The Coming of the Fairies, by Arthur Conan Doyle

Chapter 8

The Theosophic View of Fairies

Of all religious and philosophies in Western lands I know none save that ancient teaching now called Theosophy which has any place in it for elemental forms of life. Therefore, since we have established some sort of independent case for their existence, it is well that we should examine carefully what they teach and see how far it fits in with what we have been able to gather or to demonstrate.

There is no one who has a better right to speak upon the point than my co-worker, Mr. E. L. Gardner, since he is both the discoverer of the fairies and a considerable authority upon theosophic teaching. I am glad, therefore, to be able to include some notes from his pen.

“For the most part,” he writes, “amid the busy commercialism of modern times, the fact of their existence has faded to a shadow, and a most delightful and charming field of nature study has too long been veiled. In this twentieth century there is promise of the world stepping out of some of its darker shadows. Maybe it is an indication that we are reaching the silver lining of the clouds when we find ourselves suddenly presented with actual photographs of these enchanting little creatures — relegated long since to the realm of the imaginary and fanciful.

“Now, what are the fairies?

“First, it must be clearly understood that all that can be photographed must of necessity be physical. Nothing of a subtler order could in the nature of things affect the sensitive plate. So-called spirit photographs, for instance, imply necessarily a certain degree of materialization before the ‘form’ could come within the range even of the most sensitive of films. But well within our physical octave there are degrees of density that elude ordinary vision. Just as there are many stars in the heavens recorded by the camera that no human eye has ever seen directly, so there is a vast array of living creatures whose bodies are of that rare tenuity and subtlety from our point of view that they lie beyond the range of our normal senses. Many children and sensitives see them, and hence our fairy lore — all founded on actual and now demonstrable fact!

“Fairies use bodies of a density that we should describe, in non-technical language, as of a lighter than gaseous nature, but we should be entirely wrong if we thought them in consequence unsubstantial. In their own way they are as real as we are, and perform functions in connection with plant life of an important and most fascinating character. To hint at one phase — many a reader will have remarked on the lasting freshness and beauty of flowers cut and tended by one person, and, on the other hand, their comparatively short life when in the care of another. The explanation is to be found in the kindly devotion of the one person and the comparative indifference of the other, which emotions affect keenly the nature spirits in whose immediate care the flowers are. Their response to love and tenderness is quickly evidenced in their charges.

“Fairies are not born and do not die as we do, though they have their periods of outer activity and retirement. Allied to the lepidoptera, or butterfly genus, of our familiar acquaintance rather than to the mammalian line, they partake of certain characteristics that are obvious. There is little or no mentality awake — simply a gladsome, irresponsible joyousness of life that is abundantly in evidence in their enchanting abandon. The diminutive human form, so widely assumed, is doubtless due, at least in a great measure, to the powerful influence of human thought, the strongest creative power in our cycle.

“In the investigations I have pursued in Yorkshire, the New Forest, and Scotland, many fairy lovers and observers have been interviewed and their accounts compared. In most cases I was interested to note that my share in making public the photographs of Cottingley was the worst sort of introduction imaginable. Few fairy lovers have looked with favour on that. Reproaches have been frequent and couched in no measured terms, for the photographs have been resented as an unwarranted intrusion and desecration. Only after earnest assurances as to my own attitude could I get farther and obtain those intimate confidences that I have compared and checked and pieced together and am at liberty to narrate here.

“The function of the nature spirit of woodland, meadow, and garden, indeed in connection with vegetation generally, is to furnish the vital connecting link between the stimulating energy of the sun and the raw material of the form. That 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. We do not obtain music from an organ by associating the wind, a composer’s score, and the instrument — the vital link supplied by the organist, though he may be unseen, is needed — and similarly the nature spirits are essential to the production of the plant.

“THE FAIRY BODY.— The normal working body of the gnome and fairy is not of human nor of any other definite form, and herein lies the explanation of much that has been puzzling concerning the nature-spirit kingdom generally. They have no clean-cut shape normally, and one can only describe them as small, hazy, and somewhat luminous clouds of colour with a brighter spark-like nucleus. As such they cannot be defined in terms of form any more than one can so describe a tongue of flame. In such a body they fill their office, working inside the plant structure. ‘Magnetic’ is the only word that can describe their method. Instantly responsive to stimulus, they appear to be influenced from two directions — the physical outer conditions prevailing and an inner intelligent urge. These two influences determine their working activity. Some, and these are by far the most numerous, work on cell construction and organization, and are comparatively small when assuming the human form, being two to three inches high. Others are concerned exclusively with root development below ground, while others are apparently specialists in colour and ‘paint’ the flowers by means of the streaming motion of their cloud-like bodies. There appears to be little trace of any selective or discriminating work done individually. They all seem actuated by a common influence that affects them continuously, and which strongly suggests the same type of instinctive prompting that marks the bee and ant.

“THE HUMAN FORM.— Though the nature spirit must be regarded as practically irresponsible, living a gladsome, joyous, and delightfully untrammelled life, each member appears to possess at least a temporary definite individuality at times, and to rejoice in it. The diminutive human form — sometimes grotesque, as in the case of brownie and gnome, sometimes beautifully graceful, as in the surface-fairy variety — if conditions allow, is assumed in a flash. For a while it is retained, and it seems clear that the definite and comparatively concrete shape affords pleasure above the ordinary. There is no organization perceptible, as one might perhaps hastily infer. The content of the body still appears homogeneous, though somewhat denser, and the shape of ‘human’ is usually only seen when not at work. The nature spirit so clothed indulges in active movement in skipping and dancing gestures and exhibits a gay abandon suggestive of the keenest delight in the experience. It is evidently ‘time off’ and play for it, though its work seems charming enough. If disturbed or alarmed the change back to the slightly subtler vehicle, the magnetic cloud, is as sudden as the birth. What determines the shape assumed and how the transformation is effected is not clear. One may speculate as to the influence of human thought, individual or in the mass, and quite probably the explanation when found will include this influence as a factor — but I am intent here not on theorizing, but on a narrative of observed happenings. One thing is clear — the nature-spirit form is objective — objective, that is, in the sense in which we apply that term to a stone, a tree, and a human body.

“FAIRY WINGS.— The wings are a feature that one would hardly expect to find in conjunction with arms. In this respect the insect type, with its several limbs and two or more wings, is a nearer model. But there is no articulation and no venation, and moreover the wings are not used for flying. ‘Streaming emanations’ is the only description one can apply. In some varieties, particularly the sylphs, the streamers surround the body, as by a luminous aura sprayed to a feathery mist. I was told that the earlier and more elaborate Red Indian headdresses must have been inspired from this source, so suggestive are they, though the best of them are but poor copies of the originals.

“FOOD.— There is no food taken, as we should regard it. Nourishment, usually abundant and ample for sustenance, is absorbed directly by a rhythmic breathing or pulse. Resource to the magnetic bath on occasion appears to be their only special restorative. The perfume of flowers is delighted in, and, reversely, disagreeable odours repel. This is one of many reasons, besides timidity, why human society is usually avoided, there being little that is inviting in that connection for them, and much that is obnoxious.

“BIRTH, DEATH, AND SEX.— Any estimate of length of life is misleading, because comparison with ourselves cannot be made. There is no real birth nor death, as we understand the terms — simply a gradual emergence from, and a return to, a subtler state of being. This process takes some time, probably years in certain varieties, and their life on the denser level, corresponding to our adult period, may be as long as the average human. There is nothing definite in all this, however, except the fact of the gradual emergence and return. There is no sex, as we should regard it, though, so far as I can gather, there is division and sub-division of ‘body’ at a much subtler and earlier level than that usually sensed. This process seems to correspond to the fission and budding of our familiar simple animalcules, with the addition, towards the end of the cycle, of fusion or reassembly into the larger unit.

“SPEECH AND GESTURE.— Below the sylph there appears to be nothing, or very little, in the way of a language of words. Communication is possible by inflexion and gesture, much as the same can be exercised with domestic animals. Indeed, the relation of human with the lower nature spirits seems to be about on a par with that of kittens, puppies, and birds. Yet there is abundant evidence of a tone language among them. Music by pipe and flute is common, though to the human ear of the quaintest character — but whether the instrument or the voice is the real source I cannot yet determine. The higher orders of nature spirits are adding mentality to the emotional development, and speech with them is possible. Their attitude to ordinary humanity is unfriendly rather than well disposed, and often hostile, arising probably from our utter disregard of the amenities. I am beginning to see sense and reason in the ‘burnt-offerings’ of yore. Pollution of the atmosphere is a horror to the sylphs and deeply resented. An ancient saying I had seen somewhere came to mind when discussing the beautiful air-spirits and their work: ‘Agni (Fire) is the mouth of the gods!’ Our sanitary and burial customs are doubtless still capable of improvement! One fairy lover said to me gleefully, ‘Ah, well! you will never be able to get photographs of the sylphs — they know too much for you!’ If we can establish friendly relations with them, though, the weather may be ours, if that be desirable!

“CAUSE AND EFFECT.— The dissection and examination of vegetable forms, however exhaustive, is but an analysis of effects. No adequate cause is therein to be found any more than a dissection of a sculpture will disclose the craftsman. The amazing skill in evidence in the plant kingdom in construction, adaptation, and adornment demand the labour of workman, mechanic, and artist. Their recognition in the nature spirits fills the vague hiatus between the sun’s energy and the material wrought. On our own human side of the line the finding of two pieces of wood nailed together would unmistakably point to a workman of sorts, yet we are accustomed to gaze with wonder and admiration on the exquisitely built forms of a whole kingdom, and murmur ‘evolutionary processes,’ or ‘the hand of God,’ according to our temperament. An agent is necessary on the one side and no less on the other.

“MODE OF WORKING.— The feature that will appeal to every nature lover interested in the vital processes of plant life is the craftsmanship of the nature-spirit agent. An inference, if it be simple enough, often escapes us, though in this case the experiences gathered of our own human labour suggest the analogy vividly. An analogy with a difference, however, for the hidden manner of work of the nature spirit is in most respects the exact opposite in character to our own. In this physical world we labour with hands and tools, and work consistently on exteriors, always indeed handling and applying our material from the outside. Addition, accretion, is our constructive method. We find ourselves made that way, and it is our characteristic mode of approach. The nature spirits operate from the interior, working from a centre outwards. Their aim appears to be to achieve an ever-closer touch with the environment, and to that end the driving urge of their activity is how best to adapt the means to their hand. It is easy to perceive the cause of variety in nature in view of this striving endeavour to organize the vehicle that the nature spirits use, and so gain in endless ways a closer touch. Flower colouring, mimicry, seed protection and distribution, defensive and aggressive measures, all the thousand-and-one devices employed to attain an end, point to an intelligence working through agents who, at their own level, are often in more or less antagonistic relation with each other. Variety and difference is as much in evidence as among humanity, and makes for that diversity of form and custom that we find on our side so fruitful of experience. In the tilling of the soil and the culture of plant life for our own purposes we have worked intimately together — though unconsciously. The efforts of nature spirits working by themselves without our assistance produce the wild flowers and berries of our woodlands and meadows, while partnership with the human yields a record of cultivated cereal, flower, and fruit, immensely richer.

“PLANT CONSCIOUSNESS.— The relation of the nature spirit to the consciousness functioning through the vegetable kingdom generally is an interesting study too, for the twain appear quite separate. This might perhaps be likened to the role respectively of crew and passenger in a ship. The slumbering, or at best slowly awakening, consciousness of the plant, makes of it little more than an idle traveller, whereas the nature spirits, alert and active, attend to the upkeep and navigation of the craft, and the voyage through the kingdom means a growth and development for both.

“THE FUTURE.— What might follow an intelligent understanding of the ‘little people,’ and the establishment of mutual good feeling, opens up a prospect alluring in the extreme. It would be for us a working in the light instead of in darkness. A foretaste of such co-operation may be gathered by noting the effect of a devoted lover of flowers on his or her charges. The nature spirit responds to emotion and appears keenly appreciative of kindly attention and affection. Whether this applies with any force to any but the varieties concerned with flowers and fruits I cannot say, but it certainly does to them, and the intelligent direction of effort in place of empirical incident tempts one’s speculation to run riot as to future possibilities.

“The awakened self-consciousness of the human kingdom, with a vigorous mentality linked to kindly emotion and physical action, may enable an ages-old debt to be adjusted. We have served the nature-spirit line of evolution consciously not at all, but by understanding the situation we can cooperate together intelligently and helpfully, and the service of both to mutual advantage can take the place of blind experiment and groping self-interest.’!— E. L. G.

In the literature of Theosophy, I know no one who treats the elemental forces of nature more fully than Bishop Leadbeater, whom I met in my Australian travels, and who impressed me by his venerable appearance, his ascetic habits, and his claims to a remarkable clairvoyancy which has, as he alleges, opened up many of the Arcana. In his book The Hidden Side of Things he talks very fully of the fairies of many lands.

Dealing with the little creatures whom so many of my informants have seen tending flowers, the seer says:

The little creatures that look after flowers may be divided into two great classes, though of course there are many varieties of each kind. The first class may properly be called elementals, for, beautiful though they are, they are in reality only thought-forms, and therefore they are not really living creatures at all. Perhaps I should rather say that they are only temporary living creatures, for, though they are very active and busy during their little lives, they have no real evolving, reincarnating life in them, and when they have done their work they just go to pieces and dissolve into the surrounding atmosphere, precisely as our own thought-forms do. They are the thought-forms of the Great Beings, or angels, who are in charge of the evolution of the vegetable kingdom.

“When one of these Great Ones has a new idea connected with one of the kinds of plants or flowers which are under his charge, he often creates a thought-form for the special purpose of carrying out that idea. It usually takes the form either of an etheric model of the flower itself or of a little creature which hangs round the plant or the flower all through the time that the buds are forming, and gradually builds them into the shape and colour of which the angel has thought. But as soon as the plant has fully grown, or the flower has opened, its work is over and its power is exhausted, and, as I have said, it just simply dissolves, because the will to do that piece of work was the only soul that it had.

“But there is quite another kind of little creature which is very frequently seen playing about with flowers, and this time it is a real nature spirit. There are many varieties of these also. One of the commonest forms is, as I have said, something very much like a humming-bird, and it may often be seen buzzing round the flowers much in the same way as a humming-bird or a bee does. These beautiful little creatures will never become human, because they are not in the same line of evolution as we are. The life which is now animating them has come up through grasses and cereals, such as wheat and oats, when it was in the vegetable kingdom, afterwards through ants and bees when it was in the animal kingdom. Now it has reached the level of these tiny nature spirits, and its next stage will be to ensoul some of the beautiful fairies with etheric bodies who live upon the surface of the earth. Later on they will become salamanders, or fire spirits, and later still they will become sylphs, or air spirits, having only astral bodies instead of etheric. Later still they will pass through the different stages of the great kingdom of the angels.”

Speaking of the national characteristics of fairies, he says with all the assurance of an actual observer (page 97):

“No contrast could well be more marked than that between the vivacious, rollicking, orange-and-purple or scarlet-and-gold mannikins who dance among the vineyards of Sicily and the almost wistful grey-and-green creatures who move so much more sedately amidst the oaks and furze-covered heaths in Brittany, or the golden-brown ‘good people’ who haunt the hillsides of Scotland.

“In England the emerald-green kind is probably the commonest, and I have seen it also in the woods in France and Belgium, in far-away Massachusetts, and on the banks of the Niagara River. The vast plains of the Dakotas are inhabited by a black-and-white kind which I have not seen elsewhere, and California rejoices in a lovely white-and-gold species which also appears to be unique.

“In Australia the most frequent type is a very distinctive creature of a wonderful luminous sky-blue colour; but there is a wide diversity between the etheric inhabitants of New South Wales or Victoria and those of tropical Northern Queensland. These latter approximate closely to those of the Dutch Indies. Java seems specially prolific in these graceful creatures, and the kinds most common there are two distinct types, both monochromatic — one indigo blue with faint metallic gleamings, and the other a study in all known shades of yellow — quaint, but wonderfully effective and attractive.

“A striking local variety is gaudily ringed with alternate bars of green and yellow, like a football jersey. This ringed type is possibly a race peculiar to that part of the world, for I saw red and yellow similarly arranged in the Malay Peninsula, and green and white on the other side of the Straits in Sumatra. That huge island also rejoices in the possession of a lovely pale heliotrope tribe which I have seen before only in the hills of Ceylon. Down in New Zealand their speciality is a deep blue shot with silver, while in the South Sea Islands one meets with a silvery-white variety, which coruscates with all the colours of the rainbow, like a figure of mother-of-pearl.

“In India we find all sorts, from the delicate rose-and-pale-green, or pale-blue-and-primrose of the hill-country to the rich medley of gorgeously gleaming colours, almost barbaric in their intensity and profusion, which is characteristic of the plains. In some parts of that marvellous country I have seen the black-and-gold type which is more usually associated with the African desert, and also a species which resembles a statuette made out of a gleaming crimson metal, such as was the orichalcum of the Atlanteans.

“Somewhat akin to this last is a curious variety which looks as though cast out of bronze and burnished; it appears to make its home in the immediate neighbourhood of volcanic disturbances, since the only places in which it has been seen so far are the slopes of Vesuvius and Etna, the interior of Java, the Sandwich Islands, the Yellowstone Park in North America, and a certain part of the North Island of New Zealand. Several indications seem to point to the conclusion that this is a survival of a primitive type, and represents a sort of intermediate stage between the gnome and the fairy.

“In some cases, districts close together are found to be inhabited by quite different classes of nature spirits; for example, as has already been mentioned, the emerald-green elves are common in Belgium, yet a hundred miles away in Holland hardly one of them is to be seen, and their place is taken by a sober-looking dark-purple species.”

Very interesting indeed is his account of the Irish fairies. Speaking of a sacred mountain in Ireland, he says:

“A curious fact is that altitude above the sea-level seems to affect their distribution, those who belong to the mountains scarcely ever intermingling with those of the plains. I well remember, when climbing Slieve-namon, one of the traditionally sacred hills of Ireland, noticing the very definite lines of demarcation between the different types. The lower slopes, like the surrounding plains, were alive with the intensely active and mischievous little red-and-black race which swarms all over the south and west of Ireland, being especially attracted to the magnetic centres established nearly two thousand years ago by the magic-working priests of the old Milesian race to ensure and perpetuate their domination over the people by keeping them under the influence of the great illusion. After half an hour’s climbing, however, not one of these red-and-black gentry was to be seen, but instead the hill-side was populous with the gentler blue-and-brown type which long ago owed special allegiance to the Tuatha-deDanaan.

“These also had their zone and their well-defined limits, and no nature spirit of either type ever ventured to trespass upon the space round the summit, sacred to the great green angels who have watched there for more than two thousand years, guarding one of the centres of living force that link the past to the future of that mystic land of Erin. Taller far than the height of man, these giant forms, in colour like the first new leaves of spring, soft, luminous, shimmering, indescribable, look forth over the world with wondrous eyes that shine like stars, full of the peace of those who live in the eternal, waiting with the calm certainty of knowledge until the appointed time shall come. One realizes very fully the power and importance of the hidden side of things when one beholds such a spectacle as that.”

For fuller information the reader may well be referred to the original, published by the Theosophical Publishing House. The book is a storehouse of knowledge upon all occult matters, and certainly the details concerning the fairies fit in remarkably well with the information from other sources.

I have now laid before the reader the full circumstances in connection with the five successful photographs taken at Cottingley. I have added the experience of a clairvoyant officer in the company of the girls upon the third and unsuccessful attempt to get photographs. I have analysed some of the criticism which we have had to meet. I have given the reader the opportunity of judging the evidence for a considerable number of alleged cases, collected before and after the Cottingley incident. Finally, I have placed before him the general theory of the place in creation of such creatures, as defined by the only system of thought which has found room for them. Having read and weighed all this, the investigator is in as strong a position as Mr. Gardner or myself, and each must give his own verdict. I do not myself contend that the proof is as overwhelming as in the case of spiritualistic phenomena. We cannot call upon the brightest brains in the scientific world, the Crookes, the Lodges, or the Lombrosos, for confirmation. But that also may come, and for the present, while more evidence will be welcome, there is enough already available to convince any reasonable man that the matter is not one which can be readily dismissed, but that a case actually exists which up to now has not been shaken in the least degree by any of the criticism directed against it. Far from being resented, such criticism, so long as it is earnest and honest, must be most welcome to those whose only aim is the fearless search for truth.

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Last updated Friday, March 14, 2014 at 21:33