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Strange and Norrell

Strange & Norrell : III – Away with the Fairies

Susanna Clarke’s 2004 historical fantasy novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell has been adapted into a seven part television series by Peter Harness, currently airing on BBC One and BBC America. John Reppion plucks out some of the more easily disentangled fragments of folklore, magic, and the like from the book (and the show) and takes a closer look at them.

All posts in this series:

III – Away with the Fairies

In Strange & Norrell the practical magician Mr. Gilbert Norrell is very much anti-fairy and warns strongly against consulting with, or employing, them:

“A more poisonous race or one more inimical to England has never existed. There have been far too many magicians too idle or ignorant to pursue a proper course of study, who instead bent all their energies upon acquiring a fairy-servant and when they had got such a servant they depended upon him to complete all their business for them. English history is full of such men and some, I am glad to say, were punished for it as they deserved. Look at Bloodworth.”

Simon Bloodworth’s tale is given in one of Clarke’s many wonderful footnotes (in chapter five of the book) and mentioned briefly in episode five of Harness’ television adaptation. According to Clarke, Bloodworth was a non too impressive 14th century magician from Bradford on Avon who was one day unexpectedly offered the services of a fairy calling himself Buckler.

“As every English schoolchild nowadays can tell you, Bloodworth would have done better to have inquired further and to have probed a little deeper into who, precisely, Buckler was, and why, exactly, he had come out of Faerie with no other aim than to become the servant of a third-rate English magician”.

Buckler did ever more and ever better magic upon Bloodworth’s behalf and as he did so he grew stronger. Soon the fairy took on a larger, more human, appearance (“his thin, piebald fox-face became a pale and handsome human one“) which he claimed to be his true form, the former being merely an enchantment.

Then “on a fine May morning in 1310 when Bloodworth was away from home Mrs Bloodworth discovered a tall cupboard standing in the corner of her kitchen where no cupboard had ever been before. When she asked Buckler about it, he said immediately that it was a magical cupboard and that he had brought it there”.

Buckler told Mrs. Bloodworth than it pained him to see her and her daughters slaving away washing and cleaning all day long. If she would but step into the cupboard, he said, she would be transported to a place where she might learn spells which “would make any work finished in an instant, make her appear beautiful in the eyes of all who beheld her, make large piles of gold appear whenever she wished it, make her husband obey her in all things” and so on and so on.

“Seventeen people entered Buckler’s cupboard that morning and were never seen again in England; among them were Mrs Bloodworth, her two youngest daughters, her two maids and two manservants, Mrs Bloodworth’s uncle and six neighbours”.

Two hundred years later, author of De Tractatu Magicarum Linguarum (On the Subject of Magical Languages), the magician Dr. Martin Pale entered Faerie and visited the brughs of fairies Cold Henry and John Hollyshoes. In the latter the doctor found an eight year old girl washing a great pile of dirty dishes. She said she had been told that when the things were clean she could go home to England. The girl thought she had been washing-up for two weeks or so and would be done in a day or two more. Pale recorded that the girl told him name as Anne Bloodworth.

The danger of humans being lost, trapped, or even imprisoned in Faerie is a recurring theme throughout the old folk-tales of England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and beyond. In the 15th century romance of Thomas the Rhymer the titular character meets and falls in love with the beautiful Queen of Elfland, travelling willingly with her upon a milk-white horse whose mane hung with bells. In his collection Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry, William Butler Yeats wrote the following, more detailed and much less pleasant sounding, description of what may be considered the same arrangement:

The Leanhaun Shee (fairy mistress), seeks the love of mortals. If they refuse, she must be their slave; if they consent, they are hers, and can only escape by finding another to take their place. The fairy lives on their life, and they waste away. Death is no escape from her. She is the Gaelic muse, for she gives inspiration to those she persecutes. The Gaelic poets die young, for she is restless, and will not let them remain long on earth – this malignant phantom. [1]

Others like Burd Ellen, sister of Rowland in the old English Fairy Tale Childe Rowland, stray into the Other Lands entirely by accident. Burd Ellen unintentionally ran around a church widdershins (anti-clockwise) and disappeared – taken to the Dark Tower by the King of Elfland. After seeking advice from the great magician Merlin, Rowland set out on a rather bloody quest to rescue his sister. One must never eat or drink in Faerie, as Merlin warns:

“Bite no bit, and drink no drop, however hungry or thirsty you are; drink a drop, or bite a bit, while in Elfland you be, and never will you see Middle Earth again” [2]

If fairy food is eaten then the devourer will be bound to remain in the Other Lands for an allotted time, just as Persephone daughter of Zeus and Demeter was doomed to remain half a year in Hades (the Greek Underworld which it may be noted shares characteristics with both Faerie and its near neighbour Hell) by the consumption of food there.* This seems to have become a steadfast “fact” of fairy lore but, for my part, I cannot find reference earlier than Childe Rowland relating specifically to the fae.

Robert Kirk’s 1691 book The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies is regarded by many as one of the most important works on fairy lore ever committed to paper, yet it contains no reference to the perils of dining upon fairy foods. Kirk, it is said, paid a heavy price for his involvement with the fairy folk, however. In his introduction to the 1893 edition the renowned folklorist Andrew Lang gave the following biographical account of the author and his strange demise.

The Rev. Robert Kirk, the author of The Secret Commonwealth, was a student of theology at St. Andrews: his Master’s degree, however, he took at Edinburgh. He was (and this is notable) the youngest and seventh son of Mr. James Kirk, minister of Aberfoyle, the place familiar to all readers of Rob Roy. As a seventh son, he was, no doubt, specially gifted, and in The Secret Commonwealth he lays some stress on […] By his first wife he had a son, Colin Kirk, W.S.; by his second wife, a son who was minister of Dornoch. He died (if he did die, which is disputed) in 1692, aged about fifty-one; his tomb was inscribed —

Linguæ Hiberniæ Lumen.

The tomb, in Scott’s time, was to be seen in the cast end of the churchyard of Aberfoyle; but the ashes of Mr. Kirk are not there. His successor, the Rev. Dr. Grahame, in his Sketches of Picturesque Scenery, informs us that, as Mr. Kirk was walking on a dun-shi, or fairy-hill, in his neighbourhood, he sunk down in a swoon, which was taken for death. ” After the ceremony of a seeming funeral,” writes Scott, “the form of the Rev. Robert Kirk appeared to a relation, and commanded him to go to Grahame of Duchray. ‘Say to Duchray, who is my cousin as well as your own, that I am not dead, but a captive in Fairyland; and only one chance remains for my liberation. When the posthumous child, of which my wife has been delivered since my disappearance, shall be brought to baptism, I will appear in the room, when, if Duchray shall throw over my head the knife or dirk which he holds in his hand, I may be restored to society; but if this is neglected, I am lost for ever.'” True to his tryst, Mr. Kirk did appear at the christening and “was visibly seen;” but Duchray was so astonished that he did not throw his dirk over the head of the appearance, and to society Mr. Kirk has not yet been restored. This is extremely to be regretted, as he could now add matter of much importance to his treatise. Neither history nor tradition has more to tell about Mr. Robert Kirk, who seems to have been a man of good family, a student, and, as his book shows, an innocent and learned person. [3]

The form that fell down as if in death upon Aberfoyle’s Fairy Knowe was thought then to have been a “stock” or “fetch” or “waff”: a mere magical facsimile of Kirk, created by the fairies to trick mortals into believing he had died while he was in fact in the Other Lands. [4]

Besides washing-up then, what do these humans do while they’re in Faerie? Well, many seem to spend an awful lot of time dancing.

It is, of course, to be noted that the modern Greek superstition of the Nereids, who carry off mortal girls to dance with them till they pine away, answers to some of our Fairy legends. [5]

Again, these are the words of Andrew Lang in his introductory notes to The Secret Commonwealth. “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” (or “The Worn-Out Dancing Shoes” or “The Shoes that were Danced to Pieces“) is a German fairy tale originally published by the Brothers Grimm in 1812. In the story the princesses all sleep every night in the same locked room. Every morning, much to the confusion of the staff and their father the king, their dancing shoes are found to be worn through. This, it transpires is because every night the princesses sneak through a trapdoor in their bedroom floor down into the Fairy Realm where they travel to a fairy castle and dance with twelve fairy princes. Once discovered and proved this leads to the fae princes each being cursed for the same length of time they kept the young women dancing.

According to Mrs. Ella Mary Leather’s 1913 collection The Folklore and Witchcraft of Herefordshire, girls were still dancing themselves (almost) to death in Faerie in the late 19th century. A seventy five year old woman told Mrs. Leather that she remembered her mother telling of a first cousin of hers who was so passionately fond of dancing she who would visit any dance she heard of and could get to. One evening the young woman was walking home from such an occasion when she heard beautiful music coming from within a fairy ring (elferingewort “elf-ring” in Middle English, ronds de sorciers “sorcerers’ rings” in French, and Hexenringe “witches’ rings” in German). Dancing into the ring, she immediately disappeared. Guessing what must have happened to her dance-crazed daughter, the mother knew that the only way to get her back was to wait outside the ring exactly one year after the vanishing. This she did and when her child reappeared suddenly within the ring the mother seized her in silence (so as not to bring herself to the attention of the fairies) and dragged her back into England. The young woman thought less than a day had elapsed – time in Faerie passing much slower than it does in our own realm. Mrs. Leather was told that the young woman went to work as a shop assistant in the market town of Kington, but was for the rest of her life prone to seeing fairies who would, apparently, steal from the shop. Though she warned the fairies they would be found out, the woman was careful not to say that she could see them in case, as in the tale of the Fairy Ointment, she was subsequently blinded by them. [6]

In Strange & Norrell, just as in tragic “true” tales such as those of Robertus Kirk and the dancing girl of Kington, Fairy Tale endings cannot be counted on it seems. In a letter to Mr. John Murray, on December 31st, 1816 (possibly unsent), the practical magician Jonathan Strange wrote:

Stories of magicians freeing captives from Faerie are few and far between. I cannot now recall a single one. Somewhere in one of his books Martin Pale describes how fairies can grow tired of their human guests and expel them without warning from the brugh; the poor captives find themselves back home, but hundreds of years after they left it.

Whether little Anne Bloodworth ever made it back to England remains unrecorded.

*See also Fairy Milk & Alien Smoothies: Excerpt from Joshua Cutchin’s ‘A Trojan Feast’ here on Daily Grail.

Read on to Part IV: Magic and Madness


[1] W. B. Yeats (1888) Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry
[2] Joseph Jacobs (1890) English Fairy Tales
[3] Robert Kirk and Andrew Lang (1893) The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies
[4] Marc Alexander (2002) A Companion to the Folklore Myths and Customs of Britain
[5] Robert Kirk and Andrew Lang (1893) The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies
[6] Jennifer Westwood and Jacqueline Simpson (2006) The Lore of the Land

Contributing Editor
  1. My wife is highly subject to
    My wife is highly subject to the spell of dancing when a live band is present. She literally goes into a sort of trance that will not be denied. Music alone can be a hell of a spell.

  2. What wonderful articles. This
    What wonderful articles. This gives us so much historical background for the Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell book and television series. I’m thankful that the Lost Hope podcast contained an interview with you so that I learned about this site and your articles. I love learning about the history of folktales and their impact on our culture both old and new.

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