I've written before about Childe Rowland. This story, from the moment it was written down, was greatly edited and altered, to the point where some of the themes and characters are more the work of the collectors than of tradition. I've looked specifically at the way it was tied to Arthurian legend, but there were also significant changes to the way characters traveled to Fairyland.
The story's damsel in distress, Burd Ellen, vanishes when she runs widdershins around a church to find a missing ball. When her brother Rowland sets out to follow her, he learns that he must go to a certain green hill surrounded by terrace-rings, and must circle the hill three times widdershins. On each round, he says "Open, door! open, door! And let me come in." The third time, a door appears, and Roland enters "a long passage" which eventually opens into the palace of the king of Elfland. Roland rescues his sister, and the story ends with the line that she never ran widdershins around a church again.
A church is a holy place, where most people would believe fairies and other spirits are powerless. However, in this story, walking around it widdershins would reverse that protection and put you into the fairies' power. Widdershins is the way contrary to the course of the sun, or counter-clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere. This direction, in which your shadow falls behind you so that you can't see it, was seen as unlucky. In Burd Ellen's case, the fairies are able to kidnap her because of her action.
Moving widdershins, particularly in a multiple of three, was a behavior associated with witches and the supernatural. In the Flyting between Montgomerie and Polwart (c. 1580) - a 16th-century battle of insults between two poets - Alexander Montgomerie described a procession of witches riding on pigs, black dogs or monks. Some of them ride backwards, and others "nyne times, widdershins, about the thorne raid [rode]." (Note that thorn trees have many associated superstitions and fairy associations.) Similarly, in a song titled "Betty Bathgate the Witch," about 17th-century witch Elizabeth Bathcat, the witch in the midst of her curses and cantrips goes running "widdershins nine times round the grey stane [stone]." (Henderson 60-61)
As Joseph Jacobs explained when discussing Childe Rowland, "To do things in a way opposite to the Church way was to league oneself with the enemies of the Church. Hence the door of the Dark Tower opens to him that has gone round it three times widershins, just as the Devil appeared to those who said the Paternoster backwards. This element in the story points, then, to a time when Christianity was introduced into these islands, and had the upperhand."
Just one problem: the version I just recapped is Jacobs' retelling of the tale, and it does not match the original. The original collector had already made significant changes, but Jacobs altered it further. In the original, Ellen runs around the church, but her direction is not mentioned:
"Burd Ellen round about the isle
To seek the ba' is gane."
The fairies simply strike when she is alone. Compare this to tales of changelings. Infants had to be watched carefully; if the child was not guarded at night, or if the mother left them to return to work in the fields too early, the fairies were likely to steal them. (Ashliman, "Changelings.")
Jacobs made numerous edits to simplify the tale, and his change to Ellen's abduction was "to improve the tale's internal narrative integrity" (Bihet 2020). He attempted not only to make things consistent, but explain how Ellen could be kidnapped from sacred churchground. However, in the process he makes Ellen responsible for putting herself in danger, an implication that didn't exist in the original. And the route to the fairies' realm becomes incredibly complicated: you must around a specific hill widershins three times and ask permission in order to get into Fairyland, but if you go around a church widershins once, you'll be in the fairies' power... et cetera.
Jacobs also added his reinterpretation of widershins into his version of Tamlane in More English Fairy Tales (1894):
"I was hunting one day, and as I rode widershins round yon hill, a deep drowsiness fell upon me, and when I awoke, behold! I was in Elfland."
However, the original story does have Roland walk widdershins around the hill. The round, green, terraced hill suggests a prehistoric ringfort or stone circle. These were often associated with the fae, for instance in Irish lore where they were called "fairy forts." People believed that these places should not be disturbed. Although Jacobs' version is seemingly more consistent for modern readers, this section is a more authentic representation of fairy belief.
Other Routes to Faerie
By and large, the most common way that people reach fairy realms is by going underground or through a tunnel. The 17th-century story of the Fairy Boy of Leith features people meeting beneath a hill for feasts and music, entering the secret dwelling through invisible gates. This is more about witches, but they could overlap with fairies. A tunnel makes sense because the fairies are subterranean. Sleeping under a tree, wandering in the wilderness, or crossing a river are also common themes.
Liminal spaces and places of transition are frequent - crossroads and graveyards. In the story of "Cherry of Zennor," a human girl meets a fairy man at a crossroads. Their path is interestingly described; he carries her across a river and down a narrow lane through darkness until they reach a sunlit garden. It sounds very much like an entrance to the Underworld. This story does seem like it was retold with some literary treatment. In the story of the Fairy Dwelling on Selena Moor, a man gets lost on a midnight shortcut across the moor, and winds up at the home of the fairies (who are, in fact, deceased ancestors). In a Welsh legend, a boy named Elidyr hides in a hollow beneath a riverbank all night, and at dawn pigmies lead him through an underground passage into another country.
Thomas the Rhymer is by a tree when he encounters the Fairy Queen, and she guides him across a river to the otherworld. In Sir Orfeo, a medieval retelling of the Orpheus legend, Orfeo's wife attracts the attention of the Fairy King when she sleeps beneath a tree.
This extends outside European fairy stories. In an African tale, a hunter following a porcupine down its burrow ends up in an underground village, the realm of the dead (The Mythology of All Races, Volume VII. 1916). These may be memories of older myths of the spirits of the dead.
Liminal times, like Mayday and Halloween, also feature overlaps between this world and the other world. In the story of Tam Lin, Janet waits at a crossroads on Halloween to rescue her lover from the fae. T. F. Thiselton-Dyer mentioned that "according to a Danish belief, any one wandering under an elder-bush at twelve o'clock on Midsummer Eve will see the king of fairyland pass by with all his retinue."
And sleep is frequently a gateway - see Sir Orfeo again. In a 1628 chapbook titled Robin Goodfellow; his mad pranks, and merry Jests, Robin has his first near encounter with other fairies when asleep (Halliwell-Philipps 125), and further along in the story meets Oberon (his father) for the first time when Oberon awakens him at night and calls him to the fairy gathering (141).
Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.