Tinkerbell has a lot to answer for, as have the gossamer winged creations that flutter among the flowers in children’s story-books and the saccharine- coated characters of Walt Disney films. All these have played a part in relegating fairies to the realm of whimsy, which is why contemporary folklorists, Pagans and those who claim to have seen them avoid using the word. Instead the term ‘faery’ is preferred, or ‘elfin race’, or ‘longaevi’ – anything but fairy.
As someone who belongs to the third category and claims to have seen them, I prefer ‘nature spirits’ for two reasons. Firstly, because in all my encounters with them I saw nothing resembling Tinkerbell, (although my partner at the time claims to have seen some very small sylph-like beings flitting among the flowers on a hot summer afternoon) and secondly, because this term has a distancing effect – which for someone who was actually invited to go and live in Elfland and turned down the offer, is a necessary safeguard. For they have the power to enchant, which is where their danger lies.
In Paradise Lost (1:780) when the belated peasant stumbles upon the faery elves at their midnight revels by a forest-side or fountain, “At once with joy and fear his heart rebounds” while, “they, on their mirth and dance intent, with jocund music charm his ear.”
In the old tales the combination of joy and fear is a common reaction among those who stumble inadvertently into Elfland. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word panic derives from the Greek word ‘panikos’ and describes the reaction of those who stumble upon the god Pan in the woods and glades and run away in terror. (see FT141:30-31;FT148: 54; FT153:54) That was my first reaction – to run away. It couldn’t be true, I remember thinking. Fauns, elves, imps, fairies, dwarfs, giants, Robin Goodfellow, Jack o’ the Green and all the rest aren’t supposed to exist in the modern age.
There have been many attempts to explain the imaginative demise of the nature spirits and many predictions of their eventual departure from the world. Many commentators point the finger at the Church for its view that belief in nature spirits was a remnant of Paganism and for its attempts to stamp this out. Chaucer’s Wife of Bath observes that in the time of King Arthur,
“This was a land brim-full of faery folk.
The Elf-Queen and her courtiers joined and broke
Their elfin dance on many a green mead …”
“…But no-one now sees fairies any more,
For now the saintly charity and prayer
Of holy friars seem to have purged the air;”
However belief in them survived long enough to condemn a woman in 1576 to burning at the stake in Edinburgh for ‘repairing with’ the faeries and the ‘Queen of Elfame’, and it continued despite serious attempts to demonise them during the post-Reformation period. In the Daemonologie, III, i, King James I claims,
“That kinde of Devils conversing in the earth may be divided in foure different kindes… the fourth is these kindes of spirites that are called vulgarlie the Fayries”.
A darkening of superstition during this period severely tainted the image of the nature spirits, according to CS Lewis. Industrialisation and increasing human domination of the natural world also meant that the question of whether, for example, the elves could turn milk sour became less important. Our connection with them was severed and they were relegated to the realms of fancy and children’s fiction. In the 20th century their significance was noted by psychotherapists and anthropologists who claimed that fairy tale themes and characters could help the human being journeying into his or her own inner world. By studying Elfland and the adventures that occurred there, the individual would be better equipped in the search for the self. No longer were the elves to be encountered deep in the forest but in the deepest recesses of the human unconscious.
Alocal folklore expert on Arran, the Scottish island where I was living when I encountered the nature spirits, said that the fairies left when electricity came. There’s some truth in this claim. The techniques I practised for several months before the first encounter were very simple but required considerable patience and perseverance. They were also, I found out later, almost identical to the technique involved in developing ‘night vision’, which must have been a necessary skill before the darkness was illuminated with so much electric light.
The fairies didn’t leave, of course. What happened was that people stopped being able to see them; and to see them you have to be able to see without looking. The technique I practised is similar to that required to see the hidden holographic images in Magic Eye pictures. It involves detaching the vision from the object by focusing beyond it and allowing the mind to rest. On a pitch black, moonless night, the aim is not to frantically look for the path ahead but to defocus the eyes and wait for the vague shapes of things to emerge. Rest long and patiently enough and the rocks, trees and hedges will slowly reveal themselves and a slow but safe progress can be made home.
This surely goes some way to explaining the disappearance of the elves in the modern age. The world is filled with noise, artificial light and activity which stimulate the senses rather than allowing them to rest – the very opposite of the state required for such seeing. Stumbling upon nature spirits by accident is a common occurrence in folklore, especially during journeys home at the end of the day, and the person often feels that he or she has intruded upon the scene. Opportunities for such encounters simply do not exist as they once did.
After months of practice of what I thought was simple meditation, and with no clear aim, the first encounter happened. It was a mild summer evening in the garden of a house where a stream flowed from a forested hillside. Suddenly there was a soft, silvery light and a procession of little figures led by a faun walked up the bank from the stream. The faun was small – about 3ft (90cm) tall – and seemed pleased with himself. I saw short legs strutting with pride and heard tiny hooves clip-clopping on the paving stones. He had horns too, about 6in (15cm) long, and a wrinkled face. He could have come straight out of a book of fairy tales or myths.
The little faun brushed past me and I panicked and ran back to the house where I was hugely relieved to find the television on and the news reporting a meeting of European Union heads of state. This is reality, I remember deciding, while only barely able to suppress my excitement. What if? What if? There was one way to settle the matter – ask my partner, Peter, if he could see them too.
And he did, and he seemed equally shocked as he described a little creature that was definitely male and had horns, shaggy legs and hooves. It had been fussing about down by the stream and appeared quite agitated, Peter said, as if some kind of male rivalry issue had been involved. There had been other little beings there too, but they weren’t clear enough to see properly.
This was just the beginning, and more encounters followed, which in our head-spinning excitement we did everything to encourage. We left oats and milk out for them because this was supposed to be traditional in the West Highlands; Peter played his bagpipes for them while I banged away at a hand held drum or bodhran; and we built a little shrine beside the stream in honour of them. The aim was to build many more at strategic places all over the island, but we only managed three more.
A little elf boy soon turned up and started coming into the house. I remember standing in the sitting room while a small figure dressed in mottled greens and browns looked up at me with an expression of sinister mirth. If he had been a child, his height would have put him at around six years old, but he bore no resemblance to any child I have ever met. His face, which was unusually long and well defined, seemed the face of one who had lived for a thousand years.
The first indication that we were meddling in matters beyond our experience and knowledge came when I followed a second procession of nature spirits along the stream. These were very tall and slender and seemed to move without moving. They were dressed in wildly striped clothes of browns and greens, which was why I called them ‘stripies’, and had lots of dull greyish hair. Also in the procession were a number of chattering and dancing imps in bright green who pulled me along while offering me clothes like the stripies’ which I wouldn’t put on, although I’m not sure why.
We were soon inside a hall which looked as if it had been hewn out of rock. There was a long table where preparations for a meal had been made. Again the imps tried to make me change my clothes but I refused. The stripies stood very still, as if in anticipation. Perhaps they were waiting to see if I would sit at their table, which I couldn’t bring myself to do. Then I heard the words: “You are the first person to come this way for 200 years. Come and be with us.”
At that I turned away and found myself back at the stream. My impression was that there was nothing in the stripies to ‘connect with’, that there was something ‘absent’ about them and an emptiness in their languorous, dreamy air. My impulse was not to linger in their presence or at their table. I might forget too much, too quickly.
Traditional folklore makes it clear that it is dangerous to meddle with the faerie folk. People who stray inadvertently into Faery land rarely return unscathed, if they return at all. The grandmothers must have known more than they realised when they whispered that the oddball of the neighbourhood was ‘away with the fairies’. Perhaps he or she had wandered too far into the hillside one day and never properly returned.
Peter then reported that he too had been asked to go and be with them, and this prompted a serious discussion as to whether we had been rash in encouraging the encounters and ought to pull back. This we tried to do, although it took some effort. We dismantled the shrines and avoided going near the stream, but every so often came the desire to walk in the forest in the hope of catching just one more glimpse
On one such walk I heard a strange singing and found out later that there were others who had heard singing in the forest (see FT:152:53). I also saw the ‘fairy lights’ reported by some of the older people on the island, which appeared as balls of light and hovered on the air before shooting off at great speed to disappear among the distant trees. They were small, about 4 or 6 in (10-15cm) in diameter, and very bright. They made no sound but sometimes made little dances in the air before flying away.
When early autumn came I caught sight of another group, which I called the ‘stiks’ because they looked like trees that have been stripped of their leaves and left stark and bare. They weren’t friendly at all and I remember that several of them came and stood around me, willing me to leave. I didn’t linger, not after they said:
“Why are you here? This is no place for you.”
And when the late autumn came another group appeared which I dubbed the ‘misties’. A visitor to a late autumn forest might find him or herself in a place where the mist seems colder and denser than before, where it barely drifts on the air and where the way forward might be obscured for a while. That is where the misties will be, and their presence might induce a mild rush of fear and stumbling. But to me they gave the impression of being neither friendly nor hostile, their effect being only to confuse temporarily.
There were no more encounters on the island after that. Perhaps when late autumn turned to winter, when the first frost had appeared and shallow puddles had turned to ice, we might have encountered (you’ve guessed it) the ‘frosties’. But we didn’t.
Since then I have caught only occasional glimpses of the nature spirits, among the potted plants on a friend’s balcony overlooking a busy London street, or in a city park. Wherever nature is, so are they, our unacknowledged fellow citizens. And yet in the modern age they have all but disappeared from view, their invisibility a consequence of both the prevailing materialist and scientific worldview and the bad press they have received. Yet they go about their business as ever.
Considering my desire to end the encounters, and the fact that we dismantled the shrines, it may seem a little odd to be proposing a set-aside policy for elves. (see panel above). But the idea is to challenge the situation in which the natural world is either ruthlessly exploited or else managed beyond recognition. ‘Set Aside for Elves’ would mean leaving nature, and the nature spirits, alone. The irony is that forestry plantations are man-made and yet because they are untouched after planting, nature is able to create within them something that is almost beyond the imagination, and in no longer than the span of a generation.
Nature has no obligation to us, but we have an obligation to nature. We are obliged to consider the consequences of our actions, nature isn’t. We need forests but forests don’t need us. Fish need clean rivers and rivers need fish. We need clean rivers but rivers don’t need us.
The best offering we could make to the natural world would be to allow nature to take its course.