Tam Lin & escapes from faeryland

The Fairy Host in Tam Lin by Stephanie Pui-Mun Law

A number of Scottish ballads suggest that for human captives in fairyland to escape their captivity can be a violent and terrifying process- especially for the person trying to save them.  There are three primary examples to consider, all of which share close resemblances. 

In the ballad, The Faery Oak of Corriewater, a young man called Elph Irving has been captured by the queen of Elfland to be her cupbearer.  He is said to be “the fairest that earth may see” and, for his seven years’ service, she says that “his wage is a kiss of me” which seems to make it fairly clear that he is as much a sex slave as a domestic servant. It’s notable too that his name is prefixed ‘Elph,’ suggestive of some kind of assimilation to faery-kind through his residence with them. As we know, for humans to eat faery food can lead to a permanent physical change which prevents their return to the mortal world.

Irving’s sister comes to save him.  The fairies are alerted to her approach (“For here comes the smell of some baptised flesh,/ And the sounding of baptised feet”- humans can be smelt by fairies just as much as we can detect them by their distinctive fairy smell) and try to make a getaway on their steeds.  The sister, however, is too fast:

“She linked her brother around,

And called on God, and the steed with a snort

Sank into the gaping ground.

But the fire maun [must] burn, and I maun quake,

And the time that is gone will no more come back.

And she held her brother, and lo! he grow

A wild bull waked in ire;

And she held her brother, and lo! he changed

To a river roaring higher;

And she held her brother, and he became

A flood of the raging fire;

She shrieked and sank, and the wild elves laughed

Till the mountain rang and mire.”

To save her brother, she must be brave and not be intimidated by the transformations he goes through under the power of faery glamour. Sadly, the sister’s courage fails at last moment when Irving turns into the blaze of elfin fire and her chance to save him is lost forever.

Erica Leveque

The story of Tam Lin is very similar to that of the Faery Oak, but the ending is much happier.  Tam is a human boy who, as before, has been taken by the faery queen- perhaps once again for carnal reasons, as he describes himself as “fat and fair of flesh.”  This may, alternatively, relate to the fact that the fairies seem to intend to sacrifice him as their teind (tithe) to the devil.  This fate arises in part from his good looks, but it is also likely to reflect his part-human status; although Tam also states that he too has undergone some sort of transformation and that he is now “a fairy, lyth and limb,” he’s still not entirely one of them and, as such, is easier for the community to lose.

A girl called Janet falls for Tam after she meets him in a wood and gets pregnant.  She wants to rescue him from the fairies, so that she has a father for her child, and he instructs her when, where and how to do it.  She has to snatch him from his horse as the fairy court is out on its Halloween rade- and she must then be prepared for the transformations that will follow:

“They’ll turn me in your arms, Janet,

            An adder and a snake;

            But had [hold] me fast, let me not pass,

            Gin ye wad be my maik [lover/ partner].

            They’ll turn me in your arms, Janet,

            An adder and an ask;

            They’ll turn me in your arms, Janet,

            A bale that burns fast.

            They’ll turn me in your arms, Janet,

            A red-hot gad o’ airn;

            But haud me fast, let me not pass,

            For I’ll do you no harm.

First dip me in a stand o’ milk,

            And then in a stand o’ water;

            But had me fast, let me not pass,

            I’ll be your bairn’s father.

And next they’ll shape me in your arms

            A toad but and an eel;

            But had me fast, nor let me gang,

            As you do love me weel.

            ‘They’ll shape me in your arms, Janet,

            A dove but and a swan,

            And last they’ll shape me in your arms

            A mother-naked man;

            Cast your green mantle over me,

            I’ll be myself again.”

When Janet has rescued Tam, the fairy queen curses her for taking away the bonniest knight in her company: “Shame betide her ill-far’d face,/  And an ill death may she die.”  At the same time, too, the queen wishes she had taken steps to stop Tam’s fancy from straying.  She regrets that she had not taken out his heart, and replaced it with a stone, and that she had not “taen out thy twa grey een,/ Put in twa een o tree” (“Taken out your two grey eyes/ And put in two of wood.”)  This desire to blind Tam so he can’t see humans is an interesting detail of the ballad, because of its comparison to the faery practice of blinding those humans (usually midwives) who have got ointment on their eyes and as a result can see the fairies through their glamour.

Tam Lin by wylielise on deviantart

Our last example of a perilous escape from faery concerns a female captive who is rescued by her father.  The Ballad of Mary o’ Craignethan sees Mary stolen away under the fairy knoll by a fae man.  Her father seeks expert counsel and is advised on the ritual he has to follow to bless (sain) and then release her.  He must go to the fairy oak and there blow his horn three times.  At the first blast, the tree will bend and fall; at the second a silence will fall and an eldritch laugh will ring out.  At the third, a loathsome fiend will appear with “wauchie cheek and wauland ye” (‘a sallow cheek and wildly rolling eyes’). This will be Mary- and her father has to grasp her tightly by the wrists and make the sign of a cross over her:

“syne an ugsome ask in his han’ sho kyth’t

Owerspread wi’ lapper’t blude.”

She’ll appear next as a fearsome newt in his hand, covered in clotted blood.  He mustn’t quail but should then make the sign of the cross again and:

“Syne a sneeran’ [hissing] snake she turn’d roun’ his arm

And ower his bosom slade;

When he the thirden time she sain’t

A burnan bale she grew;

He nam’d ower her the halie name

An’ she flichter’t a milk-white dou [fluttered like a white dove].

He nam’d ower her the halie name

In his han’ was a lily rare;

He nam’d ower her the halie name,

In his han’ was his Mary fair.”

As you’ll have noticed, several transformations are common to all these stories.  Snakes, newts and burning bales seem to have been mentioned because they are likely to scare the rescuer into releasing their loved one; birds will flap wildly to try to escape- and it’s likely, I guess, that the snakes and newts will slither and, once again, alarm the rescuer. What is very clear, though, is that the rescue requires a lot of the human: she or he must not only know the necessary words and ritual; they must also have a very steady nerve and be able to see through the faeries’ glamour and realise that the deadly creatures in their arms are only illusion, and pose no real threat.

Tamlaine by Robert Macnair

Fairy Ballads and Rhymes

Ballads

Hot on the heels of Fayerieanother new book- this time, on the traditional British ballads and rhymes concerned with Faery.  In the course of writing Fayerie, I made particular use of the early modern English and Scots ballads, songs such as Young Tamlane, Thomas Rhymer and the Elfin Knight, and realised that there was no one book which brought together all of those lyrics concerned just with the supernatural.  Now there is.

Britain is rich in its heritage of traditional ballads, most of which date from the seventeenth century or earlier. Around twenty of these take fairies and fairyland as their primary theme. Accordingly, these songs are valuable sources of information on late medieval and early modern fairy beliefs. This new book provides an overview of fairy lore in the ballads, accompanied by edited texts for all the key lyrics, supplemented by notes that put each narrative in its wider context.

In addition, British traditional rhymes dealing with fairy-lore are collected together, along with a selection of verses and songs ascribed to the fairies themselves.  We are all familiar with little couplets like ‘Fairy folks are in old oaks;’ these little catchphrases stick in our memories, quite deliberately, because they were designed to do just that: children in particular needed to be alerted to the places in the landscape where dangerous fairies lurked and punchy little verses did the trick.  There are lots recorded but, once again, they have not before been collected together.  The same is true of the subject of the third chapter of the new book; this features songs and poems composed by fairies themselves.  Once again, bringing them together emphasises the degree to which verse is central to fairy discourse.  These texts are often overlooked as a body of literature in their own right, but this book takes the opportunity to focus upon them and what they can tell us about human and faery society.

The book is a companion to my other volumes of fae poetry, ‘Victorian Fairy Verse‘ and ‘Fayerie- Fairies and Fairyland in Tudor and Stuart Verse.’  It reveals a world that is harsher than we might anticipate.  The book is available as a paperback or e-book through Amazon/KDP.

RGF

“That’s Not My Name!”- names, power and secrecy in Faery

06_Barnum_TamLin

Tam Lin, by Joanna Barnum.

“They forget my name

They call me Hel,

They call me Stacey,

They call me her,

They call me Jane

That’s not my name”

The Ting Tings, ‘That’s not my name’, 2008

In the traditional Scottish ballad of Tam Lin, a handsome human boy has been abducted to Elfland to serve in the fairy queen’s retinue.  His sweetheart, Janet, agrees to help save him and bring him home but he warns her of the obstacles she will face in attempting this.  The fairies will change his form to try to scare her, but additionally he advises her:

“First, they did call me Jack, he said,

And then they called me John,

But since I lived in the fairy court

Tomlin has always been my name.”

These lines very strongly imply that, as part of his kidnapping and detention, a change of name has played a part.

Fairy Names

We know already the power of names in Faery.  Fairies often conceal their names from humans in order to preserve their power, but are as often careless in doing so, meaning that they are outwitted in the end.  Welsh brownie Gwarwyn-a-throt exemplifies this: he is overheard by his intended victim foolishly repeating his name to himself, gloating that it is a secret- and so he is undone.  In another example, also from Walespossession of the fairy maiden’s name constrained her to marry the man who discovered it (Rhys, Celtic Folklore, p.45).

Concealment of identity by this simple strategy is found in another ballad, The Knight and the Shepherd’s Daughter, although in this case a seducer is trying to avoid taking any responsibility for a child he has fathered.  Before he leaves her, the knight is asked for his name by the shepherdess and he responds, evasively:

“Some men do call me Jack, sweetheart,

And some do call me John;

But when I come to the King’s fair court,

They call me Sweet William.”

The lines in these two ballads are obviously very similar; there may well have been borrowing from one song to another, in fact.  Nonetheless, this shouldn’t detract from the significance of personal names in Faery.

On this point, I think that it’s also highly significant that the evidence from the Scottish witch trials of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries regularly refers to the existence of a king and queen of Elfame, but these royal personages never have a personal name.  This could well be because they wished to preserve their power and mystery from us untrustworthy humans.  For that matter, the few names we have for faery royalty- Mab, Oberon, Titania– are all imported from outside the British Isles.  None are authentic, native names.

the-grump-fairy-7

“That’s not my name!”- Grumpy fairy by Linda Ravenscroft

Human Names

Similar magic applies to human names, which should in all cases be withheld from the faes.  There is a class of stories to which I’ve referred several times in my posts, the so-called ‘ainsel’ theme, which hinges upon this point.  A human meets a fairy of some description and, on being asked his/her name, cannily responds ‘mi ainsel,’ ‘misen’ or the Gaelic equivalent ‘mi-fhín’ (all meaning ‘myself’).  Some dispute then arises between them, the human fends of the fairy’s attack and injures it, and the fairy flees to complain to a parent or to its companions.  They are unsympathetic, because the aggrieved fae has to admit that it was ‘myself’ who inflicted the harm.  This story involves simple self-preservation, but concealing a name is a more general protection against supernatural control.  Put simply, if the fairies have a grievance against you, it’s harder for them to find you if they don’t have your name!

A name can, therefore, be a source of power and of protection.  It follows-as with Tam Lin- that the fairies could very likely want to change an abductee’s name when that person is safely ‘under the hill,’ so as to make it harder for family and friends to retrieve him or her.  There could well be another aspect to this too, though. The harsh truth is that, for many visitors to Elfame, the experience is an unpleasant and involuntary one.  They are taken as captives and held in servitude, performing chores for the fairies (whether child rearing or kitchen duties) that are never-ending and exhausting.  Such conditions can only be called slavery and it has, of course, been the practice of human slave masters throughout history to rename their slaves, taking away their individuality and rendering them more clearly someone else’s property.  It would make sense for the faes to do the same: if they have a human skivvying in the kitchens, or serving at banquets, they have to be able to call them something, but they may very well wish to avoid using their proper personal names.

Finally, we ought to recognise that fairy expert Lewis Spence felt uncertain about the significance of the lines in Tam Lin.  He had made a wide study of British and world folklore and could not think of other examples of a name change being part of the magical detention of a captive.  Nevertheless, he also observed that in some versions of the ballad Janet has to keep calling out Tam’s name as she undertakes his rescue, further suggesting that there is some spell residing in the unearthly name that has to be broken to free the boy from the fairy queen’s clutches.

Further reading

See my forthcoming book, Faery, from Llewellyn International (March 2020) and my previous postings on silence in faery company, on fairy name taboos and on fairies’ personal names.

grumpy red fairy

“That’s not my name!” Grumpy Red Fairy by Jasmine Becket-Griffith

 

“Little they slept that night”- fairy love and fairy passion

tamlaine
James Herbert MacNair, Tamlaine, 1905Enter a caption

I return to a subject that has an abiding fashion for many visitors to the blog- and apparently me too: fairy sexuality and sensuality.

Fae lovers

From the very earliest times, it seems, the idea of Faery was synonymous with irresistible beauty.  Elf-women were called ‘shining’ by the Anglo-Saxons (aelfsceone) and this idea by no means ended with the arrival of the Normans and of the fairy women of romance.  English writer Layamon in his history of Britain, The Brut, described the queen of Avalon, Argante, as the fairest of all maidens,  “alven swithe sceone” (an elf most fair).  The concept of radiant beauty persisted: the fairy queen who met Thomas the Rhymer at Huntlie bank was “a ladye bright” and, as late as Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor, the faes’ royal lady is still “radiant” (Act V, scene 5).

Great beauty can provoke great passion, of course, and for many writers this response was amplified when a fairy lover was involved.  Sir Launfal is introduced to fairy lady Dame Tryamour whom he finds, stretched out in the heat with her clothes unfastened to her waist.  Lying on a bed of purple linen, “that lefsom lemede bright” (the lovely one gleamed).  She greets Launfal as her darling and he kisses her and sits beside her.  After a meal they go to bed immediately and “for play, litell they slepte that night.”

The fairy princess and her consort waste no time, evidently- and this looks to be a Faery trait.  In Spenser’s Faery Queen Prince Arthur, much like Sir Launfal, meets a fairy queen whilst he’s resting in a forest.  “Her dainty limbes full softly down did lay,” after which he was ravished by the delight that “she to me delivered all that night.” (Book I, canto IX, stanza 14).

It’s not solely fairy women who are passionate and impetuous.  In the Scottish ballad of Tamlane, the male hero (who is admittedly a human boy stolen away to fairyland by its queen) seems just as ardent.  He meets his lover Janet by a well and, taking her by the hand, leads her behind some nearby rose bushes so that “The green leaves were in between… What they did, I cannot say- [but] she ne’er returned a maid.”

As the romance of Sir Launfal has already indicated, fairy females can have a powerful effect on their human partners- at least in the minds of (male) medieval poets.  This is explicit in the story of Thomas of Erceldoune, which is dated to around 1425.  Thomas meets the fairy queen, another ‘lady shining bright’, and is so overcome with desire for her that “seven times he lay by her.”  Eventually she has literally to push him off, protesting “Man, you like your play… let me be!”

The lhiannan shee

Such are the aphrodisiac qualities of the fairy lover.  These feats are impressive (as well as improbable, perhaps) but there can be a downside to such consuming passions.  This is demonstrated by the leannan-shee of Celtic fairylore, whose activities were reported as a continuing menace even into Victorian times, though by then they were much rarer.  For example, describing Perthshire in 1810, one writer complained how:

“in our Highlands there be many fair ladies of this aerial order, which do often tryst with amorous youths, in the quality of succubi, or lightsome paramours or strumpets, called lean-nan-sith.” (Graham, Sketches Descriptive of Picturesque Scenery, p.275)

His words echo those of Reverend Kirk who, around 150 years earlier, had condemned the “abominable” goings on between fairies and humans.  His disapproval was probably not limited to the extra-marital sex.  Generally, relationships with supernaturals are difficult or perilous, for the simple reason that they span dimensions: for instance, marriages between men and mermaids are often short lived whilst men taken by mermaids almost invariably drown.

Visits by both male and female fairy lovers were thought once to have been common, and even in living memory of the late 19th century folklore collectors, there was a shoemaker in Tomantoul who claimed a leannan sith partner.  On the Isle of Man, the fairy lover, the lhiannan shee, was a very strong tradition.  They were believed to generally come at night, noiselessly, perhaps in the guise of a man’s wife, and they often haunted wells and pools.  They make the first advance and to reply to them is dangerous, for they will then attach themselves to a man and to haunt him constantly, whilst remaining invisible and inaudible to everyone else.  In at least one Manx case a lhiannan shee was inherited from a deceased brother.   In another, reported by Evans Wentz, a man met a strange woman at a dance and made the mistake of wiping the sweat from his face on part of her dress.  This created some connection between then and thereafter she would appear beside his bed at night.  Curiously, the only way of getting rid of her was to throw an unbleached linen sheet over the two: perhaps the pure, fresh state was significant?

Men would separate themselves from their family and friends to be with these fae lovers, who would visit them nightly and slowly exhaust them- both physically and mentally.  Obedience to the fairy mistress might be enforced by violence too- though sometimes the hapless human may have wondered whether he was being punished for daring to presume to love a fay or for neglecting or trying to escape her.  Eventually the leannan-shee would become an intolerable burden to their chosen partner and the men were frequently desperate to escape them, even emigrating to the other side of the world in an attempt to shake them off.  These efforts tended to fail- but oddly, whilst the fairy women appear to be undefeated by intervening oceans, at the same time they can’t cross streams.

As a general statement, fairy lovers are said to ruin their partners in body and soul.  Worse still, in one notorious case the fairy women were said to have bewitched all the males of the Isle of Man and to have lured everyone into the sea.  The male Manx  equivalents were generally seen as being equally dangerous, carrying women off forever.  Nonetheless, in the Scottish Highlands the gille sith (fairy boy) was renowned as a loving and attentive partner.

We should also add that fairy lovers can be the source of great advantage to their partners.  They can bring good luck and supernatural protection, bestow the skill of healing with herbs and grant the ability to foresee the future.  They can also assist their paramours with magical advice: an illustration is found in the tale of ‘the first MacIntyre.’  He was thrown out by his elder brother, who told him to leave the family farm taking only one white cow- and as many others as might follow her.  The younger brother had a fairy lover who gave him wise counsel in times of need.  She recommended that he pick up a sheaf of corn and then call the white cow.  When he did as instructed, most of the rest of the herd came too.

I’ll leave you with some of the verses of Irish poet Thomas Boyd’s poem The Leanan Sidhe (The fairy mistress) which capture many aspects of this legend:

“Where is thy lovely perilous abode?
In what strange phantom-land
Glimmer the fairy turrets whereto rode
The ill-starred poet band? …

And there … Trembling, behold thee lone,
Now weaving in slow dance an awful spell,
Now still upon thy throne?

Whether he sees thee thus, or in his dreams,
Thy light makes all lights dim;
An aching solitude from henceforth seems
The world of men to him.”

 

 

 

“Al on snowe white stedes” – fairy animals

gwartheg

A number of domesticated beasts are also associated with fairies, showing how often their society imitated and paralleled our own.  Sometimes this livestock was imagined as being its normal size, so as to match human sized fairies; on other occasions the creatures were diminutive, just like their supernatural owners.  Some of the creatures were larger than their counterparts in the human world, enhancing the fear associated with their unearthly origins.

Fairy livestock

We find regular reference to:

  • goats– I have discussed fairy goats before.  They were very well known in Wales, but the Cornish were also aware of the link.  For example, William Bottrell recorded that wherever goats preferred to graze would be certain to be places frequented by the pixies.  In the Highlands of Perthshire it was believed that the fairies lived on goat’s milk.

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  • horses– fairies liked hunting and processing and for this horses were nearly essential.  In the poem Sir Orfeo the fairy king arrives to seduce the knight’s wife with his ladies and retainers, “Al on snowe white stedes.”  In the Scottish poem Young Tamlane the fairies process on black, brown and white mounts whilst in Thomas of Erceldoune the fairy queen appears astride a ‘palfrey.’ We also hear of Welsh fairies hunting on grey horses and- from an old woman in the Vale of Neath in 1827- an account of fairies seen riding white horses ‘no bigger than dogs.’  These Welsh fairies were said to ride in the air, never coming to ground.  Appropriately, fairy horses were renowned for their swiftness.  In contrast to these generally small and pale-hued steeds, a horse that collected a midwife to attend a fairy labour near Tavistock was coal black with eyes ‘like balls of fire’…  John Campbell in Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands suggested that the fairy horses might not be real, at all, but just enchanted ragweed stems, on which fairies so often flew through the air like broomsticks.  This might indeed have been the case in the north of Scotland, at least.
  • deer– in the Highlands fairies were especially associated with the red deer and, indeed,  it was believed by some that they were their only cattle.  It was also alleged that fairy women could transform themselves into deer and might be captured in this guise.
  • dogs- for the fairies’ great sport of hunting, hounds are required.  Searching to recover his wife, Sir Orfeo meets the king of fairy riding out “with hundes berkyng.”  Likewise in Thomas of Erceldoune the fairy queen is met with “hir greyehundes” and “Hir raches.”  The latter are ‘rachets’- specially bred hunting dogs.  The Cwn Annwn (roughly, the hounds of hell) of Welsh legend were ban dogs employed for the pursuit of the souls of those who had died either unbaptised or unshriven. They dashed through the air on stormy nights, terrifying the mortals below.  More dainty, perhaps, were the “milk white hounds” that accompanied the elfin ladies of the lakes.  In stark contrast, the ‘people of peace’ of the Scottish Highlands possessed dogs the size of bullocks, which were dark green (though paling towards their feet). These hounds’ tails either curled tightly on their backs or appeared flat, even plaited.  They were kept as ferocious watchdogs for the fairy knolls and were said to move by gliding in straight lines.
  • cats: fairy felines were apparently the size of human dogs, black with a white spot on their chests, their backs constantly arched and their fur bristled.
  • cattle– Irish fairy cattle are famed for their distinctive appearance: they are white with red ears.  In Britain, though, such distinctive characteristics are not so regularly recorded, but in Wales the “comely milk white kine” were definitely famed.  These were the gwartheg y llyn,  the ‘lake cattle’, that were frequently brought to marriages with human males by the beautiful and mesmerising lake maidens.  Alternatively they might mingle and interbreed naturally with human herds (and are clearly envisaged as being of normal proportions and appearance).  If (when) the fairy wife is later rejected or insulted, her departure will also inevitably mean the departure of the fairy beasts from her husband’s herd.  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.  In the Scottish Highlands fairy cattle typically were dun coloured and hornless, but on Skye they were red speckled and could cross the sea.
  • other livestock– In British goblins Wirt Sikes says that the Welsh fairies may appear in the shape of sheep, poultry and pigs.  It is not wholly clear from his account whether these are fairy animals or fairies in the form of animals.  Whatever the exact situation, these creatures were often reported as being seen flying or rising from pastures up into the sky.

In summary, there seem to be a number of common features to fairy animals. They are very commonly pure white- a sure sign of their supernatural nature- and most commonly airborne (another clear indication of their enchanted nature). Although in many respects, their behaviour was identical with that of normal farm beasts, they were prone to appear and disappear unpredictably.  As with all fairy gifts, poor treatment of them guarantees their loss.

cnn-annwn

cwn annwn