“Where should this music be? i’ the air or the earth?”- fairy pastimes


As has been discussed in previous posts, the residents of fairyland were conceived to spend a good deal of their time tormenting humans, either maliciously or mischievously, some in thievery from hapless mortals and a little in honest commerce.  The impression gained from folklore though, is that mostly the fairy life was one of leisure, with nothing to do but have fun.

Again and again the sources connect the fairies with pleasure and revelry, and in particular:

  • dancing appears to have been their chiefest delight and one of their commonest attributes (for example, see Macbeth, IV, 1- “Like elves and fairies in a ring.”). Most often this is said to take place by moonlight and usually in open places- in grassy fields, meadows, pastures and near megalithic monuments.  The fondness for moonlight is a widespread preference recorded in literature, including Milton in Comus- “Now to the moon in wavering morrice move…” (lines 115-117), Lyly, Fletcher and, of course, Shakespeare, who mentions ‘moonshine revels’ in both Midsummer Night’s Dream (II, 2) and The Merry Wives of Windsor (V, 5).   In Cornwall fairies are said to dance at their fairs, although again these are most likely to be held in open spaces (Wentz p.171).  The dances would invariably be in a circle, in one late nineteenth century case on the Isle of Skye being around a bonfire (see Briggs, Fairies in tradition p.20), and the inevitable consequence of this was the well-known ‘fairy rings’ on the grass.  This is noted by Prospero in The Tempest (V, 1) who invokes “Ye elves … that/ By moonshine do the green-sour ringlets make/ Whereof the ewe not bites.”  Many other writers also allude to the same habit and phenomenon, including Ben Jonson, Lyly, Milton, Brown, John Aubrey and Thomas Nashe.  Wirt Sikes in British goblins was told that the fairies prefer (reasonably enough) to dance in dry places, preferentially under oak trees; there they leave reddish circles- most often under the female oaks (p.106).  Humans might be lured to join these ‘wanton’ dances and would have great trouble escaping, as I have described before.


  • “Most dainty music”- music naturally accompanied the dancing, both instrumental and vocal; for example Thomas Brown in The Shepherd’s pipe describes fairies dancing to piping in meadows or in fields of yellow box.  In Scotland the bagpipes appear to have been preferred. John Dunbar of Invereen told Wentz’ informants that the sidh were “awful for the bagpipes” and often were heard playing them (p.95).   Fairies are frequently associated with particular pipes and chanters in the Highlands (Wentz pp.86 & 111) and it is also notable that their musical skills might be bestowed upon fortunate humans (p.103).  Equally, it is said, several folk tunes are originally fairy airs, heard and memorised by attentive players. To human ears the fairy music was invariably found to be ‘soft and sweet’ and nearly irresistible- especially to the young (Rhys pp.53, 86, 96 & 111; Wentz p.159).   Throughout Shakespeare’s Tempest “heavenly music” is a central element to the enchantments used by Prospero and Ariel,  lending it a magical as well as pleasurable aspect.  Humans, it seems, are welcome to join in fairy songs (just as with dances) so long as they are polite and, possibly even more importantly, musical, so that their contribution is harmonious and positive.  Woe betide the poor vocalist: in one Scottish case a hump back who sang well and enhanced a song was rewarded by having his hump taken away;  a jealous imitator who tried to repeat this spoiled the rhyme and was punished by bestowal of the hump (Wentz p.92);
  •  feasting too went along with the the enjoyment of song and dance.  Banqueting, wine and ale are frequently alluded to (in the Cornish stories of Selena Moor and Miser on the Gump, for instance).  A Zennor girl came upon pixy ‘junketting’ in an orchard near Newlyn, Wentz was told (p.175).  In many of the instances when fairy hills are seen to open up it is to reveal a fine feast within (for example William of Newborough, Book I, c.28 & Keightley p.283).
  • riding provided the other major pastime.  The ‘fairy rade’ or procession features in a large number of stories, for example Allison Gross and Tam Lin.  These processions are described as being richly caparisoned and very stately.  Mounted fairies also liked to hunt, although these outings tend to be far noisier and wilder affairs.  We are never surely told what is was that the fairies preferred to chase, but we often hear of their abandoned gallops across the countryside with their hounds.
  • mischief might also be said to be a fairy entertainment.  The taunting of humans is a fixed fairy character trait and was a primary source of pleasure for several types of fairy- especially the pucks and hobgoblins, and this is exemplified by Thomas Haywood in his Hierarchie of the blessed angels (1636, p.574) when he describes how they enjoy gambolling at night on a household’s shelves and settles, making a noise with the pots and pans and waking up the sleeping inhabitants.

In all of the above, it will be noted, the fairies mirrored the activities of earthly royal courts and noble houses.  At the end of Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example, we are told that Oberon “doth keep his revels here tonight.”  Overall, in fact, the strong impression gained from a study of the accounts (both traditional and literary) is that the fairies’ time was mainly filled with pleasure and mischief, and that there was only a very a scanty ‘work ethic.’  This is echoed in a comment on the Anglesey fairies recorded by one of Evans Wentz’ interviewees.  The woman observed with some disapproval that “all the good they ever did was singing and dancing.”


‘When the fairies came,’ Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, 1888- 1960

An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).  I have return to fairy music and song in a later post.

Tempters of the night

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Brian FroudMidsummer night’s dream

Nowadays we might wish a child a goodnight and hope that they ‘sleep tight and that the bed bugs don’t bite.’  For earlier ages the risks of the hours of sleep were far more acute and justified much stronger invocations of protection: night was the time of fairies and spirits.

Night time is fairy time

Robert Herrick’s Bellman prays that “Mercie secure ye all, and keep/ The Goblin from ye, while ye sleep;” in the play Cymbeline by William Shakespeare, the character Imogen asks the gods that they “From fairies and the tempters of the night/ Guard me!”  Night time is indissolubly linked to the realm and activities of fairies.  For example, we have A Midsummer Night’s Dream in which all the mischief of Titania, Oberon and their court occur over a single night.  Puck declares in Act V scene 2 that:

“Now it is the time of night

That the graves, all gaping wide,

Everyone lets forth his spirit

In the churchway paths to glide:

And we fairies, that do run

By the triple Hecate’s team

From the presence of the sun

Following darkness like a dream

Now are frolic…”

Soon after this Oberon commands that “Now until the break of day/ Through this house each fairy stray…”  Throughout the play the consciousness of the approach of dawn and the limit upon the fairies’ powers is stressed.  It is only at Christmas, it seems, that the dangers of the darkness are diminished: “The nights are wholesome, then no planets strike,/ No fairy takes or witch hath power to charm…” (Hamlet, Act I, scene 1).

Other poets confirm the close link with night time and fairies’ aversion to daylight.  Milton in Ode on the Nativity (line 235) describes how “the yellow skirted Fayes/ Fly after the night steeds, leaving their moon loved maze.”  In Paradise Lost too Milton pictures:

“Fairy elves,

Whose midnight revels by a forest side

Or fountain, some belated peasant sees, or dreams he sees,

While overhead the moon

Sits arbitress.” (line 781)

John Lyly in the Maydes Metamorphosis of 1600 (Act II) has the fairies declare “By the moon we sport and play/ With the night begins our day” and Fletcher in the Faithful Shepherdess observes too how “The nimble footed fairies dance their rounds/ By the pale moonshine.”  We can be left in little doubt that, after sunset, the preferred activity of fairy folk is to dance in circles.  In the Merry Wives of Windsor (Act V scene 5) Dame Quickly addresses her pretend elves thus:

“Fairies black, grey, green and white/ You moon-shine revellers and shades of night…”

“And nightly, meadow fairies, look you sing, … in a ring.”

Prospero further confirms in The Tempest that elves “By moonshine do the green-sour ringlets make,/ Whereof the ewe not bites.” This all sounds quite charming and harmless, but let us remind ourselves that not all the nocturnal activity might be so innocuous: Shakespeare’s King Henry IV wishes “That some night-tripping fairy had exchanged/ In cradle clothes our children where they lay.”

Additionally we should note the traditional association between brownies and their performance of domestic chores for human households during the hours of darkness- typically when the family are asleep and can neither witness nor disturb their supernatural helpers.

Fear of the dark

What are the reasons for this fundamental association?  One may simply be a natural and instinctive human aversion to darkness.  In the Rape of Lucrece Shakespeare invokes “Sable night, mother of dread and fear” (line 17).  In his cultural history, At days’ close- a history of night time (2005), Roger Ekirch devotes the first chapter to the ‘Terrors of the night’, stressing how for earlier generations the nocturnal hours would have consistently engendered anxieties over the proximity of the devil, the spirits of the dead and fairies.  Without sunlight we feel less secure, more vulnerable, more prey to troubled imaginings.

Seeing fairies

In more purely fairy terms, there may be a simple physical explanation of the link with dusk and dark.  Kirk in the opening chapter of his Secret Commonwealth informs us that fairies have “light changeable Bodies (like those called Astral), somewhat of the Nature of a condensed Cloud and best seen in Twilight.”  Later he described these “chamaeleon like” creatures as being formed of “congealed air.”  A belief in the crepuscular or nocturnal appearance of fairies was widespread.  The informants interviewed for Evan Wentz’s Fairy faith in Celtic countries (1911) consistently gave evidence that elves and pixies were to be seen at dusk or dawn (pp.108, 154, 158 & 180), after darkness had fallen (pp.139, 143 & 184) and in moonlight- when they danced (pp.142, 146, 159 & 181). It may simply be that, in bright sunlight, we were felt to be less aware of the fairy presence or- even more probably, perhaps- they came out at night because then it was safer to indulge in their pastime of thieving from humans!

Whatever the explanation, poets have always exploited and played with the nocturnal association.  In Oberon’s Palace, Robert Herrick imagined Queen Mab to be “moon-tanned” whilst Simon Steward in A description of the King and Queen of Fayries (1635) imagined Oberon setting his horn to his “moone-burnt lippes.” John Lyly in Endimion called a fairy “the Queen of Stars.”

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Brian FroudQueen of the night

Further reading

An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).  I have also discussed times of day for seeing fairies more broadly in a more recent post

Sex and the fairy

Arthur Rackham, illustration from Milton’s ‘Comus’

As I suggested in the previous post on fairies in John Keats’ poetry, sex and sexuality are strong elements in (adult) fairylore.  Maureen Duffy, in her extensive and detailed study of fairies in literature, The erotic world of faery (Cardinal, 1989), describes how fairies are an embodiment of repressed desires.  Folk culture favoured greater sexual freedom than the church could sanction, and fairy tales allowed writers to deal with taboo subjects and taboo desires in an indirect way.  Duffy notes that malignant spirits are more common than benevolent ones and she links the latter to a cheerful and open sexuality.

Fairy folk appear to have some kind of role as facilitators or instigators of human sexual relations.  In my next post on Queen Mab I note her apparent role in instructing innocent virgins.  Ben Jonson hints that house elves have some sort of role in enabling wenches to spend time with their lovers: in his Masque of Love Restored one of Robin Goodfellow’s roles is to sweep hearths, clean houses and generally do the chores for the maids “whilst they are at hot-cockles.” I do not think this is merely a reference to them playing the children’s game akin to Blind Man’s Bluff!  Even more explicit is John Lyly in Act II of The Maid’s Metamorphosis.  The ‘third fairy’ recounts his pastimes:

“When I feel a girl asleep,

Underneath her frock I peep,

There to sport, and there I play.

Then I bite her like a flea,

And about I skip.”

It is certainly undeniable that there is often close sexual dependency between fairies and humans.  Fairy women often seek out human partners, a theme I borrowed in my novel The elder queenand the literary and visual representations of fairies are frequently more or less sexualised.  In this post I want to examine fairies in art in a little more detail, making particular reference to the twentieth century artists Arthur Rackham and Brian Froud.  In Victorian Painting (Phaidon, 1999, p.194) Lionel Lambourne describes how “many paintings … [were] saved from indecorum by the pretence that the women depicted were not scantily dressed real women but innocuous fairies, tastefully ‘veiled’ in the trappings of allegory or myth.”  This allowed artists to show naked and attractive young women without (once again) violating social taboos.  I want to discuss Rackham and Froud as successors of this approach.

Both artists depict goblins in very much the same way- as grotesque, mischievous beings.  They also both depict fairies as being quite distinct- as female and human like.  Nevertheless, there are significant differences in their portrayals.  Rackham’s fairies are young women with long hair- coy, slim, alluring- semi-naked or in see-through clothing.  An example of this preference of Rackham’s is an illustration to the story of Rip van Winkle, titled ‘These fairy mountains.’  It depicts a scene on a peak in the Catskills range.  I cannot help but notice that, whilst the ‘goblin’ figures are fully clothed, in a manner suitable to the altitude and climate, the fairies are posed partially and only very lightly dressed, giving the illustrator a good opportunity to show us some juvenile semi-nudity (see below).  This apparently provides confirmation of Lambourne’s observation on some of the parameters within which Victorian artists worked..


Brian Froud‘s fairies are often young, but not always, and they seem much more self-possessed or even self absorbed.  They engage with the viewer, they have their own sense of humour and their sexuality is their own.

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Brian Froud, ‘Fairy princess’

Of course, there is nearly a century separating the pictures and Brian Froud’s art is likely to be ‘post-feminist.’  I’d argue there is more, though.  Before there was sci-fi, there was fairy art, and the aim of both is to depict unreal things- generally as if they were actually real- either because the artist or the viewer (or both) wish to imagine it so.  Fantasy art can portray things that are impossible (such as Froud’s half-frog fairies) or it can present idealised images- how we would wish ‘faery’ to be; and it is often overtly sexual or suggestive of sexuality.  Fairy maids were in the past allowed to be sexy because they were outside the structures of family and society (for example, they could independently choose human partners).  They were allowed to express what would otherwise not have been permitted to the artist or to a young woman at the time.  Those constraints are much diminished now and I think that explains the difference in atmosphere between Rackham’s work and Froud’s.  The art of both is attractive, but the messages are very different.

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Brian Froud, ‘Here we are, what can you see?’

Further reading

An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).  I consider the changing image and gender stereotypes of fairies in a later post looking at developments since Victorian times.

I have examined the faery art of Brian Froud separately, whilst in other posts I have also discussed questions of fairy sexuality and what we consider to be beauty amongst fairykind.