The Enchanting World of Fairies
Fairies are now considered the province of children’s tales, but as an adult when fairies are mentioned my imagination still soars. Indeed I cannot see a tree hollow without the fleeting hope of happening upon a fairy and I cannot visit mossy woodland without the dream of catching a glimpse of a pixie’s toadstool house, like the ones depicted in Enid Blyton. Certainly when visiting enchantingly named beauty spots such as the Fairy Glen in Betws-y-Coed it is hard not to imagine the woods coming alive with magical fairy folk; taking in the tranquillity of nature with the light glittering through the trees is marvellous and makes you feel that you have indeed been transported to the fairy realm, even if this is just an ephemeral moment. Nowadays we tend to think of fairies as being the stuff of over active imaginations or else the domain of children’s stories, but these elusive little beings were once believed in by adults and children alike.
Fairies are sometimes called “faeries” or “fae, but whatever term you choose use, their existence has been acknowledged since ancient times. Fairy lore has flowed through the centuries recorded in art, ballads, poems and stories. Today, when picturing a fairy most of us imagine diminutive little creatures with pretty lustrous wings, flitting about from flower to flower like the captivating flower fairy illustrations created by Cicely Mary Barker. However the belief that an invisible world known as the fairy realm has been held since ancient times and descriptions of fairies vary throughout the ages with some feared and others courted.
Accounts of medieval fairies show them to have been neither small nor particularly kindly beings. The fairy tradition in literature begins in the 1380’s, with Chaucer and Gower. In the view of these wordsmiths, the fairies are already a waning kind and they were somewhat frightening in part whilst also being comical. When you read the preamble to The Wife of Bath’s Tale you are given the insight that during this period people had believed in fairies, but have now lost their faith. Prior to 1380 fairies weren’t classified, but there was the mention of barrow-dwellers, tricksters, undersized people and household guardians which all contributed to the creation of the fairy realm we think of today. Fairy writers including Chaucer and Shakespeare used all the suggestions of an unearthly world from folklore and early manuscripts as inspiration for their work.
The period 1840 to 1870 has been dubbed by historians as the “Golden Age of Fairies.” This was a period of fantastical escapism; a time when it was believed that parallel to our world was an invisible world, one that was the realm of the fairies. The romanticism of an otherworld of fairies offered a distraction from the reality of an industrious, scientific and increasingly materialistic society. Works such as , ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, enthralled Victorian society, whilst the fae provided the Victorian art world with an acceptable outlet for portraying the taboos of the female form, nudity, eroticism, mysticism and the supernatural.
It was in the eighteenth century, that the world of literature expanded and for the first time in Europe books were written purposefully for children. With a new market for children’s literature came the revival of all manner of creatures, both malevolent and munificent from a range of mythologies that were duly adapted to suit children’s stories.
Traditionally the existence and deeds of fairies have been used to explain the illnesses, afflictions and untimely deaths of infants. As well as epidemics among livestock’s, natural disasters and seeming spates of bad luck. They were deemed as being capable of bewitching humans and animals and were thought to steal human women to take as wives. There was also the wide spread belief that fairies could secretly steal human babies and replace them with their own sickly offspring, the changeling philosophy was a popular way of accounting for unexplained illnesses of children. It was thought that beauty and fair hair in infants was of particular attraction to fairy folk. However, through the child friendly literature that was now surfacing; fairies began to take on a new appearance; they became guardians and magical helpers and resulted in the classical fairy godmother.
Fairies that were believed to occupy a middle realm between earth and heaven did not have a singular, fixed appearance they could be portrayed as delicate, flowing flower fairies or as rosy cheeked cherub-like pixies as portrayed by Mabel Lucie Attwell in the 1920’s. It seems that from the Victorian era onwards fairies came to be associated more with luck and protection than mischief and malevolence.
Individuals and households wishing to keep in favour with the fairy realm were advised not stay up too late, as the fairies might wish to come into their home after dark. To stay in the good grace of the fae, humans kept clean houses and would leave out some food and drink for the fairies as a gift, along with a vessel of clear water for them to bathe in. Those who made the effort to provide the fairies with these small considerations were said to be rewarded with gifts, luck, fertility, money, domestic help and blessings. In order to ensure further protection and ward off bad luck, offerings were also placed at sacred wells, groves, ancient trees or anywhere that was believed to be a chosen fairy haunt.
After centuries of fairy mythology in 1917 a series of five controversial photographs captured the world’s attention and seemed to give proof that there really were fairies at the bottom of the garden. These photographs became known as the Cottingley Fairies and were taken by Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths, two young cousins living in Cottingley, near Bradford.
When Elsie asked to borrow her father’s quarter plate camera saying that she wanted to photograph the fairies she and Frances had been playing with that morning, her father obliged thinking he was indulging an overactive imagination. When her father, Mr. Wright, developed the plates, he saw Frances seemingly interacting with fairies; he dismissed the image as some sort of trickery. When the girls went on to produce a second image of Elsie with a gnome, Mr. Wright still thought the image was a fake, however, Elsie’s mother, Polly Wright had a curiosity about the supernatural and was intrigued by the images. In 1919 she attended a lecture on spiritualism and decided to show the photos to the speaker, asking him if they “might be true after all.” The speaker was captivated by the marvel of these images and in turn brought the photographs to the attention of Edward Gardner, a leader of the Theosophical movement; he then contacted Harold Snelling a photographic expert, to examine them. Snelling declared the photos were and stated that the images were “genuine unfaked photographs of single exposure, open-air work, show movement in all the fairy figures, and there is no trace whatever of studio work involving card or paper models, dark backgrounds, painted figures, etc.” With this official stamp of approval, the fairy images began to circulate rapidly throughout the British spiritualist community, and it wasn’t long before they came to the attention of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries and nephew to Richard Doyle the illustrator that was renowned for his paintings of fairy land and elf worlds. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a passionate follower of spiritualism, and he was utterly convinced that the Cottingley Fairy photographs were irrefutable evidence of the existence of a supernatural fairy world.
Under the encouragement of Doyle, the young cousins took three more pictures of fairies in August 1920. Doyle then wrote an article about the photographs that appeared in the December 1920 issue of The Strand Magazine, in which he ardently argued that the images were authentic. This article brought the photographs to the attention of the wider public and ignited an international controversy over the realism and dependability of these images.
Sceptics picked fault in the photographs questioning things such as the visibility of bits of paper in the first photograph and even why the fairies were dressed in the latest French fashions. However the desire to believe in fairies stood up to even the strongest scepticism and the photos continued to attract believers. Perhaps the readiness to believe that these images were genuine has a lot to do with the societal backcloth of the time. By the end of World War One the British people were emotionally bruised and battered by four years of relentless bloodshed, they had seen their faith shaken, their communities and families torn apart and they needed something good to believe in. They needed to have their belief in goodness and innocence reaffirmed and they found this reassertion in the fairy photographs of Frances and Elsie.
It was not until 1978 that James Randi pointed out that the fairies in the photographs bore an uncanny resemblance to the images in a children’s book called ‘Princess Mary’s Gift Book,’ which had been published in 1915. Subsequently, in 1981, Elsie Wright confessed to Joe Cooper, who interviewed her for The Unexplained magazine, that the fairies were, in fact a hoax and were actually paper cut-outs. She explained that she had sketched the fairies taking ‘Princess Mary’s Gift Book’ as inspiration. She had then made paper cut-outs from these sketches, which she held in place with hatpins. After over six decades of controversy the debate over the validity of the Cottingley Fairies was finally resolved. What we thought was a gnome’s belly button was in fact the head of a hat pin and the whole thing was a juvenile prank that got out of hand.
There may not be any genuine photographs of fairies in the glen, but stories of fairy folk remain strong all over the world and whether they really do exist remains to be seen, perhaps it’s all a matter of believing, so for now I will keep an open mind and who knows what I may come across when wishing in a well.