Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A Metaphysical Journey

This is another slight diversion from the realm of faerie, but the subject matter is intimately connected to our understanding of metaphysical realities through texts from our past. The poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is important, loaded as it is with symbology and deep insights into the human condition, that speak to us from over half a millennium ago. The characters, their motivations and their inner-lives, as expressed by the poet, remain recognisable to us in the 21st century. And at the centre of the story (even though she doesn’t utter a word) is a faerie, perhaps the most prominent faerie in English literature: Morgan le Fay. A version of this article was originally published on the Ancient Origins Premium website.

‘The paths he would take were strange,
With little cheer to glean,
And his hopes would often change
Till that chapel could be seen.’

Sir Gawain and Green Knight is a late 14th-century poem, set in an Arthurian world of the past, but which invokes the chivalric codes and environment of the time it was written. Despite numerous attempts to identify the author, it remains anonymous, although the Middle-English dialect used in the poem has been pinned down to the North-West Midlands of England, perhaps the county of Staffordshire. It is written in alliterative verse, suggesting that it was designed to be read aloud, with the alliteration acting as both a memory aid to recitation and as a prop to convey the humorous intonations, which run throughout the poem. It is generally seen as one of the most important examples of English medieval literature and fits within the corpus of Arthurian stories known as ‘The Matter of Britain.’ It certainly adheres to the usual frames of reference that medieval authors used when describing the Arthurian world, where a supernatural Otherworld was consistently interacting with physical reality, and symbolic layers of meaning provide an allegoric purpose that would have been recognised by the elite classes listening to, or reading the stories. Many of the characters in the poem are familiar from other Arthurian sources, but as the title suggests, the main protagonist is Sir Gawain, nephew of King Arthur. His adventures tell us much about 14th-century society, but also about a metaphysical belief system operating below the radar of Christianity, which, as usual with later medieval Arthurian literature, invokes an older, pagan atmosphere, perhaps more redolent of the immediate post-Roman Dark Ages, when the stories are ostensibly set. The use of such magico-folklore in the Arthurian stories can tell us much about the continuity of pre-Christian beliefs throughout the Middle Ages, and the motifs used consistently through Sir Gawain and the Green Knight retain a timeless folkloric quality, making the poem a commentary on humanity’s interaction with supra-natural dimensions that still manages to resonate with the 21st-century reader.

Image from original manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, late 14th century. ‘Gawain sleeps in the open air during his quest’ British Library

The Plot and Landscape of the Poem

The action begins on New Year’s Day at Arthur’s court of Camelot, where feasting is in progress. Much Arthurian literature uses the device of Camelot as representative of a golden age in the past, often making derogatory (even satirical) comparisons to contemporary aristocratic courts. This is especially true of several stories from the Welsh cycle of stories known as The Mabinogion (also composed in the 14th century, although containing much earlier material) and the Gawain poet follows this trope, ensuring the reader is aware that Arthur’s court exemplified the pinnacle of chivalric code. But this standard description becomes turned round upon the arrival of the mysterious giant knight, who makes his abrupt entrance into the midst of the feast mounted on a horse. His apparel, his skin and even his horse are green:

‘Wonder at his hue men displayed,
set in his semblance seen;
he fared as a giant were made,
and over all deepest green.’

The Green Knight is not impressed with Arthur’s court or courtiers, who he calls ‘beardless children.’ And after some more disparagement he challenges one amongst them to a ‘Christmas game’ where the Green Knight is struck once with his own axe, on the proviso that in a year and a day’s time he is able to return the blow at his own ‘Green Chapel.’ This is the point of entry into the plot for Gawain, who spares Arthur the need to strike the blow, and takes up the challenge, lopping off the Green Knight’s head with one blow of the axe. But, to the amazement of all, he then proceeds to pick up his own head, mounts his horse and, from his decapitated head, reminds Gawain of his oath, before wheeling away out of Camelot, head in hand.

’The Green Knight enters Camelot’ by Herbert Cole (1906). This is from the 1913 edition (but painted in 1906) of English Fairy Tales by Ernest and Grace Rhys

This sets the scene for a quest journey, which takes up the rest of the poem as Gawain sets out alone to fulfil his pledge a year later. The first part of the quest describes his journey through a winter landscape; a desolate wilderness but firmly rooted in the real landscape of 14th-century Britain. Gawain takes a circuitous (but definitive) route through Wales, perhaps insinuating that the poet thought of Camelot as being situated in southern Wales (Caerleon is one of the traditional locations for Camelot) before heading east from Anglesea to the ‘wilderness of the Wirral’ and inland to the Peak District. Once here the descriptive qualities of the landscape becomes more detailed, with localised words for features in the environment being used such as frith (enclosed scrubland on the edge of a forest), knot (a hillock), and kerre (a marshy thicket), which has been a main element in allowing the interpretation for the author being a native of this part of the country where the counties of Cheshire, Derbyshire and Staffordshire meet. Eventually, Gawain arrives at the moated castle called Hautdesert.

‘Now he had signed himself times but three,
when he was aware in the wood of a wall in a moat,
above a level, on high land locked under boughs
of many broad set boles about by the ditches:
a castle the comeliest that ever knight owned,
perched on a plain, a park all about,
with a pointed palisade, planted full thick,
encircling many trees in more than two miles.’

Image from original manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, late 14th century. ‘Lady Bertilak tempts Gawain’ British Library

The castle is most likely identified as Beeston Castle, built by Ranulf de Blondeville, Earl of Chester in the 1220s, now a ruin, but in the late 14th century an imposing hilltop citadel. It is here that Gawain enters a somewhat hallucinogenic episode in the tale, as he is given hospitality by the Lord Bertilak. During the next three days Bertilak goes out to hunt (described in elaborate detail), leaving Gawain to rest in the castle. Bertilak proposes that what he gains in the hunt shall be Gawain’s, providing Gawain gives him what he receives during the days in the castle. Gawain soon finds out that the seductive Lady Bertilak has designs on him, and while her lord is out hunting she slips into his chamber to let him know that ‘You are welcome to my body; your pleasure to take all.’ She does this each day, but Gawain resists temptation and gives her only kisses, which are in turn exchanged with Lord Bertilak, on his daily returns, for the spoils of the hunt (a deer, a fox and a boar).

In the final segment of the poem, Gawain sets out for the Green Chapel (usually identified as Lud’s Church, an atmospheric deep sandstone chasm near the village of Gradbach, Staffordshire) to meet his fate with the Green Knight, although arraigned with a ‘green and gold girdle’ given to him by Lady Bertilak for his protection. The pair meet, and Gawain submits to three blows from the Green Knight’s axe, the first two of which are feigned and then the third merely nicking his neck to draw blood. Honour is satisfied, and the Green Knight reveals himself to be none other than Bertilak himself, magically transformed into the green knight by Arthur’s arch-enemy, his half-sister Morgan le Fay.

Lad’s Church, Staffordshire, possible inspiration for the ‘Green Chapel’

‘For it is mine that you wear, that same woven girdle;
my own wife gave it you, I know it well forsooth.
Now, know I well your kisses and conduct too,
and the wooing of my wife; I wrought it myself.
I sent her to test you, and truly I think you
the most faultless man that was ever afoot.’

Gawain returns to Camelot, chastened but wiser, realising that the whole ruse had been manipulated by Morgan le Fay in one of her perennial attempts to undermine Arthur’s precedence in Britain.

Arthurian Symbology and Metaphysics

The poem is loaded with symbology and metaphysical motifs, and while the themes of chivalry and Christian virtues run through the work, there is a clear undercurrent of pre-Christian, pagan value-systems integrated into the tale. The beheading game is evidently one of the central features of the story, and there are several precedents for it, for instance in the 12th-century Arthurian story Perceval by Chrétien de Troyes and the anonymous Perlesvaus from the 13th century. The earliest version is from the Irish story of Fled Bricrenn, dating from the 8th century, where the hero Cú Chulainn faces the same three blows as Gawain, from a giant. This would appear to be an ancient Celtic motif, embodying an ultimate test for the virtue and worthiness of the hero, that the author of Gawain was picking up from these and perhaps other sources.

The ‘game’ is intimately connected to the timespan allowed between blows by the disparate characters; a year and a day. This specific timeframe is important and frequently appears in medieval romances and folktales as the amount of time protagonists were given to succeed in quests. In The Golden Bough, Sir James George Frazer highlights the ancient global concept of the Divine King, who was to be ritually murdered after a period of time in charge, which was often a year and a day. The time period was also used in common law to substantiate the legal situation of unwed couples, and it was (in theory) the amount of time a person living under feudal serfdom needed to be absent from his lord’s manor to gain his freedom. Interestingly, a year and a day is also used in Wiccan and other neo-pagan traditions for the time of learning required before being initiated into the first degree. The year and a day motif is evidently embedded within the Gawain story as a message, conveying the idea that it is a magical time-frame. It was a symbolic time-marker for life quests, ruling over others, decisions being made, learning a tradition, securing a marriage, or gaining freedom as one year tips over into another. It is a motif deeply ingrained in both esoteric tradition and everyday life from an early date, and rooted in the cycles of the natural world, in Gawain’s case from one New Year to the next.

Image from original manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, late 14th century. ‘Gawain approaches the Green Chapel’ British Library

The overarching theme of the colour green in the poem links with this natural cycle. Although all the action takes place during winter, everything is dependent on the colour, from the Green Knight himself through to the protective girdle and the numerous descriptions of green vegetation, such as the holly branch held by the green knight when he enters Camelot and the ‘verdant dripping moss’ coating the Green Chapel. Green can be representative of rebirth and fertility, and one interpretation of its use in the poem is as the purveyor of life over death – the ‘Green Man’ sculptures found in so many medieval churches may be a codified pagan representation of fertile life overcoming death through the natural cycle. Many of these ‘Green Men’ date to the 14th century, and the Gawain poet would have undoubtedly been intimately aware of them, perhaps even conversant with their pagan cosmology. He certainly imbues every part of the poem with the colour, heightening the sense that the natural world (with green as its symbol) is more powerful and authentic than the veneer of the civilised world represented by the castles and chivalric codes of the stylised Arthurian world. The fact that no-one dies in the poem (unusual for an Arthurian story) strengthens the interpretation that it is at root an allegory about life triumphing over death.

Green Man sculpture from All Saints church, Sutton Benger, Wiltshire (14th century)

But everything that happens in the poem is dependent on the intrusion of the supernatural into consensus reality. The clue given during the Green Knight’s entrance into Camelot, when he is described as ‘of phantom and faerie’, is confirmed after Gawain is let off at the Green Chapel, and we find out that Morgan le Fay has manipulated the entire proceedings:

‘Through the might of Morgan le Fay, that dwells in my house,
and is mistress of magic, by crafts well learned
the mysteries of Merlin, many has she taken,
for she has dealt in depths full dearly sometime
with that excellent sage, and that know all your knights at home.’

’Morgan le Fay’ by Frederick Sandys (1864)

It turns out that she had been lurking in the shadows of Bertilak’s castle as ‘an ancient withered lady’, evidently disguising herself through faerie glamour. Despite having no dialogue in the poem, and appearing only briefly upon Gawain’s arrival at the castle, she has been pulling the strings with her usual metaphysical aplomb. The Green Knight/Bertilak even describes her as ‘a goddess.’ Despite having made her first appearance in Arthurian literature as a benign faerie half-sister of Arthur in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini (1136-50), by the 14th century she invariably played a villainous role in The Matter of Britain, and always executing her machinations via supernatural means. She is an arbiter of fate and representative of an accepted metaphysical intrusion into the physical world, in the case of Gawain and the Green Knight as a tester of courage and rectitude. Her presence in the poem (and her ubiquity in the Arthurian corpus) ensures a magical, supernal dimension, which is unquestioned and establishes a medieval understanding of the world where the natural world could be transcended through what is essentially a pagan belief-system, even if the anonymous poet was wrapping it up within an orthodox Christian worldview.


Arthur, Ross G (ed.), Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (1999) Original Middle English text

Brewer, Elisabeth, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Sources and Analogues (1992)

Brindley, Noel C., A Medieval Mystery (accessed 2018)

Elliott, Ralph WV, The Gawain Country (1984)

Elliott, Ralph WV, ‘Searching for the Green Chapel’ in JK Lloyd Jones (ed). Chaucer’s Landscapes and Other Essays (2010) 293–303

Friedman, Albert B, ‘Morgan le Fay in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ Speculum 35 (1960) 260–274

Hebert, Jill Marie, Shapeshifter: The Manifestations of Morgan Le Fay (2008)

Frazer, Sir James, The Golden Bough: A Study of Magic and Religion (1900)

Kline, AS, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A Modern Translation (2007)

Rushton, Neil, Faeries in the Realm of King Arthur, Ancient Origins (2018)

Rushton, Neil, The Mabinogion: Ancient Welsh Tales Bridging the Celtic Mindset and the Otherworld Ancient Origins (2108)

Rhys, Ernest and Grace, English Fairy Tales (1913)

Smith, Michael, In Search of the Green Chapel in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (2017)

Wilson, Anne, Plots and Powers: Magical Structures in Medieval Narrative (2001)

Simon Armitage’s BBC4 Documentary Sir Gawain and the Green Knight 

Faerie Folklore in Medieval Tales by Mika Loponen

Here’s something new for Deadbutdreaming. The Finnish scholar Mika Loponen has written this piece exploring the variety of medieval faerie folklore from British and Irish sources. Although described as an ‘introduction’, it is an excellent overview and assessment of how deeply embedded the faeries are in medieval folklore. I hope readers will appreciate a perspective slightly different from my own rather more esoteric take on medieval faeries, which can be found on the Ancient Origins Premium website here: Fantasies from Evil Spirits? Faeries in the Medieval Imagination.

Mika is a doctoral post-graduate student at the Department of Modern Languages in the University of Helsinki. His main field of interests are in the translation of culture specific metaphors and in the development of fantasy and science fiction literature. He is currently writing his doctoral thesis on the semiotic issues of translating and domesticating cultural concepts, artifacts and irrealia in fantasy and science fiction literature. Thanks to Mika for permission to republish his work here at Deadbutdreaming.

The original pdf. version of the article can be found here.


Although every country has – at least at some point of time – had its share of beliefs in mythological creatures that have been thought to affect the everyday lives of people, few cultures can boast as widely spread, well detailed and rich tapestry of tales as composes the fairy folklore of the British Isles. In this paper I am going to introduce the faeries of medieval legends, tales and folklore of the British Isles. I will place emphasis on the inspection of the natures and characteristics of the individual faery types in the tales. I will also explore some of the common denominators that bind these different types together, point out a few common concepts that are universal in the faerie legends of the British Isles and mention some of the more curious details, exceptions and variations of the superstitions.

It is not my intention to analyze any of these legends and myths deeply; I will place more importance in introducing a variety of different ideas than in exploring any one of them thoroughly. Although many faerie legends clearly share obvious common roots, the legends and superstitions concerning them can vary immensely between regions. Thus trying to create stereotypes or generalizations is not desirable or even possible. Instead of this I will try to introduce as many aspects of the faerie folklore as possible within the context of this paper, and provide notes on some regional variances as they are found.

Most of the names of the faerie types have several different forms of writing. For instance, the brownie is also known as bwca, hob, hobman, bwbachod, hobgoblin, dobie and bog (and many other names), while the sluagh have been known as slaugh and sluag (Lindeman), and the phooka as pooka, pouka and puck (Briggs 1976: 229). The spelling problem is made even more frustrating by the fact that the different types of spelling might as easily as not point to sub-categories of the same faerie types. One example of this is the sluagh: Briggs (1967: 19) agrees that sluagh (“the host of unforgiven dead”) is the Scottish version of the faerie type, while Lindeman argues that sluagh would be the Irish version and that the Scottish form of the faerie is sluag (the Scottish wild hunt), which in Garvin’s text appears as slaugh. Likewise, the word ‘faerie’ could also be spelled as ‘fairy’, ‘fairie’ or ‘faery’.

I will be using the most commonly known spelling form, or in absence of that, whatever form happens to please me; for example, I have generally chosen to use the term ‘faerie’, but I also use ‘faery’ in certain compound words, such as ‘Faeryland’. When describing all different kinds of faeries, I may at times use the term ‘fae’. For the sake of being more easily comprehensible, I have sacrificed readability by using italics in the names of the faerie types, like pooka or Tuatha de Danann, and in all faerie-specific terminology, such as glamour or Unseelie Court.

Although it is not a major point, I think that it is worth mentioning that many of the names of the different types of faeries lack plural endings. For example Tuatha de Danann, sidhe, sluagh and pooka are both the singular and plural forms of the words. Lastly, the categorization made in the tiles of this paper (e.g. as Lords and Ladies or commoners) are my attempt to enhance the readability of this introductory paper and should not be considered as categories per se among the folklore.

Faeries, Fay, Fey
Defining the term ‘faerie’ is not easy; some definitions include only specific, pre-Christian types of mythological creatures while other definitions include all of the spirits, angels and supernatural animals as well as the souls of the dead. I will take a middle road and include the spirits and the souls of the dead, since the dead and the faeries have an intimate connection in the folklore of the British Isles. I will not include supernatural animals except for the kelpies and selkies, who are portrayed as intelligent and self-aware. I will similarly exclude the angels except in two instances, to which I will return later in the paper.

Although the faeries vary quite much from tale to tale, there are some common faerie types in both legends and folklore. An amusing notion is that the restrictiveness of these types depends on the ‘social status’ of the faerie type; the noble and beautiful sidhe and Tuatha de Danann are well-defined faerie ‘races’, and most of the individual faeries of these types share the same qualities and characteristics, while the goblins, pooka and other common folk have much looser definitions and more variation within their ranks.

The Roles of the Faeries
In every culture there is – and has been – a need to explain the unexplainable; to catalogue the world into understandable concepts related to each other (Lévi-Strauss 1974: 8-10). This catalogization has been performed through the means available to each culture at each specific point of time – through mythological concepts, religion or modern science among other methods. As with all mythology (Lévi-Strauss 1974: 9-13), the faerie folklore of the British Isles is created through this process of catalogization and contextualization – through people’s need to explain the way the world functions and their own place in the world, and through their trying to create boundaries and basis for cultural concepts as well as through trying to explain different phenomena in nature.

It has been speculated that some of the faerie folklore – as well as many other mythological concepts – would be created as metaphoric images used to convey warnings; for example, the kelpies – as explained below – might have been used as metaphoric imagery to warn people from trying to ride unfamiliar horses (which might behave aggressively) or from reaching and falling into lakes and drowning. However, as Siikala (1992: 157-158) argues, abstract conceptualization is foreign to cultures that categorize their world through mythological concepts, and therefore for example a “thunder bird” – a bird seen to represent thunder – is not viewed or understood in such a culture as a metaphor for thunder, but as the concrete personification of thunder; thus, the metaphoric image of a faerie causing somebody’s drowning would not be seen as a metaphor inside the culture, but the faerie would be seen as the real and concrete cause of death.

Although the roles the different faerie types filled within the culture are partially explored in this paper, the paper concentrates on introducing and examining the different types as they are presented in the tales; the scope of this paper does not allow a deeper inspection of the educational and explanatory functions for which faerie folklore was used in the medieval British Isles.

The Commoners
Belief in tutelary spirits is found in nearly every culture. In some cultures there are ancestral spirits who protect the household while in others there are faeries and spirits that are attached to the house or the family. In either case it is seen as extremely bad to lose the protection, help and luck provided by them, and there are many tales to exemplify what happens when the family loses (usually through greed, misery or blunder in etiquette) the help of the supernatural element.

In the British Isles there was belief in both ancestral protectors and faerie helpers, and since the border between the dead and the faeries were quite shallow, it is sometimes hard to draw any lines between them. I will start the introduction of these ‘commoners’ with some of the so-called household faeries, and continue to ancestral faeries.

Household Helpers
The English brownies and its Welsh counterparts, the bwbach and bwca are perfect examples of tutelary faeries. These faeries were usually seen as household helpers (quite like the Finnish tonttu): they cleaned up untidy rooms, finished unfinished tasks, made bread, harvested grain and mended broken items (especially tools). Even more importantly, they were seen to bring luck to the households they lived in. Curiously most of the tales in which brownies appear tell about households that manage to drive them away by angering them, which is usually very easy, for the brownies seem to have a very strict code of etiquette. Although this etiquette varies greatly from tale to tale, there are some common concepts that appear in most of the legends: brownies demand a nightly bowl of milk or cream, and sometimes a honey cake. The milk and cream have to be of good quality, and the cakes have to be made out of good ingredients, or the brownie will be angry; one feature that is common to nearly all English faerie legend is the faeries’ hate of misers and greedy people. The food is to be left out for the brownie to take as he wishes, and not given directly. In fact, the brownies should never be given gifts, for they become extremely offended when offered reward for their services.

Other usual ways of angering the brownies included giving them a nickname (I will give an example of this in the section when discussing the boggarts), performing some of their duties, thanking them, cursing them, forgetting to give them food and giving them clothing. Forgetting to give the brownies food and giving them clothing seems to be the most popular ways of angering them in the tales; many of the tales are center around someone doing either of these. However, these methods seem to contradict each other very often: in the majority of the tales the brownie of a house is angered because the family gives him clothing, yet in some tales he is angered because the family did not give him clothing (Briggs 1976: 32). Sometimes, when a brownie got angry, he was either replaced by or transformed into a boggart, a malicious and unhelpful version of the brownie. The boggarts were dark, hairy and dressed in tattered clothes. They were quite ugly and deformed, and they had oversized hands and clumsy feet. The boggarts were used to explain small accidents and nasty things, as well as the strange noises and creaking in the night. They were also thought to blow out candles, hide small tools and equipment and make babies cry.

The bogies can been seen as a hybrid of boggarts and brownies. They were mischievous but harmless faeries, who amused themselves by doing stupid and uncreative pranks, like pulling blankets from beds on cold nights and hiding small items. The bogies were quite interested in gossip; they liked to spy on people and listen to their conversation.

Although the brownies, bogies and boggarts could be annoying and sometimes even dangerous, in most of the tales the occupants of the boggart-infested houses found ways to make them leave. One of the most common methods was to give the faerie a name (or, in later versions, to baptise him). Briggs tells us a typical version of these tales:

“A Brownie on the Celtic fringe, on the edge of the Gaelic-speaking country in Pertshire, haunted Altmor Burn, not far from Pitlochry. He used to be heared paddling and splashing in the burn, then he would go up with wet feet to the farm near, and if everything had been left untidy he would tidy it, but if it was left neat he would throw everything about. It was counted unlucky to meet him, and the road was avoided at night. He was laid, not by a gift of clothes, but by a nickname. A man returning very merry from the market one dark night heard him splashing about in the burn, and cried out jovially, ‘Well, Puddlefoot, how is it with you this night?’ The Brownie was horrified. ‘Oh! Oh!’ he cried, ‘I ́ve gotten a name! ́Tis Puddlefoot they call me!’ And he vanished, never to haunt the place again.” (Briggs 1976: 29).

The Grieving Dead
The best example of ancestral faeries is the Irish banshee (Briggs 1976: 25) (also known as the bean sidhe), who was seen as a long-dead virgin belonging to the family. At first the banshee was seen as a good, grieving spirit who appeared to warn a family member of a certain death, but after a time the legend evolved to the point where the banshee lost its grief and sympathy and became just an evil harbinger of death. As the tale evolved even further, the banshee’s song transformed from a message to the reason of somebody’s death.

The Scottish version of this faerie is the bean-nighe, who, unlike the Irish version, is anything but beautiful: she has one nostril, one large tooth and webbed feet. She is usually spotted at the riverside washing the clothes of one who is destined to die (Briggs 1976: 25).

The Nasty Ones
Although the boggarts and bogies were seen as annoying and sometimes even dangerous, they were not even nearly as nasty as some of the really bad faeries. Although they caused harm and mischief, and sometimes even caused (directly or indirectly) someone’s death, their actions were usually at least somehow justifiable. In most of the legends they stopped their mischief before any serious harm was done.

Not surprisingly – the line between the less harmful faeries and truly dangerous faeries was between home and wilderness: the helpful faeries lived and worked in the house, courtyard or fields, while the nasty ones lived in forests, rivers, marshes and moors. Prime examples of the evil spirits are the kelpies, will-o-the-wisps and the redcaps.

The Scottish kelpies were spirits of water, who left their watery homes to find victims whom they might drown (quite like the east-Slavic rusalka or the Finnish näkki). In order to accomplish this, the kelpie changed his form into a magnificent horse, handsome, seaweed-haired young lord or hairy man, and lured people into lakes and rivers. Briggs tells a typical kelpie tale:

“One story commonly told was of seven little girls who were out walking on a Sunday, and saw a pretty little horse walking near the lochside. One after another they got on its back, which gradually lengthened itself so that there was room for them all. A little boy who was with them noticed this and refused to join them. The horse turned its head and suddenly yelled ‘Come on, little scabby-head, get up too!’ The boy ran for his life and hid among the boulders where the thing could not get at him. When it saw this it turned and dashed into the loch with the seven girls on its back. And nothing of them except their entrails ever came to land.” (Briggs 1976: 57).

The kelpies had also other ways to lure their victims into the water. For example, dracae (another Scottish version of the kelpie; the singular form is in some tales draca and in some tales drac) lured their victims into their underwater domains by leaving gold or jewels floating on the surface of the water and abducting the people who reached for them, taking them into subterranean caves where the victims were used as slaves. According to some of these tales blessing the floating treasures made them safe for taking (Lindeman, Garvin). Although some of the tales about kelpies tell of resourceful lords who were able to enslave a kelpie with a magic bridle, most tales are quite like Briggs’ story. As mentioned earlier, these tales were used to make children cautious of rivers and lakes, so that they would not drown in them accidentally.

Tales about will-o-the-wisps were used similarly to warn children (and adults) from going to the forests alone. Will-o-the-wisps (also known as ignus fatuus [lit. ‘foolish fire’], Ellylldans, fairy lights, corpse-candles, peg-a-lanterns, will-o’the-wykes, Joan-in-the-wads, Hinky-Punks as well as many other names; Briggs 1967: 52 among others) were thought to be imps, pixies or souls of mischievous, unbaptized children, who appeared as faint lights on marshes and bogs on still nights after sunset. In many tales will-o-the-wisps try to lure people from the road deeper and deeper into the forests, until the victims either drown in a swamp or lose their way and starve to death.

While the kelpies and will-o-the-wisps of the legends were evil and malicious, even they can not be compared with redcaps, the short, bloodthirsty and gruesome goblins of the Lowland (Briggs 1976: 57). The redcaps got their name from the caps they wore: they used to dye them in the blood of their victims. The redcaps were thought to live in abandoned towers and castles where evil deeds had been done (by this aspect they could be seen as even more degenerated boggarts). The redcaps were described as short, old men with red eyes, arms that ended in sharp talons and a large mouth full of sharp teeth. Unlike most of the other faeries, the redcaps were not vulnerable to iron; they even bragged about this by using iron boots. In most of the folklore, travellers who strayed to the dwellings of redcaps were killed and eaten. The only way to defend against a redcap was to recite the scriptures. If this was done, the redcap would vanish with a scream, leaving one large tooth to the spot where it had stood. This form of defence is naturally a Christian addition to the old legend.

In addition to the man-eating redcaps, there were faeries with vampiric characteristics. One example of this would be the Scottish baobhan sith, of whom Garvin gives a good example:

“Four men were hunting in the wilds of Ross-shire, and took refuge for the night in a deserted shieling. To keep themselves warm they began to dance. Three of them danced, and one supplied the mouth music. As they danced one of them wished that their sweethearts were with them. At once four beautiful girls came into the building, in green clothes, with long golden hair. Three of them danced, and one sat by the singer. Presently the singer noticed drops of blood falling from his friends. He started up, and his partner flew at him. He escaped from her, and took refuge among the horses, where he was safe until daybreak. In the morning he went back to the shieling, and found the bloodless bodies of his companions, sucked to death by the dreadful baobhan sith” (Garvin).

The Wild Ones
Not all of the faeries who lived in wilderness were seen as evil or bloodthirsty. Some of the wild faeries of the legends dwelled in forests because they wanted to live with animals, while others wanted to stay as far from humans as possible. The pooka and the selkies are good examples of these kinds of faeries.

The pooka (also known as phooka, pouka and puck) are described by the legends as a truly wild race of faeries, who live in forests and are able to change form from one animal to another. Although the pooka are not evil, they are mischievous: in some tales a pooka appears as a tame pony, offering a ride to careless people. When the traveller mounts the pony, it starts to run faster and faster through marshes, thorn-bushes and forests, until it suddenly throws the rider into a ditch or mudpool (Lindeman). Although this resembles the behaviour of a kelpie, there is one major difference: the pooka’s victims tend to remain alive, with no serious injuries. It seems that the pooka do these trick just to amuse itself, with no malicious intents.

The selkies, or seal people, appear in tales as gentle, humble and loving folk who can change their forms from a human to a seal. In most of the tales the selkies appear in, they are described as dying people, whose death is being caused by ignorant men who hunt and eat them. In spite of this, the selkies are nearly never portrayed as angry, bitter or vengeful. An exception of this is made by some tales where selkies sink ships and cause storms to avenge the hunting of seals (Lindeman). In most of the selkie tales a good-natured seal hunter catches a selkie, realises what he has catched, releases the selkie, promises to change his career and is handsomely rewarded. The other major brand of selkie tales is quite different: in these tales a man sees a female selkie who comes ashore and sheds her skin (the selkies must do this to become human), and sneaks to the beach, stealing the skin. With the skin, the man forces the selkie to remain on dry land and to become his wife; the man usually tells her that he will burn the sealskin if she will not marry him. The tale usually ends in the selkie finding her sealskin and escaping to the sea, although in some versions the selkie dies of her sorrow.

Changelings (Briggs 1976: 7) were perhaps the most well known faeries during the medieval times. It was widely believed that if a newborn baby was left alone or unwatched before he is baptised, the faeries might steal him and leave a changeling in his place (the use of male pronoun is intentional; in most of the legends and tales, the faeries steal male babies). In some of the folklore this changeling was said to be made out of wood and earth, with a spell cast on it so that it would look and act as a real baby. More often the faeries would leave an unhealthy, ugly faerie child who would die in a few years or an old faerie, who would remain in the cradle, eating much but never growing.

In the tales, the only way to retrieve the real child was to expose the changeling for what it was. The tales tell of many ways to reveal the true nature of the changeling. Unfortunately, most of these were quite lethal for the baby. Even more unfortunately they were quite often practiced in real life; it was much easier for the parents of a sick or malformed child to think of him as a changeling. Certain ways to expose a changeling’s true nature (according to Briggs, these methods were practiced even at the beginning of this century; Briggs 1976: 117) included placing him on a hot stove, leaving him on the manure pile for a night and mistreating him. It was thought that these things would force the faerie’s real parents to arrive to stop their child from being mistreated or killed. It depended on the legend whether the human parents’ real child was returned or not. In some legends the real child returns from Faeryland years after the changeling has died, and sometimes he has aged many years in a few months or a few days in many years. The amount of wandering orphans might have given birth to these tales; when an orphan appears to the doors of the parents who have killed their ‘changeling’, they would quite likely want to see him as their long-lost son that has been brought home by destiny.

Not all of the ways of exposing changelings were lethal, or even dangerous. One of the most popular methods in the tales is to brew with eggshells. When enough brewing would be done, the changeling would no longer be able to contain himself and would sit up and exclaim something like: “I have seen three forests grow and wither, but I have never seen ale brewed in an eggshell before!” The faeries’ reasons for stealing babies vary greatly between different legends. One of the most common reasons seems to be that the stolen babies were married (naturally after growing up) to members of the faerie nobility. Another, quite curious reason is introduced in some post-Christian legends; once every decade (or seven years) the faeries needed to pay a tithe of one child to Hell, and the faeries try to evade this by stealing human children whom they send as the tithe.

The Lords and Ladies Tuatha de Danann
“These Tuatha were great necromancers, skilled in all magic, and excellent in all the arts as builders, poets and musicians. At first the Milesians were going to destroy them utterly, but gradually were so fascinated and captivated by the gifts and powers of the Tuatha that they allowed them to remain and build forts, where they held high festival with music and singing and the chant of the bards” (Wilde 1992, 21).

The ‘nobility’ of the faeries differed from the ‘commoners’ even more than the human nobles differed from the commoners of the medieval times. While the bogies, boggarts and brownies were seen as ugly, simple and often quite stupid household helpers with little magical abilities, these ‘noble’ faeries were seen the picture of everything high, and respected, envied and even feared; at least in Ireland people used nicknames like ‘the fair folk’, ‘the gentle folk’, ‘the gentry’ or ‘the noble ones’ when talking about the faeries, so that the faeries would not notice them and cause them bad luck (e.g. Briggs: 1967: 218).

The first mentions of ‘noble’ faeries are thought to be in the Irish-Celtic mythology, where the Tuatha de Danann (the children of Dana, mother goddess of Eire) were mentioned in the Book of Invasions as gods who came from the west and defeated the Firbolg (the early gods of Ireland, who invaded Ireland successfully, defeating the Fomorians, the original inhabitants of the islands; the name Firbolg can be translated as ‘Men of the Bags’). Some time after this the Milesians (who represent the first Gaels) conquested the land and drove the Tuatha de Danann into the hills and under the seas. After settling under hills and seas, the Tuatha de Danann became melancholic and bitter, and tried. In time the Tuatha de Danann diminished in size and power into the daoine sidhe (Lindeman), who later evolved into sidhe (the term ‘sidhe’ seems to have originally been a synonym of ‘faerie’, it evolved to mean only the so-called human-like, ‘noble’ faeries), the most beautiful, noble and humanlike kind of faeries.

The Sidhe
“The Sidhe dwell in the Sifra, or fairy palace of gold and crystal, in the heart of the hill and they have been given youth, beauty, joy, and the power over music, yet they are often sad; for they remember that they were once angels in heaven though now cast down to earth, and though they have power over all the mysteries of Nature, yet they must die without hope of regaining heaven, while mortals are certain of immortality. Therefore this one sorrow darkens their life, a mournful envy of humanity; because, while man is created immortal, the beautiful fairy race is doomed to annihilation” (Wilde 1886: 132).

The (daoine) sidhe were seen as heroic faeries who enjoyed the pleasures of the medieval chivalric life. They were seen as nobles, knights and royalty, and were the first faeries associated with glamour (I will return to this subject later). The sidhe were human-sized, unbelievably beautiful beings, who, depending on the tale, could become invisible whenever necessary, or could only become visible when in the presence of humans. It is thought that the concept of these chivalric faeries arrived from France, where they played large parts in medieval romances.

In addition to the generic sidhe, there were some specific sub-categories, like the Leanan-sidhe (originally the Lhiannan-Shee of the Isle of Man) and the bean sidhe (also known as banshee). The Leanan-sidhe were, according to the legends, either spirits of life who inspired poets and singers (Wilde 1886: 134) or spirits who inspire poets and singers and live on their thoughts and imagination, burning the poor artists up. The Scottish version of the Leanan-sidhe is the leanan sith, a fairy lover of either sex. Garvin mentions that translators, who translated the Bible into Scots Gaelic, used this term and some of the common people took this as Biblical proof of the existence of the fairies.

These noble faeries were quite commonly used in medieval legends and tales. Sometimes they even replaced original characters; Briggs mentions Lanzelet, a twelfth-century German version of Lancelot’s tale, where the Lady of the Lake is presented as a faerie, who brings Lancelot to the Faeryland (Briggs 1976: 5). Likewise in the wonderful Lay of Sir Orfeo, the fifteenth-century English version of the legend of Orpheus, Hades was replaced by the King of the faeries and the original land of the dead was replaced by Faeryland. The legend remains otherwise mostly untouched, except for a few changes that nicely reflect the beliefs concerning Faeries. For example, Orfeo’s wife did not die naturally, as Orpheus’ wife did. Instead, the King of Faeries found her in a traditional wild hunt (I will return to this subject later), while sleeping in the garden.

One of the best known legends that tell of the ‘noble’ faeries is the thirteenth-century romance of True Thomas (or Thomas the Rhymer). In several versions of the romance, Thomas is wandering around in the countryside when he meets a beautiful lady with golden hair and jewels sparkled all over her spring green cloak. The lady introduces herself as the Queen of Faeryland, and Thomas, who is mesmerised by her beauty, asks for a kiss, which the Queen grants him. Depending on the version of the tale, Thomas either accompanies Queen willingly to the Faeryland or is forced to go along as a payment for the kiss. In one version of the tale the Queen’s glamour fades and she is revealed to be an old hag. In most versions, Thomas accompanies the queen to Faeryland for three days, which turn out to be seven years in the real world; upon returning, Thomas can only speak truths and prophesies, and returns to Faeryland in a few years (Jarvin 1992: 60-64; Briggs 1976: 9, 89).

The Wild Hunt or Host of Unforgiven Dead
When Christianity came to the British Isles, the legends and tales of faeries began to change. One of the first changes was the nature of the faeries. While in some legends the faeries became associated with demons or angels (yet another subject to which I will return later), it was even more common to associate them with the spirits of the dead.

One of the most notable changes happened with the tales of the sluagh, who were in the original folklore the Scottish version of wild hunt. The original versions of the tales saw sluagh as flying around the land on midnight (Garvin), swooping down to earth and kidnapping people or forcing men to shoot down women milking cows or other men working in the field. After Christianity arrived, the sluagh were transformed into the host of the unforgiven dead: a pack of souls of sinners, who would arrive to a deathbed to grab away the soul of a dying person. In the Irish version of this legend, the sluagh arrived from west and could be kept away from the dying person by keeping the windows and doors on the western side of the house closed. In one Irish version, the sluagh moved in procession from hill to hill, and it was extremely unlucky to build any obstacles on their travel routes (Briggs 1976: 19) – i.e. directly between hills.

One of the tales in which the faeries are associated with demons is the legend of St. Collen (Briggs 1976: 13). In the tale, St. Collen was a Celtic saint, who lived as a hermit in a small cell in Glastonbury Tor. After interrupting two men who were talking about the King of Faeries (Collen announced that they spoke of demons), a stranger arrived and asked St. Collen to join the King of Faeries for a dinner. Three times Collins refused, until deciding to go. When St. Collen and the stranger arrived to the top of the hill, Collen saw a beautiful palace that he had not seen there before. When St. Collen entered the castle, he found the King waiting for him. When the King asked St. Collen to eat some food, Collen announced that he would not eat dry leaves. When the King asked St. Collen what he thought of the King’s beautiful blue and scarlet liveries, Collen told the King that blue was the colour of eternal cold and red was the colour of the flames of Hell, from which the King had come. After saying this, the saint took a bottle of holy water he had brought with him and threw it at the King. When the water hit the King, he disappeared as did the food and the castle. This is one of the only tales where no harm falls on a visitor who breaks the etiquette in Faeryland.

Not-so-Fallen Angels
“One day a great fairy chief asked [saint] Columb-Kille if there were any hope left to the Sidhe that one day they would regain heaven and be restored to their ancient place among the angels. But the saint answered that hope there was none; their doom was fixed, and at Judgement day they would pass through death into annihilation; for so had it been decreed by the justice of God” (Wilde 1886: 132).

One of the most interesting changes in folklore that arrived with Christianity was that the Faeries were associated with a Christian concept – angels. While the tales of faeries as demons (like the tale of St. Collen) see the faeries as fallen angels, there are some interesting and original variations of this tradition. According to a common medieval Irish belief (Garvin), the faeries were angels that sided with the devil in the rebellion in Heaven, and for this they were sentenced to Hell. When God ordered the gates of Heaven and Hell closed, some of the angels had not reached Hell yet and they fell on earth and in sea, where they hid (Wilde 1886: 89). These not-so-fallen angels were not thoroughly evil like those who had fallen into Hell, but they were not above sin. They would obey orders from the devil and do evil deeds, but they preferred being left alone.

A more interesting version of the same legend has these faeries remain unaligned in the rebellion in Heaven, taking arms neither for God nor for devil, and for this, being exiled on earth. This version has these faeries living in hills and under seas, which links this version of the legend closely to the tales of Tuatha de Danann, who were also exiled under the hills, where they mourned for their exile from the lands they had conquested. There are other, quite evident similarities in this version and the legend of Tuatha de Danann; while Tuatha de Danann filled their eternal lives with song and dance so that they could forget the loss of sunlight and their lands, the partially fallen angels did the same things to forget the joys of Heaven, which were now eternally forbidden from them.

One rather nice example of linking the faeries with angels is in the legend of True Thomas. When Thomas accompanies the Queen, they soon reach a crossroads, where they can choose from three paths. The path on the left is wide, flat and straight, and according to the Queen, leads to Hell. The path on the right is narrow, thorny and hard to travel. The Queen tells Thomas that this path leads to Heaven. The path between them is surrounded by wild plants and mostly lost in the forest. This path, as the Queen tells Thomas, leads to the Faeryland.

The Gifts and Woes of the Fae The Gifts of the Fae
Although the characteristics and abilities of the faeries vary greatly between different tales, legends and folklore, there are some common attributes and flaws shared by most of them. One of the most obvious (and most easily explainable) powers of the faeries was the ability to become invisible. So far I have not been able to find a single type of faerie that does not possess this gift; even the selkies are able to vanish from the sight of humans. Another gift that seems to be quite usual is the household faeries’ ability to affect things without touching them: many tales tell of boggarts and angered brownies that cause plates, mugs, chairs and tables to shatter or fly around.

One of the other traits that seem to be quite common to at least the ‘noble’ faeries is immortality (Squire 2000: 25). In many tales the great age of the faeries is pointed out, most often as a comparison to the briefness of human life. The gift of immortality is most often encountered in the legends of the noble faeries, particularly the daoine sidhe, and it is supposed to originate from the tales of the Tuatha de Danann, who achieved immortality through magical ale. Although immortality seems to be a common trait given to the faeries in legends, not all of them seem to possess the gift; some stories of faerie funerals exist as well. Still, whether the tales tell that they are immortal or not, the passage of time is never the same for faeries as it is for humans.

Another curious notion on the same subject is the passing of time in the lands, hills and cities of the faeries. Time spent in these locations does not ever seem to correlate with time in the outside world. There are many legends that tell of men who entered a faerie residence and stayed for one night or several days, while a few years, decades or even centuries have passed outside. Similarly, some tales of stolen babies mention that the children grow up inside the Faeryland, while only a few days pass outside.

The Curses of the Fae
One of the most common flaws of the faeries is a vulnerability to cold iron. Although cold iron is especially useful in the form of a knife or a cross, it can also harm, kill or banish faeries nearly as well in other forms. In the folklore of the British Isles scissors that are hung over the cradle are commonly seen as a sufficient protection against fairies from kidnapping the child and leaving a changeling behind. An interesting notion is that in the original game of tag, the one chasing was called a witch or fairy, and those being chased could declare themselves “safe” if they could reach and touch iron. (Garvin). Another quite common curse of the faeries is that they do not have souls. This attribute seems oddly widespread; although it is a natural notion in legends that describe faeries as fallen angels, it is mentioned in many other legends as well. For example, there are tales of faerie mothers who travel around seeking human mothers, so that they could ask the human to give the faerie child a sip of her milk; this is supposed to give the child a soul (Briggs 1976: 120). Other tales tell of faerie mothers who try to do the same by stealing human babies and leaving their own children in the human babies’ cradles.

Faerie Morality
“The Queen [of the sidhe] is more beautiful than any woman of earth, yet Finvarra [the King] loves the mortal woman best, and wiles them down to his fairy palace by the subtle charm of the fairy music, for no one who has yet heard it can resist its power, and they are fated to belong to the fairies ever after. Their friends mourn for them as dead with much lamentation, but in reality they are leading a joyous life down in the heart of the hill, in the fairy palace with the silver columns and the crystal walls” (Wilde 1886: 133).

As Briggs mentions (1976: 108), faeries tend have a complicated, not easily understandable set of morals in the folklore. Although in many legends the faeries have a strict sense of right and wrong, they do not usually match the human opinions on the same subject: “The morality of even the most ordinary, decent, well-wishing fairy is of a brand of its own” (Briggs 1976: 111).

Although most of the wicked faeries could be seen as plainly evil, some of the ‘good’ faeries do not seem much better. In many tales the good faeries seem to be able to help and hurt people with as great ease, and some of them seem to be just waiting for the humans to blunder so that they could do them some harm. As Briggs mentions, the faeries seem to be much more interested in etiquette and social order than in morals.

The changelings are a good example of this faerie morality; obviously the faeries do not see anything wrong in stealing a human child from his parents, or even enslaving this stolen child. In addition, in many tales the faeries who leave their own child to the humans are portrayed as sympathetic, caring and kind. Another example of this same theme is the stealing of Orfeo’s wife in the Lay of Sir Orfeo: the King of the Faeries is not described as an evil character, just as someone with a very odd morality. Although in the British Isles the division between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ faeries never reached the level of the faerie legends of France, there was some division between these; in Scottish legends the faeries are often divided into the Seelie Court and the Unseelie Court. The Seelie Court is comprised of the good, kind fairies, while the outright evil faeries tend to belong to the Unseelie Court (Briggs 1976: 222). These courts were not seen as very confining: the faeries of the Seelie Court could be violent when angered, while the not members of the Unseelie Court could sometimes just have fun in non-lethal ways.

The morality of the faeries seems to be even more lax when sexual matters are in concern. In many tales faeries have casual sexual relationships with mortals or other faeries, or they are searching for a mortal lover (Briggs 1976: 127).


Glamour can make a lady seem a knight,
A nut shell seem a gilded barge,
A sheeling seem a palace large,
And youth seem age and age seem youth,
All was illusion, nought was truth.
-Reginald Scot, The Lay of the Last Minstrel

The magic of the faeries, sometimes called ‘glamour’, is seen to be the art of illusions, movement, shape changing and enchantments. While it mostly used in the legends that told of the ‘noble’ faeries, some of the household faeries and wild faeries were said to possess it and to be able to perform some minor tricks with it. A good example of this is a tale in which a mischievous pooka makes a woman lose her way in a forest by making a path disappear from her sight. According to different tales, the use of glamour is not restricted to simple illusions or tricks: in many tales whole castles are built and with glamour. More commonly faeries use glamour to create their magnificent clothes and jewels or to make themselves more beautiful.

These kinds of use of glamour are found most often in medieval faerie romances (see the example of Thomas the Rhymer above), in which a young man or woman (usually a virgin) falls in love with a faerie. In these tales the affair usually ends with the faerie lover leaving the human and the poor man or woman realising that his or her partner pretended to be much more than it actually was. Quite obviously these kinds of tales are used mainly to point out that strangers, no matter how beautiful or charming they are, should not be too easily trusted.

The tales about faerie gold serve similar purpose. There are quite many variations of this basic concept. One of the most common versions tell of a greedy man, quite often an old innkeeper or merchant, who is visited by an enigmatic noble. Since the noble seems very rich, the greedy man proceeds to sell him whatever the noble wants (a room for a night, food, wine, horse etc.), naming outrageous prices for everything. The noble seems happy to pay the horrible costs, giving the man all the gold he had asked. When the mysterious noble leaves, the man is quite pleased with himself, for he has made a fortune in one night. Still, things do not end happily for him: when the man wakes up next morning, he finds out that the gold given by the noble has turned into grass or dried leaves.

The faeries of the British Isles are a fascinating topic: the Isles have a great amount of tales and legends concerning them, and they can be found on any level of the medieval folklore, from romances favoured by the nobility to superstitions of the commoners. Yet, although the amount of material is huge and the folklore and legends are products of many different times, cultures and social conditions, there are many interesting traits that bind the faeries of the different tales together.

As the variation of different versions of faeries is wide, this essay has not been able to discuss some very interesting faerie types, such as the leprachaun, knockers, barghest and the pixies, and many interesting legends, such as the faeries’ common use of human wives and midwives. One of the most interesting things shown in the legends is the effect time and cultural changes have had on them. This change is best shown in the way Tuatha de Danann changed slowly from ancient gods of pre-Christian times into post-Christian partially fallen angels, and the sluagh evolved from the wild hunt to the host of unforgiven dead.

Also interesting is the frequent use of faeries as pedagogic means, as in the stories of kelpies. These tales were used to teach children (and to remind adults) of certain dangers; stories about kelpies were used to warn the children of the dangers of rivers and lakes, while stories about the pooka and will-o-the-wisps were used to prevent the children from wandering into forests alone.

In the British Isles the faerie legends have been used to entertain and teach people. They have been used to explain things that have puzzled people and to give reasons to difficult questions, such as deformed children. The faeries have been used to permit infanticide and to explain miscarriages, diseases and accidents. Whether a family or a farm has had good or bad luck, Faeries have been held responsible for it.

The faeries have been used in legends to bring justice to those with no morals and to personify total lack of morals. In the medieval British Isles, faeries were present from a child’s birth to his or her deathbed. They were present from the minute the proud father tied a pair of scissors over the cradle to prevent the faeries from swapping the baby for a changeling, to the time the grieving wife shut the western windows so that the sluagh could not steal her dying husband’s soul.

Briggs, Katherine (1967) The Fairies in English Tradition and Literature. London: Bellew
Briggs, Katherine (1976) A Book of Fairies. London:Penguin
Garvin, Allen (accessed 11.10.2000) Faeries.
Jarvin, Gordon [ed.] (1992) Scottish Folk and Fairy Tales. London: Penguin
Lévi-Strauss, Claude (1974) The Savage Mind, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Lindeman, M.F. Encyclopedia Mythica.
Siikala, Anna-Leena (1992) Myyttiset metaforat ja šamanistinen tieto, in Harvilahti, Lauri et al., ed.: Metafora: ikkuna mieleen, kieleen ja kulttuuriin, Tampere: Suomalaisen kirjallisuuden seura
Squire, Charles (2000) The Mythology of the British Islands. London: Wordsworth
 Wilde, F.S. (1887) Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland. London Wilde, F.S. (1992) Ancient Legends of Ireland. London. New York: Sterling

The cover image shows a demon performing a baby changeling swap from The Legend of St Stephen by Martino di Bartolomeo (15th century).

The Green Children

The story of the the Green Children of Woolpit, Suffolk, has always been one of the strangest medieval folktales, and that’s up against some pretty stiff competition. If you don’t know it, it goes a bit like this…


The story is set at some point in the 12th century. The location is the village of Woolpit in Suffolk, England. One day during the harvest, the villagers discovered two children loitering around the ‘wolf pits’ (deep excavations designed to trap wolves, which at that time were still relatively common in England) and apprehended them. Apparently, they “had the form of all their limbs like to those of other men, but they differed in the colour of their skin, which was tinged all over a green colour.” They also could not speak English or any language known to the villagers, who escorted them off to a local lord, a knight by the name of Sir Richard de Calne. Here they were offered food but would not eat anything until some beans (probably either broad beans or a type of vetch, both common crops throughout the medieval period) were brought to them. They lived on such beans until they were eventually induced to eat other food within the manorial residence. In a short time the boy sickened and died, but the girl survived, lost her green colour, was baptised and was given a position of some sort within the knight’s household. One version of the story suggests that she was “rather loose and wanton in her conduct.”

The story then reports her words, after learning English, in response to questions about how the children arrived at Woolpit and where they came from. She asserted that they came from a land where all the inhabitants had green skin, ate only green food, and that there was perpetual twilight. “Moreover, a certain luminous country is seen, not far distant from ours, and divided from it by a very considerable river.” On the day they arrived in Woolpit they had been tending their father’s flock (the insinuation is that they are siblings, although this is never directly stated) when they came upon a cave, from which they heard the sound of bells. They wandered into the cavern and after some time emerged into the Suffolk landscape where they were struck senseless by the excessive sunlight and unusual temperature of the air. Frightened and disorientated, they were caught by the harvesting villagers and so the story comes full circle.


What can be made of this story? For a medieval folktale it has the unusual quality of authenticity about it. There is no Christian moral, places and people are named, and it appears to be a unique incident, reported in the chronicles much as more everyday historical occurrences were mentioned. These two chronicles were those of Ralph de Coggeshall and William de Newburgh, both written in, or shortly before, c.1200, compiling both earlier texts and oral testimony. In Ralph’s case, some of the oral testimony came from the knight Sir Richard de Calne himself, and it is clear that both chroniclers made the effort to retrieve the story from villagers who were alive at the time of the incident. William puts the timeframe of the tale as within the reign of King Stephen (1136-54), but Ralph implies that it happened under Henry II (1155-89). Whatever the exact date, and whatever folktale motifs have been overlain on the story, this seems like a chronicled version of something that actually happened. So how can it be explained?

8371143078_e4315646e3_bProsaic Explanations In a concerted effort to dispel any supernatural elements from the story, Paul Harris (in a 1998 article for Fortean Times) put forward the theory that the children were Flemish orphans, displaced from their community after Henry II’s co-ordinated persecution of the Flemish population in Eastern England, culminating in a military offensive in 1173. Left to their own devices, they lived in the woods before wandering into caves (Harris suggests the Neolithic Grimes Graves in Norfolk), following tunnels and emerging near Woolpit, green through malnutrition and speaking a foreign language that the locals couldn’t understand. But as with many materialistic-reductionist explanations of strange stories, it is soon found to be baloney. Grimes Graves is 40km from Woolpit, there are no known tunnels extending beyond the locality and even if there were, they do not extend to the clay geology of northern Suffolk. Flemish immigration to Suffolk had been happening since the 11th century and so the linguistic argument also breaks down – the villagers would have been well-acquainted with the Flemish language, even if it were a dialect or (even more so) an Anglicised version of Flemish. And an educated aristocrat like Sir Richard de Calne would definitely have recognised their speech. Despite being cited as the most likely interpretation in several retellings of the story, it’s actually a non-starter.

Historian Derek Brewer avoids any such tortuous interpretative-bending, and reduces the story even further, suggesting that:

The likely core of the matter is that these very small children, herding or following flocks, strayed from their forest village, spoke little, and (in modern terms) did not know their own home address. They were probably suffering from chlorosis, a deficiency disease which gives the skin a greenish tint, hence the term “green sickness”. With a better diet it disappears.

The possibility of the children suffering from Chlorosis (or Hypochromic anemia) is an interesting hypothesis. This condition is usually caused by an iron deficiency and can tinge parts of the skin green, which will return to normal colour when the iron is replaced in the diet. This might explain the children’s colour and their losing it after starting to eat the local food. However, there is no historical mention of the condition before 1554, and even in the cases noted after this date the green colouration is restricted to parts of the body, such as around the eyes and neck. In most cases there is no discolouration. So although Chlorosis might offer an exceptional explanation for the children being green, it is reliant on their having been subject to a long period of malnutrition, which is not part of the story. If the explanation were that simple, why did they not tuck into the food they were offered on arrival at Richard de Calne’s household? We’ll come back to the colouration issue, but whatever the true explanation is, the green colour of the children cannot be taken as an independent part of the story, divorced from the other surreal elements. And let’s remember, this is a very surreal story.

41LNQWelatL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_Out-there Explanations In his 2012 book Children from the Sky, Duncan Lunan presents a highly unorthodox theory of alien intervention in 12th-century England. Lunan goes into considerably more historical detail than any other writer on the subject, and his close reading of the historical sources teases out the context of the story and the characters involved. Of particular importance is his interpretation of the original texts, pointing out the usages of language by the two medieval chroniclers, and how the original Latin has been skewed by later translators and story summaries. But the historical detective work soon gives way to a ‘speculative interpretation’ that suggests the Knights Templar (he identifies Sir Richard de Calne as a Templar) were in contact with an alien civilization, who were abducting humans to populate a colony world – a world where it was always twilight due to a synchronous orbit, and where genetically modified algae turned the inhabitants green. The green children were part of this colony and were accidentally transported to Earth due to a matter transmitter malfunction. Sound wackadoo? You bet. But the sci-fi angle taken by Lunan is a lot of fun and allows for some free-thinking speculation on the oddities of a story that refuses to fit in with a reductionist interpretation. A mind-bogglingly melodramatic National Geographic documentary has Lunan dashing around the Suffolk countryside in a Morris Minor in pursuit of the alien connection. You might want to take a look here: Ancient X-Files (from 25.50).

Folkloric Explanations The folkorist EW Baughman suggests the story is the only example in English folklore of the motif: Inhabitants of lower world visit mortals, and continue to live with them. It is certainly an inversion of the common faerie-tale motif of mortals travelling to faerieland and living there for various periods of time, either willingly or not. But the fact that the children come from underground is important, as the faeries were commonly thought to reside under the earth, usually beneath hollow-hills or burial mounds, but also in caves. The strange description of their world being always twilight also fits in with many folkloric descriptions of an underground faerieland. With this in mind, the story may be a jumbled attempt to overlay faerie motifs onto an historical incident. It does seem that both medieval chroniclers categorised the story as a faerie-tale that fitted in with their other accounts of supernatural beings interacting with humans. But the green children do not behave like folkloric faeries. They have none of the faeries usual attributes or magical powers. They really do seem like lost human children.


However, as usual with folktales, deeper meaning can be read into story by asking what it is telling us about the human condition. A follower of the Carl Jung school of psychoanalysis would immediately spot the archetype of the outsider/s (see The Deeper Meaning of Faerie-tales). The children were green, came from an unknown and strange land and spoke no known language. They represented an otherworldy intrusion into the regular, consensus reality of the 12th-century villagers, that may have been treated as a threat. In a time of Christian fundamentalism their fate may have been to be seen as demonic beings in need of persecution. Things could have ended badly for them. But they were also vulnerable and frightened, and the story is never about the threat of outsiders but rather of tolerance and kindness to them. As has already been discussed, there had been largescale immigration into eastern England through the 12th century, and communities would have been forced to come to terms with foreign ideas and behaviours within the space of two or three generations… sound familiar? In the case of the green children they were accepted, protected and then integrated into the dominant society. We can see the story as a folkloric method of teaching tolerance of outsiders by using an archetypal concept.

greenchildren-colortnBut instead of using real foreigners, such as Flemish immigrants, the story is made timeless and archetypal by turning the children into faeries. Their otherworldy status makes the tale bigger and more fundamental – it becomes a tool for teaching us about ourselves. The story embeds certain faerie motifs, such as their green colour. The most common colour of the faeries was green (usually their clothing, but also sometimes their food and their skin), and people hearing the tale in the Middle Ages (and beyond) would have automatically understood and accepted that they were associated with an otherworld, most usually represented as faerieland.

Whatever the deeper meaning though, the story is still strongly grounded in a specific time and location. Something material and real happened in a small Suffolk village in the 12th century, which will never be fully understood or explained, because so much of the story is strange and edged with the supernatural. Despite the uncommon and inverted motifs, it is in effect a faerie-tale that uses an historical event as a vehicle for telling a story with a lesson. But then that’s usually what faerie-tales do.


A recent detailed and exhaustive examination of the story by historian and folklorist John Clark, with the original sources printed in full, can be found here: John Clark’s The Green Children of Woolpit. This correlates all the sources and secondary literature into a fully referenced article, that deals comprehensively with most interpretative aspects of the story. It will most likely become the standard reference point for all future discussion about The Green Children of Woolpit.

The cover image is by my friend and artistic colleague Katalin Polonyi.

Here is Paranormal Kativity telling the story of the Green Children of Woolpit: Paranormal Kativity tells the story of the Green Children of Woolpit

And finally, here are The Green Children singing about… well, The Green Children: The Green Children — Encounter