What’s the deal with Kensington Gardens and fairies?
Kensington Gardens in London were originally part of a hunting ground created by Henry VIII. In the early 1700s, Henry Wise (Royal Gardener under Queen Anne and later King George I) made numerous adaptations including turning a gravel pit into a sunken Dutch garden. Queen Caroline ordered additional redesigns in 1728. In the 19th century, the Gardens transitioned from the royal family's private gardens to a popular public park and a place for families with children to walk or play.
Over the years, the gardens have gained associations with fairies in literature. This can be traced to the 18th century, when Thomas Tickell (1685-1740) wrote the 1722 poem "Kensington Garden," a mock-epic starring flower fairies and the classical Roman pantheon, which gave the location a mythical origin. The basic plot is that the fairies once lived in that location, until King Oberon's daughter Kenna fell in love with a mortal changeling boy named Albion. This, naturally, led to war. Albion was killed, and while the fairies scattered across the realm in the brutal aftermath of the war, Kenna remained to mourn over his tomb. She eventually instilled royalty and architects with the inspiration for Kensington Palace's garden. Thus, the garden is based directly on the fairy kingdom that once stood there, and the name "Kensington" is derived from the fairy princess Kenna.
"Kensington Garden" was evidently influenced by Alexander Pope's Rape of the Lock (also known as the first poem to give fairies wings). Both are mock epics imitating Paradise Lost, but with overwrought adventures of comically tiny fairies. Tickell's fairies are larger than Pope's, though, standing about ten inches tall. (Tickell and Pope were familiar with each other; both produced translations of the Iliad in 1715, and this caused a clash as Pope suspected Tickell of trying to undermine him.)
Note that the title of the poem is "Garden," not "Gardens"; the modern Kensington Gardens were yet to begin construction. The poem was specifically focused on Henry Wise's sunken garden, explaining how that exact spot once held the "proud Palace of the Elfin King."
Despite the faint note of absurdity in the tiny flower sprites, Tickell was working to create a mythical origin for Britain and its notable sites. Tickell's Albion is the son of a faux-mythical English king, also named Albion, who was the son of Neptune. Albion, senior, appeared in Holinshed's Chronicles in the 16th century, and in the fantasy works of Edmund Spenser and Michael Drayton.
Tickell fashioned a story in which "the myths of rural and royal Kensington united" (Feldman, Routledge Revivals, 15). Inspired by the artistic renovations of the palace garden, he created a mythical prince from the dawn of England, whose fairy lover still watched over the modern royal family's home. He wanted to build a mythology showing the British royals' ancient pedigree. It was all part of England's grand heritage, leading back to classical Greece and Rome. Kenna resembles a patron goddess, but you can also see in her an idea of past English monarchs who might not have had children of their own, but whose influence was still felt.
Tickell's influence shows in other works in the years following.
James Elphinston's Education, in Four Books (1763) created a verse description ostensibly of education in general. When he got to the subject of Kensington House (a boys' school which he ran from 1756 to 1776), he described the location in grandiose terms as "Kenna's town... where elfin tribes were oft... seen". (p. 129) The description of the town echoes Tickell's poetry.
Thomas Hull (1728–1808) wrote a masque called "The Fairy Favour" in 1766. It ran in 1767 as the scheduled entertainment for the Prince of Wales' first visit to Covent Garden. This short play is set in a realm called Kenna. As in Tickell's poem, there are fairies named "Milkah" and "Oriel", although in different roles, and changelings are important.
(Interestingly, there were multiple plays written for this occasion, and I'm wondering if the playwrights were given a theme. Rev. Samuel Bishop wrote "The Fairy Benison," which also features Oberon, Titania and Puck celebrating the arrival of the Prince of Wales and blessing him. However, the managers preferred Hull's take on the subject, and that was the one that was presented before the royal family.)
Since then, Tickell's poem has faded from the scene. It popped up now and then. A mention of the poem made it into Ebenezer Cobham Brewer's 1880 Reader's Handbook of Allusions. An 1881 book on the park was titled Kenna's Kingdom: a Ramble Through Kingly Kensington.
Around 1900, there were a couple of resurgences of Kensington Gardens' fairy connections.
First was The Little White Bird by J. M. Barrie, published in 1902. The story was Peter Pan's first foray into the public eye. In this early version, he was a week-old infant who escaped from his pram, learned to fly from the birds, and went to live with the fairies in Kensington Gardens. In 1903, as thanks for The Little White Bird's publicity, Barrie received a private key to Kensington Gardens, and in 1907, several chapters of the book were published on their own under the title Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens.
As early as 1907, John Oxberry wrote in the magazine "Notes and Queries" that Barrie had "followed the example" of Tickell. There are certainly parallels. Both stories feature miniature fairies who live among the flowers in Kensington Gardens. In both stories, a human infant is parted from his family and comes to live among the fairies, taking on some of their nature in the process. There are some attractively similar lines; Tickell's colorful fairies resemble "a moving Tulip-bed" from afar, while Barrie's fairies "dress exactly like flowers" (although, in a reversal, they dislike tulips).
British biographer Roger Lancelyn Green, however, emphasized that "there is no proof" and "there is no need to insist that Barrie had read Tickell's poem" (Green pp. 16-17). Miniature fairies clad in petals were generic ideas, everywhere in children's literature. As Green said, Barrie "could easily have arrived at the same conclusions without knowing of this earlier attempt to people Kensington Gardens with fairies." Barrie's strongest influence in using Kensington Gardens was probably that he lived nearby, and it was where he met the family who inspired him to write Peter Pan.
Around the same time as Barrie, Tickell's poem got a second chance at popularity in the form of a sequel: the comic opera "A Princess of Kensington," by Basil Hood and Edward German. It debuted at the Savoy Theatre in London in 1903, and met with mixed success, running for only 115 performances. (Oddly enough, it undermines the original poem, with Kenna beginning the play by stating that she never really had feelings for poor deceased Albion and actually likes some other dude.)
Kensington Gardens has embraced its fairy associations. A statue of Peter Pan was added to the gardens in 1912. In the 1920s, the Elfin Oak was installed. This was a centuries-old stump of wood, gradually decorated by the artist Ivor Innes with carvings and paintings of gnomes, elves, and pixies. With his wife Elsie, Innes produced a 1930 children's book titled The Elfin Oak of Kensington Gardens. Like their predecessors, the fairies of this book emerged by moonlight to dance and frolic.
Was there a pre-Tickell association with fairies? Was there, as Lewis Spence wrote in 1948, "an old folk-belief" that "this locality was anciently a fairy haunt"?
Although Tickell wrote in the poem that he had heard the story as a child from his nurse, Katharine Briggs expressed skepticism. He might well have heard fairy legends, and he certainly included some folklore in the poem, but "since he was born in Cumberland it is perhaps unlikely that his nurse had any traditional lore about Kensington Gardens" (The Fairies in Tradition and Literature, 183). Also note that Tickell was focused on some specific recent renovations to the garden, which wouldn't have had time to collect mythical status. In a book on the garden, Derek Hudson wrote that "Tickell seems to have been the first to establish a fairy mythology for Kensington" (p. 110).
Despite all this, according to a writer in 1909, some people "have gravely taken... Kenna... as a real personage instead of a mere poetic myth."
Tickell and Barrie both placed fairy kingdoms in Kensington Gardens. However, they did so for different reasons, and with different associations for fairies.
For Tickell, the fairies were royalty. This was a long-standing English literary tradition. Spenser's Faerie Queene (1590) treated Queen Elizabeth as a fairy monarch, and Ben Jonson's 1611 masque Oberon, the Faery Prince depicted James I's son as Oberon. In 1767, when celebrating the Prince of Wales' first visit to Covent Garden, playwrights rushed to script plays in which Oberon and Titania welcomed him. The Fairy Favour, the one chosen for performance, actually greets the prince as the son of Oberon and Titania. That prince was King George IV.
The same tradition continued with George IV's niece, Queen Victoria. The 1883 book Queen Victoria: Her Girlhood and Womanhood described the young princess in otherworldly terms: "Victoria might almost have been a fairy-princess, emerging from some enchanted dell in Windsor forest, or a water-nymph evoked from the Serpentine in Kensington Gardens" (emphasis added). Note that the Serpentine, a recreational lake, was added under the direction of Victoria's great great grandmother Queen Caroline.
The royal family were described as fairies and gods in literature. The royal family lived in Kensington Palace. It was natural for Kensington Palace and its surrounding gardens, structured and developed under the royal family's direction, to be a fairy realm.
As the 19th century progressed, this changed. In literature, Fairyland became more and more the domain of children. At the same time, Kensington Gardens became a public park and a place for children. Matthew Arnold's 1852 poem Lines Written in Kensington Gardens imagined the gardens as a forested realm for little ones, "breathed on by the rural Pan." James Douglas's 1916 essays, collected as Magic in Kensington Gardens, depicted the children at play in the gardens as "solemn little fairies weaving enchantments." Barrie's work is, of course, the gold standard, where Kensington is intertwined with fairies and eternal childhood.
So far, Barrie's work seems more enduring than Tickell's. Although most people would probably associate Peter Pan's location with Neverland, the actual Kensington Gardens location now has references to Peter Pan such as the statue. Although both writers drew inspiration from the same location, officials embraced Barrie's work and made it part of the park's identity.
The Seelie and Unseelie Courts
In modern fantasy, the idea of the Seelie and Unseelie Courts - two opposing groups of the fae - has become popular. But where did this idea come from? What was the original inspiration? What do Seelie and Unseelie even mean?
Fae Divided into Sections
First of all, there are various old references to different classes of fae which may oppose each other.
The Dökkálfar ("Dark Elves") and Ljósálfar ("Light Elves") are contrasting beings in Norse mythology, with the first surviving mention from the thirteenth century. The Light Elves are fair and the Dark Elves are “blacker than pitch,” and the two groups are totally different in temperament. There are also the svartalfar (apparently the dwarves) but there’s disagreement over whether they are the same as the dokkalfar or not.
16th-century alchemist Paracelsus divided mythical creatures like Melusine, sirens, giants and pygmies into classes by the four elements (water, air, fire and earth).
There was certainly a sense that there could be good or evil fairies. Reverend Thomas Jackson wrote in 1625, in A treatise concerning the original of unbelief, “Thus are Fayries, from difference of events ascribed to them, divided into good and bad, when as it is but one and the same malignant fiend that meddles in both; seeking sometimes to be feared, otherwhiles to be loued as God." Jackson took the stance that all fairies were equally evil tricks of Satan, but his argument still gives us a few crumbs of contemporary fairy beliefs.
Hulden and unhulden were Germanic spirits and, beginning in the 15th century, also referred to the witches who consorted with them. The preacher Bertold of Regensburg (c. 1210-1272) exhorted the Bavarian people against belief in such things. There is also a Germanic goddess named Holda, although scholars have disagreed on which is older. The word may come from a German root meaning "gracious” or “kind.” There are also the huldra or huldrefolk from Scandinavian folklore, coming from a word meaning "hidden,” but for holden and unholden I lean towards the “kind” definition. So holden would be “the Kind Ones”, unholden “the Unkind Ones.”
As far back as the 4th century, a Gothic translation of the Bible used the feminine word "unhulþons” for demons. This could possibly mean that "Unkind Ones" and hulþons as good counterparts were also around at the same time. I am not sure whether these “Kind Ones” were really kind, or whether this was a euphemism - but the presence of the very non-euphemistic "unholden" is telling. Both types were certainly demonized during Christianization. Bertold concluded that "totum sunt demones" (all are demons). In the 15th century, the singular character Holda began to appear among other denounced goddesses in the Diana/Herodias crowd. Centuries later, Jacob Grimm noted that witches' familiars might be "called gute holden [good holden] even when harmful magic is wrought with them”.
Now let's look at the most famous example of contrasting fairy groups: the Seelie and Unseelie.
The Seelie and Unseelie Courts
The Seelie and Unseelie Courts are Scottish names for good and bad fairies. Seelie means blessed or lucky and ultimately comes from the Germanic "salig"; the same root gives us the German nature fairies called “Seligen Fräuleins.”
"Seely wight" or "seely folk" was an old term for fairy beings, roughly equivalent to Good Neighbors or Fair Folk. Note that in this case, these names were not meant to be taken literally; they were names meant to appease the temperamental and dangerous fae. In one poem, a spirit warns a human against calling it an imp, elf or a fairy. "Good Neighbor" is an acceptable term, and "Seely Wight" is ideal: "But if you call me Seely Wight, I'll be your friend both day and night."
In Lowland Scotland in the 16th century, some witchcraft and folk magic centered around the seely wights.
Researcher Carlo Ginzburg argued that there were worldwide parallel traditions of folk healers who believed that they left their bodies to travel at night with friends and/or spirits. In these night journeys, they ensured a good harvest for their village by battling witches or even traveling to Hell. Usually these meetings took place on specific nights of the year. The most well-known are the Italian Benandanti (Good Walkers). Some of these cults were connected to fairies. The Sicilian "donas de fuera," or "ladies from outside," derived their name from the spirit beings they were believed to travel with. 13th-century bishop Bernard Gui instructed inquisitors to investigate mentions of night-traveling "fairy women, whom they call the good things [bonas res]." Not all groups had stories of protecting the harvest. Some, like the donas de fuera, were simply supposed to meet up and hang out on certain nights.
Ginzburg's theory has met with some criticism, but it is true that going back into medieval times, Christian bishops spoke out against women supposedly meeting at night with a goddess named Herodias or Diana or a whole host of ladies. Christian authorities denounced this as superstition or hallucination.
William Hay, around 1535, gave a specific Scottish example: "There are others who say that the fairies are demons, and deny having any dealings with them, and say that they hold meetings with a countless multitude of simple women whom they call in our tongue celly vichtys."
Based on the few surviving pieces of evidence, history professor Julian Goodare constructed a theoretical cult: in the 16th century, a group of Scottish women (and possibly some men) believed that they rode on swallows at night to join the seely wights, a group of female nature spirits akin to fairies. Despite their name, these beings weren't necessarily good. In 1572, accused witch Janet Boyman blamed the "sillye wychtis" for "blasting" and killing a child.
The main problem with the theory, Goodare admitted, is fragmentary evidence. Seely wights apparently disappeared from belief before the real furor of witch trials ever started.
However, in the 17th century, “wight” continued to be a common generic Scottish term for mysterious and powerful spirits that were perhaps not exactly fairies, but something harder to define. One accused witch spoke of “guid wichtis,” another of “evill wichts.” (Despite the descriptors, in both cases these creatures were blamed for striking young children with illness.) Another accused witch, Stein Maltman, spoke of "wneardlie" (unearthly) wights. But although “wight” remained popular, “seelie” faded from view. The seelie wights were apparently gone.
Or did they just get a name change? "Seelie" survived in fairy names like Sili go Dwt, Sili Ffrit, and the Seelie or Seely Court.
One of the Seely Court's earliest known appearances is the Scottish ballad of "Allison Gross," collected in the Child Ballads. They ride on Halloween, and their queen releases a man from a witch's curse. The presence of a queen is what makes it a seely court, a structured government under a ruler. They are no longer just random wights. The queen's actions imply a benevolent nature.
The Child Ballads also include "Tam Lin," which features a less friendly fairy queen. In some fragments and scraps, which weren't complete enough to put as full versions, the fairies are called the "seely court."
"The night, the night is Halloween,
Our seely court maun ride,
Thro England and thro Ireland both,
And a' the warld wide."
Note that in this version, there isn't a tithe to Hell. Although the tithe is in the most popular variant, a few feature all the fairies visiting Hell, or (as seen here) riding all over the world.
The idea of the fairies roaming on a specific feast night (Halloween or an equivalent) does hearken to the idea of Diana's procession, the donas de fuera, and other such groups. The fairy queen would be equivalent to the other patron goddesses.
Another connection - in the 1580s, a poet named Robert Sempill wrote the satirical “Legend of the Bischop of St Androis Lyfe.” One section described the witch Alison Pearson as riding on certain nights to meet the sillie wychtis.
In real life, Alison Pearson's testimony included a tale similar to "Tam Lin." Although the term "seelie wight" doesn't appear in the trial records, she said she had been taken away by the fairies and taught the healing arts, but had to escape, for a tenth of them went to Hell every year.
So Pearson talked about fairies making a journey to Hell, and a contemporary writer identified her fairies as seely wights.
So we have print mentions of "seelie" fairies going back to the 16th century. On the other hand, I don't know of any appearances by the "unseelie" until 1819, when the Edinburgh Magazine featured an article titled "On Good and Bad Fairies." It described the Gude Fairies/Seelie Court and the Wicked Wichts/Unseelie Court; the Unseelie, it specified, were the only ones who pay tithes to Hell. (However, it was still foolish to anger even the Seelie.) I am not sure what the writer's sources were, though they may have drawn on traditions familiar to them. Other early mentions of the Unseelie Court were quotes of this article.
Overall, Seelie and Unseelie Courts as opposed groups of fairies – and the word “unseely” applied to fairies at all – did not appear in print until comparatively recent times.
[Edit 7/5/21: The "unseelie" word does go back to the 1500s! Scottish poet William Dunbar (c.1460-1530) described Satan's "unsall menyie" or "unhallowed number," and "The flytting betwixt Montgomerie and Polwart" (1629) mentions an elf and and an ape begetting an "unsell" or "vnsell".]
For a while, I've believed "unseelie" is a neologism. Calling the fairies Seelie was originally meant to avoid their wrath; why would you call a fairy Unseelie? That's death wish territory. But although this theory seemed clear-cut to me at first, it may not have been that simple. Evidence shows that people did refer to "evil" or "wicked" wights as well as seelie wights.
But I do have one wild speculative theory.
The idea of good and bad spirits goes back a long way. Holden and unholden from Germanic myth (potentially as far back as the 4th century) might be a similar word formation indicating good and evil spirits who somehow mirrored each other.
Some of Ginzburg's ecstatic cults were supposed to fight opposing groups. The Benandanti, for instance, fought the Malandanti (Evil Walkers).
Let's extrapolate on the theory; say the seelie wights or Seelie Court were once a witchcraft tradition similar to those cults. What if they sometimes didn't just "travel" across the world or to Hell, but actually battled an opponent at some point in their journey - or had some kind of encounter, perhaps involving a tithe? What if those opponents were Unseely Wights? William Hay spoke of the seely wights' followers distancing themselves from fairies and calling them demons. What if the unseely wights were the forces of Hell?
There is way more to the spectrum of witchcraft beliefs throughout medieval times - much more than can be tackled in one blog post. Anyhow, Seelie and Unseelie have since become common descriptors in both folklore guides and popular fantasy works. The names are a way to delineate between good and evil fairies, and do have at least some background in Scottish folklore. Even in the oldest sources, though, the lines blur between whether any of these beings are "good" or "evil." Both seelie and evil wights were perilous.
Other Blog Posts
In 1835, Hans Christian Andersen published his fairytale “Tommelise,” or Thumbelina. A childless woman seeks help from a witch and receives a barleycorn. When planted, it grows into "a big, beautiful flower that looked just like a tulip" with "beautiful red and yellow petals." When it opens: "It was a tulip, sure enough, but in the middle of it, on a little green cushion, sat a tiny girl."
In "Thumbelina," Andersen took loose inspiration from older thumbling tales, but the heroine's birth from a flower is unusual. Some thumblings are created from a bean or other small object, but most often he or she is apparently born in the normal way, through pregnancy. Why did Andersen choose to write Thumbelina born from a flower - and what is the tulip's significance?
There's a widespread motif of fairies living in flowers. Andersen would have been well-aware of this trope. Thumbelina later encounters flower-angels (blomstens engels). They are evidently not quite the same species (winged and clear like glass, and dwelling in white flowers), but Thumbelina is happy enough to settle down with them. Another Andersen story, "The Rose Elf" (1839) also deals with tiny flower-dwelling spirits.
The tiny flower fairy became popular around 1600. Shakespeare was an important influence; A Midsummer Night's Dream elves creep into acorn-cups to hide, and The Tempest's Ariel sings of lying inside a cowslip bell. In the anonymous play The Maid's Metamorphosis, a fairy sings of "leaping upon flowers' toppes". In the 1621 prose version of Tom Thumb, Tom falls asleep "upon the toppe of a Red Rose new blowne." In the 1627 poem Nymphidia, Queen Mab finds a "fair cowslip-flower" is a "fitting bower."
What about older versions of the flower fairy? Greek mythology included dryads and other nature spirits, including the anthousai, or flower nymphs.
Before Shakespeare, fairies in legends were generally child-sized at smallest - there are exceptions, such as the portunes of Gervase of Tilbury. Fairies, witches and other spirits were often said to ride in eggshells or crawl through keyholes. Fairies were held to live in nature and dance in "fairy circles" made of mushrooms or grass, or were encountered beneath trees. I'm also reminded of a 6th-century story recorded by Pope Gregory the Great, where a woman eats a lettuce which turns out to contain a demon. The demon complains, "I was sitting there upon the lettice, and she came and did eat me." Superstitions held that demons might take up residence inside food if it wasn't properly blessed or protected with charms.
Cowslips and foxgloves, already mentioned, were old fairy flowers. Cowslips are also known as fairy cups (Friend, Flower Lore), and foxgloves are fairy caps or as menyg ellyllon (goblin gloves). But these suggest very different scales. Flowers are hats and cups in language, but houses in literature.
Katharine Briggs argued that Shakespeare did not originate the tiny flower fairy, but was inspired by contemporary tradition - however, there's not much evidence for this. Diane Purkiss took the exact opposite point of view, deeming it "questionable whether Shakespeare knew anything about fairies from oral sources at all," but I think this is an unnecessary leap. In more of a middle ground, Farah Karim-Cooper suggested that Shakespeare actually rescued fairies. In contemporary culture, they were being demonized, grouped with devils and witches and sorcery. Shakespeare made them benevolent but also tiny, therefore harmless and acceptable.
In 1827, Blackwood's Magazine talked about Shakespeare's fairies and how they would "lodge in flower-cups, a hare-bell being a palace, a primrose a hall, an anemone a hut." I do not recall seeing these specific examples in Shakespeare, but this was now the popular perception. In the first 1828 edition of The Fairy Mythology, Thomas Keightley also talked about "the bells of flowers" as fairy habitations.
"Oberon's Henchman; or the Legend of the Three Sisters," by M. G. Lewis (1803) describes fairies "Close hid in heather bells".
In the poem “Song of the Fairies,” by Thomas Miller (1832), the fairies "sleep . . . in bright heath bells blue, From whence the bees their treasure drew," and then just in case we missed it, their "homes are hid in bells of flowers." Later in the same volume, a fairy named Violet "in a blue bell slept."
Hartley Coleridge wrote of "Fays That sweetly nestle in the foxglove bells” (Poems, 1833) and Henry Gardner Adams had "The Elves that sleep in the Cowslip’s bell" (Flowers, 1844).
The wood anemone was another fairy flower; at night the blossoms curled over like a tent, and "This was supposed to be the work of the fairies, who nestled inside the tent, and carefully pulled the curtains around them." (The Everyday Book of Natural History, 1866) This implies the existence of another explanatory legend.
In a paper presented at a meeting of the New Jersey State Horticultural Society - yes - and published in 1881, the writer reminisced "I remember how I enjoyed the imaginary exploits of the little fairies that had their homes in these flowers. I had always thought it a pretty conceit to make the fairies live in flowers, but never thought how near the truth it is" . . . And then comes a leap to microorganisms. "A flower is a little universe with millions of inhabitants."
Children's literature at the time was focused on edifying, providing morals, and providing scientific education. Fairy stories were considered a natural interest for children, and so they were often used to dress up school lessons, particularly on the natural world. They were a perfect way to launch into a lesson on insects or the world that could be found through a microscope.
What about tulips specifically? David Lester Richardson's Flowers and Flower-Gardens (1855) mentions that "The Tulip is not endeared to us by many poetical associations." On the other hand, writing a century later, Katharine Briggs believed that the tulip was "a fairy flower according to folk tradition" and that it was a bad omen to cut or sell them.
Taking a step back: in European thought, after the crash of the Dutch "tulip mania" in the 1630s, tulips generally became symbols of gaudiness and tastelessness, particularly in superficial female beauty - for instance, Abraham Cowley in 1656 writing "Thou Tulip, who thy stock in paint dost waste, Neither for Physick good, nor Smell, nor Taste." (Rees). As time passed, this faded into the background, but was not forgotten. David Lester Richardson wrote that tulips had remained extravagantly expensive, even in England, as late as 1836.
There are a couple of 18th-century examples of tulip fairies. Thomas Tickell's poem "Kensington Garden" (1722) speaks of the fairies resembling a "moving Tulip-bed" and taking shelter in "a lofty Tulip's ample shade." In 1794, Thomas Blake's poem "Europe: A Prophecy" described a fairy seated "on a streak'd Tulip," singing of the pleasures of life.
Intriguingly, in the same decade as Thumbelina, an early English folklorist named Anna Eliza Bray collected a story which also featured fairies within tulips. She recorded it in 1832 and published it in 1836, in A Description of the Part of Devonshire Bordering on the Tamar and the Tavy. The story follows an elderly gardener who discovers that the pixies have begun using her tulilps as cradles for her babies. She eventually dies. Her heirs rip up the flowerbed to plant parsley, but find that none of their vegetables will grow there. Meanwhile, the gardener's grave always mysteriously blooms with flowers.
Bray does not give a specific source, other than to speak briefly of gathering the tales from village gossips and storytellers, with the assistance of her servant Mary Colling. Bray's pixie story was retold in fairytale collections and books of plant folklore. When she published a children's book, A Peep at the Pixies (1854), most of her focus in the introduction was on pixies’ small size relative to children; they could "creep through key-holes, and get into the bells of flowers."
By the 20th century, the tulip as fairy flower was set. James Barrie wrote in The Little White Bird (1920) that white tulips are "fairy-cradles" (158), and Fifty Fairy Flower Legends by Caroline Silver June (1924), reveals that “Fairy cradles, fairy cradles, Are the Tulips red and white."
In fact, fairies were not the only denizens of plants in legend. Birth from plants is very common in fairytales. English children were told that babies might be found in parsley beds, while in Germany, infants were more likely to be found among the cabbages or inside a hollow tree. (Curiosities of Indo-European Tradition and Folklore) In a French version, baby boys were found inside cabbages, baby girls inside roses. (e.g. Revue de Belgique, 1892, p. 227) Gooseberry bushes were also a likely spot.
In Hindu culture and mythology, saying someone was born from a lotus was a way to indicate their purity.
In Japanese stories, baby Momotaro is found inside a peach, and Princess Kaguya inside a bamboo. The Indian tale "Princess Aubergine" has a girl born from an eggplant.
In the Kathāsaritsāgara (Ocean of the Streams of Stories), an 11th-century collection of Indian legends, Vinayavati is a heavenly maiden (divyā-kanyakā) who is born from the fruit of a jambu flower after a goddess in bee-form sheds a tear on it.
In the Italian tale of "The Myrtle", from the Pentamerone (1634-1636), a woman gives birth to a sprig of myrtle. A fairy (fata) emerges from the plant each night, and a prince falls in love with her. However, the heroine is apparently of human scale, although she inhabits a plant not unlike a genie in a lamp. Later folklorist Italo Calvino collected more variants: "Rosemary" and "Apple Girl."
The woman or fairy hidden within a luscious fruit appears in tale types such as "The Three Citrons." With the first known example of this story in The Pentamerone, there are probably as many variants of this story as there are types of fruit.
In a close fairytale neighbor, a mother eats a flower to become pregnant - see the Norwegian "Tatterhood," the Danish "King Lindworm," and "Svend Tomling."
"Tom Thumb" is usually cited as an influence on Thumbelina; in this story, a childless woman consults Merlin for help. Merlin prophesies her child's fate, she undergoes a very brief pregnancy, and then gives birth to a child one thumb tall. However, the two stories have little in common; the Thumbling tale type is widespread, and Andersen may have been inspired by other examples.
The most likely candidate is "Svend Tomling," a chapbook written by Hans Holck and published in 1776. My translation is very choppy, but I think the gist is that a childless woman consults a witch. The witch causes two flowers to grow and instructs the woman to eat them. The woman then gives birth to Svend, one thumb high and already fully dressed and carrying a sword (beating out Tom Thumb, who has to wait several seconds for his wardrobe).
I don't know for sure if Andersen knew this story, which hasn't achieved quite the same ubiquity as Tom Thumb. However, the fact that it was from his own country, and the similarities in Svend Tomling's and Tommelise's births, make a relationship seem likely.
E. T. A. Hoffmann
Fairytales weren't Andersen's only inspiration. One of his major influences was the fantasy/horror author E. T. A. Hoffmann (creator of The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, among other things).
In Hoffmann’s “Princess Brambilla” (1820), a fairytale-esque subplot has the magician Hermod tasked with finding a new ruler for the kingdom. He causes a lotus to grow, and within its petals sleeps the baby Princess Mystilis. The person-inside-flower motif recurs throughout the story. Mystilis is later placed in the lotus to break a curse that has fallen on her, and emerges the second time as a giantess. Hermod himself is frequently seen seated inside a golden tulip.
“Master Flea” (1822) has similar imagery. A scholar, studying a "beautiful lilac and yellow tulip," notices a speck inside the calyx. Under a magnifying glass, this speck turns out to be Princess Gamaheh, missing daughter of the Flower Queen, now microscopic and fast asleep in the pollen.
Andersen created his own thumbling tale inspired by folktales like that of Svend Tomling. However, he wove in plenty of elements in his own way - such as talking animals, or a girl born from a tulip.
His work, including both "Thumbelina" and "The Rose-elf," shows the contemporary interest in fairies who lived inside flowers. Andersen's fairies in particular are most like personifications of plants.
In the past, tulips had gained a bad reputation, becoming symbols of shallow frippery. However, by the time Andersen wrote, the disastrous tulip fad had had time to fade into history a little more. Instead, tulips started to be mentioned occasionally with fairies. In the 1800s, one author might have noted tales of tulip fairies as rare. However, a century later, Katharine Briggs could categorize it as a fairy flower. What changed? The most important thing may have been new associations for the tulip's shape; it was grouped in with other flowers that resembled bells or cups.
I was startled when I went looking for examples of flower fairies - I occasionally found descriptions of them resting on top of the flowers, like Tom Thumb. However, more often than anything, I found the word "bell." Heather-bells, foxglove-bells, cowslip-bells, bluebells, bell-shaped flowers. In 1832, Thomas Miller's flower-fairy poem used the word bell three separate times.
With fairies increasingly shrunken around Shakespeare's time, flowers that would have once been cups or hats were instead envisioned as houses or hiding places for fairies. The shape does suggest that something could be tucked inside, and lends itself to an air of mystery. Storytellers, including Andersen, focused on the idea of the hidden observer. Mary Botham Howitt wrote in 1852 "We could ourselves almost adopt the legend, and turning the leaves aside expect to meet the glance of tiny eyes." (George MacDonald used similar images, although with a more sinister slant, in his 1858 book Phantastes.)
However, although Thumbelina's birth is still tied to the idea of flower fairies, it has more in common with tales of heroes born from plants. It is also strikingly reminiscent of E. T. A. Hoffmann's short stories; Hoffmann wrote twice of tiny princesses discovered inside flowers. In his work, tulips were not just gaudy or overly expensive, but had esoteric and mystical associations. His characters may be Thumbelina's clearest literary ancestors.
"Don't thank the fairies"
Yet another thing that I see frequently in fantasy books and online discussion is that people should never thank fairies. It breaks fairy etiquette, or it places you in their power. But . . . where did this idea come from? Really, why shouldn't you thank a fairy?
Two words: Yallery Brown.
In her Dictionary of Fairies, Katharine Briggs made much of the idea of not thanking fairies as part of their etiquette. For instance, under good manners she wrote, "A polite tongue as well as an incurious eye is an important asset in any adventure among FAIRIES. There is one caution, however: certain fairies do not like to be thanked. It is against etiquette. No fault can be found with a bow or a curtsy, and all questions should be politely answered." I have previously mentioned how influential Briggs' work has been to modern fantasy.
Briggs' evidence is the tale of Yallery Brown, originally published by M. C. Balfour in an 1891 article "Legends Of The Cars," in Folk-Lore vol. II. Joseph Jacobs wrote a version in plainer English. As the tale goes, a boy named Tom rescues a tiny old man the size of a baby, with brown skin and silky golden hair and beard. The grateful sprite tells Tom that he may call him "Yallery Brown," and promises him a reward - but warns Tom with a strange spark of anger never to thank him. From then on, Tom's chores do themselves, but the reward soon turns sour, as his fellow workmen find their own work ruined and turn against him, believing he's some kind of witch. Fired from his job, Tom tells the sprite "I'll thank thee to leave me alone." At those words, a cackling Yallery Brown curses him forever after to a life of bad luck and failure.
Yallery Brown remains mysterious. He is clearly malevolent, with even his "blessing" truly a disguised curse, but it is never explained why thanking him is significant, or why it angers him enough that he will warn a human against doing so.
Briggs drew the conclusion that explicit thanks were just not okay in fairy etiquette. Gratitude and appreciation are fine and dandy. Take, for instance, a man who mended a fairy's baking peel. The grateful fairies left him a cake. Eating it, he announced that it was "proper good" and bid "Goodnight" to the unseen fairies. He then "prospered ever after."
Explicit thanks, though, is bad. For some reason.
I’ve occasionally come across the theory that thanks is acknowledgement of debt, and it’s never a good idea to be indebted to the fae. Morgan Daimler's Fairies: A Guide to the Celtic Fair Folk is one example of a work that mentions this theory.
This is a handy explanation, but does not explain Yallery Brown’s fierce opposition to being thanked. It’s true he is quick to repay a favor, supporting the idea he doesn’t want to be indebted to Tom. But still, why would he be angry about someone else owing him a debt? He seems pleased to have Tom within his power.
Looking for analogues, we run into problems. The story of Yallery Brown is strangely unique. Usually, other fairies do not show the same repulsion to the words "thank you." For isntance, in the Swedish tale of "The Troll Labor," a troll paid a woman in silver, and "thanked her," although his specific words aren't given.
Back to Yallery Brown and Balfour. Some doubt has been cast on the traditionality of Balfour's work. Balfour didn't just transcribe her tales, but gave them a literary flair. That, and the striking uniqueness of her stories, have drawn suspicion by later scholars. The English folktale collector Joseph Jacobs remarked that “One might almost suspect Mrs. Balfour of being the victim of a piece of invention on the part of her . . . informant. But the scrap of verse, especially in its original dialect, has such a folkish ring that it is probable he was only adapting a local legend to his own circumstances.” In the Dictionary, Briggs mentioned Balfour's stories multiple times, while also making reference to the controversy that by then had begun to swirl around Balfour's work.
But this is aside from the point. Whatever the origin, Balfour's story is part of fairy mythology now. And I want to know why thanks are important in Balfour's story. Why is the term "thank you" offensive to Yallery Brown? Is there a missing piece here, a forgotten meaning?
As I started looking for explanations, I realized that there's one line in the story that is usually missed, but which changes the entire outlook of the tale.
Tom thanks Yallery Brown, with no ill consequences, at the beginning of the story! I only caught this on a second read. When Yallery Brown introduces himself and says that they will be friends, Tom responds "Thankee, master."
Later, Tom tries to thank Yallery Brown again, this time for helping him with his work on the farm. This is when the sprite grows angry and commands that he never say those words. This changes the picture. Thanking Yallery Brown innocently for his friendship is fine. It is only thanks for work that angers him. Perhaps it is the low nature of farmwork. Perhaps it is the reversal of roles that upsets him; rather than a meek Tom who says "Thank you, Master," now Tom's message imply "Thank you, Servant."
From here, there are connections to three other tale types. Closest is the famous tale of the household brownie.
"Don't pay the fairies"
Some classes of fairy work in human homes and help with chores. But their human hosts must be careful, for they will leave if given clothes or even the wrong sort of food. The safest bet is plain milk or porridge with butter. In the story of the Cauld Lad of Hylton, the servants behave as if clothes are a well-known way to banish unwanted spirits.
Although leaving clothes is not a verbal thanks, it is an expression of gratitude that backfires. In The Elves and the Shoemaker, collected by the Brothers Grimm, the shoemaker's wife declares, "The little men have made us rich, and we really must show that we are grateful for it." (Emphasis mine.) She notices that the elves are naked and sews beautiful clothes for them. Unfortunately for her, the newly clad elves announce that they now look too fine and handsome to do manual labor, and the shoemaker loses their aid.
In other cases, rather than the fae becoming too vain to serve, some find the gift infuriating. In a Lincolnshire version, a brownie gets angry that the offered shirt is made of rough hemp rather than fine linen. Alternately, the payment implied by the gift may insult the fae who have deigned to clean human homes. Or perhaps it's not an insult at all, just a signal that their term of service is over. The Highland spirit Brownie-Clod actually draws up a deal with some humans "to do their whole winter's threshing for them, on condition of getting in return an old coat and a Kilmarnock hood to which he had taken a fancy." However, his hosts put out his payment a little early, whether out of carelessness or because they're trying to be nice and forget that this is solely a business arrangement to him. Brownie-Clod takes the clothes and books it, leaving the rest of the work unfinished. (Keightley, Fairy Mythology, 396)
The tale type is so widespread, with so many variations and rationalizations, that it's impossible to say what the true meaning is. Although some brownies seem gleeful, in other cases, like that of the phynnodderee, the spirit actually seems distraught that they must now leave.
Lewis Spence theorized that the gift of clothes was insulting because the brownie was expecting a human sacrifice, and the clothes turned out to be only a decoy. I feel like that's a stretch. However, Gillian Edwards points out that these spirits are very frequently not just naked, but resemble hairy wild men or animals. (Hobgoblin and Sweet Puck, p. 111). The phynnodderee is a kind of satyr. Even Yallery Brown is covered in blond hair.
The act of offering clothes might be read as an act of domestication. There's a patronizing feel to the actions of the shoemaker's wife, or farmer, or any human. They decide that the naked or hair-covered fae would be better off if they fit human social mores by wearing human-style clothes.
Could there even be a connection to people turning their coats inside out to avoid being led astray by will o' the wisps, or protecting a baby from fairies by laying the father's clothes over the cradle?
Whatever the roots of the story, the end result is always that a clumsy expression of human gratitude drives away fairy aid.
"Don't interrupt the fairies"
I have found one other tale type where the words "thank you" cause fairies to flee. In this story, a farmer discovers some tiny elves in his barn, threshing his wheat for him.
"[T]he farmer, looking through the key-hole, saw two elves threshing lustily, now and then interrupting their work to say to each other, in the smallest falsetto voice: 'I tweat [sweat], you tweat?' The poor man, unable to contain his gratitude, incautiously thanked them through the key-hole; when the spirits, who love to work or play, 'unheard and unespied,' instantly vanished, and have never since visited that barn." (Choice Notes from Notes and Queries, 1859, p. 76)
Similarly in Brand's Popular Antiquities, the farmer accidentally drives them off with the line that they've done "Quite enough! and thank ye!"
Great! The fairies run away when someone thanks them. But wait - the act of thanks is not what they're running from. The storyteller in the first version explicitly states that they leave because they do not like to be watched.
In addition, this is a very widespread story, and other versions are illuminating. A similar spying farmer does not thank the laboring fairies, but laughs at them with the condescending words "Well done, my little men." Again, the specific words that he uses are not the problem. The fairies leave because "fairies are offended if a mortal speaks to them." (The Folk-Lore Record, 1878)
In most of the versions that I have read, there is no thanks. The farmer actually threatens the fairies, in a much more tense exchange.
In “The Ungrateful Farmer" (Tales of the Dartmoor Pixies), the farmer is pleased that the pixies are doing his farmwork. He witnesses them throwing down their tools saying in exhaustion "I twit, you twit." He mistakenly believes that they have spotted him. Knowing that "once the pixies learn that they are overlooked they cease to return to that spot," he assumes they will leave, and leaps out at them bellowing angrily, "I'll twit 'ee!" Poof, no more pixies.
In Thomas Keightley's Fairy Mythology, the farmer's anger is explained in a more straightforward way. The story is titled "The Fairy-Thieves" and the fairies are not helping with the harvest, but stealing it. When they make the declaration "I weat, you weat?", the farmer lunges at them with the words "The devil sweat ye. Let me get among ye!"
In the more sinister story of "Master Meppom's Fatal Adventure," the "Pharisees" don't just vanish; they strike the farmer with their flails before disappearing, and he dies within the year. (Lower 1854)
"Don't brag or boast of fairy gifts"
Any misuse of fairy gifts could cost the receiver greatly, as in the story of the Fuwch Gyfeiliorn or stray cow. A man receives a fairy cow and his herds prosper, but as she grows older, he feels it's not worth keeping an elderly cow that will no longer give milk or calves. But when he tries to slaughter her for meat, she runs back to the fairy realm, taking all the herd with her.
However, there was something in particular about revealing the fairy gift's origins.
John Rhys, in Celtic Folklore: Welsh and Manx (1901), listed many versions of a tale where people are not to inform others where they got their fairy gold. For instance, a boy who was left money by the Tylwyth Teg every day, but only on the condition that he tell no one (pages 38, 83, 116, 203, 241). Generally, the tale concludes with the person telling their secret and losing the fairies' favor. The money never appears again. Occasionally, even the money they already had vanishes.
In the 17th century, in Ben Johnson's Entertainment at Althorpe (1605), Queen Mab - bestowing a gift - announces,
"Utter not, we you implore,
Who did give it, nor wherefore:
And whenever you restore
Your self to us, you shall have more."
The trope was around as early as the 12th-century lai of Sir Lanval, by Marie de France. In various versions from across the centuries, Lanval meets a fairy lady who becomes his lover and bestows him with wealth, gold and silver. She informs him that the more he spends, the more he shall have. However, if he ever reveals her existence, he will lose both her love and his fortune.
This is more a taboo of secrecy: not to reveal the source to others. All the same, there is an overlap. It's a taboo against (public) thanks or acknowledgement.
The main theme of these tale families is that fairies like their gifts to be anonymous. They do appreciate gratitude, but they also want discretion, and they can be mysteriously picky.
If these taboos are crossed, fairy servants flee, fairy gifts melt away to nothing, and fairy sweethearts bid farewell. Not because someone used the words "thank you." That, on its own, doesn't insult the fairies' generosity. Instead, it's because a human barged in yelling at them, gave a hamhanded and offensive gift, terminated their contract, or betrayed their trust.
The idea that the actual term "thank you" is offensive to fairies comes from "Yallery Brown," and nowhere else, so far as I know. The folkloric basis of Yallery Brown has been called into question, with later scholars wondering if the collector had the wool pulled over her eyes by her sources, or even if she went beyond polishing collected stories and into creating her own material. Maureen James wrote a thesis defending Balfour. At the same time, she acknowledged that many of the tales are found nowhere else. She suggested that rather than Balfour being wrong, there has been a lack of research into stories from the area of north Lincolnshire that Balfour examined.
All the same, a close reading reveals that Yallery Brown does not find the words "thank you" offensive on their own. The words only become dangerous when the thanks is for his labor with farm work. Still mysterious, but it makes sense in the wider context of brownies, elves and fairies who hate to be loudly acknowledged, and who prefer subtler thanks. In fact, Yallery Brown might be a brownie. His name is Brown, after all.
Edit 7/22/20: Important update! There may be more to the picture; Jacob Grimm, in Volume 4 of Teutonic Mythology, mentioned a German superstition that thanking a witch would place you in her power (p. 1800).
A History of Fairy Dust
Fairy dust: maybe it’s the stuff that sparkles from a fairy godmother’s magic wand. Or maybe fairies just naturally exude it. (Or, if you delve into Disney’s expanded Tinker Bell universe, fairies need it to fly and it is a vital resource for which the characters must occasionally go on perilous quests.) Alternately, in craft stores I’ve come across little bottles of glitter labeled “fairy dust” to be used in a fairy garden. But where did the idea of fairy dust come from?
I went looking for older sources which mentioned fairies in connection with dust. Some are fairly mundane. The fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, like helpful household brownies, “sweep the dust behind the door.” Okay, so that’s not really their dust. In reverse, according to Thomas Keightley, the German kobold “brings chips and saw-dust into the house, and throws dirt into the milk vessels.”
Closer is John Rhys' Celtic Folklore: Welsh and Manx, where he tells of a fisherman named William Ellis who - out on a dark misty day - saw a large crowd of little people about a foot tall, all dancing and making music. Entranced, he watched for hours, but when he approached too close, "they threw a kind of dust into his eyes, and, while he was wiping it away, the little family took the opportunity of betaking themselves somewhere out of his sight, so that he neither saw nor heard anything more of them."
Similar, though it doesn't feature dust per se, is the tale of Yallery Brown. There, the titular elf blows a dandelion puff into a boy's eyes and ears. "Soon as Tom could see again the tiddy [tiny] creature was gone."
George Sand's short story "La fee poussiere" was translated as "The Fairy Dust" in 1891. "Fairy Dust" in this case is the name of a character, a fairylike being who oversees everything from the earth itself to tiny particles of dust. The main character encounters her in a dream.
In Félicité de Choiseul-Meuse's 1820 fairytale "The Marble Princess," a fairy godmother gives a prince "gold dust of the purest quality" to blind serpents so that he can fight them.
"What Mr. Maguire Saw in the Kitchen," an 1862 story, a character waking from a disorienting dream refers to "dust . . . fairy dust that took away my five senses to the other world, and put me beyond myself." (Dialect removed.)
Mary Augusta Ward's Milly and Olly: or, A Holiday Among the Mountains (1881) features a mention of a fairy throwing golden "fairy-dust" into a girl's eyes so that she sees the beauty in a certain place. There are no literal fairies in the book, but the description is significant.
So far, two tales feature dreams, two have dust used to physically blind others, and the last has dust which alters someone's perception of the world.
Why this connection between fairies and dust in the first place? An interesting link might lie with mushrooms. Many varieties are named for the fairies, and they have traditionally been associated with fairies in a number of ways, possibly in part because of some toadstools' hallucinogenic properties.
One particular fungi tied to fairies is the puffball, a mushroom full of brown dust-like spores that are released when it bursts. Other names include "puckball," “puckfist,” “pixie-puff” or “devil’s snuffbox." (In this case, "fist" does not mean a closed hand, but a fart or foul odor. So these mushrooms were the Devil’s/Puck’s/Fairy’s farts.)
In Scotland they were known as Blind Man’s Ball or Blind Man’s Een (eyes). John Jamieson suggested in 1808 that this was due to a belief that the spores caused blindness. However, it’s also possible that they were named for their resemblance to eyeballs. The mushroom connection is fun, but European puffball mushrooms are evidently not hallucinogenic.
Another possible plant association: pollen, which can look like golden (yellow) dust, and which would have become a stronger link as the modern flower fairy gained popularity. The Victorian educational children's book, Fairy Know-a-Bit, or, A Nutshell of Knowledge (1866) declares that fairies refer to pollen as "gold-dust" and love "to sprinkle [it] over each other in sport."
There is another very old tie between fairies and dust. Traditionally, fairies were believed to be present in the dust clouds stirred up by the wind on the road. Any humans on the road should beware, and show respect to the otherworldly travelers. The cloud of dust might even contain kidnapped humans who were carried along with the fairies. It's been suggested that the Rumpelstiltskin-like character Whuppity Stoorie has a name meaning whipped-up dust, or stoor. For a similar concept, think of the term "dust devil" for a whirlwind.
This idea may be tracked back to the 17th century at least. In 1662, accused witch Isobel Gowdie pulled from fairy lore for her confession. She described how witches, like fairies, would use tiny grass stalks as horses to "fly away, where we would, even as straws fly upon a highway" – in a whirlwind of bits of straw above the road. She added that "If anyone sees these straws in a whirlwind, and do not bless themselves, we may shoot them dead at our pleasure. Any that are shot by us... will fly as our horses, as small as straws."
There's also a touch of the idea of perception here. Humans perceive only a cloud of dust, but those "in the know" realize that fairies are traveling unseen.
In Teutonic Mythology vol. 3, Jacob Grimm makes a reference to witches' or devil's ashes being strewn to raise storms, and Richilde (enemy of Robert the Frisian) throwing dust in the air with "formulas of imprecation" to destroy her enemies.
One more traditional connection between fairies and dust is quite sinister. In many stories, when a human returns from Fairyland, they do so without realizing that they’ve unwittingly spent centuries away from our world. King Herla, for instance, gets a nasty shock when some of his friends dismount from their horses only to crumble into dust the second their feet touch the ground.
However, the key to modern fairy dust is the story of the Sandman. In European folklore, every night a mythical being sprinkles sand or dust into children’s eyes to send them to sleep and give them dreams. The sand/dust may be a way to explain the “sleep” or gritty discharge left in someone’s eyes when they wake up in the morning.
E. T. A. Hoffmann’s 1816 short story Der Sandmann features a sinister Sandman who steals children’s eyes after throwing sand at them. Hans Christian Andersen’s 1841 tale "Ole Lukøje" ("Mr. Shut-eye") has a gentle sleep-bringer who sprinkles “sweet milk” into children’s eyes. However, subsequent translations changed this to “powder” or “dust" as the character was gradually merged with the Sandman.
There was overlap with the fairy world, and this would only increase. A 1915 dictionary defined the Sandman as "a household elf.”
The children's play “Bluebell in Fairyland,” first produced in 1901, was one of the inspirations for Peter Pan. The main character's travel to Fairyland is framed as a dream. Per John Kruse's site British Fairies, the play mentions the "dustman" (Sandman) and features golden dust being strewn as the characters fall asleep and enter Fairyland. Unfortunately, the play's script and lyrics are not currently available where I can access them.
Algernon Blackwood's 1913 book A Prisoner of Fairyland may also have been influenced by Bluebell. It features a “Dustman” who sprinkles golden dust “fine as star-dust” into people’s eyes to cause them to sleep. Again: sleep, dreams and fairyland are interconnected.
But it was J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan (play published 1904, novel published 1911) which really popularized the modern view of fairy dust. From the moment Peter Pan first physically appears in the novel, he is accompanied by fairy dust: “the window was blown open by the breathing of the little stars, and Peter dropped in. He had carried Tinker Bell part of the way, and his hand was still messy with the fairy dust.”
The dust which Tinker Bell exudes bestows children with the ability to fly, and to travel to Neverland, which is made up of their own imaginative stories and daydreams. The island is first described in a sequence where the Darlings' mother examines her sleeping children's minds. When the children reach the island, they find all the locations and characters they've dreamed up. At one point Peter Pan speaks to "all who might be dreaming of the Neverland, and who were therefore nearer to him than you think."
Disney’s animated adaptation came out in 1953. They altered it a little, calling the stuff “pixie dust.” Tinker Bell became an instant mascot, and her pixie dust was a callword for Disney. (They use "pixie" and "fairy" interchangeably to refer to the character, which is a post for another time.) Neverland's status as both fairyland and dreamworld is toned down in the film version, but still hinted at. The Darling children meet Peter Pan when he wakes them in the middle of the night, and - unlike the book - after they return, their parents enter the room only to find them fast asleep, as if they never left.
Disney's ubiquitous Peter Pan helped popularize the modern idea of fairy dust as glittering stuff given off by fairies or pixies. It was also an important step in leaving behind the associations with dreams and, thus, the Sandman.
Associations between fairies and dust are very old, seen in the whirlwind transportation and in puffball mushrooms. By the 1800s, we have mentions in literature tying fairy dust to vision, eyesight, dreams, and perception of reality. Ultimately fairies and the Sandman were equated, as were Fairyland and Dreamland. At this point, they've diverged. However, I am reminded of the 2012 animated film Rise of the Guardians, where the Sandman works with glowing golden sand that looks a lot like Disney Tinker Bell's pixie dust. Also, "fairy dust" and similarly "angel dust" are slang terms for drugs, keeping that idea of a change in perception.
References and Further Reading
Recently, when reading fantasy, I keep running into the idea that fairies cannot lie, only tell the truth. For this reason, they must use tricky language – literal truths disguising real meanings. For example, in Holly Black's novel Ironside, a fairy says that when she tries to lie, "I feel panicked and my mind starts racing, looking for a safe way to say it. I feel like I'm suffocating. My jaw just locks. I can't make any sound come out" (p. 56).
But is this really supported by older folklore? Deception seems inherent to the fairy way of life when you take into account, for instance, changelings. The core idea of changelings is that fairies are in disguise as your loved ones, pretending to be them. Why, then, is there an idea that fairies are truthful beings?
Trickery, loopholes, and "exact words" do play a significant part in fairytales.
In the Irish tale "The Field of Boliauns," a man bullies a captive leprechaun into showing him where his gold is buried, under a particular boliaun (ragwort stalk) in a field. He doesn't have a shovel with him, so he ties a garter around the stalk and then makes the leprechaun swear not to touch it. He runs home to get the shovel, comes back, and finds that the leprechaun has taken his oath literally: he hasn't touched the garter, but has tied an identical garter around every single ragwort stalk in the field.
Another case: a man carelessly trades with an otherworldly being in exchange for something which sounds inconsequential, but which turns out to be his own child. There's the giant who asks a king for "Nix, Nought, Nothing," which unbeknownst to the king is the name of his newborn son. The Grimms have "The Nixie in the Pond" with a water spirit asking for that which has just been born, and "The Girl Without Hands," where the Devil himself promises riches in exchange for what stands behind the mill; his target thinks he means an apple tree, but it's actually his daughter.
This same kind of trick can happen in reverse, with a human fooling a fairy! In "The Farmer and the Boggart," a boggart lays claim to a certain farmer's field. The farmer convinces it to split the crop with him, and asks him if he would like "tops or bottoms." When the boggart says "bottoms," the farmer plants wheat, so that the boggart gets nothing but stubble. The next planting season, the infuriated boggart demands "tops" . . . so the farmer plants turnips.
So we have the idea of tricky language in abundance. But what about an inability to lie?
Fairies and Honesty
According to John Rhys in Celtic Folklore: Welsh and Manx vol. 1, there are different classes of the Tylwyth Teg. Some are "honest and good towards mortals," while others are consummate thieves and cheats - swapping illusory money for real, and their own "wretched" offspring for human babies. They steal any milk, butter or cheese they can get their hands on. Going by context, honesty is referring to not stealing. In addition, the very dichotomy means fairies are not always honest.
One term for the fairies, like the Good Folk or People of Peace, is the "Honest Folk" - daoine coire in Gaelic, and balti z'mones in Lithuanian. (Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, Volume 5) However, these names are essentially flattery meant to avoid fairy wrath. I would avoid taking these as literal descriptors.
But if you keep going, in many traditions, the fae do prize honesty.
In a Welsh tale recorded by the 12th-century writer Giraldus Cambrensis, a boy named Elidorus encounters "little men of pigmy stature" - pretty much fae.
"They never took an oath, for they detested nothing so much as lies. As often as they returned from our upper hemisphere, they reprobated our ambition, infidelities, and inconstancies; they had no form of public worship, being strict lovers and reverers, as it seemed, of truth."
However, this is not a "can't lie," but a "won't lie." It's a moral fable, for dishonesty is Elidorus' downfall. When he tells his mother of his adventures, she asks him to bring back "a present of gold." Her request could indicate greed, but it's also a challenge for Elidorus to prove that he's telling the truth. He steals a golden ball and takes it home. For this dishonesty, the pigmies immediately punish him: he is never able to find their realm again.
The 12th-century Irish legend of “The Destruction of Da Derga's Hostel" features three riders all in red, on red horses. (Red is a common fairy color.) They are later identified as "[t]hree champions who wrought falsehood in the elfmounds. This is the punishment inflicted upon them by the king of the elfmounds, to be destroyed thrice by the King of Tara."
In another legend from the same era, a man named Cormac visits the sea-god Manannan mac Lir and receives a golden cup which will break into three pieces if three words of falsehood are told nearby, and mend itself if three truths are told.
As Walter Evans-Wentz summed it up in The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, “respect for honesty” is a fairy trait in both ancient and contemporary Irish legends. Lady Wilde, in Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland, also referred to the fairies as "upright and honest" (at least in repaying debts).
Another important piece of evidence is the tale of Thomas the Rhymer, with a story dating at least to a 14th-century romance. Even in the earliest versions, he is given the gift of prophecy by the fairy queen. In a later version recorded in Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802), when they part, she gives him an apple while saying "Take this for thy wages, True Thomas, It will give the tongue that can never lie."
Thomas points out that this will be super inconvenient, but the fairy queen does not care. Here at last is the idea of being physically unable to lie - having a mouth and a tongue that are capable only of telling truth. However, the person with this quality is a human under a fairy's spell.
There's a kind of mirror image in Giraldus Cambrensis' tale of Meilyr or Melerius, another prophet, who due to his close encounters with "unclean spirits" gains the ability to detect lies.
Moving on: in many traditions, divine or otherworldly beings are swift to reward honesty and punish falsehood. See “The Rough-Face Girl” (Algonquin), “Our Lady’s Child” (German), and “The Honest Woodcutter” (from Aesop’s Fables). (Aesop uses the god Mercury, but other versions of the same story sometimes use a fairy.)
In the book The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi (1883), Pinocchio repeatedly lies to the Blue Fairy, building on multiple falsehoods. With each lie, his nose grows, until finally it's so long that he gets stuck. The laughing Fairy "allowed the puppet to cry and to roar for a good half-hour over his nose... This she did to give him a severe lesson, and to correct him of the disgraceful fault of telling lies." Only after he has been sufficiently chastised does she restore him to normal. This is the fairy-as-moral-teacher who is so strongly present in 18th- and 19th-century literature, from French salon tales to Victorian children's books. In this era, fairies (particularly fairy godmothers) were strict parental figures who demanded honesty, fairness and goodness from humans.
The Ideas Combine
I think the seeds of the modern idea of fairies and falsehood come from the famed British folklorist Katharine Briggs. In The Fairies in Tradition and Literature (1967), Briggs recounted that "According to Elidurus the fairies were great lovers and respecters of truth, and indeed it is not wise to attempt to deceive them, nor will they ever tell a direct lie or break a direct promise, though they may often distort it. The Devil himself is more apt to prevaricate than to lie..." (pp. 131-132).
There are a couple of different things to take from this. One is that not only do fairies not lie, but it's equally important for humans to be honest with them. "To tell lies to devils, ghosts or fairies was to put oneself into their power" (pp. 222-223).
Also, it is clear that at least one of her main sources for this theme is Elidurus. She referenced Elidurus again in Dictionary of Fairies (1971), where she mentions again that fairies "seem to have a disinterested love" of truth, and that it is unwise to lie to them, although they may use tricky language themselves. She is summarizing based on a combination of two tale types - one where fairies value honesty, and one where they trick and evade.
I have been collecting examples of books where fairies speak only truth. The earliest example so far is the children's book series Circle of Magic by James MacDonald and Debra Doyle. All six books were published in 1990.
In this world, wizards cannot lie or they will corrupt their own power, but it is possible to use misleading language. The restriction is strongest for the elves or fair folk. According to their ruler, the Erlking:
"You [a wizard] cannot speak an untruth and expect magic to serve you truly thereafter. Here magic is purer, and far more strict a master. A mortal wizard can sometimes break the words of a promise in order to keep its spirit, but I cannot. If I say that I will do a thing, or that I will not do a thing - then I must do it, or leave it undone, exactly as the words were spoken." (The High King's Daughter, p. 22)
The examples I've collected really pick up after the year 2000. In Buttercup Baby by Karen Fox (2001), the faery protagonist has physical difficulty with telling actual lies (p. 218). It's also a big theme in the Dresden Files, for instance Summer Knight by Jim Butcher (2002), where not only are faeries not "allowed" to lie, but they are "bound to fulfill a promise spoken thrice." (p. 194)
In Holly Black's Tithe (2002), there is a brief mention of "no lies, no deception" in the realm of fairies. Black goes more in-depth with later books, starting with Valiant (2005), where fairies are physically incapable of falsehood. A running theme is that they covet humans' ability to tell outright falsehoods.
Other examples: Melissa Marr's Wicked Lovely series and Cassandra Clare's Shadowhunters (both beginning 2007). Patricia Briggs' Mercy Thompson series hints that if fairies lie, something bad will happen to them.
Holly Black frequently references and recommends Briggs' work (as in this tweet).
Patricia Briggs (no relation) was also inspired by Katharine Briggs, mentioning her work in an interview here. Morgan Daimler's Guide to the Celtic Fair Folk (2017) is a recent compendium that cites Katharine Briggs when saying that fairies are "always strictly honest with their words."
The idea that fairies cannot lie is a creative modern twist, stemming from cautionary fables about honesty and from stories about using wordplay to get the upper hand. Katharine Briggs never says that fairies cannot lie. She says only that they do not lie, apparently out of a strict moral code. My current theory is that a semantic shift occurred sometime between The Fairies in Tradition and Literature in 1967 and the Circle of Magic series in 1990. This shows how fairy mythology is still growing and evolving today.
In older tales, from the honest woodcutter who meets the god Mercury, to Elidurus, to Pinocchio, otherworldly beings - including fairies - deeply value honesty. But it’s not just that fairies may not (technically) lie to you. It’s that you shouldn’t lie to them.
But unvarnished truth isn’t always the best idea either, if you read tales like "The Fairies’ Midwife" . . . Thus the importance of tactical wordplay.
Do you have any other examples of stories on fairies' relationship with honesty? Share them in the comments!
[Edit 1/14/21]: Another one for the list is a German tale, "The Silver Bell" (Das Silberglöckchen), found in Arndt’s Fairy Tales from the Isle of Rügen (1896). Arndt explains that "the little folks [Unterirdischen, literally Underground Ones] may not lie, but must keep their word and fulfil the promises they give, else they are at once changed into the nastiest beasts, toads, snakes, dung-beetles, wolves, lynxes, and monkeys, and have to crawl and rove about for a thousand years, ere they can be delivered; therefore they hate lies." As in the Irish examples, the fairies are physically capable of lying, but fear punishment; and honesty extends not only to telling the truth, but to oaths and other matters of honor. The exact source for this punishment remains unclear.
Hybrids and Half-Fairies
Is there such a thing in folklore as a fairy-human hybrid? What would they be called? What traits would they inherit? Or would they inheirt only one parent’s nature?
In Gilbert and Sullivahn's comic opera Iolanthe (1882), the hero is half-fairy . . . literally, with an immortal upper half but human legs. There are some problems. In a mid-nineteenth-century music hall song, "The Keeper of the Eddystone Light," the union of a man and a mermaid produces two fish and the narrator of the song. More seriously, the protagonist of Eloise McGraw's 1996 novel The Moorchild, is a half-fae with both human and "moorfolk" characteristics. But these are more modern spins.
In fact, there is a basis in legend. In a widespread tale type, a human man encounters a beautiful woman whose species varies from story to story. She may be a fairy, a mermaid, a selkie, a swan maiden, or a Yuki-Onna. Or maybe it’s a human woman who meets an otherworldly man: a fairy knight, an incubus, a god, a prince cursed into bear form… etc. When the human spouse breaks some taboo, the otherworldly spouse flees. Lucky humans go on a quest and have a chance to win them back. Unlucky humans pine away, alone for the rest of their lives. But either way, quite often the couple has produced at least one child.
I’m going to count mermaids among fairies here. Mermaids are essentially water fairies, and half the time when a man takes a fairy bride, she is somehow connected to water.
Otherworldly Hybrids in Mythology
The idea of a human/nonhuman hybrid is not new. Half-gods abound in Greek mythology. However, most are skilled warriors with no supernatural powers. The half-god Achilles gains invulnerability not through genetics, but through a ritual performed by his mother. A few, like Dionysus, are born as full gods. Heracles is an outlier, a human with super-strength, who ultimately becomes a full god. Over in Ireland, Cu Chulainn is the son of a god and a human woman. There are legends that Abe no Seimei of Japan was the son of a human and a kitsune named Kuzunoha, and that he inherited from his mother traits that made him a powerful magician. Similarly, in Arthurian legend Merlin the magician was supposed to derive his abilities from his parentage as the son of a human woman and a demon or spirit.
According to Jacob Grimm in Teutonic Mythology, vol. 3 "From the Devil's commerce with witches proceeds no human offspring, but elvish beings, which are named dinger (things...), elbe, holden" who appear as butterflies, bumblebees, caterpillars, or worms. Grimm describes the holden acting as spirit familiars to aid the witches in their mischief.
Nephilim, or giants, appear in the Bible as offspring of “the sons of God” and “the daughters of man.” Plenty of people have made much of this, suggesting that the Nephilim were born of angels with human women. I’ve also run into the idea that they were the offspring of God’s followers with pagan women.
Throughout history, descent from a god and, later, descent from a fairy could be a bragging point, especially for rulers. In a tale from India, a man lures a solitary girl known as "the daughter of the god Shillong" from her cave dwelling to marry her. She escapes him, as fairy brides always do, but, the people of the area hail their children as "god kings." (Folk Tales of Assam)
Option one: Offspring of humans with fairies are all human
The 16th-century Swiss alchemist Paracelsus wrote about "undines" - feminine water-spirits who might take human husbands in order to gain their own souls. Any children of such a union, Paracelsus adds, will be human beings, because they inherit souls from their human fathers.
There are numerous ballads and lais where women have children with "fairy knights." Sir Degare is the offspring of one such pairing, but doesn't seem overtly otherworldly. Similarly, the Yuki-onna of Japan may have children with a human husband in her stories, but they don't have any apparent tendencies towards ice and snow.
Such unions could produce whole clans. In Celtic Folklore: Welsh and Manx, John Rhys recounts a number of overlapping fairy bride tales. A fairy named Penelope or Penelop was the ancestress of the Pelling clan. A fairy named Bella was the ancestress of the Bellisians. A fairy’s daughter with a human, known as Pelisha, began the family known as Bellis, who hated to be reminded of their fairy ancestry, and frequently got into brawls on the subject. Another term was Belsiaid. The names suggest that these are all the same story heard from different sources.
Option two: offspring show otherworldly traits
Even if some half-fairy knights like Sir Degare show no overt fairy characteristics, that is not always the rule. In the medieval lai of Tydorel (whose name I keep reading as Ti-D-Bol), the titular character is the son of a fairy knight and a human queen. Tydorel's otherworldly origins are shown by his inability to sleep. A man who cannot sleep, the lai tells us, is not human.
This tale had a darker counterpart in the story of Merlin, as well as those of Sir Gowther and Robert the Devil, whose fathers were demons. In these cases, their heritage makes them evil, but can be overcome.
The original Oberon, in the tales of Huon of Bordeaux, was depicted as the son of Julius Caesar and a fairy woman sometimes identified as Morgan le Fay. So this Oberon is actually half fairy! But his otherworldly appearance - small size and incredible beauty - is not an inborn trait, but the result of a curse. He does do a lot of magical stuff, though, and is king over the fairy realm.
According to Irish lore, Geróid 'Iarla was the son of the Earl of Desmond, who fell in love with the water-goddess-like Aine n'Chliar when he met her on the lake. It was a typical fairy bride marriage, but in this case, the taboo was that the Earl must never express wonder at his son's abilities. Geróid was able to leap in and out of a bottle. When his father exclaimed at it, Geróid immediately went to the lake, transformed into a goose, and swam away. There was another connected story where Geroid took a wife himself, and she also had to abide by taboos.
This is a legend which grew up around the historical figure of Garrett, fourth Earl of Desmond, who is supposed to have disappeared in 1398. The collector, David Fitzgerald, also mentions a possible connected legend that the Fitzgeralds are web-footed, hinting at the idea that the descendants of a fairy marriage have bird characteristics.
Jeremiah Curtin collected a tale, "Tom Moore and the Seal Woman," which ends with the mention of the fairy's children: "All the five children that she left had webs between their fingers and toes, half-way to the tips." However, this trait decreased with successive generations. In an equivalent tale recounted by Thomas Keightley, the children of a human and a sea-maiden "retained no vestiges of their marine origin, saving a thin web between their fingers, and a bend of their hands, resembling that of the fore paws of a seal; distinctions which characterise the descendants of the family to the present day."
As far as fairy wives go, Melusine possibly takes the lead as the most prolific childbearer. She bore her husband ten sons, eight of whom had strange appearances.
Bear in mind that Melusine herself is half-fairy! Her story is full of repetitions and layers. Her experience with her husband is foreshadowed by that of her mother, the fairy Pressyne, and a human king. Both Melusine and Geroid are examples of a child of a fairy bride and a human who take after their fairy parent - so much so that they repeat the story in the next generation.
Melusine's mother Pressyne bore triplet girls, which in that time would have been scandalous, hinting at marital infidelity. However, like Oberon, Melusine wasn't born with her visible fairy qualities; her form as a half-serpent creature is the result of a curse. She must marry a human, who must keep to certain rules, in order to break it. Some scholars have suggested that her sons' deformities are also created by that curse. In some versions, her youngest sons are apparently human, indicating that her curse has been fading over the years. This makes it all the more tragic when her husband fails her and she loses her chance at humanity.
Sometimes fairies carried humans off to marry them, and their children would then presumably be half-fairies. in the German tale of "The Changeling of Spornitz," the little people or "Mönks" (manikins) carry off human children to ensure that "earthly beauty would not entirely die out among them."
Similarly, a girl named Eilian is stolen away as a fairy's bride in a Welsh tale. However, nothing is said of what her child is like, other than that it requires ointment in its eyes to have true sight of the fairy world - but this is common in tales of human midwives caring for fairy babies.
The child of a human/fairy marriage is often a culture hero. His parentage explains why he's such a great warrior. One Arapaho tale has two parts - one dealing with a woman who marries a star with tragic results, and the second part dealing with their son Star Boy, who becomes a culture hero.
In a Maori tale from New Zealand, a mermaid named Pania marries a human and bears a son named Moremore, who is completely hairless. His name means "bald." This son becomes a taniwha (serpent) or a shark and guards the local seas.
In a story recorded in More West Highland Tales by Campbell and McKay, a woman becomes pregnant apparently by a seal, reminiscent of selkie tales. She gives birth to a son "as hairy as a goat," whom she names MacCuain, the Son of the Sea. MacCuain sometimes goes into a horrible frenzy where his face is distorted, and plays a villainous role in the tale.
In the fairytale “Hans the Mermaid’s Son,” the main character is the son of a human and a mermaid. This is part of the Young Giant folktale type; Hans is the size of a large grown man when still a child, and has prodigious strength. He lacks any kind of stereotypical mer-attributes, having instead supernatural strength and size. (There are many tales of this type; sometimes, for instance, the Young Giant is the child of a woman and a bear.) Note that Hans is difficult for both his mortal father and magical mother to handle.
Option three: Offspring are normal humans, but inherit non-genetic otherworldly gifts
In "The Thunder Spirit's Bride," a tale from Rwanda, the children of the Thunder Spirit and a mortal woman are taught by their father "how to travel through the air on flashes of lightning, and they had a much more exciting life than the children of the earth, who could only walk and run."
The Mad Pranks and Merry Jests of Robin Goodfellow, was printed in 1628 but may have existed much earlier. Here Robin Goodfellow is the son of Oberon the fairy king and a human woman. Although a born prankster and a thief, Robin seems like a normal human - at least until Oberon reveals his parentage and grants him the ability to shapeshift. Oberon informs him,
"By nature thou has cunning shifts,
Which Ile increase with other gifts.
Wish what thou wilt, thou shalt it have;
And for to vex both fool and knave,
Thou hast the power to change thy shape,
To horse, to hog, to dog, to ape."
The phrasing in these stories leaves it unclear whether their powers are genetic or the result of teaching. The children may or may not have inherent skills, but either way, they require their fairy parent's instruction in order to use them.
There is one clear case where the children are apparently human, but learn fairy knowledge from their mother's teachings. Sir John Rhys recorded a Welsh tale of a fairy bride from the lake Llyn y Fan Fach. Her human husband was told never to strike her three times without cause, but over the years scolded or even just tapped her, and on the third time she vanished back into the lake - leaving three distraught sons, who often walked by the lake searching for her. And one day it worked - she appeared to her oldest son, Rhiwallon, and taught him and his brothers the art of healing, so that they became the famous Physicians of Myddfai.
Child Abandonment and DNA Dominance
Fairy wives hardly ever take their children along when they jump ship, but leave their husbands to care for any offspring they have. For practical story purposes, the children may remain so that they can tell their father what happened to their mother. In T. Crofton Croker's story of the Lady of Gollerus, the mermaid wife doesn't mean to abandon her children, but forgets them the moment she touches the water. (Despite this, her human husband never remarries and always insists that she must be being held against her will beneath the ocean, not understanding how she could possibly want to leave him or their children.)
This indicates that these children, although nominally hybrids, belong to the human world. Their father’s DNA is dominant. In a gender-flipped version, where a human woman is captured by an otherwordly husband and escapes, she still leaves her kids with him.
Francis James Child described different variations of a ballad with this theme. Sometimes the woman returns home with her children, but she may also leave them behind while she makes her escape, ignoring her husband when he tells her the children are crying for her. In one Danish version of "Agnes and the Merman," where when Agnes returns to the human world, her husband insists that they divide their five children evenly. In the worst custody arrangement of all time, the fifth one is split in half. (This is not the only tale where the supernatural husband turns violent towards their children when the mortal wife goes home; the same thing happens in an Italian tale called "The Satyr.") In another related ballad, the human woman has never seen her children, since they are always taken from her to live in the elf-hill. At the end, she is taken to the elf-hill and her children give her a drink which makes her forget her mortal life.
But sometimes the wife, whether human or fairy, does take her children along. In “Story of a Bird-Woman,” from Siberia, a goose-maiden bore her human husband two “real human children", but when she grew homesick, she contrived to take her children along. She begged help from the geese, who "plucked their wings and stuck feathers on the children's sleeves," so that they were able to fly away with their mother.
And according to Hasan el-Shamy in Folktales of Egypt, in a union between a man and a jinniyah, "children from such a marriage belong to the mother, never to their human father." John Rhys, in Celtic Folklore, mentions a man whose fairy wife and children vanished when he broke a promise by unknowingly touching iron.
In a tale from the Orkneys, Gem-de-Lovely the mermaid marries a human and bears seven children, then takes the whole family along when she returns to the sea. However, her mother-in-law brands the youngest child with a cross, blocking the merfolk from ever touching him, and he grows up on land as a powerful soldier who fights in the Crusades and makes a good marriage.
In the story of Melusine, her mother Pressyne actually does take her daughters from a mixed marriage with her when she flees. However, in the next generation, Melusine leaves her sons with their father. In some versions she comes back to nurse those who are still babies. That doesn't change that in some way, daughters share their mother's nature and native realm, while sons share their father's. Maybe this is just because Melusine's sons are more distantly related to the fairy realm. But there's another example that bears it up.
A romance of Richard the Lionheart explained his battle-prowess by saying that he was the son of a human king and a woman named Cassodorien, who had fairylike characteristics, echoing Melusine-style myths. In the story, when forced to attend Mass, Cassodorien flies out through the roof carrying her other son John and daughter Topyas. John falls and is injured, but Topyas is carried away with her mother and never seen again. Again - the son gets left behind, the daughter gets taken.
One of my favorite movies is the 2014 Irish animated film, Song of the Sea, which features two children (a boy and a girl) born of a human-selkie union. The boy is human like his father, while the girl is a selkie like her mother.
Sometimes the offspring of a human-fairy marriage are hybrids - humans with a touch of fairy ancestry, like the webbed-fingered kids in the selkie tale. However, more often they are either one or the other: all human, or all fairy. They typically take after their father's side of the family, at least in European myth, but there are occasional hints that their inheritance might be based on gender. If it's a human with special attributes, it's often because their fairy parent taught them a skill.
Sons are mentioned more frequently than daughters, and typically grow up to be great warriors or wise men. Divine or fairy heritage was used to establish political power or explain the backstory of a popular culture hero. Throughout history, incubi or gods were given as the fathers of figures like Seleucus, Plato, or Scipio the Elder. The houses of Lusignan and Plantagenet claimed ancestry from Melusine or her equivalent.
On the other hand, an unpopular person might be accused of being the offspring of a demon. See Bishop Guichard of Troyes in 1308, rumored to be the son of a human woman with a "neton." Also recall the Bellis clan, who would fight anyone who brought up their fairy background.
I don't think there is any commonly used name for these fairy hybrids- although I would love to hear if you've come across one.
Today, if you search around on the Internet, you may encounter the idea that Titania and Mab are opposing queens, representing Summer and Winter Courts or "Seelie and Unseelie" Courts. I've even found the claim that this is drawn from ancient legend - but is that true? There is also a common idea that Mab as queen of fairies is somehow older than Titania. In 1993, The New Encyclopaedia Britannica claimed that Mab's "place as queen of the fairies in English folklore was eventually taken over by Titania." The entry is misleading, as we will see that both Mab and Titania are Shakespeare's creations. If you go back to the source, Mab may not be a queen at all. It was in literature after Shakespeare that Mab usurped the place of the more regal and powerful Titania as Oberon's wife.
Around Shakespeare’s time - just before, and just after - fairy queen characters showed up under varied names: Gloriana, Chloris, Aureola, Caelia. Proserpina, or Persephone, was sometimes the leading lady. In grimoires, there were Micol and Sybillia. There was also the old medieval tradition of a queen of witches or fairies, who led her followers in a midnight revel traveling across the world. This figure might be known as Herodias, Diana, or a thousand variations.
However, perhaps most often, fairy queens were nameless figures. William Shakespeare changed that.
A Midsummer Night's Dream and Romeo and Juliet were both likely composed sometime in the mid-1590s. Which came first? That's up for debate. But it seems generally agreed that they were written within a few years of each other.
A Midsummer Night's Dream featured Oberon and Titania as godlike figures. Although their subjects were miniscule beings who tended flowers and could hide inside acorn cups, the rulers commanded the weather and hailed from far-flung realms like India. "Proud Titania" has human worshippers, and with her husband she holds sway over the four seasons. Her romances with humans imply that she is of roughly human scale.
The name "Titania" or "Titanis" appeared in Ovid's Metamorphoses as an epithet for several goddesses who were descendants of Titans. One "Titania" is Circe, a sorceress who transforms men into beasts. Another is Diana, who is called Titania while bathing in a woodland pond within a sacred grove. When a man sees her naked, she transforms him into a stag to be torn apart by his own hunting hounds. Both of these scenes are echoed in Shakespeare's character Bottom, whose head is switched for a donkey's, and with whom a magically roofied Titania falls in love.
Diana was a Roman goddess, equivalent to the Greek Artemis - goddess of the moon, the hunt, wild animals, and unwed girls. The wilderness and the night are both fitting associations for a fairy queen. However, it also brings to mind the medieval Diana as leader of a nighttime witches' revel. James VI's Daemonologie (1597) said that "Diana and her wandering court . . . amongst us is called Fairy . . . or our good neighbours."
Diana has ties to Hecate, and Hecate to Persephone. So Titania is a super-combo of classical and medieval references – Artemis, Circe, Hecate, Persephone. Goddesses of night, nature, the underworld, witchcraft, and transformation.
Titania is not the only reference here to Ovid; the play also features the story of Pyramus and Thisbe. Honestly, the play is set in the time of Greek myth and features the hero Theseus.
Romeo and Juliet featured a very different fairy queen. She does not appear onstage, but is described in jest. "Queen Mab" is "the fairies' midwife." She is also the "hag" who presses people as they sleep - making her a nightmare or succubus. Hag was a common name for this type of spirit.
Mab is a being on bug scale, who as a midwife brings forth not children, but dreams, sex dreams and nightmares. She does ride at night, like some older fairy queens, but her passage is through people's minds, "through lovers' brains." She is so tiny that her ride is not a rampage through forests and air, but over people’s lips or fingers. Her physical actions consist of tickling noses, tangling hair in knots, and delivering blisters or cold sores.
There have been numerous suggestions for Mab's etymology.
Mab is Welsh for "child," tying to her small size.
Mab comes from Medb or Maeve, an imposing warrior queen of Irish mythology. This is perhaps the most commonly cited explanation: Goddess-queen Medb evolved into Fairy Queen Mab.
Mab is connected to the medieval French "Domina Abundia" or "Dame Habonde." Her name means "Lady Abundance." According to William of Auvergne (d. 1249), Domina Abundia and her attendants were believed to enter houses at night and bless anyone who left out food for them - a lot like the Diana/Herodias figure. The M would have been added in the same way you get Ned from Edward, etc., or perhaps from "Dame Abonde" running together into one word.
Wirt Sikes wrote in 1880 that the queen of the Welsh ellyllon (tiny elves) was none other than Mab, and thus Shakespeare must have gotten Mab from "his Welsh informant."
Mab is short for "Amabilis," or lovable.
There is another option. Before Romeo and Juliet, there was a play titled The Historie of Jacob and Esau. This play, performed in 1558 and published in 1568, featured a midwife named Deborra, who is called a witch, a "heg" (hag), "Tib" (a typical name for lower-class English woman, used to mean girl, sweetheart, or prostitute), and finally Mab - "thou mother Mab... olde rotten witche."
Queen Mab is a hag and a midwife . . . just like Deborra. She is not a teeny-tiny Medb or Dame Abonde, but she is a teeny-tiny Deborra.
In fact, is Queen Mab a queen? Or is she a quean - a word for either a woman or a prostitute? This fits with the sexual innuendo throughout the passage. It also makes more sense than a member of royalty working at such a job as midwifery. Other than her title, she is not queenly in the slightest. She's identified as "the fairies' midwife," not "the fairies' queen." We do not see her in any kind of leadership role, as we do Titania. Jennifer Ailes even suggests that Mab is never directly identified as a fairy or a [royal] queen. She is just the fairies' midwife - and there is a large body of tales with titles like "The Fairy's Midwife," where fairies do not go to one of their own for help with childbirth, but to a human. Clearly Mab is not human, but just because she is the fairies' midwife does not mean she is a fairy herself.
In addition, "Mab" was a word for a slattern or dirty, unkempt woman, dating to the 1550s. Ailes suggests that "Mother Mab" was a traditional name for a witch, explaining why it was used for Deborra. Or maybe Mab was simply a nickname for a dirty, slovenly woman. So then, Queen Mab's name might be simply "Mistress Slattern" or "Mrs. Lazybones."
This “mab” could be derived from Mabel – much as the girls’ name Tib (possibly short for Isabel) gained similar connotations. In Elizabethan times, "Tom and Tib" were common names used to mean boy and girl, much like Jack and Jill. Tib became a generic word for girl, sweetheart or prostitute. Tib is another name used for Deborra. Incidentally, around the 1630s, a fairy named Tib shows up independently in the Mad Pranks and Merry Jests of Robin Goodfellow, and in the poem Nymphidia. Both Tibs are close to the leadership ranks – at least, Robin Goodfellow’s Tib is one of the chief female fairies, and Nymphidia’s Tib is one of the fairy queen’s maids of honor. Also, both Tibs are part of a team of fairies with rhythmic, monosyllabic names – “Sib and Tib, and Licke and Lull” in the first, and “Fib and Tib, and Pink and Pin, Tick and Quick,” etc., etc. in the second. So, two things: first, this was the fashion for fairy names at the time. Second, it was quite common for a generic human name to be applied to an otherworldly being. Another example is Thomas, seen as Tom Thumb, Tam Lin, Tom Tit Tot, and Thomas the Feary.
Shakespeare was the apparent tipping point in a huge fad of tiny fairies. Previously, fairies had been either human-scale or the size of children - the old Oberon, of Huon fame, was three feet tall. But now everyone was jumping on the bandwagon with flowery poetry about fairies who, unlike their folkloric ancestors, were practically jokes. They were far too small to be effectual at anything. They skipped about and hid inside flowers. Oberon remained as the fairy king. However, the goddess-like Titania did not accompany him. Instead, as Thomas Keightley said, Mab was such a hit that she "completely dethroned Titania." The wee lady called "Queen" who rode in a hazelnut-shell chariot was the only fitting empress for this generation of fairy.
The first known sign of this was in Ben Jonson's Entertainment at Althorp, presented to Queen Anne in 1603. In this performance, Queen Mab and her attendants welcome the queen. She is described as a prankster, like Shakespeare's Mab - she "rob[s] the dairy" and partakes in typical fairy mischief, but she also has regal associations. She is undeniably queen and ruler of the fairies. She pays homage to Anne as previous fairy queens did to her predecessor, Elizabeth. In a similar masque years before, fairy queen "Aureola" gave Elizabeth a flowery garland; in this one, stage directions call for Mab to give Anne a "jewel." In literature, Elizabeth was obeyed by and represented by fairy queens. Now it was Anne's turn.
Mab was not yet paired with Oberon, but that was soon to come - in "Nymphidia," a mock-epic poem by Michael Drayton, published in 1627. Here again we have Oberon and Puck running around with lots of furor over romance... but Oberon's queen is Mab. Many of the fairies in this play have cutesy monosyllabic names (like Tib); this may be why Drayton leaned towards Mab. Her name fit his style. Drayton also mentioned Mab in his work "The Muses Elyzium." Despite the comedy of their tiny size, there is still a touch of fear to the fairies, with reminders that Mab is really a succubus.
Robert Herrick followed suit in the 1620s and 1630s with many fairy poems. Oberon and Mab feature together in "The beggar to Mab, the Fairy Queen," and in the rather disturbing "Oberon's Palace." As in Nymphidia, there is an eerie sense with these fairies, whose palaces are crafted from the body parts of humans, animals and insects.
In following years, Mab continued to be a hit, appearing as Oberon's consort in:
Newcastle and Randolph give the longest descriptions of Mab and Oberon; the others are just brief mentions, with no explanations necessary, for Mab was familiar enough to their audiences as the Fairy Queen. As time went on, Mab continued to be instantly recognizable. She was mentioned in Peter Pan, for instance. Such is Mab's ubiquity that she could be the ancient, evil queen of the Old Magic in the 1998 TV miniseries Merlin, while also the benevolent monarch of the pixies in the 1999 film FairyTale: A True Story.
On that note, back to Titania. After her adventure in A Midsummer Night's Dream, her history was much less busy than Mab's. She didn't capture the popular mind the way Mab did. There were a few exceptions. She was the fairy queen in Dekker's work "The Whore of Babylon" in 1607, and in The Changeling, a 1622 play by Thomas Middleton and William Rowley. She also appeared in the heavily Shakespeare-based masque "The Fairy Favour" by Thomas Hull (1766).
Like Mab, Titania apparently made it into at least some oral folklore. In Thomas Pennant’s 1772 book Tour in Scotland, and voyage to the Hebrides, Titania is identified not only as queen of fairies and wife of Oberon, but as the “ben-shi,” literally “fairy woman,” who gave the MacLeod clan a blessed Fairy Flag.
She made a comeback as centuries passed, not really becoming popular until around the Victorian era, when she began regaining her status as Oberon's consort in literature and other media. She appeared in Christoph Martin Wieland’s 1780 poem Oberon, based on both the Midsummer Night’s Dream and the Huon narrative. This influential poem was adapted several times, including into an opera. She was also in the comic opera A Princess of Kensington (1903).
This was also the era when Titania and Mab both began showing up in the same stories. There was some waffling over whether the two were interchangeable.
"We have noticed the general name given to the queen of the fairies, that of Titania; we must not forget that she was sometimes called Mab," according to Henry Christmas, writing in 1841. John Ogilvie's Imperial Dictionary (1859) concludes that Oberon's "wife's name was Titania or Mab." An article in the 1910 Fortnightly Review questioned if Titania and Mab were the same being or not, but seemed to tend towards "yes."
In 1847, in The People's Journal, W. Cooke Stafford suggested that Mab was queen of "dark spirits" of the night, and Titania rules the "superior intelligences" (?) who do not fear sunlight. This is the closest I've seen so far to Mab and Titania being queens of dark and light or whatever.
According to The Century Dictionary in 1895, "Titania, the fairy queen, is not the same person" as Mab. Even more audacious, Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1898) listed Mab as “the faries’ [sic] midwife. Sometimes incorrectly called queen of the fairies."
On to Titania and Mab appearing in the same works:
The Sloane Manuscript 1727 (a 17th-century manuscript in the British Museum) includes a treatise on magic. Katharine Briggs quoted it describing the "treasures of the earth" as "florella, Mical, Tytan, Mabb lady to the queene." The queen whom "Mabb" serves may be Mical or Micol, who is called "regina pigmeorum" in the same book. Tytan and Mabb recall Titania and Mab. In particular, Titan, Titem and other variations were often invoked in grimoires.
In Thomas Hood's 1827 poem "The Plea of the Midsummer Fairies," both Mab and Titania make an appearance, and in 1876, both appeared in in the story "Titania's Farewell" in The Case of Mr Lucraft and Other Tales. In these tales, Mab is a queen, but apparently subordinate to Titania, who is the real queen bee. (Their positions are flipped in the 1913 play "A Good Little Devil" by Rosemond Gerard and Maurice Rostand, later turned into a film starring Mary Pickford.)
Titania and Mab were at odds for perhaps the first time in Camilla Crosland's 1866 children's book The Island of the Rainbow. Here Queen Titania is the wise and gracious queen of the fairies, while "Quean Mab" is a "little spiteful mischievous old Fairy - who, by the bye, must herself have put it into the heads of mortals that she was a Queen." Mab is actually on trial when she appears in the book. Of course by this point in time, being written for children, any good fairies must distance themselves from traditional fairy activities of spoiling milk or making mischief. Still, it seems a little ironic when Mab is the one accused of these crimes, while Puck is a humble servant to the morally upright Titania.
So what about Titania and Mab as leaders of opposing forces?
I think the idea has its basis in a new movement towards classifying all these folktales. Researchers in the 19th and 20th centuries - like William Butler Yeats, Wirt Sikes, and Katharine Mary Briggs - became concerned with categorizing fairies. This moved into fiction, as authors began breaking up fairies into categories. Good and evil. Light and dark. Seelie and unseelie (drawing on a Scottish fairy term meaning essentially "blessed people"). Or summer and winter.
As for Titania and Mab being the leaders: I tried to track this idea through published books. Here is what I have found:
The idea of opposing fairy courts known as Summer and Winter or Seelie and Unseelie has also become very prevalent in recent literature. I can think of multiple YA novel examples from the past 20 years.
Another common idea is that Mab was the first fairy queen, and that Titania is her successor. This has appeared in extra-canonical materials for the 90's TV show Gargoyles, as well as the novels God Save the Queen by Mike Carey (2009) and The Treachery of Beautiful Things by Ruth Long (2013).
To sum up: Titania and Mab as counterparts or enemies is a new idea. Both were created by Shakespeare around the same time, but served very different roles. They weren't even opposing roles - just unique. Titania, inspired by classical Greek goddesses, was a queenly nature deity. Mab, based on stereotypical English midwives and the idea of the nightmare demon, was a microscopic hag who delivered dreams instead of babies.
However, unlike Titania Mab entered popular culture from the beginning. She tied in better with fashions of the time. She even usurped Titania's place as Oberon's bride; he was the archetypal fairy king even before Shakespeare, and Mab became the archetypal fairy queen. I wonder if even royal themes at the time at something to do with it - Mab's name is the same number of syllables as Queen Anne, and one of Mab's most important early appearances was in a play for Anne. Meanwhile, Titania made a comeback around the time of Queen Victoria.
Today, the idea of the two Shakespearean fairy queens as rivals has been popularized by authors like Jim Butcher. Titania, who appears in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and who proclaims "The summer still doth tend upon my state" is the clear front-runner for summer (even though she really oversees all seasons). For a counterpart, why not Mab, who is equally Shakespearean and has associations with nightmares and mischief?
Do you know of other sources where Titania and Mab are either the same person, or diametrically opposed? Leave a comment!
None of Shakespeare's stories are original. They are all products of their time. The character of his fairy king Oberon, for instance, can be traced to cultural trends of the time. Alberich was originally a character from German mythology, a treasure-guarding dwarf who opposes Siegfried in the Nibelungenlied - an epic from around 1200, based in oral tradition. He was a prominent character aiding the hero of the epic Ortnit, around 1230. In Norse his name was Alfrikr, and in Old French, Alberon or Auberon.
As Oberon, he appeared in Huon of Bordeaux, a work possibly completed from around 1216 to 1268. Here, he is a hunchback, three feet tall, but very beautiful (having been cursed by a miffed fairy godmother, not unlike Sleeping Beauty). He rules a city named Momur and comes to the aid of the hero, Huon. This chanson de geste, or song of heroic deeds, was widely circulated, translated and adapted throughout Europe. Oberon was occasionally connected to Morgan le Fey at this point in his history. In the Roman d'Auberon, a later addition to the Huon story, he was her son.
A 1543 translation by John Bourchier popularized the story of Huon in English. There was also a play adaptation, Hewen of Burdoche, produced in 1593, which would have popularized the name.
In 1589, the writer Edmund Spenser presented Queen Elizabeth with the first three books of his master work, The Faerie Queene. Spenser represented Elizabeth in several flatteringly portrayed nobles and heroines. One of them is the fairy queen Gloriana, daughter of Oberon (who, in this allegory, stands for Henry VIII). The book even references Huon in connection.
Then there was "The Scottish Historie of James the Fourth, Slaine at Flodden Entermixed with a Pleasant Comedie, Presented by Oboram King of Fayeries." This play was written about 1590 by Robert Greene, but not printed until 1598. The title is apparently a mistake, as the fairy king is referred to as "Oberon" or "Aster Oberon" in the actual play. [EDIT 8/13/2020 – Upon further research, “Aster” is an error originating in the stage directions and should be “After.” Oberon does not have an extra forename in the play itself.]
In 1591, on tour, Elizabeth was greeted by a performance formally titled “The Honorable Entertainment given to the Queen’s Majesty in a Progress, At Elvetham in Hampshire, by the Right Honorable Earl of Hereford." This was a masque, a form of courtly entertainment heavy on flattery, addressed to Elizabeth as she watched. In the play, classical Greek gods and nymphs practically worshiped her. Amidst dancing, music, and elaborate set pieces, an actress portraying Fairy Queen "Aureola" presented Elizabeth with a flowery garland from "Auberon, the Fairy King."
In 1595 or 1596, Shakespeare brought out A Midsummer Night's Dream, making Oberon and Titania the quintessential fairy royalty forevermore.
Or Oberon, anyway. Although he was apparently firmly fixed in people's minds as the Fairy King, it seems this may not have been due to Shakespeare. Titania did not yet enjoy the same status. While other poets did use Oberon as a fairy king, they often gave him a different queen.
The play "The Fairy Pastoral" by William Percy (1603), intended for King James, portrays Oberon ruling over a realm named Obera, overseeing other fairy princes like Orion and princesses like Hypsiphyle. There are strong similarities to A Midsummer Night's Dream in plot and setting as well as some lines. But Oberon's wife is Chloris - a fairy queen "stickt with Flowres all her body." Chloris is the name of a Greek nymph or goddess associated with flowers and spring.
In 1627, Michael Drayton's poetry including the comedic Nymphidia made Oberon truly comedic - an ineffectual bumbler of microscopic size whose wife Mab is running around behind his back. The fae here are no longer threatening even in the slightest. Notice that Mab is still Shakespearean, although from a different play. Drayton may have used the name of a different Shakespeare fairy because it fit better with the cutesy monosyllabic names he chose for his fairy court - "Fib and Tib, and Pinch and Pin, Tick and Quick, and Jil and Jin, Tit and Nit, and Wap and Win." Also, Shakespeare's Mab better fits with the extreme miniature of the Nymphidia poem. Mab was by far the most popular fairy queen in the years following Shakespeare.
In other cases, Oberon appeared with no apparent wife in tow. As "Obron," he shows up in "The Parliament of Bees," a poem by John Day written probably between 1608 and 1616 and published in 1641. Here he is not only king of the fairies, but also ruler over the bees. Given that he goes fox-hunting, he is evidently larger than Draytonian fae.
Oberon - or “Obreon” - featured in a tract titled "Robin Goodfellow: his mad prankes, and merry Jests." Here, his only apparent significant other was an unnamed human woman, with whom he fathered Robin Goodfellow. Although the surviving copy was dated 1628, collector James Halliwell-Phillipps believed that it had been printed before, and that it could predate Shakespeare’s writing.
Laura Aydelotte points out that in Germanic epics, the Huon cycle, and A Midsummer Night's Dream, common threads connect Alberich and Oberon. The character consistently serves to bring lovers together, and is also frequently said to be from India or the East. Oberon's mixed role lets him play a kindly helper, a trickster, and a regal otherworldly ruler.
However, Oberon had another side as well. Even while used in popular English literature - often to flatter or parody English royalty - a near-identical name appeared in books of witchcraft, as Oberion or Oberyon.
Monk-turned-amateur diviner William Stapleton confessed to calling up the spirits of "Andrew Malchus, Oberion and Inchubus" in hopes of finding buried treasure. Oddly, Oberion refused to speak when summoned; Stapleton claimed this was because the spirit was already bound to Cardinal Wolsey. The date of Stapleton's trial is unclear, but he lived until 1544. In 1568, Sir William Stewart of Luthrie and Sir Archibald Napier faced charges of (among other things) calling upon a spirit named Obirion to divine the future. Emma Wilby listed "Oberycon" as the name of a witch's familiar in her book Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits.
In 1613, a pamphlet was printed entitled "The severall notorious and lewd Cousenages of John West and Alice West" - a couple of con artists who duped people with promises of riches, not unlike a Nigerian Prince scam except their Nigerian Prince was fairy royalty, sometimes portrayed by accomplices in costume. Oberon's name is mentioned as king of the fairies in Chapter 2, and the Wests' targets seemed eager to believe that Oberon and his queen were both real and ready to contact them.
One grimoire that mentioned Oberion was the Liber Officiorum Spirituum, or Book of the Office of Spirits, dating to the 1500s. When drawn, he sometimes resembled a kind of floating genie. He was sometimes accompanied by a fairy queen named Mycob - as in Sloane MS 3824 (1649), where they are the "supreme head" over "Those Kind of Terrestrial spirits ... vulgarly Called of all people generally Fairies or Elves." There are also seven "sisters" who some readers have interpreted as Oberion and Mycob's daughters. Might Mycob be a form of Mab? Perhaps, but the name also appears as Micol or Michel. Tytan or Titem, similar to Titania, is also an occasional personage in these grimoires.
Oberion, who appeared crowned and regal, knew secrets of the natural world - including where to locate buried treasure or turn invisible. In Arthur Gauntlet's grimoire, from the 17th century, he had lieutenants: Scorax, Carmelyon, Caberyon, and Seberyon. Spellings abounded. Spelling variants were common. By 1796 in the Wellcome MS 4669, a French manuscript, Arthur Gauntlet's spells appeared with Oberion replaced by Ebrion (see Rankine, Grimoire).
However, this Oberion sometimes seems more associated with demons than with fairies. In one manuscript, Oberion is listed with Lucipher and Satan on one page, while Mycob and fairy beings are kept to a separate page. Oberion is the pivotal point where demons are followed by fairies.
Contrast the Oberon of A Midsummer Night's Dream, who - when warned that dawn approaches and the evil spirits and ghosts are hurrying to hide from the light - responds rather defensively, "But we are spirits of another sort." He does not fear the light. He's a powerful being with control over nature, but not an evil spirit. Similarly, Huon's Oberon must specifically say, "I was never devyll nor yll creature." He also speaks such Christian exclamations as "God keepe you all!" Upon his death, he is "borne in to paradyce by a great multytude of angelles sent fro our lord Iesu chryst." Both Oberons are carefully distanced from sorcery and witchcraft. If not saintly Christians, they are at least good spirits.
There was interplay between the fairies of witchcraft and the fairies of literature. They may have diverged, but still continued to influence each other. Oberon/Oberion is not the only fairy to also sort of appear in spells. Numerous variations of Robin (as in Robin Goodfellow) appeared as the names of reputed witches’ familiars. Emma Wilby connected a number of familiars to fairies – such as Hob/Hobgoblin, Browning/Brownie), and Piggin/Pigwiggin.
Sybillia (also Sibyl or Sebile) was a sorceress, fay and temptress in medieval legend from Britain to Italy. She even appears in the Huon cycle as Syble, one of Oberon's subject rulers. Like Oberon, she also made it quite a few grimoires. Sibylia was listed among fairy queens by Reginald Scot in the Discovery of Witchcraft (1584); Scot even parodied a spell to summon this fairy lady.
Overall, my favorite thing that I've learned about Oberon while working on this post is the probably origin of his name. Alberich or Alfrikr translates to alf (elf) + ric (ruler or mighty). Oberon is a French diminutive. So the archetypal fairy king has a name that translates literally to "Fairy King."
"The Name of the Helper" is the title assigned to the Aarne-Thompson type 500 family of fairytales. The main character is usually a young woman, confronted with an impossible task of spinning. She must produce a ridiculous amount of thread, or even spin it into gold. There’s no way for her to do it, until she receives otherworldly help from a strange being. However, she must now guess this creature’s name (hence the title of the tale type). Rumpelstiltskin is the most famous example, but there are many others, usually nonsense names, perhaps with a rhyme or repetitive rhythm. In Celtic countries, the helper’s name nearly always includes the syllable “tot” or “trot.” I have a theory on where this syllable came from, but first, the list:
Habetrot is interesting in that she has a whole group of associates, one of whom has the name Scantlie Mab (harkening to Queen Mab). There's a possibly connection from Habetrot to Holle, Perchta and other European goddesses associated with spinning. This goddess, who appears in many variants with hundreds of names, can be benevolent or fearsome. She usually travels at night with a group of attendants, entering houses where offerings of food should be waiting. She might be a tutelary guardian who helps women spin, or a bogeywoman who punishes them for spinning on the wrong day. The very word "fairy" might be tied to "fata" or "fate," beings in mythology who spun the thread of life.
In French, a related character bore the name Dame Abonde or Lady Habundia, meaning "abundance." She and her attendants, the good ladies, entered houses at night.
Follow this, and a character like Habetrot must be a deity associated with textiles, who leads a group of otherworldly ladies, and watches over young women.
However, the majority of the Tot/Trot family is male. They cannot be tutelary goddesses. They also tend to be malevolent. Habetrot's name may be a later addition to the Habetrot story, which is less related to Rumpelstiltskin and instead belongs to the family of "The Three Aunts" (Norway) and "The Three Spinning Women" (Germany). In these stories, rather than any baby-stealing plot, several strange-looking but kind old women (three of them, just like the Fates in Greek myth) help the heroine attain a happy marriage and a leisurely life. They ask nothing in return for their help, and remain unnamed, as there is no need to find out their names. There is a scene where the girl overhears Habetrot's name, but it's really not important to the story. Incidentally, "Habetrot" resembles "Habundia" with the "trot" sound added on, and both are benevolent fairy ladies who lead a train of followers.
Plenty of people have already looked at the "tot/trot" family. W. B. Yeats' "Even Trot" (who, like Habetrot, is benevolent) gives a very literal and moralizing translation: "Go steadily along, but let your step be even; stop little; keep always advancing; and you'll never have cause to rue the day that you first saw Even Trot."
Sir John Rhys, inspecting Welsh variants, connected Sili go Dwyt to seily or seely - happy or blessed - connected with the Seelie Court or seely wights, old fairy names. Although "go Dwyt" could literally mean tidy, Rhys suggests that the dwt came from twt or tot. Although Trwtyn-Tratyn is a masculine name, Rhys finds the word trwtan or trwdlan to mean a deformed serving maid. From Gwarwyn-a-throt, he translated gwarwyn as "white-necked" and throt as connected to trot. Trot and twt, says Rhys, are not native Welsh words - but I don't think he offers any real theory on what they do mean.
R. Morton Nance did have at theory. Based on Mollyndroat possibly meaning a druid's servant, Nance suggested that the Icelandic Gillitrut means "druid's gillie" (a ghillie being a servant). So a droat, trot or trut is a druid.
I would take a different approach. Going back to England, the Denham Tracts list of monsters and bogeys includes two intriguing names: gally-trots and tutgots.
A gally-trot is a frightening apparition in Suffolk folklore. Edward Moor wrote that it was an apparition known in Woodbridge, which sometimes appeared as a white dog as big as a bullock, and chased people. It especially haunted a place called Bathslough. Moor declares that he "can make nothing of the name; nor much of the story." (Suffolk Words and Phrases, 1823). "Gally" means to scare or worry (hence the word gally-beggar, or scarecrow). The “trot” part is less clear – perhaps because it runs at people. One English bogey-spirit of the “black dog” family is called Padfoot for the sound of its walk, so maybe this is a common idea.
Could there be a connection from the gally-trot to Gilitrutt?
As for tutgots: Tut-gut, along with tut and tom-tit, were Lincolnshire words for a hobgoblin. Tutgot may be interpreted as tut-gotten, or taken away by the fairies and goblins. (Brogden, Provincial Words and Expressions current in Lincolnshire.) (So if a tom-tit is a goblin, is Tom Tit Tot literally named "Goblin" by this reckoning? That seems a bit on-the-nose for a story about an impossible guessing game.)
The English Dialect Dictionary quotes a story where a man was spooked on the road by a glimpse of something white, and remarked, "I thowt I'd happened of a tut" - or, "I thought I'd run into a tut." Pishey Thompson, in The History and Antiquities of Boston, mentions a "hobgoblin, or sprite" known as the "Spittal Hill tut" who took the form of a horse, and would harass and chase away anyone who passed by Spittal Hill. It might have been the site of a murder, or maybe the creature was guarding treasure.
So then, a tut or trot is a bogey-beast, a white apparition which takes animal form and chases people. In the case of both the gally-trot and the Spittal Hill tut, there is a particular place which it likes to haunt. The Spittal Hill tut in particular lives at a hill where either a body or treasure could be buried, like a burial mound.
You might say that the Rumpelstiltskin fairy also has a particular haunt; the hero must find out the name by following the fairy back to his or her home, usually out in a forsaken wild place and often subterranean. Habetrot lives in a cavern and Titty Tod beneath a fairy mound. Was the tut or the trot a hobgoblin which inspired these characters?
Is this a fairy name with a forgotten root? Where does the shared ancestor lie in all these names? Two suggestions appear to me.
One is that it is derived from "tot," a word for a little child, which may come from Scottish. Maybe it is related to the Icelandic word tottr, or dwarf. Compare also the Danish name Tommeltot, used for the Danish thumbling. (In England, Tom Thumb and the possibly related Tom Tumbler appear as monsters in Reginald Scot's Discovery of Witchcraft (1584), and Tom Thumb in his earliest appearances is associated with fairyish and demonic traits.)
Tom Tit Tot is close to the bird name tomtit, which itself is a shortened version of "tom titmouse." One sense of the word "tit," like "tot," is used for anything small, and is a common name for small birds. So then, perhaps, Tom Tit Tot means Tom Little Little. The character in question is "a small little black thing with a long tail." That would fit, as would the frequent description of Rumpelstiltskin characters as little men and little women.
But in some cases, like Mollyndroat's, the Rumpelstiltskin figure is a giant. That doesn't fit.
Maybe trot is the way to go instead. "Totter" also means an uneven walk, bringing "tot" back in. Could this be a reference to the fairy having a strange walk?
There are many different types of otherworldly creatures in folklore and myth, but there is a consistent thing about their feet. They have deformed legs, backwards feet, or inverted knees. The Brazilian Curupira and Ghanaian mmoatia are described with feet affixed backward. The henkies of Shetland and the Orkney Islands were trolls who would "henk," or limp, when they danced. Fauns of Greek mythology were goat-legged and hoofed. They lent this trait to Puck and to popular depictions of the Devil. Also from Greek myth, sirens were depicted as everything from human-headed birds to women with bird feet. This is another surviving trait. Jacob Grimm mentioned a group of dwarfs who wore long cloaks covering their feet; when someone sprinkled ashes on the ground to catch their footprints, it was discovered that the dwarves had the feet of ducks and geese.
Jacob Grimm, seeking evidence of a Germanic goddess named Berhta or Perchta, found many variants on the name "Bertha with the foot" - "Berte as grans pies," "Baerte met ten breden voeten," as well as the idea of a goddess-like figure with a bird's foot. The goddess Perchta is often described with one mismatched foot - either too large, or the foot of a goose. Grimm decided that "It is apparently a swan maiden's foot, which as a mark of her higher nature she cannot lay aside (any more than... the devil his horse hoof) and at the same time the spinning-woman's splayfoot that worked the treadle."
A god or goddess associated with spinning might very well have odd feet and an unusual gait. Rumpelstiltskin types are often described to walk around or pedal at a wheel when spinning. Dancing is also a frequent activity for them. Rumpelstiltskin is caught saying his name while "jumping about as if on one leg." Terrytop and his friends dance with a clattering noise "as if they had on each foot a pewter platter." The kindlier Habetrot is found "walking backwards and forwards" spinning with her distaff. She and all of her attendants are deformed from the work of spinning nonstop all their lives.
In "The Three Spinning Women," “[t]he first [woman] had a broad flat foot, the second one had such a large lower lip that it hung down over her chin, and the third one had a broad thumb.” They attribute these traits to peddling, licking and twisting thread.
So the name might be based on "tot," for a little creature, a dwarf ("tottr"). Or it could be "trot" or "totter," meaning that the creature is an otherworldly being with strange feet or one splayfoot. Or something entirely different! Somehow I doubt that it is derived from "druid," but I could be wrong. There's also a German nightmare spirit named a "drude" or "trute." The word "trot" has been used to mean old woman.
I, for one, enjoy the idea that the tot or tut was a now-forgotten English hobgoblin, and that was how people came up with the names of Tom Tit Tot, Habetrot, the gally-trot, and others. Being "tutgot," or taken by tuts, was a worrying prospect, and indeed, Terrytop and Tom Tit Tot are eager to carry off young maidens for dark purposes. Tut or trot would be a root word, much like Puck with Puck-hairy and nisse-puk, and Hob with Hobgoblin, hobby-lantern and hobbit. Incidentally, the roots of both Puck and Hob are mysterious, too ancient to truly determine.
However, I try to be wary of tying words together based on a surface resemblance, so I'll leave it at the basics. There is a widespread folktale type where a fairy's name must be uncovered. In Celtic countries that name usually includes the stem "tot," "trot," "top," "tod," or something similar, to the point where this concept has merged into other stories - like Habetrot, who is quite different from Rumpelstiltskin, and Gwarwyn a Throt, whose story is otherwise just random antics of a brownie-like house fairy.
Despite the fact that this fairy is associated with spinning - traditionally a feminine activity - he is generally male. He is also generally evil, wanting to steal away human women and children. If female, the character is slightly more likely to be benevolent—perhaps bleeding into the archetype of Perchta and Holle—but that's not a hard and fast rule.
Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.