What is the Leanan Sidhe? You may have encountered descriptions of this creature as a type of female fairy which grants inspiration to male poets, but drains the life and vitality from them, like a vampire muse. However, this version comes directly from the work of the poet W. B. Yeats, who could be . . . creative with his use of folklore.
Here's what Yeats had to say in his 1888 book Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry.
The Leanhaun Shee (fairy mistress), seeks the love of mortals. If they refuse, she must be their slave; if they consent, they are hers, and can only escape by finding another to take their place. The fairy lives on their life, and they waste away. Death is no escape from her. She is the Gaelic muse, for she gives inspiration to those she persecutes. The Gaelic poets die young, for she is restless, and will not let them remain long on earth—this malignant phantom.
...the Lianhaun shee lives upon the vitals of its chosen, and they waste and die. She is of the dreadful solitary fairies. To her have belonged the greatest of the Irish poets, from Oisin down to the last century.
Most mentions of the Leannan Sidhe since then (under various spellings) draw directly from Yeats' description of a vampire-like seductress. His account bears a strong resemblance to concepts like John Keats' 1819 poem "La Belle Dame sans Merci."
But Yeats' version doesn't necessarily coincide with the original Irish concept of this being.
A year before Yeats' book came out, Lady Jane Wilde described a significantly more benevolent version of the same creature. "The Leanan-Sidhe, or the spirit of life, was supposed to be the inspirer of the poet and singer, as the Ban-Sidhe was the spirit of death, the foreteller of doom. The Leanan-Sidhe sometimes took the form of a woman, who gave men valour and strength in the battle by her songs." Wilde lists Eodain the poetess as a Leanan-Sidhe. (Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland, 1887)
And this being was not always female. In the 1850s, the Transactions of the Ossianic Society spent quite some time laying out details of the "Leannan Sighe" as muses who would inspire bards, only to take them away after a shortened lifespan. The most interesting piece of evidence is an incantation from 1760, created to expel a male Leannan Sighe. Like an incubus, he was harassing a local woman named Sheela Tavish. The incantation, composed by a Catholic priest, is an odd mix of religions and mythologies. At one point he appeals to the fairy queen Aoibheall. The writers of the article suggested that the poem was satirical. They also mentioned meeting "many persons who pretended to be favored with the inspirations of a Leannan Sighe," these apparently being trick psychics.
Yeats' inspirations can be clearly seen here, but it is also clear that he has cherry-picked details. Most pertinently, the Leannan Sighe in traditional Irish lore can be male or female, but Yeats' version is always female.
The Lianhaun Shee is mentioned in John O'Hanlon's Irish Folk Lore (1870) and in The Journal of Science (1872). In Irish Folk Lore, there's reference to the being's fluid gender and to its habit of aiding men in battle (which apparently extends to bar fights).
In the 20th century, the Irish Folklore Commission collected an account of a healer named Eibhlin Ni Ghuinniola who was sometimes seen gathering herbs in the company of a male leannan si. (Crualaoich p. 189-191)
Fairy lovers could be helpful or harmful. In the myths of Fionn mac Cumhaill, Uchtdealbh was a jealous fairy who cursed her lover's wife. She would have been described as some variation of Leannan Sighe since that's literally what she was - a fairy lover. Biroge of the Mountain was a more benevolent spirit who aided the hero Cian.
The New English-Irish Dictionary defines the leannan si as "fairy, phantom, lover," "baleful influence," or "sickly complaining person."
There’s one odd side note in Evans-Wentz’s Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries (1902), among material collected from a tailor named Patrick Waters.
"The lunantishees are the tribes that guard the blackthorn trees or sloes; they let you cut no stick on the eleventh of November (the original November Day), or on the eleventh of May (the original May Day). If at such a time you cut a blackthorn, some misfortune will come to you." (p. 53)
This may make more sense when we recognize that several of Waters’ descriptions of fairy races were atypical. He described pookas as horse-dealers who invisibly visited racecourses, and referred to the “gentry,” or fairies, as coming from “the planets—according to my idea.” (So . . . aliens?) Evans-Wentz also seemed mystified by some of Waters’ accounts, including one Druid story that he was “unable to verify in any way” (p. 52).
The lunantishee is a little baffling, but comparing it to the many spellings of Leanan Sidhe, I think it's a version of the same name. If pookas are horse-dealers and the Gentry are aliens, then some shuffled attributes aren't that out-of-place.
The connection between fairies, blackthorns and sloes has some possible evidence. An 1894 edition of Transactions of the Folk-lore Society mentioned that the "good people" protect solitary bushes, and mentions specifically that it is unlucky to cut down a lone blackthorn bush. Similar plants like the white-thorn and hawthorn were also sacred to the fairies, in Ireland but also in other places such as Brittany. (Thiselton-Dyer, 1889)
In 1907, Hugh James Byrne mentioned that in Connaught "the fairies are supposed to blight the sloes and haws and other berries on November night." From The Folk-Lore Record in 1881 - in North Ireland it's said that "On Michaelmas Day [September-October] the devil puts his foot on the blackberries." Thomas Keightley mentions in The Fairy Mythology that when blackberries begin to decay, children are warned "not to eat them any longer, as the Pooka has dirtied on them." It's a cautionary story, using the threat of fairies to stop children from potentially eating spoiled berries. Similarly, Churn-Milk Peg was a British spirit who punished those who ate underripe nuts.
Both Yeats' Leanhaun Shee and Patrick Waters' lunantishee appear to be unique renditions of an Irish creature which is both complex and . . . actually rather simple. A fairy lover is a fairy who loves a human, who may be male or female, who may aid or harass humans. Yeats synthesized this into a species of vampiress. Waters, on the other hand, juggled different fairy traits and perhaps his own imagination, giving a hint of what fairy belief might have looked like around 1900 or so.
In her influential Dictionary of Fairies (1976), Katharine Briggs gave a list of charms that protected against fairies. This included several plants and herbs like four-leaved clover, St. John's wort, rowan and ash. These are all extremely well-known superstitions, showing up in books of fairy lore and plant lore alike.
But she also included two plants that are harder to find information on:
"Red verbena was almost equally potent, partly perhaps because of its pure and brilliant colour. Daisies, particularly the little field daisies, were protective plants, and a child wearing daisy chains was supposed to be safe from fairy kidnapping."
Briggs is the only authority to list these herbs in this way. Any later sources generally quote her. Botanist Roy Vickery wrote in 2010, citing Briggs, that accounts of the daisy chain superstition were "rather unconvincingly suggested."
So, can this information be backed up by any other collections of folklore?
Verbena, or vervain, is well-known as a ward against the supernatural, but the fact that Briggs describes it as red brings up questions. Verbena comes in multiple varieties and colors - lilac, blue, pink, white or red. Briggs placed great significance on the red color, making it the plant's most important quality: "Red was always a vital and conquering colour." She also mentions red thread and red berries as protective talismans (although red is also a favored fairy color). But the vervain native to England, the natural candidate for any fairy superstitions, would be Verbena officinalis. And this plant has small, pale, lilac or gray flowers. Briggs wrote elsewhere of verbena-related superstitions, which makes it especially odd that she fixates on the color red here.
Vervain was used in medicine as a healing herb, and also known in lore as the Holy Herb. The name, from Latin, literally means "sacred bough." The ancient Greeks and Egyptians associated it with deities such as Hera and Isis. In Irish lore, vervain was one of the "seven herbs of great value and power" (Wilde p. 182).
As pointed out by Hilderic Friend, vervain and other plants were sometimes supposed to be used by witches, but those same plants were also believed to fight off witches or the devil:
Terfoil, Vervain, John's Wort, Dill,
Hinder witches of their will.
This dichotomy is common, and Friend suggests that this was part of a belief that "the plants and materials employed by magicians...and other similar dealers in the black arts, are equally efficacious if employed against their charms and spells." (529-530) But Friend describes the plant as "slender spikes of grey flowers."
There is a tradition of vervain being connected to blood. John White, writing in 1608, bemoaned the fact that many of his parishioners would "weare vervein against blasts" - i.e., elf-blasts - and mentioned a belief that vervain was used to staunch Jesus Christ's bleeding wounds after the crucifixion. In Brittany, it was known as louzaouenn-ar-groaz, or herb-of-the-cross. John Gerard, in the Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes (1597), referred to the vervain as "Mercurie's Moist Bloude." (Or could “Mercury” be the metal, comparing the pale-colored Verbena officinalis to quicksilver?)
The color dilemma shows up in Notes and Queries series 7. Correspondents listed legends of red plants colored by Christ's blood at the crucifixion, and one person mentioned verbena. Another person countered that "The vervain (Verbena officinalis) is a purple flower" and could not have anything to do with the legend. Yet another commenter, however, shot back that historically, colors were categorized differently, and red or purple could be interchangeable. Regardless of classical color distinctions, it's clear that folklore experts were not envisioning a "pure and brilliant" red flower.
Red verbena does exist, of course, but it doesn't grow wild in the UK. Varieties like the scarlet Verbena chamaedrifolia or Verbena peruviana were imported from South America in the early 1800s, too late to have any deep folkloric history (Transactions).
A couple of people suggested to me that Briggs might have meant red valerian - a similar-looking plant with scarlet blossoms. Valerian in general (Valeriana officinalis, a white or pink flower) had similar holy or protective properties to vervain. Red valerian (Centranthus ruber) is a different thing, but is known as "good neighbors," "good neighborhood," or "quiet neighbors" in some areas of England, strikingly like the fairies' name of Good Neighbors. (Plant-Lore)
There's also red campion, which is associated with Robin Goodfellow and also called the Devil's Flower or blaa ny ferrishyn (Manx for fairies' flower). Red campion seems to frequently be pink, though.
On the other hand, these folk names don't sound like something that would belong to a fairy deterrent.
Briggs goes into more detail on daisies, giving them their own entry:
"It is sometimes said that the habit of dressing children in daisy-chains and coronals comes from a desire to protect them against being carried off by the fairies. Daisies are a sun symbol and therefore protective magic."
Daisies are not often listed as having any connection to fairies. More common is the "he loves me, he loves me not" type of fortune-telling rhyme. The daisy is associated with innocence and childhood. One alternate name in England and Scotland is "bairnwort" - bairn meaning baby, because it's "the children's flower." This association can be seen in the poem "The Daisy," by Henry Septimus Sutton (1825–1901) where it is called "the little children's friend."
In a review of daisy-related folklore in 1956, Katharine T. Kell did not mention fairies or protective qualities at all. She recounted a Celtic origin story - a woman named Malvina, grieving the death of her stillborn son, was comforted by hearing that dead infants were reincarnated as flowers, and that her son had become a daisy. Kell seems unsure about this story's origins; she seems to have had trouble tracking it down, only finding references to it being part of the Ossian cycle. The Poems of Ossian, published by James Macpherson in the 1760s, are already of doubtful authenticity, with many calling them a hoax. I cannot find anything indicating that the daisy story actually appears in the Ossian cycle. The poems were wildly popular when they first came out, and received numerous translations and adaptations across Europe and North America. The daisy story appeared in 1825 in Charlotte de la Tour's Le Langage des Fleurs, and made it back into English by 1834 (The Language of Flowers). Other authors quoted this story as if directly from MacPherson's Ossian. The daisy-as-reincarnated-infant legend is very possibly French fanfiction of a fake Celtic epic.
Kell also included some Christian legends connecting the daisy (or alternately, the white chrysanthemum) to the Child Jesus.
Coming back to Briggs, there is one other authority on protective daisies: the storyteller Ruth Tongue. For those who aren't familiar with Tongue, she's been viewed with skepticism by later scholars.
In Somerset Folklore (1965), Tongue states briefly that "ordinary daisy chains are sometimes felt to be a protection for children" (p. 33). The flowers feature in several of Tongue's Forgotten Folk Tales of the English Counties (1970). They are associated with holiness, innocence, and childlike simplicity. In "Crooker," a Derbyshire tale, a traveler carries posies of St. John's Wort, primroses and daisies to protect himself from evil forces. "The Daisy Dog," attributed to Cornwall, has a simple-minded but kind man who plants "a criss-cross of God's daisies" on a grave to protect it. (The story gets its name from the ghost dog that defends the grave afterwards.)
Most relevant is "Silly Kit and Down-a-down," a Huntingdonshire tale. In a Tam Lin-esque device, the Elfin King plots to use the main character, Kit, as payment for the fairies' "seven years' due" to Hell. Kit is an intellectually disabled and innocent young woman. Jesus himself comes to protect her, and watches over her as she playfully makes a daisy chain. In Hell, "the Devil and all the fiends" flee at the sight of Kit accompanied by Jesus. She returns home with her daisy chain, which is referred to as "Flowers of Paradise."
I do not know of any analogues to this story, although it is reminiscent of those daisies-as-Christ-symbol traditions. Tongue stated that it was told to her aunt "before 1914."
Briggs and Tongue collaborated closely on both Somerset Folklore and Dictionary of Fairies, and Briggs contributed the foreword for Forgotten Folk Tales. Based on this, Tongue seems like the most likely candidate for the contributor of daisies as protective charms.
Although most of the herbs on Briggs' list are easily located in books of superstition and folklore, red verbena and daisies are of doubtful origin. These are not the only unverified "facts" in the book. Briggs remains one of the giants of the folklore field, but the Dictionary of Fairies is one of her later books and skews more towards entertainment than scholarly research. For instance, the Dictionary’s entry for “oakmen” relies on a misreading of source material. These were already of dubious origin, but Briggs used the oakmen’s name with a different creature’s description, resulting in a completely new combo. The red verbena may be a similar case.
Here, she seems to have conflated several different things:
As for daisies: these flowers were popularly associated with children, the sun, and in Christian legend, Jesus. Their defensive properties, though, may be one of Ruth Tongue's unique themes. Oddly enough, it seems this isn't the only possible fauxlore tradition to feature daisies - there's also the French-"Celtic" story of the reincarnated infant.
Goldilocks and the Three Bears is one of the most famous fairytales today. It's also one of the most mysterious. Alan C. Elms wrote that Goldilocks "does not resemble any of the standard tale-types, and includes no indexed folktale motifs." For years, Goldilocks was believed to be a literary creation by a single author... until an older version surfaced in a library collection.
1831: Eleanor Mure wrote down "The Story of the Three Bears", (available here from the Toronto Public Library) in rhyme, with watercolor illustrations, as a birthday gift for her young nephew. She called it "the celebrated nursery tale," indicating that it was already famous, and she was just rendering it in verse.
The story is different from the version familiar today. There is no Goldilocks. Rather, the story begins with three bears (all apparently male, referred to as the first, second and little bears) who move into a house in town. A snooping old woman, with no name, breaks into their house while they're out. Rather than porridge, she drinks their milk, but she breaks chairs and sleeps in beds just like the modern Goldilocks. Hearing the bears coming home, she hides in a closet. The bears return and discover the damage one by one. They find her, have difficulty burning or drowning her, and finally throw her on top of St. Paul's Church steeple.
Mure's homemade manuscript remained unknown for years, until 1951, when it was finally rediscovered in the Toronto Public Library.
Before that, the oldest known version had been Robert Southey's.
1837: Robert Southey anonymously published The Doctor, a collection of his essays. Among those was "The Story of the Three Bears." This is, in some ways, more like modern Goldilocks. The bears' meal is porridge. Again the antagonist is a nosy old lady. In a stroke of genius, Southey had the Great, Huge Bear, the Middle Bear, and the Little, Small, Wee Bear speak in appropriately sized type. The story ends with the old woman jumping out the window, never to be seen again. Southey described the story as one he had heard as a child from his uncle. Also, in letters from 1813, Southey mentioned telling the story to his relative's young children.
1849: Joseph Cundall made a significant change when he retold the tale in Treasury of Pleasure Books for Young Children. Namely, instead of an elderly crone, he made the antagonist a little girl named Silver-Hair.
The "Story of the Three Bears" is a very old Nursery Tale, but it was never so well told as by the great poet Southey, whose version I have (with permission) given you, only I have made the intruder a little girl instead of an old woman. This I did because I found that the tale is better known with Silver-Hair, and because there are so many other stories of old women.
However, Cundall might not have been the first person to do this; he implies that the tale is already "better known" as Silver-Hair. Both the name and the child character caught on very quickly, another possible indicator that he didn't make it up.
The bachelor bears got a makeover, too. In 1852, illustrations were showing them as a nuclear family. And in 1859's The Three Bears. A Moral Tale, in Verse, the bears are identified as "a father, a mother, and child."
1865: An interesting aside here. In Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens titles a chapter "The Feast of the Three Hobgoblins." The characters eat bread and milk, and Dickens includes this line:
It was, as Bella gaily said, like the supper provided for the three nursery hobgoblins at their house in the forest, without their thunderous low growlings of the alarming discovery, ‘Somebody’s been drinking my milk!’
As pointed out by Katharine Briggs, this could indicate another version of the story floating around. I think it should be noted that a synonym for hobgoblin is "bug-bear."
Back to the evolving story of The Three Bears! The heroine’s name varied from Silver Hair, to Silver-locks, to Golden Hair, to Golden Locks - or, occasionally, she was nameless. "Golden Hair" appeared around 1868, in Aunt Friendly's Nursery Book. The variant "Goldilocks" soon gained popularity. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this was a nickname for blonds as early as 1550. Old Nursery Stories and Rhymes (1904) is sometimes credited with the first use of the name Goldilocks for this story. However, Goldilocks was used for the Three Bears' antagonist as early as 1875 (Little Folks' Letters: Young Hearts and Old Heads, pg. 25, where the name is not capitalized).
At this point, most people believed that the tale was created by Southey. In 1890, the folklorist Joseph Jacobs stated that the story was "the only example I know of where a tale that can be definitely traced to a specific author has become a folk-tale."
However, Jacobs changed his opinion not long afterwards, when he received a story titled "Scrapefoot." This was collected by John Batten from a Mrs. H., who had heard it from her mother forty years previously. It appeared in Jacobs' More English Fairy Tales in 1894. This is close to the tale of Goldilocks that we know today, except that the main character who visits the castle of the three bears is neither a girl nor an old woman; it's a male fox named Scrapefoot. (There are quite a few parallels with Mure's version - the stolen food being milk, and the dilemma of how to kill the intruder.)
Jacobs believed that Scrapefoot must be the older, more authentic version of the tale. He publicized the theory that Southey had heard a hypothetical third version with a female fox, or vixen, and had misinterpreted the word "vixen" to mean an unpleasant woman.
However, Jacobs was building his theory based on the information he had at the time. He did not know of Mure's "Three Bears," which would not be discovered until 1951. We have two early, literary versions about an old lady, both of which state they heard the story from tradition - and one oral version, recorded later, about a male fox.
Cundall's version, with Silver-Hair, is the oldest known to feature a child intruder. But Cundall possibly implies that other people were already telling versions with a young girl. And actually, there's more evidence for this - starting with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.
Goldilocks as a Motif
In the Grimms' story of Snow White, first published in 1812, there is a long scene where the heroine - a young child in this version, seven years old - first finds the seven dwarfs' house. Inside the empty cottage she discovers a table set with seven places, and seven beds. Snow White eats a few bites from each plate and drinks a drop of wine from each cup. Then
"She tried each of the seven little beds, one after the other, but none felt right until she came to the seventh one, and she lay down in it and fell asleep."
When the dwarfs return, this happens:
The first one said, "Who has been sitting in my chair?"
The second one, "Who has been eating from my plate?"
The third one, "Who has been eating my bread?"
The fourth one, "Who has been eating my vegetables?"
The fifth one, "Who has been sticking with my fork?"
The sixth one, "Who has been cutting with my knife?"
The seventh one, "Who has been drinking from my mug?"
Then the first one said, "Who stepped on my bed?"
The second one, "And someone has been lying in my bed."
Eventually, they find Snow White lying there. Unlike the story of the Three Bears, however, the dwarves are so stricken with her beauty that they are happy to let her stay.
Another fun fact: in the Grimms' original draft from 1810, Snow White is golden-haired. Her mother wishes for a child with black eyes, and in a later scene there's a reference to Snow White's "yellow hairs" being combed.
The Grimms also published another story with a similar scene, "The Three Ravens." A girl sets out to rescue her three brothers, who were transformed into ravens. She travels through the harsh wilderness to the castle where they now live. There are three plates and three cups. The girl samples from each and drops her ring into the final cup. Just then, the ravens arrive; the girl might be hiding at this point, because the ravens don't seem to notice her. They each ask, "Who ate from my little plate? Who ate from my little cup?" But when the third raven looks into his cup, he finds the sister's ring, and the curse is broken.
The Grimms edited the story significantly and changed it to "The Seven Ravens." However, I find it significant that the earlier published version had three talking animals.
The stolen-meal scene also takes place briefly in "The Bewitched Brothers," a similar tale from Romania with two eagle-brothers. In other tales, the girl does not eat, but cleans the house and sets the table, then hides herself before her brothers come in. In a Norwegian variant called The Twelve Wild Ducks, the details are a little different, but the sister hides under the bed when her brothers arrive, and is discovered because she left her spoon on the table. In that version, at least one brother blames her for the curse, which explains why she might need to hide.
In Journal of American Folklore, Mary I. Shamburger and Vera R. Lachmann argued that Southey pulled inspiration from Snow White and also from Norwegian lore. They say,
"According to the Norwegian tale, the king's daughter comes to a cave inhabited by three bears (really Russian princes who cast off their bearskins at night). The king's daughter finds the interior of the cave very comfortable. Food and drink, especially porridge, are waiting on the table; she sees beds nearby, and after a good meal, she chooses the bed she prefers and lies not on, but underneath it!"
They're describing "Riddaren i Bjødnahame" (The Knights in Bear-shapes). I would need someone more well-versed in Norwegian dialect to weigh in, but the details seem a bit different from the previous description. The bear-knights' home is not what I'd picture as a cave; it's a Barhytte, which is apparently a hut made of pine branches. I couldn't verify whether porridge is mentioned (if you know Norwegian landsmål, I would love to hear from you). The princess doesn't just move in and get comfy - she cooks the food and tidies up. The beds are a triple bunkbed (yes). And she doesn't take a nap - she is scared that the inhabitants may turn out to be dangerous, so she hides beneath the lowest bed. In fact, the Russian princes are charmed by her, and she ends up marrying one of them.
Shamburger and Lachmann cited one other Norwegian tale in a footnote: "Jomfru Gyltrom." This is a parallel story, which does not feature the meal scene but does have three bear-princes. Incidentally, Jomfru Gyltrom's most notable characteristic is that she has a golden dove on her head. I don't think this is really connected to Goldilocks' name, but it's still an interesting parallel.
The Three Bears today features a nuclear family with Mama, Papa and Baby Bear. However, in some of the earliest versions, all the bears are male. This is closer to the Snow White-eque tales, where the home is an all-male space. Sometimes it’s a cottage, sometimes a castle (as in Scrapefoot). The intruder is the only female. The male inhabitants may be animals, humans in animal form, or otherworldly creatures (such as dwarves, or… hmmm… Dickens’ hobgoblins?).
The biggest difference is in the intruder's behavior. "Snow White" heroines are domestic goddesses who cook and clean wherever they go, but girls in "Three Bears" stories are forces of destruction.
I talk about tale types, but honestly, a lot of tales don’t stick to identified types. They’re more a collection of motifs. The Norwegian stories mentioned are Snow White tales, but not exactly. Both contain the essential elements of Snow White, but also other stories – “The Knights in Bear-shapes” turns into an East o’ the Sun, West o’ the Moon-type tale after the heroine wakes up, and “Jomfru Gyltrom” has an extended ending where the heroine’s stepsister impersonates her. “The Three Ravens” ends with the heroine locating her brothers, but other stories of that tale type typically continue after that point, with the heroine sewing shirts to break the curse. In a different case: one obscure English folktale, Dathera Dad, is parallel to a single scene from Tom Thumb.
The essential elements of Goldilocks are contained as a single scene in the stories of "Snow White" and "The Three Ravens," published in Germany in 1812, 19 years before Mure wrote down her version. In the 1810 version especially, Snow White was a seven-year-old blonde girl. Both Mure and Southey make reference to the story of the Three Bears being well-known. I wonder which came first. Was there a short story of a woman entering the animals' house and eating their food, which got absorbed into longer stories of a woman seeking shelter? Or did the Goldilocks scene break off from longer stories and take on a life of its own?
I believe that Goldilocks is an older story than it's been given credit for; it seems as if people are constantly finding that certain details - like the name Goldilocks - are older than previously realized. And I think the similarities to Snow White are too notable to be ignored. It's just that Southey's literary version gained notoriety and became the most influential version very quickly, while stories such as Dickens' "Three Hobgoblins" may not have been recorded.
And who knows - if Mure's version showed up more than a century after it was written, we might unearth other old versions. Mure's "Three Bears" up-ended all previous theories about Goldilocks. Joseph Jacobs thought Southey had misheard a story about a fox. Shamburger and Lachmann suggested that Southey had pulled his ideas from Norwegian folklore. But the discovery of this earlier version proved that Southey wasn't just making things up when he talked about hearing the story from his uncle; other people were already telling the story to their children.
Sometimes, if a tale doesn't contain any indexed motifs, it's time to update the index.
“Elphin Irving, the Fairies' Cupbearer” is a Scottish tale very similar to Tam Lin. There are some key differences. First, it's about siblings rather than lovers. More importantly, it's a tragedy. The story was first published by Allan Cunningham in the London Magazine, and again in 1822, in Cunningham's Traditional Tales of the English and Scottish Peasantry.
The story begins with a quote from Tam Lin (spelled Tamlane here). It’s a triumphant stanza, in which the heroine rescues Tamlane, and the fairy queen declares, "She that has won him, young Tamlane, has gotten a gallant groom.” Although the wording is slightly unique, it is very close to many of the versions in the Child Ballads, which would be published in the 1860s. (The oldest confirmed written version of Tam Lin is dated 1769, but the ballad probably goes back further.)
After this quote, the story introduces the valley of Corriewater, where many of the countryfolk believe fairies still dwell. The fairies often woo human youths and maidens away to be their lovers, and people who see their nighttime processions often spot dead relatives among them. The narrator then introduces “the traditional story of the Cupbearer to the Queen of the fairies.” There is a framing device with a group of countryfolk telling the story, different people chiming in to add their own perspectives.
The countryfolk introduce the tale of the twins Elphin and Phemie Irving. When the twins are sixteen, their father drowns trying to save his sheep from the river known as the Corriewater. Their mother dies of grief seven days after his funeral. The twins are very close, and both remarkably beautiful. (At this point, one of the storytellers bursts into a song, “Fair Phemie Irving.”)
When the twins are nineteen, there’s a drought. Elphin begins driving their flock over the dried-up Corriewater to reach better pastures. One evening, Phemie is waiting for her brother and sees a vision of him entering the house. However, when she goes to check on him, he’s vanished. She screams and goes comatose. Her neighbors, who come to check on her, can’t rouse her until the following morning, when a girl mentions that the Corrie has flooded and some of the Irvings’ sheep have been found drowned. Phemie immediately wakes up, wailing that “they have ta’en him away." She believes she saw the fairies charm Elphin away, for his horse wasn't shod with iron. She denies that he was drowned, and swears she’ll win him back. The superstitious townsfolk begin to gossip, many of them believing Phemie’s account. The storming and flooding worsen.
When the storms finally clear, the local laird discovers Phemie seated at the foot of an oak tree within a fairy ring. She sings "The Fairy Oak of Corriewater." In her song, the fairies dance around the haunted oak, and the Elf-queen brags that,
"I have won me a youth...the fairest that earth may see;
This night I have won young Elph Irving
My cup-bearer to be.
His service lasts but for seven sweet years,
And his wage is a kiss of me."
Phemie (though she isn't named in the song) bursts into their dance. The Elf-queen and Elphin climb onto their horses, but Phemie grabs Elphin and calls on God for help. Elphin transforms into a bull, a river, and a raging fire. At this last transformation, Phemie lets go. In the final verse, the elves sing tauntingly that if she had held on through the fire and kissed her brother, she would have won him back.
Phemie finishes her song, raving with grief, and the laird carries her home. At the same time two shepherds return bearing Elphin’s body, finally recovered from the river. He drowned trying to save their sheep. When Phemie sees the body, she laughs and says it’s nothing but a lifeless image fashioned by the fairies to fool them all. On Hallowmass-eve, when the spirits wander, she will wait at the graveyard and try again to capture Elphin from the fairy cavalcade. Most of the superstitious countryfolk believe her. But the morning after Hallow-eve, Phemie is found frozen to death in the graveyard, still waiting for her brother.
Allan Cunningham was a Scottish author and songwriter. This book, Traditional Tales, is clearly literary; anything collected has been polished and framed in his style. In the foreword, Cunningham wrote, “I am more the collector and embellisher, than the creator of these tales; and such as are not immediately copied from recitation are founded upon traditions or stories prevalent in the north." He doesn't provide further information, so we don't know what class "Elphin Irving" might have fallen into. Was it a story he heard directly and wrote down? Or was it “founded upon traditions”? Did it draw inspiration from Tam Lin?
A sidenote: in 1809, Cunningham was supposed to collect old ballads for Robert Hartley Cromek’s Remains of Nithsdale and Galloway Song. However, Cunningham instead submitted his original poems, written in the style of ballads. Cunningham's biographer pointed out that other poets around the same time sometimes committed similar deceptions, presenting their own work as ancient stuff.
"Elphin Irving" is a story within a story within a story. In level one, the narrator listens to a story being told by a group of countryfolk. Level two is the tragic but mundane tale of the death of the Irving family. Level three is Phemie's account of her supernatural experience. It’s left ambiguous whether the supernatural elements are real. The only one that really seems squarely stated is that Phemie saw her brother's apparition at the moment of his death. Also, lines blur between the different levels. Rumors and superstitions are threaded through the narrative, and it’s sometimes hard to recall whether we’re reading the words of the peasant characters in the story, or the people sitting about listening in the frame narrative.
As pointed out by Carole G. Silver, the fascination of the story comes from both the familiar trope of the fairy kidnapping, and "the author's reasoned hesitation between natural and supernatural explanations of events" (Strange and Secret Peoples, 14). Cunningham loved fairy-stories, but here, he would not commit one way or the other. We are never fully sure whether the fairies are "real."
The fairy plotline parallels the story of Tam Lin or Tamlane. This is explicit in the text, and the narrator draws attention to it with the opening excerpt. (Tamlane is also mentioned in "The King of the Peak," another story in the same book.) In “Tam Lin,” the heroine keeps hold through her true love’s transformations and wins him away from the faeries. Cunningham quotes the part of "Tam Lin" where the Fairy Queen accepts defeat. But when Phemie tries to follow that example, she fails, and the elves depart with mockery.
Although Tam Lin has a happy ending, in similar folktales, it could sometimes be a toss-up. Tam Lin and Elph Irving are unusual in having a girl as the rescuer; it's typically a man pursuing his supposedly dead (actually kidnapped) wife. In the Irish tale of "The Recovered Bride," he succeeds. But in another story, a Lothian farmer attempts to rescue his wife on Halloween, but loses his nerve and will never have another chance. In "The Girl and the Fairies," two young men fail to rescue a girl from the fairies' procession, and the fairies promptly murder her. A similarly bloody fate awaits an abductee whose husband is held back by neighbors from approaching her (Napier 29).
Phemie chooses two classical places to try to recover Elphin - first a fairy ring, and then the local graveyard on Halloween night. On both occasions, she fails.
Ultimately, Elphin and Phemie repeat their parents' fate. Like their father, Elphin drowns trying to save their sheep in the very same river. Phemie dies of grief just like their mother.
The Irving family is the subject of many rumors, and there are implied ties to the fairies. One possibility is that Elphin was taken by the fairies to be someone’s lover (supported by the Fairy Queen’s talk of kissing him). But it may be more complicated than that. One person claims that the twins’ mother was related to a witch. It is also said that every seven years, the fairies turn over one of their children as a kane (tenant's fee) to the devil. They are allowed to steal a human to offer in their place. This might imply that this is why Elphin was taken, but another rumor claims that Elphin actually is one of those doomed fairy “Kane-bairns,” and was left among humans to avoid this fate. Thus, he isn't really stolen by the fairies, but is returning to his biological relatives.
I’ve been skeptical of the idea that changelings are related to the fairy hell-tithe – an idea that is often attributed to “Tam Lin” but doesn’t actually appear there. Tam Lin is in danger of being tithed to Hell, but there are no changelings mentioned in the ballad (Tam may even be a fairy himself in some versions). However, here we do have a story where the two concepts are linked.
The fairies' "debt to Hell" was also mentioned in Matthew Gregory Lewis' poem "Oberon's Henchman; Or The Legend of The Three Sisters," written in 1803. So the idea was definitely present in authors' minds in the early 1800s. But I can't help scratching my head at the fact that both Cunningham and Lewis, when writing these stories, directly referenced Tam Lin in the text or in footnotes. Evidence of a tradition, or evidence that Tam Lin was popular?
Elphin’s relationship with the fairies is ambiguous, as he seems happy to serve them in exchange for a kiss from the Fairy Queen. He even seems ready to flee from Phemie. His name sounds like Elfin, highlighting his connection to the otherworld. In the song, the fairy queen shortens his name simply to Elph; now he is not just elf-like, but truly one of them.
It may be of note that Phemie's name is short for Euphemia (Greek for "well-spoken") and a vital part of the narrative comes from her words, spoken or sung. Also, the family surname of Irving comes from the name of a river - fitting for a character who drowns.
The elaborate nature of "Elphin Irving" raises questions about its authenticity. See the flowery writing style, the nested framing devices, and the ambiguity of the fairies' existence. By including the contrasting excerpt from Tam Lin, the narrator is practically screaming for people to compare them. The science of folklore and the focus on verifiable sources were only beginning to develop when Cunningham wrote, but we know that he was willing to fake traditional material. That does not reflect well on him.
Reviewing Cunningham's book, Richard Mercer Dorson stated bluntly that "traditional tales they are not, and they might more accurately have been titled 'Literary Tales Faintly Suggested by Oral Traditions of the Scottish Peasantry.'" (History of British Folklore, 122) Carole G. Silver summarized "Elphin Irving" as "really a version of the ballad of Tamlane."
Cunningham would not be the only person to write their own version of Tam Lin. Sophie May's Little Prudy's Fairy Book (1866) included a version titled "Wild Robin". Like "Tam Lin," there's a happy ending; however, like "Elphin Irving," it's mainly prose with excerpts from the Tam Lin ballad, and it also makes the main characters siblings rather than lovers. In the case of Wild Robin, it seems like this change was purely to remove the sexual elements and tone it down for children. It is impossible to say why Cunningham might have made this change, though.
I lean towards the theory that Elphin Irving was Cunningham's own creation, inspired by folklore and especially by Tam Lin. What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments!
A soldier's son sets out to make his fortune, saying goodbye to his widowed mother. On the way, he pulls a thorn from a tigress's paw; the grateful tigress, who happens to be able to talk, gives him a box in thanks and tells him to open it once he has carried it nine miles. However, the further he goes, the heavier the box becomes, until at eight and a quarter miles, it's impossible to carry. Saying that he believes the tigress was a witch, he throws the box down. The box bursts open, and out steps a little old man, one hath high (19 inches), with a beard that trails on the ground. The little man, who is highly cantankerous, is named Sir Buzz.
"Perhaps if you had carried it the full nine miles you might have found something better; but that's neither here nor there. I'm good enough for you, at any rate, and will serve you faithfully according to my mistress's orders."
The soldier's son asks for dinner, and Sir Buzz immediately flashes away to the nearest town. There, he shouts at shopkeepers who don't notice him due to his size, and then leaves each shop with a massive bag of supplies, carrying them without any trouble. The soldier's son and Sir Buzz then eat a meal. Eventually the two reach the king's city, where the soldier's son sees the king's daughter, Princess Blossom. This princess is notable in that she weighs no more than the equivalent of five flowers.
The soldier's son is smitten, and begs Sir Buzz to carry him to the princess. Although he complains, Sir Buzz - "who had a kind heart" - does so He takes him to the princess's bedchamber in the middle of the night. The princess is frightened at first, but is won over by the soldier's son, and the two talk all night and finally fall asleep at dawn. In order to prevent the soldier's son from being discovered, Sir Buzz carries off the bed with them both in it to a garden, uproots a tree to use as a club, and stands guard.
As soon as it's noticed that the princess is missing, a huge search ensues. The one-eyed chief constable tries to search the garden, encounters a tiny screaming man waving a tree around, and returns to the king with this wholly original statement: "I am convinced your majesty's daughter, the Princess Blossom, is in your majesty's garden, just outside the town, as there is a tree there which fights terribly."
Sir Buzz fights off anyone who tries to come near, and the soldier's son and Princess Blossom set off happily on their own. The soldier's son feels that he has made his fortune, and tells Sir Buzz that he can return to his mistress. However, Sir Buzz leaves him with a hair from his beard, telling him to burn it in the fire if he's ever in trouble.
The princess and the soldier's son promptly get lost in a forest and reach the point of starvation. A Brahman invites them to his home, which is filled with riches. He tells them they may open any cupboard except the one locked with a golden key. Of course the soldier's son does so anyway, and in the forbidden cabinet finds a collection of human skulls. Their rescuer is not a Brahman, but a vampire who plans to eat them. At that very moment, the vampire steps in, but the quick-thinking Princess Blossom puts Sir Buzz's hair into the fire.
Sir Buzz and the vampire then have a competition of transformations; the vampire turns into a dove and Sir Buzz into a hawk, and so on. The vampire becomes a rose in the lap of King Indra, and Sir Buzz becomes a musician who plays so wonderfully that Indra gives him the rose. Finally, the vampire turns into a mouse, and Sir Buzz becomes a cat and eats him. Sir Buzz then returns to Princess Blossom and the soldier's son and announces, "You two had better go home, for you are not fit to take care of yourselves." He takes them and all the vampire's riches back to the home of the hero's mother, where they live happily ever after, and Sir Buzz is never heard from again.
This story has remained a favorite of mine because it's so colorful and silly. There's also a lot going on and all kinds of random details.
The story was collected by Flora Annie Steel, a British woman whose husband worked in India in the Indian Civil Service.
Steel published this story as "Sir Bumble" in the Indian Antiquary in 1881, and she wrote that the story was well-known in the Panjab and was "Muhammadan" in origin. It also appeared in her 1881 work Wide-Awake Stories: A Collection of Tales Told by Little children, between Sunset and Sunrise in the Panjab and Kashmir (1884). She changed the name to "Sir Buzz" in Tales of the Punjab: Told by the People (1894). The different versions are nearly identical.
She wrote in the Indian Antiquary that "It possesses considerable literary merits remarkable from their absence in most Panjabi tales. The treatment is humorous and in places poetical, and the tale as a whole gives the idea of its having been at some period committed to writing." In Wide-Awake Stories, she stated she heard it from a Muslim Panjabi child, name unknown.
The Tale Type and Characters
The story falls into Aarne-Thompson type 562. Similar tales include "Aladdin" and Hans Christian Andersen's "The Tinderbox." In tales of type 562, a man seeking his fortune (often a former soldier, in this case the son of a soldier) encounters a sorcerer, witch, or someone else who gives them a magical object. This object grants them command of a magical servant - a genie, a giant, a gnome, or a trio of magic dogs. With this servant's help, the man kidnaps and marries a princess. Unfortunately, he gets into trouble and somehow loses access to the magical servant. At the last moment, he gets the servant back and everything works out.
"Sir Buzz" has some unique touches. In many versions the sorcerer or witch is at odds with the hero, and the hero may even kill them to gain the magic source. But the tigress seems like a decent sort, and the hero willingly sends Sir Buzz back to her in the end. In most tales, the hero winds up becoming king when he marries the princess (sometimes executing her father in the process), but here the hero and princess return to his poor mother's home, and we never hear anything else about the kingdom. Heroes of Tale Type 562 tend to be jerks, but the hero of Sir Buzz is a hapless but honest type.
There are some touches of other tales. The section in the vampire's house with the forbidden key is right out of "Bluebeard," and the finale of Sir Buzz's battle is similar to "Puss in Boots."
According to Flora Annie Steel, the tigress was described in the original story as a bhut or evil spirit. Were-tigers feature in many Indian stories and could be dangerous villains. The tigress is unusual here in that she is apparently benevolent. The vampire, in the original, was a ghul, and Steel explains that the one eye of the chief constable (kotwal) indicates that he's evil.
Princess Blossom's name is Bâdshâhzâdi Phûlî (Princess Flower) or Phûlâzâdî (Born-of-a-flower). Her unusual weight is a well-known motif in Indian folktales, known as the five-flower princess (Grounds for Play: The Nautanki Theatre of North India, p. 308). Her weight shows how delicate and almost otherworldly she is.
We never hear of Princess Blossom's family or kingdom again. She does seem to be fairly capable and quick-thinking, though.
Sir Buzz, the incredibly powerful, irritable and violent sprite, is clearly the star of the story. His personality stands out, which can be rare in this tale type. As well as being opinionated and a strong source of the slapstick comedy throughout the tale, he seems to have a genuinely caring relationship with the hero. His name is Mîyân Bhûngâ, which means "Sir Beetle" or "Sir Bumble-bee."
The image of a tiny man with a long beard trailing on the ground is a common one, appearing in tales from across the world (a few are listed in my Thumbling Project here). A character with the exact same description is the tiny blacksmith in the story of Der Angule (Three-Inch), a Bengali Thumbling tale.
The wulver is occasionally listed as a type of werewolf from the folklore of Shetland. However, it really has nothing to do with werewolves or shapeshifters. It's something quite different - more like a man with a wolf's head. The wulver has made it into encyclopedias such as Katharine Brigg’s Dictionary of Fairies, but all the sources can be tracked to just one single book: Jessie Saxby's Shetland Traditional Lore, published in 1932. As with other folklore creatures I've looked at, this kind of dead end is a bad sign. Is the wulver truly from folklore, or is it a new creation?
I read a copy of the 1974 edition of Saxby's book. At least in this edition, she did not quote or cite anyone, and did not include a bibliography. Rather, these were accounts she personally collected: "During a long lifetime I have been gathering such traditions and folk-lore as still exist in Shetland."
Even in this context, she rarely names her informants or gives any details on where or when she collected stories. She seemed disinterested in such practices, writing that "I could not follow any systematic arrangement, and I am not a scholarly person to sift and clear up fragments of our Lore until all the mystical charm of the subject has blown away. My compatriots will take what I give them kindly, and ask for no dry, though learned, explanations of what has lived in their souls since childhood" (pp. 5-6).
The beginning of the Trows chapter touches on Saxby's collection methods:
I being the ninth child of a ninth child was supposed to be within privileged lines, and therefore got a good deal of information from members of certain families.
One old man, a joiner and a boat-builder, who had married the daughter of a very noted witch, used to tell me long tales as I sat beside him when he was building a boat for my brothers. I was then a girl of twelve, with imagination running riot to hold all it got. (p. 127)
This gave me instant flashbacks to Ruth Tongue. Like Tongue, Saxby claims that something about her birth gave her special status (specifically, as a psychic), allowing her to gain information that others could not. In addition, she is recounting stories that she originally heard years ago, in childhood. However, while Tongue's account of her birth was apparently incorrect, records indicate that Saxby really was was the ninth of eleven children, and her father was the youngest of at least eight children. She and her family had many stories of psychic premonitions.
The wulver appears on page 141, in the chapter “Trows and their Kindred.”
The Wulver was a creature like a man with a wolf’s head. He had short brown hair all over him. His home was a cave dug out of the side of a steep knowe, half-way up a hill. He didn’t molest folk if folk didn’t molest him. He was fond of fishing, and had a small rock in the deep water which is known to this day as the “Wulver’s Stane.” There he would sit fishing sillaks and piltaks for hour after hour. He was reported to have frequently left a few fish on the window-sill of some poor body.
This chapter had previously appeared as two articles in the Shetland Times in January 1930. The section including the wulver was published as "Trows and Their Kindred, Part II" on January 11, 1930. The text is identical - except that it is spelled in the original version as "Wullver."
There are no citations in either the book or the newspaper article. And no older books mention the wulver. The Scottish Cave and Mine Database mentions the creature's cave dwelling and the Wulver's Stane, but states "So far the location of either the cave on the hillside or the Wulver's Stane remains unknown." This is not promising.
Wulvers in Shetland Place-Names
Saxby mentioned the wulver indirectly in one earlier work: an article titled "Sacred Sites in a Shetland Isle."
"Everywhere one finds the steedes of circular walls. All such places were regarded as 'trowie'--associated with the mysteries of the spirit world. They were haunted, or holy, or horrible, or health-giving--Helyabrun, Crusafiel, Wullver's Hool, Henkiestane, etc., names linked with the unseen and the unknown." (The Antiquary, 1905, p. 138)
So what is Wullver's Hool? (Note the double L, same as the original newspaper article.)
The linguist Jakob Jakobsen spent the years 1893-1895 researching remnants of the Norse language in Shetland, and wrote several books drawing on his research. In his 1897 book The Dialect and Place Names of Shetland, Jakobsen theorized that the names Wulvershool/Wilvershool and Wulhool/Wilhool were derived from the Norse word álfr (“elf”). Hool (or houll) is from the Norse hóll (“hill”). Thus, elf-hill. Supporting this, one of the locations he listed was also known as “de fairy-knowe,” and another was Bokie Brae (Bogie Hill). (Another writer, Gilbert Goudie, noted that the second location had been levelled during road construction.)
There are a wealth of similar names around Shetland. The names are usually applied to hills, or cairns of burnt stones, which in general are often associated with fairies or older religion.
And there are other Will Houlls, not listed here, which might have been duplicates or which didn't have enough information for me to tell. "Will" seems more common than "wull" in modern spelling. However, the alternate names imply that an otherworldly theme was associated with these locations.
The place-names also have a direct personal connection to Jessie Saxby. After many years abroad, now a successful author and a widow whose children were starting families of their own, Saxby returned to her childhood home to settle down. The Shetland Times announced in April 1898 that "A house is being put up for Mrs Saxby on the side of the hill at the side of the voe, which will command a splendid view of the harbour and surrounding district." This single-story stone cottage became known as Wullver's Hool; the name was in use by at least 1899.
The house still exists and is still known by that name. I have not found any details on how it was named. Was it built on the "Wulvershool" described by Jakobsen in 1897, just a year before Saxby's house began construction? Or was it named after it? Saxby clearly associated the name and the place with the ancient and supernatural. A 2018 biography of Saxby also made reference to the idea that "the setting of Wullver's Hool makes it vulnerable to trow intrusions," as it is on a hillside (Snow 312).
Categorizing the Wulver
With similar words ranging from alfar to elf, auf, or ouph, it’s not hard to imagine a jump from "elf" to "wulv" (and thence to wulver). The folklore of Shetland has often been compared and connected to Scandinavia, especially the Faroe Islands, Iceland, and Norway. A confusion with “wolf” could have led to the image of the wolf-like spirit.
And wulvers aren't as different from elves as it might seem at first glance. Otherworldly spirits, including some in the fairy category, are often hirsute. See the Roman satyr, medieval pilosus ("hairy one"), Middle English woodwose, German schrat, and Gaelic gruagach ("long-haired"). Hairiness is a common trait for wild men, hobgoblins, and house spirits alike. The Scottish brownie, according to Thomas Keightley, "is a personage of small stature, wrinkled visage, covered with short curly brown hair." (The wording is almost exactly the same as the wulver with his "short brown hair"). There's an idea that elves are small, but some brownie-style creatures may have been giants, and Saxby never actually mentions the wulver's height. Not all brownies worked indoors; the Fenodyree (possibly "hairy stockings") threshed corn and herded sheep.
Similar to the brownie was the uruisg, a more introverted Scottish fairy which preferred to live outside in streams and waterfalls but might still lend its services to humans. Sir Walter Scott described the urisk as a cave-dwelling satyr. Alexander Carmichael, in 1900, described the uraisg as "half-human, half-goat, with abnormally long hair, long teeth, and long claws." Other sources simply described it as a hairy, bearded man. One urisk, the Peallaidh ("hairy one"), shared its name with a river.
The wulver has been miscast as a werewolf, when it’s actually something more similar to a brownie or uruisg! Saxby categorized it among trows or trolls to begin with.
We have evidence that the word "wullver" was around as part of a place name, that the many Will Houlls may be related, and that there may be some relation to elves, fairies, and bogies. I think it's also significant that Saxby typically used the spelling "wullver." She seems to have only used the one-L spelling on one occasion, and I’m wondering whether that was unintentional. I think it should also be emphasized that the wullver - as described by Saxby - is not a werewolf, but a sprite similar to a brownie.
However, the wullver still lacks provenance. We still have only Jessie Saxby's account towards a tradition of a fishing wolf-man, which was our problem in the first place.
I wonder if some of these hard-to-find stories were simply told once by a single family, a bedtime story made up on the fly, and not necessarily a "Tradition." All the same, when they were written down, the distinction was lost and they ended up being categorized as widespread folk traditions.
The ending of the original Little Mermaid is famously tragic. However, I was startled to discover that not everyone agrees on what that tragic ending was. There are even rumors that the author, Hans Christian Andersen, revised the story after publication and retconned the ending. What is the real ending of The Little Mermaid, and why did Andersen write it the way he did?
The Original Story
A mermaid princess rescues a human prince from drowning. Already fascinated by the world of humans, she becomes even more curious after this experience. She learns from her grandmother that although humans are shorter-lived than the mermaids, they have immortal souls; they will go to heaven, while merfolk merely dissolve into sea foam and cease to exist. The only way for a mermaid to get a soul is to marry a human. Enamored of the prince and longing for a soul, the mermaid goes to a sea witch to ask for legs so that she can go on land. The process will be torturous. The mermaid will have her tongue cut out. Although she’ll gain legs, it will be agony to walk. And if she fails and the prince marries someone else, it will mean instant death: “The first morning after he marries another your heart will break, and you will become foam on the crest of the waves.”
It's a dangerous gamble, but the mermaid goes through with it. She winds up at the prince’s palace, but he treats her like a small child and is oblivious to her pain. She cannot speak to tell him who she is, and he marries another woman. On the wedding night, the mermaid’s family gives her a knife; if she kills the prince, she can escape death and return to her old existence in the sea. Still no soul, but at least she’ll survive. However, the mermaid refuses. She leaps into the ocean to become sea foam, but unexpectedly, she is resurrected as one of the Daughters of the Air. Like merfolk, these spirits have three-hundred-year lifespans; unlike merfolk, they have the chance to earn souls and continue to Heaven. The tale ends with the explanation that children’s good behavior shortens the air-spirits’ time of wandering, and bad behavior lengthens it.
Behind the Story
Although The Little Mermaid is an original story, it was informed by older folktales and literature. In medieval stories like Melusine or traditional folktales like "The Lady of Llyn y Fan Fach," a human man marries a water sprite. However, he breaks some taboo - spies on her, scolds her, or hits her. She then vanishes forever, leaving him and their children behind. In the 14th-century poem "Peter von Staufenberg," a man marries a fairy who bestows fortune on him - but when he breaks his vows and weds a human princess, the fairy causes his death.
These stories inspired the Swiss philosopher Paracelsus. He wrote about his cosmology of elemental beings, where water elementals were called nymphs, melusines, or undines. In Paracelsus' work, an undine who marries a human will gain a soul, and any children born of their union will also have souls. However, if the husband ever rebukes his wife while they're on water, she will vanish forever. And if he marries someone else, the undine will kill him. Paracelsus directly referenced Peter von Staufenberg.
Paracelsus' elementals were widely influential. Among other things, they inspired a novella published in 1811: Undine, by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué. The titular Undine is a water spirit. When she marries a human knight, she immediately gains a soul and transforms from a capricious sprite to a docile, affectionate bride. However, her husband feels deeply disturbed when he learns of Undine’s origins. Falling for another woman, he rejects Undine and she vanishes back into the water. When he is about to be married, Undine returns and unwillingly bestows a kiss of death on him. She grieves at his funeral and fades away, leaving only a fountain in her place.
There were quite a few other stories about mermaids popular in the early 1800s. B. S. Ingemann's De Underjordiske (The Subterraneans, 1817) included a mermaid who would turn into sea foam if she didn’t marry a human man. Hans Christian Andersen was familiar with all of these, as well as the German story of Lorelei the siren.
These inspirations showed up in Andersen's work long before The Little Mermaid. His 1831 book Skyggebilleder (Shadow Pictures) mentions that "the legend says, that the mermaid alone can receive an immortal soul from man's true love and Christian baptism" (Wullschlager 111). Also in 1831, Andersen published a poem titled "Havfruen ved Samsøe," which features a three-hundred-year-old mermaid dissolving into foam. He worked on another poem called Agnete and the Merman, based on a ballad about a human woman who abandons her merman husband and children. (Wullschlager 124)
However, the Little Mermaid was a direct response to Undine in particular. Andersen wrote to a friend in a letter dated February 1837, "I have not, like de la Motte Fouquet in Undine, let the mermaid's gaining an immortal soul depend on a stranger, on the love of another person. It is definitely the wrong thing to do. It would make it a matter of chance and I'm not going to accept that in this world. I have let my mermaid take a more natural, divine path."
Ever since publication, some critics have skewered the ending. The most frequent description is “tacked-on"; also artificial, forced, or false. To these critics, The Little Mermaid is a tragedy of unrequited love. The happy ending doesn’t fit (especially since it serves up the entirely unforeshadowed Daughters of the Air and some pompous moralizing). Phyllis M. Pickard dismissed the salvation plotline as "a mist of mysticism utterly unsuitable for children". And a 1908 edition of Forum called Andersen’s ending a “compassionate lie.” Even though he was the author, they felt so strongly that his text was flawed, that they rejected it outright. Andersen had written the wrong ending. The mermaid needed to die.
However, a growing number of critics have pushed back, arguing that the ending of The Little Mermaid is an organic part of the story. It isn't just about unrequited love; it's a story about salvation and spirituality. Again, this was Andersen's direct response to a longer tradition of soulless mermaids. The Little Mermaid is fascinated by the surface world and feels out-of-place among merfolk before she ever sets eyes on the prince. She is deeply distressed to learn that she will one day cease to exist, while humans will continue on to eternal life. Yes, she loves the prince, but her quest for a soul is also an inextricable part of the story. At the climax, her two motivations clash. She must choose between her love for the prince and her fear of death. Her selfless choice earns her a third option: the Daughters of the Air. It is a bittersweet ending; she doesn't marry the man she loves, and she still faces a long road to Heaven, but her death is not final.
You can see a similar ending in Andersen's 1858 tale "The Marsh King's Daughter," which also has the main character dissolve and die - it may seem sudden, except that the character's longing for Heaven has been foreshadowed.
The Little Mermaid was clearly very meaningful to Andersen. He once wrote, "it's the only one of my works that moved me as I wrote it." Many scholars have connected the plot to Andersen’s pining for his friend Edvard Collin, whose wedding took place the same year that Andersen wrote this story. Biographer Jackie Wullschlager suggested that The Little Mermaid symbolized Andersen’s way of coping. Although he could not be with Collin, he could focus on building an enduring legacy through his writing. The mermaid will never gain a soul from the prince or have children with him, but she will find another way to immortality. (Wullschlager 174-175)
An Alternate Ending?
A commenter to this blog mentioned hearing about Andersen writing an alternate ending. This sounded vaguely familiar. When I looked into this, I found a few mentions around the Internet indicating that Andersen had revised the story after publication. According to the rumor, the story was originally even bleaker, ending with the mermaid melting into sea foam. Only later were the Daughters of the Air added, in order to soften the story for children.
This rumor is false. Of course, we don’t have every single draft that Andersen worked on during development. However, plenty of scholars have studied Andersen’s work, and there’s nothing to support the retconned-ending rumor. Here’s what we know:
Andersen began planning "The Little Mermaid" by at least 1836. The first known working title was "Luftens Døttre" - The Daughters of the Air. Andersen later called the story "Havets Døttre," The Daughters of the Sea. Although the title seems to have changed multiple times, the air spirits were part of the story from very early on. The manuscript was completed on 23 January 1837. Andersen's letter about his mermaid earning her own soul was dated 11 February 1837, less than a month later.
"The Little Mermaid" first appeared in print in April 1837, in the first collection of Eventyr, fortalte for Børn (Fairy Tales Told for Children). In the preface, Andersen wrote that The Little Mermaid's "deeper meaning" might appeal best to adults - but "I dare presume, however, that the child will also enjoy it and that the denouement itself... will grip the child" (Johansen p. 239)
The story soon appeared in additional collections: Eventyr (Fairy Tales) in 1850, and Eventyr og Historier (Fairy Tales and Stories) in 1862. All of these versions have the same ending with the Daughters of the Air. There is no retconned "original ending."
In fact, the original ending from the manuscript was shortened. The draft featured more dialogue from the mermaid: "I myself shall strive to win an immortal soul . . . that in the world beyond I may be reunited with him to whom I gave my whole heart." (Wullschlager 174-175) I wonder if the original, longer section might have made the Daughters of the Air ending feel less abrupt to critics.
But to complicate matters, some people do remember reading versions where the mermaid simply dies.
One such version appears in the 1973 book Disney's Wonderful World of Knowledge, Volume 14 – translated from the Italian Enciclopedia Disney by Elisa Penna. It is a very short, almost summarized version, but the ending has significant changes. In Penna's version, the mermaid is about to kill the prince when he wakes up and innocently asks her what's going on. At his words, she repents. The whole interaction is transformed, making the mermaid morally ambiguous and giving the prince more agency.
It ends like so:
She fled from the room, knowing that she must soon die. By dawn, she felt the change coming on. Just as the witch had threatened, she was turning into foam--the beautiful white foam that caps the waves as they roll over the endless blue sea.
(This means that Disney went darker than Andersen. Try that one on for size.)
And another, Lucy Kinkaid's The Little Mermaid (1994) for beginning readers:
The little mermaid looks at the sleeping prince. She cannot harm him. She would rather die herself. The little mermaid throws the knife into the sea. Then she throws herself into the sea. She changes into sparkling foam and is never seen again.
There were also summaries which focused on the tragedy, and left out the more convoluted bittersweet ending. In the 1923 book Nobody's Island, a character remarks that the little mermaid "didn't marry the Prince, and... on the night of his marriage with another she faded away and passed into the foam of the sea."
I knew that many storybook retellings softened the ending in a Disney-like way, but I hadn’t realized that some went the other direction and killed off the mermaid permanently. As already noted, many critics disliked Andersen’s ending. It seems that some storytellers also felt the need to leave the story as a tragedy.
The rumor that Andersen rewrote his ending may have arisen for a number of reasons.
The rumor is easily debunked, but I would also argue that the ending of The Little Mermaid is not tacked on either literally or metaphorically. It is a natural part of the story. It was not added after the fact. This should be clear from Andersen's life, his inspirations, and his spirituality. It's also fascinating how The Little Mermaid was a response to Undine. Later stories, like Oscar Wilde's "The Fisherman and His Soul" and Disney's Little Mermaid, responded in turn with different spins on the subject. It's an evolving conversation.
I thought I would put together a list of some of the resources I have frequently found handy as I researched. There are plenty of others out there, but these are some that I employ as first stops when I'm looking for information.
The Aarne-Thompson-Uther Tale Type System
Get to know the Aarne-Thompson-Uther classification system for folktale types and motifs. There are many motif indexes out there for different countries, which will point you towards books where a particular story or motif shows up.
The local library.
Public libraries! University libraries! They offer both print and online resources - seriously, look into what they offer, as you may encounter databases that you would otherwise have to pay to use. University libraries in particular may have access to paid databases, for instance the Oxford English Dictionary. Also check if they have Inter-Library Loan; in pandemic times this is harder, but some are slowly bringing this back. Reaching out personally to libraries, archives and museums can open up new avenues of research.
https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/ (requires subscription)
Early English Books Online
Folklore and Mythology Electronic Texts, by D. L. Ashliman
newspapers.com (requires subscription, but you can read the OCR generated text for free)
SurLaLune: A database of fairytales with annotations and histories. Recently moved.
If you would like to suggest other resources for starting a search, feel free to comment below!
I’ve written about the history of tiny fairies - how fairies, always portrayed in a range of sizes, have become more likely to be depicted as only a few inches tall. This time, I’d like to look at something along the same lines: narratives explaining how fairies have dwindled over time. I’m not talking about the trope of fairies who change size at will, but the idea that fairies were once big, and are now small, because they shrank.
A major theme in accounts of fairies is that they were once greater than they are now. Fairies have faded or are no longer seen. No matter how far back you go, they’re a thing of the past, always just out of reach. The Canterbury Tales, written 1387-1400, place the deeds of fairies back in “tholde dayes of the king Arthour,” and explain that “now can no man see none elves mo.” In a bit of wordplay, friars have replaced fairies as Christianity crowds out spirit-worship.
It’s a short step from this to the idea that the fairies haven’t simply left - they’ve shrunken.
Standish O’Grady wrote "undoubtedly, the fairies of mediæval times are the same potent deities [as the Tuatha De Danan], but shorn of their power and reduced in stature.” Yeats also referenced this theory - the gigantic Irish gods “when no longer worshipped and fed with offerings, dwindled away in the popular imagination, and now are only a few spans high."
These are later writings, based on the theory that the fairies are direct adaptations of pagan gods. It’s also confusing how we’re meant to take these accounts of shrinking: Are they literal? Metaphorical? Both?
Stewart Sanderson responded to this kind of theory - “Personally I cannot take too seriously the confusion of moral or spiritual stature with physical stature.” So, he doubts the claim that people stopped believing in the gods as powerful, so they started envisioning them as pocket-sized. I would agree that’s kind of a stretch.
And what about statements like "In Cornwall, the Tommyknockers were thought to be the spirits of Jewish miners from long ago, reduced in stature until they became elf-like" (James 1992). It might indicate a narrative about gradually shrinking Jewish miners, but upon reading further, I haven’t found any explicit mention. Ghosts are simply smaller than their living counterparts in that tradition.
However, there are a few stories where the dwindling of the fairies from large to small is clearly literal. Most of these stories are connected to Cornwall.
Cornish belief tells that ants, or Muryans, are fairies “in their state of decay from off the earth,” and it is unlucky to kill an ant. (Hunt 1903)
In "The Fairy Dwelling on Selena Moor," the fairies are ghosts who waste away over the centuries until they cease to exist. They are also shapechangers, and “those who take animal forms get smaller and smaller with every change, till they are finally lost in the earth as muryans (ants).” (Bottrell 1873)
Here, shrinking is a natural part of the fairy life cycle, explaining why these wraiths are so much smaller than their living counterparts. The most recently deceased among their group is closer to average human stature.
Evans-Wentz’s collected Cornish pixy-lore mentioned that “Pixies were often supposed to be the souls of the prehistoric dwellers of this country. As such, pixies were supposed to be getting smaller and smaller until, finally, they are to vanish entirely.”
The trope appeared in the more ornate, literary tale of "Wisht Wood,” by Charles Lee. Here, the Piskies, or Pobel Vean, shrink or grow in direct relation to how many people believe in them. They were once giants and gods, but when Christian missionaries sprinkled them with holy water, they shrank to the size of dwarves. They continued to progressively shrink as the last traces of pagan faith waned, until they were only a few inches tall. They feared the approaching day when “the muryons send out hunting parties to chase us from wood and more, and the quilkens [frogs] run at us open-mouthed.” (Note the mention of muryons - the piskies are not becoming ants, but they are still mentioned in connection with them.) The piskies beg a priest to tell their stories and encourage just a little belief in them, "that we may not shrink to dust". The narration closes with the idea that the pixies have clung to life, but still continue to dwindle away with modern agnosticism replacing religious censorship. This is very different from the previous examples, where shrinking is a natural part of fairy life. This is an outside condition; their size depends on human belief. I have a feeling that this story is mostly Lee’s creation, but it still has markers of Cornish folklore.
So far, I’ve found one other example outside Cornwall. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's 1807 story "Die Neue Melusine" (The New Melusine) is a literary example from Germany. The “Melusine” of the title is from an ancient race of dwarfs, who are progressively shrinking - the reason given is that "everything that has once been great, must become small and decrease.” They intermarry with humans so that they won’t shrink to microscopic size. (Note that ants appear here too, as a dangerous rival nation which may attack the dwarfs.)
This is merely a beginning to researching this trope and there’s much more work to be done. However, so far there are two trends.
First is a later, scholarly theory that the pagan gods shrank into fairies, which is partly metaphorical, and doesn’t necessarily represent folk belief.
Second is a Cornish theme that shrinking is part of a fairy’s (or pixy’s, or muryan’s) natural life cycle. These fairies are actually ghosts, ranging from the recently dead to ancient forgotten tribes.
Goethe’s “The New Melusine” is interesting, and I wonder if there may be other German sources to be found.
If you know of any other examples of shrinking fairies, then leave them in the comments!
"The Water-Horse of Barra" is a fairytale that's stayed with me since I read it years ago. It is especially striking because it takes one of the cruelest monsters in Scottish legend and turns him into a redeemable hero. The story has been presented as a folktale, but I began to wonder if it was really traditional or not.
The tale appeared in Folk Tales of Moor and Mountain by Winifred Finlay (1969). On Barra, an island off the coast of Scotland, there lived a water-horse or each-uisge - a shapeshifting water spirit, similar to the kelpie. The water-horse went seeking a bride, and captured a young woman by tricking her into placing her hand on his pelt. However, the quick-thinking girl invited him to rest a while, and he took human form in order to sleep. While he slept, she placed a halter around his neck, trapping him in horse form and forcing him to do her bidding. She then kept him to work on her father's farm for a year and a day. However, during that year and a day, he learned love and compassion. Rather than depart for Tìr nan Òg (the Scottish Gaelic form of Tir na nOg, the Irish otherworld), he underwent a ritual to become truly human, losing even the memory of being a water-horse. He and the girl married, and lived happily ever after.
Winifred Finlay was an English author who published numerous folklore-inspired novels and collections of folktales. In Moor and Mountain, she gives no sources, leaving it mysterious how she found these stories. This should be an immediate cue to look at them critically.
Some of them are familiar. Midside Maggie and Tam Lin are well-known, and "Jeannie and the fairy spinners" is a retelling of the story of Habetrot. However, others are less familiar to me, such as "The Fair Maid and the Snow-white Unicorn" (which, like "Water-Horse," features a girl marrying a handsome man who used to be a magical horse).
I have never found an older equivalent of Finlay's water-horse romance, although it has been retold in other collections. It appeared as "The Kelpie and the Girl" in The Celtic Breeze by Heather McNeil (2001) and "The Kelpie Who Fell in Love" in Mayo Folk Tales by Tony Locke (2014).
A running theme in Finlay’s books is that the world of fairies and magic has ended, with the modern human world taking its place. In "The Water-horse of Barra," "Saint Columba and the Giants of Staffa," and "The Fishwife and the Changeling," magical creatures must either leave this world forever, or assimilate and become ordinary humans.
"The Water-Horse of Barra" bears an especially strong resemblance to "The Fishwife and the Changeling." Both tales follow a traditionally evil entity who is won over by the love of a human woman, and who opts to become mortal and stay with her rather than depart for the Land of Youth. In the second case, the woman is a devoted mother who adopts a fairy changeling and raises him alongside the child he was meant to replace. Although I adore this take on the changeling mythos, it is strikingly different from most folktales, where any compassion towards changelings would be unusual. In a tale recorded in 1866, a parent who accidentally winds up with both babies still resorts to the threat of torture to get rid of the fairy child (Henderson, Notes on the Folklore of the Northern Counties of England and the Borders, 153). The idea of a changeling and the original child raised as siblings is fairly new, although it seems to be growing popular in recent fiction - see, for instance, The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black (2015) and The Oddmire: Changeling by William Ritter (2019).
Back to the Water-Horse of Barra. This tale features many of the usual kelpie tropes. A person who touches the water-horse will find herself trapped as if glued to his skin. However, if the creature is haltered or bridled, he becomes docile and tame - at least as long as the halter is in place.
In other ways, however, it is strikingly atypical. Kelpies are usually totally murderous. Although they are often found pursuing women, it is generally to eat them.
There is an older tale about a Water-horse of Barra. However, this tale is very short and takes a gruesome turn. A young woman of Barra encountered a handsome man on a hill. They chatted, and eventually he fell asleep with his head in her lap. However, she noticed water-weeds tangled in his hair, and realized to her horror that he was a water-horse. Thinking quickly, she cut off the part of her skirt that his head was resting on, and slipped away to safety. However, some time later when she was out with friends, he reappeared and dragged her into the lake. All that was ever found of her was part of her lung. This story was told by Anne McIntyre, recorded by Reverend Allan Macdonald of Eriskay, and published by George Henderson in 1911. (Henderson, Survivals in Belief Among the Celts)
It is rare for the kelpie to be seen with a softer side. J. F. Campbell gives a one-sentence summary of this story type in Popular Tales of the West Highlands, where he states that the kelpie "falls in love with a lady." The summary ends with her finding sand in his hair and presumably reacting with horror. The phrasing is fairly soft, suggesting that a kelpie could really fall in love, but all of the other kelpie stories Campbell gives are bloody and dark. I wonder if "falls in love" was a euphemism on Campbell's part.
One other point of interest is a song, titled "Skye Water-Kelpie's Lullaby" (Songs of the Hebrides) or "Lamentation of the Water-Horse" (The Old Songs of Skye). In this song, the singer mournfully begs a woman named Mor or Morag (depending on translation) to return to him and their infant son. This song has been interpreted as the story of a water-horse whose human bride has left him after realizing his identity.
Outside the kelpie realm, there is another story with key similarities - the Scottish ballad "Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight." In this song, Isabel hears an elf-knight blowing his horn and wishes for him to be her lover. At that very moment, the elf knight leaps through her window and takes her riding with him to the woods. It’s all fun and games until he gets her into the remote wilderness, where he declares that he has murdered seven princesses and she will be the eighth. When begging for mercy doesn’t work, Isabel persuades him to relax and rest his head on her knee for a little while first. She uses a “small charm” to make him sleep, then ties him up with his own belt and kills him with his own dagger.
Finlay’s heroine has strong Isabel vibes. Her suggestion of resting, and then her capture of her would-be kidnapper, is clearly parallel. When she calls on the bees to buzz and lull the water-horse to sleep, it's similar to Isabel's "charm."
“Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight” is one member of a wide family of similar tales, although the plots vary and “Isabel” is somewhat atypical. Of course, the Elf Knight is not a kelpie. His native habitat is apparently the forest. However, in other versions, the serial killer’s method of killing is drowning (see "The Water o' Wearie's Well" and "May Colvin"). Francis James Child suggested that in these versions "the Merman or Nix may be easily recognized". A Dutch neighbor, “Heer Halewijn,” has been compared to a Strömkarl or Nikker. Unfortunately, as critics quickly pointed out, the logic fails since the serial killer dies by drowning in these versions, which would not make sense for a merman. The theory has stuck around despite lack of evidence.
The rather unique “Lady Isabel” has faced scrutiny; the unclear origins have led to many different theories, and some scholars have even suggested that it was a fake written by its collector Peter Buchan. This will have to be a post for another time. Insofar as our current subject, “Lady Isabel” and the connected water-spirit theory are definitely old and well-known enough that Finlay could have been familiar with them. However, like the old kelpie stories, these ballads are not romances but cautionary tales.
The stories in Folk Tales of Moor and Mountain are familiar folk tales, but they are all Finlay's retellings. Her "Water-Horse of Barra" is probably a reimagining of the older Barra water-horse tale. (Perhaps it's influenced by "Lady Isabel," although this might be more of a stretch.) In both Barra stories, a girl finds herself cornered by a kelpie in the form of a handsome man, and must figure out an escape as he lies sleeping. However, Finlay rewrote it with a gentler, family-friendly ending.
Finlay's water-horse is tame and toothless even at the beginning: "he was very good-natured and never caused anyone harm." The only shocking thing about his diet is that he eats raw fish. Older tales often had sexual elements; a disguised kelpie shares a victim's bed to prey on her, and sleeping with your head in someone's lap is a euphemism for sex (note especially that the girl cuts her skirt off to escape). Finlay's water-horse never does anything so improper as sleep in the girl's lap; instead he stretches out in the heather to rest. In folktales, kelpies suck girls dry of blood, or devour them and leave only scraps of viscera. But Finlay's heroine is never in fear for her life. See her reaction: “He really is extremely handsome... but I have no intention of marrying a water-horse and spending the rest of my life at the bottom of a loch.”
Finlay inverts the usual setup: here, the girl captures the kelpie. The kelpie is the one carried into a new realm and affected by their encounter. Not only is this ending more cheerful, but it ties in with Finlay's running theme. The time of magic ends to make way for a modern era. Supernatural power is exchanged for love, whether that love is romantic, familial, or belonging to a community.
Regardless of its origins, Winifred Finlay's romantic tale of a good-hearted water-horse has earned its own place in modern folklore. This shows a shift in how we comprehend and retell these stories. In 19th-century storytelling, kelpies and changelings would have been totally irredeemable, definitely not beings you'd want to invite into your home. Now, however, you can find stories removed from folk belief where kelpies and changelings are the heroes and main characters. There's a growing tendency to give even the most terrifying monsters of legend a chance for redemption.
Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.