During the last hundred years or so, fairies have become intimately associated with flowers. What I want to do in this post is to consider the evidence for such links in traditional folklore beliefs and to discuss how the idea has arisen that fairies are ‘nature spirits’ or ‘guardians of nature’ and have a particular mission to supervise the growth of flowers and other plants, in which work they may resemble bees or ants and are certainly of diminutive dimensions.
Without doubt, one link in the chain connecting fairies to flora is literary. Shakespeare perhaps initiated the trend with a the fairies in Midsummer Night’s Dream. One is required to “hang a pearl in every cowslip’s ear” (II, 1). Of course, we have fairy Peaseblossom in the same play (III, 1) and Oberon’s well-known directions to help Puck find Titania:
“I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight…” (Act II, 1)
In The Tempest Ariel, who sings “Where the bee sucks., there suck I” The floral motifs are prominent, indicating a closeness to nature generally and the evidence of small statute is also present. Robert Herrick and Michael Drayton took the matter of scale to extremes, though for reasons of pure fancy: I don’t believe that they sought to reflect any genuine traditions known to them. British fairies are of a range of sizes, often adult height, quite often the size of children, much more rarely very small (the medieval English ‘portunes’ of just half an inch in height are an exception).
Richard Dadd, ‘Titania sleeping,’ 1841, The Louvre
Herrick imagined a fairy loaf of bread as “A moon-parch’t grain of wheat” washed down with “A pure seed-pearle of infant dew/ Brought and besweetened in a blew/ And pregnant violet” (Oberon’s feast). Drayton likewise envisaged a fairy palace “The walls of spiders’ legs are made … The windows of the eyes of cats” (Nymphidia). The conceit of miniature fairies was sustained into the next century by other poets. For example, in The flower and the leaf John Dryden imagined that a faint track “look’d as lightly press’d, by fairy feet” and William King, like Herrick, surveyed a fairy supper:
“What may they be, fish, flesh of fruit?/ I never saw things so minute./ Sir, a roasted ant is nicely done,/ By one small atom of the sun./ These are flies’ eggs in moonshine poach’d/ This a flea’s thigh, in collops scotched.” (Orpheus and Eurydice)
Increasingly, then, the convention prevailed that fairies were minuscule, but neither in literature nor in folk tales was there any deep attachment to plant life. As described when discussing fairy clothes, fairies most often were attired in green, which may well be symbolic of growth, but there is still scant suggestion of any special purpose as ministers of Mother Nature. There are quite a few indications of fairies inhabiting trees. There is the Old Lady of the Elder Tree whom I have mentioned in discussing my book The Elder Queen; from the Outer Hebrides comes a story of a fairy maiden who inhabits a tree on a knoll, once a year appearing to dispense ‘the milk of wisdom’ to local women (L. Spence, British fairy origins pp.101 & 186); also from the Highlands and Western Isles we hear a report of ‘tree spirits’, green elves who are often seen in woodland (Spence p.100). This is about as good as it gets in British tradition. Lewis Spence in chapter VI of British fairy origins examined the theory that fairies derived from ‘elementary spirits’ and summed up “all nature spirits are not the same as fairies; nor are all fairies nature spirits.” (p.110) He further stated that “it is a notable thing that in Great Britain and Ireland the nature spirit remains to us in vestigial form only. To make a list of British nature spirits as known in our islands today is very … difficult… I can think of no genuinely English earth or tree spirits.” (p.113) He blames homogenisation into “the common hill-fairy, the standard elf of folk-lore.” (p.114) On the matter of flowers, s I have described before, there are flowers that are believed particularly to repel or to attract fairies, but the surviving stories do not conceive of fairies living within or overseeing the growth of any flowers.
How then do we explain the rapid ascendancy of the flower fairy? I think that occult science and mystical philosophy are the source; flower fairies are a product of the thought of Paracelsus and Pseudo-Dionysus. They are nature spirits, part of a ‘celestial hierarchy,’ and are derived from a system of thought very different to native custom. I shall examine this theme further in due course.