Spoilers for Sandman and The Books of Magic!
Hell stands empty and locked, and its fate is in the hands of the Lord of Dreams. Dozens of guests have descended on the Dreaming, each with their own reason for wanting Hell turned over to them. Among these petitioners are two fae, Cluracan and his sister Nuala, who have a different request—to leave the realm empty, and thus free Faerie from its debt to Hell.
This could, to the casual reader, be confusing. After all, the fae and the Christian Hell are from entirely different sets of mythology. So why in the world would Faerie be linked to Hell in such a way?
The faerie tithe to hell is a late addition to faerie mythology. It seems to be based almost entirely on two Scottish ballads dated to around the 14th century, “Tam Lin” and “Thomas the Rhymer.” In “Tam Lin,” the eponymous hero explains to Janet that:
Ay at the end of seven years,
We pay a tiend to hell,
I am sae fair and fu o flesh,
I’m feard it be mysel.
Tam Lin wants Janet to rescue him from faerie, not because faerie is terrible (he says it’s “pleasant”), but because he’s so very pretty that he’s sure to be picked as the next offering to Hell. Similarly, the queen of faerieland sends Thomas the Rhymer away out of fear that the devil will choose him as his next offering:
Ffor sothe, Thomas, als I þe tells,
þou base bene here thre ȝere and more;
Bot langere here þou may noghte duelle;
The skylle I sall þe tells whare-fore.
To morne of belle þe foulle fende
Amange this folke will feche his fee;
And þon arts mekill mane and hende;
I trowe full wele he wolde chose the.
(Basically, the devil is coming tomorrow to collect his fee, and you’re so pretty I know he’ll take you, so you have to go home now.)
And that’s it! There really aren’t any more literary references to the fae owing a tithe to Hell. As far as I can tell, there isn’t even a single clear explanation about why Faerie owes this debt. In The Annotated Sandman, Leslie Klinger offers a couple of possibilities: the fae are fallen angels that didn’t quite become demons, or they predate humanity, so they’re under Hell’s jurisdiction.
Katharine Briggs, in her study of the various mythologies of the fae, says that faeries:
are often said to live very long but to perish on death, as having no souls, though they are sometimes thought capable of acquiring them. Sometimes they are held to be in a pendulous state between salvation and damnation, like mankind, sometimes already damned. Sometimes they are only compelled to pay a teind to Hell.
She also speculates that the faerie habit of kidnapping humans might have been specifically to pay the tithe to Hell. Despite the lack of origin of this particular bit of faerie lore, “Tam Lin” has become popular enough among fantasy writers and folk music artists that the idea isn’t entirely unknown, even outside Scotland.
Gaiman adds just a bit to the folklore; Cluracan says that the debt is because of an “ancient compact,” and that the tithe involves actual sacrifice of “nine of our wisest, our most beautiful.” Whether those are fae or humans or both, he doesn’t say. Gaiman mentions it again in The Books of Magic, but again, the terms are fuzzy; we are told only that “Faerie and [Hell] have always been linked—by right of tithe, if nothing else.” It is worth noting that the “ancient compact” doesn’t appear to be with Lucifer, as Lucifer’s abdication apparently doesn’t end the debt. Given that Hell doesn’t seem to have existed before Lucifer arrived ten billion years ago, this does raise questions about the exact terms of the compact.
However, the compact itself is, narratively, hardly more than an excuse to bring the fae into the Dreaming. (This may actually be thematically appropriate; E.B. Lyle has theorized that the tithe only appears in “Tam Lin”and “Thomas the Rhymer” as a narrative device to get the men in question out of faerie and back home.) Cluracan has no hope or expectation that their petition will be the one Morpheus accepts. The compact isn’t mentioned again, not even when Morpheus ultimately turns Hell over to a pair of angels, essentially reinstating the status quo. Instead, two panel-heavy pages are given over to Cluracan informing Morpheus (and Nuala) that Nuala is a gift from Titania, and Titania’s gifts are a no-taksie-backsies deal.
What Cluracan doesn’t say, but that Gaiman explores in The Books of Magic, is that gifts from faerie are essentially compulsory favors; Titania tells Tim that “You in your turn now owe a gift to me, Timothy, a gift of equal value and worth. Otherwise, I will be forced to take . . . you.” And as shown both in Sandman and The Books of Magic, Titania isn’t above forcing or tricking people into taking her gifts.
The implication is that she expects a gift equivalent to Nuala from Morpheus at some point. In Vertigo Jam #1, Nuala herself explains that she’s a “present. Or a bribe. Or a way of removing a problem.” However, when Titania hears that Cluracan has witnessed Morpheus’ funeral, she instead takes Nuala back, probably anticipating that Morpheus will not be able to repay her before his death—either with a gift or with his servitude.
One of the main strengths of Gaiman’s writing in general, and Sandman in particular, is his ability to interweave various mythologies into a mostly coherent whole. In the case of Sandman, he’s gone with an “all the myths are true” approach, one which doesn’t favor any one mythology over another. Faerie may owe a debt to Hell, but it’s not because the early theologians who cast pagan gods/spirits as “demons” were right. Faerie is its own realm in its own right, only this one odd quirk of mythology tying it to the (mostly) Christian version of Hell. This quirk, however, allows Gaiman to bring the fae into the dispute over Hell and introduce Nuala to the narrative, putting in place one of the factors that ultimately leads to Morpheus’ death.
Big thanks to Dr. Martha Hixon, Dr. Linda Lee, Kimberly Bea, Stacie Turner, and Leah Komar for helping provide sources and ideas.
References and Further Reading
Sandman Issues 21-28, “Season of Mists”
Sandman Issue 58, “The Kindly Ones: Part 2”
The Books of Magic
Vertigo Jam #1, “The Castle”
Sarah Allison, “The Fairy Tithe to Hell in Scottish Tradition”
Katharine Briggs, A Dictionary of British Folk-Tales, 1971.
Katharine Briggs, “The English Fairies,” Folklore 68.1, 1957.
Morgan Daimler, Faeries: A Guide to the Celtic Fair Folk, 2017.
Martha Hixon, “Tam Lin, Fair Janet, and the Sexual Revolution: Traditional Ballads, Fairy Tales, and Twentieth-Century Children’s Literature,” Marvels & Tales 18.1, 2004.
E.B. Lyle, “The Teind to Hell in ‘Tam Lin’,” Folklore 81.3, 1970.