Year of the Witch: The Old Witch

This fairy tale is English, taken from the 1986 Magnet edition of A Book of Witches by Ruth Manning-Sanders. It makes me think of Glinda from The Wizard of Oz, asking Dorothy ‘Are you a good witch or a bad witch?’. Were the question posed to the titular character in this story, the answer would surely be ‘I am a pissed-off witch’.

The story starts when the breadwinner of a small household falls sick and it falls to his daughters to keep the family from ruin. One sister is fully occupied with bemoaning their bad luck; the other sister packs her things and goes to look for a job. Unfortunately it’s a bad time to get employment as a servant and as she is turned from door after door, she goes further and further from home until she comes to a…shall we say eccentric part of the countryside.

As she passes a place where there is a hot oven, the loaves inside call out to her, “Little girl, little girl, take us out, take us out! We have been baking for seven years, and no one has come to take us out.” Possessing an admirable degree of chill, the girl takes out the bread and continues on her way. Next thing she knows, there’s a cow calling out for her help, declaring that it has not been milked in seven years. The girl stops, milks the cow, drinks a little milk and leaves the rest in pails in a field. On she goes until another cry for help reaches her ear, this time from an apple tree loaded down with ripe fruit. It has apparently been waiting seven years for its harvest to be picked. The girl calmly shakes down the fruit and walks on.

This is precisely the sort of country where you would expect to find a witch in residence, and what’s more, she’s hiring. Though the work is hard, it’s not Baba Yaga impossible – the witch wants someone to do all her housework, and her only stipulation is that the girl must never, ever look up the chimney. “Or you will repent it,” the witch assures her.

There’s only one problem with this job. The witch doesn’t want to pay her servant, because then the girl will leave and the witch will have to scrub her own floors. The girl puts up with the delays for some time, but one day while the witch is out of the house and the girl is cleaning the hearth stones, she absent-mindedly glances up the chimney. Immediately, a jingling bag of coins falls to the ground. Naturally, the girl looks again, and soon discovers that every time she looks up that chimney, it gives her money. Before long, she has more bags of gold than she can possibly carry. She loads herself up and books it out the door.

All of sudden she hears the witch shrieking behind her. Panicked, the girl runs to the apple tree that she helped and cries out:

Apple tree, apple tree, hide me

So the old witch can’t find me

If she does, she’ll pick my bones

And bury me under the marble stones.”

The apple tree conceals her among its branches and lies its leaves off when the witch asks whether her thieving servant came that way. The way she phrases her question (opening with ‘Tree of mine, tree of mine, have you seen a girl’) implies that the peculiar creatures around these parts are also in her service, and their respectful replies (‘no, mother; not for seven years’) support that, but they don’t seem to like her all that much. When the girl scrambles out of the apple tree and takes refuge with the cow, it lies to the witch as well, and the baker responsible for the talking bread does that same thing. The oven goes further. When the witch looks into its depths, the door slams shut on her, and she is stuck inside while the girl runs safely away.

Enter sister number two. When the first girl returns home with armfuls of gold it is the end of all the family’s financial worries, but that’s not quite enough riches for the second daughter of the household and she sets off to find the witch’s house for herself. There’s a second fortune there for the claiming – after all, how hard could it possibly be to look up a chimney? This girl encounters the loaves of bread, the cow and the tree, but though they call to her, she has no interest in stopping to help any of them. She can barely keep a civil tongue with the witch, secretly giggling to herself over the old woman’s gullibility. The first time the witch leaves her alone in the house, the second sister grabs as many bags of gold as she can and takes off. But the witch quickly realises that she has been robbed and when the girl asks the apple tree to hide her, the tree’s response can be boiled down to ‘Karma’. The witch catches up, beats the would-be thief and sends her home without a penny.

Very much in the manner of Ruth Manning-Sanders retellings, the witch is not portrayed as good or bad so much as simply there. If you mess with her, you take your chances; the story will not take your side.


Year of the Witch: Old Witch Boneyleg

I have not read this story before and have no idea what it is about, other than a strong likelihood that witches are involved. That’s good enough for me, so off we go.

Old Witch Boneyleg’ is a Russian fairy tale that comes from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ 1978 collection of the same name, published by Angus & Robertson. The story opens in a little house where a cat and a sparrow are for some unidentified reason bringing up a child called Jeekhar. The cat and sparrow can also wield axes, paws and wings notwithstanding, well enough to cut firewood, and that is what they do during the day while little Jeekhar keeps house. Before they leave for the day, they warn Jeekhar to beware visitors. “If old witch Boneyleg should come,” Cat instructs, “you hide, and don’t you speak a word.”

Jeekhar industriously cleans the house. While he is arranging the spoons on the table, he hears noises from outside, and through the window sees the approach of none other than the dreaded Boneyleg travelling in a tub swept along by a broom, in true Baba Yaga style. It is entirely possible that she is Baba Yaga with a rude nickname – Wikipedia indicates that this is so – but whatever else she gets up to, she’s definitely a thief. She bounces right into the house and starts stealing the spoons. Jeekhar emerges from his hiding place to make an indignant protest and is promptly scooped up into the tub, stolen along with his spoon. The poor boy shouts out for help and his guardians come leaping like the peculiar and really quite formidable individuals they are. Cat mauls the witch, Sparrow’s beak proves ruthless, and before you know it Jeekhar is safely back home.

And that is the end of the matter.

Except, no, obviously it isn’t. We’re dealing with a witch here and they do not give up easily. The very next day old witch Boneyleg breaks in again. “This is Cat’s spoon,” she says aloud, prowling about the kitchen, “this is Sparrow’s spoon, this is little Jeekhar’s spoon. Ah ha! It’s little Jeekhar’s spoon I’m going to have!” Jeekhar calls out a rebuttal from behind the stove, like an idiot, and gets kidnapped on the spot.

But Cat and Sparrow hear his screams and come after him. They attack the witch, she throws Jeekhar out of the tub, and he’s taken home for a thorough scolding. “Now, Jeekhar,” Cat and Sparrow tell him the next morning, “if old witch Boneyleg should come, remember, remember, just hide and don’t say a word! Better she should run off with your spoon than run off with you. We can get you another little spoon, but we can’t get another little you!” Jeekhar promises to be more careful this time.

And falls for the same trick for the third time in a row. This time, Cat and Sparrow are too deep in the forest to hear his cries, and the tub sails on and on until it reaches old witch Boneyleg’s house. She locks him in her cellar and lights her stove, then goes…No, you know what, I need to quote some more because I love this bit so much: So while the stove was getting hot, off went old witch Boneyleg to invite her friend, the Devil, to the feast. But the Devil was very busy, sticking forks into lost souls. No, he couldn’t come that minute but he’d come in an hour.’

Supper party for two arranged, Boneyleg brings out a baking dish and drops Jeekhar into it. He’s a disobliging dinner. Flailing his arms and legs, he makes himself impossible to stuff into the oven and ignores all the witch’s orders to curl himself up properly. “Is that curling up?” he asks innocently, turning somersaults. Beyond exasperated, Boneyleg demonstrates the proper way to lie in a baking dish by doing it herself, and Jeekhar pulls a flawless Gretel manoeuvre by shoving her straight in the oven. He leaps into the tub and sets off as fast as he can, sweeping along with the broom, racing for home.

So the witch is roasting instead of the boy, but along comes the Devil, who has managed to deal with his hellish commitments in time for dinner, and he rescues his screaming, cursing friend from the oven. Here I must quote again: ‘Well, he doesn’t want to eat her, the tough old thing! So he dips her in cold water, wraps her in a blanket, and puts her to bed. And when she’s cooled off a bit, she gnashes her teeth, and screams out “Boys! Boys! Don’t speak to me of boys! They don’t know how to behave! They’ve no manners I tell you, no manners!”

Little Jeekhar, and his beloved spoon, are forever safe from her. And presumably the Devil orders takeaway, as it doesn’t look like Boneyleg is using that oven again any time soon.

Year of the Witch: The Three Witch Maidens

When it comes to witch fairy tales, the ones that I love best are the ones with witch maidens. They are a highly specific subgroup of witches who gather in sisterhoods, mess with people’s eyesight, steal all the things and generally appear to be living their best evil lives. I am hopelessly fond of them, and only Ruth Manning-Sanders has ever indulged me with their existence, so let me indoctrinate you straight off the bat so that you can love them too.

The Three Witch Maidens’ is a Transylvanian fairy tale that comes from a book of the same name, a 1977 collection by Ruth Manning-Sanders. It begins with a shepherd, his sheep and a very tall tree. Instead of watching his sheep, he watches the tree. Finally temptation overcomes him and he starts climbing. Nine days later – yes, I did say days – he emerges onto a wide plain where there is a city of copper, and a forest of copper, and a stream of copper flowing like water. Above the stream, a copper bird is perched asleep. It is the only living thing in sight. The land around is silent as death.

Does the shepherd boy decide now is a good point to go check out what his sheep are up to? Not a bit of it. He looks at the tree where the bird is sleeping, the highest tree in the land, and decides to climb it. Nine days later, he arrives in a land of silver: a silver city on a silver plain, beyond that a silver forest, and a silver bird perched above a silver stream in a very tall silver tree. Our indefatigable shepherd launches himself up that tree, climbs for – you guessed it – nine days, and emerges into a kingdom under the Midas touch. Everything is gold, including a golden bird in a golden tree. This tree is so smooth that even the shepherd does not have a hope of climbing it. He turns around and climbs all the way down to the meadow, only to find the meadow is not there any more and neither are his sheep. The countryside is unknown to him and in the distance is a city he’s never seen before.

That’s concerning. On the other hand, he’s been climbing up and down trees for fifty four days and he’s a bit out of it, so instead of worrying too much about his situation, he sits down at the foot of the tree and falls asleep. When he wakes up, he is not alone. A little frog is doing its damnedest to climb the tree, despite being unable to reach the lowest branch. The shepherd advises the frog not to bother since there’s nothing useful up there and gets a furiously indignant response. “Nothing of use to me! Are three kingdoms of no use? Is disenchantment of no use? Am I to remain a frog forever, I who have been a queen? Yes, a queen who ruled over three kingdoms! But the witch maidens turned me into this miserable shape, and stole my kingdoms from me.” The witch maidens, having conquered these kingdoms, have taken the form of birds and are apparently sleeping off their exertions indefinitely. I told you they’re living their best evil life.

The only time the witch maidens take human form is at dawn, when each descends from her tree to doff her feathers and bathe. The frog queen’s plan is to steal these feathers and hold them ransom until the witch maidens return her kingdoms. It’s an excellent plan except for the bit where she can’t climb. The shepherd, moved by her story, offers to act on her behalf and take the feathers. The frog queen bursts into tears and promises him proof of her gratitude. “I’m not looking for rewards,” the shepherd says gently, and off he goes.

When he reaches the copper kingdom, he hides and waits for dawn. The sleeping bird flies down to the copper waters, shrugs off her feathers and goes to bathe in the shape of a woman. The shepherd promptly snatches her feathers and bolts up the copper tree into the silver kingdom, where he pulls the same trick, and does it again in the gold kingdom, then throws himself down again as fast as he can and tumbles out into the meadow with the witches hot on his heels.

Give us back our feather garments!” the witch maidens howl. The shepherd makes some gender essentialist comments about his physical abilities comparative to theirs. Fortunately for him, the witch maidens’ powers are connected to their feathers and they cannot curse him on the spot. The shepherd hands negotiations over the frog queen, who demands that her kingdoms be returned. The witch maidens don’t think that’s much of a negotiation, but they haven’t much choice. Holding hands, they circle the tree and sing.

The incantation brings the copper kingdom down, then the silver, and finally the gold, stretching across the landscape in a vast sprawl. What’s more, the kingdoms are suddenly filled with people flinging open doors and windows, calling out, laughing, living. As for the frog, she is once again a beautiful, powerful queen – more beautiful than the witch maidens, the story tells us, like that’s particularly relevant to the matter at hand and not subjective to the eye of the beholder at all. Anyway, the shepherd returns the feathers to their owners and the witch maidens fly away.

They will not trouble us again,” the queen says with amazing confidence, given that the last time she dealt with these witches they turned her into a frog. The queen then turns to the shepherd. “But I intend to trouble you all my life.” This is her proposing marriage, and the shepherd is 110% on board with the idea. They marry amidst the celebrations of three kingdoms, and the witch maidens do indeed leave them alone, which can only mean they are off troubling someone else.

But that’s a story for another day.

Onward January

2018 was, frankly, a year I just about scraped through while I was trying to do other things, and I can’t quite remember how Januaries are supposed to work at present, but resolutions are involved, yes? I’ve been thinking for some time of what I wanted to do next, once I’d wrapped up my Lands of Legend blog project, and whether I even would have time to do another series in 2019.

But this is how Januaries are supposed to work: I figure out what I want to do and then I spend the rest of the year figuring out how to do it.

When I kicked off this blog, six years ago – argh, 2012 was six years ago, nearly seven! When did that happen! – I started writing Fairy Tale Tuesdays, choosing a new fairy tale each week and recapping it in detail. I shared some of my favourite stories and discovered new favourites along the way, and I loved it, but after two years I moved on to different projects. It’s been a while. In that time, something significant has happened: I have NEW BOOKS. My fairy tale collection has expanded, and I want to talk about what I’ve read. Honestly, I want an excuse to read more.

2019 will, therefore, be the Year of the Witch. I will be finding and sharing fairy tales about witches from all over the world, posting every Friday. I will also be trying to write more about books, since that’s why I started blogging in the first place. The middle of 2018 was a book drought for me, as my TBR shelf reached critical mass, but since October I have been reading like a starving woman and I have thoughts to share.

Happy new year, everyone! Let’s do this.

Lands of Legend: Avalon

Throughout 2018 I have been writing myself a map of myths and legends. Some places I half-remembered, some I just needed an excuse to rediscover, and some were just names on a page until I read their stories. From vanishing islands to drowned kingdoms, from Otherworlds to Underworlds, this year’s project has been a voyage, and now it’s time for the final destination.

Avalon is an island from Arthurian legend, said to be the domain of Morgan le Fay and the resting place of King Arthur after his final battle. According to the 13th century Old French romance Perlesvaus, Avalon was the burial site of Arthur’s wife Guinevere and son Loholt, who in that version of events predeceased him. It is also said to be where Arthur’s sword Excalibur, or Caliburn, was forged.

The name of Avalon was interpreted by Geoffrey of Monmouth as ‘isle of apples’. In Latin it is Insula Avallonis; in Welsh it is Ynys Avallach. The apple is a fruit with many powerful mythic connotations, from the Garden of the Hesperides and the fruit of immortality guarded by Idunn in Norse legends to the Biblical Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. In Irish mythology the god of the sea, Manannan, rules over the island of Emhain Ablach, meaning ‘Emhain of the Apple Trees’. Geoffrey of Monmouth also called Avalon ‘the Fortunate Isle’.

Though the interpretation of the name may have been inspired by the Burgundian town of Avallon (meaning ‘apple-place’), there is a long association between the mythological Avalon and the English site of Glastonbury. In the 1191 A.D., during the reign of Henry II, it was claimed that the grave of King Arthur had been found at Glastonbury, and what’s more that Guinevere was buried with him. Connections were drawn between name of Glastonbury and the Welsh Otherworld of Annwn. The Glastonbury story is widely regarded as an audacious hoax, but the Arthurian glamour is hard to dispel.

In Geoffry’s Vita Merlini, he provides this description of Avalon: ‘…it produces everything needful. The fields there have no need of farmers to plough them…Grain and grapes are produced without nurture and apple trees grow in the woods.’ After the battle at Camlann, Morgan le Fay took Arthur into her care, to begin the healing of his wounds. Also in the Vita Merlini is a description of Morgan leading a sisterhood of nine enchantresses, in the manner of priestesses. Other rulers of Avalon include Morgan’s lover Guingamuer and the king Bangon, but make no mistake, this is definitely Morgan le Fay’s personal island paradise.

There is a branch of Arthurian legend that avoids Avalon entirely, claiming Arthur to be sleeping within a cave, ready to rise and restore a golden age when his land’s need is great. Local folklore has it that Arthur’s cave is located in Somerset, at Cadbury Castle. According to the legend, the gates of the cave open once every year to reveal the king still sleeping there. There is are Somerset legends that tie Arthur to the story of the Wild Hunt, with the king riding out among huis knights on Christmas Eve. Another legend places the cave in the Eildon Hills near Melrose, while yet another version drops Arthur into Mount Etna in, yes, Italy. Arthurian legend is a well-travelled beast.

And it is an abiding one. Avalon is the island in the mist, a glimpse of ancient mystery. It is once and future, and always.

So we come to the end of this year’s search for the lands of myth and legend. Thank you for joining me on the tour! It is now safe to disembark.


These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller. If you know an alternative version, I would love to hear it!

References: Worlds of Arthur: King Arthur in History, Legend and Culture – Fran and Geoff Doel, Terry Lloyd (Tempus Publishing Ltd., 2005), The Discovery of King Arthur – Geoffrey Ashe (Sutton Publishing, 2005), The King Who Was and Will Be: The World of King Arthur and His Knights – Kevin Crossley-Holland (Orion, 1998),, The Arthurian Handbook – Norris J. Lacy and Geoffrey Ashe (Garland Publishing Inc, 1988), The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Arthurian Legends – Ronan Coghlan (Element Books Ltd, 1995)

Lands of Legend: the Underworlds

Trigger warning: references to incest, rape and domestic abuse

It is nearly the end of the year, nearly the end of this project, and it’s time to talk about death! If I was to write about all the Underworlds out there, this would be a book, not a blog post, so I have made a selection of three. Consider this month’s Land of Legend as a holiday brochure of sorts for your afterlife needs. We’ll visit the sights, gossip about the royalty, and hopefully avoid any fiery pits.

Hades is named for, well, Hades: son of Cronus and Rhea, brother to Zeus and Poseidon (among others), and king of the Greek underworld. An isolated figure in comparison to his many hectic relatives, Hades is best known for that time when he completely lost his head and kidnapped the goddess Persephone, thereby making a mortal enemy of her terrifying mother. That shambles turned out better than it had any right to. Hades convinced Persephone to eat six seeds of a pomegranate and by so doing, she was committed to an existence halfway between worlds – six months of the year among the living, and six months ruling alongside Hades as queen of the dark realm they now shared.

The Greek underworld was divided into three lands. Great heroes went to the glorious Elysian Fields and the Fortunate Isles. Notorious villains received highly personalised and excruciating tortures in Tartarus, which was basically the underworld of the Underworld, far beneath the rest of Hades. Most people, though, went to the Asphodel Fields, the land of shadows, which by all accounts that I’ve read was just…boring.

At the entrance to Hades stood an elm tree, its leaves thick with false dreams, and through the lands flowed five rivers. The Styx was the river of hatred, encircling the underworld seven times over. The Acheron was the river of pain, and the main point of entry for the recently dead, who were carried across its waters by the ferryman Charon for the price one obol, a coin that had to be buried with each corpse. Sometimes Charon would make an exception for souls bearing a golden bough, but the unburied were always out of luck, stranded on the far bank of the afterlife. The Lethe brought oblivion, its waters erasing the memories of the dead. The Cocytus was the river of wailing and Phlegethon was the river of fire. The eastern boundary of Hades was marked by yet another river, the Oceanus, which encircled the world.

For a god as unsociable as Hades, he had a lot of associates. Charon, of course, and the three-headed dog Cerberus, but also the Furies – Alecto, Megaera, and Tisiphone – who acted as avengers, in particular on behalf of wronged parents. In fact, hanging around outside the entrance to Hades were a veritable compendium of miserable types such as Grief, Anxiety and War. Once a soul entered the Underworld, they were never to leave, but sometimes a plea that would fall on deaf ears with the king would receive a more merciful response from his wife. The musician Orpheus pursued his dead lover Eurydice, bewitching Charon, Cerberus and even the Furies with his playing. By appealing to Persephone with his song of broken hearts and loneliness, he won a chance to save the woman he loved, if only he could walk the long way to the surface without looking back to see if Eurydice was still there behind him.

But of course he did look back, and Eurydice was lost. In time Orpheus fell foul of the Maenads, who killed him, and he made his own way down to Hades, still singing.

The Norse underworld, Niflheim, was the province of Hel, the trickster god Loki’s only daughter. In one disturbing version of events, Loki ate the heart of the giantess Angerbotha and from that Hel was born. Above the waist, Hel was a beautiful woman; below the waist, a rotting corpse. The leader of the gods, Odin, condemned her to an existence in the underworld in the same way he imprisoned her brother Jörmungandr in the sea and Fenrir with unbreakable chains – to be Loki’s child was to be born with a legion of enemies – but Hel took Odin’s lemons and turned them into the lemonade of vengeance. First, she made the place her own. Hel had a palatial hall called Éljúðnir, Hunger for her dish and Famine for her knife, and three servants: a serving man called Ganglati, the maid Ganglöt and the guardswoman Modgud, who stood watch on the bridge over Gioll, the river of death. Then, when Odin’s beloved son Baldr was killed, the gods begged for Hel to return him to the land of the living. She agreed…on the stricture that every living thing in the world should weep for him first.

She never let him out. And at the final battle, Ragnarok, death came for Odin himself.

Another lady of the Underworld is Hine, the guardian of Death in Maori mythology. She was the daughter of the creation god Tane with Hine-ahu-one, the woman he had sculpted from earth. Hine had many names: Hine-titama, meaning ‘Dawn Maid’, Hine-i-tauira, meaning ‘Patterned Maid’ and Hine-manuhiri, meaning ‘Newly Arrived Maid’. Then Tane tricked her into becoming his second wife. Together they had five children: Tahu-kumea, Tahu-whakairo, Tahu-otiatu, and Tahu-kumea-atepo and Hine-tītamauri. But Hine was curious about herself and her life, and when she found out that Tane was her father as well as her husband, she was so horrified that she fled for the safety of Rarohenga, the Maori underworld. There she became Hine-nui-te-po, the goddess of death.

After leaving Tane she bore three more children: Te Pō-uriuri, Pō-tangotango, and Pare-kōri-tawa. She also married again – this time, her husband was her uncle, Rūaumoko, the god of volcanoes.

Unlike Hel, Hine was an almost maternal presence. By freeing the spirits of the dead to return to the Sky Father, she acted as a guide instead of a gaoler, but just because she took a gentler approach did not mean it was at all a good idea to mess with her. The trickster Maui found that out the hard way. Fresh from feats such as fishing islands out of the sea and beating up the actual sun, he decided he would achieve immortality for all humanity by creeping up on Hine while she was sleeping, crawling…through her vagina…and emerging from her mouth. Disney Maui this is not.

As Maui crawled inside Hine, a watching bird laughed at the sight of him. The goddess woke immediately and crushed Maui to death with the obsidian teeth inside her vagina. So perish all rapists.

The path between Rarohenga and the world of the living was guarded by Kuwatawata, but the living could visit the realm of the dead, at least to begin with, and Rarohenga was also the home of Ue-tonga, the god of tattooing, and Niwareka, his daughter. Niwareka married a chief called Mataora and went to live on the surface of the world. At first they were happy, but Mataora was a jealous man and began to abuse her, and Niwareka followed in Hine’s footsteps by retreating to the safe haven of Rarohenga. Mataora pulled an Orpheus, searching for his wife and singing of his regrets, and Niwareka chose to forgive him. Unfortunately for Mataora, he forgot to pay his respects to Kuwatawata on the way out, and in consequence the living were barred from entry to Rarohenga.

In these stories, the Underworld is not necessarily a place to be afraid of. Persephone and Hel started out as prisoners and became queens; Hine sought sanctuary and ended up granting it. The dark is not always something to fear.

Though it may be worth taking a few singing lessons, in case there’s a goddess to bribe on the way out.

These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller. If you know an alternative version, I would love to hear it!

References: Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies – [chief consultant] Dr. Alice Mills (Hodder, 2003), The Kingfisher Book of Mythology: Gods, Goddesses and Heroes from around the World – ed. Cynthia O’Neill, Peter Casterton and Catherin Headlam (Kingfisher Publications, 1998),,,,ō

Lands of Legend: Fairyland

Do you believe in fairies?…If you believe, clap your hands!

– J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan

The Fairylands of popular children’s authors such as Enid Blyton and J.M. Barrie tend to be colourful but fairly moralistic wonderlands complete with pixies and unicorns and the children who will in time outgrow them. The winged mischief-maker archetype can be traced back through Elizabethan and Jacobean literature. Shakespeare, of course, had quite the influence on the literary perceptions of Fairyland with A Midsummer Night’s Dream. A poem attributed to Ben Jonson describes an evocative scene:

From Oberon, in fairyland,

The king of ghosts and shadows there,

Mad Robin, I at his command,

Am sent to view the night-sports here;

What revel-rout

Is kept about

In every corner where I go,

I will o’ersee,

And merry be,

And make good sport, with ho, ho, ho!

But in the folklore and ballads I’m going to talk about in this post, it is not a dramatic, domineering Fairy King who rules the roost. It is the Fairy Queen you need to worry about. For instance, in the Scottish ballad Tam Lin, the titular knight was out hunting when a bitter wind caught hold of him and the Queen of Fairyland snatched him out of his world to be her pet. Tam Lin didn’t even mind, for a while. “The life in Fairyland is pleasant, Janet, the life in Fairyland is gay. None tires there, and none grows old,” he says in Ruth Manning-Sanders’ Stories from the English and Scottish Ballads. He would gladly stay there, but every seven years the Fair Folk were obliged to pay a tithe to Hell and Tam Lin feared his time was nearly up. In order to save him, Janet waited at Miles Cross in the hours between midnight and one on Halloween, ready to seize Tam Lin off his horse as he passed by in the Queen’s company.

And it worked, Tam Lin was saved, but the Queen sure took it personally.

The ballad of Thomas the Rhymer is a similar story: handsome young mortal meets Queen of Elfland while she is out for a jaunt in the human world and effectively signs a seven year contract as her toyboy with a single kiss. Of the return journey to Elfland, Ruth Manning-Sanders writes: ‘the horse galloped faster than any wind that blows. Away and away and far away, right out of the land of the living, and came at last to a vast desert where no man had ever been.’

In the desert, three roads materialised before Thomas like mirages. The first was ‘a long, long narrow stony road, thicketed with thorns and briars; and in some places the thorns spread right across the road and choked it, so that it seemed there could be no passing’. This was the Path of Righteousness, the least popular of the three. The second road was wide and easy, surrounded by lilies. “That is the path to wickedness,/ Tho some call it the road to heaven,” the Queen tells Thomas (Child Ballad No.37). Then there is the third road, a green and winding way that leads to Elfland.

They rode through the night, into a sunless, moonless dark and the swirl of unseen water rising around them. There was the sound of waves in the distance. Riding on, the horse waded through a yet more alarming substance. Every drop of blood shed on mortal earth flowed through the rivers of Elfland, and Thomas’s mount was up to the knee in it. But they passed through this obstacle as well and in time came to a beautiful garden, and beyond that, an orchard. The Queen pressed an apple on Thomas that would compel him to always speak the truth, whether he wished to or not.

At the end of the agreed-upon seven years, Thomas was returned to Huntley Bank, the spot where the Queen had found him. He went home to Ercildowne, where he made a name for himself with soothsaying and startling truths, until one day a snow white, golden-horned hart and hind walked out of the forest and Thomas understood the Queen wanted him back. He followed the deer into the forest and was never seen again.

The Queen’s preferences aside, the Fair Folk were not solely interested in pretty boys plucked out of the countryside. There were practicalities to consider as well. The Fair Folk sometimes called on the services of a human midwife, presumably because their own birth rate was too low to have many experts in the field, and in Katharine Briggs’ An Encyclopedia of Fairies, she details a story about a young woman who acted as wet nurse to a fairy baby. The nurse was handsomely paid for the work and at the end of the summer, the fairy mother returned, leading the nurse to a green hill, which opened at their approach. The fairy mother applied three drops of an ointment on the nurse’s left eye to give her fairy sight. Onward they went, into a beautiful country of abundant orchards and ripe cornfields. Labouring in those fields were people the nurse had once known, spirited away under the hill as punishment for what the fairy mother called ‘evil deeds’. There are some interesting shades of ‘tithe to Hell’ to unpack in that.

The nurse was loaded down with remarkable cloth, rich food and fairy medicines before she left, but there was one more thing she wanted. After the fairy mother had restored her mortal sight, the nurse managed to steal the magical ointment and reapplied it. For many years she used the power safely, but on seeing the fairy mother again, the nurse unthinkingly greeted her and even more unwisely, admitted to seeing her with both eyes. The fairy mother breathed on them, and the power was gone. It’s unclear whether all sight was taken with it.

Another girl, Jenny Permuen, had a similar experience. Hired by an apparently courteous and sympathetic (if oddly omniscient) widower to care for his young son for a year and a day, she was led away on an eastward road and through an opening in the ground to a land thick with jewel-bright flowers. To quote Katharine Briggs ‘There were rivers clearer than any water she had ever seen on the granite hills, and waterfalls and fountains; while everywhere ladies and gentlemen dressed in green and gold were walking, or sporting, or reposing on banks of flowers, singing songs or telling stories’. All very civilised and pastoral and completely untrustworthy. Jenny was taken to an opulent mansion, where her employer’s adorable little son was asleep in a cot made of seashell. However much she loved him, and however much the child appeared to love her, a deal was a deal; at the end of a year and a day, Jenny woke in her mother’s cottage, left with only the monumental task of explaining what had happened to her.

So, Fairyland: fields of flowers, rivers of blood, work visas available. One surefire way to get there was by eating fairy food, although that might come with a spectrum of other side effects. Animal transformation, for instance. Another route was through a fairy ring – a circle of mushrooms or standing stones or unnaturally green grass – where the Folk would hold their revels. A mortal entering the ring could not be seen on the other side of it. They might dance until they dropped or emerge only to find that centuries had passed in their own world, Fairyland time zones being a nightmare to navigate.

There are what you might call associated fairylands in other folk tales, such as the Transylvanian story ‘The Three Witch Maidens’, in which a Yggdrasill-type tree led to three enchanted lands: one where all things living and man-made were of copper, the second where they were all made of silver, and the third where all were of gold. Each was ruled by a witch-maiden who took the shapes of birds. They had seized power from a beautiful queen and turned her into a frog, though she eventually got her own back with the help of one of those random charming boys who show up in these stories to be loved and used by powerful women. In Thistle and Thyme, there is a Scottish fairy tale called ‘The Ailpein Bird’, in which otherworldly lords who took the shape of birds ruled over, respectively: an icy wilderness, a fiery hellscape and last but definitely not least, a green paradise hidden away behind the impassable slopes of a glass mountain. The Sicilian fairy tale ‘Unfortunate’ seems to take place firmly in the human world, but the immensely unlucky protagonist was obliged to set off past the sandhills to find her Destiny, who was sitting angrily in a hazel thicket – and hazel is a particularly beloved tree of the Fair Folk.

However you get there, Fairyland is not a place that is easy to leave behind. Its human expatriates were said to pine away in longing for it. If, on the other hand, Fairyland’s changeable borders happen to close in behind you, it may be best to remember Miles Cross and arrange to have your own Fair Janet waiting on the other side.

After all, it’s nearly Halloween. Can’t be too careful.

These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller. If you know an alternative version, I would love to hear it!

References: The Three Witch Maidens – Ruth Manning-Sanders (Beaver Books, 1977), The Encyclopedia of Fairies – Katharine Briggs (Pantheon Books, 1976), Stories from the English and Scottish Ballads – Ruth Manning-Sanders (E.P. Dutton & Company, Inc., 1968), The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Fairies – Anna Franklin (Vega, 2002),,, Thistle and Thyme: Tales and Legends from Scotland – Sorche Nic Leodhas (The Bodley Head Ltd, 1967)