The following article appeared in the Eastern Daily Press on 2 February 1908:-
“A luminous owl (for there may be more than one!) was captured on Wednesday morning by Mr Edward Cannell at Lower Hellesdon and died from purely natural causes a few minutes afterwards.
A “John Knowlittle”, wrote “A Daily Press reporter, who has enquired into the circumstances, may be relied upon to weep for the luminous fowl. I have only to do with the facts, which are these”:-
“Mr Edward S Cannell is the engineer at the Norwich City Asylum (John Knowlittle will chuckle at that, I have no doubt) but Mr Cannell does not live at the Asylum – he is a trained and highly responsible man and is known to nearly everybody). I asked Mr Cannell to tell me how he came to find the owl.
“Yesterday morning” said Mr Cannell, between 6.00 and 6.30 when it was still dark, I went out into my garden. I had my dog with me. There is a grass bank about 2.5 feet high on one side and a grape vine on a wall on the other. I saw something shining on the grass bank, which for a moment startled me. It fluttered down, crossed the path and got up against the grape vine. I had no trouble in catching it and I did not hurt it in any way. It was an owl and it was bright and luminous. I should say that it was an ordinary owl, but the taxidermist will tell you all about that.
I carried it indoors and put it on a stool, then went out into the garden again. I do not think the dog saw the bird at all. When I came back into the house the bird was dying. It was still luminous, but perhaps the glow was not so strong as when I first saw it.
When I came into breakfast the bird was quite dead. Of course it was daylight then and I could see no luminosity in the bird; it’s light had gone out. I have no doubt at all that the bird was luminous when I saw it first. It was the diffused light which first attracted my attention. The luminosity appeared to me to be phosphorescent in its nature”. – “There are a number of owls that fly about among the trees at the Asylum every night but I have never seen a luminous one before”!
St. Nicholas’ church in East Dereham, Norfolk has a tower detached from the building. It is said the bells were originally hung in the 13th century lantern tower rising from the centre, but they became too heavy for the structure and were removed to the bell-tower in the churchyard, specially built in the 16th century. In 1797 it was used as a temporary gaol for French prisoners on their way from Great Yarmouth. One tried to escape by hiding in a tree, but was shot and buried in the graveyard (his memorial is near St. Withburga’s Well.)
By tradition the tower was once attached to the church, but the builder forgot to use the proper mortar and it was never watertight. The parson ordered the tower to be pitched all over, but while it was still hot and sticky, all the birds of Dereham (some say a flock of starlings) flew over to see what the fuss was. They landed on the tower, but on finding their feet stuck, kicked up a commotion and fluttered their wings so hard that they flew away with the tower. But before they’d flown far, their feet came unstuck and the tower fell where it stands.
R. H. Mottram: ‘East Anglia’ (Chapman & Hall, 1933), pp.179-80.
Noel Boston & Eric Puddy: ‘Dereham’ (G. A. Coleby, 1952), pp. 148-9.
Eastern Daily Press & Norfolk Churches
“Lost Hearts” is a classic ghost story by the British author M.R. James. James read an early version of the story at a Cambridge literary society gathering in 1893, and the short story was published in the December 1895 issue of the Pall Mall Magazine. The story was later collected in the anthology Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904).
The story opens with a young orphan named Stephen arriving at Aswarby Hall, the country estate of his elderly uncle, Mr. Abney. Although Mr. Abney is known as a recluse, Stephen learns that he is a kind man who has taken in other disadvantaged children in the past. Those children did not stay long, but Stephen is quite happy in his new life at the Hall. A few months after his arrival, however, Stephen begins to experience some mysterious and disturbing events.
“Lost Hearts” was one of the earliest stories written by M.R. James. Although the author himself did not care much for the story, some consider it one of James’ best. The story has been adapted for television and radio.
In September of 1811, a young boy named Stephen Elliot arrives at Aswarby Hall in Lincolnshire. Stephen was recently orphaned, and his elderly cousin, Mr. Abney, has generously invited him to come live at the Hall. The invitation was unexpected, for Mr. Abney is known as a recluse, an expert on ancient pagan religions who is wrapped up in his books.
Mr. Abney eagerly welcomes his young cousin, and he appears delighted to learn that Stephen’s twelfth birthday is nearly a year away. He tells Parkes the butler to take Stephen to the housekeeper, Mrs. Bunch. Mrs. Bunch makes Stephen feel completely at home, and they quickly become great friends. Stephen, an adventurous and curious boy, learns much about Aswarby Hall and its gardens from Mrs. Bunch who has been at the Hall for twenty years.
One November evening, Stephen asks Mrs. Bunch “Is Mr. Abney a good man, and will he go to heaven?” Mrs. Bunch tells him that his uncle is the kindest man. She then talks about other children Mr. Abney has taken in. The first was a little girl who had no family. Mr. Abney brought her back with him from his walk one day about two years after Mrs. Bunch first came to the Hall. After three weeks, the girl suddenly left before anyone else was up in the morning. Mr. Abney was distraught and even had the ponds dragged, but the girl was never seen again. Mrs. Bunch believes she was taken away by the gypsies who were seen in the area. The second was a young foreign boy who came around with his hurdy-gurdy seven winters ago. Just like the girl, the boy left suddenly one early morning. Mrs. Bunch has no idea why he left or what he did, for he left his hurdy-gurdy behind.
That night, Stephen has a strange dream. He is looking through the glazed door of an old disused bathroom down the corridor from his bedroom. Lying in the bath tub is a thin figure wrapped in a shroud. There is a faint and dreadful smile on its lips, and its hands are pressed tightly over the heart. Then it begins to moan and move its arms. Stephen wakes terrified and finds himself standing in the passageway. He walks up to the bathroom door and takes a peek to see if the figure is there. Finding the bath empty, Stephen goes back to bed. Upon hearing about the dream in the morning, Mrs. Bunch puts a new curtain over the bathroom door. Mr. Abney also shows interest in Stephen’s story and makes notes in his book.
As the spring equinox approaches, Mr. Abney repeatedly advises Stephen to take care and shut his bedroom window at night. He explains that the time of year was considered by the ancients to be critical for the young. One day, after Stephen has a particularly uneasy night, Mrs. Bunch finds his nightdress torn. There are long parallel slits on the left side of the chest. Stephen cannot explain the slits but tells Mrs. Bunch that there are similar scratches on the outside of his bedroom door. Mrs. Bunch goes to look at the door. The marks, which are too high up to have been made by an animal, look like fingernail scratches. She advises Stephen not to say anything to Mr. Abney and to lock his door at bedtime.
The following evening, Stephen is in Mrs. Bunch’s room when Parkes comes in looking uncharacteristically flustered. Not realizing Stephen is there, the butler begins to complain about the wine cellar. He is disturbed by noises coming from the far storage room. Mrs. Bunch points out that there are rats. Parkes replies that, if those are rats, they must be the kind that can talk. Mrs. Bunch protests that he is frightening Stephen, and Parkes finally becomes aware of the child. Stephen asks questions but Parkes will not say any more on the subject.
On March 24, Mr. Abney speaks to Stephen after lunch and asks him to come to his study at 11:00pm. He wishes to show Stephen something important connected with his future life, and tells Stephen not to mention it to anyone else. That evening, Stephen sees his uncle in the library. There is a silver cup filled with red wine and some sheets of paper on the table. Mr. Abney is sprinkling some incense on a brazier from a silver box. Stephen goes up to his bedroom unseen.
Around ten o’clock, Stephen looks out from his bedroom window over the country. The night is still and there is a full moon. He hears strange cries from time to time, not quite like owls or water birds, from across the pond. They seem to come closer and closer, but then the cries stop. Then Stephen sees a boy and a girl standing on the terrace along the side of the Hall. The girl reminds Stephen of the figure in the bath he saw in his dream. She stands half smiling, with her hands over her heart. The boy, thin and in ragged clothing, raises his arms in a gesture of hunger and longing. His nails are fearfully long, and on the left side of his chest is a gaping rent. Stephen hears, not with his ears but in his brain, those desolate cries he heard earlier. Then the boy and the girl noiselessly move away and disappear.
It is now nearly eleven. Stephen, although quite frightened, decides to go down to Mr. Abney’s study. He knocks on the door but receives no reply. He hears his uncle speaking. Then he hears him trying to cry out and choking. In the silence that follows, Stephen frantically pushes open the door.
Later at the inquest, the coroner concludes Mr. Abney was killed by a wild animal that entered the study through the open window. Mr. Abney was found in his chair with a terrible laceration on his chest exposing the heart, and his expression was frozen in a mixture of rage, fear, and horrible pain. There was no blood on his hands or on the knife that lay on the table.
Some years later, Stephen Elliot studies Mr. Abney’s papers and finds a different explanation for his uncle’s death. Through his studies of ancient texts, Mr. Abney had become convinced that one could gain supernatural powers – such as the ability to fly or become invisible – by consuming the hearts of three human beings below the age of twenty-one. The hearts were to be removed from living victims, reduced to ashes, and mixed with red wine. Mr. Abney chose children who would not be missed. The first heart was removed from a gipsy girl on March 24, 1792, and the second from a wandering Italian boy on March 23, 1805. The children’s bodies were concealed in the disused bathroom and the wine cellar. Mr. Abney chose Stephen as the third subject in his experiment. He hoped to gain powers to enable him not only to escape from justice but also to defeat death itself. Although he was aware of the ghosts of the children, called “the psychic portion of the subjects” in his papers, Mr. Abney believed them incapable of harming him.
“Lost Hearts” was adapted for television as an episode of the Mystery and Imagination series with Freddie Jones as Mr. Abney. The episode was first broadcast on the ITV network in the United Kingdom on March 5, 1966.
The story was adapted as a short television film for the BBC A Ghost Story for Christmas series with Joseph O’Conor in the role of Mr. Abney. It first aired on British television on December 25, 1973. The movie features hurdy-gurdy music, and the ghost of the boy is seen playing the instrument.
On December 26, 2007, BBC Radio 4 aired a 15-minute dramatization of “Lost Hearts” as part of the M.R. James: Ghost Stories series. Derek Jacobi, as M.R. James, introduces the story which is told as a recollection by the grown-up Stephen Elliot (James D’Arcy).
At nearly midnight in November 1898 a Lowestoft Smack lay close-hauled under a double reef weathering a North Sea gale. The third-hand, clad in yellow oil-skins, sou’wester and long sea boots had the watch. His left arm was hooked around the mizzen rigging as a safety precaution against the pitching and rolling deck. The wind was howling and shrieking through the rigging and stays; all around was a black, tumbling, crashing sea. The dark waves, like huge mountains with crests covered in snow, went snarling by. Occasionally one hit the vessel and masses of water came swirling along her decks.
Instinctively the third-hand hooked his other arm through the rigging. Over his shoulder he could see the red glow from the port light – somehow that glow reminded him of the open fire side in the cosy little cottage sitting room in Pakefield. It seemed a long way off tonight. He reckoned that the fire would be out by now fot it was getting late and the missus would have gone to bed. His gaze wandered to the lee side when stark fear and panic took possession of him. With a yell he tumbled down the companion way that led to the Skipper’s cabin below. The skipper sat beside the table as the third-hand burst in.
“Skipper” he gasped “there’s a young woman walking on the sea”. The skipper noticed the terror-stricken face and shaking limbs of the third-hand; in an endeavour to calm him down he said, “All right old man, let’s go up and help that lady aboard. “Don’t joke skip” wailed the third-hand, “I saw her, she’d got her arms outstretched. “There’s somebody she’s come after on this ship”. “You’re nuts” snapped the Skipper. “See, “there’s nothing here. Your gal friend’s cleared off”.
Later that night, as the sea continued to behave as if it had a particular grudge against the Smack and the crew were hauling down the reef, a huge wave rose high and hurled itself across the open deck. All the crew managed to hold on, except the third-hand who was swept cleanly away, along with his worries, fear, panic and life – to rest peacefully in the arms of the Sea Maiden.
There is an old and, some have thought, strange tale relating to the shingled beach at Weybourne; it is that it is haunted.
This haunting, if that is what it is, takes the form of a persistent whistling sound, which is be heard out on the foreshore just as dusk is descending – particularly on nights when the moon is full. The whistle is not random or casual but sounds more like the sort of signal given by a person who is trying to attract someone’s attention. You may well think that this form of distress call is quite normal from anyone seeking help; but you would be of a different mind if anyone ever suggested that no earthly lips were making this sound. But, many have said in the past that this is so!
The fact is, a moon’s glow is sufficient to see if anyone is on Weybourne beach who could be making this whistle; if it’s only you there and you hear it then there is a puzzle to be explained away. Some people have tried and even attempted to track down the source of this whistling, assuming at the outset that it may be someone in difficulty in the surf – but, to date, no one has ever been found. Then there are the locals, the ones who should know; a few of them have, in the past, described being right on top of the spot where the whistle is coming from and, even they, have still not been able to see anyone; but, of course, there have been a few exceptions in the past – the privileged few!
Some of these have indeed reported that after the whistling had gone on for a while, and then stopped, they had seen the vague outline of a man on the edge of the beach, where the sea strokes the shingle. Fully clothed in what appeared to be old-fashioned clothing, he appeared to have roamed along the foreshore whilst staring out to further reaches of the water. But, then he just vanished before anyone could go to investigate closer what appeared to be an apparition. The moment this ghostly image disappeared, the whistling recommenced, but it has always been impossible to pin-point its exact source.
Local legend has it, that it is the ghost of John Smythe who was a smuggler from long, long ago. It is said that one night, when the moon was full, he and his fellow crew mates came ashore at Weybourne to replenish their provisions, something they had done frequently in the past. On this occasion John Smythe, who was very, very friendly with the daughter of the local inn’s landlord, told the rest of the men that he would meet them back at shore at a slightly later time than had previously been the case. But despite this extension to his time away, John Smythe was to lose track of time which, understandably, would have been caused by the extent to which he and his young girl were, shall we say, ‘improving further’ their relationship. However, unbeknown to Smythe, the Custom’s men had been alerted to the presence of the smugglers and had made haste to Weybourne to try to catch them before they returned to their ship. At the same time, the smugglers who were there to pick up provisions, learnt of this entrapment and, together, hurried back to the beach and their boat. When aboard, they waited just off shore for Smythe, who they had not been able to locate before their hasty departure. But time was slipping away beyond the moment when Smythe should have returned; and still there was no sign of him. Understandably, they assumed that he had been captured and so began to row away from the shoreline and out to their ship.
As for the Custom’s men, they had not realised that their prey had already fled and hid themselves amongst the sand dunes and waited. Within a short while, John Smythe approached the rendezvous, hurrying down to where the rowing boat had been left, but all he could see were tracks leading out into the water’s edge. In the dim twilight he managed to pick out the rowing boat making its way out to the ship. Being, somewhat a cautious man for a smuggler, he began to whistle for his mates’ attention, which in itself was rather strange since both methods of signalling for help would attract attention. This problem was compounded by the fact that the tide had turned and the sea was on its way in – and coming in fast!
On hearing Smythe’s whistle the custom men sprang from their hiding place and ran towards him. He, in turn, decided to take his chances in the sea rather than be captured; bad choice for, unfortunately as was normally the case in those days, Smythe did not know how to swim. Nevertheless, his decision to wade out into deeper water was in the hope that his fellow smugglers would see him and return to rescue him. In doing this, he knew that the Custom’s men would not follow because they too could not swim. They remained on the foreshore, witnesses to Smythe’s whistling as he ventured further away from their grasp.
John Smythe waded out from a beach that drops steeply; the sea quickly rose higher and higher. What happened next will probably never be known but somehow he must have lost his footing or perhaps the current was so strong that it swept him off his feet; whatever the reason, he disappeared below the waves and drowned; the last sight of John Smythe was his one remaining outstretched hand trailing his body below, a body that was never to be recovered.
So the saying still goes; when the moon is full, John Smythe returns to the beach at Weybourne, desperately whistling for attention of his fellow smugglers, in the hope that they will come back and rescue him – but to date they never have.
The Le Strange family have had their ancestral home in Old Hunstanton, in the County of Norfolk, England, ever since they first came over from France in 1100, thirty-four years after the Battle of Hastings and the emergence of ‘William the ‘Bastard’ Conqueror’ on English soil in 1066,
The Le Strange ancestral home, since the 12th century, was originally known as the Old Moated Hall. The Estate boasted a magnificent coastal Mansion of carrstone and with Gothic battlements; the whole building was indeed surrounded by moats. The Mansion also had a large orchard, a deer park with an octagon pond, a park house and a banqueting house. There also was an orangery, pleasure grounds and a terraced walk. As Hunstanton Hall, the mansion came to be filled with amazing treasures and precious jewels rested in ornate boxes. Silks, velvets and satins were hung, waiting to be paraded by beautiful ladies and silverware, polished by servants, glistened by candlelight in every room; each room containing rarities from across the world and leather-bound books filled the library. That was not all – in time the Mansion was to inherit a ghost of a grey lady whose wrath was incurred by the destruction of her beloved Persian carpet!
This tale, the first of two about the Le Strange’s, is about a certain Dame Armine Le Strange who inherited Hunstanton Hall, in Old Hunstanton, in the mid-18th century to become the Lady of the Manor after her brother Henry died childless. One of Armine’s favourite possessions was a beautiful Persian carpet which was a gift from the Shah of Persia, which she she brought with her and placed in the Drawing Room of the Hall; the carpet showcased the exquisite talents of Far Eastern weavers . Whilst Armine loved this carpet, she was somewhat less enamoured with her son Nicholas who was a feckless gambler, hell-bent on stripping the Hall of its saleable assets in order to fund his gaming habits. While Armine bore the loss of many treasures by her son, she was determined that her precious carpet would not end up on the floor of one of her Nicholas’s creditors.
In 1768, as Armine lay on her deathbed, she made her son promise that the carpet would remain at the bosom of the family and in its place in the Drawing Room of Hunstanton Hall. She warned Nicholas that she would watch the progress of her carpet from her new heavenly home and if he broke his promise and removed it from the Hall, she would return, via the grave where her earthly remains were left, and haunt both the house and him with ghostly wrath.
Fearful he promised to keep his promise but was not enamoured with the now slightly moth-eaten carpet. Eventually, he picked up enough courage to instruct his servants to remove it from his sight, but place it in a wooden box and firmly nail it down to prevent him being tempted to forget his vow. The boxed carpet found a new home in a distant part of the attic. Now, some might think that this course of action would have resulted in Nicholas, the unfaithful son, being haunted by his dead mother for going back on his promise – but no, but the curse was to be passed on from generation to generation after Nicholas’ death in 1788.
Some 80 years later, Emmeline, the new American mistress of the Hunstanton Hall arrived in Norfolk having married Hamon Le Strange. Keen to put her own stamp on the mansion, she began enthusiastically renovating the Hall, discovering rooms which had been left untouched for decades. Fighting her way through the dust, cobwebs and rusty nails, she came across an interesting-looking wooden crate in the Attic. Emmeline instructed her servants to prise open the box, only to find, to her disappointed, that the box contained nothing but a dirty old carpet. However, wishing to be a good housekeeper and flex her philanthropic muscles, she instructed for the carpet to be cut into pieces and then she herself would ride out and distributed the ‘new’ but much smaller pieces of carpet to the poor and needy of Old Hunstanton.
Returning home, replete with goodwill, she felt that she was being watched. Instinctively, she glance up to one of the first floor windows and was surprised to see an older woman dressed in grey and glaring down at her. Her features were, unmistakably, those of her husband’s relatives and Emmeline assumed that a relation of her husband had come to visit; the countenance of the visitor caused, maybe, by the fact that she had been kept waiting upon the newly wed mistress of Hunstanton Hall. But once settled indoors, Emmeline was surprised to find there was no visitation from a Le Strange matriarch which left her more than a little puzzled. She decided to wait up for her husband who was due home that evening from a business trip.
Emmeline was still a bit unsure of her newly acquired position as mistress of Hunstanton Hall and felt it her duty to relay her story to her husband immediately he had settled into his favourite chair. On hearing the details of this women in grey, her husband realised that his wife’s description of her matched that of his ancestor, Armine Le Strange. He also remembered the family curse concerning the Persian Carpet, but became angry when Emmeline told him what she had been up to earlier that day with finding a carpet in a box, cutting it up and distributing the pieces amongst some of the people of Old Hunstanton. Her husband immediately insisted that all the pieces must be collected and returned forthwith but. at first, she refused. to agree.
That night, she and Hamon were disturbed by pacing footsteps outside their bedroom door – Hamon went to see who was there, but could see nothing. As he climbed back into bed and snuffed out the candle, the footsteps restarted. The next day, when Emmeline had looked at a family portrait of Armine and recognised her as the face she had seen at the window, she retraced her steps to the town and retrieved every one of the carpet pieces. Then she had her seamstress sew them all back together again – after a fashion! Those from whom the pieces were taken were each given a new replacement.
It would appear, however, that Armine was not appeased by the resurrection of her treasured Persian Carpet and was to continue her nightly haunting throughout Emmeline’s lifetime – and beyond. It was indeed too late: Lady Armine’s last wish had been ignored and that was unforgivable. Some say, she can still be seen wandering through the Hall today, despite it surviving two bad fires in past years and having been converted into flats in recent years. The spectre of a lady, all dressed in grey, still wanders lamenting the loss of her beloved carpet’s unsullied beauty.
This second tale brings us into the second millennium and to the 7th September 2002. It was told by a Jonathan Moor of Ludlow, Shropshire in a ‘Spooky Isles’ article. Let him tell you his tale in his own words; it is as follows:
“I was spending a few days over in Norfolk, taking a dozen or so rubbings of memorial brasses in several of the parish churches in the north of the County. On the 7th September I was at St Mary’s, Old Hunstanton, to take a rubbing there of the brass commemorating Sir Roger Le Strange who died in 1506 during the reign of Henry VII. It is a large brass placed on top of an altar tomb and to complete it I knew would take me a good three hours, if not longer.
I arrived at St Mary’s about 10 o’clock in the morning, having brought with me a packed lunch. Weatherwise, I recall the day was a mixture of sunshine and showers. Thereafter, having been rubbing for a couple of hours, I stopped for lunch. I suppose it must have been about midday. I went outside and sat myself down on a seat adjoining the churchyard path leading from the church gates by the roadside down to the south porch of the church.
While I was having my lunch, something caused me to glance up the path towards the church gates where I saw a little old man – grey jacket and dark trousers – accompanied by an elderly lady who was wearing an old fashioned “pork pie” hat. More than that of her appearance I didn’t take in. I carried on eating my sandwiches. Then suddenly, I remembered that it grew very cold; it was as if a bank of cloud had passed across the sun, which I suppose it might well have done. But, at the same time with regard to the old couple, I was conscious of several things. Firstly, I hadn’t heard the gate at the end of the path either open or close – so what was it that caused me to look up in the first place? And, despite walking on gravel, their feet had made no sound whatsoever. Rather more to the point, what had become of them? They hadn’t passed by me, and from where I was sitting to the gates the path was lined with thick shrubbery, so they could not have left at any point between the gates and myself.
I can offer no satisfactory explanation for any of this, but I have it in mind that – and I don’t know where the idea originated – that the elderly couple had come to tend a grave!
Is this the time to re-open the discussion as to whether the opening of ancient Egyptian tombs can bring forth misfortune and death?
It has been said that on one particular stormy night in 1965, some fifty-three years back from the present and the writing of this tale, Police Constable Williams was on his beat, cycling around a remote part of the Breckland region in Norfolk. It was bitterly cold that night, made worse by a harsh wind that made cycling extra difficult when it blew the occasional shower of rain across PC William’s path.
At 10.50 pm that night, the Constable stopped, consulted his watch and estimated that he should complete his beat sometime before midnight; this estimate taking into account the occasional cigarette and an inevitable natural break. The smoking element would, of course be breaking the rules, but what the hell! No one ever seemed to be around in this remote part of Norfolk, so there was little chance of anyone reporting him. As he shielded himself from the wind and lit up, cupping the match’s flame to prevent it blowing out and also stopping its glow giving both his position and actions away to anyone who may happen to be nearby, he heard the sound of a distant bell. He took his first drag at the same time as becoming even more conscious of that bell’s curious and continuously monotonous ring. Puzzled, and with a growing feeling of uneasiness, he realised that the bell’s sound was coming from St Michael’s church at Didlington Hall, just a short distance away as the crow flies, but very much longer by road. Who on earth would be ringing it at such a late hour? With that thought, he stubbed his cigarette out on a tree trunk, flicked it away into the darkness and set off in the direction of the church – all part of a constable’s duty they would say! The single, monotonous bell ring continued, even when he eventually reached the churchyard gate via a circular route round the site of the once proud Didlington Hall. After dismounting at the gate, he stood there, trying to decide whether or not to enter the church………!
At this point we should pause the tale of PC William’s experience and go back some thirty years previous to that night in 1965 when he heard that bell, to the 1920’s. That was when everyone seemed to be enthralled by a particular discovery in the Valley of the Kings, near Luxor on the west bank of Egypt’s river Nile. It was there, on the 4th November 1922, that Egyptologist and archaeologist, Howard Carter, discovered the tomb of the boy pharaoh, Tutankhamen, after six years of failure to locate his burial chamber. This discovery received worldwide press coverage and sparked a renewed public interest in ancient Epypt. The clearance of King Tut’s tomb, with its thousands of objects was to continue for the next ten years or so. But it was shortly after his discovery when Carter decided to retire from archaeology and tour the world to give lectures on his remarkable finds.
Now, the one thing which Carter refrained from discussing, following the opening of the tomb, was something which, perhaps, he found too preposterous or even ridiculous to ever to discuss – Curses! Yet, others did warn him of the consequences of not only opening the last resting place of the boy King, but also the despoiling of his tomb. There is an enduring myth with regard to the opening of Tutankhamen’s burial place, it is that an ancient curse was placed upon all who were present when the labelled ‘grave robbers’ entered the inner chamber and looted the contents – All would die! Of course, to Howard Carter or indeed to the other rationally minded, such notions were absurd, pointing out the fact that most of those present at the opening of the tomb went on to live long, healthy lives.
Carter lived to a relatively decent age of 64 years. Indeed, no curse was actually found inscribed in the tomb of King Tut, and the evidence for any curses relating to him is considered to be so scanty that it is viewed by almost all Egyptologists as unadulterated ‘clap-trap’. But, take care! Although no curse was found inscribed in King Tut’s tomb. there have been other discoveries of Egyptian tombs where curses have been found – in particular, at Saqqara near the ancient capital of Memphis. There, the tomb of Ankhtifi, dating from the 9th-10th Dynasties, contains the warning “any ruler who……shall do evil or wickedness to this coffin my Hemen (a Falcon God) not accept any goods he offers, and may his heir not inherit” The tomb of Khentika Ikhekhi, 9th-10th Dynasty, contains the inscription “As for all men who shall enter this my tomb…..impure……there will be judgement…….an end shall be made for him……I shall seize his neck like a bird…..I shall cast the fear of myself into him.”
Within three years of the opening of Tutankhamen’s tomb six people, who had been present with Carter, had been murdered. Three died of illness and one committed suicide. Lord Carnarvon, Carter’s financial backer, died on 5th April 1923 after a mosquito bite became infected; he died four months later. His dog, back in England, is said to have howled, whined and died at the same moment as his master. Howard Carter lived for another ten years before dying of lymphoma in London, on 2nd March 1939, aged 64 years. – In short, there were about 11 deaths in the first 10 years of Tut’s tomb opening. With that thought, let us return for a moment to Constable William’s experience that night in 1965 and find out what happened after he heard the bell in Diddlington church…….
As PC Williams eventually entered the churchyard, the bell was still ringing out its melancholy toll, but then it stopped – abruptly; there was no slowing or fading of the clanging; one moment it was ringing, the next – silence! The Constable made his way along the church path towards the south door, his lantern picking out the lines of shadowy headstones. Searching and finding the door key under the mat, he unlocked the door, opened it – and then hesitated. By his own admission, he was fearful about entering the building; something was simply not right! Instead, from his position, he cast the light from his lamp across the inside of the church, along its empty pews and silent nave to the arch under the tower. There, he saw the bell rope swinging back and forth as if an unseen hand had only then released it. This scared PC Williams for he sensed that he was not alone; he wanted to be out of the church and away. However and despite his fear, he had sense to close the church door and lock it before quickly retracing his steps to the gate where he had left his bike. Too distressed to complete his beat, he rode straight home through the stormy night. His wife, on seeing his pale pallor and concerned expression, commented that he looked as if he had seen a ghost. PC Williams replied ” Perhaps I have!” Some days later he told an old local man, in confidence, of his strange encounter and was surprised to learn that the moment at which he had heard the church bell tolling was the moment when the last master of Didlington Hall had died.
Built in the 17th century, Didlington Hall was one of the grandest houses in England. It was extensively remodelled in the 19th century in the Italian style and became the home of William Tyssen-Amherst.
William Tyssen-Amherst was a antiquarian and had amassed a vast collection of artefacts, including rare books, tapestries, furniture, works of art, including Egyptian treasures. He was, in fact, best known for his Egyptian collections. His passion for the ancient land led him to leave the running of his Estate to his Land Agent; this proved to be a great mistake. The Agent embezzled to satisfy his gambling habit and in doing so, used up much of Tyssen-Amherst’s assets; the Agent was to take his own life in 1906. possibly to escape the consequences of his actions. It then followed that most of Tyson’s collection had to be sold off to raise funds for his estate.
During World War II, Didlington Hall was taken over by the Army and was HQ for General Miles Dempsey, Commander of the British Second Army during the D-Day landings. After peace had been declared. the Hall remained empty because the damage and neglect caused by the period of requisition meant that the building was far beyond economic repair. It was finally demolished in 1952
Coincidentally maybe, one of the regular visitors to Didlington Hall in better past times was Howard Carter; it was where his love for Egypt and his entry into the world of archaeology. The Amhersts provided the contacts which led to Carter’s arrival in Egypt. The Amhersts guided him to King Tut’s tomb.
Interestingly perhaps! Maybe, what Constable Williams heard on that cold night in 1965 was a bell that not only was mourning the loss of the last master of Didlington Hall but also for the Hall itself and its contents, both of which had met the same fate as Tutankhamen’s final place of rest!
For almost 200 years, The Goat Inn had been an integral part of village life in Strumpshaw, a bustling public house whose name was an acknowledgement of its rural location rather than the haunted head of a goat which had, for many years, refused to leave the place where it had been slaughtered.
For this tale, however, we need only to go back to 1908. That was the year when Mrs Newton, the landlord’s wife, took a fancy to a magnificent white goat which was brought to the inn by an itinerant pedlar. She decided, for reasons best known to herself, to buy the goat and paid a whole half-crown for him. In later years, this creature was to be known as ‘Old Capricorn’; this was, of course, a long time after it had been slaughtered.
In a newspaper interview in 1958, a local regular at the Inn by the name of Harry Thompson, who was 82 at the time, remembered personally slaughtering the creature. The reason given was not stated, but this act of despatch was followed by a suggestion that the creature should be preserved for perpetuity and hung behind the bar of the Goat Inn. With its long horns, beard and glaring balefully with black and hazel eyes, it could survey all who came into the pub whilst being a centre of attraction itself! In fact, it hung above the bar for 60 years, during which time there were reports of illness, discord and misfortune attributed to the goat’s head. Added to all this, was the fact that from time to time someone or other contrived to get the creature to disappear from the Inn – but then it always found ways and means to keep coming back to haunt the place – this went on for decades.
Landlord Frank Walpole, who came to the pub in 1967, appeared to be the least fond of this goat’s head than previous landlords; he was the eleventh since Newton in 1904 when the live version of ‘Old Capricorn’ was purchased for a half-crown. It was Walpole who was the first to remove it from the bar after a series of mysterious events which seemed to upset him more than the pub’s regulars. He cited things like mirrors flying off walls, the pub piano playing by itself while the top was down; water pouring through the ceiling and his wife Lily and daughter Jane, 16 seeing figures walk about the Inn at night. Most worryingly of all, was the occasion when a 17-year-old boy was killed in a car crash the day after he had touched the goat’s head.The newspaper of the time reported that Mr Walpole said “That made me think seriously about taking the head down. Now I’ve done it – Some of the regulars don’t like it, but it’s for the best.”
Mr and Mrs Walpole’s theory was that the Goat’s Head was nothing less than a ghost; what’s more, it was Mrs Walpole’s cousin Alfred, who died on the British destroyer HMS Harvester on March 11 1943 – but that’s another tale, for another day. She had also spoken to both a medium and a priest about a possible exorcism.
These were serious misgivings of the Walpole’s, but the fact of the matter was that the goat was being missed by their customers. So, two years later, the creature was found and reinstated on the wall behind the bar. However, with the its return came renewed misfortune. This time it was the family pets who suffered: a minah bird dropped dead, a monkey died from a head injury, one of the family’s three dogs ran away while another died giving birth and its companion passed away the next day.
On Valentine’s Day 1972 the newspaper again noted that Mr Walpole “……..once again removed Old Capricorn, weighted the shaggy head and threw it in the river. He had been told he must ‘drown’ the evil spell. Only Mr Walpole was to know just where the goat’s head was hidden. He did hope at the time that the place would not bode ill for any Broads visitors that summer.”!
But, within a month, a reed-cutter by the name of Alfred Stone caught sight of the head in Rockland Dyke, “looking more malevolent than ever” after its five-mile journey along the River Yare. Alfred Stone passed it to a Mr A Loades of Broad Hall Farm in Rockland St Mary, whose son Dennis, 24, hung it in the barn saying he’d “start his own museum”. But, you guessed it – within days, the dogs on the farm started behaving aggressively and Dennis’ grandmother, who was staying on the farm, had such a prolonged attack of nose bleeding that she had to go to hospital. Consequently, the head was hurriedly given back to The Goat Inn, but by August of the same year, ‘Old Capricorn’ was discovered in a shallow grave at Strumpshaw gravel pit where the creepy cranium was found “in the ground, as if it was alive”.
As ever, spooky coincidences followed the discovery: tyres deflated, a driver was shot in the arm, dogs were filled with fear – then the trail went cold. It was not until 1984, when the Goat Inn was bought by Paul Cornwall who renamed it The Huntsman, that interest was rekindled. The new proprietor was keen to bring the goat back to his rightful home and, once again, the newspaper renewed its interest in, what to them, must have been a news-worthy story. They quoted Mt Cornwall “I’m all for local superstitions, and I am interested in the whole history of the place; I’m not a believer, but, having said that, we have all got to go some time and you might as well die through touching a goat’s head. Of course I’d like it back – I am a glutton for punishment”!
Further to this, it was never said if Mr Cornwall, proprietor of the Huntsman at Strumpshaw, was ever successful. As for the local newspaper, which made such play on the topic at the time, appeared to have been conspicuous by its silence on the matter ever since. So, it is not known if Mr Cornwall ever brought ‘Old Capricorn’ home, which means that this tale must end abruptly – unless, and until, someone comes forward to confirm that the Goat’s Head of Strumpshaw is ‘alive’ and well and still, possibly, spreading panic and mayhem!
Just the other side of Acle, on the old road leading to Thurne, Caister and beyond, there is a single-span bridge over the River Bure; naturally, as one would suspect, it is called Acle Bridge.
This single-span bridge is just the latest of several bridges which have been on the site since 1101; it was only built in 1997. Our tale is not concerned with this version, nor with its immediate predecessor, built in 1931 which had two piers supported on oak piles driven into the river bed. This wooden structure replaced a hundred year old three-arch stone bridge built in the 1830s. This tale is only concerned with the three-arched stone bridge, however, please do not dismiss the 1931 or the 1997 bridges that followed this one!
It used to be said that if you found yourself on the stone Acle bridge on 7th of April, you would discover a pool of blood, which would not have been there the night before. That was so true then, when the tragedy happened – and it remains true today on the present bridge – remember, you have been warned not to dismiss it lightly! Now for our tale:
John, or it might have been Joshua, Burge was a corn chandler. For those not from these parts, a corn chandler was a person who dealt in corn and meal. Burge lived with his wife and children in a house close to the three-arched stone bridge at Acle and was known as a man who cheated on his customers, beat his wife and starved his children. So it will come as no surprise that, eventually, he went too far when he killed his long suffering wife. His subsequent arrest was a straightforward affair, such was his track record regarding his business affairs and relationships; plus the fact that too much evidence existed about his assaults and the killing for which he was taken to gaol in Norwich.
It followed that the legal profession brought Burge to trial for his wife’s murder but, such was his wickedness and cunning that he managed to secure himself an acquittal. You see, he had managed, somehow, to bribe the local doctor to say that his wife had died of a heart attack. It would seem that a doctor’s evidence in court at that time carried more weight than the evidence of bruising and contusions to a body. Discolourations as would have been made by a length of pipe that was discovered behind the cabinet in Burge’s kitchen. But, whatever the state of his wife’s body Burge was, in short, declared innocent of her murder and released – yes, quite unbelievable isn’t it!
However, this tale does not end there. The wife had a brother who on hearing of Burge’s acquittal, decided to plan for and hand out his own form of justice on his brother-in-law for the death of his poor sister. So, on the 7th of April as it turned out, he lay in wait on the bridge at Acle for Burge, having concealed a butcher’s knife, his chosen weapon, inside his jacket; he had also planned for his subsequent escape from the scene. The position of the brother-in-law on the bridge was over its central arch and he knew that Burge, who was in Great Yarmouth that day on business, would pass by on his return late that same evening. In the event, everything turned out as anticipated and planned for. Burge did indeed walk across the bridge at a late hour and towards his assailant who leapt up and wrestled Burge to the ground. There, having pinned him firmly to the bridge’s flagstones and taken out his huge butchers knife from inside his jacket, cut Burge’s throat from ear to ear – no half measures!
Burge’s blood gushed out spraying the brother and the stonework of the bridge, before finally coming to rest in a pool around what was then a dead body. Realising that the police would probably suspect him of the deed, the brother-in-law carried out the next stage of his plan by making his way to Great Yarmouth and boarding a ship that would take him away from Norfolk’s shores. Whilst all this turned out fortunate for the murderer – it was not so for a Jack Ketch who, following the discovery of Burge’s body, was accused by the police of the murder. This man had been cheated by Burge in a business deal and had been overheard threatening to get even. Mainly on this evidence, Ketch was tried, convicted and sentenced to hang.
Some years later, Burge’s real killer returned to England and pretended surprise upon hearing of his brother-in-law’s (Burge) death; no one was the wiser to this deception. Then, as the anniversary of his killing of Burge arrived, his deceptor and brother-in-law, had an irresistible urge to visit Acle Bridge again – the scene of his dastardly deed. This was on the very night where, exactly 12 months previously, he had sliced through the sinews of Burge’s throat. It was this image that began to haunt him as he stood above the bridge’s central arch, peering over its side into the murky waters below. As he did so, a ghostly figure materialised from of nowhere it seemed, a figure that was more of mist and marsh fog than flesh and bones. It drifted silently towards him!
The next morning the townsfolk found a body dangling over the side of the bridge with a rope around what remained of his neck which had been severed as if by a large butchers knife. Some say the shadowy spectre was that of Burge, others that it belonged to the innocent man, Ketch, who had been hung for Burge’s murder. Either way, on the anniversary of the original murder, a pool of blood from one or other of these two victims appeared, and continues to appear each 7th April since – for it never did confine its appearance to the old three-arched bridge long gone. So, if you choose to go there on the 7th inst, by all means look out for the pool of blood but, just be alert if you are ever tempted to glance over the bridge rail to the murky waters below – you could possibly find yourself in a very precarious situation!
Where do fairies come from? Folklorists, philosophers, historians, mystics and others have debated this question for centuries. No one really knows how fairies originated — unless it’s the fairies themselves, and they’re not telling. What we do know is that tales of the fairies can be found on every continent around the globe, and that belief in the existence of the “Hidden People” is surprisingly widespread today.
Some scholars see the vestiges of pagan religions in tales about the fairies — who are, they say, the diminished remnants of once powerful gods and goddesses. Other scholars insist that fairies are really just the early, indigenous peoples of each land, who may have been viewed as magical and otherworldly by conquering tribes. Many people once thought that fairies were fallen angels who’d been ejected from Heaven but weren’t quite wicked enough for Hell, or else that they were the wandering souls of children who’d died unbaptized. Some read the following words from the Bible as proof that God had created the fairy race in addition to mankind: “And other sheep have I that are not of this fold.” (John 10:16). The most widespread belief, still prevalent today, is that fairies are simply nature spirits and thus as ancient as wind and rain. In this view, they’re the manifestations of the living spirit in all organic matter.
In the 15th century, an alchemist named Paracelus divided fairies into four elemental groups: sylphs (air), gnomes (earth), undines (water), and salamanders (fire). They are made of flesh and blood, he said, and procreate like human beings but are longer lived than man and do not possess immortal souls. In the 17th century, Scottish minister and scholar Robert Kirk wrote that fairies “are of a middle nature betwixt man and angel,” with “light changeable bodies, like those called astral, somewhat of the nature of a condensed cloud, and best seen at twilight.”(1)
In the 19th century, the physiology of fairies was of great interest to spiritualists (2), who divided them into two basic types: nature spirits tied to features of the landscape (a river, a pool, a copse of trees), and higher spirits who lived on an astral plane between flesh and thought. In the early 20th century, Theosophist (3) Charles W. Leadbeater developed an elaborate system of fairy classification inspired by Darwin’s theory of evolution. Leadbeater maintained that fairies live on an astral plane divided into seven levels. He believed the fairy race to be the original inhabitants of England, driven to its margins by the invasion of mankind; and he drew elaborate diagrams showing how the fairies had evolved. His chart began with mineral life and then rose upward through water and earth, and through seaweed, fungi, and bacteria. Further up the evolutionary ladder he showed how fairies developed through grasses and cereals, reptiles and birds, sea flora and fauna, until they matured into nature spirits linked to each of the four elements. But evolution didn’t stop there; these nature spirits would in turn evolve into sylphs, then devas, and then into angels. On the top rung of the ladder the fairies would become what he called “solar spirits,” where they’d join with evolved humans in a more enlightened age. (4)
Another Theosophist, Edward Garner, argued that fairies are allied to the butterfly genus, and are made of a substance lighter than gas which renders them invisible to human beings (except clairvoyants). The function of fairies in nature, he said, is to provide a link between plants and the energy of the sun. He wrote that the “growth of a plant which we regard as the customary and inevitable result of associating the three factors of sun, seed, and soil would never take place if the fairy builders were absent.” (5) Franz Hartmann, a medical doctor, believed that fairies have a role in human psychology, explaining that “the spirits of nature have their dwellings within us as well as outside of us, and no man is perfectly master of himself unless he thoroughly knows his own nature and its inhabitants.” (6)
While spiritualists, in their journals and lectures, argued how many fairies could fit on the head of a pin or swim through the higher astral plane, unlettered country people were taking great pains to avoid the fairies’ notice. Charms, talismans, and spells were used to keep troublesome fairies at bay — to chase them away from the house, the livestock, newborn children, and unmarried girls. Although fairies had been known to give aid to mortals, more often they were seen as irksome creatures, quick to take offense and dangerous when riled. Fairy bargains were notoriously tricky things and fairy treasure was often cursed. Mortals who stumbled into Fairyland could end up trapped in that realm forever, or emerge from it aged and withered, even though it had seemed like little time had passed. Fairies were blamed for soured milk, blighted crops, and barren cows; for illness, madness, birth defects and other mysterious ills. Even good fairies followed rules and taboos that could be unfathomable to humans — thus it was wise to be scrupulously polite and to treat all fairies with great caution. Folklore is filled with cautionary tales outlining the perils of fairy encounters. Do not eat fairy food, they say, for it will trap you in Fairyland. Avoid using a fairy’s name, and don’t ever tell them your own. Don’t bargain with the fairies, or join their dances, or spy on their courtly revels. Wear your shirt inside out and carry iron to avoid abduction.
There are numerous stories of human beings abducted into Fairyland — particularly newborn babies, attractive young children, midwives, and musicians. When human babies are snatched from the cradle, a fairy changeling is left behind. Sometimes this creature is merely a piece of wood enchanted to look like a child; other times it is a sickly fairy baby, or an old and peevish fairy. The stolen human children are petted and cosseted for a while — until they grow big and lumpish, or until the fairy court grows bored with them — whereupon they are turned into household slaves for the rest of their mortal lives, or banished from the Realm (for which they’ll pine from that day forward). Some say the fairies are required to pay a blood-tithe to Hell every seven years, and that they steal mortals for this purpose so as not to sacrifice one of their own. A human knight named Tam Lin was destined to be the tithe in one famous old tale, until his true love tricked the Fairy Queen into releasing him on All Hallows Eve.
Some fairy lore makes a clear division between good and wicked types of fairies — between those who are friendly to mankind, and those who seek to cause us harm. In Scottish tales, good fairies make up the Seelie Court, which means the Blessed Court, while bad fairies congregate in the Unseelie Court, ruled by the dark queen Nicnivin. In old Norse myth, the Liosálfar (Light Elves) are regal, compassionate creatures who live in the sky in the realm of Alfheim, while the Döckálfar (the Dark Elves) live underground and are greatly feared. Yet in other traditions, a fairy can be good or bad, depending on the circumstance or on the fairy’s whim. They are often portrayed as amoral beings, rather than as immoral ones, who simply have little comprehension of human notions of right and wrong.
The great English folklorist Katherine Briggs tended to avoid the “good” and “bad” division, preferring the categorizations of Solitary and Trooping Fairies instead. She noted that the fairies in either group “may be evil, dealing death or sickness to every man and creature they pass on their way, like the Sluagh of the Highlands; they may steal unchurched wives from child-bed, or snatch away unchristened babes leaving animated stocks [pieces of wood] or sickly children of their own in their place, or they may be harmless and even beneficial — fertility spirits watching over the growth of flowers or bringing good luck to herds or children.” Solitary Fairies are generally those associated with a certain location: a bog, a lake, the roots of a tree, a particular hill or household. The Trooping Fairies, by contrast, are gregarious creatures fond of hunting, feasting, dancing, and holding court. “This is perhaps particularly true of the British Isles,” writes Briggs, “though in France, Italy, Scandinavia and Germany there are the same tales of dancing, revelry and processions.” (7)
Other folklorists divide the fairies by their elemental, rather than their temperament, harking back to Paracelus’ classification system of earth, air, water, and fire. Fairies associated with the earth are the most numerous group. Earth elementals include those who live in caves, barrows, and deep underground, and who often have a special facility for working with precious metals. This group includes the Coblynau in the hills of Wales, the Gandharvas of India, the Erdluitle of northern Italy, the Maanväki of Finland, the Thrussers of Norway, the Karzalek of Poland, the Illes of Iceland, the various Dwarves of Old Norse legends, and the Gans of the Apache tribe. Forest fairies are also earth elementals, and are the most numerous type of fairy around the world. Fairies of this type include the shy Aziza in the forests of West Africa, the Mu of Papua New Guinea, the Shinseen of China, the Silvanni of Italy, the Oakmen of the British Isles, the Skogsra of Sweden, the Kulaks of Burma, the Hantu Hutan of the Malay Peninsula, the Bela of Indonesia, the Patu–Paiarehe of the Maori, and the Manitou of the Algonquin tribe. Other earth fairies are those who guard standing stones, such as the web–footed Couril of Brittany, and sand fairies in desert environments, such as the Ahl Al-trab found in Arabic lands.
Fairies associated with water include all the magical merfolk of the sea, such as the Merrows of Ireland, the Daoine Mara of Scotland, the Mal-de-Mer of Brittany, the Nereides of Greece, and the selkies (seal people) who haunt the coasts of Scandinavia and the British Isles. Rivers, lakes, pools, and other fresh water sources are also home to water fairies both gentle and malign, including the nixies and kelpies of English rivers, the Rhinemaidens of Germany, the Kludde of Belgium, the Draks of France, the Laminak of the Basque region, the Hotots of Armenia, the Judi of Macedonia, the Cacce-Halde of Lapland, the sweet-voiced Nakk of Estonia, and the bashful Nokke who appeared only at dusk and dawn in Sweden.
Fairies associated with air include the various winged fairies and sylphs that are so numerous in modern picture books, popularized by Tinkerbell and Victorian-era fairy paintings. Examples of air fairies include the luminous Soulth of Irish fairy lore, the Star Folk of the Algonquin tribe, the Atua of Fairies bearing lanterns by Arthur RackhamPolynesia, and the Peri, the “good fairies” of Persian legends, who are said to dine exclusively on perfume and other delicate scents. Fairies who account for weather phenomena, such as mistral winds, whirlwinds, and storms, are associated with the air element, including the Spriggans of Cornwall, the Vily of Slavonia, the Vintoasele of Serbia and Crotia, the Rusali of Romania, and the mischievous Folletti of Italy.
The most common type of fire fairy is the salamander, an elemental spirit much prized by Renaissance alchemists. Also associated with fire are the Djinn, who are the “bad fairies” of Persian lore, and the Drakes (or Drachen), fire fairies found across the British Isles and western Europe who resemble streaking balls of fire and smell like rotten eggs. Luminous, will-o’-the-wisp type fire fairies are famous for leading travelers astray — including the Ellylldan of Welsh marshland, the Teine Sith of the Scottish Hebrides, the Spunkies of southwest England, Le Faeu Boulanger of the Channel Islands, the Candelas of Sardinia, and the Fouchi Fatui of northern Italy. The various fairies who guard hearth fires are also associated with this element, such as the Gabija of Lithuania and Natrou-Monsieur of France. The Muzayyara are fiery, seductive fairies in old Egyptian tales; and the Akamu is a particularly dangerous fire fairy found in Japan.
Although (as the brief list above indicates) fairies are known all around the world, nowhere are they quite so varied and populous as they are in the British Isles — which is probably why we find so many of them in English literature. Fairies can be found in many of the courtly Romances of the medieval period, although they’re rarely named as such, “fairy” being a relatively late term. These ancient stories are filled with fairy-like men and women who wield magic, live in enchanted palaces, forge magical weaponry, and bewitch or beguile innocent mortals — such as the Lady of the Lake who gives Arthur his magical sword, Excalibur. The tales of King Arthur and his court are particular rife with fairy-like beings, especially in the Welsh and Breton traditions — as are the splendid Lays of Marie de France, written for the English court sometime around the 12th century. The Wife of Bath in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales speaks wistfully of an elf queen and her merry court in the old days of King Arthur, when “al was this land fulfild of fayerye” — as opposed to the Wife of Bath’s own time (the 14th century), when fairies were rarely seen.
A 13th century French Romance called Huon of Bordeaux was popular among English readers. This sprightly story of King Oberon, Queen Mab, and assorted knights of the fairy court is notable for providing inspiration for the fairy plays of William Shakespeare. Shakespeare seems to have been well versed in traditional English fairy lore, for he borrowed liberally from this tradition to create the fairies who quarrel, scheme, and cavort in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest. Along with Queen Mab from Mercutio’s famous speech in Romeo and Juliet, these are the best known and most influential fairies in all English literature — which is why diminutive fairies “no bigger than an agate-stone on the fore-finger of an alderman” are better known today than their human-sized cousins found in many older stories. Fairies are also the subject, of course, in Edmund Spenser’s extraordinary poem, The Faerie Queene, written in the late 16th century — although Spenser’s fairy court owes more to Italian Romance than to homegrown English fairy legends.
In the 17th century, fairies inspired Michael Drayton’s Nymphidia, the Court of Fayre, a satirical work featuring King Oberon, Queen Mab and a hapless knight named Pigwiggen. A series of poems in Robert Herrick’s Hesperides also feature King Oberon, and also have a satirical edge, but this is a darker, more sensual look at Fairyland than Drayton’s. In the 18th century, the fairies appeared in Alexander Pope’s arch tale, The Rape of the Lock; and also, covertly, in Gulliver’s Travels, the great satire by Jonathan Swift, for Swift used many elements of fairy lore to create his tiny Lilliputians.
It was in the same century that Bishop Thomas Percy began to collect old British folk ballads, which he published in an influential volume called Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. Without Percy’s labors, many traditional ballads might have been lost forever — he rescued one old manuscript from kitchen maids who were using it to light the fire. Percy’s work had a notable influence on the writers of the German Romantic movement, who in turn influenced such English Romantics as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Southey, and John Keats. All three of these writers wrote fairy poems, but the ones that are best known and loved today are Keats’ evocative “Lamia” and “La Belle Dame Sans Merci.” Other writers of the late 18th and early 19th centuries who were much beloved by the fairies, and vice versa, were Tom Moore, Thomas Hood, Allan Cunningham, and especially James Hogg. Known as The Ettrick Shepherd, Hogg was a working shepherd for most of his life as well as a writer of popular tales that drew upon old Scottish legends.
James Hogg’s good friend Sir Walter Scott was another writer who found inspiration in Bishop Thomas Percy’s efforts to preserve the folk heritage of Britain. Scott’s fiction is permeated with the fairy lore of his native Scotland, and he was an enormously influential figure in the 19th century folklore movement. As a collector of tales and ballads himself, Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border preserved important fairy ballads such as Thomas the Rhymer and Tam Lin, and did much to educate readers about the value of Scotland’s rich folk history. In addition, Scott gathered around him a group of poets and antiquarians who were likewise interested in preserving the old country tales of a nation that was rapidly urbanizing. Scott was fond of fairy lore in particular — for he’d believed in fairies in his youth, and never entirely lost faith in “things invisible to mortal sight.”
Partially due to Scott’s influence, two extensive volumes of fairy lore appeared in the early 19th century: Thomas Keightley’s The Fairy Mythology and Thomas Crofton Crocker’s Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland. They proved to be enormously popular and kicked off an explosion of folklore books by Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould, Anna Eliza Bray, Joseph Jacobs, and many others. These books are important when looking at English literature and art of the 19th century, for they were avidly read by a wide variety of Victorian writers and artists. Folklore was still a new field back then — the name itself wasn’t coined until 1846 — and these groundbreaking publications generated talk and excitement among the intellectuals of London. At the same time, the magical tales and poems of the folklore-loving German Romantic writers (Goethe, Tieck, Novalis, etc.) frequently appeared in English magazines of the period. One German story, in particular, captivated Victorian readers: “Undine” by Baron de la Motte Fouqué, about a water nymph’s love for a mortal knight and her attempt to gain an immortal soul. “Undine” inspired a large number of subsequent stories, paintings, and dramatic productions about doomed fairy lovers of various kinds (including, over in Denmark, Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid”). Such stories were particularly appealing to readers who were interested in matters of the occult and in psychic phenomena — which was a substantial segment of the reading public once the spiritualist movement crossed the sea from America and took England by storm. These various influences came together to create a wide-spread interest in the fairy race that was unprecedented. At no other time in British history have the fairies been so popular among all types of people, from the working class to the aristocracy.
In visual art, following in the footsteps of the 18th century painters Henry Fuseli and William Blake, artists such as Joseph Noël Paton, John Anster Fitzgerald, Richard Dadd, Richard Doyle, Daniel Maclise, Thomas Heatherly, Eleanor Fortesque-Brickdale, and many, many others created an entire genre of Victorian Fairy Art. These were paintings intended or adults, not children. John Anster Fitzgerald’s fairy imagery, for instance, was often dark and hallucinatory, full of references to opium pipes and opium medicines (9) ; and Richard Dadd’s obsessively detailed fairy paintings were created in a mental hospital where Dadd was interred after he went mad and killed his father. Many fairy paintings were distinctly salacious, such as Sir Joseph Noël Paton’s huge canvases of luscious fairy maidens in various states of undress. Fairies enabled Victorian painters to explore the subject of sexuality during the very years when that subject was most repressed in polite society. Paintings of the nude were deemed acceptable so long as those nudes sported fairy wings.
The passion for fairies among Victorian adults must also be viewed in light of the rapid changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution, as Britain moved from the rhythms of its rural past toward the mechanized future. With factories and suburban blight transforming huge tracts of English countryside, fairy paintings and stories were rich in nostalgia for a vanishing way of life. In particular, the art of The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood — depicting scenes from Romance, legend and myth — promoted a dreamy medievalism and the aesthetics of fine craftsmanship to counter what they saw as a soul-less new world created by modern forms of mass production. (“For every locomotive they build,” vowed artist Edward Burne-Jones, “I shall paint another angel.”) The Arts & Crafts movement, which grew out of Pre-Raphaelitism, embraced folklore and fairies to such a degree that by the end of the 19th century fairies could be found in middle class homes in every form of decorative arts: wallpaper, draperies, ceramics, stained glass, metalwork, etc. Advances in printing methods allowed the production of lavishly illustrated fairy tale books, ostensibly aimed at children but with production values calculated to please adults (and the growing breed of book collectors). Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac, Warwick Goble, Laurence Housman, Jessie M. King and numerous others produced wonderful fairy pictures for these volumes. (Jessie King, like William Blake before her, was an artist who passionately believed in the fairies. Her lovely illustrations were based, she said, on visions seen with her “third eye.”)
In the pre-cinema world of the Victorians, theatre, ballet, and opera had greater importance as forms of popular entertainment than they enjoy today — as well as a greater influence on the visual and literary arts. In the 1830s, the new Romantic ballet (as opposed to formal, classical ballet) thrilled large audiences in London with productions that dramatized tales of love between mortals and fairy spirits. Aided by innovations in “point work” (dancing on the points of one’s toes), and improvements in
theatre gas-lighting techniques, sumptuous fairylands were created in hit productions such as La Sylphide, the tragic story of a mortal man in love with an elfin maid. In theater, fairy plays were staged with stunningly elaborate special effects, each new production striving to be even more spectacular than the last.
Fairy music was another popular phenomenon, much of it imported from Germany — such as Weber’s fairy opera Oberon, Hoffman’s Undine (based on Fouqué’s novella), Wagner’s Die Feen (The Fairies), and Mendelssohn’s overture for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Fairy music for the harp was composed and performed by charismatic musicians as popular then as pop stars are now, and young women swooned and followed their favorite harpists from concert to concert. Magical music and dance reached its height in the works of Tchaikovsky, the brilliant Russian composer who took London — indeed, all of Europe — by storm. The popularity of his fairy tale ballets (Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker) fuelled the Victorian public’s love of all things magical and fey.
In literature (as in art, theater, and ballet) the fairies made their presence known, turning up in numerous books written and published during the Victorian era. Some of these works were for adult readers, such as Anne Thackaray Ritchie’s Fairy Tales for Grown-ups, the Arthurian poems of Alfred, Lord Tennyson and William Morris, and (at the turn of the century) the remarkable fairy poetry of Celtic Twilight writers such as William Sharp (writing as Fiona McCleod) and William Butler Yeats. But one of the major shifts we see in fairy literature from the 19th century onward is that more and more of it was published in books intended for small children.
There were two major reasons why this shift occurred, despite the fact that adult fascination with fantasy and fairies had rarely been so high. First, the Victorians romanticized the very idea of “childhood” to a degree never seen before; earlier, childhood had not been viewed as something quite so separate from adult life. Children, according to this earlier view, came into the world in sin and had to be strictly civilized into God-fearing members of society. By Victorian times, this belief was changing to one in which children were inherently innocent, rather than inherently sinful — and childhood became a special Golden Age, a time of fanciful play and exploration before the burdens of adulthood were assumed. Mothers were encouraged to have a more doting attitude toward their little ones (following the example of Queen Victoria herself), and this, combined with the rising wealth of the Victorian middle class, led to an explosion in the market for children’s books.
Children’s fiction in the previous century had been diabolically dreary, consisting primarily of pious, tedious books of moral instruction. But in the 19th century, new European fairy tale collections by the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen were proving enormously popular with English children. Publishers and writers took note of this and soon began producing volumes of magical tales set in the British Isles — including tales inspired by English fairy lore, toned down and de-sexed for younger readers. A lot of these fairy tale volumes, marred by these heavy-handed alterations, make abysmal reading today — but some retained enough of the magic of their source material to have stood the test of time, such as the famous series co-edited by Andrew & Jane Lang: The Blue Fairy Book, The Green Fairy Book, The Red Fairy Book, etc.
In addition to re-telling traditional tales, Victorian writers created original fairy stories for children using the tropes of folklore in charming and innovative ways — including John Ruskin’s The King of the Golden River, Charlotte Yonge’s The History of Tom Thumb, Christina Rossetti’s extraordinary Goblin Market, Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies, Jean Ingelow’s Mopsa the Fairy, George Macdonald’s The Princess and the Goblin, Rudyard Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill, and J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, to name just a few.
In his excellent book Victorian Fairy Tales, folklorist Jack Zipes divides the magical children’s fiction published from 1860 onward into two basic types: conventional stories, and stories written in a utopian mode. Although there were some good fantasy tales of the conventional type, such as the fairy stories of Jean Ingelow and the ghost stories of Mary Louisa Molesworth, many others were forgettable confections full of twinkly fairies with butterfly wings and good little boys and girls who caused no disturbance to the status quo. Utopian fantasies, Zipes notes, demonstrated “a profound belief in the power of the imagination as a potent force” to change English society, and these books were written by some of the very finest authors of the day. George Macdonald, Lewis Carroll, Oscar Wilde, Laurence Housman, Ford Maddox Ford, E. Nesbit (in her later works), and many other writers created magical tales that were archly critical of Victorian life, promoting the possibility of a better society. The prevalence of utopian fantasy is explained by looking at the context of the culture which produced it — a society in the grip of great upheaval due to rapid industrialization. Fairies flittered across London stages and nested in bucolic scenes on gallery walls, but outside on the city streets it was a long, long way from Never Land, crowded as they were with beggars, cripples, prostitutes (many of them children), and with homeless, desperate men and women displaced by the new economy.
While the upper classes charmed themselves with fairy books and dancing nymphs, and clapped to bring Tinkerbell back to life, in the lower classes, both urban and rural, fairies remained a different matter altogether. Here, the delicate winged maidens depicted by painters and ballet dancers were superseded by the fearsome creatures of the still-living oral tradition. Throughout the 19th century, the British newspapers reported cases of fairy sightings, curses, and abductions. The most famous of these incidents occurred as late as 1895, and riveted newspaper readers all across the British Isles. This was the murder of Bridget Cleary, a spirited young woman in Ireland who was killed by her husband, family, and neighbors because they thought she was a fairy changeling. Bridget Cleary had fallen gravely ill, and the family had consulted a Fairy Doctor. He claimed that Bridget had been abducted and taken under a fairy hill, and that the sickly creature in her bed was a fairy changeling in disguise. The doctor devised several ordeals designed to make the changeling reveal itself — ordeals that soon grew so extreme that poor Bridget died. Convinced it was a fairy he had killed, Bridget’s husband then went to the fairy fort to wait for his “real” wife to ride out seated on a milk white horse. Bridget’s disappearance was soon noted, the body found, the horrible crime brought to light, and Michael and other family members and neighbors found themselves prosecuted for murder. Although this was the most flamboyant case of changeling-murder in the Victorian press, sadly it was not the only account of brutal mistreatment of those deemed to be fairies. Usually the poor victims were children, born with physical deformities or struck by sudden wasting illnesses. It wasn’t until the 20th century that reports of fairy abductions began to dwindle — when reports of abductions by aliens began to take their place.
The last major fairy encounter reported widely by the British press took place in the tranquil countryside of Yorkshire in 1917 — when Elsie Wright, sixteen years old, and Frances Griffith, her ten year old cousin, contrived to take photographs of fairies at play in their Cottingley garden. Elsie’s mother had the photographs sent to Edward Gardner, head of the Theosophical Society, who then passed them on to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (the creator of Sherlock Holmes). (10) Although the pictures are distinctly unconvincing by today’s standards, professionals at the time could find no evidence of photographic doctoring. Championed by Gardner and Conan Doyle, the photos caused an absolute sensation. Only when Elsie and Frances were old ladies did they finally admit that the Cottingley fairies were paper cut-outs held in place by hat-pins. Despite this admission, their final deathbed statements on the subject were more ambiguous, implying that the fairies, if not the photographs, had been real after all.
In her fascinating book Strange and Secret Peoples: Fairies and Victorian Consciousness, Carole G. Silver points out that the Cottingley incident, despite briefly reviving interest in the fairies, was actually one of the factors that ended the Golden Age of fairy art and literature. “Ironically,” she says, “the photographs, the ostensible proof of the actual existence of the fairies, deprived the elfin people of the grandeur and their stature….The
theories that Piper of Dreams by Estella Canziani Gardner formulated to explain the fairies’ nature and function reduced them to the intelligence level of household pets and the size of insects.”
In addition to this, the massive popularity that the fairies had enjoyed throughout the 19th century insured that they’d be branded old-fashioned by the generations that followed. Those who’d survived the hard trials of World War I had little interest in the faux-medievalism and fairies of their grandparents’ day. And yet, it is interesting to note that one of the most popular art prints of the war era depicted a simple country boy playing a pipe, surrounded by fairies. This was “The Piper of Dreams,” a painting by the Anglo-Italian artist Estella Canziani — an image as ubiquitous in England then as Monet’s water lilies are now. Canziani’s gentle, forgotten fairy picture once rivaled William Holman Hunt’s “The Light of the World” in popularity, and was said to be a favorite of English soldiers in the trenches of World War I.
During the middle years of the 20th century, the fairies seemed to go underground, rarely leaving the Twilight Realm to interact with the world of men — except to appear in sugar-sweet guise in children’s books and Disney cartoons. One could find them if one looked hard enough — in Ireland, for instance, in the fiction of James Stephens and Lord Dunsany; or in Lud-in-the-Mist, the early fantasy classic by English author Hope Mirrlees. But in general, it was not until an Oxford don named J.R.R. Tolkien wrote about elves in a place called Middle-Earth that fairies came back to popular art in any numbers. And then they came with a vengeance.
Professor Tolkien was a scholar of folklore, myth, and Old English literature, so when he created the elves of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, he knew what he was doing. Although written and published some years earlier, it was not until the 1970s that Tolkien’s books dominated the bestsellers lists and became part of British and American popular culture. This in turn created an enormous interest in all things magical, wondrous, and fey. Suddenly there were fairies, dragons, unicorns, mermaids, and wizards everywhere. People started seeking out folklore texts, and teaching themselves to speak Elvish. “What is the reason for this preoccupation?” asked Alison Lurie in an article for the New York Review of Books. “Possibly it is a bi-product of the overly material and commercial world we live in: the result of an imaginatively deprived childhood.” (11)
Lurie believed that the reason college students were embracing Tolkien and folklore with such passion was that they’d been raised on the thin gruel on television and Disney films, instead of the great classics of children’s literature. Having been imaginatively deprived in youth, she argued, they had taken now “possession of a fantasy world that should have been theirs at eight or ten, with the intellectual enthusiasm, the romantic eagerness — and the purchasing power — of eighteen and twenty.” While this was undoubtedly true of some readers, I find it an unsatisfactory explanation overall, for there were many other readers (and I was among them) who had read classic children’s literature when young and had embraced classic fantasy worlds at ages eight and ten. What Tolkien did was to prove to us that we needn’t give up these worlds at age eighteen – or at twenty-eight or forty-eight, for that matter. Back in the 1970s, this was a radical notion. Tolkien dismissed the post-Victorian idea that fantasy was fit only for children, and reached back to an older adult fantasy tradition running from Beowulf to William Morris. He opened a door to Fäerie, and readers discovered this door was not child-sized after all, but tall and wide, leading to lands one could spend a lifetime wandering in.
In the mid-70s, another book lured adult readers into the Twilight Realm. This was Faeries, an international bestseller by the British artists Alan Lee and Brian Froud — a sequel, of sorts, to a book called Gnomes by the Dutch artist Wil Huygen. But whereas Gnomes depicted cheerful little creatures who had little in common with the dour, clever, metal-working gnomes of the European folk tradition, Faeries was deeply rooted in traditional fairy lore. Here, in all their beautiful, horrible glory were the fairies of old British legends: gorgeous and grotesque (often at the same time), creatures of ivy, oak, and stone, born out of the British landscape, as potent and wild as a force of nature. Lee and Froud had taken inspiration from Victorian Fairy Art and updated the tradition for a new generation. Faeries, in turn, would go on to inspire young artists in the years ahead — indeed, it’s rare to find fairy art today (or fairies in film, or fairy fiction) that doesn’t owe a debt, to some degree, to this influential book.
From the mid-70s onward, numerous other books on fairy lore appeared, including several “field guides” and the peerless folklore studies of Katherine Briggs. In fiction, the great success of The Lord of the Rings helped to establish an entire new publishing genre of fantasy fiction for adult readers; and as a result, a new generation of writers turned to folklore and myth for inspiration — in North America as well as in England. (12) Fairies found their way into a number of their books, some of which were set in days gone past or in the land of Fäerie, and some of which were urban tales of fairies in the modern world.
John Crowley, for example, in his brilliant novel Little, Big, draws on a host of Victorian ideas about the fairies to create a modern fairy tale set in rural and urban New York. Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a fairy story that could have been penned by Anthony Trollope or Jane Austen; it’s a wonderful tale of a magical English history that never was. Ellen Kushner’s Thomas the Rhymer follows a figure from a
classic Scottish border ballad into the halls of the Fairy Queen, and Patricia A. McKillip’s Winter Rose took a slant-wise look at the fairy ballad of Tam Lin. Fairies haunt the woodlands of Leicestershire in Graham Joyce’s Some Kind of Fairy Tale, and roam the streets of contemporary London in Lisa Tuttle’s The Mysteries. Lisa Goldstein goes back to in Elizabethan London in Strange Devices of the Sun and Moon, while Poul Andersen (A Midsummer Tempest) and Sara A. Hoyt (Ill Met by Moonlight) revisit the fairies of William Shakespeare. Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks brings fairies to the 1980s Minneapolis music scene; Midori Snyder’s Hannah’s Garden plants a fairy fiddler in an Irish bar in the American Midwest; and Charles de Lint’s Widdershins pits immigrant fairies against the native spirits of the Canadian wilderness. Holly Black’s Tithe tells the story of a fairy changeling living on the Jersey shore; while Delia Sherman’s Changeling conjurs an entire fairy realm in the shadows of New York City. British fairy lore provides inspiration for Kevin Brockmeier’s The Truth About Celia, Alice Thomas Ellis’ A Fairy Tale, Keith Donohue’s The Stolen Child, and Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Kingdoms of Elfin. See the Further Reading list below for more fiction recommendations.
In visual art, the English painter Brian Froud has been exploring Fäerie for over twenty-five years, beginning with the publication of Faeries and continuing on with Good Faeries/Bad Faeries, Brian Froud’s World of Faerie, the “Lady Cottington” series, and many other fine books. As a result, he is arguably the best known and most authoritative fairy artist in the world today. His wife, Wendy Froud, creates Fäerie sculptures and fine art dolls with a Pre-Raphaelite touch. Her distinctive work has been photographed and published in the “Old Oak Wood” series of children’s books, in The Art of Wendy Froud, and in sumptuous collaborations with her husband, including Trolls and Faeries’ Tales. Charles Vess has depicted fairy imagery in illustrated books and comics, most notably in Stardust, created in collaboration with writer Neil Gaiman, in The Book of Ballads, and in his illustrations for Susanna Clarke’s The Ladies of Grace Adieu. Yoshitaka Amano gives a unique interpretation of British and Japanese folklore in his beautiful art collection Fairies, which includes an essay by Kimie Imura expoloring differences between the Western and Eastern traditions. Tony DiTerlizzi, creates a vast fairy realm in his much-loved children’s series, The Spiderwick Chronicles, created in collaboration with writer Holly Black. Suza Scalora, Ashley Lebedev, and Kristy Mitchell have conjured fairies and the Twilight Realm in their magical photography.
Numerous children’s book illustrators have wandered into Fäerie (following the footsteps of Rackham and Dulac), such as Angela Barrett (The Night Fairy), Michael Hague (Good Night, Fairies), Stephen Mackey (The Fairies’ Ring), and Lauren Mills (The Book of Little Folk). Other artists who have spent time with the fairy folk include Anna Brahams, Alice Dufeu, Erlé Ferronnière, Julia Jeffrey, Virginia Lee, Yoann Lossel, Iain McCaig, Ed Org, Séverine Pineaux, Linda Ravenscroft, Virginia Ropars, David Thiérrée, Olivier Villoingt, Josephine Wall, David Wyatt, and Lisbeth Zwerger. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but you’ll find more fairy art in two magazines devoted to the subject: Faerie (US) and Fae (UK).
The revival of interest in Victorian fairy art led to an important traveling exhibition curated by The University of Iowa and the Royal Academy of London in 1997. In 2002, Abbaye Daoulas in Brittany presented an extensive exhibition of fairy art, beginning with 12th century manuscripts right up to the present day. I recommend the following related art books: Victorian Fairy Painting, with text by Jeremy Maas and others; Fairies in Victorian Art by Christopher Wood; and Fées, elfes, dragons, and autres créatures des royaumes de féerie (Fairies, elves, dragons, and other creatures of the fairy realm), edited by Michel Le Bris and Claudine Glot.
In film, fairies are the subject of two movies inspired by the Cottingley photographs: A Fairy Tale and Photographing Fairies (based on the novel of that name by Steven Szilagyi). Fairies are also at the heart of Stardust, based on the illustrated book by Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess; and goblins (and a fairy or two) can be found Labyrinth, the children’s classic directed by Jim Henson and designed by Brian Froud.
“Fairy fashions” have appear in New York shop windows, on Paris runways, at British music festivals (where pixie ears and Amy Brown-style fashions are ubiquitous these days), and in an illustrated book: Fairie-ality: The Fashion Collection from the House of Ellwand by David Ellwand, Eugenie Bird, and David Downton. Fairy ballads from the British Isles, Brittany, and Scandinavia have been recorded by many folk bands and musicians such as Steeleye Span, Pentangle, Fairport Convention, Martin Carthy, Robin Williamson, Kate Rusby, Cécile Corbel, Loreena McKennitt, and Anaïs Mitchell. Elizabeth Jane Baldry has recorded Victorian fairy music for the harp on Harp of Wild and Dreamlike Strain, and Aine Minogue’s The Twilight Realm is a lovely CD of music inspired by traditional fairy lore. The fairies have also appeared in pop music, in songs by musicians and bands as diverse as Donovan, Queen, The Waterboys, and Tori Amos.
In his famous poem “Blow, Bugle, Blow,” Tennyson wrote that even the echoes of elfland’s horns are growing faint and dying away as the fairies disappear from the woods and fields, chased away by modern life. This was a favorite theme of the Victorians, who believed that the fairies were taking their leave of us and that magic would soon vanish from the world forever….
But as far as I can see, the Victorians were dead wrong. The British Isles, and other parts of the world, are still thickly populated by the elfin tribes, if the present abundance of fairies in popular culture is any indication. Fairies are everywhere: in books and paintings, on t-shirts and teacups, in children’s toyshops and in grown-up art museums, as well as flying through cyberspace. If Tennyson’s elfin bugles have dimmed…well, never mind. The fairies play electric bagpipes now.
Instead of Tennyson, I’m more inclined to listen to the poet William Butler Yeats, who knew a thing or two about the fairies for he believed in them all his life. He said that “you can not lift your hand without influencing and being influenced by hordes of them.”
There’s a famous story of a Scottish house fairy who proved to be so terribly annoying that the family in the house tried and tried to make him leave, to no avail. Finally there was no help for it. The family packed to go themselves. But as they drove down the road,
their worldly goods strapped to the old farm cart, they noticed the fairy perched on top, saying, “Ah, but it’s a fine day to be moving!” And so they sighed and went back home, knowing they were stuck with him for good. The fairy haunts that cottage and their descendants to this day.
So it is with fairies in literature and art. Fairy stories go in and out of fashion. But just when you think they’re gone for good, cast out by book and art critics who insist we move on to weightier matters, the fairies are still there, grinning, saying, “Ah, it’s a fine day to be moving!” — determined to move along with us, and be a part of whatever the future has in store.
Quoted from The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies by Robert Kirk, 1893.
Spiritualism was a practice in which “spirit mediums” provided contact with the spirits of the dead and with supernatural creatures. The movement was started in America by the Fox sisters in 1848, who claimed to communicate with the dead through mysterious knocks upon a table. Soon “table–turning” parties were all the rage in all levels of English society, right up to the Royal Court. Spiritualist societies sponsored lecture tours, opened reading rooms and published newspapers, and popular spirit mediums developed huge followings.
Theosophy was a Spiritualist and philosophical movement founded by Madame Blavatsky at the end of the 19th century. Many prominent Theosophists believed in fairies.
Quoted from The Hidden Side of Things by Charles W. Leadbeater, 1913.
Quoted from The Coming of the Faires by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1922.
Quoted from “Some Remarks About the Spirits of Nature,” published in The Occult Review, 1911.
Quoted from The Vanishing People: Fairy Lore and Legends by Katherine Briggs, 1978.
Painter and poet William Blake firmly believed in faeries, and once wrote about witnessing a fairy funeral.
Opium derivatives like laudanum, called “the aspirin of the 19th century,” were available without prescription in Victorian England, and were commonly used for insomnia, headaches and “women’s troubles.” It may be no accident that the Victorian’s obsessions with fairies and Spiritualism occurred during the same span of years when casual opium use was widespread.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was the son of the fairy painter Charles Doyle who, like Richard Dadd, had been confined to an insane asylum and whose imagery came from his personal visions. The fairy painter Richard Doyle (by all accounts a sane, sweet–tempered man) was Arthur Conan Doyle’s uncle.
Quoted from Alison Lurie’s “Braking for Elves,” first published in The New York Review of Books and reprinted in her excellent book Don’t Tell the Grown–ups: Why Kids Love the Books They Do.
Some claim that North America has no fairies, which is stuff and nonsense. What it has is a melting pot of fairies and stories carried over by numerous immigrant groups, transplanted to new soil and bearing fruit both familiar and strange. Mixed into this pot are Native American tales from a variety of tribal traditions — including tales about magical little people who live under the hills or deep in the woods, and are sometimes good and sometimes bad, and who tend to play tricks on human beings — fairies, in other words, in everything but name.
Artists are identified in the picture captions. All rights reserved by the artists or their estates.
The text above is from The Journal of Mythic Arts, copyright c 2004 by Terri Windling. A version of this article appeared in The Faery Reel, edited by Datlow & Windling (Viking, 2004). It may not be reproduced without the author’s permission. For information on obtaining permission, please go to: http://www.terriwindling.com/