Arthur Rackham- girlies and goblins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fairy Godmothers- the folklore evidence

fairies-bless-the-newborn-child-by-Estella-Canziani
Estella Canziani, Fairies Bless the New Born Child

I recently read an academic article which suggested that the idea of the fairy godmother, so prevalent is our contemporary views of Faery, was a relatively recent introduction to existing tradition, something derived from the Brothers Grimm and from stories like Pinocchio and Cinderella, and since reinforced by popular films, rather than it being a long-standing element of folklore belief.  In this posting I want to challenge that idea and to argue instead that it is one of the oldest recognised aspects of faery behaviour.

Medieval Romance

One of the pastimes or habits of medieval faeries was to either bless or torment humans. According to the historian Layamon, for example, King Arthur was blessed by elves at his birth (this is, by far, our earliest faery godmother account, as the writer was born around 1200).  In the 13th century French romance, Huon of Bordeaux, too, there is a reference to a healing horn that’s presented to faery king Oberon by four faery ‘godmothers.’  Hearing a blast upon it will make the sickest man whole and sound instantly.

The fourteenth century romance of Ogier the Dane mixes fairy material with the ‘Matter of Britain,’ the stories of King Arthur and the exploits of the knights of the Round Table.  At his birth, Ogier is endowed with gifts and qualities by six fairy women; the last of these, Morgana, declares “I claim you as my own.  You shall not die until you have visited me in Avalon.”  After many adventures serving King Charlemagne, Ogier is shipwrecked on a strange island that turns out to be Morgana’s realm.  He falls under her seductive spell and passes a hundred years in bliss, not ageing a day, until by accident he recovers his memory and wishes to return to France.  On doing so, Ogier finds a new king, Hugh Capet, on the throne, whilst the language spoken has changed during his long absence.  After more noble deeds, Morgana reclaims Ogier for herself and takes him back to Avalon- where he is still alive today, alongside King Arthur.

Jessie wilcox smith cinderella
Jessie Wilcox-Smith, Cinderella

Faery Gifts

Amongst the christening gifts made by fairies is very famous song indeed of Dunvegan Castle on the Isle of Skye.  This was a lullaby, sung over the cradle of the new-born heir to the clan MacLeod by a fairy woman.  It foretold the child’s strength in arms and that he would possess plenty of cattle and rich crops in the fields; it promised that he would be free from injury in battle and would enjoy a long life.  Each verse of the song had a different tune.  For many generations afterwards, the custom of the clan was to sing the protective charm over the latest baby heir.

Warwick Goble This was the image I used on our "welcome baby" cards for my little one - MAGIC!
Warwick Goble, illustration in Dora Owen, The Book of Fairy Poetry, 1920

In Tudor times the belief still lingered that some children might be endowed with talents and good fortune at their birth, as in these lines by John Milton (At a Vacation Exercise in the Colledge):

“Good luck befriend thee Son; for at thy birth,

The Faiery Ladies daunc’t upon the hearth;

Thy drowsie Nurse hath sworn she did them spie

Come tripping to the Room where thou didst lie;

And sweetly singing round thy Bed,

Strew all their blessings on thy sleeping Head…”

jessie-willcox-smith-godmothers
Jessie Wilcox-Smith, The Fairy Godmother

These conceptions of course persist for modern readers in the fixed character of the ‘fairy godmother,’ but in Tudor and Stuart times it seems that the favour of the fairy kingdom more generally was envisaged by Ben Jonson (The Silent Woman, Act V, scene 1):

“To what strange fortune, friend, some men are born…

Surely, when thou wert young,

The fairies dandled thee.”

In Victorian verse the idea of fairy godmothers and of three wishes was greatly elaborated, most notably with mermaids, thereby embedding it in our consciousness.  See for example, The Fairy Gift, The Fairy and the Three Wishes & The Farmer and the Magic Ring, all by John Godfrey Saxe, The Fairy’s Gift, Margaret Elizabeth Munson Sangster, in Poems of the Household (1893), 242 and Wise Sarah & The Elf, Elizabeth Coatsworth.  Generally, see my Victorian Fairy Verse.

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Sarah Stilwell Weber, Fairy Godmother

 

 

A nation underground- subterranean fairies

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Arthur Rackham, from Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens

In this post I want to return to the question of fairy dwellings and fairyland.  Fairyland is very often conceived of as a place below the ground surface; here I want to examine that in considerable detail.

The idea of a subterranean Faery is something that has long been embedded in both folklore and literature.  For example, in a masque presented for Queen Elizabeth by the Earl of Hertford in 1591 we are introduced to the monarch:

“I that abide in places underground,/ Aureola, the Queene of Fairy land…”

Much later, the Duchess of Newcastle imagined that “The Fairy Queen’s large Kingdome got by birth/ Is the circled centre of the Earth,” a place bejewelled with all the gems and ores we might anticipate to find in a mine.

Without doubt, this hidden realm would be a place of mystery.  John Aubrey in the late seventeenth century wrote that:

“Some were led away by fairies, as was a Hind riding upon Hackpen… So was a shepherd of Mr Brown of Winterbourne Abbas… the ground opened and he was brought to strange places underground.”

I want to go too to those strange places, to discover the way and to see what’s there.

How to get access

It’s very widely accepted that fairyland is subterranean, but that raises a host of problems.  How deep is it?  Where are the access points?

It’s also very widely believed that one very common location for fairy dwellings is under small hills.  This is especially common in Scotland, where many small mounds are called ‘fairy knowe’ or ‘knolls.’ An alternative name for the trows of Shetland is the ‘hill men.’ These hills may be natural mounds or they may be prehistoric burial tumuli.  Neolithic barrows are regarded as fairy homes from Yorkshire right up to Sutherland and including the Isle of Man.

Either way, the fairies aren’t buried very deep and getting in presents less challenges.  Very few people ever simply pick up a spade and start digging (wisely, as it’s very likely to have serious repercussions).  More often they wait for a door to reveal itself: this may happen at special times of year such as Halloween or perhaps because there’s a special celebration taking place within the hill and the doors are thrown open to let out the heat and noise.  The simple and direct approach was employed by one poor East Yorkshire man in the story of the White Powder.  He was instructed simply to walk up to the door of the mound and to knock three times to be granted entry and led into the presence of the fairy queen.

In some people’s opinion, fairyland is a good deal deeper than the thickness of some turfs.  Its location therefore won’t be at all obvious and it follows that the ways in will be equally well concealed.  For example, the pixies of Dartmoor are believed to live beneath the bogs that cover that landscape.  This is an excellent strategy for keeping unwelcome visitors away, although there is some suggestion that rabbit holes on the moor may be a way in to this particular wonderland.  There are a lot to try though…

Normally, the road to fairyland is a lot better concealed and a lot more forbidding.  A variety of entrances have been identified:

  • beneath river banks- this is known especially in Wales, as in the story of Elidyr, who is taken by two little men under the hollow bank of a river;
  • under standing stones- this perpetuates the prehistoric link seen with barrows and is a legend linked with various sites including the Rollright Stones in Oxfordshire. In the Welsh tale of Einion and Olwen fairyland is accessed by an oval stone and then by a path and stairs, which are illuminated by a whitish-blue glow radiating from the steps themselves;
  • beneath Roman ruins- the remains of a military encampment high on Mellor Moor near Blackburn were said to be the ruins of a fairy city that had sunk beneath the ground due to an earthquake. The disappeared metropolis was still inhabitable, though, and church bells could sometimes be heard ringing beneath the turf;
  • under lakes- a fairy woman was seen to come and go from beneath the waters of Llyn Rhosddu on the Isle of Anglesey;
  • in a well- in Cornish fairy tale of Cherry of Zennor the girl Cherry is employed as a maid in a house that might itself be in fairyland, but she also sees her fairy master dancing when she looks down into a well in the garden;
  • behind waterfalls- the queen of the Craven fairies is reputed to live concealed behind Jennet’s Foss, near to Malham;
  • in cliffs- another inaccessible route into faery is from a cave in a cliff face. Cornishman Richard Vingoe entered fairyland this way at a spot near Land’s End.  Many hours of walking eventually led him to a “pleasant looking country”;
  • through deep caverns- Gervase of Tilbury, in his Otia Imperialia, described how a swine herd lost a pregnant sow and decided to look for her in the Peak Cavern near Peveril castle in Derbyshire. He wandered a long way until he emerged into a new country.  At Cwm Mabus near Llanrhystyd in Wales there are caves called Craig Rhydderch where the tylwyth teg are said to live and at Llanymynech near Oswestry is Ogo Hole, another entrance to faery;
  • the place called by the Scots ‘Mirryland’ or ‘Maidenland’ is said to be beneath a mountain;
  • in one Welsh account from 1860 a man called John Davies of Aberayron joined a fairy dance on Cilcennin Hill and spent the whole night with the tylwyth teg.  The revel was only disturbed the next morning by an old woman following the sound of music- at which the fairies all disappeared down some steps leading underground;
  • down long tunnels- the Green Children of Woolpit followed a long tunnel or passageway until they came out into the Suffolk landscape.

Whatever the exact route in, it is often long and dark.  The journey to faery may take several days (forty in the case of Thomas the Rhymer) and may involve difficult passages of wading through deep waters.  In the story of Cornish maid Anne Jefferies, she is snatched up and carried through the air, whirling through space with a sound like the buzzing of a thousand bees in her ears.  The fairy tale of Cherry of Zennor in one sense makes its fairyland real by presenting it as a pleasant manor house and gardens, but it is reached by a route very like the underground passages- Cherry is led down long lanes, shaded by high hedges and is carried over several streams before, after much travel, she and her fairy master arrive at their destination.

it’s worth lastly noting that tunnels sometimes provide the access from the human world to fairylands that are also on the earth surface.  These are frequently seen in Wales, where passages lead out onto an isle in a lake or to an offshore island in the sea.

How do we see?

Given that fairyland is far below ground, how do we see anything once we’re there?  Is Faery the “darksome den” that Golding described in his translation of Ovid, or is it bright? This is one of the greatest puzzles, but the sources are quite uniform in telling us what the conditions are, even if they don’t explain them to us.

The Green Children described a place without a sun, but where there was a “degree of light like that which is after sunset.”  In the poem Huon of Bordeaux we are told that it is the gold and silver with which the buildings are constructed that illuminate the place.  In the story of King Herla, faery is entered through a cave in a high cliff and (more reasonably) is lit by many torches.

Elidyr described the fairyland he visited as “obscure, not illuminated with the light of the full sun.”  Rather, the days were cloudy and the nights very dark without either moon or stars.  It’s cool and dim in fairyland.  The visitor to Faery in the story of the White Powder also reported that the light there was “indifferent, as it is with us in the twilight.”  Perhaps because of this dinginess, the people of ‘St Martin’s Land,’ where the Green Children were born, were all of a green tinge.

In contrast, Sir Orfeo’s fairyland, reached after a journey of three miles or so starting beneath a rock, was “as bright so sonne on somers day.”  Likewise, after a long dark passage, the land under the Peak District was bright and open.  Equally, the swineherd described by Gervase of Tilbury found that the place he reached was enjoying its summer, and that the harvest was taking place, whereas he had left winter behind him on the earth’s surface.

What do we see?

The fairyland found underground is largely indistinguishable from the land left behind on the surface.  There are pastures, fields and orchards, where crops grow, sheep graze and fruit and flowers grow in abundance.  There are birds in the air and woods full of game.  The land may be quite level, an open plain without hills but threaded by rivers running between lakes.  The fairyland visited by Einion and Olwen fairyland was a fine, wooded, fertile country extending for miles underground and dotted with mansions and with well-watered, lush pastures.  An early nineteenth century account from Nithsdale tells of a ‘delicious country’ with fields of ripening corn and ‘looping burnies’ reached by a door halfway up the sunny side of a fairy knoll.

There are palaces and castles, like any medieval royal city (although in Faery these may be made from precious metals and gems) but there are ordinary civic amenities too.  Thomas Keightley recalled a conversation with a young woman in Norfolk who told him that the fairies were a people dressed in white who lived underground where they built houses, bridges and other edifices.  Proof of this comes from a commonly told Welsh story of a man who’s reproved by a hitherto unknown fairy neighbour for pouring his household slops down the other’s chimney.  Invited to place his foot on the other’s, the human sees that, far beneath his front yard, there is a street of houses he had never seen before.  These are just ordinary fairy cottages deep beneath an ordinary Welsh farmer’s cottage.

Some of the later British descriptions moved away from rolling verdant countryside to focus upon the dwellings of the fays.  For example, in the case of the ‘White Powder,’ the man visited the court of the fairy queen “in a fair hall.”  On the Isle of man, a traveller crossing Skyhill at night was taken inside the hill, where he saw a large hall with a grand feast in progress.  Likewise the so-called ‘Fairy Boy of Leith’ (account published 1684) told of visiting the fairies under a hill between Edinburgh and Leith and there enjoying music and feasting.  He entered through “a great pair of gates” and found “brave, large rooms as well accommodated as any in Scotland.”  Aberdeen man Andro Man, arrested on suspicion of witchcraft in 1598, told his interrogators that when he entered the residence of the fairy queen, he had noted in particular their “fair coverit” tables.

According to some Scottish stories, we may also see the start of three roads: the thorny road of the righteous to heaven, the broad road of the wicked to hell and a bonny looking road finally leading to Faery.  These ‘ferlies’ (wonders) are described in the old Scots  ballads Thomas the Rhymer, Young Tamlane and The Queen of Elfland’s Nourice.

There is an interesting last detail in the story of Anne Jefferies.  When she first encounters the fairies in her Cornish home, they are ‘the little people’ only a few inches tall, but in Faery they are all of normal human size (or else Anne has shrunk).  The fairy master in Cherry of Zennor looks tiny when seen at the bottom of the well  in the garden but resumes his human dimensions when he returns to the house.

Getting home again

This can be as hard as getting into fairy in the first place.  Some people, we must confess, never make it back to where they started.  The Green Children, dazzled by the heat and light of the surface, became bewildered and were completely unable to find the entrance to the passage from which they emerged.

For others the process can be relatively straightforward, albeit with longer term implications.  Richard Vingoe was led to a carn near Nanjizel where he emerged into the air.  He was so exhausted by the journey that he slept for a week and, if fact, was never the same again.

Elidyr was able to come and go from his faery, visiting his mother as he wished, until he tried to steal a golden ball from his fairy friends.  He was pursued and the ball was recovered, after which he could never find again the entrance in the river bank, even though he searched for a year.

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Arthur Rackham, from Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens

Conclusions

In many respects fairyland underground is a mirror image of our earth surface world- and this includes the climate.  Of course, there are also traditions that make it less homely and familiar, such as those which view it as some sort of land of the dead and those which treat it as far more magical and strange.

Is there a fairy queen?

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Queen Titania, by John Simmons

This question may seem a shocking challenge to accepted conventions, but reflecting recently upon a couple of postings concerning the queens of elfland made on Living liminally by Morgan Daimler, I suddenly began to wonder whether we really mean the words we use when we so casually discuss the ‘fairy kingdom,’ the ‘faery realm,’  the seelie and unseelie ‘courts‘ and the king and queen of fairy.

Elsewhere, in her recent book Fairies, Morgan observes that “the social structure does seem to operate as a hierarchy ruled ultimately by Kings and Queens.” (p.61)    This is quite true, but as I have suggested before in my post on woodland elves, the idea of fairy royalty is very much a projection of medieval structures by medieval writers.  The idea was first seen in such poems as Huon of Bordeaux, King Herla, Sir Orfeo and in the verse of Chaucer: Sir Thopas and the prologue to the Wife of Bath’s tale.  Two centuries later, Spenser, Shakespeare and Herrick cemented the idea in our culture.  Neil Rushton has recently reiterated this interpretation in a posting on his ‘Dead but dreaming’ blog, Faeries in the Arthurian landscapein which he observes that:

“The stories were consumed by the small proportion of literate population, and were codified accordingly to suit their social expectations. The appearance of characters with supernatural qualities within these stories had, therefore, to adhere to certain doctrines, which would be acceptable to their social mores and belief systems.”

As Neil implies, when we think of fairies now we almost unconsciously and automatically conjure images of Arthurian knights and ladies and all the structures of precedence and privilege that go with them.  This is habit, but is it any more than that?

Fairy reign

We are very used, then, to thinking of Queen Mab and of Oberon and Titania.  But what need, though, do the faes really have of rulers?  In the Middle Ages, monarchs were required to perform several purposes within their simpler states:

  • to lead the people in armed conflict- as I have described previously, war amongst the fairies may jar with our conventional views of them, but the possibility is mentioned in a few sources and might therefore justify some sort of war chief;
  • to dispense justice- we are aware of no laws as such in Faery, although there are clearly codes of behaviour that they impose (upon humans at least) and the infringement of which (by humans) is subject to sanction.  Parallel with this distinct morality, there is a general atmosphere of unrestrained impulsiveness;
  • to organise society- it’s hard to tell what, if any, structure there is within fairy society.  If we regard them as nature spirits, then they are all at the level of worker bees, it would appear.  A few authorities have proposed hierarchies, although this normally seems to involve different forms of supernatural beings as against different ranks: see for example Geoffrey Hodson or two interviews with ‘Irish seers’ conducted by Evans-Wentz- one with George William Rusell (AE) and a second with an unnamed Mrs X of County Dublin (Fairy faith in Celtic countries pp.60-66 and 242-3).  You’ll see the differences in size in John Simmons’ painting below;
  • to act as some sort of religious leader or high priest(ess).  I explored the puzzling matter of fairy religion not long ago; it is an area of considerable doubt.

None of these functions seem especially essential to Faery as we generally conceive it.  Is the title of ‘queen’ therefore redundant, or at best merely a convenient honorary title?

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There sleeps Titania, by John Simmons

Secret commonwealth

Let’s consider the views of the Reverend Robert Kirk, who certainly seems to have been well placed to know what he was talking about.  Writing in the late 1680s, he titled his justly famous book The secret commonwealth of elves, fauns and fairies.  A ‘commonwealth’ can merely denote a nation state or polity, but it can also more narrowly have the meaning of ‘republic.’  Given that he cannot but have been aware of the English Parliamentary ‘Commonwealth’ that succeeded the execution of Charles I in 1649, I think it’s inescapable that this was the connotation intended by Kirk when he chose to describe his subject matter.  That seems undeniable when we read at the head of chapter 7 that “They are said to have aristocraticall Rulers and Laws, but no discernible Religion, Love or Devotion towards God…  they disappear whenever they hear his Name invocked…”   We note Kirk’s belief in their aversion to church and religion, but also his conviction that they inhabit some sort of democracy regulated by rules of conduct of some description.

Much more recently, Theosophist Charles Leadbeater wrote that humans frequently mistook fairy leaders for kings and queens, whereas “In reality the realm of nature spirits needs no kind of government except except the general supervision which is exercised over it [by devas].” (The hidden side of things, 1913, p.147).

Rank or honour?

Perhaps those termed king and queen in Faery are simply those of the most distinguished character or the greatest magical power.  This was my conception of Queen Maeve in my story Albion awake!  In chapter 9, in response to being called Fairy Queen, Maeve replies:

“So you call me- but if I am a queen, I have no dominion.  I have powers, but I do not reign.  My people are a commonwealth- a secret commonwealth.”

Plainly I’ve stolen her phrase here!  Later she calls her people her ‘Nation Underground.’  I’ll let you track that reference down yourselves!

In conclusion, the main influence upon our conceptions of Faery as a stratified and monarchical society, with a royal family, a court, nobility and attendants, seems to be European society during the medieval period, channeled through contemporary literature.  Whether we are thinking of mythical Iron Age Ireland, Chaucer’s England or the France of Chretien de Troyes or Marie de France, their aristocratic society provided a model that was unthinkingly imposed upon fairyland.  It seems unlikely that the ‘common folk’ necessarily shared this; indeed, a large number of fairies were independent and individual characters or were conceived as members of their own, very local community.  Should we continue to talk of kings and queens then, or is it simply habit?  Do the terms have anything to do with contemporary perceptions of fairy?  What do readers think?

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‘Queen Mab,’ Henry Meynell Rheam

Further reading

Elsewhere I discuss fairy kings and that famous fairy queen Titania.

An expanded version of this text will appear in my next book, Faeries, which will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide next year.

‘A geography of trees’- wood elves in myth and popular culture

 

Female_HalfElf

“… like a wind out of fairy-land
Where little people live
Who need no geography
But trees.”           (Hilda Conkling [1910-86], Geography, 1920)

Today probably most people, if asked, would imagine elves and fairies gambolling in a woodland setting.  This appears to have become a very strong convention within our popular visual culture, yet it is not traditional to British fairy lore (despite a few links between fairies and particular trees, most notably in Gaelic speaking areas where the fairy thorn has particular power and significance- see for examples poems of this name by Samuel Ferguson and Dora Sigerson Shorter). I wish therefore in this posting to examine how this prevalent image came about.

Shakespeare

Although the fairy king Oberon is met in a forest in the thirteenth century romance epic Huon of Bordeuax, but I believe the primary source of our close association between fairies and forests is Shakespeare, both the ‘wood near Athens’ which features in Midsummer night’s dream and in which Titania, Oberon, Puck and the other fairies make their home, and the open woodland of Windsor Great Park that features in the Merry Wives of Windsor and which is the scene of Falstaff’s believed encounter with the fairy queen and her train.  Whilst their ultimate roots may lie with the dryads and hamadryads of classical myth, it was these theatrical presentations of fairies that first really fixed the woodland elf in the English speaking public’s imagination.  Much subsequent literature and visual art has cemented the pairing to the extent that it appears inevitable, but there is little trace of it in older sources or in British folklore.

British fairy homes

The British fairy, according to older writers, could be found in a variety of locations.  They frequented mountains, caverns, meadows and fields, fountains, heaths and greens, hills and downland, groves and woods.  Generally, they were more likely to be found in ‘wild places.’ Residence underground- whether in caves or under hills- is a commonly featured preference and I have often mentioned the presence of fairies under knolls and barrows.  Woods feature in these sources, it’s perfectly true, but they are far from the most commonly mentioned locations.  (I have considered here Reginald Scot, Burton’s Anatomy of melancholy, Bourne’s Antiquitates vulgares and a few medieval texts.)  The South English legendary of the thirteenth or fourteenth century is especially interesting reading in this connection: elves are seen, we are informed, “by daye much in wodes… and bi nightes ope heighe dounes…”- in other words, they frequent woods during the day (presumably for concealment from human eyes) but resort to open hill tops at night for their revelries.

A particularly relevant source is the Welsh minister, the Reverend Edmund Jones. In his 1780 history of the superstitions of Aberystruth parish he recorded the contemporary views locally on the most likely locations for seeing fairies.  They did not like open, plain or marshy places, he reported, but preferred those that were dry and near to or shaded by spreading branches, particularly those of hazel and oak trees (The appearance of evil, para.56).  Jones’ description fits the open oak parkland of Windsor perfectly, where Falstaff is duped by those merry wives and their gang of children disguised as elves.  It’s also notable that Wirt Sikes in his British goblins locates the Welsh elves (ellyllon) in groves and valleys.  In Wales at least, then, an open wooded landscape was believed in popular tradition to be the fairies’ preferred habitat.

EnchantedForest_Fitzgerald

John Anster Fitzgerald, The enchanted forest

Woodland fays

Woods were one of the favoured resorts for the fairy folk, then, but not their sole preserve.  It seems to be in Victorian times that woodland elves became the cliche that we encounter today.  I have (for better or ill) read a lot of Victorian fairy verse and certain stereotyped images are very well worn: moonlight, dancing in rings, woodland glades.  Here are just a few examples to indicate what you’ll see ad nauseam.  The connection begins to appear in the eighteenth century (see for example the “fairy glade” of Sir James Beattie’s The minstrel and The palace of fortune by Sir William Jones, 1769). References multiply throughout the next hundred years and into the last century: the “sylvan nook where fairies dwell” of Janet Hamilton’s Pictures of memory; Ann Radcliffe’s “woodlands dear” and “forest walks” in Athlin and The glow-worm; the “woodways wild” of Madison Julius Cawein’s Prologue and the “fairy wood” in his Elfin; the “woodland fays” that appear in George Pope Morris’ Croton Mode.  By then well-established, these fays persisted into the twentieth century, in “some dark and mystic glade” of Tennessee Williams’ Under April rain or the “nymphs of a dark forest” of Edna St Vincent Millay.  All of this imagery transferred to the visual arts, too, especially to the illustrations of children’s books.

tarrant fairy way

Margaret Tarrant, ‘The fairy way’

Tolkien’s elves

Once this image was embedded in the culture, it proved almost impossible to eradicate.  J. R. R. Tolkien absorbed it and the Silvan or Wood Elves of Lord of the Rings are the result; Galadriel is one of the Galadhrim (the tree people) of Lorien.  Tolkien’s influence in recent decades has been extensive and powerful.  An example might be Led Zeppelin, whose own highly influential Stairway to heaven invokes images of fairyland where “the forests shall echo with laughter.”  The pervasive idea was that the natural habitat of the fairy is the forest.

It might not be inappropriate to conclude with more lines from infant prodigy Hilda Conkling.  In If I could tell you the way she described how-

“Down through the forest to the river
I wander…
Fairies live here;
They know no sorrow.
Birds, winds,
They are the only people.
If I could tell you the way to this place,
You would sell your house and your land
For silver or a little gold,
You would sail up the river,
Tie your boat to the Black Stone,
Build a leaf-hut, make a twig-fire,
Gather mushrooms, drink spring-water,
Live alone and sing to yourself
For a year and a year and a year!”

MWT-G3804-330 Fairies Market

Margaret Tarrant, The fairies market, 1921

Further reading

For a wider consideration of the relationship between fays and trees, see Neil Rushton’s posting on dead but dreaming on the metaphysics of fairy trees.  See my other postings for thoughts on eco-fairies and fairies at the bottom of your garden.

An expanded version of this text will appear in my next book, Faeries, which will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide next year.

 

 

‘Hence to Hell or Faery’- the nature of fairy religion

huon

Huon meets King Oberon, by Henry Ford

What do fairies believe in?  This may seem like a nonsensical question for at least two reasons:

  • firstly, if you subscribe to the belief that our current fairies are the diminished remnants of former pagan gods and goddesses of nature, then it is illogical to propose that an erstwhile divinity should worship another deity; or,
  • secondly, because the fairy code of morality is so distinctive and so deliberately selfish (see my earlier post or chapters 2 and 18  of my British fairies): fairies are not concerned with good works; they are concerned with furthering their own interests.

These objections are quite valid, yet our predecessors (at least before the Reformation) almost unconsciously assumed that these creatures would be Christians just like them.  Our medieval ancestors had absolutely no hesitation in accepting fairies as just another god-fearing creation of the Christian deity.  This is revealed, in passing, in many of the earlier stories.  The fairy king in King Herla’s tale exclaims “God be my witness;” the Green Children of Woolpit came from a place called St Martin’s Land and professed themselves to be good Christians. Oberon, the king of faery in Huon of Bordeaux, for example exclaims “God keepe you all! I desire you to speake with mee, and I conjure you thereto by God Almightie and by the Christendome that you have received and by all that God hath made” (chapter 21).  In several Scottish ballads, including that of Thomas the Rhymer, the fairy queen points out to the hero the roads leading to heaven and hell, which lead from faery.

Thomas-the-rhymer-Thomas Canty

Thomas the Rhymer, by Thomas Canty

Reformation

This uniform certainty in the orthodoxy of fairy kind received severe blows during the sixteenth century.  Two events undermined the formerly unshakeable conviction in their godliness.  One was the Reformation, which, as we shall see, initiated attacks upon all forms of superstition.  The second key factor was the settlement of the Americas.  Christians were confronted with continents and civilisations unheard of by the Bible and who knew nothing of the church or Christ.  The question arose how these peoples were to be accommodated in the existing world view and whether they had souls capable of salvation.  These debates must in turn have given rise to doubts over the position of fairies in the Christian creation.

Some people persisted in the older beliefs and still simply accepted fairies as another Christian race.  In a spell to conjure the fairy Elaby Gathen, Elias Ashmole reminded the spirit that “thou doest feare the heavy wrath and judgment” and demanded that the being “should be obedient or judged to eternal damnation with the demons in hell.”  As a magi, Ashmole very likely believed fairies to be a form of spiritual being closely related to angels, so their godly nature was something he took for granted.  More surprising are the recorded beliefs of Scottish minister Robert Kirk, who felt that the elves and fairies were less sinful than men, “but yet are in ane imperfect State, and some of them making better Essays for heroic Actions than others; having the same Measure of Vertue and Vice as wee, and still expecting an advancement to a higher and more splendid State of Lyfe.”

Salvation?

The Reverend Kirk believed that the fairies had the same prospect of judgment and salvation as any Christian man or woman. In fact, a number of related theories emerged as to the place of the fairies in the Christian universe.  One name for the fairies was ‘the Hidden Folk;’ the origin of this is explained in a Carmarthenshire story told to Evans-Wentz:

“Our Lord, in the days when He walked the earth, chanced one day to approach a cottage in which lived a woman with twenty children. Feeling ashamed of the size of her family, she hid half of them from the sight of her divine visitor. On His departure she sought for the hidden children in vain; they had become fairies and had disappeared.” (Evans-Wentz, p.153)

Another widespread belief was that the fairies were fallen angels who had followed Satan in his rebellion but who had not yet reached hell when God commanded that the gates of haven and hell be closed.  They were left stranded between and hid in holes in the earth (Evans-Wentz, pp.85, 105, 109, 116, 129-30 & 205).  They will finally be released from this intermediate status on the day of judgment.  Lastly, there are Europe wide stories telling of incidents in which anxious fairies approach humans begging for reassurance that they too will be saved.  Generally, the answer is no, to the fairies’ great dismay (see Spence, British fairy origins, p.165 & the story of the ‘Minister and the Fairy‘ printed in Folk-lore and legends: Scotland, 1898).

Fairies and devils

At the same time, in some quarters there was a clear conviction that fairies could never be good Christians, because they were either demonic delusions wrought by the devil or they were deceits of the Roman Catholic church (which to many godly Puritans amounted to the same thing anyway).  Certainly, fairies, elves and the like were hard to accommodate within the strict terms of the Bible.  Whether they were genuine malign entities or just an invention of the Papist clergy- and thus a minor distraction to reformers- was never fully resolved, but the different positions are very well evidenced.

For Thomas Heyrick, fairies were nothing but vain stories:

“Dotage, the Vice of ancient years …

Listens to each Fabulous Legend, every story

of Relicks, Exorcisms and Purgatory,

of Fairy Elves and Goblins, wakeful Sprights

That rouze the drowsie Monks to Beads at Nights!”

(The new Atlantis, 1687, p.15)

Likewise, for George Chapman, they were a product of a more credulous past: “Fairies were but in times of ignorance, not since the true light hath been revealed, and that they come from heaven I scarce believe.” (A humorous day’s mirth, 1591).  Fairies and witches were nothing but conceits “whereby the Papists kept the ignorant in awe” (T. Cooper, The mystery of witchcraft, 1617, p.123), they were the worthless recipients of reverence from “silly people” (John Penry, The aequity of a humble supplication, 1587).

In contrast, others saw real harm and spiritual peril in the fays.  For Thomas Jackson, there was no question of distinguishing good and bad fairies because “it is but one and the same malignant fiend that meddles in both” (A treatise concerning the original of unbelief, 1625, p.178).  Fairies and elves were nothing more or less than “infernal deities” (Henry Smith, Christian religion’s appeal, 1675, p.45); they brought disease and madness (Mirror for magistrates, 1575, line 215; William Vaughan, The soul’s exercise, 1641, p.113) and they had to be cast out in the same manner an any evil spirit: “Gang hence to Hell or to the Farie” (Philotus- a comedy, 1568). One common explanation of the taking of children as changelings was that the fairies had to pay a tithe to the devil every seven years and, understandably, preferred to do so with a human life instead of one of their own kind.  Ironically, the truth is that the Catholic church had much the same opinion as the Puritans: the fourteenth century Fasciculus morum, for example, condemned all belief in fairies and elves as “only phantoms displayed by an evil spirit.”  As I have described in discussing  witchcraft and fairies, the result of this kind of thinking was to mix up belief in fairies and in witches, with serious consequences for those professing a faith in our ‘good neighbours.’

It must the penetration of popular culture by such ideas that led to accounts describing the fairies’ strong aversion to bells and churches.  I have mentioned these before in a my postings on the departure of the fairies and on fairy building, but the stories are common: for example, in Dorset at Portland, Cadbury and Withycombe church bells drove off the local pixies, whilst at East Chelborough the resident sprites objected to the site chosen for a new church and removed it bodily.

“But the king who sits on your high church steeple/ Has nothing to do with us fairy people!” (Charlotte Mew, The changeling)

One definite effect of the post-Reformation debates was to create the widespread popular belief that fairies were repelled by anything Christian.  Possession of a copy of the Bible or some pages from it alone could be efficacious, as could saying grace, making the sign of the cross and a number of other actions.  This is the aspect of fairy nature we recall today- not the earlier views.

All of this brings us full circle.  It came to be said that fairy belief was on the wane in Britain because the fairies were less and less frequently seen and the reason for this was that they were Catholics and had deserted British shores since the break with Rome.  See, for example, Richard Corbet’s Farewell, rewards and fairies:

“Lament, lament, old Abbeys,

The Fairies’ lost command…

But now alas, they are all dead,

Or gone beyond the seas,

Or farther from Religion fled,

Or else they take their ease.”

(see too my British fairies chapter 6 and appendix)

Corbet’s allegation is that with the fairies’ went ceremony and dancing, and, more seriously, justice and equity too.

Pagan pixies

Much of this discussion has been concerned with whether the fays were Catholic or Protestant, or whether they were pure evil incarnate- demons and servants of Satan.

There is, though, a hint of another view, one that may appeal more to many contemporary readers.  In William Bottrell’s story of The house on Selena Moor fairy abductee Grace makes this remarkable statement about her pixie captors:

“For you must remember they are not of our religion,” said she, in answer to his surprised look, “but star-worshippers.”

If this truly represents Cornish belief of the late nineteenth century, it might be a relic of older ideas about the fays and- perhaps- a connection that was made between them and ‘The Druids.’  This need not necessarily be a much older idea- it might have emerged in the previous century or so- yet it may be a tantalising hint of theories relating the pixies to worship at Cornwall’s many ancient monuments.

Further reading

See too my postings on the relationship between fairies and the dead and on the process of laying, or exorcising, fairies.  As my postings on the fairies’ preferred days and times of the year suggest, there is some antipathy towards the church and some inclination towards older, ‘pagan’ feasts.

An expanded version of this text will appear in my next book, Faeries, which will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide next year.