Faery: the Lore, Magic & World of the Good Folk

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I’m very pleased to announce that my new book, Faery: A Guide to the Lore, Magic and World of the Good Folk, has now been published by Llewellyn Worldwide and is available through all the usual channels.

The new book builds on my last, British Fairiesas well as on the postings on this blog.  What I have aimed to offer is a complete statement of our knowledge of the life, culture, personality, temperament and habits of the Good Folk, often trying to understand the faery perspective on these matters to better appreciate why and how they behave.  Of course, everything has to be seen from the human standpoint: it’s only through our interactions with the faeries that we can experience their world.  Furthermore, this relationship between humans and supernaturals has always had its points of friction.  In the book, I don’t shy away from examining the perils of faery contact: they are more powerful and more complex than popular culture often allows and they have to be approached with caution and respect.

The new book is based upon extensive research in hard to find folklore sources and brings readers a wealth of new information they might not otherwise discover.

Contacting Faery

In chapter 13 of the book, I examine the magical methods for contacting and summoning the fae (something I’ve also touched on in a posting on this blog).  Given that the new book is all about bringing us closer to Faery and improving our understanding of our Good Neighbours, I’ll add here another ritual procedure that I recently unearthed.

This is taken from the Rosicrucian text, Le Comte de Gabalis, by Abbé Nicolas-Pierre-Henri de Montfaucon de Villars (1635–1673). The book builds on the work of Paracelsus, whom I’ve had occasion to criticise in a previous post, but it provides us with a further interesting insight into the magical methods practiced in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to contact the supernatural world.  Villars makes the process sound quite straightforward (Gabalis, Discourse II):

“One has only to seal a goblet full of compressed Air, Water, or Earth and to leave it exposed to the Sun for a month. Then separate the Elements scientifically, which is particularly easy to do with Water and Earth. It is marvellous what a magnet for attracting Nymphs, Sylphs, and Gnomes, each one of these purified Elements is. After taking the smallest possible quantity every day for some months, one sees in the Air the flying Commonwealth of the Sylphs, the Nymphs coming in crowds to the shores, the Gnomes, the Guardians of the Treasures,  parading their riches. Thus, without symbols, without ceremonies, without barbaric words, one becomes ruler over these Peoples. They exact no worship whatever from the Sage, whose superiority to themselves they fully recognise. Thus venerable Nature teaches her children to repair the elements by means of the Elements. Thus harmony is re-established. Thus man recovers his natural empire, and can do all things in the Elements without the Devil, and without Black Art.”

Readers will recall that Paracelsus envisaged four classes of beings to accompany the four elements comprising the world.  Salamanders are the fire beings and:

“If we wish to recover empire over the Salamanders, we must purify and exalt the Element of Fire which is in us, and raise the pitch of that relaxed string. We have only to concentrate the Fire of the World in a globe of crystal, by means of concave mirrors…”

So, there we have the instructions.  Before you put them into practice, though, I strongly recommend that you prepare yourselves by reading Faery: A Guide to the Lore, Magic and World of the Good Folk!

My fairy philosophy

As regular visitors or long term readers of this blog may know, I have written three novels with a supernatural/ fairy theme.  Considering about these, I thought it might be helpful for me to be explicit about my approach to the subject- to outline some of the fundamental ideas that lie behind my postings.  Indeed, I realised that when I wrote the three novels (all of which predate British fairies, my factual study of the subject published last summer), I had not clearly or systematically expressed even to myself what exactly it was that I believed.

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As a preamble, the stories in question are The elder queenwhich is set in present day Devon and involves encounters between unemployed farm labourer Darren Carter and Saran, the eponymous ‘fairy queen’; Albion awake! a fantasy that mingles time travel to meet William Blake, Gerard Winstanley and other radical figures alongside contact with the Fairy Queen Maeve; and lastly a children’s story, The Derrickconcerning a summer holiday meeting in Dorset between a boy and members of the local fairy ‘tribe’ called Derricks.

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So, surveying what I have written, what are my fundamental preconceptions about fairy kind? What assumptions and prejudices may I be carrying over into my interpretation of the folklore sources?  The key features that come out seem quite consistent:

  • fairies are present here and now.  All my books have contemporary settings and the fae folk I have imagined are resident amongst us (if perhaps in more marginal areas) but they are not of the present.  Their speech and material culture is all slightly adrift from ours and there can be misunderstanding on both sides as a consequence;
  • fairies are like humans– they are of the same stature and form- no wings, therefore- although they may be marked out by the colour of their hair or their eyes.  Their lifespan is very different, however: in Albion awake! Maeve, whilst appearing to be a woman in her late thirties, is actually at least 5000 years old.  The Derrick is likewise ancient: you may recall how changelings are caught out with the ‘brewery of egg shells,’ causing them to exclaim how they have seen forests grown from acorns and die again.  Such are the timescales I imagine for my fay protagonists;
  • fairies are prepared to interact with humans- socially, intellectually and, quite often, sexually.  There may well be an element of exploitation by them in this- especially as-
  • they like to protect their privacy- fairies will tolerate contact with humans on their terms and at the times and places of their choosing.  Nonetheless, they wish to hold themselves apart from us, and resent any uninvited intrusion;
  • they are not to be antagonised or ignored– it follows from the above that trespasses into fairy territory may be punished (as Darren Carter discovers when he stumbles upon a fairy dance).  Attracting the antipathy of fairy kind is to be avoided because:
  • they are powerful- they have magical powers and they will not hesitate from using force against offending humans.  Darren experiences this, against himself and against others who threaten to disturb the fairy’s world.  In The Derrick an attempt to steal fairy gold leads to devastating retribution.  In Albion awake! Maeve can enable humans to travel through time and space.  Manipulating the human world is a matter of course to them;
  • the fairies have their own aims, objectives and agenda- this follows from what has already been said.  Interaction with humans is undertaken for their own ends.  It may be pleasurable (the sex) but it serves other, greater purposes too;
  • fairies expect respect and compliance with their wishes;
  • the fairies are a timeless part of the land.  It seems to come naturally to me to associate them with standing stones, burial mounds and other monuments and this is a feature repeated in all three stories: in The Elder Queen Darren meets Saran in an ancient ’round;’ in Albion awake! we variously encounter Maeve at Hambledon Hill hillfort, at the London Stone and at Boudicca’s Grave on Hampstead Heath.   The action of The Derrick is focused around yet another Iron Age fortification.  This intimate tie with the land and with ancient features of the landscape extends into the fairies’ attitude to pollution and environmental change.  Predictably, they don’t like it.  Queen Maeve concerns herself with preventing an extension to the runway of Heathrow Airport; Saran and her people forcibly disrupt attempts at fracking. My fairies are, it seems, eco-warriors.

That’s a summary of the key themes and characteristics that I realise unite all three books.  Unavoidably, too, they will shape my approach to my non-fiction writing too.

Central to all of the above is respect for tradition, as recorded in folklore and fairy tales.  My recommended bookshelf of fairy books describes what I think of as some of the essential texts you should have.

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On my fairy bookshelf

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I have created a recommended fairy books page to complement my website list, this time offering a guide to what I consider to be the best books on fairy-lore available.

Naturally, I would urge you all to purchase a copy of my own British fairies (and to read my three fairy novels!), but should you want to read more broadly and more deeply, click here to read more about what you should be reading more about!

See also my own faery publications here as well as my list of useful fairy websites.

British fairies

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In times of Brexit, there is a risk that the name of this blog can sound rather chauvinistic, I know.  I deliberately chose to limit myself in my postings to material relating to the fairy beliefs of the island of Britain, for the simple reason that I am reluctant to accept that the beliefs of Ireland or the Isle of Man will have had any persistent or direct influence upon developments over centuries in England, Wales or Scotland.  There are very clear parallels and resemblances, it is undeniable, but this is a matter of common lineage more than regular interchange of ideas.

My interest in ‘pure’ native belief also relates to an area to which I will give more attention in forthcoming posts.  Many modern conceptions of faery are not based upon British tradition, but upon ideas drawn from very different beliefs and cultures.  This leads, I believe, to the contradictions and confusions that I sometimes encounter in contemporary writings on fairy lore.

Despite what I just said, it would be wrong to suppose that British belief is homogenous or consistent.  A body of tradition developed orally in separated communities should not be expected to be entirely uniform or harmonious.  There are many different fairy types and behaviours, but one central aspect of British fairy lore is the sense that the supernatural beings under discussion are as real as the human witnesses.  They may live in a parallel and sometimes invisible dimension, but they can enter this world and interact with people with as much corporeal reality as the people themselves.  This aspect is what has increasingly been lost from recent accounts.

I have just released a new book, British fairies published by Green Magic Publishing, in which all the discussions of my blog posts are brought together and expanded upon in greater detail.  It examines literature, folk lore and art to arrive at a thorough understanding of the nature of British fairies.  I hope some of you will add it to your fairy bookshelf and that you will find it a useful and enjoyable read!

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‘Local fairies for local folk’

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I have just published my new fairy tale, The Derrickwhich is a story aimed primarily at children.  Its title character is a traditional fairy from Dorset and Hampshire.  In this posting I want to explore a little further this theme of local fairy types.

Regional fairies

There is a great variety of fairies in the British Isles; some are found across the country, but many differ regionally or across regions and some can be very local indeed.  They seem often to be adapted to a specific environment or social niche.  Here are a few examples:

  • Derricks- these only occur along the south coast; the Hampshire Derricks are apparently friendlier and more helpful than those of Dorset;
  • many brownies, hobs and similar house elves are tied to particular houses, farms or caves, as I have discussed in my post on brownies;
  • orchards of the south-west- various fairy spirits, such as Awd Goggy, exist to guard orchards and the like from thieves and children (see my post on cautionary fairies);
  • the Lincolnshire fens– this unique region is home to the Tiddy Ones, also called the Yarthkins, the Strangers and the Greencoaties.  They are rooted in the local soil and act as fertility spirits, helping the growth and ripening of plant life; as such they received tribute or offerings from the local people- the first fruits and the first taste of any meal or drink.  If neglected, these beings could be vindictive, affecting harvests, yields and even the birthrate.  They have been described as being a span high with thin limbs and over-sized hands, feet and heads.  They have long noses, wide mouths and make odd noises.  They danced on large flat stones in the moon light.  One particular spirit, the Tiddymun, seemed to control the flood waters in the days before the Fens were drained.  From time to time, he appeared from pools at night and might drag victims back into them, but generally he was sympathetic to local people.  His close ties to the management of water levels emphasise his local nature and function;
  • East Anglia- in Norfolk and Suffolk people spoke of the ferishers/ feriers/ frairies/ farisees.  These local fairies were known to be very small and very secretive.  They lived underground and were seldom seen.  This was perhaps fortunate as, above ground, they could be dangerous to humans; certainly, they rode cattle and horses at night. Also found in East Anglia is the little known hyter sprite, a small and benevolent fairy;
  • spriggans- pixies are well known to be localised in the south-west peninsula; so too are the spriggans.  They are described as dour and ugly; their particular role seems to be protecting other fairies from intrusions or insults by humankind (see the stories of The Miser on the Fairy Gump or The Fairies on the Eastern Green, both from Penwith in Cornwall).  They were very closely linked to ancient sites, such as hill-forts, where they guarded buried gold.  In this the spriggans seem to be linked to the Redshanks or Danes of Somerset (I borrowed this idea for The Derrick).  The localisation of spriggans on distinctive sites in the region is especially notable; and,
  • the asrai of the meres of Cheshire and the North West, which I discuss in another post.

If certain fairies have indeed adapted to local conditions and features, it may come as little surprise to learn that a symbiotic relationship with the human denizens of those areas has likewise evolved.  Two examples (once again from the south-west) are worthy of mention:

  • the Newlyn bucca is given fish by local fishermen in order to get good weather and good shoals;
  • knockers in the tin mines were given food in return for help locating the best lodes.

Obviously in these cases the human-fairy relationship  had adapted to local conditions.  It was, moreover, self-reinforcing- placid seas and a good haul of mackerel ensured further offerings for the bucca.

There is a tendency to generalise on fairy types and characteristics (of which, of course, I can be guilty in this blog) but many fairies were very restricted in their distribution, very individual in their behaviour and very local in their interests and preoccupations.

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‘Mysterious Albion’- William Blake and the matter of Albion

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Richard Dadd, ‘Come unto these yellow sands’

This post strays a little from my chosen theme of fairy lore into wider British folklore.  However, given the recent publication of my new fairy tale Albion awake!, I wished to set William Blake’s ‘fairies of Albion’ in a fuller mythological context.

The land of Albion

What and where is this land of Albion?  How has this mere geographical name become imbued with so much symbolism?  Author Peter Ackroyd has written that today Albion “is not so much a name as the echo of a name.”  To understand how the term became freighted with significance, we need to travel back centuries to its origins.

The name appears to be derived from one of three proto-Celtic stems.  It may mean ‘world’, as in the Gaulish/ Galatian albio (see modern Welsh elfydd, early Welsh elbid meaning ‘earth, world, land, country or district’).  Secondly it may denote ‘white’ (as in Latin albus), though not in the sense of the white cliffs of Dover, as is often suggested, but more likely to suggest the world of light above the surface  of the earth as contrasted to the dark underworld.  Lastly, Albion may mean simply ‘hill’ or ‘highland’.  It would then be linked to the root of the word ‘Alp’ and also to the Gaelic Alba, the name for Scotland.

Whatever the exact origin, the place name was commonly known throughout Europe from a very early date. The first reference is in Avienus’ Ora maritima which dates to the late 4th century BC.  Various other Latin and Greek writers used the term until it was displaced in Roman times by Britannia as the preferred name for the British Isles.  Nevertheless, King Athelstan in 930 chose to term himself ‘Rex … totus Albioni regnis’ whilst his successor Edgar went further, declaring himself ‘Totus Albionis imperator.’

Mythical Albion

The name Albion therefore has a long and distinguished toponymic pedigree and was for many centuries a sober and unremarkable label.  It was only in the early 12th century that it gained its legendary associations, thanks to Geoffrey of Monmouth.  In his History of the kings of Britain,  Geoffrey alleged that the island was called Albion prior to its conquest and renaming by Brutus, who fled the fall of Troy (Book I, 16).  Subsequent writers propagated a tale that the island was inhabited by giants and that their queen, Albina, gave it its name.  This story of giants settling the land was repeated by successive authors, including Wace, Layamon, Holinshed, Camden and Spenser in The Faerie Queen (IV, 11, 16).  John Milton told the story in his History of Britain (1670) .  In Book I he recounts that the land was “subdu’d by Albion a Giant, Son of Neptune; who call’d the Iland after his own name, and rul’d it 44 Years. ”  He adds that the island was later settled by some sisters and that “The Eldest of these Dames in thir Legend they call Albina; and from thence, for which cause the whole Scene was fram’d, will have the name Albion deriv’d.”  The effect of these works was to transform the perception of ‘Albion.’  No longer was it merely a name- it had become redolent of national myth and stirring legend.

Blake’s Albion

It is probably from Milton, or perhaps Spenser, that William Blake derived his knowledge of the legends of the giant Albion.  In his hands the figure is progressively elaborated. Initially Albion is representative for Blake of primeval man, an ancestor or patriarchal figure, ‘father of all mankind.’  Subsequently Albion became husband of Britannia and father to Jerusalem.  His rejection of Luvah leads to the diminution of his senses, his sickness and his sleep.  In the poem Milton Albion’s awakening is linked to revolution.  As such, Albion as a personification of Britain is shown rejoicing in his political awakening and liberty in the illustration Glad day.  For Blake, the ‘sleep of Albion’ was the suppression of the imagination by materialism; when Albion awakes he has been freed and transformed by the possibilities suggested by the American and French rebellions.  For more detail see S. Foster Damon, A Blake dictionary (available on GoogleBooks).

Modern visions of Albion

It was Blake that imbued Albion with a fresh and radical sense and it was his conception of Albion as a political entity that resurfaced in the 1960s and 1970s.  The ‘Albion Free State’ was a libertarian and hippy conception, in favour of free love, free festivals, natural birthing and much more.  For the Windsor Free Festival, on August bank holiday 1974, a free state newspaper was produced which contained a draft national anthem for the new polity.   It begins thus:

“Giants built Stonehenge,/ Giants built this land,/ Let’s spurt up like mushrooms/ And seize the upper hand.”

For the October 1974 general election Albion Free State produced what they self-deprecatingly labelled their “kind of Alternative State manifesto.” It called for Blake’s head to replace that of the queen on bank notes and declared that “Albion is the other England of Peace and Love which William Blake foresaw in vision- a country freed of dark satanic mills and Big Brother machinations…”  The writers of the manifesto wanted to create “a network … of independent collectives and communities federated together to form the Albion Free State.”  Life would be organised at local level, by neighbourhoods and workers.  The new nation would take over waste land and waste buildings for “diverse needs,” the manifesto noting that “The ‘true levellers’ in 1649 grew corn by taking over common land.”  This may at first glance have sounded like the product of a bunch of stoned hippies, but the authors had plainly read their literature and their history and they understood both their antecedents and the value and power of deep rooted cultural symbols.

In my recently published fairy tale, Albion awake!, I make use of both Blake’s conception of the sick isle of Albion and its need for salvation and the 1960s radical project for a polity within a polity.  This is still not an obsolete idea: on April 7th 2012 the Albion Free State was launched as a self declared anarchist community with permanent territories within the British Isles, in Scotland and west Yorkshire.  The aspiration to live in a leaderless community that is self-determining and free continues to have vitality, just as does the vision and poetry of William Blake, which can provide the basis for boundless inspiration and interpretation (see https://mw.micronation.org/wiki/Free_State_of_Albion for more information).

Further reading

For more details generally on Albion and my other interests, see my separate blog at johnkruseblog.wordpress.com.  I have discussed there issues of King Arthur and the fairies of Albion.

“Full of Fairy elves”- William Blake and fairies

Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing c.1786 by William Blake 1757-1827

Titania, Oberon and Puck with fairies dancing, 1796

This latest posting examines the poet William Blake’s conceptions of fairies.  This is to mark the publication of my latest book, Albion awakea fairy story for adults that features both the Fairy Queen Mab and William Blake amongst its cast of historical characters.

Blake had a very clear vision of the nature of fairies, although these thoughts were frequently unique to him- not an uncommon situation in the complex mythology that he elaborated over the course of his life!  Blake spoke of “the elemental beings called by us by the general name of fairies.”  From this it seems clear that he did not conceive of a single class of supernatural being, but of complex variety- as if, of course, the British conception of fairy-kind.

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Illustration to Milton’s ‘Il Penseroso V‘- Milton dreams of “six spirits or fairies, hovering on the air with instruments.”

The character of Blake’s fays

In his verse, Blake’s fairies fulfil a number of functions:

  • primarily and originally they are remnants of the pagan gods of Britain.  In The Four Zoas Blake speaks of the “fairies of Albion, afterwards The Gods of the Heathen.”
  • they are emanations of his character Los (broadly ‘time and space’) and accordingly they are the makers of time.  In Milton (28, 60) time is described as “the work of fairy hands of the four elements.”
  • along with nymphs, gnomes and genii, fairies are spirits that animate the material, vegetative world.  They are often associated by him with flowers and natural growth and they are linked to its vigour and fecundity.  For example in 1802, after his move to Felpham on the coast, Blake wrote that the trees and fields roundabout his cottage were “full of Fairy elves.” The fairy that dictates Europe to the poet is first discovered “sat on a streak’d Tulip.”
  • closely related to the previous characteristic, fairies are understood to be intimately aware of the sensuous nature of life.  In Europe, for example, the fairy offers to open Blake’s senses and to “shew you all alive/ The world, where every particle breathes forth its joy.”  He demonstrates that the material world is not dead; rather each flower whimpers when it is plucked and its eternal essence then hovers around Blake “like a cloud of incense.”  In this respect, then, fairies represent the natural state of human imagination and perception, before it has been blunted and enslaved by logic and reason.  In his Motto to the Songs of Innocence and Experience, Blake condemns how:

“The good are attracted by men’s perceptions,/ And think not for themselves;/ Til experience teaches them to catch/ And to cage fairies and elves.”

  • the keen animation of the fairy senses seems to shade into sensuality and Blake makes some connection between these spirits and female sexuality.  In ‘A fairy leapt upon my knee’ the spirit protests to Blake thus:

“Knowest thou not, O Fairies’ lord,/ How much to us contemn’d, abhorred,/ Whatever hides the female form/ That cannot bear the mortal storm?/ Therefore in pity still we give/ Our lives to make the female live;/ And what would turn into disease/ We turn to what will joy and please!”

The verse ‘The fairy’ treats the supernatural creature as ‘king’ of the marriage ring.  It appears that Blake saw the emotional and physical obsession of love as some sort of spell that has to be broken.  This link to carnal pleasure also seems to feature in his poem The Phoenix, sent to Mrs Butts in 1800 after the move to Felpham. Blake contrasts a fairy to the innocence of children playing.  The phoenix flees the sprite for the company of the children and-

“The Fairy to my bosom flew/ weeping tears of morning dew/ I said thou foolish whimpring thing/ Is not that thy Fairy Ring/ Where those children sport and play/ In fairy fancies light and gay?/ Seem the child and be a child/ And the Phoenix is beguild/ But if thou seem a fairy thing/ Then it flies on glancing Wing.”

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Illustration to Milton’s L’Allegro V- Queen Mab, fairies & a goblin.

Blake’s tiny fairies

These quite individual conceptions of the nature of faery were elaborated  by the poet from pre-existing folk materials of long standing.  We have just seen mention of fairy rings and, in one very significant respect, Blake did not depart at all from conventional imaginings of fairies: his creatures are always very small.  There are numerous examples of this:

  • An early poem, found in the manuscript collection owned by Rossetti,  describes how “A fairy leapt upon my knee.”  Blake condemns it as a “Thou paltry, gilded, poisonous worm,” emphasising its miniature dimensions.
  • In another early poem, found only in manuscript, ‘Little Mary Bell’ keeps a fairy hidden in a nut.
  • An illustration for the 1797 edition of Gray’s A long story has fairies riding upon flies;
  • In Europe Blake caught the fairy muse in his hat “as boys knock down a butterfly” and then took it home “in my warm bosom” where it perched on his table and dictated the verse.  In his early poem, The fairy, Blake likewise catches a elf in his hat after it leaps from some leaves in an effort to escape.  He addresses it as his ‘Butterfly.’
  • Lastly, in his famous account of a fairy funeral, Blake described “creatures of the size and colour of green and gray grasshoppers, bearing a body laid out on a rose leaf.”

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Illustration to Gray’s ‘Long story’- fairies riding on flies

Blake’s vision as, of course, a highly personal one and we would seldom be well advised to treat his version of fairy-lore as an authoritative guide to what his contemporaries believed about the supernatural world.  Nonetheless, it is a fascinating and coherent conception and a notable element within his overall philosophy.

My interpretation and use of Blake’s fairy lore, my new fairy tale Albion awake!is available to purchase through Amazon as a Kindle or paperback.  I also intend to make related posts separately on johnkruseblog.wordpress.com.  An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).

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Further reading

I have discussed William Blake in several other posts: I consider his views on fairy origins, on the nature of the magical realm of Albion and how Blake’s art and poetry has influenced later generations of artists, writers and visionaries.

“Oh, that this too, too solid flesh would melt”- fairy physiology

 

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Brian Froud, a ‘frog fairy’

Our ancestors believed in a form of life called ‘fairy’; but how exactly did they conceive these beings? What was their physical form and nature (if they had one?)

Astral bodies

Robert Kirk, in his Secret commonwealth, describes them variously as “astral” with “light, changable Bodies somewhat of the Nature of a condensed cloud” (s.1) and as being composed of “congealed Air,” which meant that they could not be physically wounded in the “fluid, active, aethereal Vehicles” which held them (s.7).  Kirk was Scottish and it seems that the general Highland belief  was that sidh were not flesh and blood but spirits who looked like men and women, albeit smaller in stature (see Evans-Wentz, The fairy faith in Celtic countries, pp.102, 104, 105, 109 & 114).  They had no solidity and a hand could pass straight through them, as if through a ghost.  The same was true in Wales (Wentz pp.138, 140 & 144); the popular conception was that the fairies didn’t have physical bodies and so could be caught.  They lived in a materially different sort of world which would change any human who visited (Wentz pp.144-145).  One Welsh account depicts them dancing on the tips of rushes, evidently being both tiny and insubstantial.

In more recent times perceptions have moved us even further away from the idea of fairies having a fixed, solid body.  The medieval fay steadily became more ethereal until we arrived at a point today where quite a few authorities say that they have no inherent form and simply borrow their appearance from whatever preconceptions they viewer carries in his her mind.  The fairies are purely ‘thought forms‘ who look just as we expect them to look.

Fairy babies

This being so, it is strange then that it was accepted that ordinary mortals could have physical contact with fairies- dancing with them, nursing their babies and, indeed, fathering babies upon them.  Katharine Briggs wrote that fairies “are apparently near enough in kind to mate with humans- closer in fact than a horse is to an ass, for many human families to claim fairy ancestry” (see her The fairies in tradition and literature p.95). Maybe there was some distinction between the physical nature of the human sized and smaller fairies.  Maybe there were regional differences or simply some inconsistency in understanding.  Generally, the idea seems to be that faery folk are as real and tangible as we are: they can jostle and pinch humans, they can fire projectiles at them; in other words, faery is a parallel or neighbouring world that is just as corporeal as our own.

Fairy food

It is also notable that fairies would steal human food (and children), so presumably they ate the same things as we did.  We know that fairies drank wine and cider and made their own food such as cakes and bread.  David Parry-Jones in his Welsh Legends even records the fairies operating their own inn near Pwllheli.  Nonetheless, contrary beliefs were also held: in Cymbeline (III, 6) it is said of Imogen “But that it eats our victuals, I should think/ Here were a fairy.”

Unfairly, it appears that fairies can eat human food without injury, whereas a human tasting their food could be entrapped for ever- see for example the Cornish tale of the Fairy dwelling on Selena moor, in which a bite of a plum or a sip of cider would be fateful. Fairies can be fussy about human culinary efforts, however.  John Rhys presents a series of stories in which  lake maidens (gwraggedd annwn) repeatedly rejected human suitors because the bread they offered was either overbaked or underbaked- too hard or too soft (John Rhys, Celtic folklore pp.4, 28 & 30).  It took a fine judge of baking times to win a faery heart.  The fairies had a particular preference for dairy products, leading to speculations that they are vegetarian.

Fairy fertility

This Cornish story of Selena Moor also points up another physiological fact: fairies appear to be poor breeders.  The captive maid in the story, Grace, says that only very occasionally is a fairy child born, which then is a cause of great rejoicing.  A similar account is given by Angus McLeod of Harris in Wentz (p.116) who sadly remarked that “There is not a wave of prosperity upon the fairies of the knoll, no, not a wave.  There is no growth or increase, no death or withering upon the fairies.  Seed unfortunate they!”  It is to reinforce the weak fairy gene pool that babies are stolen as changelings and that human lovers are taken- a theme I exploited in my own fairy story The Elder Queen.

Actual physical appearance varied from one ‘species’ or type of fairy to another.  Some were envisaged as old men, some as ugly, hairy creatures, and some as tall and beautiful women.  Some were average human height, some were the size of children and some were very small indeed, minute enough to dance around a glow-worm according to one Welsh account; another describes them as being the size of guinea pigs (!).  Angus Macleod of Harris eulogised as follows: “Their heavy brown hair was streaming down to their waist and its lustre was of the fair golden sum of summer.  Their skin was as white as the swan of the wave, and their voice was as melodious as the mavis of the wood, and they themselves were as beauteous of feature and as lithe of form as a picture, while their step was as lithe and stately and their minds as sportive as the little red hind of the hill.” (Wentz p.116)

Fairy defects

Whatever the irresistible beauty of fairy maidens, we should be aware of the fact that fairy folk sometimes bore bodily defects that disclosed their supernatural identities. This is marked in Scandinavian folklore- for example, the elle maidens dancing near the elder thickets had alluring faces but were hollow behind (see too The white goddess & the elder queen) and the huldre folk had cow’s tails.  In Britain, this is a less common theme but, for example, Highland glaistigs wore long dresses to cover their hooves; a few other Scottish fairies were similarly marked and their true natures betrayed.

Immortal fairies?

Lastly, it is natural to enquire as to life span.  The Reverend Kirk expressed the opinion in section 7 of his Secret Commonwealth that “they are not subject to sore sicknesses, but dwindle and decay at a certain period, all about ane Age.”  In other words, the fairies are not immortal.  It is certain that they fight wars and can slay each other.

In Cornish tradition the fairies’ exercise of their shape-shifting power had a serious side effect: each time they resumed their normal appearance they got smaller, so that over time they dwindled away until they reached the size of ants and were, essentially, lost.  It is worth observing in this connection that in Cornwall and the South west of England, the pixie or pisky was always considered in any case to be a diminutive being: the Cornish term was an pobel vean- the little people. Accordingly, they started at a disadvantage before they even employed their magic powers!

Further reading

An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).  I have here mainly concentrated on our ideas about fairy bodies- size, shape, weight, etc; in several separate postings I discuss how we have conceived fairy beauty– their age and their sexuality.  I’ve also examined fairy shape-shifting as well as the debate over the extent to which fairies look like we expect them to.

They who must not be named- the taboo over fairy names

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Arthur Rachkam- ‘They will mischief you’ from Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens

The open use of proper names for fairies- whether personal or collective names- is universally frowned upon and frequently punished.  I want briefly to examine in this post the  nature of this rule and its motivations.

Expert writer Katharine Briggs has described this superstition as the use of ‘euphemistic’ names for the fairy folk; I think that apotropaic may be a slightly more accurate term.  The primary purpose of this allusiveness, I believe, is to turn away displeasure and ill-fortune.

Politeness

Indirect names are used, I think, for several related purposes.  The first is with a view to complimenting  the fairy folk.  Examples include the Good People, the Good Neighbours, the Honest Folk, The Fair Family (Tylwyth teg), The Gentry, the People of Peace and the Seelie Court (that is, the ‘blessed court’, which is matched by Seelie Wicht, a ‘blessed soul’).  Some names avoided impolitic directness but were simply descriptive, as with the Cornish an pobel vean, the little people.

Averting danger

The polite and honorary addresses often conceal a second motivation- and perhaps the most important- which is to avert the unfavourable attentions of the fairies.  The invocation of goodness and peaceable conduct in part seek to ensure such a state of affairs: if you are respectful to them, they won’t be so inclined to harm you.  This is perhaps clearer in such names as Bendith y mamau, the mothers’ blessing; a name surely aimed at deflecting the risk that the fairies will steal a human child and replace it with a changeling.  The term is, in a sense, a spell to ward off the risk of abduction and the substitution of a sickly or demanding stock.

A final, very significant, element in this must be a desire to avoid using proper names directly.  Across of the globe in very many cultures it is known that a person’s proper name has special powers and that it should never be used directly or without permission- for example, in Arabia the jinns are referred to as mubarakin, ‘the blessed ones.’ Names are a form of property with magical qualities; renowned folklorist John Rhys, writing in Evans Wentz’s The fairy faith in Celtic countries, observed that a fairy would be “baffled” if his proper name was discovered (p.137) . This explains many of the vaguely descriptive phrases employed- the Green Coaties or Green Gowns, White Nymphs, People of the Hills, The Strangers and Themselves.  

This respectful avoidance of secret or personal names is best exemplified by the fairy tales featuring this theme.  Rumplestiltskin is now the best known, thanks to the Brothers Grimm, but it is a German story, not a British one.  Insular folklore has its direct parallels: the tales of Tom Tit Tot, Whuppity Stourie, Terrytop (Cornwall) and Trwtyn Tratyn from Wales.  Possession of a being’s concealed name gives control over that individual, hence the efforts to hide and to discover it.  In one Welsh example cited by John Rhys in Celtic folklorepossession of the fairy maiden’s name constrained her to marry a man (p.45).

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Rackham, Rumplestiltskin

Some readers may, of course, quite properly object that I have violated these rules in my story The Elder Queen– the faery folk there are free with personal and collective names, I must confess.  My defence is this: it is for the Folk themselves to decide what is revealed; they can choose to make themselves visible and what personal information to vouchsafe to a human.  In my story Darren is favoured- but then they want something from him- his virility and his child- so perhaps it is not a fair exchange at all.  Bargains with fairies seldom are balanced and mutually rewarding…

Further reading

The etymology of fairy names is discussed elsewhere.  An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).

“A doubtful tale from faery land”- John Keats and faery

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J Waterhouse, ‘La belle dame sans merci’

I am a great admirer of the poetry of John Keats.  At the start of my adult fairy tale, The Elder Queenwhich is available as either a paperback or e-book through Amazon, I quote some verses from his poem La Belle Dame sans Merci, which is a tale of a fatal fairy lover.  Throughout my book, there are sly quotations from Keats which those steeped in his works may spot.  An example is the fairy folk’s name for themselves- they tell Darren at the dance that they are ‘sky children’ which I have shamelessly stolen (or borrowed) from Hyperion line 133.

elder queen

Many writers have explored Keats’ poetry and his interest in faery.  A very good example is Maureen Duffy, The erotic world of faery (1972, pp.260-287), which examines in detail the intertwined themes of fairy women, death, love, sex and Keats’ relationship with his mother.  In this post I will simply highlight some of the main aspects of the poet’s treatment of fairy lore.

Fairies and girls

There is little doubt that one use of faery made by Keats is as a shorthand for girls and sex.  Keats is open in his liking for women (“Nymph of the downward smile” To G A W line 1) and feminine attributes (“Faery lids” in Lines line 7).  He readily goes further too, expressing his desire for physical contact.  He “fondled the maids with breasts of cream” (To Charles Cowden Clark line 34) and on a visit to Dawlish meets a Devon maid he greets as a “tight little fairy, just fresh from the dairy” (Where be ye going line 3).  He expressly tells country wench Betty that he would like to “rumple the daisies” with her (Over the hill line 19).

Fairies and love

It isn’t just a matter of lust though.  Fairies are linked too with love.  Keats fears he will “Never have relish in the faery power/ Of unrequiting love!” (When I have fears line 11) and he knows that they love true, as humans do (When they were come to Faery’s Court & Song of the Four Fairies).  

Country fairies

If you want a field guide to the fairy realm, Keats indicates that faeries are creatures of the countryside- particularly groves (When they were come to Faery’s Court) and glades (To Emma line 7); they are most often found at evening- for example in Ode to a Nightingale line 37 he describes how “the Queen Moon is on her throne, Clustered around by all her starry Fays” (see too To Emma line 7 & Song of the Four Fairies).  Lastly they are often diminutive and delicate (see for example Faery Bird’s Song & Faery Song). 

Perilous fairies

So far, so conventional; these faeries are the tiny sprites of Mercutio in Romeo & Juliet: they may be mischievous, but they are not wicked.  Keats, however, knows another strand of fairy lore.  He is aware that fairies can be perilous and vengeful.  In When they came to the Faery’s Court he alludes to the ‘three great crimes in faery land’, which are playing before them, sleeping in their company and stealing their property.  This sort of disrespect will be punished- a very regular feature of human/ fairy dealings.  The faery folk can be antagonistic and possessive: at the very start of Lamia (Part I, lines 1-2) he recounts “Upon a time before the faery broods/ Drove nymph and satyr from the prosperous woods.”  The fairy folk are jealous of what they control and will not share- and it seems that this applies to lovers too.  Diane Purkis in her book Troublesome things (Penguin 2001) highlights the deadly privilege of being chosen and loved by a faery maiden.  This is a traditional theme epitomised by La Belle Dame sans Merci.  She is alluring, this Lady of the Meads, “Full beautiful, a faery’s child” with her long hair, wild eyes and sweet moan, but association with her is dangerous and almost invariably fatal.  Contact with the lady is literally enchanting: “And nothing else saw all day long./ For sidelong would she bend, and sing/ A faery’s song… and sure, in language strange she said,/ I love thee true.”  Very soon the hapless knight was “in thrall” to the fairy and was deathly pale.

No wonder then that, in Ode to a Nightingale line 70, Keats describes being “In faery lands forlorn.”  Many of his descriptions of the fays imply carefree joy, but John Keats was also alert to the darker side of relations with supernatural beings, that their interest and affection could constitute a curse as well as a blessing.  This theme is something I intend to explore in my books.  An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).