fairies could cause illness, it was thought that they could grant healing powers to some.  There are recorded witchcraft cases in which the accused ascribed their abilities to such supernatural aid (see Thomas, Religion and the decline of magic, p.317).

Our transition to the modern, rational world has deprived us of many facets of our ancestors’ lives- their intimate knowledge or animals and plants and their intense sense of community, for example- but those losses are balanced in some measure by an improved appreciation of the workings of nature and of history.  Those puzzling flint arrow heads which so puzzled our forebears are now instantly assessed as ‘Stone Age’ by most people and placed easily within a geological timescale of millennia, divesting them of much of their mystery- if not their fascination.  When a serving girl working for Alexander Carmichael felt a flint dart fly past her as she crossed the farmyard at night in the 1900s, her instinct was instantly blamed the nefarious sidh- even when naughty boys might have been a better explanation (see Wentz p.88)!

Lastly, the degree to which illness and death might be ascribed to fairies in considerable measure related to the popular assessment of fairy temperament.  If they were seen as preternaturally ill-disposed towards humankind, almost anything might be blamed upon them.  I will return to the issue of fairy character in a later posting.

Want to know more?

An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).  See too my more recent post on the psychological consequences of fairy abduction.