Although a good deal of the recorded folklore portrays the faeries as self-interested and insular, there are some notable exceptions. The best known are the brownies, lobs, hobs and boggarts who will live in close proximity to humans and perform tasks on their behalf, just like a farm hand or domestic servant. Then there are the unpredictable acts of generosity, in which an individual is inexplicably favoured and showered with gifts. A related group of cases are those where it is the poor and disadvantaged who, it seems, are deliberately helped. These are the ‘Robin Hood’ activities I want to examine here.
Examples of interventions by faeries that our current UK government would call ‘levelling up’ can be found across the whole of the British Isles. We’ll start our survey in Wales. The good deeds of the tylwyth teg have included guiding a man home when he was lost in the mist (a typically random act of kindness, taking pity on an individual in a moment of need) and more systematic patterns of providing poor people with food when they were hungry (although we should admit that these provisions might well have been stolen from elsewhere). Needless to say, perhaps, but the tylwyth teg will object if they are spied upon when performing good works. So, when the ellyllon agreed to help a very poor farmer called Rowli Pugh by doing all the chores on his holding, he prospered- until his wife allowed curiosity to get the better of caution- and watched them one night.
One eighteenth century informant was of the opinion that the tylwyth teg took money from bad, rich people in order to give it to good, poor folk. Given their reputation for thievery, it’s hardly a surprise to learn that the fair folk were believed to steal money from farmer’s pockets at fairs, leaving instead their own coins, which looked real enough until the possessor tried to spend them- at which point they vanished. Furthermore, it’s certainly the case that at least one of the cases of coins left lying around for people to discover involved a very poor man (a poor shoemaker in fragile health, who regularly found silver shillings- until his wife forced him to say where they were coming from). Likewise, the story of Guto Bach, a little boy who was befriended by the tylwyth teg, concludes with his parents losing all their money in a shipwreck; the faeries intercede, though, telling Guto to look under a large rock, where he found gold and silver hidden. Perhaps, then, this ‘Robin Hood’ trait attributed to the tylwyth teg is authentic.
In Scotland, the ‘Gude Fairies’ of the seelie court justify their name by helping mankind in a variety of ways. They are said to bring comfort and support to those afflicted and in despair. This can include providing bread to the poor and aged, seed corn to the hardworking, but unlucky, and gifts to those they choose to favour- especially those who had themselves at some point helped out the fairies with loans or gifts. If they are called on to assist a person in their work, the seelie court will do so and will help with daily tasks.
In another example, a poor man on Skye had his only cow unjustly taken from him. The faeries took pity on his unjust deprivation and alleviated his hardship by bringing him another cow. It was a fine, healthy looking beast- except for the fact that it was covered in water weeds (suggesting it was one of the faery cows or cro sith). A very similar story comes from the Scottish Lowlands. During a severe drought Sandy Bell’s cattle and sheep died. He had always been kind to the faeries, so they decided to reciprocate. One evening, a stocking full of gold fell down his chimney. He bought two cows and then faeries then advised him to pasture them in Gowan Dell. This small valley was known to be full of rushes, gorse and briars- scarcely good grazing- but Sandy did as he was advised and found that there was, in fact, rich grass there. It proved inexhaustible and his cows produced plenty of milk. When others tried to find pasture there, though, all they discovered was a worthless thicket. Sandy survived the drought and prospered from then on.
Similar charitable activities are reported from England. In one story from Dore in South Yorkshire, a hob thrush features:
“Once upon a time there was a poor shoemaker who could not earn enough to keep himself and his family. This grieved him very much, but one morning, when he came downstairs, he found a piece of leather which he had cut out already made into a pair of shoes, which were beautifully finished. He sold these shoes the same day, and with the money he bought as much leather as would make two pairs of shoes. The next morning, he found that this leather too had been made into shoes, but he did not know who had done it. In this way his stock of shoes kept always getting bigger. He very much wished to know who had made the shoes, so he told his wife he would stay up all night and watch, and then he found Hob Thrust at work upon the leather. As soon as Hob Thrust had finished a pair of shoes the shoemaker took them and put them into a cupboard. Immediately after that Hob Thrust finished another pair, which the shoemaker also took up and put away. Then he made first one pair of shoes and then another so fast that the little shop was soon filled with them, and as there was no more room in the house the shoemaker threw the shoes out of the window as fast as Hob Thrust could make them.”
The early seventeenth century broadsheet, Robin Goodfellow, his Mad Pranks and Merry Jests, shows a surprisingly modern and commercial approach to charitable aid. We are informed that the fairies would lend money to the poor to assist them- but would not charge interest: “For the use demand we nought, Our own is all we desire.” There’s a sting in the tail, though. Amongst ‘the trickes of women fayries’ we’re told that:
“We often use to dwell in some great hill, and from thence we doe lend money to any poore man or woman that hath need; but if they bring it not againe at the day appointed, we doe not only punish them with pinching, but also in their goods, so that they never thrive till they have payd us.”
As ever (and just as we saw in the case of Rowli Pugh), faery aid has to be received with discretion. A man of Evershot, Dorset, had for a long time been very poor but suddenly started to find a shilling under his door every morning. He saved the money and in time was able to buy some sheep, then some pigs, so that gradually he became rich. His neighbours marvelled at his wealth and, at last, he confessed how his prosperity had begun. He was instantly struck lame and became bed-ridden, remaining that way for many months
Lastly, a couple of Manx examples. Supernatural help- and the wealth it leads to- may not be all they appear. The story of the Fisherman and the Ben-Varrey describes how poor fisherman sees a ben-varrey (a mermaid) in a dream and she advises him to dig near his house. He does so and finds a buried chest, “full of gold pieces of money, queer old coins with strange markings.” The fisherman stops working, thinking he has become wealthy for the rest of his life, but the money turns out to be worthless to him, as everyone in the local town is suspicious and refuses to take the gold.
Secondly, the buggan ny Hushtey lived in a large cave on the coast of the Isle of Man and had no liking for idle people, it was said. Nonetheless, this work ethic was paired with a sense of pity for the less fortunate. When Poor Robin of nearby Chou Traa lost his faithful dog and a barrel full of buttermilk through a cruel prank, the buggane took care of him by bringing in the cows, lighting the fire and boiling the kettle, ready for when he came home.
So far, so good. However, the loss of the company of his dog at the same time made Robin depressed, so that he slept poorly, got up late and fell behind with his farm tasks. The buggane may have helped him during his crisis, but it still disliked laziness (displaying a very Victorian, self-help sort of attitude, we might remark). Late one evening when Robin was still out in the field ploughing by the light of a lantern, the buggane made the plough horse bolt through a hedge. It was found dead the next day, near to the entrance to the buggane’s cave- and this provoked the villagers into blocking the hole and then placing a stone cross there to bar the buggane’s passage
Faeries will intervene in human affairs in a variety of ways- many of them, to be honest, extremely unwelcome. However, their generosity and kindness are not to be dismissed or deprecated- they can save people from ruin and starvation- but, even so, they are subject to strict limits and conditions.