Heck of a Job, Brownie

As I’ve written before, the idea that Santa Claus’s helpers are elves was not universal until relatively recently. In fact, Ruth Plumly Thompson’s The Curious Cruise of Captain Santa refers to them as brownies, which in a way makes more sense. Brownies are house-spirits from British folklore, and are said to perform various tasks around the house.

Traditionally, elves weren’t that beneficent, although the term has since come to be more inclusive. There are tales throughout Europe and probably elsewhere as well about fairy beings that help out in a household, including hobgoblins and kobolds. The term “brownie” presumably comes from the color of the creatures, who were said to have flat faces but cheerful attitudes. Mostly, though, they prefer not to be seen, usually performing their tasks at night. They tend to become attached to particular families, and will follow a chosen family when they move. It is customary to leave milk out for brownies, and they also enjoy porridge and honey.

Leaving too much food is a bad idea, however, and you definitely shouldn’t give them clothes. As with other fairies of the sort, they will leave upon receiving clothing. Another legend associated with brownies is that they hold assemblies, usually on deserted shores. I think the idea of brownies as helpful and small is what led to the name being used for junior Girl Scouts, but I don’t believe there’s any association with the dessert. I have to suspect that a brownie wouldn’t mind being given a brownie to eat, however, as their love of honey suggests a sweet tooth. The Canadian illustrator Palmer Cox was known for creating comics about brownies in the late nineteenth century.

In L. Frank Baum’s short story “The Ryl of the Lilies,” a boy asks a Ryl if he is a brownie, and he replies, “Really, now, do I look like one of those impossible, crawly, mischievous elves? Is my body ten times bigger than it should be? Do my legs look like toothpicks and my eyes like saucers?” Baum is apparently referencing Cox’s brownies, which were quite popular at the time.

This entry was posted in British, Celtic, L. Frank Baum, Mythology, Oz, Oz Authors, Ruth Plumly Thompson and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Heck of a Job, Brownie

  1. And in Harry Potter, House Elves were essentially Brownies?

    • Nathan says:

      Pretty much, although one site I looked at mentioned how brownies were actually more likely to serve poor families, while in Rowling’s world they tend to belong to rich households.

  2. The Brownie Girl Scouts definitely get their name from the helpful sprites. There was a whole origin myth about it, that we used to act out each year. I tried to find the story because I only remember vague details of it, but an easy search didn’t bring it up and I’m too lazy for more in-depth.

  3. halinabq says:

    Sounds like the house elves in “Harry Potter” were modeled after these brownies, in that they were attached to the household, did chores, and could leave if given clothing.

    • Nathan says:

      I think that was definitely Rowling’s inspiration. Not sure why she called them elves instead of brownies, but she was hardly the first to do so. The story of the Elves and the Shoemaker also uses it, apparently starting with an 1884 English translation. The German word the Grimms used for the helpful fairies was “Wichtelmänner.”

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