British Faeries and their Habitats
By Gordon the Toad
Published Beltane 1998
"So you want to meet the Faeries? Tell me, O, tell me, do: Why should the Faeries ever want to meet with you? Because you are a witch? a magician? a shaman? powerful? beautiful? ernest? honourable? Because we are all alive? Because it might be fun? Because you might be .... tasty?"
So we go prancing off, looking for Faeries in our best right-on, new-modern-pagan way and our voices echo back, unanswered. Our calls at the edge of the day in wood and glen go all unheeded. The stories tell us of The Departure, of the Good People gathering and withdrawing in the Hollow Hills, the doors closing and leaving us case aside on the bleak strand of our progress. And we are left wondering if it was all true and we talk anew of a new golden age when the hills were alive with the Little People, now gone beyond reach because they will now answer when we call.
And it seems that we are left in an empty world.
And empty world that is quite likely sniggering beneath the rocky ledge we stand on. Or licking its lips.
But maybe we are going about this the wrong way, maybe reaching out into Faerie (1) is not the process we envisage. Almost nothing else in Faerie is quite what we think it will be, so why should knocking on the door conform to our ideas either?
The Nature of the Quest
This article is an invitation to you to go on another journey and maybe on the way you will meet Faeries. Or maybe you will just meet yourself. Hopefully, one way or another, you will not be quite the same person at the end of it. Is that a good thing? Who knows? If you go into Faery hoping only for good things, then you have not read your folklore!
Western society seems to have pursued a severance from wonder with a ferocious determination and an equally determined sense of tragedy. We grow up in a dream of separation - case out from Eden, evolved beyond the measure of other animals, enchantment banished by reason and forsaken by our heroes (Arthur is asleep, Merlin lost in a cave, or a tree, or a crystal or some such thing, Thomas is in Elfland, all of them out of reach). Even our fiction has been full of "the Age of Man...", the end of magic - the elves have sailed beyond the edge of the world. "And all the wild witches, those most noble ladies, For all their broomsticks and their tears, Their angry tears, are gone" (2)
This is changing now: we are taking a much more positive view of the world we live in, more active and less nostalgic. The stories we spin seem more hopeful again. But there is still so much separation ... Even when we describe ourselves as "Pagan" and reach out anew to a living world, we bring that culture of estrangement with us and this is still reflected in much of what we do. I wonder at the amount of language in our ceremonies that speaks of crossing distance. We "draw down the Moon", invoke the Directions, invite the Presences of This or That or the The Next Thing to join us. Maybe the living Goddess is already here and do we really think that the Powers of the Four Directions are waiting for us to speak? Are they not always sweeping across the land in pulsing tides? Maybe the words of our rituals should turn inwards and call the change within us that opens our senses to the eternal presence of the Old Stone Woman, to the tide of the West moving across our little circle? The sharp answer is that "Of course, that is what our invocations really mean and all that "reaching out" language is actually, of course, you know, metaphysical. Or is it metaphorical? But you know what I mean, don't you? Don't you? Stop licking your lips." Nice answer that. Very neat. Very trim. Forget it.
This is Faerie, remember, and the first step on your journey is to say what you mean: words are a power, they describe and define and the wrong words can thrown you flat on your fact. "No, we Faeries will not touch this thistle that hides the gold." (You did not say anything about the hundred other thistles in this field, though, did you?). "Me Myself is hurting me!" Listen to what you say and only play word games when you are very sure of yourself. Say what you mean or shut up. You don't get a chance afterwards to say "I didn't mean that!"
Because the second step on this journey is a realisation: Faery is still there. Still watching. Fairly pissed off in some places, bruised and battered in others and in still others downright hostile. But very definitely there. And now, at last more of us are saying that we want to talk, to listen, to learn, to share. And then we go stamping off into the sacred places carrying our enthusiasm like a placard and our humility like trumpets and wielding field guides to "Faeries I Have Known".. We do all that and then feel disappointed when the doors do not open and the Shining Ones do not come cascading out like a swarm of cheerleaders.....
We need to remember our Faery lore: to read the old stories again. Not necessarily the latest sweet and powerful interpretations that turn our images of Faery into handy archetypes and thought forms, but the simple stories. The old stories of people living with the Good Neighbours down the road, by the stream, in the Hollow Hill. That is where we might learn the etiquette that guides contact and advice on who we might encounter - and what they might do to us. The world is changing and changing both ourselves and the people of Faerie with it. We who are Pagan seek a different relationship with the world than our more recent ancestors had and can share a different set of friendships with Faerie. With this in mind, be brave and be strong: if we are Pagan then we already talk to a world similar to that Faerie and, hopefully, are less likely to be shocked, dismayed or brow-beaten by a simple Faery presence and, again hopefully, are more likely than som eof our contemporaries in Entertaining faeries. We know we are earth-children, just as they are - just as we all are! Faeries delight in pushing humans, testing us, seeing how far we can be stretched, what they can get away with. Modern Pagans should have the personal confidence and enough of the touch of magic to stand up for themselves and treat with Faerie as fellow children of a singing Earth. So be brave: we are Pagans, we can reclaim old relationships with Faerie (our ancestors may have been Christian but do not dismiss their lore and their understanding) and we should have the strength to shape new relationships, too.
First Find your Faerie .....
In our recent myth, Faeries tend to be the people of the wild places: strange and noble figures of lowering cloud and blowing snow, or white water, deep pool and green moss. And indeed some are, but simpler stories remind us that they are just as often people of hedgerow, field and lane, farmyard, barn, house and home.
We need to think about who we hope to meet and why. We need to be careful of those romantic associations. Why are you sitting here at the crossroad hoping the Faery Queen will notice you as She rides out at Midsummer? What do you think She is going to do? Grant you three wishes? Often the people of those wild places who we long to meet so much are themselves wild and fierce. Maybe by our modern reading they are meant to be so: being of power - yes, with grace and wisdom and a certain stern dignity but essentially good and pure and noble. Very angelic? It sounds lovely, and maybe I just live in a grubbier world, but the Faeries I meet, have not read those books. They may be all those things, at times, but they are far more than that. The Shining Ones, the People of the Heights, are all of the above and might freeze the marrow in your bones if they actually noticed you at all. Nuckelavee, part human, part horse and all skinless, haunts the windswept beaches of the western coasts, while Redcap now favours the ruins of Border castles and the empty hills where the reivers once rose. Jenny Greenteeth, Peg Powler and the Kelpie all haunt deep and dark pools and will gladly introduce you to those depths. The people of the wild palces are not all so grim, but their nature reflects their homes and the wild and lonely places where they live mark their characters.
You need to recognise your desires in seeking Faerie: are we looking for a magic equivalent of a "wilderness experience", a walk in the high places simply because it is the "best" one to have, because it is wild, because it threatens us, offers danger and credibility? Why do we want these things? It may sound much more dramatic to have encountered the People of the Moor and Mountaintop than the Brownie who lives next to the coal scuttle, but which is more likely to happen, which are you more likely to learn from, and come out of it unscathed? If we hope to meet Faerie, maybe we should go looking for contacts who we can develop an ongoing relationship with, grow into Good Neighbours with, one with the other. The danger is still there and the unpredictability. Anyone who ays that the lowland, farmland people are harmless is, maybe conveniently, forgetting the Boggarts that can haunt a life out of all joy and hope, and the cold Woman with the White Hand who drifts through birch groves and leaves you mad or dead.
So who do you go looking for? Or do you actually look for someone, or do you just wait and see who comes visiting?
There are various classifications of the Faerie world. Yeats talks of The Sociable Fairies, "in the main, kindly .... These creatures who go about in troops, and quarel, and make love, much as men and women do ..." and The Solitary Fairies, "full of all uncharitableness ... These are nearly all gloomy and terrible in some way. There are, however, some among them who have light hearts and brave attire." (3) Scottish tales separate the Seelie (more or less pleasant) and the Unleelie (more or less unpleasant) Courts. More recent accounts talk of Faeries as elementals, memories of lost races and decaying Gods. This does not necessarily help the traveller on a Faery road much: you do not get much time to whip out your guidebook and work out the nature of the laughing, horsy thing that has just jumped on your head and left you spluttering in the ditch.
In general, I would disagree with Yeats and suggest that often the solitary people are actually more approachable than the trooping Faeries. You stand more chance of having a one-to-one conversation with a solitary Faerie than of being viewed as a gift for some rare gest. Many of the solitaries also hold old associations with people: most of the household and farmyard people are solitaries: Brownies, Hobs, Boggarts, Fenodyree, Gruagach, even the alarming Banshees (4). It is true that those old associations are not always amiable: some are definiately "marginal" and others downright unpleasant. Boggarts swing in an out of charm with delicious uncertainty and Banshees (the name simply means "Faerie Woman", but let's hang onto the wailing spectre bit) are chilling, but still part of family life like a rather shocking relative who only ever turns up at funerals. Of course, with the Banshee, she turns up to you know of the funeral in advance. Hedly Kow and his Pouca relatives may be annoying but are mostly harmless while the Black Shuck or Padfoot coming up behind you on a dark night is another matter.
"I listen. In the field's dark furrow, my pelt is invisible. Their fingers have felt my coat and tugged at my neck. They have dealt with the Death-Dealer and there is no going back." (5)
But there are also the local people: these are the ones who have overlapped with human lives for years: as involved with house and hearth and home as a place's human inhabitants. Often they are still around, warier now, but sometimes approachable.
Why bother anyway? Where does this leave us - realising that Faerie is still there, a world of wonder and enchantment but maybe out of reach? Some would say "Good! And the further away the better!" and they will stay safe within the walls of a human world and miss some of the thrills of a wider life. For to touch Faerie, be touched by Faerie, is a thrill! To invite Faerie back into our lives is to open a door to a chaos of light and glitter, or glimmering mornings and screaming nights and the sudden clatter of hooves on the roof. It is a world of wild and strange people with their own codes and rules, and their own agendas and we will have to learn again the old rules for these Good Neighbours. And we, both humans and Faeries, will all have to learn some new ones as well for, for just as we are not the people our ancestors were, neither are the Faeires we meet now quite the same people we were dealing with in the past. These are all good things, too: things that break our egocentric, humanocentric world and magick, things which teach us how to live and let live in the wider world without being passive and acquiescent but as equals in a fiercely dynamic interplay of laughter and trickery bouncing to and fro between the worlds.
The Journey to Faerie
But the journey still awaits and the seven-league boots are fretting by the door. The adventure beckons and, here, I keep telling you not to go away to the high hills. The adventure may as readily be at your own hearth so put on you fluffy slippers and potter about at home. If you go away to hunt the Faeries you may find nothing, or, more likely, you will find your over-eagerness, or your arrogance, or your conceit and self-importance, twisted and thrown back at you while the hills lie empty but laughing around you.
Take it easy. Work to create spaces where They know They are welcome: a home with occasional dusty shadows, a deep corner of a warm room, as near such hearth as your house may have, a garden with an overgrown corner, and old bench with room for you and a friend. An old comfy chair. Food set out on the step or bright gifts hanging, glittering in a birch tree or hawthorn. Grow the flowers that invite the People in - oak, ash and elder, bluebell, foxglove and thyme. Have a pond - or even just a small dark bucket of water that will reflect the stars in your backyard and grown about with ferns.
Practice your stillness. Expect nothing. Demand nothing. Offer friendship and the company of silence and one day you may turn around and find someone is beside you on the bench. A shape, a face or simply a presence: a space where a character is. Faeries are not bound to particular physical shapes: the forms we meet a usually a compromise between what the Faerie feels she should look like and the images our dreams offer her. Often the more human contact a Faerie has had, the more independent he is of our personal preconceptions - he has a bigger repetoire of images to work with. So open your eyes with care: try to welcome whatever shape the Faerie chooses to wear, and if this one shocks you, see that as something you need to go away and think about. If you feel someone who is pleasant but see someone who alarms you, try have a conversation with your "eyes", inner or outer, closed!
The simple point here is not to expect things - not to try to define who should come, who you want to meet, who should turn up in this setting ... That person may no longer be here, may never have been here, but you can be fairly sure that someone is and if they feel their welcome and your comfortable, self-assured warmth they are more likley to pop in and have a look .... but who is it that may come calling?
There are new People too: Faeries not described in the old stories, strange stilt-legged spirits who stalk the lamp-lit streets late at night, boggarts of stone and bin-lids and those odd forgotten spaces between the terraced houses.
"She would see them in the twilight when the wind was right, roly-poly shapes propelled by ocean breezes, turning end-over-end along the beach or down the alley behind her house like errant beach balls ... Sometimes they would get caught up against a building or stuck on a curb and then spindly little arms and legs would unfold from their fat bodies until they could push themselves free and go rolling with the wind again." (6)
This draws us back to the question of "what are Faeries?" and to their answer "We are". Humans talk of "memories of older races", "decaying gods of earlier cultures", "projections of our unconscious", "elemental forces". I suspect that it might be a bit of all these - accumulated dreams that humans and Land have shared for years. But Faeries are also just Faeries: they are there because they are there. Often they do belong to places, draw their strength from, grow from? the place where they life - hence maybe the new shapes they wear in cities. "I am the luck of the farm", the dream of the wood, Faerie folks are in old oaks. They walk out of the need of rock and root for a voice. Do not go on this journey having decided what you will find, how they will behave and where they have come from. I have met very few humans who can explain where we have come from and why we are here (if there is any reason at all, other than "to live") - why should we expect everything else to be set here for a purpose? There is often an implicit bit of human arrogance in such thoughts as well: "why are you here?" often carries an assumption that "you are here to serve us (humans)" - or "you are here because we want you to be". Oh, such a delight for the Faeries! What a juicy tidbit to chew over and temp and taunt and lure into a long walk along a short pier!
Last Words ......
So. Another step. Walk away from needing answers and know that Faeries are Faeries and will be so whether we like it or not. Or whether we believe in them or not: that Tinkerbell syndrome may well be the wrong way round. When we stop believing in Faeries, we disappear from their world - yet Faerie will go on being Faerie. The Earth it grows from is being battered and waylaid and in many places Faeries struggle to hold safe their homes, but Faerie is part of the Earth's Dream. It persists. And Faeries are out there when we walk in the woods, when we tend a garden, when we walk home alone at night through empty streets.
The journey that takes us towards Faerie also takes us into ourselves. It calls for much from us: those seven-league boots might be strides across your personality. Almost all that is called for is about recognition: of ourselves and our attitudes and of Faerie right to do what Faerie will, and our right to make sure they do not do it to us! We are not prey. If we are not swift, and clear and humorous we might become so, but we do not enter Faerie as victims. Read the stories, remember the tricks and know that if you are calm and confident in being "me, myself" you just might be respected enough to be talked to and not tricked, to become a friend and not just a neighbour.
This article has been a rambling one, like the "bonnie road that lies across the fernie brae", the road that leads to Elfland, and the journey it describes only touches the first steps you might take towards Faerie. In the end there are no steps I could teach you for they are as unpredictable as the Faeries themselves and what I tell you might just be a will-o-the-wisp to take you into a bog. I do not apologise for that: Faerie is wild and strange and fierce and delightful and in the end you will have to find your own way in.
When I was thinking about this article, however, I was standing in a flooded field where the River Mersey in Manchester had spilled out through a willow wood ....
"Tell them to go and find the places where the water is still, where the water reflects the trees and the reflections hold mystery. It does not matter where it is. Listen for the silence. Listen for the mystery. Where the shadows under the trees are still in the fiercest storm, that is where we are."
1. Faerie: both the "land" and the people are called "Faerie" and swarms of Faeries are sometimes also just called "Faerie". "Faerie", the land, is not really a separate country, although it is often easier to talk as if it were. It is the other side of the land we walk on everyday: the hidden side of things. The shadow behind the door, at the back of the wardrobe.
2. Yeats, W B: from the poem "Lines Written in Dejection"
3. Yeats, W B: "Fairy Folk and Folk Tales of Ireland" , Colin Smith, 1973
4. See Katherine Briggs' novel "Hobberdy Dick" for a wonderful retelling of Hob and related lore of the farmland peoples
5. Gordon, John: "Catch Your Death and other ghost stories" , Magnet, 1985
6. de Lint, Charles: "Dreams Underfoot" , Tor, 1994. de Lint writes wonderful books about a new magic, a modern pattern of human and Faerie