Fairy Children- what we know

 

iro sometimes fairy
Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, Sometimes fairy was allowed to wear her wings for a little while.

Whilst much is written about the fairy theft of human children, and their substitution for elderly fairy changelings, a lot less is said about the fairies’ own offspring.  What do we know about them?

A Low Birth Rate

Starting at the very beginning, the evidence is that fairy births are few and far between and that the whole business of labour and nursing are problematic for our Good Neighbours.  For this reason, human midwives are called upon regularly to assist the fairy mother and women newly delivered of children here are frequently abducted to act as nurse maids for fairy infants.  In the story of The Fairy Dwelling on Selena Moor, the human abductee Grace informs her former lover, when he asks about children in Faery, that there are:

“Very few indeed,” she replied, “though they are fond of babies, and make great rejoicing when one happens to be born amongst them; and then every little man, however old, is proud to be thought the father.”

Little Girls Lost

Given how precious faery offspring must be, it’s notable how often they seem to get lost.  Most encounters with fairy children occur in cases where they have strayed or become lost or separated somehow.  For example, one evening on Shetland, a man found a strange straw box in his farmyard.  He put it in the house and went to feed his livestock, and when he returned inside, he heard an odd sound from inside the box, a little like “Foddle-dee-foodle-dee-doo” and the sound of feet kicking.  A voice called out, asking to be released, and he realised there was a trow child inside.  He promptly put the box outside again, hoping and assuming that the parents would return to collect their mislaid offspring.

This case sounds a little neglectful, although the man’s panic may be understood.  In another Shetland example, a little trow girl dressed in grey and brown was found lost by a family and was taken in for the night.  She slept in the same bed as the human children and, the next morning, heard her mother calling her home and left quite contentedly.  In recognition of this care, it appears, the children who shared a bed with the trow girl grew up to be happy and prosperous.

Another faery girl was found lost and alone near Tower Hill, Middleton-in-Teesdale in Northern England.  A woman took the child home, sat her by the fire and gave her bread and cheese to eat, but the girl cried so bitterly that woman took pity and returned her to the place by the river where she’d been found and where it was believed that the faeries came to bathe, in the hope that her parents would return for her- and several of stories indicate that they will do just that (see Janet Bord, Fairies, Appendix).

Sometimes the infants are just careless of their own safety, as was the case with a pixie child captured near Zennor, in West Cornwall.  A farmer was cutting furze when he spotted a young pixie asleep.  The man scooped him up and took him home, where he was named Bobby Griglans by his family.  The little boy would play contentedly by the hearth with the family’s children.  One day, when all the youngsters had slipped outside to play, the pixie’s parents appeared searching for him and he happily went home with them (Bottrell, Traditions of West Cornwall, vol.1, 74).

Accidents happen, of course, and there is evidence of normal care and parenting too.  For example, a fairy child fell ill and her mother approached a housewife living at Longhill, near Whithorn in southwest Scotland, for some milk for the poorly infant.  Fairy children can get sick and their families will take care of them.

tarrant poppy
Margaret Tarrant, The Yellow Horned Poppy Fairy

Fairy Beauties

What do these infants look like? As I have suggested before, fairies’ faces may not always be as we might anticipate.  Much of the folklore evidence suggests something very much more alarming than the pretty girls of the illustrators such as Margaret Tarrant (above).

By way of illustration, the lost faery child found at Middleton in Teesdale had green clothes and red eyes- in light of which, perhaps there is negative evidence to hand as well.  It is a widespread belief that pretty, fair-haired and blue-eyed human babies are the most vulnerable to being snatched away by the fairies.  For example, along the border between England and Wales it was said that “fine and solid” country babies were the ones preferred.  It might be proposed that the human infants taken were chosen because they did not look like fairy offspring, with their surprisingly coloured countenances.

Summary

When we gather together the scattered evidence, some surprising patterns emerge.  The taking of changelings might suggest a want of family feeling on the part of the faes, but their own conduct suggests that they are just as good parents as any humans (and sometimes better, judging by the stories of the fairies providing child-care for our neglected infants).

Secondly, whilst we can often assume that the fairies are all lovely to behold, if we put together the different stories, we discover hints of something different.  Some look just like us; others very definitely do not.

 

Fairyland and the dead

selena

One of the theories of fairy origins is that they represent the spirits of ancestral dead- the departed have been transformed into immortal beings.  For example, in the West Country pixies are believed to be the souls of unbaptised children or of druids and other heathens.  The association of the pixies with standing stones, long barrows and stone circles naturally reinforces this particular idea.

Others have argued that the fairy preference for green is symbolic of death and decay rather than vibrant and vigorous growth, as is most commonly supposed (and which is another origin theory: for example, William Blake in the preface to the Descriptive catalogue prepared for his solo exhibition in Soho in 1809 observed that the fairies of both Shakespeare and Chaucer are “rulers of the vegetable world.” Blake’s own fairies had a similar animating function).  The so-called Green Children of Woolpit, when initially found, ate only green beans, which Katherine Briggs suggested might again link them with death.

paton
Sir Joseph Noel Paton, ‘The fairy rade- carrying off a changeling, Midsummer Eve– Kelvingrove Gallery, Glasgow; note the stone circle in the background

In the surviving folklore, the evidence as a whole is not conclusive on the theory that fairies represent departed ancestors: the dead are definitely present in fairy land, but these deceased persons are not the fairies themselves and, in fact, they may not actually be dead at all.

Are the fairies dead?

In the Cornish story of the ‘fairy dwelling on Silena moor’ a farmer called Noy gets lost on the moor and comes upon a party in a house.  He meets a girl who turns out to be a former fiancee of his, someone who had apparently died three or four years previously. His lost love warns Noy not to eat the food at the feast- she herself had done so and had as a result been rendered into a state in which she appeared to be dead to the human world, when in fact a sham body (a stock) was left behind whilst she had been kidnapped and taken to serve the fairies.  Similar examples include Katherine Fordyce of Unst on Shetland, who was believed to have died in child-birth but who had really been taken to act as a nurse maid to the Trows.  Katherine ate fairy food and so became trapped with them.  Lastly, in the tale of the ‘Tacksman of Auchriachan’, the tacksman (tenant farmer) stumbles upon a strange house in the hills in which a woman whom he knows to be very recently deceased is discovered by him acting as a housekeeper for the fairies.  Campbell recorded the widespread Highland belief that men, women and children were regularly carried off underground by the fairies, which explained why in Scottish folk tales people long dead were so often seen in the fairies’ company (Popular tales of the West Highlands, 1890, vol.2, p.65).

In the Middle English poem Sir Orfeo the knight visits the castle of the fairy king in search of his abducted wife.  There he sees many people “thought dead, and nere nought” (‘and yet not’).  Some of these were headless, some lacked limbs, some were badly wounded, mad, drowned, burned, had choked on food or had died in child birth.  Of all of them, the poet states “Eche was thus in this world ynome/ With fairi thither ycome” (‘Each was thus taken from this world and had come there by enchantment’).

Magic is used to steal away humans by the illusion of their deaths.  They are then trapped in the supernatural realm by consuming food and drink there.  It has been argued that this element of the folk tales confirms the ‘land of the dead’ theory: in some early cultures, offerings of food were made to deceased ancestors and so partaking of these transforms the living person and transports them to the realm of the dead (see Dr Henry Bett, English myths and legends, c.1).  However, the permanent state of earthly death need not apply to the those abducted to faery.

The fairy enchantment can be overcome, all the same, it seems.  An account from Skye reveals that wetting your left eye with spit will dispel the fairy glamour and defeat the captivity (Wentz p.97).  The woman in this story escapes, but it must be confessed that she is uniquely lucky.  Mostly, a sojourn of any duration in fairyland will change the body so that it cannot revert to its old life.  This is the result either of the differential passing of time in fairyland or physical alterations to the body.  The subsequent cause of death may be simple grief when the returning captive finds that everyone s/he knew and loved has died during the prolonged absence, however short it may have seemed to the abductee; alternatively, death is a reaction to touching human food, which is now effectively poisonous.

Cairn-Creek
Cairn Creek, by Beth Moore-Love:  note the juxtaposition of the water nymph, toadstools and the skeleton in the tomb in the background.

Summary

To conclude, the status of visitors to faery remains uncertain.  They sometimes are found underground (as if interred), but by no means always- they can be encountered in ordinary seeming houses too.  They are not met with dressed all in green like their hosts/ captors, which might have signified a change of status, and they continue with mundane tasks like cleaning and cooking. Travel to fairyland therefore is not death- it just looks like it to those left behind. Those transported remain alive, but in a place which will transform them, so that they are never able to return to their old life.

Further reading

This discussion should also be read in the context of fairy religion and the information we have on ‘laying’ or exorcising fairies, which suggests that fays and ghosts may sometimes be related or identical.

 

Fairy dwellings

rackham-the-three-little-men-in-the-wood

Arthur Rackham, Three little men in the woods

Where do fairies live?  This seems like an obvious question, but it is one that is not always directly asked.  British folklore gives various answers to the query, in part depending on the region from whence the tale derives and in part on the nature of the fairy folk involved.  It is important too in answering this question for us distinguish the places the fairies haunt or frequent, such as groves, moors, highways, stone circles and barrows, from their actual dwelling places.

Fairyland

A trite answer to the question of residence might be to respond that the fairies live in ‘Fairyland.’  This would not, in early modern Scotland, have seemed so banal a reply: the fairies’ palaces under the hill were known as Elfame and accordingly we hear about the Court and the Queen of Elfame.  For example, in a criminal trial of a suspected witch in 1576 she described the fairies thus “Thai war the gude wychtis that wynnit in the Court of Elfame” (that is- “They were the good folk that dwelled in the Court of ‘Elf-home.’)  As will be read in the following paragraphs, though, fairy-land in the main was conceived not as a distinct and parallel realm (other than in the cases discussed in the second bullet point), but as supernatural ‘pockets’ occurring within and between the human world.

The Reverend Kirk assures us in his Secret commonwealth that fairy dwellings are “large and fair,” being illuminated by “fir Lights, continual Lamps and Fires, often seen without Fuel to sustain them.”  He explains one reason for our uncertainty as to the nature of these homes: they are “(unless att some odd occasions) unperceavable by vulgar eyes.”  In other words, they are protected by glamour and are as a rule invisible (Kirk s.4).

Fairy dwellings

Some writers tended to be quite vague as to exact location.  For example, Reginald Scot in The discoverie of witchcraft (1584) simply states that fairies “do principally inhabit the mountains and caverns of the earth,” although their habit is “to make strange apparitions on the earth in meadows or in mountains” (Book III, c.4).  It is possible, in fact, to list quite a number of typical fairy homes:

  • under or in fairy knolls- this was a belief held widely throughout the British Isles.  For example, the fairy knowe or sithein was prevalent in Highland tradition (Wentz Fairy faith pp.86 & 104) but it is also found in Wales: it was said that the smaller Tylwyth teg lived in ‘holes in the hills’ (Wentz p.148) – as did the Cornish pixies at the Gump of St Just.   Welsh writer D. Parry-Jones provided very circumstantial evidence as to the routes into the fairies’ homes: “Their habitations were universally believed to be underground, in dimly lit regions, with the entrance to them under a sod, near one of their circles, by some ancient standing stone, under the bank of a river, away on the open moor hidden by bushes, or in the ruins of an old castle, as on Ynys Geinon rock. In the midst of this castle there was a pit with a three-ton stone lying across it, and when they wanted ingress or egress, they uttered a secret word, and lo! the stone lifted, and fell back again of its own accord. From the entrance down to the underground passage they descended along a ladder of twenty-one or –two gold rungs.” (Parry-Jones, Welsh legends & fairy lore, 1953, p.19)  The belief prevailed in England, too, for instance the fairies who lived under Hack Pen in Wiltshire, according to Aubrey.  He recorded that a shepherd employed by a Mr Brown or Winterbourne Basset had seen the ground open and had been “brought to strange places underground” where music was played.  As Aubrey observed of such visitors “never any afterwards enjoy themselves.”  (Briggs, Fairies in tradition, p.12; Fairyist, Fairyplaces, Wessex).  The strength of the link between elves and hills may be demonstrated by Rudyard Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill.  In the story, Puck consistently refers to his nation underground as ‘The People of the Hills.’  Sometimes these hills would open up to reveal a lighted hall within which the fairies danced  and into which humans would be lured.  This happens, for example, in Thomas Creede’s play of 1600, The wisdome of Dr Dodypol, in which a wine goblet is offered to a traveller by a fairy emerging from a mound in which music is being played.  This enchanted realm is ruled by a wizard whose invitation is to “taste the sweetnesse of these heavenly cates, Whilst from the hollow craines of this rocke, Musick shall sound…;” it is his spell that “Made a guilt pallace breake out of the hill, Filled suddenly with troopes of knights and dames, Who daunst and reveld while we sweetly slept…”   See too William of Newburgh’s tale of a fairy cup, stolen from a feast in an opened barrow.  It appears that any prominent or unusually shaped outcrop or hillock was likely to attract a supernatural association- for example, the Tolcarne rock near Newlyn which was inhabited by a troll-like being (Wentz p.176);
  • in an underground realm-  a classic description of such a subterranean country is found in the Middle English poem, Sir Orfeo: “When he was in the roche y-go,/ Wele thre mile other mo,/ He com into a fair cuntray,/ As bright soonne somers day,/ Smothe and plain and al grene,/ Hill no dale nas none ysene…”  As will be seen, this was a common British conception of fairyland.  In Wales the Tylwyth Teg dwelt in such a land or else underneath lakes, in the case of the human sized gwragedd annwn (Wentz p.142, 144 & 147).  In light of the latter site, we may be reassured to know that Scottish fairies sensibly preferred “Dwellings underground in dry spots” according to Evan Wentz’s informant John Dunbar of Ivereen (p.95).  In England there are two tales of an underground land where fairies live: the St Martin’s Land of the Green Children of Woolpit as told by William of Newburgh and Ralph of Coggeshall.  There was no sun, just a constant twilight and the children emerged from it through a long cavern.  Gerald of Wales describes a similar world in his tale of Elidor and the Golden Ball- the country was cloudy, yet bright, and at night very dark as there were no moon or stars.  In Cornwall, Bottrell collected the story of Richard Vingoe who was taken beneath Trevilley Cliffs at Land’s End and found there an underground world  reached by a cavern.  Many Welsh tales mention the fairies residing in caves. Likewise in the Welsh tale of Einion and Olwen fairyland is a fine wooded country extending for miles underground and Keightley reports a conversation with a Norfolk girl who advised him that in their expansive subterranean caverns the fairies built “houses, bridges and other edifices.”  Access to these lands might be through something as innocuous as a molehill (Wentz pp.161-162; Keightley pp.298 & 306) or by lifting a sod and disappearing (Rhys Celtic folklore p.227);
  • in caves and holes– these are particularly associated with hobgoblins, for example Hob Hole and Obtrusch Roque in Yorkshire;
  • on enchanted islands off the Pembroke and Carmarthen coasts (Wentz p.147).  These fairy islands disappear when approached or may only be seen by standing on an enchanted turf.  These isles are the home of the Plant Rhys Dwfn.  The tylwyth teg are also said to inhabit an island in a lake near Brecon which is reached by a subterranean passage leading from a door in a rock on the shore, which reveals itself once a year (Parry-Jones, pp.19-20).  Another Welsh story mentions an island in a lake known as the ‘Garden of the fairies;’
  • in the vicinity of standing stones– fairies were, for example, associated with the Pentre Ifan cromlech in Pembrokeshire whilst in the story of Einion and Olwen fairyland is accessed by a path located under a menhir (Wentz pp.155 & 161).  In England, it is told that the Oxfordshire fairies were last seen disappearing under the Rollright Stone circle (Evans, Folklore Journal, 1895).  In short, fairies are often inseparable from ancient sites;
  • on the shore- in the folklore of Newlyn and Penzance in Cornwall, the tidal shoreline is the home of one family of pixies called the bucca.  They are propitiated by the local fishermen with offerings of fish (Wentz pp.174-175);
  • in human houses and farms- as is very well known, brownies and similar ‘house elves’ co-habit with humankind.  For example, in The hierarchie of blessed angels (1636, p.574) Thomas Haywood stated that pucks and hobgoblins were to be found living “in corners of old houses least frequented/ or beneath stacks of wood.”  Some fairies apparently live under the human house (Briggs pp.99-100), “under the door stane” according to Sir Walter Scott (Border minstrelsy p.14), a proximity which can inevitably lead to neighbour disputes.  For example, Parry-Jones tells of a farmer in Gwynedd whose habit was to empty his chamber-pot outside his front door every night before bed.  One evening a small man appeared and asked him to desist, as the waste was running down his chimney into his house beneath.  The farmer complied, blocking up the old door and creating a new one at the opposite side of the cottage, for which he was rewarded by healthy stock and great prosperity;
  • in trees- there are only a few traces of this association with individual trees, something that seems more pronounced in Scandinavian and German tales. For example, in the Sad Shepherd Ben Jonson advises that “There, in the stocks of trees, white Faies doe dwell,/ And span-long Elves, that dance about a poole!/ With each a little Changeling, in their armes!/ The airie spirits play with falling starres!/ And mount the Sphere of fire, to kisse the Moone!”  In the English fairy-tale ‘The King of the cats’ the nature of these tree dwellings is elaborated considerably: a wanderer at night sees a light streaming from a hollow oak; when he climbs the tree and looks inside, he discovers an interior resembling a church.  Readers of earlier posts may recall that I have made reference to the belief in the ‘Old Lady of the Elder Tree’, a spirit inhabiting and guarding these shrubs (The white goddess & the elder queen); you may also be familiar with the rhyme ‘Fairy folks are in old oaks’ and there is some record of a Northern belief in a race called ‘The Oakmen.’  Lastly we should note the “ympe-tre” of the fourteenth century ballad, Sir Orfeo.  The term ymp-tree is understood to denote a grafted apple or cherry; sleeping beneath it Orfeo’s wife Heurodis is approached and abducted by the Fairy King.  Whether this tree is the King’s home or merely a haunt of his is not clear; for certain plenty of trees were felt to have supernatural links without them being the physical residence of a fairy spirit;
  • in woods and forests– as well as residing in certain types of tree, there is a persistent link between elves and woodland, which I have described separately;
  • in a ruined structure made by glamour to look grand and well maintained.  Examples are the ‘Fairy dwelling on Selena moor’ (actually only a derelict farmhouse) and the illusory palace on Glastonbury Tor visited by St Collen.  In a fairy midwife tale recounted by Rhys, a cave is made to look finely furnished when it was really only strewn with rushes and ferns;
  • outside on the moors- John Rhys relays an account of the Tylwyth Teg who were said to live amongst ferns in the summer and to shelter amidst the gorse and heather during winter (Celtic folklore p.82); and, finally,
  • nowhere- as fairies are spirit visitors to our material world, some consider that they have no habitations here.  As such, they deserve human pity and comfort: a fire and clean water at night will ease their roofless wandering (Wentz p.182).

Despite all this evidence of fairies living in wild and natural places, see too my posting on fairy building skills.