Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth: Ch. 5 Annotation – Maneg Ellyllyn, or Foxgloves

Gaskell Blog ©
Guest Contributor: Kim Egolf

In Chapter 5, Henry and Ruth settle into life together at the inn of a small town in North Wales. On one afternoon when the weather is nice, Ruth ventures out into the beautiful countryside. On her walk, she meets another inhabitant of the town. They walk together, quietly appreciating the beauty around them. Ruth’s unnamed companion tells her about his yearly holidays to this area and how he has fallen in love with the people, the language, and the legends. They come upon a foxglove plant and he tells her a story.

‘For instance,’ said he, touching a long bud-laden stem of fox-glove in the hedge-side… ‘I dare say, you don’t know what makes this fox-glove bend and sway so gracefully. You think it is blown by the wind, don’t you?’

Photo © Phil McIver

He looked at her with a grave smile, which did not enliven his thoughtful eyes, but gave an inexpressible sweetness to his face.

‘I always thought it was the wind. What is it?’ asked Ruth, innocently.

‘Oh, the Welsh tell you that this flower is sacred to the fairies, and that it has the power of recognising them, and all spiritual beings who pass by, and that it bows in deference to them as they waft along. Its Welsh name is Maneg Ellyllyn — the good people’s glove; and hence, I imagine, our folk’s-glove or fox-glove.’

Her companion tells a charming fairy story, but there is even more to the legend and the name than he relates

The foxglove is a perennial plant that blooms each year in the summer months. It comes in a variety of colors, ranging from purple to white, and grows in groups of hanging bell-shaped flowers just large enough to slip your finger inside. Hence the “glove” in the name.

But, as Ruth’s companion tells us, there is a legend that also informs the name. “Folks” are also known as fairies or little people in the British Isles. The shape and size of the flowers are just about right for them to fit their fairy hands into. In Wales especially, the flowers are thought to be the favorite hiding place of fairies.

Image Courtesy of Mike Dana and Purdue University

But the Welsh name, used in Ruth, holds something a bit more sinister: Maneg Ellyllyn literally translates to “the little devil’s glove.” That is perhaps because this plant is a dangerous one. The scientific name of the foxglove may also remind us of this dangerous association: Digitalis.

No matter what its name or legend, the plant is highly poisonous and, in the right dosage, has the ability to severely affect the heart rate, possibly causing death.

  • Since flowers have already been so closely tied to Ruth, how do you think this might foreshadow the story?
  • The foxglove is beautiful on the outside, but toxic at its heart. Which character do you think this is meant to represent?
Photo © Flickr User: mmwm

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