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;
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), http://tam-lin.org/versions/oxford.html, https://tam-lin.org/stories/Thomas_the_Rhymer.html, Thistle and Thyme: Tales and Legends from Scotland – Sorche Nic Leodhas (The Bodley Head Ltd, 1967)