Fairies, dim memories of memories

by Jamie Lutton

I was at work last week at my bookshop, when a woman traded in her daughter's books that she had outgrown. Among them were a lot of flimsy children's books with fairy folk in them, readers meant for first or second graders. Fairies, always girl fairies, having various adventures.

We all 'know' what fairies look like. Tinkerbell. Tiny, about three inches high or so, in skimpy outfits,  magical, temperamental, with wings like dragonflies.

Falero Luis Ricardo Lily Fairy, 1888

But fairies did not always look like this.  This is a construct that comes from Ireland's myths and stories about 'the little people'.  During the Elizabethan era, this was transmitted south into English mythology, mostly because.   Shakespeare picked this up, and put 'fairies' into his play A Midsummer Night's Dream. The Fairy king and queen are full, human sized, but their attendant fairies are small, invisible, and can sit in flowers.  In Shakespeare's The Tempest, you still have a human sized 'fairy' Ariel, who is more like the older fairies ' magical, invisible, mischievous, but the fairies of A Midsummer Night's Dream prevail in cultural memory, influencing story telling from then on.

Fairies are then said to be tiny, usually invisible to humans, occupying the night world,  dangerous, spiteful, willful.   But centuries before that, fairy folk were human sized,  that feared 'cold iron' and 'cold steel'.  They lived on the fringes of human society, had to be placated with gifts,  and they lived in another world, 'fairy world', passing back and forth into both.

They also were a focus for romantic fascination. As the old religions were suppressed by the new Christian Church, they were morphed into tales of the 'fairy folk.'

A ballad, Thomas The Rhymer, by an anonymous bard centuries before Shakespeare, gives a good example of this. The 'Queen of Elfland'  appears as a beautiful woman dressed in green, on a white horse covered with hundreds of little bells. After an enchanted kiss, she kidnaps Thomas, and shows him  the three paths, the path to hell, the path to heaven, and the path to fairyland.  .

In another source, a laie, or epic song   written by Maire of France in about 1190, for both the French and English court.  Titled Lanval,  in it the fairy princess had takes a lover who was a poor knight in King Aurthur court, and showers him with gifts. He is forbidden to say where is gifts come from, or to reveal that she is his lover.  Maidens and married women in the court try to seduce him, and he is punished by Guinevere for refusing his advances, an obvious copy  of the tale of Potiphar's wife and Joseph in the book of Genesis, 39 7.

When he is on trial, as he has been libeled  by Guenevere, he refuses to speak of his fairy lover, saying he has no lover, till he his threatened with death. He then confesses all.  At this moment, magically out of thin air, the fairy princess shows up on horseback to rescue him, has him jump on the back of his horse, and whisks him off to Avalon, and he is seen no more on Earth.

In both cases the 'fairy princess' rides on horseback and whisks the mortal man away. In Thomas the Rhymer to 'fairyland' and in the lais by Marie De France, to Avalon. This is a reversal of most ancient romances where the man rescues his fair lady. The gist of this is that fairies, or 'elf queens' are not only human sized, but dread powerful creatures who must be obeyed by mortal men. .

Looking further back in history, past dark ages and the Roman occupation of England, these 'fairy folk' seem to be cultural memories of bronze aged Celtic peoples, who were in the British Isles and lingered the longest there, holding out from the waves of invasions from the European continent of Anglo Saxons, and, later, Norman people. Driven back to mountain side and deep forest, the local peoples remembered them as 'magical', hiding from 'mortal man', disliking 'cold iron' the weapons used by the  invaders.

Lingering on in memory, as beautiful and fearful adversaries,. mostly women, who would melt into 'thin air' or retreat over the hill.

We would have more of the stories about them and their ways, if the Norman French Christan church had not burned the Anglo Saxon books, as they were suppressing the culture that was there before the 1066 invasion. Only fragments remain, mostly known from writings that refereed to them by the Norman monks as they suppressed them.

So, the tiny fairies that occupy children's books are dim memories of memories, of people who occupied the England before waves of exterminations destroyed them and the stories about them..

In the poem Thomas The Rhymer, the Elf queen is the direct inspiration for both the 'bad magical witches' in the Narnia stories by C.S. Lewis, and Galadriel in The Lord of The Rings by Tolkien.  The 'elf queen' in this old ballad, and others like them, casts a long shadow on twentieth century epic fantasy.

Each generation retells the stories of the fairy folk, one way or another.

Sadly, only a few traces remain in everyday life of the Celts that came before the Norman French, before the Anglo-Saxons.

Have you ever seen someone knock on wood, and it has to be real wood, when they say out loud something bad that might happen? In England they 'touch wood'. 

This is one of the last traces of summoning the spirits of the trees to protect you from a bad outcome, the fairy folk.