Five things we’ve learned about fairies through writing this blog

By Jade Westerman, Exhibitions Assistant at Palace Green Library

 

Our first step on the trail into the world of fairies was creating the exhibition Between Worlds: Folklore and Fairy Tales from Northern Britain. Between Worlds considered the various types of fairy folk that had existed in Northern British literature, history, and art. Our goal was to try to dispel the popular belief that fairies were pretty little creatures dancing at the bottom of the garden.

When we started this blog to run alongside the exhibition, we thought we would be prepared for all the weird and wonderful folklore and fairy facts that came our way. I’m happy to say that that was most certainly not the case…

Just as Between Worlds came to an end, so must this blog. For our final post, we thought we’d round it all up by telling you the top five fairy and folklore facts we found most interesting:

 

Folklore Fact No. 1:

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Photography by Dwight Burdette: close-up of fairy door at Red Shoes, 332 South Ashley, Ann Arbor, Michigan, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fairy_door_at_Red_Shoes_Ann_Arbor_Michigan_close-up.JPG

Homes are a safe haven for many of us, and landscapes are sacred to fairy folk too. The consequences of trespassing on their land is dire and often deadly, depending on which stories you believe. Whether it’s from setting up camp, walking into a fairy ring, or crashing one of their parties, many unsuspecting mortals have been whisked away or had their lives threatened.

Even in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the unsuspecting humans find themselves the play-things of the fairy king and queen, Oberon and Titania, especially after waltzing into their woodland (see Prof. David Fuller’s piece on Shakespeare’s play).

One of the most prominent examples is Thomas the Rhymer, who played a significant role in the Between Worlds exhibition. The romance between Thomas and the fairy queen is famous, with many people regularly trekking to Eldon Hills to visit the location Thomas was gifted his prophetic powers. To read more about this extraordinary story, check out Dr Victoria Flood and Poppy Holden’s posts.

 

Folklore Fact No. 2:

As folklore and fairy tales are rooted in the supernatural, it has been easy to manipulate them for one’s own purposes. Fairies have been the foundation of numerous hoaxes, including the famous Cottingley Fairies: a story of two young girls who nearly managed to convince the world of the existence of fairies.

Myths, folklore and fairy tales have always been a key tool for learning throughout history, and have often been manipulated for this purpose. One of the more surprising posts we received was on the adaptation of fairy tales by the Nazi regime. Many of the us know that there are variations of the story of Little Red Riding Hood, whether it’s the child-friendly or Brothers Grimm versions, but very few of us recollect a Nazi officer as the hero of that story. More on these sorts of tales can be read about here.

 

Folklore Fact No. 3:

Just as in our own human societies, fairy folk – both good and bad – have their own customs and etiquette too!

If you were to find yourself facing head-on with the Faerie Host, Andy Paciorek informs us that you should shout ‘God Bless you’! He also recommends throwing your left shoe at them (but if that doesn’t work, then you’re going to have to fight them with only one shoe on…).

We believe the general rule is try not to disturb them if you don’t need to. Don’t break a fairy ring if you ever come across them and, if you do want to draw a fairy in, then try using something shiny. But if you want to keep them away, then you should keep yellow flowers outside your house or have some iron objects lying around.

Read Pollyanna Jones’ eight tips on how to socialise with a fairy here.

 

Folklore Fact No. 4:

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Groac’h or Water Witch. © Andy Paciorek

The prominence of certain fairy types differs from region to region. Here in Northern Britain, we have hob goblins, fairies who abduct children and adults alike, and even fairy folk royalty (see Rosalind Kerven’s post on the ancient fairies of Northern Britain), amongst many others.fairy folk royalty (see Rosalind Kerven’s post on the ancient fairies of Northern Britain), amongst many others. But then in Scotland, there’s the Seelie and Unseelie Courts, described by author and illustrator Andy Paciorek as good and bad fairies. In County Durham itself, there’s the Water Witch, which waits by the water’s edge, luring in small children to feast on their flesh and bones.

 

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Illustration by Helena Nyblom for ‘The Seven Wishes’ from Among Pixies and Trolls (1913) by Alfred Smedberg, https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pixie_(folletto)#/media/File:I_samma_ögonblick_var_hon_förvandlad_till_en_underskön_liten_älva.jpg

Our friends at the Museum of Magic and Witchcraft explained that Cornwall has a variety of fairies, but their most prominent is the piskie. The piskie runs rampant causing mischief and mayhem along its path. Like most fairies, in order to fend the piskies off, you need some iron. Otherwise, they’ll steal anything shiny and play tricks.

Special Collections and Archives at Cardiff University also had an folklore exhibition running at the same time as ours here at Palace Green Library. Lisa Tallis explained that they wanted to focus on the darker side of Welsh folklore, looking at demons and devils. She speaks of fairies such as the Bendith eu Mamau (Their Mothers’ Blessing), who are known to both bless favoured humans and steal new-borns from their beds.

 

Folklore Fact No. 5:

Folklore and fairy tales aren’t just a thing of the past or creativity to be inspired by the fairy and mythological folk. They still inspire people today, from writers to musicians to artists.

Many authors who have contributed to this blog are still inspired by the stories of fairy folk (the list of authors and their blogs can be viewed here). Adam Bushnell discusses in his post a few modern works that have used folklore and myth as the foundation of their narratives.

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The Brothers Gillespie performing at Palace Green Library Cafe ©Ross Wilkinson

The Brothers Gillespie performed for an audience here at Palace Green Library, playing many songs inspired by the folklore they’ve accumulated on their travels. They’re influenced not only by the likes of Nick Drake and other modern musicians but also the folk songs and fairy tales of old. Many singers today still perform the traditional folk ballads, such as one of our contributors Poppy Holden.

The enchanted atmosphere and landscapes the fairy tales create provide some  fantastic photo opportunities (read James Brown’s blog on his ventures into the fairy landscapes of Melrose, Aberfoyle, Middridge and Inglewood):

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We hope you’ve all enjoyed reading this blog as much as we enjoyed putting it together! However, we couldn’t have done it without the help of all those who made some fantastic contributions:

Collecting Folklore

By David Wright, Assistant Curator at Palace Green Library


This is our first post since Between Worlds: Folklore and Fairy Tales from Northern Britain closed at Palace Green Library, giving the team here a chance to look back on all of the fantastic feedback we have received from visitors. One section of the exhibition gave people the chance to take home a playing card printed with a quote from William Henderson’s Notes on the folklore of the Northern counties of England, an 1866 book brimming with popular traditions, local proverbial sayings, superstitions and old customs.

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The one condition for taking a card was that visitors must first leave behind a saying or custom of their own for others to read, giving us a treasure trove of sayings currently in use today. Reading these has been both entertaining and enlightening; we hope it encouraged people to think more about the origin of some of these sayings which slip off the tongue so easily.

Particular sayings appeared in the exhibition many times, including well known pieces of folklore about stepping on cracks in the pavement, placing shoes on the table and crossing on the stairs. Another favourite was something I remember hearing many times growing up: “Shy bairns get nowt”.

It was particularly noticeable how many of the customs left by visitors revolved around magpies. These birds clearly have some mythic power to control our fortunes, but people can’t quite seem to agree on the correct way to interact with them.

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One of the exciting things for me is how this gallery activity has given me so many new pieces of folklore to investigate. Each of the below sayings appeared multiple times; I’m particularly intrigued by the link between rabbits and the first day of the month…

Although the majority of the sayings we collected have a timeless feel to them, it was interesting to see responses from a younger generation, revealing some of the contemporary sayings, slogans and mottos that are becoming mantras to live by. Perhaps it is because of our location within a university library, but the Harry Potter series of books seems to be particularly rich in providing these.

One of the really pleasing things was seeing cards filled out in different languages from all over the world, many requiring Google Translate to make any sense of! Thoughtfully, one German visitor provided a translation, introducing me to one of my favourite new sayings: “Everything has an end, only the sausage has two”.

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Food was a recurring theme in the sayings left behind by visitors, including the particularly inspiring “Eat cake because it’s someone’s birthday somewhere” and, a local favourite, “Winner winner chicken dinner!”

Just because the exhibition is closed, it isn’t too late for you to contribute to our growing collection of sayings, customs and folklore. Leave us some of your favourites in the comments section below.

Visit Palace Green Library’s website for more information on our future exhibition programme: https://www.dur.ac.uk/palace.green/.

Neighbourly Devils – Fairies, witches and demons

By Lisa Tallis, Assistant Librarian of the Special collections Archives, Arts and Social Studies Library, Cardiff University


Foreword

Whilst Palace Green Library’s Between Worlds exhibition looks to dispel modern misconceptions of fairy folk in Northern Britain, Special Collections and Archives at Cardiff University chose to delve right into the dark side of Welsh folklore.

Here, Lisa Tallis tells us about the special collection currently on display in the Arts and Social Studies Library at Cardiff University (on show until 31 March 2018). The exhibition studies the folklore, myths, and history surrounding spiteful fairies and demons in Wales, looking at first-hand accounts, poetry, and artwork from the fifteenth century up until modern times.

Jade Westerman, Exhibitions Assistant at Palace Green Library


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To coincide with the Welsh Government’s Year of Legends, Special Collections and Archives decided to curate an exhibition based on the theme of myths and legends. As the Assistant Librarian, I was aware that our collections were incredibly rich in materials relating to these themes, especially works on folklore and Celtic myths. The fairies were an ideal subject since they touch upon so many aspects of these themes, from the supernatural to their almost human characteristics and conducts.

Appropriately, we launched the exhibition on Halloween with a fascinating talk by Professor Diane Purkiss entitled ‘Darkness Made Visible: What Are Fairies?’. A supernatural setting for our exhibition – Neighbourly Devils – was a welcome spin, for as the title suggests, one of the themes that I was especially keen to highlight was the darker side of these intriguing beings.

Known variously as Y Tylwyth Teg (The Fair Family) and Bendith eu Mamau (Their Mothers’ Blessing), so called because of their bestowing blessings on selected mortals whom they favoured, the fairies could also invoke fear as they reputedly stole new-born babies from their cradles and replaced them with their own ugly offspring known as changelings.

Goblins Dazzy Walters

‘Jennet Francis struggles with the fairies for her baby’, illustration by T. H. Thomas from Wirt Sikes, British Goblins (London, 1880).

Naming them by a harsh epithet was known to invoke their anger, and it was essential to show them kindness as they were known to punish those who failed to do so, quite severely in some instances. Fairies were considered secretive people who lived in caves, hollows, or ‘sepulchral mounds’ – a ‘Between Worlds’ existence certainly. They were believed to have supernatural powers that enabled them to hear what was spoken in the air and whisk people away on otherworldly adventures.

 

Hence we have on display an edition of Ellis Wynne’s Gweledigaethau y Bardd Cwsg (Visions of the Sleeping Bard). First published in 1703, this classic piece of Welsh religious prose describes how it was the ‘Tylwyth Teg’ who ‘lifted me on [to their] shoulders’ and took the bard on his otherworldly journey where he witnessed scenes of earthly vice, death, and hell.

This belief is also expressed in a small book of Welsh folktales named Ysten Sioned (Sioned’s Pitcher), based on the character of a beggar woman who would collect any charities offered, no matter what they were, in her pitcher. So too this book gathers together an eclectic mix of Welsh tales and traditions, one of which relates to Ellis Wynne and the popular belief that he was whisked away to the top of Moelfre mountain by the fairies who then took him with them through ‘the whole world’.

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Extract from D. Silvan-Evans, Ysten Sioned (Wrexham, 1894), relaying the popular belief that the fairies have taken Ellis Wynne away from them.

It is interesting that Ellis Wynne initially mistook the fairies for a bunch of ‘witsiaid-melldigedig’ – accursed witches. This brought to mind the story of the ‘old woman of the mountain’ recorded by the author and Independent minister, Edmund Jones (1702-1793) in his Relation of Apparitions of Spirits in Wales (1790), which we also have on display. This apparition, believed to be the ghost of a witch named Juan White, would haunt Llanhyddel mountain in Monmouthshire, leading travellers astray.

Goblins Old Woman

‘The Old Woman of the Mountain’ by T. H. Thomas. Frontispiece from Wirt Sikes, British Goblins (London, 1880), where various versions of the tale are recorded.

Again, what’s interesting is this connection between fairies, witches, and ghosts because they do share certain characteristics. Like fairies, witches were known to punish those who had caused them offence and were also believed to be able to transport people on supernatural journeys, while fairies were thought to be spirits of the dead who would converse with witches or cunning folk. However, the one figure that does bind them all is of course the Devil!

Some people in Wales believed that fairies were the souls of Druids who, not being Christians, could not enter heaven but were too good to be cast into hell and therefore condemned to exist in limbo. For many others, however, their origins were far more ominous. Several sources portray fairies as spiritual beings of demonic origin. In 1677, the Puritan Charles Edwards describes them as neighbourly, or friendly devils (cythreuliaid cymdeithgar), a phrase that lent itself very well as an exhibition title as it captures their mischievous and demonic nature.  Edwards explained how these ‘vermin of darkness’ used to appear as a visible ‘swarm’ to drag people away to their merriments. Edmund Jones was also in ‘no doubt’ that fairies were ‘evil Spirits belonging to the Kingdom of darkness’, while an anonymous author of an early eighteenth-century tract against witchcraft and conjuration claimed they were spirits that were conjured by cunning-folk, and argued that it was forbidden to seek help from those who converse with ‘the dead’ (y meirw). The author was under no doubt that that such spirits were, in fact, devils.

Popular Antiquities

The Fairies by Peter Roberts. Illustration appears in his Cambrian popular antiquities: or, An account of some traditions, customs, and superstitions, of Wales; with observations as to their origin, &c. (London, 1815).

These demonic understandings of the fairies might surprise those of us who are more familiar with the delicate, winged depictions that became popular with the increase in fairy tale publications and the development of Victorian fairy illustration. This is yet another key theme that the exhibition explores as many of the works included featured beautiful illustrations by some of Wales’s most talented artists. Most of these follow the Victorian tradition of romanticising the appearance of fairies, such as Margaret Lindsay Williams’ paintings of the Llyn y Fan Fach Legend, or the lady of the lake.

Llyn y Fan 1 WG30(1917)

He saw a girl sitting on the lake’s smooth surface illustration by Margaret Lindsay Williams, from William Rees, Chwedl Llyn y Fan (The Legend of Llyn y Fan) (Liverpool, 1917).

However, some artists appreciated the darker side of the Tylwyth Teg and created haunting images that reflected this, one of which provided the initial inspiration for the exhibition. So, I will leave you to ponder the following from the proofs of Shirley Jones’ book Chwedlau (Legends) and her description of creating this particular print, and what happened next…

Llen y Werin, Chwedlau Proofs, Artists Books

Shirley Jones, ‘Llên Werin’: Chwedlau: page proofs (Brecon, 2005).

‘Llen Werin, or Folklore, was the final chapter in my artist book, Chwedlau, an exploration into fifteen centuries of Welsh myths, legends and folklore. I thought a fitting image would be of a candle, by which so many of these tales were told. I drew our own candle in its holder, and burnished out this image on a mezzotint copperplate. I left the finished plate overnight, in my studio, protected by a sheet of paper, having decided it needed nothing more added to it. I locked my studio door, as usual, intending to take a print from it next day. But this was when I had a shock: there was now smoke coming from the candle on my mezzotint plate! I hadn’t burnished it out, and no one else could have. And I have never known how it came to be there.’

 

Special Collections and Archives’ exhibition Neighbourly Devils/Cythreuliaid Cymdogol is open until 31 March, 2018, and is available online at neighbourlydevils.weebly.com.

Find out more at www.cardiff.ac.uk/special-collections. Follow Cardiff University’s Special Collections Archives on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram: @CUSpecialColls.

 

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: https://www.dur.ac.uk/palace.green/whatson/details/?id=36250

Photographing Folklore

By James Brown, Science Communicator and photographer


Foreword

One of the main themes of the Between Worlds exhibition is the relationship between encounters with fairies and specific geographical locations. As the exhibition developed, photographer James Brown visited the sites where the selected stories were set, capturing these locations as they appear today and looking for traces of the folklore which forms their history.

David Wright, Assistant Curator at Palace Green Library


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© James Brown

The fish served at breakfast had been caught just 90 minutes previously by two of the guests, obviously regular visitors to the B&B for the fishing opportunities that were available in the rivers around the Eildon hills. They were more than happy to share their catch with the table, garnished with stories and tales of their morning work in the mist. I’m not a fisherman, but even I thought that the picture they painted of the early morning river bank sounded rather idyllic.  Eventually, the topic of conversation turned to me and the purpose of my visit. Unable to resist, I explained that, like them, I was there to capture something out in the wild; I was on the hunt for fairies.

When I was asked by Dr Victoria Flood if I would be able to contribute some pictures of the locations of fairy tales for the Between Worlds exhibition, I leapt at the opportunity. I wasn’t familiar with any of the stories she forwarded me, nor the places where they occurred. The extent of my knowledge about the subject was limited to having read Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, so it seemed like a wonderful opportunity to immerse myself in a different world.

 

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For each location I visited (Melrose, Aberfoyle, Middridge, and Inglewood), I would read the tale(s) and then spend a day or two walking the surrounding area taking photographs. In both Aberfoyle and Melrose it very quickly became apparent that these tales were still in the forefront of the local consciousness. The woodland around Aberfoyle has been decorated with carved fairy houses, warning signs about the supernatural denizens of the woods, and of course the Fairy Tree perched atop the hill with its brightly coloured but weathered ribbons containing prayers, wishes, hopes and dreams. Despite the carefully maintained paths and walkways, there is still enough superstition contained in the mound of dense woodland on the edge of town to compel people to make a pilgrimage up to this site of special supernatural interest.

Similarly, in Melrose there are plenty of signs that the old tales are still remembered. At the base of the Eildon hills there is a monument to Thomas the Rhymer, sheltered by an Eildon tree, which relates to his story. Like Aberfoyle, the landscape has been tamed and sanitised, but the stories have not been erased – they are there to be discovered, hewn into the rock (literally in the case of Melrose), perhaps as a reminder of what lurks in the shadows.  Rhymer’s glen is still marked on the OS maps and in fact is advertised at the local tourist information office. When I visit the path is closed off; industrial logging is taking place and it’s unsafe to enter. Danger has returned to the woodlands again, at least for a short time.

 

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If both Melrose and Aberfoyle proudly display their links to the fairly world in the midst of modernisation, Middridge and Inglewood have no trace of the stories that are set there. Inglewood forest itself has almost gone entirely. A small copse of trees surrounded by farm land, it is a tiny time capsule back to a pre-cultivated Britain. It feels like the modern world has slowly encroached on the woodland down to this last bubble which could pop at any moment. Yet it holds out, surrounded by barbed wire and ditches to keep people out (with the exception of intrepid fairy hunters).

 

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In Middridge, this battle between ancient and modern is much less a done deal. The village and surrounding farms feel under siege from the natural world. Bus stops are dwarfed by trees, houses are covered in ivy, fences strain to hold back the weeds from carefully manicured lawns. The allotments on the edge of the village are half-way between cultivated and untamed. The people of Middridge are in a constant war, trying to hold back the green tide from their little corner of civilisation. Totems line the road, human simulacra designed to ward off the dangers from outside the village (well – reckless drivers at least).

 

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As I say, I’m not a fisherman, but I understand the attraction of heading out of the town and into the wild. All the locations I visited, the scenes of these fairy tales, demonstrate the push and pull between humans and their relationship with the wild borders around their homes. These twilight areas where town and country meet are fertile ground for stories and tales, inspired by the landmarks that dominate the local geography and have a strange attraction to those of us who want a little less civilisation every now and then.

 

James Brown is a Science Communicator with a particular interest in developments around genetic technologies. You can follow him @jcwbrown27 on Twitter and see more pictures on Instagram @jcwbrown.

 

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: https://www.dur.ac.uk/palace.green/whatson/details/?id=36250.

If this blog has inspired you to find out more about fairies and folklore, then why not come along to the final public lecture running alongside the Between Worlds exhibition. Find out more about this exciting free talk here: https://www.dur.ac.uk/palace.green/whatson/details/?id=37740.

The Importance of Fairy Tales

By Adam Bushnell, author of County Durham Folk Tales (The History Press, 2013)


Foreword

Fairy tales have been a key tool in the education of children and adults alike throughout history. These stories have been a way of teaching about ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. These ideas vary from society to society. In this post author Adam Bushnell explores how the governing regime in Nazi Germany manipulated popular fairy tales to express their own principles and beliefs.

Jade Westerman, Exhibitions Assistant at Palace Green Library


Bruno Bettelheim explains how fairy tales educate, support and liberate the emotions of children in his book The Uses of Enchantment. I wholly agree. Fairy tales are powerful developmental tools for children and adults alike. They can have a dark side to them, but generally good overcomes evil. They frequently contain moral messages too and are useful tools for promoting oral storytelling. They follow themes and structures still seen in modern writing. For example, The Gruffalo feels like a traditional fairy tale. It has the rule of three just like Goldilocks, The Billy Goats Gruff and countless others.

Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief follows all the rules of the fairy tale too with its triadic structure and themes of good versus evil. Modern books still follow the structure and themes of the fairy tale because they are of everlastingly appealing. The themes can be dark, but children still adore them as they excite and inspire. If I told my publishers I wanted to write a book about a cannibal witch that lived in the woods using sweets to lure children to her home, then they would probably be surprised I was pitching this for children in their early years. Yet Hansel and Gretel is exactly that.

Fairy stories are not just for children though. In Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, she describes her stories as ‘reimagining the fairy tale’. We meet familiar characters from childhood in an adult context. We view the stories in a whole new way. It is magnificent to read.

Fairy tales appeal to all ages essentially because human beings are story animals. We thrive on them in all of their forms, whether news articles, stories in the pub or experiences at work that we share at the dinner table. We communicate through story. We express our inner selves in the retelling of the story. Stories hold great power.

However, fairy tales are something that have been manipulated in the past. The Nazis understood the importance of the fairy tale. One of the first things they did upon rising to power in Germany was to make fairy tales into films and broadcast them in movie theatres across the country. In the Nazi film version of Puss in Boots, Puss is seen standing at the end on a raised platform wearing a swastika armband. The crowd gathered around all chant, “Hail Puss in Boots! He is our Savour! We will live again!”. This was a deliberate attempt to compare Puss to Hitler, with a strong suggestion to children that only a hero should be hailed.

Shortly after the invasion of Poland, the Nazis turned Little Red Riding Hood into a film too, where the heroine is rescued at the end by a swastika-armed, SS uniform-wearing man holding a knife.

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Still of Josef Goebbels’ rendition of Little Red Riding Hood ©Deutsches Filmnstitut (available: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/history/world-war-two/7594061/Nazi-fairy-tales-paint-Hitler-as-Little-Red-Riding-Hoods-saviour.html)

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Frontispiece and title-page of the 1819 edition of Kinder und Hausmärchen by Ludwig Emil Grimm (1790-1863) (Available: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Kinder_title_page.jpg)

At that time, most households in Germany had a German House Book containing the Brother’s Grimm fairy tales. These were often shared by a fire with the whole family. The Nazis rewrote, reprinted and redistributed the book to all households in Germany but this new edition had sinister and subtle changes to the text.

In the original version of the Brother’s Grimm story The Little Magic Table, ‘The Golden Donkey and the Club in the Sack’, there is reference to a ‘yellow stain’ on someone’s trousers to suggest fear and cowardice. In the Nazi version, the yellow stain is written as a yellow star. The same star that Jewish people in the Nazi occupied ghettos were forced to wear.

In another tale, there is a magic fiddle which makes people dance. In the story, the fiddle is used to make Jewish people dance themselves to death in thorn bushes. Hitler wanted to warp young minds into thinking that this was the work of a hero.

Fairy Tales are powerful developmental tools for children and adults alike. As such, the Nazis used it to their own evil ends. Hitler knew of the power of these stories. He knew that children were influenced by them. He knew that if he manipulated them, then he also manipulated children’s minds.

As an author and a teacher, I think that fairy tales are critical in schools and at home. The more we share them in their untarnished form, then they help children, and adults, to understand the way of the world. They contain tragedy, comedy and hope.

Let us hope that the fairy tale will never again be a tool for manipulation, but rather only be used for good.

Adam Bushnell is an author of both fictional and academic books based in Durham. Find out more about his work here.

 

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:

https://www.dur.ac.uk/palace.green/whatson/details/?id=36250

If this blog has inspired you to find out more about fairies and folklore, then why not come along to the final public lecture running alongside the Between Worlds exhibition. Find out more about this exciting free talk here:

https://www.dur.ac.uk/palace.green/whatson/details/?id=37740

Thomas of Erceldoune: Fairy Geography

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


Foreword

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. Dr 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.

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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’.

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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


Foreword

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: http://museumofwitchcraftandmagic.co.uk/visit/).

 

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.