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:

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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