Only simpletons believe…?

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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.

Fairy frauds

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).

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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).

Another view

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.

Further reading

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

elsie-gregory-children-watching-fairies-dancing

 

 

 

“Fear of little men”-or, ‘How the fairy got her wings’

In William Allingham’s poem The fairies (1883) he gives late expression to a formerly common attitude to fairies:

“Up the airy mountain,/ Down the rushy glen,/ We daren’t go a-hunting/    For fear of little men;/ Wee folk, good folk, Trooping all together;”

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Henry Fuseli, Puck

The traditional terror of fairies and the change in attitudes in more recent times is something I have touched upon in my posting on fairies and the night and which I wish to analyse in some more detail.

Perilous fairies

Until at least the early seventeenth century,  the conventional view of fairy kind was that they were as dangerous as they were intriguing and enticing.   For example, the eller maids of Denmark were beautiful, but also deadly: anyone lured into dancing with them would be danced to death; they would never be able to stop and would perish from exhaustion. Fairies were the causes of disease and stole human children, food and possessions, as I have previously described.

What I wish to examine here is how these fearsome and sometimes fatal creatures could deteriorate into something cloyingly cute and eminently suitable for little girls to imitate. In Religion and the decline of magic (1971) Keith Thomas prefaces his discussion of fairy beliefs by observing that “Today’s children are brought up to think of fairies as diminutive beings of a benevolent disposition, but the fairies of the Middle Ages were neither small nor particularly kindly” (p.724). When was our fearful respect for the fairies replaced by a simpering, indulgent affection?

Shakespeare’s influence

I have dated the change, as I suggest, to around 1600.  Shakespeare provides us with some evidence of the shift in popular perceptions.  Some commentators view him as the sole culprit, but this is to imbue him with far greater influence and respect than he had at the time.  He may now be seen as a genius and cultural icon, but that was not his status in his lifetime; as a playwright he did not shape views, but he certainly does reflect them.

Take, for example, Midsummer Night’s Dream.  On the one hand there is Puck, whose magic interventions in human affairs might be dismissed as farcically inept, but who should probably best be viewed as mischievous, if not malignant, in his conduct.  He admits to revelling in his tricks, for certain.  At another extreme are the fairies introduced by Titania to Bottom, called Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth and Mustardseed; here we have a first hint of the tiny and harmless beings with whom we are so familiar today.  A sense of these fairies’ size is conveyed by their use of glow-worms as lanterns and their hiding in acorn cups to escape Oberon’s fury.  By contrast, there is the encounter in The Merry Wives of Windsor between Sir John Falstaff and some children disguised as fairies.  They may be small, but that does not in the least detract from the horror he feels: “They are fairies; he that speaks to them shall die: I’ll wink and couch: no man their works must eye” (Act V scene 5).  Lack of stature, for Shakespeare’s contemporaries, still did not of necessity denote weakness or an amenable nature.

Science and reason

What exactly changed, then?  I think that there is a number of causes.  The growth of science and industry, particularly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, removed the justification for and threat of fairies.  Previously, as Geoffrey Parrinder remarked, “they helped explain many of the curious happenings of life” (Witchcraft, Pelican, 1958, p.70). By the later 1600s, this function was being superseded as John Aubrey wrote:

Old wives tales-  Before printing old wives’ tales were ingenious, and since Printing came into fashion, til a little before the Civil-Warres, the ordinary Sort of People were not taught to read; nowadayes bookes are common, and most of the poor people understand letters; and the many good bookes, and a variety of Turnes of affaires; have putt all the old Fables out of doors and the divine art of Printing and Gunpowder have frightened away Robin Goodfellow and the Fayries” (Remains of Gentilisme & Judaisme, 1687-89, p.68).

When they were no longer required to explain illness, they were left as merely decorative and un-threatening.  That said, if fairies had become redundant in this environment, their social function could be preserved by transporting them to other worlds.  This appears to be what has happened: green clad goblins have been translated into the ‘little green men’of science fiction.

Secondly, rationalism and religious scepticism has had a role.  Disbelief in a spirit world is sufficient to kill off fairies entirely, but it has also stopped them being taken seriously. Once this had happened, their descent into cuteness and whimsy was easy.

Fairy belief for a long time was treated as a thing of the previous generation.  For instance, John Aubrey recalled that “when I was a Boy, our Countrey people would talke much of them…” meaning  ‘Faieries.’  His contemporary, Sir William Temple, said much the same thing, suggesting that fairy belief had only really declined over the previous thirty years or so (i.e. during the mid-seventeenth century).  Robert Burton, writing the Anatomy of melancholy in 1621, shared these opinions:  fairies had been “in former times adored with much superstition” but were now seen only from time to time by old women and children.

Nevertheless, doubt seems to have been well established by the 1580s at least.  The best evidence for this is Reginald Scot’s The discoverie of witchcraft (1584).  The book is an assault upon belief in witches, but he compares this extensively with the parallel belief in a supernatural race of beings.  In his introduction ‘To the reader’ Scot remarks that:

“I should no more prevail herein [i.e., in persuading his audience] than if a hundred years since I should have entreated your predecessors to believe that Robin Goodfellow, that great and ancient bull-beggar, had been a cozening merchant and no devil indeed.  But Robin Goodfellow ceaseth now to be much feared…”

Once again, the fairy faith is a thing of the (distant) past.  Later Scot comments that “By this time all Kentishmen know (a few fooles excepted) that Robin Goodfellow is a knave” (Book XVI, c.7).  Scot’s theme is that such credulity is not just old-fashioned; it is now the preserve of the simple and weak.  He repeats these allegations throughout his text: “the feare of manie foolish folke, the opinion of some that are wise, the want of Robin Goodfellow and the fairies, which were woont to mainteine chat and the common people’s talke in this behalfe … All which toies take such hold upon men’s fansies, as whereby they are lead and entised away from the consideration of true respects, to the condemnation of that which they know not” (The Epistle); likewise- “we are so fond, mistrustful and credulous that we feare more the fables of Robin Goodfellow, astrologers and witches and beleeve more things that are not than things that are.  And the more unpossible a thing is, the more we stand in feare thereof” (Book XI, c.22).

Talk of fairies then, was in Scot’s opinion only fit for “yoong children” and its only purpose was to “deceive and seduce.”  Scot is concerned how many in the past were “cousened and abused” by such tales and he admonishes his readers to remember this:

“But you shall understand that these bugs speciallie are spied and feared of sicke folke, children, women and cowards, which through weakness of mind and body are shaken with vain dreams and continuall feare… But in our childhood our mothers maids have so terrified us with … urchins, elves, hags, fairies… that we are afraid of our own shadowes” (Book VII, c.15).

Scot remained confident in the advance of reason, however:

“And know you this, by the waie, that heretofore Robin Goodfellow and Hobgoblin were as terrible and also as credible to the people as hags and witches be now, and in time to come a witch will be as derided and contemned, and as plainlie perceived, as the illusion and knaverie of Robin Goodfellow…” (Book VII, c.2)

King James I/VI in his Daemonologie (1597) was just as scornful as Scot of any belief in ‘Phairie’ but he did not ascribe it to mere foolishness.  For him, it was more sinister- it was a deception of the devil who had “illuded the senses of sundry simple creatures, in making them beleeve that they saw and harde such thinges as were nothing so indeed.” Although the fairy faith was “one of the illusiones that was risest in the time of Papistrie” it was thankfully in decline in Presbyterian Scotland at the time that he wrote (c.V).

Thirdly, fairy belief dwindled as the natural world was increasingly explored, surveyed and quantified.  When every acre of land was being assessed for its productive value and as a capital asset, the fairies were mapped and measured out of existence.  On a crowded island, no space was left for anything except the tiniest of beings to survive.  In fact, even as early as the first quarter of the seventeenth century, Michael Drayton could equate smallness with fairy nature: in his Eighth Nymphal he declares “Why, by her smallness you may find/ That she is of the fairy kind.”

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Stothard, The rape of the lock

The shrinking fairy

The cumulative effect of these societal changes was, as Keith Thomas wrote, that “By the Elizabethan age, fairy lore was primarily a store of mythology rather than a corpus of living beliefs” (Religion and the decline of magic, 1971, p.726).  Deprived of its rationale, the decay set in quickly.  There is a suggestion of flight in Drayton’s Poly-Olbion- “The frisking fairy there, as on the light air borne” (1613, Song XXI) but explicit winged flight is first mentioned in The Rape of the Lock from 1712, in which Alexander Pope imagined fairies “Some to the sun their insect wings unfold/ Waft on the breeze or sink in clouds of gold.”   When, in 1798, Thomas Stothard illustrated Pope’s book with fairies with butterfly wings, the trend was confirmed.  Contemporaneously, we may note a bat winged Puck by Fuseli from 1790 and a tiny winged fairy creature in his illustration of Titania awakening with Bottom dated to 1794. This quickly seems to have become the convention: in subsequent Victorian images fairies are predominantly winged creatures; these wings are either gauzy like dragonflies’ or patterned like butterflies’.

henry-fuseli-titania-awakes-surrounded-by-attendant-faries-1794

Fuseli, Titania and Bottom

All the same, folk belief could still lag well behind popular culture and artistic representations: Ivor Gurney wrote a poem in 1918 that must preserve older Gloucestershire beliefs.  Having waited in a lane at dusk for a lover to return home, he is alarmed by a bustle in the hedgerow:

“Until within the ferny brake/ Stirred patter-feet and silver talk/ That set all horror wide awake-/ I fear the fairy folk.”  (Girl’s Song, September 1918)

There have been stubborn resisters too to the sentimentalising tendency.  Rudyard Kipling in Puck of Pook’s Hill (1908) made clear his feelings; Puck tells Dan and Una (p.14):

“Besides, what you call [fairies] are made up things the People of the Hills have never heard of- little buzzflies with butterfly wings and gauze petticoats, and shiny stars in their hair, and a wand like a school-teacher’s cane for punishing bad boys and rewarding good ones… Can you wonder that the People of the Hills don’t care to be confused with that painty-winged, wand-waving, sugar-and-shake-your-head set of impostors?  Butterfly wings indeed!”

The ultimate result of this decline is some of the twee horrors to be found.  For Christmas, I received a card bearing an illustration by Ida Rentoul Outhwaite.  Along with Cicely Mary Barker, she is one of the prime offenders in the genre loathed by Kipling (and Puck). Amongst her pictures you will find fairies with perfect 1920s bobs and, worse still, gambling with koala bears at drinks parties…

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Ida Rentoul Outhwaite

The resistance to the sentimentalising tendency continues (see for example the remarks of Cassandra Lobiesk on her website Fae folk: the world of fae- see my links page), but after at least a century, it may sadly be a losing battle.  An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).