Vision & Visibility in faery lore

Le Lavoir des Dames, Jersey

British faeries have a curious and contradictory relationship to humans’ ability to see them.

On the one hand, the faes are not infrequently associated with springs and wells that have the power of curing defects and diseases in human eyes. La Fontaine des Mittes on Jersey was one such: it cured both dumbness and sore eyes. This fountain is inhabited by two faeries (or nymphs), called Arna and Aiuna, whose presence perhaps is related to its curative properties. Compare, though, another Jersey site, Le Lavoir des Dames (fairies’ bathing place) off Sorrel Point. If you spied on the faes bathing there, they’d blind you. Readers may well be familiar with the fact that blinding (or striking dumb) are common punishments for violating faery privacy or glamour. The commonest victims are midwives who acquire- by accident- the ability to see through faery concealment whilst attending at a confinement. The midwives later see the faery father or some such person at a market- frequently stealing- and they are deprived of their (second) sight more or less violently. This may involve a breath or dust in the eye, a light touch or it may require physically and violently putting the eye out. A Guernsey woman who assisted at a fairy birth at the mound called Le Creux es Faies got baby spit in her eyes; fairy spit also subsequently stopped her seeing les p’tits gens ever again.

The Fairy Well, at Poulton le Fylde, Blackpool

Other faery sites with healing powers include a well at Bugley in Wiltshire which relieved sore eyes, whilst the water of the Faeries’ Well near Blackpool treated weak eyes. Note that a mother who took some of this water to help her daughter’s failing vision tried it first on her own eyes before applying it to her child- for the entirely understandable maternal reason that she didn’t want to harm her child further. This accidentally and unintentionally bestowed the second sight upon her and for this abuse of the waters’ healing properties she was duly blinded by a fairy man at a market. In passing, we may speculate as to whether the daughter too gained the second sight- and why the faes seem not to have been so concerned about that risk. Perhaps where the water is applied as a cure, it has no ‘side-effects,’ perhaps (as is often said) children naturally have the second sight and can see the faeries anyway.

Lastly, elf arrows are said to be a good treatment for sore eyes and for this reason (as well as to protect themselves against elf assaults and to be able to cure their livestock) people would collect them.

In the Hertfordshire fairy-tale of the Green Lady, a poor girl finds employment as servant to a faery woman. One of her chores is fetching water from a well and the fish in that well warn her to neither eat the lady’s food nor to spy upon her. The girl ignores the second injunction and sees the woman dancing with a bogie. She’s found out and is blinded as a punishment, but the fairy well water restores her sight.

On the Isle of Man, a man who accidentally saw the fairies one night in a pea field near Jurby, witnessing a great crowd of little people dancing in red cloaks, was blinded for life by an old fairy woman who spotted him. Another, who spied on them when they were dancing by looking through the keyhole of a deserted cottage, was blinded with a poke from the bow of the fiddle for his impertinence. The Manx Little People will often expand their flocks by stealing sheep from humans.  To do this, they use their glamour to make it impossible for a shepherd to accurately count the sheep he’s tending.  The only remedy is for him to wash his eyes in running water first. 

Scottish witch suspect John Stewart was rendered dumb- and blind in one eye- after the fairy king struck him with a white rod. This seems to have been a preliminary to teaching him some of the faeries’ secrets and magical knowledge. Perhaps we might say that some of his human senses were deliberately restricted before they were expanded by the acquisition of faery powers. Stewart’s sight and speech were restored in due course.

Our Good Neighbours can be highly touchy, though. A Victorian report from Wrexham tells of a fairy that blinded a person just because he looked at it. A very similar account comes from Exmoor: a person who ‘had dealings’ with the pixies later saw them thieving at the market in Minehead. When she protested, she was blinded. There is no mention of midwifery being involved, which may imply that her mere association with the fairies gave her the second sight.

Les Creux es faies, Guernsey

Stakhanovite Sprites: when faeries work too hard

I am very pleased to announce another new book, How Things Work in Faery, my guide to the faery economy, which has just been published by Green Magic. I’ve considered aspects of this subject regularly over the last few years and the new book pulls together all the different issues- faery farming, mining, money and their curious relationship with humans in all these areas. Readers will recall that I posted on the subject of faeries doing our chores not long ago. This willingness to undertake some of the more laborious aspects of human work seems to be ingrained in the fae temperament across the British Isles. For example, the trows on the mainland of Shetland would clean people’s homes and grind their corn, accepting clothes, bread and other food in return. Their attitude to recompense was complex though: for one family on the island of Yell they used to make shoes, wooden items and other goods, which the recipients were able to sell, making themselves rich. These trows never asked for payment for all their toiling and, in fact, when food and drink was left out for them, they were offended and left forever (having first eaten what was offered!)

A regular- and even stranger- feature of the folklore of the Scottish Highlands is the repeated reports of faeries causing a problem for humans by being too keen to work. We’re used to the idea of a few faeries voluntarily taking up residence with or near to humans, and helping out in the homes and farms: brownies, glaistigs, gruagachs, hobs and boggarts are the main examples of these. It’s also fairly common for humans to be taken temporarily or even permanently to provide a service: piping or midwifery (which are usually paid for), wet nurses and carers for children and simple domestic servants (or slaves). Fairies who are so willing to work that they become a nuisance is a different situation to all of these, but it’s frequently encountered.

Work, Work, Work

In Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands, John Gregorson Campbell gives a good example of the problem of faeries who are too committed to their work.

“The Fairies staying in Dunvuilg came to assist a farmer in the vicinity in weaving and preparing cloth, and, after finishing the work in a wonderfully short space of time, called for more work. To get rid of his officious assistants, the farmer called outside the door that Dunvuilg was on fire. In some form or other it is extensively known, and in every locality the scene is laid in its own neighbourhood. In Mull the fairy residence is said to have been the bold headland in the south-west known as Dun Bhuirbh. Some say the elves were brought to the house by two old women, who were tired of spinning, and incautiously said they wished all the people in Dun Bhuirbh were there to assist. According to others, the elves were in the habit of coming to Tapull House in the Ross of Mull, and their excessive zeal made them very unwelcome. In Skye the event is said to have occurred at Dun Bhuirbh… The rhyme they had when they came to Tapull is known:


‘Let me comb, card, tease, spin, Get a weaving loom quick,
Water for fulling on the fire- Work, work, work.’
The cry they raised when going away, in the Skye version, runs:
‘Dun Bhuirbh on fire, Without dog or man, My balls of thread And my bags of meal.'”

In another version of this, recorded in John Francis Campbell’s Popular Tales of the West Highlands, the fairies run off fretting over their cheese moulds, butter pails, meal chests, goats and such like.

Campbell also mentions a man in Flodigarry who expressed a wish that his corn were reaped, even if it should be by fairy assistance. A host of fairies came and reaped the field in two nights. After doing this, they called for more work, and the man set them to empty the sea.

Generally it is an unwise wish by a human that their house or farm work was completed that brings the faeries to them. It might be weaving or household chores, but the fairies will appear instantly and will then do the task in record time whilst producing excellent results- the finest tweed is made in one Skye example, for instance. Then the fairies will not leave and are given increasingly desperate jobs to occupy them. A barn might be roofed, all the spring work on the farm might be completed, then they have to be asked to strip an entire hill of its heather, then the humans have to resort to trickery to relieve themselves of their helpers, who have become a nuisance by their enthusiasm and productivity. Emptying the sea with a sieve or being asked to build a bridge with bricks of sand tied with ropes of sand finally exhausts the fairies’ patience. In one Skye case, the housewife asked the sith folk to fight each other- which they obediently did- but grass never grew again on the spot where they shed each other’s blood. On Ben Doran, in Glencoe, a man called Echain wished for fairy aid cutting peat. They completed this in record time and asked for, so he had them strip the bracken from the hill; when they returned for another task, he set them to plaiting ropes of sand. They are thought still to be at work.

These accounts remind us of two significant aspects to living with fairy neighbours: they are always eavesdropping upon us and, even worse, they can punish us if we try to outwit them. Another Scottish writer, Patrick Graham, in Sketches Descriptive of Picturesque Scenery (1806) said that the fairies of Perthshire were “always, though invisibly, present…” This is the problem for humans- and it appears to be more acute at night.

There is in Scottish Gaelic folklore the concept of a ‘night wish’ (ordachadh oidhche): for example, a man on the Hebrides was digging in his fields when darkness forced him to stop. He wished his spring digging was completed- and a host of fairies immediately appeared and carried on with his labours, finishing the task by dawn. In this case the contentious issue was the fairies’ wages, which they negotiated after fulfilling his wish. The man had to agree to give a sheaf to each worker- and his entire harvest was taken. In an example from Skye, a man at Borve was looking at his fields and remarked, out loud, “That corn is ready to be cut!” Next morning he found that the entire crop had been reaped and stacked. Then a small man four feet high appeared and asked for pay. He only requested a few potatoes and a little pot, which seemed very modest and was readily given. However, he returned daily asking for more and more, until the desperate farmer had to resort to telling him that there was a fire at Dun Borve (an ancient broch and notorious as a fairy dwelling). These two cases also compound the problems of the humans by weakening their bargaining position- the work has been done and they’re under an obligation to their fairy neighbours, whether wished for or not (Folklore vols 11 & 33).

A similar report comes form Shetland. A crofter at Easter Colbinstoft suffered repeatedly from others’ cattle straying onto his land. He told his wife one night that he’d give his best cow to have a good wall right around his farm to protect it. When he woke up the next morning, he was stunned to see that just such a wall had been built overnight. The trows, of course, had heard him, had assembled a great crowd of workers and had done the job in record time. They’d also taken the best cow, which they reckoned had been promised to them in advance.

The Scottish fairies take their love of labour to extremes, but they are not isolated in their work ethic: the fairies of the Channel Islands display the same tendencies. I have mentioned before their willingness to complete domestic chores, but their attitude goes some distance beyond mere helpfulness in return for a gift of food. On Jersey, if a person wants work to be finished, it must simply be left out with a piece of cake and a bowl of milk overnight. On both Jersey and Guernsey, the fairies are noted for their skill in needlework and knitting and will repair clothes and complete garments to a high standard if the materials and tools are provided. Quite voluntarily too, the fairies of Saints Bay on Guernsey will repair farm carts and tools if they are left with a gift of food outside their cave.

Show Gratitude- Don’t Take for Granted

This preparedness to help should not be exploited, though. The Guernsey fairies assist those who are overwhelmed; they won’t help those who are behind with their tasks because they’re lazy. These individuals are knocked about when they’re asleep in bed.

Very similar Scottish examples can be found, too. Skye the fairies of Dun Bornaskitaig helped a poor widow by harvesting her entire oat crop in one night, reaping the grain and stacking it all neatly in sheaves. On the Isle of Lewis, the fairies were also known to undertake tasks if asked by humans. A man asked them to make a mast for his fishing boat out of the handle of his hammer;. One fairy died trying to complete the job; his brother succeeded, but cursed the human for his abuse of their help. The Shetland trows can impede the work of those they take against.

More Flaming Faeries…

Arthur Hughes, Jack o’ Lantern, 1872

Following up my April posting on faes that look like ‘Wheels on Fire,’ I’ve recently been researching the faerylore of the Channel Islands, and have come across some more strange manifestations of faery-kind.

The Guernsey phenomenon called le faeu boulanger (the rolling fire, but literally the ‘baker’s fire’) is something like a will of the wisp, but yet has its own unique features. Like the will, le faeu can indicate where treasure is buried, but islanders also say that it’s a spirit in pain, always wandering and seeking a delivery from its plight through suicide. It’s surprising to us, perhaps, to think of a supernatural desiring mortality– or even being able to kill itself- but the evidence confirms that this seems to be the case. If a knife is left with its haft stuck in the ground and the blade pointing up, le faeu will attack it and plunge itself repeatedly onto the blade, leaving drops of blood in the morning.

Behaving more like a will of the wisp, le faeu will pursue people, and the only solution then is to turn your coat (just as when you’re being pixy-led). One evening during the 1920s a man called Le Sauvage was walking home one night when he- and the lane along which he was passing- were bathed in a strange red glow. He then saw a ball of fire bounding across a field towards him. Despite the shock, he tore off his cap, pulled it inside out and jammed it on again. The fire vanished, as did the pervading glow. Le Sauvage then staggered home, but was so shocked that he could barely stir from a chair for the next twenty four hours.

In the late 1960s or early ’70s a man encountered an oval ball of light at Piemont on Guernsey. It was a couple of metres ahead of him and floating about 30cms off the ground. He was terrified and felt trapped, but discovered that if he took one step forward, the ball retreated by the same amount. He was able, very slowly therefore, to make his way towards his home until the light vanished. Other sightings of le faeu were also reported in the early 1970s, two on the beach and another in a field.

On the island of Jersey there is a related apparition, called the Wotho. This is a round ball, about 45cms in diameter. One man who saw it described how it rolled backwards and forwards in the road at his feet, stopping him advancing. This account puts me in mind of an experience relayed by the Reverend Edmund Jones in his book, A Relation of the Appartion of Spirits in the County of Monmouth (1813). Jones described an incident that occurred in the parish of Bedwas (pages 39-40):

“Mr Henry Llewellyn, having been sent by me… to fetch a load of Books… and coming home by night, towards Mynydduslwyn, having just passed by Clwyd yr Helygen ale-house, and being in dry, fair part of the lane, the Mare which he rode stood still, and would go no farther, but drew backward ; and presently he could see a living thing
round like a bowl, rolling from the right hand to the left, crossing the lane, moving sometimes slow, and sometimes very swift, swifter than a bird could fly, though it had neither wings nor feet ; altering also its size : it appeared three times, lesser one time than another; it appeared least when near him, and seemed to roll towards the Mare’s belly. The Mare then would go forward, but he stopped her to see more carefully what it was. He stayed, as he thought, about three minutes, to look at it ; but fearing to see a worse sight, thought it time to speak to it, and said, “What seekest thou, thou foul thing? In the Name of the Lord Jesus go away!” and, by speaking this it vanished, as if it sunk in the ground near the Mare’s feet. It appeared to be of a reddish colour with a mixture of an ash colour.”

These are very odd accounts indeed, but they remind us to be much more open to experiences than we are perhaps conditioned to be by the conventional preconception of the fairy as a tiny, winged female. Readers may also recall similar sightings reported in Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing Fairies (2014). During the early 1940s a woman on a country walk in Kent saw a furry tennis ball rolling up a slope towards her. It briefly opened when it drew close to where she was sitting to reveal a pixie within- and then disappeared. Another woman, visiting Cornwall in the 1930s, saw a pisky who changed into “a long furry black roll, which gambolled about on the grass and then disappeared.”

Two other anomalous descriptions from Seeing Fairies are worth citing, just to confirm the very wide and unpredictable range of forms that supernatural beings may assume. As a child, a Miss Rosalie Fry lived at Glydach outside Swansea. Playing with her sister inside the house one day, they both saw “something they could only describe as being like a piece of the finest white chiffon, about eighteen inches square, [that] floated very slowly down into view… moving in an extraordinarily graceful, flowing manner and then, as slowly, wafted away up out of sight” and vanished. Johnson herself, along with her sister, had a similar experience in at home in Nottingham in 1971. In the street outside their house they saw what seemed to be “several white crinkled paper balls, but which, if viewed from the right angle, could have been wide, frilly dresses or tutus worn by tiny beings.” For some time they rolled and walked and danced in the road. A man walking his dog passed by, oblivious to the shapes (although his dog was not). After a while, the curious assembly vanished.

As I’ve said before, Faery can be a lot more mysterious than we allow ourselves to imagine…

Richard Doyle, A Poacher Encountering a Will of the Wisp, 1845

Further reading

The Channel Island accounts are from Marie de Garis, Folklore of Guernsey, 1975, and John L’Amy, Jersey Folklore, 1927. See also Johnson, Seeing Fairies, 2014, pages 28 and 236. The Fairy Census 2017 is also a very good source of unexpected faery forms.

Changelings- the cuckoos of Middle Earth

In a previous post, I described some of the identifying features of changelings, the faery individuals substituted for human babies, and what their descriptions tell us about human perceptions of faery-kind more generally.

Having accumulated a good deal of material on changelings in my recent research, I decided to assemble that into a small booklet or pamphlet, which I’ve now published through Amazon. Middle Earth Cuckoos- the Changeling Phenomenon in British Faerylore is a study of the key aspects of the faery practice of exchanging members of their kind for newly born human infants. It complements the examination of the subject included in chapter 12 of my 2020 book, FaeryA Guide to the Lore, Magic and World of the Good Folk.

The phenomenon of changelings swapped for children gives us a lot of information about faeries more generally. Here are two examples. Firstly (as I described in the previous post) the look of the changeling tells us a great deal about the appearance of the wider faery population.

In 1664 Londoner John Barrow published a biographical account, The Lord’s Arms Outstretched in an Answer of Prayer, or, A True Relation of the Wonderful Deliverance of James Barrow. James fell ill and had searched unsuccessfully for a diagnosis and cure from doctors, astrologers and apothecaries. One day, a rat appeared to him and seemed to enter his body, which made him act “very much like a changling.” What was meant by this was that he seemed to have fits, he choked on food and was unable to eat, and he lost all his strength and became unable to work as an apprentice. His starved and feeble appearance was, to those around him, typical of what a faery interloper would look like.

James became emaciated and thin and looked like an old man. The great age of changelings is another key indicator of their faery nature and getting them to reveal it is central to the process of exposing and expelling them. Here are two examples of this.

The son of a man on Islay was abducted by the faeries and was replaced with a sibhreach (a changeling). To confirm this substitution, the father was advised to trick the faery into revealing himself through the charade called the ‘brewery of egg shells.’ Across Britain, this method was known to be infallible in getting the aged faery cuckoo to admit who he really was. In this case, as in others, the changeling was fascinated by the odd procedure and exclaimed that, in all his 800 years of life, he’d never seen cooking in egg-shells. The impostor was promptly thrown on the fire and shot up through the roof. The true son was then recovered.

In a similar case from Guernsey, a mother was cooking limpets in their shells on her hearth. The changeling that had replaced her son was provoked to exclaim:

“I’m not of this year, nor the year before,
Nor yet of the time of King John of yore,
But in all my days and years, I ween,
So many pots boiling I’ve never seen.”

Once again, the creature was thrown on the fire and a fairy mother promptly appeared to swap the human child back for her own.

These cases confirm that faeries, if not actually immortal, have extremely long life spans. The Guernsey account was recorded in 1903; King John lived 1166 to 1216, suggesting an age even greater than that seen in the Scottish example.

Fairies in Drag- and other curious stories

I’ve written before about the considerable evidence for diversity in Faery, both of race and of sexuality. Nevertheless, there are some suggestions of intolerance towards similar conduct by humans. There is a curiously inconclusive feeling story in Evans Wentz’ Fairy Faith in the Celtic Countries that I have never been sure how to handle.  It’s set at Barra Head on the Isle of Barra in the Western Hebrides, and it tells how:

“a fairy woman used to come to a man’s window almost every night as though looking to see if the family was home. The man grew suspicious, and decided the fairy woman was watching her chance to steal his wife, so he proposed a plan. It was then (and still is) the custom after thatching a house to rope it across with heather-spun ropes, and, at the time, the man was busy spinning some of them; so he told his wife to take his place that night to spin the heather-rope, and said he would take her place at the spinning-wheel. They were thus placed when the fairy woman made the usual look in at the window, and she seeing that her intention was understood, said to the man, “You are yourself at the spinning-wheel and your wife is spinning the heather-rope.”

Fairy Faith, p.104.

It’s not at all clear from this brief account why the changes of place and work in the cottage foiled the fairy woman so successfully.  However, I recently got a clue from a story told by Edgar MacCulloch about a fairy incident on Guernsey (Guernsey Folklore, 215-7)  This concerns the baking activities of Le Grand and Le Petit Colin, who seem to have been two household fairies known on the island. 

The story goes as follows. A man and his wife occupied a small, simple cottage at St. Brioc. Both of them were kept very busy scraping a living together.  Amongst her occupations was spinning. Nightly, after her husband had already gone to bed, she would sit up late at her spinning wheel by the dim light of the “crâset” (cresset).

While thus occupied one night, she heard a knock at the door, and a voice enquiring whether the oven was hot, and whether a batch of dough might be baked in it. A voice from inside the house asked who was there, and, on hearing that it was Le Petit Colin, the door opened to let him in. She then heard the noise of the dough being placed in the oven, and a conversation between the two, from which she learned that the person already in the house with her was the fairy Le Grand Colin. After a time, the bread was taken out of the oven and the mysterious visitor departed, leaving behind him on the table a nicely baked cake, with an intimation that it was given in return for the use of the oven.

These visits were repeated frequently and at regular intervals and the woman at last mentioned them to her husband. He was immediately seized by a strong desire to witness the events, despite his wife begging him that he should leave them well alone. His will prevailed and it was settled that the next night the husband would take his wife’s place at the wheel, disguised in her clothes, and that she should go to bed. Knowing that her husband could not spin, she didn’t put any flax or wool on the distaff, so as to prevent her husband, in turning the wheel, from spoiling it. He’d not been long at his post, and was pretending to spin, when the expected visitor came. Although the man could see nothing, he heard one of the two say to the other:

“File, filiocque,

Rien en brocque,

Barbe à cé ser

Pas l’autre ser.”

“There’s flax on the distaff,

But nothing is spun;

Tonight, there’s a beard,

T’other night there was none.”

Upon which- both the fairies were heard to quit the house as if in anger, and were never again known to revisit it.

Once again, we have a role reversal, with the man undertaking a female task, and further compounding this action by wearing his wife’s clothes.  What are we to make of these two narratives?

It may be (possibly) that the fairies object to men in drag, but I think it’s really more about changes of appearance and identity defeating or frustrating them.  We know that one of the solutions to being pixie-led is to turn your coat or another garment.  As Katharine Briggs described, turning the clothes works as a change of identity, that frees the individual from the fairy enchantment.  The same theory seems to have been at play in the Scottish Highlands when boys were protected against being abducted by the fairies by means of disguising them in girl’s dresses (see Barbara Fairweather, Folklore of Glencoe and North Lorn, 1974). 

It appears to be the case that the fairies can, in certain circumstances at least, be fairly easily out-witted.  Perhaps, too, the simple action by the human target is an indication to the fairy that she or he knows what’s happening, at which point they decide to abandon their plan because they are likely now to meet resistance.

Why do fairies do our chores?

Why is it that some fairies seem happy to undertake chores for humans, whether these are strenuous physical tasks or finishing off household jobs that haven’t been completed?

We are very familiar with the existence and activities of the brownie and related faery species (boggarts, broonies, gruagachs and glaistigs) who will attach themselves to a particular family, estate or farmstead and perform a variety of agricultural and domestic functions.  I have analysed these relationships in some detail in my recent book Faery, but suffice to say that we may regard the interaction as some sort of contract for service, with the fairy being accepted as having a clear role and place within the household.  In return for the work done, food, drink and, often, an allocated time to enjoy the shelter and warmth of the humans’ home are granted.  The faery acquires a recognised position within the wider clan or ‘familia.’

Here, I’m rather more interested in the cases where the fairies appear very ready to do odd-jobs for humans.  Remuneration may be provided, but there isn’t the long-term relationship that’s usually understood to exist with the brownies and boggarts.  These arrangements can take a number of forms.

At Osebury, near Lulsley on the River Teme in Worcestershire, the tradition is that a broken implement left in the faery’s cave there will be mended for you.  On Orkney it was believed that, if a spinning wheel was not working well, leaving it out overnight on a faery mound would fix it.  There’s an unspoken arrangement that faulty items can be brought to the faery’s habitation and that a repair would be done without any apparent expectation of reward.

Then there are the cases where the fairy comes to the human home to do the work.  On Guernsey it was said that the fairies would help industrious individuals.  If an unfinished piece of knitting, such as a stocking, was left on the hearth or by the oven along with a bowl of porridge, by morning the work would be done and the bowl would be empty.  However, if the reason that the task was unfinished was the person’s idleness, the faery response would be to deal out some blows instead.  (MacCulloch, Guernsey Folklore, 203).  On the island of Jersey it was reported that if servants left out unfinished work (such as needlework) with a piece of cake, the fairies would complete it overnight- and do much of the next day’s work too.  (Folklore vol.25, 245)  On the British mainland, in Staffordshire, the tradition was the same.  Small household tasks would be carried out in return for gifts of food or tobacco.  (‘Notes on Staffordshire Folklore’, W Witcutt, Folklore 1942, 89).

Somewhat comparable is information from the Scottish Highlands to the effect that a girl’s fairy lover, who lived near her home in a fairy hill, would help her out with her daily chores, such as cutting peat turfs for the fire.  Of course, the motivation here was love, which may well distinguish it from the cases already described.

Somewhat at odds with most of the foregoing is a case recorded by MacDougall and Calder in 1910 in which a man’s laziness was encouraged by the fairies doing all his work for him at night.  The miller of Mulinfenachan, near Duthil in Inverness-shire, who was called Strong Malcolm, used to put everything ready in his mill before he went to bed, knowing that all the grinding would be done by morning.  If straw needed to be threshed for the cattle, or grain winnowed, these jobs would be done if the necessary tools and raw materials were left out.  Anyone who tried to spy on the activities would be forcibly expelled.

None of this was done for him out of kindness, though.  When another mill burned down locally, the fairies were heard to exclaim “We will have plenty of meal now… and Strong Malcolm must henceforth work for himself or starve.”  The explanation of this account rests on two points.  One is that food stuffs lost by fire or perhaps just dropped on the ground) went to the fairies as their rightful property.  Secondly, it will be apparent that they had been taking a ‘commission’ for the work that they did for Malcolm.  They had been keeping a share of all the flour, grain and such like- and with the fire, they no longer had to work for this.  (Folk Tales and Fairy Lore, 187). 

Although the Guernsey fairies objected to laziness, those at Duthil didn’t mind about this fault in Strong Malcolm- because it was profitable for them not to do so. The fairies intermeddle in human affairs, it seems, because there’s something in it for them. Hard work in exchange for a bowl of porridge might seem like a poor exchange to us, but with magical powers to accomplish the work, the labour could well look very different to them and, plainly, there’s something about human food (whether it’s the ingredients or the finished product) that’s irresistible to them- and worth all the effort.

Beyond Faery V: Wills of the Wisp

bocklin

Das Irrlicht, Arnold Bocklin, 1862

The spirits known as wills of the wisp, which in fact go by many local names, seem to have a single purpose, which is to try to lure people out of their way, something which may just get them lost or which may result in their deaths.  Their exact status as ‘fairies’ is a little uncertain.  They are clearly supernatural beings, and almost always of a solitary nature, but their precise classification is difficult; in some cases, they resemble ghosts. Nevertheless, the activities of the ‘pure’ wills of the wisp, who only have one manifestation, are shared with entities we would unhesitatingly describe as fairies- such as pixies, Robin Goodfellow and the various pucks and pwccas.  For this reason, I included a chapter on wills of the wisp in my forthcoming book, Beyond Faery.  The evidence presented here represents additional research I’ve undertaken, which complements the content of the book.

Scottish spunkies

Very typical of this family of sprites is Willy and the Wisp, who is seen around Buckhaven in Scotland.  He’s been called a “fiery devil” who leads people off their path in order to drown them or, at the very least, to cause them to stumble and fall, whether into a bog or over a bank or cliff.  He sometimes appears as sparks around a walker’s feet or as a candle shining in the dark two or three miles ahead of them. Like a rainbow, this light would recede before the advancing traveller.  He has also been known to lure boats into the shore, where they have foundered.  This entity is also called ‘spunky’ in Scotland, or ‘Dank Will,’ with his “deceitful lantern.”  

Interestingly, on the Hebridean island of South Uist it was said that the Will of the Wisp had not been seen before 1812.  A woman who went out one night to collect rue from the sand dunes was never seen again and it was thought that her ghost returned as the wandering light that was seen there frequently after that.  This is an intriguing example of the confusion, or uncertainty, that can exist over the interrelationship between Faery and the dead.

Southern Sprites

In Dorset, on the south coast of England, the Will or Jack o’ Lantern is seen as a hopping ball of light that precedes a traveller, attempting to lure the person off the road, perhaps into a pond or perhaps just to make them lost.  If it succeeds, you will hear it sniggering and laughing.  In Devon and Cornwall, too, the Jack o’ Lantern is known.  He has been known to attack lanterns carried by people, or to perch on the roofs of houses.   Generally, the light is like a small blue flame, but it has been seen as big as five feet in height.  It generally floats at a low level (about a metre off the ground), but can rise high into the air- or vanish, and then reappear again.  Sometimes it is fixed, sometimes it moves at considerable speed.  In the South West of England, as well as pools and marshes, the “pixy-lights” might try to lure people down abandoned mine shafts, which are still quite common in the region.

The Will is usually seen in more out of the way locations, such as mountains and lowland marshes, but by no means exclusively.  It has been sighted in water meadows or in domestic gardens as well.  When it is seen in church-yards, it is often called a ‘corpse candle,’ once again linking the phenomenon with the dead.

A very curious example of the phenomenon is the Will seen at Fringford Mill in Oxfordshire.  Witnesses have reported red lights that looked like gnomes, standing about three feet high.  They would bob up and down (as seems to be typical) but they also emitted a singing sound.  The lights would slowly approach to within about one foot of a person and then bob away again, apparently with the intention of leading the individual either into the mill stream or onto the highway.  Horses kept in the field next to the mill would be terrified by the apparition.  At Ascott under Wychwood, in the same county, the Will was called Jenny Burn Tail and once more resembled a human figure- a man holding a lantern.

Bell WoW

Guernsey Wills

Sometimes the Wills of the Wisp of Devon and Cornwall are seen indicating places where rich lodes of ore can be mined.  The Wills of the Channel Island of Guernsey have a comparable link to buried riches.  It is believed on the island that their appearance marks the site of concealed treasure.  This association can be exploited by Le Feu Belengier to lead those hopeful of finding lost wealth through bogs and brakes. 

Even so, the riches can be there for the finding by the determined.  The only problem is that the wandering fire will protect its treasure.  Stories are told on the island of a woman who dug where she saw a Will dancing and, in due course, uncovered a pan that seemed to be full of coins.  However, just before she was able to claim the riches, she was distracted and, when she turned back to the pan, it had been overturned and was empty.  In another case, a man who dug up a pot of coins looked away for a moment- to discover a huge black hound curled up in the hole.  Conversely, a man who excavated a pot full of sea-shells was canny enough not to be deterred.  He carried the seemingly worthless discovery home and, the next morning, awoke to find the shells transformed into coins.  This story is a reverse of the usual reports of money received from fairies turning into shells, leaves and mushrooms overnight. The common element of not taking your eye off the prize is generally encountered in respect of sightings of fairies themselves: if you see one, you should try to avoid blinking or looking away.  If you do allow yourself to be distracted, the fairy will disappear.

Welsh Wisps

The Will of the Wisp is very well known in Scotland, but he has a long history in Welsh folklore too.  Early in the nineteenth century, the road from Welshpool, on the Welsh border, to Shrewsbury in England was haunted around Onslow Hill by a ‘goblin’ who appeared as a ball of fire and would sit behind riders on their horses.  There were numerous reports of this being and generally people avoided travelling along this road by night if they could.  Not far away, at Marford near Wrexham, the Jack o’ Lantern was often seen early in the eighteenth century.  Typical of its tricks was an occasion when it led two men into a ditch after they had thought they could see the light of a farmhouse window and had aimed towards it.  Once the chosen victim was lost and soaked, the sprite would always dance about in glee over them.

Older Welsh sources more generally blame the ellyllon, the elves, for such sightings and misfortunes; another name for the Will of the Wisp is yr ellyll dan- ‘elf fire.’  This light, also called ‘bog fire’ has been described as being like the light of a lantern, that would dance ahead of riders, travelling at the same speed as them, or would appear as actual blue flames on the extremities of the horse and rider.  This Will was reported as late as 1898, but subsequent changes to farming practice and the draining of land seems to have scared many of them off.

In some parts of Wales, a number of specific, named sprites are identified as the cause of such mischief. Several are identified in Snowdonia.  The bwbach llwyd or ‘brown hobgoblin’ will appear on mountain tracks, dressed like a shepherd.  He lures travellers off the path before vanishing. Somehow related in the bodach glas who appears in front of people once a fog has descended.  He noiselessly hovers in front of them. always maintaining the same distance.  Lantern Jack, meanwhile, is a blue flame seen on paths at night. It grows steadily larger, leading people astray until the light is snuffed out with a peel of laughter.   

In south and east Wales the pwcca is a light that will lead on travellers, who think they are following another person with a lantern, until they find themselves on the very edge of a precipice.  The light then leaps out into the void and a peal of pwcca’s mocking laughter is heard.

The pwcca is a further reminder to us that the Will and the more familiar and corporeal Puck often blend into each other, so that being misled by a will of the wisp and being pixy-led can be very similar experiences.  The cross-over between the two is further underlined by the fact that, in some parts of Wales, the pwcca is more like a domestic brownie than a malign sprite.

The medieval Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwilym (1320-50) wrote two poems describing the Will.  Y Pwll Mawn, The Peat Pit, is desrcibed by him as being “the haunt of many a drowned wraith” whilst Ar Niwl Maith (On a Misty Walk) is an extended description of the perils of travel in poor visibility:

“My twisty traipse turns to clumsy labour

Like a hell,

Into a still bogmire,

Where in every hollow lurks

A hundred wry-mouthed elves.”

Similarly, in the Highlands, a Gaelic poem mentions “the busily roaming fairy woman, deluder of travellers…”

Wills of the Wisp and snake, Hermann Hendrich

More details and discussion will be found in the chapter dedicated to this subject in my forthcoming Beyond Faery (Llewellyn Worldwide).

Beyond Faery III- Black dogs and other faery animals

Gabrielratchet

This posting is a further collection of material I have collected during my researches since I completed the manuscript of my forthcoming book, Beyond Faery: Exploring the World of Mermaids, Kelpies, Goblins & Other Faery Beasts.

The black dog is a faery beast that seems to be very typical of the southern half of Britain- that is England, Wales and Cornwall, plus the Channel Islands.  They have been reported since the Middle Ages.  

The black dog phenomenon

These creatures can be supernatural beings that appear sometimes in hound form, sometimes as other animals (or objects), or they may only ever be seen as terrifying hounds.

For example, on the Cotswold Hills black dog apparitions are very common.  Some seem to be the ghosts of humans (often murdered), some are dogs, many are evil and a few are even helpful, such as that at Birdlip Hill which guides lost travellers.  Far more representative of the species is the black dog that was sighted periodically during the nineteenth century at Barton Lane, Headington, Oxford.  This large hound had glowing eyes the size of saucers, something that’s a common (and highly alarming) trait of the species.

Many of these black phantom dogs have no special name, but in East Anglia they are often called ‘shugs,’ reflective of their shaggy appearance, whilst in the North of England there are several types of the species recognised, which go by the names of padfoot, guytrash, barguest and skriker.  I will deal with these northern types in a forthcoming posting.

On the Channel Island of Guernsey there is the black dog called Tchi-co, or La bete de la Tour.  It haunts the streets of St Peter Port and has the unearthly cry and huge flaming eyes typical of its kind.  These are combined with another regular feature, the sound of chains being dragged along the ground.  La bete is the size of a bear or a large calf but is sometimes invisible, its presence being indicated by the unearthly clanking and howling.  Several other such phantom dogs are known on the island: Le Chien Bodu is a black dog that portends death; another, pulling its chains along, prowls the Forest Road and can cause death by the shock it inflicts on witnesses.

Unfortunately, people have found that you can’t chase these creatures off, like normal dogs.  A man tried to strike a white hound he saw at Horbury in Yorkshire in 1880; his stick went straight through it and he received such a shock that he returned home, took to his bed, and died (see Magical Folk 55).   A headless hound that haunts Ville au Roi on Guernsey is similar: although it can be felt brushing past night-time travellers, it has no substance if you try to strike it.

The Pembrokeshire Herald in March 1853 carried a fascinating report of an encounter between a Church of England clergyman and a spectral hound.  The account summarises most of the characteristics described so far- but adds something new and troubling.  To begin with the dog was invisible, and the minister heard only its panting and the padding of its paws behind him as he walked.  Then he felt it brush past him and it revealed itself; it was blue, the size of a young calf and had eyes like glowing coals.  As just discussed, his reaction was to try to strike it with his walking stick- which passed through the beast harmlessly.  Luckily for the vicar, a coach happened to pass just that moment, so he flagged it down and boarded.  Given his lucky escape, he took a moment to close his eyes and calm down- only to discover that the dog was under the seat opposite him and was then see prowling outside his home.  Luckily, probably, this ‘stalking’ trait is unique amongst these hounds.

Generally, terror is the main result of an encounter with one of the black dogs.  However, ‘Hairy Jack’ at Grayingham in Lincolnshire was one of those that attacked solitary passers-by and the black hound of Rodway Hill in the Quantocks in Somerset left a man paralysed for the remainder of his life after it brushed against him.

Generally, religious ritual seems to be the only way of dealing with these hounds.   The black dog of Wilcote Wood near Wychwood on the Cotswolds was laid in an elaborate manner.  A new born baby and two clappers (bird scarers) were acquired.  A priest prayed over the baby and then threw one of the clappers in one pond and the other in a second pond nearby.  As long as the two are kept apart, it is said, the dog will never reappear. In another version of this story, the clapper was taken from a bell and the two parts put in the two ponds.  If, for some reason, the two are ever reunited, the hound will rise again.

Jacob Allies, in his 1852 description of the folklore of Worcestershire, described a fairly typical black dog that haunted a deep and gloomy lane near Alfrick.  It might be seen as a dark hound lying by the road, which would cause horses to freeze on the spot, but it also appeared to manifest as a wagon drawn by four black horses, a dark rider or a large crow, all of which could be accompanied by the sound of a terrible, hollow hammering.  The barguest of Glassensikes, near Darlington, is seen as a black dog that howls at midnight before a calamity, but it also manifests as a headless man or woman, a white cat or a rabbit.  The ‘bargest’ of Northorpe in Lindsey, Lincolnshire, haunted the graveyard there, reinforcing the ‘hell’ hound aspect of this species.

Hell Hounds

The black dogs are often confused or mingled with the aerial hell-hounds, known as the whist hounds, gabriel ratchets or dandy dogs.  In Wales there are the packs of the cwn bendith y mamau (fairy dogs), which were still heard on the slopes of Preseli a century ago, and the solitary ci bal, which ranges across the whole southern part of the country.  If it pursues you, you can escape by crossing running water (a way of escaping many faeries). 

Another name used for these Welsh hounds was cwn annwn, or hell hounds, which have been described in one report as small and either black with red spots- or red with black spots.  Those witnessed in Glamorgan are said to be blood red and dripping with gore; they howl in the air as if lamenting.  The related cwn wybir are reported to be heard at night in desolate spots (mountains and moorland) baying and yelling in the air.  They don’t seem to do any harm to mortals, as their prey is the spirits of the dead.

Similar creatures are also found in the South-West of Britain.  On Bodmin Moor in Cornwall, the dandy dogs are said to hunt the souls of the damned at night.  Further west, the ‘goblin hounds’ have been heard hunting hares across the downs between Truro and Redruth.  In Devon the wish hounds are silent black dogs seen in a pack that seem to threaten the living. Children can be protected from them by putting bread under their pillows.

Other faery beasts

There are many other fae beasts, albeit ones that seem consistently to keep to one form.  There is, for example, a white hare that is seen on the quays of the Cornish fishing village of Polperro.  It is harmless, but it predicts a coming storm.  White hares and rabbits are often seen in Lincolnshire and, significantly perhaps, it is said in Yorkshire and Worcestershire that if one crosses your path at night it is a sign of impending death.  For example, in 1891 one writer reported the case of a stonemason who had seen a white rabbit whilst out at night catching sparrows.  He was overcome with such terror that he went home, took to his bed and died (see Magical Folk 54-55).

At Finstock in the Cotswolds, the awful apparition is a nanny goat that drags a chain along.  At North Leigh in Oxfordshire, a headless calf is seen.  The white calf at Lackey Causey (causeway) in Lincolnshire is one of a number found in that county: it hid, or lived, in a drain under a bridge, from which it would emerge to try to lure travellers into the brook.

In all these cases, the fae beast is an animal that would, in normal circumstances, be regarded as harmless- even endearing- by a person who met it.  However, in their faery form they have features which both betray their supernatural origin and can be distressing to the witness.  

Faery Felines

From the Isle of Man there is a report of a very alarming fairy cat.  One night, a man was about to shut and lock his cottage door when he saw a white cat sitting just outside.  He went to shoo it away, but it would not move.  He then, unwisely, tried to kick it, in response to which it stood up and then swelled up to an enormous size, almost blocking out the sky.  Fortunately, it then walked away, leaving the cottager terrified…

This is by no means an isolated account.  Margaret Alexander was accused of witchcraft at Livingston in Scotland in March 1647.  She confessed that she had been “mightily troubled in her house at night with a rumbling and many kats had resorted there.”  Confirming the faery nature of these visitors, she recalled how, forty years earlier, a number of “kats” as big as sheep had appeared before her in one of the streets of the town.  They had then turned into men and women, some of whom were dead and some alive- implying strongly that they were faery beings.

A great deal less sinister was a kitten encountered by a gypsy family in a snowstorm on the Cotswolds.  It advised them to follow the sound of church bells and, by that means, they got to shelter out of the blizzard.  They were sure this benign creature was of supernatural origin (as it had to be- it spoke to them…)

Faery Pets and Livestock

It’s worthwhile just reminding ourselves that the fae are known to keep their own dogs (for guarding and hunting), cattle and horses (for riding and hunting).  These beasts have their distinctive characteristics, but they are quite distinct from the creatures described here.  The various monstrous I have described here animals operate autonomously, whereas the fairies’ hounds and herds are definitely under their control.

I have discussed fairy cattle previously; here, I’ll add a little more about the fairies’ hounds.  There is often something to identify them as being out of the ordinary: for instance, the cu sith or fairy dog of the Scottish Highlands is the size of a two year cow and is green- or even multi-coloured, with yellow feet, black sides and red ears.  The fae have been seen riding with their dogs, or processing on foot with them going two by two.  This suggests that they’re well-trained and obedient animals, whatever their appearance.  This isn’t always borne out by experience, however.

In one Welsh story a man walking in his garden was attacked by a fairy dog that looked like a greyhound.  It ran between his legs and carried him off at great speed, charging through bushes and hedges as it went.  Eventually, the unwilling rider managed to get off and stumbled home- only to discover that he’d been gone for two weeks.  In another example, a farmer from Sutherland in the north of Scotland was resting in his field after completing his ploughing when he heard the horns of a fairy hunting party nearby.  Suddenly, two large and threatening dogs advanced upon him, sniffing his knees.  Luckily, a disembodied voice called them off.

Conclusions

I’ve provided links to some of my previous postings on faery beasts and several chapters of Beyond Faery are devoted to the hounds and other animals.

The Fairy Faith in English Music

bax 1

I’ve written previously about Rutland Boughton, the (original) Glastonbury Festival and the use of Arthurian and Faery themes in opera and song.  Here I expand further on this theme within British classical music.

Arnold Bax

Arnold Bax (1883-1953) was a British composer for whom fairy and Celtic themes were of major significance.  From his time as a student at the Royal Academy of Music between 1900 and 1905 Bax was greatly attracted to Ireland and Celtic folklore.

Bax & the Celtic Twilight

Soon after his graduation, Bax departed from classical influences and deliberately adopted what he conceived of as a Celtic idiom.  His infatuation with the newly revived ‘Celtic’ culture, and with the island of Ireland, must be understood within the broader context of the  fin-de-siècle artistic and spiritual fashions upon which the composer’s youthful imagination was nourished.

The latest aesthetic fashions tended to favour anything exotic and which contrasted with common-place concerns and the practicalities of everyday life. Theosophy, Eastern mysticism, French Symbolism and the spiritual Celticism that was so much in vogue in the 1890s all contributed important strands to the artistic culture of the time, while in the not too distant background was the Pre-Raphaelite medievalism of Rossetti and William Morris. There was much talk of neo-paganism and a strong interest in the occult.  Undoubtedly, too, a large part of the general appeal of these subjects was that their potent atmosphere of sexuality. To this can be added, particularly for a musician, the impact of Wagnerian music drama, the daring novelties of Strauss and, a decade or so later, the lavish splendours of the Russian ballet.

Bax was intoxicated with all of this intellectual ferment and Celticism in particular dominated his imagination for a time and led directly to his fascination with Ireland.  Even so, as we shall see, he remained equally susceptible to the exuberant and decadent poetry of Swinburne, and to the exotic influence of Russia. They were all just different aspects of the same extravagant sources of inspiration and they all left their mark on his music.

W.B. Yeats was, of course, the high priest of this Celticism and Bax duly came under his spell. In 1902, he says, he read The Wanderings of Usheen (Oisin), “and in a moment the Celt within me stood revealed.” In attempting to explain what he meant by this rhetorical phrase Bax has told us that, in his opinion, “the Celt- although he knew more clearly than most races the difference between dreams and reality- deliberately chose to follow the dream.” As there was “a tireless hunter of dreams” in his own make-up, Bax concluded that behind his everyday English exterior there must exist an inner Celtic self. His recognition of the true nature of this inner self, he insisted, he owed to Yeats.  The poet’s influence was “the key that opened the gate of the Celtic wonderland to my wide-eyed youth,” and it was shortly after his first discovery of Niamh, Oisin and the enchanted islands in the western seas that Bax visited Ireland for the first time. The composer never doubted what the country had given him. If Yeats’ particular brand of Irish Celticism allowed Bax to focus his adolescent emotions , and to recognise what he believed was his ‘Celtic self,’ then the country itself provided him with a physical setting for his fantasies. “My dream became localised,” he said. Ireland represented that dream for him, although very evidently Bax saw the country through an idealistic haze:

“I went to Ireland as a boy of nineteen in great spiritual excitement and once there my existence was at first so unrelated to material actualities that I find it difficult to remember it in any clarity. I do not think I saw men and women passing me on the roads as real figures of flesh and blood; I looked through them back to their archetypes, and even Dublin itself seemed peopled by gods and heroic shapes from the past.”

Bax travelled extensively in the country and, for some years before the Great War, had homes both in England and in Ireland. So great was his identification with, and immersion in, the country and its cultural heritage that he even wrote Irish poetry under the pseudonym of Dermot O’Byrne.  Bax’s brother also lived in Dublin during the period and through him the composer got to know mystic poet and painter AE (George Russell) and had contact with the city’s influential circle of  Theosophists.

The result of this infatuation with Ireland can be heard in the music Bax composed during this phase of his life. “In part at least I rid myself of the sway of Wagner and Strauss,” he later said, “and began to write Irishly, using figures and melodies of a definitely Celtic curve,” although he never made any use of actual folk songs. The Irish influence is clear from the titles of works like A Connemara Revel (1904) and An Irish Overture (1905), while Cathleen-ni-Hoolihan, also of 1905, and Into the Twilight of 1908, clearly reflect his interest in Yeats. Nonetheless, despite his contact with, and sympathy for, the Gaelic-speaking population, his music always belonged to the “non-existent Ireland of the Celtic Twilight.”

For his first important work, A Celtic Song Cycle of 1904, Bax chose to set poems by the Scottish writer Fiona Macleod, and he produced about a dozen or so other songs to her verses in the years immediately following .  Fiona Macleod was, after Yeats, the greatest populariser of Celticism at the end of the nineteenth century (readers may recall that Boughton was similarly influenced), even though the writing is now virtually unknown. Her work was arguably as much an inspiration for Bax at this period in his life as was the work of Yeats, although he never acknowledged this explicitly. As we’ve seen before, no such writer actually existed, because Fiona Macleod was in truth the Celtic alter ego of William Sharp, the Scottish literary critic, biographer and novelist. Bax met Sharp in due course and the influence of Sharp’s verse on the music he composed in the first decade of the century is very strong.

Fairy Music

In 1908 Bax began a working on trilogy of tone poems called Eire (Into the Twilight; In the Faëry Hills and Roscatha). A review of In the Faëry Hills in the Manchester Guardian said that “Mr Bax has happily suggested the appropriate atmosphere of mystery” and the Musical Times praised “a mystic glamour that could not fail to be felt by the listener.”

Into the Twilight began as life as a sketch for an orchestral interlude in Bax’s projected opera, Déirdre, based on the life of the tragic Irish heroine. Only the opening passages of Into the Twilight were actually newly written in 1908; much of the rest of the tone poem was a re-composition of one of Bax’s student works, Cathleen-ni-Hoolihan, which was composed between 1903 and 1905.

In the Faëry Hills, to which the composer gave the alternative Irish title An Sluagh Sidhe (The Fairy Host), was inspired by Yeat’s The Wanderings of Oisin.  Bax wrote of the origin of the piece itself that “I got this mood under Mount Brandon with all W B [Yeats]’s magic about me – no credit to me of course because I was possessed by Kerry’s self”. He wrote in a programme note for the work that he had sought “to suggest the revelries of the ‘Hidden People’ in the inmost deeps and hollow hills of Ireland”.

In The Wanderings of Oisin the fairy princess Niamh falls in love with the Irish hero, Oisin, and his poetry, and persuades him to join her in the immortal islands. He sings to the immortals what he conceives to be a song of joy, but his audience finds mere earthly joy intolerable:

“But when I sang of human joy
A sorrow wrapped each merry face,
And, Patrick! by your beard, they wept,
Until one came, a tearful boy;
A sadder creature never stept
Than this strange human bard,” he cried;
And caught the silver harp away…”

The immortals then sweep Oisin into “a wild and sudden dance” that “mocked at Time and Fate and Chance”.  The basic idea of a mortal being enticed away by supernatural forces is paralleled in several of Bax’s orchestral works of the same period, for example The Garden of Fand (1913-16) and in some Greek influenced works we shall now examine.

Pagan Music

Despite the importance of Yeats’ mystic and fairy poetry to Bax’s music, the influences the composer drew upon were actually much broader and deeper.  His works are inspired by Irish and Arthurian myth, Scottish and Norse mythology, English folk tradition and by classical Greek legends.  Indeed, Bax himself once scathingly dismissed the ‘Celtic twilight’ of the contemporary writers as “all bunk derived by English journalists from the spurious Ossian and the title of an early work by Yeats. Primitive Celtic colours are bright and jewelled.”  He wanted to suggest that he was more interested in the raw, original sources than in modern imitations.

Bax’s pagan Greek influences are channelled through 19th-century English literature such as Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound and several works by Swinburne.  The latter’s recreation of this pagan world introduced a fresh element of ecstasy into English poetry which obviously had an enormous appeal for Bax, whose own youthful outpourings, both musical and literary, were marked by their intense passion.

Another of Bax’s scores, The Happy Forest (1914), bears a title taken from a prose-poem by Herbert Farjeon which was itself influenced by the Idylls of Theocritus, known as the ‘father’ of Greek pastoral poetry.  Bax used Farjeon as a point of departure for painting a musical impression of another enchanted wood filled with “the phantasmagoria of nature. Dryads, sylphs, fauns and satyrs abound- perhaps the goat-foot god may be there, but no man or woman.”

The most important of his scores from this time, Spring Fire (1913), was based largely on the first chorus of Algernon Swinburne’s Atalanta in Calydon, quotations from which appear at the head of each movement in the score. Completed at Tintagel and published in 1865, Swinburne’s poetic drama retold the Greek myth of the killing of the wild Calydonian boar by a band of heroes, that includes the huntress Atalanta. Bax was concerned with the earthier, primitive aspects of Greek mythology: the erotic capers of silvan demigods, the orgiastic frolics of the bacchantes and the followers of Pan, and the annual regeneration of nature.

Elemental phenomena- such as wild landscapes and seas- also had a very powerful effect upon him. His friend Mary Gleaves recalled that Bax had an “almost erotic” empathy with trees, and there are sexual connotations to his sea music as well. Bax himself acknowledged the non-Celtic nature of the ideas behind Spring Fire and the other scores and stated that ‘the true ecstasy of spring’ and the ‘affirmation of life’ were Hellenic concepts, foreign to the Celt: “Pan and Apollo, if ever they wandered so far from the Hesperidean garden as this icy Ierne, were banished at once in a reek of blood and mist and fire…”

These pagan scores date from the period just before the Great War, when there was a distinct artistic vogue for ‘pagan’ subjects. Nijinsky’s production of L’après-midi d’un faune was first performed in 1912, and The Rite of Spring in 1913. Other works of the period are Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé (1910) and Skryabin’s Prometheus (1913). Thus, in creating the finest of his pre-war compositions, Bax was not only embodying his own ‘adolescent dreams’ but responding to a broader trend.

Nympholepsy

The classical Greek influence is especially strong and relevant in one piece.  Originally a work for solo piano, Nympholept was completed by Bax in July 1912.  The title derives from Greek νυμφόληπτος (numpholēptos), one who suffers from nympholepsy, which is the state of rapture inspired by nymphs, and on the manuscript of the piece Bax wrote:

“The tale telleth how one walking at summer-dawn in haunted woods was beguiled by the nymphs, and, meshed in their shining and perilous dances, was rapt away for ever into the sunlight life of the wild-wood.”

The title was taken by Bax from a poem of 1894 by Algernon Swinburne, which describes a “perilous pagan enchantment haunting the midsummer forest.” In 1951, Bax further recorded that Swinburne’s poem was about the “panic induced by noonday silence in the woods.”  There is indeed a fevered noonday atmosphere to the verse, with its invocations of Pan and the pulse of being pervading everything:

“In the naked and nymph-like feet of the dawn… / And in each life living, O thou the God who art all.”

The manuscript of the orchestral version has an additional note by Bax, a quotation from George Meredith’s poem The Woods of Westermain, which conjures up further images of the goddess, imps and enchantment:

“Enter these enchanted woods/ You who dare…”

Robert Browning also wrote a poem entitled Numpholeptos, and Bax himself had written one called Nympholept, which is dated 26th February 1912- five months before the piano score was completed.  It was eventually published by him anonymously in Love Poems of a Musician (London, 1923) and tells how the narrator “chased all day the elfin bride” through a forest.  Browning too asks “What fairy track do I explore?” in his description of his obsessive love.  The equation between classical nymphs and native fairies is one that has been made since Tudor times, meaning that, in literary and musical terms, the terms can be interchangeable.

Regrettably, Bax’s optimistic yearning for an imaginary Arcadian existence (what he dismissed as “the ivory tower of my youth” in 1949) was soon to be swept away by the harsh realities of the The Great War, the Easter Rising in Ireland and, on a more personal level, the disintegration of his marriage. Never again in his music was Bax to visit the world of classical antiquity, or to recapture the mood of unadulterated happiness and elation.

john-ireland

John Ireland

For Arnold Bax, the love of myth and fairy lore was an intellectual matter; for fellow composer John Ireland (1869- 1962) it was real and physical, the product of personal sensation and experience.  He once declared of himself: “I am a Pagan.  A Pagan I was born and a Pagan I shall remain- that is the foundation of religion.”

Arthur Machen

“They told me Pan was dead, but I,

Oft marvelled who it was that sang

Down the green valleys languidly

Where the grey elder thickets hang…”

A key factor in Ireland’s philosophy and music was the writing of Welsh novelist, Arthur Machen.  The composer first came across his work when he picked up a copy of The House of Souls at Preston railway station in 1906.  He said that he instantly bought it and instantly loved it: its impact upon him was as important as had been reading De Quincey’s Confessions of an Opium Eater.

Nearly thirty years later Ireland was to get to know Machen personally, but the author’s world of fantasy and mystery had had an immediate effect upon him.  Machen’s books have been described as a “catalyst” for Ireland, something which “infused” his compositions.  He himself declared that his music could not be understood unless the listener had also read Machen’s stories.

For Ireland, Machen had the status of a “seer.” The composer’s interest in magic and the unknown were ignited by reading his stories and he shared with the author a belief in the subconscious or ‘racial memory,’ the idea that through ancient sites such as barrows and standing stones he could connect to an ancient mysticism.  At Chanctonbury Ring and Maiden Castle hillforts, for example, Ireland believed that he could still detect traces of the early rites that had been performed there.

Ireland was especially fascinated by ritual and by the occult.  He shared this, too, with Machen, who was a member of the Golden Dawn along with Yeats, Aleister Crowley, Bram Stoker and fellow fantasy novelist Algernon Blackwood.  Ireland’s particular devotion was to Pan.  In 1952 he said that:

“The Great God Pan has departed from this planet, driven hence by the mastery of the material and the machine over mankind.”

The composer was not alone in this fascination (as we have already seen from Arnold Bax).  From the 1880s until the 1940s there was something of an artistic cult for the ancient god, as is witnessed in poetry (Walter de la Mare’s They told me (see above) and Sorcery, Swinburne’s Palace of Pan, Robert Browning’s Pan and Luna and Elizabeth Browning’s A Musical Instrument) and in novels (such works as Francis Bourdillon’s A Lost God, E. F. Benson’s The Man Who Went Too Far and Saki’s The Music on the Hill.)  Aleister Crowley wrote a ‘Hymn to Pan’ and the rural god even appears in Kenneth Graham’s Wind in the Willows, in the chapter entitled ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’ (later the title of an album by Pink Floyd). Pan had an aura of decadence and Ireland was definitely attracted to the god’s darker side- the very same aspect that was celebrated by Machen.

Arthur Machen was not, of course, John Ireland’s sole influence.  He drew musically upon the spirit of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and he also found John Brand’s Observations on Popular Antiquities, a rich source of English fairy lore and folk tradition, a further valuable inspiration.  The fairy author, Sylvia Townsend Warner, who happened also to be a relative of Machen, was another influence, her concerns with physical and mental ecstasy matching Ireland’s own.

The Hill of Dreams

Ireland found Machen’s novel The Hill of Dreams intensely compelling and reckoned that it deserved a place in the ‘literary hierarchy.’  It never ceased to be a source of inspiration for him.  It is the strange story of a young man who seems to come into contact with an ancient cult at an overgrown hill fort and who is eventually claimed by the satyrs and witches who haunt the place.  The book probably helped shape Ireland’s piano concerto, Mai-Dun, which takes its title from the name Thomas Hardy used for Maiden Castle.

The mood of intoxicating summer heat, fevered sexual dreams and pagan mystery invoked here are exactly what Bax was trying to emulate in Nympholept.

Ovenden, illustration to Machen's 'White people'

Graham Ovenden, The White People

The White People

“What voice is that I hear,

Crying across the pool?

It is the voice of Pan you hear,

Crying his sorceries shrill and clear”

Walter de la Mare, Sorcery

One of the stories in Machen’s House of Souls is the remarkable White People, an account by a young girl of her encounters with mysterious white people (who may be fairies), her discovery of a lost altar to Pan and the revelation of hidden mysteries to her by water nymphs, fae spirits who may seem charming and harmless in some aspects, but fierce in others (see Bax earlier).  Ireland said that this haunting story had “astounding qualities” at which he “never ceased to marvel.”

The story directly inspired three very short piano suites written in 1913 by Ireland, Island Spell, Moon-Glade and Scarlet Ceremonies, which he grouped together under the title DecorationsScarlet Ceremonies took its title directly from The White People.  Two of its movements are headed by citations from poet Arthur Symons; for example, Island Spell begins:

“I would wash the dust of the world in a soft green flood,

Here, between sea and sea in the fairy wood,

I have found a delicate, wave-green solitude…”

The third song borrows some lines from Machen:

“Then there are the ceremonies, which are all of them important, but some are more delightful than others: there are White Ceremonies, and the Green Ceremonies, and the Scarlet Ceremonies.  The Scarlet Ceremonies are the best…”

Ireland’s fascination with pagan ritual is also demonstrated by 1913’s brief prelude for orchestra, Forgotten Rite, a composition that has been said to be permeated with Machen’s notion of a “world beyond the walls;” with the proximity of the supernatural.  The Rite was particularly inspired by the ancient landscapes of Guernsey, an island that Ireland described as being especially ‘Machenish,’ and it also invokes Pan.   In Sarnia (1940) Ireland pursued this theme, celebrating the ecstasy of communing with nature.  This ‘Island Sequence’ comprises three piano pieces, ‘Le Catioroc’ (a Guernsey headland crowned by the impressive Le Trepied dolmen), ‘In a May Morning’ and ‘Song of the Springtides,’ the being latter prefaced by a quotation from Swinburne.  The ritualistic mood again derives from Machen’s novel The Great God Pan.

le_trepied_megalithic_burial_chamber

Le Trepied

John Ireland and the Fairies

As I stated earlier, Ireland’s pagan and mystic fascinations came not just from reading (unlike Bax).  He lived his occult and faery beliefs.

In 1933 John Ireland was visiting the South Downs in Sussex. He was working on a new composition and walked high up on top the Downs to visit a ruined chapel called Friday’s Church.  Ireland was irritated to find that he was not alone.  A group of children dressed in white appeared near him and started to dance.  He watched them for some time before it began to dawn upon him that the infants made no sound and their feet upon the turf were silent.  He looked away, briefly distracted, and when he looked back- they had vanished.  He was convinced that he had had a fairy experience.  He wrote about it in detail to Machen, whose laconic reply was:

“Oh, so you’ve seen them too?”

Ireland’s piano concerto Legend was the product of this experience.

In conclusion

As I’ve suggested before, the impact of the fairy faith upon British culture is deep and persistent: it’s given rise to musicals, operas, epic novels and to plays.  All I can do, finally, is to encourage readers to go to the works of art themselves.  Read Machen and Macleod, read Blackwood and Swinburne; try the compositions of Bax and Ireland.  Sylvia Townsend Warner’s book of her own fairy tales, Kingdoms of Elfin, is also very entertaining.