How One Writer Learned to Love Folklore and Chase Magic

By Icy Sedgwick


Folklore is a part of our everyday lives, still influencing our actions, acting as entertainment in the 21st century, and weaving its way through the history we recount today. In this post, folklorist and author Icy Sedgwick discusses her life-long passion for folklore and how it has shaped her life.

Jade Westerman, Exhibitions Assistant at Palace Green Library

Did you hear the story about the travelling salesman who picked up a stranger in a Las Vegas bar? He woke up the next morning in a bathtub full of ice. The hotel room telephone sat beside the bath, a note taped to it telling him to call 911. It turned out his kidneys were gone, stolen to be sold on the black market.

That, my friends, is an urban legend. You could say they’re the modern descendants of folklore. Warnings and information become encoded in story format, passed along through word of mouth, then in print, and now on the internet. In the above example, the warning counsels against the advances of strangers, wrapped in the guise of ‘a friend of a friend told me…’.

Within folklore, such warnings keep us away from poisonous plants, entering unfamiliar places uninvited, or taking items that don’t belong to us. Folklore also teaches us other valuable lessons, if we have the wit to listen. Gawain shows respect and honour to an ugly witch, only to learn she’s actually a beautiful woman who rewards him for his gallant behaviour. Such an example seems almost too apt for these troubled times.


Monkshood, also known as Wolf’s Bane © Icy Sedgwick

It’s the story side of folklore that fascinates me.

These ancient tales, in their technicolour variations, populated by memorable characters, tell us so much about earlier times. They also come with a side helping of magic and wonder. Perhaps fairies really do cavort in the moonlight, gossamer wings fluttering in a gentle breeze. Or perhaps they steal babies and trick humans into doing their bidding.

The stories are filled with heroes and villains, captivating in their bravery or devilry. Look at King Arthur, forever sleeping beneath a mountain, ready to defend Britain when called. Or the murderous redcaps of the Borders, ready to strike humans down and dip their caps in fresh blood.

It was ghost stories that first snared me. Whenever I’d visit a new castle or stately home with my family, I’d paw through the books in the gift shop. If they had a collection of Northumberland ghost stories or folklore, I had to have it. I grew up with tales of the Cauld Lad o’ Hylton and the ghosts of Newcastle’s Keep. I learned about the Grey Man of Bellister and the phantoms of Chillingham Castle. Naturally, I went in search of them, and I’m yet to track down such a spirit… though I haven’t given up trying.


Chillingham Castle © Icy Sedgwick

Those stories also inadvertently taught me the history of my city and its neighbouring counties. I learned about the Border Reivers, largely neglected by so-called British history with all its pomp and circumstance. The Battle of Flodden Field rubbed shoulders with the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

Over the years I’ve developed my own areas of interest.

The folklore of plants is a particular favourite, from the exotic belladonna to the English yew. I suppose it’s one of the reasons why I love J.K. Rowling’s scenes of Herbology lessons with Professor Sprout. Whenever I visit the Alnwick Garden, I always tour the Poison Garden. Although I try to avoid the henbane when it’s in bloom, for its scent is less than pleasant.

Witchcraft and magic captivate the imagination, from hedge witchery to High Ceremonial magick, throbbing with the beat of Egyptiana. But then there are the quieter, perhaps more important, tales of witches and persecuted women. Take Bessie Dunlop, punished for claiming the same fairyland experience as Thomas the Rhymer. The stories of countless women cry with injustice down the centuries.

I think magic is perhaps my favourite. Haven’t we all sat in traffic, whispering an urgent spell to change the light from red to green? Or fervently begged the universe for one last parking space? Tugging on the strings of the universe might sound fanciful, but maybe it’s the birthright of all humans. It’s hardly surprising my dark fantasy stories feature mages, necromancers, and other wild magic.

Witchcraft and magic: a man conducting magic rites, devils and a ghost appearing, and a hunter cowering in terror. Colour engraving. From Wellcome Images (CC BY 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons)


And let’s not forget the ghosts. Whether they exist or not, there’s something exciting about the creak on the stair when you’re home alone. I’ll never forget finding an inexplicable cold spot in the corridor at the old refectory at Brinkburn Priory, tucked away from draughts and other mundane explanations.

Quite frankly, folklore celebrates the weird and the bizarre.

Whether they’re warnings or lessons, the myths and legends of every culture toss a dazzling throw over normality. They tidy away reason and logic, packing them into boxes to be reopened when the magical moment passes.

We need such oddities in our lives, if only as a reminder that the world doesn’t always make sense. And that’s okay.



Icy Sedgwick writes weird and whimsical fiction in the Gothic horror and dark fantasy genres. Based in Newcastle, she also blogs about folklore and the supernatural when she’s not knitting, writing, or exploring old buildings. You can get a copy of her short story collection, Harbingers: Dark Tales of Speculative Fiction, here. Or connect on Twitter @IcySedgwick.



Entry to Between Worlds: Folklore and Fairytales from Northern Britain is free; opening hours are 10am – 5pm 7 days a week until February 25 2018. For further information about your visit, please visit the Palace Green Library website at:


Thomas of Erceldoune: Fairy Geography

By Victoria Flood, Lecturer in Medieval and Early Modern Literature at the University of Birmingham


At Palace Green Library, we are fortunate enough to co-curate our exhibitions with academics from across Durham University, with the final output helping to share their research with a wider audience. Victoria Flood, formerly of Durham University and now based at University of Birmingham, was the academic lead on our Between Worlds exhibition, helping shape the exhibition content and decide on the themes and stories it discusses. Here, Victoria explores the story of Thomas the Rhymer and the significance of its setting on the Eildon Hills.

 David Wright, Assistant Curator, Palace Green Library

One of the most remarkable fairy narratives in the Between Worlds exhibition is that of Thomas of Erceldoune, also known as Thomas Rhymer, a pseudonymous author of poetry and prophecy, ostensibly based on a real historical person – whose tale, like much of the material in the exhibition, treads an unstable line between fact and fiction. The setting of Thomas’s fairy encounter is the Eildon Hills: the triple peak close to Melrose in the Scottish Borders, a landscape which, in the tale of Thomas, is an actor in its own right.


The Eldon Hills, Melrose by. Image © James Brown

The earliest known account of Thomas and the fairy is the fourteenth-century northern English Romance and Prophecies of Thomas of Erceldoune. The romance, which survives in four medieval manuscripts and one early printed book, tells of Thomas’s meeting, and sexual encounter, with a fairy on Huntley Banks. The fairy tells Thomas that if he lies with her she will lose her beauty. He ignores her warning, and the fairy undergoes a monstrous change (and he wonders whether she is a devil – a nod perhaps to the uncertain relationship between fairies and demons in medieval imaginations). Thomas and the fairy journey to the fairy Otherworld, during which time the fairy regains her beauty, and Thomas lives there for what he believes to be three days but is in fact three years. The fairy then returns Thomas to Huntley Banks, prior to hell’s tithe on the fairy realm, and as a parting gift gives him a true tongue and a series of prophecies about the Scottish Wars of Independence.

The tale of Thomas was incredibly influential in both its broader, and more local, appeal, and material from the Romance and Prophecies was reworked across Britain from the later Middle Ages into the nineteenth century. The legend is perhaps best known today through the ballad, ‘Thomas Rhymer’. In the nineteenth century, Sir Walter Scott was so struck by it that he cultivated an area of woodland on the edge of his Abbotsford estate as ‘Rhymer’s Glen’.

D NG 858

Rhymer’s Glen, Abbotsford (1831) by Joseph William Turner. Courtesy of National Galleries Scotland, DNG 858, Henry Vaughan Bequest 1900

Yet the medieval tale is far more geographically rooted than Scott’s horticultural experiment suggests. The romance is situated in a real landscape, which undergoes a supernatural transformation. Before they set out on their journey, the fairy points to three paths which Thomas sees cut across the Eildons, demarcating five distinct locales: three roads leading to heaven, purgatory, and the earthly paradise; a valley which is hell, and a castle perched on the hill above hell, the fairy court.

This is in many respects a familiar medieval topography: purgatory often appears as a mountain; and the earthly paradise is similarly concrete in its locative identifications – it appears on medieval world maps. But in the romance, all this is integrated in an actual rather than symbolic comprehension of geography. It is presented as a view from the Eildon Hills, which suddenly becomes a window onto the cosmos, the setting for a battle for human souls on a cosmic scale, between the divine, the demonic, and apparently the fairy also. But the role of fairyland in this is unclear. It is part of neither hell, heaven nor paradise – it is a quantity unto itself, and, like all the realms, an alien intrusion into a familiar landscape. Indeed, this vision might be understood as a dramatic overstatement of the local terrain: hills become mountains. This re-visioning is decidedly uncanny, the known becomes unknown. The Eildon Hills are not what they once were – suddenly, they abut mountains and mysterious fairy castles.  We step outside the rules of ordinary space, as we do ordinary time: after all, three days in the fairy realm pass as three years on earth.

We might compare the fairy topography of the Romance and Prophecies to that of another medieval romance, Ogier the Dane, where the otherworldly island of Avalon is situated left of the earthly paradise – and this reminds me a lot of the location of Neverland in Peter Pan: ‘turn third to the right and turn left after the sun. Second to the right and straight on till morning.’ Such geographies are at once highly specific and entirely impossible. Overlaid upon the world is an Otherworld, which might be glimpsed, even navigated, through all that is known and familiar, if only we look at it in the right way.

For further reading, see:

Byrne, Aisling, Otherworlds: Fantasy and History in Medieval Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016)

Cooper, Helen, ‘Thomas of Erceldoune: Romance as Prophecy’, in Cultural Encounters in the Romance of Medieval England, ed. Corinne Saunders (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2005), pp. 171-87

Flood, Victoria, Prophecy, Politics, and Place: Political Prophecy in England from Geoffrey of Monmouth to Thomas of Erceldoune (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2017)

Lyle, Emily, Fairies and Folk: Approaches to the Scottish Ballad Tradition (Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 2007)

Murray, James A. H., ed., The Romance and Prophecies of Thomas of Erceldoune (London: Trübner, 1875; EETS OS 61)


Entry to Between Worlds: Folklore and Fairy Tales from Northern Britain is free; opening hours are 10am – 5pm 7 days a week until February 25 2018. Please visit the Palace Green Library website for further information about your visit.

Piskies in the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic

By Judith Hewitt, Museum Manager at the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic


Folklore, fairy tales, and superstition are a topic of interest to numerous museums throughout the world. Palace Green Library is hardly the first museum to touch on the topic of fairies, and we definitely won’t be the last.

Judith Hewitt shows us that the land of Cornwall and the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic are terrorised by small mischievous creatures known as piskies.

If you find yourself in Cornwall, why not take a trip to the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic to learn more about piskies and other creatures.

Jade Westerman, Exhibitions Assistant at Palace Green Library

The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic is located in Boscastle, Cornwall. The West Country is said to be inhabited by piskies: small creatures with pointed ears, who wear brightly coloured clothes and cause mischief. If you get lost on the moors, Cornish folk say you have been “piskey led.” The Museum has a large display on the “fae” (otherworldly beings such as faeries, piskies, tree sprites, shapeshifting hares and green men).

BLOG IMAGE - Judith Hewitt - Cornish Peskies 3

“Pixies and Piskies… small elf-like spirits…They have pointed ears, round faces and squinting eyes and dress in…a medieval type tunic, pointed cap and pointy toed shoes that curl back on their feet. 

“Various theories have been put forward to explain the origins of the pixy tribe.  It is said that they are the departed spirits of druids or other pagan people who once inhabited the West Country or are the souls of unbaptised children… they love playing tricks on humans, but if left regular offerings… they will help around the house or farm…

“Small images of pixies and piskies are still popular on key rings and fridge magnets sold to tourists in the West Country.” The Book of Faerie by Michael Howard.

BLOG IMAGE - Judith Hewitt - Cornish Peskies 2This painting of piskies (left) was probably painted in the 1960s.  We know that it dates to the early days of the Museum.

Cecil Williamson, the Museum founder once said, “People are always asking me why there are so many stories of piskies on the moors – the answer is because there are so many piskies on the moors!”.

Look carefully at the picture and you will see that one of the piskies is dressed as a churchman. He seems to be telling the others off, perhaps showing the difference between the playful piskies and the perceived dullness of the Church.

Alternatively, this picture might illustrate someone who has been “pisky led” or “kidnapped by the fairies”.

Robert Kirk, a Scottish minister, researched fairy lore. When he died, his research was published in a book called The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies (1692).

Rumour had it that Kirk had fallen asleep on a known fairy mound and disappeared. Other stories state that he was kidnapped by the fairies for trying to reveal their secrets. One legend tells that his dead body was taken away by the fairies so he could become “Chaplain to the Fairy Queen”. Perhaps this picture is inspired by the story of the Christian Minister who found himself trapped in Fairyland!

The picture communicates many important ideas about piskies. They are small, associated with death, have a playful nature and their own morality. Why do people in Cornwall think of them like this?

“they thought… that the Piskies were the spirits of the ancient dead, our Pagan ancestors who dwell in the Otherworld reality of the Cornish landscape, alongside the living… One old story collected by William Bottrell… illustrates this view; the Piskies are described as being ‘not of our religion but star-worshippers.’

“…Another interesting Christian justification for Piskies was that they were the old Pagan Gods of Cornwall and that since the birth of Christ they had been forever diminishing in size until they became muryans (ants), and would one day vanish altogether. It was thus taboo in Cornwall to destroy a muryans’ nest, and it was believed that if a piece of tin were placed in such a nest during the time of the new moon, the old Gods, in their ant-form, still had enough power left to turn tin into silver…”Traditional Witchcraft by Gemma Gary.

BLOG IMAGE - Judith Hewitt - Cornish Peskies 1

This pisky (above created by Alan Manktelow) has a very mischievous demeanour!

“Like all things, the Piskie have their light and their dark sides.” – Gemma Gary, Traditional Witchcraft.

People who provided food and warmth to piskies could be rewarded with good fortune or even help with their chores (but only if they respected the privacy of the pisky!).

Tales tell of piskies who took vengeance on the rich when they exploited the poor. Other pisky tricks included making noises and hiding household objects.

In the past, people worried that their child might be “kidnapped by the fairies”. Beautiful children were supposed to be the most susceptible and were said to be swapped with a “faery changeling” (an ugly fairy child).

A lot of protection magic related to this fear. This pisky is displayed with a bit of protective iron next to him (just in case!).


BLOG IMAGE - Judith Hewitt - Cornish Peskies 4The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic (MWM) explores British magical practice, making comparisons with other systems of belief, from ancient times to the present day. They aim to represent the diversity and vigour of magical practice respectfully, accurately and impartially through unique, entertaining and educational exhibitions, drawing upon cutting-edge scholarship along with the insights of magical practitioners. The Museum is located by The Harbour in Boscastle, Cornwall (taken from the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic website:


Entry to Between Worlds: Folklore and Fairytales from Northern Britain is free; opening hours are 10am – 5pm 7 days a week until February 25 2018. Please visit the Palace Green Library website for further information about your visit.

The Ancient Faeries of Northern Britain

By Rosalind Kerven, Author and Folklorist


Not only has our perception of fairies altered over time, but the types of fairies we might encounter change geographically too. From little old grumpy men helping in northern households to piskies wreaking havoc in Cornwall (read next week to find out more about these little mischievous creatures), fairies differ from region to region.

Based on her thorough research, Rosalind looks at the varying nature of fairies and encounters with them in Northern Britain. She explores the many tales that have been told over time.

 Jade Westerman, Exhibitions Assistant at Palace Green Library

What does the word ‘fairy’ make you think of?  Twee, Disney-style little girls with wings and cute faces?  Well, if you’d lived in Scotland or northern England in the 19th Century or earlier, you might well have taken a different view; for serious belief in these otherworldly creatures was once firmly engrained in popular consciousness. And it wasn’t just children who believed in them, but mature men and women too.

A few years ago, I did some in-depth research into old faery beliefs for my book Faeries, Elves & Goblins: the Old Stories. The ancient lore I unearthed was very different from that portrayed in modern children’s books.  This is how I summed up my discoveries in the book’s introduction:

They are older than history and bitter-sweet as memories. They dwell under the ground, inside the hill, through the passage, beneath the water and beyond the mist.

 They are both male and female, young and old, immortal. They may grow tall as kings or stay small as sucklings. They are of the earth yet unearthly.  Some are beautiful, angelic and light as gossamer; others are wizened, moth-eaten, prickly old men.  They dress in caps and feathers, breeches and gowns: green, red, white or the colours of dust. They spin and weave, bake bread, work metal.  Their music is like honey spiked with sorrow.

 They are passionate, vengeful and cunning, yet neither good nor evil.  They are secretive and sly, creators of illusion, shapeshifters. They fly with magic cap or powerful words, astride twigs and stems, or dizzily on gusts of wind.  They can fade, turn invisible and vanish.

Many country people claimed to have seen real, live faeries in the wild. Here’s a good example, simplified from an account originally recorded in dialect from an anonymous elderly Scottish woman in the 19th Century:

…we heard the loud laugh of folk riding, with the jingling of bridles, and the clanking of hoofs…We looked round and round and soon saw it was the Faerie Folks Rade.  We cowered down till they passed by. A beam of light was dancing over them, more bonnie than moonshine: they were all wee, wee folk with green scarfs on, but one that rode foremost, and that one was a good deal larger than the rest with bonnie long hair, bound about with a strap which glinted like stars.  They rode on fine wee white horses with strange, long swooping tails and manes hung with whistles that the wind played on.

Highly educated people believed in faeries too, like the Galloway doctor who, travelling a lonely road late one night, met a host of Faeries trooping towards him. When he nervously stood aside for them, one cried: ‘Open up and let the honest doctor through!’ – and the procession parted in the middle, the Faeries bowing as he passed.  On the English side of the border, a Northumberland farmer out at midnight was lured by music to a hillside door through which he saw faeries enjoying a banquet. In County Durham, a woman came face to face with a faery sitting on a stone near her house, and brought her inside for a good meal.  A Yorkshireman saw scores of Faeries dancing in the moonlight and snatched one into his pocket to show his children; but it had flown by the time he reached home.

In northern England, faeries were often supernatural little old men who attached themselves to a family as household drudges. A well-known example was Hob Thrush in Northumberland, who took offence and vanished as soon as the family tried to thank him with a gift. Child abductions by faeries were greatly feared, as in a story from Weardale, Co. Durham in which a little girl was lured by music into a faery cave; then rescued with the help of an old wise woman and three mysterious magic objects. Scottish stories often involved faery royalty, such as Tam Lin – sung of in numerous old ballads – in which a feisty young woman braved unspeakable horrors to rescue a handsome stranger from an evil faery queen; and Thomas the Rhymer who voluntarily became enslaved to another faery queen, and returned to this world with eerie gifts of prophesy which he could only express in verse.

In her monumental work, A Dictionary of British Folk Tales (1970), Katherine Briggs recorded no less than 235 different stories about faeries from the British Isles. If this brief summary has whetted your appetite, read on!


Rosalind Kerven lives in the Northumberland National Park. She has been collecting and retelling myths, legends and folk tales from all over the world for over 30 years, and is the author of 60+ books published in 22 countries, including many bestsellers.  Her book Faeries, Elves & Goblins: the Old Stories was published by The National Trust / Pavilion in 2013. To find out more about her work, visit her website,


Entry to Between Worlds: Folklore and Fairytales from Northern Britain is free; opening hours are 10am – 5pm 7 days a week until February 25 2018. Please visit the Palace Green Library website for further information about your visit.

The Fairies of A Midsummer Night’s Dream

By Professor David Fuller, Emeritus Professor of English at Durham University


Fairies appear as characters in several of Shakespeare’s plays, most notably the comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In this post, Professor David Fuller from the Department of English Studies at Durham University explores the role these fairies fulfil and their relationship to other characters from English folklore.

David Wright, Assistant Curator at Palace Green Library

Are Shakespeare’s fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream English or international, small or large, charming or sinister? They are, it seems, all of these.

They are international. Both Oberon, the fairy king, and Titania, his queen, are associated with India, from where, when the play begins, Oberon has just arrived. Titania, like a goddess, appears to have a cult there with priestesses – one of whom was the mother of a boy over whose possession the couple quarrel. But India is only one of their homes. Now they are in classical Greece, visiting Athens for the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta. The play’s workers, however – weaver, carpenter, tinker, tailor, bellows-mender – give this Athens a strong flavour of rural England. Fairies are evidently great travellers. Flying at high speeds all over the world, they ‘wander everywhere / Swifter than the moon’s sphere’. Supra-national and trans-historical, Oberon and Titania are also grand Nature spirits: their quarrel disrupts the natural, human and cosmic worlds: ‘the human mortals want their winter cheer’; ‘the spring, the summer, / The childing [teeming] autumn, angry winter, change / Their wonted liveries’; rivers burst their banks; crows gorge on the carcasses of plague-stricken sheep; the moon sends down pestilence. Like his master, Oberon’s assistant, Puck, is also an international space-traveller, able to ‘put a girdle round about the earth / In forty minutes’. But he is also a kind of country bumpkin fairy (‘lob of spirits’), identified by pranks associated with English rural life – making milk curdle or beer go flat, playing practical jokes in which he takes the form of a crab-apple or a milking-stool. Also called Robin Goodfellow and Hobgoblin, he is named from English folklore. Similarly English are Titania’s attendants, Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth, and Mustardseed: the common element to their names is that all are used in folk medicine (moths boiled – though Shakespeare may have meant Moth as a spelling of ‘mote’, matching the insubstantiality of cobweb). Titania, however, gets her name from classical poetry, from the Metamorphoses of the Roman poet, Ovid; and, equally un-English, Oberon is named from Medieval poetry, the thirteen-century French epic romance, Huon of Bordeaux. They are classical and medieval as well as English and international.

Some fairies are also both very small and human-sized. Though literary fairies before Shakespeare were sometimes toddler-sized (two or three feet tall), Shakespeare seems to have invented – or perhaps found in aural folklore – the minute fairies that later became the norm of English imagination. The fairies of A Midsummer Night’s Dream are presented to the imagination as tiny – as they are in Mercutio’s fantasy in Romeo and Juliet of ‘Queen Mab … the fairies’ midwife’, whose coach is pulled by a team of dust motes (‘atomies’). Here cowslips are Titania’s ‘pensioners’ (her royal bodyguard); elves ‘creep into acorn cups, and hide them there’; their leathern coats are made from bats’ wings; raiding the squirrel’s hoard of nuts is a task for a particularly brave fairy; commissioned to hunt a bumble-bee, Cobweb is enjoined to take care not to be drowned by its honey bag. But what to the imagination is presented as minute cannot but appear on stage as life-size. While Titania would have been played in Shakespeare’s theatre (as all women’s parts were) by a boy, Shakespeare’s company probably had only four boys (playing Titania, Hippolyta, and the lovers Hermia and Helena). It is likely, therefore, that Titania’s attendants, though able to hide in acorn cups and fearful of squirrels, were played by adult (male) actors – presumably with a comic disjunction between what is said of them and how they appear.

Large or small, fairies were associated in Elizabethan imagination with the malicious actions of witches. In Hamlet, during Advent, because it is the season celebrating the Saviour’s birth, ‘No fairy takes [has power], nor witch hath power to charm’. Puck talks as though the fairies of A Midsummer Night’s Dream also have to work in darkness: they must ‘run … from the presence of the sun’. Night is their time. Their power extends only ‘until the break of day’. When he hears the lark, signalling sunrise, Puck urges haste, and Oberon agrees: ‘Trip we after night’s shade’. But when Puck associates the fairies’ need to work in darkness with that of ghosts and ‘damned spirits’ Oberon contradicts him: ‘But we are spirits of another sort: / I with the morning’s love have oft made sport’. Unlike ghosts, Oberon claims, fairies do not have to shun daylight entirely. But even this modest claim is muted: though Oberon has dallied with dawn he agrees, ‘We must effect this business yet ere day’. Fairies are not fully distinct from those spirits whose power is confined to the night.

Oberon’s purpose in dealing with the play’s human lovers is fundamentally beneficent – to address the pains in love of the rejected Helena. But while the fairies provide some comic aspects of the play and engineer others this comedy is often sinister. Albeit by accident, Oberon’s plan compounds the lovers’ sufferings: his magic flower, mis-administered by Puck, creates painful chaos. Elsewhere pain is his intention. ‘Wake when some vile thing is near’, he says, as he squeezes magic juice into Titania’s eyes: to humiliate her sexually is part of his plan for an effective victory in their quarrel. That quarrel, initiated by their struggle over the Indian boy, is spiced with additional aggression because, like any lovers, they are jealous; and particularly, like classical gods and goddesses, they are jealous of each other’s relationships with mortals. They have come to Athens apparently for the benign purpose of blessing the marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta, but this is not pure beneficence. Their quarrel has a background of fairy-mortal amours – Oberon with Hippolyta, Titania with Theseus – which adds a sour impetus to their conflict. All the more, however, is their reconciliation marked: initiating a major new stage of the action, the movement towards healing resolution is emphasised by the usual emblems of harmony in Shakespeare’s theatre, music and dancing. Puck too is beneficent and malicious. He acts true to his ‘goblin’ nature in misleading and confusing the rival suitors, Lysander and Demetrius, and threatening to bring them to a violent confrontation. He takes pleasure in mischief, delighting alike in the painful confusions he causes among the human lovers and in entrapping Titania with a human lover transformed into an ass. But, however unromantically he sees it, he also takes pleasure in the final reconciliation of the human couples: ‘The man shall have his mare again, and all shall be well’.

BLOG IMAGE - David Fuller - A Midsummer Night's Dream 1

The Reconciliation of Oberon and Titania (1847) by Sir Joseph Noel Paton,

Ultimately, for all their ambivalence, the function of the fairies in the play is to bless the marriages. They sprinkle fairy holy-water (‘field-dew consecrate’) to protect the bridal chambers, and bring about good: with fairy blessings the newly-married couples will be true in love and will have beautiful and fortunate children. Oberon blesses the central characters of the drama. Puck solicits the indulgence of the audience. Despite the dark and painful passages of the route to this resolution, the final effect is more fully harmonious than is usual in Shakespearean comedy. The play offers a dream-world of painful divisions and harmonious reconciliations – fears-cum-nightmares of what might be, desires for what may be – to which the fairies’ magic is central.


Professor David Fuller is Emeritus Professor of English and former Chairman of the Department of English Studies in Durham University. Much of his recent research has been on Marlowe and Shakespeare in modern performance, including a book on the Sonnets, The Life in the Sonnets (2011), published by Continuum in the series Shakespeare Now! 


Entry to Between Worlds: Folklore and Fairytales from Northern Britain is free; opening hours are 10am – 5pm 7 days a week until February 25 2018. Please visit the Palace Green Library website for further information about your visit.

‘A gudely gift ye wad gie to me!’: Creative Process in the Fairy Tradition

By Kevan Manwaring, Teacher in Creative Writing at the University of Portsmouth, Open University, and University of Leicester.


Each story featured in the Between Worlds exhibition tells of an encounter between a human and a fairy. The outcomes of these strange, supernatural interactions are mixed; a meeting with a fairy could bring great riches, be they material or creative, but it could also begin a journey towards misfortune or even death. In this post, author Kevan Manwaring examines the double-edged sword of these encounters, and speculates on how the fairy-folk are still influencing authors and artists today.

David Wright, Assistant Curator at Palace Green Library

Encounters with Fairy, in whatever form they take, can bear fruit, albeit of the strange, chancy kind. Even walking into an exhibition can be hazardous. It has long been thought those who chance upon the Fey, whether through a tangle of trees or via one of their fatesome songs or melodies, is doomed to be not long for this world. Like the wayward sister in Elizabeth Barret Browning’s ‘Goblin Market’ (the classic narrative poem of Victorian temptation and taboo-breaking sexuality) or the population of Lud-in-the-Mist (a unique 1920s novel by Russian translator Hope Mirrlees), they have tasted forbidden fruit and nothing in this world will ever satisfy their hunger. Deprived of their otherworldly opiate, they grow ‘fey’, wither and die.

Yet the delights of Fairy are many and if you do succumb, you are in good company. Both the characters and collectors of folk tales, folk lore and songs and customs are prone to catastrophic moments of weakness. Even men of the cloth are not immune.

The essential pattern is this: a wanderer chances upon a strangely-shaped hill from which beautiful music and merry lights emanate. Curiosity piqued, they enter. The unpromising passageway opens out in a dazzling cavern alive with exquisitely-dressed dancers (or sometimes sleeping knights). They get caught up in the festivities – swept off their feet by an alluring partner, or overwhelmed by the irresistible music. Time flies. Before they know it, a cock crows in the distance and all vanishes in a flash. The trespasser is left disorientated – for many hours, sometimes days, weeks, years or even centuries have passed. Often, they find themselves on a chilly hillside with only a hangover to prove something happened, and a tale no-one will believe. But sometimes they are ‘gifted’ (always a dangerously reciprocal arrangement when the euphemistically-called Good Neighbours are involved) with a cup, a song, the sight, an artistic or prophetic gift (or both).

Elements of this archetypal can be seen in the ballad of ‘Thomas the Rhymer’, in the folk tales of Canonbie Dick, the Piper of Ednam’s Knowe, the Fairy Boy of Leith (all from the Scottish Borders)  and many others.  You find similar tales across Britain and Ireland (and analogues around the world). The critical caveat is: when a remarkable gift is given by the Fey there are always strings attached. The 17th Century Reverend Robert Kirk, Minister of Aberfoyle in the Trossachs, knew this all too well. It was commonly believed he was ‘taken’ by the Sluagh Sith, the ‘People of Peace’, for revealing their secrets in his monograph The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies (1691/1815). Some believe he remains in Elfland to this day.

What are we to make of these folkloric scraps? Are they the tantalising remnants of an ancient indigenous tradition? Cultural curiosities? Old wives’ tales? Well, Fairy Tale scholar Marina Warner would have a thing or two to say about this. It is probably no coincidence that many Fairy stories, dark and disturbing as they originally were, are about the struggle for female emancipation and empowerment. Retold and repurposed over the centuries, their power (and the secret of their resilience) is that they can withstand multiple readings. Like the modern folklore of the ‘alien autopsy’, when the (remarkably fairy-like) specimen is dissected, there is nothing there. Hoaxes feed our hunger for consoling fictions.  The author of Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle, no less, was duped by a couple of school-girls in the infamous case of the Cottingley Fairies. He robustly defended them and what they apparently heralded in The Coming of the Fairies (1922). The fact was Doyle was suffering from bereavement and he was not alone: in his case, his son; in the nation’s case, the Lost Generation. In the aftermath of the First World War the placebo of spiritualism was fervently popular. The legacy of his uncle Richard Doyle, a successful Victorian Fairy artist who ended up, like Richard Dadd (artist of ‘The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke’, 1855-64) in an asylum, did not dissuade him.

The bottom line is a brush with Fey got the pencil, pen or brush moving (even as it took its toll). Divine inspiration has been cited as the mark of a true artist since Greek and Roman times when the 9 Muses bestowed their respective gifts upon their chosen one. To court their favour, poets would invoke them at the start of their odes. In enlightened France and Spain, the troubadour wooed his ‘Lady’; in Elizabethan England, Drake, Spenser and Shakespeare, their Faerie Queene. Whoever found Her favour, her ‘laurel’ was a lucky man. And thus continued the gender-dynamic – the apparently high status but ‘passive’ woman recipient to the admiration of the ‘active’ male, perpetuated by a patriarchal establishment. Until the late 20th Century, the Laureateship had been a post occupied by males. There is only a short hop from that tradition to the one Robert Graves invents in his influential but problematic ‘Poetic Grammar of Myth’, The White Goddess (1961), in which he claims all poetic inspiration to be a continuation of a Frazerian Goddess cult.

Such comparativist (and gendered) approaches have been rightly deconstructed in recent years, but there is no denying a long (and active) tradition of poets, artists and musicians finding inspiration in the opposite (and same) sex. Visionary artist and poet William Blake (who had more than his fair share of fairy encounters) said: ‘the nakedness of woman is the work of God’.  We personify the masculine or feminine aspects of our personality – give them form, give them names, and sometimes give them agency: the Green Man… the Goddess… Gwynn ap Nudd… the Cailleach… Pagan artists and musicians, poets and writers, actively engage with these and see them as autonomous, powerful presences – not tricks of the mind.

The blind Irish harpist Turlough O’Carolan (1670 –1738) claimed to have received tunes direct from the Queen of the Fairies herself, e.g. The Fairy Queen.  WB Yeats sublimated his unreciprocated love for political firebrand Maud Gonne into poems praising Queen Maeve (whom she played on stage, completing the circle). Robert Louis Stevenson, describing the ideas behind The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde talked about ‘the little people of his theatre’ (1888: 124), whom he called Brownies. Operating within his dreams, they bequeath him ideas, details of plot, and even, upon waking, contribute to composition.

Taking the phrase penned by John Dryden, Joseph Addison developed the notion of “the Fairy way of writing” to define the concept of a kind of writing that ‘makes new Worlds of its own, shews us Persons that are not to be found in Being, and represents even the Faculties of the Soul’ (1712). The works of Shakespeare, fusing high and low culture, were the pinnacle of this, according to Pask (2013). In The Merry Wives of Windsor, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest the debt to the Fairy Tradition most directly evident, although the ‘Fairy way of writing’ permeates the Bard’s entire body of work.

A radical reading of Kirk’s 1691 monograph, ostensibly framed as a proto-anthropological and proselytizing treatise charting Highland Fairy beliefs, to, in his own words ‘suppress the impudent and Growing Atheism of this Age’, would be to see it as a taxonomy of the imagination, of the inchoate forces that influence and inspire us in often mysterious ways. To Kirk this was undoubtedly an earnest endeavour, written as a counterblast to the Empiricism and Secularism inimical to his faith. And yet the elusive providence and status of the surviving manuscripts (Rossi, 1949; Sanderson, 1976; Hunter, 2001) and the lingering folk belief that he stepped into his own story (Briggs, 1943; Stewart, 1990) give Kirk and The Secret Commonwealth the quality of a both folklore and a literary device — the ‘Found Manuscript’, the classic trope of Scottish Gothic literature (Baker, 2014).

Yet the ‘Fairy way of writing’ persisted, withstanding the Age of Reason, the Industrial Revolution and Modernism. Fiona Macleod (William Sharp), Lord Dunsany, Poe, Blackwood, Machen … The Great War should have stopped it dead in its tracks, but strangely seemed to have consolidated it, as John Garth explores in Tolkien and the Great War (2011). I see this tradition continuing – throughout the 20th Century into the present day in the works of David Lindsay, Charles Williams, JRR Tolkien, Alan Garner, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Angela Carter, Neil Gaiman, Susanna Clarke, Philip Pullman and many more.

Delving into the Forest Perilous of Fairy can produce creative riches – the artist/author enters the hollow hill of their own unconscious where unimagined treasures, dormant archetypes, and whispering shadows await. You only risk your sanity and your soul. And when (or if) you emerge, decades or centuries may have passed. You have been warned.


Kevan Manwaring is an award-winning author and Creative Writing lecturer for the Open University. For further insight into Kevan’s ongoing work, visit his blog:


Entry to Between Worlds: Folklore and Fairytales from Northern Britain is free; opening hours are 10am – 5pm 7 days a week until February 25 2018. Please visit the Palace Green Library website for further information about your visit.


Further Reading:

Addison, J. (1712) ‘The Fairy Way of Writing’, The Spectator. 419 (1 July 1712)

Baker, T.C. (2014) ‘Authentic Inauthenticity: The Found Manuscript. Contemporary Scottish Gothic. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Hunter, M. (2001) The Occult Laboratory: magic, science and second sight in late seventeenth-century Scotland. London: Boydell Press.

Kirk, R. (2006) The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies. New York: New York Review of Books.

Pask, K. (2013) The Fairy Way of Writing. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.

Rossi, M. M. (1949) Text-Criticism of Kirk’s Secret Commonwealth.

Stevenson, R.L. (1888) ‘A Chapter on Dreams’. Scribner’s Magazine. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Warner, M (1995) From The Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and their Tellers. London: Vintage.



The Cottingley Photographs: Fairies at the Bottom of the Garden

By Francesca Bihet, PhD Candidate at the University of Chichester



The story of The Cottingley Fairies is one of the greatest fairy hoaxes of all time. The series of five photographs taken by two young girls caught the attention of a post-WWI nation. It wasn’t until 1983 when the two girls publically admitted that the photographs were fake.

Francesca Bihet explores how the Cottingley Fairies hoax  captured the imagination of a post-Victorian world devastated by war and changed the public conception of fairies forever. Read on to discover more…

Jade Westerman, Exhibitions Assistant at Palace Green Library


‘There are fairies at the bottom of our garden!

It’s not so very, very far away;

You pass the gardener’s shed and you just keep straight ahead —

I do so hope they’ve really come to stay.

There’s a little wood, with moss in it and beetles,

And a little stream that quietly runs through;

You wouldn’t think they’d dare to come merrymaking there—

Well, they do.’

Rose Fyleman, There are Fairies at the Bottom of Our Garden (1917)


BLOG IMAGE - Francesca Bihet - Cottingley Fairies

Kristian Nordestgaard, Frances and the Fairies (2011),


On a summer’s afternoon in 1917 at the bottom of a Yorkshire Garden, two young girls, Frances Griffiths and Elsie Wright, were about to capture some of the most famous photographs of the 20th century. These images, claiming to have captured real fairies, were spread around the globe when Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes novels and practising spiritualist, published them in the 1920 Christmas edition of Strand magazine. The photographs became part of a century long furore, with claim and counter claim over the veracity of the images. Much ink has been spilled over this controversy, which has not diminished with time.

However, the Cottingley images fit very easily into the cultural motif of children playing at the bottom of the garden, or just beyond the hedge boundary, with fairies. It is a regular theme in children’s books of the era.  In Rudyard Kiplings’s Puck of Pooks Hill (1906) and Rewards and Fairies (1910), Una and Dan play with Puck, the last fairy in England, who lives in an ancient barrow at the bottom of their garden. There is also E. S. Nesbit’s Five Children and It (1902), where a sand fairy grants the five siblings wishes and they have many magical adventures. Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden (1911), where orphan Mary Lennox opens up a forbidden garden in her uncle’s isolated mansion, is abound with references to magic and sprites. Even Cottingley’s own Elsie and Frances took their cardboard cut-out fairies from a poem, illustrated by Alfred Noyes, in the Princess Mary Gift Book (1914). In this poem, “A Spell for a Fairy”, the themes of children, fairies, nature and gardens become intrinsically intermixed.  The space at the bottom of the garden becomes a motif for wild, escapist fantasy. It is a landscape where children can run wild, just outside the dominion of their parents’ authority. It is a liminal space where children can play tricks on adults and encounter beings which invert the rules of normal time and space.

BLOG IMAGE - Francesca Bihet - Cottingley Fairies 2

Kristian Nordestgaard, Frances and the Leaping Fairy (2011),

Prior to the Cottingley photographs fairies had also been a fascination for Victorian adults and a topic of serious academic pursuit. Folklorist Edwin Sidney Hartland’s The Science of Fairy Tales (1891) explores fairy mythology, claiming it had deep significance for understanding the cultural evolution of mankind. Similarly, Oxford Professor John Rhys wrote the two volume Celtic Folklore, Welsh and Manx (1901), exploring fairy-lore. For this he travelled around the Welsh countryside asking peasants if they believed in the fay folk. Civil servant and folklorist George Laurence Gomme in Ethnology of Folklore (1892) had even suggested that fairy-lore was the memory of Britain’s ancient aboriginal races clashing with invaders. For him fairylore could open-up understanding into unrecorded ancient history. Some Victorians took their fairies extremely seriously!

However, after WW1 we see a cultural shift in the position of the fairy, with the children’s miniature flower fairy taking over as the dominant cultural concept of the fairy figure. Fairies moved away from the dark folkloric creatures and became small butterfly winged creatures adorning domesticated garden flowers. Indeed, the Cottingley photographs, by tapping into such strong cultural themes, helped to shift the image of the fairy away from folklore. The Folk-Lore Society in London put up a notable wall of silence on the Cottingley photographs. Furthermore, the images looked so palpably fake they became objects of derision and due to the scale of the controversy fairies became less attractive to serious academics. Nevertheless, the transformation of miniature flower fairy became complete with the illustrations of Cicely Mary Barker and her Flower Fairies of the Spring (1923).

A moment at the bottom of a Yorkshire garden marks a watershed in the history of the fairy. For the Victorians, fairies represented a morbid fascination; they spoke of ancient beliefs, escape from encroaching scientific doubt, of industrialisation and fears of lost spirituality. As the horror of WW1 dawned and the sheer human carnage made man appear as a beast, so our ‘others’, the fairies seemed whimsical or sadly nostalgic in the face of such troubles. In this process fairies were forgotten, literally; sent out to play in the garden with the children.


Entry to Between Worlds: Folklore and Fairytales from Northern Britain is free; opening hours are 10am – 5pm 7 days a week until February 25 2018. For further information about your visit, please visit the Palace Green Library website at: