‘Eco-Fairies’- old or new?

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A recent book on modern paganism and fairy belief, Magic and Witchery in the Modern West (Feraro and White, 2019), suggested that many of the contemporary conceptions of fairies as planetary guardians and green protectors came not from age-old faery tradition but from books like Cicely Mary Barker’s flower fairies, books that adult pagans had seen as and absorbed as children.  Is this really true?  Is the view of faeries as green champions really so recent and untraditional a development?

In fact, there is a reasonable amount of evidence to indicate that faeries have been connected with nature conservation and environmental causes for a quite long time.  For example, there is a widespread popular story of a woodcutter just about to fell a tree who is stopped by the appearance of a fairy being from beneath the ground.  This is described as having happened as far apart in Britain as Northamptonshire and Nithsdale in the Scottish Borders.  The idea of faeries as active defenders of the natural world was therefore accepted in folk belief from at least the start of the nineteenth century, a situation that was reflected in the literature of the time.  In his 1810 poem Alice Brand, Sir Walter Scott had the elfin king demand:

“Why sounds yon stroke on the beech and oak,

Our moonlight circle’s screen,

Or who comes here to chase the deer,

Beloved of our Elfin Queen?”

In the ballad of Tam Lin, the young Tam appears to his lover-to-be, Janet, after she plucks a rose in the forest.  He complains that she has taken the flower without his permission.  Similarly, in the ballad Hynde Etin complaint is made by the fairy when nuts are picked, “For I’m the guardian of the wood/ and ye maun [must] let it be.”  Whether this is environmental stewardship or cases of trespass on private land is not entirely clear, but the faeries are evidently highly protective of their natural resources.  We might see those faeries that protect (human) orchards and nut groves, such as Owd Goggie, in a similar light.

Lastly, an article carried by the Welsh Western Mail in September 1878 described the industry that had brought prosperity to Nant y Glo and Blaenau, in Gwent, albeit at the cost of the local woodlands.  The extensive tree-felling was dated back some ninety years to the time when ironworking first started in the area and demand for charcoal expanded steeply.  Before then, we are told, the fairies had protected the trees of the hills and valleys thereabouts.  These were yr tylwyth teg yn y coed, the fairies of the wood, who often used to be seen assembled under the female oaks there, and who guarded the trees and harmed those that felled them.  Sadly, however, they couldn’t resist against the “inroads of a gross material civilisation” (as the writer called it, even then) and they were driven off west into less spoiled parts of the Principality.  These sentiments might surprise us from a Victorian, but they demonstrate that environmental awareness, and a sense of the faeries’ role as eco-guardians, might not be that new.

Jacobean Precedents

As far back as the start of the seventeenth century, in fact, there is evidence of the fairies being seen as friends and protectors of wildlife and the natural world.  Sir William Browne in Britannia’s Pastorals imagined the fairies

“Teaching the little birds to build their nests,/ And in their singing how to keepen rests…”

The ‘eco-fairy’ as a concept is not new, therefore, even if the label is.  An examination of the folklore and literary sources discloses three interrelated functions that the faes were believed to undertake: they cared for small mammals and birds; they had a special link with certain flowers and trees and, lastly, they assumed a more general supervisory role over the natural world, keeping it in balance and preventing over-exploitation and pollution.

Fairies’ Furry Friends

Fairies not only lived and played in the countryside- according to Victorian poetry they talked to the birds, taught them how to sing and kept their eggs warm in the nest by curling up to sleep beside them.  Poet Rose Fyleman, famous for There’s a Fairy at the Bottom of my Garden, in her verse A Fairy Went A-Marketing, imagined how a fae might buy pet fish and birds and then set them free.  For Fyleman, fairies and wildlife were best of friends, with robins serving as a page in the fairy court and tiny faes living contentedly in flowers.

Verse and popular conceptions went hand in hand, as there are reported encounters with fairies helping birds find berries in the snow and looking after wildlife in wintry weather.  Early Victorian child poet, Annie Isabella Brown, imagined fairies describing how:

“We gathered flannel-mullen leaves,

Against the winter’s cold;

To keep the little dormouse warm,

Within its hedgerow hold.”

Poet Menella Bute Smedley also imagined the fairies “twisting threads of bloom and light” to make butterflies’ wings.

Flower Fairies

Just as there was active supernatural involvement with the animal kingdom, folk tradition identifies two aspects to the relationship between fairies and plants. They are attracted to certain herbs, whether supernaturally or for merely utilitarian reasons (foxgloves, for example, are called fairy gloves and fairy thimbles) and, secondly, the fairies are said inhabit certain trees, such as oaks, thorns and elders.  It was a relatively easy transition from these associations to come up with the idea of flower fairies as popularised by artists Cicely Baker and Margaret Tarrant, but the foundations of this twentieth century phenomenon are much deeper and older (see Lewis Spence, British Fairy Tradition, pp.178-80).

It looks as though the first step towards the flower fairy idea was to emphasise the affinity between fairies and particular flowers.  Next, it was an easy step to conceive of the spirits living in those flowers and the miniaturisation of the fairies popularised by Shakespeare and his contemporaries assisted with this.  Inevitably, too, the fairy character began to be softened by association with bloom, scent and colour.

This change seems to have proceeded from the seventeenth century, judging by scattered indications in our literature.  For instance, William Browne (1588-1643) in his verse The Rose imagined that “the nimble fairies by the pale-faced moon/ Water’d the root and kissed her pretty shade.”  From the eighteenth century there is good literary evidence for the idea of fairies taking up residence in flowers.  Coleridge, for example, described “Fays/ That sweetly nestle in the foxglove bells.” His contemporary George Darley imagined little fairies with scented wings emerging at night from blossoms and flitting from flower to flower enjoying nectar like wine (George Darley (1795-1846), What the Toys do at Night and The Elf Toper).

By the late nineteenth century this idea was exceedingly widespread: American poet Madison Julius Cawein repeatedly housed his fays in toadstools or in blooms and in his adult fairy tale, Phantastes, Scottish author George MacDonald described how “the flowers die because the fairies go away, not that the fairies disappear because the flowers die.  The flowers seem a sort of house for them, or outer bodies, which they can put on and off when they please… you would see a strange resemblance, almost a oneness between the flower and the fairy… [but] whether all flowers have fairies, I cannot determine.”  When J. M. Barrie adopted these ideas for Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, he was simply making use of an already well-established idea- although the success of his books and plays took it to a much wider audience.

Consequent upon inhabiting flowers, other connections were seen- for example, gardens become an ideal place to see fairies according to the poetry of Philip Bourke Marston and others.  It was also during the nineteenth century that the fairies’ role as conservers of plant life was crystallised.  In The Fairy’s Promise Edwin Arnold had fairies promise to help a love-sick poet because “Thou hast never plucked daisy or heather bell/ From the emerald braes where the fairies dwell.”   The fairies’ floral duties are spelled out in detail in The Wounded Daisy by Menella Bate Smedley.  They are to be found at work in the corners of meadows:

“Perhaps you’ll see them… setting the lilies steady,
Before they begin to grow;
Or getting the rosebuds ready
Before it is time to blow.
A fairy was mending a daisy
Which someone had torn in half…”

According to numerous nineteenth century poets the fairies shaped and inspired growth and, even, taught the plants how to grow at special schools over the winter.

Finally, Menella Bute Smedley made an important leap by involving humans as partners in the task of caring for the natural world:

“Then pull up the weeds with a will,/ And fairies will cherish the flowers.” (A Slight Confusion)

There are, then, two conceptions of the exact interrelationship between fairies and the natural world.  The first is that they exist simply as a part of the natural world and its processes.  The second, and more significant, is that they act as ‘guardians of nature’, actively watching over plants, animals and the earth as a whole and keeping the intricate systems in balance.

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Fairies and the Green Revolution

Many contemporary writers on fairy matters stress how the faes are opposed to intensive agriculture, to overuse of fertilisers, to pollution and to general environmental degradation.  It would be easy to imagine that these ideas have been imported into the faery faith since the 1960s, but the examples given so far make it abundantly clear that they were present in folklore and, thence it would seem, in literature, well before any conception of the harms of over-intensive cultivation even occurred to the scientific community.

Fairies have always been linked more closely to rural and uncultivated locations than to towns, although it would be wrong to suggest that they’re never seen in urban places (and the evidence of the recent Fairy Census and of the witness accounts recorded in Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing Fairies both suggest this is changing anyway).  Even in the countryside, though, they’re not a people solely of wild places and woods.  They often live and work around human farms (the Hobs and the Brownie type of spirit) and they frequently take advantage of the human environment, using mills and dancing in pastures and meadows at night.  There is no antipathy with agriculture as such, therefore.

That said, ideas of fairies as a champion of more traditional, organic, self-sufficient production date back to the mid-nineteenth century at the very latest.  For example, folklorist Evans Wentz in the 1900s heard in Scotland that the Highland clearances also drove off the sith.  Highlander John Dunbar of Invereen told him that “no one sees them now because every place on this parish where they used to appear has been put into sheep and deer and grouse and shooting.”  A vision of them fighting with sheep was seen, in fact, as a premonition of what was the follow (Evans Wentz, Fairy Faith, 94).

Conclusion

Works such as Peter Pan and the various Flower Fairies books unquestionably popularised the conception of the fairy as protector and champion of nature, but these ideas had been around since Elizabethan times and had been consolidating during the Victorian period. Such perceptions of the faeries are, arguably, as traditional as notions of them dancing in rings and stealing children.  The ‘green fairy’ is not some hippy, environmentalist creation, grafted on in recent decades, but is a fundamental element of the nature of Faery.

Margaret Tarrant, Brimstone Fairy

For further discussion of the environmental role of faeries, see my more recent post on the relationship of faeries to the natural world and my book Faeries and the Natural World (2021):

Clap-Cans and Nut Nans- and other cautionary sprites

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Although I often stress the independent and contrary nature of faery kind, there is a class of spirits whose almost sole purpose seems to be to protect human food resources and to prevent children getting into mischief.   Fairy expert Katharine Briggs often called these ‘nursery sprites‘ but this name suggests that they are only found inside houses- as indeed, some are, lurking in dark corners and empty rooms and scaring infants into going to bed and staying quiet, but some of these are found outside too (the pretty self-explanatory ‘Rawhead and Bloodybones’ being one such) and others only exist outside the nursery and the home- hence my preference for ‘cautionary sprites.’

Orchard Spirits

Many of these spirits live in and around orchards and fruit patches, amongst them being Owd Goggie, Lazy Laurence, the Coltpexy and the Gooseberry Wife of the south of England.  There is a particular concentration of these beings in the North West of England, however, which will be my focus in this posting.  Incredibly large numbers of very local boggarts are recorded in Cheshire, Lancashire and Westmorland, and spill over the Pennine Hills into West Yorkshire and Derbyshire.

Guarding soft fruit and apples is more a southern activity, but further north nut groves are protected from the depredations of children, who are liable to steal the nuts and break the branches, by a range of sprites.  We know of Churnmilk Peg, Melch Dick and Nut Nan, who guarded the hazels from theft with threats of burning naughty children with heated pokers.  Peg was an old and very ugly hag, who sat in the groves around Malham in North Yorkshire, smoking  a pipe.  Her name derives from the hazels in their green state, when they’re called churn-milk. All she says is  “Smoke! smoke a wooden pipe!/ Getting nuts before they’re ripe!” and if this doesn’t work, she’ll abduct the disobedient youths.  Melsh Dick apparently derives his name from the same unripe, ‘mushy’ or ‘mulchy’ nuts; he too will make off with disobedient children.   These figures are often assisted in their work by Clap-Cans, a being with no form or substance whose sole purpose is to scare away youngsters by beating on tins with sticks.

It is fascinating to see how the faery world has been recruited to safeguard humans’ assets.  Normally, knowing their character, we might expect these supernaturals to be more likely to steal nuts than to defend them and we would certainly not anticipate any willingness to assist humans based upon their usual self-interested attitudes.  Here, we must accept that we have encountered a more altruistic spirit.

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by Alan Lee, from Faeries

Jenny Greenteeth

The capacity in the North West to accept that some faeries will subdue their will entirely to that of the human community, and act wholly in its interests, has had a very curious impact upon the perceived character of the river spirit Jenny Greenteeth and her close relatives- Peg Powler in the Tees, Mary Hosies in the Avon in Lanarkshire, Jenny the Whinney on the Isle of Man, Grindylow Peg, Nelly Longarms, the Nok and many others (including the enigmatic Brook Calf and Star Nell).  Traditionally, these rather nasty beings have had one purpose: to lurk in bodies of water and to try to snatch and kill the unwary- most commonly children.  Victims will be drowned- but they may also be eaten: Grindylow Peg, for example, has iron teeth for this purpose.  They may also be tortured horribly first.

For generations, children have been warned to stay away from stagnant ponds and pools, water-filled pits, mill dams, wells, springs and streams, because these are just the places where Jenny and her sisters wait, hidden perhaps under green weeds (and wearing their green caps), overhanging trees or projecting banks.  They need only the slightest opportunity to dart forth, seize the unsuspecting infant and drag them beneath the surface.  The floating vegetation closes again and no-one knows of or even suspects the tragedy that has taken place.  In this respect, Jenny is very clearly another cautionary spirit.   She has, however, experienced ‘mission creep’ in some very surprising ways.

As time has passed, Jenny seems to have infested new bodies of water: since the Industrial Revolution, she has also moved into canals, drainage ditches, culverts and tunnels- in other words, the inland waterways of the industrialised north-west .  This, of course, makes perfect sense, for these man-made watercourses are just as perilous for the young as natural features.  This change has brought her much more into built up areas, so that Jenny is now known in central Manchester as much as in the countryside.  It seems, as well, that once she got used to the town, she expanded her operations further: Jenny has been said to lurk too in old buildings and cemeteries.  We might be startled by this abandonment of her watery haunts, but then, in Cheshire she had long been known to lurk in trees in the absence of so many bodies of open water.  Jenny has even accommodated herself to human dwellings, in her search for prey: she has been spotted lying in wait in outside toilets, at the top of unlit stairs, in darkened corners and, in Yorkshire, in that quintessential piece of architecture, the ‘coyl-oyl’ (or coal shed).

Not only has Jenny expanded the sites of her operations, she has widened her franchise to incorporate a much wider range of juvenile wrongs.  Parents more recently have threatened Jenny’s intervention for far more than getting too near to the edge of a pond.  She has started to encroach on the preserve of the nursery sprites, and has been said to punish bad behaviour- a refusal to go to bed, neglect of hair brushing and (most appositely) want of teeth brushing.  It seems pretty obvious that some profound confusion has developed here over the exact of nature of Jenny’s green teeth.  Her origin in slime covered pools has been forgotten, and it looks as though parents now scare their offspring by suggesting that they’ll end up with green fangs like Jen’s if they don’t pay attention to decent oral hygiene.

In her more recent manifestations there is increasingly little to distinguish Jenny from the host of other ‘nursery sprites,’ beings that include Tom Dockin, Tom Poker and Bannister Doll and then blur into a wider array of alarming boggarts and bogles, such as Bibler Dick, Jonny Cobler, Shagcalf and White Horse, Old Lobb or Lob-Thirst, various phantom dogs and (one of my favourites) the apparition called the Baum Rappit, a scary ghostly rabbit seen near the church in Rochdale.  All of these bogies and hobgoblins have a primary function of giving us a shock- and very little more.  To return to our starting point, however, Jinny Green-teeth is said to guard orchards around Saddleworth on the Lancashire slopes of the Pennines.

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Reinhold Max Eichler, Schlinggewachse (Creepers)

Jenny and the Meremaids

Jenny, meanwhile, has also encroached on the domain of the fresh water mermaids, the ‘meremaids‘ as I’ve termed them before.  The fact of this overlap is unremarkable, given the almost identical habitats of each, yet the meremaids have always tended to have a wider scope of operations- at the very least, not being limited to terrifying children.

Several characteristics now applied to Jenny Greenteeth appear to have been transferred from the meremaids.  These include appearing only at night, most especially at full moon, guarding buried treasure and (a motif taken from the spirits of larger rivers) claiming an annual sacrifice or tribute of one or more drowned victims.

Earlier, I mentioned how Churnmilk Peg is said to be a terribly ugly hag.  Crossover or confusion between female spirits, hags and witches is not at all uncommon and I’ll conclude by noting that in one account, from Preston, Jenny Greenteeth is even said to be seen riding a broomstick.

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Eichler, Ein buchsenschuss (A gunshot)

Summary

The multitude of local bogies and sprites, for whom we only have scanty records now, along with their often overlapping activities, makes for fascinating study.  I look at the orchard sprites again in my recently published Faery and give extended consideration to the many boggarts and bogies in the forthcoming companion, Beyond Faery.

‘Local fairies for local folk’

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I have just published my new fairy tale, The Derrickwhich is a story aimed primarily at children.  Its title character is a traditional fairy from Dorset and Hampshire.  In this posting I want to explore a little further this theme of local fairy types.

Regional fairies

There is a great variety of fairies in the British Isles; some are found across the country, but many differ regionally or across regions and some can be very local indeed.  They seem often to be adapted to a specific environment or social niche.  Here are a few examples:

  • Derricks- these only occur along the south coast; the Hampshire Derricks are apparently friendlier and more helpful than those of Dorset;
  • many brownies, hobs and similar house elves are tied to particular houses, farms or caves, as I have discussed in my post on brownies;
  • orchards of the south-west- various fairy spirits, such as Awd Goggy, exist to guard orchards and the like from thieves and children (see my post on cautionary fairies);
  • the Lincolnshire fens– this unique region is home to the Tiddy Ones, also called the Yarthkins, the Strangers and the Greencoaties.  They are rooted in the local soil and act as fertility spirits, helping the growth and ripening of plant life; as such they received tribute or offerings from the local people- the first fruits and the first taste of any meal or drink.  If neglected, these beings could be vindictive, affecting harvests, yields and even the birthrate.  They have been described as being a span high with thin limbs and over-sized hands, feet and heads.  They have long noses, wide mouths and make odd noises.  They danced on large flat stones in the moon light.  One particular spirit, the Tiddymun, seemed to control the flood waters in the days before the Fens were drained.  From time to time, he appeared from pools at night and might drag victims back into them, but generally he was sympathetic to local people.  His close ties to the management of water levels emphasise his local nature and function;
  • East Anglia- in Norfolk and Suffolk people spoke of the ferishers/ feriers/ frairies/ farisees.  These local fairies were known to be very small and very secretive.  They lived underground and were seldom seen.  This was perhaps fortunate as, above ground, they could be dangerous to humans; certainly, they rode cattle and horses at night. Also found in East Anglia is the little known hyter sprite, a small and benevolent fairy;
  • spriggans- pixies are well known to be localised in the south-west peninsula; so too are the spriggans.  They are described as dour and ugly; their particular role seems to be protecting other fairies from intrusions or insults by humankind (see the stories of The Miser on the Fairy Gump or The Fairies on the Eastern Green, both from Penwith in Cornwall).  They were very closely linked to ancient sites, such as hill-forts, where they guarded buried gold.  In this the spriggans seem to be linked to the Redshanks or Danes of Somerset (I borrowed this idea for The Derrick).  The localisation of spriggans on distinctive sites in the region is especially notable; and,
  • the asrai of the meres of Cheshire and the North West, which I discuss in another post.

If certain fairies have indeed adapted to local conditions and features, it may come as little surprise to learn that a symbiotic relationship with the human denizens of those areas has likewise evolved.  Two examples (once again from the south-west) are worthy of mention:

  • the Newlyn bucca is given fish by local fishermen in order to get good weather and good shoals;
  • knockers in the tin mines were given food in return for help locating the best lodes.

Obviously in these cases the human-fairy relationship  had adapted to local conditions.  It was, moreover, self-reinforcing- placid seas and a good haul of mackerel ensured further offerings for the bucca.

There is a tendency to generalise on fairy types and characteristics (of which, of course, I can be guilty in this blog) but many fairies were very restricted in their distribution, very individual in their behaviour and very local in their interests and preoccupations.

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