In her book, Strange and secret peoples, Carole Silver observes that “fairy sadism is repeatedly depicted in Victorian painting.” She identifies a series of well-known images in which various forms of animal cruelty are portrayed (chapter 5, pp.157-164). These include pictures by Richard Doyle (March of the elf king and Elves battling frogs), Noel Paton (owls are being hunted and tormented in both his paintings of Titania and Oberon), George Naish (Midsummer fairies), Edward Hopley (Puck and moth) and, most notably, John Anster Fitzgerald in his series of pictures of fairies tormenting and killing a robin. It’s fair to mention, though, that although wanton cruelty seems to be a pastime for Fitzgerald’s fays, he also depicts scenes of communion with wildlife.
The theme is not just found in visual art. In literature of the period, too, animal abuse is described- for example fairies tormenting an owl (again) in M R James, After dark in the playing field (1924) and Maurice Hewlett, The lore of Proserpine (1913) in which there is a description of the casual torture of a rabbit by a fairy (pp.25-26).
Hopley, Puck and Moth
Silver suggests that the artist’s intention was to avoid portrayals of fairy mistreatment of humans, by transferring the suffering to dumb animals. This could well be the case; traditional fairies are known for their mischief- if not malice- against mortals. It may also be possible that the increasing tendency to see fairies as small children gave rise to the idea that they would behave like them, with the same thoughtless cruelty.
The traditional view
Is there any traditional support for these recent depictions? The short and simple answer is no. For many contemporary fairy writers and enthusiasts, fairies have become the archetype of eco-awareness and the concept of abuse of wild animals seems anathema. This appears to be an entirely traditional view too.
As early as The pranks of Puck in the seventeenth century protection of hunted beasts is a theme. In the ballad Puck hides himself in snares and traps left by men and scares the hunters when they return to collect their catch. Very much more recently, the same kind of behaviour is ascribed to the pixies in Jon Dathen’s fascinating collection of modern interviews Somerset faeries and pixies (Capall Bann Publishing, 2010). In one story told to Dathen, the pixies give shelter to an exhausted fox pursued by horses and hounds (p.22). (By pure coincidence, in by novel The elder queen, I imagined North Devon fairies helping hunted foxes and badgers in much the same way).
Elsewhere is Dathen’s book he is told (by two separate interviewees) that “if there’s one thing the pixies despise, it’s cruelty to animals.” If they become aware of mistreatment or neglect of wild or domesticated beasts, the guilty person will be punished by the pixies, generally by the time-honoured means of vicious pinching (Dathen pp.14 & 72-74). The pixies are described as being especially close to certain animals, including horses and (significantly- given the earlier discussion) robins (pp.72-3 & 48). In Seeing fairies, Marjorie Johnson’s collection of modern accounts of fairy sighting, there is another mention of fairy care for wildlife in heavy snowfall on moorland (pp.135-136).
Abusers or allies?
I have mentioned before the convention that, purportedly, fairies fight amongst themselves; as we have seen there may be little compunction about teasing, tormenting or even abducting humans who have infringed their unspoken rules or fallen under their power. According to others, the fays are vegetarian and as such might be expected to hate hunting.
On balance the evidence suggests that fairies are not imagined traditionally as gratuitously cruel. They injure those who offend them, but not defenceless beasts. Although more modern representations of faeries as harmless, winged and tiny have undoubtedly compounded the perception, the concept of fays as being in harmony with nature and protecting their surroundings seem to have deep roots.
I have written previously about fairy warfare. An expanded version of this text will appear in my next book, Faeries, which will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide next year.
There is a body of opinion that fairies have no fixed, physical form and that when they appear to us they shape themselves to our expectations. This notion first seems to be mentioned in a fairy context by W B Yeats in his introduction to Fairy and folk tales of the Irish peasantry (1888).Many generations of mystics and occult writers have acknowledged the existence of spiritual beings, he wrote- beings “who have no inherent form but change according to their whim, or the mind that sees them.”
Yeats did not originate this idea. Early on, Theosophists had formulated the concept of ‘thought forms.’ Mahatma Koot Humi, one of Madame Blavatsky’s mentors and inspirations, wrote that “thoughts are things… they are real entities.” This idea was elaborated by Charles Leadbeater and Annie Besant in a book, Thought forms, in 1905; they asserted that thoughts produced a radiating vibration conveying their emotion and also had a floating form. The idea was then transferred nature spirits and elementals. To become visible, they assume etheric bodies, which are shaped by folklore stories and human imaginations. Robert Ogilvie Crombie of Findhorn explained that, although its natural form is a swirl of light, an elemental “can put on any of these thought forms and then appear personified as that particular being … elf, gnome, faun, fairy and so on.” Edward Gardner had a related but different conception. He believed that Elsie and Frances at Cottingley had abilities akin to mediums. They could materialist the fairies they photographed through ectoplasm, which was the explanation for their contemporary appearance.
The idea of the thought form was developed in relation to fairies by Geoffrey Hodson in Angels and the new race (1929). Heasserted that fairies have no physical body but are formed of light, albeit along the ‘same model’ as humans. In The kingdom of the gods in 1952 Hodson elaborated on these ideas: the archetype for the fairy form was the human body and their appearance was further determined by our expectations as to what we might see.
These ideas still prevail. In Signe Pike’s 2009 book Faery tale she interviewed artist Brian Froud who told her (p.91):
“It’s often thought that faeries use our own thought patterns to manifest themselves. For example, when a faery appears to a person, it will typically look quite similar to the creatures you see in storybooks. This is because if you were to see a ball of energy, would you really know it was a faery? No. So they try to ‘speak’ our visual language. We see wings, and flowing dresses, and heads and eyes. The problem is, we think we’re just making it up.”
Likewise in The faery faithby Serena Roney-Dougal, she discusses how our psyche may create some of the things we see (pp.67-71).
Solid- or see-through illusions?
I have to admit that I feel uncomfortable with this idea, for several reasons:
It seems to introduce an insurmountable circularity into the situation. If it is argued that fairies look like we expect them to look, it’s hard to establish a point at which our ‘preconceptions’ were first conceived, as no-one will ever see an ‘original’ or ‘authentic’ fairy;
There are compelling reports of ‘fairies’ that look nothing like our expectations: see for example some of the experiences in Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing fairies or some of the pixies described in Jon Dathen’s Somerset faeries and pixies;
The argument may seem to operate as a legitimate cover for those who claim to have seen fays when all they are describing are the products of their own over-active imaginations. Their alleged visions are just repetitions of images they have derived from Enid Blyton’s stories, from J. M. Barrie’s play script and from their nursery books.
Lastly, and most importantly, the theory is hard to square with cases which appear to be accounts of genuine encounters with solid and physical fays. If fairies are solely balls of energy it’s difficult to reconcile this with the cases where their physical presence was either central to the plot or appeared already to be established before the human encountered them. I am thinking here of the cases where humans and fays have entered into sexual relationships and where children have been borne of these pairings- children who often must be physically delivered by human midwives attending a faery knoll. I also am thinking of cases where fairy celebrations have been stumbled upon accidentally by people- the many cases where the fairies have been found dancing and then lured in human partners, or the stories of fairy feasts discovered under fairy hills. In one story told by William of Newburgh, readers may recall, the man who discovered the celebration also managed to make off with a gold cup. Elsewhere I have discussed the transmission of fairy powers by the medium of touch. As a last example, I note Morgan Daimler’s discussion of fairy familiars on p.162 of her Fairy faith: she stresses that these familiars were “clearly visible to the witch as tangible presences, not dreams or see-through illusions… they were real-world manifestations that were seen, heard, and spoken to, in the waking world.”
These are all very solid incidents where the human form of the fairies was central to the incident and also, as I’ve suggested, already established independent of any Schrödinger like observation.
Frederick McCubbin, What the little girl saw in the bush, 1904
Our forebears definitely conceived of the fays as real and tangible- and so consistent in their appearance that classification into standard groups was possible and remained applicable over hundreds of years. Any mutability in their appearance was purely of their own making- the result of their magic and glamour.
There were , of course, many who dismissed faeries as entirely illusory and imaginary, but this was for quite different reasons. Rationalists challenged fairy belief on the grounds that it was self-delusion:
“Rainbow castles in the air/ Fit enough for fays and elves/ But not for mortals like ourselves.” (Martin Farquhar Tuppe, Liberty- Equality- Fraternity); or,
“That which belongs to neither heaven nor hell./ A wreath of mist, a bubble of the stream;/ Twixt a waking thought and dream…” (Sir Walter Scott, The kelpy).
All of that said, if fairies are but mutable forms responding to our own thoughts, it would explain their evolution in recent centuries, whereby they have acquired wands and wings and come to look like the leprechauns and flower fairies of contemporary culture.
This is a very difficult area and I can’t offer any definitive metaphysical solutions. What do readers feel? In short, do fairies look like fairies because they have a consistent and identifiable appearance or because they match themselves to whatever they find in our heads- be that Cicely Mary Barker or Henry Fuseli?
I look at the question of fairy weight again in another posting whilst my posting on the question of who believes in fairies touches on related questions of belief and reality. Whether or not fairy form changes according to our expectations, it’s certain that some fairies can shape-shift themselves.
Over his long career, renowned British artist Peter Blake has drawn his inspiration from a variety of sources, including the wrestling he loved as a youth, fifties pinups magazines and, more surprisingly, perhaps, Victorian fairy painting. In his many fairy paintings, he has demonstrated that ‘high art’ and fairy themes can still co-exist, even in the twenty-first century (and despite some later embarrassment about this on Blake’s part).
During the mid-1970s, Blake’s work took a surprising turn away from his early urban and contemporary themes. In March 1975 in Somerset a group of British born and British based artists founded the Brotherhood of Ruralists. The new movement was inspired by Samuel Palmer, Spenser and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, amongst others, and its declared aims were to portray love, beauty, joy and magic in their work. Amongst the Brotherhood were Blake, David Inshaw, and Graham Ovenden, a painter and expert in Victorian photography, painting and illustration, whose publications include a study of fairy illustrators Richard Doyle, Eleanor Vere Boyle and William Stephens Coleman.
Peter Blake was especially inspired by literary subjects, such as Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Midsummer Night’s Dream. Fairies in particular became a key theme during his ruralist period and Blake researched the work of Victorian predecessors, painters such as Richard Dadd, Doyle and John Anster Fitzgerald and illustrators Maxfield Parrish and Arthur Rackham. He admired the eroticism of much of this fairy art, most notably in the work of Paton and Simmons. At the same time Blake saw children and fairies as sharing an enchanting naivety, which was translated into the nature of his pictures. He was, too, interested in fantasy, but he wanted his fairies to be real people rooted in the present.
Blake has painted a series of portraits of generic flower, water and seaweed fairies (mainly as a source of income), but he also undertook much larger and more personal studies of groups and of named individuals such as Titania and Puck. One of the first of this series of paintings, Puck, Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth and Mustardseed, which was started in 1969, shows a naked boy Puck along with tinier, winged child-fairies. They seem to be beside a weed covered pond, in which the full moon is reflected, and in the background is a stretch of suburban garden fence.
Interviewing Blake for the Independent newspaper in December 1997, Andrew Lambirth described the fairies in these terms:
“If not children, they tend to be female, either portrait heads or nearly naked, and extravagantly breasted. There is a lambent sensuality in these images, an edginess not far from surrealist frisson, yet verging on innocence rather than lubriciousness. Delicacy of tone and useful juvenescence of imagery is matched by meditative distancing. Peter Blake’s paintings are as oddly disquieting as the best Victorian fairy paintings.”
Blake explained during this interview that he wanted his pictures to balance otherness with here and now solidity. He described how:
“As the fairies ooze to the front of the picture, they hear who’s looking at the painting and they stop and look out. A group of them stare straight out at you, involving the viewer.”
In part Blake’s paintings were a reaction against the ‘gift-shop’, coffee table depictions of faery that flourished during the mid-1970s. He wanted to produce more substantial and serious images, he said:
“Fairies are a vehicle for what we want them to be. If you want a concept of a naughty fairy, you can read it in. The beautiful fairies tend to be good, I think. There’s an edge of magic realism to them. The fairies I paint have the ability to make magic.”
Peter Blake’s fairy pictures depict the possibility of encountering the fantastic in our everyday lives. He endeavoured to devise a believable other world. He graded his fairies by their size rather than by their wealth and tried to imagine how the queen of the fairies might feel and act; what would fairy morality be like? Unlike humans, they might not cover their bodies up but might choose to emphasise and display them. Accordingly, Titania (in one of the several versions painted between 1976 and 1983) is shown largely naked with grass knotted around her nipples and her pubic hair decorated with daisies. She wears boots of dock leaves, a grass necklace and a grass belt adorned with odd found items such as a spark plug and a lost toy. She faces the viewer frankly and confrontationally. Surrounding her are shadowy figures of naked females, some grinning, some perhaps in pain or in the throes of ecstasy (similar shapes are found with Puck in the painting described earlier). Natalie Rudd has written that
“Titania marks a new model in Blake’s canon of fairy painting; she does not embody the childlike asexuality of his earlier fairies. Like the nymphs in classical mythology and Blake’s urban strippers, she is a figment of male fantasy, poised eternally between innocence and desire, childhood and womanhood, apparently available yet essentially out of reach.” (N. Rudd, Peter Blake, Tate Gallery, 2003, p.67)
Critic Nicholas Usherwood has spoken of Titania’s “disturbing eroticism, banishing any trace of whimsicality.” Serena Davies, writing in the Daily Telegraph, reacted very differently, calling the fairy images “strident, ugly pictures that still fail to charm to day.” (Telegraph, July 7th 2007)
In other pictures that Blake produced during this period, fairies dance and play at night in the open air, in one case around and upon a car (Nymphs and Daimler). Another, The death of a moth, shows the fairy girls mourning the deceased insect. Many of his fays, like queen Titania, are imagined wearing floral decorations. All of these pictures emphasise the fairies’ intimate connection with nature, even amidst the detritus of human culture. Blake has said of these that “in a curious way, the fairy pictures are far more knowing than the Alice pictures [his illustrations to Alice through the looking glass, 1970]. The fairies again come back to being part of my travelling company- they could as easily be strippers. They look urban.” (Rudd, p.73)
Generally, though, I do not believe that it was Blake’s intention in his fairy images to evoke strippers or to examine the nature of fairy sexuality. His vision of Faery draws upon that of Midsummer Night’s Dream and upon contemporary productions of that play: there is a great deal of natural innocence in the pictures. His nudes, such as Fairy girl in Falmouth Art Gallery, suggest naturism rather than eroticism; there is an unashamed ‘tribal’ quality to the nakedness that is not intended to titivate but to depict a unity with the fairies’ (semi) rural surroundings. They are open and honest; they are as they were born and unaware of any reason for shame or concealment. There is also an accommodation with the spread of human material culture; artifacts are collected and reused in unexpected ways. Blake is enjoying a joke here as well as commenting upon pollution and destruction of habitats.
The Ruralists (along with Blake’s marriage) disintegrated in the early 1980s and Blake moved back to London, admitting that he had never stopped being an urbanist. The Ruralist influence remained, though, as shown by a picture from 1982 portraying a fairy at the bottom of his garden in Chiswick. More recently Blake has described his fairy phase as “unforgivably sentimental.” The art critic Waldemar Januszczak was less kind; for him they were “unforgivably silly” when set against the political background of late 1970s Britain (Review of Tate Liverpool retrospective, July 1st 2007). How we feel about this remark depends upon whether we feel that all art must provide explicit social commentary. As I suggested in the last paragraph, there is commentary here, but it is more subtle.
Young British Artists
Arguably Blake’s fairy pictures were not disengaged from contemporary environmental concerns. Some of the issues he tackled are still being examined today. ‘Young British artist’ Matt Collishaw much more recently produced a series of photographic images called Sugar and spice which deliberately contrast young girls dressed as fairies and bedecked with flowers posed in scrap yards and surrounded by urban litter which dwarfs them- discarded drinks cans and cartons, a banana skin and a lost shoe. The gritty squalor of the settings cancels out any saccharine prettiness in the models.