Rewards from Fairies

John Anster Fitzgerald, The Intruders

In a recent posting I highlighted the widespread British tradition of propitiating fairies with offerings and sacrifices– very much suggestive of a attitude of worship (or perhaps fear) towards the faery folk. It could even be presented as a sort of ‘protection money’ to keep on the right side of neighbours who are strict and unpredictable. This might give the impression of a one-way and non-reciprocal relationship, which would be misleading. Some people will receive spontaneous gifts of money; others are assisted in their domestic or farm work voluntarily by the fairies- or for minimal payment in kind for their labour. The faeries are also very ready to spontaneously acknowledge acts of good will be humans.

The famous poem by Bishop Corbet, ‘Rewards and Fairies,’ shows the strong link between the performance of good deeds towards fairies and personal gain for the individual that results- a transaction that has been recognised since the early seventeenth century- at the very least.  It need hardly be remarked that the fairies’ reputation is by no means universally so good: on the Isle of Man the fairies were blamed for all misfortunes- for falling down or tripping and for items that go missing and such like- whilst in Devon it has been said that the Dartmoor pixies were held liable for “a great deal of trouble and plague.”

Some of the types of good deed that are widely known to attract faery favour will already be familiar to us.  These include such actions as:

  • Preparing the house for fairy visitors at night, with swept hearths, clean floors, blazing fires, food and drink laid out, iron implements put away and water for washing provided- for which small gifts of money are typically given; or,
  • Repairing a broken tool- for which food is very often the reward- very typically (but not consistently) because what has broken is some sort of baking implement.

Examples of rather more unusual acts that will attract material thanks have included:

  • A man giving up his shirt to wrap a new-born fairy baby;
  • Saving a fairy girl who had got trapped part way down a cliff; or,
  • Carrying a stranded mermaid back to the sea- she brought her saviour silver and gold from the sea bed. In another case the mermaid guaranteed the rescuer’s householder pain free childbirths from that date onwards.

A number of more unusual instances are worth specific attention.  At Bewcastle, in Cumberland, there is a fairy stone to which you can whisper your secret wishes in the secure knowledge that the fairies will answer them. It is also not uncommon for rescued mermaids to offer their human helpers three wishes– as happened in the famous cases from the Lizard peninsula in Cornwall.

Rather more sinister, in one of the Scottish witch trials a woman called Margaret Barclay of Irvine was told by a man who had met that King of Pharie that, if she followed and adhered to the fairies just as he did, she would be rewarded with “geir aneuch” (‘gear enough’- or plenty of goods).  This, of course, sounds rather more like selling your soul to the devil than the generous gifts so far described.

We’ll conclude with the much more cheerful story of ‘Shilo,’ from Devonshire.  A farmer from near Ottery St Mary was walking through his fields when he heard a voice crying out that he’d lost his Shilo. The farmer looked over the hedge and saw a little old man whom he knew straightaway to be a pixie.  Soon after, the farmer came across a tiny baby lying near one of his hay ricks and crying feebly.  He took the foundling home to his wife, who revived it with bread soaked in warm cider.  They realised that the baby must be the missing Shilo for whom the pixie had been searching, so the man returned the infant to the spot where he’d found it.  He then called out and quickly the old pixy appeared and carried off the babe, without saying a word to the human.  The couple feared they’d face punishment for removing the child, but the next morning they awoke to find their house swept, the fire lit and breakfast ready for them and laid out on the table.  Outside, the corn was threshed and the day’s work was already done.  This continued everyday after that and the pair became well off and comfortable.

James Hope, The Maiden & the Fairies

Our interaction with the Good Folk is therefore complex. They will trade with us, they will steal from us; they demand respect, but they will be interfering and intrusive in our lives; they expect certain standards of behaviour from us and the sharing of our food and our homes; they like to be private, but they don’t like to be ignored- or taken for granted. Some fairies will form symbiotic relationships with us- living in our homes and helping us; others will resent intrusions and curiosity. They will act unexpectedly with generosity and kindness- and probably, as a guide to our own behaviour, this is the best advice: if you can do anything to help the fairies, do it cheerfully and readily. This will win their favour.

The faery personality- and their relations with humans

ovenden evil fairy
EnEvil fairy by Graham Ovenden

“Be careful how ye speake here o’ the Wee Folk/ Or they will play such pranks on thee and thine/ Nae doubt, they dae a lot of good whiles/ But if provoked, they can be maist unkind.” (Henry Terrell,  The wee folk of Menteith, p.46)

Some months ago I posted about my personal views of the nature and conduct of fairy-kind.  I’d like to say a little more about my view of their general character and interaction with human kind, as I think it will inform an understanding of my own approach to the subject in these postings.

All things nice?

I’ve written in the past about certain modern, cute manifestations of fairy kind: Santa’s elves for example and the Tooth Fairy.  As those of you who read these comments will no doubt have detected, I have little time for such sugary figures.  I have an affection for the flower fairy art of Cicely Mary Barker and Margaret Tarrant, and even (sometimes) the plump cuddly creations of Mabel Lucy Atwell, but my own conception of their identity and activities is very different.

The genre of imagery shown below is part of our problem with fairies: because of Shakespeare and his contemporaries and successors, we have come to see them as cuddly and sweet and ideally suited to little girls.  This is a gross underestimation and misconception.  Perhaps Graham Ovenden’s painting at the head of this post is most appropriate: there’s beauty, but there’s something beneath, in that distracted self-absorbed look.

Attwelll Changeling
Mabel Lucy Attwell, The Changeling.Enter a caption

A darker view?

My view of Faery is rather darker and I’d summarise their main personality traits as follows.  I’ll use some characters from my own books to illustrate these convictions, or preconceptions (or prejudices!) of mine:

  • the fairies are a serious and scary people.  I don’t conceive of them as small, either physically or in their activities.  This will be apparent from my postings on this site and from all my fictional creations, but most strongly, perhaps, in the person of Maeve in Albion awake!  I’d hesitate to antagonise or patronise her: I may have imagined her as smaller of stature, but there’s no doubting her formidable determination;
  • they can’t be taken for granted and must be treated with all due respect and caution.  Their good will can’t be bought;
  • their resemblance to us should not be mistaken for affinity.  They may look like us physically, but they are unlike us and any resemblance should not put us off our guard;
  • they are strong and independent.  They have their own agenda and their own rules by which they live.  We shouldn’t presume to know their plans or to have much hope of changing them;
  • they are reserved and won’t reveal themselves readily;
  • they are content to live separately from us- indeed, they would prefer to do so- but sometimes necessity obliges them to make contact.  We should not imagine that they want to ‘help’ us or that they ‘love’ humankind.  To my mind that sort of attitude tends towards complacency and overconfidence.  In Albion awake!, for example, main character John Bullen is permitted to call upon Maeve’s assistance in times of great need, but no more.  That doesn’t inhibit her in appearing in his flat whenever she has need to make use of him, though; and that’s the core of the human/fairy interaction, to my mind.  They make use of us and they may grant us the occasional favour, but there is an notable imbalance of power.  In my novel The elder queen the fairies (‘the sky children’) show kindness to Darren Carter, but I’d probably conceive that as pity for the shambling wreck that he makes of his life towards the midpoint of the book- he’s drug addicted, divorced and indebted, homeless and jobless.  He’s an object of their charity; there’s a good deal of condescension but little of the equality of friends.

Key to the fairy character is their mutability.  How a particular individual human may be treated seems often to be a matter of whim; a fay’s mood is seldom predictable.  (I’d argue that this apparent lack of consistency may be more to do with our ignorance of their habits and thinking than any waywardness on their part).  Possible interactions with humans therefore cover a complete spectrum from good to bad.  The fairy may be:

  • evasive and secretive- or at the very least indifferent.  Whether this arises from fear of humankind, or contempt for mortals, is debatable;
  • generous and helpful.  Certain favourites may, inexplicably, be adopted and given regular gifts of money or valuable skills or rewards (such as a never ending supply of flour or beer);
  • even-handed and scrupulously fair.  Sometimes faes will ask to borrow some household item or provision; they will always return it and, if a food stuff has been loaned, they will insist upon a full and equivalent restitution, and occasionally more than that;
  • cruel and spiteful.  A human may deserve their bad treatment, possibly because of some conceived slight to or neglect of the fairies; alternatively, there may be little explanation for the maltreatment dished out- other than it amuses the faeries.

The last category of interaction is naturally the most concerning, as it can be unheralded and undeserved torment- sometimes culminating in death.  If I’m being cautious in my advice on approaches to fairies, I would always advise that you proceed on the assumption that the response you will get may be a rebuff or worse.  If I was asked to summarise the most negative aspects of faery character, I would say that they were exploitative.  Humankind are very often viewed as a resource, something to be used.  They may take our foodstuffs, they may make use of our possessions or occupy our homes.  Parasitic might be an even harsher adjective.  Fairy-kind can bake, churn, spin, forge metals and all the rest; but why labour when people have done the work already?  In this frame of mind, we can interpret changeling children as cuckoos: why look after the weak and infirm when you can take a healthy infant and leave the really hard care to a human?

Further reading

I expand upon many of these traits in my other postings and in my 2017 book British fairies.  My general advice, though, would always be to approach our Good Neighbours with great caution: if they are friendly and bountiful, count your blessings and enjoy your good luck (keeping it strictly secret).  If they do not seem approachable, accept it and keep a respectful distance.  Don’t pester, don’t expect, don’t assume.  Don’t mix up smaller size and beautiful looks with cuteness and harmlessness; as I titled a previous post- not all nymphs are nice.

My forthcoming book, Faery, from Llewellyn Worldwide, will delve even further into the complex nature of the fae personality.

“Rewards and fairies”- gifts from the Good Neighbours

dulac-elves-fairies

Edmund Dulac, ‘Elves and fairies’ (The Tempest)

“It was told me that I should be rich by the fairies” Winter’s Tale, Act III, scene 3.

“although their gifts were sometimes valuable, they were usually wantonly given and unexpectedly resumed.” (Sir Walter Scott, Letters on demonology, letter IV)

In a previous on offerings to the fairies I noted that the divining line between worship and bargain was a difficult one to define with precision.  I wish to return to this area, discussing here definite gifts from fairykind to humans.

Folklore writer Christine Emerick has pointed out the curious contrast between Celtic fairy gifts and those of the Teutonic elves.  The former look valuable but prove to be worthless, whilst the latter are the reverse.  In British folktales, there is a blending of these extremes.

Fairy gifts

This unprovoked benevolence could take a variety of forms:

  • Regular gifts of food or money might be found by a lucky individual- for instance, at Willie How barrow in Yorkshire a local man was told he would find a guinea coin on top of the burial mound everyday, so long as he did not disclose his good fortune;
  • A skill might be conferred upon a fortunate recipient, such as the ability to play the bagpipes;
  • A helpful deed might be rewarded: in one Welsh story a farmer removed a rooks nest from a tree near his crops.  It had also overshadowed a fairy ring and they rewarded him for his act.  Providing bathing water for fairy families would likewise receive more than its due;
  • The provision of a service- such as carrying out a repair on a tool or acting as midwife- could be rewarded with more than the payment commensurate with the job.  In another Welsh example, a midwife received a life time’s supply of money for her assistance to the mother.  A curious tale from Ipstones in Staffordshire describes a woman whose child was substituted for a changeling.  Unlike most such maternal victims, she accepted the fairy child imposed upon her and cared for it as her own.  In return, whenever she wished for money, it would appear.  This bounty ceased when the infant sickened and died;
  • As indicated by the last example, a gift or gifts might be given, or the lucky individual might more generally enjoy good luck and prosperity, with good fortune and bounty taking many forms in their lives.  For instance, a highlander who gave his plaid to wrap a newborn fairy baby enjoyed good luck ever afterwards.  A supply of inexhaustible food is variant upon this;
  • there could be the gift of health and healing.  Several sites are linked associated with this: passing a child through the men an tol in Cornwall could cure rickets;  a well at Bugley in Wiltshire relieved sore eyes and the Hob Hole in  North Yorkshire was beneficial against whooping cough in children.  These properties might be conceived of as fairy beneficence or, perhaps, proof of their magic powers; and,
  • lastly, there is the very old concept of the fairy godmother and her gifts to the newborn.  This is recorded as early as the twelfth century in Layamon’s Brut: when King Arthur was born “alven hine ivengen; heo bigolen that child mid galdere swithe stronge”- ‘elves took him; they enchanted that child with magic most strong:’ the fairies gave him riches, long life, prowess and virtues.  These stories remained current in the seventeenth century, when Milton wrote how “at thy birth, the fairy ladies daunc’t upon the hearth/ And sweetly singing round about thy bed/ Strew all their blessings on thy sleeping head” (Vacation exercise).

Gifts were made to children as well as adults; anyone could attract the fairies’ favour and there did not need necessarily to be a specific reason, although exercise of the fairies’ esteemed virtues of generosity and hospitality tended to attract favourable attention: if a human is prepared to give freely s/he may enjoy the same in return.  It did help, though, to accept the first gift readily and without conditions.  Reginald Scot in The discovery of witchcraft (Book III, c.iV) recorded the tradition that fairies would favour servants and shepherds in country houses, “leaving bread, butter and choose sometimes with them, which if they refuse to eat, some mischief shall undoubtedly befall them by means of these fairies…”  Two stories confirm this belief.  A man given some food for mending a fairy’s spade was rewarded with food.  His companion counselled against eating it; the other cheerfully partook and benefitted for the rest of his life as a consequence of his spontaneous and trusting nature.  Similar accounts come from Pensher, County Durham (plough horses die because the farmer refuses to eat the bread and butter left for him) and from Lupton in Westmorland, where the horse that ate the fairy food lived and the other which refused to do so perished.

Problems with fairy gifts

Sometimes fairy generosity can become excessive, in that they will steal from others to benefit the preferred person.  Neighbours’ barns and granaries may be emptied in order to fill that of the blessed one.

“[they] give me jewels here…  oh, you must not tell though.” (Ben Jonson, The silent woman.)

However, fairy gifts are made subject to a strict rule that they are respected and are not disclosed.  In all the cases so far mentioned, boasting about money from the fairies would guarantee that the bounty would terminate.  In one sad case, a boy who found regular small sums of money was beaten by his father on suspicion of being a thief.  He finally confessed, which instantly ended the family’s good fortune, much to the parents’ bitter regret (Rhys Celtic folklore pp.37-38).  Loss of the bounty could be the least of the penalties inflicted for want of discretion though: Massinger in The fatal dowry warns “But not a word of it- ’tis fairies treasure/ Which but revealed brings on the blabber’s ruin” (Act IV, scene 1) whilst in The Honest Man’s Fortune we are likewise reminded of this fact: “fairy favours/ Wholesome if kept, but poison if discovered.”

Closely related to this condition are the gwartheg y llyn,  the lake cattle, which are frequently brought to marriages by lake maidens or which mingle and interbreed with human herds. If (when) the wife is later rejected or insulted, her departure will also inevitably mean the departure of the fairy beasts.  The same is bound to occur if the human farmer tries to slaughter the fairy cattle, as this too will be interpreted as demonstrating a want of respect for the owners/ donors.

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