Guest columnist Richard H. Fay is back today, as he continues to give us his very personal view of genre fiction, which he has been a part of as a reader, writer and illustrator for decades. You can read his blog here, and we also recommend checking out his Zazzle Store.
While traditional fairy lore often depicts fairies themselves as being ambiguous creatures, especially in regard to their shifting and varied attitudes toward mankind, specific facets of that lore remain crystal clear. One such aspect is the fact that certain fairy beings have traditionally been described as possessing a fairly standard list of distinguishing features. Numbered high among such distinctive members of the fairy realm is the bloody redcap (also called a bloody cap or simply redcap). Sadly, in today’s world, where the importance of such traditional descriptions has faded, folks seem to be losing knowledge of the recognized attributes of this murderous crimson-capped goblin.
A while back, this author ran across the Raven Reads YouTube channel and (being a student and scholar of fairy lore) took special note of the episode featuring alleged real-life encounters with the fay:
Part way through “TRUE Fae Stories in the Rain | Hybrid | TRUE Scary Stories in the Rain”, one tale in particular piqued this author’s interest. Raven reached a piece in which the witness alleged they had encountered a bloodcap [sic]/redcap. Unbelievable as it sounds, someone claimed they actually ran into a bloodcap [sic]/redcap, and lived to talk about it! However, there are issues with this claim.
Beyond the overall incredible nature of the report-in-question, two facts raise great concerns regarding its veracity. Firstly, from the description of the locality (a partially completed brick house and adjacent field somewhere in the United States — mention was made of both rednecks and a town called Kellyville), this run-in occurred far from the usual stomping ground of that nastiest Anglo-Scottish Border goblin. Secondly, the teller’s description of what they claimed to have seen failed to match the standard description of the sort of entity they claimed it to have been. When one consults traditional fairy lore, the first fact is not a disastrous defect, but the second brings the entire fabric of the story crashing down.
While some lore about relocating bogles, bogies, and other less-than-benign fairy entities supports the notion that bloody redcaps (assuming they are a class of goblin or dwarf and not a solitary abomination) might be found outside of their typical habitat and range (ruined towers on the Scottish Borders), there is little to nothing in fairy lore to suggest that such beings have ever varied in their appearance. Actually, according to tradition, bloody redcaps always exhibit a fairly standard look, one that includes certain distinctive attributes. The tale Raven read lacked most if not all of these identifying features.
In Raven’s video, the supposed eyewitness claimed that the supernatural being they saw matched exactly the description of a bloodcap [sic] in a book owned by their Pagan pot dealer. However, that description, of a fairy or demonic entity that appears as a white man possessing large jet eyes and big nose and being dressed in either dirty overalls and shirt with a straw hat on his bald head or an antiquated tuxedo and bad black toupee, does not match any written description of a bloody redcap of which this author is aware. Furthermore, it does not match any illustration of a bloody redcap this author has ever seen. The described attributes of this alleged bloodcap [sic] simply fail to tally with those in traditional bloody redcap lore. That glaring discrepancy is a neon sign screaming out that this story is most likely a mere fabrication penned by an author ignorant of such lore.
So, what have researchers and scholars of fairy lore written regarding the appearance of bloody redcaps? Quite a bit, actually.
Folklorist Katharine Briggs complied a marvellously informative academic-style dictionary of fairies, published in the United States in 1976 under the title An Encyclopedia of Fairies, Hobgoblins, Bogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures. In her entry about the redcap, Briggs included the following descriptive quote from William Henderson’s Folk-Lore of the Northern Counties: “a short thickset old man, with long prominent teeth, skinny fingers armed with talons like eagles, large eyes of a fiery-red colour, grisly hair streaming down his shoulders, iron boots, a pikestaff in his left hand, and a red cap on his head.”
Another work by Briggs, Abbey Lubbers, Banshees & Boggarts: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Fairies, echoed the redcap description in her earlier work. In this abridged 1979 version of her encyclopaedia for younger readers, Briggs described the redcap as having the appearance of an aged man with wide shoulders, long protruding teeth, thin arms and hands, and sharp claws. She went on to say that a redcap’s feet are typically shod in iron boots while a rust-coloured cap tops its head. She even mentioned the pikestaff held in the redcap’s left hand. In an illustration featured alongside the text, a grim-faced Scottish dwarf with pointed teeth wields a poleaxe and wears a feathered bonnet and iron-clad shoes.
Field Guide to the Little People (originally printed in 1977 and republished in 2009) by acupuncturist and organic gardener Nancy Arrowsmith presented a description of a redcap similar to that presented in Briggs’s works. Arrowsmith wrote that the redcap appears as a clawed, toothy, fiery-eyed, grey-haired old dwarf attired in red hat and heavy boots. Furthermore, Arrowsmith described the redcap as wielding a staff. An illustration of a rather evil-looking staff-carrying cap-wearing elf with sharp teeth, flaming eyes, and gnarled hair, accompanied the entry.
Carol Rose, research member at the University of Kent and senior lecturer at Canterbury College, included the redcap (under the entry “Bloody Cap”) in her comprehensive guide to denizens of the spirit realm entitled Spirits, Fairies, Leprechauns, and Goblins: An Encyclopedia. Rose pretty much followed the previous descriptions of a redcap: a grisly-haired fiery-eyed dwarfish old man clad in a red hat and iron boots and armed with pointed teeth, sharp talons, and pikestaff. As a matter of fact, Rose cited Briggs’s An Encyclopedia of Fairies as one of the sources for her “Bloody Cap” entry.
Even the New Age/Neo-Pagan slanted The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Fairies, authored by Pagan priestess, writer, and illustrator Anna Franklin, stuck to the more traditional description of a redcap. Again, the author described the redcap as looking like a dwarfish old man with sturdy build, lengthy grey hair, fiery eyes, protruding teeth, and taloned fingers. Again, the author mentioned the red hat, staff, and heavy boots.
The Mythical Creatures Bible: The Definitive Guide to Legendary Beings by Brenda Rosen described the redcap much the same way as did the previous sources — as a dwarfish being wearing iron-shod footwear and red cap (the latter dyed in human blood) and carrying an iron pike. The same can be said for Teresa Moorey’s very New Age/Neo-Pagan slanted The Fairy Bible: The Definitive Guide to the World of Fairies, which described the redcap as a malevolent Border goblin that dyes his cap in human blood. The Ultimate Fairies Handbook by Susannah Marriot also mentioned the redcap’s penchant for dying its crimson hat in human blood. The wonderfully illustrated compendium Faeries by artists Brian Froud and Alan Lee featured a watercolour of a redcap with the now-familiar array of traits: crimson cap worn over a pate covered in gnarled hair, sharp teeth protruding from a large mouth, skinny arms with hands armed with talons, feet shod in iron boots, and left-hand holding a staff-weapon (in this case, an axe or halberd).
Some constants run throughout most if not all the various descriptions of the bloody redcap of traditional lore. According to lore, the redcap’s most prominent facial feature was never a large nose, it was his sharp protruding teeth. The redcap was never bald-pated, he sported a head of grey, often grisly, hair. The redcap did not possess jet black eyes, he (as is often the case with evil entities) had fiery red eyes. The redcap never wore a straw hat or black toupee, he wore his distinctive red cap, one that he periodically re-dyed in human blood. That last feature gave this murderous Border goblin its name — a fairy entity sans blood-dyed red cap should not be called a bloody cap, bloody redcap, or bloodcap. Finally, the redcap often wore iron boots and wielded an iron-shod staff of some sort.
The redcap of lore never looked anything like the big-nosed, black-eyed, tuxedo-wearing entity in the supposedly true story featured in the Raven Reads video. Chances are good that the Raven Reads story is a complete fiction. Then again, perhaps the eyewitness did encounter another type of paranormal being, but it was no redcap. Considering the homicidal reputation redcaps acquired in traditional tales, if the witness had come fact-to-face with one, they probably would not have made it out of the encounter alive. This is especially true if the redcap had been in need of human blood to re-dye his trademark crimson cap! After all, there is a reason they were given the particular epithet of “bloody redcap”.
Note: Although the teller of the tale in the Raven Reads video called the entity they allegedly encountered a “bloodcap” (also “redcap”), this is the first time this author has ever run across “bloodcap” as an alternative name for this sort of fairy being. According to this author’s sources, alternative names for this sort of entity include: redcap, red cap, redcomb, bloody cap, dunter, and powrie. Bloodcap seems to be a new alternative unsupported by the sources.
Arrowsmith, N. (1977/2009). Field guide to the little people. Llewellyn Publications.
Briggs, K. (1976). An encyclopedia of fairies, hobgoblins, brownies, bogies, and other supernatural creatures. Pantheon Books.
Briggs, K. (1979). Abbey lubbers, banshees & boggarts: An illustrated encyclopedia of fairies. Pantheon Books.
Franklin, A. (2002/2004). The illustrated encyclopedia of fairies. Anova Books.
Froud, B, & Lee, A. (2002) Faeries: Twenty-fifth anniversary edition. Harry N. Abrams, Inc.
Marriott, S. (2006/2008). The ultimate fairies handbook. Octopus Publishing Group.
Moorey, T. (2008). The fairy bible: The definitive guide to the world of fairies. Sterling Publishing.
Raven Reads. (2023, February 10). TRUE fae stories in the rain | Hybrid | TRUE scary stories in the rain. Youtube.
Rose, C. (1996/1998). Spirits, fairies, leprechauns, and goblins: An encyclopedia. W. W. Norton.
Rosen, B. (2008/2009). The mythical creatures bible.: The definitive guide to legendary beings. Sterling Publishing.