As I describe in the book, a great deal has been written about the Victorian fairy painters like Richard Dadd, Sir Noel Paton and Dickie Doyle, but there has been much less focus on their successors in the next century. This may partly be because most of the art of the twentieth century was not ‘fine art’ (oil paintings hung in galleries) but was illustration instead- and that for children’s books. The major artists of the genre, Cicely Mary Barker and Margaret Tarrant (of flower fairy fame), Ida Rentoul Outhwaite and Mabel Lucie Attwell, have been the subjects of biographies and monographs on their work, but most of the other artists and their work is more neglected. That many were women, who were dealing with ‘female’ subjects (i.e. drawing fairies for children) may have contributed considerably to this lack of attention.
In this book I try to begin to redress the balance by providing short biographies of all the artists I have been able to identify, along with descriptions of their work. In addition, I put the fairy art of last century in the context of what preceded it and identify the main themes and styles used in fairy imagery.
Twentieth century fairy art was shaped by the Victorian pictures and, in turn, the way that all of us imagine fairies has been moulded by the vision of those twentieth century artists. So many elements of fairy iconography that we tend to take for granted- flower fairies; round pixies dressed in green; female faes and male goblins and gnomes; pointy hats and shoes; tiny size and childish looks- all come from the twentieth century illustrators. They created a fairyland that was, by and large, very safe and welcoming for children. Not all of these artists were very talented, but even in their reduction of Faery to the lowest common denominators, they have something significant to tell us about the way that our parents, grandparents and great grandparents understood the fairy world.
Fairy art evolved over the century, of course. For at least decade it continued Victorian styles and themes before, after the First World War, new formats for children’s books and new media (most notably postcards) provided new markets and new design possibilities for artists. This reorientation of the genre to purely juvenile audiences- and the need for images that were instantly attractive and commercially viable- had a major impact on fairy art. Much of it lost the edge of threat- and sexuality- that characterised earlier representations. Critic Susan Casteras has remarked how painters like Tarrant, Barker and Attwell tried to ‘revive’ Victorian fairy painting, but did so only by portraying fairies who were winged, child-like and sometimes chubby- fairies who were adult neither in their form nor their behaviour. (Casteras in M. Brown, Picturing Children, 2017, 139).
That fairy illustrations created for children’s books need not necessarily be devoid of darker themes is demonstrated by the work of Arthur Rackham, but after his death in 1939 the anodyne and the harmless took hold for several decades.
It was only with the appearance of Faeries by Brian Froud and Alan Lee that a more authentic atmosphere was restored to depictions of Faery. This has continued since- alongside less challenging images.
These expressions of personal taste aside, the fact remains that twentieth century fairy art is rich and multitudinous. Because the artists created their works for reproduction on mass produced media such as postcards and greetings cards, there are far more images to absorb than was the case in Victorian times. There’s a wealth of art out there, waiting to be discovered and appreciated.
In a book published in 2017, American art historian Susan Casteras contributed a chapter on Victorian fairy painting. She perceptively remarked how nudity, which is very far from being an inherent element in folklore, became something that the Victorians chose to exaggerate in their visions of fairyland. Many paintings of the period, she rightly observed, were all about “flaunting nudity for its own sake rather than as a supposedly accurate transcription of faery lore.” (S. Casteras, ‘Winged Fantasies: Constructions of Childhood, Adolescence and Sexuality in Victorian Fairy Painting’ in Marilyn Brown, Picturing Children, 2017, c.8, 127-8)
Looking at John Simmons’ painting above, you cannot help but agree with the second part of Casteras’ comment- although Simmons was a particular offender, producing a number of ‘pin-up’ canvases. What about the folklore evidence, though? Victorian pictures- and more recently the work of Alan Lee, Brian Froud and Peter Blake– have habituated us to the idea of a Faery full of frolicking nudes, but how traditional is this?
The honest answer has to be that there’s very little sign of nudity in the older accounts of Faery. In my post on fairy abductions of children, I mentioned the story of a girl who temporarily went missing in Devon. A game keeper and his wife living at Chudleigh, on Dartmoor, had two children, and one morning the eldest girl went out to play while her mother dressed her baby sister. In due course, the parents realised that the older child had disappeared and several days of frantic and fruitless searching followed. Eventually, after hope had nearly been lost, the girl was found quite near to her home, completely undressed and without her clothes, but well and happy, not at all starved, and playing contentedly with her toes. The pixies were supposed to have stolen the child, but to have cared for her and returned her.
Now, this girl was a human infant and there may have been several reasons why the pixies might have taken off all her clothes. They may have objected to human things; they may have thought a ‘natural’ state was healthier and preferable. Whatever the exact explanation, it’s one of the few instances where there’s a suggestion that nudity might be the normal condition in Faery.
A calendar illustration by Mabel Rollins Harris
The other evidence is all qualified in one way or another. Mermaids don’t have clothes, but that’s for very obvious reasons. Men are forever falling in love at first sight with these creatures, but you may well suspect that coming across a uninhibited and naked female is a pretty strong draw in any case.
Some fairies don’t ‘need’ clothes at all because they’re naturally very hairy: the brownies, hobgoblins and the Manx fynoderee are all examples of these. Their shaggy pelts were covering enough. It’s almost always this kind of faery that is the subject of a story in which a reward of clothes for services rendered alienates the helpful being. Typically, a brownie or boggart with work faithfully on a farm, threshing grain, carrying hay and tending the livestock, all for very little reward except some bread and milk left out ta night. After a while, the curiosity of the farmer overcomes good sense and the creature’s labours are spied upon. It’s seen to be (at the very best), dressed in tattered rags and (at the worst) completely naked. Pity is taken and new clothes are made in recognition of its hardwork, but all that’s achieved is to offend the fae, who recites a short verse- and leaves forever.
Lastly, the only other definite example of bare fairy flesh is one I’ve discussed several times previously and one in which ulterior motives are very important. In the medieval romance of Sir Launval, the young knight is summoned into the presence of the fairy lady, Tryamour. She’s found in a pavilion in a forest, relaxing on a couch on a hot summer’s day.
“For hete her clothes down sche dede/ Almest to her gerdyl stede,/ Than lay sche uncovert; Sche was as whyt as lylye yn May, / Or snow that sneweth yn wynterys day, / He segh never non so pert.””
“because of the heat, she’d undone her dress nearly to her waist; she lay uncovered; she was as white as a lily in May, or snow falling on a winter’s day; he’d never seen anyone so pert.”
Tryamour’s plan is to seduce Launval and, plainly, lying there topless and available is a pretty good scheme for winning his attention. It’s not normal behaviour in Faery, though, anymore than it is on the earth surface. Most of the accounts we have of the appearance of fairies describe their clothes– their style and their colour; we are not told that they are provocatively naked.
Nude fairies, therefore, seem to be a Victorian obsession; they are the soft porn of their day. As has been described before, it was acceptable to display bare breasts in art, but only so long as it was justifiable and/ or distant from the present day. Painting classical nymphs, oriental harems and fairyland let artists get away with it. they seized the opportunity- regardless of the fact that the folklore provided almost no basis for this.
I recently read an academic article which suggested that the idea of the fairy godmother, so prevalent is our contemporary views of Faery, was a relatively recent introduction to existing tradition, something derived from the Brothers Grimm and from stories like Pinocchio and Cinderella, and since reinforced by popular films, rather than it being a long-standing element of folklore belief. In this posting I want to challenge that idea and to argue instead that it is one of the oldest recognised aspects of faery behaviour.
One of the pastimes or habits of medieval faeries was to either bless or torment humans. According to the historian Layamon, for example, King Arthur was blessed by elves at his birth (this is, by far, our earliest faery godmother account, as the writer was born around 1200). In the 13th century French romance, Huon of Bordeaux, too, there is a reference to a healing horn that’s presented to faery king Oberon by four faery ‘godmothers.’ Hearing a blast upon it will make the sickest man whole and sound instantly.
The fourteenth century romance of Ogier the Dane mixes fairy material with the ‘Matter of Britain,’ the stories of King Arthur and the exploits of the knights of the Round Table. At his birth, Ogier is endowed with gifts and qualities by six fairy women; the last of these, Morgana, declares “I claim you as my own. You shall not die until you have visited me in Avalon.” After many adventures serving King Charlemagne, Ogier is shipwrecked on a strange island that turns out to be Morgana’s realm. He falls under her seductive spell and passes a hundred years in bliss, not ageing a day, until by accident he recovers his memory and wishes to return to France. On doing so, Ogier finds a new king, Hugh Capet, on the throne, whilst the language spoken has changed during his long absence. After more noble deeds, Morgana reclaims Ogier for herself and takes him back to Avalon- where he is still alive today, alongside King Arthur.
Amongst the christening gifts made by fairies is very famous song indeed of Dunvegan Castle on the Isle of Skye. This was a lullaby, sung over the cradle of the new-born heir to the clan MacLeod by a fairy woman. It foretold the child’s strength in arms and that he would possess plenty of cattle and rich crops in the fields; it promised that he would be free from injury in battle and would enjoy a long life. Each verse of the song had a different tune. For many generations afterwards, the custom of the clan was to sing the protective charm over the latest baby heir.
In Tudor times the belief still lingered that some children might be endowed with talents and good fortune at their birth, as in these lines by John Milton (At a Vacation Exercise in the Colledge):
“Good luck befriend thee Son; for at thy birth,
The Faiery Ladies daunc’t upon the hearth;
Thy drowsie Nurse hath sworn she did them spie
Come tripping to the Room where thou didst lie;
And sweetly singing round thy Bed,
Strew all their blessings on thy sleeping Head…”
These conceptions of course persist for modern readers in the fixed character of the ‘fairy godmother,’ but in Tudor and Stuart times it seems that the favour of the fairy kingdom more generally was envisaged by Ben Jonson (The Silent Woman, Act V, scene 1):
“To what strange fortune, friend, some men are born…
Surely, when thou wert young,
The fairies dandled thee.”
In Victorian verse the idea of fairy godmothers and of three wishes was greatly elaborated, most notably with mermaids, thereby embedding it in our consciousness. See for example, The Fairy Gift, The Fairy and the Three Wishes & The Farmer and the Magic Ring, all by John Godfrey Saxe, The Fairy’s Gift, Margaret Elizabeth Munson Sangster, in Poems of the Household (1893), 242 and Wise Sarah & The Elf, Elizabeth Coatsworth. Generally, see my Victorian Fairy Verse.
Humans’ ability consistently to see fairies is poor and has to be acquired- either by ritual, contact with an endowed person or, sometimes, by descent. In contrast, puzzlingly, animals seem to be far better at this than we are; many seem naturally to be gifted with this ability. We know this from the reactions of pets and livestock- but have to assume that wild creatures are equally as aware of the supernatural beings around them.
In one story from Northumberland, for example, a man’s hunting dog would ‘point’ the fairies which were invisible to its master (although he could hear their music). Instinctively he saw them and responded to them as prey. It seems, then, that for dogs at least there is no inherent awareness of any supernatural nature nor any risk. Previously, I have written about dogs that detected the presence of supernatural beings and then chased or attacked them, faithful to their duties of guarding their human owners. Sadly, these hounds’ encounters with faeries seldom finished well for them. Dogs may sense the ‘stranger’ status of the beings, but they lack any instinctive fear.
Cattle are aware, but seem to have no aversion to the creatures. For instance, the well-known story of ‘The Little People’s Cow’ from Cornwall encapsulates many of the key aspects of the situation. The dairy maid only sees the fairies when she accidentally includes a four-leaf clover in her ‘wise,’ the cushion of grass on which she rested the milk pail on her head. Then she witnessed:
“A great number of little beings- as many as could get under Rosy’s udder at once- held butter-cups, and other handy flowers or leaves, twisted into drinking vessels, to catch the shower of milk that fell among them, and some sucked it from clover-blossoms. As one set walked off satisfied, others took their places. They moved about so quickly that the milkmaid’s head got almost ‘light’ whilst she looked at them. “You should have seen,” said the maid afterwards- how pleased Rosy looked, as she tried to lick those on her neck who scratched her behind her horns, or picked ticks from her ears; whilst others, on her back smoothed down every hair of her coat. They made much of the calf, too; and, when they had their fill of milk, one and all in turn brought their little arms full of herbs to Rosy and her calf- how they licked all up and looked for more!”
The human can only see the fairies with magical aid; the cow does not require this (unless, we might speculate, she has the benefit of eating the clover) and there is apparently a mutually rewarding relationship between cow and fays.
Horses, in contrast to cattle, seem to be alarmed by fairies. In Yorkshire there was a tradition that boggarts would disguise themselves as stones on moorland tracks, deliberately to trip up passers-by. Horses, in particular, were able to see them better than people could- and often when they reared up unexpectedly it’s because they had ‘taken the boggart’- they’d spotted one, even if it didn’t look like a boggart.
Something similar is reported from the Isle of Man. Here, there was once no bread delivery at Orrysdale in the north-west of the island because the baker’s boy said that his cart horse was able to see the fairies after dark and would take fright. On this particular occasion, as it was getting near dusk, the boy decided not to risk the horse rearing or bolting- and had accordingly gone home instead of completing his round.
As these 1930s postcards indicate, it has become customary for us to assume that the faes are allied with woodland creatures. This is very much a development of the last 175 years or so. Victorian poets such as Madison Cawein and twentieth century writers such as Enid Blyton and Beatrix Potter elaborated these ideas, but the older evidence implies a more complex and less harmonious relationship. We shouldn’t forget, for example, that our medieval forebears accepted without question the notion that the faeries would be out in the woods, not gambolling happily with squirrels and bunnies, but hunting them with hawks and hounds. On this basis, it’s understandable that some animals might exhibit a measure of caution, if not fear.
For more on the faeries’ interactions with animals and nature more widely, see my book Faeries and the Natural World (2021):
A shameless little bit of self-promotion. I’ve had the idea in my head for a while to pull together a lot of the Victorian poems I’d collected during my research and I’ve finally now published it.
There’s plenty written on Victorian fairy paintings (Christopher Wood, Jeremy Maas and Beatrice Philpotts), and plenty on the literature of Shakespeare’s time (Latham, DeLattre and Halliwell), but strangely nothing on the outpouring of fairy verse in the 19th century that matched the visual art. That oversight is now corrected.
The Victorian era saw a peak of popular interest in fairies- in art, literature, popular entertainments and in children’s books. Whilst there are several studies that examine Victorian fairy painting, that have been none that are devoted to the fairy poetry of the era. This book showcases the richness and complexity of this genre of nineteenth century verse.
The book contains an introduction to the subject, followed by a brief survey of fairy poetry from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries- writers such as Drayton, Herrick and William Blake. The fairy verse of the nineteenth century is then surveyed in themed chapters, which examine good and bad fairies, mermaids, Irish fairy verse, North American poetry and the twentieth century legacy of these writings. Each chapter includes a brief introduction, biographies of the poets and notes and discussion on each of the poems.Over eighty poets are included, from well-known names such as Ruskin, Tennyson and Rossetti to a host of much less well-known fairy writers.
Some of the poems are sickly sweet- as we might well expect, but some are dramatic or dark. Writers portrayed the more scary side of faery- the taking of children, the abduction of women, the deadly side of mermaid nature- just as much as they depicted wings and wands. I’ve discussed the austere and haunting poetry of Scot Fiona Macleod before; here’s a complete contrast, ‘The Sick Fairy’ by Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman:
“Brew some tea o’ cowslips, make some poppy-gruel,
Serve it in a buttercup—ah, ’tis very cruel,
That she is so ailing, pretty Violetta!
Locust, stop your violin, till she’s feeling better.”
This is from her collection Once Upon a Time and Other Child Verses, published in 1897 with illustrations by Etheldred Barry, whose plate to accompany the fairy poem ‘Once Upon a Time’ is reproduced here. Plainly, we’re a long way here from the sadness and magic of Macleod’s fairy nobility. Nevertheless, I see Freeman’s poem as being just as valid an expression of Victorian fairy beliefs as anything by the more ‘serious’ writers like MacLeod, Yeats or AE. Her poems still have something important to tell us about how the Victorians saw fairies.
I’ve included a few works by Tennyson and Rossetti, but mostly I wanted to feature lesser known writers, some of whom were prolific in the genre. As we’re dealing too with English language verse, I’ve included Irish and North American authors as well. The former shared many aspects of fairy culture with Britain (as well as being part of the same country at the time); US and Canadian writers drew very heavily on British and Irish roots- to the extent, in fact, that as black literary figures emerged, they too adopted the fairy conventions lock, stock and barrel.
I’ve illustrated the book with line drawing by contemporary artist Gertrude Thomson. She was a friend of Lewis Carroll, who helped him with his life drawing technique as well as finding child models for him to sketch. In 1898 she illustrated his book of poems Three Sunsets.
The book’s available now from Amazon/ KDP, £7.50 for the e-book and £14.00 for the paperback.
See a list of my faery publications (present and planned) here.
“Oh, the fairies!/ Whoa, the fairies.! Nothing but splendour,/ And feminine gender.”
The conventional conception of fairies is that they are female and that they are young and attractive. I am as guilty as others in perpetuating this: in both The Elder Queenand in the recent Albion awake!my central characters are fairy women, invested with strength, allure and passion. These are powerful and abiding archetypes; they make for good story lines, but they may also be a source of confusion in our correct analysis of fairylore.
Since Victorian times the dominant trend in fairy lore has been to make the fairies more and more diminutive- especially in theatrical representations. We may blame J M Barrie and Tinkerbell for this, but the miniaturising theme was far wider than just one author.
There have always been small fairies, but in earlier times they were generally conceived as being adults of small stature rather than infants of normal height. It must be noted that the term ‘elf’ popularly denoted tininess from the late eighteenth century at least (for instance in Blake and Keats). That notwithstanding, until the early nineteenth century representations of fairies tended to treat them as adults. In the case of painter Henry Fuseli, indeed, his fairy maids are women of a notably self-aware and unsettling character.
However, it was during the Victorian period that the representation of fairies degenerated through childlike figures to cloying cuteness. During the same period, too, Victorian culture separated out ‘the child’ as distinct from adults and elevated the innocence of childhood. Previously children were merely small people; they have since become a separate social and cultural category. James Kincaid has argued that the modern concepts of sexuality were created by the Victorians as entwined with their notions of the uncorrupted infant. The result, he suggested, was that childhood and innocence have become idealised, fetishised and eroticised in everyday culture (Erotic innocence, Duke University Press, 1998). He asserts that writers such as Lewis Caroll and J M Barrie absorbed this erotic idealising of children and “drove [it] into our cultural foundations.”
I would suggest that there have been a number of consequences of these cultural trends for our perceptions of fairyland:
we have tended to lose sight of the former nature of fairies. As they have increasingly become little girls, some of the more sinister aspects to their characters have been elided;
despite what I have just said, a powerful tension has arisen between the ‘child’ fairy and the earlier imagery- for example the fairies of Shakespeare and, even more strongly, Keats. The result was the projection of adult emotions and motivations and (my key focus here) sexuality onto fairies who were now often conceived as infants; and,
the 19th century use of children as fairies in theatrical performances, giving public visibility to girls acting on stage and, perhaps, portraying inappropriate roles.
Let me address the last point in more detail. Advances in stagecraft enabled Victorian theatres to offer magical spectaculars, with fairies flying, disappearing and posing behind veils of magical mist. Actresses had a reputation for lax morals, already, and there was some public concern over the impact upon the young girls employed to portray fairies. Would the exposure “convert them into coquettes before they have even reached their teens?” asked the Pall Mall Gazette in 1885. Regardless of the impact upon the girls themselves, Eileen Barlee in Pantomime waifs (1884) fretted that they were “Dressed in the airiest and, alas!, the scantiest of costumes … and many were in flesh-coloured tights.” They were presented to audiences as nearly naked or apparently so. The verse at the top of the posting reflects this sense of sexualisation; it is taken from a music hall song quoted by Lionel Lambourne in the catalogue to the Royal Academy’s 1997 exhibition of Victorian fairy painting.
These stage performances may all have been perfectly innocent in themselves, but the reactions of the viewers are another matter. I am reminded of Graham Greene’s scurrilous and scandalous review of Shirley Temple in the film Wee Willie Winkie, published in the magazine Night and day in October 1937. He commented provocatively that Temple was being presented as “a fancy little piece” and a “complete totsy.” Her admirers, Greene alleged, were middle aged men and clergymen who would respond to her “dubious coquetry.” Their respectable predecessors of a generation or two earlier, the Dean of Barchester and Mayor of Casterbridge, may well have felt the same about Fairy Phoebe and her hosts whom they saw on stage. What is involved, perhaps, is a ‘sanctioned’ opportunity to regard the young actresses.*
Twentieth century fairies
This may all seem hyper-alert, but let me give a few examples. Firstly, an account of a supernatural encounter recorded by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in The coming of the fairies (1922). He supports his case for the reality of the Cottingley fairies with other evidence of their existence. He relates how two respectable gentlemen visited a hill in Dorset:
“I was walking with my companion … when to my astonishment I saw a number of what I thought to be very small children, about a score in number, and all dressed in little gaily-coloured short skirts, their legs being bare. Their hands were joined, and all held up, as they merrily danced round in a perfect circle. We stood watching them, when in an instant they all vanished from our sight. My companion told me they were fairies, and that they often came to that particular part to hold their revels. It may be our presence disturbed them.”
In a more recent version of the same event, there are some telling differences. The walkers witnessed: “a group of about twenty young girls … naked except for a little gaily coloured short skirt that lifted up from time to time on the gentle breeze.” The changes may well be entirely unconscious, but it seems to me that the tone here has changed from being a mere account of a curious experience; indeed, the tenor of the second version is not unique. Geoffrey Hodson was a theosophist and fairy-hunter who discovered elves all over Europe. He wrote of his journeys in two books, The Kingdom of faerie (1930) and Fairies at work and play (1927). I will quote from each respectively.
Cotswolds, 1925- of devas he says that “The actual form and manner are those of a vivacious school girl.”
At Geneva he tells us that “A particular fairy I am observing is a fascinating and charming creature … The face resembles that of a very pretty young country girl.” Another deva had the form of a “a fresh young country girl.”
In Lancashire in 1921 he was surrounded by dancing fairies, the leader of whom has a “form … perfectly modelled and rounded, like that of a young girl.” We are assured that “There are no angles in the transcendently beautiful form.”
A deva met in a pine forest near Geneva in 1926 was “like a lovely young girl, in thin white drapery through which the form can be seen.” Another such is “definitely female and always nude… Her form is always entrancingly beautiful.”
Hodson in his writing repeatedly discloses a sexualised response to the visions he experiences, in one cases admitting that it was only by an effort of will that he did not allow himself to be seduced by the allure of one rounded young spirit.
We may seem more aware of sexuality in texts now, but as Diane Purkiss warns us in her 2000 study, Troublesome things, “We in the post-modern world are apt to be convinced that sex is at the bottom of everything, that we know far more about sex than the Victorians did, and that we can read their unconsciousness like a book. These are all dangerous thoughts. Just because sex seems to us at the bottom of everything, does not mean that this is equally true for all others; just because we know a lot more about our own sexualities (and do we really?) does not mean we know a lot about Victorian sexualities; just because we read something in a text doesn’t mean it is there for everyone.”
Despite these words of caution, Purkiss concedes that some artists of the period trod an uncertain line between eroticism and harmlessness. She proposes, for example, that some of Cicely Mary Barker’s Flower fairies hover in this uncertain interstice. Mostly, these are demure illustrations, although sometimes perhaps Barker does allow what may be interpreted as some risque off-the-shoulder looks. This hint of the other world of faery did not escape Barker’s biographer, Janet Laing; in her book, Cicely Mary Barker, (Penguin, 1995), Laing describes one alphabet fairy as follows:
“The more mystical and sensual side of fairy land is epitomised by the Jasmine fairy. In the heat of the summer the ‘cool green bower’ and ‘sweet scented flowers’ are particularly seductive.” (p.55)
As I suggested in an earlier post, Arthur Rackham too appears to have taken advantage of the ‘value-free’ environment of Faerie to indulge in pictures of girls in see-through frocks and careless deshabille; witness this illustration of Midsummer Night’s Dream.
As discussed in that previous post, depicting fairies seems to have been treated by many artists as a licence to adapt classical nudes to a more domestic scene, a wisp or two of gauze maintaining an illusion of modesty and decorum.
Furthermore, it may be worth remarking that all these child like ‘forms’ (whether presented as ‘art’, on stage or in the Cotswolds) are simultaneously naked or scantily attired and independent of adult society. Those factors combined may well have served to liberate the response of some observers from the normal social and moral restraints. Without doubt, the consequence has been that we have ended up confused and uncomfortable with aspects of our fairy lore.
The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries weren’t all irredeemable tweeness amongst fairies. For example, Christina Rossetti wrote the strange and disturbing Goblin Market, a poem that, as Diane Purkiss neatly expresses it, “restores fully a sense of the otherness and menace of the fairy world.” More recently, the huge international popularity of Tolkien’s stories of elves and dwarves has helped to provide a much needed corrective to the saccharine flower fairies of the Edwardian nursery. Legolas and Arwen have revived the Norse and Celtic traditions of human sized and mature fairies. Their robust combativeness and sexuality are a welcome reminder of older visions of the supernatural and are redressing the balance of imagery in the popular imagination.
We are left with a puzzling dichotomy in the conventions as to representations of faery in the twenty-first century. A short search on the internet readily confirms this. On the one hand we have the sexy faery babe, as represented here by a picture created by Bente Schlick.
In contrast, there are the images of fairies as the embodiment of childhood innocence, for which I have selected an image ‘Caught by a sunbeam’ by artists Josephine Wall.
Lastly, there are the mature, self-possessed and possibly dangerous fairy women found in Brian Froud’s work. Fairy maids in corsets with heaving cleavages are not rare, but they are hugely outnumbered by the more fey images, it has to be admitted. The newly established convention that fairies are perfect manifestations of physical attractiveness and/ or innocence stand in stark contrast to older conceptions. Fairies maidens were renowned in folk-lore for their alluring beauty, but they often suffered defects that betrayed their real nature: they might have cow’s tails, cloven feet beneath their long dresses, fingerless hands or hollow backs. These aspects of fairy nature are very seldom found now in the idealised portrayals that are so prevalent- Froud’s pictures being something of an exception in their honest naturalism and occasional disturbing honesty about the ‘average’ physique (pot bellies and drooping breasts). The main problem with these paragons of prettiness is that they are one dimensional. Deprived of the darker, more dangerous aspects of traditional fairy nature, they become merely decorative- charming but devoid of deeper meaning.
In conclusion, it may be argued that our ‘use’ of the fairy myth has changed in recent centuries. Whereas fairies were originally the causes of unexplained events and a source of supernatural protection and help, they have increasingly become the vehicles for our fantasies- a convenient way of expressing issues that might not otherwise be tackled.
* By way of a footnote: as a result of the comments in his review, Graham Greene was sued by Fox Entertainments and by Shirley Temple’s parents. They demanded damages for his libellous insinuations and a trial in the High Court concluded that the images were entirely decent and innocent and that the claimants were therefore entitled to an award of £3500 compensation from the magazine and the author. Night and day went into insolvency; Greene fled the country for Mexico, where he wrote his most admired work, The power and the glory. Literature’s gain, perhaps…