‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’- John Keats’ greatest faery poem

John_William_Waterhouse_-_La_Belle_Dame_sans_Merci_(1893)
John Waterhouse, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, 1893

In one of the very first posts on this blog, I discussed the use of faeries in the verse of English poet John Keats (1795-1821).  Here I’m going to focus on one of his greatest poems, and one of the greatest fairy poems of all.  I want to examine its meaning and how it has inspired other works of art.

cowper, belle dame
Frank Cadogan Cowper, Belle Dame, 1926

Here’s the text of Keats’ poem, which was written in 1819:

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
       Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
       And no birds sing.
O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
       So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
       And the harvest’s done.
I see a lily on thy brow,
       With anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
       Fast withereth too.
I met a lady in the meads,
       Full beautiful—a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
       And her eyes were wild.
I made a garland for her head,
       And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love,
       And made sweet moan
I set her on my pacing steed,
       And nothing else saw all day long,
For sidelong would she bend, and sing
       A faery’s song.
She found me roots of relish sweet,
       And honey wild, and manna-dew,
And sure in language strange she said—
       ‘I love thee true’.
She took me to her Elfin grot,
       And there she wept and sighed full sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
       With kisses four.
And there she lullèd me asleep,
       And there I dreamed—Ah! woe betide!—
The latest dream I ever dreamt
       On the cold hill side.
I saw pale kings and princes too,
       Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—‘La Belle Dame sans Merci
       Thee hath in thrall!’
I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
       With horrid warning gapèd wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
       On the cold hill’s side.
And this is why I sojourn here,
       Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
       And no birds sing.
Henry Meynell Rheam, Belle Dame
Henry Meynell Rheam, La Belle Dame, 1901

Like many faery writers and painters, Keats immediately locates his poem in the past: we have a knight riding on horse-back- we know we’re in the Middle Ages, when faeries were much nearer to people than today (or so we always say- see my previous post on this perpetual relegation of the faes to the previous generation).  Simultaneously, the medieval context gives Keats’ verse an extra weight and authority.  He’s placing himself alongside Malory, Spenser and other poets who’ve written about faery themes, adding to the ‘authenticity’ of what he writes.

Walter_T._Crane_-_La_belle_Dame_Sans_Merci_(1865)
Walter Crane, La Belle Dame, 1865

Then we meet the faery woman- and she is everything that I’ve described in preceding posts on this blog: she’s beautiful, she’s sexually appealing, she’s also unearthly and deadly.  Instantly, it would seem, the knight falls under her spell: making garlands for her in most un-knightly fashion, bearing her on his horse and becoming obsessed entirely with her.  She sings to him- and this seems to be part of the spell that she works.  Her alien nature is betrayed by her every aspect: her strange speech, her songs, her wild looks.  Yet despite these warning signs, and the precipitate nature of their declared love for each other, the knight abandons caution and submits without resistance to her charms.

Dicksee La_Belle_Dam_Sans_Merci 1902
Frank Dicksee, La Belle Dame, 1902

Two fateful incidents follow quickly.  Firstly, the knight eats the food the fairy woman prepares for him; as I have described, consumption of fairy food – and the partaking of fairy nature that comes with it- can often have dire consequences for the human.  Secondly, (although Keats is circumspect about this, given the date and style of his poem) the knight has sex with the fae woman in her ‘grot’- her cave or underground home.  He has doubly surrendered his body to her power now.

hughes, La belle dame sans merci
Arthur Hughes, La Belle Dame, 1863

The consequence of the knight’s close contact with faery nature is serious.  He dreams his ‘latest,’ his last, dream and (it would seem) he finds himself no longer in the faery woman’s cave but abandoned and alone on a hillside-a common conclusion to stories of fairy encounters: the glamour evaporates and the human is left solitary and bewildered in the wilderness.  The knight sees visions of those who have before him fallen under the faery’s spell and he is warned- far too late- of the peril he was in.  These cautions are useless to him now, though: he is either ‘elf-addled‘- made sick by his intimate association with the faery- or he is, in fact, dead.  The others, certainly, are starved with gaping mouths, and the hapless knight is left ‘alone and palely loitering,’ looking fevered and haggard.  He cannot return to or settle back to his earthly life, he cannot escape the fairy woman’s ‘thrall.’  In this state of exile or alienation from his former condition, the knight closely resembles the fairy-abductee Kilmeny, of James Hogg’s nearly contemporary poem of the same name.  After her visit to Faery and her return to our world:

“But all the land were in fear and dread,
For they kendna [knew not] whether she was living or dead.
It wasna her hame, and she couldna remain;” (Hogg, Kilmeny1813)

Keats’ Belle Dame epitomises some of the aspects of Faery we often downplay.  It is common in folklore accounts to find faeries, and mermaids too, taking advantage of humans for their own benefit.  This can frequently have dire implications for the human involved, ranging from subjection to terminal decline; the best that might be said of these cases is that the outcome may not be intentional- the fairies’ solipsistic nature may simply fail to register the impact on the mortal party.  However, there are plenty of traditional examples of supernatural beings- ranging from boggarts and goblins through to kelpies- whose deliberate aim is to cause harm and injury.  Keats’ Belle Dame is one of these- we need look no further than the title of the poem to know this, of course: she is ‘sans merci,’ without mercy.

fishman bd2
Fishman. La Belle Dame

As the illustrations to this posting demonstrate, Keats’ poem has inspired successive generations of artists.  Two stages of the poem are illustrated: either the knight succumbing to the charms of the maiden, or the aftermath of his deadly seduction.  The version of this by Frank Cadogan Cowper (1877-1959), an English painter often called the ‘last Pre-Raphaelite’ for his richly coloured historical and legendary paintings which regularly feature captivating, fay-like women, shows the faery maiden arranging her hair whilst the knight lies prostrate before her.  She looks wonderfully, callously unconcerned, sitting on the river bank in her glorious dress patterned with red poppies.  The blooming poppies that surround the couple suggest a possible origin for his unconsciousness.  Henry Meynell Rheam (1859-1920), depicts a similar scene, except that ghostly figures of previous victims are shown hovering behind the rather self-satisfied looking faery.  Other artists have focused instead the irresistible allure of the fairy maid, who seems superficially pretty and defenceless.  Frank Dicksee’s painting perhaps best encapsulates this first stage of the poem.  The fascination of Keats’ work persists even today, as we see from the two canvases by US based fantasy artist, Marc Fishman (b.1971).  He emphasises the dangerous sexual allure of the fae woman, with her gauzy, see-through gowns and her wild, perfumed, intoxicating hair.  Her emergence from a pool in the first of these also links her to the deadly meremaids I have discussed in the past.

Lastly, the Mediaeval Baebes have arranged the poem to music, in a haunting rendition (they have done the same too for Kilmeny,  and for the Scots ballad of Tam Lin for that matter).  For a more general discussion of fairy themes and iconography in nineteenth century poetry, see my recent book, Victorian Fairy VerseFor a detailed examination of the psychological and physical effects of faery contact, see my recently published Faery.

fishman belle dame
Fishman, La Belle Dame

‘The House on Selena Moor’- a story analysed

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A view west towards Silena Moor (in the valley) today

Here is an annotated version of this fascinating text, taken from William Bottrell’s Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall, Second Series, Penzance 1873, pp.94-102

“When the ancient family of Noy flourished in Buryan, there was a large tract of unenclosed common, belonging to the farms of Pendrea, Selena, and Tresidder, which extended from Cotnewilly to Burnewhall, and branched off in other directions. Great part of this ground was swampy and produced a rank growth of rushes, water-flags, and coarse herbage. Many acres were gay in summer with cotton-grass, bog-beans, cucco-flowers, and other plants usually found in such soil. In some places were dry rocky banks overgrown with sloe-trees, moor-withey, furze, and brambles; these patches being surrounded by a broad extent of quaking bog or muddy soil appeared like islands in a marsh. There were also many springs, rivulets, and pools, that seldom froze, much frequented by wild-fowl in winter. Great part of this moorland was then impassable; horse-tracks leading to Burnewhall, Selena, and other farms, passed over the driest places, and were continued by rough causeways through swamps;—they were very bad roads at all seasons.

[Silena Moor is still to be found in Penwith, to the west of Newlyn on the main B3315 road to Land’s End.  It is to the south west of St Buryan and is an area of rough grass and scrub, as can just about be seen in the above photo.]

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The menhir overlooking Silena moor

“One afternoon in harvest, Mr. Noy, with some of his men, were over to Burnewhall helping his kinsfolk, the Pendars. As more hands were required for the next day, which was to be the gulthise (harvest home), soon after ‘croust‘ time (lunch time) he rode up to Church-town to get them…

Soon after ‘day-down’ Mr. Noy, followed by his dogs, left the public-house intending to return to Burnewhall, but he didn’t arrive there that night nor the next. The Pendars and their people thought he might have enjoyed himself at the Ship Inn till late, and then have gone home to Pendrea. Mr. Noy had no wife nor anybody else to be much alarmed about him, as he was a middle-aged or rather elderly bachelor. But next day when people from Church-town, Pendrea, and scores of neighbours from other farms, came with their horses to help and to feast at the gulthise, and nobody among them had seen or heard of Mr. Noy from the time he left the inn, they got somewhat uneasy; … Dame Pendar sent messengers round to all places where she thought Mr. Noy might have gone, and they returned, just as the feast was breaking up, without any tidings of him.

Then everyone became anxious, and as it was near daybreak they volunteered to disperse and search in every place they could think of before going to bed.  So away they went, some on horseback, others afoot, to examine mill-pools, stream-works, cliffs, and other dangerous places, near and far away. They returned at night, but nobody had seen or heard of the missing gentleman. Next morning horsemen were dispatched to other parishes, and as Mr. Noy was well known and liked there was a general turn out to hunt for him; but this day, too, was passed in a like fruitless search miles away.

On the third day, however, in the grey of the morning, a horse was heard to neigh, and dogs were heard barking among thickets on a piece of dry ground almost surrounded with bogs and pools, on Pendrea side of Selena Moor.  Now it happened that no one had thought of looking for Mr. Noy in this place so near home, but when with much ado, a score or so of men discovered a passable road into this sort of island in the bogs, there they saw Mr. Noy’s horse and hounds; the horse had found plenty of pasture there, but the dogs, poor things, were half-starved. Horse and dogs showed their joy, and led the way through thorns, furze, and brambles—that might have grown there hundreds of years—till they came to large ‘skaw’ [elder] trees and the ruins of an old bowjey [cowshed] or some such building that no one knew of.

[Note the presence of fairy elder trees at the remote spot where Noy is found.  The description of the spot as an ‘island’ may have resonances with the wider Celtic concept of faery as a normally inaccessible island in the sea]

“The horse stopped at what had been a doorway, looked around and whinnied; the dogs, followed by several people, pushed through the brambles that choked the entrance, and within they found Mr. Noy lying on the ground fast asleep. It was a difficult matter to arouse him; at last he awoke, stretched himself, rubbed his eyes, and said,

‘Why you are Burnewhall and Pendrea folks; however are ye all come here? To-day is to be the gulthise, and I am miles and miles away from home. What parish am I in? How could ‘e have found me? Have my dogs been home and brought ‘e here?’

Mr. Noy seemed like one dazed as we say, and all benumbed as stiff as a stake, so without staying to answer his questions, they gave him some brandy, lifted him on horseback, and left his steed to pick its way out, which it did readily enough, and a shorter one than they discovered.

[Note his physical and mental state– a good indicator of his recent contact with faerie.  Waking up in a strange place after a fairy encounter is a very common scene, especially to be found in Welsh stories of visits to unknown houses and inns on the moors.]

“Though told he was on his own ground, and less than half a mile from Burnewhall, he couldn’t make out the country as he said, till he crossed the running water that divides the farms. “But I am glad,” said he “however it came to pass, to have got back in time for the gulthise.” When they told him how the corn was all carried three days ago, he said they were joking, and wouldn’t believe it till he had seen all in the mowhay [barn] under thatch and roped down; that the loose straw was raked up, and all harvest implements put away till next season.”

[We have the classic lapse of time here, something that typifies the difference between Faery and the human world.  The mention of crossing streams may also be an indicator of a transition from faery back to the normal world.]

“Then whilst breakfast was getting ready, seated on a chimney-stool by a blazing fire, he told his neighbours that when he came to Cotnewilly, the night being clear, he thought he might as well make a short cut across the moor and save nearly a mile- as he had often done before in summer time- instead of going round by the stony bridle-path; but his horse, that was pretty much used to finding his own way when his master was tipsy, wanted to keep the usual road, and his rider, to baulk him, pulled farther off towards Pendrea side of the common than he would otherwise have done, and went on till he found himself in a part that was unknown to him; though he had been, as he thought, over every inch of it that man or beast could tread on, both in winter and summer. Getting alarmed at the strange appearance of everything around him, he tried in vain to retrace his steps, then gave the horse its head, and let it take its own course.

[This stumbling into a strange place in a familiar landscape is a very good example of the experience of being ‘pixy-led’.]

“Yet, instead of proceeding homeward, as was dobbin’s wont, it bore Mr. Noy to a land so crowded with trees that he had to alight and lead his steed. After wandering miles and miles, sometimes riding but oftener afoot, without seeing any habitation in this strange place, which he believed must be out of Buryan but in what parish he couldn’t tell, he at last heard strains of lively music, and spied lights glimmering through the trees and people moving about, which made him hope that he had arrived at some farm where they had a gulthise, and the harvest-folks were out, after supper, dancing in the town-place.

[Pretty obviously, Noy has crossed now into fairyland. This music and feasting is either some fairy event he has stumbled upon or is deliberately set up to lure him to them.]

“His dogs slunk back, and the horse wasn’t willing to go on, so he tied him to a tree, took his course through an orchard towards the lights, and came to a meadow where he saw hundreds of people, some seated at tables eating and drinking with great enjoyment apparently, and others dancing reels to the music of a crowd or tambourine—they are much the same thing—this was played by a damsel dressed in white, who stood on a heaping-stock just beside the house door, which was only a few paces from him.”

[The white dress may be indicative of fairy nature- and of course the reluctance of the dogs and horse to approach demonstrates their keener sense of otherworldliness- but then, they’ve not been in the Star Inn for several hours and they’re a good deal more alert than Mr Noy probably is as he comes upon this faery celebration.  Across Britain, the faeries are renowned for their love of feasting, music and dance, all of which are good ways of trapping unwary humans too.]

“The revellers, farther off, were all very smartly decked out, but they seemed to him, at least most of them, to be a set of undersized mortals; yet the forms and tables, with the drinking-vessels on them, were all in proportion to the little people. The dancers moved so fast that he couldn’t count the number of those that footed jigs and reels together, it almost made his head giddy only to look at their quick and intricate whirling movements.”

[We’re dealing here with pixies or ‘an pobel vean’ the little people of Cornwall.  As in many British stories, this is an encounter with small faeries– child height or less.]

“Noy noticed that the damsel who played the music was more like ordinary folks for stature, and he took her to be the master’s daughter, as, when one dance was ended, she gave the crowd to a little old fellow that stood near her, entered the house, fetched therefrom a black-jack [a leather jug], went round the tables and filled the cups and tankards that those seated, and others, handed to be replenished. Then, whilst she beat up a new tune for another set of dancers, Mr. Noy thought she cast a side-glance towards him; the music, he said, was so charming and lively that to save his soul he couldn’t refrain from going to join the dancers in a three-handed reel, but the girl with a frown and look of alarm, made a motion with her head for him to withdraw round a corner of the house out of sight. He remained gazing, however, and still advancing till she beckoned to the same little old man, to whom she spoke a few words, gave him the crowd to play, and leaving the company, went towards the orchard signalling to Mr. Noy to follow her, which he did. When out of the candle-glare and in a clear spot where moonlight shone, she waited for him. He approached and was surprised to see that the damsel was no other than a farmer’s daughter of Selena, one Grace Hutchens, who had been his sweetheart for a long while, until she died, three or four years ago; at least he had mourned her as dead, and she had been buried in St. Buryan Churchyard as such.”

[Grace is a fairy captive, a servant at the celebration rather than a participant.  She knows the danger of Noy joining in the dance, which is a classic way of being ‘taken.’]

“When Mr. Noy came within a yard or so, turning towards him, she said, ‘thank the stars, my dear William, that I was on the look-out to stop ye, or you would this minute be changed into the small people’s state like I am- woe is me.’ He was about to kiss her, ‘Oh, beware!” she exclaimed, “embrace me not, nor touch flower nor fruit; for eating a tempting plum in this enchanted orchard was my undoing. You may think it strange, yet it was all through my love for you that I am come to this.'”

[‘Changed into the fairy state‘ is a very important phrase.  Long presence in faery,  and especially consumption of food and drink there, will alter you both physically and mentally.  It’s interesting in this account that even touching one of the inhabitants can have the same effect.]

“‘People believed, and so it seemed, that I was found on the moor dead; it was also supposed that I must have dropped there in a trance, as I was subject to it. What was buried for me, however, was only a changeling, or sham body, never mine I should think, for it seems to me that I feel much the same still as when I lived to be your sweetheart.'”

[Abduction of people and livestock by a faked death, and the leaving behind of a ‘stock’ is a strategy used across Britain by the fays.  A log or plant stem might be used for people, or a slaughtered cow’s hide might be stuffed- or even left behind with an elderly elf hidden within.]

“As she said this several little voices squeaked, “Grace, Grace, bring us more beer and cider, be quick!”

[Note the small voices to go with the small bodies of the pobel vean- and their treatment of Grace as a slave.]

“‘Follow me into the garden, and remain there behind the house; be sure you keep out of sight, and don’t for your life, touch fruit or flower,’ said she, in conducting out Mr. Noy, who desired her to bring him a tankard of cider too. ‘No, my love, not for the world,’ she replied, ‘await me here, I’ll soon return. Sad is my lot to be stolen from the living and made housekeeper to these sprites,’ murmured Grace, in quitting the garden.

Over a few minutes she returned to Mr. Noy, led him into a bowery walk, where the music and noise of merriment didn’t overpower their voices, and said, ‘you know, my dear Willy, that I loved you much, but you can never know how dearly.’

‘Rest yourself,’ she continued pointing to a stone, ‘on that seat, whilst I tell ye what you never dreamt of.’ Mr. Noy seated himself as desired, and Grace related how one evening, about dusk, she was out on Selena Moor in quest of strayed sheep, when hearing him, in Pendrea ground, halloo and whistle to his dogs, she crossed over towards the sound in hopes of falling in with him, but missed her way among ferns higher than her head, and wandered on for hours amidst pools and shaking bogs without knowing whither.

After rambling many miles, as it seemed to her, she waded a brook and entered an orchard, then she heard music at a distance, and proceeding towards it, passed into a beautiful garden with alleys all bordered by roses and many sweet flowers, that she had never seen the like of. Apples and other tempting fruit dropped in the walks and hung over head, bursting ripe.”

[Again there is the idea of crossing a stream as a boundary into faery, a place that has some connotations of the garden of Eden.]

“This garden was so surrounded with trees and water- coming in every here and there among them- that, like one ‘piskey-led,’ all her endeavours to find a way out of it were in vain. The music, too, seemed very near at times, but she could see nobody. Feeling weary and athirst, she plucked a plum, that looked like gold in the clear starlight; her lips no sooner closed on the fruit than it dissolved to bitter water which made her sick and faint. She then fell on the ground in a fit, and remained insensible, she couldn’t say how long, ere she awoke to find herself surrounded by hundreds of small people, who made great rejoicing to get her amongst them, as they very much wanted a tidy girl who knew how to bake and brew, one that would keep their habitation decent, nurse the changed-children (i.e. the changelings) that weren’t so strongly made as they used to be, for want of more beef and good malt liquor, so they said.”

[The music is a lure, yet has no definite source- a clear example of ‘ceol sidhe.’ The fairy food, we note, may seem enticing but is unsatisfactory- even unpleasant, when actually eaten. We note too the fairy preference for neatness in humans and their complaints about the weakening of human stock found in the stolen infants.]

“At first she felt like one entranced and hardly knew how to ‘find herself’ in such strange company; even then, after many years’ experience, their mode of life seemed somewhat unnatural to her, for all among them is mere illusion or acting and sham. They have no hearts, she believed, and but little sense or feeling; what serves them, in a way, as such, is merely the remembrance of whatever pleased them when they lived as mortals- may be thousands of years ago.  What appear like ruddy apples and other delicious fruit, are only sloes, hoggans (haws) and blackberries. The sweet scented and rare flowers are no other than such as grow wild on every moor.”

[In this story the fays seem to be our deceased ancestors; there is, too, the familiar use of ‘glamour‘ to deceive.]

“In answer to Mr. Noy’s enquiries about small people’s dietary, Grace told him how she sickened, at first, on their washy food of honey-dew and berries—their ordinary sustenance—and how her stomach felt so waterish that she often longed for a bit of salt fish. The only thing she relished was goat’s milk, ‘for you must have often heard,’ said she, ‘that these animals are frequently seen on moors, or among carns and in other out-of-the-way places, miles from their homes. They are enticed away by small people to nourish their babes and changelings. There’s a score or more of goats here at times. Those cunning old he-ones that often come among a flock—no one knows whence—and disappear with the best milkers, are the decoys, being small people in such shapes. One may often notice in these venerable long-beards, when seen reposing on a rock, chewing their cuds, a look of more than human craftiness and a sly witch-like glance cast from the corner of their eyes.'”

[This story is firmly of the opinion that faery is a place of scant pleasures, for its all superficial and unreal; the food sounds unappetising in the main, although the fairy love of dairy products, especially those of goats, is confirmed.  The fact that fairy food was insubstantial and unhealthy for a human reminds us of the story of the Suffolk Green Children, in which the reverse was the case.]

“Looking at Mr. Noy for a moment with a melancholy expression, Grace sighed and continued, ‘I am now getting used to this sort of life and find it tolerable, the more so because the whole tribe behave to me with great kindness, the elderly men above all; you observed that little fellow to whom I spoke and who now plays the tambourine, I desired him to tell the rest, in case they inquired for me, that I was gone to look after the children, and he is so much attached to me as to do or say anything I request.’ Seeing Mr. Noy look somewhat lowering, Grace exclaimed, ‘Oh! my dear Willy, don’t be such a noddy as to be jealous, for he’s no other than vapour, and what he is pleased to think love, is no more substantial than fancy.’

Mr. Noy asked if there were any children among them besides those they stole and replaced with changelings?

‘Very few indeed,’ she replied, ‘though they are fond of babies, and make great rejoicing when one happens to be born amongst them; and then every little man, however old, is proud to be thought the father. For you must remember they are not of our religion,’ said she, in answer to his surprised look, ‘but star-worshippers. They don’t always live together like Christians and turtle-doves; considering their long existence such constancy would be tiresome for them, anyhow the small tribe seem to think so. And the old withered ‘kiskeys’* of men that one can almost see through, like puffs of smoke, are vainer than the young ones. May the Powers deliver them from their weakly frames! And indeed they often long for the time when they will be altogether dissolved in air, and so end their wearisome state of existence without an object or hope.'”

* the kiskey is the dried up stalk of the kegga, the water hemlock.

Midsummer night's dream

[I have discussed fairy physiology in an early posting and have examined too fairies’ mortality: they are long lived but not immortal, it appears.  The statement about star worship was discussed in my article on fairy religionParticularly notable is the fact that the Welsh fairy king, Gwyn ap Nudd, was said in the Welsh Triads to have great knowledge about the nature and qualities of the stars and could predict the future from them.  The references to fairy salvation are a late, Christian interpolation into fairy-lore, transferring to the Good Neighbours our own concerns about heaven and hell, beliefs that may well not be theirs.]

“Grace also told him—but he didn’t remember exactly the words she spoke—that she was the more content with her condition since she was enabled to take the form of any bird she pleased, and thus gratify her desire to be near him, so that when he thought of her but little suspected her presence; she was mostly hovering round and watching him in the shape of some common small bird. Grace assured Mr. Noy of her everlasting love, yet as long as nature would permit him to retain his mortal form she would rather behold him in flesh and blood, than see him changed to her state. She also told him, that when he died, if he wished to join her, they would then be united and dwell in this fairy-land of the moors.”

[Changes in shape and in size are characteristic, it seems, of Cornish fairies with spriggans able to swell rapidly to the size of a giant and the fairy master of Cherry of Zennor varying between tiny and normal human stature.  The fairy associations with birds and with insects have been discussed in previous posts.]

“Mr. Noy wanted to know much more about these strange beings, and was about to enquire, when they again called, ‘Grace, Grace, where art thou so long? Bring us some drink quickly.’ She hastily entered the house, and that moment it came into his head that he, too, would have some liquor, disperse the small tribe, and save Grace.

Knowing that any garment turned inside out and cast among such sprites would make them flee, and happening to put his hand into his coat pocket, he felt there the gloves that he had worn for binding in the afternoon; quick as thought, he turned one inside out, put into it a small stone, and threw it among them; in an instant they all vanished with the house, Grace, and all the furniture. He just had time to glance round, and saw nothing but thickets and the roofless house of an old bowjey, when he received a blow on his forehead that knocked him down, yet he soon fell asleep and dozed away an hour or two he thought.”

[Turning a garment, whether coat, glove or hat, is a tried and tested solution to being piskey-led.  Throwing the item of clothing- most especially gloves, adds potency to the charm.]

“Those to whom Mr. Noy related his story, said that he had learnt nothing new from Grace, for old folks always believed of the fair people such things as she told him, and they disliked to be seen, above all by daylight, because they then looked aged and grim. It was said, too, that those who take animal forms get smaller and smaller with every change, till they are finally lost in the earth as muryans (ants), and that they passed winter, for the most part, in underground habitations, entered from cleves or carns. And it is held that many persons who appear to have died entranced, are not really dead, but changed into the fairy state.”

[A repetition of some of the themes already highlighted- faery and death, the change in physical state experienced there plus a statement of the underground location of faery.  The celebration seen above ground seems more likely them to have been intended to catch Noy- or just to enjoy a warm summer evening.]

“The recovered gentleman further informed them that he had remarked amongst the small folks, many who bore a sort of family-likeness to people he knew, and he had no doubt but some of them were changelings of recent date, and others their forefathers who died in days of yore, when they were not good enough to be admitted into heaven, nor so wicked as to be doomed to the worst of all places. Over a while, it is supposed they cease to exist as living beings, for which reason fewer of them are now beheld than were seen in old times.”

[Seeing neighbours believed to be dead still alive in faery is a common theme- for example, the story of ‘The Tacksman of Auchriachan.’ There’s a trace here too of the idea that fairies are fallen angels who were caught between heaven and hell when the doors of each were closed.  It’s got mixed up with concepts of abduction and stocks, though.]

“From the night that Mr. Noy strayed into the small people’s habitation, he seemed to be a changed man; he talked of little else but what he saw and heard there, and fancied that every redbreast, yellow-hammer, tinner (wag-tail) or other familiar small bird that came near him, might be the fairy-form of his departed love.

Often at dusk of eve and moonlight nights, he wandered round the moors in hopes to meet Grace, and when he found his search was all in vain he became melancholy, neglected his farm, tired of hunting, and departed this life before the next harvest. Whether he truly died or passed into fairy-land, no one knows.”

[This is a poignant statement of the sense of bereavement felt by many returned from faery.  This yearning to get back to the joys of faery, however compromised they may be, is seen too in the story of ‘Cherry of Zennor’ and James Hogg’s poem ‘Kilmeny‘ amongst many othersNoy hopes to stumble upon Grace and her captors again at evening time, one of the liminal points in the day.]

Cherry of Zennor

an enactment of the Cornish story of ‘Cherry of Zennor

Further Reading

See too my posts on Cherry of Zennor, Cornish fairy dancing and Cornish changelings.

Fairy wells

Goblin harvest amelia bowerley

Goblin harvest by Amelia Bowerley

“The Fairy Well of Lagnanay-
Lie nearer me, I tremble so,
Una, I’ve heard wise women say
(Hearken to my tale of woe)-
That if before the dews arise,
True maiden in its icy flow
With pure hand bathe her bosom thrice,
Three lady-brackens pluck likewise,
And three times round the fountain go,
She straight forgets her tears and sighs.”

The fairy well of Lagnanay, Samuel Ferguson

I have discussed in a previous post how some fairies have an aversion to running water.  In contrast, though, still water has strong faery and magical properties and is, as hitherto described, the home of quite a few (largely fearsome) fays- the ‘meremaids’ of pools and lakes.

I want to look at the supernatural nature of ponds and wells in this posting.  A folklore example of this that comes from East Yorkshire records how a troublesome bogle in Holderness was banished to a well, since called Robin Round Cap Well.  In lowland Scotland the story was told of a girl who sat spinning wool on a distaff by a well when she looked in a saw a pot of gold beneath the surface.  She marked the spot with her spindle and ran to tell her father.  He suspected it was just fairy glamour intended to trap and drown her and, sure enough, when they returned to the place, the moor was covered in distaffs.  Nonetheless, twelve men in green appeared and returned her original spindle with its wool all spun.  Author Rose Fyleman was aware of the fay powers of water and, in The second adventure of the rainbow cat, the cat is given a bottle of fairy water from a magic well that bestows the ability to see through walls.

me_fairy_well

Writer and designer Feral Strumpet at the holy well at Mount Grace Priory, Osmotherly.

Holy (fairy) wells

Britain once was covered with ‘holy’ wells, many of which had no Christian association at all.  They were wishing wells, places of prediction, and very many are likely to have been so regarded for millenia. These sites often still exist, but their supernatural links are now mostly forgotten; they are muddy springs in fields or neglected wells by roadsides.  They still have a strong attraction for many, nonetheless.

Respect was shown to fairy wells in various ways.  Offerings of pins were made at Bradwell in Derbyshire on Easter Sunday and at Wooler in Northumberland, whenever a person wanted a wish to come true.  At various sites in Scotland, both buttons and pins were left.  Perhaps the most famous of these was the so-called ‘Cheese Well’ on top of Minchmuir, Peebles-shire, into which locals threw pieces of cheese for the guardian fairies.  Given the fays’ well known liking for dairy products, such offerings seem entirely appropriate; the same can’t be said about the pins, though, as iron is always regarded as an effective way of repelling our good neighbours.

eichler nixe
Reinhold Maximilian Eichler, The Nixie (from Jugend magazine, 1898)

Healing wells

The wells had health giving properties, too, so that if a child had gone into a decline and was no longer thriving (it was ‘shargie’ and had been afflicted by ‘the fairy’) leaving a child overnight near a well would cure it.  At Wooler, too, sickly children would be dipped in the well’s waters and bread and cheese left as an offering.  If it was suspected that the child had in fact been substituted for a fairy changeling, well water might again be part of the remedy.  At Chapel Euny in West Cornwall the way to expel a changeling and restore a human child was to dip the suspect infant in the well on the first three Wednesdays in May.  Both the time of day and the time of year are particularly fay, as has been described before.

Given the supernatural properties of well water, it is unsurprising that they should be used to imbue the human children abducted by the fairies with fay properties.  This is only evidenced in literature rather than folklore, but an excellent example is in the Scottish verse Kilmeny by James Hogg.  She’s dipped in the waters of life to ensure that her youth and beauty never fade.  

hannah-titania-jewelry-fairy-well-222531971

Poet, artist, musician Hannah Titania at her fairy well

Conclusions

There’s a complex and (as ever) contrary relationship between the faeries and water.  It can be the medium in which they live, it can be protective against them and it can be used by them for magical purposes.

Many of us instinctively sense the links between fays, wells and some sort of supernatural presence.  Fairies’ association with natural features may be part of this; perhaps the mysterious appearance of fresh water from underground had mysterious and magical qualities that also encouraged links to the Good Folk.  The Tiddy Mun of the East Anglian fens, for example, was believed to control the flood waters and had to be propitiated with offerings of water.  Fresh water can be both potion and poison; which will apply seems unpredictable and to depend very much upon place and personality.

Further reading

See my posting on the Sennen fairies for an example of a sighting at a well.

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