Beatrice Goldsmith, Watching the fairies, 1925
One longstanding response to fairy belief is to allege that it is the habit of the immature and the weak minded. Only children, fools and the elderly accept that fairies exist, but by their very nature they are uniformly credulous and silly and their opinions deserve no respect. In fact, their views demonstrate why these groups need to be looked after by wiser and cleverer men. Not the least of the reasons for this is that, with their uncritical and simple view of the world, they will be uniquely liable to being tricked and cheated.
Old wives’ tales
This sort of argument has been advanced since the late sixteenth century. Parallel with it until the late seventeenth century was a comparable but separate argument that fairy belief was the product of Roman Catholic superstition and, as such, the faeries had been banished by rational Protestant faith. This was linked closely to the belief in witches. I’ve discussed these sectarian controversies in other posts and needn’t say more about the matter here.
The prevailing view of fairy believers was set out very early on. In 1584 in The discovery of witchcraft Reginald Scot alleged that:
“these bugs speciallie are spied and feared by sicke folkes, children, women, and cowards, which through weakness of mind and body are shaken with vain dreams and continuall feare…” (Book VII, chapter XV)
This summarises the prejudices against believers concisely. Fairies were a delusion of the “common people” and of “manie foolish folke,” as Scot added in the Epistle to his book. The ‘rational’ view of the situation hasn’t altered much since. John Penry, describing Wales in 1587, attacked the reverence of the “silly people” for the tylwyth teg. King James in his Daemonologie of 1597 likewise condemned the beliefs of ‘the innocent sort’ and ‘sundry simple creatures’ (chapter V). The sort of person meant by this was predominantly female and old: for example, George Puttenham in The arte of English poesie (1589) alludes to “the opinion of Nurses” who thought that fairies swapped babies for changelings.
Into the next century the prejudice remained the same. Only the “ignorant” would hold such views, alleged Thomas Cooper in The mystery of witchcraft (1617). John Webster, writing in 1677, agreed in blaming “the superstitious credulity and ignorant fancies of the People.” (The displaying of supposed witchcraft, p.279). Writing in 1605 Thomas Heywood has a character in his play, If you know not me, you know nobody, reminisce in these terms:
“Ha, ha! I smile at my owne foolery/ Now I remember mine old grandmother/ Would talk of fairies and hobgoblins.”
In Leviathan in 1651 Hobbes summarised these views succinctly: the fairy belief was all a matter of old wive’s fables and-
“the fairies have no existence but in the fancies of ignorant people.”
This attitude- that only the simple and poorly educated would be taken in by fairy tales- has persisted right up to the present. It’s often found in the Victorian folklore collections, perhaps dressed up as a reference to the ignorance ‘country people’ or ‘peasants’ (many of whom will necessarily be ‘old’) without the implicit assumptions about such folk being spelled out or, as in William Thornber’s history of Blackpool from 1837 there’s reference to “the heated imaginations of the credulous” with the exactly same connotations.
The outcome of such impressionable stupidity did not seem in doubt to sophisticated writers- or to some cynical criminals. In The alchemist of 1610 Ben Jonson has a dandy called Dapper stripped of his “worldly pelf” by the confidence trickster Subtle; he is convinced he is meeting the fairy queen, but is told that he cannot enter her presence bearing any money or jewellery. The same plot theme was used by Robert Amin in his play The valiant Welshman which appeared in 1615. Once again a dupe is divested of his finery, his doublet, rapier, cloak and hose, before he can meet the fairy queen. Her majesty runs off with it all.
These plays may seem like witty inventions, but they reflect reality. Judith Phillips in the early 1590s robbed and humiliated various people in the Winchester area by claiming that the fairy queen could guide them to hidden treasure (see The Brideling, Sadling and Ryding of a Rich Churle in Hampshire, 1594). Early in the next century a London couple called the Wests for a number of years successfully operated a racket tricking greedy and gullible clients out of money and goods with stories of winning the favour of the king and queen of fairy- provided they laid on banquets and supplied sufficiently rich gifts for them in advance (see The cozenages of the Wests, 1613).
Richard Doyle, The fairy tree.
A more recent example of fairy belief being used to dupe the unwary comes from Jacqueline Simpson’s Folklore of the Welsh Border (1976). She mentions that one highway-man devised a method of horse-theft that relied upon beliefs in fairy music played in underground dwellings. The robber would lie with his ear to the ground by the road; when a horseman came past he would ask what was wrong and be told that the prostrate figure was listening to the fairies dancing. The rider would dismount to listen too and, of course, as soon as he was stretched on the turf, he would find that his horse was being ridden off full speed (p.50).
In the opinion of many worldly wise men, then, fairy belief is a matter for weak-minded females and for those who need to be protected from themselves. These prejudices plainly persist and are still powerful enough to ruin the reputation of esteemed public figures- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle being a good example following his involvement in the Cottingley fairy photo case.
It is possible, nevertheless, to express these opinions differently. It has often been said that it is children who are best suited to seeing fairies because of their innocence and openness. For example in his poem, For a child, American author Joyce Kilmer explains how a little boy “sees with eyes by ignorance made keen/ The fauns and elves whom older eyes disperse…”
It is also a fact that females are more likely to experience fairy encounters. Drawing upon recent evidence such as Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing fairies and the Fairy census 2014-2017, it’s possible to calculate that females are twice as likely to see fairies as males, although this varies according to age group. Amongst children girls three times more frequently report seeing fairies than boys; amongst adults just over sixty per cent of sightings are by women. Now, it’s probably reasonable to suggest that gender stereotyping and social pressure may have a good deal to do with the imbalance in reporting; women may not ‘naturally’ be more inclined to see fairies, but they may feel fewer inhibitions about sharing their experiences, whereas men may feel that such admissions are neither ‘rational’ nor ‘manly.’ For the same reasons, women might perhaps be more willing to label an anomalous experience as a fairy encounter than some men might. Contributions to the recent Fairy census were from females in seventy per cent of cases and it was also noticeable that the proportion of children reporting sightings was higher than in earlier surveys- although this may have to do more with use of digital media than with frequency of encounters with fay folk.
In the 1920s Welsh author Mary Lewes made a further argument for taking fairy belief seriously. In the pleasingly titled The queer side of things she suggested that there had to be real grounds for so persistent and consistent a concept. She couldn’t accept that all the witnesses were hallucinating or exaggerating. To me, this seems a reasonable stance to take. People have shared these experiences for centuries and, for that reason alone, the phenomenon needs to be taken seriously.
To conclude, the sixteenth and seventeenth century dismissals of fairy sightings may contain more truth than their authors knew. I am sure that neither I nor any of my readers will consider themselves silly, foolish or gullible for their interest in fairy phenomena.
My posting on the physical or psychical nature of fairies touches on some of the same issues as this one.
Elsie Gregory, Children watching fairies dancing