The Legend of the Mirror

The Legend of the Mirror

In the Shuckleigh Museum there is an exhibit labelled ‘Eve’s Mirror’. No-one seems to know where the name originated.

The object in question is a solid silver disc about twelve inches, or thirty centimetres, in diameter with a patterned rim and an elaborate twisted handle across it, terminating in stylised flowers. It is a mirror, but the plain polished surface faces away from the viewer in the museum for display purposes, or perhaps for other reasons.

It has the local reputation of being a fairy mirror, but the museum curators assure us that it is, in fact, Roman.

The first known record of this beautiful object in in the 15th century when it was in the possession of Eleanor Mosse, wife of Sir Thomas Elkin Mosse.

Sir Thomas went away from his lands for two years and returned with a wife, Eleanor. By all accounts she was beautiful, with dark hair and eyes, and she often wore green. She was tiny and most delicate looking, but with a fearsome glint in those dark eyes when she had cause for anger. The rumour spread that she was a fairy woman.

She brought with her a number of remarkable things which reinforced this idea, the mirror being prominent among them, and her pure white horse which only her own groom, himself an odd, taciturn fellow, was allowed to tend.

Having the reputation of fairy origins was probably an advantage to the lady. No-one would have been eager to anger her in any way, for then they would not only have had her to deal with, but also all of her kind.

Sir Thomas had a young niece, who came to stay in his household under the protection of his wife until the time came for her marriage. A rich baron had taken a great fancy to the girl, who was lovely in that pink-cheeked way of young girls, and the marriage was a significant step up for the Mosse family.

Eleanor showed every sign of fondness for the girl, and would allow her to sit in her rooms as she was dressed and her mirror was brought to her, covered in a silk cloth. The maid held up the mirror by the twisted handle and drew away the cloth so that only Eleanor could look into its reflective face. One day the girl asked to see herself in the mirror. Eleanor refused.

‘But why?’

‘The mirror tells only the truth, and the human is rare who can look upon the truth without harm. People must live in their lies in order to make life possible.’

The girl was indignant.

‘I do not live in lies! I want only the truth.’

‘That may be what you believe, but you are very young and have dreams and a world in your head that is not like the world that is.’

She put away the mirror and ceased to allow the girl into her rooms when she was dressing.

The girl was disappointed and angry, believing that she would see the truth of her own great beauty in the mirror, and that Eleanor did not want this. She kept her counsel and waited for an opportunity.

One day she was left unattended for a while, and Sir Thomas and Lady Eleanor were out riding. The girl took her chance and slipped into Eleanor’s chambers. Taking the mirror out from the box in which it was kept, she slipped off the silk cloth and gazed upon her own beautiful face in its reflective surface.

They found her there, the weight of the mirror dragging on her arms, her face haggard, eyes wide, unable to look away until the cloth was thrown over the mirror once again.

The girl spoke only nonsense afterwards, and she cried a great deal. when she was not crying or babbling, she fell silent and stared into the far distance at things only she could see.

She was quite unfit for marriage.

Sir Thomas was furious. He burst into his wife’s rooms and demanded the mirror.

‘It is not the fault of the mirror, but of the girl,’ the lady said, but Sir Thomas was in a high fury. He took the mirror, rode to the lake, and threw it in.

Eleanor called for her white horse and rode away from Sir Thomas’s house, along with her groom and the few things she had brought with her. When she did not soon return, Sir Thomas set off to find her. He came back five years later, a broken man.

He had the lake dragged and the mirror retrieved, polishing it clean himself. For the rest of his life, which was not long, he sat in his library staring into the mirror, weeping, and begging whatever he saw there to bring back his wife.

She never returned, for a fairy once offended can never forgive.

Sir Thomas’s line ended, and the mirror, boxed up safely and locked away, passed into the hands of his brother, and then down the generations until the last of the Mosse line donated it to the museum.

Did the curator who polished it for display wear a blindfold, or did they take a look at themselves and see the truth? The museum label does not say.

The image with this post is of the Wroxeter mirror, which is on display in Shrewsbury Museum. If you ever get a chance to visit this museum, I can recommend it highly.

What We See In The Woods, Part Two

What We See In The Woods, Part Two

One of the tales told of Sleetswood is that of the Old Lady. She must always be addressed as a lady, or she might take offence.

It is said that she lives in a house made of the bones of every animal that has ever died in the woods, and that includes people. It is also said that if you find her house then it will not be long before your whitened bones are added to its walls.

There are several explanations of who she is. One is that she is a witch, wrongly accused of blighting a farmer’s cattle and condemned to be burned, but the Devil himself came down and pulled her out of the flames, casting her into the woods where she remains to this day, bearing a fierce grudge against the rest of humanity. Especially men.

Others maintain that this is untrue, that no witches were ever burned in Shuckleigh. They say that the Old Lady is the spirit of the wood, one of the fairy folk left behind when the great forests were felled and her wood became an island surrounded by people. The wood is her home, her domain, and whoever strays into it is subject to her desires. She might leave you alone if the mood strikes her and you are attuned to the ways of the wood, but if you behave like a human – take without repaying, cast off your unwanted litter without thought, crash through the woods disturbing those who belong there – then she will make you pay.

There is one curious account from the 1920s of an encounter with the Old Lady.

A young man was visiting relatives in Shuckleigh, and having nothing to do one day, he went for a walk. The woods looked cool and inviting on a hot summer’s day, and, never having heard the stories, he decided to go in, looking for birds’ nests. In those days. collecting eggs from nests was considered a healthy hobby for a young person.

He climbed through the thorny undergrowth and began to wander about the woods, searching the trees for promising signs. After a while he found a few different eggs and stowed them carefully in a cotton-wool lined box he carried for the purpose in his knapsack.

Not long after his third or fourth depredation on the bird life of the woods, he became aware that there was someone else nearby. He heard a lovely song being sung, but could not make out the words. Following the sound, he soon found a sweet-looking old lady with long silver hair and old-fashioned green clothes sitting on a fallen tree trunk. She stopped singing and smiled at him.

He said hello and asked if she needed any help, because he was a well brought-up youth.

‘Ah,’ she said, ‘someone has stolen my eggs.’

Thinking she was talking about hens’ eggs, he sympathised with her and said how sorry he was to hear that.

‘Yes,’ she said, ‘you will be sorry.’

She stood up and stepped towards him, opening her mouth wide and letting out a wild and frightful scream. The young man should have been scared, but he was mesmerised by the strange scene, and she was only a tiny old lady. He stood there, wondering if she was perhaps a bit mad.

As she moved towards him, her mouth kept opening wider and wider. he could not quite believe what he was seeing. Closer and closer she got, and her mouth became a dark cave bearing down on him. Then he thought he saw in that cave darker creatures, with red eyes like hot coals, coming towards him.

He watched in puzzlement and fascination as the cave grew larger and nearer and the creatures within it approached and reached out for him.

All at once it occurred to him to be frightened. He still did not understand what he was seeing, but he understood that it was dangerous and that it was coming for him.

He screamed and ran, lashed by branches, slashed by brambles, but managing to break out of the wood at last.

He got away with his life and most of his sanity, but the Old Lady kept his knapsack and the stolen eggs.

A Note on the Reality of Fairies

A Note on the Reality of Fairies

It is said that the Fairy Folk used to be commonly seen in these parts. They were not the tiny, pretty bewinged creatures who danced through the addled Victorian imagination – that place where nature was defanged and submitted to the unnatural niceties of the new industrial age.

No, these Fairies were dangerous, quick to take offence and often deadly. They could give, but they were more likely to take away. Take your health, your spouse, your children, your sight, your life.

Cross them once and you would never have a chance to do it again, or even to make up for it – and it was not hard to cross them.

It was thought that they had lived in this land a long time before heavy, unmagical humans ever set foot here. Then we blundered into their world and took it away, shouldered them out, pushed them into corners and wastelands and tried to deny their existence.

Even so, everywhere there was a bit of wild, they persisted. If people kept them sweet, superstitiously leaving out the fairies’ share of the butter, the cream, the corn and the apples, then they left well alone. If they were forgotten or disrespected, they made the land wither, the cows dry up, the crops fail, and they crept into houses stealing away precious but intangible things.

They are beautiful, though, these wild, savage Fairies. Dressed in green, followed by enchanting strange music wherever they go (if they’re in a good mood), silver-eyed, dark-haired, golden-skinned.

If they discover that you have seen them, they will make you pay for the sight. Your sanity will be gone with the wind, and they might well curse you with the gift of poetry.

Some say they still live in those few lost places, where humans do not care to wander, but it is best not to go looking for them, unless you are prepared to pay the price.

Image: Titania by Arthur Rackham