A Medieval Faeryland Underground

©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. OjŽda

Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry– April

There is a fascinating glimpse of medieval English views of faerie to be found in a very unexpected place, a Middle English poem called A Disputison By-twene A Cristenemon and a Jew (A Disputation between a Christian and a Jew), which seems to have been written in South West England in the late 1300s.  The religious subject matter sounds unpromising and, given the date and period, the content is what we might expect- a sectarian attack on the Jewish faith and an attempt to convert the fictional Jew of the story (which is successful).

What interests us is that the two disputants are imagined to visit the Jewish heaven.  As the author essentially knew nothing of the Jewish faith (apparently not a disqualification from writing the text), he substituted the next best thing- his ideas on fairyland.  What is depicted, therefore, is how Faery was imagined in the late-fourteenth century.

So, in verse 10, we read that:

fforth heo wenten on the ffeld, To an hul thei bi-heold.

The eorthe cleuet as a scheld, On the grounde grene.”

(They went out into the fields to a hill they saw.  There the green ground broke open before them) .  This idea of a hill opening up to reveal the underground dwelling place of the fairies within, and in particular splendid halls and places of feasting, is very common to British literature and folklore.  In this case they are spared any long entry through tunnels or passages.  Instead, it is a short and comfortable stroll from the earth surface to their destination.

Sone fond thei a stih; thei went ther-on radly;

The Cristene mon hedde ferly, What hit mihte mene.”

(Soon, they found a path and followed it quickly, the Christian man wondering the while what it all might mean.)

After that stih lay a strete, Clene I-Pavet with grete.

Thei fond a maner that was meete, With Murthes ful schene, 

Wel coruen and wrouht, With halles heighe uppon loft.

To a place weore thei brouht, As paradys the clene.

(The path led them to a street, well surfaced with gravel.  They next came across a fine manor-house, full of pleasing delights, very well made and carved and with high halls.  They were brought to a place that seemed as pure as Paradise to them.)

In this hall there are birds singing joyfully and many rich furnishings of expensive cloths and precious metals.  The Christian man is especially impressed by the “Wyndouwes i the walle, Was wonderli I-wrouht.” (Well wrought windows in the walls)  He’d never seen as fine a place on the earth surface, certainly.

Outside this mansion there are wonders too.  “Ther was erbes growen grene, Spices springynge bi-twene” the like of which he’d also never seen.  A thrush was singing sweetly in the garden, amongst the fair flowers that were blooming.  In fact, he sees King Arthur’s round table there: “Hit was a wonderful siht.”  The relationship of Arthur to fairyland is well-established and is something I’ve examined before.

The pair are then invited to dine at a nunnery, where there are fine ladies and squires, all dressed in most fashionable and expensive clothes, and the two visitors agree to stay there and hear tell of adventures.  They wash and go to sit down at tables laid with clean, fresh cloths and:

Riche metes was forth brouht, To alle men that good thouht ;

The Cristen mon wolde nouht, Drynke nor ete.

Ther was wyn ful clere, In mony a feir Maseere,

And other drynkes that weore dere, In Coupes ful gret.

Sithe was schewed hem bi, Murthe and Munstralsy...”

(Rich foods were served, but the Christian man would neither drink nor eat, even though he was offered wine in fair goblets and other drinks in great cups, and there was mirth and minstrelsy in the hall.)  This, of course, is a classic idea: don’t eat the food whilst you’re in Faery or else you’ll never be able to get back.

After this, the story reverts to its anti-Semitic polemic, but it has nevertheless given us a fascinating little glimpse into late medieval fairyland.

©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. OjŽda

Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry- January

Further Reading

An edited and expanded version of this post will be found in my book Fayerie- Fairies and Fairyland in Tudor and Stuart Verse.  See my books page for more information.

 

 

 

A nation underground- subterranean fairies

Rackham Kensington Gdns
Arthur Rackham, from Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens

In this post I want to return to the question of fairy dwellings and fairyland.  Fairyland is very often conceived of as a place below the ground surface; here I want to examine that in considerable detail.

The idea of a subterranean Faery is something that has long been embedded in both folklore and literature.  For example, in a masque presented for Queen Elizabeth by the Earl of Hertford in 1591 we are introduced to the monarch:

“I that abide in places underground,/ Aureola, the Queene of Fairy land…”

Much later, the Duchess of Newcastle imagined that “The Fairy Queen’s large Kingdome got by birth/ Is the circled centre of the Earth,” a place bejewelled with all the gems and ores we might anticipate to find in a mine.

Without doubt, this hidden realm would be a place of mystery.  John Aubrey in the late seventeenth century wrote that:

“Some were led away by fairies, as was a Hind riding upon Hackpen… So was a shepherd of Mr Brown of Winterbourne Abbas… the ground opened and he was brought to strange places underground.”

I want to go too to those strange places, to discover the way and to see what’s there.

How to get access

It’s very widely accepted that fairyland is subterranean, but that raises a host of problems.  How deep is it?  Where are the access points?

It’s also very widely believed that one very common location for fairy dwellings is under small hills.  This is especially common in Scotland, where many small mounds are called ‘fairy knowe’ or ‘knolls.’ An alternative name for the trows of Shetland is the ‘hill men.’ These hills may be natural mounds or they may be prehistoric burial tumuli.  Neolithic barrows are regarded as fairy homes from Yorkshire right up to Sutherland and including the Isle of Man.

Either way, the fairies aren’t buried very deep and getting in presents less challenges.  Very few people ever simply pick up a spade and start digging (wisely, as it’s very likely to have serious repercussions).  More often they wait for a door to reveal itself: this may happen at special times of year such as Halloween or perhaps because there’s a special celebration taking place within the hill and the doors are thrown open to let out the heat and noise.  The simple and direct approach was employed by one poor East Yorkshire man in the story of the White Powder.  He was instructed simply to walk up to the door of the mound and to knock three times to be granted entry and led into the presence of the fairy queen.

In some people’s opinion, fairyland is a good deal deeper than the thickness of some turfs.  Its location therefore won’t be at all obvious and it follows that the ways in will be equally well concealed.  For example, the pixies of Dartmoor are believed to live beneath the bogs that cover that landscape.  This is an excellent strategy for keeping unwelcome visitors away, although there is some suggestion that rabbit holes on the moor may be a way in to this particular wonderland.  There are a lot to try though…

Normally, the road to fairyland is a lot better concealed and a lot more forbidding.  A variety of entrances have been identified:

  • beneath river banks- this is known especially in Wales, as in the story of Elidyr, who is taken by two little men under the hollow bank of a river;
  • under standing stones- this perpetuates the prehistoric link seen with barrows and is a legend linked with various sites including the Rollright Stones in Oxfordshire. In the Welsh tale of Einion and Olwen fairyland is accessed by an oval stone and then by a path and stairs, which are illuminated by a whitish-blue glow radiating from the steps themselves;
  • beneath Roman ruins- the remains of a military encampment high on Mellor Moor near Blackburn were said to be the ruins of a fairy city that had sunk beneath the ground due to an earthquake. The disappeared metropolis was still inhabitable, though, and church bells could sometimes be heard ringing beneath the turf;
  • under lakes- a fairy woman was seen to come and go from beneath the waters of Llyn Rhosddu on the Isle of Anglesey;
  • in a well- in Cornish fairy tale of Cherry of Zennor the girl Cherry is employed as a maid in a house that might itself be in fairyland, but she also sees her fairy master dancing when she looks down into a well in the garden;
  • behind waterfalls- the queen of the Craven fairies is reputed to live concealed behind Jennet’s Foss, near to Malham;
  • in cliffs- another inaccessible route into faery is from a cave in a cliff face. Cornishman Richard Vingoe entered fairyland this way at a spot near Land’s End.  Many hours of walking eventually led him to a “pleasant looking country”;
  • through deep caverns- Gervase of Tilbury, in his Otia Imperialia, described how a swine herd lost a pregnant sow and decided to look for her in the Peak Cavern near Peveril castle in Derbyshire. He wandered a long way until he emerged into a new country.  At Cwm Mabus near Llanrhystyd in Wales there are caves called Craig Rhydderch where the tylwyth teg are said to live and at Llanymynech near Oswestry is Ogo Hole, another entrance to faery;
  • the place called by the Scots ‘Mirryland’ or ‘Maidenland’ is said to be beneath a mountain;
  • in one Welsh account from 1860 a man called John Davies of Aberayron joined a fairy dance on Cilcennin Hill and spent the whole night with the tylwyth teg.  The revel was only disturbed the next morning by an old woman following the sound of music- at which the fairies all disappeared down some steps leading underground;
  • down long tunnels- the Green Children of Woolpit followed a long tunnel or passageway until they came out into the Suffolk landscape.

Whatever the exact route in, it is often long and dark.  The journey to faery may take several days (forty in the case of Thomas the Rhymer) and may involve difficult passages of wading through deep waters.  In the story of Cornish maid Anne Jefferies, she is snatched up and carried through the air, whirling through space with a sound like the buzzing of a thousand bees in her ears.  The fairy tale of Cherry of Zennor in one sense makes its fairyland real by presenting it as a pleasant manor house and gardens, but it is reached by a route very like the underground passages- Cherry is led down long lanes, shaded by high hedges and is carried over several streams before, after much travel, she and her fairy master arrive at their destination.

it’s worth lastly noting that tunnels sometimes provide the access from the human world to fairylands that are also on the earth surface.  These are frequently seen in Wales, where passages lead out onto an isle in a lake or to an offshore island in the sea.

How do we see?

Given that fairyland is far below ground, how do we see anything once we’re there?  Is Faery the “darksome den” that Golding described in his translation of Ovid, or is it bright? This is one of the greatest puzzles, but the sources are quite uniform in telling us what the conditions are, even if they don’t explain them to us.

The Green Children described a place without a sun, but where there was a “degree of light like that which is after sunset.”  In the poem Huon of Bordeaux we are told that it is the gold and silver with which the buildings are constructed that illuminate the place.  In the story of King Herla, faery is entered through a cave in a high cliff and (more reasonably) is lit by many torches.

Elidyr described the fairyland he visited as “obscure, not illuminated with the light of the full sun.”  Rather, the days were cloudy and the nights very dark without either moon or stars.  It’s cool and dim in fairyland.  The visitor to Faery in the story of the White Powder also reported that the light there was “indifferent, as it is with us in the twilight.”  Perhaps because of this dinginess, the people of ‘St Martin’s Land,’ where the Green Children were born, were all of a green tinge.

In contrast, Sir Orfeo’s fairyland, reached after a journey of three miles or so starting beneath a rock, was “as bright so sonne on somers day.”  Likewise, after a long dark passage, the land under the Peak District was bright and open.  Equally, the swineherd described by Gervase of Tilbury found that the place he reached was enjoying its summer, and that the harvest was taking place, whereas he had left winter behind him on the earth’s surface.

What do we see?

The fairyland found underground is largely indistinguishable from the land left behind on the surface.  There are pastures, fields and orchards, where crops grow, sheep graze and fruit and flowers grow in abundance.  There are birds in the air and woods full of game.  The land may be quite level, an open plain without hills but threaded by rivers running between lakes.  The fairyland visited by Einion and Olwen fairyland was a fine, wooded, fertile country extending for miles underground and dotted with mansions and with well-watered, lush pastures.  An early nineteenth century account from Nithsdale tells of a ‘delicious country’ with fields of ripening corn and ‘looping burnies’ reached by a door halfway up the sunny side of a fairy knoll.

There are palaces and castles, like any medieval royal city (although in Faery these may be made from precious metals and gems) but there are ordinary civic amenities too.  Thomas Keightley recalled a conversation with a young woman in Norfolk who told him that the fairies were a people dressed in white who lived underground where they built houses, bridges and other edifices.  Proof of this comes from a commonly told Welsh story of a man who’s reproved by a hitherto unknown fairy neighbour for pouring his household slops down the other’s chimney.  Invited to place his foot on the other’s, the human sees that, far beneath his front yard, there is a street of houses he had never seen before.  These are just ordinary fairy cottages deep beneath an ordinary Welsh farmer’s cottage.

Some of the later British descriptions moved away from rolling verdant countryside to focus upon the dwellings of the fays.  For example, in the case of the ‘White Powder,’ the man visited the court of the fairy queen “in a fair hall.”  On the Isle of man, a traveller crossing Skyhill at night was taken inside the hill, where he saw a large hall with a grand feast in progress.  Likewise the so-called ‘Fairy Boy of Leith’ (account published 1684) told of visiting the fairies under a hill between Edinburgh and Leith and there enjoying music and feasting.  He entered through “a great pair of gates” and found “brave, large rooms as well accommodated as any in Scotland.”  Aberdeen man Andro Man, arrested on suspicion of witchcraft in 1598, told his interrogators that when he entered the residence of the fairy queen, he had noted in particular their “fair coverit” tables.

According to some Scottish stories, we may also see the start of three roads: the thorny road of the righteous to heaven, the broad road of the wicked to hell and a bonny looking road finally leading to Faery.  These ‘ferlies’ (wonders) are described in the old Scots  ballads Thomas the Rhymer, Young Tamlane and The Queen of Elfland’s Nourice.

There is an interesting last detail in the story of Anne Jefferies.  When she first encounters the fairies in her Cornish home, they are ‘the little people’ only a few inches tall, but in Faery they are all of normal human size (or else Anne has shrunk).  The fairy master in Cherry of Zennor looks tiny when seen at the bottom of the well  in the garden but resumes his human dimensions when he returns to the house.

Getting home again

This can be as hard as getting into fairy in the first place.  Some people, we must confess, never make it back to where they started.  The Green Children, dazzled by the heat and light of the surface, became bewildered and were completely unable to find the entrance to the passage from which they emerged.

For others the process can be relatively straightforward, albeit with longer term implications.  Richard Vingoe was led to a carn near Nanjizel where he emerged into the air.  He was so exhausted by the journey that he slept for a week and, if fact, was never the same again.

Elidyr was able to come and go from his faery, visiting his mother as he wished, until he tried to steal a golden ball from his fairy friends.  He was pursued and the ball was recovered, after which he could never find again the entrance in the river bank, even though he searched for a year.

kensington-gardens_41
Arthur Rackham, from Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens

Conclusions

In many respects fairyland underground is a mirror image of our earth surface world- and this includes the climate.  Of course, there are also traditions that make it less homely and familiar, such as those which view it as some sort of land of the dead and those which treat it as far more magical and strange.

Bernard Sleigh and the map of fairyland: Part One

Bernard Sleigh 1872-1954, An Anciente Mappe of Fairyland, Newly Discovered and Set Forth, 1920

Fairies can threaten humans, leading them astray or stealing children, but they can also serve as muses, inspiring great works of art and literature.  This post looks at one quite unique product of that inspiration.

Writing on British fairy literature during the 1920s and ‘30s in the journal Mythlore for 2013, author Douglas Anderson teased his audience:

“I’d like to turn to the author I find most interesting from this period. He grew up in the Birmingham area of England and was indelibly inspired after seeing Peter Pan performed on stage. He was devoted to William Morris and George MacDonald. He went on to write about fairies, in poems and in stories, illustrating his own writings with his own artwork. He was particularly renowned for his maps…”[1]

I imagine we all think we know who Anderson is referring to, but he has a surprise for us:

“Though the above could all be said of J.R.R. Tolkien, I’m actually talking about someone else, named Bernard Sleigh.”

Sleigh (1872–1954) was an English muralist, stained-glass designer, illustrator and wood engraver; in late 1917 he created a remarkable fantasy map that constitutes his best-known legacy today.  An Ancient Mappe of Fairyland, Newly Discovered and Set Forth is large, colourful and ambitious, being crammed with a multitude of characters from legend and fairytale.

In this post I want to explore the making and meaning of that chart.  I pored over the maps of Middle Earth as a boy and such plans have now become a staple of fantasy writing, but Tolkien did not initiate this fashion, nor are his maps as loaded with meaning as some.

‘Here they do magic’

Arthur_Joseph_Gaskin_-_Kilhwych,_The_King's_Son

Gaskin, Kilhwych, the king’s son (illustration to the Mabinogion)

Born in 1872, the first difference between Sleigh and Tolkien is that the former was twenty years older, which meant that he did not serve during the First World War.  Their education was also utterly different.  Aged fourteen, Sleigh left school and was apprenticed to a wood engraver.  As part of this training, he studied at the Birmingham School of Art, where he was a student of Arthur Gaskin, a painter, illustrator and craftsman, who had in turn worked with Edward Burne-Jones. Whilst attending art school Sleigh came under the influence of the Birmingham Group, an informal collective of Arts and Crafts painters and craftsmen.  All of these influences can be seen in Sleigh’s work, the medieval style of which echoes Burne-Jones, William Morris and Walter Crane.

Sleigh- Phylis & Demoophoon, Phantastes

Sleigh, Phylis and Demoophoon, illustration from George MacDonald’s Phantastes

Sleigh was especially skilled in wood engraving and soon found commissions illustrating books. One of his first major projects was engraving one hundred of Gaskin’s illustrations for a two-volume edition of Hans Christian Andersen’s Stories and Fairy Tales.[2] Sleigh was also published in The Yellow Book, The Dome and The Studio and illustrated Piers Plowman, several novels by Morris, George Macdonald’s Phantastes, Legrand d’Aussy’s Fabliaux and an edition of the romance of Tristan and Iseult, all titles suited to his style and tastes.

Sleigh went on to have a highly distinguished and successful career, designing furnishings and internal decorations for a wide range of private clients.  He also taught at Birmingham School of Art, published several design and craft manuals and was a member of several artistic societies.

In the context of Sleigh’s professional life, the map of fairyland looks like something of an aberration, but it was in fact an expression of much deeper personal interests that persisted throughout his life.

Sleigh, Habour of the Holy Graal

Sleigh, The harbour of the Holy Graal

“I believe in Faeries”

Sleigh is celebrated today not for his handicraft design but for the Ancient Mappe of Fairyland.  This is not, in fact, unfitting.  As a young man, Sleigh was greatly inspired by the mythical writings of MacDonald and Morris and the map clearly reflects their influence.  Indeed, by the time he retired in 1937, Sleigh’s imagery had turned from romantic medievalism entirely to a world peopled by supernatural beings.  His writing, too, changed from the practical to the mythological, for example Witchcraft (1934), The dryad’s child (1936) and two fantasies for children, The boy in the ivy (1955) and The tailor’s friends (1956).

The map’s immediate success encouraged Sleigh to produce further fairy works.  In October 1920 he published The faery calendar, in which illustrations for each month of the year were paired with a piece of prose or verse. In his Preface Sleigh confessed that-

“I believe in Faeries. It is very natural and not a bit foolish; for in these days we are quickly learning how little we know of any other world than our own. It is no more difficult for me to believe that a wild rose, or a daisy, has personality, consciousness of life- a spirit, in short, than that a human being has.”

He was, of course, in very good company at this time, with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle promoting the veracity of the Cottingley fairy photographs and espousing very similar Theosophist beliefs.

Sleigh’s next book, A faerie pageant, appeared in 1924; it was a limited-edition volume resembling the Calendar.  Lastly, in 1926 Sleigh wrote a volume of stories about fairies, The Gates of Horn: Being Sundry Records from the Proceedings of the Society for the Investigation of Fairy Fact and Fallacy. Although intended for adults, his publishers J. M. Dent marketed it as a children’s book, resulting in its commercial failure.   This makes copies extremely rare today, although the stories are highly regarded by those fortunate enough to have been able to read them.  As a footnote to this, we should note that in 1927 Sleigh was instrumental in establishing a real Fairy Investigation Society, which still operates online today.

‘The other end of nowhere’- making the map

Sleigh’s daughter, the writer Barbara, recalled in her childhood memoir that:

“One wet holiday my father drew a Map of Faeryland for us. On it were marked the sites of all our best-loved fairy-stories. There is Peter Pan’s House, and the palace of La Belle Dormante and the Bridge of Roc’s Eggs, and such succinct entries as ‘Here be bogles’ and ‘Warlocks live here’. It has fascinated several generations of children.” (The smell of privet, 1971, pp.51-52.)

It is reported that Sleigh got the idea for the map after seeing a production of J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan.  If this is correct, it is a further interesting parallel with Tolkien who recorded in his diary the profound effect that seeing the play had upon him.  Nonetheless, fantasy maps have always been created, although the growth in fantasy literature in the twentieth century seems to have led to a marked rise in the number produced.  Early examples include the playing board for ‘The Prince’s Quest: A Fairy Race Game’ from 1890 and A map of fairy land (Alan Wright, 1909).  Sleigh’s map was therefore not unique, but its scope and scale were new and inspired others, such as Czech artist Jaro Hess’ 1930 map of The land of make believe, a map of ‘The land of nursery rhyme’ drawn by Charles Folkard as an endpaper to the 1946 book of that name by Alice Daglish and Ernest Rhys and, lastly, a 1973 map to accompany William Goldman’s Princess bride (not forgetting Tolkien and George R. R. Martin, of course).

princes quest

The prince’s quest

The Ancient Mappe of Fairyland was first published in December 1917 as a full colour scroll with wood ends, rolling out to nearly a metre and a half in width and thirty-five centimetres in height. With it Sleigh produced a small sixteen-page pamphlet, A guide to the Map of Fairyland.  In 1926, because the map had continued to be a good seller, the publishers Sidgwick and Jackson issued a second companion volume: Travels in fairyland is an anthology of the nursery rhymes, stories and poems mentioned on the map or listed at the end of the Guide.

wright

Alan Wright, Map of fairyland

The map is hand-drawn and seems to be a combination of coloured pencil and watercolour wash.  It is somewhat reminiscent of Tolkien’s illustrations of The Hobbit– but plainly rather more accomplished.  Less highly finished than many of Sleigh’s full-colour illustrations, there is a childlike or playful quality to the draftsmanship which is part of its appeal.

After Sleigh retired from teaching in 1937, the map was turned into a Rosebank Fabric by the well-known Lancashire company.  This, in turn, led to many other commissions for textile designs, thereby providing a source of income over and above his meagre teaching pension.

hess

Hess, The land of make believe

Further reading

This posting will be continuedAnother description of the Mappe can be found on The fairy page blog.  There are a few interesting articles on this blog (plus a great deal about Harry Potter) but it seems to have run out of steam in April 2017.

[1] Douglas A. Anderson, ‘Fairy elements in British literary writings in the decade following the Cottingley fairy photographs episode,’ Mythlore 32.1, Fall/Winter 2013.

[2] George Allen, 1893.

‘Elf addled’- the ill effects of faery contact

froud, somethign wicked

Brian Froud, ‘Something evil this way comes’

I take the title of this posting from one of the Anglo-Saxon herbals or Leechbooks.  Our forebears diagnosed a number of ailments which they ascribed to malign fairy intervention; one of these was called ælfadl (which we may roughly translate as elf- addle today).  Its nature is uncertain- it appears to involve some degree of internal physical pain- but I have co-opted it to describe the mental health effects of contact with our fairy neighbours.

Physical risks of fairyland

It’s pretty widely known that a visit to fairyland can have serious physical consequences. Because time may pass more slowly in Faery, the returning visitor may discover that their few hours away were really years or centuries, so that they return to a land wholly unfamiliar to them and where they often crumble away to dust as soon as they have contact with the food or soil of the mortal world. The ill-effects may be less drastic than this, but nevertheless contact with the otherworld can lead to permanent disablement by the fairies.

Psychological risks of faery

Less well-reported are the psychological ill-effects of a sojourn with the fays.  We can piece together the evidence from various sources across the centuries.  In seventeenth century England John Aubrey collected a story concerning a shepherd, employed by a Mr Brown of Winterbourne Basset in Wiltshire, who had seen the ground open and had been “brought to strange places underground” where music was played.  As Aubrey observed of such visitors, they would “never any afterwards enjoy themselves.” (Briggs, Fairies in Tradition, p.12).

Later the same century the Reverend Robert Kirk met a woman who had come back from Faery; she ate very little food and “is still prettie melanchollyous and silent, hardly seen ever to laugh.  Her natural Heat and radical Moisture seem to be equally balanced, lyke an unextinguished Lamp, and going in a circle, not unlike the faint Lyfe of Bees and some Sort of Birds that sleep all the Winter over and revive in the Spring” (Kirk, Secret commonwealth chapter 15).  The ‘half-life,’ withdrawal or hibernation that Kirk seems to be describing here is mentioned elsewhere in Scotland.  On Shetland it was believed that the trows might steal part of new mother, that part that remained at home seeming ‘pale and absent.’  (Magical folk, p.132)

The Shetland trows would also take children for a while, but released them at puberty.  Back with human society, they always maintained “an unbroken silence regarding the land of their captivity.”  Indeed, that silence could be physically enforced: in Ireland it was believed that “the wee folk puts a thing in their mouth that they can’t speak.” (Spence, Fairy tradition, p.262)

W. B. Yeats was fascinated by this condition and reported that those who’d been ‘away’ were always pining with sorrow over their loss of fairy bliss.  They had a cold touch and a low voice.  They seemed to have lost part of their humanity and would be queer, distraught and pale, ever restless with a desire to be far away again.  Yeats was told by one woman from the Burren that:

“Those that are away among them never come back, or if they do they are not the same as they were before.” (Unpublished prose, vol.1, p.418 & vol.2, p.281)

The symptoms of having been ‘away’ are a dazed look, vacant mind, fainting fits, trances, fatigue, languor, long and heavy sleeping and wasting away.

Sometimes it is hard to determine whether the after-effects are psychological or physiological (though one may lead to the other).  The Reverend Edmund Jones in his history of Aberystruth parish in Wales described a neighbour and good friend who had been absent with the fairies for a whole year.  When he came back,  “he looked very bad.” (p.70)  Likewise Jones wrote in another book on spirit apparitions in Wales that the experience was debilitating and left the revenant sickly and disturbed; often the person would fade away and died not long after their return home (The appearance of evil paragraphs 68 & 82).  In Welsh belief of the time, in fact, even seeing fairies might prove to be a premonition of the person’s death (paras 56, 62, and 69).

Cornish case study

An example of being elf-addled comes from the well-known story of the House on Selena Moor, in Bottrell’s Traditions and hearthside stories of the West of Cornwall (1873, pp.94-102).  Pixie led on the moor, a Mr Noy finds a farmhouse at which a celebration is taking place.  As he approaches, he meets a former lover whom he thought dead, but who has actually been captured and enslaved by the fairies.  She warns him not to touch the fairy food and drink, as she had done, and tells him something of the fairy life.  The experience of seeing the fairies, and of knowing his lost love still to be alive in fairyland, deeply affected him:

“From the night that Mr. Noy strayed into the small people’s habitation, he seemed to be a changed man; he talked of little else but what he saw and heard there, and fancied that every redbreast, yellow-hammer, tinner (wag-tail), or other familiar small bird that came near him, might be the fairy-form of his departed love.

Often at dusk of eve and moonlight nights, he wandered round the moors in hopes to meet Grace, and when he found his search was all in vain he became melancholy, neglected his farm, tired of hunting, and departed this life before the next harvest. Whether he truly died or passed into fairy-land, no one knows.”

Noy had had no physical contact with Grace nor had he partaken of the fairy fruit and beer- otherwise he would never have been able to return home at all.  Nevertheless, what he saw and heard was enough to blight the brief remainder of his life.

It’s worth recalling here too that prolonged physical contact with the fairies- a sexual relationship with a supernatural lover, perhaps in the course of a prolonged partnership or marriage- can have both physiological and psychological consequences.  It can often be fatal, whether almost immediately or over time.

Summary

A visit to fairyland need not be harmful.  Many travellers come and go unscathed. Some are even transformed for the better by the experience.  As alluded to earlier, girls might be abducted by the Shetland trows but returned to their homes when they reached adulthood.  They would be restored to their families “in maiden prime with a wild unearthly beauty and glamour on them.” (Magical folk p.132)

To close, time spent in faery must always be viewed as potentially perilous.  Even if the person is not enslaved or entrapped, they can still be affected long term by the experience, both physically and mentally.

Further reading

Morgan Daimler has posted on fairy possession on her blog, looking particularly at the Anglo-Saxon and old Irish evidence for the problem and its treatment.  See also my posting ‘Some kind of joy’ which looks at the positive aspects of fairy encounters.

An expanded version of this text will appear in my next book, Faery, which will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide in March 2020.

Contrary fairies

fairies-have-tiff-with-birds

Arthur Rackham, The fairies have a tiff with the birds

One thing that any regular reader of these pages- or of any materials on fairy-lore- will soon notice is that Faery is a place where contradictions are rife. Renowned fairy expert Katharine Briggs seems to have recognised this problem when she wrote that “it is possible for most people to keep two quite irreconcilable beliefs alive at the same time.” (The anatomy of Puck, p.5)  Morgan Daimler has recently said something very similar: ”

“When it comes to Fairy the only generality we can make is that we can’t easily make any generalities.” (Fairies- a guide to the Celtic fair folk p.173)

Inconsistency and uncertainty seem par for the course in fairy studies.  There is a distinct lack of consensus as to the appearance of the fays (their height, their facial features, the presence or absence of wings) or regarding their dress.  I have discussed the range of opinion on these matters before on this blog and in chapters 1, 5 and 28 of my book British fairies.  Of course, one might fairly observe that a non-human, presented with a selection of humans of varying age, ethnicity and dressed in their traditional, indigenous costume, might be equally puzzled to determine what the ‘typical’ human looks like.  There are many sorts of fairies, so the lack of consistency in reports need not trouble us.

Non-believers will say that inconsistency in accounts is hardly remarkable, given that we’re discussing a wholly imaginary set of beings.  The believer, in contrast, may explain the contradictions  by pointing to the variety of fairy forms, their magical abilities and their well-known sense of mischief.  Janet Bord argues as much in her book Fairies: real encounters with the little people: discrepancies in descriptions of fairies’ height may all be put down to their use of glamour and illusion.  The agnostic researcher, wishing to take a more ‘scientific’ approach, and to aiming to discover the reason and logic behind fairy belief, might search for social and psychological explanations.

The biggest problem for any form of rational analysis of fairy accounts is the existence of downright irreconcilable differences between descriptions.  I shall highlight just four here to demonstrate my point.

Iron taboo

Iron is well-known as a material that repels fairies. A child in a cradle can be protected by scissors hung over it; shears placed in a chimney prevent fairy incursions by that route and a wise traveller will carry metal with them, even something as small as a pin, as a defence against supernatural encounters.  Tales are often told of rescues of abducted spouses from fairy hills; the rescuer will place his knife at the threshold in order to stop the entrance to the hill re-closing and trapping him.  This list could be extended considerably, but the principle is very well established. However, how do we explain fairies using metal tools- which they often do, as evidenced in the stories of human help being sought to repair demanded pails, pick axes and the like?  Even more aberrant, perhaps, there is a Shetland story of an abducted boy who returns home skilled in making scythes, a craft he has learned whilst living with the trows (see for example Magical folk pp.38, 133 & 135).

The fairies’ faith

Religion is another source of contraries, as I have mentioned in a recent posting.  The fairies are generally regarded as being heathens, or at least irreligious.  On that basis, charms that are just as efficacious as a piece of iron include a page from the Bible, the sign of the cross or the invocation of God or the saints.  Prompt baptism of a newborn will guard against its theft as a changeling.  This all seems quite reasonable, until it is set alongside other traditions that treat the fairies as being perfectly orthodox Christian folk, conducting christenings and the like, or as beings concerned for their place in creation and worried over whether they will share in the Christian salvation. Once again, both cannot apply, but a compromise is almost impossible (see Magical folk pp.120, 127 & 135).

Time in fairyland

The passing of time is a significant feature of many stories of fairyland.  I have alluded to this previously and it is pretty well known that time in Faery can pass at a different rate to time in the mortal world.  A night spent under a fairy knoll may transpire to have been a year or ten, or a century, in the ‘real’ world.  As might be imagined, the consequence of this for the returning visitor can be disastrous and tragic.  And yet- this is not always a problem.  Some visitors come and go without ill-effects; a midwife may be taken to attend a fairy birth and return home the same night; a husband may go to rescue his wife from the beneath the fairy hill and will do so in ‘real time.’  The fairies themselves may come and go from our world without difficulty.

Fairy food

I have remarked before that fairies can be described both as vegetarians and as keen hunters.  Lastly, still on the issue of diet, how about fairy attitudes to bread?  This may sound bizarre, but it was widely believed in Britain that carrying a crust was a sure way of protecting yourself from malign influences.  Witness Robert Herrick’s brief rhyme:

“If ye feare to be affrighted,

When ye are (by chance) benighted,

In your pocket for a trust

Carrie nothing but a Crust:

For that holy piece of Bread,

Charmes the danger, and the dread.”

This may perhaps relate originally to carrying consecrated host, but it seems that ultimately any old slice of Hovis would do.  Now contrast the situation in Wales.  John Rhys tells of lake maidens (gwragedd annwn) lured to tryst with a mortal man by the offer of bread.  They are fussy though: not any old piiece of bara brith will do.  First the bread is too hard “Cras dy fara“, then too soft “Llaith dy fara,” until finally a happy medium is found and true love blossoms (Rhys, Celtic folklorepp.3-6 & 27-30).

Inconclusions

It is not possible to be didactic, especially on the subject of beings who are invisible and secretive.  Contacts with them are rare and always fleeting, so any impressions formed will always be uncertain and unconfirmed.  As I’ve suggested, the want of congruity throughout the reports may seem to give excellent grounds for rejecting them all as fictions.  What is odd, though, is that these tales derive from a period when there was a genuine and widespread belief in (and fear of) fairies.  This being so, you might expect the folk stories to provide listeners with consistent and coherent statements about the supernaturals, so that audiences might be forewarned and forearmed.  The lack of correspondence between accounts might even be argued to be an indicator of authenticity.

We’ll summarise with the words of some fairy experts. Brian Froud, renowned fairy artist, was interviewed by Signe Pike for her 2010 book Faery tale.  He described to Pike his reaction to his first investigations into faery:

“At first I thought, I don’t know… all this sounds a bit weird… and at the same time, a lot of it sounded like common sense.  It’s very typical of faery, actually.  In one way it simplified everything for me, and at the same time, it suddenly made everything very complicated.” (p.86)

Fairies are often regarded as being creatures of the ‘betwixt and between’ (see for example Storm Faerywolf’s book on the fairy tradition of that title).  If this is so, it’s only fitting that our knowledge about them should, in the same way, be indeterminate and unsettled.  It’s typical too of the fairies to want to withhold something from us- whether it’s their name or full knowledge of their personalities.  I’ll conclude this brief survey of contrariety with some very fitting words from the first paragraph of the first chapter of Morgan Daimler’s recent bookNoting the conflicting descriptions of fairies, she states:

“None of them are wrong, and none of them are exactly right either, and that’s your first lesson about Fairy: it is in all ways and always a contradiction.”

‘Hence to Hell or Faery’- the nature of fairy religion

huon

Huon meets King Oberon, by Henry Ford

What do fairies believe in?  This may seem like a nonsensical question for at least two reasons:

  • firstly, if you subscribe to the belief that our current fairies are the diminished remnants of former pagan gods and goddesses of nature, then it is illogical to propose that an erstwhile divinity should worship another deity; or,
  • secondly, because the fairy code of morality is so distinctive and so deliberately selfish (see my earlier post or chapters 2 and 18  of my British fairies): fairies are not concerned with good works; they are concerned with furthering their own interests.

These objections are quite valid, yet our predecessors (at least before the Reformation) almost unconsciously assumed that these creatures would be Christians just like them.  Our medieval ancestors had absolutely no hesitation in accepting fairies as just another god-fearing creation of the Christian deity.  This is revealed, in passing, in many of the earlier stories.  The fairy king in King Herla’s tale exclaims “God be my witness;” the Green Children of Woolpit came from a place called St Martin’s Land and professed themselves to be good Christians. Oberon, the king of faery in Huon of Bordeaux, for example exclaims “God keepe you all! I desire you to speake with mee, and I conjure you thereto by God Almightie and by the Christendome that you have received and by all that God hath made” (chapter 21).  In several Scottish ballads, including that of Thomas the Rhymer, the fairy queen points out to the hero the roads leading to heaven and hell, which lead from faery.

Thomas-the-rhymer-Thomas Canty

Thomas the Rhymer, by Thomas Canty

Reformation

This uniform certainty in the orthodoxy of fairy kind received severe blows during the sixteenth century.  Two events undermined the formerly unshakeable conviction in their godliness.  One was the Reformation, which, as we shall see, initiated attacks upon all forms of superstition.  The second key factor was the settlement of the Americas.  Christians were confronted with continents and civilisations unheard of by the Bible and who knew nothing of the church or Christ.  The question arose how these peoples were to be accommodated in the existing world view and whether they had souls capable of salvation.  These debates must in turn have given rise to doubts over the position of fairies in the Christian creation.

Some people persisted in the older beliefs and still simply accepted fairies as another Christian race.  In a spell to conjure the fairy Elaby Gathen, Elias Ashmole reminded the spirit that “thou doest feare the heavy wrath and judgment” and demanded that the being “should be obedient or judged to eternal damnation with the demons in hell.”  As a magi, Ashmole very likely believed fairies to be a form of spiritual being closely related to angels, so their godly nature was something he took for granted.  More surprising are the recorded beliefs of Scottish minister Robert Kirk, who felt that the elves and fairies were less sinful than men, “but yet are in ane imperfect State, and some of them making better Essays for heroic Actions than others; having the same Measure of Vertue and Vice as wee, and still expecting an advancement to a higher and more splendid State of Lyfe.”

Salvation?

The Reverend Kirk believed that the fairies had the same prospect of judgment and salvation as any Christian man or woman. In fact, a number of related theories emerged as to the place of the fairies in the Christian universe.  One name for the fairies was ‘the Hidden Folk;’ the origin of this is explained in a Carmarthenshire story told to Evans-Wentz:

“Our Lord, in the days when He walked the earth, chanced one day to approach a cottage in which lived a woman with twenty children. Feeling ashamed of the size of her family, she hid half of them from the sight of her divine visitor. On His departure she sought for the hidden children in vain; they had become fairies and had disappeared.” (Evans-Wentz, p.153)

Another widespread belief was that the fairies were fallen angels who had followed Satan in his rebellion but who had not yet reached hell when God commanded that the gates of haven and hell be closed.  They were left stranded between and hid in holes in the earth (Evans-Wentz, pp.85, 105, 109, 116, 129-30 & 205).  They will finally be released from this intermediate status on the day of judgment.  Lastly, there are Europe wide stories telling of incidents in which anxious fairies approach humans begging for reassurance that they too will be saved.  Generally, the answer is no, to the fairies’ great dismay (see Spence, British fairy origins, p.165 & the story of the ‘Minister and the Fairy‘ printed in Folk-lore and legends: Scotland, 1898).

Fairies and devils

At the same time, in some quarters there was a clear conviction that fairies could never be good Christians, because they were either demonic delusions wrought by the devil or they were deceits of the Roman Catholic church (which to many godly Puritans amounted to the same thing anyway).  Certainly, fairies, elves and the like were hard to accommodate within the strict terms of the Bible.  Whether they were genuine malign entities or just an invention of the Papist clergy- and thus a minor distraction to reformers- was never fully resolved, but the different positions are very well evidenced.

For Thomas Heyrick, fairies were nothing but vain stories:

“Dotage, the Vice of ancient years …

Listens to each Fabulous Legend, every story

of Relicks, Exorcisms and Purgatory,

of Fairy Elves and Goblins, wakeful Sprights

That rouze the drowsie Monks to Beads at Nights!”

(The new Atlantis, 1687, p.15)

Likewise, for George Chapman, they were a product of a more credulous past: “Fairies were but in times of ignorance, not since the true light hath been revealed, and that they come from heaven I scarce believe.” (A humorous day’s mirth, 1591).  Fairies and witches were nothing but conceits “whereby the Papists kept the ignorant in awe” (T. Cooper, The mystery of witchcraft, 1617, p.123), they were the worthless recipients of reverence from “silly people” (John Penry, The aequity of a humble supplication, 1587).

In contrast, others saw real harm and spiritual peril in the fays.  For Thomas Jackson, there was no question of distinguishing good and bad fairies because “it is but one and the same malignant fiend that meddles in both” (A treatise concerning the original of unbelief, 1625, p.178).  Fairies and elves were nothing more or less than “infernal deities” (Henry Smith, Christian religion’s appeal, 1675, p.45); they brought disease and madness (Mirror for magistrates, 1575, line 215; William Vaughan, The soul’s exercise, 1641, p.113) and they had to be cast out in the same manner an any evil spirit: “Gang hence to Hell or to the Farie” (Philotus- a comedy, 1568). One common explanation of the taking of children as changelings was that the fairies had to pay a tithe to the devil every seven years and, understandably, preferred to do so with a human life instead of one of their own kind.  Ironically, the truth is that the Catholic church had much the same opinion as the Puritans: the fourteenth century Fasciculus morum, for example, condemned all belief in fairies and elves as “only phantoms displayed by an evil spirit.”  As I have described in discussing  witchcraft and fairies, the result of this kind of thinking was to mix up belief in fairies and in witches, with serious consequences for those professing a faith in our ‘good neighbours.’

It must the penetration of popular culture by such ideas that led to accounts describing the fairies’ strong aversion to bells and churches.  I have mentioned these before in a my postings on the departure of the fairies and on fairy building, but the stories are common: for example, in Dorset at Portland, Cadbury and Withycombe church bells drove off the local pixies, whilst at East Chelborough the resident sprites objected to the site chosen for a new church and removed it bodily.

“But the king who sits on your high church steeple/ Has nothing to do with us fairy people!” (Charlotte Mew, The changeling)

One definite effect of the post-Reformation debates was to create the widespread popular belief that fairies were repelled by anything Christian.  Possession of a copy of the Bible or some pages from it alone could be efficacious, as could saying grace, making the sign of the cross and a number of other actions.  This is the aspect of fairy nature we recall today- not the earlier views.

All of this brings us full circle.  It came to be said that fairy belief was on the wane in Britain because the fairies were less and less frequently seen and the reason for this was that they were Catholics and had deserted British shores since the break with Rome.  See, for example, Richard Corbet’s Farewell, rewards and fairies:

“Lament, lament, old Abbeys,

The Fairies’ lost command…

But now alas, they are all dead,

Or gone beyond the seas,

Or farther from Religion fled,

Or else they take their ease.”

(see too my British fairies chapter 6 and appendix)

Corbet’s allegation is that with the fairies’ went ceremony and dancing, and, more seriously, justice and equity too.

Pagan pixies

Much of this discussion has been concerned with whether the fays were Catholic or Protestant, or whether they were pure evil incarnate- demons and servants of Satan.

There is, though, a hint of another view, one that may appeal more to many contemporary readers.  In William Bottrell’s story of The house on Selena Moor fairy abductee Grace makes this remarkable statement about her pixie captors:

“For you must remember they are not of our religion,” said she, in answer to his surprised look, “but star-worshippers.”

If this truly represents Cornish belief of the late nineteenth century, it might be a relic of older ideas about the fays and- perhaps- a connection that was made between them and ‘The Druids.’  This need not necessarily be a much older idea- it might have emerged in the previous century or so- yet it may be a tantalising hint of theories relating the pixies to worship at Cornwall’s many ancient monuments.

Further reading

See too my postings on the relationship between fairies and the dead and on the process of laying, or exorcising, fairies.  As my postings on the fairies’ preferred days and times of the year suggest, there is some antipathy towards the church and some inclination towards older, ‘pagan’ feasts.

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