Now you see them, now you don't
The origin of fairies is amongst the most discussed questions of folklore.
They have been variously traced to nature spirits, the dead, elementals,
pagan deities and so on. In support of their arguments, researchers
have turned to a handful of medieval texts, and occasionally to the
evidence of placenames. But there is room for doubt whether these
sources should be regarded as describing fairies at all.
The fairy tradition in literature begins in the 1380s, with Chaucer
and Gower. In their eyes, the fairies are already a vanishing race,
partly frightening and partly comic. The implication (particularly
in the preamble to The Wife of Bath’s Tale) is that people used to
believe in fairies, but don’t do so any more. However, the fairy mythology
as a consistent set of beliefs (dancing in rings, living in hills,
the rule of a queen, and so on) is itself created by the writers who
claim to be recording its final echoes. Earlier evidence does not
describe these fairies. Instead it details encounters with various
supernatural beings who were, in retrospect, treated as if they had
been citizens of fairyland.
The otherworldly beings who appear in medieval chronicles are a varied
lot. Some of them, such as the barrow revellers in William of Newburgh
and the maidens found in a wood by Wild Edric, are deliberately left
unidentified; like the ‘maiden in the moor’ of the carol, their non-human
status is indicated by allusion and not by direct statement. Others
are defined by a single strange character-istic, such as the colour
of the Green Children of Woolpit, or the small size of King Herla
(a pygmaeus) who rides a goat. The homunculus in an enigmatic encounter
story from Thomas Walsingham was both diminutive and dressed in red.
The otherworldly race who played with the boy Elidurus had their own
language ( a form of Greek) and their own, superior morals. There
is nothing in these scattered references to suggest that the beings
concerned are of the same type. Moreover, it would be an anachronism
to separate these accounts from contemporary reports of diabolical
apparitions. All the medieval words for spirits were also used, on
occasion, for devils.
The achievement of fairy writers, from Chaucer to Shakespeare, was
to expand the hints of an otherworld in the Breton courtly narratives
until almost all previous tales of supernatural encounter could be
shoehorned into their dominant discourse. Despite Bob Trubshaw’s suggestion
in the accompanying article that ‘Broadly speaking, these Middle English
accounts conform to the Anglo-Saxon categories of elves, dwarfs and
pucks, so seem to represent some continuity of belief’ there is no
systematic mythology of fairies before 1380. There are many unrelated
motifs – barrow-dwellers, tricksters, small people, household guardians
- which we know in hindsight will come together to define the fairy
kingdom. But this identity is simply not there in the original references.
Take a word like elf, which Chaucer makes synonymous with fairy. In
Old English the aelfs are one amongst many otherworldly communities.
The Charm for a Sudden Stitch puts them on the same footing as hags
and the Aesir; and they have the same role as the Aesir in name compounds
– compare Aelfric and Osric. An Anglo-Saxon vocabulary of 1100 renders
dryades etc. as types of elves. As Hilda Ellis Davidson showed in
The Road to Hel, the Scandinavian elves are closely assimilated to
By the thirteenth century, the original context of Old English belief
had become lost, and people were using the word in various ways. Layamon
uses elf to translate the Romance fadas - following a line of thought
which was to lead to the elf-fairy equivalence – but other people
had other ideas. Robert of Gloucester, explaining what type of being
it was that fathered Merlin, says that the sky is full of spiritual
beings called elves. Here we are on the verge of the diabolical, as
we are in Beowulf when the aelfs are of the seed of Cain.
Elves were found in literature, but not in the landscape. They do
not appear in southern English placenames: nor, indeed, do fairies
- not until the eighteenth century. Instead their place is taken by
puca, which appears describing the inhabitants of wells, pits, and
barrows. It is tempting to make the medieval pouke as identical with
Renaissance Puck, but this is to fall into another retrospective reading.
Even in Midsummer Night’s Dream, Puck has the appearance of being
transferred into fairyland, a little awkwardly, from some quite separate
The situation is different in northern England, where aelf is common
and puca is absent. This is also the region where elf was retained
as the usual word for beings in the modern period, the Romance fairy
being rejected. This may well be the result of Scandinavian influence
- the fact that aelf is liable to compound with haugr rather than
beorg would suggest this.
Scandinavian influence is certainly present in those placenames which
refer to dwarfs. The Anglo-Saxons had no concept of the dweorg as
a member of a small supernatural race. The word is always glossed
as nanus, pygmaeus, and means a short human being. When we meet with
clearly mythological dwarfs in North Country placenames, it seems
reasonable to suspect Norse influence, as Keightley observed over
a century ago.
In short, the origins of the fairy mythology lie not in the remote
past, but at the court of Richard II. The creative synthesis which
the poets made out of English and French traditions was developed
in the Tudor period to include tricksters of the Robin Goodfellow
type as well as the familiar spirits of cunning men, and domestic
spirits like the brownie. As an English-language tradition, it was
able to dominate and then change the native sidhe beliefs of Ireland
and the Highlands, introducing alien notions such as small size into
their narrative. By the nineteenth century, it was possible for Anglo-Saxon
spirits like the grima, scucca and thyrs - who had lived out a quiet
rural existence as Church Grims, Black Shucks and Hobthrusts - to
find themselves reinterpreted by folklorists (not the folk!) as minor
figures in the fairy mythology. This means that we can no longer make
out what they were like originally. The fairy glamour of the fully
developed tradition has tended to obscure our understanding of the
very disparate narratives of supernatural encounters which have been
patched into it.
Originally published in At the Edge, No.10, 1998. Copyright 1998.
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