FairiesFairies, or Elves, a collective name for certain supernatural beings that figure largely in European folk-lore. They are conceived as having human forms, but are generally, though not invariably, pictured as of diminutive size. The word fairy really means enchantment, the work of the fays - the term fay (Fr. fee, from Low Lat. fata) being originally used in Latin tongues to express the idea conveyed by elf in the Teutonic languages. But though this etymology rests on evidence, there is also a folk-etymology which ascribed "their most frequent name to their being a fair or comely people, a quality which they affected on all occasions, while the superstition of the Scots [who called them fair-folk] was likely enough to give them a name which might propitiate the vanity for which they deemed the race remarkable, just as they called them 'men of peace' and ' good neighbours.'" This quality, too, served to distinguish them from the dwarfs and gnomes, who were conceived as dark and swarthy. The notion of fairies seems to have been originally Celtic, and to have sprung from the nature-deities of Gaul, memories of which still survive in Brittany. But to this original notion the nymphs and fairies of classic times and the darker mythology of northern Europe contributed their share. According to Scott, fairies may "be described by negatives, being neither angels, devils, nor the souls of deceased men." They were supposed to dwell, under the government of a king or queen, in a land of enchantment. Their pageants and court festivities were gallant and splendid. The fairies were young and beautiful, dwelt in stately halls, enjoyed boundless wealth, rode on spirited horses, and hunted with hawks and hounds far surpassing those of earth. But all was illusion; when beheld by the eye of a seer the delights of this fairy elysium vanished, and the knights and ladies became wrinkled old men and hideous hags, just as the Lamia resumed her true serpentine form when looked on by one who knew her secret. Their pleasures were showy but unsubstantial, their activity unceasing, but fruitless; and their condemnation appears to have consisted in the necessity of maintaining the appearance of constant industry or pleasure, without deriving reward from the one or enjoyment from the other. Fairies were credited with carrying off children; and this was accounted for by the belief that they were bound to pay a yearly tribute to the Devil, and not unnaturally preferred to satisfy him with the children of men, whom they carried off, and in whose place they left their own puny offspring. Unbaptised infants were alone liable to be taken by the fairies; but adults, when engaged in certain unlawful deeds, might, even though baptised, be carried off to fairyland. On this superstition Scott's ballad of Alice Brand is founded, and it is worth careful study, for it is a compendium of fairy lore. In the Arthurian legend fairies play an important part: it was said that Camelot was "a city of enchanters built by fairy kings," and that Arthur was a
"changeling out of fairyland
Who drave the heathen hence by sorcery
And Merlin's glamour."
If the prologue to the Wife of Bath's Tale is to be taken literally, the belief in fairies was on the wane, and the fairies themselves were banished by the friars in Chaucer's day. But any scepticism that existed must have been confined to the learned, and the fairies evidently came back; for in the 17th century Corbet, Bishop of Norwich, in his Fairies' Farewell, tells us that they had just gone, owing to the New Faith. Neither friars nor New Faith, however, entirely drove out the old paganism, for even at the present day there are spots in Britain where fairies are occasionally seen; and in the south and west of Ireland many a farmer whose cattle do not thrive will consult the fairyman (that is, one who has dealings with the fairies), rather than the veterinary surgeon.
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