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It may appear strange, to some, that I include a section about the faeries and goblins (et al - as you will soon see) in a site dedicated to Christian spirituality. By contrast, I believe that no vision of medieval thought would be complete without mention of these fabulous beings, in whom those of the Middle Ages firmly believed.
The faeries that I mention here may be classed as "literary faeries", not those considered in Celtic tradition as the ancient gods of Ireland. (Those interested in that area may find some of the links more informative.)
Those in the Middle Ages were highly aware of powers beyond their own. The faeries, to use the term inclusively, were staple characters in much of the literature and theatre of the period. Rich though the imagery may be for our more practical minds, remember that creative expression of the period was not primarily the artist's interpretation of reality. Rather, it was didactic - it told a story, and usually one commonly accepted. The wee folk were not symbolic in the twentieth century sense, but were beings, neither human nor angelic, that interacted with mankind.
Belief in faeries was to endure past the Middle Ages. When Shakespeare gave us a masterpiece of faerie lore in A Midsummer Night's Dream, the mind of the renaissance still had not banished the benevolent, if tricky, spirits Will portrayed to the bin of distant memory. Of course, the faerie characters appear in numerous literary and theatrical works, and are so much a part of such popular legends as that of King Arthur that it is easy to picture a world in which faerie and human interacted strongly in each other's lives.
If we apply the viewpoints of our more sophisticated (and presumably more enlightened) day, the faeries can be treated in the realm of the figurative. Magical happenings, powers to influence others, inexplicable actions, the help of powers unseen, and, in total candour, the roundabout ways of getting even, still can appeal to human nature. Unfortunately, this quite valid viewpoint that can make the faeries come alive for a modern era rather strips them of their charm.
Well, did you expect a different way of thinking from one who believes in unicorns? My literary bent will make me concede that faerie stories are amongst the best expressions of the dark and merry sides of human nature. Today, we fear children will be frightened by the realities that are cloaked in the fanciful expression. Were we to recall that children are realists, with a sense of justice and truth that often exceeds ours, we would realise that they can see both sides of the stories that the “faerie tales” provide.
Grimm, Yeats, Shakespeare, Spenser,
Andersen - all did the faeries justice, even into modern times. But I
bear to even think of to what Disney reduced them!
The Noble Court of the Fae
These faeries, the frequent and wonderful characters we know well from literature, were ruled by Titania and Oberon, and had many a noble title among them in their court by the streams of the forests.
Lords and ladies all, many of these faeries are not known for the mischief for which other wee folk are noted. The most notable exception, of course, is Puck (Robin Goodfellow), whose tricks are best set forth in a Midsummer Night's Dream - though the playful nature he assumes in this work would contrast with his darker side, which would have made him the subject of many a mediaeval child's nightmares.
There are a few contradictions in the images of the noble faeries. By some accounts, they were never seen by human beings, yet other tales tell us of their being related to humans. Morgan le Fey, depicted as King Arthur's sister in the legends of the round table, is said to be the mother of King Oberon. The idea of faeries interacting or even having romantic encounters with humans occurs in much literature.
Those with a grasp of history believed that the noble faeries were the children of the dryads and nymphs of the Greek and Roman myths. An old and quite meaningful legend has it that, when Christ was born, the god Pan sounded his horn to signal that the reign of the old gods was ended. (And indeed that soon was to be true, when Peter brought the new faith to Rome, and Paul to Greece.) Yet the offspring of the old gods, the faeries, continued to live throughout much of the Christian era, perhaps helping man to recall that another noble and benevolent King was close by, even if our senses could not behold Him.
Meanwhile, these courtly lords and ladies danced in the forest, far from the trials of the village, living in the imagination of those who needed to think of something more than those trials. The Church could condemn belief in beings which were remnants of paganism - all spirits save those with ecclesiastical approbation had been considered demonic in the earliest centuries of Christianity, and superstitious by the High Middle Ages (at least officially). This did not keep their memory from enduring.
Originally a part of Scandinavian mythology, it is fair to conclude that knowledge of the elves was brought to Western Europe during the Norse invasions. Elves apparently came in several distinct varieties. Though they were a rather mournful lot, one breed of elves were invisible kitchen helpers for good servants, the other the bringer of illness and misery.
The good elves lived in the air and the trees. Not surprisingly, the evil ones lived underground. All could assume various forms at their whim and disappear in puffs of smoke. It is tempting to equate them with evil spirits, but that might be unfair to their image. After all, it would have been quite appealing for a struggling servant to believe that one in a good temper may help her tidy the massive kitchens of the manors.
In twentieth century style, one can see obvious images of the two sides of human nature, and the reality of good and evil that can hide itself behind deceptive appearances.
Goblins took up their residence in the homes of France. They were pranksters, and defied their own love for neatness by rearranging items in the house or tangling horses’ manes. (Seems strange, since they were known to love horses!) As we near the 21st century, it seems obligatory to see the goblins as representing the conflicts we all have within ourselves - most as ugly and mischievous as the goblins were known to be.
Pixies, my favourite wee folk since childhood, shared the compulsion for neatness that is typical of fairy folk. They were known to be handsome little ones, who favoured green clothing.
The pixies were not evil, but could be quite unkind and tricky, known to lead travellers astray or to steal naughty children. (Perhaps the latter is a public service, but be that as it may....) Neat freaks that they were, they'd pinch the maids who didn't keep the house clean as a whistle.
These sprites, who arose from English folklore, were often thought to be the souls of babies who had died before baptism. Since one could not enter heaven without the cleansing of baptism, it is appealing to think that medieval man thought of the infants’ souls as living on as mischievous and pretty creatures, rather than being relegated to the puzzling limbo. (Actually, limbo hadn't quite caught on yet... but the alternative to limbo was far worse...)
Were ye looking for a pot of gold, now? All you would get from these miserly shoemakers was a pack of lies. These little ones apparently were as rich as Midas, having a prosperous business of being the cobblers for the noble faeries of Ireland. They were cranky, solitary, yet, unlike other faeries, often seen by humans. Of course, the caught leprechaun would be freed by sending his captor on the fruitless search for the gold pieces.
Forget what you've read of poltergeist phenomena or seen in horror pictures. The poltergeist has enough problems of identity without being reduced to the object of an adolescent's mental conflicts. No one ever could agree whether these noisy, argumentative creatures were faeries or ghosts. At any rate, they created pandemonium in house or street. Poltergeists are part of German folklore, and, in an era where the dead were considered to have many a role in the earthly and spiritual realms still, they could deliver anything from a corrective punishment for the wicked to a plea for indulgences from a soul in the newly recognized "land" of purgatory.
The Brothers Grimm would give them much bad press later on, but, during the Middle Ages, trolls weren't noted for harming others. They had such magical powers as fortune telling, and frequently made people rich. They lived in fine homes, in caves or underground, and favoured grey garb and red caps.
Trolls, like many other faeries, originated in the Scandinavian lands. For some unknown reason, Thor, the god of thunder, amused himself by throwing his hammer at them - so they presumably packed up from Valhalla and brought both wealth and a persistent hatred of noise.
Nixes were similar to mermaids, though many of them were able to assume totally human form. In a manner much like the Devil, they always retained some mark of their identities, even when looking human in other respects. With mobility beyond the mermaids, what with being able to dispose of their tails, the nixes were feared for their luring people to dangerous waters to drown.