Dissertation on Fairies
BY JOSEPH RITSON, ESQUIRE (1752-1803)
"Where round the bed, whence Achelous springs, That wat'ry Fairies dance in mazy rings." (Iliad, B. xxiv. 617.)
These Nymphs he supposes to frequent or reside in woods, hills, the sea, fountains, grottos etc., whence they are peculiarly called Naiads, Dryads and Nereids:
"What sounds are those that gather from the shores, The voice of nymphs that haunt the sylvan bowers, The fair-hair'd dryads of the shady wood, Or azure daughters of the silver flood?" (Odyss., B. vi. 122.)
The original word, indeed, is nymphs, which, it must be confessed, furnishes an accurate idea of the fays (fees or fates) of the ancient French and Italian romances; wherein they are represented as females of inexpressible beauty, elegance, and every kind of
personal accomplishment, united with magic or supernatural power; such, for instance, as the Calypso of Homer, or the Alcina of Ariosto. Agreeably to this idea it is that Shakespeare makes Antony say in allusion to Cleopatra–
"To this great fairy I'll commend thy acts,"
meaning this great assemblage of power and beauty. Such, also, is the character of the ancient nymphs, spoken of by the Roman poets, for instance:
"Fortunatus et ille, deos qui novit agrestes, Panaque, Sylvanumque senem, Nymphasque sorores." (Geor. ii. 493.)
They, likewise, occur in other passages as well as in Horace–
"---- gelidum nemus Nympharumque leves cum Satyris chori." (Carmina, I., O. l, v. 30.)
and, still more frequently, in Ovid.
Not far from Rome, as we are told by Chorier, was a place formerly called “Ad Nymphas,” and, at this day, “Santa Ninfa,” which without doubt, he adds, in the language of our ancestors, would have been called “The Place of Fays” (Recherches des Antiquitez, de Vienne, Lyon, 1659).
The word faee, or fee, among the French, is derived, according to Du Cange, from the barbarous Latin fadus or fada, in Italian fata. Gervase of Tilbury, in his Otia Imperialia (D. 3, c. 88), speaks
of “some of this kind of larvae, which they named fadoe, we have heard to be lovers,” and in his relation to a nocturnal contest between two knights (c. 94) he exclaims, “What shall I say? I know not if it were a true horse, or if it were a fairy (fadus), as men assert.” From the Roman de Partenay, or de Lezignan, MS. Du Cange cites–
"Le chasteau fut fait d'une fee Si comme il est partout retrait."
Hence, he says, faerie for spectres:
"Plusieurs parlant de Guenart, Du Lou, de l'Asne, et de Renart, De faeries, et de songes, De fantosmes, et de mensonges."
The same Gervase explains the Latin fata (fee, French) a divining woman, an enchantress, or a witch (D. 3, c. 88).
Master Wace, in his Histoire des Ducs de Normendie (confounded by many with the Roman de Rou), describing the fountain of Bereton, in Bretagne, says–
"En la forest et environ, Mais jo ne sais par quel raison La scut l'en les fees veeir, Se li Breton nos dient veir, etc." (In the forest and around, I wot not by what reason found, There may a man the fairies spy, If Britons do not tell a lie.)
but it may be difficult to conceive an accurate idea, from the mere name, of the popular French fays or fairies of the twelfth century.
In Vienne, in Dauphiny, is Le puit des fees, or Fairy-well. These fays, it must be confessed, have a strong resemblance to the nymphs of the ancients, who inhabited caves and fountains. Upon a little rock which overlooks the Rhone are three round holes which nature alone has formed, although it seem, at first sight, that art has laboured after her. They seem that they were formerly frequented by Fays; that they were full of water when it rained; and that they there frequently took the pleasure of the bath; than which they had not one more charming (Chorier, Recherches, etc.).
Pomponius Mela, the eminent geographer, and, in point of time, far anterior to Pliny, relates, that beyond a mountain in Aethiopia, called by the Greeks the “High Mountain,” burning, he says, with perpetual fire, is a hill spread over a long tract by extended shores, whence they rather go to see wide plains that to behold [the habitations] of Pans and Satyrs. Hence, he adds, this opinion received faith, that, whereas, in these parts is nothing of culture, no seats of inhabitants, no footsteps–a waste solitude in the day, and a mere waste silence–frequent fires shine by night; and camps, as it were, are seen widely spread; cymbals and tympans sound; and sounding pipes are heard more than human
(B. 3, c. 9). These invisible essences, however, are both anonymous and nondescript.
The penates of Romans, according to honest Reginald Scot, were “the domesticall gods, or rather divels, that were said to make men live quietlie within doores. But some think that Lares are such as trouble private houses. Larvae are said to be spirits that walk oneli by night. Vinculi terrei are such as Robin Good-fellowe, that would supplie the office of servants, speciallie of maides, as to make a fier in the morning, sweepe the house, grind mustard and malt, drawer water, etc. These also rumble in houses, drawe latches up, go up and down staiers,” etc. (Discoverie of Witchcraft, London, 1584, p. 521). A more modern writer says “The Latins have called the fairies lares and larvae, frequenting, as they say, houses, delighting in neatness, pinching the slut, and rewarding the good housewife with money in her shoe” (Pleasaunt Treatise of Witches, 1673, p. 53). This, however, is nothing but the character of an English fairy applied to the name of a Roman lar or larva. It might have been wished, too, that Scot, a man unquestionably of great learning, had referred, by name and work and book and chapter, to those ancient authors from whom he derived his information upon the Roman penates, etc.
What idea our Saxon ancestors had of the fairy which they called oelf, a word explained by Lye as equivalent to lamia, larva, incubus, ephialtes, we are utterly at a loss to conceive.
The nymphs, the satyrs, and the fauns, are frequently noticed by the old traditional historians of the north; particularly Saxo-grammaticus, who has a curious story of three nymphs of the forest, and Hother, King of Sweden and Denmark, being apparently the originals of the weird, or wizard, sisters of Macbeth (B. 3, p. 39). Others are preserved by Olaus Magnus, who says they had so deeply impressed into the earth, that the place they have been used to, having been (apparently) eaten up in a circular form with flagrant heat, never brings forth fresh grass from the dry turf. This nocturnal sport of monsters, he adds, the natives call The Dance of the Elves (B. 3, c. 10).
"In John Milesius any man may reade Of divels in Sarmatia honored, Call'd Kottri, or Kibaldi; such as wee Pugs and Hob-goblins call. Their dwellings bee In corners of old houses least frequented, Or beneath stacks of wood: and these convented, Make fearfull noise in buttries and in dairies; Robin Goodfellowes some, some call them fairies. In solitarie roomes these uprores keepe, And beat at dores to wake men from their slepe; Seeming to force locks, be they ne're so strong, And keeping Christmasse gambols all night long. Pots, glasses, trenchers, dishes, pannes, and kettles, They will make dance about the shelves and settles, As if about the kitchen tost and cast, Yet in the morning nothing found misplac't." (Heywood's Hierarchie of Angells, 1635, fo. p. 574.)
Milton, a prodigious reader of romance, has, likewise, given an apt idea of the ancient fays–
"Fairies than famed of old, or fabled since Of fairy damsels met in forest wide, By knights of Logres, and of Liones, Lancelot or Pelleas, or Pellenore."
These ladies, in fact, are by no means unfrequent in those fabulous, it must be confessed, but, at the same time, ingenious and entertaining histories; as, for instance, Melusine, or Merlusine, the heroine of a very ancient romance in French verse, and who was occasionally turned into a serpent; Margan-la-faee, the reputed half-sister of King Arthur; and the Lady of the Lake, so frequently noticed in Sir Thomas Malory’s old history of that monarch.
Le Grand is of opinion that what is called Fairy comes to us from the Orientals, and that it is their genies which have produces our fairies; a species of nymphs, of an order superior to those women magicians, to whom they nevertheless gave the same name. In Asia, he says, where the women imprisoned in the harems, prove still, beyond the general servitude, a particular slavery, the romancers have imagined the Peris, who, flying in the air, come to soften their captivity, and render them happy (Fabliaux, 12mo., i. 112). Whether this be so or not, it is certain that we call the auroroe boreales, or active clouds, in the night, perry-dancers.
After all, Sir William Ouseley finds it impossible
to give an accurate idea of what the Persian poets designed by a Perie, this aerial being not resembling our fairies. The strongest resemblance he can find is in the description of Milton in Comus. The sublime idea which Milton entertained of a fairy vision correpsonds rather with that which the Persian poets have conceived of the Peries.
"Their port was more than human as they stood; I took it for a faery vision Of some gay creatures of the element, That in the colours of the rainbow live And play i' thi' plighted clouds." (D'Israeli's Romances, p. 13.)
It is by no means credible, however, that Milton had any knowledge of the Oriental Peries, though his enthusiastic or poetical imagination might have easily peopled the air with spirits.
There are two sorts of fays, according to M. Le Grand. The one a species of nymphs or divinities; the other more properly called sorceresses, or women instructed in magic. From time immemorial, in the abbey of Poissy, founded by St. Lewis, they said every year a mass to preserve the nuns from the power of the fays. When the process of the Damsel of Orleans was made, the doctors demanded, for the first question, “If she had any knowledge of those who went to the Sabbath with the fays? Or if she had not assisted at the assemblies held at the fountain of the fays, near Domprein, around which
dance malignant spirits?” The Journal of Paris, under Charles VI and Charles VII pretends that she confessed, at the age of twenty-seven years, she frequently went, in spite of her father and mother, to a fair fountain in the county of Lorraine, which she named the “Good Fountain to the Fays Our Lord” (Ib. p. 75).
Gervase of Tilbury, in his chapter “of Fauns and Satyrs,” says,–“there are likewise others, who the vulgar call Follets, who inhabit the houses of the simple rustics, and can be driven away neither by holy water, nor exorcisms; and because they are not seen, they afflict those, who are entering, with stones, billets, and domestic furniture, whose words for certain are heard in the human manner, and their forms do not appear” (Otia imperialia, D. i. c. 18). He is speaking of England.
This Follet seems to resemble Puck, or Robin Goodfellow, whose pranks were recorded in an old song and who was sometimes useful, and sometimes mischievous. Whether or not he was the fairy-spirit to whom Milton
"Tells how the drudging goblin swet, To ern his cream-bowle duly set, When, in one night, ere glimpse of morn, His shadowy flail hath thresh'd the corn, That ten day-labourerers could not end, Then lies him down, the lubbar fend; And stretch'd out all the chimney's length, Basks at the fire his hairy strength; And crop-full out of dores he flings, Ere the first cock of his matin rings." (L'Allegra).
is a matter of some difficulty. Perhaps the giant son of the witch, that had the devil’s mark about her (of whom “there is a pretty tale”), that was called Lob-lye-by-the-fire, was a very different personage from Robin Good-fellow, who, however, he in some respects appears to resemble. A near female relation of the compiler, who was born and brought up in a small village in the bishopric of Durham, related to him many years ago, several circumstances which confirmed the exactitude of Milton’s description; she particularly told of his threshing of the corn, churning the butter, drinking the milk, etc., and, when all was done, “lying before the fire like a great rough hurgin bear.”
In another chapter Gervase says–“As among men, nature produces certain wonderful things, so spirits, in airy bodies, who assume by divine permission the mocks they make. For, behold! England has certain daemons (daemons, I call them, though I know not, but I should say secret forms of unknown generation), whom the French call Neptunes, the English Portunes. With these it is natural that they take advantage of the simplicity of fortunate peasants; and when, by reason of their domestic labours, they perform their nocturnal vigils, of a sudden, the doors being shut, they warm themselves at the fire, and eat little frogs, cast out of their bosoms and put upon the burning coals; with an antiquated countenance; a wrinkled face; diminutive in stature,
not having [in length] half a thumb. They are clothed with rags patched together; and if anything should be to be carried on in the house, or any kind of laborious work to be done, they join themselves to the work, and expedite it with more than human facility. It is natural to these, that they may be obsequious, and may not be hurtful. But one little mode, as it were, they have of hurting. For when, among the ambiguous shades of night, the English occasionally ride alone, the Portune, sometimes, unseen, couples himself to the rider; and, when he has accompanied him, going on, a very long time, at length, the bridle being seized, he leads him up to the hand in the mud, in which while, infixed, he walls, the Portune, departing, sets up a laugh; and so, in this kind of way, derides human simplicity” (Otia imperialia, D. 3, c. 61).
The spirit seems to have soom resemblance to the Picktree-brag, a mischievous barguest that used to haunt that part of the country, in the shape of different animals, particularly of a little galloway; in which shape a farmer, still lately living thereabout, reported that it had come to him one night as he was going home; that he got upon it, and rode very quietly till it came to a great pond, to which it ran and threw him in, and went laughing away.
He further says there is, in England, a certain species of demons, which in their language they call Grant, like a one-year old foal, with straight legs,
and sparkling eyes. This kind of demon very often appears in the streets, in the very heat of the day, or about sunset; and as often as it makes its appearance, portents that there is about to be a fire in that city or town. When, therefore, in the following day or night the danger is urgent, in the streets, running to and fro, it provokes the dogs to bark, and, while it pretends flight invites them, following, to pursue, in the vain hope of overtaking it. This kind of illusion provokes caution to the watchmen who have the custody of fire, and so the officious race of demons, while they terrify the beholders, are wont to secure the ignorant by their arrival (Gervase, D. 3, c. 62).
Gower, in his tale of Narcissus, professedly from Ovid, says–
"---- As he cast his loke Into the well, ---- He sawe the like of his visage, And wende there were an ymage Of such a nymphe, as tho was faye." (Confessio amantis, fo. 20, b.)
In his Legend of Constance is this passage:–
"Thy wife which is of fairie Of such a childe delivered is, Fro kinde, whiche stante all amis." (Ibid. fo. 32, b.)
In another part of his book is a story “Howe
the Kynge of Armenis daughter mette on a tyme a companie of the fairy.” These “ladies,” ride aside “on fayre [white] ambulende horses,” clad, very magnificently, but all alike, in white and blue, and wore “corownes on their heades;” but they are not called fays in the poem, nor does the word fay or fairies once occur therein.
The fairies or elves of the British isles are peculiar to this part of the world, and are not, so far as literary information or oral tradition enables us to judge, to be found in any other country. For this fact the authority of father Chaucer will be decisive, till we acquire evidence of equal antiquity in favour of other nations:–
"In th' olde dayes of the king Artour, Of which that Bretons speken gret honour, Al was this lond fulfild of faerie; The elf-quene, with hir joly compaignie, Danced ful ofte in many a grene mede. This was the old opinion, as I rede; I speke of many hundred yeres ago. But now can no man se none elves mo, For now the grete charitee and prayers Of limitours and other holy freres, That serchen every lond and every streme, As thikke as motes in the sonnebeme, Blissing halles, chambres, kichenes, boures, Citees and burghes, castles highe and toures, Thropes and bernes, shepenes and dairies, This maketh that ther ben no faeries." (Wif of Bathes Tale.)
The fairy may be defined as a species of being partly material, partly spiritual, with a power to change its appearance, and be, to mankind, visible or invisible, according to its pleasure. In the old song, printed by Peck, Robin Good-fellow, a well-known fairy, professes that he had played his pranks from the time of Merlin, who was the contemporary of Arthur.
Chaucer uses the word faerie as well for the individual as for the country or system, or what we should now call fairy-land, or faryism. He knew nothing, it would seem, of Oberon, Titania, or Mab, but speaks of–
"Pluto, that is the King of Faerie, And many a ladie in his compagnie, Folwing his wife, the quene Proserpina, etc." (The Marchantes Tale, i. 10101.)
From this passage of Chaucer Mr. Tyrwhitt “cannot help thinking that his Pluto and Proserpina were the true progenitors of Oberon and Titania.”
In the progress of The Wif of Bathes Tale, it happed the knight,
"---- in his way . . . . . to ride In all his care, under a forest side, Whereas he saw upon a dance go Of ladies foure-and-twenty, and yet mo. Toward this ilke dance, he drow ful yerne, In hope that he som wisdom shulde lerne, But, certainly, er he came fully there, Yvanished was this dance, he wiste not wher."
These ladies appear to have been fairies, though nothing is insinuated of their size. Milton seems to have been upon the prowl here for his “forestide.”
In A Midsummer-Night’s Dream, a fairy addresses Bottom the weaver–
"Hail, mortal, hail!"
which sufficiently shows that she was not herself.
Puck, or Robin Good-fellow, in the same play, calls Oberon,
"---- King of shadows,"
and in the old song just mentioned,
"The King of ghosts and shadows,"
and this mighty monarch asserts of himself, and his subjects,
"But we are spirits of another sort."
The fairies, as we already see, were male and female. Their government was monarchical, and Oberon, the King of Fairyland, must have been a sovereign of very extensive territory. The name of his queen was Titania. Both are mentioned by Shakespeare, being personages of no little importance in the above play, where they, in an ill-humour, thus encounter:
Obe. Ill met by moon-light, proud Titania. Tita. What, jealous Oberon? Fairy, skip hence; I have forsworn his bed and company."
That the name [Oberon] was not the invention of our great dramatist is sufficently proved. The allegorical Spenser gives it to King Henry the Eighth. Robert Greene was the author of a play entitled “The Scottishe history of JAmes the Fourthe . . . . intermixed with a pleasant comedie presented by Oberon, king of the fairies.” He is, likewise, a character in the old French romances of Huon de Bourdeaux, and Ogier le Danois; and there even seems to be one upon his own exploits, Roman d’Auberon. What authority, however, Shakespeare had for the name Titania, it does not appear, nor is she so called by any other writer. He himself, at the same time, as well as many others, gives to the queen of fairies the name of Mab, though no one, except Drayton, mentions her as the wife of Oberon:
"O then, I see, queen Mab hath been with you, She is the fairy's midwife, and she comes In shape no bigger than an agate-stone On the fore-finger of an alderman, Drawn with a team of little atomies Athwart men's noses as they lie asleep; Her waggon-spokes made of long spinner's legs; The cover, of the wings of grasshoppers; The traces, of the smallest spider's web; The collars, of the moonshine's wat'ry beams: Her whip, of cricket's bone; the lash, of film: Her waggoner, a small grey-coated gnat, Not half so big as a round little worm Pricked from the lazy finger of a maid: Her chariot is an empty hazel-nut,
Made by the joiner squirrel, or old grub, Time out of mind the fairies' coachmakers. And in this state she gallops night by night Through lovers' brains, and then they dream of love! . . . This is that very Mab, That plats the manes of horses in the night; And bakes the elf-locks in foul sluttish hairs, Which, once untangled, much misfortune bodes." (Romeo and Juliet.)
Ben Jonson, in his “Entertainment of the Queen and Prince at Althrope,” in 1603, describes to “tripping up the lawn a bevy of fairies attending on Mab their queen, who, falling into an artificial ring that was there cut in the path, began to dance around.”– (Works, v. 201.)
In the same masque the queen is thus characterized by a satyr:–
"This is Mab, the mistress fairy, That doth nightly rob the dairy, And can hurt or help the churning, (As she please) without discerning. She that pinches country-wenches If they rub not clean their benches, And with sharper nails remembers When they rake no up their embers; But, if so they chance to feast her, In a shoe she drops a tester. This is she that empties cradles, Takes out children, puts in ladles; Trains forth midwives in their slumber, With a sieve the holes to number;
And thus leads them from her boroughs, Home through ponds and water-furrows. She can start our franklin's daughters, In their sleep, with shrieks and laughters, And on sweet St. Agens' night Feed them with a promised sight, Some of husbands, some of lovers, Which an empty dream discovers."
Fairies, they tell you, have frequently been heard and seen–nay, that there are some living who were stolen away by them, and confined seven years. According to the description they give who pretend to have seen them, they are in the shape of men, exceeding little. They are always clad in green, and frequent the woods and fields; when they make cakes (which is a work they have often heard at) they are very noisy; and when they have done, they are full of mirth and pastime. But generally they dance in moonlight when mortals are asleep and not capable of seeing them, as may be observed on the following morn–their dancing-places being very distinguishable. For as they dance hand in hand, and so make a circle in their dance, so next day there will be seen rings and circles on the grass.–(Bourne’s Antiquitates Vulgares, Newcastle, 1725, 8vo, p. 82.)
These circles are thus described by Browne, the author of Britannia’s Pastorals:–
". . . A pleasant meade, Where fairies often did their measures treade, Which in the meadow made such circles greene, As if with garlands it had crowned beene.
Within one of these rounds was to be seene A hillock rise, where oft the fairie queene At twy-light sate, and did command her elves To pinch those maids that had not wept their shelves: And further, if by maidens' over-sight Within doores water were not brought at night, Or if they spred no table, set no bread, They should have nips from toe unto the head; And for the maid that had perform'd each thing, She in the water-pail bad leave a ring."
The same poet, in his “Shepeards Pipe,” having inserted Hoccleve’s tale of Jonathas, and conceiving a strange unnatural affection for that stupid fellow, describes him as a great favourite of the fairies, alleging, that–
"Many times he hath been seene With the fairies on the greene, And to them his pipe did sound, While they danced in a round, Mickle solace woulkd they make him, And at midnight often wake him, And convey him from his roome To a field of yellow broome; Or into the medowes, where Mints perfume the gentle aire, And where Flora spends her treasure, There they would begin their measure. If it chanc'd night's sable shrowds Muffled Cynthia up in clowds, Safely home they then would see him, And from brakes and quagmires free him."
The fairies were exceedingly diminutive, but, it must be confessed, we shall not readily find their real dimensions. They were small enough, however, if we may believe one of queen Titania’s maids of honour, to conceal themselves in acorn shells. Speaking of a difference between the king and queen, she says:–
"But they do square; that all the elves for fear Creep into acorn cups, and hide them there."
They uniformly and constantly wore green vests, unless when they had some reason for changing their dress. Of this circumstance we meet with many proofs. Thus in The Merry Wives of Windsor—
"Like urchins, ouphes, and fairies green."
In fact we meet with them of all colours; as in the same play–
"Fairies black, grey, green, and white."
That white, on some occasions, was the dress of a female, we learn from Reginald Scot. He gives a charm “to go invisible by [means of] these three sisters of fairies,” Milia, Achilia, Sibylia: “I charge you that you doo appeare before me visible, in forme and shape of faire women, in white vestures, and to bring with you to me the ring of invisibilitie, by the which I may go invisible at mine owne will and pleasure, and that in all hours and minutes.”
It was fatal, if we may believe Shakespeare, to speak to a fairy. Falstaff, in The Merry Wives of Windsor, is made to say, “They are fairies. He that speaks to them shall die.”
They were accustomed to enrich their favourites, as we learn from the clown in A Winter’s Tale—
"It was told me I should be rich by the fairies."
They delighted in neatness, could not endure sluts, and even hated fibsters, tell-tales, and divulgers of secrets, whom they would slily and severely bepinch when they little expected it. They were as generous and benevolent, on the contrary, to young women of a different description, procuring them the sweetest sleep, the pleasantest dreams, and, on their departure in the morning, always slipping a tester in their shoe.
They are suppsed by some to have been malignant, but this, it may be, was mere calumny, as being utterly inconsistent with their general character, which was singularly innocent and amiable.
Imogen, in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, prays, on going to sleep–
"From fairies, and the tempters of the night, Guard me, beseech you."
It must have been the Incubus she was so afraid of.
Hamlet, too, notices this imputed malignity of the fairies:–
". . . Then no planets strike, No fairy takes, no witch has power to charm."
Thus, also, in The Comedy of Errors:–
"A fiend, a fairy, pitiless and rough."
They were amazingly expeditious in their journeys. Puck, or Robin Good-fellow, answers Oberon, who was about to send him on a secret expedition–
"I'll put a girdle round about the earth In forty minutes."
Again the same goblin addresses him thus:–
"Fairy king, attend and mark, I do hear the morning lark. Obe. Then, my queen, in silence sad, Trip we after the night's shade-- We the globe can compass soon, Swifter than the wand'ring moon."
In another place Puck says–
"My fairy lord this must be done in haste; For night's swift dragons cut the clouds full fast, And yonder shines Aurora's harbinger, At whose approach ghosts, wandering here and there, Troop home to churchyards," etc.
To which Oberon replies–
"But we are spirits of another sort: I with the morning's love have oft made sport; And, like a forester, the groves may tread, Even till the eastern gate, all fiery-red, Opening on Neptunes with fair blessed beams, Turns into yellow gold his salt-green streams."
Compare, likewise, what Robin himself says on this subject in the old song of his exploits.
They never ate–
"But that it eats our victuals, I should think, Here were a fairy,"
says Belarius at the sight of Imogen, as Fidele.
They were humanely attentive to the youthful dead. Thus Guiderius at the funeral of the above lady–
"With female fairies will his tomb be haunted."
Or, as in the pathetic dirge of Collins on the same occasion:–
"No wither'd witch shall here be seen, No goblins lead their nightly crew; The female fays shall haunt the green, And dress the grave with pearly dew."
This amiable quality is, likewise, thus beautifully alluded to by the same poet:–
"By fairy hands their knell is rung, By forms unseen their dirge is sung."
Their employment is thus charmingly represented by Shakespeare, in the address of Prospero:–
"Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes, and groves; And ye, that on the sands, with printless foot Do chase the ebbing Neptune, and do fly him When he comes back; you demi-puppets, that
By moon-shine do the green-sour ringlets make, Whereof the ewe not bites; and you, whose pastime Is to make midnight mushrooms; that rejoice To hear the solemn curfew."
In The Midsummer Night’s Dream, the queen, Titania, being desirous to take a nap, says to her female attendants–
"Come, now a roundel, and a fairy song; Then, for the third part of a minute hence; Some to kill cankers in the musk-rosebuds; Some, war with rear-mice for their leathern wings, To make my small elves coats; and some keep back The clamorous owl that nightly hoots, and wonders At our quaint spirits. Sing me now asleep; Then to your offices, and let me rest."
Milton gives a most beautiful and accurate description of the little green-coats of his native soil, than which nothing can be more happily or justly expressed. He had certainly seen them, in his situation, with “the poet’s eye”:–
". . . Fairie elves, Whose midnight revels, by a forest side Or fountain, some belated peasant sees, Or dreams he sees, while overheard the moon, Sits arbitress, and neerer to the earth Wheels her pale course, they, on thir mirth and dance Intent, with jocond music charm his ear; at once with joy and fear his heart rebounds."
The impression they made upon his imagination
in early life appears in his “Vacation Exercise,” at the age of nineteen:–
"Good luck befriend thee, son; for, at thy birth The Fairery ladies daunc't upon the hearth; The drowsie nurse hath sworn she did them spie Come tripping to the room where thou didst lie, And, sweetly singing round about thy bed, Strew all their blessings on thy sleeping head."
L’Abbe Bourdelon, in his Ridiculous Extravagances of M. Oufle, describes “The fairies of which,” he says, “Grandmothers and nurses tell so many tales to children. These fairies,” adds he, “I mean, who are affirmed to be blind at home, and very clear-sighted abroad; who dance in the moonshine when they have nothing else to do; who steal shepherds and children, to carry them to their caves,” etc. –(English translation, p. 190.)
The fairies have already called themselves spirits, ghosts, or shadows, and consequently they never died, a position, at the same time, of which there is every kind of proof that a fact can require. The reviser of Johnson and Steeven’s edition of Shakespeare, in 1785, makes a ridiculous reference to the allegories of Spenser, and a palpably false one to Tickell’s Kensington Gardens, which he affirms “will show that the opinion of fairies dying prevailed in the last century,” whereas, in fact, it is found, on the slightest glance into the poem, to maintain the direct reverse:–
"Meanwhile sad Kenna, loath to quit the grove, Hung o'er the body of her breathless love, Try'd every art (vain arts!) to change his doom, And vow'd (vain vows!) to join him in the tomb. What would she do? The Fates alike deny The dead to live, or fairy forms to die."
The fact is so positively proved, that no editor or commentator of Shakespeare, present or future, will ever have the follow or impudence to assert “that in Shakespeare’s time the notion of fairies dying was generally known.”
Ariosto informs us (in Harington’s translation, Bk. x. s. 47) that
". . . (either auncient folke believ'd a lie, Or this is true) a fayrie cannot die."
And again (Bk. xliii. s. 92),
"I am a fayrie, and, to make you know, To be a fayrie what it doth import: We cannot dye, how old so ear we grow. Of paines and harmes of ev'rie other sort We tast, onelie no death we nature ow."
Beaumont and Fletcher, in The Faithful Shepherdess, describe–
"A virtuous well, about whose flow'ry banks The nimble-footed fairies dance their rounds, By the pale moonshine, dipping oftentimes Their stolen children, so to make 'em free From dying flesh, and dull mortality."
Puck, alias Robin Good-fellow, is the most active and extraordinary fellow of a fairy that we anywhere
meet with, and it is believed we find him nowhere but in our own country, and, peradventure also, only in the South. Spenser, it would seem is the first that alluds to his name of Puck:–
"Ne let the Pouke, nor other evill spright, Ne let Hob-goblins, names whose sense we see not, Fray us with things that be not."
“In our childhood,” says Reginald Scot, “out mothers’ maids have so terrified us with the oughe divell having hornes on his head, fier in his mouth, and a taile, eies like a bason, fanges like a dog, clawes like a beare, a skin like a niger, and a voice roaring like a lion, whereby we start and are afraid when we heare one crie Bough! and they have so fraied us with bull-beggers, spirits, witches, urchens, elves, hags, fairies, satyrs, pans, sylens, Kit with the cansticke, tritons, centaurs, dwarfes, giants, imps, calcars, conjurors, nymphs, changling, Incubus, Robin Goodfellow, the spoorne, the mare, the man in the oke, the hell wain, the fier drake, the puckle, Tom Thombe, Hob gobblin, Tom Tumbler, boneles, and such other bugs, that we are afraid of our owne shadowes.”–(Discoverie of Witchcraft, London, 1584, 4to, p. 153.) “And know you this by the waie,” he says, “that heretofore Robin Goodfellow and Hob goblin were as terrible, and also as credible, to the people as hags and witches be now…. And in truth, they that mainteine walking spirits
have no reason do denie Robin Goodfellow, upon whomt here hath gone as manie and as credible tales as upon witches, saving that it hath no pleased the translators of the Bible to call spriits by the name of Robin Goodfellow.”–(P. 131.)
“Your grandam’s maides,” says he, “were woont to set a boll of milke before Incubus and his cousine Robin Goodfellow for grinding of malt or mustard, and sweeping the house at midnight; and you have also heard that he would chafe exceedingly if the maid or good-wife of the house, having compassion of his naked state, laid anie clothes for him, besides his messe of white bread and milke, which was his standing fee. For in that case he saith, What have we here?
"Hemton, hamton, Here will I never more tread nor stampen." (Discoverie of Witchcraft, p. 85.)
Robin is thus characterized in The Midsummer Night’s Dream by a female fairy:–
"Either I mistake your shape and making quite, Or else you are that shrewd and knavish sprite Call'd Robin Goodfellow: are you not he That fright the maidens of the villagery; Skim milk; and sometimes labour in the quern, And bootless make the breathless housewife churn; And sometimes make the drink bear no barm; Misleed night-wanderers, laughing at their harm? Those that Hobgoblin call you, and sweet Puck, You do their work, and they shall have good luck."
To these questions Robin thus replies:–
"Thou speak'st aright; I am that merry wanderer of the night. I jest to Oberon, and make him smile, When I a fat and bean-fed horse beguile, Neighing in likeness of a filly foal: And sometimes lurk I in a gossip's bowl, In very likeness of a roasted crab; And, when she drinks, against her lips I bob, And on her withere'd dewlap pour the ale. The wisest aunt, telling the saddest tale, Sometime for three-foot stool mistaketh me; Then slip I from her bum, down topples she, And `tailor,' cries, and falls in a cough; And then the whole quire hold their hips, and laugh; And waxen in their mirth, and neeze, and swear, A merrier hour was never wasted there."
His usual exclamation in the play is Ho, ho, ho!
"Ho, ho, ho! Coward, why com'st thou not?"
So, in Grim, the Collier of Croydon:–
"Ho, ho, ho! my masters! No good fellowship! Is Robin Goodfellow a bugbear grown, That he is not worthy to be bid sit down?"
In the song printed by Peck, he concludes every stanza with Ho, ho, ho!
“If that the bowle of curds and creame were not duly set out for Robin Goodfellow, the frier, and Sisse the dairymaid, why, then, either the pottage was so burnt to next day in the pot, or the cheeses would not curdle, or the butter would not come, or
that she in the fat never would have good head. But if a Peter-penny, or an housle-egg were behind, or a patch of tythe unpaid, then ‘ware of bullbeggars, spirits,” etc.
This frolicsome spirit thus describes himself in Jonson’s masque of Love Restored: “Robin Goodfellow, he that sweeps the hearth and the house clean, riddles for the country maids, and does all their other drudgery, while they are at hot-cockles; one that has conversed with your court spirits ere now.” Having recounted several ineffectual attempts he had made to gain admittance, he adds: “In this despair, when all invention and translation too failed me, I e’en went back and stuck to this shape you see me in mine own, with my broom and my canles, and came on confidently.” The mention of his broom reminds us of a passage in another play, Midsummer Night’s Dream, where he tells the audience–
"I am sent with broom before, To sweep the dust behind the door."
He is likewise one of the dramatis personae in the old play of Wily Beguiled, in which he says–
“Tush! fear not the dodge. I’ll rather put on my flashing red nose, and my flaming face, and come wrap’d in a calf-skin, and cry Bo, bo! I’ll pay the scholar, I warrant thee.”–(Harsnet’s Declaration, London, 1604, 4to.) His character, however, in
this piece, is so diabolical, and so different from anything one could expect in Robin Good-fellow, that it is unworthy of further quotation.
He appears, likewise, in another, entitled Grim, the Collier of Croydon, in which he enters “in a suit of leather close to his body; his face and hands coloured russet colour, with a flail.”
He is here, too, in most respects, the same strange and diabolical personage that he is represented in Wily Beguiled, only there is a single passage which reminds us of his old habits:–
"When as I list in this transform'd disguise I'll fright the country people as I pass; And sometimes turn me to some other form, And so delude them with fantastic shows, But woe betide the silly dairymaids, For I shall fleet their cream-bowls night by night."
In another scene he enters while some of the other characters are at a bowl of cream, upon which he says–
"I love a mess of cream as well as they; I think it were best I stept in and made one: Ho, ho, ho! my masters! No good fellowship! Is Robin Goodfellow a bugbear grown That he is noth worthy to be bid sitdown?"
There is, indeed, something characteristic in this passage, but all the rest is totally foreign.
Doctor Percy, Bishop of Dromore, has reprinted in his Reliques of Ancient English Poetry a very curious
page 32 and excellent old ballad originally published by Peck, who attributes it, but with no similitude, to Ben Jonson, in which Robin Good-fellow relates his exploits with singular humour. To one of these copies, he says, “were prefixed two wooden cuts, which seem to represent the dresses in which this whimsical character was formerly exhibited upon the stage.” In this conjecture, however, the learned and ingenious editor was most egregiously mistaken, these cuts being manifestly printed from the identical blocks made use of by Bulwer in his “Artificial Changeling,” printed in 1615, the first being intended for one of the black and white gallants of Seale-bay adorned with the moon, stars, etc., the other a hairy savage.
Burton, speak of fairies, says that “a bigger kind there is of them, called with Hobgoblins, and Robin Goodfellowes, that would in those superstitious times, grinde corne for a messe of milke, cut wood, or do any kind of drudgery worke.” Afterward, of the daemons that mislead men in the night, he says, “We commonly call them Pucks.”–(Anatomy of Melancholie.)
Cartwright, in The Ordinary, introduces Moth, repeating this curious charm:–
"Saint Francis and Saint Benedight Blesse this house from wicked wight, From the nightmare, and the goblin That is hight Goodfellow Robin;
Keep it from all evil spirits, Fairies, weezels, rats, and ferrets; From curfew time To the next prime." (Act III. Sc. 1.)
This Puck, or Robin Goodfellow, seems, likewise, to be the illusory candle-holder, so fatal to travellers, and who is more usually called Jack-a-lantern, or Will-with-a-wisp; and, as it would seem from a passage elsewhere cited from Scot, Kit with the canstick. Thus a fairy, in a passage of Shakespeare already quoted, asks Robin–
". . . Are you not he That frights the maidens of the villagery, Misleads night-wanderers laughing at their harm?"
Milton alludes to this deceptive gleam in the following lines–
". . . A wandering fire, Compact with unctuous vapour, which the night Condenses, and the cold environs round, Kindled through agitation to a flame, Which oft, they say, some evil spirit attends, Hovering and blazing with delusive light, Misleads th'amazed night-wanderer from his way To bogs and mires, and oft through pond and pool." (Paradise Lost, Bk. 9).
He elsewhere calls him “the frier’s lantern.”–(L’Allegro).
This facetious spirit only misleads the benighted traveller (generally an honest farmer, in his way
from the market, in a state of intoxication) for the joke’s sake, as one very seldom, if ever, hears any of his deluded followers (who take it to be the touch of Hero in some hospitable mansion, affording “provision for man and horse”) perishing in these ponds or pools, through which they dance or plunge after him so merrily.
“There are so manie tales,” says Reginald Scot, “upon Hudgin, in some parts of Germanie, as there did in England of Robin Good-fellow…. Frier Rush was for all the world such another fellow as this Hudgin, and brought up even in the same schoole–to wit, in a kitchen, anasmuch as the selfe-same tale is written of the one as of the other, concerning the skullian, who is said to have beene slaine, etc., for the reading whereof I referre you to frier Rush his storie, or else to John Wierus, De Praetigiis Daemonum.”
In the old play of Gammer Gurton’s Needle, printed in 1575, Hodge, describing a “great black devil” which had been raised by Diccon, the bedlam, and being asked by Gammer–
"But, Hodge, had he no horns to push?"
"As long as your two arms. Saw ye never Fryer Rushe, Painted on a cloth, with a side-long cowe's tayle, And crooked cloven feet, and many a hoked nayle? For al the world (if I schuld judg) chould reckon him his brother; Loke even what face frier Rush had, the devil had such another."
The fairies frequented many parts of the bishopric of Durham. There is a hillock, or tumulus, near Bishopton, and a large hill near Billingham, both which used, in former time, to be “haunted by fairies.” Even Ferry-hill, a well-known stage between Darlington and Durham, is evidently a corruption of Fairy-hill. When seen, by accident or favour, they are described as of the smallest size, and uniformly habited in green. They could, however, occasionally assume a different size and appearance; as a woman, who had been admitted into their society, challenged one of the guests, whom she espied in the market, selling fairy-butter. This freedom was deeply resented, and cost her the eye she first saw him with. Mr. Brand mentions his having met with a man, who said he had seen one who had seen the fairies. Truth, he adds, is to be come at in most cases. None, he believes, ever came nearer to it in this than he has done. However, that may be, the present editor cannot pretend to have been more fortunate. His informant related that an acquaintance in Westmoreland, having a great desire, and praying earnestly, to see a fairy, was told by a friend, if not a fairy in disguise, that on the side of such a hill, at such a time of day, he should have a sight of one, and accordingly, at the time and place appointed, “the hobgoblin,” in his own words, “Stood before him in the likeness of a green-coat lad,” but in the same instant, the
spectator’s eye glancing, vanished into the hill. This, he said, the man told him.
“The streets of Newcastle,” says Mr. Brand, “were formeerly (so vulgar tradition has it) haunted by a nightly guest, which appeared in the shape of a mastiff dog, etc., and terrified such as were afraid of shadows. I have heard,” he adds, “When a boy, many stories concerning it.”
The no less famous barguest of Durham, and the Picktree-brag, have been already alluded to. The former, beside its many other pranks, would sometimes, at the dead of night, in passing through the different streets, set up the most horrid and continuous shrieks to scare the poor girls who might happen to be out of bed. The compiler of the present sheets remembers, when very young, to have heard a respectable old woman, then a midwife at Stockton, relate that when, in her youthful days, she was a servant at Durham, being up late one Saturday night cleaning the irons in the kitchen, she heard these shrikes, first at a great and then at a less distance, till at length the loudest and most horrible that can be conceived, just at the kitchen window, sent her upstairs, she did not know how, where she fell into the arms of a fellow-servant, who could scarcely prevent her fainting away.
“Pioneers and diggers for metal,” according to Lavater, “do affirme that in many mines there
appeare straunge shapes and spirites, who are apparelled like unto other laborers in the pit. These wander up and down in caves and underminings, and seeme to bestuire themselves in all kinde of labour, as to digge after the veine, to carrie togither oare, to put it in baskets, and to turne the winding-whele to draw it up, when, in very deede, they do nothing lesse. They very seldome hurte the labourers (as they say) except they provoke them by laughing and rayling at them, for then they threw gravel stones at them, or hurt them by some other means. These are especially haunting in pittes where mettall most aboundeth.”–(Of ghostes, etc., London, 1572, 4to, p. 73.)
This is our great Milton’s
"Swart faery of the mine."
“Simple foolish men imagine, I know not howe, that there be certayne elves or fairies of the earth, and tell many straunge and marvellous tales of them, which they have heard of their grandmothers and mothers, howe they have appeared unto those of the house, have done service, have rocked the cradell, and (which is a signe of good luck) do continually tarry in the house.”–(Of ghostes, etc., p. 49.)
Mallet, though without citing any authority, says, “after all, the notion is not everywhere exploded that there are in the bowels of the earth, fairies, of a kind of dwarfish and tiny beings of
human shape, and remarkable for their riches, their activity, and malevolence. In many countries of the north, the people are still firmly persuaded of their existence. In Ireland, at this day, the good folk show the very rocks and hills in which they maintain that there are swarms of these small subterraneous men, of the most tiny size, but the most delicate figures.”–(Northern Antiquities, etc., ii. 47.)
There is not a more generally received opinion throughout the principality of Wales than that of the existence of fairies. Amongst the commonalty it is, indeed, universal, and by no means unfrequently credited by the second ranks.
Fairies are said, at a distant period, “to have frequented Bussers-hill in St. Mary’s island, but their nightly pranks, aeriel gambols, and cockleshell abodes, are now quite unknown.”–(Heath’s Account of the Islands of Scilly, p. 129.)
“Evil spirits, called fairies, are frequently seen in several of the isles [of Orkney], dancing and making merry, and sometimes seen in armour.”–(Brand’s Description of Orkney, Edin., 1703, p. 61.)