The third volume of Thomas Crofton Croker’s Fairy legends and traditions of the South of Ireland (1825) runs out of Irish material and has sections on the Welsh and the then-scarce English tradition. I was struck by a section of his preface, specifically its similarity to elements of the barrow-wight sequence which occurs in “Fog on the Barrow-downs” in The Lord of the Rings. Here is Croker…
I have taken some pains to seek after stories of the Elves in England; but I find that the belief has nearly disappeared. [Yet] In Devonshire, the Pixies or Pucksies are still remembered and described as “little people and merry dancers” but I can collect no other anecdotes respecting their pranks than the two following.
About seventy years [meaning, circa 1755] since a clergyman named Tanner held two benefices between Crediton and Southmolton, adjoining each other. The farmers of both parishes attended the tithe-audit annually at his residence; and in going to the glebe-house the distant parishioners had to pass an extensive moor, intersected by numerous tracks or sheep-walks.
Although they reached their destination in safety in the morning, yet on their return they invariably found themselves “Pixy-laid,” and were compelled to pass a night of bewildered wandering upon the moor. Such recreation at Christmas was not very agreeable, and it was determined that a deputation from the parishioners should proceed to Exeter, and consult an old woman celebrated for her skill in charming away the tooth-ache. Her instructions against Pixy spells proved effectual. She directed the way-laid travellers, on reaching the verge of the moor, to strip themselves, and sit down on their clothes for five-and-thirty minutes, or more, according to the state of the weather; and so soon as they discovered the cloud which the Pixies had thrown around them to be dissipated, they might then safely proceed. By following this valuable prescription Mr. Tanner’s parishioners invariably reached their homes without further interruption from Pixy spells.”
Whatever one may think about such rustic superstition, some of the resemblances to Tolkien’s “Fog on the Barrow-downs” chapter in The Lord of the Rings are notable, in terms of:
1. All-male group journeying away from an important meeting at a friendly house.
2. A malevolent ‘cloud’ then thrown around the moorland travellers, followed by bewildered night-wandering on the moor.
3. Casting off of all clothing as a definitive ‘breaking of the spell’…
‘You won’t find your clothes again,’ said Tom, bounding down from the mound, and laughing as he danced round them in the sunlight. […] Tom shook his head, saying: ‘You’ve found yourselves again, out of the deep water. Clothes are but little loss, if you escape from drowning. Be glad, my merry friends, and let the warm sunlight heal now heart and limb! Cast off these cold rags! Run naked on the grass, while Tom goes a-hunting!'” (The Lord of the Rings)
It may also be important to someone that I note here that Anna Eliza Bray, working as a respected and careful folklorist in Devon and Cornwall under the direction of Robert Southey a decade later, found of “the little people” of the twilight that they were clearly distinguished from fairies…
“The pixies are certainly a distinct race from the fairies; since, to this hour, the elders amongst the more knowing peasantry of Devon will invariably tell you (if you ask them what pixies really may be) that these native spirits are the souls of infants, who were so unhappy as to die before they had received the Christian rite of baptism.” (Anna Eliza Bray, The Tamar and the Tavy, 1836, Vol. 1, page 172.)
Thus, perhaps, there was some ‘sympathetic’ element to the old woman’s prescription for the problem. In that, perhaps her thinking was that if the travellers were to strip ‘naked as they day they were born’, and to sit down so as to lower their height, then the “the souls of infants” might mistake them for fellow babes and thus let them pass?