The Science of Fairy Tales/Chapter 12
Retrospect—The fairies of Celtic and Teutonic races of the same nature as the supernatural beings celebrated in the traditions of other nations—All superstitions of supernatural beings explicable by reference to the conceptions of savages—Liebrecht's Ghost Theory of some Swan-maiden myths—MacRitchie's Finn Theory—The amount of truth in them—Both founded on too narrow an induction—Conclusion.
We have in the preceding pages examined some of the principal groups of tales and superstitions relating to Fairies proper,—that is to say, the Elves and Fays of Celtic and Teutonic tradition.
Dealing in the first instance with the sagas found in this country, or in Germany, our investigations have by no means ended there; for in order to understand these sagas, we have found occasion to refer again and again to the märchen, as well as the sagas, of other European nations,—nay, to the traditions of races as wide apart from our own in geographical position and culture, as the South Sea Islanders, the Ainos, and the Aborigines of America. And we have found among peoples in the most distant parts of the globe similar stories and superstitions. Incidentally, too, we have learned something of the details of archaic practices, and have found the two great divisions of Tradition,—belief and practice,—inseparably interwoven.
I do not pretend to have touched upon all the myths referring to Fairies, as thus strictly defined; and the Kobolds and Puck, the Household Spirits and Mischievous Demons, have scarcely been so much as mentioned. Want of space forbids our going further. It is hoped, however, that enough has been said, not merely to give the readers an idea of the Fairy Mythology correct as far as it goes, but, beyond that, to vindicate the method pursued in the investigation, as laid down in our second chapter, by demonstrating the essential identity of human imagination all over the world, and by tracing the stories with which we have been dealing to a more barbarous state of society and a more archaic plane of thought. It now remains, therefore, to recall what we have ascertained concerning the nature and origin of the Fairies, and briefly to consider two rival theories.
We started from some of the ascertained facts of savage thought and savage life. The doctrine of Spirits formed our first proposition. This we defined to be the belief held by savages that man consists of body and spirit; that it is possible for the spirit to quit the body and roam at will in different shapes about the world, returning to the body as to its natural home; that in the spirit's absence the body sleeps, and that it dies if the spirit return not; further, that the universe swarms with spirits embodied and disembodied, because everything in the world has a spirit, and all these spirits are analogues of the human spirit, having the same will and acting from the same motives; and that if by chance any of these spirits be ejected from its body, it may continue to exist without a body, or it may find and enter a new body, not necessarily such an one as it occupied before, but one quite different. The doctrine of Transformation was another of our premises: that is to say, the belief held by savages in the possibility of a change of form while preserving the same identity. A third premise was the belief in Witchcraft, or the power of certain persons to cause the transformations just mentioned, and to perform by means of spells, or symbolic actions and mystical words, various other feats beyond ordinary human power. And there were others to which I need not now refer, all of which were assumed to be expressed in the tales and songs, and in the social and political institutions, of savages. Along with these, we assumed the hypothesis of the evolution of civilization from savagery. By this I mean that just as the higher orders of animal and vegetable life have been developed from germs which appeared on this planet incalculable ages ago; so during a past of unknown length the civilization of the highest races of men has been gradually evolving through the various stages of savagery and barbarism up to what we know it to-day; and so every nation, no matter how barbarous, has arisen from a lower stage than that in which it is found, and is on its way, if left to its natural processes, to something higher and better. This is an hypothesis which does not, of course, exclude the possibility of temporary and partial relapses, such as we know have taken place in the history of every civilized country, any more than it excludes the possibility of the decay and death of empires; but upon the whole it claims that progress and not retrogression is the law of human society. The different stages of this progress have everywhere left their mark on the tales and songs, the sayings and superstitions, the social, religious and political institutions—in other words, on the belief and practice—of mankind.
Starting from these premises, we have examined five groups, or cycles, of tales concerning the Fairy Mythology. We have found Fairyland very human in its organization. Its inhabitants marry, sometimes among themselves, sometimes into mankind. They have children born to them; and they require at such times female assistance. They steal children from men, and leave their own miserable brats in exchange; they steal women, and sometimes leave in their stead blocks of wood, animated by magical art, or sometimes one of themselves. In the former case the animation does not usually last very long, and the women is then supposed to die. Their females sometimes in turn become captive to men. Unions thus formed are, however, not lasting, until the husband has followed the wife to her own home, and conquered his right to her afresh by some great adventure. This is not always in the story: presumably, therefore, not always possible. On the other hand, he who enters Fairyland and partakes of fairy food is spell-bound: he cannot return—at least for many years, perhaps for ever—to the land of men. Fairies are grateful to men for benefits conferred, and resentful for injuries. They never fail to reward those who do them a kindness; but their gifts usually have conditions attached, which detract from their value and sometimes become a source of loss and misery. Nor do they forget to revenge themselves on those who offend them; and to watch them, when they do not desire to be manifested, is a mortal offence. Their chief distinction from men is in their unbounded magical powers, whereof we have had several illustrations. They make things seem other than they are; they appear and disappear at will; they make long time seem short, or short time long; they change their own forms; they cast spells over mortals, and keep them spell-bound for ages.
All these customs and all these powers are asserted of the Fairies properly so called. And when we look at the superstitions of other races than the Celts and Teutons, to which our inquiries have been primarily directed, we find the same things asserted of all sorts of creatures. Deities, ancestors, witches, ghosts, as well as animals of every kind, are endowed by the belief of nations all over the world with powers precisely similar to those of the Fairies, and with natures and social organizations corresponding with those of men. These beliefs can only be referred to the same origin as the fairy superstitions; and all arise out of the doctrine of spirits, the doctrine of transformations, and the belief in witchcraft, held by savage tribes.
But here I must, at the risk of some few repetitions, notice a theory on the subject of the Swan-maiden myth enunciated by Liebrecht. That distinguished writer, in his book on Folklore, devotes a section to the consideration of the group which has occupied us in the last two chapters, and maintains, with his accustomed wealth of allusion and his accustomed ingenuity, that some at least of the Swan-maidens are nothing more nor less than ghosts of the departed, rescued from the kingdom of darkness for a while, but bound to return thither after a short respite here with those whom they love. Now it is clear that if Swan-maiden tales are to be resolved into ghost stories, all other supernatural beings, gods and devils as well as fairies and ghosts, will turn out to be nothing but spectres of the dead. A summary of his argument, and of the reasons for rejecting it, will, therefore, not only fill up any serious gaps in our discussion of the main incidents of the myth in question; but it will take a wider sweep, and include the whole subject of the present volume.
His argument, as I understand it, is based, first, on the terms of the taboo. The object of the taboo, he thinks, is to avoid any remark being made, any question being asked, any object being presented, which would remind these spirits of their proper home, and awaken a longing they cannot withstand to return. There is an old Teutonic legend of a knight who came in a little boat drawn by a swan to succour and wed a distressed lady, on whom he laid a charge never to ask whence he came, or in what country he was born. When she breaks this commandment the swan reappears and fetches him away. So the nightmare-wife, as we have seen, in one of the tales vanishes on being asked how she became a nightmare. Again, the fay of Argouges disappears on the name of Death being mentioned in her presence. A fair maiden in an Indian tale, who is found by the hero in the neighbourhood of a fountain, and bears the name of Bhekî (Frog), forbids her husband ever to let her see water. When she is thirsty and begs him for water, the doom is fulfilled on his bringing it to her. A similar tale may be added from Ireland, though Liebrecht does not mention it. A man who lived near Lough Sheelin, in County Meath, was annoyed by having his corn eaten night after night. So he sat up to watch; and to his astonishment a number of horses came up out of the lake driven by a most beautiful woman, whom he seized and induced to marry him. She made the stipulation that she was never to be allowed to see the lake again; and for over twenty years she lived happily with him, till one day she strolled out to look at the haymakers, and caught sight of the distant water. With a loud cry she flew straight to it, and vanished beneath the surface.
Liebrecht's next reason is based upon the place where the maiden is found,—a forest, or a house in the forest. In this connection he refers to the tavern, or drinking-shop, on the borders of the forest, where Wild Edric found his bride, and points to a variant of the story, also given by Walter Map, in which she is said, in so many words, to have been snatched from the dead. The forest, he fancies, is the place of the dead, the underworld. Lastly, he gives numerous legends of the Middle Ages,—some of which found their way into the "Decameron," that great storehouse of floating tales, and other literary works of imagination, as well as into chronicles,—and instances from more modern folklore, wherein a mistress or wife dies, or seems to die, and is buried, yet is afterwards recovered from the tomb, and lives to wed, if a maiden, and to bear children. He supports these by references to the vampire superstitions, and to the case of Osiris, who returned after death to Isis and became the father of Horus. And, following Uhland, he compares the sleepthorn, with which Odin pricked the Valkyrie, Brynhild, and so put her into a magic slumber, to the stake which was driven into the corpse suspected of being a vampire, to prevent its rising any more from the grave and troubling the living.
Now it may be admitted that there is much that is plausible, much even that is true, in this theory. It might be urged in its behalf that (as we have had more than one occasion in the course of this work to know) Fairyland is frequently not to be distinguished from the world of the dead. Time is not known there; and the same consequences of permanent abode follow upon eating the food of the dead and the food of the fairies. Further, when living persons are stolen by fairies, mere dead images are sometimes left in their place. These arguments, and such as these, might well be added to Liebrecht's; and it would be hard to say that a formidable case was not made out. And yet the theory fails to take account of some rather important considerations. Perhaps the strongest point made—a point insisted on with great power—is that of the taboo. The case of the lady of Argouges is certainly very striking, though, taken by itself, it is far from conclusive. It might very well be that a supernatural being, in remaining here, would be obliged to submit to mortality, contrary perhaps to its nature; and to remind it of this might fill it with an irresistible impulse to fly from so horrible a fate. I do not say this is the explanation, but it is as feasible as the other. In the Spanish story it was not the utterance of the name of Death, but of a holy name—the name of Mary—which compelled the wife to leave her husband. Here she was unquestionably regarded by Spanish orthodoxy, not as a spirit of the dead, but as a foul fiend, able to assume what bodily form it would, but bound to none. The prohibition of inquiry as to the bride's former home may arise not so much from a desire to avoid the recollection, as from the resentment of impertinent curiosity, which we have seen arouses excessive annoyance in supernatural bosoms. The resentment of equally impertinent reproaches, or a reminiscence of savage etiquette that avoids the direct name, may account at least as well for other forms of the taboo. Liebrecht suggests most ingeniously that assault and battery must strike the unhappy elf still more strongly than reproaches, as a difference between her present and former condition, and remind her still more importunately of her earlier home, and that this explains the prohibition of the "three causeless blows." It may be so, though there is no hint of this in the stories; and yet her former condition need not have been that of a ghost of the dead, nor her earlier home the tomb. By far the greater number of these stories represent the maiden as a water-nymph; but it is the depths of the earth rather than the water which are commonly regarded as the dwelling-place of the departed. Moreover, the correspondence I have tried to point out between the etiquette of various peoples and the taboo,—such, for instance, as the ban upon a husband's breaking into his wife's seclusion at a delicate moment in his family history,—would remain, on Liebrecht's theory, purely accidental. Nor would the theory account for the absence of a taboo in the lower savagery, nor for the totemistic character of the lady, nor, least of all, for the peltry which is the most picturesque, if not the most important, incident in this group of tales.
In fact, the only direct evidence for Liebricht's contention is the variant of Wild Edric's legend alluded to by Map. His words are, speaking of Alnoth, Edric's son, a great benefactor of the see of Hereford: "The man whose mother vanished into air openly in the sight of many persons, being indignant at her husband's reproaching her that he had carried her off by force from among the dead (quod eam a mortuis rapuisset)." Upon this it is to be observed that the expression here made use of cannot be regarded as one which had accidentally dropped out of the narrative previously given; but it is an allusion to an independent and inconsistent version, given in forgetfulness that the writer had already in another part of his work related the story at large and with comments. There he had explicitly called Alnoth—the heir and offspring of a devil (dæmon), and had expressed his wonder that such a person should have given up his whole inheritance (namely, the manor of Ledbury North, which he made over to the see of Hereford in gratitude for the miraculous cure of his palsy) to Christ in return for his restored health, and spent the rest of his life as a pilgrim. Mediæval writers (especially ecclesiastics) were in a difficulty in describing fairies. They looked upon them as having an objective existence; and yet they knew not how to classify them. Fairies were certainly neither departed saints nor holy angels. Beside these two kinds of spirits, the only choice left was between devils and ghosts of the wicked dead, or, at most, of the dead who had no claims to extraordinary goodness. They did not believe in any other creatures which could be identified with these mysterious elves. It is no wonder, therefore, if they were occasionally perplexed, occasionally inconsistent, sometimes denouncing them as devils, at other times dismissing them as ghosts.
This is what seems to have happened to Map. In the two chapters immediately preceding, he has given two legends illustrating each horn of the dilemma. One of these relates the marriage of Henno With-the-Teeth, who found a lovely maiden in a grove on the coast of Normandy. She was sitting alone, apparelled in royal silk, and weeping. Her beauty and her tears attracted the gallant knight, to whom, in response to his questions, she told a cock-and-bull story about her father having brought her, all unwilling as she was, by sea to be married to the King of France; but having been driven by a storm on the shore, she said she had landed, and then her father had taken advantage of a sudden change of wind to sail away, leaving her to her fate. Henno was an easy conquest: he took her home and married her. Unluckily, however, he had a mother who had her suspicions. She noticed that her fair daughter-in-law, though she went often to church, always upon some trumpery excuse came late, so as to avoid being sprinkled with holy water, and as regularly left before the consecration of the elements. So this virtuous old vixen determined to watch one Sunday morning; and she discovered that after Henno had gone to church, his wife, transformed into a serpent, entered a bath, and in a little while, issuing upon a cloth which her maid had spread out for her, she tore it into pieces with her teeth before resuming human form. The maid afterwards went through the like performance, her mistress waiting upon her. All this was in due course confided to Henno, who, in company with a priest, unexpectedly burst in the next time upon his wife and her servant, and sprinkled them with holy water. Mistress and maid thereupon with a great yell bounded out through the roof and disappeared.
Clearly these ladies were devils: no other creatures with self-respect would be guilty of such transformations and such constant disregard of the proprieties at church. Ghosts get their turn in Map's other narrative. It concerns a man whose wife had died. After sorrowing long for her death, he found her one night in a deep and solitary dale amid a number of women. With great joy he seized her, and, carrying her off, lived with her again for many years and had a numerous progeny. Not a few of her descendants were living when Map wrote, and were known as the children of the dead woman. This, of course, is not a Swan-maiden story at all. At the end of Chapter V. I have referred to some similar tales; and what we learned during our discussion of the subject of Changelings may lead us to suspect that we have here in an imperfect form a story of the exchange of an adult woman for a lifeless image, and her recovery from the hands of her ravishers. This is by no means the same plot as that of the stories recounted by Liebrecht in which the wife or the betrothed is rescued from the grave. Those stories, at least in warm climates where burials are hurried, and in rude ages when medical skill is comparatively undeveloped, are all within the bounds of possibility. There does not appear in them any trace of mythology,—hardly even of the supernatural; and he would be a bold man who would deny that a substratum of fact may not underlie some of them. To establish their relationship with the group we are now considering, links of a much more evident character are wanting. The fact that they are traditional is not of itself sufficient. The fairy of the Forest of Dean had not revived after death, or supposed death; nor had she been recovered from supernatural beings who had stolen her away. Map's account, to whatever his expression from the dead may point, is inconsistent with either the one or the other. Rather she was stolen from her own kindred, to become the wife of him who had won her by his own right arm.
But a single instance, and that instance either inconsistent with the analogous traditions, or unable to supply a cogent or consistent explanation of them, is not is inconsistent even with the theory itself? Indeed, if it were consistent with the theory, we might match it with another instance wholly irreconcilable. Mikáilo Ivanovitch in the Russian ballad marries a Swan-maiden, who, unlike some of the ladies just mentioned, insists upon being first baptized into the Christian faith. She makes the stipulation that when the one of them dies the other shall go living into the grave with the dead, and there abide for three months. She herself dies. Mikáilo enters the grave with her, and there conquers a dragon which comes to feast on the dead bodies. The dragon is compelled to fetch the waters of life and death, by means of which the hero brings his dead love back to life. Marya, the White Swan, however, proved herself so ungrateful that after awhile she took another husband, and twice she acted the part of Delilah to Mikáilo. The third time she tried it he was compelled in self-defence to put an end to her wiles by cutting off her head. This is honest, downright death. There is no mistaking it. But then it is impossible that Marya, the White Swan, was a mere ghost filched from the dead and eager to return. Yet the story of Marya is equally a Swan-maiden story, and is just as good to build a theory on as Map's variant of Wild Edric.very safe basis for a theory. What is it worth when it
In replying, however, to the arguments of so learned and acute a writer as Liebrecht, it is not enough to point out these distinctions and inconsistencies: it is not enough to show that the terms of the taboo do not warrant the construction he has put upon them, nor that he has failed to account for very significant incidents. If he has mistaken the meaning of the legends, we should be able to make clear the source of his error. It arises, I hold, from an imperfect apprehension of the archaic philosophy underlying the narratives. Liebrecht's comparisons are, with one exception, limited to European variants. His premises were thus too narrow to admit of his making valid deductions. Perhaps even yet we are hardly in a position to do this; but at all events the sources of possible error are diminished by the wider area we are able to survey, and from the evidence of which we reason. We have compared the stories, both mediæval and modern, mentioned by Liebrecht, with märchen and sagas told among nations outside European influence in various degrees of civilization, down to the savagery of Kaffirs and Dyaks. We have succeeded in classifying their differences, and in spite of them we have found all the tales in substantial agreement. They are all built on the same general plan; the same backbone of thought runs through them; and between them all there is no greater divergence than that which in the physical realm separates mammal from bird, or bird from reptile. It is inevitable to conclude that even the most recently discovered folktale of them has come to us from a distant period when our forefathers were in the same rude state as Dyaks and South Sea Islanders. No actual adventure of Wild Edric or Raymond of Lusignan gave rise to these stories. English patriot and Burgundian Count were only the names whereon they fastened,—the mountains which towered above the plain and gathered about their heads the vapours already floating in the atmosphere. We must therefore go back far beyond the Middle Ages to learn in what manner we are to understand these stories,—back to the state of savagery whence the inhabitants of Europe had long emerged when Map and Gervase wrote, but of which the relics linger among us even yet.
The necessarily meagre exposition of some of the most salient characteristics of savage thought with which we started has been illustrated and its outlines filled in to some extent in the course of the subsequent discussions. I need not, therefore, do more than draw attention as briefly as possible to those characteristics that are relevant here. First and foremost, we have found some of the Swan-maiden tales boldly professing to account for the worship of totems; and so thoroughly does totemism appear to be ingrained in the myth that there is some reason for thinking that here we have a clue to the myth's origin and meaning. But the intellect to which totemism is a credible theory draws no line of demarcation between humanity and the life and consciousness it recognizes in the whole encircling universe. To it, accordingly, a story of union between a man and a fish, a swan or a serpent, involves no difficulty. When advancing knowledge, and with knowledge repulsion from such a story, begins to threaten it, another belief advances to its defence. For nothing is easier to creatures as clever as the lower animals than a change of form. They can, whenever they please, assume the appearance of man or woman: it is as natural to them as the shape under which they are usually seen. Again, the life that swarms about the savage philosopher does not always manifest itself visibly. It is often unseen. The world is filled with spirits, of whom some have inhabited human bodies, others have not. To the savage they are all alike; for those who have not hitherto inhabited human bodies may do so at will, or may inhabit other bodies, either animal or vegetable, and those who have once done so may do so again.
All these—Totemism, the equality and essential identity of nature between man and all other objects in the universe, the doctrine of Transformation, the doctrine of Spirits—are phases of savage thought, every one of which has been incorporated in the myth of the Swan-maidens, and every one of which, except one special and very limited development of the doctrine of Spirits, is ignored in Liebrecht's theory. The theory is, indeed, an admirable illustration of the danger of reasoning without a sufficiently wide area of induction. Liebrecht's mistake on the present occasion was twofold: he only dealt with one or, at most, two types of the myth; and he ignored the savage variants. Had he taken into consideration other types—such as Hasan, the Marquis of the Sun, the Star's Daughter;—had he been aware of the savage variants all over the world,he would not have formed a theory so inconsistent with the facts, and so little fitted to solve the problems propounded, not merely by the phenomena of the Swan-maiden group, but by those of other tales in which supernatural beings intervene.
In reasoning by induction, the greater the number of facts taken into account, the greater the probability of sound reasoning; and therefore the greater the number of facts a theory will explain, the more likely it is to be true. Had Liebrecht's theory touched only the Swan-maiden group, it would have been more convenient to discuss it in the last chapter. But inasmuch as its truth would involve much wider issues, it seemed better to reserve it to be dealt with here. For if the theory be valid for Melusina, the Lady of the Van Pool, and other water-nymphs, it is valid also for the "water-woman" who, in a Transylvanian story, dwelt in a lake in the forest between Mehburg and Reps. She had two sons, whose father was a man, and the younger of whom became king of that land. But when the Saxon immigration took place the incomers cut down the wood; the lake dried up, and as it dried up, the lives of the water-spirit and her son gradually sank lower and lower, and at last were extinguished with the extinction of the lake. Now I will venture to say that this story is to be explained satisfactorily on no theory yet broached, unless it be the theory that we have in it a survival of the savage doctrine of Spirits. Least of all it is to be explained by any adaptation of what I may call the Ghost theory,—namely, that the water-spirit and her son were already the spirits of dead human beings.
Leaving this one example of the value of Liebrecht's theory, as applied to water-spirits, to stand for all, I turn to another order of beings with supernatural powers referred to several times in the foregoing pages: I mean Witches. I adduced in Chapter X. a Tirolese tale, a variant of the Melusina type, wherein the wife was a witch. It will have been obvious to every reader that the tale is simply that of Cupid and Psyche with the parts reversed; and I might urge that Cupid and the witch were beings of precisely the same nature. Waiving this for the moment, however, no one will deny that the witch takes the place of the Swan-maiden, or fairy, in other stories of the group. But perhaps it may be suggested that the name witch (Angana, Hexe) has got into the story by accident; and that not a witch in our sense of the word, but a ghost from the dead, is really meant. There might be something to be said for this if there were any substantial distinction to be made between ghosts and witches and fairies. In the tales and superstitions discussed in the present volume we have found no distinction. Whether it be child-stealing, transformation, midnight meetings, possession and gift of enchanted objects, spell-binding, or whatever function, or habit, or power be predicted of one, it will be found to be common to the three. I conclude, therefore, that they are all three of the same nature. This is what a consideration of the superstitions of savages would lead me to expect. The belief in fairies, ghosts, and witches is a survival of those superstitions. It is, of course, not found in equal coherence, equal strength of all its parts, equal logic (if I may so express it) everywhere. We must not be surprised if, as it is gradually penetrated by the growing forces of civilization, it becomes fragmentary, and the attributes of these various orders of supernatural beings begin to be differentiated. They are never completely so; and the proof of this is that what is at one place, at one time, or by one people, ascribed to one order, is at another place, at another time, or by another people, ascribed to another order. The nature of the classical deities was identical too; and hence Cupid and the witch of the Tirolese tale are the masculine and feminine counterparts of the same conception.
Lastly, a few words must be expended on a totally different theory lately put forward by Mr. MacRitchie. This theory is not altogether a new one; it has been before the world for many years. But Mr. MacRitchie has, first in "The Archæological Review," and since then more elaborately in a separate book, entitled "The Testimony of Tradition," worked it out and fortified it with an array of arguments philological, historical, topographical, and traditional. He claims to have established that the fairies of the Celtic and Teutonic races are neither more nor less than the prehistoric tribes whom they conquered and drove back, and whose lands they now possess. He identifies these mysterious beings with the Picts of Scotland, the Feinne of the Scottish Highlands and of Ireland, and the Finns and Lapps of Scandinavia. And he suggests that the Eskimo, the Ainos, and I know not what other dwarfish races, are relics of the same people; while Santa Klaus, the patron saint of children, is only a tradition of the wealthy and beneficent character borne by this ill-used folk. Primarily his arguments are concerned with Scotland and Ireland. He builds much on the howes or barrows, called in Scotland Picts' houses, which in both countries bear the reputation of being the haunt of fairies or dwarfs, and some of which seem to have been in fact dwelling-places. He quotes Dr. Karl Blind to show that Finns intermarried with the Shetlanders, and that they were believed to come over in the form of seals, casting aside their sealskins when they landed. In this connection he relates how the Finn women were captured by taking possession of their sealskins, without which they could not get away from their captors. He also shows that illimitable riches and magical powers were ascribed to the Picts and to the Finns, and that the Lapps were pre-eminent in witchcraft.
I shall leave it to Celtic [scholars to deal with Mr. MacRitchie's remarkable etymologies and with his historical arguments, confining myself to one or two observations on the traditional aspect of the theory. Now I should be the last to undervalue any traces of history to be found in tradition. I have elsewhere drawn attention to the importance of the study of this element in folk-tales; and I am quite ready to admit that nothing is more likely than the transfer to the mythical beings of Celtic superstition of some features derived from alien races. Savages and barbarians are in the habit of imputing to strangers and foes in greatly extended measure the might of witchcraft they claim for themselves. And the wider the differences between themselves and the foreigners, the more mysterious to them are the habits and appearance of the latter, and the more powerful do they believe them. All this might account for many details that we are told concerning the dwarfs, the Picts, the Finns, or by whatever other names the elvish race may have been known to Scots and Irishmen. But further than this I cannot go with Mr. MacRitchie. I hold his error, like that of Liebrecht already discussed, to be founded on too narrow an induction. This volume will have been written in vain, as it appears that for Mr. MacRitchie the vastly more important works of Dr. Tylor and Mr. Andrew Lang have been written in vain, unless I have made it clear that the myths of nations all over the world follow one general law and display common characteristics. I am not astonished to find the Shetland tale of marriage with a seal-woman reproduced on the Gold Coast and among the Dyaks of Borneo. But Mr. MacRitchie ought to be very much astonished; for he can hardly show that the historical Finns were known in these out-of-the-way places. It seems to me natural to find that in Scotland and Ireland fairies dwelt in barrows, and in Annam and Arabia in hills and rocks; and that both in this country and in the far East they inveigled unhappy mortals into their dwellings and kept them for generations—nay, for centuries. That the Shoshone of California should dread their infants being changed by the Ninumbees, or dwarfs, in the same way as the Celts of the British Islands, and the Teutons too, dreaded their infants being changed, does not seem at all incredible to me. That to eat the food of the dead in New Zealand prevents a living man from returning to the land of the living, just as Persephone was retained in Hades by partaking of the pomegranate, and just as to eat the food of fairies hinders the Manx or the Hebrew adventurer from rejoining his friends on the surface of the earth, is in no way perplexing to me. But all these things, and they might be multiplied indefinitely, must be very perplexing to Mr. MacRitchie, if he be not prepared to prove that Annamites and Arabs, Hebrews and Shoshone, New Zealanders and classical Greeks alike, were acquainted with the Picts and the Finns, and alike celebrated them in their traditions.
The truth Mr. MacRitchie does not reckon with is, that no theory will explain the nature and origin of the fairy superstitions which does not also explain the nature and origin of every other supernatural being worshipped or dreaded by uncivilized mankind throughout the world. And until he shall address himself to this task, however ingenious his guesses, however amusing his philology, however delightfully wild his literary and historical arguments, he will not succeed in convincing any serious student.
Here then we must pause. Obvious are the differences between the nations of mankind: differences of physical conformation,—that is to say, of race; divergences of mental and moral development,—that is to say, of civilization. Hitherto the task attempted by folklore has been to show that underlying all these differences there is a broad foundation of common agreement; that distinctions of race do not extend to mental and moral constitution; that the highest nation on the ladder of culture has climbed from the same rung on which the lowest are yet standing; and that the absurd and incongruous customs and institutions and the equally absurd and impossible stories and beliefs found imbedded in the civilization of the more advanced nations are explicable, and explicable only, as relics of the phases wherethrough those nations have passed from the depths of savagery.
If it be admitted in general terms that the evidence collected and marshalled up to the present time has established among sure scientific facts so much of the past of humanity, this achievement is but the beginning of toil. A wide field has been opened to the student for the collection and arrangement of details, before the true meaning of many a strange custom and stranger tale will be thoroughly understood. I have tried to do something of the kind in the foregoing pages. But beyond this there is the more delicate investigation of the ethnic element in folklore. Can we assign to the various races their special shares in the development of a common tradition? Can we show what direction each race took, and how and why it modified the general inheritance?
On the other hand, it is not asserted that the status of savagery was the primitive condition of men. Of course it may have been. But if not, there is work to be done in endeavouring to ascertain what lies behind it. The questions started from this point wander across the border of folklore into pure psychology; but it is a psychology based not upon introspection and analysis of the mind of the civilized man, developed under the complex influences that have been acting and reacting during untold years of upward struggling, always arduous and often cruel, but a psychology which must be painfully reconstructed from the simplest and most archaic phenomena disclosed by anthropological research. Who can say what light may not thus be thrown as well on the destiny as on the origin of mankind?
- Liebrecht, p. 54; "F. L. Journal," vol. vii. p. 312.
- Map, Dist. iv. c. 10.
- The sect of the Cabalists, indeed, believed in the existence of spirits of nature, embodiments or representatives of the four elements, which they called respectively gnomes, sylphs, salamanders, and ondines. To this strange sect some of the savage opinions on the subject of spirits seem to have been transmitted in a philosophical form from classical antiquity. They taught that it was possible for the philosopher by austerity and study to rise to intercourse with these elemental spirits, and even to obtain them in marriage. But the orthodox regarded the Cabalists as magicians and their spirits as foul incubi. See Lecky, "History of Rationalism," vol. i. p. 46.
- Hapgood, p. 214.
- Müller, p. 33.
- "Folklore," vol. i. pp. 113, 116.