‘Eco-Fairies’- old or new?

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A recent book on modern paganism and fairy belief, Magic and Witchery in the Modern West (Feraro and White, 2019), suggested that many of the contemporary conceptions of fairies as planetary guardians and green protectors came not from age-old faery tradition but from books like Cicely Mary Barker’s flower fairies, books that adult pagans had seen as and absorbed as children.  Is this really true?  Is the view of faeries as green champions really so recent and untraditional a development?

In fact, there is a reasonable amount of evidence to indicate that faeries have been connected with nature conservation and environmental causes for a quite long time.  For example, there is a widespread popular story of a woodcutter just about to fell a tree who is stopped by the appearance of a fairy being from beneath the ground.  This is described as having happened as far apart in Britain as Northamptonshire and Nithsdale in the Scottish Borders.  The idea of faeries as active defenders of the natural world was therefore accepted in folk belief from at least the start of the nineteenth century, a situation that was reflected in the literature of the time.  In his 1810 poem Alice Brand, Sir Walter Scott had the elfin king demand:

“Why sounds yon stroke on the beech and oak,

Our moonlight circle’s screen,

Or who comes here to chase the deer,

Beloved of our Elfin Queen?”

In the ballad of Tam Lin, the young Tam appears to his lover-to-be, Janet, after she plucks a rose in the forest.  He complains that she has taken the flower without his permission.  Similarly, in the ballad Hynde Etin complaint is made by the fairy when nuts are picked, “For I’m the guardian of the wood/ and ye maun [must] let it be.”  Whether this is environmental stewardship or cases of trespass on private land is not entirely clear, but the faeries are evidently highly protective of their natural resources.  We might see those faeries that protect (human) orchards and nut groves, such as Owd Goggie, in a similar light.

Lastly, an article carried by the Welsh Western Mail in September 1878 described the industry that had brought prosperity to Nant y Glo and Blaenau, in Gwent, albeit at the cost of the local woodlands.  The extensive tree-felling was dated back some ninety years to the time when ironworking first started in the area and demand for charcoal expanded steeply.  Before then, we are told, the fairies had protected the trees of the hills and valleys thereabouts.  These were yr tylwyth teg yn y coed, the fairies of the wood, who often used to be seen assembled under the female oaks there, and who guarded the trees and harmed those that felled them.  Sadly, however, they couldn’t resist against the “inroads of a gross material civilisation” (as the writer called it, even then) and they were driven off west into less spoiled parts of the Principality.  These sentiments might surprise us from a Victorian, but they demonstrate that environmental awareness, and a sense of the faeries’ role as eco-guardians, might not be that new.

Jacobean Precedents

As far back as the start of the seventeenth century, in fact, there is evidence of the fairies being seen as friends and protectors of wildlife and the natural world.  Sir William Browne in Britannia’s Pastorals imagined the fairies

“Teaching the little birds to build their nests,/ And in their singing how to keepen rests…”

The ‘eco-fairy’ as a concept is not new, therefore, even if the label is.  An examination of the folklore and literary sources discloses three interrelated functions that the faes were believed to undertake: they cared for small mammals and birds; they had a special link with certain flowers and trees and, lastly, they assumed a more general supervisory role over the natural world, keeping it in balance and preventing over-exploitation and pollution.

Fairies’ Furry Friends

Fairies not only lived and played in the countryside- according to Victorian poetry they talked to the birds, taught them how to sing and kept their eggs warm in the nest by curling up to sleep beside them.  Poet Rose Fyleman, famous for There’s a Fairy at the Bottom of my Garden, in her verse A Fairy Went A-Marketing, imagined how a fae might buy pet fish and birds and then set them free.  For Fyleman, fairies and wildlife were best of friends, with robins serving as a page in the fairy court and tiny faes living contentedly in flowers.

Verse and popular conceptions went hand in hand, as there are reported encounters with fairies helping birds find berries in the snow and looking after wildlife in wintry weather.  Early Victorian child poet, Annie Isabella Brown, imagined fairies describing how:

“We gathered flannel-mullen leaves,

Against the winter’s cold;

To keep the little dormouse warm,

Within its hedgerow hold.”

Poet Menella Bute Smedley also imagined the fairies “twisting threads of bloom and light” to make butterflies’ wings.

Flower Fairies

Just as there was active supernatural involvement with the animal kingdom, folk tradition identifies two aspects to the relationship between fairies and plants. They are attracted to certain herbs, whether supernaturally or for merely utilitarian reasons (foxgloves, for example, are called fairy gloves and fairy thimbles) and, secondly, the fairies are said inhabit certain trees, such as oaks, thorns and elders.  It was a relatively easy transition from these associations to come up with the idea of flower fairies as popularised by artists Cicely Baker and Margaret Tarrant, but the foundations of this twentieth century phenomenon are much deeper and older (see Lewis Spence, British Fairy Tradition, pp.178-80).

It looks as though the first step towards the flower fairy idea was to emphasise the affinity between fairies and particular flowers.  Next, it was an easy step to conceive of the spirits living in those flowers and the miniaturisation of the fairies popularised by Shakespeare and his contemporaries assisted with this.  Inevitably, too, the fairy character began to be softened by association with bloom, scent and colour.

This change seems to have proceeded from the seventeenth century, judging by scattered indications in our literature.  For instance, William Browne (1588-1643) in his verse The Rose imagined that “the nimble fairies by the pale-faced moon/ Water’d the root and kissed her pretty shade.”  From the eighteenth century there is good literary evidence for the idea of fairies taking up residence in flowers.  Coleridge, for example, described “Fays/ That sweetly nestle in the foxglove bells.” His contemporary George Darley imagined little fairies with scented wings emerging at night from blossoms and flitting from flower to flower enjoying nectar like wine (George Darley (1795-1846), What the Toys do at Night and The Elf Toper).

By the late nineteenth century this idea was exceedingly widespread: American poet Madison Julius Cawein repeatedly housed his fays in toadstools or in blooms and in his adult fairy tale, Phantastes, Scottish author George MacDonald described how “the flowers die because the fairies go away, not that the fairies disappear because the flowers die.  The flowers seem a sort of house for them, or outer bodies, which they can put on and off when they please… you would see a strange resemblance, almost a oneness between the flower and the fairy… [but] whether all flowers have fairies, I cannot determine.”  When J. M. Barrie adopted these ideas for Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, he was simply making use of an already well-established idea- although the success of his books and plays took it to a much wider audience.

Consequent upon inhabiting flowers, other connections were seen- for example, gardens become an ideal place to see fairies according to the poetry of Philip Bourke Marston and others.  It was also during the nineteenth century that the fairies’ role as conservers of plant life was crystallised.  In The Fairy’s Promise Edwin Arnold had fairies promise to help a love-sick poet because “Thou hast never plucked daisy or heather bell/ From the emerald braes where the fairies dwell.”   The fairies’ floral duties are spelled out in detail in The Wounded Daisy by Menella Bate Smedley.  They are to be found at work in the corners of meadows:

“Perhaps you’ll see them… setting the lilies steady,
Before they begin to grow;
Or getting the rosebuds ready
Before it is time to blow.
A fairy was mending a daisy
Which someone had torn in half…”

According to numerous nineteenth century poets the fairies shaped and inspired growth and, even, taught the plants how to grow at special schools over the winter.

Finally, Menella Bute Smedley made an important leap by involving humans as partners in the task of caring for the natural world:

“Then pull up the weeds with a will,/ And fairies will cherish the flowers.” (A Slight Confusion)

There are, then, two conceptions of the exact interrelationship between fairies and the natural world.  The first is that they exist simply as a part of the natural world and its processes.  The second, and more significant, is that they act as ‘guardians of nature’, actively watching over plants, animals and the earth as a whole and keeping the intricate systems in balance.

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Fairies and the Green Revolution

Many contemporary writers on fairy matters stress how the faes are opposed to intensive agriculture, to overuse of fertilisers, to pollution and to general environmental degradation.  It would be easy to imagine that these ideas have been imported into the faery faith since the 1960s, but the examples given so far make it abundantly clear that they were present in folklore and, thence it would seem, in literature, well before any conception of the harms of over-intensive cultivation even occurred to the scientific community.

Fairies have always been linked more closely to rural and uncultivated locations than to towns, although it would be wrong to suggest that they’re never seen in urban places (and the evidence of the recent Fairy Census and of the witness accounts recorded in Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing Fairies both suggest this is changing anyway).  Even in the countryside, though, they’re not a people solely of wild places and woods.  They often live and work around human farms (the Hobs and the Brownie type of spirit) and they frequently take advantage of the human environment, using mills and dancing in pastures and meadows at night.  There is no antipathy with agriculture as such, therefore.

That said, ideas of fairies as a champion of more traditional, organic, self-sufficient production date back to the mid-nineteenth century at the very latest.  For example, folklorist Evans Wentz in the 1900s heard in Scotland that the Highland clearances also drove off the sith.  Highlander John Dunbar of Invereen told him that “no one sees them now because every place on this parish where they used to appear has been put into sheep and deer and grouse and shooting.”  A vision of them fighting with sheep was seen, in fact, as a premonition of what was the follow (Evans Wentz, Fairy Faith, 94).

Conclusion

Works such as Peter Pan and the various Flower Fairies books unquestionably popularised the conception of the fairy as protector and champion of nature, but these ideas had been around since Elizabethan times and had been consolidating during the Victorian period. Such perceptions of the faeries are, arguably, as traditional as notions of them dancing in rings and stealing children.  The ‘green fairy’ is not some hippy, environmentalist creation, grafted on in recent decades, but is a fundamental element of the nature of Faery.

Margaret Tarrant, Brimstone Fairy

For further discussion of the environmental role of faeries, see my more recent post on the relationship of faeries to the natural world and my book Faeries and the Natural World (2021):

“Let me grab your soul away”- faeries, souls and the dead

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John Anster Fitzgerald, Fairy passage

Fairies and the dead have always had some ill-defined relationship, but in an account of folk beliefs in North East Scotland, I came across this fascinating note:

“It is said that, if a person dies of consumption, the fairies steal the soul from the body and animate another person with it.” (Shaw, The history of the province of Moray, 1827, p.278)

In the far north of Scotland, fairy abductions of humans can include not just a physical kidnapping but the abstraction of a person’s vital essence, leaving an inanimate stock behind: their soul is in Faery and a lifeless shell remains.  Related to this may be the Shetland belief that trows can only appear in human form if they can find someone who’s not been protected by a ‘saining’ or blessing. There is one story in which two trows attend a Yule dance in the form of two small boys whose mother had forgotten to bless them before she went out for the night’s festivities.  When they were exposed for what they were, the trows vanished from the dance, but the boys didn’t return to their beds.  They were found the next day dead in a deep snowdrift.  Fairy ‘possession’ can lead to real or simulated death, then, as well as following on from it.

Virtuous Pagans?

This particular Scottish manifestation is unique, but the idea that fairies (or, at least, some of them) have an association with the souls of the dead is widespread in the British Isles.  It has been speculated that the pixies of the south-west might be the souls of unbaptised children, or those delivered stillborn, or perhaps the spirits of virtuous druids and other non-Christians.  The mine sprites (the ‘knockers’ in the South West) were the souls of ancient miners and there are traces of a belief that bees and moths were spirits in some form.  In Wales as well the tylwyth teg were thought to be the spirits of virtuous druids who had died in pre-Christian times, whilst on the Isle of Man the belief was that the fairies represented the souls of those who died before the Flood (see Evans Wentz, Fairy Faith, pp.183, 169, 179, 177, 178, 147 & 123).

Faery Dogs

In Yorkshire, the supernatural hounds called the Gabriel Ratchets were believed to be the form taken by infants who died before baptism; they would circle their parents home overhead at night.  Other ‘faery beasts’ such as the black dogs, shugs and shocks were regarded as portents of death in the counties where they were seen.  The Welsh equivalent of these hounds, called the Cwn Annwn (roughly, the hounds of hell) were ban dogs employed for the pursuit of the souls of those who had died either unbaptised or unshriven.

Faery Limbo

Certain people- those who died early, unexpectedly or by violence- would go to live with the fairies in a sort of limbo.  This is a concept found across Britain in folklore, ballad and poetry from at least the Middle Ages.  Sir Walter Scott used it in his ballad ‘Alice Brand’ which is incorporated into his novel The Lady of the Lake.  Alice and her lover Richard are hiding in the greenwood; the Elfin King hears them cutting his trees and sends a goblin to chastise them:

“Up, Urgan, up! to yon mortal hie,

 For thou wert christen’d man:

For cross or sign thou wilt not fly,

 For mutter’d word or ban.”

When the goblin finds the pair, Alice confronts him and asks how he fell under the king’s power.  He replies:

“It was between the night and day,

 When the Fairy King has power,

That I sunk down in a sinful fray,

And ’twixt life and death, was snatch’d away

To the joyless Elfin bower.”

Alice is then able to release from this captive state by making the sign of the cross three times.

Witches’ Faery Helpers

What appeared so frequently in verse and story merely reflected genuine folk belief, as is confirmed by the evidence given by several Scottish witchcraft suspects.  For example, Alison Peirson told her inquisitors that several deceased members of her family were to be found in the court of Elphame, including her uncle William Simpson; Andro Man claimed that he knew “sindrie dead men in thair cumpanie” (one of whom was the late King James IV, who had died at the Battle of Flodden).  Bessy Dunlop revealed that the laird of Auchenreath, who had died nine years previously, was to be seen amongst the fairy rade whilst her particular ‘familiar,’ a man called Thom Reid, had fallen at the battle of Pinkie some 29 years earlier.  Elspeth Reoch’s fairy intermediary was a relative called John Stewart, who had been murdered at sunset- a violent and early death at a liminal time of day.

Lewis Spence examines some of the thought behind these folklore traditions in his classic British Fairy Origins.  The soul is often conceived as a small person and it is easy to understand how the little folk and the spirit homunculus might become confused.  Walter Evans-Wentz, in The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, also espoused the theory that (some at least of) the fairies are the souls of the dead, something which he set within a wider Celtic ‘Legend of the Dead.’  He said that:

“the striking likenesses constantly appearing in our evidence between the ordinary apparitional fairies and the ghosts of the dead show that there is often no essential and sometimes no distinguishable difference between these two orders of beings, nor between the world of the dead and fairyland.” (Spence pp.68, 70 & 80; Evans Wentz pp.280 & 493)

The Reverend Robert Kirk in the Secret Commonwealth goes so far as to argue that, whilst the bodies of the dead lie in their graves in the churchyard, their souls inhabit the fairy knowes that are so often found in proximity to Highland churches.  He confirmed that fairies were, therefore, believed by some with the second sight to be “departed souls, attending awhile in this inferior state, and clothed with Bodies procured through their Almsdeeds in this Lyfe… but if any were so impious as to have given no Alms, they say when the Souls of such do depart, they sleep in an unactive state till they resume the terrestrial Bodies again.”  Other seers believed that the souls of the dying people became wraiths, and the apparitions of black dogs which I mentioned earlier, and yet others were convinced that the fairies were “a numerous People by themselves, having their own polities.”  He mentioned too other beliefs that people’s “Souls goe to the Sith when dislodged” and that some will “go to the Siths (or People at Rest, and in respect of us, in Peace) before the natural Period of their Lyfe expire…”  These ideas seem very clearly to be identical with the idea that those murdered or otherwise killed violently end up in faery.  Seventeenth century Scottish opinion on the nature of fairykind was divided then, but it was apparently as common to see them as some manifestation of human dead as it was to consider them to be a separate form of life.

Poet Robert Sempill put these ideas into verse, describing how one suspected witch:

“names our nyboris sex or sewin, (6 or 7)

That we belevit had bene in heawin.”

Always going, never gone- the reality of the ‘vanishing’ fairy

Duncan, John, 1866-1945; The Riders of the Sidhe

John Duncan, The riders of the sidhe

“I speke of manye hundred yeres ago.
But now kan no man se none elves mo…”

(Chaucer, Wife of Bath’s Tale)

An abiding aspect of accounts of Faery is that the fairies aren’t around anymore and that fairy belief is fading; it was once strong, but not any more.  This sort of account has been given repeatedly for the last five hundred years or so.  Fairy-lore expert Katherine Briggs to some extent subscribed to this view when she called her 1978 book The vanishing people, although she herself collected some modern modern sightings as well.

Fairies have always been going, but they have never finally and completely gone.  In Farewell to the fairies, the final chapter of her book Strange and secret people- fairies and the Victorian subconscious, Carole Silver observed that:

“The fairies have been leaving England since the fourteenth century but have never quite left despite the rise of the towns, science, factories and changes of religion.”

Two processes were believed to be working in parallel.  There was an active departure of the fairies combined with a growing disbelief amongst the human population.  Combined, these factors convinced observers again and again that our good neighbours had deserted us.  Sometimes the departure was the the fairies moving away from a vicinity, other times it appears that they were vanishing completely.

“Robin Goodfellow is a knave”- the sixteenth century & before

Chaucer was the first to declare that the fays had disappeared, and there has been a constant chorus of lamenting voices ever since.  These were strengthened, from the mid-sixteenth century onwards, by a belief that it was the Reformation which had driven out the supernaturals, the fairies’ Christian faith being inimical to that of Luther and Calvin.

By the late sixteenth century Reginald Scot felt able to declare that “Robin Goodfellow ceaseth now to be much feared.” Elsewhere in The discovery of witchcraft he noted that “By this time all Kentish men know (a few fooles excepted) that Robin Goodfellow is a knave.”  In 1591 George Chapman had a character in his play A humorous day’s mirth query whether “fairies haunt the holy greene, as ever mine auncesters have thought.”  The fairy faith was increasingly seen as a thing of the past, or at the very least as a matter for an older generation and for less well educated and more superstitious folk.  For instance, writing in 1639, Robert Willis described how-

“within a few daies after my birth… I was taken out of the bed from [my mother’s] side and by my sudden and fierce crying recovered again, being found sticking between the beds-head and the wall and, if I had not cried in that manner as I did, our gossips had a conceit that I had been carried away by the Fairies…” (Mount Tabor p.92)

Doyle, triumphal march of the elf king 1870

Richard Doyle, The triumphant march of the elf king, 1870

“Out of date and out of credit”- the 1600s & 1700s

These early sources would suggest that fairy belief was over and done with by the start of the seventeenth century.  That was far from being the case.  As late as 1669, it seems, a spirit called ‘Ly Erg’ had haunted Glen More in the Highlands. Describing the Hebrides in 1716, Martin Martin averred that “it is not long since every Family of any considerable Substance in these Islands was haunted by a Spirit they called Browny…”  Speaking of Northumberland in 1729 the Reverend John Horsley felt that “stories of fairies now seem to be much worn, both out of date and out of credit.”  In 1779 the Reverend Edmund Jones alleged that, in the parish of Aberystruth, the apparitions of fairies had “very much ceased,” although the tylwyth teg had once been very familiar to the local people.  In other words, there had been belief but it was dwindling, or had died out.

“A winter evening’s tale”

The fairy faith was still apparently on the wane, or only just faded, during the next century too.  This was particularly believed to be the case in Scotland.  Shepherd poet James Hogg described the experiences of William Laidlawe, also called Will O’Phaup, who had been born in 1691 and who was “the last man of this wild region who heard, saw and conversed with the fairies; and that not once but at sundry times and seasons.”  Will lived on the edge of Ettrick Forest which was “the last retreat of the spirits of the glen, before taking their final leave of the land of their love…”  The fays’ departure was a regular theme for Hogg.  For example, in The queen’s wake he claimed that “The fairies have now totally disappeared… There are only a very few now remaining alive who have ever seen them.”  In 1820 Sir Walter Scott announced that “The fairies have abandoned their moonlight turf.” Writing of the Tay basin in 1831 James Knox agreed that “during the last century the fairy superstition lost ground rapidly and, even by the ignorant, elves are no longer regarded, though they are the subject of a winter evening’s tale.”

In a description of the Highlands in 1823 it was said that brownies had become rare, but that once every family of rank had had one.  Likewise Alan Cunningham, a lowland Scot, said that in Nithsdale and Galloway “there are few old people who have not a powerful belief in the influence and dominion of the fairies…”  Several accounts of the fairies’ departure from the Scottish Highlands can be dated to about 1790, although a lingering faith persisted with some into the middle of the next century.  A Galloway road-mender refused to fell a local fairy thorn in 1850, for example.

Also in the early 1820s, the fairies of the Lake District were declared extinct. Further south still, but at almost the same time, Fortescue Hitchens pronounced that in Cornwall-

“the age of the piskays, like that of chivalry, is gone.  There is perhaps hardly a house they are reputed to visit… The fields and lanes are forsaken.”

halt in the fairy procession

John Anster Fitzgerald, A halt in the fairy procession

“Credulous times”?- vanishing Victorian fays

Of Northamptonshire in 1851 it was said that “the fairy faith still lingers, but is in the last stages of decay.”  Nevertheless in 1867 John Harland could write that “the elves or hill folk yet live among the rural people of Lancashire.”  Speaking of his youth in the first half of the century, Charles Hardwick stated that, fairies had then been “as plentiful as blackberries-” but this no longer seemed to be the case to him considering the Lancashire of the 1870s.  Researching Devon folklore in the same year, Sir John Bowring interviewed four old peasants on Dartmoor who told him that “the piskies had all gone now, although there had been many formerly.”  Even so he was told a version of the common story of pixies caught stealing grain from a barn, something that had apparently happened as recently as three years before.

According to John Brand, describing Shetland in 1883, “not above forty or fifty years ago every family had an evil spirit called a Browny which served them…”  Writing about the same islands in the same year, Menzies Fergusson said that:

“credulous times are long, long gone by and we can see no more of the flitting sea trow… Civilisation has crept in upon all the fairy strongholds and disenchanted the many fair scenes in which they were wont to hold their fair courts.”

Recounting Cornish folk belief in 1893 Bottrell cited a verse to the effect that “The fairies from their haunts have gone.” In Herefordshire in 1912 a Mrs Leather of Cusop, just outside Hay on Wye, recalled fairies being seen dancing under foxgloves in Cusop Dingle: a vision that was within the memory of people still living, she recorded.

Sims-Charles-1900.-The-Beautiful-is-Fled

Charles Sims, The beautiful is fled, 1900

“Not utterly extinct?”- fairies in the twentieth century

Twentieth century writers echoed their predecessors.  Speaking of Wales in 1923 folklorist Mary Lewes recorded a-

“practically universal belief among the Welsh country folk into the middle of the last century [which] is scarcely yet forgotten.”

She blamed education and newspapers for having quenched the people’s spirits: “mortal eyes in Cambria will no more behold the Fair Folk at their revels.”  She lamented that “even the conception of fairies seems to have been lost in the present generation.”  A couple of years later, reflecting on Western Argyll in the 1850s, another writer reminisced over the “dreamland” people had inhabited before “the fierce eye of bespectacled modern omniscience” had dispelled belief.  “These were the days of elemental spirits, of sights and sounds relegated by present day sceptics to the realm of superstition or imagination.”  By the 1920s only old people recalled the wealth of folktales.  The fairy faith was also felt to be going or gone by this time from Herefordshire, Shropshire and from the Lake District.

Towards the end of last century, describing Sussex folk belief, Jacqueline Simpson declared that:

“Although it is most improbable that a belief in fairies is seriously entertained by any adult of the present generation, it was a different matter of the nineteenth century… Even one generation ago, it was not utterly extinct.”

tarrant fairy way

Margaret Tarrant, The fairy way

The fairies travel yet?

Continually, then, it seemed to investigators to be the case that fairy belief had been strong until a generation or so ago, but had since expired.  This was asserted every few decades, and little in substance really separates the remarks of Reginald Scot from those of Jacqueline Simpson.  For this reason, when Robin Gwyndaf alleged in 1997 that “fairy belief persisted in Wales until the late 1940s or early 1950s,” how confident should we be in the red line he seeks to draw?  Plenty of writers have done the same before, and have found themselves subsequently contradicted.  Equally, too, there have been writers- perhaps wiser, certainly more cautious-  who have not been so ready to pronounce the fairies’ obituary.

As already noted, the fairies were declared dead and gone from the Lake District in both 1825 and the early twentieth century.  Another observer was not so pessimistic: “The shyness of the British fairy in modern times has given rise to a widespread belief that the whole genus must be regarded as extinct,” wrote a Mrs Hodgson, yet she felt confident specimens could still be found in remote Cumberland and Westmorland neighbourhoods.  In the 1870s Francis Kilvert was told by David Price of Capel-y-ffin that “We don’t see them now because we have more faith in the Lord and don’t think of them.  But I believe the fairies travel yet…”  In 1873 William Bottrell confidently wrote that, in West Cornwall, “belief in the fairies is far from being extinct…”  On the Isle of Man it has been said that the fairies have retreated from the noise and disturbance of modern human life- but that they are still there, in the remote glens and moors.

Conclusions

Have the fairies disappeared?  It seems that it all depends on who does the asking and who they’re talking to.  The evidence of the recent Fairy Census, and of Marjorie Johnson’s collection of sightings in Seeing fairies, suggests that- contrary to all reports- the fairies are still present and active.

The scattered, individual accounts may give a contemporary observer the impression that the fairy faith is lost.  Nonetheless, with a little perspective, with the passage of a few years, a glance back will reveal that witnesses are still meeting our Good neighbours: they may be less willing to speak publicly about these experiences than once would have been the case, but the anonymity of an on-line survey permits confessions that seem to confirm that, indeed, ‘the fairies travel yet.’

An expanded version of this text will appear in my next book, Faeries, which will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide next year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The crimson fairy and the red

red f

Red winter rose fairy by Rachel Anderson

The older literature often mentions fairies of varying colours: white, red, green and others.  Is this just a matter of clothing- or does it go deeper?  As an illustration, in the Elizabethan play Buggbears we are told that there are “sondry names by which we do call them [i.e. the fairies]; some are called … the whyte and red fearye.”  (1565, line 47) From Camden’s Britannia we learn of a cunning woman’s charm used in Ireland to treat the sickness called ‘esane’:

“Against all maladies and mischiefs whatsoever the women have effectual enchantments or charms, as they suppose, divided and parted amongst them, each one her several enchantment, and the same of divers forces: unto whom every man according as his mischance requireth speedeth himself for help. They say alwaies both before and after their charms a Pater Noster, and an Ave Maria. [If a man has a fall and becomes sick] there is sent a woman skilful in that kind unto the said place, and there she saith on this wise: ‘I call thee P. from the East and West, South and North, from the forests, woods, rivers, meeres, the wilde wood-fayries, white, red, black etc.’  and withal bolteth out certain short prayers. Then returneth she home unto the sick party, to try whither it be the disease called Esane, which they are of opinion is sent by the Fairies, and whispereth a certain odd prayer with a Pater Noster into his ear, putteth some coles into a pot full of fair water, and so giveth more certain judgment of the disease than many of our physicians can.”    (Britannia vol.4 p.470).

The question I want examine in this post is this: is this merely a matter a choice of fairy clothing (which I’ve posted about before) or are the colours of these fairies more significant and symbolic?

Fairy clothing colours

As many readers will know, the archetypal fairy colour is green and it is primarily a matter of dress.  Some variation is admitted; for example Mary Lewes has said that in North Wales the fairies wear scarlet (Queer side of things, p.119) and elsewhere she said that they wore white, but green for special occasions (Stranger than fiction p.160).  Certainly, so synonymous is green with the fays that it’s said to be bad luck for humans to wear the colour, as they might face fairy reprisals.  This is why Sir Walter Scott asked in Alice Brand “who may dare on wold to wear/ The fairies’ fatal green?”  In his book Goblin tales of Lancashire Victorian folklorist James Bowker recorded that the local name for the fairies was ‘The Greenies’ or the Hill Folk.  This probably relates to their dress, although not conclusively.

Analysis of recent sightings in Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing fairies, and in the 2017 Fairy Census, reveals that around one third of fairies seen are dressed in green.  Twenty per cent wear brown, twelve per cent red and ten per cent white or cream.  A scattering of other colours- blue, yellow, black- account for the rest.  These results seem fairly consistent with the written sources, all of which suggest that fairies are mostly seen in ‘earth tones.’ For example, in the Merry wives of Windsor, Shakespeare enumerated “fairies black, grey, green and white” and also “Fairies white and green.” (Acts V, 5 & IV, 4).

Although we instantly think of dwarves and gnomes in scarlet, red doesn’t actually feature very often in reports.  We have Mary Lewes’ mention and Sidney Addy’s statement that fairies (and witches) wear a red mantle with a hood that completely covers them (Household tales p.134).  In older material red is often found, in fact, as the colour that repels fairies- for example, red threads are tied round the necks of children and cattle to protect them and in one lowland Scottish ritual, a suspected changeling child is wrapped in red cloth and held over a rowan fire to drive it out (Aitken p.12).  I wonder if part of the prominence of red in our minds now comes from Scandinavian sources on tomte and nisse.  Nevertheless, pixies are believed to be red-headed (Tongue Somerset folklore p.113) and it may be in this sense that other fays are ‘red.’

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Cicely Mary Barker, White bindweed fairy, from ‘Flower fairies of the wayside’

“Poor little greenie…”

The possibility that the colour refers to complexion and not clothing is an important one, yet it can’t always be satisfactorily resolved from the sources.  Hugh Miller described a ‘green woman’ with a goblin child who went door to door bathing her babe in human infants’ blood and another ‘green lady’ who spread small pox (Scenes and legends p.15).  As already remarked, in Goblin tales of Lancashire James Bowler calls the ‘hill folk’ of that county ‘the greenies.’  Something more sinister starts to creep in, though.  Janet Bord tells the story of a lost fairy child found at Middleton in Teesdale who has green clothes and red eyes and it is also reported that Shetland fairies are of a yellow complexion, with red eyes and green teeth.  These latter faes are, by the way, dressed uniformly in grey with brown mittens (it is, after all, a long way north).

Thirdly, a comparable account comes from the Isle of Man.  A boy woke up one night hungry and decided to sneak into the kitchen to steal a freshly baked ‘bonnag’ (bannock).  Sitting before the fire, warming his hands, was a hideous fairy man with claw like hands and staring red eyes; the child ran swiftly back to bed.

Turning to pale fairies, the references are numerous in literature and folk lore.  Heywood had ‘white nymphs’ and Ben Jonson ‘white fays.’  In Shropshire and Somerset ‘white ladies’ haunted various locations- often watery.  Donald MacKenzie tells a Scottish wonder tale of a war between the White and Black Fairies on the Spey.  Much more than with Shakespeare, we seem to have a good/bad dichotomy symbolised here.  It may have antecedents in the Norse Edda’s light and dark elves, the former being pure of colour and dressed in white and silver garments.  Much, much later Thomas Keightley was informed by a country girl that the Norfolk ‘frairies’ always wore white.

As Mary Lewes already stated, white is a colour very often associated with the clothing of the Welsh tylwyth teg.  Fairies sighted at Frenifawr in Pembrokeshire rode small white horses and were dressed in white or red; a charming story from Aberaeron on Cardigan Bay tells how a pipe player called John Davies met a group of fairy women one night and almost married one.  He could tell they were fays because they were all in white and their dresses (this was in 1860) came only to their knees (!)  Sadly he was interrupted and they all disappeared down some stairs leading underground before the nuptials could be agreed.  These women sound charming and harmless,  but there’s more to white garments than just clean clothing.

A story dated 1903 from the Welsh borders suggests this.  An old woman living at Trellech described the fairies as being fairly small with “queer complexions.”  They were the size of a six year old child, barefoot, dressed in white with lovely white skin, but also white hair and white eyes too.  From some earlier point in Victorian times there comes the story of John Jones, a farm labourer of Perthrhys farm near Aberystwyth.  Walking home across Rhosrhydd Moor one moonlit night he realised two boys were following him.  Although it was late, he at first assumed they were just local youths messing around.  However, the boys then quit the road and started to dance in an “unearthly” manner.  Jones realised that they were both “perfectly white.”  Perhaps these white fays go some way to explaining the full significance of the ‘white spirit’ with which accused witch Joan Willimot claimed she had cursed the Earl of Rutland’s son.  The ‘mere-maids’ labelled ‘white ladies’ might also be less benign than they initially sound.

These last images (like the red eyed fays in Teesdale and on Man and Shetland) are naturally disturbing to us, rendering the fairies instantly more monstrous and threatening. Whilst (as my choice of illustrations show) we tend to think of ‘red’ as sexual or dangerous and ‘white’ as pure and innocent, the contrast might just as reasonably be between ‘living’ and ‘dead.’  Perhaps deliberately, both connotations are evoked by the traditional fairy green, suggestive of vibrant growth and of decay.  The fairy colours are, I’m sure, significant- and are symbolic of many attributes- danger, violence, sexuality and mortality.

Further reading

See my posting on the treatment of fairy complexion in Tudor and Stuart drama and what that says about their vision of Faery.  I also discussed fairy clothes in my 2017 book British fairies.