Some of our oldest legends depict fairies as visitors from a distant island, a realm beneath the sea, or a subterranean domain. Generically called faerie, this land is a place of splendor and luxury, a social utopia, and a refuge from hardship and illness. In the English-speaking world the most famous such paradise is Avalon (the Island of Apples), the home of King Arthur’s fairy sister Morgan Ie Fay. The Life of Merlin by Geoffrey of Monmouth contains the following description:
The Island of Apples, which is called the Fortunate Island, has its name because it produces all things for itself There is no work for the farmers in plowing the fields. All cultivation is absent except for what nature manages by herself. On its own the island produces fertile crops and grapes and native apples by means of its own trees in the cropped pastures.
On its own the overflowing soil puts forth all things in addition to the grass, and in that place one lives for one hundred years or more.
Tir na n’Og
Another legendary fairyland of great antiquity is Tir na n’Og (Land of Youth), usually perceived as an island west of Ireland, but also identified as an underground realm or a land beneath the sea. True to its name, the most prominent quality ofTir na nag is the suspension of the aging process for all who dwell there. The most famous human visitor to Tir na n’Og was the legendary Celtic poet and hero Ossian (also spelled Oisin), who went there with a fairy lover and spent 300 (or 150, according to some accounts) years there. Upon his return to earth his aging process accelerated, and he suddenly became a grizzled old man.
The suspension of time is a common motif in legends about visits to fairyland, wherever the location, and whatever the purpose of the visit. Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle was patterned after any number of European visitors to fairyland. Irving’s character fell asleep after accepting a drink from some dwarf-like characters in New York’s Catskill Mountains, then awoke after what he perceived to be an hour or two, only to discover that twenty years had lapsed.
Fairyland in Our Midst
If we have fairies literally beneath our feet, does that mean that we are competing with them for room? Numerous legends address this question, often attributing bad fortune to the violation of fairy space. Special precaution was called for in the construction of new buildings. An Irish legend tells how a man, planning to build a new house, first consulted a wise woman for advice on its placement. She made five heaps of stones at different places on his property, then told him to build on the location where the stones were not disturbed that night. The next morning, only one pile of stones remained standing, and so he built his house there.