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The term “imp” is somewhat general and sometimes interchangeable with “fairy” or “demon” – depending on what you’re reading – which causes a lot of confusion as to what an imp really is. Especially since they appear in different tales with strikingly different behaviours, abilities and manifestations.
I firmly believe that Thumbelina by Hans Christian Andersen is an Imp.
“The woman kissed the bud and it opened instantly. There in the center of the red and yellow petals as a child – a little girl no taller than your thumb.”
“He asked her if she would like to be queen of the flowers…”
Perhaps I believe that she’s an imp because she can’t help but mislead others into believing that she’ll stay with them forever – from the woman who planted the seed she came from, to the frog, the mole and even the sparrow. And, of course, she’s tiny.
Originating from Germanic folklore, the imp was a small lesser goblin. Imps were often mischievous rather than evil or harmful (goblins in Germanic legend were not necessarily evil), and in some regions, they were portrayed as attendants of the gods.
Imps are often shown as small and not very attractive creatures. Their behavior is described as being wild and uncontrollable, much the same as fairies, and in some cultures, they were considered the same beings, both sharing the same sense of free spirit and enjoyment of all things fun. It was later in history that people began to associate fairies with being good and imps with being malicious and evil. However, both creatures were fond of pranks and misleading people. Most of the time, the pranks were harmless fun, but some could be upsetting and harmful, such as switching babies or leading travellers astray in places with which they were not familiar. Though imps are often thought of as being immortal, many cultures believed that they could be damaged or harmed by certain weapons and enchantments, or be kept out of people’s homes by the use of wards.
Imps were often portrayed as lonely little creatures, always in search of human attention. They often used jokes and pranks as a means of attracting human friendship, which often backfired when people became tired or annoyed of the imp’s endeavors, usually driving it away.
Even if the imp was successful in getting the friendship it sought, it often still played pranks and jokes on its friend, either out of boredom or simply because this was the nature of the imp. This trait gave way to using the term “impish” for someone who loves pranks and practical jokes. Being associated with hell and fire, imps take a particular pleasure from playing with temperatures.
Imps can be found in art and architecture throughout the world, often carefully hidden under the eaves of a church or the foot of a ceramic cup, so they can only be found by the most interested and observant of people. They frequently appear in children’s stories (such as Silvia in which she is followed by a black imp).
Imps are characteristically described as small, quick and full of mischievous energy. The terms elf, rascal sprite, hellion are often synonymously used for imps.
Imps are mythological beings similar to fairies or demons described in the folklore of various cultures and superstitions. Imps are generally regarded as lesser beings in comparison to the importance accorded to other supernatural beings. Fairies originate from Western tradition to refer to mythical creatures having magical powers. They generally indulge in activities for the good of mankind. Fairies have a human appearance and can fly unlike the imps or pixies. Some fairies are known for casting evil spells.
They are generally considered harmless and unimportant, and this fact is infuriating to imps, and is sometimes a driving force behind an imp’s tricks and pranks, desperate to prove himself important. Imps in many stories are generally benevolent, but their tricks can sometimes get them into trouble, or may cause unexpected harm on those they are pranking. They are described as wild and mischievous.
So if Imps and Goblins are basically the same race, then how do we differentiate? Well, obviously Imps are the mischievous guys and Goblins tend to be more inclined to hurt and maim. We’ll look into Goblins in a future post.
Imps can appear in different sizes and shapes. Their magical abilities vary from nation to nation. Fantasy fiction has twisted these creatures to fit whatever story they have to play in. But they weren’t always the way you imagine them. Imps from the real world are tricky, mischievous and sometimes malicious.
Though there are others on this list of top ten Goblins, only these three struck me as being Imps instead.
Which leads me to believing that Puck from Shakespeare’s play is an imp.
The Old English púcel is a kind of half-tamed woodland spirit, leading folk astray with echoes and lights in nighttime woodlands (like the German and Dutch “Weisse Frauen” and “Witte Wieven” and the French “Dames Blanches,” all “White Ladies”), or coming into the farmstead and souring milk in the churn. The etymology of Puck is examined by Katharine Mary Briggs, in Anatomy of Puck (New York: Arno) 1977. The term pixie is in origin a diminutive of puck (compared to Swedish word “pyske” meaning “small fairy”).
If you had the knack, Puck might do minor housework for you, quick fine needlework or butter-churning, which could be undone in a moment by his knavish tricks if you fell out of favour with him.
“Those that Hob-goblin call you, and sweet Puck, / You do their work, and they shall have good luck” said one of William Shakespeare‘s fairies. Shakespeare’s characterization of “shrewd and knavish” Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream may have revived flagging interest in Puck.
Puck is a clever, mischievous elf, sprite or jester that personifies the wise knave. In the play, Shakespeare introduces Puck as the “shrewd and knavish sprite” and “that merry wanderer of the night”; he is a jester to Oberon, the fairy king. Puck and Bottom are the only two characters who interact and progress the three central stories in the whole play; Puck is the one who is first introduced in the fairies’ story and creates the drama of the lovers’ story by breaking up a young couple lost in an enchanted forest, as well as by placing the ass on Bottom’s head. Similarly, Bottom is performing in a play intending it to be presented in the lovers’ story, as well as interacting with Titania in the fairies’ story.
At the end of the play (Act 5 Scene 1) Puck delivers a speech in which he addresses the audience directly, apologizing for anything that might have offended them and suggesting that they pretend it was a dream:
If we shadows have offended, Think but this, and all is mended, That you have but slumber’d here While these visions did appear. And this weak and idle theme, No more yielding but a dream, Gentles, do not reprehend: If you pardon, we will mend: And, as I am an honest Puck, If we have unearned luck Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue, We will make amends ere long; Else the Puck a liar call; So, good night unto you all. Give me your hands, if we be friends, And Robin shall restore amends.
Well, it seems that Imps are everywhere.
They can even be silly.
When I was a little girl there was this awesome TV show called Dawie die Kabouter (Dave the Gnome).
Anyhow, it was a great story about these faeries living in the forest and taking care of it and the animals who live there. Of course they had enemies in the form of trolls.
When you translate “kabouter” from Afrikaans to English, you get “brownie, elf, gnome, goblin, hobgoblin, imp, puck, pixie, pixy”. Yeah, talk about confusing.
In my Saphira the Faery Dog stories, I use “huiskabouter” for brownie. So when I needed something to describe the “kabouters” I saw in the forest, I went for “imp”. Out of the list of words “kabouter” translated into, it was the most accurate for what I was seeing these faeries doing. Oh, yeah. I wrote stories about nature-loving faeries called imps.
Imps are the caretakers of the forests.
They can easily be mistaken for leaves or twigs. They have big glowing eyes that are as light green as plant sap; sharp, pointy teeth; pointy ears. The older they get, the more bark grows on them. While they’re young, they look more like green leaves. You can tell their relative age by their colouring: the greener the younger, and how browner they get the older they are. They live in trees.
They tend the Faery Rings growing in the forests. Faery Rings are made up of rocks, moss and white flowers. The Imps use these to change the size of their guests.
Imps have powerful magic. Not only do they use the Faery Rings to change the size of their guests in the forest, they also have the power to change Summoning Spells in such a way that not even Faery Dogs can break it. Something the poor Faery Dog and the human children he has to protect find out in the first Eddie and Greta book.
Imps also have power over the forest itself. They can make ferns move in such a way that it’s almost like riding on waves. Tree branches move to accommodate them. They even have houses inside plants without harming the host.
Imps travel all over the forest every day, taking care of every plant. It’s what they do.
Being the caretakers of the forests, they have their own greenhouses to grow new trees and other plants. That allows them to plant new trees and other plants in the forest faster. They have various creatures of the forest work for them. Slugs help seeds germinate by keeping them moist. Spiders make sure that the saplings aren’t eaten by hungry critters. Earthworms do all the composting. And in the Knysna forest, the Imps have trained the Knysna louries to fly them wherever they wish to go.
Imps are extremely happy. When they wish to show support, they’ll cheer loudly. They love mischief like most Fae. They enjoy their lives, their work and see only the good in the world. Even when humans destroy their forest, they do not become dark and vindictive. They leave revenge to the other Fae living there while they regrow the forest.
Unfortunately, being plant Faeries, they get eaten by animals by mistake. A lot.
Though they have an elder who leads their group, they take the words of the oldest tree inhabited by a Tree Nymph in their forest very seriously. They believe that this old Tree Nymph isn’t just wise, but knows a lot about the past and the future.
Imps are the size of an adult’s thumb. Though they can be any size they need to be to protect their forest.
Part of keeping the forest clean is to eat whatever dies there. Imps only eat what’s already dead. Whether animal or plant doesn’t really matter to them. They’ll even eat the corpses of other Fae or humans.
“Alarmed she sat up. Amazing! Imps, just as she remembered them from TV shows when she was little, surrounded her. Pointy ears and all. She closed her eyes. Maybe she’d hit her head on a rock? She opened her eyes again. Nope. They were still there – each one as big as her thumb. They stood between the multi-coloured bushes and on the ferns and some fell out of the trees with large leaves as parachutes.
‘She’s alive!’ one green Imp yelled in shocked surprise.
‘False alarm!’ another yelled.
Some of the Imps looked disappointed and disappeared back into the forest. Carla wondered if she’d read their sharp faces correctly. Why would they be disappointed that she wasn’t dead?
‘So much for lunch!’ the green one next to her said with a sigh.”
– Forest Fae Friends, Ronel Janse van Vuuren
I hope you enjoy reading this story. Comments can be left here or on writing.com – I always appreciate feedback. Do you like stories with imps in it? How do you imagine imps to be?