When I first started out as a storyteller, I wanted to find stories that spoke of the plants and animals and character of the landscape. As an environmentalist by trade, I was enchanted not only by storytelling as a craft, but by the potential of stories to help communicate and explore our relationship with the land around us.
I quickly learned that there are very few purely ‘environmental’ folk tales; after all, the environmental movement is a recent phenomenon, a necessary invention of the 20th century. But there are many, many old stories that talk of place, and give magical properties to animals and plants that share those places with humans.
My story search turned to the rich sources of British and Irish folklore that we are lucky to have in these islands. Anyone who knows folk tales will be familiar with the usual types of story: witches; devils; Jack stories; fairies; jocular; historical.
Hang on. Fairies? Fairies? Hmm. I have always been uneasy about fairies. Aren’t they all about fluffiness, guardian angels, New Age healing, and offensive girly obsessions with the colour pink? And this from a woman who was brought up with her mother’s Flower Fairy books, and loved them.
Now, I’m not uncomfortable with the more spiritual aspects of life, if I find they hold some resonance for me. But I also trained as a scientist, and I tend to gravitate towards useful and practical ways of contributing to the environment. Talking about fairies, frankly, never seemed to be one of these. Not really my thing. Terry Jones and Brian Froud’s Lady Cottington’s Pressed Fairy Book always made me smile.
Well, eventually the fairies have got their own back. You’ve probably guessed by now that many, many of the British folk tales I have found about the environment are about…. Fairies. Faery. The Good People. The Other Ones. Or quite simply, Them.
You see, if you pick primroses, you are more likely to be able to see Them. It’s not always a good idea, of course, unless you have more than thirteen flowers in your hand. Hawthorn trees are another gateway to the faerie realm, and the rowan tree is a surefire way to protect yourself against the more malevolent of the Little Ones. There is the ash tree spirit that guarded a river in Derbyshire, and the foxglove enchantment of the man who disappeared under the hill. Fairies in British folklore are inextricably linked with plants – or is it the other way around?
Thankfully, I’ve yet to find a folk tale where the faery realm presents itself in a shimmering, glittering pink form, with translucent wings, wasp waist, golden hair and magic wand. More usually, British folk fairies are made of the earth itself. They can be ugly, and even furry, like the Phenoderee from the Isle of Man. Sometimes you can’t even see fairies, but you can be sure they are there. They can be individual guardians of a place, or a whole community with shapeshifting king and queen, the original Oberon and Titania. Their moral codes, sense of honour (if it exists) and sense of time are entirely different to that of the human world.
One of the most extraordinary things about these fairies is their delicious dark humour. They interfere with the routine of everyday life, the farming jobs, the cleaning, finding food, the births, the deaths. The fairies test those bold humans who look to improve their station in life, and question their integrity. Sometimes, they will wreck a life for the sheer bloody-mindedness of it. And they will enjoy it. They take the trickster archetype to a whole new level.
Above all, fairies demand respect for the land and everything that lives there. Many is the human clod who has fallen foul of the Other Ones because he dared to impose his own will on the land. And there is apparently no going back, once you have done them wrong.
Many tales later, and yet I have only just started in my search for stories of the land. But I am already sure that the fairy in British folk tale is an important intermediary between humans and the land, and a representative of the land’s energy, of nature, itself. We like to forget, in these times of utter human-centeredness, that nature can be unpredictable and cruel, as well as beautiful.
Perhaps it’s time we look past the glamour of glitter and fairy wings, and we listen.