The faery personality- and their relations with humans

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EnEvil fairy by Graham Ovenden

“Be careful how ye speake here o’ the Wee Folk/ Or they will play such pranks on thee and thine/ Nae doubt, they dae a lot of good whiles/ But if provoked, they can be maist unkind.” (Henry Terrell,  The wee folk of Menteith, p.46)

Some months ago I posted about my personal views of the nature and conduct of fairy-kind.  I’d like to say a little more about my view of their general character and interaction with human kind, as I think it will inform an understanding of my own approach to the subject in these postings.

All things nice?

I’ve written in the past about certain modern, cute manifestations of fairy kind: Santa’s elves for example and the Tooth Fairy.  As those of you who read these comments will no doubt have detected, I have little time for such sugary figures.  I have an affection for the flower fairy art of Cicely Mary Barker and Margaret Tarrant, and even (sometimes) the plump cuddly creations of Mabel Lucy Atwell, but my own conception of their identity and activities is very different.

The genre of imagery shown below is part of our problem with fairies: because of Shakespeare and his contemporaries and successors, we have come to see them as cuddly and sweet and ideally suited to little girls.  This is a gross underestimation and misconception.  Perhaps Graham Ovenden’s painting at the head of this post is most appropriate: there’s beauty, but there’s something beneath, in that distracted self-absorbed look.

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Mabel Lucy Attwell, The Changeling.Enter a caption

A darker view?

My view of Faery is rather darker and I’d summarise their main personality traits as follows.  I’ll use some characters from my own books to illustrate these convictions, or preconceptions (or prejudices!) of mine:

  • the fairies are a serious and scary people.  I don’t conceive of them as small, either physically or in their activities.  This will be apparent from my postings on this site and from all my fictional creations, but most strongly, perhaps, in the person of Maeve in Albion awake!  I’d hesitate to antagonise or patronise her: I may have imagined her as smaller of stature, but there’s no doubting her formidable determination;
  • they can’t be taken for granted and must be treated with all due respect and caution.  Their good will can’t be bought;
  • their resemblance to us should not be mistaken for affinity.  They may look like us physically, but they are unlike us and any resemblance should not put us off our guard;
  • they are strong and independent.  They have their own agenda and their own rules by which they live.  We shouldn’t presume to know their plans or to have much hope of changing them;
  • they are reserved and won’t reveal themselves readily;
  • they are content to live separately from us- indeed, they would prefer to do so- but sometimes necessity obliges them to make contact.  We should not imagine that they want to ‘help’ us or that they ‘love’ humankind.  To my mind that sort of attitude tends towards complacency and overconfidence.  In Albion awake!, for example, main character John Bullen is permitted to call upon Maeve’s assistance in times of great need, but no more.  That doesn’t inhibit her in appearing in his flat whenever she has need to make use of him, though; and that’s the core of the human/fairy interaction, to my mind.  They make use of us and they may grant us the occasional favour, but there is an notable imbalance of power.  In my novel The elder queen the fairies (‘the sky children’) show kindness to Darren Carter, but I’d probably conceive that as pity for the shambling wreck that he makes of his life towards the midpoint of the book- he’s drug addicted, divorced and indebted, homeless and jobless.  He’s an object of their charity; there’s a good deal of condescension but little of the equality of friends.

Key to the fairy character is their mutability.  How a particular individual human may be treated seems often to be a matter of whim; a fay’s mood is seldom predictable.  (I’d argue that this apparent lack of consistency may be more to do with our ignorance of their habits and thinking than any waywardness on their part).  Possible interactions with humans therefore cover a complete spectrum from good to bad.  The fairy may be:

  • evasive and secretive- or at the very least indifferent.  Whether this arises from fear of humankind, or contempt for mortals, is debatable;
  • generous and helpful.  Certain favourites may, inexplicably, be adopted and given regular gifts of money or valuable skills or rewards (such as a never ending supply of flour or beer);
  • even-handed and scrupulously fair.  Sometimes faes will ask to borrow some household item or provision; they will always return it and, if a food stuff has been loaned, they will insist upon a full and equivalent restitution, and occasionally more than that;
  • cruel and spiteful.  A human may deserve their bad treatment, possibly because of some conceived slight to or neglect of the fairies; alternatively, there may be little explanation for the maltreatment dished out- other than it amuses the faeries.

The last category of interaction is naturally the most concerning, as it can be unheralded and undeserved torment- sometimes culminating in death.  If I’m being cautious in my advice on approaches to fairies, I would always advise that you proceed on the assumption that the response you will get may be a rebuff or worse.  If I was asked to summarise the most negative aspects of faery character, I would say that they were exploitative.  Humankind are very often viewed as a resource, something to be used.  They may take our foodstuffs, they may make use of our possessions or occupy our homes.  Parasitic might be an even harsher adjective.  Fairy-kind can bake, churn, spin, forge metals and all the rest; but why labour when people have done the work already?  In this frame of mind, we can interpret changeling children as cuckoos: why look after the weak and infirm when you can take a healthy infant and leave the really hard care to a human?

Further reading

I expand upon many of these traits in my other postings and in my 2017 book British fairies.  My general advice, though, would always be to approach our Good Neighbours with great caution: if they are friendly and bountiful, count your blessings and enjoy your good luck (keeping it strictly secret).  If they do not seem approachable, accept it and keep a respectful distance.  Don’t pester, don’t expect, don’t assume.  Don’t mix up smaller size and beautiful looks with cuteness and harmlessness; as I titled a previous post- not all nymphs are nice.

My forthcoming book, Faery, from Llewellyn Worldwide, will delve even further into the complex nature of the fae personality.

Is there a fairy queen?

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Queen Titania, by John Simmons

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

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

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

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

Fairy reign

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

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

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

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There sleeps Titania, by John Simmons

Secret commonwealth

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

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

Rank or honour?

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

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

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

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

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‘Queen Mab,’ Henry Meynell Rheam

Further reading

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

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

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.

elder queen

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.

albion

“All the power this charm doth owe”- fairy magic

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Arthur Rackham, a fairy steals the changeling boy (Midsummer Nights Dream)

Magic and enchantment are integral to conceptions of the nature of the fairy realm in traditional British folklore, but the actual form of these powers is less often explicitly discussed.  This posting will start to do this.  ‘Faerie’ and enchantment were widely understood to be identical.  A few quotes from medieval and early modern literature will demonstrate this:

“To preve the world, alwey, iwis,/ Hit nis but fantum and feiri.” from Pancoast and Spaeth, Early English Poems, 1911, p.134:  the world is nothing but illusion or deception;

“That thou herdest is fairye” Romance of Kyng Alisaundre, (1438) 6, 324; spoken after the king hears a dire prophecy pronounced by a stone trough;

“This is faiery gold, boy.” Winter’s Tale, III, 3- in other words, the gold discovered by the characters is really just dried leaves; it is an illusion.

The magical powers of fays

The folklore sources indicate that fairies possess a variety of magical powers by which humans may be deceived or confused.  The following supernatural abilities are reported:

  • shape-shifting- fairies have the innate power to change their shapes.  However, not all fairies can do this.  Some have only two shapes available between which they are able to switch (for instance between man and horse) but bogies, pucks and the like can choose to appear in whatever form they wish.  Puck in Midsummer Night’s Dream delights in this (II, 1):

“I am that merry wanderer of the night.
I jest to Oberon and make him smile
When I a fat and bean-fed horse beguile,
Neighing in likeness of a filly foal:
And sometime lurk I in a gossip’s bowl,
In very likeness of a roasted crab,
And when she drinks, against her lips I bob
And on her wither’d dewlap pour the ale.
The wisest aunt, telling the saddest tale,
Sometime for three-foot stool mistaketh me;
Then slip I from her bum, down topples she,
And ‘tailor’ cries, and falls into a cough.”

I examine this subject in a little more detail in a separate posting on shape-shifters in the fairy world.

  • the perils of shape-shifting- in Cornish fairy lore there is an unusual price to pay for the magical ability to change physical form.  It is said that every time one of the Pobel Vean (the little people) do this, becoming a bird or such like, they get permanently smaller, until they reach a point that they have shrunk to the size of a muryan (an ant) and so effectively disappear.
  • vanishing– controlling their visibility is one of the major fairy attributes.  This is widely accepted across Britain, from the Highlands to Cornwall (Evans-Wentz, Fairy faith in Celtic countries, pp.100, 102, 114, 138, 141, 144, 145 & 176).  Interestingly, Bessie Dunlop of Lynn in Ayrshire,on trial for witchcraft in 1576, stated that the fairies’ disappearances were accompanied by a “hideous ugly howling sound, like that of a hurricane.”  It possible too to extend this power to humans and make them disappear (Wentz p.100).  The fairies can choose whether and when to reveal themselves to mortals, appearing and disappearing at will. However, in some circumstances, this can be overridden by human action.  A four leaf clover can give the power to see (see for example Evans Wentz p.177) as can being in the company of an uneven number of people (Wirt Sikes, British goblins, p.106); looking through a knot hole in timber can confer visibility; application of fairy ointment (see next paragraph) to the eyes has the same effect and, of course, there are some who are born with the ‘second sight’ and who are able from birth to see our good neighbours.  The Reverend Kirk described how this innate ability could then be communicated to another who was not gifted by mere contact; either the seer could place his/her foot upon that of the ungifted person, or rest a hand on the other’s shoulder- alternatively, the mortal with ordinary senses could look over the seer’s right shoulder (Secret commonwealth, Section 12).  Evans Wentz describes very similar beliefs and practices in Wales (pp.139 & 153).  Invisibility can also be achieved using fern seed, although this can only be seen and collected on St John’s Eve according to Walter Scot.
  • glamour- this is the power of enchantment or disguise in its purest form.  How it is imparted is not analysed, but it seems to comprise a spell that disguises the true nature of the enchanted thing or place.  The word itself comes either from the Icelandic glamr, meaning a ghost or spirit, or instead from the old Scots English gramarye, denoting the spell or enchantment that bestows the disguise.  As I have described in previous posts, the application of an ointment to the eyes (usually forbidden and accidental) frequently enables a human to dispel the glamour.  This idea is widespread throughout the island of Britain- see for example in Keightley’s Fairy mythology pp.311-12 or Wentz p.175.  This ointment invariably has to be applied by a human midwife attending a fairy birth and will be subject to an injunction that the midwife does not anoint herself.  Her breach of this will lead to the loss of her sight or at least of her second sight.  Violation of the glamour in these midwife stories results in harsh retribution.  We will end this paragraph on a more cheerful note.  One very particular example of fairy illusion relates to cases where a person is deceived into believing that they have visited a fine house, or inn, or outdoor celebration, and enjoyed feasting, drinking and dancing in good company.  These pleasure filled nights end with the human retiring to sleep in a luxurious bed, only to find themselves out on the open moor in the morning, asleep in a sheepfold or stretched out on the heather or rushes.  These adventures are harmless enough, given the all too common risk of being abducted by dancing fairies;
  • elf-shots- in an earlier posting I described how fairies can blight and injure by means of arrows and the like (“Away with the fairies”-fairy illness and blight).  These wounds and plagues are understood to be inflicted either by physical weapons, with which cursed or charmed missiles are fired, or by more plainly magical means.  As just described in the previous paragraph, human helpers to the fairies can sometimes unwittingly penetrate the glamour by smearing a balm on one or both eyes.  This violation of the fairies’ secrecy is normally punished by blinding- a jab in the eye with a stick; but sometimes a mere puff of breath in the face will have the same effect- a more obviously magical retribution for a magical transgression.  The Reverend Kirk expresses it thus: “if any Superterraneans be so subtile, as to practice Slights by procuring a Privacy to any of their Misteries, (such as making use of their ointments, which … makes them invisible, or casts them in a trance, or alters their Shape, or makes Things appear at a vast Distance), they smite them without Paine, as with a Puff of Wind…” (s.4).  John Rhys tells how a fairy spitting in a woman’s face deprived her of her ability to see through the glamour (Celtic folklore, p.248);
  • levitation– in recent centuries fairies have grown wings that enable them to get around.  Before that, their means of transport was much more obviously magical: for example, according to Reginald Scot in his Discoverie of witchcraft of 1584, “hempen stalks” plucked in the fields would be used as horses (Book II c.4).  The fairies could also travel about on ragwort stems, or in whirling clouds of dust, using a spoken hex to get themselves airborne (Keightley p.290; Evans Wentz p.87 & see too p.152- the Tylwyth Teg can move or fly about at will).  Powers of flight could be imparted to inanimate objects too, so that a building that attracted fairy ire could be moved elsewhere;
  • magical names- as I discussed previously, power over a fairy can be gained by possession of his/her concealed name, which in this context becomes a spell in itself (They who must not be named).

Fairy power

I have exploited several of these traditional magical traits in my own fairy-tales.  In The Elder Queen the fairies use force remotely and appear and disappear at will.  In Albion awake! Maeve the fairy queen has similar capabilities and also uses levitation on herself and on her human companions.  Lastly, in both stories a key theme is the seduction of a man by a fairy maid.  Folklore has always ascribed irresistible beauty to fairy women (especially the gwragedd annwn of the Welsh lakes).  This allure may well be a form of enchantment in itself, giving the fairy power over a weak human.  Certainly, I would suggest that the impaired volition suffered by John Bullen in Albion awake! is more than just carnal lust!  Lastly, my children’s story The Derrick is all about the fairies’ powers of delusion, flight, concealment- and destruction.

Pursuing this theme to its logical conclusion, we may finally note the interesting fact that the products of fairy/ human relationships do not automatically possess their supernatural parents’ abilities.  In the pamphlet Robin Goodfellow, his mad pranks and merry jests, published in 1628, Robin Goodfellow (Puck) is revealed to be a half-human sprite.  He needs to be formally granted his father’s powers by means of a scroll, although it seems apparent that the potentiality was there from birth, waiting to be released.  Once acquired, this power enables Robin to obtain anything he wishes for and to change himself “to horse, to hog, to dog, to ape…”

Further reading

Fairy magic powers may be acquired by a number of means- through books, through spoken charms, from plants like fern seed or, sometimes, just by touching a fay.  Also the fairies see the future and find lost things.

An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).

 

“Queen Mab hath been with you”

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Brian Froud, ‘The queen of the bad fairies’

In my fairy/ fantasy story, Albion Awakeone of the main characters is Maeve (Mab), ‘queen’ of the fairies.  She is a very well known name in literary fairy land, thanks amongst others to Shelley (who calls her ‘Queen of Spells’), Drayton and Shakespeare, and in this post I wanted to outline her traditional character (although my version in the new book is departs from convention in some respects).

Tiny Mab

Mab was generally conceived as being a tiny creature- the archetypal fairy.  She is believed to be derived from the Welsh Mabb, queen of the ellyllon, who were minute elves of grove and vale.  The most famous account of her is in Romeo and Juliet (Act One, scene iv) when Mercutio describes her in the following terms: “She comes in shape no bigger than an agate stone,” galloping at night in a coach made from a nut shell.  This diminutive stature is compounded by Shelley in his poem Queen Mab by an insubstantial and wispy physical form.

Whatever her size, though, Mab is source of disturbance.  Mercutio records that she “gallops night by night through lovers’ brains/ And then they dream of love.”  She is the fairy midwife of dreams and enables sleeping humans to realise their desires in fantasy.

Mischievous Mab

Secondly, Mab is mischievous; witness Mercutio again: she “plats the manes of horses in the night and bakes the elf-locks in foul sluttish hairs.”  She is responsible for undoing domestic chores and pinches and torments lazy servants- for example Ben Jonson in his 1603 ‘Entertainment at Althorpe’ warns that in the dairy Mab can hinder the churning.

Troublesome dreams

This interference in human affairs is taken one stage further, though, according to Mercutio’s description, and in this final aspect we find a link to the sensual, sexual fairy that I have discussed in an earlier posting.  Romeo’s companion recounts that “This is the hag, when maids lie on their backs, that presses them and learns them first to bear, making them women of good carriage.”  To be ‘hag-ridden’ was to suffer nightmares and ‘the hagge’ was conceived to be a hideous witch or succubus who sat on a sleeper’s stomach and caused bad dreams.  For example, in the Mad pranks and merry jests of Robin Goodfellow (1588, Percy Society 1841, p.42) Gull the Fairy describes how “Many times I get on men and women and so lie on their stomachs that I cause them great pain; for which they call me by the name of Hagge and Nightmare.”  This notion is here distorted by Shakespeare into something akin to an incubus seducing- and even educating- virgin girls.

Robert Herrick, in his poem Oberon’s palace, tells of a naked and “moon-tanned” Mab who goes to bed with the elf-king.  These more adult and sinister traits in Mab’s behaviour are something I have chosen to develop in my novel.

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Queen Mab by Henry Fuseli