Recently (belatedly) I bought a copy of Seeing fairies by Marjorie Johnson. It’s a loosely sorted catalogue of over four hundred twentieth century sightings of supernatural beings, fascinating for the data it provides on fairies and those who see them.
One thing that struck me was how the British and Irish conception of the fairy had spread worldwide. Most of the recorded experiences came from British residents, but there were also reports from Australia, the USA and New Zealand. Some strange things were seen from time to time, both in Britain as well as across the globe, but it was notable too how consistently a twofold division into gnomes and fairies was imposed.
The vast majority of the sightings in Seeing fairies predate the 1970s; far more recently, of course, cinema, television, the inter-web and the international availability of books through Amazon and Google Books have further exerted the English-speaking, Anglo-American cultural hegemony. Faerie has become very white, very Western European. There is a worrying trend for British fairies to become world fairies.
Very few writers envisage non-white fairies. I quote John Keats in the title of this posting, but even in his faery city “in midmost Ind” the “fay of colour” is unhappily presented as an exception to the ruling population, being “slave from top to toe/ Sent as a present…” (The cap and bells, XXI). I guess we must forgive Keats as a young man living in London in 1819.
In the older folklore there are very, very few mentions of ‘fays of colour.’ William of Newburgh, writing about England in the late 1100s, tells about a man called Ketell from Farnham in North Yorkshire who was accosted on the road by two little black men. Although often in fairy accounts the colour mentioned relates to the fairies’ clothes, not their complexion, the Latin reads “duos quasi Ethiopes parvulos.” Even if you can’t read Latin, I’m sure you can spot ‘Ethiopian.’ These men looked like black Africans, in other words. Much more recently, some men “with black faces and wee green coaties” were seen by Jenny Rogers, wife of the coachman on the Yair Estate at Ashestiel in the Scottish Borders. Once again they seem to be diminutive- judging by the coats anyway- and they don’t have a Caucasian skin tone.
Contemporary writers on the fairy faith often include lists of fairy types in their books, as a guide to those readers who hope to encounter fays themselves. These can be comprehensive in their coverage, including fays from all over Europe and, sometimes, all over the world. For example, Edain McCoy in her books The witch’s guide and Magick of fairies lists beings from Israel, Mexico, the Middle East and Australia. At the same time, though, she asserts that certain types, like elves, are found worldwide. Similarly, in her Complete guide to faeries and magical beings (2001), Cassandra Eason provides a very comprehensive ‘A-Z of world fairies’ but includes within it a statement that “elves have been recorded worldwide.” This is nothing to do with folk tradition but everything to do with colonialism. Whilst local fay types are recognised, the tendency of most writers in Australia is not to see bunyips; instead, they identify fairies, elves and leprechauns. In the same way, in North America most visions are not of kachinas, abatwas or pukwudgies (for the latter, see Magical folk, Simon Young, 2017) but of imported fairy types.
One of the fundamental motivations of this blog has been to preserve local distinctions. This is a site interested in the fairies of the British Isles– not of Ireland, nor Brittany, nor any other European or other country. This is not chauvinism, but it is about celebrating and preserving local varieties and differences. The tendency of mass (social) media is to confuse or erase these distinctions, reducing the fairy races to just a handful and (worst of all) ethnically cleansing our folklore of all except the frankly rather Aryan looking tall, blond elves of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Faerie is richer and more interesting than that.