"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, May 21, 2018

The Road to Fair Elfland: Review of "Magical Folk," Edited by Simon Young and Ceri Houlbrook

"See here, boys, there may be ghosts or there may not; but if there are none, there are fairies, and they are worse."
~One man's understandable reaction to being repeatedly dunked into the Atlantic.

I believe in fairies the same way I believe in Antarctica: I've never seen either in person, but enough seemingly rational people have to convince me of their existence.

I also feel that the fairies--or Brownies, "little people," sprites, pixies, elves, imps, whatever you care to call them--must feel an unimaginable contempt for modern civilization. Consider: for millennia, our ancestors regarded fairies with respect, awe, sometimes deep affection, more often not a little fear. And with good reason: As this book notes, "The fairies...assaulted and tricked and, in some cases, murdered and kidnapped their way through human populations." They were worshiped, placated, grovelled to. Now? They've been degraded into twee, harmless, silly little creatures. Fairies are now cute. And spare a moment of pity for the leprechaun. Imagine going from a mischief-maker with a hidden stash of gold and supernatural powers to a little green guy peddling Lucky Charms cereal.

Possibly for that very reason, few people even believe in them anymore.

Thankfully, antidotes for such puerile drivel are available in the form of books such as "Magical Folk: British and Irish Fairies 500 AD to the Present." This volume brings together contributions by various academics, folklorists, and lay historians addressing various aspects of the astonishingly long and varied reign of these "magical, living, resident humanoids"--a reign that continues to this very day.

The editors kick off the book by addressing the question "What is a fairy, anyway?" (Short answer: "It's complicated,") and offering a helpful guide to the widely varying "Fairy Tribes." Then Jacqueline Simpson addresses the sadly ignored fairy lore of Sussex, complete with the Queen of the Fairies dispensing medical advice and poet William Blake crashing a fairy funeral.

Pollyanna Jones looks at Worcestershire, home of fairies who appear as shape-shifters, or simple blobs of light. The region is known for "Pucks," mischievous tricksters who lead people into ditches or ponds, and other such practical pleasantries. The playful aspect of the local folklore helped inspire J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit." Oh, and if you're ever in Worcestershire, don't swear or use an angry tone of voice. The fairies don't like it.

Mark Norman and Jo Hickey-Hall take us to the rich lore of Devon, where the Magical Folk so predominate they have been classified into distinct types: fairies, imps, sprites, elves and pixies (the last-named are tentatively connected to the ancient Picts.) Like Worcestershire's Puck, pixies are most noted for leading travelers astray. This was such a common occurrence that being "Pixy-led" was an accepted local hazard well into the 19th century. As recently as 2002, a Devon farmer reported seeing a "circle of small green figures" dancing around a fire.

Richard Sugg writes of Yorkshire, where the history is replete with dark tales of "everyday magic," witchcraft, and powerful, often quite frightening fairies. Fittingly enough, this often cold, bleak region has spawned some of Britain's most sinister and enduring fairy legends: "having drunk in fairy beliefs with your mother's milk, you did not easily lose them. Ever after, the fairies were in your head. Day by day, you heard them, sensed them, inferred them from their activities--and sometimes even saw them." Many of the elves were considered "evil spirits." Yorkshire fairies would kidnap human babies, leaving weird "changelings" in their place. Yorkshire is also the home of the "Cottingly Fairies," that curious hoax which is probably fairy-lore's most notorious chapter.

Jeremy Harte examines Dorset's eight-hundred years of fairy history, which as far as is recorded, began with enigmatic beings known as "pucas," probably an ancestor of "Puck." Harte also delves into "cunning folk," those humans who took advice (for both good and ill) from the fairies, as well as the often tense relationship between fairies and Christianity.

Simon Young takes us to Cumbria, which has a lively contemporary fairy population. In the early 1920s, a self-described "fairy seer" recorded seeing brownies, rock gnomes, tree manikins, undines, lake spirits, nature devas, and--last but certainly not least--a god. Some twenty years later, hikers at Borrowdale ran into some fairies playing on the rocks. The area's older fairy history, however, was far grimmer, reflecting the punishing environment endured by the human residents. For these villagers, fairies were dangerous creatures who needed to be held at bay by all the folk cures at human disposal. Young's essay is aimed at reviving these earlier, now largely-forgotten days where Cumbrians faced a world filled with destructive and predatory boggarts, monsters, and demons. (In the 18th century, one parish recorded that within a five-year period, no less than four people had been "frightened to death by the fairies.") On a lighter note, Cumbrian fairies had a particular fondness for butter.

Ireland is arguably the area most people associate with fairies, and not without reason. Jenny Butler's essay explores how deeply the belief in fairies (or, "sidhe") has been woven into Irish history and folklore. To the Irish, fairies are a component of the otherworld, "a supernatural realm that is intertwined with the ordinary sphere in which human beings live." It is--albeit somewhat ambiguously and debatably--identified with the afterlife. It has even been suggested that the sidhe are spirits of the human dead--what are more commonly called "ghosts." So respected and feared are these beings that the Irish hesitated to even mention them by name, preferring to call them "the noble people," or "the good people," or merely "themselves." (Rather like actors who refuse to call "Macbeth" anything other than "The Scottish play.") Any encounters with the fairies were generally believed to be ill-fated in some way or another. Butler notes that even though Ireland has not been immune from the "Disneyfication" of fairies, the "good people" are still a major element of the country's cultural tradition.

Anyone at all familiar with Scottish history knows that it is a deeply weird place. Perhaps the fact that it is packed to the rafters with fairy glens has something to do with it. Ceri Houlbrook takes a tour of this region that has a particular bond with fairy belief--a bond so deep that the Scottish landscape itself is felt to have been a creation of the fairies. (It is believed that a "Fairyland" or "Elfland" still exists somewhere in Scotland, and woe to any mere mortal who accidentally stumbles into this territory.) Of all the areas covered in this book, Scotland's fairy folklore is probably the most voluminous, varied, and enduring. Not to mention the most delightful: among the Scots fairies are such gems as the evil Dame of the Fine Green Kirtle, the equally malevolent Whoopity Stoorie, Habetrot (kindly patron of spinning,) and NicNiven the Fairy Queen. As we have seen in other regions, there is a lack of consensus about what these fairies really are: nature spirits? Gods? Fallen angels? An early race of humans who were the first inhabitants of northern Britain? Some sort of human/angel hybrids? Take your pick. Happily, a belief in fairies is still strong in Scotland, albeit on a more benign level. Children still pay homage to fairy glens so their wishes will come true, and no doubt many still take care not to wander into Elfland.

Moving on to the unique supernatural lore of Orkney and Shetland, Laura Coulson informs us that the region's most notable "fairies" are those curious beings known as "trows," melancholy human-like beings who are apt to kidnap women and children and steal cattle. They are also referred to as the "grey folk." Trows had an extensive mythology, covering everything from their marriage and family rituals to their Yuletime celebrations. Sadly, in recent years it is believed the trows have abandoned the Orkney Isles. Life has become too modern on the islands, forcing them to retreat to the Dwarfie Stone on Hoy. More unsettlingly, other traditions say all the trows drowned! Either way, the Orkneys are surely a duller place without them.

Wales, as one sixteenth-century man noted, is a land where the people have "an astonishing reverence of the fairies." The country has always been full of all sorts of supernatural beings of the best sort, but you can barely swing a stick in Wales without hitting a fairy. Richard Suggett's essay examines the Welsh history of these sprites, who were apparently as enigmatic and difficult to categorize as they were terrifying. Welsh fairies tend to take so many forms, they defy easy description. Welsh folklore also has humans seeing fairies much more often than legends of most other areas. Suggett notes the "rather prosaic, everyday quality" of Welsh fairy/human interactions, and adds that "Fairies were encountered in everyday circumstances as people went about their usual business and some people claimed to have had numerous encounters with the fairies." Naturally, many Welsh considered themselves to be "experts" on the fairies. "Enchanters," who helped their fellow humans cope with the sprites, was a popular occupation. One Elizabethan-era writer commented that Wales contained "swarmes of southsaiers and enchanters" who bragged about their frequent communion with fairies. Suggett also provides a handy tip for dealing with any Welsh fairies you might encounter: they are repelled by iron. (On the other hand, the metal is a powerful attraction for ghosts. It's literally a case of damned if you do, damned if you don't.)

Francesca Bihet contributes a look at the fairy culture of the Channel Islands. These sprites, known to islanders as "les p'tites gens" ("the little people,") "faiteaux," or simply "dames," are believed to inhabit the islands' many prehistoric sites, which, according to folklore, they themselves built long before the islands were inhabited by humans. In fact, the ancient monuments are commonly called "pouquelaye," or "fairy place." The fairies are also said to have dug a network of tunnels connecting the various "fairy places." The fairies emerge from these underground passages at night to dance under the full moon. Unsurprisingly, it's considered to be extremely unlucky for humans to meddle in any way with these ancient sites.

Stephen Miller's look at the Isle of Man's fairy-lore focuses on the work of the Early Modern writer George Waldron, whose 1731 "A Description of the Isle of Man," contains the first comprehensive collection of Manx folklore. As is the case with the folk beliefs of the Channel Islands, the Manx believe fairies were the original settlers of the Island. Manx refer to them as "the Good People," and say they still live in forests and wilderness, shunning cities "because of the Wickedness acted therein." Manx believe that any house visited by the fairies is blessed, because the beings "fly Vice." Unlike most other regions, the fairies of Manx are loved and welcomed by humans, as they "never come without bringing good Fortune along with them." Despite this, there are still the usual stories about fairies replacing babies with "changelings," kidnapping adults, and even riding mortals' horses during the night.

Ronald M. James deals with the "piskies and knockers" that make life a great deal more interesting for the human residents of Cornwall. Other terms for Cornish fairies are "pobel vean" ("small people,") spriggans, buccas, and brownies. Cornish fairies are a mix or good or bad. While their human neighbors feared them, they also hoped that the piskies could be propitiated into doing them favors. The fairies are invariably described as being tiny, large in number, and often very well dressed. The most well-known Cornish fairies are the "underground knockers," the beings who haunt the region's many mines.

Peter Muise contributes a look at the fairies of New England. Curiously enough, fairy sightings in that area have only really become popular in recent years. Presumably, the fairies (commonly known in New England as ""Pukwidgies") had no desire to hang around those stern early Puritans, and who can really blame them? Historians have also speculated that as fairies tend to be associated with ancient features of the British landscape, when the Puritans emigrated to the New World, they left the fairy folk of the Old World behind. However, anthropologists and historians have documented a rich and ancient fairy belief among New England's Native American tribes, so it could be said that the region has long been populated with fairies, but the white settlers simply ignored them until modern times. The good news is that, according to James, New England fairy sightings are returning with a vengeance. Recent stories contributed to the Fairy Census include six-fingered humanoids, a little creature made of vegetation, and tiny fairies with dragonfly wings.

Although Canada as a whole has scant fairy folklore, the notable exceptions are the coastal settlements of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Labrador, north-eastern Quebec, and Newfoundland. Simon Young describes these Canadian fairies as a "melting-pot," "a minestrone of different traditions with ingredients coming from different parts of the Old World." Young notes that Atlantic Canadian fairies (known as "good people," "bad people," "little people," lutins, leprechauns, "devil's angels," or "co-pixies") are a particularly alarming lot: "[these] fairies were terrifying, even by the standards of their European confreres." If you are unfortunate enough to encounter a Newfoundland fairy, be prepared to have your tongue pulled out, your eyes gouged out, and your fingernails removed. If they're feeling benevolent, the little folk might merely trick you into getting lost in the woods or toss you into a whirlwind. Harsh climates seem to breed a harsh race of fairies. So pervasive is the largely malign influence of these "little people," that in one notable instance, they wound up in court. In 1880, a man excused himself from missing several days of work by explaining that he had been kidnapped by fairies. And he won his case! (So next time you're late for work, feel free to use the "I was abducted by co-pixies" line to the boss.) Newfoundland fairy lore, Young notes, has been particularly persistent and long-lasting. He dubs the area's supernatural beings, "The Last Traditional Fairies."

In the book's final essay, Chris Woodyard examines how Irish fairylore was transplanted to the New World, where this fresh soil caused the fairies to sprout in some strange new ways. Irish-American fairies take the form of spook lights, "leaping fiends with luminous eyes," will-o'-the-wisps, women in white, and "the odd leprechaun story." Even the traditional banshee and changeling baby make an occasional appearance in 19th century reports. The oddest story Woodyard presents is a baffling news report of a young woman who was kidnapped by fairies, never to be seen again...in 1876 Dubuque, Iowa, surely the last place one would expect to see marauding Little Folk. (This story has certain elements of modern-day reports of Men in Black sightings and alien abductions, reminding me that it would have been interesting to end this volume with a piece analyzing the similarities between historical "fairy sightings" and today's extraterrestrial "close encounters.")

"Magical Folk" is both impressively scholarly and highly entertaining, and I strongly recommend it for anyone with the slightest interest in folklore--or even just a liking for history's stranger corners. It does a wonderful job of documenting how the fairy legends of different regions are similar in so many respects, while displaying their own quaint and distinctive features.

In fact, the book is so comprehensive that I fear its contributors are in danger of meeting the same fate as our old friend Robert Kirk.


  1. Ever since they posed for those two girls in Cottingly things have gone downhill for the fairies. They'd done themselves a favor if'n they'd ignored the kids.

  2. A wonderfully thorough review! I sincerely hope we're not all destined for Robert Kirk's fate, I do wonder if we're skating on thin ice now and then though, you never know!! :)

  3. Many years ago, when I lived in Cumbria, I spent a couple of days repairing a footpath at a place called Fairy Glen in the Borrowdale Valley...

  4. My nickname growing up was pixie. I just adopted a kitten two days ago and also named her pixie. I loved this article. I wondered the origin of your handle and now I know.

  5. What an interesting book. I like that it covers the whole British Islaes, even the Channel Islands, which, with Man, are usually left out of consideration. It was commendable that the authors showed how the beliefs were brought to the New World, and how the fairies there were different. I like traditions and customs, and feel sad that they, and old beliefs, are disappearing - or are already gone. I also like the multiplicity of them, when a trip to a neighbouring valley, or the next parish, was as good as going to another country, when the way a person dressed could pinpoint not just his nation of origin, but his village.

    The passage about fairies possibly being inspired by previous inhabitants of a district made me think of an explanation as to why fairies dislike iron. It is that when newcomers drove the natives of a region before them, they were often armed with the newfangled iron-age weaponry, while their opponents used bronze implements, weaker and not up to battle with iron. The natives were driven into hills, swamps and other inaccessible places, where they practised their old languages and religions, and learned to keep out of sight. Their antipathy to iron remained. Whether true or not, I think it’s an intriguing premise.


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