Puckwudgie and European influence

Recently I was researching another faery subject entirely when I was led to refer to the chapter on North American faery beings in Simon Young and Ceri Houlbrook’s Magical Folk (2018). Peter Muise there describes the ‘Puritans and Pukwudgies’ of New England, arguing that the European invaders largely lost their own faery lore as they crossed the Atlantic, but discovered the rich supernatural world of Native American belief- which was slowly assimilated.

This isn’t the whole story, as two other chapters in Magical Folk make clear. Later Irish and Scottish settlers, especially in Atlantic Canada, did import their faery belief with them- and I know from my own reading of British sources that there are several Scottish stories that explicitly discuss Highland faes, such as the leannan sith and the bochan, who travel with emigrants to North America. It might be better to say that the English settlers were less likely to carry their faery folk with them- and Muise discussed why this might be so.

A second point concerns the pukwudgie/ puckwudgie. This spirit is now probably the best known of the North American ‘faeries’ and modern sightings seem to be on the increase, as Muise has described. However, as his chapter title indicates, most of this modern lore comes from New England, to which the pukwudgie is, strictly, a stranger. He is a spirit of the Ojibwe people of the Great Lakes area- not of New England, which had its own indigenous beings (which are known about and which survive- amongst the indigenous population still and, to a degree, amongst the offcomers). Various writers, such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, seem to have been responsible for popularising the pukwudgie and extending his range. Literary uses of faery lore often do this- spreading beings such as pixies and leprechauns far beyond their natural habitats and (arguably) obscuring the local differences.

Be that as it may (and you can read the chapter in Magical Folk, which is highly recommended for your book shelves) what struck me was the strong similarities between North American faery behaviour and that of the British faes. Here are a few examples, taken from Muise:

  • pukwudgies and other Algonquian spirits have magical powers and can shape shift or make themselves invisible;
  • they can act as wills of the wisp (often seen as balls of light) and lead people into swamps or over cliffs;
  • they have a nasty habit of pestering women and girls, luring them into forests where they seduce them. Once a human female has been involved with a faery male, she can never settle back into society and marry;
  • they shoot poisoned arrows at victims;
  • they are immortal– unless killed by humans;
  • their gaze can blight a person and cause the victim to sicken and die;
  • they can grant three wishes;
  • they have high pitched voices;
  • they steal human goods but can be appeased with gifts of food;
  • they don’t like to be talked about by humans and will take revenge if they know this has happened; and,
  • they are skilled in healing using herbs.

All these characteristics and habits can be found in British folklore. I have provided links to posts I’ve made in the past on exactly these subjects. Now, there seem to be two explanations for these remarkably close parallels. One is that faery temperament, physiology and powers are pretty much the same the whole world over. As such, we shouldn’t expect any real difference between a pukwudgie and a boggart, just as we wouldn’t dream of imagining there would be any differences (except of culture) between- say- an Inuit, a European and an aboriginal Australian. The other explanation is that there has- in fact- been a great deal more immigration of European faeries into North America than we realised. The least sign of this, perhaps, is the optional spelling of Puck-wudgie: does this reveal an almost unconscious identification between the pucks of the English midlands with the Ojibwe sprite?

This is a big subject and one in which I have too little knowledge to make pronouncements. Nevertheless, the similarities of supernatural behaviour are notable and demand examination and explanation. Perhaps all North American faery survivals have really been crossbred with British faes from East Anglia and the South West, with the faery population being swamped and colonised just as much as the aboriginal possessors, or perhaps they’re really all one race, despite superficial differences, just as humans are.

The pukwudgie by Kitty-Grim on Deviant Art

Final trivia fact: I got to thinking about this after I came across the 1972 song ‘Puckwudgie‘ by cor-blimey Cockney comedian of the 1950s and ’60s, Charlie Drake. British readers of a certain age may recall Charlie from comedy specials and black and white films shown on Saturday and Sunday afternoons; I never anticipated a faery link, but there you go. I might well say the same of David Bowie- yet we have The Laughing Gnome to contend with. That- and Drake’s song- bear strong similarities.

‘Wheels on Fire’- it’s Faery, but not as we know it…

“Wheel’s on fire
Rolling down the road
Just notify my next of kin
This wheel shall explode”

Bob Dylan/ Rick Danko

Faery kind need not always appear in anthropomorphic form. I have described before the Scottish kelpies and each uisge and the shape shifting capabilities of several supernatural beings, such as Puck and the Isle of Man bogie called the buggane.

Transformations into animals might still seem relatively understandable, given the British tradition of semi-fish-like mermaids and selkies or the very widespread idea of the ‘Black Dog.’ However, fairies can sometimes take completely non-animal forms. I was inspired to examine these by Simon Young’s article on the Rolling Wool Bogie and in my book Beyond Faery I described the variety of ‘soft’ apparitions (looking like jelly, or balls or bales of wool or grass) as well as some very bizarre ‘hard’ forms that have been adopted.

There are quite a few examples of the ‘hard’ manifestations, from all around the British Isles.  At Hellsgill, Nether Auchinleck, in Clydesdale, a sprite in the shape of the outer rim of a cartwheel would come bounding down the brae, heading straight for any night time traveller.  Just as it looked to be about to collide with its victim, the wheel would vanish with an eldritch laugh.  Other such Scottish ‘wheels’ have been reported.  A man called Alexander, of Buaile Mor on South Unst, was fishing in a stream one night when he saw a figure approaching downstream.  He called to the stranger to step away from the water so as not to frighten the fish; the man complied but then Alexander realised something like a mill-wheel was rolling towards him.  Hurriedly, he gathered up his catch and gear and made off.  The fish he’d caught he hid under a rock and then headed for the nearest house.  Crossing the moor, however, he was repeatedly thrown down.  The next morning, returning to collect his catch, Alexander found that all had gone save for one he had ripped the head off by standing on it during his hurried departure the night before. 

At Lag nam Bocan (Bogle’s Hollow), on South Uist, a woman saw an iron car wheel rim rolling along the road.  A comparable- and equally inexplicable- incident occurred at Mynydduslwyn in Gwent: a reddish grey object, round like a bowl, was encountered rolling back and forth across a lane.  The witness believed it was a living thing, because it grew larger and smaller as it moved; he enquired what in God’s name it was, and the apparition instantly disappeared.  Perhaps it’s significant too that the Orkney monsters, the nuggle and the shoopiltee, are said to have tails resembling a water-wheels.

Two comparable examples from the Isle of Man, which were regarded as manifestations of the buggane, are described in Manx Notes and Queries for 1904:

“A man, when he was young, was seeing the girls home late in the night, and when coming to the end of beyr yn clagh glass (the grey stone road), he beard a great noise, and he looked in every direction, but could see nothing, and the noise was coming nearer. He did not know what to do, so he got over the hedge, but the noise was just over him, and he looked up and saw a thing like a big wheel of fire. It was going round at a great speed, and went towards Ballacurry and when it was near that place it vanished, and he saw no more of it

Second Account– A man was coming along the grey stone road in Ballakillowey, and he met a big wheel of fire, going around at a fearful rate, but remaining in the same place, and he could not get past, so he went back and took another road, but he met the wheel again at the next opening, and he went across the fields to shun it, but when he came to the high road the wheel was there again, but he ventured to pass it and got away. It made a great noise with whirling round.”

As I described in my book Beyond Faery, published last year, faery kind are capable of taking quite unexpected and baffling forms. That book argued for an expansion of ‘faery’ to include a range of supernatural beings in animal (rather than humanoid) form, but it will be clear that we actually need to expand our horizons far more broadly to encompass all the potential manifestations that have been encountered.

by ‘nachtwulf’ on DeviantArt

Sylvia Townsend Warner- Of Cats and Elfins

For Christmas I received this collection of short stories by Sylvia Townsend Warner. Split into two sections- one on fairies, one on cats (!)- it complements her book, Kingdoms of Elfin, which I have reviewed before.

As a fan of both cats and elves, the book is highly recommended. It’s a pleasant read- and a thought provoking one too. There’s a general introduction to Warner’s views on the inhabitants of Faery, followed by her unusual little tales. Her opinions on fairy-kind as a whole are well worth noting.

In many respect, Warner’s elfins are very similar to those we know. For example, they frequent meadows where they “dance mushrooms into rings” and the island of Britain is divided up into kingdoms ruled over by fairy queens, such as Elfame. Warner’s belief was that fairies are, eventually, mortal. They can die of old age and they can die, too, by misadventure- for example, by drowning, poisoning or hanging.

Warner’s elfins have a very low estimation of humankind. We are noisy, rude, dirty and, worst of all, dim. Her fae are smaller than humans, winged and able to ‘put on’ invisibility. As a result, she observed that:

“It is sometimes said that we have but our own obtuseness to blame for not seeing fairies more often than we do; but this is to attach too much importance to our idiosyncrasies, even to such a well-established, long-standing idiosyncrasy as obtuseness; for if we fail to see the fairies, it is not because we are too stupid to see them, but because they are too clever to allow themselves to be seen by us.”

Of Cats & Elfins, ‘The Kingdom of Elfin.’

All in all, Warner’s elves don’t reckon much to us human beings. In her story ‘The Narrative of Events Preceding the Death of Queen Ermine,’ it is remarked that “Mortals are not logical animals.” The courtier who makes this observation expands upon his experience a little later, explaining the essential difference between human and fairy kind (the possession of consciences): “We [that is, the fae] have no need of them. We have reason. But they are part of the mortal apparatus, as tails are to cats…” In the story ‘The Duke of Orkney’s Leonardo,’ we are told a little more about Elfin morality. They are “untrammeled by that petted plague of mortals, conscience, [so] they never reproached or regretted, entered into explanations or lied.” Faery is a world of guilt-free Enlightenment, it would seem. In the same story, Warner has a nice little joke at human gullibility: of fairy princess Lief, she remarks sardonically that:

“If she had believed in witches she would have believed he was under a spell; but Caithness was full of witches- mortals all, derided by rational Elfins.”

The fairy view of people is summarised by Warner in these terms:

“It is a sad fact, but undeniable: the Kingdom of Elfin has a very poor opinion of humankind. I suppose we must seem to them shocking boors, uncouth, noisy, ill-bred and disgustingly oversized. It is only the fairies with a taste for low company, like Puck and the Brownies… that make a practice of familiarity. And it is to be observed that they, for choice, frequent the simple and rustic part of mankind and avoid professors and students of folklore…”

Of Cats & Elfins, ‘The Kingdom of Elfin.’

As she notes, those humans who go out consciously looking for traces of the faeries tend to be disappointed- or are the victims of fairy vindictiveness. Warner confronts the fact that, when they do have contact with us, it is frequently an unpleasant experience for the mortals. They may give us a nasty fright, or:

“Often they go further, causing them to fall into languishing sicknesses, harrying them with ignominious accidents and even pursuing them unto death. They commonly employ one or two methods: blasting or shooting with an elf-bolt…”

Of Cats & Elfins, ‘The Kingdom of Elfin.’

According to Warner, three groups, nevertheless, have a good chance of meeting faeries on happier terms. These are country women with new born babies, young children and handsome men. Mothers are taken because “the fairies think that the plodding and bovine nature of human kind is peculiarly well adapted to provide reliable old-fashioned nurses for fairy babes.”

Children are abducted either because they are wanted as a tithe for the devil (according to one theory) or because they enjoy the company of children and taking care of them (which she thinks more likely). This sits uncomfortably with a entirely typical faery episode in ‘The Narrative of Events Preceding the Death of Queen Ermine’ in which local children are punished for trespassing on the queen’s land. Most suffer pinchings, scratching and hair pullings, but some of the fairies get rather carried away in their duties- “driving the marauders into wasps’ nests, jerking them off boughs into nettlebeds, alluring them to toadstools or gay wreaths of deadly nightshade.” The resultant death toll is quite high.

As for men, fairy women take them as husbands. Warner notes, though, that the reverse is seldom the case. Although fairy men will seduce human women, “no earthly woman’s charms have been powerful enough to bind a fairy to her in honorable matrimony.” In large measure, she ascribes this to the fairy temperament:

“Their amorousness is proverbial and no doubt the fairies who married mortal husbands were induced to this rash step by the violence of their passions, coupled with a romantic and high-flown notion that there is something very fine about defying convention. Once married, however, they make admirable wives.”

Of Cats & Elfins, ‘The Kingdom of Elfin.’

On the whole, though, fairies are an unromantic lot and are incapable of falling heavily for another: “Elfins find such love burdensome and mistrust it.” If only humans could be as calm and rational… The other remark to make upon Warner’s Elfins is their diversity. The author was a lesbian with a life-long partner and in the story ‘The Duke of Orkney’s Leonardo’ she imagined a gay husband and his wife, neither of them prepared to conform to the stereo-types expected of them.

Raphael, Mary F., A Wood Nymph; Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum

The last story in the Cats and Elfins collection is ‘Stay, Corydon, Thou Swain.’ In many ways it is my favourite, although it is strictly not about Elfins but about nymphs. In short, it concerns a Mr Mulready, a draper in Wells in Somerset. He is a highly respectable widower who sings in the Baptist chapel choir. One evening the choir has been practicing the madrigal by Wilbye that provides the story’s title. The words of the verse stick in Mulready’s mind:

“Thy nymph is light and shadow-like

For if thou follow her, she’ll fly from thee,

But if thou fly from her, she’ll follow thee.”

Then, “All of a sudden, Mr Mulready found himself wondering about nymphs, and wondering, too, in a very serious and pertinacious way. He had never, to his knowledge, given a though to these strange beings before and yet it now seemed to him that he had an idea of them both clear and pleasant- as though perhaps in childhood he had been taken to see one. He wished to see a nymph again… What he felt was more than a whim: it was an earnest desire, a mental craving…”

The next day he realises that he has a nymph working in his shop, a pale young girl called Edna Cave. He asks to come out for a bicycle ride the next evening and they agree to cycle to Merley Wood, the other side of Glastonbury (there is a real Merley Wood, but it’s near Wimbourne in Dorset- definitely not an evening’s ride from Wells). Mulready knows the wood- and has always been a little nervous of its atmosphere, but as he tells himself: “When one has a nymph vouchsafed one for a whole evening, one does not boggle over details. He was extremely happy and excited at the thought of such a shy and rare being becoming his companion.”

They ride to the wood on a beautiful summer’s evening. Edna Cave is exactly the company the older man had hoped for : “He had already a general idea of how a nymph should behave: she would be rather quiet and take a great interest in flowers.” This is exactly what Edna does. They sit happily together under blackthorn blossom on the edge of the wood, saying little, but very content, until it is late and starting to get quite dark. Mr Mulready encourages them to leave and they are just walking back to their bikes when Edna turns around and walks back towards the blackthorn:

“She put out her hands. He thought she was going to break off a spray… And then, in a moment, she disappeared.”

Edna vanishes, leaving Mulready stunned and panicked. There is no trace of her at all- and he has to face returning to Wells with this shattering news. This wonderful mystery is exactly what I sought to celebrate in my book Nymphology published last year; it is, as well, a fine end to the Elfin section of Warner’s collection.

Lewis Carroll, Puck & Faeries

Fairies and Nautilus Illustration by E. Gertrude Thomson
‘Fairies & Nautilus,’ by Thomas, from Three Sunsets

In an earlier post, I discussed famous the youthful writings on pixies by Lewis Carroll, author of the ‘Alice’ stories. Carroll is not really a writer of ‘fairy tales,’ however strange and fantastical his books may have been, but he did not neglect them entirely.

Firstly, there is his follow-up to the Alice stories, Sylvie and Bruno (1889). This book is far less well-known than the two Alice adventures- and for good reason, as it really isn’t that good. However, it gives a very good idea of the image of fairies that Carroll harboured. His view of the Good Folk can be both sentimental- and yet cautious and honest. For example, from chapter 13: “All Fairies understand Doggee- that is, Dog-language” or, this lengthy passage from chapter 14:

“In the first place, I want to know—dear Child who reads this!—why Fairies should always be teaching us to do our duty, and lecturing us when we go wrong, and we should never teach them anything? You can’t mean to say that Fairies are never greedy, or selfish, or cross, or deceitful, because that would be nonsense, you know. Well then, don’t you think they might be all the better for a little lecturing and punishing now and then?

I really don’t see why it shouldn’t be tried, and I’m almost sure that, if you could only catch a Fairy, and put it in the corner, and give it nothing but bread and water for a day or two, you’d find it quite an improved character- it would take down its conceit a little, at all events.

The next question is, what is the best time for seeing Fairies? I believe I can tell you all about that.

The first rule is, that it must be a very hot day- that we may consider as settled: and you must be just a little sleepy- but not too sleepy to keep your eyes open, mind. Well, and you ought to feel a little- what one may call “fairyish”- the Scotch call it “eerie,” and perhaps that’s a prettier word; if you don’t know what it means, I’m afraid I can hardly explain it; you must wait till you meet a Fairy, and then you’ll know.

And the last rule is, that the crickets should not be chirping… I looked about in all directions for the little creature, but there was no trace of her- and my ‘eerie’ feeling was quite gone off, and the crickets were chirping again merrily- so I knew she was really gone. And now I’ve got time to tell you the rule about the crickets. They always leave off chirping when a Fairy goes by- because a Fairy’s a kind of queen over them, I suppose- at all events it’s a much grander thing than a cricket- so whenever you’re walking out, and the crickets suddenly leave off chirping, you may be sure that they see a Fairy.”

Sylvie & Bruno, c.14

On the more positive side, Carroll describes how Sylvie changes from a little girl into a fairy and he states categorically “I may tell you, besides, that she had no wings (I don’t believe in Fairies with wings), and that she had quantities of long brown hair and large earnest brown eyes, and then I shall have done all I can to give you an idea of her.”

Carroll’s collection of verse, Three Sunsets and Other Poems, which was published ten years later than Sylvie and Bruno in 1898, includes two poems on a clear fae theme: Puck Lost and Puck Found:

Puck Lost

Puck has fled the haunts of men:
Ridicule has made him wary:
In the woods, and down the glen,
No one meets a Fairy!

“Cream!” the greedy Goblin cries—
Empties the deserted dairy—
Steals the spoons, and off he flies.
Still we seek our Fairy!

Ah! What form is entering?
Lovelit eyes and laughter airy!
Is not this a better thing,
Child, whose visit thus I sing,
Even than a Fairy?

Nov. 22, 1891.

Victorian Fairy Verse | British Fairies

Puck Found

Puck has ventured back agen:
Ridicule no more affrights him:
In the very haunts of men
Newer sport delights him.

Capering lightly to and fro,
Ever frolicking and funning—
“Crack!” the mimic pistols go!
Hark! The noise is stunning!

All too soon will Childhood gay
Realise Life’s sober sadness.
Let’s be merry while we may,
Innocent and happy Fay!
Elves were made for gladness!

Nov. 25, 1891.

The illustrations for Three Sunsets were provided by Emily Gertrude Thomson. She had illustrated William Allingham’s famous verse ‘The Fairies’ in 1878 and Carroll had so admired her wrote that he wrote to the publisher asking for her address.  The two met for the first time in June 1879 at the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A). Their rendezvous was fascinating: Carroll arrived holding the hands of two little girls. He asked one to point out Thomson and she quickly indicated the artist, though none had met before. Carroll’s explanation of this was that he asked the child to identify the “young lady who knew fairies…”

Carroll was a difficult author to work for. He constantly intervened in his artists’ work, making suggestions and asking for alterations to completed drawings.  The writer had very fixed and peculiar ideals of beauty.  For example, he stipulated that all the fairies, and all the babies, in Thomson’s pictures should be girls, adding that he much preferred nude girls, although “no living child is perfect in form.” Thomson duly supplied for the book a series of twelve plates of very pleasingly pretty and shapely little girls, reclining nude beneath ferns, flowers and mushrooms. They have very little to do with the content of the book, but they are attractive pictures and- perhaps most importantly- they met the aesthetic and personal standards of Lewis Carroll, who was (as is known) a keen collector of little girls as his ‘nieces.’ 

Famous Fairies

One of the Famous Fairies series by Lorna Steele

I am pleased to announce the forthcoming publication of a new book, to be titled Who’s Who In Faeryland. As you’ll see, the inspiration for the idea came from a series of postcards designed for the Salmon Company in the early 1950s by the British artist Lorna R. Steele. This appears to have been a typical six card set, which was possibly retailed together in a special envelope (for collectors) as well as being sold separately at newsagents and such like for people to use for messages and greetings.

Lorna Steele

As I describe in my Fairy Art of the Twentieth Century, Lorna Steele (1902-90) was born in North London and was encouraged to become an artist by her uncle, Frank Jenners, who was himself an illustrator and author.  She attended art school and then set up her own studio. She received early commissions for book illustrations from the University of London Press during the 1940s, providing illustrations for a variety of titles.  After the war, she was associated with J. Salmond of Sevenoaks for whom she wrote and illustrated several books and designed a number of series of postcards, such as Peeps at Pixies in 1947.

Steele’s fairies are bright and almost cartoonish and her vision of faery is, perhaps, one of the most prosaic of all the British fairy artists.  In humanising the beings, she often stripped them of all their magic and mystery, as might be seen in her postcard images of fairies at school, attending the market or posting their letters. Steele gave emphasis to the interaction between fairies and children, making them safe and approachable.

However, the Famous Fairies series is perhaps one of her most charming. It features several of the Famous Fairies that I have dealt with in my new book. Titania and Oberon are an obvious choice, as are Puck, the Cornish Pixie and (perhaps) the Will of the Wisp.

The borders of the cards are especially attractive, with their mushrooms, horse shoes and Halloween imagery. Steele’s fairies, with their whimsical eared caps, are firmly within the tradition of Cicely Mary Barker and Margaret Tarrant.

The final two cards in the series are surprising choices, as they are both figures from classical mythology- who arguably aren’t fairies at all. Admittedly, parallels have often been seen between Pan and Puck, and- in the absence of a clear conception of what Puck/ Robin Goodfellow looked like- Victorian painters especially resorted to the classical iconography of Pan- goat legs and horns (plus, perhaps, some wings)- to represent the most English of all supernatural personalities.

As for Neptune, well- little can be said. There are of course mermen in our folklore records, but very little trace of a king of the merfolk, such as this illustration depicts.

Famous British Fairies

Turning now to my forthcoming book, Who’s Who will be a collection of short ‘biographies’ of the best known individuals in Faery. The text describes the careers and characters of nine of the most famous fairies to arise out of British faery-lore: Titania, Oberon, Ariel, Mab, Puck, King Arthur, Nimue, Tinker Bell and the native British equivalents of Rumpelstiltskin. Also included are shorter descriptions of a range of other named faery folk and a discussion of the whole issue of faery names.

The history of each famous fairy is traced back to its origins and then their stories are followed through poetry, plays and paintings from late medieval times up to the present. Their lives and their deeds are examined in detail, with illustrations from literature and art.

The book describes exactly how and why these fairies became famous in the first place- and why they remain well-known and relevant even into the twenty-first century. As an essential guide to the key figures of faeryland, this book will help readers understand just why it is that these names are so familiar- and what it is about these faery personalities that made them renowned- across the world.

Beyond Faery V: Wills of the Wisp

bocklin

Das Irrlicht, Arnold Bocklin, 1862

The spirits known as wills of the wisp, which in fact go by many local names, seem to have a single purpose, which is to try to lure people out of their way, something which may just get them lost or which may result in their deaths.  Their exact status as ‘fairies’ is a little uncertain.  They are clearly supernatural beings, and almost always of a solitary nature, but their precise classification is difficult; in some cases, they resemble ghosts. Nevertheless, the activities of the ‘pure’ wills of the wisp, who only have one manifestation, are shared with entities we would unhesitatingly describe as fairies- such as pixies, Robin Goodfellow and the various pucks and pwccas.  For this reason, I included a chapter on wills of the wisp in my forthcoming book, Beyond Faery.  The evidence presented here represents additional research I’ve undertaken, which complements the content of the book.

Scottish spunkies

Very typical of this family of sprites is Willy and the Wisp, who is seen around Buckhaven in Scotland.  He’s been called a “fiery devil” who leads people off their path in order to drown them or, at the very least, to cause them to stumble and fall, whether into a bog or over a bank or cliff.  He sometimes appears as sparks around a walker’s feet or as a candle shining in the dark two or three miles ahead of them. Like a rainbow, this light would recede before the advancing traveller.  He has also been known to lure boats into the shore, where they have foundered.  This entity is also called ‘spunky’ in Scotland, or ‘Dank Will,’ with his “deceitful lantern.”  

Interestingly, on the Hebridean island of South Uist it was said that the Will of the Wisp had not been seen before 1812.  A woman who went out one night to collect rue from the sand dunes was never seen again and it was thought that her ghost returned as the wandering light that was seen there frequently after that.  This is an intriguing example of the confusion, or uncertainty, that can exist over the interrelationship between Faery and the dead.

Southern Sprites

In Dorset, on the south coast of England, the Will or Jack o’ Lantern is seen as a hopping ball of light that precedes a traveller, attempting to lure the person off the road, perhaps into a pond or perhaps just to make them lost.  If it succeeds, you will hear it sniggering and laughing.  In Devon and Cornwall, too, the Jack o’ Lantern is known.  He has been known to attack lanterns carried by people, or to perch on the roofs of houses.   Generally, the light is like a small blue flame, but it has been seen as big as five feet in height.  It generally floats at a low level (about a metre off the ground), but can rise high into the air- or vanish, and then reappear again.  Sometimes it is fixed, sometimes it moves at considerable speed.  In the South West of England, as well as pools and marshes, the “pixy-lights” might try to lure people down abandoned mine shafts, which are still quite common in the region.

The Will is usually seen in more out of the way locations, such as mountains and lowland marshes, but by no means exclusively.  It has been sighted in water meadows or in domestic gardens as well.  When it is seen in church-yards, it is often called a ‘corpse candle,’ once again linking the phenomenon with the dead.

A very curious example of the phenomenon is the Will seen at Fringford Mill in Oxfordshire.  Witnesses have reported red lights that looked like gnomes, standing about three feet high.  They would bob up and down (as seems to be typical) but they also emitted a singing sound.  The lights would slowly approach to within about one foot of a person and then bob away again, apparently with the intention of leading the individual either into the mill stream or onto the highway.  Horses kept in the field next to the mill would be terrified by the apparition.  At Ascott under Wychwood, in the same county, the Will was called Jenny Burn Tail and once more resembled a human figure- a man holding a lantern.

Bell WoW

Guernsey Wills

Sometimes the Wills of the Wisp of Devon and Cornwall are seen indicating places where rich lodes of ore can be mined.  The Wills of the Channel Island of Guernsey have a comparable link to buried riches.  It is believed on the island that their appearance marks the site of concealed treasure.  This association can be exploited by Le Feu Belengier to lead those hopeful of finding lost wealth through bogs and brakes. 

Even so, the riches can be there for the finding by the determined.  The only problem is that the wandering fire will protect its treasure.  Stories are told on the island of a woman who dug where she saw a Will dancing and, in due course, uncovered a pan that seemed to be full of coins.  However, just before she was able to claim the riches, she was distracted and, when she turned back to the pan, it had been overturned and was empty.  In another case, a man who dug up a pot of coins looked away for a moment- to discover a huge black hound curled up in the hole.  Conversely, a man who excavated a pot full of sea-shells was canny enough not to be deterred.  He carried the seemingly worthless discovery home and, the next morning, awoke to find the shells transformed into coins.  This story is a reverse of the usual reports of money received from fairies turning into shells, leaves and mushrooms overnight. The common element of not taking your eye off the prize is generally encountered in respect of sightings of fairies themselves: if you see one, you should try to avoid blinking or looking away.  If you do allow yourself to be distracted, the fairy will disappear.

Welsh Wisps

The Will of the Wisp is very well known in Scotland, but he has a long history in Welsh folklore too.  Early in the nineteenth century, the road from Welshpool, on the Welsh border, to Shrewsbury in England was haunted around Onslow Hill by a ‘goblin’ who appeared as a ball of fire and would sit behind riders on their horses.  There were numerous reports of this being and generally people avoided travelling along this road by night if they could.  Not far away, at Marford near Wrexham, the Jack o’ Lantern was often seen early in the eighteenth century.  Typical of its tricks was an occasion when it led two men into a ditch after they had thought they could see the light of a farmhouse window and had aimed towards it.  Once the chosen victim was lost and soaked, the sprite would always dance about in glee over them.

Older Welsh sources more generally blame the ellyllon, the elves, for such sightings and misfortunes; another name for the Will of the Wisp is yr ellyll dan- ‘elf fire.’  This light, also called ‘bog fire’ has been described as being like the light of a lantern, that would dance ahead of riders, travelling at the same speed as them, or would appear as actual blue flames on the extremities of the horse and rider.  This Will was reported as late as 1898, but subsequent changes to farming practice and the draining of land seems to have scared many of them off.

In some parts of Wales, a number of specific, named sprites are identified as the cause of such mischief. Several are identified in Snowdonia.  The bwbach llwyd or ‘brown hobgoblin’ will appear on mountain tracks, dressed like a shepherd.  He lures travellers off the path before vanishing. Somehow related in the bodach glas who appears in front of people once a fog has descended.  He noiselessly hovers in front of them. always maintaining the same distance.  Lantern Jack, meanwhile, is a blue flame seen on paths at night. It grows steadily larger, leading people astray until the light is snuffed out with a peel of laughter.   

In south and east Wales the pwcca is a light that will lead on travellers, who think they are following another person with a lantern, until they find themselves on the very edge of a precipice.  The light then leaps out into the void and a peal of pwcca’s mocking laughter is heard.

The pwcca is a further reminder to us that the Will and the more familiar and corporeal Puck often blend into each other, so that being misled by a will of the wisp and being pixy-led can be very similar experiences.  The cross-over between the two is further underlined by the fact that, in some parts of Wales, the pwcca is more like a domestic brownie than a malign sprite.

The medieval Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwilym (1320-50) wrote two poems describing the Will.  Y Pwll Mawn, The Peat Pit, is desrcibed by him as being “the haunt of many a drowned wraith” whilst Ar Niwl Maith (On a Misty Walk) is an extended description of the perils of travel in poor visibility:

“My twisty traipse turns to clumsy labour

Like a hell,

Into a still bogmire,

Where in every hollow lurks

A hundred wry-mouthed elves.”

Similarly, in the Highlands, a Gaelic poem mentions “the busily roaming fairy woman, deluder of travellers…”

Wills of the Wisp and snake, Hermann Hendrich

More details and discussion will be found in the chapter dedicated to this subject in my forthcoming Beyond Faery (Llewellyn Worldwide).

‘Up Hill and Down Dale’- Pixy-Led in the West Country: a study of pixy tricks

Bell WoW
Robert Anning Bell, The Will of the Wisp

Deliberate leading astray is a fairy habit almost exclusively found in South West Britain.  It is reported about as often in Cornwall and Devon, with about twenty-five per cent of cases taking places in other counties (Dorset and Somerset) and slightly fewer in Wales.  Because it is primarily a phenomenon of South-West England, I will use the term pixie-led as a label for the process.

Here I’m only going to describe those fairy beings who, amongst their other activities, enjoy misleading humans.  Those supernaturals that appear as moving lights and whose sole function is to mislead- wills of the wisp, Jack o’ Lanterns, Goblin Lanterns and such like- will not be my concern here.  This reflects a fairly clear subdivision of types, but it is not perfect or binding.  Pucks and Pooks in England and South Wales can often appear in all respects like a will of the wisp, although we know them to be more complex characters in addition to this (see for example, Wirt Sikes, British Goblins, 23).

History

Pixie-leading is a longstanding fairy practice that is well attested in literature.  It can be traced back to the early fourteenth century.  Jeremy Harte in Exploring Fairy Traditions (p.26) records a preacher’s sermon that describes one who has been “led at nyght with gobelyn, and erreth hider and thider.”  The references multiply from the seventeenth century, for example from Francis Rous, who in his religious text Meditations of Instruction of 1616 compared those who pursue material wealth to:

“they [that] shall stumble into the same ditches, wherein they have seene many of their neighbours wallowing.  This makes sport for the divel, and thus is man most truly fayry-led, even led aside by the spirits of darknesse…”

In an identical tone, Thomas Heyrick, in The New Atlantis of 1687, mentioned those who “Vainly like wilder’d men should wander round/ Be lost in senceless shapes on fairy ground” (p.51).  Likewise, Beaumont and Fletcher in their play Wit at Several Weapons (c.1620), have a character complain:

“My ways are goblin led and the night elf still draws me from my home.” (II, 2)

Writing in the first half of the 1600s, poet Robert Herrick, a Devonshire parson, advised:

“If ye feare to be affrighted

When ye are (by chance) benighted,

In your Pocket for a trust

Carrie nothing but a Crust:

For that holy piece of Bread,

Charmes the danger, and the dread.”

Christopher Clobbery, who wrote in 1659, warned of “fairy elves who thee mislead … in to the mire, then at thy folly smile/ Yea, clap their hands for joy.”  The remedy he advised was simple: “Old country folk, who pixie-leading fear/ Bear bread about them, to prevent harm.”

In the English Midlands, we know from Jabez Allies that you were not pixie-led but ‘poake-ledden,’ something which seems to be confirmed by the experience of Bishop Richard Corbet (author of the poem Rewards and Fairies), who became lost near Bosworth in 1640.  He and his party were advised then to “Turne your cloakes/ … for Pucke is busy in these oakes./  If ever wee at Bosworth will be found/ Then turn your cloakes, for this is fairy ground.”

What is Pixie-Leading?

To be pixie-led is a very well-known phrase, but what does it actually entail?  There are, in fact, at least half a dozen different experiences which are classed under this heading.

Changing the landscape or hiding the path

Using glamour so that the human victim no longer recognises where they are is the commonest way to confuse and lead astray a person.  A few accounts will exemplify this: Once a Week magazine in 1867 reported how a young farmer was pixie-led one evening in an orchard, where he was trapped for two hours.  In a Welsh incident, two young women returning to Llandysul from Lampeter fair were led in a field next to their home.  They were lost for hours on a bright moonlit night, yards from their house.  Lastly, a Cornish man called Glasson, making the short walk from Ludgvan to Gulval near Penzance, got completely lost and went in circles.  In all these cases, and more, a familiar place became strange; land marks disappeared and panic set in.

Hiding Gates

Sometimes, the change made is to conceal the gate out of a field.  Often, again, the enclosed space is very familiar to the victim and the moon may be shining, but the means of escape seems to vanish.  To add to this, in several Cornish accounts the pixies also frustrate their victims’ attempts to get free by raising the field hedge whenever he finds a lower part he might have been able to climb over (Bottrell, Hearthside Stories, vol.1, p.57 and Enys Tregarthen, Folklore Tales, ‘The Enchanted Field’ (1911)).

In one case, something similar happened inside a house.  A Welsh man woke up to see fairies in his bedroom dancing and eating.  He tried to wake his wife, but couldn’t, and for four hours just had to watch the festivities.  Eventually, the fairies left and he got out of bed to try to see where they had gone.  However, he couldn’t find the bedroom door; it was only when he cried out in panic and woke the rest of his family that the spell was broken.  For other examples, see Briggs’ Dictionary of Fairies.

Mist and Fog

The pixies are known for their ability to control the weather and this can be used as a way of trapping victims.  Men travelling across Dartmoor from Crediton to Exeter were advised that, if a cloud descended, they should strip and sit on their clothes for half an hour or so.  The pixies would in due course raise the fog thrown around them.  Patience is evidently important in such cases.  A woman on the Quantocks became demented with terror when the pixies caused an evening mist to rise suddenly around her, so that she was lost in a field minutes away from her home.  For other examples, see Briggs’ Dictionary of Fairies.

Music

The pixies may lure people away from their route with music, thereby getting them lost.  This has been reported in Devon and in North Wales.

Fairy Rings

Just as a person may become trapped in a familiar field, they may step into a fairy ring and fall into the fairies’ power.  A Somerset farmer coming home from market was led like this until he ended up exhausted by a briar bush that grew in three counties- a plant which magical properties that seems to have broken the spell he was under.  Cornish fairy author Enys Tregarthen has called rings ‘Spriggan Traps.’

Perhaps related to this phenomenon is that of following a ‘piskey-path.’  Enys Tregarthen also described how these mysterious green paths can be seen on cliffs or meandering across the moors, still verdant when the bracken is dry and brown.  Writing in 1630 in his View of Devonshire, Thomas Westcote mentioned how a person who got lost on Dartmoor would be “led in a pixy-path.”  Here there is some definite, if unclear, link between these paths and being pixie-led.

Never Arriving

In one Cornish story a man called Nicholas Annear was punished by the pixies for always rushing and hurrying.  One day, he set out for market with his horse and cart.  The pixies made it appear that the church tower at his destination was ahead, but he never got there.  He drove his cart all day and never arrived.

lee
Alan Lee

Pixie Motives

Who do they pixies do this?  They seem to have several motivations.  Above all, there’s their love of mischief; they need no reason as such, other than the pleasure in mildly tormenting humans.  However, they may feel the person needs to be punished for some reason (as in the case of Nicholas Annear above).  If they have been insulted by a person, s/he will be targeted in revenge.  For example, a North Yorkshire man who declared that he’d catch a fairy in a bottle was led astray for two hours as a result of his foolhardy boldness.  Someone who has taken the fairies’ property will suffer too.  A man from Bishop’s Lydeard in the Quantock Hills picked up a fairy grindstone as he was out walking and decided to keep it.  A mist descended upon him and he was led through brambles all night.  A woman from Selworthy parish on the Exmoor coast of Somerset saw a group of pixies; they were so upset by her intrusion that they led her all over the moor and through the woods. Any trespass upon the fairies’ privacy is bitterly resented.

An isolated example of retribution for trespass comes from Orkney, at the diametrically opposite end of the British Isles to Devon and Cornwall, where most of the accounts are located.  In Redland parish on the mainland of Orkney there was a grass ‘gait’ (or path) used by the trows when passing from their hill to the sea shore at twilight.  Two men in search of a midwife crossed the path one evening; for this disrespectful act one of them was led far astray by the trows.

Pixie Pleasures

Predictably, the pixie attitude to leading someone out of their way is great amusement.  They are often said to be heard laughing or, even, clapping their hands with glee.  They might sometimes be seen jumping about in front of the victim, mocking their situation (see Evans Wentz, Fairy Faith, 184).  A clear indication of the blurring of differences between wills of the wisp and pixie-leading fairies is a description of the Dorset Jack o’ Lantern, who is seen as a ball of light hopping before a person and which sniggers and laughs if a victim is successfully lured into a pond; something very similar was described in Cornish story by Enys Tregarthen (Why Jen Pendogget Changed his Mind (1940)).

Human Responses

As for the human victims, how do they react?  Inevitably, they will end up exhausted, frustrated and panic-stricken.  They are often said in Cornwall to be left “mizzy-mazey” (Enys Tregarthen, The Enchanted Field).  In Devon, the victim is said to be ‘mazed’ as a result, a neat term that is suggestive of being both amazed and lost (in a maze).

The consequences of being pixie-led can be much more serious, though.  We’ve heard about terror and a loss of wits.  A man who was pixie-led on the Blackdown Hills in Somerset had to be rescued after he was lured into a bog.  He was ill for quite some time after this experience.  A Devonshire man crossing Dartmoor near Chudleigh was pixie-led by the sound of music.  He wandered for hours, trying to locate the source, and eventually collapsed in a faint.  When he came round the next morning, he was able to make his way home, but he took to his bed, never rose again and soon afterwards died.  In like manner a Welsh man, John Jacob of Bedwellty, was led astray by the fairies one night, following shapes that appeared and then vanished.  At last he came to a neighbour’s house and was saved, but he was rendered mute by the experience and soon sickened and died.

Remedies

If you are pixie-led, what can you do to free yourself?  There are several tried and tested remedies.

Turning your clothes

The best known and easiest remedy is to turn an item of clothing- a hat might be turned back to front or a coat, pocket, glove or stocking might be turned inside out.  It seems likely that this is effective because it changes your appearance and throws the pixies off the scent or releases you from the enchantment that traps you in a fairy ring.  Wise travellers turn their clothes before they set out, so that they will be safe from enchantment throughout their journey.  It’s worth adding, though, that in Enys Tregarthen’s story The Pisky Who Rode in a Pocket, the pixie’s presence in the victim’s clothing is the cause of their wandering astray- and the spell is only broken when she turns her pockets, thereby ejecting the mischievous passenger.

Making a Noise

Attracting the attention of other people who’ve not fallen under the pixie spell will work.  This is effective in two ways.  Either the rescuer calls out in reply to help guide the victim to safety or the pixie-led person makes a noise which attracts rescuers to where she or he is stranded.  For instance, Abraham Stocke in Somerset had said that he had no time for pixies.  They led him into a swamp one night when he was walking home from brass band practice.  Luckily, he had his euphonium with him and was able to play it to alert his family and guide them to him.  A person simply coming along and startling the victim out of their bemusement can often be enough to release them (for examples, see Briggs’ Dictionary of Fairies).

Other Remedies

It can help to carry something with you to protect yourself against pixie charms during your travels.  This could be a cross made from rowan wood, a piece of bread (as we’ve seen already) or a sprig of the plant greater stitchwort.  Rowan, or mountain ash, are also well-known for repelling supernaturals beings of all kinds (witches included).  The stitchwort is more unusual and seems to be a uniquely Devonian remedy.  The flower is called ‘pixies’ in the county and it is believed to be the special property of the pixies. Picking it will upset them, but apparently carrying it with you somehow has the effect of deflecting rather than attracting their ill-will.

Water (as often) can release the bewildered person.  Drinking the water from Fitz’s Well, near Okehampton on the northern edge of Dartmoor, dispels the glamour cast by the local pixies.  Apparently any running water may have the same effect and, in fact, it is possible that falling in a stream might be sufficient to break the spell.

Summary & Further Reading

Pixie-leading is only really something to be concerned about if you’re out walking in unfamiliar places in Cornwall or Devon.  The open moors are the likeliest locations, places where getting lost is, in any case, a considerable risk unless you’re well equipped with a map and compass.  Outside this area, it is a remote risk: as we’ve seen from the folklore, there are only isolated cases from North Wales, North Yorkshire and Orkney.

In many ways, as I’ve described, the fairies can treat humans like their playthings and pixie-leading is one of the most acute examples of this.  Unlike abductions, though, it is generally a very short-term and harmless experience.  People can occasionally be led to perilous spots, such as marshes or cliff tops, and a few react very seriously to the stress of the experience, but for most it is an annoyance and a bit of a fright, but no more.

For another examination of the subject, see Simon Young’s article Pixy Led in Devon and the South West, which is available through Academia.com.  I have, of course, read this, but in writing this posting I deliberately sought to reach my own conclusions based on the evidence that I had uncovered.  Simon had access to a range of other sources and therefore reaches other useful conclusions on the subject.  My posting on Glamour Houses deals with a related phenomenon, though admittedly a deception by the fairies undertaken for benign purposes.  My book, British Pixiesalso examines the theme of pixy-leading in detail and in the wider context of pixie behaviour overall.

Nightmares and fairies

fusli
The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli

There is a little explored link between fairies and nightmares, an association expressed very well in one of the most famous fairy texts, Mercutio’s description of fairy queen Mab in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.  She is (as Shelley crowned her in his poem Queen Mab) the queen of dreams, both good and bad:

 “This is the hag, when maids lie on their backs,

that presses them and learns them first to bear,

making them women of good carriage.” (Act I, scene 4)

It’s pretty evident here that Shakespeare sees Mab as having a sexual function.  She educates- and maybe even seduces- virgin girls, teaching them how to perform in bed.  That bearing, or carriage, is not about deportment but about receiving a lover lying on top.

In this passage, Mab is called a ‘hag,’ and to be ‘hag-ridden’ was to suffer nightmares. ‘The hagge’ was imagined as a hideous witch who sat on a sleeper’s stomach, causing bad dreams.  The notion of compression was a very early one, as we see from the South English Legendary of about 1300:

“Þe luþere gostes …deriez men in heore slep… And ofte huy ouer-liggez [men], and men cleopiet þe niȝt-mare.”

“The evil ghosts harm men in their sleep and often lie on top of them, which people call ‘the night-mare.’”

There’s a supernatural cause here, but not a fairy one.  However, by the early seventeenth century the fae nature of the affliction was established.  For example, in the Mad Pranks and Merry Jests of Robin Goodfellow, one of Robin’s companions, Gull the Fairy, explains how:

“Many times I get on men and women and so lie on their stomachs that I cause them great pain; for which they call me by the name of Hagge and Nightmare.”

The victim’s experience is described in The Holly Bush of 1646:

“the nightmare hath prest,

With that weight on their breast,

No returnes of their breath can pass.”

The sixteenth century Scots poem, My Heart is High Above, likewise conveys some sense of how the experience feels: “Then languor on me lies, like Morpheus the mair.”  Devon poet, Robert Herrick, in his poem, The Hag, also described the sensation of a being riding the sleeper:

“The Hag is astride,

This night for to ride;

The Devill and shee together:”

In their 1621 play Thierry and Theodoret, playwrights Beaumont and Fletcher emphasise the unpleasant and exhausting nature of the experience:

“goblins ride me in my sleep to jelly.” (I, 2)

However, the sensation he depicted also has something of pixy-leading about it, as well as reminding us of the stories of fairies actually riding human victims at night for want of an available horse:

“A Thorn or a Burr She takes for a Spurre:
With a lash of a Bramble she rides now,
Through Brakes and through Bryars,
O’re Ditches, and Mires,
She followes the Spirit that guides now.”
    
    miles johnston

Miles Johnston

In these versions, the pressure and shortness of breath are associated with fear rather than sexual activity and arousal, but there was great confusion between the two aspects of the nightmare.  We see this in William Sampson’s 1636 play The Vow Breaker- or the Fair Maid of Clifton in Nottinghamshire, when Ursula remarks to Anne:

“you us’d to say Hobgoblins, Fairies and the like were nothing but our own affrightments and yea, oh my Cuz, I once dreamed of a young batchelor and was ridden with a Nightmare.”

Here we elide seamlessly from fairies to nightmares to sexual fantasy within a single sentence.  In Drayton’s Nymphidia the sensual nature of the sensation is addressed more explicitly:

“And Mab, his merry queen, by night,

Bestrides young folk that lie up-right,

(in older times the mare that hight.)”

In both passages, the poets’ bawdiness is barely concealed.  Ursula being ridden by her lusty young batchelor and the ‘up-right’ wet-dreamers of Drayton are almost solely concerned with erotic dreams rather than horror.  This sexual aspect of the nightmare is underlined by Edward Topsell in his Historie of Serpents, where he mentions “The spirits of the night, called Incubi and Succubi, or else Night-mares.” (p.173)  These two spirits were believed to be supernatural lovers who came to men and women during the night.

The Victorian magazine, Once A Week, in 1867 carried a feature on Devonshire pixies, which informed its readers that they had control over sleeper’s fantasies: “Some may bring nightmares and others sweet dreams.”  Perhaps this isn’t so surprising, given that the pixies of the South West can control the weather and use their powers of glamour to change landmarks and ‘pixy-lead’ victims.

The intertwining of faeries and good and bad dreams is highlighted lastly in Cartwright’s play of 1635, The Ordinary, in which Moth prays that:

“St Francis and St Benedict,

Blesse this house from wicked wight,

From the Nightmare and the Goblin,

That is hight Goodfellow Robin…” (Act III, scene 1)

Here it is Robin Goodfellow himself, otherwise known as Puck, who takes on the role of the wicked wight who brings bad dreams and disturbed sleep.

The word ‘mare’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon mære/ mæra, and derives from a verb meaning ‘to crush.’  In modern English it has fallen together with the word for a female horse (Anglo-Saxon mere).  The words have entirely separate origins, although the sense of riding presumably encouraged them to be mixed up.  It seems this confusion worked in several directions: for instance, in 1696 John Aubrey in his Miscellanies described precautions taken to “prevent the Night-Mare (viz.) the Hag from riding their Horses.”  Fairies are known for taking horses from stables and riding them at night and Aubrey (or perhaps country people he spoke to) understandably, but mistakenly, expanded the term for a fairy dream to cover another well-known fairy activity.

the end

Further Reading

In more recent times, fairies have come to be associated with much sweeter dreams- as in Rose Fyleman’s verse Fairy Lullaby for a Mortal which imagines the faes bringing dreams and brushing away darkness with their “soft, soft wings.”  These literary and nursery visions of gentle and benign Faery are a long way from earlier perceptions.

See my recently released book, Faeryfor more discussion of Queen Mab and see my Fayerie for more on her role in Tudor and Jacobean verse.

Fairy Friends- desirable or not?

 

Hilda Cowham, The surprise
Hilda Cowham, The Surprise’

Fairies can rarely be described as genuinely friendly to human kind, it is sad to report.  They will be lovers and parents of children, it is true, and they may take a liking to an individual and bestow gifts upon them, but the commonest interactions tend to be antagonism or avoidance, as I’ve often described.  Amicable relations are very infrequently described, which is why I’ve gathered together the scattered references here.

Domestic Companions

As might be expected, we are most likely to become acquainted with those faes who live closest to us.  In the British Library there’s a seventeenth century manuscript that deals with spirits such as the brownies, hobgoblins and Robin Goodfellows.  It explains how these are:

“more familiar and domestical that the others … [which] abide in one place more than another so that almost never depart from some particular houses, as though they were their proper mansions, making in them sundrie noises, rumours, mockeries, gawds and jests, without doing any harm at all, and some have heard them play at gitterns and Jew’s harps and ring bells and to make answer to those that call to them, and speake with certain signes, laughters and merry gestures, so that those of the house come at last to be so familiar and well acquainted with them that they fear them not all.” (MS Harleian 6482)

This comfortable familiarity is reflected in two other stories of such spirits.  The first dates from the reign of Richard I, from Dagworth in Suffolk.  The manor house of Sir Osbern de Bradwell became the home of a being called Malekin, a small changeling girl who had apparently been abducted from her home in nearby Lavenham by the fairies.

“At first, the knight’s wife and his whole family were exceedingly terrified by her conversation, but having become accustomed to her words and the ridiculous things she did, they talked to her confidently and familiarly, asking her about many things.  She spoke in English, according to the dialect of the region, but occasionally even in Latin and discoursed on the Scriptures to the knight’s chaplain… She could be heard and felt, but hardly ever seen, except once when she was seen by a chamber maid in the shape of a very tiny infant who was dressed in a kind of white tunic…”

Malekin also consumed food and drink that was left out for her and was evidently very much a part of the household.  Much more recently, something similar is told about Yorkshire farmer George Gilbertson and his family, who shared their home with a boggart (although it was never seen).  It was practical joker, as is the way with boggarts, but the children of the house found that it would play happily with them- if they pushed items through a knot hole in a cupboard, the boggart would immediately pop them back out again.  The children called this ‘laiking [playing, in Yorkshire dialect] wi’ t’boggart.’ (Keightley, Fairy Mythology, p.307)

Faeries can, therefore, be quite pleasant house guests, as long as you can put up with their high spirits and practical sense of humour.  They are often most friendly with domestic staff: Reginald Scot in The Discoverie of Witchcraft described how they would “sport themselves in the night by tumbling and fooling with servants and shepherds in country houses” and Robin Goodfellow (or Puck) was particularly known for his friendliness towards maids, performing their chores for them at night- although this was generally done secretly and anonymously without any suggestion of an amicable, social relationship as well (Scot, 1584, Book III, c.4)

Grace Jones, Fairies' Good night 1924
Jones, The Fairies’ Goodnight, 1924

Faery Playmates

There’s also evidence of faeries befriending lonely servants and farm maids and entertaining them with music, dance and company.  I’ll cite three cases, all from the West of Britain.  John Rhys tells the story of Eilian of Garth Dorwen, near Carmarthen.  She was hired by an elderly couple to help on their farm.  Eilian got into the habit of spinning outside in a meadow by moonlight, where the tylwyth teg would visit her and sing and dance as she worked.  Eventually, the girl disappeared with the fairies and it later turned out that she had been taken to be a fairy wife. (Rhys, Celtic Folklore, 211-212).

Very close to this story is that of Shui Rhys of Cardiganshire.  She looked after her parents’ cows and often stayed out in the fields very late.  She was told off by her mother and blamed the spirits: little people in green would come to her, dance and play music around her and speak to her in a language she couldn’t understand.  These contacts were allowed to continue, for fear of offending the fairies, but it was a risky strategy and, eventually, Shui disappeared just like Eilian (Sikes, British Goblins 67-69).

The story of Anne Jeffries from Cornwall is comparable to these.  She had deliberately gone out, trying to make contact with the fairies by repeating little verses to summon them, and eventually they came to her in her garden.  Six little men in green appeared to her one day, showered her with kisses- and then carried her off to Faery.  She stayed there only a short while, until a violent dispute arose over her affections, after which she was ejected, but the fairies continued to favour her with healing knowledge and a supply of food.

These examples have to be viewed more ambivalently, as the fairies’ great friendliness to these isolated girls seem to have been a pretext for lulling their suspicions prior to abducting them.  These ulterior motives may well sound rather more familiar and fit rather better with the impression of fairy character that most folk accounts give.

Summary

Fairies will be amicable and accommodating, therefore, but it seems that it is often done with a view to what might be received in return.  Fairy authority Katharine Briggs, in her 1978 book Vanishing People, gave this rather harsh summary of the fairy temperament:

“the kindness of the fairies was often capricious and little mercy mingled with their justice… We are dealing with a pendulous people, trembling on the verge of annihilation, whose mirth is often hollow and whose beauty is precarious and glamorous.  From such, no great compassion can be expected.” (p.161)

Fairy friendship is available, therefore, but it should always be approached with caution.  Their amity towards humans may not be as open and free as we would expect from other people.

 

 

“In the likeness of a crab”- fairy shape shifters

paton_-_puck_and_fairies_from_a_midsummer_nights_dream

Joseph Noel Paton, Puck and the fairies

Although the ability to shape-shift is often reckoned to be a standard fairy attribute, it is actually very rare amongst the fairies of Britain.  Part of the reason for its prominence in popular imaginings is that it has one very well-known practitioner.

Glamour & invisibility

We ought perhaps to start with some definition of terms.  We’re not talking here about the fairies’ power of invisibility.  This appears to be pretty much universal, for British fairies at least; they can all vanish at will.  Secondly, shape shifting should not be confused with the regular fairy use of ‘glamour’ whereby magic can conceal the real identity of supernatural beings.  A good example arises in the stories of midwives taken at night to grand mansions to attend rich ladies in their childbirth.  It’s only when the midwife accidentally touches some fairy ointment to her eye that her vision penetrates through the illusion to see that she’s really surrounded by misshapen elves in a cave.

Thirdly, by shape-shifting I’m not really concerned so much with the ability of spriggans to change their size.  An example of this comes from the Cornish story ‘Cherry of Zennor.’  Cherry is approached by a gentleman to work for him; they reach his home after a long and slightly mysterious journey, which appears to be a passage into fairyland.  All goes well until Cherry looks into a well where she sees many tiny fairies dancing- and her new master shrunk to the same size.  Fascinating as this is, in this posting I’m really only interested in a complete change of form.

Hobgoblins and sweet Puck

In 1584 in his horror novella Beware the cat, William Baldwin wrote what’s probably our first clear statement of the fairies’ shape-shifting habits:

“I have read that … the ayry spirits which wee call Demones, of which kinde are Incubus and Succubus, Robin Good Fellow the Fairy and Goblins, which the Miners call Telchines, could at their pleasure take upon them any other sortes.”

Robin Goodfellow is our particular interest here.  Also called Puck, this hobgoblin is the consummate master of transformation, as immortalised in Midsummer night’s dream, Act II, scene 1 in which Puck boasts to a fairy about his pranks:

“When I a fat and bean-fed horse beguile,/ Neighing in likeness of a filly foal:/ And sometime lurk I in a gossip’s bowl,/ In the very likeness of a roasted crab;/ And when she drinks, against her lips I bob/ And on her withered dewlap pour the ale./ The wisest aunt, telling the saddest tale,/ Sometimes for three foot stool mistaketh me;/ Then slip I from her bum, down topples she…”

All Shakespeare does here is give immortal form to the traditional character of Puck.  Other texts of about the same time give other examples of his tricks- these are The life of Robin Goodfellow, his mad pranks and merry jests (1628) and a poem called The pranks of Puck that has been attributed to Ben Jonson. In these works Robin is endowed with his shape-shifting power by his fairy father Oberon, who tells him:

“Thou hast the power to change thy shape/ To horse, to hog, to dog, to ape./ Transformed thus, by any meanes,/ See none thou harm’st but knaves and queanes.”

In the course of the stories Puck dispenses rough justice and has simple slapstick fun in a huge variety of forms- for example:

  • livestock such as a horse, a dog and an ox,
  • wild animals including a fox, a hare, a bear and a frog;
  • birds, including a crow, an owl and a raven;
  • various spirits including a will of the wisp and a ghost; and,
  • various people, including a cripple, a soldier, a young maid and fiddler.

Fairies as birds

There are two brief mentions of British fays who can transform to birds.  The hyter sprite, an obscure fairy of East Anglia, can also appear in the shape of a sandmartin and, from the Cornish story of The fairy dwelling on Silena Moor we learn that pixy abductee Grace Hutchens is more reconciled to her captivity by the fact that she can transform into a small bird and fly near to her former lover, Mr Noy.  It’s perhaps also worth observing that these fairies’ wings are acquired by transformation, here, as they evidently don’t normally possess them…

There’s a catch to the Cornish pixies’ ability to transform, though.  They can only change into birds and it seems each transformation shrinks the sprite so that eventually they dwindle away to virtually nothing.

meeting the kelpie by camelid

Meeting the kelpie by Camelid on DeviantArt

Kelpies

Evidently Puck can become whatever he likes.  Most other fairies are strictly limited in what they can become.  The Scottish kelpie/ each uisge may appear either in male or horse form.  In the former guise, he is a handsome young man who seeks to seduce young women and lure them to their doom; the lucky ones spot the telltale signs of his real nature- the sand or water weed caught in his hair, and make their escape.   The others are carried off into a loch or the sea and drowned.

Conclusion and further reading

To finish, we can see how rare the power to change form is.  In England it’s really just limited to Puck, although we have to note the interesting fact that a couple of the South Western fairies do have some special powers.

Elsewhere I’ve posted about fairies’ physical forms and the solidity and reality of fays.  I discuss fairy magic generally in chapter 10 of my British fairies, 2017.