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:


Photography by Dwight Burdette: close-up of fairy door at Red Shoes, 332 South Ashley, Ann Arbor, Michigan,

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.



Illustration by Helena Nyblom for ‘The Seven Wishes’ from Among Pixies and Trolls (1913) by Alfred Smedberg,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.


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:

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’.

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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.