The strange revival of fairies
Bloom, Autumn 2008
“Do you believe in fairies? Say quick that you believe! Clap your hands!”
Those were the crucial, and rather unexpected, words which greeted the Edwardian theatregoers in evening dress two days after Christmas 1904, at the premiere of Peter Pan. Surprising because they had expected another of J. M. Barrie’s domestic comedies; crucial because this was the moment when the audience is asked to suspend adulthood and credulity.
Despite Peter Pan’s success, these are not really words you can bawl at the New York Stock Exchange or at a match between Real Madrid and AC Milan. Prevailing culture – such as it is, in recent years – has moved on from fairies, and Arthur Rackham’s diaphanous things, not to mention Arthur Conan Doyle’s coy photographs.
What was winsome and liberating for Barrie is now slightly nauseating to most of his great grandchildren (not that he had any). Something about the whole Tinkerbell thing – the delicate femininity, the questionable childish sexuality – did not mix well with the century to come.
Six years after Conan Doyle’s faked photographs, Sir Quentin Craufurd founded the Fairy Investigation Society, designed to promote serious study. Over the years, it managed to attract a number of prominent supporters, including Walt Disney and the Battle of Britain supremo Air Chief Marshal Lord Dowding, whose career was not helped by his public expressions of belief.
But by the 1970s, the Society could stand the cynical public climate no longer and it went underground. I wrote to their last known address outside Dublin some years ago, and had a strange letter back. It was from a man claiming that he knew the society’s secretary, but he said he didn’t want to talk to anybody. Not only the fairies had disappeared, but the fairy researchers seem to have fled as well.
I know about this because I had the temerity to write a novel for grown-ups about fairies, with my tongue barely in my cheek at all. There was some interest from the big publishers, but only on condition that I took out the fairies. Instead, I clapped my hands – and did it through a small publisher instead (Leaves the World to Darkness).
Yet there is something about the beginnings of centuries that seem to resurrect the whole idea of fairies from utter oblivion. A century after Peter Pan, just when you thought it was safe at the bottom of the garden – when the whole notion of the ‘little people’ had been consigned to effete affectation – the idea of fairies seems to be making a comeback.
There are at least twelve major fairy festivals taking place this year, from Bodmin Moor in Cornwall to Tacoma in Washington State. In fact, to sell copies of my novel, I found myself at the first fairy festival in the UK.
It was a fascinating experience, joining nearly 400 fairy enthusiasts, of all shapes, ages, classes and genders, many of them sporting a variety of different wings – some of them also with wands and tinsel – on a damp weekend in Cornwall. Also rather peculiar. I normally exist firmly in the metropolitan world of think-tanks and politics, with the occasional foray into writing history books.
Yet there I was, near Jamaica Inn, amidst a flurry of wands, wings, long striped socks, pointed shoes, garlands of flowers and what you might call Greenpeace chic. The truth was that there was something refreshing to be there when I knew that, in Whitehall, there was the most utilitarian government since they stuffed Jeremy Bentham. Somehow, a few hours at the 3 Wishes Fairy Festival was, for me, the antidote to Tesco and BAA.
The fairy sub-culture is not happening entirely below the radar of the chattering classes. The Royal Academy ran a highly successful exhibition of Victorian fairy paintings in 1998, which went on to acclaim at the Frick in New York, the University of Iowa and the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. Susanna Clarke’s brilliant novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell also has a prominent role for a fairy.
But there are also now whole orchestras of people describing themselves as ‘fairy musicians’. There is a new magazine, published in Maryland, called Fairie, and enough new fairy websites to re-populate Google. There is even an American attempt to re-brand Midsummer’s Day as ‘Fairy Day’.
The key question is this. We live in a society so technocratic that we have pills to control over-exuberant boys – why, in those circumstances, are fairies staging such a comeback?
But there were some clues at the 3 Wishes Fairy Festival, and its very distinctive style – dungeons and dragons by way of Botticelli – and its array of small businesses offering music, books and spells. Festival organiser Karen Kay, a former broadcast journalist, says it’s about concern for the environment. She’s probably right. There does seem to be something about fairies which not only recognises the mystery, hidden life and sheer magic of woods, forests and the natural world, but which also flies in the face of brute fact.
“A man can’t always do as he likes,” said John Ruskin in his Slade lecture ‘Fairyland’ in 1893, “but he can always fancy what he likes.”
One of the problems for 20th century audiences was, of course, that Ruskin did rather fancy fairies – or at least their human equivalent. But let’s leave that on one side. The point is that fairies were for him, and maybe also for us, an antidote to grim reality.
But can we actually believe in them? There is a fascinating story of a fairy encounter in Janet Bord’s book Fairies: Real Encounters with Little People about a strange experience reported in 1973 near Alderwasley in the Amber Valley in Derbyshire.
Suddenly, next to a grassy bank on a beautiful summer’s day, there was a four-foot green man. The witness describes a short conversation, during which the fairy – if indeed that’s what he was – said that his work involved breaking down decaying material for food for plants. Other twentieth century witnesses have talked about fairies claiming that they are helping trees to grow.
I’m not saying these people were necessarily reliable witnesses for a crown court trial. Nor am I saying that I would go to the stake in defence of their sanity. But the idea appeals to me.
If fairies are some hidden aspect of natural processes, the personification of rotting or photo-synthesis in a parallel reality, then – yes, maybe I can believe in them. Whether these processes also have some power over human luck, as fairies are traditionally supposed to have, well – who knows.
Certainly I prefer to live in a world where there are parallel ways of looking at reality, just as there are shades of opinion, than the miserable cut-and-dried utilitarian world I seem to have been born into.
Will this admission help my career in the world of think-tanks and politics? Almost certainly not. But, when all is said and done, we do need to stand up for a bit of mystery.
David Boyle is the author of Leaves the World to Darkness (www.therealpress.co.uk).