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.

Faery song

waterhouse siren 

A siren, J W Waterhouse

I have written before of the fairies’ love of music (known as fonn-sith in Scotland) and of song.  Songs are more, though, than just entertainment: they are magical.

The special status of song in fairy culture is demonstrated extremely well in a story from Highland Scotland.  Angus Mór of Tomnahurich was a shepherd.  He heard music coming from a fairy knoll, accompanied by the voice of his wife-to-be singing.  Approaching the knoll, he peeped in but couldn’t see her.  A fairy woman happened to be passing by so he seized her with his iron-tipped crook and demanded to know what was happening.  She told him that he would only be able to save his intended if, at the end of that week, he could tell the fairy queen’s secret on the Bridge of Easan Dubh (the Black Falls).  Seven days later Angus was on the bridge, where he heard a woman singing in a very fine voice.  It was the queen, and the song itself was her secret.  The last verse went as follows:

“There is music (ceol) in the hall of my dear,

There is gold in the land of Mackay,

But there is a song (oran) in Inverness,

That shall never be known.”

Big Angus cried out that he now knew every word of her song- and her secret with it.  The Queen screamed in frustration, but he had effectively broken her spell, and she was forced to relinquish her claim to his wife.

James Halliwell long ago observed that “fairies always talk in rhyme” and it is true to say that many of their activities and many significant statements are accompanied by song.  For example, fairies at work- grinding, churning or ‘waulking’ cloth- had special songs that went with those activities.  Expressions of strong emotions, such as anger, love and grief, would also take a verse form (Halliwell, Popular Rhymes & Nursery Tales, 1849, p.190; Evans Wentz pp.102 & 112).

The use of verse and rhyme to formulate secrets was also common amongst faery-kind.  Think, for example, of the British equivalents of Rumpelstiltskin, creatures such as Whuppity Stoorie and Sili Go Dwt: these goblin-like characters sing their secret to themselves, but are always overheard and undone:

“Little kens oor gude dame at hame,

That Whuppity Stoorie is my name!”

“Nimmy, nimmy not,

My name’s Tom Tit Tot” and,

“Little did she know

That Trwtyn Tratyn

Is my name.”

This last verse works much better in the original Welsh:

“Bychan a wydda’ hi

Mai Trwtyn-Tratyn

Yw f’enw i.”

Wordplay was something that supernaturals particularly respected and enjoyed- and a skill in it could prove crucial.  Some fishermen from the Isle of Lewis were out in their boat when a mermaid briefly surfaced.  They saw her ‘blood-charm’ (perhaps a reference to the fact that a mermaid’s shed blood will stir up the waves into a tempest) and, in any event, merely sighting a mermaid would normally have been interpreted as a sign of disaster.  She resurfaced nearer to the boat and asked the helmsman for his ‘half-stanza.’  The steersman gave a clever answer, referring to his control over the ship, to which she said “It is well that you gave such a reply” and then sank out of sight.  It appears that his quick wit and versifying pleased her, because the boat and the crew got home safely, although other ships out that day foundered and men drowned.

Closely comparable to this incident are the circumstances which gave rise to a ‘fairy song’ from Argyllshire.  A fairy woman daily visited a mother and her new-born son, “with words and with singing of verses to try if she could ‘word’ him away with her.”  Luckily, the mother always had a ready answer and was able to prevent her child being taken.  The fairy woman in her verses successively disparaged the boy- in response to which his mother praised him- then she warned of the temptations of the girls in town as he got older, with their curly brown hair and their bouncy breasts (cìochan currach) and lastly the bean-sith admitted that she wanted him to be the herder of her sheep on the moor.  The mother instead retorted that she hoped he’d be a warrior or a rich farmer.

henry william walker, a fairy bower

Henry William Walker, A Fairy Bower

Mermaid wisdom is also often expressed in verse, as in this advice on health and diet:

“If they would drink nettles in March

And eat mugwort in May

So many braw maidens

Wadna gang to the clay.”

The same habit was known amongst fairies: for example, a man on the Island of Barra was sent to fetch a doctor for a seriously ill woman.  It was a hot day and on his return journey he sat down on a fairy knoll for a rest and fell asleep.  He awoke to hear a song “Ill it becomes a messenger, on an important message, to sleep on the ground in the open air.” (Evans Wentz p.114)

Faery song can have a sinister significance as well.  The song of the kelpie, the supernatural horse that lives in Scottish rivers, is said to signify that it is in search of human blood.  It is certainly known to sing in triumph when a person is already on its back and it is too late for them to escape.  One song had these words:

“And ride weil, Davie

And by this night at ten o’clock,

Ye’ll be in Pot Cravie.”

Another version, recorded in 1884, went as follows:

“Sit well, Janety, or ride well Davie

For this time morn, ye’ll be in Pot Cravie.”

Pot Cravie is the English attempt at the Gaelic place-name Poll nan Craobhan, a deep pool on the River Spey.  The song celebrates that the victim will be plunged into the kelpie’s lair and won’t be returning.

Another very famous fairy song is that of Dunvegan Castle on the Isle of Skye.  This was a lullaby, sung over the cradle of the new-born heir to the clan MacLeod by a fairy woman.  It foretold the child’s strength in arms and that he would possess plenty of cattle and rich crops in the fields; it promised that he would be free from injury in battle and would enjoy a long life.  Each verse of the song had a different tune.  For many generations afterwards, the custom of the clan was to sing the protective charm over the baby heir (Evans Wentz p.99).

In summary, in Faerie speech and words in all their forms are magical and must be carefully guarded.

msn-fairy-orchestra

Arthur Rackham, A Fairy Orchestra, (from ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’), 1908

Cobwebs and cloth- fairy spinning and weaving

an-old-witch-working-magic-using-her-distaff-to-cause-a-storm-date

A witch conjures a storm with her distaff

“Swiftly turn the murmuring wheel!
Night has brought the welcome hour,
When the weary fingers feel
Help, as if from faery power;
Dewy night o’ershades the ground;
Turn the swift wheel round and round!”

William Wordsworth, Song of the spinning wheel

I have written previously on the fairy economy on this blog and in my book British fairies (chapter 9) but there is one craft activity that seems to be particularly associated with the denizens of faery: this is the making of thread and the weaving of garments.

I have recently been reading Hobgoblin and sweet puck, a book by Gillian Edwards from 1974, which examines fairylore through the origins of names and terminology.  It’s an interesting and entertaining book if you can track down a copy.  She noted that the fairies may be traced back through early medieval fees/ fatae to the original Three Fates of classical mythology.  They spin and sever the threads of our lives, so creating an ancient link between cloth making and the supernatural.

Much later, the Reverend Kirk has this to say of the sidh folk’s skill:

“Ther Women are said to Spine very fine, to Dy, to Tossue, and Embroyder: but whither it is as manuall Operation of substantiall refined Stuffs, with apt and solid Instruments, or only curious Cob-webs, impalpable Rainbows, and a fantastic Imitation of the Actions of more terrestricall Mortalls, since it transcended all the Senses of the Seere to discerne whither, I leave to conjecture as I found it.” (Secret Commonwealth c.5)

spinning-straw-into-gold

Quite a few other sources confirm the connection.  Brownies performing household tasks will often undertake stages of the cloth making process, for instance dressing hemp (though at the same time their aversion to linen is to be recalled), carding wool and spinning tow (coarse hemp fibres used for ropes and the like).  The fairies are said to spin with mountain flax (according to Addy in Household Tales).

In his Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands (p.15) J. G. Campbell recorded that typical activities within the fairy ‘brughs’ included spinning and weaving.  In Evans Wentz (Fairy faith p.98) there is an account from Skye of fairies heard ‘waulking’ (that is, fulling) some cloth and singing as they do so.  At Green Hollow in Argyllshire there was reputed to be a cloth dying factory operated by the fairies of Lennox.  When humans tried to steal the secrets of their natural plant dyes, it is said that the cloth workers concealed all their materials and fled.  The hidden materials still stain the waters of a local pool.

The loireag is a Highland fairy specifically responsible for overseeing the making of cloth through all its stages, from loom to fulling. She was a stickler for the traditional methods and standards, apparently.  Offerings of milk were made by home producers to propitiate her.  Another Scottish spirit, the gyre-carlin, had comparable links to cloth-making.  It was said that, if unspun flax was not removed from the distaff at the end of the year, she would steal it all.  Conversely, if asked by a woman for the endowment of skill in spinning, she would enable the recipient to do three to four times as much work as other spinners.

Fairy clothing

Logically, of course, fairies had to be able to manufacture cloth and garments.  Their royal courts and nobility are marked for their sumptuary splendour and robes, gowns and other costumes of green are central to many accounts.  It is only really the Dobbies who are habitually naked or dressed in rags.

Nonetheless, this skill is not what might be anticipated, as it seems too settled and domesticated for the wild fairies of uninhibited Nature.  Perhaps the transformation of raw plant or animal materials successively into thread and then into garments was remarkable and impressive enough at some stage to give it an almost magical mystique.  There are sources which lend some support to such a theory.  In Hobgoblin and sweet Puck Gillian Edwards notes that in Sweden the word dverg means both dwarf and spider.  The dwarves too are said to have been famed for their spinning and weaving skills and to have taught these to humans.  The gossamer webs seen in autumn are further evidence of their craft, she suggests.  The miser who spied on the fairies at the Gump near St Just in Cornwall was overpowered and tied up; in the morning he found himself on the moor covered in spiders’ gossamer threads.  From the Isle of Man comes a story of a woman who went to a river bank and called upon the spiders to help her with spinning clothes (Briggs, Dictionary, p.138).  There appears to be here some equation between the almost miraculous manufacture of webs by unseen creatures and fairy abilities.  There could too be some aspect of fairy ‘glamour’ in all this.

Thread and cloth making are not only marvellous, the process may also be perilous according to fairy tales.  On the one hand, fairies may enter your home to carry out these tasks.  Such an intrusion is not just a trespass, but risks too close a contact with these unpredictable beings, and measures had to be taken to prevent it.  Several Manx tales warn how a failure to disengage the drive band on a spinning wheel before retiring to bed enables the fairies to come into a house overnight to use it for their own purposes. By inviting them in, albeit indirectly, you are placing potentially yourself in the power of the ‘Li’l fellas.’ In the Highlands, this precaution was Christianised and it was said that the band should be disengaged on a Saturday night to prevent fairy spinning early on a Sunday (Sabbath) morning.  It was believed to be the solitary female creatures the glaisteag and the gyre-carlin who would most commonly attempt to enter human homes to spin, causing nuisance and considerable noise through the night.

The perils of spinning

The danger of spinning can be greater still, though.  A number of fairy stories pair fairies’ spinning skills with a task imposed upon a human that can be both impossible and fatal if it is not completed.  The British examples are:

  • in Habetrot a girl must prove her female skill at the spinning wheel or face some unspecified punishment by her mother.  A fairy woman named Habetrot (whom Briggs calls the patron spirit of spinning) appears and assists her, along with a team of helpers including Scantlie Mab;
  • in Tom-Tit-Trot a girl has to spin a large quantity of yarn overnight or face beheading by the king.  The imp Tom-Tit-Trot helps her on condition that she belongs to him unless she can guess his name.  Fortunately she overhears it and is saved;
  • Sili-go-Dwt, Trwtyn-Tratyn, Terry-Top, Perrifool and Whuppity-Stoorie are all similar tales in which an elf helps with spinning and demands a forfeit unless its name is guessed;
  • Evans-Wentz relays a tale (p.97) of a girl who is abducted by the sidh folk under a hillock and is told that she will be held there until she has spun all the wool in a large sack and eaten all the meal in a huge chest.  Neither diminish and she faces eternal confinement and labour until another captive soul tells her to rub spit on her left eyelid every morning.  By so doing, she makes daily inroads into the wool and meal and finally escapes;
  • in the story if Welsh girl Eilian (told by John Rhys, Celtic folklore p.212), she was obliged to become the wife of a fairy man when she failed to finish the large quantity of wool he had demanded that she spin.  This would have meant she was trapped in Faery forever and could never have returned home to her family;
  • Addy in Household tales has a couple of similar impossible tasks imposed upon young women.  In one, a cruel old woman imprisons girls to work for her.  One is required to make twenty one shirts in a day- or face being “clammed” (dialect for pinched, that quintessential fairy punishment).  She is assisted by a kindly fairy, who later helps her escape; and,
  • lastly, readers may recall the Grimm’s comparable story of Rumplestiltskin.  A girl is imprisoned by the king in a tower and has to spin straw into gold on pain of death. The eponymous sprite helps her, first in return for her necklace and then demands her first born child- unless she can guess his name.

There is also a curious Scottish ballad called The elfin knight in which the fairies appear to be associated with superlative mastery of the tailoring craft.  A human maid is told that the only way she has any hope of marrying the fairy knight is:

“Thou must shape a serk to me/ Without any cut or heme, quoth he/ Thou must shape it knife and sheerlesse/ And also sew it needle-threedlesse.”

This impossible task is combined with a comparable demand to sow and harvest a field subject to unachievable conditions.  Needless to say the shirt is never made and the girl doesn’t get the boy.

rumpelstiltskin_louisrhead2

The stories listed above link two curious themes.   One is the power of knowing a fairy being’s personal name.  If you possess it, you can overcome and escape the creature; if not, you face perpetual subjection (see too chapter 19 of my British fairies).  Intertwined with this is the obligation to perform an almost unattainable feat on pain of death (or, again, of fairy enslavement).  Quite how these came to be involved with spinning skills is rather hard to explain.  Perhaps there is some notion of exacting a high fee for the teaching of the fairies’ remarkable craft knowledge.

One might offer a Marxist interpretation of these stories, arguing that we have in these stories a critique of the loss of artisan craft-skills through the imposition of mass production and commercial deadlines.  Individuality is lost as the worker is subjected to the anonymous discipline of the factory proletariat, with sanctions for failing to meet the capitalist’s production targets…  There may be some fun to be had here.  Certainly it seems significant that these accounts feature some of the very few individuated and named fairy characters.

Conclusion

In many respects, then, the fairies are just as hard-working as any human.  For their society to function, they need to make their own cloth, build their homes, grow their own food, mine their minerals and forge their own metals.

An expanded version of this text appeared in my next book, Faeries, which will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide 2020.  See too my 2021 book, How Things Work in Faery.

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Habetrot

They who must not be named- the taboo over fairy names

arthur rackham_peter pan in kensington gardens_40

Arthur Rachkam- ‘They will mischief you’ from Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens

The open use of proper names for fairies- whether personal or collective names- is universally frowned upon and frequently punished.  I want briefly to examine in this post the  nature of this rule and its motivations.

Expert writer Katharine Briggs has described this superstition as the use of ‘euphemistic’ names for the fairy folk; I think that apotropaic may be a slightly more accurate term.  The primary purpose of this allusiveness, I believe, is to turn away displeasure and ill-fortune.

Politeness

Indirect names are used, I think, for several related purposes.  The first is with a view to complimenting  the fairy folk.  Examples include the Good People, the Good Neighbours, the Honest Folk, The Fair Family (Tylwyth teg), The Gentry, the People of Peace and the Seelie Court (that is, the ‘blessed court’, which is matched by Seelie Wicht, a ‘blessed soul’).  Some names avoided impolitic directness but were simply descriptive, as with the Cornish an pobel vean, the little people.

Averting danger

The polite and honorary addresses often conceal a second motivation- and perhaps the most important- which is to avert the unfavourable attentions of the fairies.  The invocation of goodness and peaceable conduct in part seek to ensure such a state of affairs: if you are respectful to them, they won’t be so inclined to harm you.  This is perhaps clearer in such names as Bendith y mamau, the mothers’ blessing; a name surely aimed at deflecting the risk that the fairies will steal a human child and replace it with a changeling.  The term is, in a sense, a spell to ward off the risk of abduction and the substitution of a sickly or demanding stock.

A final, very significant, element in this must be a desire to avoid using proper names directly.  Across of the globe in very many cultures it is known that a person’s proper name has special powers and that it should never be used directly or without permission- for example, in Arabia the jinns are referred to as mubarakin, ‘the blessed ones.’ Names are a form of property with magical qualities; renowned folklorist John Rhys, writing in Evans Wentz’s The fairy faith in Celtic countries, observed that a fairy would be “baffled” if his proper name was discovered (p.137) . This explains many of the vaguely descriptive phrases employed- the Green Coaties or Green Gowns, White Nymphs, People of the Hills, The Strangers and Themselves.  

This respectful avoidance of secret or personal names is best exemplified by the fairy tales featuring this theme.  Rumplestiltskin is now the best known, thanks to the Brothers Grimm, but it is a German story, not a British one.  Insular folklore has its direct parallels: the tales of Tom Tit Tot, Whuppity Stourie, Terrytop (Cornwall) and Trwtyn Tratyn from Wales.  Possession of a being’s concealed name gives control over that individual, hence the efforts to hide and to discover it.  In one Welsh example cited by John Rhys in Celtic folklorepossession of the fairy maiden’s name constrained her to marry a man (p.45).

rackham_rumple2

Rackham, Rumplestiltskin

Some readers may, of course, quite properly object that I have violated these rules in my story The Elder Queen– the faery folk there are free with personal and collective names, I must confess.  My defence is this: it is for the Folk themselves to decide what is revealed; they can choose to make themselves visible and what personal information to vouchsafe to a human.  In my story Darren is favoured- but then they want something from him- his virility and his child- so perhaps it is not a fair exchange at all.  Bargains with fairies seldom are balanced and mutually rewarding…

Further reading

The etymology of fairy names is discussed elsewhere.  An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).