What can piskey tales tell us about Cornish difference?

Ronald M. James, ‘The other side of the Tamar: A comparison of the pixies of Devon and Cornwall’, Folklore 131.1 (2020), pp.76-95.

Ronald James has become the leading expert on Cornwall’s folklore. Here, he uses the pixy narratives of Cornwall and Devon to suggest that the legends of west Cornwall differed in their details from those of Devon. This implies that narratives did not travel freely up and down the south-western peninsula. He concludes that the far west was isolated because of ‘geography and the legacy of linguistic differences’, which means that Cornish folklore should be treated as separate from English folklore.

Fairy legends were common in north-west Europe in the nineteenth century, found from Scandinavia to Brittany. They involved supernatural little people from the otherworld who interfere with or come into contact with humans. Sometimes this contact was harmless but on occasions it had harmful effects. Known variously as fairies or elves, in south-west Britain the term was pixies or piskies.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries enthusiasts such as Robert Hunt and William Bottrell collected scores of folklore stories. They and others have left sufficient narratives to allow for comparisons to be made between those found in Devon and those from Cornwall. These narratives are analysed here in order to examine whether there were significant differences based on location.

James identifies a generally shared basis for the pixy tales. Pixies (more usually known as piskies in Cornwall) were usually about knee-high and could be found dancing in circles at night in out-of-the-way places. They would sometimes help people with their chores but they could also be mischievous, punishing those who spied on them and abducting or misleading people – as in pixy-led!

Robert Hunt suggested that Cornish pixies were ‘darker’ than those in Devon, more malicious and unpredictable. Cornish and Devonian legends are reviewed in the article to test out Hunt’s claim and identify other contrasts. To do this, James employs a typology of fairy narratives developed by folklore researchers. He reviews four types of narrative. These are ‘midwife to the fairies’, ‘capture of a fairy’, ‘the new suit’ and ‘food from fairies’. (For fairies read pixies). He finds subtle differences in the geography of these narratives. Sometimes differences are small. for example the Devon legends of a delicious cake or drink left for humans by pixies, in Cornwall becomes merely a ‘vague motif leading to abduction’, the ‘darker’ aspect of Hunt’s claim.

The most interesting difference lies in the ‘midwife to the fairies’ type. In this tale, a pixy couple in human form employ a human woman to aid in the birth of their child. The woman accidentally uses some ointment which gives her the ability to see pixies. Later, the supernatural father who she had helped discovers this and then blinds her. In west Cornwall the woman is a nurse, in Devon and sometimes in east Cornwall she is a midwife.

This and other differences in the pixy legends lead James to posit a separate Cornish dimension in pixy tales. The clearest difference however lies in the far west of Cornwall. In mid and east Cornwall a third of the total narratives mapped by the author share the Devonian pattern, while two thirds conform to the far west. Differences there are but the title of the article may be slightly misleading. The geography looks a little more complex than a simple Cornish/Devonian contrast. However, it does seem to hint strongly at the former linguistic differences within Cornwall between the Cornish-speaking west and the English-speaking east.

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