In William Allingham’s poem The fairies (1883) he gives late expression to a formerly common attitude to fairies:
“Up the airy mountain,/ Down the rushy glen,/ We daren’t go a-hunting/ For fear of little men;/ Wee folk, good folk, Trooping all together;”
The traditional terror of fairies and the change in attitudes in more recent times is something I have touched upon before and which I wish to analyse in some more detail.
Until at least the early seventeenth century, the conventional view of fairy kind was that they were as dangerous as they were intriguing and enticing. For example, the eller maids of Denmark were beautiful, but also deadly: anyone lured into dancing with them would be danced to death; they would never be able to stop and would perish from exhaustion. Fairies were the causes of disease and stole human children, food and possessions, as I have previously described.
What I wish to examine here is how these fearsome and sometimes fatal creatures could deteriorate into something cloyingly cute and eminently suitable for little girls to imitate. In Religion and the decline of magic (1971) Keith Thomas prefaces his discussion of fairy beliefs by observing that “Today’s children are brought up to think of fairies as diminutive beings of a benevolent disposition, but the fairies of the Middle Ages were neither small nor particularly kindly” (p.724). When was our fearful respect for the fairies replaced by a simpering, indulgent affection?
I have dated the change, as I suggest, to around 1600. Shakespeare provides us with some evidence of the shift in popular perceptions. Some commentators view him as the sole culprit, but this is to imbue him with far greater influence and respect than he had at the time. He may now be seen as a genius and cultural icon, but that was not his status in his lifetime; as a playwright he did not shape views, but he certainly does reflect them.
Take, for example, Midsummer Night’s Dream. On the one hand there is Puck, whose magic interventions in human affairs might be dismissed as farcically inept, but who should probably best be viewed as mischievous, if not malignant, in his conduct. He admits to revelling in his tricks, for certain. At another extreme are the fairies introduced by Titania to Bottom, called Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth and Mustardseed; here we have a first hint of the tiny and harmless beings with whom we are so familiar today. A sense of these fairies’ size is conveyed by their use of glow-worms as lanterns and their hiding in acorn cups to escape Oberon’s fury. By contrast, there is the encounter in The Merry Wives of Windsor between Sir John Falstaff and some children disguised as fairies. They may be small, but that does not in the least detract from the horror he feels: “They are fairies; he that speaks to them shall die: I’ll wink and couch: no man their works must eye” (Act V scene 5). Lack of stature, for Shakespeare’s contemporaries, still did not of necessity denote weakness or an amenable nature.
What exactly changed, then? I think that there is a number of causes. The growth of science and industry, particularly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, removed the justification for and threat of fairies. Previously, as Geoffrey Parrinder remarked, “they helped explain many of the curious happenings of life” (Witchcraft, Pelican, 1958, p.70). By the later 1600s, this function was being superseded as John Aubrey wrote:
“Old wives tales- Before printing old wives’ tales were ingenious, and since Printing came into fashion, til a little before the Civil-Warres, the ordinary Sort of People were not taught to read; nowadayes bookes are common, and most of the poor people understand letters; and the many good bookes, and a variety of Turnes of affaires; have putt all the old Fables out of doors and the divine art of Printing and Gunpowder have frightened away Robin Goodfellow and the Fayries” (Remains of Gentilisme & Judaisme, 1687-89, p.68).
When they were no longer required to explain illness, they were left as merely decorative and un-threatening. That said, if fairies had become redundant in this environment, their social function could be preserved by transporting them to other worlds. This appears to be what has happened: green clad goblins have been translated into the ‘little green men’of science fiction.
Secondly, rationalism and religious scepticism has had a role. Disbelief in a spirit world is sufficient to kill off fairies entirely, but it has also stopped them being taken seriously. Once this had happened, their descent into cuteness and whimsy was easy.
Fairy belief for a long time was treated as a thing of the previous generation. For instance, John Aubrey recalled that “when I was a Boy, our Countrey people would talke much of them…” meaning ‘Faieries.’ His contemporary, Sir William Temple, said much the same thing, suggesting that fairy belief had only really declined over the previous thirty years or so (i.e. during the mid-seventeenth century). Robert Burton, writing the Anatomy of melancholy in 1621, shared these opinions: fairies had been “in former times adored with much superstition” but were now seen only from time to time by old women and children.
Nevertheless, doubt seems to have been well established by the 1580s at least. The best evidence for this is Reginald Scot’s The discoverie of witchcraft (1584). The book is an assault upon belief in witches, but he compares this extensively with the parallel belief in a supernatural race of beings. In his introduction ‘To the reader’ Scot remarks that:
“I should no more prevail herein [i.e., in persuading his audience] than if a hundred years since I should have entreated your predecessors to believe that Robin Goodfellow, that great and ancient bull-beggar, had been a cozening merchant and no devil indeed. But Robin Goodfellow ceaseth now to be much feared…”
Once again, the fairy faith is a thing of the (distant) past. Later Scot comments that “By this time all Kentishmen know (a few fooles excepted) that Robin Goodfellow is a knave” (Book XVI, c.7). Scot’s theme is that such credulity is not just old-fashioned; it is now the preserve of the simple and weak. He repeats these allegations throughout his text: “the feare of manie foolish folke, the opinion of some that are wise, the want of Robin Goodfellow and the fairies, which were woont to mainteine chat and the common people’s talke in this behalfe … All which toies take such hold upon men’s fansies, as whereby they are lead and entised away from the consideration of true respects, to the condemnation of that which they know not” (The Epistle); likewise- “we are so fond, mistrustful and credulous that we feare more the fables of Robin Goodfellow, astrologers and witches and beleeve more things that are not than things that are. And the more unpossible a thing is, the more we stand in feare thereof” (Book XI, c.22).
Talk of fairies then, was in Scot’s opinion only fit for “yoong children” and its only purpose was to “deceive and seduce.” Scot is concerned how many in the past were “cousened and abused” by such tales and he admonishes his readers to remember this:
“But you shall understand that these bugs speciallie are spied and feared of sicke folke, children, women and cowards, which through weakness of mind and body are shaken with vain dreams and continuall feare… But in our childhood our mothers maids have so terrified us with … urchins, elves, hags, fairies… that we are afraid of our own shadowes” (Book VII, c.15).
Scot remained confident in the advance of reason, however:
“And know you this, by the waie, that heretofore Robin Goodfellow and Hobgoblin were as terrible and also as credible to the people as hags and witches be now, and in time to come a witch will be as derided and contemned, and as plainlie perceived, as the illusion and knaverie of Robin Goodfellow…” (Book VII, c.2)
King James I/VI in his Daemonologie (1597) was just as scornful as Scot of any belief in ‘Phairie’ but he did not ascribe it to mere foolishness. For him, it was more sinister- it was a deception of the devil who had “illuded the senses of sundry simple creatures, in making them beleeve that they saw and harde such thinges as were nothing so indeed.” Although the fairy faith was “one of the illusiones that was risest in the time of Papistrie” it was thankfully in decline in Presbyterian Scotland at the time that he wrote (c.V).
Thirdly, fairy belief dwindled as the natural world was increasingly explored, surveyed and quantified. When every acre of land was being assessed for its productive value and as a capital asset, the fairies were mapped and measured out of existence. On a crowded island, no space was left for anything except the tiniest of beings to survive. In fact, even as early as the first quarter of the seventeenth century, Michael Drayton could equate smallness with fairy nature: in his Eighth Nymphal he declares “Why, by her smallness you may find/ That she is of the fairy kind.”
The cumulative effect of these societal changes was, as Keith Thomas wrote, that “By the Elizabethan age, fairy lore was primarily a store of mythology rather than a corpus of living beliefs” (Religion and the decline of magic, 1971, p.726). Deprived of its rationale, the decay set in quickly. There is a suggestion of flight in Drayton’s Poly-Olbion- “The frisking fairy there, as on the light air borne” (1613, Song XXI) but explicit winged flight is first mentioned in The Rape of the Lock from 1712, in which Alexander Pope imagined fairies “Some to the sun their insect wings unfold/ Waft on the breeze or sink in clouds of gold.” When, in 1798, Thomas Stothard illustrated Pope’s book with fairies with butterfly wings, the trend was confirmed. Contemporaneously, we may note a bat winged Puck by Fuseli from 1790 and a tiny winged fairy creature in his illustration of Titania awakening with Bottom dated to 1794. This quickly seems to have become the convention: in subsequent Victorian images fairies are predominantly winged creatures; these wings are either gauzy like dragonflies’ or patterned like butterflies’.
All the same, folk belief could still lag well behind popular culture and artistic representations: Ivor Gurney wrote a poem in 1918 that must preserve older Gloucestershire beliefs. Having waited in a lane at dusk for a lover to return home, he is alarmed by a bustle in the hedgerow:
“Until within the ferny brake/ Stirred patter-feet and silver talk/ That set all horror wide awake-/ I fear the fairy folk.” (Girl’s Song, September 1918)
There have been stubborn resisters too to the sentimentalising tendency. Rudyard Kipling in Puck of Pook’s Hill (1908) made clear his feelings; Puck tells Dan and Una (p.14):
“Besides, what you call [fairies] are made up things the People of the Hills have never heard of- little buzzflies with butterfly wings and gauze petticoats, and shiny stars in their hair, and a wand like a school-teacher’s cane for punishing bad boys and rewarding good ones… Can you wonder that the People of the Hills don’t care to be confused with that painty-winged, wand-waving, sugar-and-shake-your-head set of impostors? Butterfly wings indeed!”
The ultimate result of this decline is some of the twee horrors to be found. For Christmas, I received a card bearing an illustration by Ida Rentoul Outhwaite. Along with Cicely Mary Barker, she is one of the prime offenders in the genre loathed by Kipling (and Puck). Amongst her pictures you will find fairies with perfect 1920s bobs and, worse still, gambling with koala bears at drinks parties…
The resistance to the sentimentalising tendency continues (see for example the remarks of Cassandra Lobiesk on her website Fae folk: the world of fae- see my links page), but after at least a century, it may sadly be a losing battle. An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).