It’s frequently said that children are especially able to see the fairies- perhaps because of their innate innocence, perhaps because they are endowed with a sort of second sight and so are open to wonder and magic and are not closed off mentally by rationality and ‘good sense,’ as adults can be.
Children’s Second Sight
The folklore evidence as to the existence of special powers in children is equivocal. The sheer number of accounts that could be analysed mean that a statistical test of this is impractical, so I rely on my anecdotal impression of all the reports I’ve read to say that there’s no special bias towards infants: any one of any age and any sex is liable to see the Good Folk, it seems from the folk stories. However, we can be a bit more scientific about the more recent reports. Consolidating the cases of sightings from the Fairy Census and from Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing Fairies, it’s possible to say that around a third of witnesses were children. Of these, about 80% were girls.
What do the above statistics tell us? Well, for developed countries, the proportion of children seems high. In the UK, those under 18 make up about 21% of the population; in the USA it’s 24%, whilst 14% of the German population are 17 and under. It seems, then, that children are indeed now slightly more likely to experience a fairy encounter; and girls are obviously significantly more likely. Whether this is reflective of genuine differences, or of a sexist tendency for it to be acceptable for female children to express such ideas, and for boys not to do so, is much less clear.
Acquiring Second Sight
On the whole, though, age appears to be much less a factor in seeing fairies than other influences. Doubtless a pre-existing predisposition to belief- even an expectation that a fairy might be seen- must help. In earlier generations, other explanations for being able to see supernaturals were advanced. For example, those born on a Sunday were said to be more prone to second sight (Keightley, Fairy Mythology, p.81); others said that it was those born early in the morning who acquired the gift (Spence, British Fairy Tradition, p.160). Some people might be genetically more likely to have these experiences; others may acquire the second sight as a gift from the fairies.
The fact seems to be that some people are lucky enough to have the second sight and the majority of others are not. The ability does not discriminate by any physical factors. For example, Martin Martin, touring the Hebridean islands in the eighteenth century, reported the local belief that not only children, but horses and cows as well, were all believed to be endowed with the ability to see the sith folk
The differential nature of the gift is demonstrated very well in an account from Sutherland in the far north of Scotland. In 1937 an old woman told a folklorist how, as a small girl, she had gone out with her mother one summer evening to tend the cows in the field. The little girl was able to see small green people playing near the cattle, although her mother saw nothing. Very possibly, however, if the mother had held her daughter’s hand, she would have seen the Good Folk- it’s very common for the sight to be easily transferred by contact in this manner.
Sightings by Children
Now, to turn to my illustrations, which are largely taken from postcards and books of the 1920s and 1930s. What will be apparent instantly is that the authors and artists of this period were quite blase about the experience of contact with the faes. Although, as I have explained several times in previous postings, people (especially children) are very vulnerable to abduction, you might know nothing of this danger from these pictures. Instead, it’s all rather charming and lovely. Kids- and in particular girls- are encouraged to hope for these encounters and to plunge into them without hesitation.
Suggesting to anyone, especially guileless infants, that a free and easy approach to fairy contact is advisable seems- in light of all the folklore evidence- to be extremely unwise, even reckless. Clearly, by the interwar period, the fairies had been reduced in the minds of many to harmless and probably unreal little beings- just perfect for amusing little girls. Margaret Tarrant- presumably in a play upon the name of the junior girl guiding organisation, the Brownies, and the domestic fairies of British tradition, also called brownies– seems to actively promote contact as a harmless pastime for young Guides. The human Brownies were so-called (I assume) because they were encouraged and expected to undertake lots of little household chores for mother (just like their supernatural counterparts); the risk is, of course, that they’ll be kidnapped and made into slaves for the fairies.
There’s seldom a hint in all these images that any wariness is required. A few suggest a hesitation on the child’s part, or a sensible inclination to spy from a place of concealment, but most of the subjects make no attempt to protect themselves, or appear to experience any apprehension. All I can say is- you have been warned….
The fairy themed children’s books and postcards that were so abundant during the interwar period enriched our visual culture immensely- I’m thinking especially of the work of Cicely Mary Barker and Margaret Tarrant and their flower fairy illustrations but, as this post shows, many other artists were active during those decades as well.
However, these artists showed little awareness of or respect for British folk tradition and the fairies they promoted to the card buying public were almost exclusively sweet and harmless. Nevertheless, others (such as Marjorie Johnson) maintained actual contact with Faery and, as some of the recent encounters in the Fairy Census demonstrate, the Good Folk are still temperamental and potentially perilous.