British folk tales are a big part of life for me right now. Any spare moment I have, I’m working on my book ‘Botanical Tales.’ There’s a lot of stories now, and yet new ones keep on appearing. Listening is as important as writing: to go with the inspirations that regularly turn up as part of the research, to follow those stories that instantly connect, whether it’s on the page or out in the wild.
My intention for the book is to find and share stories of our own islands that can be told outside, with the land, and in work that helps people to reconnect with the wild plants that grow all around them. When I started out, I had only a little idea of what I would find. Anyone who knows British 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. 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, dear reader, 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 plants 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. Not always a good idea, of course. Hawthorn trees are another gateway, 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. Sometimes you can’t even see them, 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 bloodymindedness 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.
But I am sure now 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 forget, in these times of utter human-centeredness, that nature can be unpredictable and cruel, as well as beautiful.
You can probably tell that I’m becoming a fan of fairies. There, I said it.
I think you’re going to enjoy the stories.