‘Finding a Fairy’- a forgotten fairy classic

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Eve with the fairy

There are several reasons for remembering the year 1917.  It was, of course, the third full year of the First World War and matters didn’t seem to be going well for anyone: there’d been the huge loss of life in the mud at Passchendaele and Russia had collapsed into revolution, for example.  Meanwhile, in the July sunshine in a village just outside Bradford, two girls messing around with a camera staged some fairy photos for a private joke- but saw matters spiral out of their control.  The Cottingley fairies are world famous now; strangely, though, we have almost entirely forgotten the second collection of fairy photographs published in November of that year.

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Finding a Fairy is a children’s book written by nature photographer and artist Carine Cadby and illustrated with thirty one photographs by her husband, Will Cadby- who was also a professional photographer.  The pair often worked together on artistic projects: they illustrated the 1920 edition of Walter de la Mere’s A Child’s Day with two line drawings and a series of photos of a little girl.  Carine and Will had already written Dogs and Doggerel (1902) and The Doll’s Day (1915), which had been illustrated with photos of the same girl seen in Finding a Fairy, but with dolls that were unashamedly dolls; they followed these up with Puppies and Kittens (1918), Topsy and Turvy- a Book of Holidays (about a dog and a kitten- 1919) and The Brownies in Switzerland (1923), which is sadly not about skiing fairies but concerns some young Girl Guides on holiday in the snow.  All these titles indicate the Cadby’s style and market: light-hearted, illustrated fiction for young children, with an emphasis on cuddly animals.

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The Cadbys lived on the edge of Platt Woods in Sussex, which were the scene for the illustrations for the book.  As well as using local scenery, they employed local people in the pictures.  The little girl ‘Eve’ who is heroine of the story was Pernel Wilson, daughter of a local architect and craftsman.  Her older brother posed as the young male in the pictures and the Cadby’s dog also appeared.  It’s all gently evocative of a rural lifestyle long since passed and none of it is meant very seriously.  For example, Eve/ Pernel has managed to climb into a tree in one of her best frocks and wearing a highly impractical but stylish pair of sandals with a heel…

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The book was published by Mills and Boon, a company still in business today but now irretrievably associated with a certain style of romantic fiction aimed at women.  In 1917, the story was greeted as a charming fantasy enlivened by equally attractive photographs.  Mills and Boon themselves described it as “a pleasant tale of a little girl who lived near a wood in which all sorts of pretty and wonderful things happened. The story is illustrated with photographs by Mr Will Cadby, who has been wonderfully successful in catching not only the grace of children, but bird life and the beauty of woodland scenery.” The woods are indeed attractive- the birds look like what they are- stuffed.  This quibble aside, their publicity aimed the book squarely at the “thousands” of children who had already enjoyed The Doll’s Day.

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The story of Finding a Fairy can be told quite quickly: the book is only 54 pages long.  Eve is a little girl of nine living with her grandfather, her aunt and their maid, Simmie.  Her mother and father are away on the other side of the world, we’re told.  She lives next to a wood and spends a lot of time playing there, making up fairy stories.  She believes wholeheartedly in the existence of fairies and her greatest wish is to meet one.

“She thought she knew exactly how they would look and exactly how they would be dressed.  Of course, they would be tiny, smaller than most dolls, and their little frocks would be made of cobwebs trimmed with dew-drops.  Their hair would be long and wavy, crowned with wreaths of the tiniest roses you ever saw” (pp.2-3).

Eve longs to meet a fairy to be able to ask it all the questions that fill her mind: what do they do when it rains; do they have toothbrushes; do they quarrel and what are their favourite birds?

In that very same wood lives a wood-fairy who wants to make friends with a little human girl.  Most fairies don’t bother much with people- especially not little girls, who are in bed when the fairies are out in the middle of the night- but this fairy wanted to meet someone different.  However, she feared the Fairy Queen would disapprove of the idea.  The fairy plays with the squirrels, rabbits and birds in the wood, but they are scared of people.  Her most promising friend is a dog, who looks after a number of people, including one nice little girl whom he promises to bring to see the fae.

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The fairy is delighted to hear from the Fairy Queen that she is allowed to befriend a human child.  However, three conditions are imposed: the girl must be under ten, she must be ‘nice’ and she must believe in fairies.  The fairy knows that Eve satisfies these criteria: Tip the dog has said how nice she is and, one day, the fairy saw Eve telling a playmate Stella that the toadstools in a fairy ring were the fairies’ chairs, so she knows too that she is a believer.

The next day, Eve gets up early and, as it’s such a sunny day, she hurries to the wood to play, where she dances and sings until she’s tired out.  She lies down to sleep under a tree and is awoken by singing.  Her heart gives a thump when she sees a real fairy beside her “a beautiful little being wearing a gossamer dress and a wreath of tiny roses round her head” (p.22)  She doesn’t have a name (“we are just what you call us”) so Eve names her Marigold and they sit and talk.  The little girl is amazed to learn that the fairy can understand all the creatures in the wood, from the birds to the bumble-bees, who fly around grumbling about their work.  Marigold promises to bring her wand the next time they meet and to touch Eve’s lips and ears so that she can understand the creatures too.

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After a few days, the pair meet again and Marigold touches Eve with the wand, so that “Until the sun goes down on your tenth birthday, you shall be one of us and understand our language” (p.33) .  They then have a party with the woodland birds, the woodpecker, raven, magpie and kestrel; Eve wishes first she could fly like them- then she wishes she were a fairy.  Marigold promises to ask the Fairy Queen if this can be allowed; the raven warns against it, because Eve would have to leave those she loves, her friends and family, whilst fairies “have no hearts at all” (p.38)

The following day, after a shower of rain, Eve searches for Marigold in the wood and finds her in a sort of nest of bracken where she has sheltered from the downpour.  The Fairy Queen has decreed that Eve can indeed become a fairy, provided that she follows a strict procedure: she must watch the moon until it is full and fast for three days.  At the end of this, she must sneak out of her house at night and come to meet the fairies in the wood.  Eve isn’t too keen on the sound of this: she fears being very hungry- but the fairy knows nothing about hunger- and she worries about getting into trouble with her aunt and grandfather- but, as Marigold points out, once she has become a fairy, she won’t have aunts or parents.  Eve starts to feel doubtful about the idea.

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Meanwhile, the maid Simmie has lost a ring that her sailor boyfriend has given her.  Eve wants to help find it and knows that, as a fairy, she could do this.  However, she also learns that her mother and father are on their way home to join her, so she decides to stay as a girl and just have a fairy as a friend- one who can hopefully locate the missing ring.

Eve asks Marigold to assist, but again she struggles to comprehend Simmie’s worry and unhappiness: “fairies’ hearts are not made of stuff that gets fond of people” she explains (p.44).  Nonetheless, she discovers that the magpie stole the ring and Eve manages to persuade him to return it.  She tells him she’ll always be grateful- a promise he doubts.  The reason for this is that the next day is Eve’s tenth birthday and her best present will be the reunion with her parents.

The following day, just before she goes to the station to meet her mum, Eve sees Marigold for the last time in the wood.  The little fae tells her human friend that the fairy law is that, having turned ten, she must be made to forget that she ever met a fairy.  Eve begs her not to cast the spell because she doesn’t want to lose all recollection of her amazing friend.  Marigold agrees not to “blow cobwebs across her face” but warns that, even so, the memory will fade steadily until it seems just like a dream.  Eve accepts this, they kiss and they part.

When, later that day, she is cuddled by her mother again, Eve is glad that she chose to stay as a real flesh and blood girl who can love her mummy.

“Eyes of youth are strong and bold,

They a fairy may behold,

If they are not ten years old;

But when the birthday ten draws nigh,

Fairies have to say ‘goodbye.'”

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What I find attractive about the story is that fact that, although it is clearly a children’s book, it is far from sentimental.  Carine Cadby is faithful to the folklore in making the fairies quite heartless (or amoral) and unable to identify with human emotions.  For all her doll-like prettiness, ‘Marigold’ is quite self-centred and un-empathetic.  Cadby doesn’t hide this from her readership.  I’m put in mind of the Welsh story in which the fairy wife cries at a wedding and laughs at a funeral; Marigold the wood fairy is similarly devoid of the conventions of human social interactions.

That said, Finding a Fairy must have met a need and found an enthusiastic readership.  It was reprinted twice, in 1918 and in 1919, and, as we have seen, Carine Cadby felt it was worthwhile writing more children’s books- indicating that her royalties must have been enough to encourage her and her husband to spend more time on similar projects.

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As stated, publication coincided with the first disclosure of the Cottingley pictures, but it will be very clear that the Cadbys had no pretensions to supernatural revelation.  Their shots don’t try to look like anything other than a girl in a wood with a doll, but the parallels with the famous images are intriguing nevertheless.  They confirm the abiding interest in fairies and, perhaps, a wish to make them feel nearer and more real at that point in time.  Certain fundamental assumptions were shared too: that the faes would reveal themselves to a child (especially a girl), that they would be found in woodland and that they would be small.  What’s more, both at Cottingley and at Platt, the fairies dressed in versions of everyday Edwardian women’s wear.

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The conjunction of tiny, doll-like fairies and woodland scenes reappeared fifty years later in the notorious pictures of some Cornish witches that are well known from Janet Bord’s Fairies.  The girl in this instance has lost her clothes in the excitement of discovery, and the figures are smaller, but there’s a shared inspiration as well as a comparable stiffness and lifelessness in the apparitions of the Good Folk.

The Psyche Fairy Fake - Beachcombing's Bizarre History Blog

Further Reading

The Platt village memorial hall has an excellent website with more details about the making of the book and about the life and history of this Sussex village as well.  See too my previous posting and page that examines the impact of the Cottingley photographs upon our faery iconography.

The inter-relationship between the Great War and the desire to believe in and see fairies is one I have addressed in a number of postings in which have looked at both the visual and literary responses to this impulse.  As I have described, works as disparate as orchestral music, poetryThe Lord of the Ringsopera and Finding a Fairy were the result of that need for comfort and help.

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“A Gift from the Fair Folk”-Marc Bolan, British rock and Faery

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Rear cover of Unicorn, 1969

In a past post I discussed the faery influences detectable in the music of Led Zeppelin.  Now, following my series of posts looking at fae themes in British classical music of the early twentieth century, in opera, musical theatre, songs and chamber works, I want to bring our discussions up to date.

Much of the British rock music of the late sixties and early seventies was suffused with faery.  A very good example of this is the work of Marc Bolan, in the days when he performed as Tyrannosaurus Rex, and before he shortened the band name to T. Rex and became the glam star that we remember.

The fairy influence is especially strong in the four albums Bolan released between 1968 and 1970, but even as late as Ride a White Swan in 1972 there are traces of elvishness.  The album titles themselves betray the tenor of the songs included on them: they are My People Were Fair and Had Sky in Their Hair… But Now They’re Content to Wear Stars on Their Brows (which is all one title) and Prophets, Seers and Sages from 1968; 1969’s Unicorn and A Beard of Stars, released in the following year.

A Crooning Moon Rune

Certain themes appear repeatedly on these four albums.  There are, of course, repeated allusions to dwarves and fairies:

“Twelve years old, your elvish fingers toss your Beethoven hair” (‘Child Star,’ on My People);

“You’re a gift from the fair folk… A sprite in my house of sight” (‘Travelling Tragition,’ on Prophets)

“Fairy lights in her eyes/ Tame the water” (‘Pilgrim’s Tale,’ on Unicorn)

“She bathes in thunder/ The elves are under her” (‘Jewel,’ T. Rex, 1970)

“Tree wizard pure tongue … The swan king, the elf lord” (‘Suneye,’ T. Rex)

and, most especially for its mention of the sidhe folk:

“Fools have said the hills are dead/ But her nose is a rose of the Shee;/ A silver sword by an ancient ford,/ Was my gift from the child of the trees.” (‘Blessed Wild Apple Girl,’ Best of T.Rex, 1971).

There are, too, plentiful mentions of wizards, warlocks and magi, of myths and legends and of mysteries, such as unicorns.  Bolan references Narnia (‘Wonderful Brown-Skin Man’ on Prophets), King Arthur and the Matter of Britain: “Holy Grail Head, deep forest fed/ Weaving deep beneath the moon” (‘Conesuala’ on Prophets) or “Let’s make a quest for Avalon” (‘Stones for Avalon,’ on Unicorn) and (repeatedly) Beltane, including these lines:

“Wear a tall hat like a druid in the old days,

Wear a tall hat and a tatooed gown,

Ride a white swan like the people of the Beltane…” (‘Ride a White Swan,’ on Ride a White Swan, 1972).

Bolan was, it seems, steeped in British folklore.  He wrote of ‘The Misty Coast of Albany’ (with its echoes of William Blake’s lines “All things begin & end in Albion’s ancient Druid rocky shore”) and of the magical woods “Elder, elm and oak.” (‘Iscariot’ and ‘Misty Coast,’ both on Unicorn).  Even so, the other major fascination and inspiration for Bolan seems to have been classical myth, most especially woodland creatures like satyrs and fauns.  On a mantelpiece at his home he kept a small statute of the god Pan, which he called ‘Poon,’ to whom he addressed little messages and requests. Bolan’s biographer Mark Paytress has described the god as “Marc’s muse.”  Of course, in this devotion he’s linked directly to Arnold Bax, John Ireland and Arthur Machen.

The pagan Greek world appears several times in Bolan’s lyrics, with allusions to satyrs, maenads and titans:

“The frowning moon, it tans the faun,/ Who holds the grapes for my love.” (‘Frowning Atahualpa,’ My People)

“a pagan temple to Zeus/ He drinks acorn juice” (‘Stacey Grove,’ Prophets)

“Alice eyes scan the mythical scene… We ran just like young fauns” (‘Scenescof Dynasty,’ Prophets)

 As this jumble of citations possibly indicates, there were so many allusions packed into Bolan’s songs that the verses tended not to tell any coherent story but rather to sketch impressionistic imagery for the listener: aural painting, let’s say, creating a mood or feeling.

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The back cover of the expanded version of Unicorn.

The jumble of influences and imagery extended to the band’s album covers, too.  Bolan loved the art of William Blake, Dali and Arthur Rackham and for the cover of the first album, My People, asked the designer to provide something that looked ‘like Blake.’  On the back of the sleeve of Unicorn there’s a black and white photo of Bolan and co-member Steve Peregrine Took (note the name, Tolkien fans).  The pair are posed with an array of meaningful objects, which include a book on the Cottingley fairies (supplied by photographer Peter Sanders) and several volumes from Bolan’s own collection- a child’s Shakespeare, Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet and William Blake’s collected verse.  Collectively, these form a kind of key to Bolan’s writing.

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John Peel and his gramophone, 1968: N.B. Fairport Convention album, folk fans.

Do you ken John Peel?

The Bolan story is made more intriguing for his association with radio DJ John Peel.  Peel will be well known to many British readers, but very possibly much less familiar to those from outside the UK.  Peel became an institution on BBC Radio One, with a weekly show late on Friday nights on which he played and promoted new music he had discovered.  He performed a major role introducing listeners to punk rock from 1976, but before that had favoured folk and dub.  Earlier still, he had been a good friend of Marc Bolan.

The pair met in late July or early August 1967 and quickly became close.  They spent a great deal of time together, professionally and socially, and Bolan one night gave Peel a hamster called Biscuit (in a night club- the poor creature spent the evening riding round on one of the turntables).

Peel was taken with Bolan’s warbling voice and began to feature Tyrannosaurus Rex prominently on his radio shows.  He had a regular column in the International Times in which he also promoted his new friend.  As an established and respected DJ Peel played frequently around the country and so could offer more direct help to his friend’s career.  He started to give Bolan live support sets to his DJ appearances: Peel had a regular slot at the club called Middle Earth in London’s Covent Garden and also took the band with him as part of his ‘John Peel Roadshow’ as it was grandly called- everyone crammed together in his car and heading up the motorway.

Not only did Peel promote Bolan’s music; he contributed to it.  He narrated the track Wood Story on the album My People Were Fair and wrote the sleeve notes:

“They rose out of the sad and scattered leaves of an older summer… They blossomed with the coming spring, children rejoiced and the earth sang with them.”

Peel provided a further narration on the album Unicorn and also started to appear as a sort of support act for his friends.  He read poetry to the crowd at the Royal Albert Hall, sitting cross-legged on the stage, and at the Tyrannosaurus Rex gig at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on January 13th 1969, Peel was billed to appear to “prove the existence of fairies,” as the flyers promised, by reading poetry to the audience.  In the face of this proof, they remained, it is reported, “politely silent.”  What could Peel have been reading?  Based on what we learned just now, I wonder if the DJ may have read selected poems from Shakespeare and Blake- and maybe John Keats too?

Peel made out later that he never really understood or sympathised with Bolan’s mythic leanings.  He claimed that he couldn’t understand the song lyrics because they were too ‘mystical’ and ‘hippie’ for him.  Nonetheless, there’s the evidence of those sleeve notes and we know too that the pair travelled, with their respective partners, to visit Glastonbury, capital of hippiedom since the days of Rutland Boughton, where Bolan was pictured on top of the Tor.

In later years Peel was a gruff and slightly cynical personality, so these ‘airy-fairy’ indulgences all feel rather difficult to reconcile with the older, more rational enthusiast for the Sex Pistols and Extreme Noise Terror.  Nevertheless, Peel’s overall verdict was that Tyrannosaurus Rex “were elfin to a degree beyond human understanding.”

Signs of the Times

Marc Bolan is now the best remembered fairy rock star of the period, but the fae influence was pervasive.

For example, Bob Johnson of folk-rockers Steeleye Span asked in an interview in 1976:

“Everything I do and think is based on England.  If I lived on the West Coast [of the USA] how on earth could I think about elves and fairies and goblins and old English castles and churches?”

So strong, in fact, was this spirit of place that, along with another band member, Johnson produced an electric folk opera The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1977). This was based upon the book of the same title by Edward, Lord Dunsany (an author in the vein of Machen and a great influence upon H. P. Lovecraft) and the record featured contributions from, amongst others, Welsh folk singer and Eurovision entrant Mary Hopkin, blues musician Alexis Korner and Christopher Lee, star of (amongst so many films) The Wicker Man.

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The King of Elfland’s Daughter album cover.

Further Reading

You can listen to all Tyrannosaurus Rex’s albums on YouTube, of course; check out too the work of Dunsany and (even) Steeleye Span.  For more information on Marc Bolan, see these biographies: Paul Roland, Cosmic Dancer, 2012; Mark Paytress, Marc Bolan- The Rise and Fall of a Twentieth Century Superstar, 2003 and John Bramley, Marc Bolan- Beautiful Dreamer, 2017.  For John Peel see his autobiography Margrave of the Marches and Michael Heatley, John Peel, 2004.

The legacy of Cottingley

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Elsie Wright & Frances Griffiths, by t’beck.

The photographs of fairies taken one hundred years ago by Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths at Cottingley, West Yorkshire have a significant place in fairy-lore.   They represented a severe dent in the reputation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but possibly made the careers of his collaborators Geoffrey Hodson and Edward Gardner.  Since the pictures were exposed as fakes, the story of credulous grown men being outwitted by photos taken by teenagers armed only with some card, hat pins and a box brownie camera has been readily deployed to suggest the wider gullibility and foolishness of those adults who choose to believe in fairies.

Some also contend that belief in fairies was killed outright by the incident- and that this happened as far back as the early 1920s when the pictures first appeared. The much more recent exposure of images as false therefore came as little surprise to anyone.  In a 1994 article in History workshop journal Alex Owen described the Cottingley case as “one of the last manifestations of a glorious Victorian and Edwardian fairy tradition.” Rosa Lyster, writing on Quartz.com,  remarked that “Eventually, people stopped caring about the fairies. Interest in the supernatural was on the wane, and Doyle was looking increasingly unhinged. The girls produced no more photographs, and the public moved on.”

All of this comment is of a piece with the oft-argued contention that fairies never existed in the first place and that fairy belief, in the modern age, is dead and buried.  Except, of course, that it’s not- and any search of the internet or of books for sale on Amazon will amply prove this (witness the present blog and my own book British fairies).

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Elsie in 1915

We know now that Elsie and Frances copied their pictures from Princess Mary’s Gift Book and cut them out on Windsor and Newton board.  We know it was all a hoax- but still people are producing their versions and imitations of the Cottingley pictures.  These may just be an homage to a famous photographic forgery, but they are also defiant celebrations of continued belief in the face of what some might regard as fatally damning evidence.  The fact that Cottingley wasn’t real doesn’t matter at all; it portrayed something which lots of people remain convinced is real.  Richard Sugg has recently put it this way:

“With the 1983 confessions of both women, many might have assumed that the fairy tale was over… But the cousins somehow created a new kind of fairy folklore… Some stories are tough.  They manage continually to recreate and re-energise themselves; and the Cottingley affair did just that.” (Magical folk, 2017, p.62)

Richard might equally well have observed that the fairies too are tough and can continually regenerate and survive.  The modern manifestations of the Cottingley images are proof of that.

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Frances and the fairies, 1917

The paradox of the Cottingley pictures is that, although they look dodgy and now are known to be so, this does not seem to discourage anyone.  They retain their own unique mystique because they remain a powerful symbol of something evanescent that numerous people long to experience.  Frances and Elsie were impelled by a wish to recreate their dreams and no-one thinks the less of them for that.  In fact, lots of people today still want to imitate them.

Fraud busters

It’s interesting to see how many people have been inspired to copy the Cottingley images and their stated reasons for doing so.  Some certainly are commenting upon the Cottingley story itself, such as Manuel Carballal on his blog El ojo critico (The critical eye), who experimented with the techniques used to explore how the pictures were faked:

Marcos Carballal

It’s notable, though,  how unimportant this aspect of the story seems to many.  There’s a fascinating narrative to be had concerning two country lasses’ ability to make fools of older and purportedly wiser establishment men like Doyle, but the majority of imitators are not inspired by that.  Of course, deception was never the girls’ intention.  They made the pictures for themselves and it was a chain of wholly unforeseeable events triggered by Elsie’s mum that gave the images their publicity and notoriety.  What seems to attract people is not so much the international publicity, but the original innocent motivation- the yearning for contact with the supernatural.

Imitation and flattery

It’s fascinating to note how closely most of the modern image makers have stuck to the original pictures.  They depict a single person encountering a fae in natural surroundings.  As will be seen below, and on the separate Cottingley gallery page, Nonchalant Concern even used the same titles for the photographs as in the published versions of those by Frances and Elsie.  At the same time, though, none of these pictures are direct imitations and- very definitely- none are presented to us as actual fairy snaps.  Just as with the originals- before Gardner, Doyle and the rest got involved, that is- the pictures have been taken for the amusement of the makers and those with whom they choose to share them.  They are knowingly faked- forgeries of forgeries, if you like- but somehow that only serves to demonstrate the lasting mystique of the originals.

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illustration from Princess Mary’s Gift Book, c.1914

One thing that most of the pictures do have in common is the fairies themselves.  Many of the creators seem to have taken the trouble to copy the feminine Edwardian period fairies utilised by Frances and Elsie (there are quite a few Cicely Mary Barker flower fairies in evidence).  It’s probably a significant comment upon our fairy iconography (and on the power of the Cottingley story) that winged, female fays in frocks continue to be our accepted idea of a fae, even a century later.  In one case, though, there is a slightly more contemporary feel: it seems possible that, in one of her photographs of her friend Elodie, Eleonore Bridge has used one of Alan Lee’s faeries from his joint book of that titled published with Brian Froud in 1978.  (We should recall too that Froud and Lee created a few of their own Cottingley photos as an appendix to the 1978 book, something Froud did again in Lady Cottington’s pressed fairy book in 1994).

Furthermore, it may be worth remarking that almost without exception the models are female and that so too, predominantly, are the photographers.  This may tell us something either about fairy belief or about amateur photography (or both, I won’t commit myself).  The preference for white dresses is noticeable; this may have a good deal to do with improving the contrast in a black and white image, but there are of course echoes of the 1910s outfits worn by Frances and Elsie as well, too, as suggestions of girlish innocence and simplicity- part and parcel, perhaps, of a belief in fays?  Bows and flowers in the hair add to the period and juvenile feel.

A fairy tale- and a true story

At Notley Green School, Essex, in January 2018 the Year Two pupils studied the Cottingley story.  I was surprised to learn this has a place in the National Curriculum, but it turns out that the organisation Film Education has produced Years 1 and 2 study materials linked to the film Fairy tale- a true story.  The kids then produced their own imitations-

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The Film Education module is aimed at primary school kids and takes the film as a starting point for asking questions such as ‘where do fairies come from?’ and ‘what do people believe about them?’  The material addresses such issues as the risks of visiting fairyland and the differing theories on fairy origins.  It discusses some fairy traditions and looks at the Cottingley events, as well as encouraging the children to make their own cut out fairies and fairy photos.  I was impressed; anything that promotes interest in the subject has to be welcomed.

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Thackley school in Bradford obviously undertook a similar project, but using Photoshop instead of paper cutouts.

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‘Where dreams merge with reality’

A brief examination of Cottingley related images on the internet will of course reveal that far more adults are fascinated than children.  Many are deliberately undertaking photography projects that honour and echo the original pictures. For example,   Katherine Alcock says that she wanted to create not fantasy but realistic fairy images, if that’s not entirely contradictory!

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Katherine converted the image to black and white and manipulated it digitally to make it appear more grainy and vintage.  TekMagica on Flickr went even further to produce some strikingly ‘authentic’ looking images, which are helped by the girls’ clothes, which look appropriate to the fifties or sixties.

Eleonore Bridge is a fairy believer herself, as well as a keen photographer, and her motivation was to record “A magical moment where dreams merge with reality with hopes of creating a future where there is no contesting that fairies really do exist.”

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elodie 3

elodie 2

Plenty of people, like the school children, just wanted to have fun with these pictures.  Here’s a selection- with more featured in a separate Cottingley gallery.

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Plastic Hippo on Pinsdaddy

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Image by Bondart

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Frances and the fairies by Nonchalant Concern (see the original above)

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Fairy tracking by Hazel Curse
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Cottingley fairie by Dark Shepherd

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from a Cottingley series by Victoria Emma Thompson

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Remember Cottingley by Japan Fanzz

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The Cottingley fairies by Marschons

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The meeting by Shutterbug Steff

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The Cottingley fairies by Kelli, entry for DP Challenge

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Promotional photo for ‘One day at a time’ by Kelli Ali

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By Soot Sprite

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Finally- the stuff of horror: a cat attacks some fays on a bed of four leaf clover.  For this hilarious nightmare we must thank Susan Sanford at artsparktheatre.blogspot.com.

Do you believe in fairies?

What unites these Cottingley inspired images, I believe, is not just an underlying wish for the whole story to have been true but also a playful and celebratory spirit.  We know we’re dealing with deliberate fakes, but people are enjoying their creativity and the chance to engage imaginatively with fairies.  There are, of course, plenty of other photographs of fairies available online, but the status of most of these is never so clear.  I’ll restrict myself to one example, which is quite well-known as it has been used as an illustration in Janet Bord’s book, Fairies- real encounters with little people.  It’s another black and white image, in the tradition of Cottingley perhaps, but it much more deliberately presents itself as genuine: it shows a nude young woman in a wood meeting what appear to be two naked Action Men at the foot of a tree.  The website strange history analyses the background to this picture and pretty comprehensively demolishes its credibility.

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A photograph of a member of a Cornish coven meeting some fairies…

The Cottingley replicas illustrated here and in the gallery are immune to this sort of debunking.  Thereby they demonstrate the demonstrate the resilience of myth and our need for fantasy and escape.

“I will diminish and go into the west”- the fate of the fairies

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Artist unknown, ‘A fairy departure’

Fairy-kind has always had a strong association with the past.  In my previous posting on their clothing, I noted the common tendency to imagine fairies in antiquated fashions typical of earlier eras.  This temporal distance seems to have had the function of emphasising or marking their separation from humankind.

Fairies- things of the past

Fairies are ‘things of the past’ in another sense: they have frequently been thought of as a race that is no more seen or that has departed from these lands.  By way of illustration of this, Katherine Briggs entitled one of her books ‘The vanishing people.’  Some readers may also call to mind the fact that Tolkien concludes Lord of the Rings with a departure of the elves into the west.  He built upon well established foundations.

This idea that fairies have disappeared or are no longer present in Britain has been a feature of fairy-lore for centuries.  Chaucer, for example, had the Wife of Bath on her journey to Canterbury begin her story thus:

“In th’olde dayes of the king Arthour,

Of which that Britons speken greet honour,

All was this land fulfild of fayerye.

The elf-queen, with hir joly companye,

Daunced ful ofte in many a grene mede;

This was the olde opinion, as I rede,

I speke of manye hundred yeres ago;

But now can no man see none elves mo.”

Later writers have repeated this theme.  For example, in The Faithful shepherdess (III 1) Fletcher expressed the view that “Methinks there are no goblins, and men’s talk/ That in these Woods the Nimble Fairies walk/ Are fables.”

It would be fair to say that the citations given so far probably reflect the urban, educated, cultured view, in contrast to the beliefs of ‘simple’ country folk, but traditional folk tales have also featured and explained the reduction in the sightings of our supernatural neighbours.  For example, there is the Scottish story of ‘The departure of the fairies’ recounted by Hugh Miller in The Old Red Sandstone, p. 251.

‘On a Sabbath morning, all the inmates of a little hamlet had gone to church, except a herd-boy, and a little girl, his sister, who were lounging beside one of the cottages, when just as the shadow of the garden-dial had fallen on the line of noon, they saw a long cavalcade ascending out of the ravine, through the wooded hollow. It winded among the knolls and bushes, and turning round the northern gable of the cottage, beside which the sole spectators of the scene were stationed, began to ascend the eminence towards the south. The horses were shaggy diminutive things, speckled dun and grey; the riders stunted, misgrown, ugly creatures, attired in antique jerkins of plaid, long grey clokes, and little red caps, from under which their wild uncombed locks shot out over their cheeks and foreheads. The boy and his sister stood gazing in utter dismay and astonishment, as rider after rider, each more uncouth and dwarfish than the other which had preceded it, passed the cottage and disappeared among the brushwood, which at that period covered the hill, until at length the entire rout, except the last rider, who lingered a few yards behind the others, had gone by. “What are you, little manie? and where are ye going?” inquired the boy, his curiosity getting the better of his fears and his prudence. “Not of the race of Adam,” said the creature, turning for a moment in its saddle, “the people of peace shall never more be seen in Scotland.”‘

Touring Wales in late Victorian times, Professor John Rhys was several times told that fairies were no longer encountered in the countryside.  They had been seen ‘daily’ by shepherds “in the age of faith gone by,” in the “fairy days”- but no more (Rhys, Celtic folklorepp.115 & 125).

What drives fairies away?

The reasons for the fairies’ departure tend to be related but curiously antagonistic:

  • they are driven away by the sound of new church bells- see for example Briggs, Dictionary, p.95;
  • they have been displaced by the clergy (in Chaucer’s plainly satirical lines): “For now the grete charitee and prayeres/ Of limitours and othere holy freres, … This maketh that ther been no fayeryes./ For ther as wont to walken was an elf,/ Ther walketh now the limitour him-self;”
  • they have been deliberately exorcised: it was explained to John Rhys (pp.221/228) that the fairies did not appear as in a “former age” because they had been cast out (ffrymu) for a period of centuries and would not be back during ‘our time.’  It is interesting that this ejection, albeit long, was considered a temporary state- a reason for some to be hopeful, perhaps; or,
  • they leave because the catholic faith has been replaced.  In his story The Dymchurch Flit Rudyard Kipling ascribes the fairies’ flight to the ill-will generated by religious dissension and the sense that they were no longer welcome and did not belong: “Fair or foul, we must flit out o’ this, for Merry England’s done with, an’ we’re reckoned among the Images”  (Puck of Pook’s Hill, p.267).  The poem, Farewell, rewards and fairies, by  Richard Corbet (1582–1635) is mentioned in the same book by Kipling and encapsulates these ideas: “the Fairies/  Were of the old Profession./ Their songs were ‘Ave Mary’s’,/ Their dances were Procession./ But now, alas, they all are dead; Or gone beyond the seas.”  It is well worth examining the whole poem.

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Arthur Rackham, illustration of the Dymchurch flit.

The combined shrinking and retreat of fairies and their realms reached a point in the twentieth century where many writers could declare their epitaphs.  For example, in Puck of Pook’s Hill, published in 1908, Rudyard Kipling has his character Puck admit that “The People of the Hills have all left.  I saw them come into Old England and I saw them go. Giants, trolls, kelpies, brownies, goblins, imps; … good people, little people … pixies, nixies and gnomes and the rest- gone, all gone!”  (p.10).  Katherine Briggs began the first chapter of The fairies in tradition and literature by observing how, since the late Middle Ages at least, fairy beliefs “have been supposed to belong to the last generation and to be lost to the present one,” but still the tradition lingered on.  However, she seemed to have lost heart in The anatomy of puck (p.11), admitting that “the fairies, who descended perhaps from gods older than those the druids worshipped, who were so long lamented as lost and so slow to go, have gone, now and forever.”

And yet…

Nevertheless, the announcement of the demise of faery may have proved premature.  As Janet Bord wrote in Fairies- real encounters with little people (1998), “the changes that have occurred in this century have not resulted in the complete extinction of the fairies: they have survived, because people still see them.” The changes to which she referred are the impact of technology, the loss of importance of traditional beliefs and the loss of traditional knowledge.  The cultural influences of the media and a decline in sympathy with the natural environment has led to a diminution in fairy belief, but not its destruction.  For many people, “fairy lore is still alive in the background of their existence.”

The rise of alternative spiritualities has definitely contributed to this tenacity of belief.  In his book on the Cottingley fairy photographs, The coming of the fairies, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle quoted with approval from the writings of Theosophist Edward Gardner.  The latter wrote that:

“For the most part, amid the busy commercialism of modern times, the fact of their existence has faded to a shadow, and a most delightful and charming field of nature study has too long been veiled. In this twentieth century there is promise of the world stepping out of some of its darker shadows. Maybe it is an indication that we are reaching the silver lining of the clouds when we find ourselves suddenly presented with actual photographs of these enchanting little creatures- relegated long since to the realm of the imaginary and fanciful.”

Gardner, Doyle and Geoffrey Hodson all waxed lyrical in the early decades of the century about beings existing at ‘higher levels of vibrations’ and similar.  They renewed the foundations for a belief in the existence and visibility of fairies which persists.  Diane Purkis in her book Troublesome things (chapter 10) was harsh on modern manifestations of fairy belief.  She wrote scathingly that a “few sad, mummified Victorian fairies survive, pressed in the pages of the Past Times catalogue, perhaps.  Some people are devoted to these little corpses, tending them devotedly, but they obstinately refuse to flourish, they have no roots and no branches, no real resonance.”  She rejects these remnants as being mere “revenants, wraiths, sad simplified ghosts.”

I will leave it to readers to decide on the validity of these dismissive words.  A glance at the abundance of fairy websites, and the shops and magazines offering a wealth of fairy related products, must give some reason to doubt Purkis’ scorn.  It would not be wrong to agree with Katherine Briggs that fairy tradition at least lingers, even today; perhaps, in fact, a more vigorous verb is justified- burgeons, perhaps?

An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).