Ronald Hutton’s Typology of Faeries

In the video I mentioned in this post, Prof. Hutton provided a concise classification system for the faeries of northern Europe. It is but one part of a fascinating and expertly presented lecture, and I’m summarizing it here because it fits nicely (though not perfectly) with the way I developed the Fair Folk one meets in Children of Pride.  Hutton speaks of three basic categories of faeries in the British Isles:

1. Faeries proper, which Hutton describes as “the neighbors from hell.” These are the frightening and often malicious faeries one encounters in the oldest strands of faerie lore: the daoine sídhe and their cohorts. They live underground in a society that mirrors that of human beings, with courts, royalty (usually queens), banqueting, dancing, and the like.

2. Household helpers, including all manner of brownies, hobs, fenodyrees, and the like. These creatures are more mischievous than malicious, and they can sometimes be persuaded to help with the domestic and agricultural chores. But be careful, because they are easily offended and may just leave if one does something of which they don’t approve.

3. Faerie tricksters such as Robin Goodfellow. These are practical jokers, generally harmless or amusing rather than hostile. They are a rather late invention according to Hutton, largely under the influence of Shakespeare’s Puck. He is most assuredly not a pooka, which would better be understood as a dreaded “night being.” He further compares Robin Goodfellow to Native American trickster archetypes like Coyote as a trickster and buffoon, but also sometimes a powerful cosmic force. (Hutton does not use the specific terminology of “faery trickster,” but I think this is a fair description.)

He also notes a fourth category:

4. Nature spirits such as the pans and nymphs of Greek mythology. Properly speaking, Hutton says there are relatively few of these in the folklore of the British Isles. He further insists that these creatures are not, properly speaking, faeries at all since they fit into the natural realm in a way that traditional Anglo-Celtic faeries do not. Unlike faeries proper, beings of this type seem to be nearly universal in human cultures. Although Hutton insists such creatures are not faeries, he does say that the trolls or faeries of Iceland (and the related trows of the Orkney and Shetland Islands) are something of a hybrid between this category and the first. They are “land wights” who exercise guardianship over the land, but they are also said to live in underground communities and are often less than hospitable to human beings.

If you’re interested in the faery lore of the British Isles, you really owe it to yourself to listen to Prof. Hutton’s lecture.

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Kindly Elves

The most recent development in elf-lore is to see them neither as tall, powerful, benevolent beings as in Norse mythology, nor as tall, powerful, sinister beings, as in later Germanic folklore, but rather as small, shy beings who are usually quite helpful to humans. Although they may still be mischievous, they are rarely malicious.

Germanic “House Elves”

One early depiction of this sort of elf is in 1812, in the Brothers Grimm fairy tale Die Wichtelmänner, known to English readers as the story of “The Elves and the Shoemaker.” In this story, two tiny naked imps help the shoemaker with his work. When he seeks to reward them with clothing, however, they are so delighted that they run away and are never seen again.

It is debatable whether these Wichtelmänner should be interpreted as elves at all or rather as some other sort of fairy being: kobolds, dwarves, or brownies, for example. The word, itself a diminutive of German Wicht, “wight,” which might better be translated imp or goblin. They seem to have a bit in common with the nisse or tomte of Scandinavia, kindly, diminutive sprites similar to the hobs and brownies of England. At any rate, due to the common translation, they have entered the constellation of images to which English-speakers attach the word “elf.”

Dobby and Company

The depiction of tiny, helpful, industrious elves certainly influenced the house elves of Harry Potter more than either of the previous types. There is even a mythological basis for their aversion to conventional clothing. In English folklore, brownies are a type of sprite that secretly tidy up the house and perhaps do other domestic chores. It is said that they always dress in rags, but are deeply offended if ever anyone offered them more suitable clothing to wear. Do this, the legends say, and they will promptly disappear, never to return.

These domestic sprites are often attached to a particular family. In fact, they are believed by some to be the departed spirits of an ancestor. Such is the case, for example, of the domovoi of Slavic folklore. They may be especially associated with the hearth.

In addition to the nisse and tomte already discussed, other iterations of this sort of “elf” are the Spanish duende, the Irish grogan, the Welsh bwbach. There are also an assortment of faery creatures involved in a number of “working-class” functions: the vazila of Russia takes care of horses; the bodachan buachailleen of the Scottish highlands is a herdsman while his neighbor, the bodachan sabhaill, inhabits the barn; the kilmouli of the Border region is a spinner.

Christmas Elves

Louisa May Alcott first mentioned elves in a Christmas story in 1856. Sadly, the publisher declined to print the story. A year later, however, Harper’s Weekly published an anonymous poem titled “The Wonders of Santa Claus,” which begins:

Beyond the ocean many a mile,
And many a year ago,
There lived a wonderful queer old men [sic]
In a wonderful house of snow;
And every little boy and girl,
As Christmas Eves arrive,
No doubt will be very glad to hear,
The old man is still alive.

In his house upon the top of a hill,
And almost out of sight,
He keeps a great many elves at work,
All working with all their might,
To make a million of pretty things,
Cakes, sugar-plums, and toys,
To fill the stockings, hung up you know
By the little girls and boys.

It would be a capital treat be sure,
A glimpse of his wondrous ‘shop;
But the queer old man when a stranger comes,
Orders every elf to stop;
And the house, and work, and workmen all
Instantly take a twist,
And just you may think you are there,
They are off in a frosty mist.

Thus, Christmas elves appear on the scene only thirty-five years after Clement Moore gave us the “canonical” depiction of Santa Claus himself. The depiction of these beings varies from story to story, but they are almost always shorter than normal humans. By temperament, they are cheerful and jolly—as befits Santa’s helpers. They usually dress in bright, festive colors.