‘Eco-Fairies’- old or new?

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A recent book on modern paganism and fairy belief, Magic and Witchery in the Modern West (Feraro and White, 2019), suggested that many of the contemporary conceptions of fairies as planetary guardians and green protectors came not from age-old faery tradition but from books like Cicely Mary Barker’s flower fairies, books that adult pagans had seen as and absorbed as children.  Is this really true?  Is the view of faeries as green champions really so recent and untraditional a development?

In fact, there is a reasonable amount of evidence to indicate that faeries have been connected with nature conservation and environmental causes for a quite long time.  For example, there is a widespread popular story of a woodcutter just about to fell a tree who is stopped by the appearance of a fairy being from beneath the ground.  This is described as having happened as far apart in Britain as Northamptonshire and Nithsdale in the Scottish Borders.  The idea of faeries as active defenders of the natural world was therefore accepted in folk belief from at least the start of the nineteenth century, a situation that was reflected in the literature of the time.  In his 1810 poem Alice Brand, Sir Walter Scott had the elfin king demand:

“Why sounds yon stroke on the beech and oak,

Our moonlight circle’s screen,

Or who comes here to chase the deer,

Beloved of our Elfin Queen?”

In the ballad of Tam Lin, the young Tam appears to his lover-to-be, Janet, after she plucks a rose in the forest.  He complains that she has taken the flower without his permission.  Similarly, in the ballad Hynde Etin complaint is made by the fairy when nuts are picked, “For I’m the guardian of the wood/ and ye maun [must] let it be.”  Whether this is environmental stewardship or cases of trespass on private land is not entirely clear, but the faeries are evidently highly protective of their natural resources.  We might see those faeries that protect (human) orchards and nut groves, such as Owd Goggie, in a similar light.

Lastly, an article carried by the Welsh Western Mail in September 1878 described the industry that had brought prosperity to Nant y Glo and Blaenau, in Gwent, albeit at the cost of the local woodlands.  The extensive tree-felling was dated back some ninety years to the time when ironworking first started in the area and demand for charcoal expanded steeply.  Before then, we are told, the fairies had protected the trees of the hills and valleys thereabouts.  These were yr tylwyth teg yn y coed, the fairies of the wood, who often used to be seen assembled under the female oaks there, and who guarded the trees and harmed those that felled them.  Sadly, however, they couldn’t resist against the “inroads of a gross material civilisation” (as the writer called it, even then) and they were driven off west into less spoiled parts of the Principality.  These sentiments might surprise us from a Victorian, but they demonstrate that environmental awareness, and a sense of the faeries’ role as eco-guardians, might not be that new.

Jacobean Precedents

As far back as the start of the seventeenth century, in fact, there is evidence of the fairies being seen as friends and protectors of wildlife and the natural world.  Sir William Browne in Britannia’s Pastorals imagined the fairies

“Teaching the little birds to build their nests,/ And in their singing how to keepen rests…”

The ‘eco-fairy’ as a concept is not new, therefore, even if the label is.  An examination of the folklore and literary sources discloses three interrelated functions that the faes were believed to undertake: they cared for small mammals and birds; they had a special link with certain flowers and trees and, lastly, they assumed a more general supervisory role over the natural world, keeping it in balance and preventing over-exploitation and pollution.

Fairies’ Furry Friends

Fairies not only lived and played in the countryside- according to Victorian poetry they talked to the birds, taught them how to sing and kept their eggs warm in the nest by curling up to sleep beside them.  Poet Rose Fyleman, famous for There’s a Fairy at the Bottom of my Garden, in her verse A Fairy Went A-Marketing, imagined how a fae might buy pet fish and birds and then set them free.  For Fyleman, fairies and wildlife were best of friends, with robins serving as a page in the fairy court and tiny faes living contentedly in flowers.

Verse and popular conceptions went hand in hand, as there are reported encounters with fairies helping birds find berries in the snow and looking after wildlife in wintry weather.  Early Victorian child poet, Annie Isabella Brown, imagined fairies describing how:

“We gathered flannel-mullen leaves,

Against the winter’s cold;

To keep the little dormouse warm,

Within its hedgerow hold.”

Poet Menella Bute Smedley also imagined the fairies “twisting threads of bloom and light” to make butterflies’ wings.

Flower Fairies

Just as there was active supernatural involvement with the animal kingdom, folk tradition identifies two aspects to the relationship between fairies and plants. They are attracted to certain herbs, whether supernaturally or for merely utilitarian reasons (foxgloves, for example, are called fairy gloves and fairy thimbles) and, secondly, the fairies are said inhabit certain trees, such as oaks, thorns and elders.  It was a relatively easy transition from these associations to come up with the idea of flower fairies as popularised by artists Cicely Baker and Margaret Tarrant, but the foundations of this twentieth century phenomenon are much deeper and older (see Lewis Spence, British Fairy Tradition, pp.178-80).

It looks as though the first step towards the flower fairy idea was to emphasise the affinity between fairies and particular flowers.  Next, it was an easy step to conceive of the spirits living in those flowers and the miniaturisation of the fairies popularised by Shakespeare and his contemporaries assisted with this.  Inevitably, too, the fairy character began to be softened by association with bloom, scent and colour.

This change seems to have proceeded from the seventeenth century, judging by scattered indications in our literature.  For instance, William Browne (1588-1643) in his verse The Rose imagined that “the nimble fairies by the pale-faced moon/ Water’d the root and kissed her pretty shade.”  From the eighteenth century there is good literary evidence for the idea of fairies taking up residence in flowers.  Coleridge, for example, described “Fays/ That sweetly nestle in the foxglove bells.” His contemporary George Darley imagined little fairies with scented wings emerging at night from blossoms and flitting from flower to flower enjoying nectar like wine (George Darley (1795-1846), What the Toys do at Night and The Elf Toper).

By the late nineteenth century this idea was exceedingly widespread: American poet Madison Julius Cawein repeatedly housed his fays in toadstools or in blooms and in his adult fairy tale, Phantastes, Scottish author George MacDonald described how “the flowers die because the fairies go away, not that the fairies disappear because the flowers die.  The flowers seem a sort of house for them, or outer bodies, which they can put on and off when they please… you would see a strange resemblance, almost a oneness between the flower and the fairy… [but] whether all flowers have fairies, I cannot determine.”  When J. M. Barrie adopted these ideas for Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, he was simply making use of an already well-established idea- although the success of his books and plays took it to a much wider audience.

Consequent upon inhabiting flowers, other connections were seen- for example, gardens become an ideal place to see fairies according to the poetry of Philip Bourke Marston and others.  It was also during the nineteenth century that the fairies’ role as conservers of plant life was crystallised.  In The Fairy’s Promise Edwin Arnold had fairies promise to help a love-sick poet because “Thou hast never plucked daisy or heather bell/ From the emerald braes where the fairies dwell.”   The fairies’ floral duties are spelled out in detail in The Wounded Daisy by Menella Bate Smedley.  They are to be found at work in the corners of meadows:

“Perhaps you’ll see them… setting the lilies steady,
Before they begin to grow;
Or getting the rosebuds ready
Before it is time to blow.
A fairy was mending a daisy
Which someone had torn in half…”

According to numerous nineteenth century poets the fairies shaped and inspired growth and, even, taught the plants how to grow at special schools over the winter.

Finally, Menella Bute Smedley made an important leap by involving humans as partners in the task of caring for the natural world:

“Then pull up the weeds with a will,/ And fairies will cherish the flowers.” (A Slight Confusion)

There are, then, two conceptions of the exact interrelationship between fairies and the natural world.  The first is that they exist simply as a part of the natural world and its processes.  The second, and more significant, is that they act as ‘guardians of nature’, actively watching over plants, animals and the earth as a whole and keeping the intricate systems in balance.

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Fairies and the Green Revolution

Many contemporary writers on fairy matters stress how the faes are opposed to intensive agriculture, to overuse of fertilisers, to pollution and to general environmental degradation.  It would be easy to imagine that these ideas have been imported into the faery faith since the 1960s, but the examples given so far make it abundantly clear that they were present in folklore and, thence it would seem, in literature, well before any conception of the harms of over-intensive cultivation even occurred to the scientific community.

Fairies have always been linked more closely to rural and uncultivated locations than to towns, although it would be wrong to suggest that they’re never seen in urban places (and the evidence of the recent Fairy Census and of the witness accounts recorded in Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing Fairies both suggest this is changing anyway).  Even in the countryside, though, they’re not a people solely of wild places and woods.  They often live and work around human farms (the Hobs and the Brownie type of spirit) and they frequently take advantage of the human environment, using mills and dancing in pastures and meadows at night.  There is no antipathy with agriculture as such, therefore.

That said, ideas of fairies as a champion of more traditional, organic, self-sufficient production date back to the mid-nineteenth century at the very latest.  For example, folklorist Evans Wentz in the 1900s heard in Scotland that the Highland clearances also drove off the sith.  Highlander John Dunbar of Invereen told him that “no one sees them now because every place on this parish where they used to appear has been put into sheep and deer and grouse and shooting.”  A vision of them fighting with sheep was seen, in fact, as a premonition of what was the follow (Evans Wentz, Fairy Faith, 94).

Conclusion

Works such as Peter Pan and the various Flower Fairies books unquestionably popularised the conception of the fairy as protector and champion of nature, but these ideas had been around since Elizabethan times and had been consolidating during the Victorian period. Such perceptions of the faeries are, arguably, as traditional as notions of them dancing in rings and stealing children.  The ‘green fairy’ is not some hippy, environmentalist creation, grafted on in recent decades, but is a fundamental element of the nature of Faery.

Margaret Tarrant, Brimstone Fairy

For further discussion of the environmental role of faeries, see my more recent post on the relationship of faeries to the natural world and my book Faeries and the Natural World (2021):

On my Fairy Bookshelf: ‘Prisoner in Fairyland’

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Algernon Blackwood (right) during World War I

I’ve discussed before the musical Starlight Express by Sir Edward Elgar.  As I stated, the 1915 production was based upon the novel, A Prisoner in Fairyland, which was published in June 1913.

Background

The novel was written by Algernon Blackwood (1869-1951), an author who specialised in horror and fantasy themes.  Several of his short stories build up mystery and fear using a fairy incident as the foundation for the plot: these include ‘Ancient Lights,’ ‘The Trod,’ ‘The Glamour of the Snow’ and ‘May Day Eve.’  His story, ‘A Touch of Pan,’ is his contribution to the Pan cult of the early twentieth century, which I have also mentioned before.  Many of his stories can be read online.

A Prisoner in Fairyland is unlike any of these.  It is a gentle, delicate, optimistic story, with some beautiful passages of imaginative description.  It is not really about Fairyland at all- at least, not about the fairy realm in the sense in which I use it on this blog.

I know nothing definite about Blackwood’s inspiration, but I can’t help wondering if he saw the 1901 pantomime Bluebell in Fairyland, by Seymour Hicks.  This production was definitely seen by J. M. Barrie, and inspired Peter Pan, but the idea that fairyland and dreams are the same, that there is a king waiting in a cave to be woken by children so he can do good in the world, and the fact that golden dust is sprinkled in the children’s eyes (“Eyelids droop and close as darkness falls/ Fairyland is waiting as the dustman calls) all seem very similar to Blackwood’s story (as I’ll show).

The Moral of the Story

Blackwood’s ‘fairyland’ and his references through out to fairies and fairy things is almost unique.  As readers may know (especially if you’ve read any of the poems in my Victorian Fairy Verse), ‘fairy’ was used freely by writers from the eighteenth century onwards to denote anything that was small, dainty or cute.  Blackwood’s usage derives from this, but it is still wholly his own.  What springs to mind is a word no longer used in modern English, but which was, in the past, often to be found in conjunction with fairy- and that is ‘ferly,’ which means a wonder or marvel.  It appears, for example, in the sixteenth century Scots drama, The Crying of Ane Playe.  The main character, Harry Hobilschowe introduces himself as the play begins, telling us he has just arrived on a whirlwind from Syria, where he:

“lang has bene in þe fary/ Farleis to fynd.”

(he’s spent a long time in fairyland, searching for marvels).

The word is also used at the outset of the Middle English poem, Piers Plowman.  Its use here is even more apposite, for Piers associates it with lying down to rest on a grassy bank near Malvern, one summer’s day.  He may then have fallen asleep and dreamed- or else he had a vision:

“In a somer sesun, whon softe was the sonne…

Wente I wyde in this world wondres to here;

Bote in a Mayes morwnynge on Malverne hulles

Me bifel a ferly, of fairie, me-thoughte.”

In Blackwood’s story, dreaming is directly associated with access to the fairyland he portrays.  Very broadly, the plot involves a successful business man, Henry Rogers, who retires early with the intention of using his wealth on good causes.  Rogers takes a holiday with his cousin and his young family at their home in Switzerland and there, in the company of the niece and nephew, rediscovers his childhood dreams.  The plot is negligible and the action is entirely concerned with the family’s thoughts, emotions and dreams.  In my previous mention of the book, I called it a children’s story; it isn’t: the psychology and philosophy the book contains aren’t intended for younger readers, even though children and their inner life are central to the narrative.

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Blackwood with Sir Edgar Elgar, 1915

Fairies in Fairyland?

So, are there any fairies in A Prisoner in Fairyland?  I must tell you, dear reader, that there are not- and that, in a sense, I was grossly misled when purchasing the book!  There are, nevertheless, numerous references to fairies and fairyland, so I need to explain what Blackwood is doing.

There is one scrap of traditional fairylore, it’s true: in chapter 23 he observes that “People lost in fairyland, they say, always forget the outer world of unimportant happenings.”  This is quite true, as folklore makes it very clear how a person may become ‘elf-addled.’  Blackwood is using ‘fairyland’ in quite a different sense, however, to that of a place called Faery.

The moral of his story is captured is a single paragraph:

“Only the world today no longer believes in Fairyland… and even the children have become scientific.  Perhaps it’s only buried, though.  The two ought to run in harness really- opposite interpretations of the universe.  One might revive it- here and there perhaps.  Without it, all the tenderness seems leaking out of life.” (c.5)

As this may begin to indicate, there are (inevitably) marked traces of Victorian views of Faery in Blackwood’s work.  As I have emphasised in my new book, Victorian Fairy Verse for most writers of the period fairies were synonymous with everything tiny and cute.  These underlying assumptions pervade Blackwood’s novel:

“Fairy things, like stars and tenderness, are always small.” (c.31)

“A Fairy blesses because she is a Fairy, not because she turns a pumpkin into a coach and four…” (c.28)

“that raciness and swift mobility, that fluid, protean elasticity of temperament which belonged to the fairy kingdom.” (c.23)

So, what exactly is Blackwood’s fairyland and how do you get there?  The answer is very simple.  Fairyland is the inner world of fantasy and imagination that we all inhabit during childhood.  It is a source of joy and wonder and it is something that many adults mourn: “The world, too, is a great big child that is crying for its Fairyland.” (c.24)

For adults to be able to recover their fairyland, they need two things.  They need to be close to children and to share their vivid imaginative life.  Rogers is sitting with his niece and nephew on his knees and realises:

“Their plans and schemes netted his feet in fairyland just as surely as the weight of their little warm, soft bodies fastened him to the boulder where he sat.  He could not move.  He could not go further without their will and leadership.” (c.13)

In their sleep, the children’s spirits leave their bodies and travel on the Starlight Express to a place where starlight is stored.  They then use this to heal sick and unhappy adults.  “Like Fairies, lit internally with shining lanterns, they flew about their business” (c.16).  Rogers, too, learns to join the children in their dreams and to explore this fairyland.  It is “a state of mind, open potentially to all, but not to be enjoyed merely for the asking.  Like other desirable things, it was to be ‘attained.'” (c.30) Fairyland can be entered only so long as some of its benefits will be taken back to the mortal world.

The Starlight Express

The Express carries dreamers’ souls to and from Faery, where they collect starlight.  These are memorable images (in fact, stars and constellations sparkle throughout the prose, producing some passages of great beauty) and they clearly had the potential to capture the popular imagination.

As I mentioned in my preamble, the book appeared in June 1913.  By the next summer, the need for Blackwood’s joy and child-like wonder began to seem acute.  This explains why it was so quickly adapted as a musical; war-time Britain needed the boost and Blackwood’s text had plenty of uplifting ideas to offer.   His key concept was that the uplifting and inspiring thoughts from fairyland must be distributed back to the rest of the world- on “their mission of deliverance.” (c.27)  Henry Roger’s cousin is an author and for him the starlight from Faery is inspiration- “a thing of starlight, woods and fairies”- that he may then share with the rest of humanity through his novels: “flakes of thought like fairy seed” (c.27).

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Musical

The 1984 musical of the same name as Elgar and Blackwood’s work shares nothing with it except the name.  The modern production was inspired by the Thomas the Tank Engine stories and it is, naturally, about trains, which don’t seem very magical to me.

Further Reading

As I have described before, the theatrical adaptation of Blackwood’s work was one of several Great War plays and musicals that sought to harness Faery to the Imperial war effort.  All of these works have fallen into obscurity since- mostly for good reason.

Blackwood’s novel may have been caught up by jingoism, but it predates the war and has something much deeper to say that the others fairy plays of the time.  It can be found cheaply on Amazon etc if you want yourself to travel on the Starlight Express.

Neverland and fairyland- J. M. Barrie, Peter Pan and British fairy tradition

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One of Arthur Rackham’s illustrations of Barrie’s story

This is a slightly amended version of an earlier post, re-posted because the old one was getting bombarded with spam!

Scottish author, J. M. Barrie, is renowned as the creator of Peter Pan, the central character of a play of that name and of two stories Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (1906) and Peter and Wendy (1911).  I would argue that his work has had a profound influence subsequently upon popular conceptions and conventions regarding faery.  A good deal of Barrie’s material on fairies was drawn from British tradition, in which respect he can’t be criticised.  However, it is what he invented that has probably had to be most profound effect on representations of genre.

Barrie and tradition

The traditional elements in his descriptions of fairy kind include the following:

  • language- Barrie has Tinker Bell speaking a language incomprehensible to human children (although Peter Pan has learned it).  Her speech is like “the loveliest tinkle of golden bells” and is also described as high-pitched squeaking.  This fits well with many older descriptions of fairy speech;
  • dancing- the fairies’ favourite pastime is dancing and by their waltzing around they create fairy rings.  Mushrooms left in the circle are seats not tidied away by their servants, according to Barrie (a first hint of his cute tendencies).  When they are happy, they “feel dancey.”  When they are troubled, they are “undancey”;
  • not working- Barrie is inconsistent in this.  He declares that “they never do anything useful… They look tremendously busy, you know, as if they had not a moment to spare, but if you were to ask them what they were doing, they could not tell you.” Elsewhere, he has them milking their cows, building and repairing pots and pans.  This uncertainty as to the exact nature of the fairy economy is long-standing;
  • glamour- Barrie’s fairies employ magic to disguise their houses and to hide themselves.  This is a standard fairy trait and Barrie tells us that pretending to be something else is “one of their best tricks.  They usually pretend to be flowers”;
  • diminutive- Barrie’s fairies are all small– Tinker Bell for example is “no longer than your hand, but still growing.”
  • concealment– Barrie’s fairy folk are shy of human contact, only appearing after dark and when the gates are locked in Kensington Gardens and disguising themselves as flowers if they are caught in the open;
  • alien- “Fairies indeed are strange” and it is only the half-boy, Peter Pan, who really comprehends them and knows that, often times, the only way to communicate with them is in the rough physical language they use themselves.  He often cuffs them and gives them a good hiding, according to Barrie; and,
  • bad temperament– in Tinker Bell’s vindictive jealously of Wendy and in their use of physical chastisements, Barrie’s fairies are very traditional.  They tweak Peter’s nose when he sleeps across a fairy path; they ‘mischief’ those they take against.  “Nearly all the nasty accidents you meet with in the Gardens occur because the fairies have taken an ill-will against you and so it behoves you to be careful what you say about them…”  “If the fairies see you … they will mischief you- stab you to death, or compel you to nurse their children, or turn you into something tedious, like an evergreen oak.”  Of Tinker Bell, Barrie explains that she “was not all bad: or, rather, she was all bad just now, but, on the other hand, sometimes she was all good.  Fairies have to be one thing or the other, because being so small they unfortunately have room for one feeling only at a time.  They are, however, allowed to change, only it must be a compete change.”  For regular readers, these accounts of abductions, violence and the need to speak circumspectly will be very familiar.

Barrie’s inventions

Significant aspects of the character and abilities of Tinker Bell have nothing to do with British tradition though.  Barrie’s most notable inventions include:

  • fairy-dust- this enables fairies to fly.  It covers Tinker Bell and rubs off; we are not told what it is;
  • fairy light- every fairy gives off a very bright light.  She cannot control it (“about the only thing they can’t do”) but “it just goes out of itself when she falls asleep;”
  • fairies nest in trees, we are told, although Barrie also has them occupying more conventional houses and palaces arranged in streets too;
  • they are closely linked to flowers– there is some traditional material here, in the association with natural life and verdancy, but for Barrie “they dress exactly like flowers and change with the seasons, putting on white when lilies are in and blue for bluebells, and so on.  They like crocus and hyacinth time best of all as they are partial to a bit of colour, but tulips (except the white ones, which are fairy cradles) they consider too garish…”

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Fairies and children

For Barrie, there was a very close link between children and fairies.  This manifests in three ways:

  • they are born from babies’ laughter- “when they first baby laughed for the first time, its laugh broke into a thousand pieces and they all went skipping about and that was the beginning of the fairies.”  Every time a child is born, another fairy will appear;
  • they are particularly drawn to children:  Barrie tells us that “it is frightfully difficult to know much about fairies, and about the only thing known for certain is that there are fairies wherever there are children… They can’t resist following the children…”
  • childrens’ disbelief in fairies kills them.  A fairy’s life is short in any case, although “they are so little that a short time seems a good while to them.”  Worse, though, is the fact that “children know such a lot now, they soon don’t believe in fairies ad every time a child says ‘I don’t believe in fairies’ there is a fairy that drops down dead.”

The bond between the delicate and pretty fairies and children that Barrie conjures fits ill with much of the rest of the delineation of their characters- the pinching, the grudges and the cruelty, but it is the ‘natural’ association between infancy and faery that has proved abiding.

Finally, it is also notable that Barrie was not immune to the quasi-adult treatment of fairies that had pervaded much Victorian literature and art.  There is a curious and uncomfortable tension between Peter, Tinker Bell and Wendy, with the two females competing for the attention of and the right to care for Peter.  Tink herself is introduced thus: she was “exquisitely gowned in a skeleton leaf cut low and square, through which her figure could be seen to the best advantage.  She was slightly inclined to embonpoint.”  Later Wendy describes her cattily as “an abandoned little creature” and that aura of wantonness pervades the character.  All in all, Tinker Bell appears to be an adult.  She is “quite a common fairy” and is not very polite, using “offensive” and “impudent” language to Wendy in their squabble over Peter.  This might be read as sexual possessiveness, or it might be the childhood exclusiveness of ‘the best friend.’

Further reading

In other posts I have examined the impact of other famous literary works on traditional British fairy-lore, books including Harry Potter, the Water Babies and the works of Mrs Ewing.

“Ray of light”- Tinkerbell and luminous fairies

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John Atkinson Grimshaw, Dame Autumn hath a mournful face, 1871

Ever since Peter Pan appeared on the stage in 1904, the idea of fairies as flitting points of light has been fixed in the popular imagination.  This post looks at the facts and the fiction of these perceptions of faery.

Tinkerbell

In contrast to her theatrical representation, in his book of the story of Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie imagined Tinkerbell as a full physical creature. For example, she is described as being-

“exquisitely gowned in a skeleton leaf cut low and square, through which her figure could be seen to the best advantage.  She was slightly inclined to embonpoint.

Tink is very evidently not just solid- she’s sexy, she’s sexual and she’s possessive.

However, in the stage-play the fairy was reduced to a flickering light and a tinkle of bells.  The light “darts about” using language that is variously furious, acerbic, shrill and impudent- we are told.  But it all sounds the same to us; Tinkerbell is a presence that can hardly be seen and barely understood except through the mediation of Peter.

This image of a flickering light caught hold though, despite its insubstantial nature, and is noticeably strong in the evidence of contemporary witnesses.

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John Atkinson Grimshaw, Iris.

Traditional fays

Is this all Barrie’s fault and invention, though?  By and large, traditional sightings don’t have much to say about glowing lights- except for the will o’the wisp, who was nothing but a flitting light.  These fairy apparitions have only one purpose, though, to lure travellers out of their way into bogs and mires; they are not fully rounded characters like Tink and most faeries.  Nevertheless, despite the paucity of evidence, there is an interesting report from Dartmoor published in 1876 which describes the pixies.

“The pixies are never really seen, but in some cases white spots are seen moving about in the dark and then they are heard- although you can’t understand their words.” (Transactions of the Devonshire Association, vol.8, 1876, p.57)

Secondly, from Evans Wentz’ Fairy faith in Celtic countries, there comes a sighting on the Isle of Man dating from about the 1860s.  The witness, a member of the island’s legislature at the time of recording his experience, had been walking home at night with a friend when he saw across a small brook:

“a circle of supernatural light… The spot where the light appeared was a flat space surrounded on the sides away from the river by banks formed by low hills; and into this space and the circle of light, from the surrounding sides apparently, I saw come in twos and threes a great crowd of little beings smaller than Tom Thumb and his wife.  All of them, who appeared like soldiers, were dressed in red.  They moved back and forth amid the circle of light as they formed into order like troops drilling.” (Wentz p.133)

The witness’ companion declined to get any nearer and, after a while, struck a wall with his walking stick, thereby causing the fairies and their ‘aura’ to vanish instantaneously.

Lastly, Walter Gill recorded in his Second Manx Scrapbook of 1932 that fairies might be seen far off at night on the Isle of Man, as sparks or little flames dancing on hilltops.

These three are  intriguing, if rather isolated, reports.

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John Atkinson Grimshaw, Midsummer Eve.

Contemporary fays

In the more recent witness reports of Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing fairies and, even more so, in the Fairy Census 2017, the luminosity of fairies is often mentioned, so it’s worth analysing the figures a little.

Movement is the most noticeable feature of the sightings in the modern period.  In the Census there’s total of 69 cases of luminous fays (14% of the total); Johnson meanwhile has 34 instances.  Whilst 15% of the Census lights were stationary, 73% were in motion.  Sometimes a fairy body will be seen with the light, or the fairy is said to have ‘an aura’ but they can too be simple points of light: 28% of the Census witnesses described the fairy as a ball of light.  We may very well suspect here the influence of J. M. Barrie‘s stage representation of Tinkerbell in the minds of those having the experience.  This seems to be confirmed by a woman from Michigan describing an experience during the 1990s.  She wrote that:

“They were like little lights. Like Tinker Bell while she’s flying. A little pixie light. Several of them.”

Another witness told Johnson about “a Tinker Bell light.”

There’s more to say though.  A variety of effects have been associated with the bright fairies.  Some give off flashes of light, others sparkle (“as though speckled with stardust”). Some  produce a noise (for example, a high pitched buzz or humming) and some also wax and wane in their brilliance:

“the whole area of trees seemed to glow as though there were a lot of lights in that area of the woods. The light seemed to pulsate, growing brighter and growing dimmer again. I watched closely and saw the light changing colour. There were several different colours, blue, red and orange and they all seemed to blend together.  ” (Census no.6, England, 2014)

“a ball of energy that looked like a sparkler.” (Census no.349)

“a light appeared on or from within a half dead pecan tree. It swirled around the trunk from ground level to about twenty five feet or so high. At its highest point the light appeared to come from within the tree … It then swirled around the trunk again losing brightness until it faded.” (Census no.414, US, 1990s)

A variety of colours are seen.  Blue, white and multi-coloured are most common, but a full spectrum of hues from pink and violet through green to silver and gold have been reported.

In Johnson’s reports 25% of the fairies had an aura.  For example, one was “a lovely little fairy dressed in silver and green and it floated before her, lighting the way.”  (p.37)  A woman and her child in Cornwall saw a patch of mist in the garden, which-

“gradually cleared to light like neon-lighting, but ball-shaped and then, fascinated, she watched what she called the ‘glitter of the fairies’, mauve, blue, green, orange, yellow, red and white lights brighter than any gems, going round in a little circle and then darting backwards and forwards.” (p.168)

Another witness on the Scottish island of Iona in 1954 saw a mass of light shaped into small clouds and another being with a ‘halo’ of spring green and sunset pink around the head (p.226)

As already seen in some of the quotations, 20% of the Census cases the fairy lights are associated with trees, bushes and other foliage.  Today, of course, we very much conceive of greenery as the natural abode of the fays but nonetheless it is an interesting association.

People may of course see lights for a variety of reasons.  Their eyes may be dazzled; there may be some physiological problem that has yet to be diagnosed.  Even so, many of the experiences on the Census don’t seem capable of explanation by such means and the witnesses themselves are frequently critical and cautious of ascribing supernatural origins.  For example, they will often consider other explanations, such as insects.  The comparison may be made to a firefly, but there will be something to make it clear that it is not an insect that has been seen- generally the size of the being.  One of Johnson’s correspondents described seeing in Spain in the mid-1950s “quantities of small lights- which were too big for glow worms- flitting about.” (p.313)

Final thoughts

The experience of bright, flitting fairies is now so common that we may have to regard it as one of the features of the species.  Despite the paucity of older sources recounting similar effects, darting lights now seem to be a determining element for deciding what a witness has seen.  These sightings may be very puzzling, but they are persistent and consistent, so we may need to revise our preconceptions about the supernatural and how it appears to us.

What exactly is a fairy? The Fairy Census 2017

The Fairy's Lake ?exhibited 1866 by John Anster Fitzgerald 1819-1906

John Anster Fitzgerald, The fairy’s lake, 1866, Tate Gallery

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,

Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

(Hamlet, Act 1, scene 5).

In January this year the Fairy Investigation Society published a Fairy Census covering 2014-2017.  The document makes fascinating reading and I will be examining its contents over a couple of posts.  Here, I want to raise the intriguing question of what, exactly, we understand by the word ‘fairy’ in the early 21st century.

The data for the census comes from individuals across the world, although primarily from Britain, Ireland and the USA.  They submitted descriptions of their fairy experiences to the Society and these give us an opportunity to consider what today is popularly understood to be ‘a fairy.’

We all think we know what a fairy looks like: we envisage either a fluttering girl or a small pixie in green. Whatever the detail, the fundamental assumption is that they are humanoids, closely resembling us.  Nevertheless the Census, along with Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing fairies, confronts us with a body of sightings which within themselves are consistent and which challenge our conventional ideas.  Some fairies apparently do not look like fairies at all.

Small animals

It is not unusual to hear of fairies and pixies being described as particularly hirsute and shaggy, with dark and unkempt hair, but a small number of encounters have been with mammalian beings that display human-like characteristics.  Marjorie Johnson gathered together several of these.

During the summer of 1920 fairy seer Tom Charman spent nine weeks in the New Forest and repeatedly met with small cat-like creatures.  Similar beings were described to Johnson by witnesses from Kent, Essex and Cheshire, but she also received a comparable report from Indiana- of a cat standing on its hind legs and wearing brown trousers.  When disturbed, it ran away ‘like a rabbit.’

In his valuable little book, Somerset fairies and pixies (2010), Jon Dathen interviewed a Somerset farmer who recounted a sighting from his childhood, some seventy years earlier. Late at night he had sneaked downstairs to find a small person “like a hare done up in clothes” sitting in front of the farmhouse fire.  He had long ears, whiskers and buck teeth, but he could speak- explaining he had come in to escape the cold.  Later in his life, the farmer had heard of other hare-type pixies being sighted in the county.

Storm-

John Anster Fitzgerald, The storm.

Furry shapes

 A handful of reports take furriness even further.  A woman on holiday in mid-Cornwall during the 1930s described how she regularly met some cliff dwelling pixies; both were about two feet in height.  The male was a small human with some distinctive features but the female was covered in short dark brown hair with yellow rings on her body and arms, somewhat like a bee.

Two other accounts are even more surprising.  During the early 1940s in Kent one woman was on a country walk when she saw a furry tennis ball rolling up a slope towards her.  It briefly opened when it drew close to where she was sitting to reveal a pixie within- and then disappeared.  Returning to Cornwall in the 1930s, a final witness on a coastal walk sighted a pisky who then changed into “a long furry black roll, which gambolled about on the grass and then disappeared.”

The_artists_dream

John Anster Fitzgerald, The painter’s dream.

‘Ent fays’

Over the last hundred and fifty years the identification of fairies with the environment and natural processes has become more and more commonplace.  Some fairies are seen dressed in garments made from leaves and flowers, but it may not be especially surprising to find that supernatural beings are met with who appear to be more vegetative than animal.  These are creatures whose body seems to be composed of vegetable matter; they may perhaps be subdivided into ‘ents,’ walking trees, and smaller hybrid entities.

The tree-beings can be tall, seven feet high or more, perhaps with faces showing in the bark of their ‘bodies.’ The smaller vegetation fairies appear to be far more mixed in their appearance.  Some have bodies made of animated leaves and sticks, some are composed of a mixture of plant and insect elements, some are tiny leaf-like creatures.  With more evidence it may very likely be possible to analyse these types further.

C A Doyle creeper
Charles Altamont Doyle, A creeper.

Monsters

Last of all, there is a collection of witness accounts that tests our conceptions of fairies to the limits.  There are strange hybrid creatures: a dragonfly-fish, a frog-sparrow or a butterfly-bird.  There are also semi-human forms: beings that are part human and part insect, reptile, dog, spider or frog, as well as fairies that seem to be a combination of traditional fairy and mermaid features. Some fays have appeared as huge tadpoles, another as an ape dressed in leaves.

Some other less conventional forms

There are various other classes of sighting which, whilst fitting within the conventional imagery of fays, still display some unique features.

Aliens 

The boundaries between ‘aliens’ and ‘fairies’ are increasingly uncertain and permeable, it seems.  In Seeing fairies a tiny number of witnesses mentioned beings with pronounced pointed faces or slit/ black eyes.  The proportion of such sightings was distinctly higher in the Census, suggesting that the now-standard concept of a ‘grey alien’ may be shaping fairy experiences.

Humanoids 

Although the commonest fay form is human, they are sometimes said to be noticeably disproportionate, being too tall or having overlong limbs.  This is occasionally hinted at in Johnson’s reports, but spindly or gangly bodies are considerably more frequent in the Census, with bodies described as being very slender, long-limbed or above normal height.

Lights 

The luminosity of fairies is often mentioned, but the last transformation is the eradication of the body altogether: the fairy is reduced to a point of light, which is often seen darting about.  Johnson’s witnesses experienced this only a handful of times.  In the Census fourteen per cent of cases were sightings of bright lights, of which nearly three quarters were moving.  We may suspect here the influence of J. M. Barrie‘s stage representation of Tinkerbell in the minds of those having the experience.

stuff that dreams are made of

John Anster Fitzgerald, The stuff that dreams are made on (detail).

Conclusions

On their own, these reports are so anomalous as to make no sense, but grouped together some sort of pattern does appear to emerge and it is possible to identify certain ‘species’ that are regularly sighted.  Perhaps they are so different from the standard idea of fairy to demand a new name, but at present ‘faery’ is the only category to which we may assign them.

 

Fairies and culture

 

Millais_ariel

‘Ferdinand and Ariel,’ by John Millais

Whatever our view of the existence of fairies and of a supernatural realm, there can be no denying the profound impact of faery (or the idea of it) upon our art and culture.  The reason for all this creativity, it seems to me, is that faery as a subject is so rich and complex.  Fairies can offer artists every emotion- sexual obsession, love, fear, jealousy, unbounded joy, mystery and mysticism- the list is lengthy.

Fae themes have been persistently rich sources of inspiration for a range of artists, whether in literature, song or the visual arts.  I’ll present a few examples, though I’m sure that proof is scarcely needed:

  • On the stage– whether inspiring the high art of Shakespeare or pantomimes and popular plays such as Peter Pan.   There was a particular trend for patriotic fairy stage plays during the Great War, which I have discussed;
  • Musicals, such as Edward Elgar’s Starlight Express of 1915 (this is the original production of this title, plainly, and not that by Andrew Lloyd Webber);
  • Novels and short stories (for both adults and children), from Charles Kingsley and George MacDonald through Enid Blyton, Beatrix Potter and E. M. Nesbit to Tolkien to Alan Garner;
  • Romance and myth– fairy themes are strong throughout many of the Arthurian myths and related stories, including the Welsh Mabinogion;
  • Poetry– from Robert Herrick and Michael Drayton through Keats and Blake to Walter de la Mare and Ivor Gurney.  On this blog I have been particularly interested in examining the interaction between fairy verse and the First World War, in the work of Robert Graves, Rose Fyleman, J R R Tolkien and others;
  • Painting- from Fuseli to Peter Blake and Brian Froud;
  • Illustration– from Rossetti and Burne-Jones through Edmund Dulac, Arthur Rackham and Henry Justice Ford to Cicely Mary Barker and Margaret Tarrant;
  • Sculpture– for example the puppets of Wendy Froud or the wire creations of Robin Wright;
  • Film and cartoon–  we have both fictional films, such as Disney’s Peter Pan or The Dark Crystal, as well as documentaries and ‘factual’ stories based upon the Cottingley case; and,
  • Music– ranging from ballet, opera, ballads, symphonies and lieder, light opera (Gilbert and Sullivan) to contemporary rock (Led Zeppelin, Marc Bolan or Sigur Ros).

Of course, the additional value of all of the above is that they are a supplement to the folklore evidence.  Just as much as traditional stories of fairies gathered by folklorists in the field, these various media give us a view of contemporary beliefs on the conduct and appearance of the fays.

What’s more, fairy works have inspired other fairy art.  For example Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream has inspired many works of art (by Paton, Dadd, Millais and many others).  In particular, it inspired a painting by Thomas Stothard,  Titania and Oberon, which in turn inspired a poem by Elizabeth Landon, The fairy queen sleeping.  In just the same way in 1825 Louisa Anne Meredith wrote The enchanted island in response to seeing the painting of the same name by Francis Darby; “’Tis the fairies’ home” the verse declares.

I’ll make a radical suggestion: even were fairies not to exist, their impact upon human culture would be almost undiminished.  We might even propose that, even if fairies did not exist, it would have been necessary to invent them to provide ourselves with such rich and fruitful veins of imagery and ideas.

The fairies have inspired our creativity for centuries, whether the source of that inspiration is our own imaginations or is an external supernatural force.  The power of this creative stimulus is expressly acknowledged by artists working in this genre.  It is not just a matter of the work produced, but of the transformative impact upon the artists themselves.   Interviewed by Signe Pike in Faery talepainter Brian Froud said that many of his readers and fans feel that with a rediscovery of their fairy faith:

“they feel they are coming home. They tell me they want to go away and write, or make something…”

His wife agreed: “often people have a creative response to our work.”  She starts her puppet workshops with meditation, within which “you do actually, genuinely, touch faeryland- you’re in it, whether you realise it or not.  So when you come back, and make a figure, it’s imbued with its own personality.”  In the act of imaginative creation, it would seem, there is a re-creation of the creator (Pike, 2010, pp.86-66).

In his introduction to David Riche’s Art of faery (2003), Froud argued that “Fairies mediate art, the mysterious moments of our creative relationship with the world.”  Whilst the twentieth century had emphasised our alienation from the world, the resurgence of visionary fairy art in its last decades and into the new millennium suggests the reversal of this and through that “the beginning of a spiritual journey. To paint fairies is not childish- but it could certainly said to be childlike- in its openness to creative and emotional impulses.”

Our culture is richer for fairies; we are richer for fairies….

Further reading

Neil Rushton on his dead but dreaming blog on WordPress provides a very useful overview of the entire world history of fairy art.  See too my book Fairy Art of the Twentieth Century  and my posting on fairies in Art Nouveau.