Three Wishes: your dreams fulfilled by faeries?

Jessie Wilcox Smith, Cinderella

A cliché of faery lore is that the fairies grant our wishes, often in threes because this is a magical and significant number (at least in Christian tradition).  This is more the substance of fairy-tales and fairy godmother stories than authentic British folklore, but it’s not entirely without foundation in native accounts.

Mermaids seem especially prone to granting triple wishes.  Furthermore, as the Cornish story of Lutey and the mermaid demonstrates, mermaid vengeance may be postponed (as I recently described for the faeries too).  The mermaid first granted Lutey three wishes as a reward for returning her to the sea when she’d become stranded, but then refused to let go of him when they were in the surf, instead trying to drag him under the water.  The barking of his dog and the sight of his cottage on the shore broke her spell, and with a flash of his knife he forced her to let him go.  Nevertheless, the mermaid promised to return after nine (three times three) years- which she did, seizing him from a fishing boat out at sea.  The mermaid in the related Cornish story, The Old Man of Cury, grants a single wish, as does the Manx mermaid who falls for a man who woos her with gifts of apples.

John Bauer, Syv ønsker, The Seven Wishes

The fairy women of Scotland seem especially inclined to grant wishes to humans.  These skills may be taught, or exchanged for sex, or they may be given as rewards.  Often, the grant is offered conditionally: the recipient can have either ‘ingenuity without advantage’ or ‘advantage without ingenuity.’  One will be clever and highly skilled, but will never be rich; the other will make the man prosperous, but he will be stupid.  Abilities in crafts or music are often bestowed; even a great skill in thieving can be granted, apparently.  Sometimes, too, these awards are not really gifts at all, and a price may be exacted, which can even be the eventual forfeit of the human him or herself.  We saw this with Lutey; in the Scottish tale of Peter Waters of Caithness, he met a fairy woman at a well and she spontaneously offered to endow him with great prowess, either as a preacher or as a piper.  He chose to be a piper and she even gave him a set of pipes.  All she asked was that, in return, they meet again after seven years.  In the meantime, he won great fame and fortune for his music but when he duly returned to meet her at the well, he was never seen again (J. G. Campbell, Superstitions).

An unusual Scottish Gaelic story builds upon this general idea.  The fairy queen (who is generally identified with Fann, the embodiment of skill) was grieved by the lack of wisdom amongst many women in the world.  She therefore breathed on the fairy flax plant and issued a summons to every woman in the world to come to her knoll to be endowed with wisdom.  Many came and the queen appeared before them, carrying a limpet in which there was the ais or skill of wisdom.  Each woman was invited to drink from the shell, according to her faith and desire.  Sadly, the cup ran dry before all could drink (Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, vol.2).

There are other ways to get what you want from fairies though.  At Bewcastle, in Cumbria, there is a stone to which you can whisper your secret wishes; the fairies will then help you.  In several other instances, wishes are granted and skills bestowed as the result of bargains- although these deals are not always willing entered into by the faeries.  A boy who stripped turf from a faery knoll was persuaded to replace it on the basis that he would be helped in making the best chanter possible for his bagpipes.  A girl who agreed not to tether her cows on a knoll was then directed to grazing that never ceased and produced very rich milk.  Equally, a man who stuck his knife in the doorway of a faery hill refused to remove it until he had been granted piping skills.

All in all, there is a curious transactional relationship between humans and supernaturals. The faeries constantly and unrepentantly steal from us and use our property and possessions, but they will spontaneously grant valuable knowledge and skills or make gifts of gold. They will reward good deeds but at the same time lavish wealth on favourites who may seem to be chosen at random. In some cases love motivates their actions; in other cases they find themselves forced begrudgingly to comply. It’s a complex exchange of generosity and obligation, part of the tangled and frequently tortuous relationship that we have forged with the over the last thousand years or more of cohabitation on these islands.

Weber, Christmas Fairy

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.

“White fairie money”- fairy cash

faery-gold-fairy-print-amy-brown

Faery gold by Amy Brown

“White money, Puck, white fairie money…” (The Mask at Cole Orton, 1618)

There is much speculation and confusion about the nature of fairy wealth- or the need of fairies for it.  Their economy often seems to function without the need for currency at all: rather, they transact all commerce solely on the basis of barter.  At the same time, it was alleged to Evans-Wentz that the fairies ‘have plenty of money at their command, which they could bestow on people whom they liked.’ (Evans Wentz, Fairy Faith, p.142)

The sources of faery wealth

Where exactly all the coins that are given to human favourites come from is an interesting question.   We might conclude that the money they leave is actually stolen, lost by people or perhaps comes from a hidden hoard the faeries have discovered- which may explain the ancient or unknown coins that are sometimes received by way of payment (on the Welsh Borders finds of Roman coins were often thought to be fairy money).  In Wales it has been alleged that the tylwyth teg steal from the rich to assist the poor- like Robin Hood- and there is no denying the evidence that they have assisted those in need.

There are other possible sources of their wealth, though.  One Stuart period text casts the faes in a less favourable light that the Welsh view just mentioned; instead, they were reputed to lend money to the poor- and to be tough when timely repayment wasn’t made.  Alternatively, the fays have been known to enter into contracts with humans- for example, for building work, for which they have agreed payment (admittedly, though, they sometimes set their terms after the event, doing the work first and then demanding recompense from the obligated human).  They have also been known to make ‘profit sharing’ agreements with humans- usually miners.  In one highly anomalous report, Crossing described how Dartmoor pixies were left coins by cottagers to persuade them to tidy their houses.  This runs directly counter to the usual arrangement whereby a coin is left in recognition of a home being made clean and tidy for when the fairies visit at night.  Although this would provide our pixies with a source of ready cash, you can’t help but think that someone got this story mixed up (Tales of Dartmoor Pixies, c.3).

Linda ravenscroft f gold

Avalon’s gold by Linda Ravenscroft

The uses of faery wealth

The fairies have coin, it appears, because they have dealings with humans and because they know that- to us- hard cash is important.  For this reason, they acquire money in order to pay people for services rendered to them (such as caring for a changeling child) or to reward those whom they choose to favour (for instance, a man who played football with them was left with the football- full of gold coins).  They may be very generous in these cases, for example giving a life time’s supply of gold or a purse that never empties.

In contrast to these cases, there are plenty where money received from the fairies does not turn out to be all that it seemed.  Payments or gifts turn out later to be shells, withered leaves, dead flowers, paper or horse dung.  Sometimes there’s a reason for this: the recipient has betrayed fairy confidences or has been rude or ungrateful; sometimes the transformation doesn’t appear to be deserved and the fairies just seem to be mean.  The opposite transformation may take place as well, though.  Change given as leaves or pebbles may turn out to be gold.

4.2.7

Fairy Jewels, by Helen Jacobs

The perils of faery wealth

“I see you labour with some serious thing,/ And think (like fairies’ treasure) to reveal it,/ Will cause it to vanish.”   (Nathan Field, Woman is a Weathercock, (1609), Act I, scene i)

As has already been suggested, fairy money can be conditional upon discretion.  Almost always, as soon as the source of unexplained wealth is confessed, it is lost forever and cannot be regained.  This is a consistent and very well-known folklore theme: for example, in Beaumont and Fletcher’s play The Honest Man’s Fortune, a character warns, “For when they talk once, ‘tis like fairy money, They get no more…”(Act V, 1). In the most serious cases, the person who betrays the confidence might die.

A story about the need to be discrete about the source of your fairy gold also gives another clue as to the nature of fairy money itself.  A Norfolk ploughman one day found a brand-new silver shilling at the end of a furrow.  Next day there were two- and then three and so forth.  He then faced a two-fold problem- he had to account for his new found and exponentially increasing wealth and he had to explain why all this money seemed to be freshly minted.  Local traders began to refuse his suspect cash and his employer dismissed him.  Finally, the ploughman admitted to his wife where it was all coming from, knowing at the same time that his confession would terminate their riches forever.  Fairy money can be a curse as well as a favour then- and there is a least a hint that the fairies themselves might be illegal coiners.

A final intriguing twist upon this theme comes from a Scottish folktale told about a midwife from Lochranza on the northern tip of the Isle of Arran who was taken to attend the fairy queen.  The boy who fetches her is a human enslaved under an enchantment for twenty-one years; he is able to give her various warnings how to behave when she is in Faery.  He particularly tells her not to accept payment in either gold or silver from the faes and to throw away any gifts they may give her.  She obeys his instructions, casting away the presents made to her after she has left the fairy hill.  The items explode into flames- and would have burned her home down had she kept them.

goble

From the Water babies, by Warwick Goble.

Further reading

In my last post I examined fairies access to buried treasure in detail; see too my essays on faery metal working skills, which may explain how they can mint fresh coinage, and on the fairy economy more generally.

This subject is also discussed in detail in my 2021 book, How Things Work in Faery.

“There is gold there”- fairies and buried treasure

Fairy treasure hunt, Doon hill, Cobleland, nixinnaturesblog.blogspot.com

A fairy treasure hunt in progress at Doon Hill, Cobleland, near Stirling (from nixinnaturesblog.blogspot.com)

Faery has long had a traditional connection with buried treasure.  As Keith Thomas described in his famous book, Religion and the decline of magic, there were once entirely rational bases for the expectation of finding hidden hoards: in the absence of a system of banking and safe deposits for savings, hiding wealth under beds or burying it in fields was as secure a protection as many could find (p.279).  In times of war or civil unrest, this was especially so, and for many reasons people might not have returned to reclaim their gold.  Finding forgotten or abandoned treasure was therefore far from impossible (and, of course metal detectorists still do it today).  The gold was out there, that was certain and- rather than rely upon mere luck- the recruitment of supernatural powers of all descriptions (not just fairies) was the resort of many.

Today, perhaps the best-known example of such a guide is the Irish leprechaun, of whom it’s said that catching one will lead you to his pot of gold.  Fairy treasure hunts have been reduced to a merely whimsical matter- a suitable theme for a little girl’s birthday party.  The subject is far more serious, complex and interesting than this, though, and there is a wealth of British examples to illustrate it (Evans Wentz, Fairy Faith, 71 & 82).

Fairy hoards

There are many aspects to this subject, but the starting point must be the fact that fairies hoard gold, or at least know of its whereabouts.  It is said, for example, that fairy gold is stored at Cadbury camp in Dorset and also at Dolebury where, to make matters worse, the fairies’ magic makes it sink deeper into the ground should anyone come digging in search of it.  Thomas Nashe believed instead that the gold was continually moved about underground, so that none could find it.  Another writer, Thomas Heywood, was uncertain whether the booty was hidden from us because of the elves’ avarice, because God had forbidden our access to it, knowing men’s avarice, or because it was all, in fact, merely illusory.  As we proceed with this examination, you might indeed be inclined to see it all as a fairy deception sent to taunt us (Heywood, Hierarchie of Blessed Angels, 570).

Fairy Treasure Hunt in Progress, thecul-de-sac.blogspot.com

Fairy treasure hunt in progress for a sixth birthday party (thecul-de-sac.blogspot.com)

Ill-gotten gains?

As with fairy money, the source of this bullion is uncertain.  It may have been buried by humans in the past or it may have been collected by the fays.  There is even a suggestion that they may create it through alchemy: in Cornwall it was believed that lead left out on an ant’s nest would be transmuted by the pixies into silver at the new moon.

Fairy guardians

I’ve already mentioned how the fays may actively prevent our finding their wealth.  Sometimes they are more aggressive in defence of their hoards.  At Craufurdland bridge, near Kilmarnock, a brownie protected the pot of gold concealed in the pool beneath the crossing and successfully defeated an attempt to dam and drain the pool by playing a trick on the prospector- he raised the alarm for fire at the man’s home and, whilst the excavators were absent, pulled down the dam.  At Abernethy near Perth the buried gold of a Pictish king was guarded by a dwarf who fiercely assailed any man who came digging.  The threat of imminent violence also protected gold concealed at Trencrom hillfort in West Penwith in Cornwall: a man engaged in digging there noticed the sky darkening and, when he looked up, realised that a horde of spriggans was advancing upon him at speed, growing in size as they rapidly approached.  He wisely fled home, where he had to take to his bed for several weeks to recover (Bottrell, Hearthside Stories, vol.2, 245; see too Bowker, Goblin Tales, 104).

Human greed

Given that the fairies are in possession of great wealth, and given the instinctive greed of many humans, it is inevitable that many have turned their minds to discovering ways to convey this wealth out of the control of its original possessors.    Here the interaction between Faery and mortals becomes even more complicated and fraught.

Sometimes it proves possible to extort money from the fairies.  In Cornwall it was believed that a large quantity of gold was concealed around the ancient stone monuments of the county and that, if you could only capture a pisky, spriggan or knocker, it could be forced to disclose the whereabouts of the riches.  Of course, the supernatural being would know too that the human captor would become distracted as soon as precious metals got involved, creating opportunities to escape.  Nevertheless, the canny and determined individual might make himself rich very easily this way, as was the case for a man from Rockingham in Northamptonshire, who caught an elf called the ‘redman’ and constrained it to reveal its cache of gold.

Fairy favours

Force doesn’t have to be involved.  The fairies may willingly lead favoured individuals to the buried treasure- or may just place it in front of them.  For example, a Scottish pedlar in Ayrshire was approached by a fairy woman who wanted to buy one of the bowls he was selling.  He refused to sell to her for some reason and, a short while later, dropped his basketful of wares.  Remarkably, only the bowl the woman had asked for was broken, whilst, later that same day, he discovered a hidden treasure that more than compensated for the price of the lost vessel.

The fairies don’t always need a reason to bestow good fortune, though: a man came across the fairies dancing on the beach at Puckaster Cove on the Isle of Wight.  He joined the dance but, after a while, needed to sit and rest.  He sat down on something like a puffball mushroom which burst under his weight, showering gold dust everywhere.  The faeries gave him some of this before he parted from their company.

fairy-treasure-hunt, greenmumsblog.wordpress.com

Another fairy treasure hunt (greenmumsblog.wordpress.com)

Treasure seekers

Rather than giving the humans the wealth, the fairies might alternatively lead them to where it was concealed.  William Borlase, writing about Cornwall in 1769, mentioned the continuing belief in spriggans among the ‘vulgar’ inhabitants of the county.  With some superiority he recorded that the common folk:

“attribute to them large powers to rule the weather and to discover hidden treasures, and pay them a kind of veneration.” (Antiquities of the County of Cornwall, p.110)

Guidance might be given by various means: for instance, at Bury Castle near Clun in Shropshire it’s said that the fairies have left a thin gold wire to guide treasure seekers to the pot of gold they buried.  In The Secret Commonwealth (c.10), the Reverend Robert Kirk described how two women one night in 1676 both received a vision that treasure was buried in a nearby fairy hill.  Firstly, they each saw the hoard, then they heard a voice.  Going separately to the spot, they met and together dug up a vessel containing ancient coins, which they shared between them.  This vision was sent to the women at a time of famine, so that they might buy food for the people.  In a similar story from Wales, a boy called Guto Bach was guided by the fairies to look under a rock where he found gold and silver concealed, aid that was granted after his parents had lost their money in a shipwreck.

Lastly, the fairies might bestow a magical power to detect buried treasure upon an individual.  This gift was claimed in 1499 by Marion Clerk of Great Ashfield in Suffolk. She was prosecuted before a church court in Norwich for claiming that the faeries helped her locate buried treasure by providing her with a rod of holly for this purpose.  She had charged people 2/- for her treasure seeking service.

Access to free riches sounds enticing, but a condition might be attached. by the faes  For instance, at Bamburgh in Northumberland there is a rock where people may find caches of coins that have been placed there by the fairies.  This wealth cannot simply be pocketed, however: the finder is obliged to leave a silver coin of their own at the spot in order to ensure that the treasure will be found again.

Frustration?

Sometimes, though, despite the visions and the guidance, the prospectors fail to find the hidden gold.  What’s not clear is whether this was just down to their poor excavating or because the fairies never meant them to have it in the first place.  The folklore on this is contradictory.  An Aberdeen man called Walter Rolandson had been visited by a fairy in the form of a child twice a year for 27 years or so.  In 1601 it came to him in bed, sitting on his chest and calling his name.  He was told to go to a certain place and dig, for he would find gold, silver and other valuable property.  Ronaldson did so, but found nothing.  Despite his failure, he nevertheless remained convinced the riches were present: “there is gold there, gif it were weel sought” he told a church court.

Just a few years later, a woman called Susan Swapper, living in Rye in Sussex, was visited by four fairies at night.  They told her to dig for a pot of gold buried outside the town.  Naturally, she did as she was instructed, but failed to find the hoard; nonetheless, she met the fairy queen who told her that, if she was prepared to make submission to her, she would never want for money for the rest of her life.  A similar tale of riches withheld but some compensation offered instead comes from lowland Scotland.  A girl was sat by a well spinning wool on a distaff when she looked into the depths of the water and saw a pot of gold beneath the surface.  Marking the spot with her spindle, she ran to tell her father.  He suspected it was glamour intended to trap and drown her and, sure enough, when they returned together to the place, the moor was covered in distaffs.  Nonetheless, twelve men in green appeared and returned her original spindle with its wool all spun.

fairy-party-ideas-8

More party ideas from https://www.fun365.orientaltrading.com

Temptation?

On other occasions, the visions of hidden treasures are much more plainly a fairy tease.  In late 1662 the London household of the Mompessons were troubled by noises, such as drummings and the sound of money chinking.  The family were advised that this was the fairies indicating to them that coins were hidden somewhere about the house. On the Isle of Man, the fairies whispered to a man drowsing on his sofa about hidden gold; in shock he fell onto the floor, was ill for six months and was lamed for the remainder of his life.

Worse still are the cases where the fairies taunted the humans with a sight of the gold- and then withheld it from them.  This is demonstrated in two Welsh reports.  In one case a girl walking on the mountains near her home came upon a solid golden chair.  It was too heavy for her to have any hope of carrying it home, so she tried to mark the spot so that she could find her way back by using the thread from the spindle she had with her.  She tied one end to a stone by the chair and unravelled the ball as she made her way home; there was only just enough to lead her back to her parents’ cottage.  The next morning, of course, she found that the thread was gone and the prize was lost for ever.  In a comparable story a man discovered a cache of gold concealed in a cave.  His only way of being able to retrace his route was to cut chips from his walking staff to mark the way back to his farm.  The next morning, these too had disappeared.

Illusion?

These experiences take us back to one of our earlier points and very much confirm the suspicion that fairy gold is, very much of the time, purely a matter of illusion and temptation, a mockery of human cupidity that is never meant to be satisfied.

Intellectual wealth

From time to time riches are revealed to humans, but they are for those of a more discerning taste.  In two cases reported in Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing fairies the buried treasure comprised archaeological remains (pp.7 & 81).  For example in 1941 Louise Jones was walking near St Albans when she felt herself led by the fairies to discover the site of a Roman kiln.  Pottery sherds and roof tiles may not be excite everyone, but she was convinced that a glimpse of an elf had brought her luck.

treasure

Another birthday treasure hunt from http://www.themomcreative.com

A detailed further discussion of this subject is to be found in my 2021 publication with Green Magic Publishing, How Things Work in Faery.

Lewis Carroll on pixies

pixie brian froud

One of Brian Froud’s bad fairies.

In this post I feature a paragraph of juvenilia from the family journal ‘The Rectory Umbrella’ which was ‘published’ by Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson) and his brothers and sisters between 1850 and 1853 to entertain themselves and their parents.  The piece is of interest as an early work of fantasy by the future author of the Alice stories as well as being an example of Victorian ideas on pixies.

The text appears under the sub-title: ‘Zoological papers‘ and makes fun of the learned scientific, academic style (with footnotes).

Zoological papers: Pixies

“The origin of this curious race of creatures is not at present known: the best description we can collect of them is this, that they are a species of fairies about two feet high (1), of small and graceful figure; they are covered in a dark reddish kind of fur; the general expression of their faces is sweetness and good humour; the former quality is probably the reason why foxes are so fond of eating them. From Coleridge we learn the following additional facts; that they have ‘filmy pinions’ something like dragon flies’ wings, that they ‘sip the furze-flower’s fragrant dew’ (that, however, could only be for breakfast, as it would dry up before dinner-time), and that they are wont to ‘flash their faery feet in gamesome prank,’ or, in more common language, ‘to dance the polka (2) like winking.’

From an old English legend (3) which, as it is familiar with our readers, we need not here repeat, we learn that they have a strong affection for raw turnips, decidedly a more vulgar sort of food than ‘fragrant dew’; and from their using churns and kettles we conjecture that they are not unacquainted with tea, milk, butter &c. They are tolerably good architects, though their houses must unavoidably have something the appearance of large dog kennels, and they go to market occasionally, though from what source they get the money for this purpose has hitherto remained an unexplained mystery. This is all the information we have been able to collect on this interesting subject.

(1) So they are described by the inhabitants of Devonshire, who occasionally see them.

(2) Or any other step.

(3) A tradition, introduced into notice by the Editor.”

Now, it seems very likely that Carroll must have been reading Mrs Bray.  Her book, The Borders of the Tamar and the Tavy , was published in 1836 and describes, in a series of letters to the poet Robert Southey, the traditions, legends and superstitions that surround the North Dartmoor town of Tavistock.  This is the most likely source for most of Carroll’s information: Mrs Bray’s children’s book, A Peep at the Pixies, or Legends of the West, didn’t appear until 1854.

His fairy lore is on the whole, sound (excepting, I think, the turnips… as he confesses himself)  We do know that there was longstanding animosity between the Dartmoor foxes and pixies, which led to an ever-increasing effort by the latter to protect themselves.  The foxes hunted the pixies, digging them out of their underground homes and devouring them.  The pixies  responded by making iron shelters- which may, indeed, as Carroll suggests, look like dog kennels (R. King, ‘Folklore of Devonshire,’ Fraser’s Magazine, vol.8, 1873, p.781).

We know very well the fairies’ partiality for dairy products such as butter and milk, and it had long been a poetic conceit that tiny rural beings would drink dew and nectar from flowers.  We are also very familiar with their love of dance.  The use of kettles and the like is quite conventional: one common set of stories involves fairies seeking human aid to mend some basic item of domestic equipment- a stool or a ‘ped’ used to remove loaves from ovens; they made their own butter as well as stealing ours and would have needed a fully equipped kitchen for these tasks.  Tales of fairies at markets are also well-known, although their habit is often to thieve from the stalls rather than to buy.  In the frequent accounts of midwives who have cared for a fairy baby and, in the process, touched an eye with fairy ointment, the women are exposed when they spy a fairy at the market, whether buying or shoplifting.  Fairies often had gold, it is true, whether to purchase goods or to make gifts to chosen favourites.  Many writers have speculated about its source: was this money merely leaves and pebbles disguised by glamour (as was not unknown) or was it real currency, perhaps discovered by the fays underground?  Fairies were said to have abilities to help humans locate buried treasure, certainly, and access to ancient hoards might explain the unusual coins that often made up their payments.

Carroll’s pixies coincide very much with tradition, then, and even his jokey invention of their foxy fur coats is not entirely unheard of, as we know from more recent fairy sightings.  Nevertheless, the winged pixy is something of a surprise (though see Brian Froud’s image below) as is the description of them as always jolly.  As readers will know, they have a great tendency to mischief- hence the term ‘pixy-led.’

pixy

Another Froud pixie

Further reading

Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and ‘Through the Looking Glass’ are classics and well worth reading if you’ve not already, albeit not fairy stories in any conventional sense.  I have also enjoyed reading Sean Conroy’s recent book, Alice in the Underground: Lewis Carroll and Alice in Modern Culturea book which examines many of the debated questions of Carroll’s life and work.  My own British Pixies (2021) looks at all aspects of the folklore of the pixies of South West England.

“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).