“Exile is more than a geographical concept. You can be an exile in your homeland, in your own house, in a room” – Mahmoud Darwish
Postmodernity’s cry for the primacy of the narrative, a narrative that inescapably traps us in meanings we never intended has guaranteed that we are all exiles. Exiles from paradise. Exiles from our society. Exiles from ourselves. We are creatures running from the ideal, pressing against our cultural bounds, and desperately trying to engage patterns of thought that exist outside of us. But like all exiles, we construct elaborate fantasies of a triumphant escape from estrangement and a re-establishment of an empire at which we are the center, not in the egotistical Napoleonic sense, rather in attempt to feel that our ideas and actions have import for the cosmos. As Salman Rushdie observed, “Exile is a dream of glorious return. Exile is a vision of revolution: Elba, not St Helena. It is an endless paradox: looking forward by always looking back. The exile is a ball hurled high into the air. He hangs there, frozen in time, translated into a photograph; denied motion, suspended impossibly above his native earth, he awaits the inevitable moment at which the photograph must begin to move, and the earth reclaim its own.” The guardians at the edge of the map, at the limits of custom, and the extremity of our psyche are monsters, both feared (for they are dangerous) and revered (for defiantly refusing to not exist), but upon examination may offer us the element most decidedly absent from our bracketed narratives and clearly delineated endpoints. They offer us the possibility of continuity and an end to exile. Perhaps in the story of the monstrous Phynnodderee, exiled not only from Fairyland, but to the Isle of Man (between Ireland and England), we can find a little bit of redemption from exile. Or at least scare the existential bejeezus out of the kids.
The story of the Phynnodderee has no beginning and no end (except in the dismissiveness of alternative reality that is the hallmark of steadfast modernity). Perhaps he already inhabited the Isle of Man 8500 years ago, before the first human settlements appeared, living out his lonely existence, with one foot in faeriedom and one in our world, an aristocratic jet-setter from the Seelie Court. He may have arrived with the colonizing Gaels in the 5th Century A.D. or with the Teutonic mythologies of the invading Norsemen in the 9th Century. Sir John Rhys, in tracing the etymology of the term Phynnodderee (or Fenodyree) thought perhaps he hitched a ride on the boats of those fearsome Vikings, commenting, “The term fenodyree has been explained by Cregeen in his Manx Dictionary to mean one who has hair for stockings or hose. That answers to the description of the hairy satyr, and seems fairly well to satisfy the phonetics of the case, the words from which he derives the compound being fynneyi, ‘hair,’ and oashyr, ‘a stocking’; but as oashyr seems to come from the old Norse hosur, the plural of hosa, ‘hose or stocking,’ the term fenodyree cannot date before the coming of the Norsemen; and I am inclined to think the idea more Teutonic than Celtic” (Rhys, 1901, p288). He weaves in and out of the history of the Isle of Man. He is a good fairy. He is a bad fairy. He helps and he hurts. And he hates gifts of clothes, as they remind him that he is not with his true mortal love in the merry glen of Rushen and as observed by Campbell, “Beings of this class seem to have had a great objection to presents of clothes” (Campbell, 1900, p190). His homeland is not ultimately Celtic or Teutonic, for he is a native of the otherworld, to which he may never return. He cannot fully be part of our world, nor ever inhabit his own. His story is that of the eternal exile, whether growing from fertile local soil or arriving with violence. Once an esteemed knight of the Fairy Court, he had the nerve to fall in love with a Manx maid, neglecting his fairy duties during the harvest moon, and for this he was condemned, metamorphasized into a shaggy giant, sentenced to exile on the Isle of Man until kingdom come. His sadness is our sadness.
There has not been a merry world since the Phynnodderee lost his ground. This useful little old gentleman, with his hairy coat, was a fallen fairy, who was banished from his brethren in Fairy-Land for having paid his addresses to a pretty Manx maid, and deserting the Fairy court during the harvest moon, to dance with his earthly love in the merry glen of Rushen. He is doomed to remain in the Isle till the end of time; and many are the stories related by the Manx peasantry of his prodigious strength. Having performed one of his wonderful feats, a gentleman, wishing to recompense him, caused a few articles of clothing to be laid down for him in his usual haunts, when, on perceiving them, he lifted them up one by one, saying—”Cap for the head; alas! poor head; Coat for the back; alas! poor back; Breeches for the breech; alas! poor breech; If these be all thine, thine cannot be The merry glen of Rushen.” Having said so, he departed, and has never been heard of since! His resemblance was that of the “Lubber Fiend” of Milton, and the Scottish “Brownie.” The Rhyme of the Scottish Brownie, when he was rewarded with a coat and sark, ran thus—”Gie Brownie coat, gie Brownie sark, Ye’se get nae mair o’ Brownie’s wark.” Many other similar rhymes are to be met with in various localities. The luck of the house is said to depart for ever with the offended Phynnodderee (Harrison, 1869, p173-174).
He is a fallen fairy, not because he declared impious war in heaven, but out of earthly love. Although there are folktales about other creatures who have fallen from lofty positions to ignominy (I’m looking at you Satan), the Phynnodderee does not partake of their devolution, except in regards to his physiognomy. He behaves, as all exiles do, with enormous gratitude towards those who have taken him in and promote his welfare, using his newfound bestiality to lend a hand when called upon, but woe to those that remind him of what he has lost, that he is an interloper in our world, and neglect reminds him that he cannot participate wholeheartedly in our universe or his own.
The popular idea of the Phynnodderee is that he is a fallen Fairy, and that in appearance he is something between a man and a beast, being covered with black shaggy hair and having fiery eyes. Many stories are related by the Manx peasants of his prodigious strength. He may be compared with the Gruagach, a creature about whom Campbell writes as follows:—”The Gruagach was supposed to be a Druid or Magician who had fallen from his high estate, and had become a strange hairy creature. The following story is told about one of these:—”The small island of Inch, near Easdale, is inhabited by a brownie, which has followed the MacDougalls of Ardincaple for ages, and takes a great interest in them. He takes care of their cattle in that island night and day, unless the dairy-maid, when there in summer with the milk cattle, neglects to leave warm milk for him at night in a knocking-stone in the cave, where she and the herd live during their stay in the island. Should this perquisite be for a night forgot, they will be sure in the morning to find one of the cattle fallen over the rocks with which the place abounds. It is a question whether the brownie has not a friend with whom he shares the contents of the stone, which will, I daresay, hold from two to three Scotch pints” (Moore, 1891, p53).
He is not the dissolute Satyr with which he is associated thanks to the ministrations of the Manx Bible (a late addition to the mythological ether), although he shares in a certain beastliness.
Of stories of the Phynnodderee and the Glashtin there are dozens. These merry trolls have prodigious strength, and are sympathetically inclined to man on occasion, and equally vengeful if the whim seizes them. If you look for the definition of a Phynnodderee in the Manx dictionary, you will see that Cregeen calls him a “satyr,” and tells us that the Manx Bible refers to the spirit in that form. Hig beishtyn oaldey yn aasagh dy cheilley marish beishtyn oaldey yn ellan, as nee yn phynnodderee gyllagh da e heshey. (The wild beasts of the desert shall also meet with the wild beasts of the island, and the satyr shall cry to his fellow.) But the Phynnnodderee is not exactly a satyr, for all that. The word probably just fitted the requirements of the translator, and the title of the elf was taken in consonant vainness (Herbert, 1909, p177-178).
Gathering about him other fallen brethren, fellow exiles from the otherworld, he can for an evening step back into brotherhood and the realm of lost greatness. Take note, that the visitors from the Good People are numerous in the Isle of Man, but the Phynnodderee literally stands head and shoulder above the rest. “The Boganes are numerous, causing some fear in certain fields and houses, but useful in preventing people from being out too late at night. Only one moddey dhoo (black dog) has been noted, that in the Bishop’s dungeon at Peel. It is difficult to describe two others the Glashtin and the Lhiannan shee, the first a goblin, the second a familiar spirit. The giant among them all is the Phynnodderee, a hairy satyr of great strength, and of kind temper if kindly treated: one who can thresh a stack of corn (a ‘tooran’) in a night for the farmer” (Radcliffe, 1895, p64).
A good fairy long inhabited the Isle of Man. He was called in Manx the Phynnodderee. It would appear that he had two brothers of like features with himself, one in Scotland called the Brownie, the other in Scandinavia called the Swartalfar. I have often heard how on a bad night the Manx folk would go off to bed early so that the Phynnodderee might come in out of the cold. Before going upstairs they built up the fire, and set the kitchen table with crocks of milk and pecks of oaten cake for the entertainment of their guest. Then while they slept the Phynnodderee feasted, yet he always left the table exactly as he found it, eating the cake and drinking the milk, but filling up the peck and the crock afresh. Nobody ever intruded upon him, so nobody ever saw him, save the Manx Peeping Tom. I remember hearing an old Manx man say that his curiosity overcame his reverence, and he left the wife, stepped out of bed, crept to the head of the stairs, and peeped over the banisters into the kitchen. There he saw the Phynnodderee sitting in his own arm-chair, with a great company of brother and sister fairies about him, baking bread on the griddle, and chattering together like linnets in spring. But he could not understand a word they were saying (Caine, 1891, p133-134).
He kindly cuts down the meadow grass, but criticism of his work is ill advised, as it brings his honor (he was once a knight) into question, and is akin to throwing down the gauntlet.
Another creature of Manx superstition is represented as a fallen fairy, who was banished from fairy-land for presuming to fall in love with a pretty Manx maiden, and, to enjoy her company, neglecting his duties at the court of the elfin-king. He was doomed to remain in the Isle of Man till the end of time, transformed into a wild satyr-like figure, covered with long shaggy hair or fur, and thence called the phynnodderee, or hairy-one… The phynnodderee has been known to cut down and gather in meadow-grass, which would, if left exposed to the coming storm, have been injured. On one occassion a farmer expressed his displeasure with the sprite for not having cut his grass close enough to the ground. The sprite, in the following year, allowed the dis-satisfied farmer to cut it down himself; but went after him stubbing up the roots so fast, that it was with difficulty the farmer escaped without having his legs cut off. For several years no person could be found fearless enough to mow the meadow, until at length a soldier from one of the insular garrisons undertook the task. He commenced in the centre of the field, and by cutting round, as if on the edge of a circle, keeping an eye on the progress of the scythe, while the other “Was turned round with prudent care, Lest phynnodderee caught him unaware”, he succeeded in finishing unmolested his task (Glover, 1868, p204-205).
In his Book of the Damned, Anomalist Charles Fort once remarked, “We conceive of all ‘things’ as occupying gradations, or steps in series between positiveness and negativeness, or realness and unrealness: that some things are more nearly consistent, just, beautiful, unified, individual, harmonious, stable – than others. We are not realists. We are not idealists. We are intermediatists – that nothing is real, but that nothing is unreal: that all phenomena are approximations one way or another between realness and unrealness”. Is this not the very definition of our exile, an intermediary between monstrosity and humanity, of human charity and vanity, feats and foibles? We long for the comfort of discreteness, to say that this is who I am, and this is where I’m from, and this is what I will be, but such yearnings that have characterized human thought since we began telling each other stories is lost in the flow of continuity. Think kindly of the Phynnoderee. Like most of us, he is a long way from home in thought and space, for as Albert Camus said, “We all carry within us our places of exile, our crimes, and our ravages. But our task is not to unleash them on the world; it is to fight them in ourselves and in others.” And before you go to bed on the Isle of Man, remember to leave a bowl of milk and some oat cakes for the Phynnoderee.
Campbell, John Gregorson, 1836-1891. Superstitions of the Highlands And Islands of Scotland: Collected Entirely From Oral Sources. O. Glasgow: J. Maclehose & Sons, 1900.
Caine, Hall, Sir, 1853-1931. The Little Manx Nation. New York: United States book company, 1891.
Glover, Matthew. Glover’s Illustrated Guide And Visitors’ Companion Through the Isle of Man: With Sea And Trout Fishing. Douglas: M. Glover, 1868.
Harrison, William, “Mona Miscellany”. Manx Society. [Publications] v16. Douglas, Isle of Man, 1869.
Herbert, Agnes. The Isle of Man. London: J. Lane company, 1909.
Keightley, Thomas, 1789-1872. The Fairy Mythology: Illustrative of the Romance And Superstition of Various Countries. A new ed., rev. and greatly enl. London: G. Bell, 1892.
Moore, A. W. 1853-1909. The Folk-lore of the Isle of Man: Being an Account of Its Myths, Legends, Superstitions, Customs, & Proverbs, Collected From Many Sources; With a General Introduction; And With Explanatory Notes to Each Chapter. Douglas, Isle of Man: Brown, 1891.
Radcliffe, William. Ellan Vannin: Sketches of the History, the People, the Language, And Scenery of the Isle of Man. London: C.H. Kelly, 1895.
Rhys, John, Sir, 1840-1915. Celtic Folklore, Welsh And Manx v1. Oxford: Clarendon press, 1901.