The History Anorak

The History Anorak

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

The Little People

Richard Dadd's vision of the Hidden Folk
Fellow blogger Mike at A Bit About Britain recently did a post about Pentre Ifan, a Welsh ancient monument, and some of the stories associated with it. One of them is the belief that the site is visited by The Little People. He used the F word (F***y) but that's something I try to avoid at all costs. Here's a little something I wrote a while ago that explains why. (Yes, that is yet another blog under my influence!)

I grew up with a taboo on that word but I have never really thought about the reasons for it. So I've been doing some research. All the learned scholars I've been reading seem to bandy the word around with no care for the potential pitfalls.  However, Simpson and Roud (2000) state that the original English term was 'elf' and the F word arrived with the French influence of Middle English. There is also mention of a 17th century belief that saying the word would enable people to identify a witch.

There is no doubt that the Fae are seen as something not quite trustworthy. From the ancient stories of changeling babies to the more recent Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (Clarke) it is clear that any dealings with the Fair Folk must be carried out with extreme care. And wherever possible, carry a piece of iron. Various explanations exist for the idea that iron helps protect against the Fae. You can find one attached to the story I gave the link for in paragraph one.

Ashe (1990) links the idea to a possibility that belief in the Hidden Ones stems from a time when Iron Age peoples took over Britain from the Bronze age dwellers. He posits that in the early days of the Iron Age influx the indigenous people would have moved out of the way of the invaders with the sharp, iron weapons. They might have remained separate, but close to their old monuments; the mounds and stone circles they had erected for their dead and their religious rites. Hence the new Britons would have viewed them as rarely, and fleetingly, seen other-worldly creatures, associated with ghosts and the uncanny.

In their Field Guide, Arrowsmith and Moorse state that they have avoided using the F term because of its frequent misuse. They do not cite any potential harm from using it, but they do give a number of euphemistic terms, including the Fair Folk, the Forgetful Folk, the Night Folk, the Good Neighbours from the Sunset Land, Little Darlings and Mother's Blessing, among others.

Reader's Digest is more straightforward. In a 1973 encyclopaedia it states that few people chose to talk about their experiences with elves because they were believed to be fiercely private creatures. "Cautious believers," it says "prefer instead to use names such as 'The Good People', 'The Little People', or 'The Hidden People'."

Arrowsmith, Nancy & Moorse, George, (1977) A Field Guide to the Little People, Macmillan London Ltd.
Ashe, Geoffrey (1990) Mythology of the British Isles, Methuen, London.
Clarke, Susanna, (2004) Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Bloomsbury Publishing
Reader's Digest (1973) Folklore, Myths and Legends of Great Britain, The Reader's Digest Association Ltd.
Simpson, Jacqueline & Roud, Steve (2000) A Dictionary of English Folklore, Oxford University Press


  1. Well, fancy that - I don't know the half of it. And you were as good as your word. Fascinating stuff.

    1. This is an interesting and unusual post, I followed the link to the story and learned things I didn't know before.

  2. Interesting - I, too, had read about the idea that the little people were the older, smaller, darker peoples already in places like Wales when the Celts came along.
    I think the little people have an aversion to iron, too, don't they?
    Best wishes :)

  3. I just read a book on Iceland and the contemporary people there believe in elves and hidden folk. It was interesting and funny too. If you google 'hidden folk iceland' you'll find many sites.

    Thank you for this interesting post - enjoy your Sunday.

  4. There's not a drop of British blood in my mother, yet I remember when we were little that she would tell us never to talk about the things like these that we might see - that there were people who thought they were evil. She said that the sight was a gift and not entertainment.


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