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.

Green children and fairy maids- The medieval roots of British fairy traditions

portunes

I have just finished reading Professor Ronald Hutton’s new book The witch.  As is obvious from the title, this is an in-depth study of witches and witchcraft from ancient times up until the close of the witch trials in the seventeenth century.  In fact, it is more of a work of historiography, surveying the research and theories of other scholars, than a pure history of the subject.  Chapter 8 concerns witches and fairies- hence my interest; I have written on this before myself on this about the relationship between fairies and witches and in my book British fairies.

Hutton considers the links between local magicians and healers and the fairies; he also gives an outline of the evolution of British fairy lore as crystallised in its fullest form in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.  It is his sketch of the development of the mythology that I wish to examine in this posting.

Medieval fairy faith

Hutton proposes that there were seven key elements to British fairy belief in the middle ages.  These all seem to have been in place by 1200 at the latest, but it is reasonable to suppose that they originate a good deal earlier, perhaps even pre-Conquest (see for this my posting on Anglo-Saxon elves).  The main twelfth century sources are a verse history of Britain composed by Layamon (c.1200), chronicles written by Ralph of Coggeshall (died 1200) and William of Newbury (1136-98- and who is also called Newburgh and Newbridge), De nugis curialium by Walter Map (1140- 1210), the tour of Wales by Gerald of Wales (1146-1223) and Otia Imperialia by Gervase of Tilbury (1150-1228).  These contain various ‘fairy’ stories and accounts of recent supernatural events and encounters.

These key fairy-lore features are as follows:

  • the fairies inhabit a parallel world- several stories illustrate this.  The underground realm of fairyland is visited in the stories of Elidyr and King Herla whilst the Green Children of Woolpit stray into rural Suffolk from there.  A notable feature that is several times mentioned is the curious half-light that prevails in faery; there is neither sun nor moon, but a dim luminosity like torchlight;
  • they have the ability to enter our world and steal children– Ralph of Coggeshall’s story of ‘Malekin’ demonstrates this.  She was stolen by the fairies from a cornfield where her mother was working during harvest; rather like a ghost she could contact the human world but not return to it;
  • there are portals to faery- in the account of Elidyr he enters fairyland by a river bank; in King Herla it is a cave in a cliff; the Green Children follow a long tunnel that leads them out of ‘St Martin’s Land.’  William of Newbury locates a fairy feast under a barrow, a quintessential fairy locale;
  • beautiful fairy women– they dance at night and will sometimes wed humans– but always subject to conditions that are inevitably broken.  The story of Wild Edric epitomises the irresistible beauty of the fairy bride and her unavoidable loss (see later).  In Layamon’s Brut the lovely elf queen Argante takes Arthur to Avalon after the battle of Camlann to heal and care for him.  Readers may also recall the ‘aelfscyne’ or elf-bright women of Saxon myth I have described before in my post on  Anglo-Saxon elves.  Lastly,  there is evidence suggesting that the fairy women could have their own independent sexuality (or be loose and lustful to medieval minds) as well as being beautiful.  There are menacing accounts in thirteenth century sources of elf women visiting men at night as succubi.  The sister of the Green Children grew up, it was said, to have quite lax morals- an indicator perhaps of her fairy birth (although one might equally suggest that her conduct was a reaction to the shock of becoming an orphan and a refugee);
  • green colour- the Green Children at Woolpit emerged into this Middle Earth green tinged and would only eat green beans at first, although their colour faded as their diet changed;
  • the fairies can bless or torment humans- according to the historian Layamon, King Arthur was blessed by elves at his birth (our earliest fairy godmother account). Conversely, Gervase of Tilbury tells of a fairy horn stolen by a hunter in Gloucestershire.  It brings with it bad luck and the man is executed for his theft; and,
  • they may live in human homes- Gervase of Tilbury tells of the ‘portunes’ who closely resemble brownies.  They work on farms, doing any work required however hard; they serve the household but never injure them and, at nights, they enter the house and cook frogs on the fire.

argante

Queen Argante

British tradition

These are Hutton’s seven core aspects of British fairylore.  From the medieval accounts I think we can add at least eleven more:

  • time passes differently in faery- when King Herla returns to the human world he is warned not to step from his horse until a small dog given to him has leaped to the ground.  A couple of his retinue forget this and dismount from their steeds; they instantly crumble to dust for he has been away several hundred years, although to him it seemed but hours.  It is said that he and his company are still riding, waiting for the dog to jump down.  The story of Malekin also has a typical feature: she has been seven years in fairyland, she says, and must remain another seven before she may return home.  Seven is a common magic number in faery measurements of time.  A delay of a year between events is also seen.  King Herla celebrates his wedding and, a year later, visits the king of faery to celebrate his.  The same commitment to meet a year later also appears in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight;
  • feasting– is a major fairy fairy pastime, as in the stories of King Herla and the account by William of Newbury of a fairy cup stolen from a banquet under a barrow;
  • mischief- although generally benevolent, the portunes do like to play tricks on humans by leading their horses into ponds when they are out riding at night.  A thirteenth century sermon also speaks of  ‘all such ben led at night with gobelyn and erreth hither and thither’.
  • diminutive size– clearly some fairies, such as the fairy maidens and wives, approach normal stature; nonetheless, the portunes are said to be only a half inch high (probably a mistake for half a foot/ 6″) and the fairies in King Herla are described as apes, pygmies, dwarves and half human size.  The fairies met by Elidyr are likewise small, but by contrast the Green Children, the fairies under the barrow seen in William of Newbury’s story and the bearers of the fairy horn in Gloucestershire are all of normal proportions.  At the other extreme, indeed, the fairy maidens seen dancing by Wild Edric described as being taller and larger than human women;
  • marriage subject to conditions- as mentioned above, fairy maids will wed human husbands, but there is always a catch.  In Wild Edric the hero was warned never to mention her sisters; of course, he did, and she promptly left.  Walter Map described the experience of Gwestin of Gwestiniog, who captured a fairy wife at Llangorse Lake in the Brecon Beacons (De nugis II, xi).  She lived with him and raised a family, but he was told never to strike her with a bridle.  Eventually, accidentally, this happened and forthwith she and all but one of the children disappeared.  This is the first of many such stories from Wales;
  • warnings– Gervase describes the ‘grant’ which is a foal-like creature which warns villagers of fire;
  • honesty & keeping promises is vital in fairy morality.  This an element in King Herla (and in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight); it is also seen in the story of Elidyr, who reported that the supernatural people he met never took oaths and abhorred lying;
  • fairies disappear at will (as in the story of King Herla) and generally remain invisible to normal human sight (as with the changeling Malekin).  This concealment can be overcome in two ways.  A person might apply a magic ointment.  Gervase of Tilbury mentions this in an account of the dracae water spirits of Brittany.  It is a regular feature of later British fairylore and may either have been imported from Brittany or may share the same ‘Celtic’ origin. Alternatively, it may be possible to obtain the second sight through contact with a ‘seer.’  This again is a feature of later lore (see Evans-Wentz for example) but in the life of the hermit Bartholomew who lived on the island of Farne in the late twelfth century the saint is told that he may see swarms of demons by placing his foot upon that of another, so that it seems this technique had a long pedigree;
  • foreknowledge of events- this supernatural power is mentioned in the story of King Herla;
  • a liking of dairy products- in Gerald of Wales’ account of Elidyr’s childhood visits to fairyland, he mentions their vegetarian diet and their preference for junkets.  This later became a significant theme in Elizabethan literature; and,
  • they may need human help, especially at child birth.  Gervase of Tilbury’s story of the Breton dracae also features the theme of the midwife to the fairies, later a regular element in many fairytales.

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All of these characteristics will be recognised in later fairylore and all have been described in previous postings and in my book British fairies.  However, Ronald Hutton suggests that what we would recognise as the British fairy tradition didn’t fully emerge for another 300 years or so, and that it depended upon the assimilation of continental motifs.  He suggests two in particular that were late arrivals in British folk belief:

  • the changeling idea- the idea of substituting a fairy for a human child is, he proposes, an import from Northern Europe.  As we have seen with the story of Malekin, the risk of fairies stealing human children was already well established in Britain at an early date, as was a close affinity between fairies and children- witness the Green Children or the story of Elidyr.  It is not entirely clear then whether we simply lack the evidence of the substituted stock or aged elf or whether this was indeed a last detail borrowed from abroad and added to the established tradition;
  • visiting houses and dairies at night, rewarding the clean and neat and punishing the dirty.  Hutton believes that this derives from continental myths of the good company of ‘the lady’ who could bring blessings to homes.  He may be right in this, but again many of the elements for this belief were plainly already in place- the presence of portunes in some homes and the liking for milk and cream- so that it needed little external influence for the ideas to coalesce; and,
  • fay maids–  Hutton proposes that these beings were inspired by literature.  It is quite true that chivalric romance is full of magical, semi-human women such as Morgan le Fay, but as we have already seen they were well known to British audiences at a much earlier date and may have contributed to Arthurian legend just as well as being derived from it.

On the evidence I have set out, I am inclined to think that the British fairy tradition evolved in recognisable form a good deal earlier than Professor Hutton suggested, although it seems incontestable that continental influences may have helped to refine and emphasise certain themes.