Blog Post 43 – Fairies in the New World
Hello readers and listeners.
First of all, I know I’m not posting much this week. Unfortunately, I’ve had a lot to do with my day job, plus a number of other projects to work on (such as my garden). I’m hoping to be back to daily or near-daily posting again by next week, but I hope you’ll understand if I wind up with some gaps here and there. I really appreciate all of you who read our little site here. I hope it continues to be worth visiting.
Now, onto the topic of the day! I was listening to Jay O’Skully’s latest podcast (check him out if you haven’t yet—he’s quite excellent), which is all about fairies. That got me to thinking about the role of fairies in the New World. My first impression was that most of what we conceive of as “fairy tales” come from Old World sources, and that any stories about the Good People on this side of the Atlantic would likely have been imported. While we certainly have our share of imported tales, I found out that we also have plenty of reason to think the Fair Folk are alive and well all around us.
There are several Native American tales which relate the adventures of fairies (or misadventures with them, in some cases). Some of these stories don’t explicitly use the word “fairy” to describe the magical people of whose adventures they tell. For example, there’s a Cherokee legend about “Little People,” who never get called “fairies,” though there is a reference to brownies in the version I read. They are described thusly:
“The Little People of the Cherokee are a race of Spirits who live in rock caves on the mountain side. They are little fellows and ladies reaching almost to your knees. They are well shaped and handsome, and their hair so long it almost touches the ground. They are very helpful, kind-hearted, and great wonder workers. They love music and spend most of their time drumming, singing, and dancing. They have a very gentle nature, but do not like to be disturbed. “
Other Native American stories do use the word “fairy” when discussing the diminutive otherworldly beings which inhabit the forests, mountains, and waterways of America. From the Ojibway legend, “The Star Maiden”:
“The Ojibways were a great nation whom the fairies loved. Their land was the home of many spirits, and as long as they lived on the shores of the great lakes the woods in that country were full of fairies. Some of them dwelt in the moss at the roots or on the trunks of trees. Others hid beneath the mushrooms and toadstools. Some changed themselves into bright-winged butterflies or tinier insects with shining wings. This they did that they might be near the children they loved and play with them where they could see and be seen.
But there were also evil spirits in the land. These burrowed in the ground, gnawed at the roots of the loveliest flowers and destroyed them. They breathed upon the corn and blighted it. They listened whenever they heard men talking, and carried the news to those with whom it would make most mischief.
It is because of these wicked fairies that the Indian must be silent in the woods and must not whisper confidences in the camp unless he is sure the spirits are fast asleep under the white blanket of the snow. ” (from American Indian Fairy Tales, by Margaret Compton, 1907)
There are also plenty of stories from European settlers who brought fairy tale traditions with them, but then found those tales shaped by the new landscape around them. I’ve already mentioned the little gnome-like men Henry Hudson is supposed to have encountered during his waterway explorations in Blog Post 3. New England teems with fairy lore, from what I gather. There’s an excellent book called The Fairies in America by preacher Spencer Wallace Cone (I haven’t found a hard copy yet, but the e-book is available through that link). This collection of two very elaborate fairy tales includes all the wonderful elements found in Old World stories, with some nice New World twists. One of my favorites involves two brothers—one kind and loving, the other hard and hateful—who have been saved by a fairy only to find that she must give one of them up to a mysterious Man in Black (I’ll leave witchy implications aside for the moment, there). She tries to argue the man out of his claim, but he responds with something that struck me as quaintly American:
“’Ho! ho!’ laughed the dark man; ‘our fair mistress of the Diamond Lake has turned lawyer. I know no distinctions, madam…’”
Something about hearing a fairy accused of being “turned lawyer” just makes me smile.
Famous fairy tales were reshaped by their New World surroundings, too. “Jack and the Beanstalk” has many iterations in the Appalachian mountains, for example. Some of the changes involve Jack (who is a folk hero figure in many Southern folktales) stealing the giant’s gun and a golden blanket instead of a harp and a golden-egg laying hen. There are even versions where Jack and his mother are killed by the beanstalk falling on them when they chop it down. Oh, and I know that a giant isn’t exactly a fairy to some folks, but because he’s a powerful non-human creature inhabiting an otherworldly locale accessible only by magical means, I’m letting it slide here. 🙂
Okay, I’m going to stop here for now, but this is definitely not the end of this topic (though I may wait a few posts before returning to it). Let me know what you think, and if you have any fairy tales set in the areas around you which you’d like to share I’d love to hear them!
Thanks for reading!