Today’s offering is a guest column by John Kruse. Kruse is a researcher and writer on faery lore. His book “Faery” will be published soon by Llewellyn Worldwide, and a companion volume, “Beyond Faery,” will follow in due course. Kruse wrote “British Fairies” in 2017, has self-published several books on faery verse and ballads on Amazon, and also writes the British Fairies blog on WordPress. Finally, he is also author of some faery fiction, including the novel “The Elder Queen.”
I first discovered the faery lore of the British Isles by accident. I had been reading the Arthurian legends, as well as their origins in Irish and Welsh myths like the stories of the Tuatha de Danaan and the Mabinogion, and this led me to the fairies. I first read Katherine Briggs’s “A Dictionary of Fairies” and followed that with Evans Wentz’s “The Fairy Faith” and Robert Graves’s “White Goddess.”
One image stuck in my mind: that of the “old lady of the elder tree.” The lady demands respect: if one wishes to take wood from the tree, they must ask permission; if they fail to do so, misfortune will befall them – their cattle may die and their barns burn down. For me, this traditional figure transmuted into “our lady of the elder tree,” the guardian female spirit of the summer hedgerows. The magical status of the elder tree, the Celtic scawen, was further augmented for me by Graves’s descriptions of the elder in the Celtic calendar, and I began to weave my own personal myth around this archetypal British faery tree.
This was back in the early 1980s, when I was fresh out of university and finding a direction in the world. I lived very close to countryside then, and as a young man in a strange town, I spent quite a few months walking the hills and fields around my new home, really getting to know the paths and the plants. Under Graves’s influence, the heady hawthorn and the elder, especially the elder, took on a mystical significance for me. With only half an understanding of its real meaning, the tree became a symbol of power and reassurance.
For several decades after that, the faeries were pushed to the back of my mind, but the elder and her supernatural lady maintained their presence. Through several moves of home (and city) I made sure there was always an elder growing in my garden, and I retained my affection and respect for the tree. In the meantime, I developed a love of the stone circles and other megalithic monuments of the British Isles. Needless to say, it could scarcely escape my notice that one of the finest stone circles in Britain, Boscawen Un in Penwith in Cornwall, is named after the faery tree: the name means “the house at the elder tree (scawen) on the downs.”
The fairies are never very far from the standing stones and burial mounds in the ancient landscape – sometimes they are said to live in them; often they will dance there.
Then, six years ago, I plunged back into the faery fascination of my youth and renewed my learning. I’d known the stories of the old lady of the elder came particularly from the east of England. This is the area of the heaviest Danish (Viking) settlement, and I was fascinated to learn that in Denmark similar tales are told of the hyldre folk, that is, the hidden people.
Just like British elves and fairies, they too are linked to the elder tree (hylde). The shrub is believed to be magical and to be inhabited by an elder mother or woman; it is essential to ask her leave before taking any branches. Most dangerous of all, though, are the elle (elf) maids who dance in the moonlight near the elder thickets. They have beautiful faces and voices and will lure young men to dance with them. Their bodies, however, are hollow behind and they will dance the youths to death.
Beware these wood fairies combine alluring and alarming qualities in equal measure; their charms are matched by something non-human and potentially dangerous. This was an aspect of faery I felt deeply: that there must be transaction and respect; that there can be peril as well as pleasure. In the case of the English elder sprite, wood can be taken, so long as it is restored, and that reciprocity is anticipated to form part of the cycle of life and death. The elder gives us flowers and fruit, but it ties us too into the natural system from which we cannot, truly, escape.
Elder Tree Folklore
Elder trees are widely seen in Britain as having some sort of magical or spiritual properties. For example, in Herefordshire there was a taboo upon burning elder wood for fear of bringing misfortune, whilst its inner rind was used to cure cows of jaundice. Witches were said to dislike the tree, so its pith was fed to those believed to have been bewitched.
In Shropshire, elder was never used as firewood as it would bring misfortune, even death, to the household. The wood wouldn’t even be brought into the house, as it could cause a cow to lose its calf, nor would cattle be driven with an elder stick.
The juice of the plant would be used to protect the threshold and the hearth. In many of these traditional uses and warnings, there is a clear interplay between positive and negative aspects. That which can harm can also heal; the tree may be the dwelling place of a spirit, but it may drive away malign forces.
Recently, in researching my book on faery lore, I discovered that the elder faith is even more widely known than I had thought. On the Isle of Man, the same ideas prevailed as on the British mainland, but in concentrated and developed form. Whilst the tree was said to be the haunt of the fairies, it repelled witches and, as a result, according to Agnes Herbert in a guide to the island written in 1909, there was hardly to be found an old well (tholtan in Manx) near which there didn’t grow an elder tree. If one carried elder leaves, the islanders believed, they would be protected against witchcraft. (I’ve carried some elder leaves in my wallet since 1986.)
These are but the first indications of the depth of the supernatural associations of the elder tree, or tramman, on the island. The fairies live in the elders, and, when the branches of the trees are seen to bend in the wind at night, it is in fact the fairies riding upon them. Given their status as faery residences, interference with the trees can be dangerous. Evans Wentz heard the story of a woman from Arbory parish on the island who, out walking one dark night, accidentally collided with a tramman. She was instantly smitten with a terrible swelling, which all her neighbours agreed was the consequence of offending the faeries by her clumsiness. In 1932, Manx folklorist Walter Gill recorded another local account that told of a man who cut down an elder-and was driven to suicide by the aggrieved fairies.
The Manx fairies living in the tramman are plainly very similar to the old lady of the elder tree that I described at the start. It’s not clear, though, whether or not they’re identical. The old lady seems to personify the tree in some way – to be its spirit – whilst the Manx faeries live in, or at least gather in, the elders, but may not actually embody them. Whether those Manx little people live in the branches, or actually dwell within the shrub itself, is also uncertain.
What is certain is that faeries have long been closely associated with woodland – and with groves within woodland – and, occasionally, have also been regarded as protectors of the plant growth. These links go back as far as Greek legend, and like the question of the Manx faeries, again the question of whether the dryads and hamadryads of classical myths haunt the groves or inhabit the trees themselves is unresolved.
The function of the fairies as guardians of trees is quite widespread and is by no means limited to the elder. In Wales, cutting down oak trees is said to be sure to lead to faery retribution, either death or “a strange aching pain which admitted no remedy.” There is also a widespread story of a woodcutter just about to fell a tree who is stopped by the appearance of a faery being from beneath the ground. Such incidents have been described as having happened as far apart as Northamptonshire in the English Midlands and Nithsdale in the Scottish borders.
Regardless of the detail, though, the supernatural associations are very clear and persistent and, what’s more, can be seen across Northern Europe from Denmark to the British Isles. What’s required of us is very clear: we should treat the tree with respect, enjoying its products but not abusing it.
 Thomas Keightley, Fairy Mythology, 1892, 93.
 Roy Palmer, Folklore of Hereford & Worcester, 1992, 107 & 114.
 Herbert, The Isle of Man, 1909, 194; A. W. Moore, Folklore of the Isle of Man, 1891, c.7
 Charles Roader, Manx Folktales, 1913, 3; Evans Wentz, Fairy Faith, 126; Walter Gill, Second Manx Scrapbook, 1932, c.5.
 Rev Edmund Jones, The Appearance of Evil, no.116 & 117; T. Sternberg, The Dialect and Folklore of Northamptonshire, 1851, 135; W. Wilson, Folklore and Genealogies of Uppermost Nithsdale, 1904, 73.