from the Famous Fairies series by Lorna Steele
In Morgan Daimler’s latest book, A New Dictionary of Fairy- A 21st Century Exploration of Celtic and Related Western European Fairies, she remarks that “Fairy is a very feudal system… everything is tied together with debts and obligations and what’s owed to who.” (p.120) This set me thinking once again about fairy monarchy and how exactly their society is organised, something I’ve tackled before in several postings.
The human societies of the High Middle Ages were, indeed, feudal, in that land was granted in return for services within a rigidly hierarchical and monarchic social structure, from the king down to the lowliest knight. The system was pyramidal, with the ruler overseeing a multitude of tenants and subtenants across each realm.
How closely does Faery resemble this? We know of fairy kings and queens, obviously, and we know too of the importance of promises and obligations in fairy relationships. However- so far as we know- land, and rights over it, form no part of fairy social dynamics and the fairy hierarchy seems to be very flat- perhaps no more than two levels, comprising the monarch and subjects.
So far as we can tell, British fairy monarchs reigned over no highly structured nation nor over any court in which precedence or rank dominated. Fairy kings and queens were remarkably free of airs and graces. They undertook the most menial chores for themselves- so, for example, the elf king in the ballad Sir Cawline fights his own duels and does not rely on a champion. These kings and queens were not averse to entering sexual relationships with the humblest of humans, either. Margaret Alexander, from Livingston in Scotland, told her 1647 witchcraft trial that the fairy king had taken her as his partner and, even, “laye with her upone the brige” at Linton. Al fresco sex in the highway with a human commoner is about as far from regal as we can imagine.
Sometimes, intermediaries with the human world might be employed, as was the case with Thom Reid who communicated with Bessie Dunlop on behalf of the fairy queen, but any more elaborate organisation than this seems to have been absent. The only exception to this statement is the system of multiple ‘elphin courts’ that’s mentioned in some versions of the ballad of Tam Lin (Child versions D, K & G). In two, we read of three courts including a ‘head court’ that is dressed in green and accompanies the queen. In the third of these renderings, the ranking is more complex, as Tam explains to his human lover, Margret:
“Then the first an court that comes you till
Is published king and queen;
The next an court that comes you till,
It is maidens mony ane.
The next an court that comes you till
Is footmen, grooms and squires;
The next an court that comes you till
Is knights, and I’ll be there.”
In this scheme, we have a very distinct and strict social ordering. Usually, however, the most that we hear of is some servants, as in the ballad of Leesom Brand, in which the hero goes to the fairy court aged ten to act as a server at the king’s table. Of course, such domestic servants were once quite common in a range of households, and implied no great wealth or status.
Faery society is a very flattened pyramid, therefore, and its individual citizens have an almost compete autonomy- it seems. Perhaps the problem is that we lack any adequate word to transliterate the fairy term: Donald McIlmichael, tried at Inverary in 1674, said that he had seen an old man inside the fairy hill he visited who “seemed to have preference above the rest” and “seemed to be chief.” Perhaps there is seniority, priority and respect, but little more than that.
Nevertheless, regardless of the parties, interpersonal relationships in and with Faery are governed by reciprocity. Good deeds should always be repaid, and to the same degree or value. If a fairy loans you some flour, always give exactly the same quality and quantity back. Debts are remembered and will be exacted, even decades later. It will be obvious that you should never enter into any sort of deal with the fairies unless you are able and willing to fulfil your side. Default is not an option.
For more information on fairy governance, see chapter 11 of my book, Faery.