“Those white and blue fairies”- fairy faces

dark fairy
Dark fairy by Maiarcita on http://www.deviantart.com

Reading Minor White Latham’s Elizabethan fairies recently, I was struck by his argument that Tudor and Stuart conceptions about the race and colour of fairies might have been quite different our own assumptions.  I’ve argued before that there’s a good deal of evidence of  ethnic diversity in Faery  Let’s not forget, for example, that in Midsummer Night’s Dream the fairy court has connections with the far east, Titania and Oberon disputing over a boy “stolen from an Indian king” whose mother was a “votaress” of Titania’s, the pair sitting together gossiping in the “spiced Indian air, by night.”  Likewise, Milton in Paradise Lost imagined a “Pygmean race beyond the Indian mount.”   African and Asian fairies ought not to surprise us at all, then, but Latham goes considerably further than this.

Masks for masques

The Tudors and Stuarts loved performing as faes in masques and plays, and to do so they put on masks.  For example, in George Gascoigne’s 1565 comedy The Buggbears there’s reference to spirits played by actors in “visars like devills,” to going “a-sprityng with this face and that” and “buggbears with vysardes.”  Latham’s argument is that the colour of these masks reflects conceptions about what he calls the ‘complexion’ of the fairies.  A very good starting point for an exploration of this argument is Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor.

In the Merry Wives of Windsor, Shakespeare returned to a fairy theme for comic effect.  Fairies often appeared on the English stage as a vehicle for cheating or tricking characters, and that is their purpose in this play.  A plot is hatched to make a fool of Falstaff by dressing up some children as fairies and scaring him.  Mrs Anne Page decides her daughter Nan, her young son and three or four more of his age group shall “dress / Like urchins, ouphs and fairies, green and white,” holding candles and rattles (IV, 4).  Nan is to be the fairy queen in a white silk dress and it’s very evident from the line quoted above that the others will be wearing green and white too.  Mrs Page’s friend, Mrs Ford, then says “I’ll go buy them vizards.”  In a slightly later scene (IV, 6), in which the women go over their plans again, it’s agreed that the children should be “mask’d and vizarded.”  They’ll be in disguise, then; their faces will be covered.  As a consequence, when Falstaff is confronted by Nan as the fairy queen (V, 5) and she calls forth “Fairies, black, grey, green and white” there’s a good deal of support for Latham’s suggestion that these colours relate not to their clothes (which we already know about) but to the colour of their masks (faces).

melancholicheart.deviantart.com Red-Faerie
Red Faerie by melancholicheart.deviantart.com

Support for Latham’s contention comes from the text of a masque performed for Queen Elizabeth at Woodstock in 1575.  The entertainment began with the monarch being approached by the ‘Queen of Fayry’ who presents herself by declaring that her love for Elizabeth had drawn her out of her woodland retreat and “caused me transforme my face/ and in your hue to come before your eyne/ now white, then blacke, your frend the fayery Queene.”  Black and white were the colours of the English queen, but at the same time it did not appear to be considered odd that her supernatural counterpart might have a black face.

Red, black & white spirits

In light of these examples, I’d return to other evidence I cited for you in an previous post on red and white fairies, and argue more confidently that those citations weren’t descriptions of clothes but of skin colour.  There are further examples to consider.

Reginald Scot in his Discourse concerning the nature and substance of devils and spirits mentions “white spirits and black spirits, grey spirits and red spirits” (c.33); in Macbeth the three witches meet with Hecate and “Like elves and Fairies in a ring” summon up “Black spirits.” The 1618 masque at Cole-Orton featured a character asking Puck about “ye faries, those little ring-leaders, those white and blew faries.”  In his play, Monsieur Thomas, John Fletcher has a character attempting to conjure spirits of earth and air, whom he addresses thus: “Be thou black or white or green, be thou heard or seen.” (c.1637, Act V, scene 9)  Lastly, Joan Willimot, accused of witchcraft in 1618, had a fairy woman called Pretty as her spirit guide, who would advise her on those who had been cursed.  She told Joan that the Earl of Rutland’s son had been “stricken with a white spirit.”  This is very suggestive of a white fairy, akin to those ‘white ladies’ who are often seen haunting springs or old houses.

All in all, it seems to me that we have pretty strong evidence for the fact that English people of the early modern period conceived of their fays as being quite alien in appearance- red, green, blue, grey, jet black and snow white.

anime fairy

Further reading

My posts on diversity in fairy and on fairy colours touch on closely related topics; my post on fairy stature examines another convention of the fairy drama of Shakespeare’s time.

An edited and expanded version of this post will be found in my book Fayerie- Fairies and Fairyland in Tudor and Stuart Verse.  See my books page for more information.  There’s more too on faery anatomy and physiology in my Faery Lifecycle published in 2021:

faery-lifecycle-cover

“Dwarfish Fairyes elves”- Tudor and Stuart fairies

MSND

Summer School 2011, dress rehearsal of Midsummer Night’s Dream, at the Emily Laws School of Acting: Mustardseed, Titania, Cobweb & Peaseblossom.

I have often mentioned before how the robust elf of British tradition has undergone a transformation over the last few centuries into a tiny, winged being.  In this post I’d like to identify some culprits for this process.

Who are we going to blame?

The perception that the frightening and serious fairies of the British Middle Ages had undergone a change at some stage had been with me in vague terms for many years.  Recently, however, I finally got round to reading Minor White Latham’s 1930 book, Elizabethan Fairies.  His study crystallised my thoughts and confirmed what I had always suspected: that William Shakespeare is the major culprit and that 1594/5 marks the turning point in our perception of Faery.  Later poets followed the bard’s lead, but it was Midsummer Night’s Dream that started the trend.

The idea of small fairies was definitely well-established before our major playwrights and poets got their hands on the subject.  For example, from Reginald Scot’s list of fairies, found in his book The discoverie of witchcraft of 1584, we know there was traditional belief in a character called Tom Thumb.  This may surprise British readers, at least, for we think of him as a leading character in pantomimes and nursery stories.  This elf was small, as the name tells us: “but an inch in height, or a quarter of a span” according to a chapbook published in 1630 (a span is the distance from the thumb tip to the little finger tip- standardised at 9″ in imperial measurements).   In his play, The sad shepherd, Ben Jonson also described “span long Elves” carrying changelings (1637, Act II, scene 8)- I might point out that, if you think about it, this should be impossible.

Child sized fays

Generally, it was accepted that there might be both adult sized fairies and those that were shorter, perhaps only appearing like children.  We see both of these in Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor, of 1599, when an adult woman, Mrs Anne Page, decides to play a trick on Falstaff: she dresses her daughter Nan as the fairy queen, accompanied by some attendants- her “little son” and some other children disguised as “urchins, ouphs and fairies, green and white” (Act IV, scene 4).  Nan is a young woman of marriageable age- in her mid- to late-teens perhaps; her court would appear to be infants under ten.  From this episode it seems apparent that a variety of sizes were accepted as normal in Faery by Elizabethan audiences but that the ouphs (elves) and fairies that were seen might very commonly be the size of young children: in The woman’s prize, for example, Beaumont and Fletcher have a character threaten that “children of five year old, like little fairies, will pinch thee into motley.” (Act II, scene 2)

A few thoughts on the word on ‘urchin’ that’ used in the play as a substitute term for fairy.  The word comes from the French, herisson, meaning hedgehog, and it was apparently adopted because of the habit of certain fays (especially pixies) of shape-shifting into the form of hedgehogs.  The terms were for a while interchangeable, until ‘urchin’ increasingly became attached to poor and misbehaving boys (by way of spiteful and prank filled pixies, I assume).  The word is also used to denote fays by Thomas Nashe in Strange Newes (1592), in which he equates “fairies and night urchins,” in the anonymous play The mayde’s metamorphosis of 1600 and in Thomas Dekker’s Whore of Babylon (1607).

Another regularly used term that likewise has some connotations of smallness is ‘puppet.’ This featured in Robert Greene’s James IV of 1594, where Oberon, king of the fairies, is described as “not so big as the king of Clubs” and his subjects as being “Puppets,” and it appeared regularly subsequently: in The Tempest in 1611 Shakespeare called fays “demi-puppets;”  the term’s also used in Randolph’s Amyntas in 1632 and in Henry More’s An antidote against atheism of 1653 (referring to the “dancing places of those little Puppet-Spirits” in Book III, chapter 11).  In The mayde’s metamorphosis there’s also reference to “mawmets” tripping lightly as a bee.  The word has the same sense of a puppet-like being and certainly conveys an idea of diminutive statute- as underlined in Amyntas, where a fairy wife might be sought for in a nutshell.

MidsummerMarkKurtz

The Dream performed at Dewey Mountain, New York, 2017; picture from Adirondack Daily Enterprise

Shakespeare’s legacy

This vocabulary all implies a changing attitude to fairies: that they coming to be seen as tiny, inoffensive, pretty, charming.  We’ve run ahead of ourselves slightly, though, and ought to retrace our steps to 1595 and the first production of Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Latham has this to say of Shakespeare’s use of fairy themes:

“That the disappearance of the fairies as credible entities should have been hastened by the influence of Shakespeare is one of the greatest ironies of their history. Of all the Elizabethans who made mention of them, there is no one who showed himself more cognizant of the belief in their existence, and no one who featured more prominently their traditional power and activities.” (p.177)

Latham goes on to enumerate the traditional fairy-lore in Shakespeare’s plays: their dangerous enchantments; their substitution of changelings; their pranks- sometimes harmless, sometimes malicious; their generosity to favourites; their midnight dances; their pinching of those who fail to meet their standards;  their pixy-leading.  All of this authentic material was, however, overwhelmed and displaced by what he created in the Dream.  Latham summarises this ‘new Elizabethan’ fairy very succinctly:

“Diminutive, pleasing, and picturesque sprites, with small garden names and small garden affairs, associated with moon-beams and butterflies, they present themselves as a new race of fairies, as different from the popular fairies of tradition as are those fairies from the fays of the medieval romances. ” (p.180)

The medieval fays are the magician women like Morgan le Fay, in some respects related to Titania, but not reigning over a fairy kingdom and much more engaged in the affairs of human kind.  What became the conventional fairy after the Dream was this, according to Latham:

  • they were subjected to a royal court and lost their independent status;
  • they lose their mischievous and changeable sides and become uniformly good;
  • they’re devoted to making the world happier and more beautiful, without imposing any taboos and codes or exacting any penalties;
  • they dislike and avoid disturbance and disruption;
  • they love children and are solicitous of the welfare of all humans;
  • they are “extravagantly” attached to flowers, tending them, named after them, decorated with them; and,
  • they’ve shrunk.  No longer are they infant sized, now they’re tiny: they can hide in acorns; they make their coats from bats’ wings; their fans are butterfly wings; they may drown in a bee’s honey bag should it burst.

It’s these last two characteristics, combined with their new, benign, nature, that marks the real departure for British fairies.   Worse still, they have become comic and ridiculous (as in the whole episode involving Titania and Bottom).  Their dignity and their stature had been diminished and they had become an entirely new race of spirits.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Exeter Drama Company‘s 2015 production of Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The earliest example of this change came almost immediately from Shakespeare himself, in Romeo and Juliet.  In Mercutio’s famous description of Queen Mab, she is reduced to a being “In shape no bigger than an agate stone/ On the forefinger of an alderman.”  Other poets then picked up upon the conceit of a minute fairy and had great fun with it.  During the first decades of the next century, several notable writers fixed the idea in the public imagination.  These included most notably:

  • Edward Fairfax, in his 1600 translation of Torquato Tasso’s Godfrey of Bulloigne, was an early adopter of Shakespeare’s new vision of Faery.  His fays are tiny enough to sit under “every trembling leaf” and they are intimately associated with blossoms: for example “Among the nymphs, the fairies, leaves and flowers” (Book 4, stanza 18 and Book 17, stanza 61);
  • Michael Drayton, author of such works as Nimphidia and The Muses’ Elizium, in which fairies use acorn cups as boats, ride upon earwigs and make wedding dresses from primrose leaves.  In his 1613 Poly Olbion, Drayton imagines frisking fairies “as on the light air borne/ Oft run at barley break upon the corn/ And catching drops of dew.”  In the Eighth Nymphal the abiding impression of tininess is expressed directly: “Why, by her smallness you may find,/ That she is of the fairy kind”;
  • William Browne– the third book of his Britannia’s pastorals (c.1625) revels in the possibilities of microscopic fays, whose bread is hazelnut kernels, whose wash basins are sea shells and who dine upon the udders of mice and hornet’s eggs; and,
  • Robert Herrick (1591- 1674), in whose verses “dwarfish Fairyes elves” dine off mushrooms, instead of tables, upon single grains of wheat, washed down with drops of dew.  His Queen Mab’s bed is formed of six dandelion heads, with curtains of gossamer.  In his 1648 collection Hesperides, Herrick includes five fairy poems for which he is particularly remembered: Oberon’s Feast, Oberon’s Palace, Oberon’s Chapel (or the Fairy Temple), The Fairies and The Beggar to Mab, the Fairy Queen.   All are easily accessible and give an authentic picture of the British fairy as it was conceived after Midsummer Night’s Dream.

These depictions pretty much sealed the fate of the fays.  They were now without question “pygmies” (Peter Heylyn, Cosmographie (1648), Book IV, p.196; Milton, Paradise lost (1667), Book IX, line 634).  They are, too, irredeemably linked to images of cuteness and harmlessness: for example in the 1660’s ballad The spring’s glory, “The fairies are tripping and lambs are skipping, /Pretty birds chirping in the wood do sing.”

One last citation will do, which is from the Poems and fancies of Margaret, Duchess of Newcastle, published in 1653.  The book is full of fairies and they are uniformly minute, evidently inspired by Drayton and Herrick.  Queen Mab and “all her fairy fry” dance on mole hills, sit under flowers and eat off mushrooms spread with spiders’ webs instead of table cloths (Pastime in fairyland).

Flower fairies

So it is, that little girls in petal like dresses have become fixed in our minds- not just on the stage but in the work of many artists (not least Cicely Mary Barker, Margaret Tarrant and the many other children’s book illustrators of the mid-twentieth century).  In a recent post I laid a heavy burden of blame upon Paracelsus for distorting our concepts of the fairy realm; reluctantly, perhaps, this must be shared with William Shakespeare.  The trends towards smaller and less fearsome fairies were already present in English culture, doubtless, but Shakespeare’s work accelerated and magnified them, an impact exaggerated further by his very status in the literary world.

msnd 2

2016 production of The Dream by Millennium Charter Academy at Andy Griffith Playhouse, Mount Airy, North Carolina.

Further reading

See Latham, of course (although the book can be rare and expensive), many of my previous posts and, in my 2017 book British fairies, chapters 1 and 28 particularly.  In another posting I’ve also developed some of Latham’s ideas on representations of fairy faces in Tudor drama.

An edited and expanded version of this post will be found in my book Fayerie- Fairies and Fairyland in Tudor and Stuart Verse.  See my books page for more information.

 

 

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

 

Female_HalfElf

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

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

Shakespeare

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

British fairy homes

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

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

EnchantedForest_Fitzgerald

John Anster Fitzgerald, The enchanted forest

Woodland fays

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

tarrant fairy way

Margaret Tarrant, ‘The fairy way’

Tolkien’s elves

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

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

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

MWT-G3804-330 Fairies Market

Margaret Tarrant, The fairies market, 1921

Further reading

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

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

 

 

“Fear of little men”-or, ‘How the fairy got her wings’

In William Allingham’s poem The fairies (1883) he gives late expression to a formerly common attitude to fairies:

“Up the airy mountain,/ Down the rushy glen,/ We daren’t go a-hunting/    For fear of little men;/ Wee folk, good folk, Trooping all together;”

fuseli-puck

Henry Fuseli, Puck

The traditional terror of fairies and the change in attitudes in more recent times is something I have touched upon in my posting on fairies and the night and which I wish to analyse in some more detail.

Perilous fairies

Until at least the early seventeenth century,  the conventional view of fairy kind was that they were as dangerous as they were intriguing and enticing.   For example, the eller maids of Denmark were beautiful, but also deadly: anyone lured into dancing with them would be danced to death; they would never be able to stop and would perish from exhaustion. Fairies were the causes of disease and stole human children, food and possessions, as I have previously described.

What I wish to examine here is how these fearsome and sometimes fatal creatures could deteriorate into something cloyingly cute and eminently suitable for little girls to imitate. In Religion and the decline of magic (1971) Keith Thomas prefaces his discussion of fairy beliefs by observing that “Today’s children are brought up to think of fairies as diminutive beings of a benevolent disposition, but the fairies of the Middle Ages were neither small nor particularly kindly” (p.724). When was our fearful respect for the fairies replaced by a simpering, indulgent affection?

Shakespeare’s influence

I have dated the change, as I suggest, to around 1600.  Shakespeare provides us with some evidence of the shift in popular perceptions.  Some commentators view him as the sole culprit, but this is to imbue him with far greater influence and respect than he had at the time.  He may now be seen as a genius and cultural icon, but that was not his status in his lifetime; as a playwright he did not shape views, but he certainly does reflect them.

Take, for example, Midsummer Night’s Dream.  On the one hand there is Puck, whose magic interventions in human affairs might be dismissed as farcically inept, but who should probably best be viewed as mischievous, if not malignant, in his conduct.  He admits to revelling in his tricks, for certain.  At another extreme are the fairies introduced by Titania to Bottom, called Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth and Mustardseed; here we have a first hint of the tiny and harmless beings with whom we are so familiar today.  A sense of these fairies’ size is conveyed by their use of glow-worms as lanterns and their hiding in acorn cups to escape Oberon’s fury.  By contrast, there is the encounter in The Merry Wives of Windsor between Sir John Falstaff and some children disguised as fairies.  They may be small, but that does not in the least detract from the horror he feels: “They are fairies; he that speaks to them shall die: I’ll wink and couch: no man their works must eye” (Act V scene 5).  Lack of stature, for Shakespeare’s contemporaries, still did not of necessity denote weakness or an amenable nature.

Science and reason

What exactly changed, then?  I think that there is a number of causes.  The growth of science and industry, particularly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, removed the justification for and threat of fairies.  Previously, as Geoffrey Parrinder remarked, “they helped explain many of the curious happenings of life” (Witchcraft, Pelican, 1958, p.70). By the later 1600s, this function was being superseded as John Aubrey wrote:

Old wives tales-  Before printing old wives’ tales were ingenious, and since Printing came into fashion, til a little before the Civil-Warres, the ordinary Sort of People were not taught to read; nowadayes bookes are common, and most of the poor people understand letters; and the many good bookes, and a variety of Turnes of affaires; have putt all the old Fables out of doors and the divine art of Printing and Gunpowder have frightened away Robin Goodfellow and the Fayries” (Remains of Gentilisme & Judaisme, 1687-89, p.68).

When they were no longer required to explain illness, they were left as merely decorative and un-threatening.  That said, if fairies had become redundant in this environment, their social function could be preserved by transporting them to other worlds.  This appears to be what has happened: green clad goblins have been translated into the ‘little green men’of science fiction.

Secondly, rationalism and religious scepticism has had a role.  Disbelief in a spirit world is sufficient to kill off fairies entirely, but it has also stopped them being taken seriously. Once this had happened, their descent into cuteness and whimsy was easy.

Fairy belief for a long time was treated as a thing of the previous generation.  For instance, John Aubrey recalled that “when I was a Boy, our Countrey people would talke much of them…” meaning  ‘Faieries.’  His contemporary, Sir William Temple, said much the same thing, suggesting that fairy belief had only really declined over the previous thirty years or so (i.e. during the mid-seventeenth century).  Robert Burton, writing the Anatomy of melancholy in 1621, shared these opinions:  fairies had been “in former times adored with much superstition” but were now seen only from time to time by old women and children.

Nevertheless, doubt seems to have been well established by the 1580s at least.  The best evidence for this is Reginald Scot’s The discoverie of witchcraft (1584).  The book is an assault upon belief in witches, but he compares this extensively with the parallel belief in a supernatural race of beings.  In his introduction ‘To the reader’ Scot remarks that:

“I should no more prevail herein [i.e., in persuading his audience] than if a hundred years since I should have entreated your predecessors to believe that Robin Goodfellow, that great and ancient bull-beggar, had been a cozening merchant and no devil indeed.  But Robin Goodfellow ceaseth now to be much feared…”

Once again, the fairy faith is a thing of the (distant) past.  Later Scot comments that “By this time all Kentishmen know (a few fooles excepted) that Robin Goodfellow is a knave” (Book XVI, c.7).  Scot’s theme is that such credulity is not just old-fashioned; it is now the preserve of the simple and weak.  He repeats these allegations throughout his text: “the feare of manie foolish folke, the opinion of some that are wise, the want of Robin Goodfellow and the fairies, which were woont to mainteine chat and the common people’s talke in this behalfe … All which toies take such hold upon men’s fansies, as whereby they are lead and entised away from the consideration of true respects, to the condemnation of that which they know not” (The Epistle); likewise- “we are so fond, mistrustful and credulous that we feare more the fables of Robin Goodfellow, astrologers and witches and beleeve more things that are not than things that are.  And the more unpossible a thing is, the more we stand in feare thereof” (Book XI, c.22).

Talk of fairies then, was in Scot’s opinion only fit for “yoong children” and its only purpose was to “deceive and seduce.”  Scot is concerned how many in the past were “cousened and abused” by such tales and he admonishes his readers to remember this:

“But you shall understand that these bugs speciallie are spied and feared of sicke folke, children, women and cowards, which through weakness of mind and body are shaken with vain dreams and continuall feare… But in our childhood our mothers maids have so terrified us with … urchins, elves, hags, fairies… that we are afraid of our own shadowes” (Book VII, c.15).

Scot remained confident in the advance of reason, however:

“And know you this, by the waie, that heretofore Robin Goodfellow and Hobgoblin were as terrible and also as credible to the people as hags and witches be now, and in time to come a witch will be as derided and contemned, and as plainlie perceived, as the illusion and knaverie of Robin Goodfellow…” (Book VII, c.2)

King James I/VI in his Daemonologie (1597) was just as scornful as Scot of any belief in ‘Phairie’ but he did not ascribe it to mere foolishness.  For him, it was more sinister- it was a deception of the devil who had “illuded the senses of sundry simple creatures, in making them beleeve that they saw and harde such thinges as were nothing so indeed.” Although the fairy faith was “one of the illusiones that was risest in the time of Papistrie” it was thankfully in decline in Presbyterian Scotland at the time that he wrote (c.V).

Thirdly, fairy belief dwindled as the natural world was increasingly explored, surveyed and quantified.  When every acre of land was being assessed for its productive value and as a capital asset, the fairies were mapped and measured out of existence.  On a crowded island, no space was left for anything except the tiniest of beings to survive.  In fact, even as early as the first quarter of the seventeenth century, Michael Drayton could equate smallness with fairy nature: in his Eighth Nymphal he declares “Why, by her smallness you may find/ That she is of the fairy kind.”

rape-of-the-lock

Stothard, The rape of the lock

The shrinking fairy

The cumulative effect of these societal changes was, as Keith Thomas wrote, that “By the Elizabethan age, fairy lore was primarily a store of mythology rather than a corpus of living beliefs” (Religion and the decline of magic, 1971, p.726).  Deprived of its rationale, the decay set in quickly.  There is a suggestion of flight in Drayton’s Poly-Olbion- “The frisking fairy there, as on the light air borne” (1613, Song XXI) but explicit winged flight is first mentioned in The Rape of the Lock from 1712, in which Alexander Pope imagined fairies “Some to the sun their insect wings unfold/ Waft on the breeze or sink in clouds of gold.”   When, in 1798, Thomas Stothard illustrated Pope’s book with fairies with butterfly wings, the trend was confirmed.  Contemporaneously, we may note a bat winged Puck by Fuseli from 1790 and a tiny winged fairy creature in his illustration of Titania awakening with Bottom dated to 1794. This quickly seems to have become the convention: in subsequent Victorian images fairies are predominantly winged creatures; these wings are either gauzy like dragonflies’ or patterned like butterflies’.

henry-fuseli-titania-awakes-surrounded-by-attendant-faries-1794

Fuseli, Titania and Bottom

All the same, folk belief could still lag well behind popular culture and artistic representations: Ivor Gurney wrote a poem in 1918 that must preserve older Gloucestershire beliefs.  Having waited in a lane at dusk for a lover to return home, he is alarmed by a bustle in the hedgerow:

“Until within the ferny brake/ Stirred patter-feet and silver talk/ That set all horror wide awake-/ I fear the fairy folk.”  (Girl’s Song, September 1918)

There have been stubborn resisters too to the sentimentalising tendency.  Rudyard Kipling in Puck of Pook’s Hill (1908) made clear his feelings; Puck tells Dan and Una (p.14):

“Besides, what you call [fairies] are made up things the People of the Hills have never heard of- little buzzflies with butterfly wings and gauze petticoats, and shiny stars in their hair, and a wand like a school-teacher’s cane for punishing bad boys and rewarding good ones… Can you wonder that the People of the Hills don’t care to be confused with that painty-winged, wand-waving, sugar-and-shake-your-head set of impostors?  Butterfly wings indeed!”

The ultimate result of this decline is some of the twee horrors to be found.  For Christmas, I received a card bearing an illustration by Ida Rentoul Outhwaite.  Along with Cicely Mary Barker, she is one of the prime offenders in the genre loathed by Kipling (and Puck). Amongst her pictures you will find fairies with perfect 1920s bobs and, worse still, gambling with koala bears at drinks parties…

ida-1

Ida Rentoul Outhwaite

The resistance to the sentimentalising tendency continues (see for example the remarks of Cassandra Lobiesk on her website Fae folk: the world of fae- see my links page), but after at least a century, it may sadly be a losing battle.  An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).

 

“Away with the fairies”-fairy illness and blight

 

bf

Brian Froud, a ‘bad faery’

“Be thee a spirit of health or goblin damned,

Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell…” Hamlet, Act I, scene 4.

Our forebears had to have some way of explaining sudden illness and death, or the birth of a child which gradually was revealed to have mental disabilities.  The cause ascribed for these afflictions, before the development of medical science, was the malign intervention of supernatural beings.  It was the fairies that made people (and their livestock) ill; the benefit of this explanation was that it gave an understanding of an otherwise inexplicable malady and pointed to a solution- the propitiation of the ‘good folk.’

Fairy injuries

It is possible to identify a range of means by which injury was believed to be inflicted:

  • pinching– the slovenly housewife or maid who failed to do her chores and keep the home clean would be punished by the pixies pinching and taunting her; for example in Nimphidia Drayton notes of the house elves that “These make our Girles their sluttery rue/ By pinching them both blacke and blew.”   Hence the source of bruises and cramps might be attributed- in a highly judgmental way!  In Shakespeare’s Merry wives of Windsor the elves are commanded to “pinch the maids as blue as bilberry” wherever fires unraked or hearths unswept were found-“Our radiant Queen hates sluts and sluttery.”  In the same play pinching is the fate to be meted out to Falstaff when he transgresses on the pretended fairy concourse (Act IV scene 3 & V scene 5).
  • jostling and bumping– in a slightly more aggressive version of the former, a person who strayed into fairy precincts or who violated their privacy might be pushed and misused in this manner, perhaps leading to at least partial paralysis.  This was the fate of a farmer who invaded the fairy market on the Blackdown Hills and was left lamed on one side for the remainder of his life (Keightley, Fairy Mythologypp.294-5);
  • a fairy blast or whirlwind might paralyse or be fatal;
  • wasting sickness– afflictions such as consumption might be ascribed to the sufferer being ‘away with the fairies.’ Instead of sleeping in his or her bed, at night the victim would in fact be dancing with the fairies.  This ceaseless energetic activity sapped the strength and led to the person’s decline and death.  It was also believed that sadness at being parted from the fairies during the daytime contributed to the disease’s progress and malignancy.  John Aubrey recorded this belief whilst the Reverend Robert Kirk  describes a woman whom he personally met who, after her encounter with the fairies, was “prettie melanchollyous and silent, hardly ever seen to laugh” (Secret Commonwealth of Elves and Fairies section 15);
  • abduction by means of dancing in fairy rings was a very common explanation of sudden disappearance.  The victim might be lost for ever, might be danced to death (as just described) or might return after a lapse of time (see later).  If the cause of the disappearance was deduced, the person could be rescued from the fairy ring on the anniversary of their disappearance, perhaps by force or by touching with iron;
  • physical assault– a human might be shot with fairy arrows, resulting in total or partial paralysis and/ or death.  These ‘elf bolts’ were the neolithic flint arrow heads turned up by cultivation, thereby giving context to otherwise mysterious artifacts.  Robert Kirk remarked on the use of flint darts against livestock in the Highlands: the cattle would be injured internally without there being any outward sign of a wound, the blow by these elf bolts having “something of the Nature of Thunderbolt subtilty” (s.8).  The resultant paralysis might be used to extract the “purest substance” of the beast for the fairies’ consumption, or might help abduct an individual, as was also the case with the next form of assault-
  • ‘fairy stroke’– the modern ‘stroke’ was then interpreted as the magical wounding of a person.  Rather than attacking with darts, a curse or spell inflicted epilepsy or paralysis and, once again, facilitated the abduction of the victim’s soul.  Kirk described how the fairies would smite “without Paine, as with a Puff of Wind” (s.4);
  • changelings– the specific theft of a human baby and its replacement by an aged elf or a defective fairy infant was perceived to be a very common problem; children were especially vulnerable in the time before they were baptised and variety of protective measures were deployed.  These included bindweed or iron around the cradle, the burning of leather in the room or the administering to the baby of either milk from a cow grazed on pearl-wort or water in which had been steeped cinders from a fire over which the child had been passed (Wentz, Fairy faith in the Celtic countriespp.87 & 91).  If the newborn was discovered to be mentally disabled or defective, this was put down not to congenital or perinatal problems but to a supernatural intervention: the real child had been abducted and an ‘oaf’ (an elf) left in its place (the ‘ouphs’ of Shakespeare’s Merry wives of Windsor are derived from the same source).  The parents, once the presence of a changeling had been realised, had to expose the substitute.  If it was an aged fairy, some trick would be performed to get it to reveal itself, such as brewing beer in an egg shell, which would provoke its curiosity.  Salt might be burned as a magical means of repelling it.  If these attempts did not succeed and an infant elf was still suspected, far worse treatment could follow, typically placing the baby on a shovel over the fire (or at least heating the shovel in its presence)- but throwing the child in a river, ducking it in cold water daily, neglecting its needs, throwing pieces of iron at it or, lastly, placing it outside at night or on the beach as the tide came in, might also be tried.  The least objectionable method was the Cornish use of a four leaf clover to recover the abducted baby (Wentz pp.111, 146, 171 & 177).  The idea was that the changeling’s cries would summon the fairy parents who would save their child and return the stolen human infant.  Wirt Sikes in British Goblins (1880, c.5) discusses the Welsh tradition of the plentyn newid (the new child) and remarks disapprovingly upon the cruelties from time to time inflicted as a result of this changeling belief.  Sometimes, rather than a living being, a ‘stock’ was substituted- a log fashioned in the likeness of the missing person who was, in actuality, ‘away with the fairies.’  This motionless, speechless form (a “a lingering voracious Image” in Kirk’s words) was left at the home in bed to act as a cover for the fact that the man or woman had been taken to fairyland for some purpose- perhaps as a midwife or wet nurse to a fairy mother.  Some readers will recall that in Susanna Clark’s novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, a bog-oak likeness is left in place of Lady Emma Pole who is abducted to dance at the fairy balls.

Finally, it should be noted that a number of other illnesses might also be blamed on fairies, including painful deformities, impetigo, childlessness and certain cattle pests.  For example in the Highlands the spinal paralysis called marcadh sidh was believed to be engendered by fairies riding the livestock at night; indeed in Wales almost any livestock complaint was ascribed to the tylwyth teg (Wentz pp.86, 144 & 158).  It seems that in the late middle ages, a time of high infant mortality, ‘feyry’ was synonymous with childhood illness (see Keith Thomas, Religion and the decline of magic, 1971, p.217).

Time in faery

The passage of time in fairyland was different to that experienced on the earth. Abductees might find, for example, that:

  • a few minutes with the fairies were in truth hours away from their friends- five minutes might turn out to be a year and a day and two hours two generations;
  • a night was equivalent to one year, seven years, twenty years or many generations;
  • a day in faery was in fact, on earth, a a year and a day or even fifty years.

A long absence in fairyland brought many dangers:

  • they might suffer the grief of finding parents deceased and former lovers married in their absence;
  • they might perish as soon as human food passed their lips; or,
  • they might crumble way to dust as soon as they touched a mortal.

These perils emphasise the risks of being ‘away with the fairies’ and how very different fairyland can be to the world of mortal men.  That said, there is no consistency in the stories; there is no standard equivalent between earth time and fairy time and, for some, the time difference did not apply.  Midwives could attend upon fairy mothers and return home the same evening; others who had friendly dealings with the fairy court could come and go at will, just as if they were visiting human friends in their homes.

In conclusion, in the absence of effective medical treatments, earlier generations had little to protect themselves from, or as remedies against, these conditions.  What they did have available were the desperate measures of child abuse described above, traditional herbal medicines and religion.  The Reverend Kirk somewhat scathingly observed how congregations would swell periodically as local people attended church to “sene or hallow themselves, their Corns and Cattell, from the Shots and Stealth of these wandering Tribes.”  In confirmation of this statement, suspected witch John Walsh told his inquisitors in 1566 that fairies only had power over those who lacked religious faith (see Thomas, Religion and the decline of magic, p.724).  The Reverend Kirk also observed that he local country folk called the fairies Sleagh Maith (the Good People), in a further attempt “to prevent the Dint of their ill Attempts” and to deflect “these Arrows that fly in the Dark” (Kirk section 2 and see my previous posting ‘They who must not be named‘). Resort might also be made to local ‘cunning’ folk for a cure.  Just as fairies could cause illness, it was thought that they could grant healing powers to some.  There are recorded witchcraft cases in which the accused ascribed their abilities to such supernatural aid (see Thomas, Religion and the decline of magic, p.317).

Our transition to the modern, rational world has deprived us of many facets of our ancestors’ lives- their intimate knowledge or animals and plants and their intense sense of community, for example- but those losses are balanced in some measure by an improved appreciation of the workings of nature and of history.  Those puzzling flint arrow heads which so puzzled our forebears are now instantly assessed as ‘Stone Age’ by most people and placed easily within a geological timescale of millennia, divesting them of much of their mystery- if not their fascination.  When a serving girl working for Alexander Carmichael felt a flint dart fly past her as she crossed the farmyard at night in the 1900s, her instinct was instantly blamed the nefarious sidh- even when naughty boys might have been a better explanation (see Wentz p.88)!

Lastly, the degree to which illness and death might be ascribed to fairies in considerable measure related to the popular assessment of fairy temperament.  If they were seen as preternaturally ill-disposed towards humankind, almost anything might be blamed upon them.  I will return to the issue of fairy character in a later posting.

Want to know more?

An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).  See too my more recent post on the psychological consequences of fairy abduction.

Tempters of the night

froud msnd

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.”

froud queen of night

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