‘The House on Selena Moor’- a story analysed

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A view west towards Silena Moor (in the valley) today

Here is an annotated version of this fascinating text, taken from William Bottrell’s Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall, Second Series, Penzance 1873, pp.94-102

“When the ancient family of Noy flourished in Buryan, there was a large tract of unenclosed common, belonging to the farms of Pendrea, Selena, and Tresidder, which extended from Cotnewilly to Burnewhall, and branched off in other directions. Great part of this ground was swampy and produced a rank growth of rushes, water-flags, and coarse herbage. Many acres were gay in summer with cotton-grass, bog-beans, cucco-flowers, and other plants usually found in such soil. In some places were dry rocky banks overgrown with sloe-trees, moor-withey, furze, and brambles; these patches being surrounded by a broad extent of quaking bog or muddy soil appeared like islands in a marsh. There were also many springs, rivulets, and pools, that seldom froze, much frequented by wild-fowl in winter. Great part of this moorland was then impassable; horse-tracks leading to Burnewhall, Selena, and other farms, passed over the driest places, and were continued by rough causeways through swamps;—they were very bad roads at all seasons.

[Silena Moor is still to be found in Penwith, to the west of Newlyn on the main B3315 road to Land’s End.  It is to the south west of St Buryan and is an area of rough grass and scrub, as can just about be seen in the above photo.]

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The menhir overlooking Silena moor

“One afternoon in harvest, Mr. Noy, with some of his men, were over to Burnewhall helping his kinsfolk, the Pendars. As more hands were required for the next day, which was to be the gulthise (harvest home), soon after ‘croust‘ time (lunch time) he rode up to Church-town to get them…

Soon after ‘day-down’ Mr. Noy, followed by his dogs, left the public-house intending to return to Burnewhall, but he didn’t arrive there that night nor the next. The Pendars and their people thought he might have enjoyed himself at the Ship Inn till late, and then have gone home to Pendrea. Mr. Noy had no wife nor anybody else to be much alarmed about him, as he was a middle-aged or rather elderly bachelor. But next day when people from Church-town, Pendrea, and scores of neighbours from other farms, came with their horses to help and to feast at the gulthise, and nobody among them had seen or heard of Mr. Noy from the time he left the inn, they got somewhat uneasy; … Dame Pendar sent messengers round to all places where she thought Mr. Noy might have gone, and they returned, just as the feast was breaking up, without any tidings of him.

Then everyone became anxious, and as it was near daybreak they volunteered to disperse and search in every place they could think of before going to bed.  So away they went, some on horseback, others afoot, to examine mill-pools, stream-works, cliffs, and other dangerous places, near and far away. They returned at night, but nobody had seen or heard of the missing gentleman. Next morning horsemen were dispatched to other parishes, and as Mr. Noy was well known and liked there was a general turn out to hunt for him; but this day, too, was passed in a like fruitless search miles away.

On the third day, however, in the grey of the morning, a horse was heard to neigh, and dogs were heard barking among thickets on a piece of dry ground almost surrounded with bogs and pools, on Pendrea side of Selena Moor.  Now it happened that no one had thought of looking for Mr. Noy in this place so near home, but when with much ado, a score or so of men discovered a passable road into this sort of island in the bogs, there they saw Mr. Noy’s horse and hounds; the horse had found plenty of pasture there, but the dogs, poor things, were half-starved. Horse and dogs showed their joy, and led the way through thorns, furze, and brambles—that might have grown there hundreds of years—till they came to large ‘skaw’ [elder] trees and the ruins of an old bowjey [cowshed] or some such building that no one knew of.

[Note the presence of fairy elder trees at the remote spot where Noy is found.  The description of the spot as an ‘island’ may have resonances with the wider Celtic concept of faery as a normally inaccessible island in the sea]

“The horse stopped at what had been a doorway, looked around and whinnied; the dogs, followed by several people, pushed through the brambles that choked the entrance, and within they found Mr. Noy lying on the ground fast asleep. It was a difficult matter to arouse him; at last he awoke, stretched himself, rubbed his eyes, and said,

‘Why you are Burnewhall and Pendrea folks; however are ye all come here? To-day is to be the gulthise, and I am miles and miles away from home. What parish am I in? How could ‘e have found me? Have my dogs been home and brought ‘e here?’

Mr. Noy seemed like one dazed as we say, and all benumbed as stiff as a stake, so without staying to answer his questions, they gave him some brandy, lifted him on horseback, and left his steed to pick its way out, which it did readily enough, and a shorter one than they discovered.

[Note his physical and mental state– a good indicator of his recent contact with faerie.  Waking up in a strange place after a fairy encounter is a very common scene, especially to be found in Welsh stories of visits to unknown houses and inns on the moors.]

“Though told he was on his own ground, and less than half a mile from Burnewhall, he couldn’t make out the country as he said, till he crossed the running water that divides the farms. “But I am glad,” said he “however it came to pass, to have got back in time for the gulthise.” When they told him how the corn was all carried three days ago, he said they were joking, and wouldn’t believe it till he had seen all in the mowhay [barn] under thatch and roped down; that the loose straw was raked up, and all harvest implements put away till next season.”

[We have the classic lapse of time here, something that typifies the difference between Faery and the human world.  The mention of crossing streams may also be an indicator of a transition from faery back to the normal world.]

“Then whilst breakfast was getting ready, seated on a chimney-stool by a blazing fire, he told his neighbours that when he came to Cotnewilly, the night being clear, he thought he might as well make a short cut across the moor and save nearly a mile- as he had often done before in summer time- instead of going round by the stony bridle-path; but his horse, that was pretty much used to finding his own way when his master was tipsy, wanted to keep the usual road, and his rider, to baulk him, pulled farther off towards Pendrea side of the common than he would otherwise have done, and went on till he found himself in a part that was unknown to him; though he had been, as he thought, over every inch of it that man or beast could tread on, both in winter and summer. Getting alarmed at the strange appearance of everything around him, he tried in vain to retrace his steps, then gave the horse its head, and let it take its own course.

[This stumbling into a strange place in a familiar landscape is a very good example of the experience of being ‘pixy-led’.]

“Yet, instead of proceeding homeward, as was dobbin’s wont, it bore Mr. Noy to a land so crowded with trees that he had to alight and lead his steed. After wandering miles and miles, sometimes riding but oftener afoot, without seeing any habitation in this strange place, which he believed must be out of Buryan but in what parish he couldn’t tell, he at last heard strains of lively music, and spied lights glimmering through the trees and people moving about, which made him hope that he had arrived at some farm where they had a gulthise, and the harvest-folks were out, after supper, dancing in the town-place.

[Pretty obviously, Noy has crossed now into fairyland. This music and feasting is either some fairy event he has stumbled upon or is deliberately set up to lure him to them.]

“His dogs slunk back, and the horse wasn’t willing to go on, so he tied him to a tree, took his course through an orchard towards the lights, and came to a meadow where he saw hundreds of people, some seated at tables eating and drinking with great enjoyment apparently, and others dancing reels to the music of a crowd or tambourine—they are much the same thing—this was played by a damsel dressed in white, who stood on a heaping-stock just beside the house door, which was only a few paces from him.”

[The white dress may be indicative of fairy nature- and of course the reluctance of the dogs and horse to approach demonstrates their keener sense of otherworldliness- but then, they’ve not been in the Star Inn for several hours and they’re a good deal more alert than Mr Noy probably is as he comes upon this faery celebration.  Across Britain, the faeries are renowned for their love of feasting, music and dance, all of which are good ways of trapping unwary humans too.]

“The revellers, farther off, were all very smartly decked out, but they seemed to him, at least most of them, to be a set of undersized mortals; yet the forms and tables, with the drinking-vessels on them, were all in proportion to the little people. The dancers moved so fast that he couldn’t count the number of those that footed jigs and reels together, it almost made his head giddy only to look at their quick and intricate whirling movements.”

[We’re dealing here with pixies or ‘an pobel vean’ the little people of Cornwall.  As in many British stories, this is an encounter with small faeries– child height or less.]

“Noy noticed that the damsel who played the music was more like ordinary folks for stature, and he took her to be the master’s daughter, as, when one dance was ended, she gave the crowd to a little old fellow that stood near her, entered the house, fetched therefrom a black-jack [a leather jug], went round the tables and filled the cups and tankards that those seated, and others, handed to be replenished. Then, whilst she beat up a new tune for another set of dancers, Mr. Noy thought she cast a side-glance towards him; the music, he said, was so charming and lively that to save his soul he couldn’t refrain from going to join the dancers in a three-handed reel, but the girl with a frown and look of alarm, made a motion with her head for him to withdraw round a corner of the house out of sight. He remained gazing, however, and still advancing till she beckoned to the same little old man, to whom she spoke a few words, gave him the crowd to play, and leaving the company, went towards the orchard signalling to Mr. Noy to follow her, which he did. When out of the candle-glare and in a clear spot where moonlight shone, she waited for him. He approached and was surprised to see that the damsel was no other than a farmer’s daughter of Selena, one Grace Hutchens, who had been his sweetheart for a long while, until she died, three or four years ago; at least he had mourned her as dead, and she had been buried in St. Buryan Churchyard as such.”

[Grace is a fairy captive, a servant at the celebration rather than a participant.  She knows the danger of Noy joining in the dance, which is a classic way of being ‘taken.’]

“When Mr. Noy came within a yard or so, turning towards him, she said, ‘thank the stars, my dear William, that I was on the look-out to stop ye, or you would this minute be changed into the small people’s state like I am- woe is me.’ He was about to kiss her, ‘Oh, beware!” she exclaimed, “embrace me not, nor touch flower nor fruit; for eating a tempting plum in this enchanted orchard was my undoing. You may think it strange, yet it was all through my love for you that I am come to this.'”

[‘Changed into the fairy state‘ is a very important phrase.  Long presence in faery,  and especially consumption of food and drink there, will alter you both physically and mentally.  It’s interesting in this account that even touching one of the inhabitants can have the same effect.]

“‘People believed, and so it seemed, that I was found on the moor dead; it was also supposed that I must have dropped there in a trance, as I was subject to it. What was buried for me, however, was only a changeling, or sham body, never mine I should think, for it seems to me that I feel much the same still as when I lived to be your sweetheart.'”

[Abduction of people and livestock by a faked death, and the leaving behind of a ‘stock’ is a strategy used across Britain by the fays.  A log or plant stem might be used for people, or a slaughtered cow’s hide might be stuffed- or even left behind with an elderly elf hidden within.]

“As she said this several little voices squeaked, “Grace, Grace, bring us more beer and cider, be quick!”

[Note the small voices to go with the small bodies of the pobel vean- and their treatment of Grace as a slave.]

“‘Follow me into the garden, and remain there behind the house; be sure you keep out of sight, and don’t for your life, touch fruit or flower,’ said she, in conducting out Mr. Noy, who desired her to bring him a tankard of cider too. ‘No, my love, not for the world,’ she replied, ‘await me here, I’ll soon return. Sad is my lot to be stolen from the living and made housekeeper to these sprites,’ murmured Grace, in quitting the garden.

Over a few minutes she returned to Mr. Noy, led him into a bowery walk, where the music and noise of merriment didn’t overpower their voices, and said, ‘you know, my dear Willy, that I loved you much, but you can never know how dearly.’

‘Rest yourself,’ she continued pointing to a stone, ‘on that seat, whilst I tell ye what you never dreamt of.’ Mr. Noy seated himself as desired, and Grace related how one evening, about dusk, she was out on Selena Moor in quest of strayed sheep, when hearing him, in Pendrea ground, halloo and whistle to his dogs, she crossed over towards the sound in hopes of falling in with him, but missed her way among ferns higher than her head, and wandered on for hours amidst pools and shaking bogs without knowing whither.

After rambling many miles, as it seemed to her, she waded a brook and entered an orchard, then she heard music at a distance, and proceeding towards it, passed into a beautiful garden with alleys all bordered by roses and many sweet flowers, that she had never seen the like of. Apples and other tempting fruit dropped in the walks and hung over head, bursting ripe.”

[Again there is the idea of crossing a stream as a boundary into faery, a place that has some connotations of the garden of Eden.]

“This garden was so surrounded with trees and water- coming in every here and there among them- that, like one ‘piskey-led,’ all her endeavours to find a way out of it were in vain. The music, too, seemed very near at times, but she could see nobody. Feeling weary and athirst, she plucked a plum, that looked like gold in the clear starlight; her lips no sooner closed on the fruit than it dissolved to bitter water which made her sick and faint. She then fell on the ground in a fit, and remained insensible, she couldn’t say how long, ere she awoke to find herself surrounded by hundreds of small people, who made great rejoicing to get her amongst them, as they very much wanted a tidy girl who knew how to bake and brew, one that would keep their habitation decent, nurse the changed-children (i.e. the changelings) that weren’t so strongly made as they used to be, for want of more beef and good malt liquor, so they said.”

[The music is a lure, yet has no definite source- a clear example of ‘ceol sidhe.’ The fairy food, we note, may seem enticing but is unsatisfactory- even unpleasant, when actually eaten. We note too the fairy preference for neatness in humans and their complaints about the weakening of human stock found in the stolen infants.]

“At first she felt like one entranced and hardly knew how to ‘find herself’ in such strange company; even then, after many years’ experience, their mode of life seemed somewhat unnatural to her, for all among them is mere illusion or acting and sham. They have no hearts, she believed, and but little sense or feeling; what serves them, in a way, as such, is merely the remembrance of whatever pleased them when they lived as mortals- may be thousands of years ago.  What appear like ruddy apples and other delicious fruit, are only sloes, hoggans (haws) and blackberries. The sweet scented and rare flowers are no other than such as grow wild on every moor.”

[In this story the fays seem to be our deceased ancestors; there is, too, the familiar use of ‘glamour‘ to deceive.]

“In answer to Mr. Noy’s enquiries about small people’s dietary, Grace told him how she sickened, at first, on their washy food of honey-dew and berries—their ordinary sustenance—and how her stomach felt so waterish that she often longed for a bit of salt fish. The only thing she relished was goat’s milk, ‘for you must have often heard,’ said she, ‘that these animals are frequently seen on moors, or among carns and in other out-of-the-way places, miles from their homes. They are enticed away by small people to nourish their babes and changelings. There’s a score or more of goats here at times. Those cunning old he-ones that often come among a flock—no one knows whence—and disappear with the best milkers, are the decoys, being small people in such shapes. One may often notice in these venerable long-beards, when seen reposing on a rock, chewing their cuds, a look of more than human craftiness and a sly witch-like glance cast from the corner of their eyes.'”

[This story is firmly of the opinion that faery is a place of scant pleasures, for its all superficial and unreal; the food sounds unappetising in the main, although the fairy love of dairy products, especially those of goats, is confirmed.  The fact that fairy food was insubstantial and unhealthy for a human reminds us of the story of the Suffolk Green Children, in which the reverse was the case.]

“Looking at Mr. Noy for a moment with a melancholy expression, Grace sighed and continued, ‘I am now getting used to this sort of life and find it tolerable, the more so because the whole tribe behave to me with great kindness, the elderly men above all; you observed that little fellow to whom I spoke and who now plays the tambourine, I desired him to tell the rest, in case they inquired for me, that I was gone to look after the children, and he is so much attached to me as to do or say anything I request.’ Seeing Mr. Noy look somewhat lowering, Grace exclaimed, ‘Oh! my dear Willy, don’t be such a noddy as to be jealous, for he’s no other than vapour, and what he is pleased to think love, is no more substantial than fancy.’

Mr. Noy asked if there were any children among them besides those they stole and replaced with changelings?

‘Very few indeed,’ she replied, ‘though they are fond of babies, and make great rejoicing when one happens to be born amongst them; and then every little man, however old, is proud to be thought the father. For you must remember they are not of our religion,’ said she, in answer to his surprised look, ‘but star-worshippers. They don’t always live together like Christians and turtle-doves; considering their long existence such constancy would be tiresome for them, anyhow the small tribe seem to think so. And the old withered ‘kiskeys’* of men that one can almost see through, like puffs of smoke, are vainer than the young ones. May the Powers deliver them from their weakly frames! And indeed they often long for the time when they will be altogether dissolved in air, and so end their wearisome state of existence without an object or hope.'”

* the kiskey is the dried up stalk of the kegga, the water hemlock.

Midsummer night's dream

[I have discussed fairy physiology in an early posting and have examined too fairies’ mortality: they are long lived but not immortal, it appears.  The statement about star worship was discussed in my article on fairy religionParticularly notable is the fact that the Welsh fairy king, Gwyn ap Nudd, was said in the Welsh Triads to have great knowledge about the nature and qualities of the stars and could predict the future from them.  The references to fairy salvation are a late, Christian interpolation into fairy-lore, transferring to the Good Neighbours our own concerns about heaven and hell, beliefs that may well not be theirs.]

“Grace also told him—but he didn’t remember exactly the words she spoke—that she was the more content with her condition since she was enabled to take the form of any bird she pleased, and thus gratify her desire to be near him, so that when he thought of her but little suspected her presence; she was mostly hovering round and watching him in the shape of some common small bird. Grace assured Mr. Noy of her everlasting love, yet as long as nature would permit him to retain his mortal form she would rather behold him in flesh and blood, than see him changed to her state. She also told him, that when he died, if he wished to join her, they would then be united and dwell in this fairy-land of the moors.”

[Changes in shape and in size are characteristic, it seems, of Cornish fairies with spriggans able to swell rapidly to the size of a giant and the fairy master of Cherry of Zennor varying between tiny and normal human stature.  The fairy associations with birds and with insects have been discussed in previous posts.]

“Mr. Noy wanted to know much more about these strange beings, and was about to enquire, when they again called, ‘Grace, Grace, where art thou so long? Bring us some drink quickly.’ She hastily entered the house, and that moment it came into his head that he, too, would have some liquor, disperse the small tribe, and save Grace.

Knowing that any garment turned inside out and cast among such sprites would make them flee, and happening to put his hand into his coat pocket, he felt there the gloves that he had worn for binding in the afternoon; quick as thought, he turned one inside out, put into it a small stone, and threw it among them; in an instant they all vanished with the house, Grace, and all the furniture. He just had time to glance round, and saw nothing but thickets and the roofless house of an old bowjey, when he received a blow on his forehead that knocked him down, yet he soon fell asleep and dozed away an hour or two he thought.”

[Turning a garment, whether coat, glove or hat, is a tried and tested solution to being piskey-led.  Throwing the item of clothing- most especially gloves, adds potency to the charm.]

“Those to whom Mr. Noy related his story, said that he had learnt nothing new from Grace, for old folks always believed of the fair people such things as she told him, and they disliked to be seen, above all by daylight, because they then looked aged and grim. It was said, too, that those who take animal forms get smaller and smaller with every change, till they are finally lost in the earth as muryans (ants), and that they passed winter, for the most part, in underground habitations, entered from cleves or carns. And it is held that many persons who appear to have died entranced, are not really dead, but changed into the fairy state.”

[A repetition of some of the themes already highlighted- faery and death, the change in physical state experienced there plus a statement of the underground location of faery.  The celebration seen above ground seems more likely them to have been intended to catch Noy- or just to enjoy a warm summer evening.]

“The recovered gentleman further informed them that he had remarked amongst the small folks, many who bore a sort of family-likeness to people he knew, and he had no doubt but some of them were changelings of recent date, and others their forefathers who died in days of yore, when they were not good enough to be admitted into heaven, nor so wicked as to be doomed to the worst of all places. Over a while, it is supposed they cease to exist as living beings, for which reason fewer of them are now beheld than were seen in old times.”

[Seeing neighbours believed to be dead still alive in faery is a common theme- for example, the story of ‘The Tacksman of Auchriachan.’ There’s a trace here too of the idea that fairies are fallen angels who were caught between heaven and hell when the doors of each were closed.  It’s got mixed up with concepts of abduction and stocks, though.]

“From the night that Mr. Noy strayed into the small people’s habitation, he seemed to be a changed man; he talked of little else but what he saw and heard there, and fancied that every redbreast, yellow-hammer, tinner (wag-tail) or other familiar small bird that came near him, might be the fairy-form of his departed love.

Often at dusk of eve and moonlight nights, he wandered round the moors in hopes to meet Grace, and when he found his search was all in vain he became melancholy, neglected his farm, tired of hunting, and departed this life before the next harvest. Whether he truly died or passed into fairy-land, no one knows.”

[This is a poignant statement of the sense of bereavement felt by many returned from faery.  This yearning to get back to the joys of faery, however compromised they may be, is seen too in the story of ‘Cherry of Zennor’ and James Hogg’s poem ‘Kilmeny‘ amongst many othersNoy hopes to stumble upon Grace and her captors again at evening time, one of the liminal points in the day.]

Cherry of Zennor

an enactment of the Cornish story of ‘Cherry of Zennor

Further Reading

See too my posts on Cherry of Zennor, Cornish fairy dancing and Cornish changelings.

Sennen fairies

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The fairy spring at Sennen

This inspiration for this posting comes from an article on a fairy sighting written by E. Westlake, ‘A Traditional Hallucination’, which was published in the Journal of the Society for Psychic Research vol. 11 (1904), pages 191-193 and was much more recently reproduced in the Fairy Investigation Society Newsletter (New Series) no. 2 July 2015- which is where I first read it.

The experience took place in about 1888 at Sennen Cove, in the far west of Cornwall, and immediately fascinated me- because I know the village and because I knew I would probably visit before too long.  Both I and my wife have Cornish roots, some of her family still live in the county and, as a result (as well as the beauty of the place), we often go down.  This Easter we visited and I knew it was time to make a pilgrimage to the pisky well described in the Victorian report.

The incident was recounted to Mr Westlake, who visited Sennen in 1895, by Grace Penrose, a local woman aged 25, who had been about eighteen when she had her fairy experience.  Westlake wrote it up in 1897 (using his notes of the conversation from 1895) and it finally made it into print another seven years later. Grace’s story of ‘Little people at Sennen’ was this:

“One evening in August, I think it was in 1888, but am not sure to a year, we wanted some water from the well. It was late and Minnie [her elder sister] was afraid to go by herself, and I went with her to keep her company. It was a splendid night. The moon and stars were shining as bright as could be: the moon was overhead and one could see the sands and cliffs quite plain. Minnie had got down into the well – the bottom of which was dry on the near side and was bending down dipping up the water with a cup from the back of the well, which is deeper. I was standing by the side nearest the house with my back to the rock facing the little green of grass, but was looking to the right and watching Minnie in the well. She had been down a minute dipping up the water into the pitcher, when I heard a squeaking like mice.

I looked round, and there on the grass and about five feet in front of me were three little things like dolls about as high as a chair seat, dancing round and round with hands joined as fast as they could go; they were covering I should say as much ground as a big tray. They were dressed in a very thin white stuff like muslin, drawn in at the waist, and thrown all over their heads like a bride’s veil, so that I could not see their faces, and coming down over their arms. Their arms were stretched out rather drooping from the shoulder, and their hands were joined. I saw their hands very plainly, but did not distinguish fingers. They were as white as snow, hands and all. They had very small waists, no larger than the neck of that jug [6.5 inches]. Their dresses swell[ed] out at the bottom from the dancing; they were very long, and I don’t think I saw their feet, but they appeared to be dancing with a movement as though they were working their legs. They did not glide around. They went round pretty fast, as fast as real people. I’ve played like it before now. I watched them a minute [Note: This estimate is probably too great, for I find the time taken by three girls dancing around ‘two or three times as fast as they can’ is not more than 10 to 15 seconds] not longer; and they went around two or three times at least, as they were going round as fast as they could. They went around in the direction of the hands of a watch; and as gently as possible, with no sound of footsteps or rustling of dresses, but the squeaking noise kept up all the time. It was a pretty sound for mice, and louder – quite loud – one could have heard it I should think at a little distance.
Minnie in the well said, ‘Oh! What’s that! What’s that?’ (she told me afterwards she had heard the same noise as I had), and I said ‘Look! Look!’ And then as if they were frightened, they all ran together as quick as lightning up against the rock and they were out of sight in a moment.

I was that frightened, and was as white as a ghost when I came in. We looked at the clock and it was twelve. I have never been there before or since at that time of night. Mr Webber, a German, was in the house; and Mr Carter, who told me they were pixies, fairies you know. I had never heard or read of any such things before. Mother has since said that things were seen there [at the well] in times gone by, but I did not know of that then.”

Grace insisted that she had never had any other paranormal experiences nor suffered hallucinations.  Several details are especially fascinating about her account:

  • the tiny size of the fays, which fits quite well with popular tradition.  The comparison to a doll is something you’ll often see in the more recent reports;
  • their white colour, which is unusual but by no means unique in folklore encounters;
  • their fast spinning dance.  We know the fays for dancing on moonlit nights, but these rapid gyrations are unusual, but again not unheard of.  We should note too that they dance clockwise- ‘sunwise’- a direction that is generally thought to have magical connotations;
  • their high pitched squeaks, which once again are not conventional but which certainly fit with other reports as to their speech;
  • their disappearance into a solid rock face is fairly typical of fay disappearances;
  • the apparent loss of time.  It’s not entirely clear from Grace’s account, but she seems to imply that some hours may have been inexplicably lost during the experience.  Unaccounted passages of time, and the different passing of time in faery and in the human world, are regular incidents in fairy encounters.

The Journal titled Westlake’s article ‘A Traditional Hallucination’ and suggested that it was “obviously founded” on traditional lore- but this isn’t really true.  Had Grace been hallucinating this experience based upon her general knowledge of pixies and fairies, gleaned from books and popular stories, it would probably have been a great deal more conventional than it is.  We have dancing certainly, but we don’t have wings, green clothing, wands and other such standard fairy attributes.  The anomalies in the account argue for its truth.  So too does the fact that both sisters shared the experience- plus the fact that they were so close to the beings they saw.  Grace says the figures danced five feet away.  The path itself little over a metre wide so they were bound to be pretty near and so able to get a very good look.

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Westlake described the well as a “cavity between some granite blocks, about a yard square and deep, into which water drips from the hillside.”  It was approached by a steeply sloping and quite narrow path from the north (that is, from the village).  Beyond, to the east (that is, further uphill), he said there was an open space.

The site identified by the two girls was easily located on the Ordnance Survey map, lying on a steep footpath which leads up from the sea front road that runs through the village.  There’s more housing here than was the case in 1888 and it’s a busy thoroughfare leading from the heart of Sennen up to newer housing higher up the cliff.  Possibly it’s no busier than it was then, albeit holiday makers now replace local farmers and fishermen going about their business.

I was at first pessimistic about identifying the well, as lower down the slope there seemed to be considerable modern development (and, indeed, in one place builders were actively in the process of excavating the hillside to create space for a new dwelling).  Nevertheless, a walk of a few metres further brought me to the large rock that Grace mentioned, its identity as the source of the spring being confirmed by the abundant presence of water flowing beside the path.  Needless to say, with the advent of piped drinking water the well has been completely neglected and, as my photos show, it is seriously overgrown and silted up.  All the same, there was plentiful water present and, mentally removing the accumulated earth and plant material of 130 years, it was very easy to imagine the well as described by Grace and Westlake.

So, there I was.  Was I aware of the pisky presence?  No, I regret not. A hot, sunny bank holiday Monday with other tourists regularly walking past was probably not the ideal time: Grace saw the fairies on a moonlit August night, let’s recall.  I’d probably have to stay in Sennen to have any hope of repeating her encounter or- alternatively- buy the house next to the well.  This happened to be on the market at the time of our visit so, if you fancy living (quite literally) at Land’s End, with stunning views out over the sea (but facing fully into Atlantic gales in the winter), this is the place for you.  Mind, though, that your neighbours may turn out to be piskies, if they’re still in the vicinity.  That may be a blessing- or it may turn out to be a curse.

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Green children and fairy maids- The medieval roots of British fairy traditions

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I have just finished reading Professor Ronald Hutton’s new book The witch.  As is obvious from the title, this is an in-depth study of witches and witchcraft from ancient times up until the close of the witch trials in the seventeenth century.  In fact, it is more of a work of historiography, surveying the research and theories of other scholars, than a pure history of the subject.  Chapter 8 concerns witches and fairies- hence my interest; I have written on this before myself on this about the relationship between fairies and witches and in my book British fairies.

Hutton considers the links between local magicians and healers and the fairies; he also gives an outline of the evolution of British fairy lore as crystallised in its fullest form in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.  It is his sketch of the development of the mythology that I wish to examine in this posting.

Medieval fairy faith

Hutton proposes that there were seven key elements to British fairy belief in the middle ages.  These all seem to have been in place by 1200 at the latest, but it is reasonable to suppose that they originate a good deal earlier, perhaps even pre-Conquest (see for this my posting on Anglo-Saxon elves).  The main twelfth century sources are a verse history of Britain composed by Layamon (c.1200), chronicles written by Ralph of Coggeshall (died 1200) and William of Newbury (1136-98- and who is also called Newburgh and Newbridge), De nugis curialium by Walter Map (1140- 1210), the tour of Wales by Gerald of Wales (1146-1223) and Otia Imperialia by Gervase of Tilbury (1150-1228).  These contain various ‘fairy’ stories and accounts of recent supernatural events and encounters.

These key fairy-lore features are as follows:

  • the fairies inhabit a parallel world- several stories illustrate this.  The underground realm of fairyland is visited in the stories of Elidyr and King Herla whilst the Green Children of Woolpit stray into rural Suffolk from there.  A notable feature that is several times mentioned is the curious half-light that prevails in faery; there is neither sun nor moon, but a dim luminosity like torchlight;
  • they have the ability to enter our world and steal children– Ralph of Coggeshall’s story of ‘Malekin’ demonstrates this.  She was stolen by the fairies from a cornfield where her mother was working during harvest; rather like a ghost she could contact the human world but not return to it;
  • there are portals to faery- in the account of Elidyr he enters fairyland by a river bank; in King Herla it is a cave in a cliff; the Green Children follow a long tunnel that leads them out of ‘St Martin’s Land.’  William of Newbury locates a fairy feast under a barrow, a quintessential fairy locale;
  • beautiful fairy women– they dance at night and will sometimes wed humans– but always subject to conditions that are inevitably broken.  The story of Wild Edric epitomises the irresistible beauty of the fairy bride and her unavoidable loss (see later).  In Layamon’s Brut the lovely elf queen Argante takes Arthur to Avalon after the battle of Camlann to heal and care for him.  Readers may also recall the ‘aelfscyne’ or elf-bright women of Saxon myth I have described before in my post on  Anglo-Saxon elves.  Lastly,  there is evidence suggesting that the fairy women could have their own independent sexuality (or be loose and lustful to medieval minds) as well as being beautiful.  There are menacing accounts in thirteenth century sources of elf women visiting men at night as succubi.  The sister of the Green Children grew up, it was said, to have quite lax morals- an indicator perhaps of her fairy birth (although one might equally suggest that her conduct was a reaction to the shock of becoming an orphan and a refugee);
  • green colour- the Green Children at Woolpit emerged into this Middle Earth green tinged and would only eat green beans at first, although their colour faded as their diet changed;
  • the fairies can bless or torment humans- according to the historian Layamon, King Arthur was blessed by elves at his birth (our earliest fairy godmother account). Conversely, Gervase of Tilbury tells of a fairy horn stolen by a hunter in Gloucestershire.  It brings with it bad luck and the man is executed for his theft; and,
  • they may live in human homes- Gervase of Tilbury tells of the ‘portunes’ who closely resemble brownies.  They work on farms, doing any work required however hard; they serve the household but never injure them and, at nights, they enter the house and cook frogs on the fire.

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Queen Argante

British tradition

These are Hutton’s seven core aspects of British fairylore.  From the medieval accounts I think we can add at least eleven more:

  • time passes differently in faery- when King Herla returns to the human world he is warned not to step from his horse until a small dog given to him has leaped to the ground.  A couple of his retinue forget this and dismount from their steeds; they instantly crumble to dust for he has been away several hundred years, although to him it seemed but hours.  It is said that he and his company are still riding, waiting for the dog to jump down.  The story of Malekin also has a typical feature: she has been seven years in fairyland, she says, and must remain another seven before she may return home.  Seven is a common magic number in faery measurements of time.  A delay of a year between events is also seen.  King Herla celebrates his wedding and, a year later, visits the king of faery to celebrate his.  The same commitment to meet a year later also appears in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight;
  • feasting– is a major fairy fairy pastime, as in the stories of King Herla and the account by William of Newbury of a fairy cup stolen from a banquet under a barrow;
  • mischief- although generally benevolent, the portunes do like to play tricks on humans by leading their horses into ponds when they are out riding at night.  A thirteenth century sermon also speaks of  ‘all such ben led at night with gobelyn and erreth hither and thither’.
  • diminutive size– clearly some fairies, such as the fairy maidens and wives, approach normal stature; nonetheless, the portunes are said to be only a half inch high (probably a mistake for half a foot/ 6″) and the fairies in King Herla are described as apes, pygmies, dwarves and half human size.  The fairies met by Elidyr are likewise small, but by contrast the Green Children, the fairies under the barrow seen in William of Newbury’s story and the bearers of the fairy horn in Gloucestershire are all of normal proportions.  At the other extreme, indeed, the fairy maidens seen dancing by Wild Edric described as being taller and larger than human women;
  • marriage subject to conditions- as mentioned above, fairy maids will wed human husbands, but there is always a catch.  In Wild Edric the hero was warned never to mention her sisters; of course, he did, and she promptly left.  Walter Map described the experience of Gwestin of Gwestiniog, who captured a fairy wife at Llangorse Lake in the Brecon Beacons (De nugis II, xi).  She lived with him and raised a family, but he was told never to strike her with a bridle.  Eventually, accidentally, this happened and forthwith she and all but one of the children disappeared.  This is the first of many such stories from Wales;
  • warnings– Gervase describes the ‘grant’ which is a foal-like creature which warns villagers of fire;
  • honesty & keeping promises is vital in fairy morality.  This an element in King Herla (and in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight); it is also seen in the story of Elidyr, who reported that the supernatural people he met never took oaths and abhorred lying;
  • fairies disappear at will (as in the story of King Herla) and generally remain invisible to normal human sight (as with the changeling Malekin).  This concealment can be overcome in two ways.  A person might apply a magic ointment.  Gervase of Tilbury mentions this in an account of the dracae water spirits of Brittany.  It is a regular feature of later British fairylore and may either have been imported from Brittany or may share the same ‘Celtic’ origin. Alternatively, it may be possible to obtain the second sight through contact with a ‘seer.’  This again is a feature of later lore (see Evans-Wentz for example) but in the life of the hermit Bartholomew who lived on the island of Farne in the late twelfth century the saint is told that he may see swarms of demons by placing his foot upon that of another, so that it seems this technique had a long pedigree;
  • foreknowledge of events- this supernatural power is mentioned in the story of King Herla;
  • a liking of dairy products- in Gerald of Wales’ account of Elidyr’s childhood visits to fairyland, he mentions their vegetarian diet and their preference for junkets.  This later became a significant theme in Elizabethan literature; and,
  • they may need human help, especially at child birth.  Gervase of Tilbury’s story of the Breton dracae also features the theme of the midwife to the fairies, later a regular element in many fairytales.

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All of these characteristics will be recognised in later fairylore and all have been described in previous postings and in my book British fairies.  However, Ronald Hutton suggests that what we would recognise as the British fairy tradition didn’t fully emerge for another 300 years or so, and that it depended upon the assimilation of continental motifs.  He suggests two in particular that were late arrivals in British folk belief:

  • the changeling idea- the idea of substituting a fairy for a human child is, he proposes, an import from Northern Europe.  As we have seen with the story of Malekin, the risk of fairies stealing human children was already well established in Britain at an early date, as was a close affinity between fairies and children- witness the Green Children or the story of Elidyr.  It is not entirely clear then whether we simply lack the evidence of the substituted stock or aged elf or whether this was indeed a last detail borrowed from abroad and added to the established tradition;
  • visiting houses and dairies at night, rewarding the clean and neat and punishing the dirty.  Hutton believes that this derives from continental myths of the good company of ‘the lady’ who could bring blessings to homes.  He may be right in this, but again many of the elements for this belief were plainly already in place- the presence of portunes in some homes and the liking for milk and cream- so that it needed little external influence for the ideas to coalesce; and,
  • fay maids–  Hutton proposes that these beings were inspired by literature.  It is quite true that chivalric romance is full of magical, semi-human women such as Morgan le Fay, but as we have already seen they were well known to British audiences at a much earlier date and may have contributed to Arthurian legend just as well as being derived from it.

On the evidence I have set out, I am inclined to think that the British fairy tradition evolved in recognisable form a good deal earlier than Professor Hutton suggested, although it seems incontestable that continental influences may have helped to refine and emphasise certain themes.

“Full of Fairy elves”- William Blake and fairies

Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing c.1786 by William Blake 1757-1827

Titania, Oberon and Puck with fairies dancing, 1796

This latest posting examines the poet William Blake’s conceptions of fairies.  This is to mark the publication of my latest book, Albion awakea fairy story for adults that features both the Fairy Queen Mab and William Blake amongst its cast of historical characters.

Blake had a very clear vision of the nature of fairies, although these thoughts were frequently unique to him- not an uncommon situation in the complex mythology that he elaborated over the course of his life!  Blake spoke of “the elemental beings called by us by the general name of fairies.”  From this it seems clear that he did not conceive of a single class of supernatural being, but of complex variety- as if, of course, the British conception of fairy-kind.

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Illustration to Milton’s ‘Il Penseroso V‘- Milton dreams of “six spirits or fairies, hovering on the air with instruments.”

The character of Blake’s fays

In his verse, Blake’s fairies fulfil a number of functions:

  • primarily and originally they are remnants of the pagan gods of Britain.  In The Four Zoas Blake speaks of the “fairies of Albion, afterwards The Gods of the Heathen.”
  • they are emanations of his character Los (broadly ‘time and space’) and accordingly they are the makers of time.  In Milton (28, 60) time is described as “the work of fairy hands of the four elements.”
  • along with nymphs, gnomes and genii, fairies are spirits that animate the material, vegetative world.  They are often associated by him with flowers and natural growth and they are linked to its vigour and fecundity.  For example in 1802, after his move to Felpham on the coast, Blake wrote that the trees and fields roundabout his cottage were “full of Fairy elves.” The fairy that dictates Europe to the poet is first discovered “sat on a streak’d Tulip.”
  • closely related to the previous characteristic, fairies are understood to be intimately aware of the sensuous nature of life.  In Europe, for example, the fairy offers to open Blake’s senses and to “shew you all alive/ The world, where every particle breathes forth its joy.”  He demonstrates that the material world is not dead; rather each flower whimpers when it is plucked and its eternal essence then hovers around Blake “like a cloud of incense.”  In this respect, then, fairies represent the natural state of human imagination and perception, before it has been blunted and enslaved by logic and reason.  In his Motto to the Songs of Innocence and Experience, Blake condemns how:

“The good are attracted by men’s perceptions,/ And think not for themselves;/ Til experience teaches them to catch/ And to cage fairies and elves.”

  • the keen animation of the fairy senses seems to shade into sensuality and Blake makes some connection between these spirits and female sexuality.  In ‘A fairy leapt upon my knee’ the spirit protests to Blake thus:

“Knowest thou not, O Fairies’ lord,/ How much to us contemn’d, abhorred,/ Whatever hides the female form/ That cannot bear the mortal storm?/ Therefore in pity still we give/ Our lives to make the female live;/ And what would turn into disease/ We turn to what will joy and please!”

The verse ‘The fairy’ treats the supernatural creature as ‘king’ of the marriage ring.  It appears that Blake saw the emotional and physical obsession of love as some sort of spell that has to be broken.  This link to carnal pleasure also seems to feature in his poem The Phoenix, sent to Mrs Butts in 1800 after the move to Felpham. Blake contrasts a fairy to the innocence of children playing.  The phoenix flees the sprite for the company of the children and-

“The Fairy to my bosom flew/ weeping tears of morning dew/ I said thou foolish whimpring thing/ Is not that thy Fairy Ring/ Where those children sport and play/ In fairy fancies light and gay?/ Seem the child and be a child/ And the Phoenix is beguild/ But if thou seem a fairy thing/ Then it flies on glancing Wing.”

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Illustration to Milton’s L’Allegro V- Queen Mab, fairies & a goblin.

Blake’s tiny fairies

These quite individual conceptions of the nature of faery were elaborated  by the poet from pre-existing folk materials of long standing.  We have just seen mention of fairy rings and, in one very significant respect, Blake did not depart at all from conventional imaginings of fairies: his creatures are always very small.  There are numerous examples of this:

  • An early poem, found in the manuscript collection owned by Rossetti,  describes how “A fairy leapt upon my knee.”  Blake condemns it as a “Thou paltry, gilded, poisonous worm,” emphasising its miniature dimensions.
  • In another early poem, found only in manuscript, ‘Little Mary Bell’ keeps a fairy hidden in a nut.
  • An illustration for the 1797 edition of Gray’s A long story has fairies riding upon flies;
  • In Europe Blake caught the fairy muse in his hat “as boys knock down a butterfly” and then took it home “in my warm bosom” where it perched on his table and dictated the verse.  In his early poem, The fairy, Blake likewise catches a elf in his hat after it leaps from some leaves in an effort to escape.  He addresses it as his ‘Butterfly.’
  • Lastly, in his famous account of a fairy funeral, Blake described “creatures of the size and colour of green and gray grasshoppers, bearing a body laid out on a rose leaf.”

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Illustration to Gray’s ‘Long story’- fairies riding on flies

Blake’s vision as, of course, a highly personal one and we would seldom be well advised to treat his version of fairy-lore as an authoritative guide to what his contemporaries believed about the supernatural world.  Nonetheless, it is a fascinating and coherent conception and a notable element within his overall philosophy.

My interpretation and use of Blake’s fairy lore, my new fairy tale Albion awake!is available to purchase through Amazon as a Kindle or paperback.  I also intend to make related posts separately on johnkruseblog.wordpress.com.  An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).

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Further reading

I have discussed William Blake in several other posts: I consider his views on fairy origins, on the nature of the magical realm of Albion and how Blake’s art and poetry has influenced later generations of artists, writers and visionaries.