Margaret Tarrant, Pink flower fairy
Nowadays, the association between fairies and the natural world seems obvious and fundamental to their character. I think this belief is relatively new and that it derives from two sources.
Firstly, during the last century or so the conception has emerged of fairies as nature spirits, beings whose purpose is to motivate and to shape the processes of nature, most especially the growth of plants. As such, it might be added, they tend to lose some of their individual personality and become incorporated into those natural systems themselves.
A rural community
The other origin of our idea of ‘nature fairies’ is a great deal older. Human representations of faery kind have always tended to mirror our own society, hence to medieval people it seemed obvious that the fae would live in a world much like their own, with the same organisation and occupations. There were fairy kings and queens, and the fairy court went out hunting deer with hounds. In the Middle Ages, too, we all lived much closer to nature, far more in contact with the cycles of growth, with the seasons and with woods and wildlife. The fairies accordingly were no different- and whilst human society has rapidly developed in recent centuries, our perceptions of faery have tended to remain rather more fixed.
Be that as it may, it seems right and proper to us that fairies should live in forests and be intimately associated with flowers, trees and springs. I have discussed these associations in a couple of my own postings on plants and fairy authority Morgan Daimler has also written on aspects of this subject on her own blog. Reading her thoughts sparked further musings of my own.
Richard Doyle, A fairy dance in a clearing.
Morgan has written about fairy trees and about fairy rings. She highlights some interesting points which I had overlooked or downplayed. As is well known, the rings are linked to fairy dancing. If you read a lot of the British poetry, especially that of the nineteenth century, you would get the impression that dancing in rings is, in fact, pretty much all that fairies do: it’s their defining characteristic, their main habit, their primary purpose or occupation even. Here are a couple of examples of this genre of verse, which had international appeal:
- Thomas Hood, English poet, described the fairies as night time revellers who emerge from their flowery chambers-
“With lulling tunes to charm the air serener/ Or dance upon the grass to make it greener.” (The Midsummer fairies)
- American poet Paul Dunbar likewise pictured how: “nightly they fling their lanterns out, / And shout and shout, they join the rout,/ And sing and sing, within the sweet enchanted ring.”
Now, usually it is said that it is the passing of fairy feet that makes the marks, but Morgan ponders whether instead the fays are drawn to dance by the clearly visible mycelium circles in the grass rather than the causation being the other way round. This certainly seems just as probable an explanation.
Charming as the sight of fairies tripping all in a circle might be, Morgan rightly emphasises that they are places of danger. The rings should never be damaged and she warns that spying on the dances, or joining in with them, may actually be perilous. These circles may even be traps, she suggests, deliberately set to lure in humans and to abduct them forever- or for extended periods. Morgan discusses too the disparity in the passage in time between faery and the mortal world; the captive dancer spins at a different rate to the human globe and may return to find their old life long passed.
head piece to chapter VI, ‘Round about our coal fire,’ 1734
One thing is undeniable: and that is that fairies and mushrooms/ toadstools have become an inseparable pairing in the popular imagination. The earliest example I’ve found is an illustration from the 1734 edition of Round about our coal fire, which incorporates all the key elements of the imagery (dancers, fly agaric, fairy knoll, moonlight). Little has changed since, although arguably the connection was strengthened considerably during the middle of last century when (it seemed) almost every children’s illustrator produced some variation on the theme. There are too many to reproduce, but the example by Florence Anderson below repeats many of the key motifs. The idea has been ramified in various directions too: the poet Madison Cawein, for example, saw toadstools as pixy houses and also imagined “The vat like cups of fungus, filled/ With the rain that fell last night” (Pixy wood). It’s said in Welsh folklore that the parasol mushrooms act as umbrellas to keep the fairies’ dance-sites dry (Robin Gwyndaf in Narvaez, Good people, 1991).
Florence Mary Anderson, ‘Fairy revels’
On the subject of fairy trees, Morgan examines the possibility that at least some fairies are tree spirits (or dryads) before turning to look at trees which simply have fairy associations. As I mentioned in the first paragraph, the question as to whether fairies are plants, or live in plants, or simply prefer to frequent glades and meadows is still a matter of debate. I have a particular attachment to the old lady of the elder tree, so I was fascinated to read that in Ireland elder sap is believed to grant a second sight of the fairy rade. Elders and hawthorns both have strong fairy associations and their heady, musky, green sappy scents certainly serve as a sort of incense for me. Morgan also notes the dual role of the rowan- a spray of foliage can act as a charm against fairy intrusion but also as a means of seeing the good neighbours passing. I’ve discussed this in another post, but it’s a good example of the ‘contrary’ nature of many fairy things.
Finally, I’ve been flicking through my copy of Evans-Wentz’ Fairy faith in Celtic countries again and I noticed an intriguing little fairy tree fact. On page 176 he discusses the Cornish fairy that haunts the rock outcrop known as the Newlyn Tolcarne. The manner in which this spirit was summoned was to pronounce a charm whilst holding three dried leaves in your hand. These were one each from an ash, an oak and a thorn. Now, as some of you may instantly cry out: that’s the exclamation used by Rudyard Kipling’s Puck in Puck of Pook’s Hill (and in ‘Tree song‘ in the chapter in the book, Weland’s Forge). This story predates Evans-Wentz by just a few years, and it seems unlikely that either the old nurse to whom this story is ascribed, or Mr Maddern, a Penzance architect, who tells it, are likely to be recycling Kipling’s story. I’m not aware that Kipling ever visited Penwith, so that there’s at least some basis to suppose that these might be traces of a very ancient belief, surviving in both Sussex and Cornwall. Morgan debates in her recent book Fairies (pp.176-8) whether or not this is an authentic tradition or is one example of a trend she identifies for popular culture to create folklore: if the Cornish example is genuine and is not just the architect mixing up something he’d recently read with something his nurse told him decades earlier, then it seems that ‘oak, ash and thorn’ is far older than Morgan suspected.