‘Something in that witching face’- kelpies and mermaids

caffieri mermaid

Caffieri, ‘Young siren’

A long time ago, in an early posting on this blog, I discussed mermaids; I want now to return to the subject with some further reflections and information.

The little mermaid

Just like fairies, elves and pixies, it is very notable how the popular image of mermaids has improved and how they are coming to be regarded as wholly cute and attractive figures of myth.  The illustrations to this posting by Hector Caffieri demonstrate an early stage in this trend; perhaps the best known contemporary example might be Disney’s Ariel, the little mermaid.  In passing, it may be worthwhile making an additional observation on visual conventions.  The cartoon Ariel, for one, is sanitised and winsome.  Caffieri’s ‘Siren’ above is likewise a small girl, but it’s notable how the standard image has changed in the last century or so.  Today, the fish scales extend to the waist; in Victorian times (as can be seen) they often started somewhat lower, requiring a more discrete treatment (or perhaps a chance for a little titillation).

Today, mermaids are viewed wholly as figures suitable for children to like, draw and to imitate, with mermaid tails being a widely available form of fun beach wear.  It seems very likely that this more benign idea is derived from Hans Christian Andersen’s 1837 story of The little mermaid.  The main character in this is presented as a model of Christian self sacrifice and goodness and has doubtless had a pervasive influence commensurate with the story’s popularity.  For modern generations, the aforementioned cartoon version of the story from Disney has profoundly influenced popular views of marine supernaturals since its release in 1989.  Other symptoms of these revised views of merfolk may be the 1984 film Splash starring Daryl Hannah and the very recent appearance of female entertainers playing mermaids for parties and corporate events.

Folklore mermaids

Whilst terrestrial fairies have been the subject of prettification and miniaturisation since the late sixteenth century,  this process has only been applied to mermaids during the last century and a half.  The consequence is that a great deal more of the older folklore attitudes survive, both in stories and in poetry.  Mermaids are still supernatural creatures deserving of awe, fear and mistrust.  Kindliness was never one of the mermaid’s traditional traits and it is still not how other supernatural water beasts are perceived.  In this respect, the dependable J K Rowling gives us a depiction more observant of folklore in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (there called grindylows).  It may be easier for us to identify with and to find attractive qualities in a being that lives solely on land; mermaids live in a different element in which a human cannot survive and this important distinction may help to preserve their distance from us and our healthy respect for that difference.

caffieri-hector-1847-1932 a-young-siren

Caffieri,  ‘Siren’ (Bonhams)

It’s also inescapable that most mermaids are depicted as young, beautiful, naked women.  There’s probably a lot of psychology here if you’d like to find it.  This iconography may tell us about relations between men and women: the separation between elements may be a metaphor for the difference between the sexes.  It may equally just have something to say about sex more generally- that physical attraction is powerful, but dangerous; that we are entering a new and exposing environment when we entrust ourselves to another individual; that the lure of the strange and mysterious is strong but perilous.   As with all supernatural partners, love for mermaids is enticing but full of risk: what is placed in jeopardy may be long term happiness, your present way of living and connections or, even, life itself.

Irish poet Francis Hackett (1883-1962) captured many of the conventional traits of the mermaid in his poem Sea dawn:

“From Wicklow to the throb of dawn
I walked out to the sea alone
And by the black rocks came upon
A being from a world unknown.

As proud she sat as any queen
On high, and naked as the air:
Her limbs were lustrous, and a sheen
Of sea-gold flowed from her flowing hair.

And as the spreading sea did swell
With dawns strange and brimming light
Her little breasts arose and fell
As if in concord with the sight.

Faint was the sea sound that she made
Of little waves that melt in sand
While with her honey hair she played
And arched the mirror in her hand.”

This evocation of adolescent allure may well now trigger thoughts of the recent controversy concerning J. M. Waterhouse’s painting Hylas and the nymphs and its temporary removal from the walls of Manchester City Art Gallery.  Both the picture and Hackett’s verse are of a piece and represent one powerful current of thought on mermaids and their nature.

Common mermaid themes

Across the world, there are several themes common to tales of merfolk.  The principal of these are as follows:

  • they can predict the future (see John Rhys, Celtic folklorethough very often this knowledge is dispensed in cryptic terms;
  • they can grant magical powers to those they favour (see for example The old man of Cury in Hunt’s Popular romances of the West of England);
  • they can punish those who offend them or who injure those whom they protect (see Hunt’s stories of the mermaid in Padstow Harbour and of The mermaid’s vengeance);
  • they can assume normal human form by magical means; and,
  • they can become involved in love affairs with mortals, whether that involves living for a while on land with the human or luring the human beneath the waves.  The outcomes are seldom good (see Matthew Arnold, The merman’s lament).

As is the case in contact with all supernatural beings, involvement with merfolk is generally risky and involves an imbalance of power.  Romantic attachments can be fatal whilst any information or ability gained from them is only obtained through coercion, whether that is bribery or physical force.

mucha mermaid

An art nouveau mermaid or water sprite

Water monsters

To repeat, as with the improvement in the character of fairies, the changed perception of merfolk is a relatively recent amelioration.  Evidence of the earlier, much more dangerous, nature of these beings is still to be found in the Scottish accounts of water horses (associated with salt water), water bulls and other water beasts like kelpies, which are found in freshwater lochs.  Their main occupation, it seems, is seducing mortals and luring them to their doom.  James Hogg’s 1819 poem The mermaid is representative of this:  the Maid of the Crystal Wave lures a young man to ‘places he should not have been and sights he should not have seen’ and it proves to be his ruin.  Similarly in Charles Mackay’s 1851 ballad The Kelpie of Corryevreckan a handsome stranger on a horse rides off with love-struck Jessie, but then plunges beneath the waves with her, so that she is found drowned the next day.  Poet Joseph Rodman Drake in his verse, To a friend, described travellers being terrorised by “the kelpie’s fang.”

It is notable that whilst mermaids might accidentally drown their lovers, it is not generally their intention, whereas the character of the water beasts is specifically to seek out humans in order to destroy them.  In light of this, there is perhaps a case for excluding the latter from the category of ‘fairies.’ Mermaids are semi-human in form; the kelpie can take on human form whilst the water horses appear as animals alone and may be better described as monsters.

Lastly, what is particularly notable is the Highland Scottish link between water creatures and horses.  Exactly why this should have been made is far from clear, but it is to be found across Northern Europe in Scandinavian folklore, from Iceland through to Denmark.  It seems very likely that Viking settlement introduced this idea into the north of Scotland.

waterhouse, sketch-for-a-mermaid-1892

J W Waterhouse, ‘Sketch for a mermaid’, 1892.

Further reading

As mentioned, I posted before on the risks of loving mermaids and water beasts and I have also discussed catching the fleeting and vulnerable asrai.  Mermaids are more than pretty faces, though: see my post on mermaid wisdom and my posting on Gwenhidw, the Welsh mermaid queen. See too my discussion of freshwater mere-maids and of of Charles’ Kingsley’s famous novel, The water babies.  

Of muggles and boggarts- and other fantastic beasts

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The bogles in the courtyard, by Arthur Rackham

Following my recent remarks upon the authentic origins of Dobby and the other house-elves of the Harry Potter series, in this post I’m offering a few more thoughts and comments upon some of Joanne Rowling’s words and characters.

Muggles

We’ll start with Muggles, non-magic folk.  There are several websites out there offering perfectly reasonable theories as to where she derived this from.  One site, for example,  proposes a word with a very long pedigree that has meant tail, young woman and, more recently, ‘joint.’  None of these have any magical or supernatural connotations, plainly.

However, it is well known that Rowling did thorough research whilst writing the Potter series.  Perhaps she came across this tale from the West of Scotland, recorded by J. G. Campbell and also printed by Lewis Spence.  A boy who was believed to be a changeling was sent by one household to seek the loan of a corn sieve from neighbours.  He met the son of that household, who was also a fairy changeling.  The latter told him to make his request in ‘honest language’ (i.e. fairy speak) as they thought they were alone together.  The child sent on the errand therefore said:

“The muggle maggle wants the loan of the black luggle laggle, to take the maggle from the grain.”

If his first words describe his ‘mother’ back at home, then perhaps we see her being identified as a ‘muggle (that is, human or non-fairy) woman/ housewife.’  This little story doesn’t have much at all to tell us about fairy language, but it might suggest a source for Rowling’s usage.

Boggarts

As for boggarts, we are on much firmer ground here.  The boggart is a well known type of British fairy creature.  It is one of a larger class known by a variety of related names- bogies, bogles and bugs.  Boggarts are probably amongst the more pleasant of the breed.  They are all solitary fairies, but boggarts tend to live like brownies in close proximity to human households.  Unlike brownies, they don’t seem to do much work around the farmstead but rather occupy themselves by being a nuisance, making noises and causing disturbance much like a poltergeist.  Rowling’s boggarts are shape-shifters and, on the whole, more malevolent.  She seems to have borrowed these characteristics, but not the name, from the boggarts close relatives.  Bogies range in behaviour from mischievous through frightening to downright dangerous.  They can change their appearance and often torment humans.  Bogles are evil goblins, although at least one is known to focus upon punishing petty criminals.  Bogg beasts are also a malicious kind of goblin, almost a demon in behaviour.  As readers will have seen, J. K. Rowling used traditional fairy characteristics, but preferred to apply the boggart name to the particular creature she imagined.

the-bogles-causing-mischief-under-the-bed-from-the-golden-ball-in-F30THN

Bogles causing mischief, by Arthur Rackham

In The prisoner of Azkaban in Harry Potter’s third year at Hogwarts his class learns about hinky-punks in their ‘Defence against the dark arts’ lessons with Remus Lupin.  These creatures are again borrowings by J. K. Rowling from authentic British tradition.  They are a form of will-of-the-wisp found around the Somerset/ Devon borders and they will lead night-time travellers astray, sometimes luring them into bogs and ponds.  The hinky-punk is believed to have only one leg and one eye.

Brownies in literature- from Mrs Ewing to Dobby

ewing

The brownie is one of the most intriguing creatures of British folklore.  Fairies can seem alien and elusive, seldom seen and dangerous when they are encountered, whereas the brownie is domestic, helpful and ever-present.  I have described this homely presence in many northern British homes and farmsteads in my book British fairies and in an earlier post on brownies; what I wish to discuss here is the literary history of the brownie- and how we arrived at the characters of Dobby, Winky and Creacher in the Harry Potter series of novels.

Mrs Ewing

One of the earliest appearances of the brownie in literature (as opposed to folklore) is in the work of Victorian children’s writer Mrs Juliana Horatia Ewing, who was born in Yorkshire in 1841.  Whilst growing up she often acted as storyteller to the rest of her family and, aged 23, her best-known story, The Brownies, was published in the Monthly Packet with illustrations by George Cruikshank.

The Brownies and the related story, Lob-lie-by-the-fire (1874) both ostensibly concern household elves, and relay much traditional lore about them, but in Lob the lob is revealed to be just the orphaned stable boy John Brown whilst in The Brownies we are let in on the secret well before the end that “All children are Brownies” and that “there [are] no brownies but children.”  In fact, Mrs Ewing was far more interested in teaching children to be helpful and obedient to their parents than she was in recording authentic folklore.

In The Brownies two lazy and selfish boys called Tommy and Johnnie are taught the virtues of helping their widowed father with his trade and household chores:

“The Brownies, or, as they are sometimes called, the Small Folk, the Little People, or the Good People, are a race of tiny beings who domesticate themselves in a house of which some grown-up human being pays the rent and taxes…  When they are idle and mischievous, they are called Boggarts, and are a curse to the house they live in. When they are useful and considerate, they are Brownies, and are a much-coveted blessing… in time these Little People are Brownies no longer. They grow up into men and women.”

When Tommy and Johnnie have learned their lesson and begin to help their father, good luck returns to the house:

“Before long Tommy began to work for the farmers, and Baby grew up into a Brownie, and made (as girls are apt to make) the best house-sprite of all. For, in the Brownie’s habits of self-denial, thoughtfulness, consideration, and the art of little kindnesses, boys are, I am afraid, as a general rule, somewhat behindhand with their sisters… For these Brownies -young ladies!- are much desired as wives, whereas a man might as well marry an old witch as a young Boggartess.”

Mrs Ewing knew her folklore very well, even she did not apply it directly in her stories.  Brownies, lobs and hobs bring good fortune.  For the expense of a bowl of water, milk or cream and some fresh bread, the house-elf would do the work of many servants: sweeping and laying the fire, setting out breakfast, tidying rooms, weeding the garden, threshing the corn, cleaning the stable, cutting wood, thinning the turnips and lifting potatoes.  Householders knew not to alienate their brownies: they were not to reward them with clothes or money, they were to show them respect and they knew not to boast or gossip about them, not to spy upon their labours and not to preach to them.  If these precepts were respected, a farmstead would thrive.  In Lob-lie-by-the-fire it was believed that the lob’s presence meant that the crops improved, the hens laid well, rats did not eat the ducklings, no fowl were stolen and the butter churned better.

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Palmer Cox

The next significant appearance of brownies was in the work of Canadian illustrator Palmer Cox (1840-1924). He produced a series of brownie titles which have been claimed as “the first commercial comic books.”  Each of these dozen books were prefaced by a brief statement that:

“Brownies, like fairies and goblins, are imaginary little sprites, who are supposed to delight in harmless pranks and helpful deeds.  They work and sport while weary households sleep, and never allow themselves to be seen by mortal eyes.”

This is a fair summary of the established lore, but it is not reflected in the books themselves, which comprise numerous illustrations interspersed amongst verse- for example, here is the ‘Brownies’ ride’ from The Brownies: their book of 1887:

“One night a cunning Brownie band/ Was roaming through a farmer’s land/ And while the rogues went prying round/ The farmer’s mare at rest they found.”

A few of the series titles and chapter headings will illustrate how far Cox had travelled from authenticity.  In the first book, The Brownies, readers were entertained by brownies on skates, bicycles and roller skates, brownies playing tennis and baseball and brownies enjoying canoeing and tobogganing and visiting a gym, the seaside and a toy shop.  In 1890’s Another brownie book readers were amused by brownies fishing, kite flying, yacht racing, learning to swim and dance and attending a fancy ball.  And so on; the books were immensely popular and were used by some forty companies including Kodak (the ‘box brownie’ camera) and Proctor and Gamble.

PC brownie

In The brownies and Prince Florimel brownies are described as being the size of twelve year olds, often perching on fences and hiding adroitly whenever danger threatens. This conforms to conventional imagery, but as will have been seen in the verse quoted earlier, Cox has them partaking of their adventures in swarms, more like pixies or spriggans than the solitary creatures they were originally conceived as.  In the same story, by the way, the fairies are ruled by Queen Titania and are tiny; they “never grew old and always remained beautiful.  Their loveliness of face and form was beyond all description.  Just try to think of the prettiest girl you ever saw.  Well, even the plainest of these fairies were ever so much prettier.”

the-enid-blyton-book-of-brownies

Enid Blyton

In the 1920s and ’30s Enid Blyton adopted brownies as the subjects of several children’s books, including The book of the brownies, The little brownie house, Snicker the brownie, The brownie who pulled faces, My first nature book- brownie magic and several others. The first book mentioned seems typical: naughty brownies Hop, Skip and Jump are always playing tricks; they are then tricked themselves by Witch Green Eyes into helping her to abduct fairy princess Peronel.  For this the three are expelled from fairyland and set out on an adventure to rescue her.  Very much like Cox, Blyton’s fairies seem a good deal more like pixies than the traditional solitary creatures who labour on farms.

J K Rowling

It was not until the late 1990s and the appearance of the Harry Potter series that brownies were restored to something resembling their original character in children’s literature.  J K Rowling had plainly studied folklore and the history of alchemy and magic quite extensively before writing her books; this is demonstrated by her treatment of Dobby and the other house-elves.  The name Dobby is not Rowling’s invention.  The native brownie of East Anglia was called Mr (or Master) Dobbs; in Yorkshire he was Dobby and further north in Northumberland and the Borders, he (or she) was called Dobie.

DOBBY2

In the series,  house-elves are depicted as magical creatures who are intensely devoted and loyal to those designated as their masters.  House-elves serve wizards and witches, usually being found in the employment of old wizarding families and bound to do everything that their masters command- unless they are freed. A house-elf can only be freed when their master presents them with clothes (a classic fairy tale trope).  In part due to their absolute obedience, house-elves are treated very brutally by their owners: they have no rights of their own and are viewed as servants without feeling or emotions. To symbolise this, they usually wear makeshift clothes made from found objects such as pillowcases and rags (again, typical of the traditional brownie). These garments can become quite filthy, yet-  as a further expression of the fact that they have no needs other than those specifically allowed to them by their masters- the house-elf will not clean them.  Indeed, so subservient are they that house-elves will torture and maim themselves if they think they have displeased their master.

Large numbers of house-elves are also employed at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.  They work the kitchens, preparing feasts for the entire school. They also move luggage to and from rooms and clean the dormitories and other areas. 

The Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare (S.P.E.W.) was group founded by Hogwarts student Hermione Granger in response to what she saw as gross injustice in the treatment of house elves during the quidditch world cup.  Despite attracting little interest or sympathy in her campaign from fellow students, Hermione persisted, employing tactics such as badge-making and petitioning, albeit with very little effect. Eventually, she started knitting hats and socks which she left lying around, hoping to free some unsuspecting elf who picked them up and put them on while cleaning the common room.  In due course, the elves became angry at Hermione’s attempts at liberation by stealth. The friendliest house-elves working at the school, Dobby and Winky, were considered disgraces by the rest of their colleagues; this is due to Dobby accepting payment and a holiday whilst Winky despairs after she loses her master, turning to drink and doing no work. 

Rowling’s are serious and rounded characters.  She preserves the significance of clothes to their release and incorporates the brownies’ work ethic, although the element of enslavement against which Hermione campaigns is not derived from British tradition.

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Further reading

Other great works of children’s literature with fairy themes are examined in my posts on Charles Kingsley and the Water babies and J. M. Barrie and Peter Pan.