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 place names. But there is room for doubt whether these sources should be regarded as describing fairies at all.
The fairy tradition in literature beins in the 1380's, with Chaucer and Gower. In their eyes, the fairies are 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 otherworldy 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 Eldric, are deliberately left undentified; 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 charcter-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 is an eginamatic 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. Theres 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 spirts were also used, on occasion, for devils.
The achievment 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 discord. Despite Bob Trubshaw's suggestion in the article titled Fairies and their kin that 'Broadly speaking, these Middle English accounts conform to the Anglo-Saxon categories of elves, dwarfs, pucks, so seem to represent some continuity of belief there is no systematic mythology of fairies before1380. 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 Stich makes them on the same footing as hags and the Aesir; and they have the same role as the Aesir in name compunds compare Aelfric and Oscric. 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 the Vanir.
By the thirteenth century, the orginal context of Old English belief had become lost, and people were using the word in various ways. Layamon uses elf to translate the Romance fadaes 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 spirtual 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 place names: 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 tradition.
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 that beorg would suggest this.
Scandinavian influence is certainly present in those place names 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 or pygmaeus, and means a short human being. When we meet with clearly mythological dwarfs in North Country place names, 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-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, succa and thyrs who had lived out a quiet rural existence as Church Grims, Black Shucks and Hobthursts to find themselves reinterpretated 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 disparate narratives of supernatural encounters which have been patched into it.
Originally published At The Edge No. 10 1998
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I believe that we don't have to change friends if we understand that friends change.
I believe that true friendship continues to grow, even on the longest distance. Same goes for true love.
I belive that you can do something in an instant that will give you heartache for life.
I believe that it's taking me a long time to become the person I want to be.
I believe that you should always leave loved ones with loving words. It may be the last time you see them.
I believe you can keep going long after you can't.
I believe that we are responsible for what we do, no matter how we feel.
I believe that either you control your attitude or it controls you.
I believe that regardless of how hot and steamy a relationship is at first, the passion fades and there had better be something more substantial to take its place.
I believe that heroes are people who do what has to be done when it needs to be done, regardless of the circumstances.
I believe that money is a lousy way of keeping score.
I belive that me and my best friend can do anything, or nothing and have the best damn time.
I believe that when I'm angry I have the right to be angry. That doesn't give me the right to be cruel.
I believe that maturity has more to do with what types of experiences you've had, and what you've learned from them, and less to do with how many birthdays you've celebrated.
I believe that it isn't always enough to be forgiven by others. Sometimes you have to learn to forgive yourself.
I belive that just because two people argue, it doesn't mean they don't like each other. And just because they don't argue, it doesn't mean they do.
I believe that you should't be so eager to find out a secret. It may change your life forever.
I believe that two people can look at the exact same thing and see something totally different.
I believe that your life can be changed in a matter of hours by people who don't even know you.
I believe that when you think you have no more to give, when a friend asks for help, you will find the strength.
I believe that credentials on the wall do not make you a decent human being.
I believe that the people you care most about in life are taken from you too soon.