‘The fairest of the fair’- Fae beauty

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‘Take the fair face of woman,’ Sophie Anderson

“It was late on an eve in midsummer,
I fell sleeping on the green,
And when I awoke in wonder, I saw
What few mortal men have seen.

Changelings, fays and sprites,
A mighty swarm, all had taken to the air,
And before them passed their Fairy Queen,
She.. the fairest of the fair…”

(from He who would dream of fairyland, by Micheal Patrick Hearn)

I posted not too long ago a comment upon the convention of fairies’ pointy ears, in response to an examination of the question by Morgan Daimler.  I thought more about it, and about conceptions of fairy beauty in general, and decided to review our evolving iconography on this subject.  I have written about fairy physiology, their height and physical form, but I had neglected to discuss that most obvious of features, their faces!

Fairies in folklore

For centuries humans have found the physical charms of fairy men and women irresistible.  Whether it is the many alluring fairy queens of whom we read in medieval romances, the Irish leanan sidhe and her male counterpart gean canach, or long-haired mermaids on the shore, all are so desirable that we would abandon all we know to be with a fairy lover.  Fae beauty is said to exceed that of humans- this is the case with the elf-wife of Wild Edric in the twelfth century story of his fate; the same was the case in Wales in the accounts of the lake maidens and the girls of the tylwyth teg (the fair family) who lured men into their dances (Rhys, Celtic folklorepp.3, 23 & 44 and pp.85-6 & 90 respectively).

Overall, the folklore evidence seems to be that there were types of fairy known to be ugly or deformed- spinner Habetrot‘s distended bottom lip, misshapen through years of pulling thread- springs to mind; and then there were the rest of the elves and fairies, whose features were at least unremarkable or normal and, not infrequently, surpassing human looks.  The fays might be shorter in stature than us, but they were not regarded as any less fair.  Mentions of some repulsive feature- an extra-long tooth or a malformed nose- do not seem to include pointed ears.  Also largely lacking from the folklore of Britain and Ireland is the combination of beauty and deformity that is found in the Danish elle-maids, who may have gorgeous faces but hollow backs or cows’ tails.  The only British example of this type I can bring to mind is the Highland glaistig, a lovely woman who wears a long green dress- that conceals her hooved feet.

Goblins in art

The folklore dichotomy between ‘fair’ and ‘foul’ fairy types is found in our visual arts too.

RGF

Cover of a seventeenth century chapbook

Popular depictions of fairies date right back to the sixteenth century and certain conventions were fixed even then.  One type of fairy consistently found is the hairy Puck-like creature- also known as Robin Goodfellow.  He derives substantially from classical images of the satyr, often with horns and with the pointed ears of a goat.

puck

This image stayed with us for centuries.  Although we may later have spoken about goblins, possibly even elves,  the way they were represented stayed very much the same: they were ugly, if not grotesque, and only partially human.  There are many examples, such as in pictures of Shakespeare’s character Puck by Sir Joshua Reynolds or Henry Fuseli or in paintings of other scenes from  Midsummer night’s dream, for instance, The reconciliation of Oberon and Titania or Oberon and the mermaid, both by Sir Noel Paton.

simmons fairy lying on a leaf

John Simmons, A fairy lying on a leaf

Nubile fairies

The second strand in our art also, I feel sure, derives ultimately from classical art.  In contrast to those satyrs and fauns, the Greeks envisaged naiads, dryads and other nymphs.  They were almost always young, naked women, and later British art- especially in the Victorian period-  is full of nude nubiles with long hair.  These are the young females who sprout wings and acquire wands during the nineteenth century.  As I’ve suggested in a discussion of fairies on the stage and in art, this honouring of classical models may also have been an excuse to produce a little soft porn for the consumer art market, but it was all very tastefully done.

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Arthur Rackham, ‘Fairy song,’ illustration to A midsummer night’s dream.

For some time these two fairy types were held apart, so that the females were pretty and petite and indisputably human, whilst the elves, goblins (and later pixies) had some distinguishing feature that clearly denoted their otherness- often it was the ears, although they could be simply oversized (as in the work of Hutton Lear), or bat-like (Paton, Reconciliation of Oberon and Titania).  Sometimes the heads and bodies might be misshapen, for example by being exaggeratedly rounded.  Arthur Rackham’s work typifies these contrasting poles, as shown in the example below, ‘These fairy mountains.’ At the same time, though, we start to see in some of Rackham’s work an amalgamation of the two types, as in Fairy song above.

these fairy mountains

It’s not always easy to be sure about the physical characteristics of the fairies, either because the maidens have abundant locks or because (in the case of John Anster Fitzgerald) they wear odd, close fitting hats and caps.  That said, it is quite common for those hats to be strangely shaped, with flaps and points much resembling animal ears (Richard Dadd is another example of this style).  We should also note the paintings of Henry Fuseli, whose fairies are women, it’s quite true, but whose faces are often sharp and caricatured, sometimes with disturbingly black eyes.

Flower fairies

By and large, though, the two distinct strains of fairy representation remained separate until the twentieth century.  What then followed was huge popularity of the ‘flower fairy‘ and, as many readers will know, there was nothing in the least supernatural or alarming about the creatures drawn by Margaret Tarrant and Cicely Mary Barker.  The riot of Victorian nudes disappeared to be replaced by nice demure little girls from Croydon with bobbed 1920s hair and pretty party frocks (Ida Rentoul Outhwaite in Australia is another exemplar of this genre).  Meanwhile, the pixies and goblins perhaps became a little quainter and less wicked as children’s book illustration increasingly became the venue for fairy art (see, for example, the work of Rosa Petherick- amongst many).

Poppy-Flower-Fairy

Cicely Mary Barker, The poppy flower fairy

Modern fairies

I think it is only much later in the twentieth century that elements of the ‘Puck’ seeped into the drawing of the ‘fairy’ to give us the elves we’d instantly recognise today.  When English artists Alan Lee and Brian Froud drew their celebrated Faeries in 1978 they gave pointed ears to all the fays they drew.  Indisputably, the illustrations in this book (and its many successors) have been extraordinarily influential upon subsequent popular conceptions.

There’s nothing in Tolkien’s books about pointed ears (whether on the hobbits or on the notedly handsome elves) which could form a link in this chain of influence.  In fact, setting aside Tarrant and Barker (despite the huge and continuing popularity of their work) I think that it is other children’s illustrators of the mid-twentieth century who form the iconographic link between artists of the 1960s and ’70s and the Victorian antecedents.  In the innumerable illustrations for children’s books showing fairies, elves and pixies, we witness the final merging of the lovely female fairy and the cute pixy.  There are considerable numbers of these- too many to enumerate here- but as examples I will mention Gladys Checkley, Helen Jacobs and Rene Cloke, all of whose pictures will have introduced young children from the 1930s through to the 1960s to the idea of diminutive, dragonfly-winged fairies with pointed ears.  From these pictures it was a very short step to Galadriel and Legolas as we unavoidably envisage them today.

Jacobs a fleet of fairies

Helen Jacobs, A fleet of fairies

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Gladys Checkley postcard (c.1950)

Further reading

Ideals of fairy beauty (and of sexuality, which tends, inseparably, to be connected to this) are matters I have discussed several times before.  I have compared the work of Rackham and Froud  and I have examined our evolving representations of fairy age and gender.

Cobwebs and cloth- fairy spinning and weaving

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A witch conjures a storm with her distaff

“Swiftly turn the murmuring wheel!
Night has brought the welcome hour,
When the weary fingers feel
Help, as if from faery power;
Dewy night o’ershades the ground;
Turn the swift wheel round and round!”

William Wordsworth, Song of the spinning wheel

I have written previously on the fairy economy on this blog and in my book British fairies (chapter 9) but there is one craft activity that seems to be particularly associated with the denizens of faery: this is the making of thread and the weaving of garments.

I have recently been reading Hobgoblin and sweet puck, a book by Gillian Edwards from 1974, which examines fairylore through the origins of names and terminology.  It’s an interesting and entertaining book if you can track down a copy.  She noted that the fairies may be traced back through early medieval fees/ fatae to the original Three Fates of classical mythology.  They spin and sever the threads of our lives, so creating an ancient link between cloth making and the supernatural.

Much later, the Reverend Kirk has this to say of the sidh folk’s skill:

“Ther Women are said to Spine very fine, to Dy, to Tossue, and Embroyder: but whither it is as manuall Operation of substantiall refined Stuffs, with apt and solid Instruments, or only curious Cob-webs, impalpable Rainbows, and a fantastic Imitation of the Actions of more terrestricall Mortalls, since it transcended all the Senses of the Seere to discerne whither, I leave to conjecture as I found it.” (Secret Commonwealth c.5)

spinning-straw-into-gold

Quite a few other sources confirm the connection.  Brownies performing household tasks will often undertake stages of the cloth making process, for instance dressing hemp (though at the same time their aversion to linen is to be recalled), carding wool and spinning tow (coarse hemp fibres used for ropes and the like).  The fairies are said to spin with mountain flax (according to Addy in Household Tales).

In his Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands (p.15) J. G. Campbell recorded that typical activities within the fairy ‘brughs’ included spinning and weaving.  In Evans Wentz (Fairy faith p.98) there is an account from Skye of fairies heard ‘waulking’ (that is, fulling) some cloth and singing as they do so.  At Green Hollow in Argyllshire there was reputed to be a cloth dying factory operated by the fairies of Lennox.  When humans tried to steal the secrets of their natural plant dyes, it is said that the cloth workers concealed all their materials and fled.  The hidden materials still stain the waters of a local pool.

The loireag is a Highland fairy specifically responsible for overseeing the making of cloth through all its stages, from loom to fulling. She was a stickler for the traditional methods and standards, apparently.  Offerings of milk were made by home producers to propitiate her.  Another Scottish spirit, the gyre-carlin, had comparable links to cloth-making.  It was said that, if unspun flax was not removed from the distaff at the end of the year, she would steal it all.  Conversely, if asked by a woman for the endowment of skill in spinning, she would enable the recipient to do three to four times as much work as other spinners.

Fairy clothing

Logically, of course, fairies had to be able to manufacture cloth and garments.  Their royal courts and nobility are marked for their sumptuary splendour and robes, gowns and other costumes of green are central to many accounts.  It is only really the Dobbies who are habitually naked or dressed in rags.

Nonetheless, this skill is not what might be anticipated, as it seems too settled and domesticated for the wild fairies of uninhibited Nature.  Perhaps the transformation of raw plant or animal materials successively into thread and then into garments was remarkable and impressive enough at some stage to give it an almost magical mystique.  There are sources which lend some support to such a theory.  In Hobgoblin and sweet Puck Gillian Edwards notes that in Sweden the word dverg means both dwarf and spider.  The dwarves too are said to have been famed for their spinning and weaving skills and to have taught these to humans.  The gossamer webs seen in autumn are further evidence of their craft, she suggests.  The miser who spied on the fairies at the Gump near St Just in Cornwall was overpowered and tied up; in the morning he found himself on the moor covered in spiders’ gossamer threads.  From the Isle of Man comes a story of a woman who went to a river bank and called upon the spiders to help her with spinning clothes (Briggs, Dictionary, p.138).  There appears to be here some equation between the almost miraculous manufacture of webs by unseen creatures and fairy abilities.  There could too be some aspect of fairy ‘glamour’ in all this.

Thread and cloth making are not only marvellous, the process may also be perilous according to fairy tales.  On the one hand, fairies may enter your home to carry out these tasks.  Such an intrusion is not just a trespass, but risks too close a contact with these unpredictable beings, and measures had to be taken to prevent it.  Several Manx tales warn how a failure to disengage the drive band on a spinning wheel before retiring to bed enables the fairies to come into a house overnight to use it for their own purposes. By inviting them in, albeit indirectly, you are placing potentially yourself in the power of the ‘Li’l fellas.’ In the Highlands, this precaution was Christianised and it was said that the band should be disengaged on a Saturday night to prevent fairy spinning early on a Sunday (Sabbath) morning.  It was believed to be the solitary female creatures the glaisteag and the gyre-carlin who would most commonly attempt to enter human homes to spin, causing nuisance and considerable noise through the night.

The perils of spinning

The danger of spinning can be greater still, though.  A number of fairy stories pair fairies’ spinning skills with a task imposed upon a human that can be both impossible and fatal if it is not completed.  The British examples are:

  • in Habetrot a girl must prove her female skill at the spinning wheel or face some unspecified punishment by her mother.  A fairy woman named Habetrot (whom Briggs calls the patron spirit of spinning) appears and assists her, along with a team of helpers including Scantlie Mab;
  • in Tom-Tit-Trot a girl has to spin a large quantity of yarn overnight or face beheading by the king.  The imp Tom-Tit-Trot helps her on condition that she belongs to him unless she can guess his name.  Fortunately she overhears it and is saved;
  • Sili-go-Dwt, Trwtyn-Tratyn, Terry-Top, Perrifool and Whuppity-Stoorie are all similar tales in which an elf helps with spinning and demands a forfeit unless its name is guessed;
  • Evans-Wentz relays a tale (p.97) of a girl who is abducted by the sidh folk under a hillock and is told that she will be held there until she has spun all the wool in a large sack and eaten all the meal in a huge chest.  Neither diminish and she faces eternal confinement and labour until another captive soul tells her to rub spit on her left eyelid every morning.  By so doing, she makes daily inroads into the wool and meal and finally escapes;
  • in the story if Welsh girl Eilian (told by John Rhys, Celtic folklore p.212), she was obliged to become the wife of a fairy man when she failed to finish the large quantity of wool he had demanded that she spin.  This would have meant she was trapped in Faery forever and could never have returned home to her family;
  • Addy in Household tales has a couple of similar impossible tasks imposed upon young women.  In one, a cruel old woman imprisons girls to work for her.  One is required to make twenty one shirts in a day- or face being “clammed” (dialect for pinched, that quintessential fairy punishment).  She is assisted by a kindly fairy, who later helps her escape; and,
  • lastly, readers may recall the Grimm’s comparable story of Rumplestiltskin.  A girl is imprisoned by the king in a tower and has to spin straw into gold on pain of death. The eponymous sprite helps her, first in return for her necklace and then demands her first born child- unless she can guess his name.

There is also a curious Scottish ballad called The elfin knight in which the fairies appear to be associated with superlative mastery of the tailoring craft.  A human maid is told that the only way she has any hope of marrying the fairy knight is:

“Thou must shape a serk to me/ Without any cut or heme, quoth he/ Thou must shape it knife and sheerlesse/ And also sew it needle-threedlesse.”

This impossible task is combined with a comparable demand to sow and harvest a field subject to unachievable conditions.  Needless to say the shirt is never made and the girl doesn’t get the boy.

rumpelstiltskin_louisrhead2

The stories listed above link two curious themes.   One is the power of knowing a fairy being’s personal name.  If you possess it, you can overcome and escape the creature; if not, you face perpetual subjection (see too chapter 19 of my British fairies).  Intertwined with this is the obligation to perform an almost unattainable feat on pain of death (or, again, of fairy enslavement).  Quite how these came to be involved with spinning skills is rather hard to explain.  Perhaps there is some notion of exacting a high fee for the teaching of the fairies’ remarkable craft knowledge.

One might offer a Marxist interpretation of these stories, arguing that we have in these stories a critique of the loss of artisan craft-skills through the imposition of mass production and commercial deadlines.  Individuality is lost as the worker is subjected to the anonymous discipline of the factory proletariat, with sanctions for failing to meet the capitalist’s production targets…  There may be some fun to be had here.  Certainly it seems significant that these accounts feature some of the very few individuated and named fairy characters.

Conclusion

In many respects, then, the fairies are just as hard-working as any human.  For their society to function, they need to make their own cloth, build their homes, grow their own food, mine their minerals and forge their own metals.

An expanded version of this text appeared in my next book, Faeries, which will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide 2020.  See too my 2021 book, How Things Work in Faery.

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Habetrot