Last time, I looked at stories where fairies steal humans. The human dwells in Fairyland as a lover, an adopted child, a pet, or a servant. Sometimes the fairies leave a doppelganger in their place, so that no one will miss them. But there's another side to the coin: tales where humans steal fairies.
It's hard to say why fairies take humans. Storytellers give any number of reasons, or none at all. But it's usually pretty clear why humans take fairies.
In the tale of the selkie, swan wife, or fairy bride, a man sees an otherworldly being take off her magic cloak or garment. He steals it and holds it hostage so that she will stay with him as his bride. That's the most classic tale of a human stealing a fairy. Invariably, she gets her coat back and vanishes.
Sometimes rather than steal a coat, the man makes a deal with the otherworld, and there are conditions on their marriage. Again, he inevitably breaks the bargain. For instance, in some Welsh variants, the bargain may be that he never strike his fairy wife. He accidentally taps her one day without meaning to, and she vanishes forever.
Human women might win fairy men, too. In many versions of Tam Lin, the titular character is a human stolen away by the Fairy Queen. In at least one version, however, there's no mention of him ever being human. He introduces himself as "a fairy, lyth and limb."
Greed for Gold
In another widespread tale, a man catches a leprechaun or fairy and tries to threaten him into giving over his store of treasure. The fairy shows him where it's buried, under a certain tree or plant. The man marks the tree, perhaps with a scarf or marking, and runs home to fetch a shovel - but when he returns, the fairy is gone, and every tree bears an identical mark.
In the Cornish tale of "A Fairy Caught" or "Skillywidden," a human farmer captures a fairy child and treats him rather like a pet, while hoping to get fairy gold from him.
For even on their own, without magical gold, fairies are valuable. An 1851 news article from Ireland contains a mention of a supposed mermaid sighting. The reaction is telling: "It is a pity the crew could not catch her, as, in that case, the exhibition of such prodigy would make the fortune of all the fishermen on the shores."
Greed for Power
Hidden stores of gold are one thing; hostage potential and fairy magic are another. In the German tale of "The Wonderful Plough," a farmer manages to capture a fairy being in an iron pot. After a long captivity, he forces the fairy to give him a special plow that can be drawn easily through the fields.
This reminds one also of witches with familiar spirits and the concept of sorcerers summoning demonic familiars. An old English manuscript has a spell "To Call a Fairy," laying out the instructions and incantations for summoning a being called Elaby Gathen and binding it to one's will. Fairies are powerful servants - like Prospero's manservant Ariel in Shakespeare's play The Tempest.
This theme continues into modern literary tales. In "Bubblan," a 1907 tale by Swedish author Helena Nyblom, translated into English as "The Bubbly Boy," a family captures a merchild by accident. The father, a fisherman, holds him hostage to force the merfolk to send him good catches of fish.
The story of the Green Children of Woolpit is often regarded as a fairy story. Dating from 12th/13th-century accounts, two children with strange green skin, speaking an unknown language, showed up in the village of Woolpit. Both were taken in and baptized and eventually lost their green coloring. The boy died not long after baptism, but the girl adjusted to her new life, learned English, and eventually confided that she was from an underground land where everyone had green skin. This is a case where the fairy children are treated as kindly as their discoverers know how. The humans try to make the fairy children acclimate to human life.
Sometimes a human couple who long for a child wind up with a supernatural one instead. In Undine, a novella published in 1811, a fisherman and his wife adopt a water-sprite child and lovingly raise her as their own. This is a more benevolent relationship on the humans' part - but it's possibly implied that the water fairies killed their biological child. Their daughter, playing by the water, seemed "attracted by something very beautiful in the water" and sprang in, only to be lost. The very same day, a "beautiful little girl" - the titular Undine - arrives at the home of the grieving parents.
Another tale where humans willingly take in a merchild is the Chilean "Pincoya's Daughter," in Brenda Hughes' Folk Tales from Chile. And there's Ruth Tongue's "The Sea-Morgan's Baby" (presented as traditional) in which humans raise a mermaid foundling. This seems particularly frequent with water beings. Maybe it's Undine's influence.
Colman Grey, an English tale, is a lot like Skillywiddens, but the human family finds a starving fairy child and takes him in out of pity. Benevolent enough, but the storyteller mentions that the family was aware there was a chance for good fortune if they pleased the fairies.
The South African psikwembu or shikwembu are ancestral gods whose behavior and stature is similar to that of European fairies. In one story recorded by Henri A. Junod, a woman finds what she believes is a child lost in the woods, and carries him home. When she arrives, he cannot be removed from her back, and people realize his true nature. The priests do a ritual and the god disappears. However, although her actions were well-meaning, the woman dies as a result of the encounter.
Amusements, Pets or Curiosity
In the Suffolk tale of "Brother Mike," a farmer catches fairies in the act of disturbing his wheat stores and manages to capture one in his hat. Like the farmer in "Skillywidden," he takes the fairy home "for his children." In this case, however, the fairy pines away and dies in captivity.
In the cases of the fairy in "Brother Mike" and Skillywidden, the small size of the fairy is emphasized; in one, the fairy is captured in a hat, in the other, carried inside a "furze cuff" (furze cutters wore leather gloves to protect their wrists from furze needles). These tiny fairies, like dolls or kittens, are seen as appropriate to the child's sphere. They are dehumanized and treated like playthings or pets.
In some tales, a human picks up a fairy completely by accident. A fisherman may draw up a mermaid in his nets, for example. However, some humans choose to keep the fairy captive. Others immediately release them, such as in the German story of Krachöhrle, where a man realizes that he has not caught a badger but an elf, and quickly releases it from his trap. The same thing happens in an English tale from Lancashire.
Some stories don't give enough details to prove what's going through the human kidnapper's head.
A legend collected by W. H. D. Longstaffe in County Durham in England: a correspondent's grandmother had seen fairies wash their clothes in the River Tees, and one day encountered "a miniature girl, dressed in green, and with brilliant red eyes." The woman took the strange little child home and fed it. However, it is difficult to tell whether the woman was well-meaning or simply nosy and intrusive. The tiny fairy girl seemed "composed" when found, and when taken indoors, cried so much that the woman was "obliged" to put her back where she found her. The woman's willingness to return the fairy child makes it seem that she had good intentions in the end, but the fact that she knew exactly where to return her to, and the fact that she kept the fairy's stone chair, make me suspicious.
In Teutonic Mythology vol. 2, Jacob Grimm collected the tale of "The Water-Smith" or "The Smith in Darmssen Lake." In the middle of a certain lake is a strange blacksmith who sits in or on the water and works on whatever ploughs or tools are brought to him. (A fairy who works in iron? Intriguing.) One farmer, however, snatches the smith's son - a child who is completely hairy or rough - and raises him as his own. As an adult, the waterkind (water child) or ruwwen ("Shag" or "Roughy") leaves his human family in a story reminiscent of "The Young Giant" tale type, and returns to his watery home. The story feels oddly incomplete. It's not clear why the farmer kidnaps the Roughy; the action is sudden, impulsive and bizarrely cruel. After he does so, the blacksmith vanishes and never does work again. What did the farmer want? Curiosity, perhaps? Or maybe he wanted to use the child to start a rival to the blacksmith's business, or keep the smith's abilities for himself, or maybe he even believed he was helping the fairy child.
The list of why humans abduct fairies is shorter and less esoteric than why fairies abduct humans. It's easy to imagine what a human's reaction would be to finding a fairy in their power. There's also the possibility that a human can pick up a fairy by accident or mistake in a completely random encounter; I don't know that I've come across any stories where a fairy takes a human by accident.
What fascinates me is how much overlap there is.
In the end, we assign our own thoughts and rationales to the otherworld. We imagine for fairies the same motivations which we hold.
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Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.