Arthur Rackham- girlies and goblins

The pretext for writing this post is that, working with publisher Green Magic on some new faery books, we decided to ‘rebrand’ all the titles they’d issued with new covers using artwork by Arthur Rackham. Rackham is instantly recognisable to many readers, his work is topical and attractive- and it’s largely out of copyright!

I’ve discussed aspects of Rackham‘s work before, both on this blog and in my book Faery Art of the Twentieth Century; what I want to focus on here is the way that art can shape our perceptions. Firstly, as my title suggests, there are essentially two sorts of faery-being featured in all of Rackham’s faery illustrations. There is a slender young female with long hair, dressed in flowing robes (or sometimes nothing)- a faery- and there is a small ugly man in quasi-medieval clothes- a pixie, goblin or gnome. The new cover of British Pixies gives a good idea of the latter. Some of Rackham’s nude, juvenile nymphs are to be seen on the cover of my Love and Sex in Faeryland.

Regular visitors to this blog will be aware that Rackham’s bipartite arrangement of the Faery world is not reflected by British tradition. There are, of course, attractive female faeries and surly looking pixies, but the faery clans of the British Isles are far more complex than that: every region has its particular family, race or species of fae being and there is little reason to suppose that males take just the one form and females another.

At the same time, it’s only fair to acknowledge that Rackham wasn’t creating his designs without foundation. What he drew upon, though, was not folklore but literature. We need only think of the sexy faery women of medieval romances such as Sir Launfal or the small and misshapen faery kings of Huon of Bordeaux or King Herla to understand where he found his models. As an illustrator of faery tales and legends, this is to be expected.

The dichotomy of type that Rackham established so effectively through the commercial and artistic success of his designs was taken on in turn by many of the children’s illustrators of the mid-twentieth century- artists such as Rosa Petherick, Susan Pearse or Agnes Richardson- and the iconography came to be embedded in our collective psyche. Because of Rackham, I suggest, we can now only think of faeries within these parameters, divided into these two rough categories- elegant, pretty and girly/ ugly, stunted and male. This is something of an exaggeration, but not a huge one. More recently, the Middle Earth elves of Peter Jackson’s film have contributed the blonde, noble warrior elf as well; but in a sense this is just an elaboration of Rackham’s largely female faery clan.

These images are pervasive and persistent. That might sound improbable again, but consider this. A recent book on modern paganism and fairy belief, Magic and Witchery in the Modern West (Feraro and White, 2019), found that many of the contemporary conceptions of fairies as planetary guardians and green protectors came not from age-old faery tradition but from images and ideas in books like Cicely Mary Barker’s flower fairy series, that adult pagans had seen and absorbed as children.

We get very similar evidence from the Fairy Census (2014-17). When witnesses reached for adjectives to describe what they saw, they often chose to make comparisons with popular representations of faery-kind. Five people likened the beings they saw to Disney characters; four referred to pictures by Brian Froud. One tree spirit was said to have looked like Gollum (i.e. in the films). Looking further back, terms borrowed from Paracelsus were co-opted- sylph and, especially, gnome. Favourite films and beloved books make a powerful impression, very possibly shaping in advance what we expect to see. Of course, they provide a vocabulary, a point of reference, which is why witnesses often allude to the creatures they see looking like leprechauns, goblins, brownies and “the classic gnome” even though they may be using labels that are alien to place where the sighting occurred, mistaken, imprecise or simply unhelpful. Goblins and brownies are good examples here, in that the traditional descriptions of these tend to be of very large and hairy beings; often, now, the words are chosen to denote a small, brown pixie type being, one who is often the personification of Paracelsus’ very unhelpful ‘gnome’ character. The interaction between what we expect to see and what we may then actually see is a complex psychological well beyond my comfort zone, but it is at least clear how mass market imagery, especially that absorbed at an impressionable age, will enter our subconscious.

The new books, Manx Faeries and The Faery Lifecycle, are due to be published later this month.

What’s in a Name? Using the right terms for the faeries

Recently I’ve been researching the pixies of south-west Britain for my book, British Pixies, and, in so doing, encountered serious problems in pinning down the basic terminology used by authors such as Robert Hunt and William Borlase and (presumably) their local Cornish sources.  There are at least five terms used to label the fairy folk of the south-west: pixies, pobel vean (little people), spriggans, knockers and buccas.  A couple of these words seem to be Cornish and, we might be tempted to suggest, are older and more authentic than some of the other terms.  The word pixie/ pisky would seem to be a later import, if we are correct in supposing that it is related to the pucks of England and the pwcca of Wales and is (probably) a Germanic word originally.  The bucca certainly seems to be an identical being.  Some of the folklore writers tried to make distinctions between this multiplicity of words: for instance, the pobel vean were said to be smaller and more beautiful; the knockers lived in mines; the spriggans were ugly and evil.  The truth is, though, that reading the sources, we find the words being used interchangeably, so that Cornish witnesses can speak of knockers as buccas or can use the latter word to denote both pixies and the pobel vean.

Precision seems both impossible and, very probably, unnecessary.  This example is reflective of a wider problem within the British Isles, where successive layers of incoming speech have led to an overlapping vocabulary, which can tempt us into imagining differences (or even similarities) that don’t exist.  Over and above this, of course, there is the additional problem of the faeries not wanting us to know what they really call themselves, for fear of giving us power over them). Here are a few other instances of the taxonomic confusion.

Isle of Man: the island’s fairies are often called the ferrish (singular)/ ferrishyn (plural)This could be a Manx word, but compare it with authentically Manx Celtic terms like mooinjer veggy or sleigh beggey, meaning the little people.  Ferrishyn seems suspiciously similar, to me, to the terms ferishers, feriers, fraries and, even, farisees/ pharisees used in Norfolk and Suffolk in the east of England.  On Orkney and Shetland you might encounter the pronunciation ferries. Recalling the Highland Gaelic tendency to turn a final ‘s’ into ‘sh,’ this could indicate the route by which Manx speakers arrived at ferrish.  Whatever the exact derivation, these are all dialect versions of ‘fairies’ and, as such, aren’t themselves hugely old.  Katherine Briggs drew a comparison with the feorin of the English North West, but, as Simon Young has demonstrated, this is most probably derived from ‘fear’- something that scares you. 

Wales: there seem to be several good, genuine, Welsh words in use, many of them euphemisms. These include tylwyth teg, bendith y mamau (the mother’s blessings), y dynion mwyn (the kind people), y teulu (the tribe), gwragedd anwyl (the beloved women), yr elod (‘the intelligences’- perhaps, the ‘wise’ or ‘all-knowing’ ones), pwcca and ellyllon.  All’s not what it seems, however.  As already mentioned, pwcca could just be a borrowing across the border.  Likewise, ellyllon is simply the Welsh rendering of the English ‘elves’ and even tylwyth teg, ‘the fair folk’ may be a mistaken rendering of fairies, based on the assumption that the core of the English word was ‘fair’ as in good-looking. I need hardly say that y goblin bach, the little goblin, is not a deeply authentic Welsh label.

England: the foregoing sections suggest the invasive power of the English language (which is true) but let’s not forget that Anglo-Saxon was itself steadily overwhelmed by subsequent influxes of Romance and other languages.  Old English ‘elf’ still survives, especially in lowland Scotland, but it generally plays second best to a French import, fay/ fairy, a word which has been adopted as a handy, catch-all labelOther continental importations include goblin, from the French gobelin, and Scandinavian troll (which is the root of the trows of Orkney and Shetland too).  Both goblin and trow seem to have been required because there wasn’t a decent English equivalent.  Anglo-Saxon had used the word dweorg, meaning a small, malicious elf-like being. This vanished from standard English- along with any concept of ‘dwarves’ as a species of supernatural entity.  In Dorset, there is still the derrick, a name that’s derived from dweorg and which is now applied to a little man who’s often said to be a local kind of pixie… 

Much more recently, as I’ve described before, we’ve imported Latin and Greek words like nymph, naiad and siren as extra terms to use in parallel with fairy, elf and mermaid.  We’ve also adopted entirely made-up names, such as gnome and sylph.  As mentioned in a previous posting, these were dreamed up by Paracelsus, but they’ve assumed a place in the language, to the extent that gnomes have even been accepted as a separate genus of fairy being.

These imported names can add variety to texts- and I’m as guilty as any of switching from one to another just to avoid monotony- but they can also create the impression that the landscape is peopled with a dense confusion of different types of being, whereas we may, in most instances, be dealing with only a handful of types.  Broadly, in Britain, we can probably narrow matters down to fairies/ elves and brownies/ hobs/ boggarts.  The rest is probably just a matter of differences of terminology (and this is before we’ve even considered all the very local names that exist: dobbies, powries, dunters, red caps, piskies etc etc)…. 

Emmeline Richardson

Faery: the Lore, Magic & World of the Good Folk

faery

I’m very pleased to announce that my new book, Faery: A Guide to the Lore, Magic and World of the Good Folk, has now been published by Llewellyn Worldwide and is available through all the usual channels.

The new book builds on my last, British Fairiesas well as on the postings on this blog.  What I have aimed to offer is a complete statement of our knowledge of the life, culture, personality, temperament and habits of the Good Folk, often trying to understand the faery perspective on these matters to better appreciate why and how they behave.  Of course, everything has to be seen from the human standpoint: it’s only through our interactions with the faeries that we can experience their world.  Furthermore, this relationship between humans and supernaturals has always had its points of friction.  In the book, I don’t shy away from examining the perils of faery contact: they are more powerful and more complex than popular culture often allows and they have to be approached with caution and respect.

The new book is based upon extensive research in hard to find folklore sources and brings readers a wealth of new information they might not otherwise discover.

Contacting Faery

In chapter 13 of the book, I examine the magical methods for contacting and summoning the fae (something I’ve also touched on in a posting on this blog).  Given that the new book is all about bringing us closer to Faery and improving our understanding of our Good Neighbours, I’ll add here another ritual procedure that I recently unearthed.

This is taken from the Rosicrucian text, Le Comte de Gabalis, by Abbé Nicolas-Pierre-Henri de Montfaucon de Villars (1635–1673). The book builds on the work of Paracelsus, whom I’ve had occasion to criticise in a previous post, but it provides us with a further interesting insight into the magical methods practiced in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to contact the supernatural world.  Villars makes the process sound quite straightforward (Gabalis, Discourse II):

“One has only to seal a goblet full of compressed Air, Water, or Earth and to leave it exposed to the Sun for a month. Then separate the Elements scientifically, which is particularly easy to do with Water and Earth. It is marvellous what a magnet for attracting Nymphs, Sylphs, and Gnomes, each one of these purified Elements is. After taking the smallest possible quantity every day for some months, one sees in the Air the flying Commonwealth of the Sylphs, the Nymphs coming in crowds to the shores, the Gnomes, the Guardians of the Treasures,  parading their riches. Thus, without symbols, without ceremonies, without barbaric words, one becomes ruler over these Peoples. They exact no worship whatever from the Sage, whose superiority to themselves they fully recognise. Thus venerable Nature teaches her children to repair the elements by means of the Elements. Thus harmony is re-established. Thus man recovers his natural empire, and can do all things in the Elements without the Devil, and without Black Art.”

Readers will recall that Paracelsus envisaged four classes of beings to accompany the four elements comprising the world.  Salamanders are the fire beings and:

“If we wish to recover empire over the Salamanders, we must purify and exalt the Element of Fire which is in us, and raise the pitch of that relaxed string. We have only to concentrate the Fire of the World in a globe of crystal, by means of concave mirrors…”

So, there we have the instructions.  Before you put them into practice, though, I strongly recommend that you prepare yourselves by reading Faery: A Guide to the Lore, Magic and World of the Good Folk!

Kensington Gardens- Britain’s fairy epic

Thomas_Tickell_by_Sylvester_Harding
Thomas Tickell, by Sylvester Harding

In my recent book, Fayerie- Fairies and Fairyland in Tudor and Stuart Verse, I discussed how the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was a period during which outside influences began to alter native fairy beliefs profoundly.  The Protestant Reformation and the Renaissance were two such, a third was the work of doctor, astrologer and alchemist Paracelsus, whose theories I have examined before.

The impact of these influences, especially that of Paracelsus, may be neatly contained in a single fairy poem, Kensington Gardens by Thomas Tickell (1686-1740).  Tickell was born near Carlisle and was a graduate of Oxford.  He held various government positions but is mainly recalled as a poet.  He produced a translation of Homer’s Iliad, which he published at the very same time as Alexander Pope’s version in 1715, a coincidence which caused some tension between the two.  The poem Kensington Gardens appeared in 1722 and is a heroic epic describing the fall of a fairy kingdom that once existed on the land that eventually became the park.

Strictly speaking, the poem should be described as Georgian, but Tickell’s birth and education took place within the Stuart period, and it is doubtless fair to assume that Tickell’s outlook and beliefs belong to the seventeenth century.  Kensington Gardens is of interest, therefore, because it encapsulates the mixture of traditional fairy belief and innovation that typified fairies in literature throughout the 1600s.

Tradition in Tickell’s Epic

Concepts of fairy conduct inherited by the author from much earlier include the fairies’ delight in leisure: “Their midnight pranks the sprightly fairies played/ On every hill and danced in every shade.”  They rewarded women for their domestic cleanliness:

“When cleanly servants, if we trust old tales,
Beside their wages had good Fairy vailes,
Whole heaps of silver Tokens, nightly paid,
The careful wife, or the neat dairy-maid…”

But they also stole babies, one of whom is Albion, the hero of the story:

“By magic fenc’d, by spells encompass’d round,
No Mortal touch’d this interdicted ground;
No Mortal enter’d, those alone who came
Stolen from the couch of some terrestrial dame:
For oft of babes they robb’d the matron’s bed,
And left some sickly changeling in their stead.”

Albion is a human child brought up by fairies and kept artificially small by them, although he is still noticeably tall at twelve inches in height.  He falls in love with the fae Kenna, an affair that precipitates the fall of the fairy realm when Oberon discovers and jealously expels the young man.

murray fq and bat
Fairy Queen on Bat, Amelia Jane Murray

King Oberon

Newer elements sit alongside these age-old ideas.  Tickell’s king of faery is Oberon.  This name has a long continental pedigree but it was made particularly popular in Britain by Shakespeare’s use of it in Midsummer Night’s Dream. 

Oberon’s subjects are especially worthy of note.  As we have already seen, they are small: they are described as a “pigmy race” elsewhere in the poem.  This diminutive stature was a noteworthy development in seventeenth century literature.  Small faes had existed before, but Mercutio’s soliloquy on Queen Mab in Romeo and Juliet gave impetus to an elaboration of the possibilities of miniature beings and poets- most importantly Michael Drayton and Robert Herrick- exploited the potential of this idea.  Tickell merely observed what was already a convention by the time he wrote.

Elemental Spirits

Lastly, the fairies of Kensington Gardens are said to have “airy forms.”  This notion of fairies as insubstantial, as well as tiny, derives directly from the work of Paracelsus.  He had proposed in the sixteenth century that the world was supported and kept functioning by elemental beings- the gnomes of the ground, undines of water, salamanders of fire and the sylphs of the air.  Parallels could readily be drawn between these creatures that he imagined and the fairies and goblins of native belief, and that is precisely what happened.  In his Anatomy of Melancholy of 1621, Robert Burton included a ‘Digression of Spirits’ in which he summarised views about fairies from across Europe.  For example, he describes:

“… those Naiades or water Nymphs which have been heretofore conversant about waters and rivers.  The water (as Paracelsus thinks) is their Chaos, wherein they live; some call them Fairies… Paracelsus hath several stories of them that have lived and been married to mortal men…”

Later Burton notes Paracelsus’ views on what he classes as “terrestrial devils,” a group which includes “Faunes, Satyrs, Wood-nymphs… Fairies, Robin Goodfellowes, Trulli etc.”  Two things are notable from these short passages.  Not only has Burton incorporated Paracelsus’ concepts of undines and gnomes; he has liberally strewn his text with classical Greek and Roman terminology. (Burton, Part I, section 2)

Forty years later, in 1665, a new version of Reginald Scot’s well-known book, The Discoverie of Witchcraft, was published.  Scot’s 1584 original contains a wealth of fairy information; the new edition was expanded with the addition of ‘A Discourse Concerning the Nature and Substance of Devils and Spirits.’  This new text (like Burton’s) owes a great deal to the new thought of the Renaissance and to Paracelsus’ scientific theories; for example, reference is made to the Neo-Platonists.  Fairies are termed “Astral Spirits,” having an “elemental quality.” They live in water, air, flames and under the earth; they have hunger and passions; they wage war and procreate; they have no physical body and can live for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. (Scot, 1665, Book II, cc.1 & 4)

This later text demonstrates how much the new theories about the nature of fairies had infiltrated British thought.  These ideas, along with references to nymphs, satyrs and other classical beings, were all indiscriminately mixed together, confusing and reshaping fairy belief for future generations.

amelia-jane-murray-
Fairy & moth, Amelia Jane Murray

Tickell’s Sylphs

Tickell’s poem is symptomatic of its age.  His fairies are miniscule, insubstantial forms- a state confirmed in the climactic battle of the war.  Albion fights with Fairy Prince Azuriel and their combat seems to be concluded when:

“With his keen sword he cleaves his Fairy foe,
Sheer from the shoulder to the waste he cleaves,
And of one Arm the tott’ring trunk bereaves.”

However, Albion is fighting a fairy, and different rules apply:

“His useless steel brave Albion wields no more,
But sternly smiles, and thinks the combat o’er:
So had it been, had aught of mortal strain,
Or less than Fairy, felt the deadly pain.
But Empyreal forms, howe’er in fight
Gash’d and dismember’d, easily unite…
So did Azuriel’s Arm, if fame say true,
Rejoin the vital trunk whence first it grew;
And, whilst in wonder fixt poor Albion stood,
Plung’d the curst sabre in his heart’s warm blood.”

Albion is struck down and Kenna is unable to revivify him: “the Fates alike deny/
The Dead to live, or Fairy forms to die.”

Ultimately, classical Greek sea god Neptune intervenes in fairy affairs.  With a sweep of his trident, he destroys Oberon’s divided, fractious kingdom, leaving only ruins on the site where later the new Hanoverian dynasty created its pleasure gardens and named it after Albion’s love, the ‘Aerial maid’ Kenna.

Oberon’s fairy nation is scattered: “Wing’d with like fear his abdicated bands.” They flee to secluded corners of Britain where they can still be glimpsed from time to time as they “featly foot the green,/ While from their steps a Circling verdure springs.” The fairies are not gone entirely, therefore, but they are scattered.

Tickell concludes his epic with several reminders of the transformed nature of his British fairies.  They are small, they are winged and they are sylph-like, aery beings.  In fact, a direct link with Paracelsus’ elementals of the air had already been made by rival poet Alexander Pope in The Rape of the Lock, which was published in 1712.  He was the first to introduce this term in English literature, but once he had connected “sylphs and sylphids, fays, fairies, genii, elves and daemons,” British fairies could never be the same again.

the-fae-by-amelia-jane-murray
Fairies on Owl, Amelia Jane Murray

Last Thoughts

Tickell had hoped his lengthy poem would be celebrated as a heroic fairy epic- a landmark in national literary history.  Sadly, it is largely forgotten now, except amongst enthusiasts of Georgian poetry and, of course, fans of faery.  Nonetheless, it’s worth reading- it’s quite entertaining, once you’ve got used to his florid style, and it tells us lots about the fairy faith as one era merged into another.

In conclusion, I’ll repeat what I said at the outset: the seventeenth century was a turning point in British fairy beliefs and Thomas Tickell’s fairy epic encapsulates the old and new ideas that were in ferment.

For more detail of Fayerie and my other faery books, please see my books page.

 

 

Gnomes and gardens

tomte

‘Midsummer tomte’ from The Midsummer Tomte & the Little Rabbits by Ulf Stark & Eva Eriksson

Introduction

I’m going to start controversially.  The theme of this post is gnomes, but the fact is that gnomes don’t exist.  The word ‘gnome’ was made up by the sixteenth century German physician Paracelsus to describe a concept of his own invention, an earth dwelling nature spirit.  It wasn’t quite like the dwarves or kobolds of his native Germanic folklore and it isn’t really related to anything in the folklore of the British Isles either. A substitute term from English might be ‘goblin’ or (even better) the word ‘mannikin’ which was adopted by Geoffrey Hodson in the 1920s.

Who’s a gnome?

Arguments about terminology aside, its very clear that people see gnome-like beings all the time and that they are closely tied to nature.  The book Seeing Fairies by Marjorie Johnson and the Fairy Census 2017 are both full of sightings which give us a very good idea of their appearance and habits.

I should start with a word of warning.  Some of the modern accounts give rise to a suspicion that preconceptions about the appearance and conduct of gnomes, derived from literature and popular art, have shaped people’s perception of what they witnessed.  For example, a mother’s toddler saw a “funny little man” in their Nottinghamshire garden; she questioned him as to what exactly he had seen and he gave “a fair description with what she associated with a dwarf or gnome.”  What the very young infant experienced is channelled through an adult’s interpretation, therefore (Johnson p.17).  The mother, and possibly the child too, will have had their vision pre-formed by Enid Blyton, Walt Disney and other such powerful influences.  In another instance, the figures seen wore “the recognised garb of gnomes”- as if there is some sort of supernatural uniform (Johnson p.185).

At the same time, though, many people struggle to label what they have witnessed, so that I have sorted out the accounts on the basis of my own prejudices applied to their descriptions and perhaps included some examples that were not gnomic.  Some of the beings sighted were called ‘gnomes,’ in one case the witness wasn’t sure whether to best call them gnomes or brownies and a few people resorted to Hodson’s term ‘mannikin’ (Johnson pp.45, 169 & 177).

froud gnome

Brian Froud, a gnome

What’s a gnome?

Whilst we may have doubts about classification, we can be rather more definite in describing the ‘typical’ gnome.  They are likely to be seen wearing jackets and trousers, very often hats and boots.  The clothes are predominantly green, though often brown.  Red is sometimes seen and a variety of other colours have been reported from time to time: grey, blue, yellow and even mauve.  As we might anticipate, gnomes’ hats are very frequently pointed and most commonly red.  Green brown, yellow and blue headgear have also been seen and hats may also resemble mushrooms and acorns or be broad brimmed or peaked.

Gnomes don’t tend to be tall.  About half of those sighted were under twelve inches in height; roughly equal numbers measured between twelve and eighteen inches high, between eighteen and twenty-four inches and taller than that, up to about five feet high in just two examples.  Beards were quite frequently reported; white hair or aged features were not uncommon.

Given the total number of cases recorded in the Census, Seeing fairies and a few other sources I used, gnomes don’t seem to constitute a large part of the fairy population.  They represent about 13% of the total sightings.

To summarise this information so far: gnomes look like gnomes.  They tend to be small, bearded, in tall pointy caps.  One witness in Liverpool saw a little being “of the tubby sort;” two others described what they saw as being like ‘traditional gnomes.’  I assume once again that they are comparing the creatures seen to an image of an ‘archetypal gnome’ that they held in their imaginations (Johnson pp.323, 172 & 261).

Given their habitual association with gardens and greenery, we have to add that gnomes may well smell distinctively of loam and damp vegetation.  Witnesses in Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing fairies report gnomes with “an odour like fungus” or a “strange earthy smell;” there seems to be a particular association with mushrooms and fungus.  (Johnson pp.33, 36 & 186)

Garden gnomes

Where were gnomes seen?  This analysis is actually far more interesting than the information on appearance, which in the main is quite stereotypical.  Surprisingly, 37% of the beings labelled as gnomes by those who saw them were seen inside houses.  That means that the majority, 67%, were seen outside (as we might expect), but the locations varied.  Not quite half the gnomes were seen in gardens, but they were also spotted in woods (some even apparently living in trees), in open grassy areas and, in three cases, walking along a road.

Gnomish deeds

What were these gnomes up to?  Many did fit with our conventional view of gnomes as gardeners and cultivators.  They have been seen busily engaged in a range of garden tasks, including working with green beans in a vegetable patch, tending fruit and flowers- both outside and in greenhouses and the like- sawing and chopping wood, moving plants around and carrying horticultural implements like wheelbarrows, baskets, buckets, brooms, forks, rakes and spades.  For example, in 1940 a Mrs Small living in Nottingham had accidentally pruned away the main shoots of some tomatoes.  She saw some gnomes, who were about twelve inches high, looking very concerned about the condition of the plants.  A little later they came to her carrying a basket filled with green tomatoes and conveyed to her (without words) that she should put them to ripen in a dark place.  The same witness also saw a gnome in her garden looking very cross about a piece of rope tied around a tree: it seems that gnomes may be quite possessive about the places they live, or at least have very clear ideas about good and bad horticulture.

The gnomes don’t always need tools to do their work of cultivation and propagation.  In one instance that took place at Stapleford in Nottinghamshire, a woman was struggling to weed and hoe a very parched patch of earth.  She spotted a gnome watching her with amusement and, when she challenged him for laughing at her instead of lending a hand, he dived beneath the ground surface and very quickly turned over the soil.  Gnomes have also been seen in gardens acting as general ‘protectors’ to the plants, for example guiding people towards the best times to pick plants.

Other gnomes are just as busy, but with more general tasks.  A couple were seen carrying a heavy bundle; in another encounter, that took place in a snowy Devon lane, a car driver saw six little figures, about eight inches high, transporting a ladder along the road.  His appearance led to a hurried scramble to haul the ladder through the hedge and out of sight.  Cobbler gnomes in leather aprons and carrying their tools and materials were met by one person.  Some gnomes are seen just taking their leisure: in one instance they were dancing, in another doing gymnastics; in a third sighting about a dozen were witnessed racing tiny ponies and traps around a field in rural Derbyshire.

Homely gnomes

The domestic gnomes are possibly the most surprising: they are quite at home in human houses (and flats)- sitting on the stove, for example, and they seem particularly fascinated by machinery such as sewing machines.  One gnome encountered by Geoffrey Hodson quite reasonably spent the summer in his garden in Letchworth, but moved inside the house as winter came on.

Conclusions

We end with a conundrum, then.  Our ancestors would not have seen gnomes, because they had never heard of them.  They might very well have seen goblins, imps, and even dwarves (duergars) in the North-East of England and the Scottish Borders; they might very well have seen fairies and elves hard at work in their vegetable patches, but it seems to have been a far more recent development that these sightings came to be labelled using Paracelsus’ invented term.  This received widespread diffusion through the Theosophists and related groups from the late nineteenth century onwards and the word has become embedded in our language- very possibly because it met a need and provided a convenient term to describe a class of supernatural beings.

jultomte-JN2

Farming fairies

C A Doyle -fairy-folk-celebrating-around-plough

Charles Altamont Doyle, Fairy folk celebrating around a plough

Our conventional view of the faeries is of a people of wild or wooded places whose life is one long round of leisure and pleasure- dancing, feasting and the like.  At the same time, we don’t tend to imagine them having any concerns with bread-winning or the means of production- indeed, a strong antipathy for such occupations has often been imagined.  There’s a widespread rhyme in Scotland to the effect that:

Where the scythe cuts and the sock (plough) rives,/ Hae done wi’ fairies and bee-bykes.”

This gloomy view is mistaken.  To begin with, a moment’s reflection will remind us of the farm labouring brownies, for example, and when the sources are examined, consistent fairy links to agriculture are revealed- as are their interests in manufacture, mining, cloth-making, building and the like.  The fairy economy is as complex as our own.

Fairies are often believed to rely solely upon stolen dairy products and corn, preying on them “as do Crowes and Mice” as Robert Kirk put it (Secret Commonwealth c.1).  In fact, they have been observed actively involving themselves in all aspects of farming.  As I’ve discussed before, they have their own goats and other livestock.  These are distinctly different from humans’ beasts, although the faeries may also acquire ours, sometimes by surreptitiously luring them away and sometimes slightly more honestly.  In the book A pleasant treatise of witches, the author recounted a story he had heard of a pregnant sow that was fed daily by the fairies with bread and milk.  When farrowing time came, they clearly felt they were entitled to the fruit of their investment in the pig: they took all the piglets but left their value in silver behind.  This wasn’t theft, but it wasn’t a normal purchase either and, as such, is the epitome of Faery.  It’s non-consensual for the human farmer, it asserts a presumed right over our goods and, yet, there is something in exchange.

We know too from the reports of visitors that the fays have their own fields and orchards in fairyland underground, but most witnesses of course don’t see them there.  The Reverend Kirk believed that our landscape here and there showed the marks of the fairies’ cultivation from a time that preceded the country’s occupation by humankind:

“Albeit, when severall Countreys were uninhabited by us, these had their easy Tillage above Ground, as we now.  The Print of those Furrows do yet remaine to be seen on the Shoulders of very high Hills, which was done when champayn Ground was Wood and Forrest.” (chapter 2)

The fairies have since retreated to their subterranean realms which means that, usually, the fays are only to be encountered participating in human farming activities.  In fact, they have shown an interest in our pastoral and dairy production, in fruit growing, in horticulture and in the cultivation of grain crops.

god-speed-the-plough-charles-altamont-doyle

Charles Altamont Doyle, God speed the plough

Fairies in the corn fields

It’s often reported that the fairies bake their own bread- bread of superlative flavour- and of course the grain for that has to come from somewhere.  It’s not all stolen, by any means, although there are plenty of stories from across England of fairies filching corn, grain by grain, from granaries, whilst on the island of Islay it’s said that the local fairies claim the top grain from every stalk- and will have harvested it in well before the farmer enters the field with his scythes.

Some fairies seem to play some sort of protective role towards human cultivation, being almost like minor agricultural deities.  Across England, for example, there’s a host of sprites whose sole function seems to be guarding orchards, fruit bushes and nut groves from the depredations of thieves and children.  From Scotland, we have the curious tale of ‘Jeanie’s Granny.’  When she was a child, Jeanie’s grandmother got up one night to steal some newly harvested grain so as to feed her horse.  When she got to the fields, she saw a tiny woman hopping from stook to stook; the child became scared and ran home without stealing any corn.  In another story from Dartmoor, a man was annoyed to find that all his stooks of harvested corn were disturbed over night.  He decided to watch the following night to see what the cause might be and , just as he had suspected, pixies appeared and began to pull all the stooks into one corner of the field.  Very possibly this was being done by them as the first age of building a rick, but the pixies were too small to make a good job of it and the farmer interrupted them- at which point they vanished.  (They might alternatively have been preparing to steal the crop, which would have been much more in character: in a story from Ardnamurchan in the Highlands, a man outwitted the fairies who’d been reaping his crop at night by leaving a wise old man in the field.  When fairies appeared and started to harvest the grain, he then counted their number out loud and by this simple means banished them forever.)

Garden gnomes

We also come across lots of fairies working in gardens and vegetable patches.  These are the beings often described as gnomes and it seems that their dedication to plant life is so great that they will cultivate human plots merely for the satisfaction of seeing healthy fruit and vegetables.  The most curious story comes from West Yorkshire from about 1850.  A man called Henry Roundell of Washburn Dale near Harrogate got up early to hoe the weeds in his crop of turnips.  When he reached his field, he was astonished to discover every row being hoed by a host of tiny men in green, all of them singing shrilly.  As soon as he entered the field, they fled like scattered birds.

a-scarecrow-charles-altamont-doyle

Charles Altamont Doyle, A scarecrow

Dairy fairies

There’s a definite close association between fairies and cattle- and that may not be just because they want to consume their milk and cream.  For example, William Bottrell recounts the story of Rosy, the fine red milk cow of the Pendar family of Baranhual farm in Penwith.  She gave twice the milk of the other cows, but would often disappear from the farm in the evenings.  Eventually, Molly the milkmaid discovered the reason: a four-leaf clover was included in the pad of herbs she used to carry the milk pail on her head and it enabled her to see that the cow was surrounded by dancing fairies, who were taking turns to milk her and stroking and tickling the beast in between.  The cow was evidently very happy in their company.  The farmer’s wife decided to wash the cow’s udders in brine to terminate the fairy thefts, but the only result was that Rosy ceased to give any milk at all.

A related account from Sutherland in the far north of Scotland is the reminiscence of an old woman who, as a small girl, had gone out with her mother one summer evening to tend the cows in the field.  She was able to see small green people playing near the cattle, although her mother saw nothing (G. Sutherland, Folklore gleanings, p.22).  As stated at the start, there’s a definite affinity between the little people and cows which benefits the milk yield.

Scottish ‘brownies’

The classic farming fairy is the domestic brownie, who will undertake all the tasks necessary to run a human smallholding.  He’ll tend the cattle and sheep, milk the cows, reap the crops, thresh the grain and involve himself in all other aspects of processing the produce of the farm.  Brownies help out on a permanent basis with farming tasks, but other fairy types can be recruited to provide ‘temporary labour’ in times of need.  From North-East Scotland there’s the story of the ‘Red Cappies’ who were called on to assist with threshing grain.  Generally across the Highlands you’ll find the Gaelic tradition of the ceaird-chomuinn (‘association craft’) whereby people can be endowed with particular skills by the faes, such as the ability to undertake prodigious feats of ploughing, sowing and harrowing.

Over and above the familiar English brownie and Lowland Scottish broonie, there’s a host of other (Highland) Scottish beings with particular farming connections who are also worth examining:

  • gruagach- this being looks after the cattle of a farm or a village, for which duties she receives a daily bowl of whey or a regular offering of milk poured out over a holed stone or special slab of rock.  She has long golden hair and is dressed in green.  She sings to the cattle and keeps them safe from all disease or accident.  She is very strong and in one story a gruagach killed itself through overwork, trying to thrash an entire barn full of corn in one night.  Like many of her kind, if she’s offered clothes she’ll desert a farm and if her regular helping of milk is forgotten, she’ll wreak havoc, turning the cows into the crops and such like;
  • glaistig- this being is often portrayed as a violent hag, but her more benign aspect is as a dairy maid and cow-herd, seldom being seen but using her powerful voice to keep the cattle in check.  She’s said to be a human woman who’s been placed under a fairy enchantment and thereby has acquired a fairy nature.  For this reason, the glaistig can sometimes shape-shift into the form of a dog to better herd and protect the livestock.  She lives on farms but is a solitary being.  She expects a pail of milk nightly and will react angrily if this is withheld or forgotten.  In some places milk is also offered at other important points in the farming year, such as when the cattle are first left out overnight each year and when they are brought inside for winter;
  • urisk- a brownie-like spirit who lives in wild places but who will undertake farm chores in return for a bowl of cream.  He is very strong and clever and can be savage if provoked.  The urisk is said to be half-human and half-fay;
  • King Broonie- on Orkney, a type of trow that particularly took care of a farm’s corn.  He objected to being watched and, if he felt that he was being spied upon, would scatter the ricks;
  • hogboon- a Shetland version of the brownie who undertakes agricultural labouring tasks in return for food.  The name derives from the Norse haug bui, meaning mound-dweller, because they were believed to inhabit the ancient burial mounds;
  • gunna– is another sort of brownie who cares for cattle and keeps them away from cliffs and out of the fields of growing crops.  He is very thin, with long yellow hair, and is dressed only in a fox skin; and,
  • bodachan sabhaill (the little old man of the barn) is a spirit who will help older farmers with their threshing.

What I think is particularly striking about this group of beings is how many of them are semi-wild sprites, often with a parallel reputation for violent acts, and yet they’re entrusted with a farm’s valuable assets.  Of course, the farmers don’t recruit them: the faery cowherds are generally inherited or volunteer themselves, but it is nonetheless a curious relationship.  The spirit of the wilderness accommodates itself to the human subjugation of the landscape.

c a doyle eavesdroppers

Charles Altamont Doyle, Eavesdroppers

Summary

In conclusion, although our tendency is to imagine carefree and pleasure loving fairies, the reality is often more complex.  They grow their own food, like any community must, and many are very hard working- even on behalf of human kind and in return for quite informal arrangements as to recompense.

For more detail on this subject, see my book How Things Work in Faery (2021).

Anti-Paracelsus- the man who messed up Faery?

Paracelsus

Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim (known as Paracelsus) was a German doctor, alchemist and astrologer.  He was born near Zurich in 1493 and died in Salzburg in 1541.  He is significant to those interested in fairylore for his theory of the spirits of the four elements.

What’s in a name?

Von Hohenheim was a vain and combative man.  There was little in his nature to ingratiate himself with others: he was abusive, conceited and determined to break with tradition.  Typical of this attitude is the fact that he called himself Paracelsus.  Celsus was a respected Roman physician of the 1st century BC; von Hohenheim had declared himself ‘Greater than Celsus.’  In our field of fairylore one of the most respected and widely known figures is the author Katharine Briggs.  Many readers will know her name and may very likely own one of her books- I started my own fairy investigations with a copy of her Dictionary of fairies.  To act like Paracelsus, then, would for me to decide henceforth to call myself ‘Better than Briggs.’

I don’t have either the confidence or the effrontery of Paracelsus, but it tells us a lot about the man.  He knew best- in everything- and previous authorities were worthless.  In contrast, Katharine Briggs was an academic, a careful scholar who had a referenced source for everything she wrote, and I still constantly refer to her books.  Nonetheless, we should recall that she was largely a collator of other people’s work (especially in her best-known books).  I believe we should always use Briggs as our starting point but then proceed to the sources she drew upon rather than just quoting Briggs herself- and let’s not forget that these sources were folklore collections that were often, themselves, already second or third hand from the experiences described.

Briggs,_K

Katharine Mary Briggs

If there is one chink in Brigg’s intellectual armour, it is her friendship with and confidence in the Somerset folklorist Ruth Tongue.  It is pretty widely accepted now that Tongue made up a good deal of her material.  She got away with this because, of course, no-one could dispute whether or not she had interviewed some elderly farmer’s wife and for a long time no-one doubted that she had.  In a sense, then, Tongue was much like Paracelsus- she created a mythology which many successors have taken seriously when it did not deserve that respect.

The four elementals

Back to the great Paracelsus.  In his book On nymphs, sylphs, pygmies and salamanders and other spirits he set out his theories on the supernatural world (De nymphis, sylphis, pygmaeis et salamandris et de caeteribus spiritibus, published 1566). He believed that the whole universe was endowed with life and that the intermediate state between the material and the non-material was peopled with real beings associated with the four elements.

Paracelsus was a good Catholic and he stressed the role of God in creating these ‘elementals.’  Part of the divine purpose had been to ensure that no part of the universe was void and without life, but Paracelsus felt there was more to it than that.  The elementals have important functions to perform in the universe (as we’ll see in a little while); he believed that they were vitally necessary and had not been created in vain.  In addition, they exist to prove the marvels of the works of God and Paracelsus therefore argued that our proper response to this is to study them very closely and to learn all that we can about them.

According to Paracelsus, there are four species of elemental .  He used a variety of names for them, even in so short a book as De nymphis.  There are the undines or nymphs of water, the sylphs (a word he invented- it may derive from Greek silphe, meaning grub, or be a contraction of sylvestris nymphi) of the air, the fiery salamanders or vulcani and the pygmies or gnomes of the earth (whom he also called the mountain mannikins).  Once again, the word ‘gnome’ was apparently invented by Paracelsus.  The name was derived by Paracelsus from Greek, either gnōmē (intelligence)- because the gnomes revealed information about hidden treasures- or ge nomos (earth dwelling).  Nevertheless, they are Paracelsus’ invention and so, as Katherine Briggs wrote in the Dictionary of fairies, gnomes “belong rather to dead science than to folk tradition.”

Paracelsus went to great lengths to stress that these elementals that he imagined are not pure spirits.  They are composite spirit-men, very similar in many ways to humans, but not descended from Adam and Eve.  They are more like humans than beasts, but they are neither.  They resemble us both physically and in their personalities.

The elementals’ flesh is more subtle than ours and can’t be grasped or bound; they can travel through solid objects.  Nonetheless, in many respects they are people just like us.  They need food, drink and clothing; they have children, they suffer diseases and other health complaints and, although long-lived, they will eventually die.  The elementals walk about just as we do, albeit at much greater speeds.  Like us they are witty, rich, clever, poor, dumb or talkative.  They make tools, they have government, they formulate laws.  They rest and sleep like us; they have their night and day and their seasons.  They are “queer and marvellous” creatures whose major difference to humans is that they have no souls.  Nevertheless, Paracelsus rejected any idea that the elementals are devils or demons; they crave salvation and by marrying a human can receive a soul and thereby be saved.

Paracelsus described his imaginary water, fire, mountain and wind people in detail.  The undines look very like us, living in brooks and pools.  The sylphs are crude, coarse, longer and stronger than we are; their food is like ours- the herbs of the woods which they inhabit.  They are shy and fugitive.  Gnomes are about half the size of humans, and build their houses under the earth. The vulcani are long, narrow and lean.  They appear fiery and they melt and forge metals.

Paracelsus believed that the elementals are rational and ought to be treated with respect.  We can enter into bargains with them and they may give us money.  They do not mix with each other but live solely within their own elements; however, as the human world is compounded of all of the elements, they are able to interact with humans.  The nymphs most resemble humans and are known to marry and interbreed with them.  They have to be treated well, though, as if offended they will rapidly return to their own element.  Likewise gnomes will serve people, providing them with money and knowledge and guiding them to rich resources, but they can deal out blows, too, and will disappear under their mountains at the least provocation.

The elementals have two vital functions, according to Paracelsus: they indicate and warn of future events, such as political and economic upheavals, and they act as guardians over nature.  Specifically the nature spirits- especially the salamanders- make and protect “tremendous treasures in tremendous quantities.”   They steadily reveal these to humans, thereby explaining why it is that we slowly discover new mineral sources and lodes of precious metal.

That’s a summary of De nymphis and I’ve probably already more devoted more space to Paracelsus’ ideas than they deserve, in the circumstances.  Now, we’re all entitled to our fantasies, but the problems arise when people mistake them for scientific fact or for received wisdom.  Both misconceptions have befallen Paracelsus.  What may best be described as a speculation has matured into the status of a report from the otherworld.

sylphs

Pixies and pygmies

Paracelsus’ ideas were widely disseminated, both through the reading of his work and through the thought of other thinkers who drew upon him.  Amongst those who followed his fourfold classification of Faery were Eliphas Levy, Madame Blavatsky (founder of Theosophy), W. B. Yeats, Evans Wentz, Rudolf Steiner and Geoffrey Hodson.

Unorthodox and individual as his ideas were, Paracelsus’ four-fold division of nature took hold.  Proof of this is to be found in our usage of the word gnome.  He may have made it up, but on the continent it became associated with the dwarves of Teutonic and Scandinavian mythology and gradually came to act as an alternative label for them.  Dwarf, gnome and goblin are now virtually interchangeable in everyday speech.

Just as he invented his own theories in medicine, Paracelsus invented his own folklore.  Others added to this subsequently, Montfaucon de Villars (in Le comte de Gabalis, 1670) and Eliphas Levi being particular culprits and adding considerably to Paracelsus’ original fantasies from the Kabbalah.

undine 1909

Arthur Rackham, Undine, 1909

Paracelsus and folk tradition

Now, we already know that classical mythology had started to taint native beliefs as a result of the renaissance rediscovery of Greek and Roman legends.  British fairies were regularly made synonymous with Mediterranean fauns and such like:

“You mountain nymphs which in the desarts reign/ Cease off your hasty chase of savage beasts…/ You driades and light-foot Satyri/ You gracious Fairies, which at even-tide,/ Your closets leave with heavenly beauty stored…” (The tragedy of Locrine, 1594); or,

“some are of fyre, and some of the ayre,/ Some watrye and some earthly, and some golden and fayre/ Some lyke unto sylver…” (The Buggbears, George Gascoigne, 1565)

Paracelsus only compounded this trend, but the real problem with his idea of the elementals is that it has next to no basis in folk tradition- nor, perhaps, should we expect it to do so, given Paracelsus’ addiction to rejecting received wisdom.

There are certainly some familiar elements in what he wrote.  He’d spent a lot of time in mines and was doubtless aware of the spirit called the kobold in Germany and knocker in Cornwall; the gnome bears some considerable resemblance to these and fairies too have long been linked to buried treasure.  His undine brides are very like the fairy wives of Welsh folk stories (and other myths).

As his four elementals are partly derived from classical myth, and partly from his own imagination, the difficulty for many subsequent writers has been fitting his ideas in with conventionally recognised fairy tribes.  This has often proved an inevitable and considerable challenge and the result frequently is the incorporation into family-trees of strangers and aliens who just don’t belong there.  Gnomes are one example of this.  As I’ve just said, some similarities can be detected with Germanic dwarves, but in Britain- other than the very localised ‘knockers-‘ there’s really nothing similar.  The Anglo-Saxon word for dwarf, dweorg, was able to mutate into derrickdenoting a West Country sort of pixy, precisely because there was no need for anything resembling a dwarf as such.

The ‘undine’ is something like a mermaid and vaguely resembles a meremaid such as Jenny Green-teeth, but in truth it’s only the fact that they all live in water that unites them.  As for salamanders, there’s honestly nothing remotely like them in British fairy-lore.  The result is that many authors have to rope in Greek nymphs and nereids, rusalkas and any other types they can in order to provide examples of Paracelsus’ four forms.

WOODNYMPH

Charles M Russell, Wood nymph

Paracelsus’ legacy

The achievement of On nymphs etc is that later readers took it too seriously.  It has been treated as a scientific study by a respected Renaissance authority and many have felt that it has to be given the respect due to such a seminal text and incorporated into existing fairy belief.  In fact, in trying to accommodate it with traditional fairy-lore, the tendency has been for Paracelsus’ fantasies to obscure the original material.  Many writers have agonised over fitting elementals and elves together, to the detriment of the latter.

Geoffrey Hodson in Fairies at work and play is an example of this.  He offers us multiple categories of faery beings, including elves, brownies, mannikins (a term he may have borrowed from Paracelsus), the four elementals and devas (borrowed from Hindu belief through Theosophy).  He tries to be scientific and taxonomic, but his list is pretty confusing.  In fact, in modern fairy belief there’s considerable confusion over the exact nature of fairies and I suspect that a lot of this is due to the attempts to incorporate Paracelsus’ categories.

Many contemporary writers feel obliged to try to offer their readers some sort of classification of fairy kind and struggle to find a scheme that includes both brownies, pixies and the four elementals.  They won’t sit together satisfactorily- and this is, of course, because Paracelsus dreamed up his classification with very little reference to tradition (well, German, Northern European tradition: he obviously knew his classical mythology).  It’s very easy to find modern guides to faery which are primarily structured around the four elementals (works by Cassandra Eason, Edain McCoy, Ted Andrews, Dora Kunz, Harmonia Saille, Victoria Hunt and Emily Carding might all be cited).  Readers are offered detailed analyses of the four classes along with procedures, spells and rituals for contacting and working with them.  I’ve even seen ‘water babies’ suggested as a form of beach fairy found playing in the surf, which appears to be promoting Charles Kingsley‘s story far above its station to the status of authentic folklore source.

Praise for Paracelsus?

Is there anything good to say about the book De nymphis?  It’s certainly a good and convincing read, it’s true, but there may be a more substantive benefit.

One aspect of Paracelsus’ description will strike a chord with many: that’s his vision of elementals as guardians of nature.  As we have faced increasing environmental degradation, this role for the fairies has been deliberately promoted.  For many writers, it is close to being their principle function.  As a single example, Rae Beth in The way into faerie describes how the fairies’ dancing keeps “the whole web of Nature in balance and harmony.”  This focus upon ecosystems and natural processes cannot be faulted.

However, in the process (and I particularly blame the Theosophists here) the identification of fairies with the elementals and with finer workings of botany and biochemistry has tended to diminish them until they’re not much more than molecules and minerals moving through the xylem and phloem.  This trend may have been initiated, however unwittingly, by Paracelsus, but it’s diverged even from his ideas.  He was quite clear that the elementals are people, just like us, with their moods and aspirations, whereas some more recent writing has stripped them of this individuality.

Modern scientific thinking makes us want to order and arrange things logically and neatly and the writing of Paracelsus provides an apparent starting point for doing this.  The thing is, though, a great deal of it’s nonsense, and I think we should all be a lot happier if we just ditched it and stuck to the observation and experience of tradition.

Further Reading

I discuss Paracelsus work and its impact at greater length in my books Fayerieon Tudor and Stuart faerylore, and in my study Nymphology.

Who is Ariel?

Maclise, Daniel, 1806-1870; Priscilla Horton (1818-1895), as Ariel

The character Ariel in Shakespeare’s The Tempest is a distinct departure from the fairies of the playwright’s earlier Midsummer Night’s Dream.  In the latter, Puck is derived straight from British folk tradition with his pranks, his earthy humour and his domestic associations.  Ariel has none of these characteristics.  Where did Shakespeare get his inspiration?  There are three Ariels we must discuss.

Origins

Ariel is a Hebrew name.  Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa mentions in De occulta philosophia that “Ariel is the name of an angel, and is the same as the Lion of God.  Sometimes it is also the name of an evil demon and of a city called Ariopolis where the idol of Ariel was worshipped.”(Book III, Part 3)  The name was chosen by medieval and Renaissance magicians and by Neo-Platonist philosophers as a name for one of the sylphs, a being who was sometimes said to be ruler of Africa.  Sylphs are one of the four ‘elementals’, the spirits of the earth, air, fire and water.  The sylphs are the spirits of the air and were said to be capricious, passionate and irascible.  The sylphs’ airy and aerial connections obviously suggested a fairy analogy to playwrights and poets.

Shakespeare

In The Tempest the spirit Ariel is enslaved by the sorcerer Prospero.  He can fly at incredible speed (“with a twink”), riding on the clouds and conjuring storms; he can walk on the waves and ride the sharp north wind; he can change his shape.  Ariel is ‘delicate,’ ‘a bird’, a ‘chick,’ he is ‘but air.’  His ‘dainty’ and diminutive nature is emphasised by the song he sings in Act V, scene 1:

“Where the bee sucks, there suck I:
In a cowslip’s bell I lie;
There I couch when owls do cry.
On the bat’s back I do fly
After summer merrily.
Merrily, merrily shall I live now
Under the blossom that hangs on the bough.”

 

ariel, maud tindal atkinson

‘Ariel’ by Maud Tindal Atkinson, 1915

Ariel was formerly imprisoned in a tree by a witch; from this Prospero released him- on conditions of service for a time.  After a period serving Prospero well and faithfully, Ariel is ultimately released: “to the elements be free” (V, 1) and then is “as free as mountain winds.” (II, 1).

Puck is clearly and solidly male, but Ariel is sexless (hence, in theatrical productions, the variation between portraying the character as male or female).  In contrast to Puck’s cheeky cheeriness, Ariel seems subservient and melancholy.  This theme of enslavement perhaps comes from Ariel’s origins in hermetic magic: he is a familiar, a spirit to be conjured and commanded.  He is there to do Prospero’s will and lacks any personality or motivation of his own.  Both captive Ariel and the conjured spirit are controlled by another’s arcane knowledge and skills.

Henry Singleton A

Alexander Pope

There is a second Ariel in English literature.  In Alexander Pope’s Rape of the lock (1714) Ariel the sylph reappears.  The poem was a mock-heroic commentary upon an actual incident, first written in 1712, and the ‘machinery’ of the sylphs was something of an afterthought for Pope.  Nevertheless, the elementals assume an important role as guardians and attendants to the heroine.  In his introductory letter to Mrs Arabella Fermor that precedes the poem, Pope states that he has drawn upon “a very new and odd Foundation, the Rosicrucian doctrine of spirits.”  He explains to her that, according to these gentlemen, the four elements are inhabited by spirits, the sylphs being “the best condition’d Creatures imaginable. For they say, any mortals may enjoy the most intimate Familiarities with these gentle spirits, upon a Condition very easy to all true Adepts, an inviolate preservation of Chastity.”

Chastity is key to Pope’s plot.  In the poem Ariel’s task is to protect his mistress Belinda’s virtue, but as a sylph he seems ill-suited to do this.  We also learn that women can be reborn as one or other of the elementals depending upon their characteristics during life and that:

“The light Coquettes in Sylphs aloft repair,/ And sport and flutter in the Fields of Air.” (Canto I, lines 65-66)

The sylphs are now explicitly the tiny fairies with insect wings that are so familiar to us. They have ‘transparent forms’ and ‘fluid Bodies half dissolv’d in Light.’ (Canto II lines 59-67.)

In the event, Ariel fails to protect Belinda’s virginity and a symbolic lock of her hair is snipped off by a suitor.  This contrasts with the success of Ariel in The Tempest, who fulfills all of Prospero’s commands.  It is significant that, having failed, Ariel is replaced by Umbriel, a malignant gnome (a daemon of the earth who delights in mischief, according to the Rosicrucian doctrine).

For our purposes in this blog, the importance of these two literary characters is as a symbol of the wider change to the understanding of British fairies.  The traditional types began to be affected from the seventeenth century onwards by concepts of classical, oriental and magical origin, a process with far reaching implications for native belief.

pope

For more discussion, see my book Famous Fairies.