The faery personality- and their relations with humans

ovenden evil fairy
EnEvil fairy by Graham Ovenden

“Be careful how ye speake here o’ the Wee Folk/ Or they will play such pranks on thee and thine/ Nae doubt, they dae a lot of good whiles/ But if provoked, they can be maist unkind.” (Henry Terrell,  The wee folk of Menteith, p.46)

Some months ago I posted about my personal views of the nature and conduct of fairy-kind.  I’d like to say a little more about my view of their general character and interaction with human kind, as I think it will inform an understanding of my own approach to the subject in these postings.

All things nice?

I’ve written in the past about certain modern, cute manifestations of fairy kind: Santa’s elves for example and the Tooth Fairy.  As those of you who read these comments will no doubt have detected, I have little time for such sugary figures.  I have an affection for the flower fairy art of Cicely Mary Barker and Margaret Tarrant, and even (sometimes) the plump cuddly creations of Mabel Lucy Atwell, but my own conception of their identity and activities is very different.

The genre of imagery shown below is part of our problem with fairies: because of Shakespeare and his contemporaries and successors, we have come to see them as cuddly and sweet and ideally suited to little girls.  This is a gross underestimation and misconception.  Perhaps Graham Ovenden’s painting at the head of this post is most appropriate: there’s beauty, but there’s something beneath, in that distracted self-absorbed look.

Attwelll Changeling
Mabel Lucy Attwell, The Changeling.Enter a caption

A darker view?

My view of Faery is rather darker and I’d summarise their main personality traits as follows.  I’ll use some characters from my own books to illustrate these convictions, or preconceptions (or prejudices!) of mine:

  • the fairies are a serious and scary people.  I don’t conceive of them as small, either physically or in their activities.  This will be apparent from my postings on this site and from all my fictional creations, but most strongly, perhaps, in the person of Maeve in Albion awake!  I’d hesitate to antagonise or patronise her: I may have imagined her as smaller of stature, but there’s no doubting her formidable determination;
  • they can’t be taken for granted and must be treated with all due respect and caution.  Their good will can’t be bought;
  • their resemblance to us should not be mistaken for affinity.  They may look like us physically, but they are unlike us and any resemblance should not put us off our guard;
  • they are strong and independent.  They have their own agenda and their own rules by which they live.  We shouldn’t presume to know their plans or to have much hope of changing them;
  • they are reserved and won’t reveal themselves readily;
  • they are content to live separately from us- indeed, they would prefer to do so- but sometimes necessity obliges them to make contact.  We should not imagine that they want to ‘help’ us or that they ‘love’ humankind.  To my mind that sort of attitude tends towards complacency and overconfidence.  In Albion awake!, for example, main character John Bullen is permitted to call upon Maeve’s assistance in times of great need, but no more.  That doesn’t inhibit her in appearing in his flat whenever she has need to make use of him, though; and that’s the core of the human/fairy interaction, to my mind.  They make use of us and they may grant us the occasional favour, but there is an notable imbalance of power.  In my novel The elder queen the fairies (‘the sky children’) show kindness to Darren Carter, but I’d probably conceive that as pity for the shambling wreck that he makes of his life towards the midpoint of the book- he’s drug addicted, divorced and indebted, homeless and jobless.  He’s an object of their charity; there’s a good deal of condescension but little of the equality of friends.

Key to the fairy character is their mutability.  How a particular individual human may be treated seems often to be a matter of whim; a fay’s mood is seldom predictable.  (I’d argue that this apparent lack of consistency may be more to do with our ignorance of their habits and thinking than any waywardness on their part).  Possible interactions with humans therefore cover a complete spectrum from good to bad.  The fairy may be:

  • evasive and secretive- or at the very least indifferent.  Whether this arises from fear of humankind, or contempt for mortals, is debatable;
  • generous and helpful.  Certain favourites may, inexplicably, be adopted and given regular gifts of money or valuable skills or rewards (such as a never ending supply of flour or beer);
  • even-handed and scrupulously fair.  Sometimes faes will ask to borrow some household item or provision; they will always return it and, if a food stuff has been loaned, they will insist upon a full and equivalent restitution, and occasionally more than that;
  • cruel and spiteful.  A human may deserve their bad treatment, possibly because of some conceived slight to or neglect of the fairies; alternatively, there may be little explanation for the maltreatment dished out- other than it amuses the faeries.

The last category of interaction is naturally the most concerning, as it can be unheralded and undeserved torment- sometimes culminating in death.  If I’m being cautious in my advice on approaches to fairies, I would always advise that you proceed on the assumption that the response you will get may be a rebuff or worse.  If I was asked to summarise the most negative aspects of faery character, I would say that they were exploitative.  Humankind are very often viewed as a resource, something to be used.  They may take our foodstuffs, they may make use of our possessions or occupy our homes.  Parasitic might be an even harsher adjective.  Fairy-kind can bake, churn, spin, forge metals and all the rest; but why labour when people have done the work already?  In this frame of mind, we can interpret changeling children as cuckoos: why look after the weak and infirm when you can take a healthy infant and leave the really hard care to a human?

Further reading

I expand upon many of these traits in my other postings and in my 2017 book British fairies.  My general advice, though, would always be to approach our Good Neighbours with great caution: if they are friendly and bountiful, count your blessings and enjoy your good luck (keeping it strictly secret).  If they do not seem approachable, accept it and keep a respectful distance.  Don’t pester, don’t expect, don’t assume.  Don’t mix up smaller size and beautiful looks with cuteness and harmlessness; as I titled a previous post- not all nymphs are nice.

My forthcoming book, Faery, from Llewellyn Worldwide, will delve even further into the complex nature of the fae personality.

Fairy taboos- reflections on some posts by Morgan Daimler

watching the fairies, beatrice goldsmith

Beatrice Goldsmith, Watching the fairies, 1925

On her blog Living liminally, Morgan has written a useful series of posts giving guidelines to interaction between humans and faery.  I encourage readers to have a look at these and also at my own post on fairy temperament.  I’ll only offer a few supplementary remarks here.

Thanking fairies

Morgan’s first fairy taboo is never to say thank you.  This isn’t just a matter of avoiding verbal gratitude: gifts to fairies that acknowledged some obligation- or even suggest some reciprocity may exist between our two worlds- are as likely to offend.  I have mentioned before the inadvisability of giving clothes to brownies– this can at the very least drive them away, at the worst antagonise them to such a degree that become a blight upon a household.

Privacy

Morgan’s second post is on the taboo of privacy, something that is clearly closely related to the former.  All the evidence confirms that discretion in respect of fairy contact is the only advisable approach: they do not like boasting or talkativeness on the part of humans.  Perhaps it suggests that they are taken for granted; it certainly betrays their own secrecy and privacy.  As I have alluded to several times, disclosure by a person that they are favourites of the fairies almost invariably results in the termination of that favour.

Names

The proper and respectful use of names is the third taboo Morgan has covered.  Fairies’ names are a source of power and must be handled circumspectly.  As a rule it is better to avoid references that may draw their attention to you; if the fairies must be mentioned, euphemisms that are complimentary seem to be preferable.  As Morgan rightly observes, some of the labels chosen are merely descriptive, whether of the appearance of the supernatural being or of the location in which s/he is found; this neutral approach may well be safest.  It’s also worth emphasising, as she does in a separate post on the power of names, that keeping back your own name from the fairies is just as important (something illustrated by the Ainsel series of stories, such as that of Meg Moulach).  Fairies withhold their names from us to stop us getting power over them and the reverse is just as true; put simply, if they have a grievance against you, it’s harder for them to find you if they don’t have your name!  Nonetheless, I’ve always felt rather uncomfortable about this strand of thought about the fays.  On the one hand it seems to suggest that humans are cleverer than their good neighbours and that a bit of cunning can outwit them or can trick them into betraying their names themselves.  At the same time, it introduces an element of deceit into the relationship, a want of openness and honesty that runs directly counter to other precepts on promoting good relations with fairies.

Food

Most recently Morgan has discussed food taboos and fairies.  This is a complex area: partaking of food (much like joining in a fairy dance) can be a way of succumbing to their magic.  At the same time, the faes often seem dependent upon human provisions (whether these are acquired as offerings or stolen).  As I’ve debated before, quite whether some of these gifts these represent propitiation or some sort of bargain is never wholly clear.  What we can say for certain is that they particularly like to consume dairy produce such as cream.

Etiquette

In a separate post dated May 4th 2017 Morgan makes the interesting suggestion that our past use of fairy as a derogatory term denoting a loose woman or a gay man might be the cause of our Good Neighbours’ dislike for the word.  This is certainly a very interesting suggestion; I had tended to see it the other way round: that the sense of unashamed and uninhibited sexuality on the part of the fairies was transferred to human conduct, but became derogatory in the process.

Generally, Morgan places considerable stress upon proper etiquette in our relations with the fair folk.  As I’ve repeated myself here and in several other posts, this is eminently good advice.  Given that they are a powerful people, mostly hidden from us and working to their own undisclosed agenda, conduct that propitiates or, at the very least, does not antagonise the fae surely is the only sensible course of action.

“That shrewd and knavish sprite”- the fairy temperament

rackham-elfin-species

Is it possible to generalise meaningfully upon the character of a people?  There are, of course, popular conceptions of nations such as the British, Welsh, Irish and Cornish, but how valid are these stereotypes?  Turning to supernatural realms, is it any easier to delineate temperament?  Our ancestors apparently thought so, with the denizens of faery treated as predictably uniform in their conduct and reactions rather than being individuated.

Fairy types

Folk imagination detected distinctly discernible traits to the different ‘species’ of fairies. Certain identifiable types possessed very simple characters indeed, possessed of only a couple of features.  For example:

  • brownies or house elves, which were attached to specific houses or estates, were generally amenable to human proximity and were hard workers, being content with a regular bowl of gruel or fresh milk or water.  Robin Goodfellow is cast in this role in Samuel Rowland’s More knaves yet of 1613.  Robin helps the country wenches “To wash the dishes for some fresh-cheese hier:/ Or set their Pots and Kettles bout the fier.”   Brownies only became upset when presented with a more material reward, such as a suit of clothes, a mistaken kindness which would so offend that they would desert the holding or, sometimes, haunt it destructively like a poltergeist; or,
  • boggarts, bogies and bogles and similar spirits are consistently ill-tempered, tending to mischief that shades into downright malice.  By and large this is their only function- to trick, annoy and to scare, although on occasion there is a moral aspect to the treatment: the Dorset colepexy was a red-eyed goblin colt that would  lead wanderers astray into marshes.  Sometimes this was a punishment for malefaction, such as sealing from orchards.  Hobgoblins, personalised in the character of Puck  in Shakespeare’s Midsummer night’s dream (from whence the title of this post: Act II, scene i), traditionally inhabit the border between brownies and bogies.  They are mischievous creatures, but are generally well-disposed toward humankind and all our frailties.

See too my discussion of the ‘fairy races’ in my post on the Two tribes.

a-fairy-meets-puck

Midsummer Night’s Dream, a fairy meets puck.

The pixies and other trooping fairies, which usually take human form and often are of human stature, have more complex characters than those fairies so far described. Nevertheless, their moods, manners and motivations were conceived to be fairly constant, so consistent indeed that the personality descriptions that follow might almost serve as a human’s guide to dealing with Faery- what conduct to prefer, what to avoid.

Fairy traits

The most typical fairy traits were:

  • a secretive, private disposition.  Spying and intrusion are resented and so is often chastised, frequently by pinching, as befell John Aubrey’s former schoolmaster, Mr Hart, when he intruded upon a fairy dance on the downs near Chippenham.  Any risk of disclosure of their presence is hated by fairies, so that they conceal themselves with the magical power of ‘glamour’ and will punish severely those who breach this. A very common story across the British Isles is of the human who is midwife, nursemaid or fosterer to a fairy child.  S/he is given balm with which to anoint the fairy infant’s eyes, but is cautioned not to put it upon their own.  The inevitable violation accidentally occurs, revealing the true nature of the fairy residence (frequently a ruin or charnel house).  Later the fairies are met at the market and greeted, in response to which the eye touched with glamour is promptly blinded.
  • an aversion to human untidiness and a preference for neatness.  To breach these standards usually leads to a merciless pinching. For example, Rowland has his Robin Goodfellow “bepinch the lazie queane” and John Marston in The Mountebank’s Mask of 1618 alludes to the risk that “lustie Doll, maide of the Dairie,/ Chance to be blew-nipt by the fairie.”  Robert Herrick, in his poem The fairies, succinctly encapsulates the fairy prejudices in their entirety-

“If ye will with Mab find grace/ Set each Platter in his place:/ Rake the fier up, and get/ Water in, ere sun be set./ Wash your Pailes and clense your Dairies;/ Sluts are loathsome to the Fairies:/ Sweep your house: who doth not so,/ Mab will pinch her by the toe.”

  • Herrick also hints at another less well-known fairy character trait: a respect for Christian superstition.  In the verse Ceremony upon Candlemas Eve he warns maidservants to remove all the greenery that had bedecked the Christmas hall before that date otherwise “So many Goblins shall you see.”
  • resentment of meanness and rudeness whilst, conversely, generosity and good manners will be rewarded.  However, presumption is also disliked.  Taking fairy gifts for granted, for example, or disclosing a person’s good fortune to others, will invariably lead to the withdrawal of fairy favour and the loss of the benefits they had bestowed.  The obligation to be circumspect about the source of one’s good luck is reflected in the words of Ben Jonson’s Entertainment at Althorpe.  Fairies presented a gift to the queen but then admonished her “Utter not/ We implore you/ Who did give it, nor wherefore/ And whenever you restore/ Yourself to us, you shall have more.”  Massinger expressed this same warning with greater foreboding in The fatal dowry (IV, 1): “But not a word of it- ’tis fairies’ treasure,/ Which but revealed brings on the blabber’s ruin.”
  • an esteem for a fair and generous nature, honesty and oath keeping, a preparedness to lend and share and a cheerful disposition on the part of human beings.

It will be observed that the code of conduct imposed upon humans is one of opposites and that the fairy nature is likewise a combination of polar contrasts.  For fortunate humans of the desired disposition, though, the fairies will be grateful and kind (subject to the conditions of discretion already specified).

Lastly, it will be noted that the more modern type of fairy (small, winged, associated with flowers) is a far more benign kind of nature spirit altogether.  They are reserved and timid, gentle, kind, harmless and helpful.  The iconography reflects this, with girlish imagery replacing wizened old men as the ‘typical’ fairy.

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