Fairy Rings in the Landscape

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Author Thomas Nashe in his satirical pamphlet of 1596, Have With You To Saffron-Walden, Or, Gabriell Harvey’s hunt is up, memorably mocks his victim by describing how:

“more channels and creases he hath in his face that there be fairy-circles on Salisbury Plain.”

In a few words he highlights for us a fact that we simply don’t appreciate today: that the former, unimproved landscape of agriculture- before intensive weed control and fertilisation- looked completely different to what we see now.  For Nashe and his contemporaries, evidence of fairies was everywhere.  This confirmed the constant presence of the faeries for many; for others it provoked speculation about the processes of Nature that might generate such striking features.

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A century after Nashe, naturalist Robert Plot discussed the English Midlands countryside in his Natural History of Staffordshire (1686).  He described rings he had seen that were forty or fifty yards in diameter, often encircled by a rim between a foot and a yard wide.  These rims might be bare, or might have a russet, singed colour.  The grass within could also be brown but was more often dark green.

Fairy-Ring

Some people blamed lightning for the rings; others put them down to fairies. Robert Burton in The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) recorded these explanations:

“These [the fairies] are they that dance on heaths and greens as Lavater thinks with Tritemius, and as Olaus Magnus adds, [and that] leave that green circle, which we commonly find in plain fields, which others hold to proceed from a meteor falling, or some accidental rankness of the ground, so nature sports herself; they [the dancing faes] are sometimes seen by old women and children. “

Ludwig Lavater (1527-86), in chapter 19 of his book Of ghosts and spirits walking (translated by Robert Harrison in 1572) was sure the cause was dancing fairies, writing that:

Olaus Magnus in his third booke and eleventh chapter De Gentibus Septentrionalibus, wryteth that even in these our dayes, in many places in the North partes, there are certaine monsters or spirites, whiche taking on them some shape or figure, use (chiefly in the night season) to daunce after the sounde of all manner of instrumentes of musicke: whome the inhabitants call companions, or daunces of Elves, or Fairies.”

Robert Plot, meanwhile, sought to explain the rings scientifically, suggesting that the rings were caused by deer grazing, by moles or by the concentrated dung of penned cattle boosting growth, but given their occasionally huge size and distinctness, and their tendency to appear overnight, it is unsurprising that others would readily suspect supernatural causation.

Living with the Fairy Presence

The prevalence and visibility of rings in the fields of communities that were predominantly rural was bound to have an effect on their thinking.  The proximity of the fairies’ dancing places to homes, and the persistence of the rings in sward, led to much apprehension and many precautions against the ever-present fairy peril.

As I have described in my recent book, Fairy Ballads & Rhymesproper respect for fairy rings was inculcated into children and cultivators through memorable verses- for example:

“he wha’ spoils the fairies’ ring,/ Betide him want and woe,” but

“he wha’ cleans the fairy ring,/ An easy death shall dee.”

In any case, it was often impossible to plough up the rings, as they would just regrow.  Acceptance and caution were therefore the better responses; showing the fairies respect whilst, at the same time, not getting too near, was strongly advisable.  Children knew that to run around certain rings too many times (usually seven or nine) would put them in the fairies’ power.  In an earlier post, for example, I have discussed the particularly notorious reputation of those rings called gallitrapsThe tiny fairy girl shown below may look charming and harmless, but don’t be fooled: there may be malice behind those eyes…

Further Reading

I discuss faery rings and other faery places in my recent book, Faerywhich- I’m pleased to say- became available to UK buyers from April 1st 2021.  For more on the faeries’ interactions with nature, see my book Faeries and the Natural World (2021).

Maximilian Esposito, Capitolo Primo

Eco-fairies- some thoughts

tarrant pink flower fairy

Margaret Tarrant, Pink flower fairy

Nowadays, the association between fairies and the natural world seems obvious and fundamental to their character.  I think this belief is relatively new and that it derives from two sources.

Nature spirits

Firstly, during the last century or so the conception has emerged of fairies as nature spirits, beings whose purpose is to motivate and to shape the processes of nature, most especially the growth of plants.  As such, it might be added, they tend to lose some of their individual personality and become incorporated into those natural systems themselves.

A rural community

The other origin of our idea of ‘nature fairies’ is a great deal older.  Human representations of faery kind have always tended to mirror our own society, hence to medieval people it seemed obvious that the fae would live in a world much like their own, with the same organisation and occupations.  There were fairy kings and queens, and the fairy court went out hunting deer with hounds.  In the Middle Ages, too, we all lived much closer to nature, far more in contact with the cycles of growth, with the seasons and with woods and wildlife.  The fairies accordingly were no different- and whilst human society has rapidly developed in recent centuries, our perceptions of faery have tended to remain rather more fixed.

Be that as it may, it seems right and proper to us that fairies should live in forests and be intimately associated with flowers, trees and springs.  I have discussed these associations in a couple of my own postings on plants and fairy authority Morgan Daimler has also written on aspects of this subject on her own blog.  Reading her thoughts sparked further musings of my own.

fairy dance in a clearing doyle

Richard Doyle, A fairy dance in a clearing.

Fairy rings

Morgan has written about fairy trees and about fairy rings.  She highlights some interesting points which I had overlooked or downplayed.  As is well known, the rings are linked to fairy dancing.  If you read a lot of the British poetry, especially that of the nineteenth century, you would get the impression that dancing in rings is, in fact, pretty much all that fairies do: it’s their defining characteristic, their main habit, their primary purpose or occupation even.  Here are a couple of examples of this genre of verse, which had international appeal:

  • Thomas Hood, English poet, described the fairies as night time revellers who emerge from their flowery chambers-

“With lulling tunes to charm the air serener/ Or dance upon the grass to make it greener.” (The Midsummer fairies)

  • American poet Paul Dunbar likewise pictured how: “nightly they fling their lanterns out, / And shout and shout, they join the rout,/ And sing and sing, within the sweet enchanted ring.”

Now, usually it is said that it is the passing of fairy feet that makes the marks, but Morgan ponders whether instead the fays are drawn to dance by the clearly visible mycelium circles in the grass rather than the causation being the other way round.   This certainly seems just as probable an explanation.

Charming as the sight of fairies tripping all in a circle might be, Morgan rightly emphasises that they are places of danger.  The rings should never be damaged and she  warns that spying on the dances, or joining in with them, may actually be perilous.  These circles may even be traps, she suggests, deliberately set to lure in humans and to abduct them forever- or for extended periods.  Morgan discusses too the disparity in the passage in time between faery and the mortal world; the captive dancer spins at a different rate to the human globe and may return to find their old life long passed.

Round about our coal fire

head piece to chapter VI, ‘Round about our coal fire,’ 1734

One thing is undeniable: and that is that fairies and mushrooms/ toadstools have become an inseparable pairing in the popular imagination.  The earliest example I’ve found is an illustration from the 1734 edition of Round about our coal fire, which incorporates all the key elements of the imagery (dancers, fly agaric, fairy knoll, moonlight).  Little has changed since, although arguably the connection was strengthened considerably during the middle of last century when (it seemed) almost every children’s illustrator produced some variation on the theme.  There are too many to reproduce, but the example by Florence Anderson below repeats many of the key motifs.  The idea has been ramified in various directions too: the poet Madison Cawein, for example, saw toadstools as pixy houses and also imagined “The vat like cups of fungus, filled/ With the rain that fell last night” (Pixy wood).  It’s said in Welsh folklore that the parasol mushrooms act as umbrellas to keep the fairies’ dance-sites dry (Robin Gwyndaf in Narvaez, Good people, 1991).

anderson fairy revels

Florence Mary Anderson, ‘Fairy revels’

Fairy trees

On the subject of fairy trees, Morgan examines the possibility that at least some fairies are tree spirits (or dryads) before turning to look at trees which simply have fairy associations.  As I mentioned in the first paragraph, the question as to whether fairies are plants, or live in plants, or simply prefer to frequent glades and meadows is still a matter of debate.  I have a particular attachment to the old lady of the elder tree, so I was fascinated to read that in Ireland elder sap is believed to grant a second sight of the fairy rade.  Elders and hawthorns both have strong fairy associations and their heady, musky, green sappy scents certainly serve as a sort of incense for me.  Morgan also notes the dual role of the rowan- a spray of foliage can act as a charm against fairy intrusion but also as a means of seeing the good neighbours passing.  I’ve discussed this in another post, but it’s a good example of the ‘contrary’ nature of many fairy things.

Finally, I’ve been flicking through my copy of Evans-Wentz’ Fairy faith in Celtic countries again and I noticed an intriguing little fairy tree fact.  On page 176 he discusses the Cornish fairy that haunts the rock outcrop known as the Newlyn Tolcarne.  The manner in which this spirit was summoned was to pronounce a charm whilst holding three dried leaves in your hand.  These were one each from an ash, an oak and a thorn.  Now, as some of you may instantly cry out: that’s the exclamation used by Rudyard Kipling’s Puck in Puck of Pook’s Hill (and in ‘Tree song‘ in the chapter in the book, Weland’s Forge).  This story predates Evans-Wentz by just a few years, and it seems unlikely that either the old nurse to whom this story is ascribed, or Mr Maddern, a Penzance architect,  who tells it, are likely to be recycling Kipling’s story.  I’m not aware that Kipling ever visited Penwith, so that there’s at least some basis to suppose that these might be traces of a very ancient belief, surviving in both Sussex and Cornwall.  Morgan debates in her recent book Fairies (pp.176-8) whether or not this is an authentic tradition or is one example of a trend she identifies for popular culture to create folklore: if the Cornish example is genuine and is not just the architect mixing up something he’d recently read with something his nurse told him decades earlier, then it seems that ‘oak, ash and thorn’ is far older than Morgan suspected.

frontispiece

The frontispiece to Puck of Pook’s Hill, 1908

Further reading

See too Neil Rushton’s posting on dead but dreaming on the metaphysics of fairy trees.  See too my later comments on the links between fairies and gardens.

‘Peaseblossom and mustard seed’- fairy plants

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‘Mother mushroom and her children’ by Edward Okun.

A range of plants have fairy associations, both good and bad.  It is convenient to divide them into three broad types for our discussion.

Trees

We commonly conceive of elves and fairies living in woodland, whilst certain specific tree species have strong links to fairies.  Thorn trees are magical throughout Britain and Ireland.  For instance, Northumbrian fairies are said particularly to prefer dancing around thorns.  From across the border comes a Scottish story of a man ploughing a field who made a special effort to protect an old hawthorn, known to be a fairy meeting place- by leaving an unploughed circle of turf around it- was rewarded with a fairy banquet and a life time’s luck and wisdom in consequence.  I have mentioned before the Old Lady of the Elder Tree as well as the special status of oaks as places for dancing or even as homes.  In The discovery of witchcraft of 1584 Reginald Scot listed the many different types of fairies with which mothers would scare their children (Book VII, chapter XV).  He included “the man in the oke,” a supernatural whose characteristics and habits are now almost entirely lost to us.

rowan

Rowan trees, in contrast, repel fairies.  Rowan set over your door will allow you to watch the fairies riding past without being drawn into their procession and a rowan cross worn about your person will prevent the fairies seizing you.  Both gorse and holly acted as protective barriers to fairies around a home, although it has to be confessed that they keep out humans just as well!

cowslip

Flowers

Today we tend to think immediately of flower fairies, but there is a much older and richer lore of flowers associated with fairies.  Fairy blooms include yellow flowers such as cowslips, broom, primroses and ragwort; the stems of the latter are used like witches’ broomsticks.  Blue bells are protected by fairies, and lone children picking them in woods risk being abducted. Fox gloves are known in Wales as menyg ellyllon, elves’ gloves.  The fairies also favour red campion, forget-me-not, scabious, wild thyme and, more unusually, tulips.

A strange tale from Devon describes how pixies near Tavistock loved to spend their nights in an old woman’s tulip bed and the flowers thrived from their beneficial presence.  When she died her flower bed was converted by the next residents in the cottage to growing parsley and the pixies blighted it.  An unknown plant was used by Dartmoor fairies to heal a servant maid they had previously lamed for refusing to put out water for them at night.  In a similar dual role, it is said that foxglove juice can expel a changeling and cure a child who is suffering from ‘the feyry’- that is, one who has been elf-struck.

The primary protective plant against fairies is St John’s Wort, although verbena is also effective.  I have discussed two other very important fairy plants separately: fern seed can confer invisibility whilst four-leaf clovers can dispel glamour.

primrose

Fungi

The link between fairies and the fairy ring where they are alleged to dance is very well established, but the associations go deeper.  Fairy butter (y menyn tylwyth teg) is a fungus found deep underground in limestone crevices and elf food (bwyd ellyllon) is a poisonous toadstool.  In Northumberland, fairy butter is a soft orange fungus found around the roots of old trees.

The linking of fungi with goblins and elves is well known and of longstanding. Perhaps it partly derives from the dual nature of the mushrooms- they may be edible or poisonous. They are, of course, linked to fairy rings and indicate where the elves have been dancing. One of these is the ‘Fairy Cake Hebeloma’, which is poisonous; another is the highly edible Fairy Ring Champignon.  The sudden appearance of toadstools may seem magical and mysterious.  Their red colouring (for the traditionally red and white spotted fly agaric toadstool) may link them to red fairy clothes whilst their diminutive size may also explain the connection. Robert Herrick in his poem Oberon’s feast imagines “A little mushroom table spread” for the tiny fairy diners and in The fairies’ fegaries “Upon the mushroome’s head/ Our table cloth we spread.”

Puff balls have been called ‘Puck’s fist’ and, in his Fairy mythologyKeightley suggests that ‘Elf’s fist’ was an old Anglo-Saxon name for the mushrooms found in rings.  Wirt Sikes in British goblins relates a Breconshire belief that gifts of fairy bread by the Tylwyth Teg, if not eaten immediately in darkness, will prove to be toadstools in the daylight.

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Further reading

In other postings I examine the magical properties of fern seed, I look closely at fairy rings, I discuss the use of clover in the famous green fairy ointment and I consider the ‘flower fairy‘ cult.