I can still remember being enchanted when a child by fairy stories. Tales of the Brothers Grimm or of Charles Perrault, or Hans Christian Andersen or the One Thousand Nights and One Night, they include figures like Hansel and Gretel, Puss in Boots, Jack the Giant Killer and Aladdin. Associated with them are the stories about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table and those from the Welsh Mabinogion, and the ballads about Robin Hood.
A similar feeling pervades the Alice books of Lewis Carroll, although in his case he’s writing not fairy tales but inverted logic which includes magic and some dangerous fairies, like the Red Queen.
I wondered where the fairies came from. For me as a child they had the impact that, later, the Greek myths had. The dictionary says: Fairy, Fay: from fata, Latin for the Fates, three goddesses presiding over human lives. That sounds like a religious origin, perhaps from the Nordic or Keltic religions. But the fairies were not gods like Thor or Odin, Lug or Brigit. They were more like angels, devils or saints in Christian worship.
Religion, even established ones, even Christianity, includes many different forms of belief and worship. Every believer worships in their own way, as they can, some through mysticism, some through orthodoxy, some through more superstitious ways, and the clergy labour to create a uniformity at least of ritual.
Christianity is very relevant to the world of fairy, because it was so pervasive in the West. It was the only true religion, all others were from the Devil. What we know of pre Christian religions in western Europe is seen largely through the eyes of monks who recorded some rituals and preserved the names of some religious figures. In the East, Orthodox Christianity was more tolerant of differences, largely because it had the equally intransigent faith of Islam to contend with.
In Britain, Gaul and Northern Europe, native beliefs were ‘paganism’, lures of the Devil. Little wonder that practitioners of the old religions, or the newly converted, felt somehow guilty about their traditional practices.The fairies came to be regarded with some ambivalence.
‘Fairy’ is a collective noun that includes a vast array of magical beings: banshees, brownies, dragons, dwarves, elves, fairy godmothers, giants, goblins, gnomes, gremlins, hobs, imps, pixies, selkies, water sprites.
Authors like Thomas Mallory, William Shakespeare and JRR Tolkien have contributed characters of individual fairy creatures: Morgan le Fay, Arthur, Mordred, Merlin, Oberon, Puck, Robin Goodfellow, Titania, Bilbo, Gandalf.
The word ‘fairy’ is also the place where all these creatures reside. Or, not so much a place, but a state: that of enchantment. Other than the real world, other than the supernatural realms of Christianity, fairie was a state where Bronze and Iron Age pre Christian peoples met with the forces and processes of nature, and where they strove to understand them, placate them and adore them, It was a world dominated by magic, the eerie, and the impossible. Perhaps the fairy stories they knew, mostly lost now or in obscure fragments, were the superstitions of the farming communities, and perhaps in the cities there was more formal worship of the gods: but no-one knows.
These were the beliefs and rituals that formed the basis for a wealth of rural customs, folk songs, plays, stories. Some of these crossed boundaries and were mixed with traditional tales from elsewhere. And some were ‘discovered’ in the eighteenth century by a more sophisticated audience, and turned into literature that survives to this day. Wings are a Victorian addition, and further emphasised by Walt Disney.
Fairie was a place or state not of this world. It was supernatural, but not Heaven or Hell or Purgatory. Sometimes it was underground and entered by way of the barrows, the tomb mounds of the ancestors. Size was different there: fairies could be dwarves or giants. Time was different there: it passed in a flash or was unmoving. Wishes could be granted there, eating and drinking could cause death. Dancing and music was a hallowed rite. Magic conquered reality. The reason for doing things, the quest, the fairy marriage, the wish, always seemed just out of reach.
Fairy stories convey a strong impression of a distant culture not fully understood by the people who inherited the customs and stories, often through one of the Keltic languages. The Kelts, (from Greek keltoi), preserved a strong sense of the vanishing of their culture, which can be heard in much of their music.
From this perhaps, comes the sense that having to do with the fairy world could be dangerous. The dead reclaim the living, the gift contains a curse, and the favour asked is often to divert a lethal visitation.
“John Barleycorn Must Die” is a folksong with many memorable interpretations, including one by Steeleye Span. It has been associated with the Anglo-Saxon god Beowa (‘barley’) and the hero Beowulf. It has been Chistianised, notably by Robert Burns, but older versions prior to the 17th century still exist. The references to religious ritual celebrating the sacrifice of the god to make a harvest crop is ancient.
There were three men come out of the west, their fortunes for to try
And these three men made a solemn vow, John Barleycorn must die.
They ploughed, they sowed and harrowed, threw clods upon his head
Till these three men were satisfied John Barleycorn was dead.
They’ve let him lie for a long long time till the rains from heaven did fall
And little Sir John sprang up his head and so amazed them all
“Puss in Boots” is a famous tale in Perrault’s Stories and Tales of Long Ago (1697), which also included “Sleeping Beauty”, “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Cinderella”. The story had been transmitted orally, and over the years many variations had been made. Originally the cat was a fairy imprisoned in a cat’s body (like Aladdin’s genie in the lamp). He is a trickster who outwits an ogre (and eats him), deceives a king, and obtains a princess as wife for the master who inherits him. Shape shifting and the group of three (three brothers, three deceptions etc) are just a few of the fairy traces remaining in the literary treatment we have, which adds, for no particular reason, the boots.
The fairy story, considered suitable for children, actually contains traces of rituals of appeasement towards powerful forces worshipped by the Kelts and Anglo Saxons: ones we call fairies. In Perrault’s version, instead of gaining his freedom from cat form, the fairy remains a cat, and only the fact that a talking cat wearing boots causes no surprise tells us we are in fairy land.
Brownies were goblins who lived in peoples’ houses and aided with its chores. They had similar functions to the Roman Lares and Penates, who protected the household of every Roman and ensured it was well provided for. Both were important parts of private religious rites in Anglo Saxon and Roman culture. Folk tradition elaborated, and made them small, furry and unsociable, a caricature of their original function. This demythification probably was the work of Christian monks at first.
Elves were beings who came from traditional lore in Scandinavia, Germany and Anglo Saxon England. They were imagined as humanoid, white and shining, immortal and with supernatural powers. It is believed they were a collective reference to pre Christian gods. Christianity has erased most detailed references to elves, and left the impression that as a group elves were dangerously seductive, and destructive when disregarded. No name of an individual elf is known, but the word ‘elf’ is often used as part of a personal name (Alfred). The word came to be conflated with ‘fairy’, and treated in a sentimental way, until the books of JRR Tolkien restored some of their stature. Pointy ears are a late addition.
Many tales of fairies were ‘humanised’ and their protagonist seen not as a god, but a hero. One such was Merlin, originally a bard and prophet whose mother was human but whose father was an elf, an ancient god. Merlin was said to have built Stonehenge. Later stories tell of his shapeshifting abilities, and connect him with the Grail. His association with, firstly Uther Pendragon, then King Arthur, is a late medieval addition.
There are no original sources of information about fairies or ancient heroes like Merlin. All surviving records are Christian, and the tolerance they show in repeating the stories about fairies is a sign that the older religion had quickly succumbed to conversion. This accounts for the element of fantasy, and even humour, in the fairy stories. An idea of the original feeling with which these gods and spirits were once regarded can be recaptured in German epics such as the Nibelungenlied of the 12th century.
It seems some of the ‘witches’ who were savagely tried and executed in 16th and 17th century Europe may have been practicing rites of the old religions, but all we know of them is from their Christian accusers, who saw them as devil worshippers.
Although it seems a long way from that world of doomed gods and powerful nature spirits to the volumes of stories considered suitable for me when a child, fairy stories, and customs preserved in folk tales and folk songs, all have a similar feel. They have no moral, little logic, describe magical characters who can change shape, customs and rituals foreign to Christianity, and a disquieting state where all is not as it seems, and one in which only the correct rite can save you from danger. They are menacing, because the gods, despite their favours, are frightening.
Children know there is a lot more in them than adults think there is.
©2017 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.