A ring of mushrooms that makes up a fairy ring marks off a space that is inherently different than the space around it. The fact that it is enclosed makes that space special and lends it an air of mystery. Why is that space separated out from the rest of the field? Whatever it is, it’s invisible from outside the ring. It must be very special indeed – so special it’s magical.
There are discrepancies among stories as to what form the magic center takes: some say it’s buried treasure, some say it’s private fairy dances. George Cruikshank, a popular Victorian artist, conveys his interpretation that the fairy ring contains a frenzied ritual centering around fairy royalty, raised upon a toadstool, in his painting A Fantasy: The Fairy Ring (above). The most impressive answer, though, comes from British lore dating back to the Middle Ages according to which a fairy ring is nothing less than a gateway out of this world to the realm of the fairies.
In a legend from Wales dating back to at least the early 1800s, a human wanderer comes across a fairy ring and crosses the gateway to find an enchanted palace. Wirt Sikes recorded this story about the Lad from Pembrokeshire in his collection of research, British Goblins:
A shepherd’s lad … saw the Tylwyth Teg [Welsh for “Fair Folk”]… dancing in a ring. He set out for the scene of revelry, and soon drew near the ring where, in a gay company of males and females, they were footing it to the music of the harp. Never had he seen such handsome people, nor any so enchantingly cheerful. They beckoned him with laughing faces to join them … Moved with the transports this seductive harmony produced in him, he stepped fully into the ring. He was no sooner in than he found himself in a palace glittering with gold and pearls. Every form of beauty surrounded him, and every variety of pleasure was offered him. He was made free to range whither he would, and his every movement was waited on by young women of the most matchless loveliness.
In this tale, the fairy ring led the curious lad directly to the fairy palace, like a portal. In similar stories, the fairies invite the wanderer to their kingdom after dancing with him in the ring; in others, the fairy ring signals the presence of an underground fairy city, perhaps filled with golden light and stalactites like the image above. Such is the case in the folklore surrounding Tiveragh Hill. People living in the nearby town of Cushendall, Ireland, still claim to see fairy feasts and dances upon the broad hill that looms above. The celebrations are especially noticeable on May Day and Halloween, when the barriers between our world and the world of fairies are believed to weaken. The legend goes that if any soul be lured to climb the hill by enticing music, he will be taken under the hill to dwell in fairy society forever.
The accounts of the kingdom of fairies since the Middle Ages are strikingly similar. They tell of a beautiful land, with lovely meadows filled with flowers surrounding the splendid castle of the fairies; the graceful inhabitants are adorned with fancy fabrics and jewels and precious medals of every sort; and the air is filled with the most melodious music. One particularly lovely description comes from Orfeo of Heurodis, an anonymous Middle English narrative poem from the 1300’s that inspired the manuscript-style illustration by Errol le Cain at right. Orfeo enters the land of fairy, and he sees:
a fair countray
As bright soonne summers day,
Smooth and plain and alle grene,
Hill ne dale nas none y-seen.
Amiddle the lond a castel he seigh,
Rich and real and wonder high.
Alle the utmoste wall
Was clear and shine of crystal.
An hundred towers there were about
… The worst pillar to behold
Was all of burnished gold.
All that lond was ever light”
(from Keightley The Fairy Mythology, 85-86).
Orfeo’s land of fairies is both lovely and impressive. Perhaps it is for this that the land of fairies has inspired painters and authors: the fairy ring is a gateway to the enchanted kingdom for some, but for the rest of us mortals, it is a gateway to the imagination.