I came across an interesting paper from Katharine Mary Briggs — it was her Presidential Address to the Folklore Society in 1970 — about the connection between fairies and the dead. As the person who shared this link wrote, “fairy” is short for “Fair Folk”, where “fair” perhaps means “pale” more than it does “beautiful”. Pale, like ghosts.
Anyway, Dr. Briggs’ address covers the connection (and perhaps interchangability) between fairies and ghosts, Fairyland and the Realm of the Dead, in early folk beliefs and various folktales of the British Isles. Among the many tales she references is one that’s especially appropriate for this time of the year. It’s called “November Eve”, by Oscar Wilde’s mother, Jane Francesca Agnes Wilde (or Lady Wilde, as she is known). All Hallow’s Eve, the evening before All Soul’s Day, is the night when the dead come back to visit — and according to this story, they celebrate with the fairies, too.
It is esteemed a very wrong thing amongst the islanders to be about on November Eve, minding any business, for the fairies have their flitting then, and do not like to be seen or watched; and all the spirits come to meet them and help them. But mortal people should keep at home, or they will suffer for it; for the souls of the dead have power over all things on that one night of the year; and they hold a festival with the fairies, and drink red wine from the fairy cups, and dance to fairy music till the moon goes down.
There was a man of the village who stayed out late one November Eve fishing, and never thought of the fairies until he saw a great number of dancing lights, and a crowd of people hurrying past with baskets and bags, and all laughing and singing and making merry as they went along.
“You are a merry set,” he said, “where are ye all going to?”
“We are going to the fair,” said a little old man with a cocked hat and a gold band round it. “Come with us, Hugh King, and you will have the finest food and the finest drink you ever set eyes upon.”
“And just carry this basket for me,” said a little red-haired woman.
So Hugh took it, and went with them till they came to the fair, which was filled with a crowd of people he had never seen on the island in all his days. And they danced and laughed and drank red wine from little cups. And there were pipers, and harpers, and little cobblers mending shoes, and all the most beautiful things in the world to eat and drink, just as if they were in a king’s palace. But the basket was very heavy, and Hugh longed to drop it, that he might go and dance with a little beauty with long yellow hair, that was laughing up close to his face.
“Well, here put down the basket,” said the red-haired woman, “for you are quite tired, I see;” and she took it and opened the cover, and out came a little old man, the ugliest, most misshapen little imp that could be imagined.
“Ah, thank you, Hugh,” said the imp, quite politely; “you have carried me nicely; for I am weak on the limbs—indeed I have nothing to speak of in the way of legs: but I’ll pay you well, my fine fellow; hold out your two hands,” and the little imp poured down gold and gold and gold into them, bright golden guineas. “Now go,” said he, “and drink my health, and make yourself quite pleasant, and don’t be afraid of anything you see and hear.”
So they all left him, except the man with the cocked hat and the red sash round his waist.
“Wait here now a bit,” says he, “for Finvarra, the king, is coming, and his wife, to see the fair.”
As he spoke, the sound of a horn was heard, and up drove a coach and four white horses, and out of it stepped a grand, grave gentleman all in black and a beautiful lady with a silver veil over her face.
“Here is Finvarra himself and the queen,” said the little old man; but Hugh was ready to die of fright when Finvarra asked—
“What brought this man here?”
And the king frowned and looked so black that Hugh nearly fell to the ground with fear. Then they all laughed, and laughed so loud that everything seemed shaking and tumbling down from the laughter. And the dancers came up, and they all danced round Hugh, and tried to take his hands to make him dance with them.
“Do you know who these people are; and the men and women who are dancing round you?” asked the old man. “Look well, have you ever seen them before?”
And when Hugh looked he saw a girl that had died the year before, then another and another of his friends that he knew had died long ago; and then he saw that all the dancers, men, women, and girls, were the dead in their long, white shrouds. And he tried to escape from them, but could not, for they coiled round him, and danced and laughed and seized his arms, and tried to draw him into the dance, and their laugh seemed to pierce through his brain and kill him. And he fell down before them there, like one faint from sleep, and knew no more till he found himself next morning lying within the old stone circle by the fairy rath on the hill. Still it was all true that he had been with the fairies; no one could deny it, for his arms were all black with the touch of the hands of the dead, the time they had tried to draw him into the dance; but not one bit of all the red gold, which the little imp had given him, could he find in his pocket. Not one single golden piece; it was all gone for evermore.
And Hugh went sadly to his home, for now he knew that the spirits had mocked him and punished him, because he troubled their revels on November Eve—that one night of all the year when the dead can leave their graves and dance in the moonlight on the hill, and mortals should stay at home and never dare to look on them.
Top image: Come unto These Yellow Sands, Richard Dadd, 1842. Source: Wikimedia
Bottom image: The Court of Faerie: Her chariot ready straight is made, Thomas Maybank, 1906. Source: Wikimedia