"I think that in my heart I have always believed in fairies," writes Elizabeth Goudge in her autobiography, The Joy of Snow; "not fairies as seen in the picture books but nature spirits whose life is part of the wind and the flowers and the trees. Born in the West Country, and returning to it in middle life, how could I do anything else? But alas, I have never seen them.
"William Blake saw fairies, but he was a unique person, and so was a Dartmoor friend of mine who used to see them, and how I envied her! But if I did not see them I could feel how magic ran in the earth and branched in one's veins when one sat down. The stories that some of my Dartmoor friends told me would be laughed at by most people, but they were sensible persons and they did not laugh. I think that probably the one among my friends who experienced most was the one who said the least about it, Adelaide Phillpotts, Eden Phillpotts' daughter. She lived for years upon the moor and she loved it so deeply that she was not afraid to spend whole nights alone on the tors; but she is a mystic and mystics seem always unafraid. Her book The Lodestar is full of the wild spirit of the moor.
"The friend who saw fairies, when she first went to live in her cottage on the moor, was visited early in the morning by a little old woman, wearing a bonnet, who walked quietly into the kitchen where she was preparing breakfast. Friendly and smiling the old woman refused breakfast but sat down to chat. She wanted to know exactly what my friend intended to do in the garden. What flowers would she have? What vegetables? She had very bright eyes and nodded her head in approval as they talked. She seemed a happy old woman, very much at home in the kitchen, but when my friend turned away for a moment she found on looking around again that her visitor had left her. She was never seen again and when the neighbors were questioned they denied ever having seen such an old woman in the village.
"Another friend was driving back to her home on the moor one summer evening when she found herself in the most beautiful wood. She had no sense of strangeness but drove through it entranced by the loveliness of the evening light shining through the trees. Coming out of the wood she found herself at home, put the car away and went about the normal business of the evening, and only gradually did she remember that her road home lay through an open stretch of moorland. There was no wood there; not now. The next day she went to see an old man who had lived all his life on the moor and told him what had happened. He nodded his head. 'I know the wood, ma'am,' he told her. 'I've been there myself. But only once. You'll not see it again. It's only once in a lifetime.' "
Although Goudge never saw fairies herself, she did have a mystical experience in Devon:
"My mother and I had a cottage in an apple orchard at the edge of a village," she explains, "and behind the cottage, between the orchard and the village, there was a steep hill. To the right, Dartmoor was visible, but otherwise the place was a little valley in the hills that had a magic of its own. There were a few other small dwellings besides our own, an old house behind a high wall, a farm and some cottages, and so strictly speaking the place was not a lonely one, and yet, because of its particular magic, it was. Especially in the early morning and especially after a snow-fall. There is something very lonely about a deep snow-fall and Devon snow, because the average rainfall is high, is almost always deep. One is walled in and cut off. The world seems very far away and the heart rejoices.
"In spring, in Devon, there is often a sudden late snow-fall taking one entirely by surprise. I remember once seeing irises and tulips with their bright heads lifted above a deep counterpane of snow, and boughs of apple blossoms sprinkled with sparkling silver. But the snowfall [on this occasion] was earlier in the year. There were only the low-growing flowers in bloom in the garden and they were all buried out of sight. There had been no wind in the night, no suggestion that the last snow of the year was falling, and when I drew the curtains early in the morning I was astonished to see the white world. And what a world! I had never seen a snow-fall so beautiful and I was out in the garden at the first possible moment. The snowclouds had dropped their whole treasure in the night and were gone. The huge empty sky was deep blue, the air sparkling and clear. The sun was rising and the tree shadows lay blue across the sparkling whiteness. The whole world was pure blue and white and it seemed that the sun had lit every crystal to a point of fire. There was a silence so absolute it seemed a living presence. And then came the singing.
"It was a solo voice, ringing out joy and praise. One would have said it was a woman's voice, only could any woman sing like that, with such simplicity and beauty? It lasted for some minutes, and then ceased, and the deep silence came back once more.
"I stayed where I was, as rooted in the snow as the trees, but there was no return of the singing and so I went back to the cottage and mechanically began the first task of the day, raking out the ashes of the dead fire and lighting a new one. The light of the flames helped me to think. None of us, in the little group of dwellings in the valley had a voice much above a sparrow's chirp. No one in the village that I knew had a voice like that. It was war-time and visitors from the outside world seldom came. Even if by some extraordinary chance some great singer had descended upon us, what would she be doing struggling down the steep lane from the village in deep snow at this hour of a cold morning? And wouldn't I have seen her? I could see both lanes from the little terrace outside the cottage and had seen no one. There were only two explanations. Either I was mad or I had heard a seraph singing. Later when I took my mother her breakfast I told her of the singing. She looked at me and, as usual, made no comment whatsoever.
"And so, for some years, I inclined to the former view and told no one else about the singing. And then, one day after the war had ended, a very sensitive and sympathetic cousin came to visit us and told me about a holiday he had had in the wilds of Argyll. He had always wanted, he said, to talk to someone who had heard the singing and at last he come upon an old crofter who could tell him about it. The old man had been alone in the hills when he heard a clear voice, unearthly and very beautiful, singing in the silence. He could see no one, he could distinguish no words in the singing and the song was one he did not know. He tried to hum the air and my cousin tried to write it down, but they neither of them made much of a job of it. 'You never heard it again?' my cousin asked and the old man said, like the old countryman who was in the wood only once, 'No, never again.'
"My cousin told this tale so beautifully that I was too awed and shy to tell him, then, about my own experience. Besides, the great paean of praise I had heard in the snow seemed at that moment a little theatrical in comparison with the soft unearthly singing in the hills of Argyll. But, some years later, I did tell him. He was very kind, and he did not doubt my sincerity, but somehow I seemed to see at the back of his mind the figure of a stout opera singer from Covent Garden who had somehow, even in war-time and deep snow, got herself hidden behind the fir trees at the corner of our Devon garden.
'It does not matter. I remember that singing every morning of my life and I greet every sunrise with the memory. The birds, who had been singing so riotously, had been chilled to silence by that snowstorm. I have decided now that she, whoever she was, sang their dawn-song for them."
Words: The passage by Elizabeth Goudge is from The Joy of Snow: An Autobiography (Hodder & Stoughton, 1974); the poem in the picture captions is from Marrow of Flame by Dorothy Walters (Poetry Chaikhana, 2015); all rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: "King & Queen of the Faery Hill" by Alan Lee, "Cowslip Faery" by Brian Froud, and three fairy pictures by Arthur Rackham. The books in the last photograph are Linnets and Valerians, The Little White Horse, and Island Magic by Elizabeth Goudge; the quilt was made by Karen Meisner. Related posts on Devon folklore: Tales of a Half-Tamed Land, The Wild Hunt, and Following the Hare.