The colour green has always been strangely linked to fairies. Older texts often refer to the Good Folk as being green, but in fact this almost always denotes their clothing colour- just as calling a faery ‘red’ or ‘black’ generally refers to their hair colour rather than saying anything about flesh tone. For example, the Devonshire pixies are reported “to be” green in colour but the same witness also went on to state that, if you wear green, “you’ll soon be mourning,” pretty clearly indicating that she was discussing the pixies’ clothing.
Green garments are a constant in faerylore across Britain and across time. In the Lincolnshire Fens in the east of England, for instance, the local nature spirits were called (amongst other things) the ‘Green Coaties.’ A similar term was used in Lancashire as well- see the references to the ‘Greenies’ in Bowker’s Goblin Tales.
In the Western Isles of Scotland, it was said that it was not advisable to sleep in a house where water for washing had not been put out at night for the fairies. This was because the “slender one of the green coat” would come with her baby at night and wash it in the milk instead. What’s notable is not only that the fairy woman (bean sith) is dressed in green but that (as is quite common in Gaelic speaking areas) she is described as “slender.” This adjective often describes fairy females, perhaps indicating part of their believed allure: their willowy, juvenile bodies (or was it really an allusion to their emaciated, dangerously hungry bodies?) The association with green was especially strong in the Highlands. For instance, in Gaelic songs and prayers we may also find reference to the “slender woman of the green kirtle” (bean chaol a chota uaine) and, more generally, to the “tribe of the green mantles” (luchd nan trasganan uaine);
The trows of Shetland are described as looking like children of three or four years of age, small and ‘pirjink’ (neat) about the legs and clothed in tight green garments with green tapered caps. In Galloway, the story is told of two small boys dressed in green who were born from eggs. They were said to have looked something like brownies, or mongrel fairies, but sadly they quickly vanished before much more could be learned about them.
Turning to Wales, the Green Lady of Caerphilly was a beautiful woman dressed in green who was met one day at the castle in the town by a man called Ieuan Owen. She led him underground and along a very lengthy passage before they emerged beside a lake in a cavern. There the green lady vanished, but another faery maiden then appeared and led Owen beneath the lake to a wonderful subterranean land.
My last example gives a rather different impression though, and perhaps opens up the possibility of something more sinister. In a Scottish story collected from an old nurse maid, she told how her mother had once nearly been drowned by a fairy being after she had fallen asleep beside a river. The nurse’s mother awoke from her nap when she felt a tugging at her hair, as if someone or something trying to pull her into the water. She leapt up, and then saw something “howd (bob) down the water like a green bunch of potato shaws (stalks).” We can only note and puzzle over this account, which resembles nothing else I know of. Perhaps the nurse’s mother saw the hair of a water sprite akin to Jenny Greenteeth, or the mane of a kelpie, or perhaps we have a sighting of some unique river faery.
As I have described previously, the greenness of British fairies goes right back to their early medieval origins and the Green Children who were discovered during the twelfth century at Woolpit in Suffolk. In that case, their greenness seemed to relate to their exclusively vegetarian, leguminous diet: Katharine Briggs speculated that their skin tone was the colour of death- although it might equally as well be the colour of Spring growth (if we have to read any symbolism at all into the preference). It might, too, represent their wild, rural nature- as with Robin Hood and his men in ‘Lincoln green.’ Whatever the truth, viridity seems to be a core part of British faery nature.
I’d been meaning to read The green child for some time but had thought that it was only available in the original edition of 1934. Then I realised I could get a modern reprint from my library: I prefer to read a hard-copy book, myself, but you can download it or read it on Internet Archive.
I was attracted to the story because it’s based upon the medieval English story of the Green Children, who were discovered at Woolpit village in Suffolk. This story (transposed to the early 19th century) is a starting point for Read’s book, but it’s quite a long way from a simple retelling of that puzzling account.
Read was an anarchist poet and art critic. Probably his 1931 Penguin book The meaning of art is what he’s best remembered for today. The green child is his only novel. Given his intellectual background, it’s not especially surprising that it’s a pretty philosophical text. It may best be compared to Sir Thomas More’s Utopia- probably also on my recommended reading list…
The main character of the story is a man called Henry Oliver, who as a young man leaves his Suffolk home in search of adventure and ends up leading a revolution in a small South American country. As ‘Dr Olivero’ he becomes head of state and spends several decades establishing a perfect system of government there- it’s a sort of socialist commonwealth free of class and capital. Eventually, nostalgic for his home and curious about the Green Child, who had appeared just before he departed, Olivero returns home.
The Green Child is still alive but is a homesick alien. Olivero rescues her from her human husband and they find their way back to her subterranean home. The last third of the book then describes the perfect intellectual society created by the ‘fairies’ underground. The relationship between Olivero and Siloen, the Green Child, rapidly fades from view as Read examines the fairy philosophy that structures their culture.
It’s fair to say it’s an odd book. I read it hoping for a great deal more fairy story and was hopeful that this would be delivered when Olivero and Siloen flee the human world. It wasn’t to be- and I’m probably content that it was a library book and not one I’d bought. Nevertheless, if you’re curious, it’s readily available and it’s certainly thought provoking.
In this post I want to return to the question of fairy dwellings and fairyland. Fairyland is very often conceived of as a place below the ground surface; here I want to examine that in considerable detail.
The idea of a subterranean Faery is something that has long been embedded in both folklore and literature. For example, in a masque presented for Queen Elizabeth by the Earl of Hertford in 1591 we are introduced to the monarch:
“I that abide in places underground,/ Aureola, the Queene of Fairy land…”
Much later, the Duchess of Newcastle imagined that “The Fairy Queen’s large Kingdome got by birth/ Is the circled centre of the Earth,” a place bejewelled with all the gems and ores we might anticipate to find in a mine.
Without doubt, this hidden realm would be a place of mystery. John Aubrey in the late seventeenth century wrote that:
“Some were led away by fairies, as was a Hind riding upon Hackpen… So was a shepherd of Mr Brown of Winterbourne Abbas… the ground opened and he was brought to strange places underground.”
I want to go too to those strange places, to discover the way and to see what’s there.
How to get access
It’s very widely accepted that fairyland is subterranean, but that raises a host of problems. How deep is it? Where are the access points?
It’s also very widely believed that one very common location for fairy dwellings is under small hills. This is especially common in Scotland, where many small mounds are called ‘fairy knowe’ or ‘knolls.’ An alternative name for the trows of Shetland is the ‘hill men.’ These hills may be natural mounds or they may be prehistoric burial tumuli. Neolithic barrows are regarded as fairy homes from Yorkshire right up to Sutherland and including the Isle of Man.
Either way, the fairies aren’t buried very deep and getting in presents less challenges. Very few people ever simply pick up a spade and start digging (wisely, as it’s very likely to have serious repercussions). More often they wait for a door to reveal itself: this may happen at special times of year such as Halloween or perhaps because there’s a special celebration taking place within the hill and the doors are thrown open to let out the heat and noise. The simple and direct approach was employed by one poor East Yorkshire man in the story of the White Powder. He was instructed simply to walk up to the door of the mound and to knock three times to be granted entry and led into the presence of the fairy queen.
In some people’s opinion, fairyland is a good deal deeper than the thickness of some turfs. Its location therefore won’t be at all obvious and it follows that the ways in will be equally well concealed. For example, the pixies of Dartmoor are believed to live beneath the bogs that cover that landscape. This is an excellent strategy for keeping unwelcome visitors away, although there is some suggestion that rabbit holes on the moor may be a way in to this particular wonderland. There are a lot to try though…
Normally, the road to fairyland is a lot better concealed and a lot more forbidding. A variety of entrances have been identified:
beneath river banks- this is known especially in Wales, as in the story of Elidyr, who is taken by two little men under the hollow bank of a river;
under standing stones- this perpetuates the prehistoric link seen with barrows and is a legend linked with various sites including the Rollright Stones in Oxfordshire. In the Welsh tale of Einion and Olwen fairyland is accessed by an oval stone and then by a path and stairs, which are illuminated by a whitish-blue glow radiating from the steps themselves;
beneath Roman ruins- the remains of a military encampment high on Mellor Moor near Blackburn were said to be the ruins of a fairy city that had sunk beneath the ground due to an earthquake. The disappeared metropolis was still inhabitable, though, and church bells could sometimes be heard ringing beneath the turf;
under lakes- a fairy woman was seen to come and go from beneath the waters of Llyn Rhosddu on the Isle of Anglesey;
in a well- in Cornish fairy tale of Cherry of Zennor the girl Cherry is employed as a maid in a house that might itself be in fairyland, but she also sees her fairy master dancing when she looks down into a well in the garden;
behind waterfalls- the queen of the Craven fairies is reputed to live concealed behind Jennet’s Foss, near to Malham;
in cliffs- another inaccessible route into faery is from a cave in a cliff face. Cornishman Richard Vingoe entered fairyland this way at a spot near Land’s End. Many hours of walking eventually led him to a “pleasant looking country”;
through deep caverns- Gervase of Tilbury, in his Otia Imperialia, described how a swine herd lost a pregnant sow and decided to look for her in the Peak Cavern near Peveril castle in Derbyshire. He wandered a long way until he emerged into a new country. At Cwm Mabus near Llanrhystyd in Wales there are caves called Craig Rhydderch where the tylwyth teg are said to live and at Llanymynech near Oswestry is Ogo Hole, another entrance to faery;
the place called by the Scots ‘Mirryland’ or ‘Maidenland’ is said to be beneath a mountain;
in one Welsh account from 1860 a man called John Davies of Aberayron joined a fairy dance on Cilcennin Hill and spent the whole night with the tylwyth teg. The revel was only disturbed the next morning by an old woman following the sound of music- at which the fairies all disappeared down some steps leading underground;
down long tunnels- the Green Children of Woolpit followed a long tunnel or passageway until they came out into the Suffolk landscape.
Whatever the exact route in, it is often long and dark. The journey to faery may take several days (forty in the case of Thomas the Rhymer) and may involve difficult passages of wading through deep waters. In the story of Cornish maid Anne Jefferies, she is snatched up and carried through the air, whirling through space with a sound like the buzzing of a thousand bees in her ears. The fairy tale of Cherry of Zennorin one sense makes its fairyland real by presenting it as a pleasant manor house and gardens, but it is reached by a route very like the underground passages- Cherry is led down long lanes, shaded by high hedges and is carried over several streams before, after much travel, she and her fairy master arrive at their destination.
it’s worth lastly noting that tunnels sometimes provide the access from the human world to fairylands that are also on the earth surface. These are frequently seen in Wales, where passages lead out onto an isle in a lake or to an offshore island in the sea.
How do we see?
Given that fairyland is far below ground, how do we see anything once we’re there? Is Faery the “darksome den” that Golding described in his translation of Ovid, or is it bright? This is one of the greatest puzzles, but the sources are quite uniform in telling us what the conditions are, even if they don’t explain them to us.
The Green Children described a place without a sun, but where there was a “degree of light like that which is after sunset.” In the poem Huon of Bordeaux we are told that it is the gold and silver with which the buildings are constructed that illuminate the place. In the story of King Herla, faery is entered through a cave in a high cliff and (more reasonably) is lit by many torches.
Elidyr described the fairyland he visited as “obscure, not illuminated with the light of the full sun.” Rather, the days were cloudy and the nights very dark without either moon or stars. It’s cool and dim in fairyland. The visitor to Faery in the story of the White Powder also reported that the light there was “indifferent, as it is with us in the twilight.” Perhaps because of this dinginess, the people of ‘St Martin’s Land,’ where the Green Children were born, were all of a green tinge.
In contrast, Sir Orfeo’s fairyland, reached after a journey of three miles or so starting beneath a rock, was “as bright so sonne on somers day.” Likewise, after a long dark passage, the land under the Peak District was bright and open. Equally, the swineherd described by Gervase of Tilbury found that the place he reached was enjoying its summer, and that the harvest was taking place, whereas he had left winter behind him on the earth’s surface.
What do we see?
The fairyland found underground is largely indistinguishable from the land left behind on the surface. There are pastures, fields and orchards, where crops grow, sheep graze and fruit and flowers grow in abundance. There are birds in the air and woods full of game. The land may be quite level, an open plain without hills but threaded by rivers running between lakes. The fairyland visited by Einion and Olwen fairyland was a fine, wooded, fertile country extending for miles underground and dotted with mansions and with well-watered, lush pastures. An early nineteenth century account from Nithsdale tells of a ‘delicious country’ with fields of ripening corn and ‘looping burnies’ reached by a door halfway up the sunny side of a fairy knoll.
There are palaces and castles, like any medieval royal city (although in Faery these may be made from precious metals and gems) but there are ordinary civic amenities too. Thomas Keightley recalled a conversation with a young woman in Norfolk who told him that the fairies were a people dressed in white who lived underground where they built houses, bridges and other edifices. Proof of this comes from a commonly told Welsh story of a man who’s reproved by a hitherto unknown fairy neighbour for pouring his household slops down the other’s chimney. Invited to place his foot on the other’s, the human sees that, far beneath his front yard, there is a street of houses he had never seen before. These are just ordinary fairy cottages deep beneath an ordinary Welsh farmer’s cottage.
Some of the later British descriptions moved away from rolling verdant countryside to focus upon the dwellings of the fays. For example, in the case of the ‘White Powder,’ the man visited the court of the fairy queen “in a fair hall.” On the Isle of man, a traveller crossing Skyhill at night was taken inside the hill, where he saw a large hall with a grand feast in progress. Likewise the so-called ‘Fairy Boy of Leith’ (account published 1684) told of visiting the fairies under a hill between Edinburgh and Leith and there enjoying music and feasting. He entered through “a great pair of gates” and found “brave, large rooms as well accommodated as any in Scotland.” Aberdeen man Andro Man, arrested on suspicion of witchcraft in 1598, told his interrogators that when he entered the residence of the fairy queen, he had noted in particular their “fair coverit” tables.
According to some Scottish stories, we may also see the start of three roads: the thorny road of the righteous to heaven, the broad road of the wicked to hell and a bonny looking road finally leading to Faery. These ‘ferlies’ (wonders) are described in the old Scots ballads Thomas the Rhymer, Young Tamlane and The Queen of Elfland’s Nourice.
There is an interesting last detail in the story of Anne Jefferies. When she first encounters the fairies in her Cornish home, they are ‘the little people’ only a few inches tall, but in Faery they are all of normal human size (or else Anne has shrunk). The fairy master in Cherry of Zennor looks tiny when seen at the bottom of the well in the garden but resumes his human dimensions when he returns to the house.
Getting home again
This can be as hard as getting into fairy in the first place. Some people, we must confess, never make it back to where they started. The Green Children, dazzled by the heat and light of the surface, became bewildered and were completely unable to find the entrance to the passage from which they emerged.
For others the process can be relatively straightforward, albeit with longer term implications. Richard Vingoe was led to a carn near Nanjizel where he emerged into the air. He was so exhausted by the journey that he slept for a week and, if fact, was never the same again.
Elidyr was able to come and go from his faery, visiting his mother as he wished, until he tried to steal a golden ball from his fairy friends. He was pursued and the ball was recovered, after which he could never find again the entrance in the river bank, even though he searched for a year.
In many respects fairyland underground is a mirror image of our earth surface world- and this includes the climate. Of course, there are also traditions that make it less homely and familiar, such as those which view it as some sort of land of the dead and those which treat it as far more magical and strange.
“The fairies have lost a fairy,
They don’t know what to do;
The rumours about her vary,
And all of them can’t be true.
They say she stood on a lily,
And fell in its depths immense;
But I don’t think she’d be so silly,
For she was a fairy of sense!”
Trial by Jury by Menella Bute Smedley
We are very familiar with the idea of fairy folk stealing humans, whether that is infants swapped for changelings or older men and women taken as lovers, wet-nurses and midwives (see the earlier posting on being ‘away with the fairies’ or chapter 21 of my British fairies). There is also some evidence of the reverse process- for fairies being captured by humans.
As might be expected, fairies are captured extremely rarely and when it happens it seems to be a combination of extremely good luck, cunning and agility. In two poems, Europe and The fairy, William Blake describes catching fairies in his hat. In the former verse, he does this “as boys knock down a butterfly.” Blake used the same butterfly simile in the latter poem, which describes how:
“So a Fairy sung/ From the leaves I sprung/ He leaped from the spray, to flee away/ But in my hat I caught/ He shall soon be taught.”
Speed and surprise are essential to catching a magical creature, as is reiterated in the poem, The opal dream cave by Katherine Mansfield, which also demonstrates that the long term outcome can be tragic or disappointing:
“In an opal dream cave I found a fairy:
Her wings were frailer than flower petals –
Frailer far than snowflakes.
She was not frightened, but poised on my finger,
Then delicately walked into my hand.
I shut the two palms of my hands together
And held her prisoner.
I carried her out of the opal cave,
Then opened my hands.
First she became thistledown,
Then a mote in a sunbeam,
Then–nothing at all.
Empty now is my opal dream cave. “
The captive fairy stories
These incidents of fairy capture break down into three types, depending upon their outcomes:
the captive fairy dies- Keeping fairies as playthings in the human world is cruel and dooms them, attractive as it may sound- “I’d like to tame a fairy/ To keep it on a shelf” (The child and the fairies). In the Suffolk story ‘Brother Mike’ a fairy is caught by a farmer in the act of stealing corn from his barn. He puts the creature in his hat and takes back to the farmhouse for the amusement of his children. The captive is tethered to the kitchen window and there he pines away and dies, refusing all food. This compares to the story of the Green Children, also from Suffolk. These two infants strayed from faery into the human world; the boy of the pair soon died of grief. From Cheshire and Shropshire come tales of the water fairy called the asrai. This mysterious being, in the form of a young, naked woman, is from time to time dredged in fishing nets from lakes and meres. When exposed to the air they never last long, simply melting away in the bottom of the fishing boat before it reaches the shore.
the captive fairy is forced to act against her will- Near Lochaber in Scotland a man somehow captured a malevolent glaistig that had haunted the neighbourhood. He imprisoned it in an outhouse and, as a condition of its release, made it swear to leave the area and to no longer molest the population. He and his family were thereafter cursed with bad luck for his efforts. A Welsh story from Llanberis concerns a lake maiden, a gwrag annwn, who is lured ashore with an apple and caught by a man. She agrees under compulsion to marry him, but the marriage is subject to conditions which, as always happens in these stories, were eventually breached. Lastly, from the Isle of Skye there comes an account of mass compulsion. A builder was asked to construct a byre to hold 365 cows at Minguinish. When he had finished the walls, he realised that he knew of no way of roofing over the vast space. Heading home, he encountered and caught a fairy. He was immediately besieged by other fairies seeking to release their companion; the terms of his ransom were that they roofed the Great Byre, which they did overnight.
the captive fairy escapes- the most numerous of these accounts culminate in the fairy’s return home. Sometimes, as with the Green Children, the fairy is simply lost and is taken in by humans. This is the case in the Cornish story of Coleman Gray. The pixie boy is found wandering and distressed and is cared for by a human family, until one day he hears his mother calling and returns to her. More often the fairy is caught, although not always intentionally. An account from Dartmoor describes how a woman returning from market met a pixie gambolling on the path in front of her. She snatched it up, put it in her empty basket and latched the lid. For a while he complained loudly in a strange tongue. When he fell silent, she opened the lid to check on him and found that he had disappeared. From Lancashire there comes a story of two poachers who were out ferreting and who, instead of rabbits, flushed two fairies from a burrow into their sacks. They were so alarmed by the voices crying out from inside the sacks that they dropped them and ran home. The next day the sacks were retrieved, empty and neatly folded. It seems that the fairies bore no ill will for the incident; likewise in the story of Skillywidden, a pixie captured at Treridge near Zennor, the fairy does not seem too put out by his ordeal. A farmer was cutting furze when he spotted the young pixie asleep. He scooped it up and took it home where it played contentedly by the hearth with his children. However, one day when they all slipped outside to play, the pixie’s parents appeared searching for him and he readily went home with them. Readers may note that there is a farm called Skillywadden to the south of Trendrine Hill where this incident took place; this may therefore be prime fairy catching country…
It is also notable from these examples how often it is the case that a juvenile fairy is caught. Presumably the reason for this is quite simply that they are less cautious and less alert to danger than their parents. Secondly, whilst contact with fairies is generally something to be discouraged, in most of these cases there are no ill consequences for the captors; in fact, in several cases the human children play with the fairy child on terms of amity and equality. In some of the other cases, it appears that the fairies may have accepted that it was their own want of care or simple bad luck that led to their capture and, as a result, no vengeance is exacted.
An asrai, by Clayscence
An expanded version of this text will appear in my next book, Faeries, which will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide next year.
I have just finished reading Professor Ronald Hutton’s new book The witch. As is obvious from the title, this is an in-depth study of witches and witchcraft from ancient times up until the close of the witch trials in the seventeenth century. In fact, it is more of a work of historiography, surveying the research and theories of other scholars, than a pure history of the subject. Chapter 8 concerns witches and fairies- hence my interest; I have written on this before myself on this about the relationship between fairies and witches and in my book British fairies.
Hutton considers the links between local magicians and healers and the fairies; he also gives an outline of the evolution of British fairy lore as crystallised in its fullest form in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. It is his sketch of the development of the mythology that I wish to examine in this posting.
Medieval fairy faith
Hutton proposes that there were seven key elements to British fairy belief in the middle ages. These all seem to have been in place by 1200 at the latest, but it is reasonable to suppose that they originate a good deal earlier, perhaps even pre-Conquest (see for this my posting on Anglo-Saxon elves). The main twelfth century sources are a verse history of Britain composed by Layamon (c.1200), chronicles written by Ralph of Coggeshall (died 1200) and William of Newbury (1136-98- and who is also called Newburgh and Newbridge), De nugis curialium by Walter Map (1140- 1210), the tour of Wales by Gerald of Wales (1146-1223) and Otia Imperialia by Gervase of Tilbury (1150-1228). These contain various ‘fairy’ stories and accounts of recent supernatural events and encounters.
These key fairy-lore features are as follows:
the fairies inhabit a parallel world- several stories illustrate this. The underground realm of fairyland is visited in the stories of Elidyr and King Herla whilst the Green Children of Woolpit stray into rural Suffolk from there. A notable feature that is several times mentioned is the curious half-light that prevails in faery; there is neither sun nor moon, but a dim luminosity like torchlight;
they have the ability to enter our world and steal children– Ralph of Coggeshall’s story of ‘Malekin’ demonstrates this. She was stolen by the fairies from a cornfield where her mother was working during harvest; rather like a ghost she could contact the human world but not return to it;
there are portals to faery- in the account of Elidyr he enters fairyland by a river bank; in King Herla it is a cave in a cliff; the Green Children follow a long tunnel that leads them out of ‘St Martin’s Land.’ William of Newbury locates a fairy feast under a barrow, a quintessential fairy locale;
beautiful fairy women– they dance at night and will sometimes wed humans– but always subject to conditions that are inevitably broken. The story of Wild Edric epitomises the irresistible beauty of the fairy bride and her unavoidable loss (see later). In Layamon’s Brut the lovely elf queen Argante takes Arthur to Avalon after the battle of Camlann to heal and care for him. Readers may also recall the ‘aelfscyne’ or elf-bright women of Saxon myth I have described before in my post on Anglo-Saxon elves. Lastly, there is evidence suggesting that the fairy women could have their own independent sexuality (or be loose and lustful to medieval minds) as well as being beautiful. There are menacing accounts in thirteenth century sources of elf women visiting men at night as succubi. The sister of the Green Children grew up, it was said, to have quite lax morals- an indicator perhaps of her fairy birth (although one might equally suggest that her conduct was a reaction to the shock of becoming an orphan and a refugee);
green colour- the Green Children at Woolpit emerged into this Middle Earth green tinged and would only eat green beans at first, although their colour faded as their diet changed;
the fairies can bless or torment humans- according to the historian Layamon, King Arthur was blessed by elves at his birth (our earliest fairy godmother account). Conversely, Gervase of Tilbury tells of a fairy horn stolen by a hunter in Gloucestershire. It brings with it bad luck and the man is executed for his theft; and,
they may live in human homes- Gervase of Tilbury tells of the ‘portunes’ who closely resemble brownies. They work on farms, doing any work required however hard; they serve the household but never injure them and, at nights, they enter the house and cook frogs on the fire.
These are Hutton’s seven core aspects of British fairylore. From the medieval accounts I think we can add at least eleven more:
time passes differently in faery- when King Herla returns to the human world he is warned not to step from his horse until a small dog given to him has leaped to the ground. A couple of his retinue forget this and dismount from their steeds; they instantly crumble to dust for he has been away several hundred years, although to him it seemed but hours. It is said that he and his company are still riding, waiting for the dog to jump down. The story of Malekin also has a typical feature: she has been seven years in fairyland, she says, and must remain another seven before she may return home. Seven is a common magic number in faery measurements of time. A delay of a year between events is also seen. King Herla celebrates his wedding and, a year later, visits the king of faery to celebrate his. The same commitment to meet a year later also appears in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight;
feasting– is a major fairy fairy pastime, as in the stories of King Herla and the account by William of Newbury of a fairy cup stolen from a banquet under a barrow;
mischief- although generally benevolent, the portunes do like to play tricks on humans by leading their horses into ponds when they are out riding at night. A thirteenth century sermon also speaks of ‘all such ben led at night with gobelyn and erreth hither and thither’.
diminutive size– clearly some fairies, such as the fairy maidens and wives, approach normal stature; nonetheless, the portunes are said to be only a half inch high (probably a mistake for half a foot/ 6″) and the fairies in King Herla are described as apes, pygmies, dwarves and half human size. The fairies met by Elidyr are likewise small, but by contrast the Green Children, the fairies under the barrow seen in William of Newbury’s story and the bearers of the fairy horn in Gloucestershire are all of normal proportions. At the other extreme, indeed, the fairy maidens seen dancing by Wild Edric described as being taller and larger than human women;
marriage subject to conditions- as mentioned above, fairy maids will wed human husbands, but there is always a catch. In Wild Edric the hero was warned never to mention her sisters; of course, he did, and she promptly left. Walter Map described the experience of Gwestin of Gwestiniog, who captured a fairy wife at Llangorse Lake in the Brecon Beacons (De nugis II, xi). She lived with him and raised a family, but he was told never to strike her with a bridle. Eventually, accidentally, this happened and forthwith she and all but one of the children disappeared. This is the first of many such stories from Wales;
warnings– Gervase describes the ‘grant’ which is a foal-like creature which warns villagers of fire;
honesty & keeping promises is vital in fairy morality. This an element in King Herla (and in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight); it is also seen in the story of Elidyr, who reported that the supernatural people he met never took oaths and abhorred lying;
fairies disappear at will (as in the story of King Herla) and generally remain invisible to normal human sight (as with the changeling Malekin). This concealment can be overcome in two ways. A person might apply a magic ointment. Gervase of Tilbury mentions this in an account of the dracae water spirits of Brittany. It is a regular feature of later British fairylore and may either have been imported from Brittany or may share the same ‘Celtic’ origin. Alternatively, it may be possible to obtain the second sight through contact with a ‘seer.’ This again is a feature of later lore (see Evans-Wentz for example) but in the life of the hermit Bartholomew who lived on the island of Farne in the late twelfth century the saint is told that he may see swarms of demons by placing his foot upon that of another, so that it seems this technique had a long pedigree;
foreknowledge of events- this supernatural power is mentioned in the story of King Herla;
a liking of dairy products- in Gerald of Wales’ account of Elidyr’s childhood visits to fairyland, he mentions their vegetarian diet and their preference for junkets. This later became a significant theme in Elizabethan literature; and,
they may need human help, especially at child birth. Gervase of Tilbury’s story of the Breton dracae also features the theme of the midwife to the fairies, later a regular element in many fairytales.
All of these characteristics will be recognised in later fairylore and all have been described in previous postings and in my book British fairies. However, Ronald Hutton suggests that what we would recognise as the British fairy tradition didn’t fully emerge for another 300 years or so, and that it depended upon the assimilation of continental motifs. He suggests two in particular that were late arrivals in British folk belief:
the changeling idea- the idea of substituting a fairy for a human child is, he proposes, an import from Northern Europe. As we have seen with the story of Malekin, the risk of fairies stealing human children was already well established in Britain at an early date, as was a close affinity between fairies and children- witness the Green Children or the story of Elidyr. It is not entirely clear then whether we simply lack the evidence of the substituted stock or aged elf or whether this was indeed a last detail borrowed from abroad and added to the established tradition;
visiting houses and dairies at night, rewarding the clean and neat and punishing the dirty. Hutton believes that this derives from continental myths of the good company of ‘the lady’ who could bring blessings to homes. He may be right in this, but again many of the elements for this belief were plainly already in place- the presence of portunes in some homes and the liking for milk and cream- so that it needed little external influence for the ideas to coalesce; and,
fay maids– Hutton proposes that these beings were inspired by literature. It is quite true that chivalric romance is full of magical, semi-human women such as Morgan le Fay, but as we have already seen they were well known to British audiences at a much earlier date and may have contributed to Arthurian legend just as well as being derived from it.
On the evidence I have set out, I am inclined to think that the British fairy tradition evolved in recognisable form a good deal earlier than Professor Hutton suggested, although it seems incontestable that continental influences may have helped to refine and emphasise certain themes.
Staying recently on the Devon/ Cornish border, I found an entry in the accommodation guest book from a previous guest. He had visited a local holy well that is protected by a benign elf, he said, before going on to observe that fairies are veggies and that we should look after the cows grazing on all sides of the cottage. This set me thinking (about fairies, not cows); what’s the evidence for this assertion? Are fairies vegetarian, or is this just modern wishful thinking, to fit with prevailing views of fairies as protectors of the environment?
There are two very early sources that suggest that fairies avoid meat:
the Green Children of Woolpit in Suffolk, when first found in the early 12th century, were pale, their skin tinged green, and for some time after their discovery they would only eat raw green beans, refusing bread and other food;
Gerald of Wales (1188) tells the story of Elidyr who visited fairy land in his youth. He claimed that these little people “never ate flesh or fish” and instead lived upon various milk dishes, made up into junkets and flavoured with saffron.
The fairy preference for dairy products was well known in Elizabethan folk lore. Queen Mab loved junkets according to Milton (a junket is a mixture of curds and cream, sweetened and flavoured). Ben Jonson has her consuming cream, too, and Brownies are conventionally rewarded for their housework with bowls of cream or milk. The fairies are also known to bake cakes and bread and to drink cider and wine. There is good evidence, then, that fairies prefer a vegetarian diet, though not a vegan one.
However, there are contradictions and inconsistencies in the sources. Elidyr also told Gerald that the tiny beings he met kept horses and greyhounds. The latter are hunting dogs and the elves were plainly equipped for the chase. In the poem Sir Orfeo the hero meets the king of fairy when he is out hunting wild beasts with his hounds; the king is also said to hunt wild fowl, such as mallards, herons and cormorants, with his falcons. The Gabriel Hounds of Lancashire are fairy dogs; they are also called Gabriel Ratchets, a ratchet being a hound that hunted by scent rather than by sight. The pursuit of all this game was presumably for some purpose other than mere sport. We have to assume that the deer, boars and birds that were caught were all eaten and that these particular fairies were very far from veggie. The bwca living on the beach at Newlyn in west Cornwall were given a share of the catch by local fishermen and they were doubtless expected to eat those fish. The Highland water horses, the cabaill ushtey and the each uisge, both carry off and consume cattle and children, as does the Welsh afanc.
What are we to conclude? The folklore evidence is not unanimous, but then it seldom is. There are different sorts of fairy and each will naturally have its own tastes and preferences. Nonetheless, there is clearly a very old strand of belief that some fairies eat a limited diet excluding flesh, perhaps as an indicator of their otherness or of their sympathetic links to the natural world.
One of the theories of fairy origins is that they represent the spirits of ancestral dead- the departed have been transformed into immortal beings. For example, in the West Country pixies are believed to be the souls of unbaptised children or of druids and other heathens. The association of the pixies with standing stones, long barrows and stone circles naturally reinforces this particular idea.
Others have argued that the fairy preference for green is symbolic of death and decay rather than vibrant and vigorous growth, as is most commonly supposed (and which is another origin theory: for example, William Blake in the preface to the Descriptive catalogue prepared for his solo exhibition in Sohoin 1809 observed that the fairies of both Shakespeare and Chaucer are “rulers of the vegetable world.” Blake’s own fairies had a similar animating function). The so-called Green Children of Woolpit, when initially found, ate only green beans, which Katherine Briggs suggested might again link them with death.
In the surviving folklore, the evidence as a whole is not conclusive on the theory that fairies represent departed ancestors: the dead are definitely present in fairy land, but these deceased persons are not the fairies themselves and, in fact, they may not actually be dead at all.
Are the fairies dead?
In the Cornish story of the ‘fairy dwelling on Silena moor’ a farmer called Noy gets lost on the moor and comes upon a party in a house. He meets a girl who turns out to be a former fiancee of his, someone who had apparently died three or four years previously. His lost love warns Noy not to eat the food at the feast- she herself had done so and had as a result been rendered into a state in which she appeared to be dead to the human world, when in fact a sham body (a stock) was left behind whilst she had been kidnapped and taken to serve the fairies. Similar examples include Katherine Fordyce of Unst on Shetland, who was believed to have died in child-birth but who had really been taken to act as a nurse maid to the Trows. Katherine ate fairy food and so became trapped with them. Lastly, in the tale of the ‘Tacksman of Auchriachan’, the tacksman (tenant farmer) stumbles upon a strange house in the hills in which a woman whom he knows to be very recently deceased is discovered by him acting as a housekeeper for the fairies. Campbell recorded the widespread Highland belief that men, women and children were regularly carried off underground by the fairies, which explained why in Scottish folk tales people long dead were so often seen in the fairies’ company (Popular tales of the West Highlands, 1890, vol.2, p.65).
In the Middle English poem Sir Orfeo the knight visits the castle of the fairy king in search of his abducted wife. There he sees many people “thought dead, and nere nought” (‘and yet not’). Some of these were headless, some lacked limbs, some were badly wounded, mad, drowned, burned, had choked on food or had died in child birth. Of all of them, the poet states “Eche was thus in this world ynome/ With fairi thither ycome” (‘Each was thus taken from this world and had come there by enchantment’).
Magic is used to steal away humans by the illusion of their deaths. They are then trapped in the supernatural realm by consuming food and drink there. It has been argued that this element of the folk tales confirms the ‘land of the dead’ theory: in some early cultures, offerings of food were made to deceased ancestors and so partaking of these transforms the living person and transports them to the realm of the dead (see Dr Henry Bett, English myths and legends, c.1). However, the permanent state of earthly death need not apply to the those abducted to faery.
The fairy enchantment can be overcome, all the same, it seems. An account from Skye reveals that wetting your left eye with spit will dispel the fairy glamour and defeat the captivity (Wentz p.97). The woman in this story escapes, but it must be confessed that she is uniquely lucky. Mostly, a sojourn of any duration in fairyland will change the body so that it cannot revert to its old life. This is the result either of the differential passing of time in fairyland or physical alterations to the body. The subsequent cause of death may be simple grief when the returning captive finds that everyone s/he knew and loved has died during the prolonged absence, however short it may have seemed to the abductee; alternatively, death is a reaction to touching human food, which is now effectively poisonous.
To conclude, the status of visitors to faery remains uncertain. They sometimes are found underground (as if interred), but by no means always- they can be encountered in ordinary seeming houses too. They are not met with dressed all in green like their hosts/ captors, which might have signified a change of status, and they continue with mundane tasks like cleaning and cooking. Travel to fairyland therefore is not death- it just looks like it to those left behind. Those transported remain alive, but in a place which will transform them, so that they are never able to return to their old life.
“I am haunted by numberless islands, and many a Danaan shore”
W. B. Yeats, The white birds
Throughout Britain, fairyland has been conceived as a separate country, with its own landscape, rivers, agriculture, buildings and climate. This belief was especially strong in England and Wales during the Middle Ages (see for example the stories of Elidyr and the golden ball or of The green children of Woolpit). Steadily, the fairies’ realm tended to shrink, until they were squeezed into the corners of our world. In some parts of Wales, though, the idea persisted in slightly altered form: Faery moved off-shore, so that it remained credible and occasionally visible, but rarely accessible.
Magical islands have a pedigree in Wales. Gerald of Wales described a lake atop Snowdon which was notable for its floating islet (Book II, c.9). Ever rational, he suggested that it was a piece of shore broken off but bound together by roots and buffeted back and forth by the winds at high altitude. For Gerald, the wonder lay in the topography itself, but in a later tale a fairy dimension was added. A maiden of the Tylwyth Teg had toseparate from her human husband, yet she still contrived to see him from time to time, sitting on a buoyant turf whilst he sat of the shore of Llyn y Dywarchen (Rhys Celtic folklore, p.93).
Floating islands were not unique to inland waters. In 1896 a sea captain reported seeing an unmarked isle, just below the waves, near to Grassholm in the Bristol Channel. He said he had heard tell from old people of just such a land, that rose and fell periodically (Rhys pp.171-172). This was reported in the Pembroke County Guardian and, indeed, it was from Dyfed (Pembrokeshire and Carmarthen) that the stories of supernatural realms offshore came. These lands were called ‘Green Spots of the Floods’ and the ‘Green Meadows of the Sea’ or ‘Gwerddonau Llion.’ There was also a similar belief from across the channel in Somerset; there the mysterious isles were called ‘The Green Lands of Enchantment.’ Their exact location was not fixed and it is unclear how many enchanted isles were thought to exist between St Davids and the Lleyn peninsula, but there were consistent reports of sightings of verdant lands which appeared and disappeared from time to time.
One account stated that an island off Milford Haven was reached by a tunnel. The fairies used this to attend the markets at Laugharne and Milford (Sikes British goblins, pp.9 & 10; Rhys p.161). Comparable is a lake island at Llyn Cwm Llwch in the Brecon Beacons, which could be reached by a passage leading from a shoreline rock. However, this rock only opened once a year whilst the ‘garden of the fairies’ amidst the waves was invisible unless you stood in the correct spot (Rhys pp.20-22). It may be noted too that little clumps of flowers growing in inaccessible spots on the cliffs near Land’s End were known as the ‘sea piskies’ gardens.’
Returning to the coastal isles, they might only be seen by standing on a particular piece of turf- from St David’s churchyard or from Cemmes (? Cemmaes, near Machynlleth, although this is some miles inland and surrounded by hills?) As soon as contact with the sod was broken, the vision was lost, so that the only sure way of reaching the islands was to sail with a piece of turf on board (Rhys pp.161-72 & Wentz Fairy faith p.147); otherwise, the islands would be invisible to the boatmen. Such voyages were dangerous, though, as fairy time notoriously passes much more slowly than on land. Generations might lapse in what seemed like mere days for the island visitors.
The residents of these elusive lands were the Tylwyth Teg, more specifically the Plant Rhys Dwfn– the children of Rhys the Deep. His wisdom lay in protecting his land with magic herbs and in the strict moral code of honesty and good faith observed by his descendants (Rhys pp.158-160).
Magical islands are not uniquely a Welsh notion: The Reverend Robert Kirk in chapter four of his Secret Commonwealthmentions that faery may be “unperceavable … like Rachland and other enchanted isles.” The motif of the enchanted isle is ideal for fairyland: it is a place that is periodically visible, familiar but enticing, near but always out of reach. Only the very fortunate or clever may be able to see it, so that its reality or illusory quality are very hard to prove.
Where do fairies live? This seems like an obvious question, but it is one that is not always directly asked. British folklore gives various answers to the query, in part depending on the region from whence the tale derives and in part on the nature of the fairy folk involved. It is important too in answering this question for us distinguish the places the fairies haunt or frequent, such as groves, moors, highways, stone circles and barrows, from their actual dwelling places.
A trite answer to the question of residence might be to respond that the fairies live in ‘Fairyland.’ This would not, in early modern Scotland, have seemed so banal a reply: the fairies’ palaces under the hill were known as Elfame and accordingly we hear about the Court and the Queen of Elfame. For example, in a criminal trial of a suspected witch in 1576 she described the fairies thus “Thai war the gude wychtis that wynnit in the Court of Elfame” (that is- “They were the good folk that dwelled in the Court of ‘Elf-home.’) As will be read in the following paragraphs, though, fairy-land in the main was conceived not as a distinct and parallel realm (other than in the cases discussed in the second bullet point), but as supernatural ‘pockets’ occurring within and between the human world.
The Reverend Kirk assures us in his Secret commonwealththat fairy dwellings are “large and fair,” being illuminated by “fir Lights, continual Lamps and Fires, often seen without Fuel to sustain them.” He explains one reason for our uncertainty as to the nature of these homes: they are “(unless att some odd occasions) unperceavable by vulgar eyes.” In other words, they are protected by glamour and are as a rule invisible (Kirk s.4).
Some writers tended to be quite vague as to exact location. For example, Reginald Scot in The discoverie of witchcraft (1584) simply states that fairies “do principally inhabit the mountains and caverns of the earth,” although their habit is “to make strange apparitions on the earth in meadows or in mountains” (Book III, c.4). It is possible, in fact, to list quite a number of typical fairy homes:
under or in fairy knolls- this was a belief held widely throughout the British Isles. For example, the fairy knowe or sithein was prevalent in Highland tradition (Wentz Fairy faithpp.86 & 104) but it is also found in Wales: it was said that the smaller Tylwyth teg lived in ‘holes in the hills’ (Wentz p.148) – as did the Cornish pixies at the Gump of St Just. Welsh writer D. Parry-Jones provided very circumstantial evidence as to the routes into the fairies’ homes: “Their habitations were universally believed to be underground, in dimly lit regions, with the entrance to them under a sod, near one of their circles, by some ancient standing stone, under the bank of a river, away on the open moor hidden by bushes, or in the ruins of an old castle, as on Ynys Geinon rock. In the midst of this castle there was a pit with a three-ton stone lying across it, and when they wanted ingress or egress, they uttered a secret word, and lo! the stone lifted, and fell back again of its own accord. From the entrance down to the underground passage they descended along a ladder of twenty-one or –two gold rungs.” (Parry-Jones, Welsh legends & fairy lore, 1953, p.19) The belief prevailed in England, too, for instance the fairies who lived under Hack Pen in Wiltshire, according to Aubrey. He recorded that a shepherd employed by a Mr Brown or Winterbourne Basset had seen the ground open and had been “brought to strange places underground” where music was played. As Aubrey observed of such visitors “never any afterwards enjoy themselves.” (Briggs, Fairies in tradition, p.12; Fairyist, Fairyplaces, Wessex). The strength of the link between elves and hills may be demonstrated by Rudyard Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill. In the story, Puck consistently refers to his nation underground as ‘The People of the Hills.’ Sometimes these hills would open up to reveal a lighted hall within which the fairies danced and into which humans would be lured. This happens, for example, in Thomas Creede’s play of 1600, The wisdome of Dr Dodypol, in which a wine goblet is offered to a traveller by a fairy emerging from a mound in which music is being played. This enchanted realm is ruled by a wizard whose invitation is to “taste the sweetnesse of these heavenly cates, Whilst from the hollow craines of this rocke, Musick shall sound…;” it is his spell that “Made a guilt pallace breake out of the hill, Filled suddenly with troopes of knights and dames, Who daunst and reveld while we sweetly slept…” See too William of Newburgh’s tale of a fairy cup, stolen from a feast in an opened barrow. It appears that any prominent or unusually shaped outcrop or hillock was likely to attract a supernatural association- for example, the Tolcarne rock near Newlyn which was inhabited by a troll-like being (Wentz p.176);
in an underground realm- a classic description of such a subterranean country is found in the Middle English poem, Sir Orfeo: “When he was in the roche y-go,/ Wele thre mile other mo,/ He com into a fair cuntray,/ As bright soonne somers day,/ Smothe and plain and al grene,/ Hill no dale nas none ysene…” As will be seen, this was a common British conception of fairyland. In Wales the Tylwyth Teg dwelt in such a landor else underneath lakes, in the case of the human sized gwragedd annwn (Wentz p.142, 144 & 147). In light of the latter site, we may be reassured to know that Scottish fairies sensibly preferred “Dwellings underground in dry spots” according to Evan Wentz’s informant John Dunbar of Ivereen (p.95). In England there are two tales of an underground land where fairies live: the St Martin’s Land of the Green Children of Woolpit as told by William of Newburgh and Ralph of Coggeshall. There was no sun, just a constant twilight and the children emerged from it through a long cavern. Gerald of Wales describes a similar world in his tale of Elidor and the Golden Ball- the country was cloudy, yet bright, and at night very dark as there were no moon or stars. In Cornwall, Bottrell collected the story of Richard Vingoe who was taken beneath Trevilley Cliffs at Land’s End and found there an underground world reached by a cavern. Many Welsh tales mention the fairies residing in caves. Likewise in the Welsh tale of Einion and Olwen fairyland is a fine wooded country extending for miles underground and Keightley reports a conversation with a Norfolk girl who advised him that in their expansive subterranean caverns the fairies built “houses, bridges and other edifices.” Access to these lands might be through something as innocuous as a molehill (Wentz pp.161-162; Keightley pp.298 & 306) or by lifting a sod and disappearing (Rhys Celtic folklore p.227);
in caves and holes– these are particularly associated with hobgoblins, for example Hob Hole and Obtrusch Roque in Yorkshire;
on enchanted islands off the Pembroke and Carmarthen coasts (Wentz p.147). These fairy islands disappear when approached or may only be seen by standing on an enchanted turf. These isles are the home of the Plant Rhys Dwfn. The tylwyth teg are also said to inhabit an island in a lake near Brecon which is reached by a subterranean passage leading from a door in a rock on the shore, which reveals itself once a year (Parry-Jones, pp.19-20). Another Welsh story mentions an island in a lake known as the ‘Garden of the fairies;’
in the vicinity of standing stones– fairies were, for example, associated with the Pentre Ifan cromlech in Pembrokeshire whilst in the story of Einion and Olwen fairyland is accessed by a path located under a menhir (Wentz pp.155 & 161). In England, it is told that the Oxfordshire fairies were last seen disappearing under the Rollright Stone circle (Evans, Folklore Journal, 1895). In short, fairies are often inseparable from ancient sites;
on the shore- in the folklore of Newlyn and Penzance in Cornwall, the tidal shoreline is the home of one family of pixies called the bucca. They are propitiated by the local fishermen with offerings of fish (Wentz pp.174-175);
in human houses and farms- as is very well known, brownies and similar ‘house elves’ co-habit with humankind. For example, in The hierarchie of blessed angels (1636, p.574) Thomas Haywood stated that pucks and hobgoblins were to be found living “in corners of old houses least frequented/ or beneath stacks of wood.” Some fairies apparently live under the human house (Briggs pp.99-100), “under the door stane” according to Sir Walter Scott (Border minstrelsy p.14), a proximity which can inevitably lead to neighbour disputes. For example, Parry-Jones tells of a farmer in Gwynedd whose habit was to empty his chamber-pot outside his front door every night before bed. One evening a small man appeared and asked him to desist, as the waste was running down his chimney into his house beneath. The farmer complied, blocking up the old door and creating a new one at the opposite side of the cottage, for which he was rewarded by healthy stock and great prosperity;
in trees- there are only a few traces of this association with individual trees, something that seems more pronounced in Scandinavian and German tales. For example, in the Sad Shepherd Ben Jonson advises that “There, in the stocks of trees, white Faies doe dwell,/ And span-long Elves, that dance about a poole!/ With each a little Changeling, in their armes!/ The airie spirits play with falling starres!/ And mount the Sphere of fire, to kisse the Moone!” In the English fairy-tale ‘The King of the cats’ the nature of these tree dwellings is elaborated considerably: a wanderer at night sees a light streaming from a hollow oak; when he climbs the tree and looks inside, he discovers an interior resembling a church. Readers of earlier posts may recall that I have made reference to the belief in the ‘Old Lady of the Elder Tree’, a spirit inhabiting and guarding these shrubs (The white goddess & the elder queen); you may also be familiar with the rhyme ‘Fairy folks are in old oaks’ and there is some record of a Northern belief in a race called ‘The Oakmen.’ Lastly we should note the “ympe-tre” of the fourteenth century ballad, Sir Orfeo. The term ymp-tree is understood to denote a grafted apple or cherry; sleeping beneath it Orfeo’s wife Heurodis is approached and abducted by the Fairy King. Whether this tree is the King’s home or merely a haunt of his is not clear; for certain plenty of trees were felt to have supernatural links without them being the physical residence of a fairy spirit;
in woods and forests– as well as residing in certain types of tree, there is a persistent link between elves and woodland, which I have described separately;
in a ruined structure made by glamour to look grand and well maintained. Examples are the ‘Fairy dwelling on Selena moor’ (actually only a derelict farmhouse) and the illusory palace on Glastonbury Tor visited by St Collen. In a fairy midwife tale recounted by Rhys, a cave is made to look finely furnished when it was really only strewn with rushes and ferns;
outside on the moors- John Rhys relays an account of the Tylwyth Teg who were said to live amongst ferns in the summer and to shelter amidst the gorse and heather during winter (Celtic folklore p.82); and, finally,
nowhere- as fairies are spirit visitors to our material world, some consider that they have no habitations here. As such, they deserve human pity and comfort: a fire and clean water at night will ease their roofless wandering (Wentz p.182).
Despite all this evidence of fairies living in wild and natural places, see too my posting on fairy building skills.