Time for another examination of an obscure fairy legend! Who is the character "Nanny Button-cap"? Is there a real tradition to be found here?
The name "Nanny Button-cap" first appeared in Sidney Oldall Addy's Glossary of Words Used in the Neighborhood of Sheffield, published in 1888 for the English Dialect Society. Addy says only that “Nanny Button-cap” is “the name of a fairy” and that “The following lines are repeated by children”:
The moon shines bright,
The stars give light,
And little Nanny Button-cap
Will come to-morrow night.
After this nursery rhyme, Addy includes a note on the Norse goddess Nanna, who he describes as a moon goddess. This would tie in well with a nighttime fairy associated with moon and stars, and the implication is that the goddess Nanna is the source of the fairy Nanny.
The problem is, it’s actually not clear what Nanna was the goddess of. Her role was simply being wife to the god Baldr. She is certainly credited by various sources as a moon deity, but this may have been confusion with the Mesopotamian Nanna (who is a male moon deity) as well as various other similarly-named deities like Inanna. For his information on Nanna, Addy cites Viktor Rydberg's Teutonic Mythology – specifically, a section which is mainly conjecture and hypothesis. Addy does not include any of this context, making it sound like an accepted fact.
The link from Nanna to Nanny is equally suspicious, reeking of the approach that anything with a similar sound must be the same word.
Anyway, the nursery rhyme was reprinted in various books. It appeared in phonetic dialect in "Yorkshire Dialect Poems (1673-1915) and traditional poems," by F. W. Moorman (1917), and was credited as anonymous in Tom Tiddler's Ground: A Book of Poetry for Children (1932).
At the same time, Nanny Button-cap's name began to appear in a few lists of fairies. In 1913, Elizabeth Mary Wright wrote:
“It is difficult to classify all the supernatural beings known to dialect lore, otherwise than very roughly, for even a cursory glance at the whole mass of superstitions and fancies regarding them shows that there is great confusion of idea between fairies and witches, bogies and goblins... The following may, however, rank as Fairies...”
Among various other beings, she lists Nanny Button-cap, and reprints the nursery rhyme as given by Addy.
There follows a clear trail of one person quoting another. In 1976, Katharine Briggs - citing Wright - mentioned the character in her Dictionary of Fairies as “A little West Yorkshire spirit. Not much is known about her, but she is a good fairy.”
Briggs’ only other contribution was to categorize the character under the Aarne-Thompson motif F403, which refers to helpful spirits. Other creatures Briggs listed were “brownie,” “lazy Laurence,” and “seelie court.”
Next was Carol Rose in Spirits, Fairies, Gnomes, and Goblins: An Encyclopedia of the Little People. Rose cited Briggs, but went rogue with a totally new description:
"This is the name of a fairy or nursery spirit in the folklore of Yorkshire, England. She behaves in much the same way as Wee Willie Winkie, ensuring that all young children are safe and warm in their beds, ready to go to sleep." (p. 231)
Where on earth did this come from? It bears no resemblance to Briggs' description. The song is about moon and stars and nighttime, but why would a fairy that brings sleep be described as coming tomorrow night? Wouldn't she be there every night? (Compare Wee Willie Winkie, whose rhyme takes place in the present tense - "it's past ten o' clock.")
I am also skeptical that Wee Willie Winkie was ever a fairy. However, that at least did come from Briggs, who connected the nursery rhyme to a Lancashire sleep-personification named Billy Winker. Nonetheless, Rose's version of Nanny Button-cap is out there in the cultural consciousness now. Ah, Dictionary of Fairies, mother of a thousand misunderstandings.
Nanny Button-cap's most unique claim to fame was appearing in the 1997 film FairyTale: A True Story, played by Norma Cohen. There was also a tie-in doll line, and Nanny was part of the "Royal Collection," which came in more elaborate boxes with more accessories. The white, blonde doll was dressed in a gauzy white outfit and butterfly headdress. The box explains that "This merry little fairy skips about the glen tidying the flowers! From the sparkle in her eye to the shimmer in her wings, Nanny Buttoncap’s goodness shines through! Mirth and merriment are the gifts she shares! If you’re very lucky, you may glimpse her as she sweetly dances on the honeysuckle blossoms."
The description of her "goodness" makes me think this was also drawn from Briggs.
Going back to the beginning: there’s nothing to indicate why Addy categorized Nanny Button-cap as a fairy. All he provides are (a) a nursery rhyme with no obvious fairy connections and (b) a painfully forced connection to the Norse goddess Nanna. It’s possible he based this entry on personal knowledge or stories he had heard. Maybe it’s just one of those things people accept but that’s not necessarily explicit in the rhyme, like Humpty Dumpty being an egg. But Addy didn’t give any details, so we have nothing to work with except his say-so.
A few details about Nanny Button-cap are comparable to fairy stories. She is "little" and associated with nighttime. Fairies are often described wearing caps, and in some stories grabbing their caps can even put them in a human's power. Some fairies have hat names, like the Anglo-Scottish redcaps, Scottish thrummy-caps, or German hodekin (“little hat”).
"Button Cap's room" was a reputedly haunted room in a Northamptonshire house. 19th-century clergyman Charles Kingsley stayed there as a child, and years later, in 1864, he described the spirit Button Cap as the ghost of a dishonest and greedy man who wore "a cap with a button on it.” This Button Cap was a poltergeist who would roll barrels around in the cellar but return them all to their places by morning.
As for the Nanny Button-cap nursery rhyme itself, the couplet about the moon and stars appears in several other songs as well. There are probably many more, but here are three that stood out to me:
One old English song with many variants begins:
The Moon shines bright, and the Stars give light,
A little before it was day,
A Christmas version continues:
Our Lord, our God, he called on us,
And bid us awake and pray.
Alternately, a version associated with Maying runs:
So God bless you all, both great and small
And send you a joyful May.
There's also a song titled "The Mermaid," about a group of sailors who encounter a mermaid and are lost in a storm -
Oh, the moon shines bright, and the stars give light;
Oh, my mother'll be looking for me;
She may look, she may weep, she may look to the deep,
She may look to the bottom of the sea. (Hayes 15)
Finally there's an esoteric 1831 novel, Raphael's Witch!!! Or the Oracle of the Future, which features a "Fairy Song."
When the moon shines bright,
When the stars give light,
When the meadows are green,
When the glow-worm is seen...
The chorus runs:
Then we fairies appear,
And roam far and near,
Till the day-star is near!
Unfortunately, this doesn't tell us much. The moon/stars couplet does seem to be old, but it's also an obvious rhyme.
So, is Nanny Button-cap a survival of an ancient Norse moon goddess? Absolutely not.
Is Nanny Button-cap a personification of sleep? No.
Is Nanny Button-cap a fairy from the folklore of Yorkshire? . . . Maybe? Lacking any other information from Addy, we're kind of stuck. Personally, I'm skeptical. If you have any information, comment below!
The wulver is occasionally listed as a type of werewolf from the folklore of Shetland. However, it really has nothing to do with werewolves or shapeshifters. It's something quite different - more like a man with a wolf's head. The wulver has made it into encyclopedias such as Katharine Brigg’s Dictionary of Fairies, but all the sources can be tracked to just one single book: Jessie Saxby's Shetland Traditional Lore, published in 1932. As with other folklore creatures I've looked at, this kind of dead end is a bad sign. Is the wulver truly from folklore, or is it a new creation?
I read a copy of the 1974 edition of Saxby's book. At least in this edition, she did not quote or cite anyone, and did not include a bibliography. Rather, these were accounts she personally collected: "During a long lifetime I have been gathering such traditions and folk-lore as still exist in Shetland."
Even in this context, she rarely names her informants or gives any details on where or when she collected stories. She seemed disinterested in such practices, writing that "I could not follow any systematic arrangement, and I am not a scholarly person to sift and clear up fragments of our Lore until all the mystical charm of the subject has blown away. My compatriots will take what I give them kindly, and ask for no dry, though learned, explanations of what has lived in their souls since childhood" (pp. 5-6).
The beginning of the Trows chapter touches on Saxby's collection methods:
I being the ninth child of a ninth child was supposed to be within privileged lines, and therefore got a good deal of information from members of certain families.
One old man, a joiner and a boat-builder, who had married the daughter of a very noted witch, used to tell me long tales as I sat beside him when he was building a boat for my brothers. I was then a girl of twelve, with imagination running riot to hold all it got. (p. 127)
This gave me instant flashbacks to Ruth Tongue. Like Tongue, Saxby claims that something about her birth gave her special status (specifically, as a psychic), allowing her to gain information that others could not. In addition, she is recounting stories that she originally heard years ago, in childhood. However, while Tongue's account of her birth was apparently incorrect, records indicate that Saxby really was was the ninth of eleven children, and her father was the youngest of at least eight children. She and her family had many stories of psychic premonitions.
The wulver appears on page 141, in the chapter “Trows and their Kindred.”
The Wulver was a creature like a man with a wolf’s head. He had short brown hair all over him. His home was a cave dug out of the side of a steep knowe, half-way up a hill. He didn’t molest folk if folk didn’t molest him. He was fond of fishing, and had a small rock in the deep water which is known to this day as the “Wulver’s Stane.” There he would sit fishing sillaks and piltaks for hour after hour. He was reported to have frequently left a few fish on the window-sill of some poor body.
This chapter had previously appeared as two articles in the Shetland Times in January 1930. The section including the wulver was published as "Trows and Their Kindred, Part II" on January 11, 1930. The text is identical - except that it is spelled in the original version as "Wullver."
There are no citations in either the book or the newspaper article. And no older books mention the wulver. The Scottish Cave and Mine Database mentions the creature's cave dwelling and the Wulver's Stane, but states "So far the location of either the cave on the hillside or the Wulver's Stane remains unknown." This is not promising.
Wulvers in Shetland Place-Names
Saxby mentioned the wulver indirectly in one earlier work: an article titled "Sacred Sites in a Shetland Isle."
"Everywhere one finds the steedes of circular walls. All such places were regarded as 'trowie'--associated with the mysteries of the spirit world. They were haunted, or holy, or horrible, or health-giving--Helyabrun, Crusafiel, Wullver's Hool, Henkiestane, etc., names linked with the unseen and the unknown." (The Antiquary, 1905, p. 138)
So what is Wullver's Hool? (Note the double L, same as the original newspaper article.)
The linguist Jakob Jakobsen spent the years 1893-1895 researching remnants of the Norse language in Shetland, and wrote several books drawing on his research. In his 1897 book The Dialect and Place Names of Shetland, Jakobsen theorized that the names Wulvershool/Wilvershool and Wulhool/Wilhool were derived from the Norse word álfr (“elf”). Hool (or houll) is from the Norse hóll (“hill”). Thus, elf-hill. Supporting this, one of the locations he listed was also known as “de fairy-knowe,” and another was Bokie Brae (Bogie Hill). (Another writer, Gilbert Goudie, noted that the second location had been levelled during road construction.)
There are a wealth of similar names around Shetland. The names are usually applied to hills, or cairns of burnt stones, which in general are often associated with fairies or older religion.
And there are other Will Houlls, not listed here, which might have been duplicates or which didn't have enough information for me to tell. "Will" seems more common than "wull" in modern spelling. However, the alternate names imply that an otherworldly theme was associated with these locations.
The place-names also have a direct personal connection to Jessie Saxby. After many years abroad, now a successful author and a widow whose children were starting families of their own, Saxby returned to her childhood home to settle down. The Shetland Times announced in April 1898 that "A house is being put up for Mrs Saxby on the side of the hill at the side of the voe, which will command a splendid view of the harbour and surrounding district." This single-story stone cottage became known as Wullver's Hool; the name was in use by at least 1899.
The house still exists and is still known by that name. I have not found any details on how it was named. Was it built on the "Wulvershool" described by Jakobsen in 1897, just a year before Saxby's house began construction? Or was it named after it? Saxby clearly associated the name and the place with the ancient and supernatural. A 2018 biography of Saxby also made reference to the idea that "the setting of Wullver's Hool makes it vulnerable to trow intrusions," as it is on a hillside (Snow 312).
Categorizing the Wulver
With similar words ranging from alfar to elf, auf, or ouph, it’s not hard to imagine a jump from "elf" to "wulv" (and thence to wulver). The folklore of Shetland has often been compared and connected to Scandinavia, especially the Faroe Islands, Iceland, and Norway. A confusion with “wolf” could have led to the image of the wolf-like spirit.
And wulvers aren't as different from elves as it might seem at first glance. Otherworldly spirits, including some in the fairy category, are often hirsute. See the Roman satyr, medieval pilosus ("hairy one"), Middle English woodwose, German schrat, and Gaelic gruagach ("long-haired"). Hairiness is a common trait for wild men, hobgoblins, and house spirits alike. The Scottish brownie, according to Thomas Keightley, "is a personage of small stature, wrinkled visage, covered with short curly brown hair." (The wording is almost exactly the same as the wulver with his "short brown hair"). There's an idea that elves are small, but some brownie-style creatures may have been giants, and Saxby never actually mentions the wulver's height. Not all brownies worked indoors; the Fenodyree (possibly "hairy stockings") threshed corn and herded sheep.
Similar to the brownie was the uruisg, a more introverted Scottish fairy which preferred to live outside in streams and waterfalls but might still lend its services to humans. Sir Walter Scott described the urisk as a cave-dwelling satyr. Alexander Carmichael, in 1900, described the uraisg as "half-human, half-goat, with abnormally long hair, long teeth, and long claws." Other sources simply described it as a hairy, bearded man. One urisk, the Peallaidh ("hairy one"), shared its name with a river.
The wulver has been miscast as a werewolf, when it’s actually something more similar to a brownie or uruisg! Saxby categorized it among trows or trolls to begin with.
We have evidence that the word "wullver" was around as part of a place name, that the many Will Houlls may be related, and that there may be some relation to elves, fairies, and bogies. I think it's also significant that Saxby typically used the spelling "wullver." She seems to have only used the one-L spelling on one occasion, and I’m wondering whether that was unintentional. I think it should also be emphasized that the wullver - as described by Saxby - is not a werewolf, but a sprite similar to a brownie.
However, the wullver still lacks provenance. We still have only Jessie Saxby's account towards a tradition of a fishing wolf-man, which was our problem in the first place.
I wonder if some of these hard-to-find stories were simply told once by a single family, a bedtime story made up on the fly, and not necessarily a "Tradition." All the same, when they were written down, the distinction was lost and they ended up being categorized as widespread folk traditions.
The Vita Merlini is a Latin poem written around 1150, probably by Geoffrey of Monmouth. This poem has, among other things, one of the earliest mentions of Morgan le Fay and Avalon. She is not Arthur's sister, but an otherworldly healer who carries him away after his death. She is one of nine sisters.
The island of apples which men call “The Fortunate Isle” gets its name from the fact that it produces all things of itself; the fields there have no need of the ploughs of the farmers and all cultivation is lacking except what nature provides. Of its own accord it produces grain and grapes, and apple trees grow in its woods from the close-clipped grass. The ground of its own accord produces everything instead of merely grass, and people live there a hundred years or more. There nine sisters rule by a pleasing set of laws those who come to them from our country. She who is first of them is more skilled in the healing art, and excels her sisters in the beauty of her person. Morgen is her name, and she has learned what useful properties all the herbs contain, so that she can cure sick bodies. She also knows an art by which to change her shape, and to cleave the air on new wings like Daedalus; when she wishes she is at Brest, Chartres, or Pavia, and when she will she slips down from the air onto your shores. And men say that she has taught mathematics to her sisters, Moronoe, Mazoe, Gliten, Glitonea, Gliton, Tyronoe, Thitis; Thitis best known for her cither.
In the Vita, Avalon (or at least, "The Fortunate Island") is an otherworldly paradise ruled by women. A similar concept is the Land of Women in the 8th-century Irish narrative "The Voyage of Bran." It is also an otherworldly island populated by immortal maidens. Then there's the 12th-century German "Lanzelet," where Lancelot is raised by the queen of the sea-fairies on the island of Meidelant, which is otherwise populated only by women.
Morgen is the most important here, with her sisters only footnotes. Variants of Morgan's name appear all over the place, but its origins are too ancient to truly determine. She is often closely associated with water. The Vita calls her and her sisters "nymphae." Morgan is called "dea quadam fantastica" by Giraldus Cambrensis, "Morgne the goddes' in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and 'Morgain la deesse' in the Prose Lancelot. Morgen is the oldest recorded form of Morgan's name. John Rhys theorized that it meant "sea-born," from Morigenos. A similar name is Muirgen, given to a mermaid in Irish myth. It's also been proposed that Morgan derives from the Welsh mother goddess Modron. Modron is the daughter of Afallach, a name closely related to Avalon.
But back to her eight sisters. The list in Vita Merlini, as a whole, has a Greek look. One writer, David Dom (King Arthur and the Gods of the Round Table, 2013) makes a heroic attempt to connect each name to a Celtic goddess, but by the end even he is left pulling Greek goddesses instead of Irish or Welsh.
There's a clear correspondence to the nine Muses of Greek myth. Morgen is a muse of medicine and science, while the last sister is associated with the cither, a musical instrument.
There's also a group of nine women associated with the French Ile de Sein, according to De Chorographia by Pomponius Mela (d. AD 45).
"Sena, in the Britannic Sea, opposite the coast of the Osismi, is famous for its oracle of a Gaulish god, whose priestesses, living in the holiness of perpetual virginity, are said to be nine in number. They call them Gallizenae, and they believe them to be endowed with extraordinary gifts to rouse the sea and the wind by their incantations, to turn themselves into whatsoever animal form they may choose, to cure diseases which among others are incurable, to know what is to come and to foretell it. They are, however; devoted to the service of voyagers only who have set out on no other errand than to consult them."
The Gallizenae are pretty much identical to Morgen and her sisters. I would venture to say that the author of the Vita Merlini was inspired by both the Gallizenae and the Muses.
The concept of nine maidens recurs throughout world mythology - for instance, Rán, Norse goddess of the sea, had nine daughters. It also crops up frequently in Arthurian legend. In the Welsh poem "Pa Gur yv y Porthur," Cei (Kay) is mentioned as having killed nine witches (the number nine is repeated frequently in this poem). Nine maidens living on the island otherworld of Annwfn use their breath to kindle a magic cauldron in The Spoils of Annwn. (It's been suggested that these two groups are the same.) And in Peredur, the hero kills the nine sorcerous Hags of Gloucester. Those are all villainous examples, though, while Morgen's sisters in Vita Merlini are benevolent.
Of the nine names, there are three clear groups: the M names, G names and T names.
Morgen, Moronoe, Mazoe.
Only Morgen's name is familiar. The others may be original creations, although plenty of scholars have looked for connections to other mythological characters. There are plenty of Celtic goddesses with M names, like Morrigan and Macha.
A sister of Morgan named Marsion or Marrion appears in the 13th-century La Bataille de Loquifer. They are accompanied by an attendant, making this yet another trio. "Dame Marse" is one of the fays alongside Morgain, Sebile, and Dame Oriande in the Chanson D'Esclarmonde, also 13th century, a continuation of Huon de Bordeaux. In the post-Vulgate Suite de Merlin, a beautiful fay named Marsique obtains Excalibur's scabbard for Gawain.
Each one seems to be a single one-off mention. I may be playing phonological games here; there might not be any connection between Marsion, Marse and Marsique, let alone a connection to Moronoe or Mazoe. However, the similarities are intriguing. Marsique is the most interesting to me. Since the scabbard was last seen when Morgan lobbed it into a lake, this could imply a connection between Marsique, the lake, and Morgan. We also know that she helps Gawain fight a sorcerer named either Naborn or Mabon. In the Mabinogion, Mabon is also the name of a son of Modron, the Welsh goddess who may be a proto-Morgan.
This is similar to Esmeree the Blonde, a Welsh princess and lover of Gawain's son Guinglain. A sorcerer named Mabon turned her into a serpent when she wouldn't marry him, and she was only freed through Guinglain's kiss. Meanwhile, in an Italian romance, Gawain's otherworldly lover is the Pulzella Gaia (Merry Maiden), the daughter of Morgan. The Merry Maiden can take snake form apparently at will, and later in the story Morgan imprisons her and turns her into a mermaid.
So there are stories where Gawain (or his son) fights for a fairy maiden who gives him magical aid, and who is associated with water, serpents, and Morgan le Fay.
I found one French reference to a mountain named "Marse" or "Marsique." Pope St. Gregory's Dialogues. A story is related of the monk Marcius of the mountain of Marsico. Marsico could be Monte Marsicano - there are two Italian mountains by this name.
Gliten, Glitonea, Gliton
This is where it really begins to seem likely that the writer is making up names as he goes along. Lucy Allen Paton writes, "The necessity of naming her eight sisters is apparently embarrassing to the poet; he economizes by ringing three changes on one name . . . and his ingenuity deserts him completely before he reaches the eighth." However, Paton also suggests that the G could be a C, and that this is a reference to the Greek nymph Clytie, daughter of Oceanus. This theory has no real evidence.
A 1973 edition of the Life of Merlin suggested a connection to Cliodhna, an Irish goddess. In various myths, she was carried away by a wave, leading to the common phrase "Clíodhna's Wave" and inviting an association with water nymphs. In the 12th-century narrative "Acallam Na Senórach," she is a mortal woman and one of three sisters.
Tyronoe, Thitis, and Thitis best known for her cither.
Tyronoe's resemblance to Moronoe increases the rhythmic quality of the names. There is a princess named Tyro in Greek mythology.
Weirdly, depending on translation, two sisters are either named Thiten and Thiton, or they're both Thitis, only distinguished by one's musical hobby. Thiten could be Thetis, a Greek goddess of water. Combined with Morgen and Clytie, this gives us a theme of goddesses connected to water. A connection to the Greek goddess Thetis seems very possible. There was also a Greek goddess Tethys, and both were tied to water. In a 13th-century German romance, Jüngere Titurel, 'Tetis' operates as a sorceress.
Interestingly, if you go back to the "Acallam Na Senórach" for a minute, Cliodnha drowns at the Shore of Téite. This place got its name because of a previous drowning, that of a woman named Téite Brecc and her companions. However, this may be grasping at straws.
The reference to "cither" remains mysterious. It's unclear what was meant, although it might be a guitar or a Welsh harp like a zither. (Both derive from the Greek word "cithara."
Morgen/Morgan's sisters haven't appeared in other material. This is the only source that makes her one of nine siblings. However, it is very common for her to appear as one third of a trio. The number three was sacred in Celtic culture and some gods or goddesses appeared in triads. For instance, the Morrígan, an Irish example with a very similar name, was sometimes described as a trio with the names Badb, Macha and Nemain. The Matronae, or Mothers (similar to Modron the mother goddess) appeared in threes and were venerated from the 1st to 5th centuries.
In Thomas Malory, Morgan le Fay completes a trio with her sisters Elaine and Margawse. They are the daughters of Gorlois and Igraine, and half-sisters to Arthur. Malory's Morgan seems to enjoy traveling in a group. She shows up at various times with companions like the Queen of Northgales, the Queen of Eastland, the Queen of the Out Isles, and the Queen of the Wasteland, all evidently sorceresses like herself.
In Li Jus Adan or Le jeu de la Feuillee (c. 1262), Morgan appears with two attendants, Maglore and Arsile, eating at a table which was put out for the fairies. Morgain and Arsile bestow blessings on their hosts, but Maglore, like the fairy in Sleeping Beauty, gets angry that no knife was put at her place and declares ill luck on the men who set the table.
In L'Amadigi, an epic poem written by Bernado Tasso in 1560, Fata Morgana has three daughters: Morganetta, Nivetta and Carvilia. Morganetta is a dimunitive of Morgan, so here we've got Morgan again as part of a trio. If I'm understanding it correctly, Morganetta and Nivetta are the only ones who play a real role (tempting the heroes sexually), but the author still chose to round them out to three.
So it seems that Morgan le Fay has a lot in common with the three Fates of Greek mythology. She appears with two sisters or attendants. Making her the head of nine sisters cubes that.
Where did we get the idea of faeries in Summer and Winter Courts - or courts themed around all four seasons? Why does this appear so much in current fantasy novels? And what do they have to do with the Seelie and Unseelie Courts?
There are many legends of weather or seasonal spirits. Winter in particular has plenty of personifications. But these beings weren't necessarily fairies, and fairies weren't divided by seasons. If you go back to Shakespeare, Titania and Oberon were rulers over all the seasons. When did it get split up?
This may have been a product of the Victorian era. Toned down for children, fairies became toothless things made primarily for education and edification. They were closely associated with nature and thus the seasons. There was some blurring of lines; this wasn't actually meant to promote genuine fairy belief, and often the "fairies" were poetic representations of insects, birds or plants. This was, after all, a way to educate kids on nature.
In Victorian children's literature, fairies were responsible for painting the flowers, decorating the autumn leaves, or bringing snowflakes - and unlike Shakespeare, there were separate kingdoms. Fairies of spring, summer, autumn and winter worked in exclusive groups. In some books, they had their own monarchs, or there might be rivalries between groups.
The Grand Christmas Pantomime Entitled Gosling the Great (1860) featured a fairy queen of spring named Azurina.
"The Fairies of the Earth, and Their Hiding Places," by Lizzie Beach (1870) explained all of nature in fairy terms; Jack Frost was the king of the autumn and winter fairies.
In the Libretto of the Fairy Operetta of the Naiad Queen (1872), the queens of each season are mentioned alongside queens of the fairies, sprites and flowers.
Margaret T. Canby, in Birdie and his Fairie Friends (1873), included a story called "The Frost Fairies" in which Jack Frost is king over the fairies of winter.
The trope of the seasonal fairy continued strong into the 20th century and continues to be popular. Julie Kagawa's Iron Fey series (beginning 2010) for one, features courts of Summer and Winter, while Disney's Tinker Bell animated movies (beginning 2008) put major emphasis on the fairies causing the seasons. But there's another factor that I believe is important here:
The Oak King and the Holly King
As mentioned, there are many myths to explain seasonal changes. Persephone is a classic seasonal myth. In Orcadian legend there is a constant struggle between the benevolent Sea Mither (Mother) and the evil storm spirit Teran who fight every spring and autumn. In Germany, Mother Holle was an legendary figure who created snow by shaking out her pillows.
There were also holiday traditions where a person dressed as Summer defeated another dressed as Winter. In other cases, effigies were torn apart or thrown into the stream to celebrate the end of Winter.
Robert Graves, in The White Goddess (1948), took influence from these rituals when he defined the Oak and Holly Kings. These were two gods who battled every year over a maiden representing Spring or fertility. The Oak King ruled during summer, but the Holly King defeated him and took over every winter. The yearly cycle goes on forever. Graves held that this was an actual myth that survived in multiple legends, and he had plenty of examples (Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight, for instance). In any story, if there are two men who fight (and particularly if there is a lady involved who can be connected to the Spring season), then there's your Oak and Holly King. It's very convenient.
In fact, the Oak and Holly Kings are Graves' original creation, extrapolating from many different myths and the work of James Frazer. However, his work had a huge influence on modern paganism. For instance, Edain McCoy's popular 1994 book A Witch's Guide to Faery Folk is packed full of seasonal fairies as well as Gravesian mythology.
Conclusion: Modern Times
So in the twentieth century, you have a strong literary tradition of pretty little fairies being responsible for every change in season. And in addition to old myths of seasonal changes, you also have a newly popular neopagan theme of an unending power struggle between kings of Summer and Winter.
However, what really tipped the scales was Jim Butcher's bestselling fantasy series: The Dresden Files. The 2002 novel Summer Knight introduced the fairy rulers. Butcher had the idea of conflating the seasons with the idea of the Seelie and Unseelie Courts - a concept from late Scottish folklore, which I examined recently on this blog. Thus, his fairies are split into two factions: the Seelie (or Summer) fae, ruled by Titania, and the Unseelie (or Winter) fae, ruled by Mab.
Since the publication of this book, Butcher's system has grown huge in fairy fantasy - Titania and Mab as opposing seasonal queens, the seasons divided into Seelie and Unseelie, etc. Many authors seem to have lifted it wholesale straight from Butcher.
And if Summer and Winter are courts, it seems reasonable enough that Spring and Autumn might also be courts, or that there might be other themed groups. Sarah J. Maas' series Court of Thorns and Roses has seven themed fairy courts (all four seasons, plus dawn, day and night).
It is true that the Seelie Court is an old idea, as are good and evil fae, and fairies or other beings who influence the seasons. But originally, Seelie and Unseelie had nothing to do with the seasons. Thanks to popular literature, Jim Butcher's worldbuilding has grown popular enough to sometimes be confused for an old tradition.
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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.
What plant was Rapunzel named for? In the original German, the food that her mother desires is "rapunzel," plural "rapunzeln," but the proper English translation remains mysterious. One writer gave up with the pronouncement that "hardly anybody has the least idea what rampion is or looks like, though it is clearly some kind of salad vegetable" (Blamires, Telling Tales, 161).
This is not entirely true. The problem is that we have several ideas. Multiple plants are known, in German, as rapunzel. I have come across four that are frequently attributed as the plant of the fairytale.
The only clue we really have from the story is that the pregnant woman eats it in a salad, and that perhaps her craving seems a little strange. Any of these plants would fit that description.
In fact, the name Rapunzel is actually a unique addition by Schulz. In the older and more widespread tales from France and Italy, as we've looked at over the past few weeks, the plant is parsley. This is reflected in the names of various heroines: Petrosinella, Persinette, Prezzemolina, Parsillette, and others.
In the Italian "Petrosinella," the oldest known Rapunzel tale, there is no explanation needed for the parsley. It is used to flavor the tale with innuendo.
In "Persinette" (1698), Charlotte-Rose de Caumont La Force explains that "In those days, parsley was extremely rare in these lands; the Fairy had imported some from India, and it could be found nowhere else in the country but in her garden."
Parsley is native to the central and eastern Mediterranean, but would still have been familiar to La Force's audience. The herb had been in France for a long time. Charlemagne and Catherine de Medici, for instance, had it in their royal gardens. La Force's fanciful explanation of the rare parsley places the story in a distant land and/or time. There's also a wry little comment about the wife's unusual hunger: "Parsley must have tasted excellent in those days."
Schulz approached the tale nearly a hundred years later in his collection of tales, Kleine Romane. His translation of "Persinette" contains various small changes, but the most significant was that he changed the plant, and with it, the girl's name.
In his translation, the fairy's garden includes "Rapunzeln, which were very rare at the time. The fairy had brought it from over the sea, and there was none in the country except in her garden."
There is still the comment "back then the Rapunzeln tasted wonderful."
Schulz's "Rapunzel" was the version which influenced the Brothers Grimm (who were apparently unaware of the French fairytale). Their first version of Rapunzel is very terse and simple, in line with oral storytelling, so it's likely that they were relying on an informant who had read Schulz. If not for Schulz's creativity, we might today have an alternate fairytale chant of "Petersilchen, Petersilchen, let down your hair!"
So this whole question of plants must begin from a different place - because it wasn't Rapunzel to begin with.
The meaning of parsley
In the older stories, parsley was rich with symbolism, associated with desire and fertility. The Greek physician Dioscorides wrote that parsley "provokes venery and bodily lust." The story of "Petrosinella" relied on this; there is a salacious line about the prince visiting the girl to enjoy the "parsley sauce of love."
English children were told that babies were found in parsley beds (Folkard, Waring). According to Waring's Dictionary of Omens and Superstitions (p. 174), "Some country women still repeat an old saying that to sow parsley will sow babies." In another superstition, too much parsley in your garden would mean that "female influences reigned" and only baby girls would be born! (Baker, 1977)
Occasionally it could be dangerous. In Greece, parsley was a funerary herb and had associations with death. Richard Folkard mentioned an English superstition that transplanting parsley would offend "the guardian spirit who watches over the Parsley-beds," leading to ill fortune. (Hmmm... very fitting for the Rapunzel story.)
Parsley featured in many folk remedies. It was used on swollen breasts and in cures for urinary ailments. According to Thompson, "A craving for parsley of the mother would make immediate sense" due to its use in traditional medicine (pp. 32-33). It was also used by midwives to speed up labor when a mother was struggling with a long childbirth, and in the early stages of pregnancy, it could be used as an abortifacient.
Much has been made of the abortion possibility in connection with Rapunzel. This particularly colors Basile's version, where Petrosinella's father is never mentioned, and her mother acts alone in stealing parsley from the ogress's garden.
However, in "Persinette," La Force gives us a married couple who do want children but still ultimately give up their daughter in exchange for the precious parsley. Why? Well, abortion is not parsley's only connection; look at all the other beliefs surrounding parsley and fertility. It could also indicate that the mother was sickly or facing a difficult childbirth. Also, don't forget just how much importance was placed on pregnancy cravings. Pascadozzia, for instance, claims to fear that her child will have a disfiguring birthmark if she doesn't obey her cravings. See Holly Tucker's Pregnant Fictions for more on just how drastic these ideas could get, and how much sway pregnant women held. Persinette's parents may have seen no other option, with the lives of both mother and child potentially on the line.
If not parsley, another symbolic plant typically features in Rapunzel-type tales: herbs such as fennel, or fruit such as apples. There are levels of erotic symbolism. A pregnant woman lusts uncontrollably after a food associated with desire. Her child is named for that food and grows up locked away to keep her from male advances. Even so, her guardians are never able to prevent her from eventually becoming sexually active when she reaches maturity. Her name and her nature are linked.
Why the Change?
Swapping rapunzel for parsley boots all of those superstitions, folk remedies, and symbols. Why exactly did Schulz change it?
Here are some theories I've come across:
Theory 1: Rapunzel would have made more sense than parsley to a German audience.
Kate Forsyth's excellent case study The Rebirth of Rapunzel suggested that "Schulz may have changed the heroine’s name because parsley is a Mediterranean plant that grows best in warm, temperate climates, and so may have been relatively unknown in northern Germany, where Schulz was born."
In the exact opposite direction, writer Gabriele Uhlmann concluded that the plant was lamb's lettuce, based on the statement that rapunzeln was rare, and the fact that lamb's lettuce was imported to Germany. Note that the line about the plant being rare is a direct translation of La Force's joke.
Either way, both of these theories rely on the idea that rapunzel would have made more sense than parsley - either more familiar, or more rare and alluring, to a German audience.
What do German books of the time indicate?
Johann Jakob Walter's Kunst- und Lustgärtners in Stuttgart Practische Anleitung zur Garten-Kunst (1779) does feature parsley under the German names petersilie and peterling, with instructions for growing it in gardens.
Walter also listed three rapunzels - Campanula rapunculus (rampion bellflower), Oenothera biennis (evening primrose), and finally Phyteuna spicata (spiked rampion) - while mentioning that there were still others out there. He differentiated them by calling them blue-flowered Rapunzel, yellow-flowered Rapunzel, and forest Rapunzel. He attributed Oenothera biennis as an American plant, but I got the impression that he was familiar with the other two plants growing wild in Germany.
Joachim Heinrich Campe's 1809 book Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprach lists numerous plants as Rapunzel. Campanula rapunculus is first, but attributed to Switzerland, France and England. Next are Phyteuna spicata and Valerianella locusta (lamb's lettuce), both attributed to Germany. Finally is Oenothera biennis. He notes the first three as frequently eaten in salads.
This doesn't help much. All I can say is that when Schulz was writing, parsley was known in Germany, and so were multiple plants known as rapunzel.
Perhaps there's a clue in other fairytales. In 1812 - writing 22 years after Schulz - we have Johann Gustav Büsching's story "Das Mahrchen von der Padde," or "The Tale of the Toad," in Volkssagen, Märchen und Legenden. In this Rapunzel-like tale, the parsley-munching heroine is named Petersilie. So we have another German collector from roughly the same era, collecting a similar tale, who did not see any problems with keeping a character named Parsley. He didn't seem to worry that German readers would find parsley too faraway or too mundane. It was evidently a story native to Germany, parsley and all. (However, an English translator, Edgar Taylor, altered the name to "Cherry the Frog Bride" - presumably to make the name prettier.)
Theory 2: Schulz was intentionally trying to erase the symbolism of parsley, particularly its use as an aphrodisiac and/or abortifacient.
Personally, I doubt that Schulz was trying to erase erotic symbolism from the story. I also doubt that he was trying to erase female agency - yes, that's a theory I've run into. It's true that the Grimms made edits and removed things they didn't feel were appropriate. But they weren't the ones who changed the plant!
Schulz's edits consisted mostly of adding his own little details to explain plot holes or color the story. He kept the story as La Force wrote it, including the pregnancy as well as the strict but ultimately loving fairy godmother who reunites with Rapunzel at the end. There is no erasure of eroticism going on here. There is no demonizing of the older, magical woman.
The Grimms - who had exactly nothing to do with the Rapunzel name - were the ones who edited out the unwed pregnancy and transformed the benevolent fairy into a nasty old witch named Mother Gothel. Even then, while their edits made Rapunzel dangerously foolish, they also gave her an element of agency that neither La Force or Schulz gave her: the Grimm Rapunzel actively tries to run away from Gothel, weaving a ladder to escape her tower.
Theory 3: Schulz thought Rapunzel was a cooler name than Petersilchen (the direct translation of Persinette).
This is another theory brought up by Forsyth: perhaps Rapunzel was more appealing to Schulz's ear. Swiss scholar Max Lüthi wrote that "Rapunzel sounds better in the German tale than Persinette, it has a more forceful sound than Petersilchen... To be sure , in folk beliefs the plants called 'Rapunzel' do not play any important role, quite in contrast to those... such as parsley and fennel, apples and pears, which are attributed eroticizing and talismanic properties" (as quoted in McGlathery, Fairy Tale Romance, p. 130).
Perhaps there's a clue in other translations. Schulz was not the only one to make edits to a literary tale which he was presenting to the audience of another country.
When it came to exporting the Grimms' tales, English translators were faced with some problems. Most chose to keep Rapunzel's name. A valid choice, but one that leaves the name meaningless to English-speakers. Rapunzel just isn't familiar as a plant name to a lot of Americans. As Forsyth put it, "the change of the heroine’s name to Rapunzel drained much of the symbolic meaning from the herb, and in many cases led to the link between girl and plant being broken."
In the most drastic departure, John Edward Taylor translated Rapunzel for The Fairy Ring: A Collection of Tales and Traditions in 1846 . . . as "Violet." Rather than craving salad, the mother demands her own bouquet of the sweet-smelling violets that only grow in the fairy's garden. Taylor stripped the fairytale of even more symbolism, made the heroine's name mundane and ordinary, and made her parents dangerously stupid and greedy (really . . . the wife demands a fresh bouquet every day, even though she can see and smell the violets from her window. And she's not even eating them). Martin Sutton, attributing Valeriana locusta as the original rapunzel, suggested that Taylor was avoiding not only the implications of pregnancy and cravings, but a possible link to the drug valerian, used for anxiety and sleep disorders.
Fortunately, "Violet" did not catch on.
An anonymously translated 1853 English version, Household Stories Collected by the Brothers Grimm, changed the plant to radishes but kept the Rapunzel name without explanation.
H. B. Paull published Grimm's Fairy Tales in 1868, with the story under the title of "The Garden of the Sorceress." In a stroke of brilliance, she translated rapunzeln as lettuce and named her heroine Letitia, "Lettice" for short.
Home Stories, in 1855, described the plant as "the most beautiful rampions."
Mrs. Edgar Lucas used the translation corn-salad in Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm (1900). Corn-salad, again, is an alternate name for Valerianella locusta or lamb's lettuce. In the 1909 edition, however, she changed the plant to rampion.
Throughout all translations, rampion gradually took over in English as the most common translation. Otherwise, translators tended to leave it as "rapunzel."
The answer to the change lies with Schulz. So who was Schulz? What kind of translator was he? Was he a Taylor, a strict prude who wanted a pretty and innocent plant? Was he a Paull, with a hand for wordplay?
I think Schulz was simply a storyteller. He stayed faithful to La Force's story, but he added small details, spicing it up rather than doing a flat translation. For instance, La Force simply says that Persinette had good food, but Schulz gives Rapunzel a detailed meal including marzipan. He also adds that Rapunzel doesn't just let her hair down, but winds it around a window hook before allowing people to climb it. When Rapunzel's prince goes missing, the king is left worrying about the succession of the kingdom. In essence, Schulz liked include practical little details that made the story more realistic and immediate.
"Parsley" might have been all right for another collector, such as Büsching, but it didn't cut it for Schulz. I think all three theories for Rapunzel's name change are valid, and they could work together without conflicting. Schulz could very likely have preferred the sound of Rapunzel to Petersilchen. Maybe he did think it would make more sense than parsley to his German audience. And with his practical side, maybe he knew parsley could pose a danger to pregnancy; he may have thought that didn't suit La Force's story, in which a happily married woman eagerly awaits her firstborn child.
This still leaves the question of which rapunzel he meant. There were at least four he might have heard of.
We know that La Force's parsley and Schulz's rapunzel are eaten in salads, and that they would not be considered all that delicious (see the joking remark that parsley must have tasted wonderful back then).
Both parsley and multiple plants known as rapunzel could be found in German gardens of the time. I've never had the opportunity to do a taste test of these plants; the only one I've ever had is parsley as a garnish.
I did start looking at images of the plants. Campanula rapunculus (rampion bellflower) and Oenothera biennis (evening primrose) are flowers. Phyteuma spicata (spiked rampion) has tall stalks topped with bristling spearheads.
By process of elimination, Valerianella locusta - lamb's lettuce - looks the most similar to parsley. Not very similar - their leaves look very different - but both are leafy green vegetables. And both of them blossom with bunches of teeny-tiny whitish flowers. When I looked at pictures of them flowering, I instantly thought "That has to be it."
Another note: we don't know what Schulz was thinking, but we may have an idea what the Grimms were thinking. The mother in the Grimms' "Rapunzel" is struck by the sight of the "fresh and green" vegetable when she sees it from a distance. The narrative is not entirely clear, but it does indicate that she wants the leaves in her salad and they are the main focus of her desire.
Two things here:
1) Rampion bellflower and spiked rampion have edible leaves, but are primarily grown as root vegetables.
2) Rampion bellflower (again) and evening primrose would have been most recognizable by their blue or yellow blossoms, not by green leaves.
Again... that leaves lamb's lettuce.
In addition, the Grimms originated a dictionary series, "Deutsches Wörterbuch." In an 1893 edition, published after their deaths, rapunzel is defined first as "die salatpflanze valeriana locusta, feld-lattich." Lamb's lettuce.
The others come in second. Evening primrose doesn't even make it into the entry - it gets listed on its own as "rapunzelsellerie."
So why did rampion take over as the English translation of rapunzel? Out of the English options, rampion has the most visual similarity to "rapunzel." It also has perhaps a slightly more romantic look to it. You can't name a fairytale princess "Corn Salad." Or you could, but it would be a brave choice. Quite a few translators struggled with the name, as seen in "Violet." In addition, English and American translators may simply not have been familiar with German garden vegetables.
The other plants all have their points or bring intriguing connections to the story. However, I believe the rapunzel plant is most likely Valerianella locusta - lamb's lettuce or corn salad. Personally, I'd love to read a study of the tale from a German botanist.
The Brothers Grimm's Rapunzel is actually a rather unusual tale. It's an example of the tale type called "The Maiden in the Tower," but it's far removed from its roots among oral folktales, marked by the creative additions of a French author.
Worldwide, the image of a virginal young woman trapped in a tower has been persistent for millennia. Graham Anderson, in Fairytales in the Ancient World, attempts to tie Rapunzel to a fragmentary Egyptian story called "The Doomed Prince," in which a prince accesses his beloved's tower by jumping (pp. 121-122). Rapunzel has also been compared to the legends of Hero and Leander, or Saint Barbara.
There's a clearer ancestress in the Persian epic Shahmaneh, written around 1000 AD. This work features a woman named Rudaba (River Water Girl), locked in a tower by her father. Despite this barrier, she falls in love with a man named Zal. In a very sweet scene, she offers Zal her long hair: "Come, take these black locks which I let down for you, and use them to climb up to me." But he says in horror that he doesn't want to hurt her, and instead obtains a real rope. They eventually convince their families to let them marry, and their son becomes a great hero.
Are later versions an exaggeration of Rudaba's invitation to let someone climb her hair? Or was the writer playing on an oral tale where a man did climb a woman's hair, by pointing out that it would be painful? Either way, the scene suggests a seed of the story that would one day become Rapunzel.
"Petrosinella" is usually cited as the oldest known tale identifiable as a Rapunzel type. This was an Italian literary tale published in 1634 by Giambattista Basile. It all begins when a pregnant woman named Pascadozzia sees "a beautiful bed of parsley" in an ogress's garden. Overcome with ravenous hunger, she waits until the ogress is away and then breaks in to steal some of it - multiple times. The ogress threatens her with death unless she hands over her child. The child, Petrosinella (Little Parsley) actually reaches seven years old before before the ogress nabs her and takes her to a distant tower. This tower is accessible only by climbing Parsley's long tresses of golden hair. A prince finds her, they fall in love . . . and then Petrosinella takes complete charge of the story. She steals three magical gall-nuts from the ogress and runs away with the prince. The ogress pursues them, but Petrosinella throws the nuts onto the ground, where they become a dog, a lion, and a wolf who delay the ogress and finally gobble her up. Petrosinella and her prince live happily ever after.
I remember finding Rapunzel a rather pathetic figure when I read the story as a child. She just sat in her tower, unable to figure out how to escape when it was most important. Why didn't she find a rope, or cut her hair and use that? Where was this Rapunzel, flinging magical nuts and summoning monsters?
More than fifty years after Basile, the next step appeared, and the story changed.
The French aristocrat Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force was among other women writing literary fairytales in the 17th centuries. They took inspiration from oral folktales, but put their own spins on them and used them to comment on their society at the time. La Force's story "Persinette" was published in 1697 in a book titled Les Contes des Contes.
Persinette is derived from the French word "persil," meaning Parsley . . . so, "Little Parsley." It begins in a manner very similar to Petrosinella, but then sets out on its own path.
For one thing, rather than a pregnant woman alone, de la Force gives us a couple expecting a child. It is the father, not the mother, who goes stealing parsley on his wife's behalf, and he's the one who's caught by the fairy owner of the garden. Instead of threatening him with death, the fairy offers him all the parsley he wishes if he will hand over his unborn child. The man agrees. The fairy acts as godmother, names the child and swaddles her in golden clothing, and sprinkles her with water that makes her the most beautiful creature alive. However, the fairy knows Persinette's fate and is determined to avoid it, so when the girl turns twelve the fairy hides her in a bejewelled silver tower filled with every luxury imaginable. When the fairy visits, she does so by climbing up Persinette's conveniently tower-length blonde hair.
The story is exactly what you may remember: a prince hears Persinette singing and falls in love with her, eventually copies the fairy to climb up to the tower via hair, and their romance leads to pregnancy. The fairy is furious that her attempts to safeguard Persinette have been flaunted by Persinette herself. She cuts off Persinette's hair and sends her to a comfortable but isolated home deep in the wilderness. When the prince discovers his love gone and hears the fairy's taunts, he throws himself off the tower in despair. He doesn't die, but loses his sight. He wanders for years, until one day he happens on the house where Persinette lives with her young twin children. When Persinette's tears fall on his eyes, he regains his sight. However, the happy family realizes that the food around them (previously provided by the fairy) now turns into rocks or venomous toads when they try to eat, and they will surely starve. Despite this, Persinette and the prince affirm their love for one another. At this point the fairy takes pity on them, and carries them in a golden chariot to the prince's kingdom, where they receive a hero's welcome.
It's a clear descendant of older tales. The beginning is that of Petrosinella. The maiden hidden in a tower to keep her from men, who becomes pregnant anyway and is cast out by her parent, also features in the Greek myth of Danae.
But many of the most striking details - Rapunzel's forced haircut, the prince's blindness, the twin babies, and the healing tears - are all original creations by La Force. Our modern Rapunzel comes directly from her unique original fairytale.
German translations of Persinette
In 1790, a century later, Friedrich Schulz published a German translation of Persinette in his book Kleine Romane. It's not clear exactly how he encountered it, but it is very clearly a translation of La Force's story. His most significant contribution was to change the heroine's name. Rather than translating it to Petersilchen, the German equivalent of "Little Parsley," he replaced the coveted parsley with the salad green rapunzeln. The girl's name thus became Rapunzel.
Then along came the Grimms. Although their goal was supposedly to collect the oral tales of Germany, their sources were typically middle-class families who'd read plenty of French fairytales. They ended up removing some of their stories upon realizing that they were clearly French literary tales (anyone heard of "Okerlo"?). But some stories stuck around which modern scholars now believe were not German in origin at all.
The Grimms' first version of Rapunzel, in 1812, was very short and simple, almost terse. However, it reads like a summary of Schulz, including his unique use of the name "Rapunzel," indicating that their source was someone who had read Schulz's "Rapunzel" and was retelling it. The Grimms were aware of Schulz, mentioning him in their notes, but believed he was writing "undoubtedly from oral tradition." They do not seem to have been aware of the French tale at all.
The most important change that the Grimms made was removing all sympathy from the fairy godmother's character. No longer was Rapunzel's tower a silver palace filled with delights; it was just a tower. They left out the ending with the reconciliation between Rapunzel and her godmother. Starting in 1819, as the Grimms edited the story with more descriptions and deleted ideas that were too French, they changed the fairy to a sorceress known as Frau Gothel. (Gothel is a German dialect word for "godmother.") Over later editions, she became an old witch. They edited her into something more similar to the ogress of the older Italian tale.
They also toned down the story for children, removing references to unwed pregnancy. Rather than Rapunzel's pregnancy betraying her affair, she becomes dangerously stupid, blurting out that her godmother is much heavier than the prince. By the end she is mysteriously accompanied by her twin children, but nobody brings up pregnancy or scandalous unchaperoned visits.
You can read D. L. Ashliman's comparison of the Grimms' first and final versions of Rapunzel here.
Rapunzel is a German author's translation of a French literary tale. Analyses should take into account how different Rapunzel is from its oral ancestors. I found it interesting that while the heroine's name can vary, the most common version by far is "Parsley."
Perhaps elements of the La Force story did enter oral folklore. In their notes, the Grimms briefly mentioned a Rapunzel-like tale which began similarly to Bluebeard. A girl lived with a witch who gave her the keys but forbade her to enter one room. The girl peeked in anyway and saw the witch with two huge horns on her head. The angry witch locked the girl in a tower, accessible only by the girl's long hair, and the rest of the tale proceeded like Rapunzel. This version was summarized in their notes for The Lord Godfather (link in German). In some notes, this story seems to have become confused and attached to Friedrich Schulz’s Rapunzel, but I haven’t found any evidence that it appears in Schulz; his version of Rapunzel is identical to La Force’s Persinette.
Personally, I was inspired to look into Persinette when I stumbled upon a claim on Tumblr that La Force's 17th-century story featured a heroine with psionic hair that she could use as extra arms or wings, and who was raised by a fairy named Gothelle. Frankly, this sounded ridiculously anachronistic. For one thing, "Gothelle" is just a faux-French spelling of the German word Gothel. Yet I found people reblogging it as if it was a fact. In truth, this description is from a modern retelling of Persinette in the webcomic "Emerald Blues."
The fact that people latched onto it shows an element of wishful thinking. Modern readers want a more active heroine who could be a match for any fairy or witch. But in fact, there actually is an older Rapunzel who is an active heroine and a sorceress in her own right: Petrosinella. There's also the real Persinette, with its positive portrayal of female relationships, and a strict fairy godmother who is ultimately loving and benevolent. And there's the Persian heroine Rudaba, whose story sensibly points out over a thousand years ago that using someone's hair as a ladder might be painful. There are fairytales containing sexism and passive heroines, but just as often there are tales of brave, clever and magical women.
Next time: some alternate endings to the Rapunzel story. Did you know that some versions keep going and become a gender-flipped version of Beauty and the Beast?
"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).
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.
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."
Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.