In ‘A Book of Folk-Lore’ (1913) the Devon folklorist Sabine Baring-Gould recounts three instances in which he and members of his family ‘saw’ pixies or dwarfs. I’ll let you read them:
In the year 1838, when I was a small boy of four years old, we were driving to Montpellier [France] on a hot summer’s day, over the long straight road that traverses a pebble and rubble strewn plain on which grows nothing save a few aromatic herbs.
I was sitting on the box with my father, when to my great surprise I saw legions of dwarfs about two feet high running along beside the horses – some sat laughing on the pole, some were scrambling up the harness to get on the backs of the horses. I remarked to my father what I saw, when he abruptly stopped the carriage and put me inside beside my mother, where, the conveyance being closed, I was out of the sun. The effect was that little by little the host of imps diminished in number till they disappeared altogether.
When my wife was a girl of fifteen, she was walking down a lane in Yorkshire between green hedges, when she saw seated in one of the privet hedges a little green man, who looked at her with his beady black eyes. He was about a foot or eighteen inches high. She was so frightened that she ran home. She cannot recall exactly in what month this took place, but knows it was a summer’s day.
One day a son of mine, a lad of about twelve, was sent into the garden to pick pea-pods for the cook to shell for dinner. Presently he rushed into the house as white as chalk to say that while he was engaged upon the task imposed upon him he saw standing between the rows of peas a little man wearing a red cap, a green jacket, and brown knee-breeches, whose face was old and wan and who had a gray beard and eyes as black and hard as sloes. He stared so intently at the boy that the latter took to his heels. I know exactly when this occurred, as I entered it in my diary, and I know when I saw the imps by looking in my father’s diary, and though he did not enter the circumstance, I recall the vision today as distinctly as when I was a child.
In spite of the vivid and detailed nature of these visions Baring-Gould didn’t believe he or his family had seen anything ‘real’. He continues stoutly:
Now, in all three cases, these apparitions were due to the effect of a hot sun on the head. But such an explanation is not sufficient. Why did all three see small beings of a very similar character? With ... temporary hallucination the pictures presented to the eye are never originally conceived, they are reproductions of representations either seen previously or conceived from descriptions given by others. In my case and that of my wife, we saw imps, because our nurses had told us of them… In the case of my son, he had read Grimms’ Tales and seen the illustrations to them.
Rational indeed – though still a little puzzling that sun-stroke or heat-stroke should in each case have brought on visions of dwarfs or pixies. Perhaps it ran in the family. However that may be, Baring-Gould acknowledges that this explanation only pushes the problem further into the past – ‘Where did our nurses, whence did Grimm [sic] obtain their tales of kobolds, gnomes, dwarfs, pixies, brownies etc? … To go to the root of the matter, in what did the prevailing belief in the existence of these small people originate?’ And he answers thus:
I suspect that there did exist a small people, not so small as these imps are represented, but comparatively small beside the Aryans who lived in all those countries in which the tradition of their existence lingers on.
The grim events of the 20th century have taught us to beware of that word ‘Aryan’, liberally scattered in the introduction to many a 19th century collection. Sir George Dasent, introducing ‘Popular Tales from the Norse’ (his translation of Asbjornsen and Moe’s 'Norske Folkeeventyr’) includes a section on ‘the Aryan race’ which according to contemporary anthropological wisdom had spread across Europe ‘in days of immemorial antiquity’. In 1905, citing the biologist Thomas Henry Huxley as his authority, Charles Squire in ‘Celtic Myths and Legends’ writes confidently of ‘certain proof of two distinct human stocks in the British Isles at the time of the Roman conquest’. He describes them: the early people who built Britain’s long barrows were ‘Iberian’ or ‘Mediterranean’ in origin: ‘a short, swarthy, dark-haired’ aboriginal race; but ‘the second of these two races was the exact opposite of the first. It was the tall, fair, light-haired, blue- or gray-eyed people called, popularly, the “Celts”, who belonged in speech to the “Aryan” family … It was in a higher stage of culture than the “Iberians”.’ In the illustration below from a history of the world published in 1897, we see how the heroic Celts were imagined, along with an account of the 'Aryan migration'. And they were supposed to have displaced a different race of indigenous people, driving them almost literally underground.
|'The Celtic Vanguard' from 'Ridpath's History of the World', 1897|
This notion of ‘two races, two cultures’ has been discredited. Archaologists and geneticists now agree that Europe has been a melting-pot of racial groups from at least the early Neolithic. European Mesolithic hunter-gatherers were neither replaced nor suddenly shunted out; instead, over several thousand years, they assimilated both the culture and the genes of a gradually diffusing population of Neolithic farmers. It wasn’t until the Bronze Age (says Professor Barry Cunliffe in ‘Europe Between the Oceans, 9000 BC – AD1000’) that sea-faring and trading populations on the on the coasts of Europe, Britain and Ireland, developed the Celtic tongue as ‘an Atlantic façade lingua franca’. Isn't that wonderful? The Celts didn’t ‘come from’ anywhere: they were in place already. The Celtic languages evolved because coastal peoples travelled and traded and intermarried and talked to one another. Britain wasn't isolated, it was always an integral part of Europe.
So the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould was wrong. There was never a distinctly different race of ‘little dark people’ living on the edges of a conquering population of tall, fair, confident ‘Aryans’. Nothing to give rise to a belief in a ‘hidden folk’ of pixies, dwarfs or elves.
You can see why he liked the idea. It seemed to answer a lot of questions, besides lending to folk-lore a kind of scientific gloss: anthropological ‘truths’ preserved in tales. Many a writer has been honestly misled by it. In Rosemary Sutcliff’s tremendous novel ‘Sword at Sunset’, the Romano-British and nominally Christian hero Artos, fighting off the Saxon invasions in the 3rd century AD, takes as his allies ‘the little Dark People of the Hills’, who live half-underground in turf-covered bothies, use poisoned arrows and worship the Earth Mother. Their clan leader, the Old Woman, calls Artos ‘Sun Lord’ and tells him:
‘We are small and weak, and our numbers grow fewer with the years, but we are scattered very wide, wherever there are hills or lonely places. We can send news and messages racing from one end of a land to the other between moon-rise and moonset; we can creep and hide and spy and bring back word; we are the hunters who can tell you when the game has passed by, by a bent grass-blade or one hair clinging to a bramble-spray. We are the viper that stings in the dark –’
And in the same author's if-anything-even-more-magnificent ‘The Mark of the Horse Lord’, the half-Roman half-British ex-gladiator Phaedrus, masquerading as Midir, Lord of the Dalriads (actually a 4th century AD Scots-Irish Gaelic kingdom), lays down his iron weapons to call upon an Old Man of the Dark People who lives like a badger in ‘a tumble of stones and turf laced together with brambles’ with ‘a dark opening in its side’:
[Phaedrus] had heard before of places such as this, where one left something that needed mending, together with a gift, and came back later to find the gift gone and the broken thing mended; it was one of those things no one talked of very much, the places where the life of the Sun People touched the life of the Old Ones, the People of the Hills. Like the bowls of milk that the women put out sometimes at night, in exchange for some small job to be done – like the knot of rowan hung over a doorway for protection against the ancient Earth Magic – like the stealing of a Sun Child from time to time.’
This Old Man is ‘slight-boned … with grey hair brushed back from his narrow brow, and eyes that seemed at first glance like jet beads…’ Sutcliff was writing in the mid-1960s when the ‘two races’ hypothesis was still widely credited: she writes with great imaginative sympathy. I grew up with these stories and it was easy to be swept along by the idea: these Little Dark People, the Painted People, these remnants of the past clinging to the verge of cultures which had displaced them, were the historical origin of the fairies. I felt sorry for them. Even in Sutcliff’s sympathetic treatment, these imagined, marginalised archaic people are nearly powerless. Their magic – feared though it is – doesn’t really work on the more civilized Sun People. They are spies, not warriors: they creep through the heather with poisoned arrows, killing by stealth. In fact they’re natives, with all the baggage that implies in colonial and post-colonial Britain. They may help the heroes, but they can’t be the heroes. Their time is past.
Writing in 1913 Baring-Gould doesn’t even allow them the skills to erect dolmens:
They were not, I take it, the Dolmen builders – these are supposed to have been giants because of the gigantic character of their structures. They were a people who did not build at all. They lived in caves, or if in the open, in huts made by bending branches over and covering them with sods of turf. Consequently in folk-lore they are always represented as either emerging from caverns or from under mounds.
This is to lend to folk-lore an authority far beyond its deserts.
Most of the nineteenth century collectors of the fairy tales and folk-lore which we all love so much were driven by nationalist impulses and racial pride. Each sought, as the Grimms did, the pure voice of their own ‘folk’. As the century progressed what they in fact uncovered was the inextricably interrelated nature of European folk- and fairy- lore. Despite the near-impossibility of claiming a particular version of any story as ‘original’, some went on to claim an ultimate ‘Aryan’ heritage for such tales, going so far as to assert that the Aryan master-race originated in Scandinavia – since, clearly, the Nordic peoples were the tallest, blondest and bluest-eyed of the lot. Most of these gentlemen intended only to generate pride in what they saw as their heritage. They did not recognise it as racism - the term had not yet been coined - but racism it was. As folklorists, as lovers of fairy tales, we need to be responsible for the ways we interpret the stories we tell.
While I was researching Mi’kmaq and Algonkin folk-lore for my book 'Troll Blood', I came across a salutary reminder of how untrustworthy some 19th century commentators can be when discussing origins: in a compilation called ‘The Algonquin Legends of New England’ (1884) I found the anthropologist Charles G. Leland with a bee in his bonnet about what he claimed had to be a Norse influence on Mi’kmaq stories. Having decided that the Mi’kmaq tales were in effect too ‘noble’ to have been the product of Native American minds, he made the wildly unsupported assertion that the Norsemen must have told stories from the Eddas to the indigenous peoples of what is now Newfoundland and New Brunswick: that the Mi’kmaq culture-hero Kluskap (‘Glooscap’, in his account) ‘is the Norse god intensified … by far the grandest and most Aryan-like character ever evolved from a savage mind’. I almost dropped the book and was forced to regard it ever after as compromised and unreliable. If there was any contact at all between Norsemen and the Native American population in the 10th to 13th centuries (the likely duration of occasional forays from treeless Greenland for much-needed North American timber), the Greenlanders’ Saga suggests that it was violent and short. But that’s not the point. The point is the mindset which says ‘this is too good to have been created by [insert racial group]’.
|The dwarf Eitri making the hammer Mjölnir.|
Returning to the origin of pixies, elves and dwarfs – if they’re not a folk-memory of some once co-existing shy and inferior race, what are they? As Baring-Gould says, the notion must have come from somewhere. Well, Britain, Ireland and Northern Europe are dotted with burial mounds and barrows. The Irish story of the love of Midir for Étain states plainly that Midir is a king of the ‘elf-mounds’, the underworld, and the tale is full of instances of death and rebirth. As I argue more closely in an essay called ‘The Lost Kings of Fairyland’ in my recent book, fairies have long been associated with the dead. In a fascinating essay ‘The Craftsman in the Mound’ (Folk-Lore 88, 1977) Lotte Motz discusses the figure of the dwarf as a smith and craftman dwelling in hills, mounds and mountains, who may be heard hammering away in underground smithies. Pointing to the many instances of ‘legends of dead rulers who reside, sometimes in a magic sleep and often with their retinue, within a mountain’, she continues:
A relation to the dead appears to belong also to the dwarfs of the Icelandic documents; so the dwarf Alviss [‘All-Knowing] is asked by Thor if he had been staying with the dead, and a poem in a saga tells of a doughty sword which had been fashioned by ‘dead dwarfs’. I would… assert that the mountain dwelling of the smith holds, rather than temporary wealth, eternal treasures in its aspect as the mountain of the dead.
As if to emphasise his deathly character, like a ghost fleeing to its grave at cock-crow, the dwarf Alviss (the story is from the Poetic Edda) cannot endure daylight but turns to stone at sunrise.
‘The day has caught thee, dwarf!’ cries triumphant Thor, who like Gandalf in ‘The Hobbit’ has kept him talking…
It's always been thought dangerous to see fairies. Like the Furies in Greek mythology, if you talked about them at all, you used flattering circumlocutions – the Good People, the Seely Court, the People of Peace. They came from the hollow hills, the land of death, and it was wise to be frightened of them. Maybe the visions, the ‘legions of dwarfs’, the little green men or pixies which Baring-Gould and his wife and child separately saw signified something more sinister than folk-memories.
After all, sunstroke can kill you.
Pixies - John D Batten - Wikimedia Commons
Nisse eating barley porridge - Wikimedia Commons
The dwarves Brokkr and Eitri making the hammer Mjölnir - Arthur Rackham - Wikimedia Commons
Alvissmal - Alviss answers Thor - Wikimedia Commons
Dolmen, Jersey, 1859 - Wikimedia Commons