One of Brian Froud’s bad fairies.
In this post I feature a paragraph of juvenilia from the family journal ‘The Rectory Umbrella’ which was ‘published’ by Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson) and his brothers and sisters between 1850 and 1853 to entertain themselves and their parents. The piece is of interest as an early work of fantasy by the future author of the Alice stories as well as being an example of Victorian ideas on pixies.
The text appears under the sub-title: ‘Zoological papers‘ and makes fun of the learned scientific, academic style (with footnotes).
Zoological papers: Pixies
“The origin of this curious race of creatures is not at present known: the best description we can collect of them is this, that they are a species of fairies about two feet high (1), of small and graceful figure; they are covered in a dark reddish kind of fur; the general expression of their faces is sweetness and good humour; the former quality is probably the reason why foxes are so fond of eating them. From Coleridge we learn the following additional facts; that they have ‘filmy pinions’ something like dragon flies’ wings, that they ‘sip the furze-flower’s fragrant dew’ (that, however, could only be for breakfast, as it would dry up before dinner-time), and that they are wont to ‘flash their faery feet in gamesome prank,’ or, in more common language, ‘to dance the polka (2) like winking.’
From an old English legend (3) which, as it is familiar with our readers, we need not here repeat, we learn that they have a strong affection for raw turnips, decidedly a more vulgar sort of food than ‘fragrant dew’; and from their using churns and kettles we conjecture that they are not unacquainted with tea, milk, butter &c. They are tolerably good architects, though their houses must unavoidably have something the appearance of large dog kennels, and they go to market occasionally, though from what source they get the money for this purpose has hitherto remained an unexplained mystery. This is all the information we have been able to collect on this interesting subject.
(1) So they are described by the inhabitants of Devonshire, who occasionally see them.
(2) Or any other step.
(3) A tradition, introduced into notice by the Editor.”
Now, it seems very likely that Carroll must have been reading Mrs Bray. Her book, The Borders of the Tamar and the Tavy , was published in 1836 and describes, in a series of letters to the poet Robert Southey, the traditions, legends and superstitions that surround the North Dartmoor town of Tavistock. This is the most likely source for most of Carroll’s information: Mrs Bray’s children’s book, A Peep at the Pixies, or Legends of the West, didn’t appear until 1854.
His fairy lore is on the whole, sound (excepting, I think, the turnips… as he confesses himself) We do know that there was longstanding animosity between the Dartmoor foxes and pixies, which led to an ever-increasing effort by the latter to protect themselves. The foxes hunted the pixies, digging them out of their underground homes and devouring them. The pixies responded by making iron shelters- which may, indeed, as Carroll suggests, look like dog kennels (R. King, ‘Folklore of Devonshire,’ Fraser’s Magazine, vol.8, 1873, p.781).
We know very well the fairies’ partiality for dairy products such as butter and milk, and it had long been a poetic conceit that tiny rural beings would drink dew and nectar from flowers. We are also very familiar with their love of dance. The use of kettles and the like is quite conventional: one common set of stories involves fairies seeking human aid to mend some basic item of domestic equipment- a stool or a ‘ped’ used to remove loaves from ovens; they made their own butter as well as stealing ours and would have needed a fully equipped kitchen for these tasks. Tales of fairies at markets are also well-known, although their habit is often to thieve from the stalls rather than to buy. In the frequent accounts of midwives who have cared for a fairy baby and, in the process, touched an eye with fairy ointment, the women are exposed when they spy a fairy at the market, whether buying or shoplifting. Fairies often had gold, it is true, whether to purchase goods or to make gifts to chosen favourites. Many writers have speculated about its source: was this money merely leaves and pebbles disguised by glamour (as was not unknown) or was it real currency, perhaps discovered by the fays underground? Fairies were said to have abilities to help humans locate buried treasure, certainly, and access to ancient hoards might explain the unusual coins that often made up their payments.
Carroll’s pixies coincide very much with tradition, then, and even his jokey invention of their foxy fur coats is not entirely unheard of, as we know from more recent fairy sightings. Nevertheless, the winged pixy is something of a surprise (though see Brian Froud’s image below) as is the description of them as always jolly. As readers will know, they have a great tendency to mischief- hence the term ‘pixy-led.’
Another Froud pixie
Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and ‘Through the Looking Glass’ are classics and well worth reading if you’ve not already, albeit not fairy stories in any conventional sense. I have also enjoyed reading Sean Conroy’s recent book, Alice in the Underground: Lewis Carroll and Alice in Modern Culture, a book which examines many of the debated questions of Carroll’s life and work. My own British Pixies (2021) looks at all aspects of the folklore of the pixies of South West England.