Where do fairies come from? Folklorists, philosophers, historians, mystics and others have debated this question for centuries. No one really knows how fairies originated — unless it’s the fairies themselves, and they’re not telling. What we do know is that tales of the fairies can be found on every continent around the globe, and that belief in the existence of the “Hidden People” is surprisingly widespread today.
Some scholars see the vestiges of pagan religions in tales about the fairies — who are, they say, the diminished remnants of once powerful gods and goddesses. Other scholars insist that fairies are really just the early, indigenous peoples of each land, who may have been viewed as magical and otherworldly by conquering tribes. Many people once thought that fairies were fallen angels who’d been ejected from Heaven but weren’t quite wicked enough for Hell, or else that they were the wandering souls of children who’d died unbaptized. Some read the following words from the Bible as proof that God had created the fairy race in addition to mankind: “And other sheep have I that are not of this fold.” (John 10:16). The most widespread belief, still prevalent today, is that fairies are simply nature spirits and thus as ancient as wind and rain. In this view, they’re the manifestations of the living spirit in all organic matter.
In the 15th century, an alchemist named Paracelus divided fairies into four elemental groups: sylphs (air), gnomes (earth), undines (water), and salamanders (fire). They are made of flesh and blood, he said, and procreate like human beings but are longer lived than man and do not possess immortal souls. In the 17th century, Scottish minister and scholar Robert Kirk wrote that fairies “are of a middle nature betwixt man and angel,” with “light changeable bodies, like those called astral, somewhat of the nature of a condensed cloud, and best seen at twilight.”(1)
In the 19th century, the physiology of fairies was of great interest to spiritualists (2), who divided them into two basic types: nature spirits tied to features of the landscape (a river, a pool, a copse of trees), and higher spirits who lived on an astral plane between flesh and thought. In the early 20th century, Theosophist (3) Charles W. Leadbeater developed an elaborate system of fairy classification inspired by Darwin’s theory of evolution. Leadbeater maintained that fairies live on an astral plane divided into seven levels. He believed the fairy race to be the original inhabitants of England, driven to its margins by the invasion of mankind; and he drew elaborate diagrams showing how the fairies had evolved. His chart began with mineral life and then rose upward through water and earth, and through seaweed, fungi, and bacteria. Further up the evolutionary ladder he showed how fairies developed through grasses and cereals, reptiles and birds, sea flora and fauna, until they matured into nature spirits linked to each of the four elements. But evolution didn’t stop there; these nature spirits would in turn evolve into sylphs, then devas, and then into angels. On the top rung of the ladder the fairies would become what he called “solar spirits,” where they’d join with evolved humans in a more enlightened age. (4)
Another Theosophist, Edward Garner, argued that fairies are allied to the butterfly genus, and are made of a substance lighter than gas which renders them invisible to human beings (except clairvoyants). The function of fairies in nature, he said, is to provide a link between plants and the energy of the sun. He wrote that the “growth of a plant which we regard as the customary and inevitable result of associating the three factors of sun, seed, and soil would never take place if the fairy builders were absent.” (5) Franz Hartmann, a medical doctor, believed that fairies have a role in human psychology, explaining that “the spirits of nature have their dwellings within us as well as outside of us, and no man is perfectly master of himself unless he thoroughly knows his own nature and its inhabitants.” (6)
While spiritualists, in their journals and lectures, argued how many fairies could fit on the head of a pin or swim through the higher astral plane, unlettered country people were taking great pains to avoid the fairies’ notice. Charms, talismans, and spells were used to keep troublesome fairies at bay — to chase them away from the house, the livestock, newborn children, and unmarried girls. Although fairies had been known to give aid to mortals, more often they were seen as irksome creatures, quick to take offense and dangerous when riled. Fairy bargains were notoriously tricky things and fairy treasure was often cursed. Mortals who stumbled into Fairyland could end up trapped in that realm forever, or emerge from it aged and withered, even though it had seemed like little time had passed. Fairies were blamed for soured milk, blighted crops, and barren cows; for illness, madness, birth defects and other mysterious ills. Even good fairies followed rules and taboos that could be unfathomable to humans — thus it was wise to be scrupulously polite and to treat all fairies with great caution. Folklore is filled with cautionary tales outlining the perils of fairy encounters. Do not eat fairy food, they say, for it will trap you in Fairyland. Avoid using a fairy’s name, and don’t ever tell them your own. Don’t bargain with the fairies, or join their dances, or spy on their courtly revels. Wear your shirt inside out and carry iron to avoid abduction.
There are numerous stories of human beings abducted into Fairyland — particularly newborn babies, attractive young children, midwives, and musicians. When human babies are snatched from the cradle, a fairy changeling is left behind. Sometimes this creature is merely a piece of wood enchanted to look like a child; other times it is a sickly fairy baby, or an old and peevish fairy. The stolen human children are petted and cosseted for a while — until they grow big and lumpish, or until the fairy court grows bored with them — whereupon they are turned into household slaves for the rest of their mortal lives, or banished from the Realm (for which they’ll pine from that day forward). Some say the fairies are required to pay a blood-tithe to Hell every seven years, and that they steal mortals for this purpose so as not to sacrifice one of their own. A human knight named Tam Lin was destined to be the tithe in one famous old tale, until his true love tricked the Fairy Queen into releasing him on All Hallows Eve.
Some fairy lore makes a clear division between good and wicked types of fairies — between those who are friendly to mankind, and those who seek to cause us harm. In Scottish tales, good fairies make up the Seelie Court, which means the Blessed Court, while bad fairies congregate in the Unseelie Court, ruled by the dark queen Nicnivin. In old Norse myth, the Liosálfar (Light Elves) are regal, compassionate creatures who live in the sky in the realm of Alfheim, while the Döckálfar (the Dark Elves) live underground and are greatly feared. Yet in other traditions, a fairy can be good or bad, depending on the circumstance or on the fairy’s whim. They are often portrayed as amoral beings, rather than as immoral ones, who simply have little comprehension of human notions of right and wrong.
The great English folklorist Katherine Briggs tended to avoid the “good” and “bad” division, preferring the categorizations of Solitary and Trooping Fairies instead. She noted that the fairies in either group “may be evil, dealing death or sickness to every man and creature they pass on their way, like the Sluagh of the Highlands; they may steal unchurched wives from child-bed, or snatch away unchristened babes leaving animated stocks [pieces of wood] or sickly children of their own in their place, or they may be harmless and even beneficial — fertility spirits watching over the growth of flowers or bringing good luck to herds or children.” Solitary Fairies are generally those associated with a certain location: a bog, a lake, the roots of a tree, a particular hill or household. The Trooping Fairies, by contrast, are gregarious creatures fond of hunting, feasting, dancing, and holding court. “This is perhaps particularly true of the British Isles,” writes Briggs, “though in France, Italy, Scandinavia and Germany there are the same tales of dancing, revelry and processions.” (7)
Other folklorists divide the fairies by their elemental, rather than their temperament, harking back to Paracelus’ classification system of earth, air, water, and fire. Fairies associated with the earth are the most numerous group. Earth elementals include those who live in caves, barrows, and deep underground, and who often have a special facility for working with precious metals. This group includes the Coblynau in the hills of Wales, the Gandharvas of India, the Erdluitle of northern Italy, the Maanväki of Finland, the Thrussers of Norway, the Karzalek of Poland, the Illes of Iceland, the various Dwarves of Old Norse legends, and the Gans of the Apache tribe. Forest fairies are also earth elementals, and are the most numerous type of fairy around the world. Fairies of this type include the shy Aziza in the forests of West Africa, the Mu of Papua New Guinea, the Shinseen of China, the Silvanni of Italy, the Oakmen of the British Isles, the Skogsra of Sweden, the Kulaks of Burma, the Hantu Hutan of the Malay Peninsula, the Bela of Indonesia, the Patu–Paiarehe of the Maori, and the Manitou of the Algonquin tribe. Other earth fairies are those who guard standing stones, such as the web–footed Couril of Brittany, and sand fairies in desert environments, such as the Ahl Al-trab found in Arabic lands.
Fairies associated with water include all the magical merfolk of the sea, such as the Merrows of Ireland, the Daoine Mara of Scotland, the Mal-de-Mer of Brittany, the Nereides of Greece, and the selkies (seal people) who haunt the coasts of Scandinavia and the British Isles. Rivers, lakes, pools, and other fresh water sources are also home to water fairies both gentle and malign, including the nixies and kelpies of English rivers, the Rhinemaidens of Germany, the Kludde of Belgium, the Draks of France, the Laminak of the Basque region, the Hotots of Armenia, the Judi of Macedonia, the Cacce-Halde of Lapland, the sweet-voiced Nakk of Estonia, and the bashful Nokke who appeared only at dusk and dawn in Sweden.
Fairies associated with air include the various winged fairies and sylphs that are so numerous in modern picture books, popularized by Tinkerbell and Victorian-era fairy paintings. Examples of air fairies include the luminous Soulth of Irish fairy lore, the Star Folk of the Algonquin tribe, the Atua of Fairies bearing lanterns by Arthur RackhamPolynesia, and the Peri, the “good fairies” of Persian legends, who are said to dine exclusively on perfume and other delicate scents. Fairies who account for weather phenomena, such as mistral winds, whirlwinds, and storms, are associated with the air element, including the Spriggans of Cornwall, the Vily of Slavonia, the Vintoasele of Serbia and Crotia, the Rusali of Romania, and the mischievous Folletti of Italy.
The most common type of fire fairy is the salamander, an elemental spirit much prized by Renaissance alchemists. Also associated with fire are the Djinn, who are the “bad fairies” of Persian lore, and the Drakes (or Drachen), fire fairies found across the British Isles and western Europe who resemble streaking balls of fire and smell like rotten eggs. Luminous, will-o’-the-wisp type fire fairies are famous for leading travelers astray — including the Ellylldan of Welsh marshland, the Teine Sith of the Scottish Hebrides, the Spunkies of southwest England, Le Faeu Boulanger of the Channel Islands, the Candelas of Sardinia, and the Fouchi Fatui of northern Italy. The various fairies who guard hearth fires are also associated with this element, such as the Gabija of Lithuania and Natrou-Monsieur of France. The Muzayyara are fiery, seductive fairies in old Egyptian tales; and the Akamu is a particularly dangerous fire fairy found in Japan.
Although (as the brief list above indicates) fairies are known all around the world, nowhere are they quite so varied and populous as they are in the British Isles — which is probably why we find so many of them in English literature. Fairies can be found in many of the courtly Romances of the medieval period, although they’re rarely named as such, “fairy” being a relatively late term. These ancient stories are filled with fairy-like men and women who wield magic, live in enchanted palaces, forge magical weaponry, and bewitch or beguile innocent mortals — such as the Lady of the Lake who gives Arthur his magical sword, Excalibur. The tales of King Arthur and his court are particular rife with fairy-like beings, especially in the Welsh and Breton traditions — as are the splendid Lays of Marie de France, written for the English court sometime around the 12th century. The Wife of Bath in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales speaks wistfully of an elf queen and her merry court in the old days of King Arthur, when “al was this land fulfild of fayerye” — as opposed to the Wife of Bath’s own time (the 14th century), when fairies were rarely seen.
A 13th century French Romance called Huon of Bordeaux was popular among English readers. This sprightly story of King Oberon, Queen Mab, and assorted knights of the fairy court is notable for providing inspiration for the fairy plays of William Shakespeare. Shakespeare seems to have been well versed in traditional English fairy lore, for he borrowed liberally from this tradition to create the fairies who quarrel, scheme, and cavort in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest. Along with Queen Mab from Mercutio’s famous speech in Romeo and Juliet, these are the best known and most influential fairies in all English literature — which is why diminutive fairies “no bigger than an agate-stone on the fore-finger of an alderman” are better known today than their human-sized cousins found in many older stories. Fairies are also the subject, of course, in Edmund Spenser’s extraordinary poem, The Faerie Queene, written in the late 16th century — although Spenser’s fairy court owes more to Italian Romance than to homegrown English fairy legends.
In the 17th century, fairies inspired Michael Drayton’s Nymphidia, the Court of Fayre, a satirical work featuring King Oberon, Queen Mab and a hapless knight named Pigwiggen. A series of poems in Robert Herrick’s Hesperides also feature King Oberon, and also have a satirical edge, but this is a darker, more sensual look at Fairyland than Drayton’s. In the 18th century, the fairies appeared in Alexander Pope’s arch tale, The Rape of the Lock; and also, covertly, in Gulliver’s Travels, the great satire by Jonathan Swift, for Swift used many elements of fairy lore to create his tiny Lilliputians.
It was in the same century that Bishop Thomas Percy began to collect old British folk ballads, which he published in an influential volume called Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. Without Percy’s labors, many traditional ballads might have been lost forever — he rescued one old manuscript from kitchen maids who were using it to light the fire. Percy’s work had a notable influence on the writers of the German Romantic movement, who in turn influenced such English Romantics as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Southey, and John Keats. All three of these writers wrote fairy poems, but the ones that are best known and loved today are Keats’ evocative “Lamia” and “La Belle Dame Sans Merci.” Other writers of the late 18th and early 19th centuries who were much beloved by the fairies, and vice versa, were Tom Moore, Thomas Hood, Allan Cunningham, and especially James Hogg. Known as The Ettrick Shepherd, Hogg was a working shepherd for most of his life as well as a writer of popular tales that drew upon old Scottish legends.
James Hogg’s good friend Sir Walter Scott was another writer who found inspiration in Bishop Thomas Percy’s efforts to preserve the folk heritage of Britain. Scott’s fiction is permeated with the fairy lore of his native Scotland, and he was an enormously influential figure in the 19th century folklore movement. As a collector of tales and ballads himself, Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border preserved important fairy ballads such as Thomas the Rhymer and Tam Lin, and did much to educate readers about the value of Scotland’s rich folk history. In addition, Scott gathered around him a group of poets and antiquarians who were likewise interested in preserving the old country tales of a nation that was rapidly urbanizing. Scott was fond of fairy lore in particular — for he’d believed in fairies in his youth, and never entirely lost faith in “things invisible to mortal sight.”
Partially due to Scott’s influence, two extensive volumes of fairy lore appeared in the early 19th century: Thomas Keightley’s The Fairy Mythology and Thomas Crofton Crocker’s Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland. They proved to be enormously popular and kicked off an explosion of folklore books by Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould, Anna Eliza Bray, Joseph Jacobs, and many others. These books are important when looking at English literature and art of the 19th century, for they were avidly read by a wide variety of Victorian writers and artists. Folklore was still a new field back then — the name itself wasn’t coined until 1846 — and these groundbreaking publications generated talk and excitement among the intellectuals of London. At the same time, the magical tales and poems of the folklore-loving German Romantic writers (Goethe, Tieck, Novalis, etc.) frequently appeared in English magazines of the period. One German story, in particular, captivated Victorian readers: “Undine” by Baron de la Motte Fouqué, about a water nymph’s love for a mortal knight and her attempt to gain an immortal soul. “Undine” inspired a large number of subsequent stories, paintings, and dramatic productions about doomed fairy lovers of various kinds (including, over in Denmark, Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid”). Such stories were particularly appealing to readers who were interested in matters of the occult and in psychic phenomena — which was a substantial segment of the reading public once the spiritualist movement crossed the sea from America and took England by storm. These various influences came together to create a wide-spread interest in the fairy race that was unprecedented. At no other time in British history have the fairies been so popular among all types of people, from the working class to the aristocracy.
In visual art, following in the footsteps of the 18th century painters Henry Fuseli and William Blake, artists such as Joseph Noël Paton, John Anster Fitzgerald, Richard Dadd, Richard Doyle, Daniel Maclise, Thomas Heatherly, Eleanor Fortesque-Brickdale, and many, many others created an entire genre of Victorian Fairy Art. These were paintings intended or adults, not children. John Anster Fitzgerald’s fairy imagery, for instance, was often dark and hallucinatory, full of references to opium pipes and opium medicines (9) ; and Richard Dadd’s obsessively detailed fairy paintings were created in a mental hospital where Dadd was interred after he went mad and killed his father. Many fairy paintings were distinctly salacious, such as Sir Joseph Noël Paton’s huge canvases of luscious fairy maidens in various states of undress. Fairies enabled Victorian painters to explore the subject of sexuality during the very years when that subject was most repressed in polite society. Paintings of the nude were deemed acceptable so long as those nudes sported fairy wings.
The passion for fairies among Victorian adults must also be viewed in light of the rapid changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution, as Britain moved from the rhythms of its rural past toward the mechanized future. With factories and suburban blight transforming huge tracts of English countryside, fairy paintings and stories were rich in nostalgia for a vanishing way of life. In particular, the art of The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood — depicting scenes from Romance, legend and myth — promoted a dreamy medievalism and the aesthetics of fine craftsmanship to counter what they saw as a soul-less new world created by modern forms of mass production. (“For every locomotive they build,” vowed artist Edward Burne-Jones, “I shall paint another angel.”) The Arts & Crafts movement, which grew out of Pre-Raphaelitism, embraced folklore and fairies to such a degree that by the end of the 19th century fairies could be found in middle class homes in every form of decorative arts: wallpaper, draperies, ceramics, stained glass, metalwork, etc. Advances in printing methods allowed the production of lavishly illustrated fairy tale books, ostensibly aimed at children but with production values calculated to please adults (and the growing breed of book collectors). Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac, Warwick Goble, Laurence Housman, Jessie M. King and numerous others produced wonderful fairy pictures for these volumes. (Jessie King, like William Blake before her, was an artist who passionately believed in the fairies. Her lovely illustrations were based, she said, on visions seen with her “third eye.”)
In the pre-cinema world of the Victorians, theatre, ballet, and opera had greater importance as forms of popular entertainment than they enjoy today — as well as a greater influence on the visual and literary arts. In the 1830s, the new Romantic ballet (as opposed to formal, classical ballet) thrilled large audiences in London with productions that dramatized tales of love between mortals and fairy spirits. Aided by innovations in “point work” (dancing on the points of one’s toes), and improvements in
theatre gas-lighting techniques, sumptuous fairylands were created in hit productions such as La Sylphide, the tragic story of a mortal man in love with an elfin maid. In theater, fairy plays were staged with stunningly elaborate special effects, each new production striving to be even more spectacular than the last.
Fairy music was another popular phenomenon, much of it imported from Germany — such as Weber’s fairy opera Oberon, Hoffman’s Undine (based on Fouqué’s novella), Wagner’s Die Feen (The Fairies), and Mendelssohn’s overture for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Fairy music for the harp was composed and performed by charismatic musicians as popular then as pop stars are now, and young women swooned and followed their favorite harpists from concert to concert. Magical music and dance reached its height in the works of Tchaikovsky, the brilliant Russian composer who took London — indeed, all of Europe — by storm. The popularity of his fairy tale ballets (Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker) fuelled the Victorian public’s love of all things magical and fey.
In literature (as in art, theater, and ballet) the fairies made their presence known, turning up in numerous books written and published during the Victorian era. Some of these works were for adult readers, such as Anne Thackaray Ritchie’s Fairy Tales for Grown-ups, the Arthurian poems of Alfred, Lord Tennyson and William Morris, and (at the turn of the century) the remarkable fairy poetry of Celtic Twilight writers such as William Sharp (writing as Fiona McCleod) and William Butler Yeats. But one of the major shifts we see in fairy literature from the 19th century onward is that more and more of it was published in books intended for small children.
There were two major reasons why this shift occurred, despite the fact that adult fascination with fantasy and fairies had rarely been so high. First, the Victorians romanticized the very idea of “childhood” to a degree never seen before; earlier, childhood had not been viewed as something quite so separate from adult life. Children, according to this earlier view, came into the world in sin and had to be strictly civilized into God-fearing members of society. By Victorian times, this belief was changing to one in which children were inherently innocent, rather than inherently sinful — and childhood became a special Golden Age, a time of fanciful play and exploration before the burdens of adulthood were assumed. Mothers were encouraged to have a more doting attitude toward their little ones (following the example of Queen Victoria herself), and this, combined with the rising wealth of the Victorian middle class, led to an explosion in the market for children’s books.
Children’s fiction in the previous century had been diabolically dreary, consisting primarily of pious, tedious books of moral instruction. But in the 19th century, new European fairy tale collections by the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen were proving enormously popular with English children. Publishers and writers took note of this and soon began producing volumes of magical tales set in the British Isles — including tales inspired by English fairy lore, toned down and de-sexed for younger readers. A lot of these fairy tale volumes, marred by these heavy-handed alterations, make abysmal reading today — but some retained enough of the magic of their source material to have stood the test of time, such as the famous series co-edited by Andrew & Jane Lang: The Blue Fairy Book, The Green Fairy Book, The Red Fairy Book, etc.
In addition to re-telling traditional tales, Victorian writers created original fairy stories for children using the tropes of folklore in charming and innovative ways — including John Ruskin’s The King of the Golden River, Charlotte Yonge’s The History of Tom Thumb, Christina Rossetti’s extraordinary Goblin Market, Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies, Jean Ingelow’s Mopsa the Fairy, George Macdonald’s The Princess and the Goblin, Rudyard Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill, and J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, to name just a few.
In his excellent book Victorian Fairy Tales, folklorist Jack Zipes divides the magical children’s fiction published from 1860 onward into two basic types: conventional stories, and stories written in a utopian mode. Although there were some good fantasy tales of the conventional type, such as the fairy stories of Jean Ingelow and the ghost stories of Mary Louisa Molesworth, many others were forgettable confections full of twinkly fairies with butterfly wings and good little boys and girls who caused no disturbance to the status quo. Utopian fantasies, Zipes notes, demonstrated “a profound belief in the power of the imagination as a potent force” to change English society, and these books were written by some of the very finest authors of the day. George Macdonald, Lewis Carroll, Oscar Wilde, Laurence Housman, Ford Maddox Ford, E. Nesbit (in her later works), and many other writers created magical tales that were archly critical of Victorian life, promoting the possibility of a better society. The prevalence of utopian fantasy is explained by looking at the context of the culture which produced it — a society in the grip of great upheaval due to rapid industrialization. Fairies flittered across London stages and nested in bucolic scenes on gallery walls, but outside on the city streets it was a long, long way from Never Land, crowded as they were with beggars, cripples, prostitutes (many of them children), and with homeless, desperate men and women displaced by the new economy.
While the upper classes charmed themselves with fairy books and dancing nymphs, and clapped to bring Tinkerbell back to life, in the lower classes, both urban and rural, fairies remained a different matter altogether. Here, the delicate winged maidens depicted by painters and ballet dancers were superseded by the fearsome creatures of the still-living oral tradition. Throughout the 19th century, the British newspapers reported cases of fairy sightings, curses, and abductions. The most famous of these incidents occurred as late as 1895, and riveted newspaper readers all across the British Isles. This was the murder of Bridget Cleary, a spirited young woman in Ireland who was killed by her husband, family, and neighbors because they thought she was a fairy changeling. Bridget Cleary had fallen gravely ill, and the family had consulted a Fairy Doctor. He claimed that Bridget had been abducted and taken under a fairy hill, and that the sickly creature in her bed was a fairy changeling in disguise. The doctor devised several ordeals designed to make the changeling reveal itself — ordeals that soon grew so extreme that poor Bridget died. Convinced it was a fairy he had killed, Bridget’s husband then went to the fairy fort to wait for his “real” wife to ride out seated on a milk white horse. Bridget’s disappearance was soon noted, the body found, the horrible crime brought to light, and Michael and other family members and neighbors found themselves prosecuted for murder. Although this was the most flamboyant case of changeling-murder in the Victorian press, sadly it was not the only account of brutal mistreatment of those deemed to be fairies. Usually the poor victims were children, born with physical deformities or struck by sudden wasting illnesses. It wasn’t until the 20th century that reports of fairy abductions began to dwindle — when reports of abductions by aliens began to take their place.
The last major fairy encounter reported widely by the British press took place in the tranquil countryside of Yorkshire in 1917 — when Elsie Wright, sixteen years old, and Frances Griffith, her ten year old cousin, contrived to take photographs of fairies at play in their Cottingley garden. Elsie’s mother had the photographs sent to Edward Gardner, head of the Theosophical Society, who then passed them on to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (the creator of Sherlock Holmes). (10) Although the pictures are distinctly unconvincing by today’s standards, professionals at the time could find no evidence of photographic doctoring. Championed by Gardner and Conan Doyle, the photos caused an absolute sensation. Only when Elsie and Frances were old ladies did they finally admit that the Cottingley fairies were paper cut-outs held in place by hat-pins. Despite this admission, their final deathbed statements on the subject were more ambiguous, implying that the fairies, if not the photographs, had been real after all.
In her fascinating book Strange and Secret Peoples: Fairies and Victorian Consciousness, Carole G. Silver points out that the Cottingley incident, despite briefly reviving interest in the fairies, was actually one of the factors that ended the Golden Age of fairy art and literature. “Ironically,” she says, “the photographs, the ostensible proof of the actual existence of the fairies, deprived the elfin people of the grandeur and their stature….The
theories that Piper of Dreams by Estella Canziani Gardner formulated to explain the fairies’ nature and function reduced them to the intelligence level of household pets and the size of insects.”
In addition to this, the massive popularity that the fairies had enjoyed throughout the 19th century insured that they’d be branded old-fashioned by the generations that followed. Those who’d survived the hard trials of World War I had little interest in the faux-medievalism and fairies of their grandparents’ day. And yet, it is interesting to note that one of the most popular art prints of the war era depicted a simple country boy playing a pipe, surrounded by fairies. This was “The Piper of Dreams,” a painting by the Anglo-Italian artist Estella Canziani — an image as ubiquitous in England then as Monet’s water lilies are now. Canziani’s gentle, forgotten fairy picture once rivaled William Holman Hunt’s “The Light of the World” in popularity, and was said to be a favorite of English soldiers in the trenches of World War I.
During the middle years of the 20th century, the fairies seemed to go underground, rarely leaving the Twilight Realm to interact with the world of men — except to appear in sugar-sweet guise in children’s books and Disney cartoons. One could find them if one looked hard enough — in Ireland, for instance, in the fiction of James Stephens and Lord Dunsany; or in Lud-in-the-Mist, the early fantasy classic by English author Hope Mirrlees. But in general, it was not until an Oxford don named J.R.R. Tolkien wrote about elves in a place called Middle-Earth that fairies came back to popular art in any numbers. And then they came with a vengeance.
Professor Tolkien was a scholar of folklore, myth, and Old English literature, so when he created the elves of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, he knew what he was doing. Although written and published some years earlier, it was not until the 1970s that Tolkien’s books dominated the bestsellers lists and became part of British and American popular culture. This in turn created an enormous interest in all things magical, wondrous, and fey. Suddenly there were fairies, dragons, unicorns, mermaids, and wizards everywhere. People started seeking out folklore texts, and teaching themselves to speak Elvish. “What is the reason for this preoccupation?” asked Alison Lurie in an article for the New York Review of Books. “Possibly it is a bi-product of the overly material and commercial world we live in: the result of an imaginatively deprived childhood.” (11)
Lurie believed that the reason college students were embracing Tolkien and folklore with such passion was that they’d been raised on the thin gruel on television and Disney films, instead of the great classics of children’s literature. Having been imaginatively deprived in youth, she argued, they had taken now “possession of a fantasy world that should have been theirs at eight or ten, with the intellectual enthusiasm, the romantic eagerness — and the purchasing power — of eighteen and twenty.” While this was undoubtedly true of some readers, I find it an unsatisfactory explanation overall, for there were many other readers (and I was among them) who had read classic children’s literature when young and had embraced classic fantasy worlds at ages eight and ten. What Tolkien did was to prove to us that we needn’t give up these worlds at age eighteen – or at twenty-eight or forty-eight, for that matter. Back in the 1970s, this was a radical notion. Tolkien dismissed the post-Victorian idea that fantasy was fit only for children, and reached back to an older adult fantasy tradition running from Beowulf to William Morris. He opened a door to Fäerie, and readers discovered this door was not child-sized after all, but tall and wide, leading to lands one could spend a lifetime wandering in.
In the mid-70s, another book lured adult readers into the Twilight Realm. This was Faeries, an international bestseller by the British artists Alan Lee and Brian Froud — a sequel, of sorts, to a book called Gnomes by the Dutch artist Wil Huygen. But whereas Gnomes depicted cheerful little creatures who had little in common with the dour, clever, metal-working gnomes of the European folk tradition, Faeries was deeply rooted in traditional fairy lore. Here, in all their beautiful, horrible glory were the fairies of old British legends: gorgeous and grotesque (often at the same time), creatures of ivy, oak, and stone, born out of the British landscape, as potent and wild as a force of nature. Lee and Froud had taken inspiration from Victorian Fairy Art and updated the tradition for a new generation. Faeries, in turn, would go on to inspire young artists in the years ahead — indeed, it’s rare to find fairy art today (or fairies in film, or fairy fiction) that doesn’t owe a debt, to some degree, to this influential book.
From the mid-70s onward, numerous other books on fairy lore appeared, including several “field guides” and the peerless folklore studies of Katherine Briggs. In fiction, the great success of The Lord of the Rings helped to establish an entire new publishing genre of fantasy fiction for adult readers; and as a result, a new generation of writers turned to folklore and myth for inspiration — in North America as well as in England. (12) Fairies found their way into a number of their books, some of which were set in days gone past or in the land of Fäerie, and some of which were urban tales of fairies in the modern world.
John Crowley, for example, in his brilliant novel Little, Big, draws on a host of Victorian ideas about the fairies to create a modern fairy tale set in rural and urban New York. Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a fairy story that could have been penned by Anthony Trollope or Jane Austen; it’s a wonderful tale of a magical English history that never was. Ellen Kushner’s Thomas the Rhymer follows a figure from a
classic Scottish border ballad into the halls of the Fairy Queen, and Patricia A. McKillip’s Winter Rose took a slant-wise look at the fairy ballad of Tam Lin. Fairies haunt the woodlands of Leicestershire in Graham Joyce’s Some Kind of Fairy Tale, and roam the streets of contemporary London in Lisa Tuttle’s The Mysteries. Lisa Goldstein goes back to in Elizabethan London in Strange Devices of the Sun and Moon, while Poul Andersen (A Midsummer Tempest) and Sara A. Hoyt (Ill Met by Moonlight) revisit the fairies of William Shakespeare. Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks brings fairies to the 1980s Minneapolis music scene; Midori Snyder’s Hannah’s Garden plants a fairy fiddler in an Irish bar in the American Midwest; and Charles de Lint’s Widdershins pits immigrant fairies against the native spirits of the Canadian wilderness. Holly Black’s Tithe tells the story of a fairy changeling living on the Jersey shore; while Delia Sherman’s Changeling conjurs an entire fairy realm in the shadows of New York City. British fairy lore provides inspiration for Kevin Brockmeier’s The Truth About Celia, Alice Thomas Ellis’ A Fairy Tale, Keith Donohue’s The Stolen Child, and Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Kingdoms of Elfin. See the Further Reading list below for more fiction recommendations.
In visual art, the English painter Brian Froud has been exploring Fäerie for over twenty-five years, beginning with the publication of Faeries and continuing on with Good Faeries/Bad Faeries, Brian Froud’s World of Faerie, the “Lady Cottington” series, and many other fine books. As a result, he is arguably the best known and most authoritative fairy artist in the world today. His wife, Wendy Froud, creates Fäerie sculptures and fine art dolls with a Pre-Raphaelite touch. Her distinctive work has been photographed and published in the “Old Oak Wood” series of children’s books, in The Art of Wendy Froud, and in sumptuous collaborations with her husband, including Trolls and Faeries’ Tales. Charles Vess has depicted fairy imagery in illustrated books and comics, most notably in Stardust, created in collaboration with writer Neil Gaiman, in The Book of Ballads, and in his illustrations for Susanna Clarke’s The Ladies of Grace Adieu. Yoshitaka Amano gives a unique interpretation of British and Japanese folklore in his beautiful art collection Fairies, which includes an essay by Kimie Imura expoloring differences between the Western and Eastern traditions. Tony DiTerlizzi, creates a vast fairy realm in his much-loved children’s series, The Spiderwick Chronicles, created in collaboration with writer Holly Black. Suza Scalora, Ashley Lebedev, and Kristy Mitchell have conjured fairies and the Twilight Realm in their magical photography.
Numerous children’s book illustrators have wandered into Fäerie (following the footsteps of Rackham and Dulac), such as Angela Barrett (The Night Fairy), Michael Hague (Good Night, Fairies), Stephen Mackey (The Fairies’ Ring), and Lauren Mills (The Book of Little Folk). Other artists who have spent time with the fairy folk include Anna Brahams, Alice Dufeu, Erlé Ferronnière, Julia Jeffrey, Virginia Lee, Yoann Lossel, Iain McCaig, Ed Org, Séverine Pineaux, Linda Ravenscroft, Virginia Ropars, David Thiérrée, Olivier Villoingt, Josephine Wall, David Wyatt, and Lisbeth Zwerger. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but you’ll find more fairy art in two magazines devoted to the subject: Faerie (US) and Fae (UK).
The revival of interest in Victorian fairy art led to an important traveling exhibition curated by The University of Iowa and the Royal Academy of London in 1997. In 2002, Abbaye Daoulas in Brittany presented an extensive exhibition of fairy art, beginning with 12th century manuscripts right up to the present day. I recommend the following related art books: Victorian Fairy Painting, with text by Jeremy Maas and others; Fairies in Victorian Art by Christopher Wood; and Fées, elfes, dragons, and autres créatures des royaumes de féerie (Fairies, elves, dragons, and other creatures of the fairy realm), edited by Michel Le Bris and Claudine Glot.
In film, fairies are the subject of two movies inspired by the Cottingley photographs: A Fairy Tale and Photographing Fairies (based on the novel of that name by Steven Szilagyi). Fairies are also at the heart of Stardust, based on the illustrated book by Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess; and goblins (and a fairy or two) can be found Labyrinth, the children’s classic directed by Jim Henson and designed by Brian Froud.
“Fairy fashions” have appear in New York shop windows, on Paris runways, at British music festivals (where pixie ears and Amy Brown-style fashions are ubiquitous these days), and in an illustrated book: Fairie-ality: The Fashion Collection from the House of Ellwand by David Ellwand, Eugenie Bird, and David Downton. Fairy ballads from the British Isles, Brittany, and Scandinavia have been recorded by many folk bands and musicians such as Steeleye Span, Pentangle, Fairport Convention, Martin Carthy, Robin Williamson, Kate Rusby, Cécile Corbel, Loreena McKennitt, and Anaïs Mitchell. Elizabeth Jane Baldry has recorded Victorian fairy music for the harp on Harp of Wild and Dreamlike Strain, and Aine Minogue’s The Twilight Realm is a lovely CD of music inspired by traditional fairy lore. The fairies have also appeared in pop music, in songs by musicians and bands as diverse as Donovan, Queen, The Waterboys, and Tori Amos.
In his famous poem “Blow, Bugle, Blow,” Tennyson wrote that even the echoes of elfland’s horns are growing faint and dying away as the fairies disappear from the woods and fields, chased away by modern life. This was a favorite theme of the Victorians, who believed that the fairies were taking their leave of us and that magic would soon vanish from the world forever….
But as far as I can see, the Victorians were dead wrong. The British Isles, and other parts of the world, are still thickly populated by the elfin tribes, if the present abundance of fairies in popular culture is any indication. Fairies are everywhere: in books and paintings, on t-shirts and teacups, in children’s toyshops and in grown-up art museums, as well as flying through cyberspace. If Tennyson’s elfin bugles have dimmed…well, never mind. The fairies play electric bagpipes now.
Instead of Tennyson, I’m more inclined to listen to the poet William Butler Yeats, who knew a thing or two about the fairies for he believed in them all his life. He said that “you can not lift your hand without influencing and being influenced by hordes of them.”
There’s a famous story of a Scottish house fairy who proved to be so terribly annoying that the family in the house tried and tried to make him leave, to no avail. Finally there was no help for it. The family packed to go themselves. But as they drove down the road,
their worldly goods strapped to the old farm cart, they noticed the fairy perched on top, saying, “Ah, but it’s a fine day to be moving!” And so they sighed and went back home, knowing they were stuck with him for good. The fairy haunts that cottage and their descendants to this day.
So it is with fairies in literature and art. Fairy stories go in and out of fashion. But just when you think they’re gone for good, cast out by book and art critics who insist we move on to weightier matters, the fairies are still there, grinning, saying, “Ah, it’s a fine day to be moving!” — determined to move along with us, and be a part of whatever the future has in store.
- Quoted from The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies by Robert Kirk, 1893.
- Spiritualism was a practice in which “spirit mediums” provided contact with the spirits of the dead and with supernatural creatures. The movement was started in America by the Fox sisters in 1848, who claimed to communicate with the dead through mysterious knocks upon a table. Soon “table–turning” parties were all the rage in all levels of English society, right up to the Royal Court. Spiritualist societies sponsored lecture tours, opened reading rooms and published newspapers, and popular spirit mediums developed huge followings.
- Theosophy was a Spiritualist and philosophical movement founded by Madame Blavatsky at the end of the 19th century. Many prominent Theosophists believed in fairies.
- Quoted from The Hidden Side of Things by Charles W. Leadbeater, 1913.
- Quoted from The Coming of the Faires by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1922.
- Quoted from “Some Remarks About the Spirits of Nature,” published in The Occult Review, 1911.
- Quoted from The Vanishing People: Fairy Lore and Legends by Katherine Briggs, 1978.
- Painter and poet William Blake firmly believed in faeries, and once wrote about witnessing a fairy funeral.
- Opium derivatives like laudanum, called “the aspirin of the 19th century,” were available without prescription in Victorian England, and were commonly used for insomnia, headaches and “women’s troubles.” It may be no accident that the Victorian’s obsessions with fairies and Spiritualism occurred during the same span of years when casual opium use was widespread.
- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was the son of the fairy painter Charles Doyle who, like Richard Dadd, had been confined to an insane asylum and whose imagery came from his personal visions. The fairy painter Richard Doyle (by all accounts a sane, sweet–tempered man) was Arthur Conan Doyle’s uncle.
- Quoted from Alison Lurie’s “Braking for Elves,” first published in The New York Review of Books and reprinted in her excellent book Don’t Tell the Grown–ups: Why Kids Love the Books They Do.
- Some claim that North America has no fairies, which is stuff and nonsense. What it has is a melting pot of fairies and stories carried over by numerous immigrant groups, transplanted to new soil and bearing fruit both familiar and strange. Mixed into this pot are Native American tales from a variety of tribal traditions — including tales about magical little people who live under the hills or deep in the woods, and are sometimes good and sometimes bad, and who tend to play tricks on human beings — fairies, in other words, in everything but name.
Sources (Credits & copyrights):
- Artists are identified in the picture captions. All rights reserved by the artists or their estates.
- The text above is from The Journal of Mythic Arts, copyright c 2004 by Terri Windling. A version of this article appeared in The Faery Reel, edited by Datlow & Windling (Viking, 2004). It may not be reproduced without the author’s permission. For information on obtaining permission, please go to: http://www.terriwindling.com/