Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Fairy Ointment

Stories about the fairy folk abound in Britain. But these are not the gentle, whimsical fairies of modern fairy tales. Indeed, anyone seeing a group of the little people would be best advised to run or at least hide.

The fairy folk of Britain are a mixed bunch. Some are well-disposed towards humanity, others are not. But one thing is clear from the many stories of mankind’s dealings with the British fairies and that is that it pays to treat them with the greatest respect.

The Irish fairies seem to have taken their music especially seriously. The little folk of Knockgrafton once removed a deforming hump from the back of a local musician whose playing pleased them, but doubled the hump on the back of a man who burst into their dancing with badly played music. In Wales a fairy woman from the waters of Llyn y Fan Fach lake agreed to marry a mortal farmer who kindly offered her bread, but only on condition that he would not strike her without cause. When he did, she returned to the lake taking with her all the livestock which had been bred from those she brought as her dowry.

A farmer on Manx had a disturbing experience in the 1740s when he was taking a horse to market to sell it. Riding the horse down a quiet lane, the farmer met a well dressed man coming the other way. The man asked if the fine horse was for sale and the two men set to bargaining. After a price was agreed, the farmer handed over the horse to the stranger who mounted it and promptly galloped into the side of a hill. The startled farmer rushed home in distress, but his wife calmed him by asking if the horse had been sold at a fair price. If it had the fairies would hold no grudge and would do no harm.

Nor was it entirely wise to talk of the fairies out loud in case they heard and came to call. Instead of naming them the little people were referred to by such names as the people of peace, the good folk or such like. Respect was essential when dealing with creatures known to have a penchant for stealing children and cursing babes.

Of all the magical things spoken of in connection with the fairies, the most enduring and widespread tales feature the fairy ointment which could reveal the fairies for what they were. Although the story of a human hired to work for the fairies is related in many places, the essentials remain the same. In South Wales the story is told of a respectable young woman whose family is poor and so she goes to the hiring fair to find work for herself. She has several younger siblings whom she has cared for and so she decides it is suitable to hire herself out as a nursemaid.

At the fair the girl is approached by a tall man dressed in the most magnificent clothes and leading a fine stallion equipped with the best quality saddles and harness. The man offers her a good wage and good working conditions, but on two conditions. The first is that she must agree to be taken blindfold to her new home and the second that she should never ask questions about her charges or her employer. The girl was poor, but not naive. She supposed that her employer was a rich man of loose morals who was hiring her to care for his children born out of wedlock.

She agreed to the conditions and, having been blindfolded, mounted the great horse. Off they galloped and after some hours hard riding, the man helped the girl dismount and led her up some steps. When the blindfold was removed, the girl found herself in a magnificent house with high ceilings and beautiful decorations. The master of the house led the girl to the nursery and gave her her instructions. Most were not unusual for the work of a nursemaid, but two were odd. First the girl was ordered never to leave the walled gardens around the house without permission. Second she was told the children had an odd eye disease which meant they had to have special ointment put in their eyes each morning. But the ointment would burn those without the disease, so the girl must wash her hands carefully after administering the ointment and take care never to put any in her own eye.

The girl agreed, without asking questions, and went to work. The children of the house were graceful, well mannered and beautifully behaved. The other servants and guests in the house were handsome and well dressed. The food she was given to eat was luxurious and tasty, while the clothes she was given to wear were fine and of the softest wool or linen.

But one fateful day the girl had an itching eye when she was administering the ointment to the children and, without thinking, she rubbed her eye. As soon as the ointment touched the eye, the girl felt a sting but that quickly passed. Then she realised that what she saw out of the corner of her eye, where the ointment had touched was different. The children were impish, ugly creatures. The clothes she wore were rags and the food she was given to eat was mouldy leaves.

As soon as the Master of the house returned the girl asked for leave to go home to see her family. The Master agreed, blindfolded the girl and hoisted her up on his horse. Off they rode until they stopped hear the girl’s home, when the girl tore off her blindfold and fled. Ever after, the eye where the ointment had touched was almost useless. The eye gave pain and refused to focus properly, but it did allow the girl to see the fairies and to be aware of their antics.

This is an extract from Everything You Need to Know About the British by Rupert Matthews

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