Elphin Irving: A Tragic Tam Lin
“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!
Sir Buzz: A Fairytale
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.
Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.