On Leprechauns

I don’t know about you, but I always put leprechauns in a special category. I knew there was a tinge of danger there–an ambivalence that makes them untrustworthy woodfolk. I am, unfortunately, more affected by Lucky Charms commercials in childhood than genuine lore. Part of that is that almost everything Irish in my culture has been cartooned. And, admittedly, I never connected leprechauns with the rest of folklore. We called them “faëries” or “fairies” growing up here in Prince Edward Island, and we have a rich folktale tradition. In these tales, fairies are unambivalent–they are almost always mischievous and occasionally evil.

Folktales have become a respectable discipline for studying, but it wasn’t always so. When C.S. Lewis was an Oxford Don, from the mid-1920s to mid-1950s, few took Faerie seriously in their curriculum. Part of this may be the close nature of folklore–Lewis references people he knew who had had encounters with faeries–though it may also have been because of the project of Fairyland Disneyfication was already well begun (i.e., how we became the Lucky Charms generation).

The Discarded Image by CS LewisC.S. Lewis, however, was a lover of stories of the Little People, from Martianus Capella to George MacDonald, and was especially indebted to Spenser’s Faerie Queene. The Narniad and, to a lesser extent, That Hideous Strength, are Faerie Tales, and were influenced by J.R.R. Tolkien‘s The Hobbit, who also drew from the same traditions. For Tolkien and Lewis, Faerie was a serious topic of discussion. C.S. Lewis gave a lecture on faeries at the oldest and (arguably) most prestigious university in the English world. He did this lecture often, and he did it with a straight face. And we are left this lecture series in a brilliant book, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature.

More than just fairytale lectures, The Discarded Image is truly an introduction to literature of the period. Anyone reading it should know that it has a nefarious purpose. It intends to disenchant modern students of certain notions–like the idea medieval folk thought the world was flat or the universe was Medieval Cosmologyvery small–while providing these students with the medieval view of the universe, their cosmology. It is a tremendously accessible book, and does what it intends to do. The ideas are both native and foreign, intriguingly humorous at times and deliberately disarming at others.

About halfway through C.S. Lewis’ presentation of the medieval cosmology that sits behind their theology, history, science, and art, he turns to one aspect of medieval and renaissance life that the model does not fully take into account: Faeries, or as he calls them, “The Longaevi,” the Longlivers. He begins this chapter–as he so often does–with a quotation from G.K. Chesterton, an early 20th c. author and provacateur:

“There is something sinister about putting a leprechaun in the workhouse. The only solid comfort is that he certainly will not work.”

Intriguingly, leprechauns are never mentioned in the chapter. So what’s the connection?

PuckIt is amazingly simple: leprechauns are the fairyfolk in strains of Irish folklore. I am now in the editing stage of a fantasy book, The Curse of Téarian, which includes woodfolk who are descendents of the Danaan. I don’t include leprechauns–it isn’t set in Ireland, and the fey in The Curse of Téarian are anything but comical. Except when Dana herself appears and all the woods dance in delight, the “Good Folk” of Téarian’s wood are menacing figures. They haunt the villagers’ imaginations. The local lore is also not ambivalent when it comes to faeries.

You’ll have to wait for the book to come out to know what happens, but it is set well within our fairy folklore. Faerie exists for the pre-modern thinker as a real category for exploration and study, like corn or cows or comets.  Yet, the fey were different, existing somewhere between earth and the heavens. Fairyland has always disappointed anatomical precision–though Faeries are included in books of anatomy and science, in bestiaries and encyclopedias of the period. Indeed, Lewis uses three Milton quotations to roughly categorize Faeries:

  1. TOld World Leprecaunhe “swart Faery,” which induce horror in those that meet them. These include monsters, nymphs, hags, daemons, Lilith, bugbears, bull-beggars, witches, urchins, elves, satyrs, pans, faunes, sylens, tritons, centaurs, dwarfs, giants, the Incubus, Robin Good fellow, the spoom, the man in the oke, the fire-drake, the puckle,  Tom Thombe, Tom tumbler boneles, and all Faeries that haunt and spook. We may imagine most of these as benign or benevolent or even cute; when considering this category, however, we cannot think of Tolkien or Lewis’ Faery Tales, and certainly not Disney’s.
  2. The “Faery Elves,” taken up in Shakespeare, Drayton, William Brown, and the Little People (“Pigmean Race”) of Milton. The Faeries look like humans, to a point, but are smaller in stature and might be imagined as grotesque or comical. Lewis resists being specific about their size because he argues that the lore of the period assigned no discernible measure itself. For example, Oberon is “big enough to catch a wasp in his arms … and small enough to ride and ant.” Lewis adds that “he might as well have [been] able both to lift an elephant and to ride a fox-terrier” (128). This is a mirthful race of Faerie, known for their dancing and celebrations, which a human may stumble upon by accident. If so, the shy people may alarm an unsuspecting mortal, but they are not horrifying. Indeed, they are alluring and delightful, though Lewis bemoans their “prettification” in the modern period.
  3. The “Fairy Damsels met in Forest wide” are the fey who draw the human into their realm. While other Faeries may be jocular and diminutive or frightening to behold, these Faeries are surprisingly material: full-bodied, beautiful, richly adorned, regal. The “High Faeries” are complex and diverse, and I will leave the reader to find Lewis’ summary, but these Faeries are numenous, “awesome” in the older sense of the word.

Where do leprechaun’s fit in this list? Despite the fact that Lewis begins the chapter with a quote about leprechauns, he does not categorize them. In one sense, they are the dark, swarthy faeries who can haunt and trap. But mostly they are the trickster version of #2, “Faery Elves” of lore. He was probably so clear about it that he didn’t even bring it up. It is us, after a deplorable “Disneyfication” and “prettification” of elves, that cannot tell the difference! Or perhaps they are their own category after all.

Still, if I do meet a leprechaun–an exile from Ireland in new world Acadian forests, I will probably chance the pot of gold.

See also: Sterling Ramsay, Folklore: Prince Edward Island (Charlottetown, PE: Square Deal Publications, 1973).

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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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18 Responses to On Leprechauns

  1. Really interesting post. I have not read The Discarded Image but will now put it on my ever-growing reading list along with The Curse of Tearian which I can’t wait to read!

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  2. Each time notification of one of your postings comes into my Inbox I know that I am in for a treat and this is no exception! I also don’t know before reading what it is that you say that will connect for me. To my surprise it was your reference to Spenser’s Faerie Queen. As a 15 yr old I came across this on the shelves of my school library and decided to have a go at reading it. I can’t say that I ever really got to grips with it but I read quite a lot before giving up. One day in class our English teacher asked what the greatest epic poem of the English language was and I put up my hand and answered, Spenser’s Faerie Queen. An anxious look briefly crossed his face before he recovered and told me that I was wrong and that the correct answer was Milton’s Paradise Lost! That was the education of a previous era. The young members of the English dept were already throwing it out.

    I will take two actions from your posting. One is to read The Discarded Image for the first time. the other will be to see if I can make anything more of The Faerie Queen. I’ll let you know how I get on!

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    • First, I’m amazed your English prof just said “no.” Even if he didn’t know it, it would be a great chance to put you on the spot, “So Stephen. Why do you think so?” He can even transition out, “While young Mr. Winter has made a good case, many scholars thing…” Teaching opportunity missed.
      I have not attempted the Faieie Queene yet, but I will. I’m not a strong poetry reader, so it takes some work for me.
      But do read “The Discarded Image.” It isn’t hard at all! And a quick read. It was meant to be my “in between” book, but I ended up gobbling it up in a week or two. (I’m a slow reader, so huge for me)

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      • I was in an English Grammar School in the late 60s & early 70s. A revolutionary era in many ways & one which the older teachers, all of whom had been in the military and never quite left, did not understand. Lessons with them were like drill on the parade ground & seemed designed simply to teach us to obey orders. I can’t think of that time as “the good old days.” But I cannot think too badly of him. He forced us to learn poetry off by heart and despite the fact that he gave no attention to its content (we would spend entire lessons with one student after another reciting the same passage from Keats or Malcolm Arnold etc.) the poetry somehow got through to me. He committed suicide while I was still at school & we learnt that he had never got over the death of his wife so I pray that he may rest in peace.

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        • I wonder if we could have both, the ability to memorize and think critically and do oral/aural history, but also the affirmation, creativity, and inclusiveness. I think C.S. Lewis thought “no, impossible.” I’m not sure.

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  3. Brenton, thank you for this! I have spent four months away from writing and reading, caring for my father. I have run through my emails daily, wincing as I deleted notices from blogs, knowing I needed to spend my time more “wisely.” Today, as I hit the title of your post, (waiting for the home health nurse to come to administer IV therapy) I realized it is St. Patrick’s Day. I gave myself the treat of reading your blog. So much here that speaks to me. I promise you, that whatever else I am doing when The Curse of Téarian comes out, I will read it as the work of a friend.

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    • While I might apologize for drawing you away from “responsible” things, I’m glad that I could tempt you! Your commitment is admirable. Is there a way you can still get literature in your life–iPod audio or streaming audio or reading to your father. Blessings on that.
      And The Curse of Téarian is far from release I’m afraid. But I’m editing and will pitch this spring. I hope you do get to read it!

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  4. robstroud says:

    I too have my notions of “magically delicious” leprechauns shaped by the advertising myths. But, the “true” story certainly goes much deeper. Thanks for the timely thoughts.

    “…almost everything Irish in my culture has been cartooned.” That’s sad, but probably true of most ethnic heritages, aside from those descended from the Khans. My Viking ancestors have suffered less, and much of the humor is of the type manifested in Hagar the Horrible, one of my favorite Viking ambassadors.

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    • Very good thought. I wonder if the Vikings have been romanticized for brutality in history (the 300 phenomena). At once the new Vikings series will show too much, and still miss the horror. Perhaps the media can only ever do caricatures of history.

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