As a demonstration of a recent renewed interest in the faeries and their abodes, late 2017 saw two new publications, which investigate the deeply ingrained beliefs and modern understanding about these amorphous entities. They approach the subject from very different angles, but both succeed in teasing out the nuances of what make the faeries special, in a historical context and within a contemporary paradigm. These reviews are an attempt to give a flavour of what each book is about, but, of course, they need to be read from cover to cover to fully appreciate the scale of the scholarship and insights contained within their pages.
Magical Folk: British and Irish Fairies 500AD to the Present is a collaborative effort between folklorists and historians, marshalled into place by Simon Young and Ceri Houlbrook. Fairies: A Guide to the Celtic Fair Folk is by a seasoned and accomplished interpreter of the faeries, Morgan Daimler. Between them, they have produced two indispensable volumes for anyone who wants to dig a little deeper into the often misunderstood, but always alluring world of faerie.
As the prologue warns us, ‘we need to talk about fairies.’ The stall is set out, and we can dispense immediately with any notions of Tinkerbelldom. Magical Folk is very much a book about traditional folkloric faeries as they have appeared through the centuries in stories and anecdotes from the British Isles, Ireland and North America. The time-sweep is impressive, and has been brought up to the 21st century thanks to the recent survey/census of faerie sightings carried out by The Fairy Investigation Society. But the format is wisely organised by region, demonstrating clearly that the long-standing belief in the faeries is deeply embedded in England as well as the Celtic countries, and that the faeries appear to have travelled quite efficiently to the New World, where, indeed, there were apparently several types of indigenous faeries already ensconced, and awaiting discovery by folklorists. A chapter itinerary is the best way to show what you’ll find in the book:
Prologues; Biographies; 1 ‘Fairy Queens and Pharisees: Sussex’, Jacqueline Simpson; 2 ‘Pucks and Lights: Worcestershire’ Pollyanna Jones; 3 ‘Pixies and Pixy Rocks: Devon’, Mark Norman and Jo Hickey-Hall; 4 ‘Fairy Magic and the Cottingley Photographs: Yorkshire’, Richard Sugg; 5 ‘Fairy Barrows and Cunning Folk: Dorset’, Jeremy Harte; 6 ‘Fairy Holes and Fairy Butter: Cumbria’, Simon Young; 7 ‘The Sídhe and Fairy Forts: Ireland’, Jenny Butler; 8 ‘The Seelie and Unseelie Courts: Scotland’, Ceri Houlbrook; 9 ‘Trows and Trowie Wives: Orkney and Shetland’, Laura Coulson; 10 ‘The Fair Folk and Enchanters: Wales’, Richard Suggett; 11 ‘Pouques and the Faiteaux: Channel Islands’, Francesca Bihet; 12 ‘George Waldron and the Good People: Isle of Man’, Stephen Miller; 13 ‘Piskies and Knockers: Cornwall’, Ronald M. James; 14 ‘Puritans and Pukwudgies: New England’, Peter Muise; 15 ‘Fairy Bread and Fairy Squalls: Atlantic Canada’, Simon Young; 16 ‘Banshees and Changelings: Irish America’, Chris Woodyard.
As is always the case in a collaborative book of this type, there are a variety of approaches and techniques taken by the writers, but the editorial team of Young and Houlbrook have evidently kept a tight rein on the methodology for explicating the ontology of the faeries, and the result is a cohesive assessment of regional themes and types, often overlapping but with each chapter exhibiting the distinct local variations that can be found in the behaviour, character and persuasions of the faeries. This is nicely summarised in the second part of the prologue ‘Fairy Tribes’, which gives bight-sized descriptions of each region’s faerie typology. An example is Ceri Houlbrook’s sketch of the, often malevolent, Scottish faeries:
“Fairies in Scotland are known as: hill folk, siths, fanes, the seelie and unseelie courts and the klippe. They live under aristocratic rulers and the wild landscapes in which they dwell seem to make them fiercer than their English kin. The Scots, sensibly, seek magical charms to keep the fairies away including anything iron, four leafed clovers, and burnt bindweed. Most at risk are human babies, which the Scottish fairies sometimes kidnap, leaving a decrepit fairy in their place.”
And Mark Norman and Jo Hickey-Hall’s chapter on Devon is encapsulated by highlighting the more playful and mischievous nature of the pixies:
“The pixies of Devon, as the fairies are known there, are typically found in the wilds where they dwell in rocks and caves like the Pixies’ House. They are most famous for their tricks in pixy-leading. They disorient men or women and then take them on a merry dance through moors or woods until their human victims are ready to collapse from exhaustion. The only effective way to break this pixy-spell is to turn your pockets inside out and hope that the pixies will vanish.”
Once into the main chapters, it’s soon clear that the faeries of folklore really do seem to congregate in geographical tribes, with distinct localised character traits. Each author ably teases out the main elements of these regional faeries, utilising a range of historical sources, and when comparing, say, the Scandinavian-influenced trows of Orkney and Shetland with the pixies of Devon and Cornwall, it’s as if they are of a totally different order of supernatural beings. But there also remains an implicate stream of sameness running through the phenomenon. And this is the crux of the dilemma when attempting to talk about the faeries; they may adhere to radically divergent regional types, and seem to change their nature through time, but they are all supernatural, metaphysical, incarnate. They may interact with our physical environment when the conditions are right but they are not of it. Whilst it’s not the remit of this book to analyse what the faeries are, the persistent undercurrent of discussion makes it clear that (despite the regional typologies) the faeries have been viewed throughout history as a perspicuously autonomous group of supernatural beings existing alongside (and frequently interfacing with) consensus reality. And despite the current cultural disposition towards a reductionist materialism, they have survived into the current century, still making appearances to people as they have done since (at least) 500AD.
One consistent theme through the book is how the evidence of place-names demonstrates how deeply ingrained into the socio-cultural consciousness were the faeries. Particularly interesting is the large number of Pūca place-names recorded throughout England and Wales, and discussed here in some detail from Worcestershire, Sussex and Dorset. Puck became the trickster in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream, but his ontological history goes much further back than the 16th century, and he might be seen as a representative type of faerie, prone to leading people astray, particularly in marshy areas, where he might appear as a light, sometimes interpreted as an ignis fatuus or will-o’-the-wisp. Francesca Bihet discusses the French version of the name used in the Channel Islands: pouques, and their intimate connection to prehistoric megalithic structures pouquelayes, where faerie activity was often reported. ‘Hob’ was another faerie name fossilised into the landscape. Richard Sugg describes the Yorkshire faerie place-names: “This was a world in which the numerous fairy place names (from Hobcross Hill and Hob Holes, through various Hob Lanes, to Sheffield’s Grymelands and Kexborough’s Scrat Hough Wood) were much more than pretty folklore. The fairies really were there beneath your feet.” And Simon Young identifies 32 verifiable faerie place-names in Cumbria: “These 32 are precious because they give us some sense of how Cumbrian fairies were imagined, not by the folklore professionals, but by local people. There is nothing as democratic as a place-name.”
Equally important in any understanding of how embedded faerie belief was to our ancestors is the incorporation of faerie motifs into the stories. Every chapter includes stories about the faeries, which invariably include these motifs, comprehensively catalogued in the Aarne-Thompson Motif-Index of Folk Literature. The wide geographical spread of codified motifs suggests a deeper meaning to the tales that were being told, where local colour could be applied to a fundamentally entrenched understanding of how the faeries behaved and what their purpose was in their interactions with humans. Amongst the motifs ingrained within stories multiple times through the book are those of: Faerie ointment being used to gain visual access to the faeries (F235.4.1), faerie changelings (F321.1); the theft of faerie objects by humans (F350); the faeries’ aversion to iron (F384.3); faerie abductions of humans (F322 – F329); and the faeries’ distaste for the sound of church bells (F4188.8.131.52), the latter exemplified by Pollyanna Jones in a folktale from her Worcestershire chapter:
“In days of yore, when the church at Inkberrow was taken down and rebuilt on a new site, the fairies, whose haunt was near the latter place, took offence at the change, and endeavoured to obstruct the building by carrying back the materials in the night to the old locality. At length, however, the church was triumphant, but for many days afterwards the following lament is said to have been occasionally heard: ‘Neither sleep, neither lie, for Inkbro’s ting tangs [bells] hang so nigh.'”
The chapter by Stephen Miller on the faeries of the Isle of Man takes a slightly different tack than the rest of the book by using almost exclusively the folklore collected by George Waldron (1687-1728) on the island. This clearly demonstrates how all of the collected stories relied on sets of motifs to provide the foundations for localised tales. All of the motifs from the Isle of Man can be found elsewhere, once again establishing the rooted undercurrents of a belief system that stretched throughout Britain and Ireland, and subsequently to North America.
But throughout each chapter, there is an awareness of the difference between this motif-laden folklore and what is more personal anecdotal evidence. After relaying some traditional faerie stories from Cumbria, Simon Jones points out the subtle but important difference, using a 19th-century example:
“There are also a series of fairy stories that are best described as personal experiences. They are rawer, as a result, and more intriguing than the cookie-cutter yarns listed above. Take this experience told to Joseph Ritson: ‘His informant related that an acquaintance, in Westmoreland, having a great desire, and praying earnestly to see a fairy, was told, by a friend, if not a fairy in disguise, that on the side of such a hill, at such a time of day, he should have sight of one; and, accordingly, at the time and place appointed, the hob goblin, in his own words, “stood before him in the likeness of a green-coat lad”, but, in the same instant, the spectator’s eye glancing, vanished into the hill.”
These types of anecdotes are more prevalent in the modern faerie encounters enumerated throughout the book. This has been enabled partly by the aforementioned survey/census recently undertaken by The Fairy Investigation Society, which the authors have utilised to ensure the reader recognises that, whilst new faerie stories in the traditional mould are rare, sightings of, and interactions with the faeries continue to happen to the present day. In part, this builds on the collection of 20th-century encounters by Marjorie Johnson and published posthumously in Seeing Fairies (2014). And the faeries are evidently thriving in the Americas, as documented in the final three chapters, subtitled ‘Travelling Fairies’. New England, especially, seems to have high numbers of modern sightings, including both traditional British and Irish types and indigenous breeds such as the Mekumwasuck, found in the folklore of the Passamaquoddy, and the Pukwudgie. Peter Muise gives an example encounter with a Pukwudgie from the 1990s. A woman called Joan was walking her dog in the Freetown State Forest in Massachusetts. The dog became agitated and she saw a creature perched on a boulder:
“She described him as looking like a troll: two feet high with pale grey skin and hair on his arms and the top of his head. The monster seemed to have no clothes… His eyes were a deep green, and he had large lips and a long, almost canine nose.”
This type of short anecdotal encounter is quite representative of descriptions of how contemporary faeries are experienced. They are, evidently, reliant on the honesty of the witness and also their ability to discern real phenomena from the distortions of vision and memory. But any large dataset, such as Johnson’s collection and the survey/census by The Fairy Investigation Society, gives credence to some type of participatory ontological reality. It is a tangible reality that, whether coded in folklore or through contemporary anecdotes, is sensitively and methodically handled throughout the book. There is clearly some type of phenomenological continuation at work; from the beliefs, stories and experiences of our ancestors through to contemporary interactions with the faeries.
Certainly, the modern ‘faerie-faith’ seems to be thriving in Ireland, and Jenny Butler describes the continuation of interaction with the sídhe in this most faerie-rich country:
“Some aspects of traditional Irish fairylore have continued and, for some people, form part of their worldview. There are also various adaptations of the beliefs and customs, whether these are intentional modifications or part of subtle cultural and social changes. In contemporary Paganism, an umbrella term for a wide range of spiritual beliefs and practices, practitioners often deliberately try to encounter fairies and to call upon them for guidance in magical rituals; these are new traditions in the Irish context, combining folklore sources with esoteric ones. The New Age Movement, a catch-all term for a multitude of spiritual expressions that are sometimes described as ‘alternative spirituality’, has also had an impact on the level of interest in, as well as understanding of, fairylore.”
Magical Folk covers a lot of ground. It could, of course, have been extended into several volumes to take in the regions not covered (such as the Eastern English counties), but what it does is to give a comprehensive overview of the folkloric components of the faeries over a wide geographical area and through a long period of time, up to the present. Each author has brought fresh research to the book, so that even sections on well-known faerie folklore such as the Cottingley faeries, involve new insights and a wealth of referenced sources that the interested reader can follow up. There is a renewed interest in the faeries at many levels, burgeoning mostly on the internet, and this book is very timely; it anchors down a lot of the historical folklore that forms the cultural understanding of the faeries in our collective consciousness. Simon Young, Ceri Houlbrook, and all the contributing authors have provided an incisive and valuable book, that helps us to understand where faerie folklore has come from and why the faeries are such an important part of our cultural legacy.
Morgan Daimler takes a very different approach to the faeries. She is the author of numerous books on faerie and pagan traditions, and in Fairies she has distilled a vast array of knowledge and learning into an meticulously researched volume. The chapter itinerary runs thus:
Introduction; 1. Fairyland; 2. Basic Facts about Fairies; 3. The Courts and Divisions in Fairy; 4. The Kings and Queens; 5. Denizens of Fairy; 6. Fairies in Tradition; 7. Mortal Interactions; 8. Fairies in the Modern World; 9. Dealing with Fairies; Conclusion; Resources; Appendices; Bibliography.
Daimler’s style is always concise and to the point, frequently challenging preconceptions about the faeries but consistently relaying the complexities of the phenomenon in erudite and engaging prose. The author cuts straight to the quick in the introduction:
“What this book is meant to be is a text for pagans focusing on the older understanding of the fairies while still seeing them as a part of our very modern world. It focuses largely on the Celtic fairies and to some degree closely related cultures with similar fairy beliefs, but fairies can be found around the world and in every culture as far as I know. It would be impossible, though, to discuss every fairy from every culture in any depth in a single book, so instead this book will aim at offering a deeper view with a specific focus.”
Although the book may be targeted at pagans, the readership is likely to be wider, extending to anyone looking for an augmented understanding of what the faeries are and where they have come from. The unresolved (and perhaps unresolvable) question of what the faeries are is tackled up-front in chapter 2. Are they purely metaphysical and incarnate entities that interact only with the non-physical consciousness of humans? Or do they have a material substance that is able to interface directly with with our consensus reality? This is a difficult conceptual point, which finds masses of contradictory evidence in both traditional folklore and within the modern framework of faerie encounters and interactions. Daimler recognises this and leaves open the question of the faeries’ true substance:
“Ultimately folklore shows us stories of fairies that are shadowy and can pass through the physical substance of our world as well as stories where they are solid and able to affect our world as we are. In some cases the choice between forms seems to be theirs, in others… there appears to be a more formal set of rules in play. In the end it would seem that it is true that fairies are both insubstantial and tangible, and that we should not assume they are limited to either.”
The way this issue is dealt with throughout the book is skilfully rendered, without an insistence on either interpretation – the reader is allowed to integrate the marshalled evidence and make up their own mind. Daimler points out that even Robert Kirk, the 17th-century pastor whose later life was dominated by his own investigations into the faeries of Aberfoyle in Scotland, was undecided on the true nature of the faeries. While he usually describes them as having ‘astral forms’, he also characterises them as being able to manipulate solid objects and being able to carry off the physical bodies of humans for various requirements.
There is equal ambiguity when it comes to the faeries relationship with the dead, but (as Daimler consistently reminds us) nothing is ever straightforward in the world of faerie: “The relationship and connection between the fairies and the dead is a complex one, and likely always has been. The human dead aren’t fairies, except when they are. Fairies aren’t the human dead, except when they might be.” Once again the layers of reality and meaning inhabiting everything to do with the faeries are multifaceted – there is much evidence that a prevalent historical view of the faeries was that they were intimately connected with death and transcendence, as exemplified in the collection of faerie data by WY Evans-Wentz in the early 20th century. But as the later chapters in this book demonstrate, there is (and always has been) a symbiotic relationship between faeries and humans that has little to do with death, and everything to do with living consciousness; both ours and theirs.
The inhabitants of the faerie otherworld are certainly brought to full life in chapters 4 and 5, where Daimler takes us through both the royal hierarchy of traditional folkloric faeries and also what she calls ‘The Denizens of Fairy.’ These are intricately researched chapters, and, as Daimler states, they take a cue from Katherine Briggs’ An Encyclopedia of Fairies by breaking down the faeries into a typology “of which beings exist within Fairy and generally who and what they are, and what can be expected from them.” We are given a good sense of the ontological variety of the faeries of tradition, but the use of the present tense throughout the descriptions gives them the quality of modern currency – these may be folkloric attributes but the beings described are very much a contemporary presence, residing with us now as much as they did for our ancestors. There are especially good descriptions of the Aos Sí (‘people of the fairy hills’), the Leannán Sí (‘fairy lovers’), and the Slua Sí (the fairy host), the latter being capricious bordering on malicious faeries, prone to travelling as whirlwinds and scooping up mortals for their own (usually) nefarious purposes:
“When the whirlwind appeared people would react by averting their eyes, turning their backs, and praying, or else saying: Good luck to them the ladies and gentlemen. This of course reflects the common practice of appeasing the more dangerous fairies both by speaking of them in polite, positive terms and also of wishing them well, giving a blessing in hopes they respond in kind.”
These faerie types are contextualised in the following two chapters, which discuss the intertwining of the faerie world into our own, ranging from their place in seasonal festivals to mortals’ sexual relationships with the faeries. The well-known folklore motifs of faerie changelings and faerie rings are given fresh insights, and there are astute parleys into the themes of faerie possession and faerie familiars. Particularly satisfying is the on-the-button assessment of the ‘Goblin Market’, most famously rendered in the 1859 poem by Christina Rossetti. Daimler prefaces her discussion of the story and motifs behind the poem:
“Literary critics, especially those discussing the poem in the latter part of the 20th century, tend to ignore the piece’s folklore and fairylore themes and discuss it purely as a work of Victorian literature with cultural, sexual, and feminist undertones. However, the work has strong and clear ties to traditional fairy beliefs and deserves considerations on those merits as well.”
‘Goblin Market’ clearly contains many folkloric themes, including the violation of faerie privacy, breaking the taboo of eating faerie food, and the rescue of a mortal from the faerie otherworld. It also mirrors many other tales of faerie markets taking place in liminal spaces and times; at the edge of woodland or townships, and at dawn or dusk – important spatial and temporal locations through faerie folklore, representative of the faeries as being always just on the allegorical perimeter of consciousness:
“Goblin Market is a complex story and often overlooked in fairylore, yet it deserves a place alongside other older traditional tales. The market itself with its liminal location and constant movement, and its summer fruit at all times of the year, as well as the deeper themes of buying death – or perhaps freedom from it – from the Goblins with pieces of mortality (literally pieces of the person themselves) fit in well with other traditional tales.”
The final two chapters shift gear somewhat as the faeries are extracted from folklore and placed into the modern world. This includes personal testimonies from the author about her interactions with the faeries (supplemented by a personal ‘author’s note’ following the appendices) and how people today can use an understanding of faerie folklore to help them connect with the deeper realities, wherein reside the faeries. Whether this interface rests in subjective consciousness or as an objective reality, is left to the reader’s discretion. But the presentation of ‘seven basic guidelines for dealing with fairies’ along with counsel on ‘offerings’ and ‘protections’ builds on a more profound understanding of the folkloric components of the faerie tradition to inform a modern-day practice that will maximise the possibility of contact, communication and synergy with what must still be considered supernatural and metaphysical entities. Some excellent advice is slipped in near the end of the final chapter:
“I think the first step to dealing with fairies is to read as much folklore about them as possible. Not the watered-down fairytales, but the real folklore, the gathered stories collected from people who actually believed and still believe in these beings. Suspend your own disbelief if you haven’t quite gotten to a point yet yourself to see them as real and take what you read at face value – don’t try to rationalize it away or explain what might have caused it. Just take it for what it is. Believe that the person telling the experience believed it.”
Morgan Daimler has produced an exceptional book, that will appeal to anyone in search of a dynamic take on the faeries, at both a folkloric level and within a more esoteric remit. Fairies provides a solid backdrop of Celtic tradition and then extends it in scope to demonstrate the place of the faeries in the modern world. Daimler’s skilfully directed use of language gives the reader confidence in the depth of research, and allows a clear view into the often recondite world of the faeries. The book represents a substantial addition to the canon of literature on the faeries, always respectful of previous works in the oeuvre, but also bringing new ideas and interpretations to the table. The last word is given to the author: “People seeking to deal with the fairies in the modern world have just as many opportunities as people a hundred or a thousand years ago did. The question is whether you will choose to do so or not. Ideally now you have the knowledge and tools to begin.”
David Halpin’s YouTube review of Morgan Daimler’s Fairies for The Occult Book Review is carried out at the atmospherically misty location of Boleycarrigeen stone circle, Co. Wicklow. You can view it here.
My own trawl through some previous influential faerie publications can be found at: Interpreting the Faeries.