J. A. Fitzgerald, Who killed Cock Robin?
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.