Helpful Faeries

I have recently described the risks and gains of entering into deals with the faeries, one of which is the potential problem that the Good folk simply don’t know when to stop assisting the people they’ve favoured. Here I want to say a little more about the benefits and costs of being helped by our Good Neighbours.

The faeries can sometimes surprise us with the help and knowledge that they are prepared to provide to us, uninvited and unrewarded.  For example, an old woman from Arisdale on Yell had a long journey back to her home on a dark night.  Suddenly, she felt people gripping her hands and asked who it was.  Trows spoke, saying that they’d taken pity on her plight and had come to help her.  They blew and it became as light as day, then they guided her home and disappeared as soon as her door was open.  A similar tale from Skye involves a faery that carried a boy across a swollen stream so that he could get home safely on a stormy night.

Sometimes the faeries bestow their favours even more indiscriminately than this.  On South Uist, anyone who saw the door open in a knoll could enter and the inhabitants would teach you a skill.  A woman from Howmore went inside and learned to spin beautifully, taking the wool directly from the fleece, without spinning or carding first. We might note, in this connection, that it is possible that the ability may be passed to the human visitor almost unintentionally. William M’Kenzie was a weaver from Barcaldine near Oban. He entered a faery hill he saw open and joined a dance there. After a year and a day, he was rescued from the dancing by his friends (a very typical story across Britain). However, in this case, he returned home endowed with enhanced weaving skills: “he did more work in shorter time than any other” (Campbell, Superstitions, 66) and he was also a better piper than he’d been before. Another generous and spontaneous gift was made to a farmer on the island of Jersey.  Ploughing fields one day at L’Etacq, the faeries turned the man’s plough share and horse’s hooves into silver.

The best known manifestation of faery favour is the granting of three wishes, but this can often be used for satirical purposes, as in the following Scottish example.  A traveller couple were resting by the road when a little man appeared and offered to grant their wishes.  When the pair reached the next town, the woman saw some potato mashers in a shop and wished she had one: instantly, it was in her hand.  Her husband was angry because she’d wasted one of her magical wishes and he crossly wished it up her arse.  Forthwith, it was there- and his last wish went on getting it out again…  A very similar story, with a sausage on a wife’s nose, is also told in the Highlands.

The faeries can also display some unexpected skills.  A gamekeeper by the name of Cameron, from Kilmaile in Inverness-shire, fell asleep outside one day.  Whilst he slumbered, the faeries found his pocket watch and dismantled it.  Cameron took the timepiece to a watch maker, but he couldn’t reassemble it at all.  Luckily, though, a small bearded man in a blue suit suddenly appeared and quickly put the watch back together again.

It may come as little surprise to discover that fairy help isn’t always free.  Conditions of various kinds may be attached, which may impose burdens on the recipient- or someone else.  For instance, a farmer on Rannoch Moor near Glencoe heard the faeries talking amongst themselves, saying “some for me, some for you” as they apparently shared something out.  He repeated what they said and found that his cows gave him record amounts of milk: unfortunately, though, there was less milk produced on other local farms that night.  One person’s gain from the faes can often be another’s loss.

Fairy skills, when granted, must be properly respected by the lucky recipient.  The MacCrimmons are a Skye family renowned for their piping skills and possess a silver bagpipe chanter given to them by a fairy woman.  The original beneficiary of this gift met a faery who offered him the skill of sailing, might in battle or musical prowess.  He chose the latter but was warned always to reverence the chanter that came with it.  A descendant was once in a boat crossing a stormy stretch of sea- he wanted to play his pipes but was unable to do so because the boat was rocking so much on the swell.  He threw down the pipes in annoyance and cursed the chanter- which promptly detached itself and leapt into the sea.

Sometimes, skills and good fortune are provided in return for services rendered to the faes.  A midwife from Yell attended a birth in a trow home, which was reached down a staircase in a clifftop.  After the delivery, she wasn’t paid but instead she was offered the choice of a long life or great knowledge.  She chose the latter and became able to see what was to happen in the future. In Montgomeryshire on the Welsh border with England, a woman returning home one day came across a faery dog wandering stray and lost.  She took it home and kept it safe under a brass pot.  The next day the faeries appeared and she returned their dog to them.  She was asked if she preferred a “clean or a dirty cow.”  She chose dirty, which meant that her cows became the best milkers in the area.

In a final example from Guernsey, there was a farmhouse at St Saviour’s which was used annually by the local faes for a festival.  The understanding with the residents was that they would bake buns for their guests and then go to bed early that night, leaving the food on the table with the door unlocked.  If the faes enjoyed the baked goods provided, they would help the household all year.  If they didn’t appreciate the food, they would play tricks on the family for twelve months.

All in all, probably, faery aid is not to be desired. Scottish folklore expert John Gregorson Campbell warned of their help that “Their interference is never productive of good in the end and may prove destructive. Men cannot therefore be sufficiently on their guard against them.” As for their gifts, Campbell said that they “have evil influence associated with them and, however inviting at first, are productive of bad luck in the end. No wise man will desire either their company or their kindness. When they come to a house to assist in any work, the sooner they are got rid of the better. If they are hired as servants their wages at first appear trifling, but will ultimately ruin their employer. It is unfortunate even to encounter any of the race, but to consort with them is disastrous in the extreme.” This is a dire assessment, but Campbell knew the Scottish folklore in detail. It will be evident that any dealings of any description with the faeries must be very carefully weighed up in advance (Campbell, Superstitions of the Highlands, 2 & 23).

Many of these themes are also examined in my recent book from Green Magic Publishing, How Things Work in Faery.

Three Wishes: your dreams fulfilled by faeries?

Jessie Wilcox Smith, Cinderella

A cliché of faery lore is that the fairies grant our wishes, often in threes because this is a magical and significant number (at least in Christian tradition).  This is more the substance of fairy-tales and fairy godmother stories than authentic British folklore, but it’s not entirely without foundation in native accounts.

Mermaids seem especially prone to granting triple wishes.  Furthermore, as the Cornish story of Lutey and the mermaid demonstrates, mermaid vengeance may be postponed (as I recently described for the faeries too).  The mermaid first granted Lutey three wishes as a reward for returning her to the sea when she’d become stranded, but then refused to let go of him when they were in the surf, instead trying to drag him under the water.  The barking of his dog and the sight of his cottage on the shore broke her spell, and with a flash of his knife he forced her to let him go.  Nevertheless, the mermaid promised to return after nine (three times three) years- which she did, seizing him from a fishing boat out at sea.  The mermaid in the related Cornish story, The Old Man of Cury, grants a single wish, as does the Manx mermaid who falls for a man who woos her with gifts of apples.

John Bauer, Syv ønsker, The Seven Wishes

The fairy women of Scotland seem especially inclined to grant wishes to humans.  These skills may be taught, or exchanged for sex, or they may be given as rewards.  Often, the grant is offered conditionally: the recipient can have either ‘ingenuity without advantage’ or ‘advantage without ingenuity.’  One will be clever and highly skilled, but will never be rich; the other will make the man prosperous, but he will be stupid.  Abilities in crafts or music are often bestowed; even a great skill in thieving can be granted, apparently.  Sometimes, too, these awards are not really gifts at all, and a price may be exacted, which can even be the eventual forfeit of the human him or herself.  We saw this with Lutey; in the Scottish tale of Peter Waters of Caithness, he met a fairy woman at a well and she spontaneously offered to endow him with great prowess, either as a preacher or as a piper.  He chose to be a piper and she even gave him a set of pipes.  All she asked was that, in return, they meet again after seven years.  In the meantime, he won great fame and fortune for his music but when he duly returned to meet her at the well, he was never seen again (J. G. Campbell, Superstitions).

An unusual Scottish Gaelic story builds upon this general idea.  The fairy queen (who is generally identified with Fann, the embodiment of skill) was grieved by the lack of wisdom amongst many women in the world.  She therefore breathed on the fairy flax plant and issued a summons to every woman in the world to come to her knoll to be endowed with wisdom.  Many came and the queen appeared before them, carrying a limpet in which there was the ais or skill of wisdom.  Each woman was invited to drink from the shell, according to her faith and desire.  Sadly, the cup ran dry before all could drink (Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, vol.2).

There are other ways to get what you want from fairies though.  At Bewcastle, in Cumbria, there is a stone to which you can whisper your secret wishes; the fairies will then help you.  In several other instances, wishes are granted and skills bestowed as the result of bargains- although these deals are not always willing entered into by the faeries.  A boy who stripped turf from a faery knoll was persuaded to replace it on the basis that he would be helped in making the best chanter possible for his bagpipes.  A girl who agreed not to tether her cows on a knoll was then directed to grazing that never ceased and produced very rich milk.  Equally, a man who stuck his knife in the doorway of a faery hill refused to remove it until he had been granted piping skills.

All in all, there is a curious transactional relationship between humans and supernaturals. The faeries constantly and unrepentantly steal from us and use our property and possessions, but they will spontaneously grant valuable knowledge and skills or make gifts of gold. They will reward good deeds but at the same time lavish wealth on favourites who may seem to be chosen at random. In some cases love motivates their actions; in other cases they find themselves forced begrudgingly to comply. It’s a complex exchange of generosity and obligation, part of the tangled and frequently tortuous relationship that we have forged with the over the last thousand years or more of cohabitation on these islands.

Weber, Christmas Fairy

“Rewards and fairies”- gifts from the Good Neighbours

dulac-elves-fairies

Edmund Dulac, ‘Elves and fairies’ (The Tempest)

“It was told me that I should be rich by the fairies” Winter’s Tale, Act III, scene 3.

“although their gifts were sometimes valuable, they were usually wantonly given and unexpectedly resumed.” (Sir Walter Scott, Letters on demonology, letter IV)

In a previous on offerings to the fairies I noted that the divining line between worship and bargain was a difficult one to define with precision.  I wish to return to this area, discussing here definite gifts from fairykind to humans.

Folklore writer Christine Emerick has pointed out the curious contrast between Celtic fairy gifts and those of the Teutonic elves.  The former look valuable but prove to be worthless, whilst the latter are the reverse.  In British folktales, there is a blending of these extremes.

Fairy gifts

This unprovoked benevolence could take a variety of forms:

  • Regular gifts of food or money might be found by a lucky individual- for instance, at Willie How barrow in Yorkshire a local man was told he would find a guinea coin on top of the burial mound everyday, so long as he did not disclose his good fortune;
  • A skill might be conferred upon a fortunate recipient, such as the ability to play the bagpipes;
  • A helpful deed might be rewarded: in one Welsh story a farmer removed a rooks nest from a tree near his crops.  It had also overshadowed a fairy ring and they rewarded him for his act.  Providing bathing water for fairy families would likewise receive more than its due;
  • The provision of a service- such as carrying out a repair on a tool or acting as midwife- could be rewarded with more than the payment commensurate with the job.  In another Welsh example, a midwife received a life time’s supply of money for her assistance to the mother.  A curious tale from Ipstones in Staffordshire describes a woman whose child was substituted for a changeling.  Unlike most such maternal victims, she accepted the fairy child imposed upon her and cared for it as her own.  In return, whenever she wished for money, it would appear.  This bounty ceased when the infant sickened and died;
  • As indicated by the last example, a gift or gifts might be given, or the lucky individual might more generally enjoy good luck and prosperity, with good fortune and bounty taking many forms in their lives.  For instance, a highlander who gave his plaid to wrap a newborn fairy baby enjoyed good luck ever afterwards.  A supply of inexhaustible food is variant upon this;
  • there could be the gift of health and healing.  Several sites are linked associated with this: passing a child through the men an tol in Cornwall could cure rickets;  a well at Bugley in Wiltshire relieved sore eyes and the Hob Hole in  North Yorkshire was beneficial against whooping cough in children.  These properties might be conceived of as fairy beneficence or, perhaps, proof of their magic powers; and,
  • lastly, there is the very old concept of the fairy godmother and her gifts to the newborn.  This is recorded as early as the twelfth century in Layamon’s Brut: when King Arthur was born “alven hine ivengen; heo bigolen that child mid galdere swithe stronge”- ‘elves took him; they enchanted that child with magic most strong:’ the fairies gave him riches, long life, prowess and virtues.  These stories remained current in the seventeenth century, when Milton wrote how “at thy birth, the fairy ladies daunc’t upon the hearth/ And sweetly singing round about thy bed/ Strew all their blessings on thy sleeping head” (Vacation exercise).

Gifts were made to children as well as adults; anyone could attract the fairies’ favour and there did not need necessarily to be a specific reason, although exercise of the fairies’ esteemed virtues of generosity and hospitality tended to attract favourable attention: if a human is prepared to give freely s/he may enjoy the same in return.  It did help, though, to accept the first gift readily and without conditions.  Reginald Scot in The discovery of witchcraft (Book III, c.iV) recorded the tradition that fairies would favour servants and shepherds in country houses, “leaving bread, butter and choose sometimes with them, which if they refuse to eat, some mischief shall undoubtedly befall them by means of these fairies…”  Two stories confirm this belief.  A man given some food for mending a fairy’s spade was rewarded with food.  His companion counselled against eating it; the other cheerfully partook and benefitted for the rest of his life as a consequence of his spontaneous and trusting nature.  Similar accounts come from Pensher, County Durham (plough horses die because the farmer refuses to eat the bread and butter left for him) and from Lupton in Westmorland, where the horse that ate the fairy food lived and the other which refused to do so perished.

Problems with fairy gifts

Sometimes fairy generosity can become excessive, in that they will steal from others to benefit the preferred person.  Neighbours’ barns and granaries may be emptied in order to fill that of the blessed one.

“[they] give me jewels here…  oh, you must not tell though.” (Ben Jonson, The silent woman.)

However, fairy gifts are made subject to a strict rule that they are respected and are not disclosed.  In all the cases so far mentioned, boasting about money from the fairies would guarantee that the bounty would terminate.  In one sad case, a boy who found regular small sums of money was beaten by his father on suspicion of being a thief.  He finally confessed, which instantly ended the family’s good fortune, much to the parents’ bitter regret (Rhys Celtic folklore pp.37-38).  Loss of the bounty could be the least of the penalties inflicted for want of discretion though: Massinger in The fatal dowry warns “But not a word of it- ’tis fairies treasure/ Which but revealed brings on the blabber’s ruin” (Act IV, scene 1) whilst in The Honest Man’s Fortune we are likewise reminded of this fact: “fairy favours/ Wholesome if kept, but poison if discovered.”

Closely related to this condition are the gwartheg y llyn,  the lake cattle, which are frequently brought to marriages by lake maidens or which mingle and interbreed with human herds. If (when) the wife is later rejected or insulted, her departure will also inevitably mean the departure of the fairy beasts.  The same is bound to occur if the human farmer tries to slaughter the fairy cattle, as this too will be interpreted as demonstrating a want of respect for the owners/ donors.

An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).