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 Real True Thomas

By Poppy Holden, professional singer and singing tutor.


Foreword

Thomas of Erceldoune, Thomas the Rhymer, True Thomas: this man of many names, famous for his journey to the land of the fairies and the gifts he gained there, is a prominent figure in the Between Worlds exhibition. In this post, singer Poppy Holden explores the first written account of Thomas and how the seemingly inexplicable events of the story have a curious link to the real world geography of Melrose.

 David Wright, Assistant Curator at Palace Green Library


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Manesse Codex, c.1300

Inter-species sex in the late thirteenth century; travel between worlds; wealthy elves partying nonstop in a castle; magical gifts; prophecies; curious geological phenomena. An interesting story!

Recently, I met some distinguished physicists who were amused that I was investigating a story with characters who move between our world and another, what? Dimension? Something like that. They thought I was being foolish and fanciful, and I might dare to say the same about their daily work searching for dark matter, invisible particles, and so on. We laughed about it, and agreed to differ. No doubt they’ll eventually find what they are looking for and explain it in scientific terms.

Perhaps the wild and magical story of Thomas of Erceldoune will also, one day, find a logical explanation.  His existence in our history can be shown: the signature of Thomas Rymor de Ercildune attests a legal document concerning the old chapel at Melrose, and Thomas’s son conveyed his property at Earlston to Soutra Hospital where powerful mind-altering drugs have recently been unearthed by Dr Brian Moffat’s team of medical archaeologists.

In the richly detailed medieval ballad Thomas of Erceldoune, Thomas views from afar a beautiful, richly dressed woman hunting on the Eildon hill near his home. She has everything a well-equipped huntress could possibly want: palfrey, falcon, horn, bow and arrows, three greyhounds and seven bloodhounds. Her outfit is beautiful, her horse is covered in precious stones and silver bells, her stirrups made of crystal embellished with pearls. He assumes she has to be Mary, Queen of Heaven, but she says “I am of another country”. Thomas asks to lie with her and plights his troth to the lady: she warns him it will hurt her, but he persists, and they have sex seven times, taking all day about it: weary and bruised, she takes him on a three-day journey underneath the Eildon hill, wading through deep water to a land of exotic singing birds and fruit trees arriving at her own castle in the middle of a fabulous party. A few days later, to protect him from a fiend, the Queen hustles Thomas back to his home, where he later made good use of the power of prophecy which he exacted as a farewell gift from the Queen. He became famous as a seer, independently of his adventure: and at the end of his life he vanished once more. Some said he was led away by a white hart and hind who appeared in the main street of his town, and he was never seen again. Since his property was gifted to Soutra Hospital, possibly his disappearance from the world might be explained by a hidden illness. One day perhaps another document might be discovered to let us know what really happened.

Eildon Hills

Looking down from Eldon Mid Hill on the LIttle Hill or Lucken Hare (green, to the right). © Poppy Holden.

The landscape setting of the story is very special. The spot where Thomas entered the Eildon hill is known in local legends as the Lucken Hare, from the pre-Christian iconography of three hares, magical women’s familiar spirits, running round in an eternal circle. There is something odd about its geology:

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While I was browsing the National Library of Scotland’s extensive collection of historical maps, I stumbled across a geological survey of the Melrose area.

The map shows there are just two occurrences of volcanic quartz-porphyry rock in the vicinity, one at the exact spot where Thomas first sat and saw his vision of the Queen, on Huntly Banks, and the other at the Lucken Hare or Little Hill on the Eildons, where the Queen took Thomas into Elfland. Sir Walter Scott also recounts a folk tradition of Canobie Dick, who saw the sleeping knights of King Arthur in a cave under the Lucken Hare. A folk name for this quartz-porphyry basalt is Elvan!

Millions of years ago, material from far below the Earth’s surface spurted up to visit our own world.

Marvelous stories have sprouted up in their turn, which embellish and explain this geological anomaly.

 

Further reading:

  • Tom Greeves, Sue Andrew, and Chris Chapman, The Three Hares: A Curiosity Worth Regarding (2016).
  • Emily Lyle, Fairies and Folk: Approaches to the Scottish Ballad Tradition (2007).
  • Brian Moffat, SHARP Practice: Report on Researches into the Mediaeval Hospital at Soutra, Lothian/Borders Region, Scotland (1989).
  • Sir James Murray, The romance and prophecies of Thomas of Erceldoune (1875).
  • Sir Walter Scott, Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802).
  • Sir Walter Scott, Letters of Demonology and Witchcraft (1830).

 

Poppy Holden is a singer and singing tutor with a particular interest in border ballads. Find out more about her work here. You can also follow her on Twitter.

 

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.

An Interview with the Brothers Gillespie

Foreword

The Brothers Gillespie showcased their musical and vocal talents during a performance at Palace Green Library in November 2017, captivating the audience with songs and stories which brought characters from the Between Worlds exhibition to life. 

This interview with The Brothers Gillespie goes deep into their roots. It allows us to get to know their story and how they created their set-list for the Between Worlds exhibition.

Katie Braithwaite, Project Officer at Palace Green Library


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We are James and Sam Gillespie, brothers raised in Northumberland, specifically Wall in the North Tyne Valley, Hexham and the surrounding area. We are musicians inspired very much by the beautiful wild and troubled lands and histories of these isles we call home. We are drawn to music partly because of its power to create shared spaces of reverence within our cultural milieu, which seems of particular importance given the widespread tendency we are seeing to aggressively rationalise away the sacred or to adopt a posture of all pervasive sarcasm. It’s our belief that it is through our capacity for reverence and listening that we have a chance of hearing and receiving what is really going on between us beneath the chatter and noise. Like the Fairy Realms, for instance, that our ancestors lived their lives in connection with and which the Palace Green exhibition reverently reminds us of.

How did you first become interested in folk music?

We first became interested in folk music as teenagers through discovering the artists of the 60’s folk revival: Bert Jansch, John Martyn, Sandy Denny, The Incredible String Band, Richard Thompson, Anne Briggs, Nick Drake and many others. They carried such a spirit of wildness, freedom and rebel soul that we had up to that point been finding mostly in Rock and Grunge music. Up until then, because of our ignorance of the depth of the tradition I think, folk maybe seemed a bit tame and anachronistic, like Morris men waving Union Jacks and so on. Having said that, our early contact as children with our parents’ tapes of Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, African and other traditional music made a deep and lasting impression on us and blew our minds.

You had a great performance last year at Palace Green. How did you come across the Folklore you incorporated into your set?

Many of the songs have come to us bit by bit over the last few years. For sure Alan Lomax’s early field recordings from Scotland have provided a really inspiring well of songs and a glimpse into living folklore of the past. One or two of the stories came to us from the Newcastle based Storytelling collective A Bit Crack and the Dreaming the Land Pilgrimage from Lindisfarne to Rothbury, during which James played musical accompaniment to the Hen Hole story. Storyteller Lizzie McDougall of Ross-shire gave some deep insights into the Thomas the Rhymer story. Listening to other musicians playing between the Tyne and the Firth of Forth has been gradual learning through osmosis. So too walking the land and its rolling contours, such as the night we slept on the Eildon hill, a place long associated with Thomas the Rhymer whilst walking St Cuthbert’s way. It’s impossible to definitively say how we came across the folklore such as we have come across, the roots and connections get more and more subtle unfolding outwards into the living landscape. This brings us back to the requirement for deep listening to tune in to the messages of the wind and rivers such as there may be.

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

There are so many stories and folklore, but how did you choose the ones you wanted to perform?

Given that the Between Worlds exhibition is devoted to the otherworld, for the Palace Green set we decided to choose several songs about fairies. Many such songs are within the Gaelic tradition and language. Part of our motivation to study the Gaelic language is to be able to fall more fully into this tradition of wonderful songs. We chose otherworldly and fairy songs in English and Scots too, rooted in places in the North of Britain particularly the big stretch of borderland between England and Scotland. We also included some songs we had composed ourselves which we felt had some of this otherworldly spirit within them.

Are any of the stories you performed your favourite or are there any tales you had in mind?

Many of the songs we sang are our favourites! We had so many ideas for songs, stories and poems to learn for this performance that we were limited by time in what we could accomplish. We have decided to treat our involvement with this wonderful exhibition and our performance at the Palace Green library as the beginning of a project and as an invitation for us to deepen relationship with the otherworldly side of the tradition which is so close to our hearts.

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The Brothers Gillespie’s next gig date will be 7.00pm on Friday 4th May at the art gallery Gallery 45 in Felton, Northumberland: http://feltongallery45.co.uk/about/.

More about the Brothers Gillespie can be found on their website: http://thebrothersgillespie.co.uk/. Their music can be heard on SoundCloud: https://soundcloud.com/the-brothers-gillespie.

 

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.

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

How One Writer Learned to Love Folklore and Chase Magic

By Icy Sedgwick, blogger and author of Harbingers: Dark Tales of Speculative Fiction.


Foreword

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.

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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.

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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 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)%5D, 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.

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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.

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.

The Ancient Faeries of Northern Britain

By Rosalind Kerven, folklorist and author of over 60 books, including Faeries, Elves & Goblins: the Old Stories (The National Trust/Pavilion, 2013)


Foreword

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, https://workingwithmythsandfairytales.blogspot.co.uk.

 

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.