It was in April, if I remember, that I said something about fairies. I am afraid I was talking about April fools, and more or less maintaining that they flourished not only in April but all the year round. And one example was the case of the Yorkshire Fairies, as we may conveniently call them. Or, if you like, we will be good journalists and call them the ‘alleged’ fairies. You know the story. Two young ladies of Yorkshire — one of them, I think, has had some practical and professional experience in the art of photography — were in the habit of taking country rambles and snapshots together. When the plates were developed, strange to say, besides the portrait and the leafage and the flowers there appeared certain forms which were easily recognizable as fairies — as the fairies of a somewhat third-rate artistic conception. Scaling the little figure against the girl’s face, I should give the tiny being some nine or ten inches of height. It was draped. It had the familiar wings of the fairies in all the pictures in all the children’s fairy-tale books. If you were producing a fairy play for Christmas you would dress your chorus exactly as the photographic fairy is dressed; and the ‘principals’ would wear a similar, though richer, habit and have like wings, more brilliantly spangled. In a word, the fairy of the photographs is the conventional fairy and nothing else. And that is why I cannot believe in that fairy. For I cannot suppose that the modern inventions of nineteenth-century storytellers, artists and stage managers can have projected themselves into nature; and no such fairies as these deal in have any place in ancient tradition. It is June; the month of the fairies, of the Midsummer Night’s Dream; let us occupy ourselves a little with the fair people.
To begin with the conventional fairy, the fairy of the photograph, the fairy that we have been discussing. I trace this little creature back to Shakespeare and Herrick. Queen Mab in Mercutio’s speech rode abroad in an empty hazel nut; Herrick’s Oberon drinks his wine from a daisy, and his loaf is a grain of wheat. Here are minute entities, indeed. Queen Mab is to be conceived as of about the size of a housefly; Oberon may be almost as huge as a harvest mouse. Hans Andersen, who dealt more in fancy than in folk-lore, has such fairies in some of his tales; fairies that he concealed in tulips. But, so far as I know, this minute fairy is a purely literary invention. It is first met in Elizabethan literature; it puts on a few inches in the fairy tales of the nineteenth century, chiefly, I suppose, because a fairy queen no bigger than a fly is too small to be handled, either by writer or artist. The children’s fairy-tale fairy becomes about the size of the Yorkshire photographic fairy; anything between six inches and a foot high. But, as I say, neither the minute Mab, the tiny Oberon of Herrick, nor the picture-book sprite of modern times has any original in true popular tradition. The fairies were, indeed, the ‘Little People,’ and hence, perhaps, the poets, exaggerating, thought of Mab small enough to ride in a hazel nut. But the older conception is also illustrated by Shakespeare. The sham fairies who plague Falstaff in ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ are impersonated by Windsor children. They are imagined, then, to be beings from three to four feet high; and such was the traditional height of the ‘Little People.’ Such is the figure of the Irish Leprechaun — the fairy cobbler with the pot of gold.
There is a very tempting theory which now comes in our way. It has been held that the tradition of the fairies is, in fact, the tradition preserved amongst the Celts of the small, dark race which they supplanted. There is a good deal to be said for this. It is only a few years ago that a certain hill in Ireland was excavated. This hill had been known from time immemorial and was still known as a Fairy Rath. The Little People dwelt within it; the light of their fires had been seen shining from it of dark nights. And the queer thing is that this was perfectly true. Or rather, it had been true — a thousand years ago. For the exploration of the hill showed that the primitive pre-Celtic race had dwelt within it, till the Danes broke into their hiding-place somewhere in the tenth century. And the fairy lights? The blocked-up chimney shaft of the hidden house in the hill was disclosed. No doubt, when the Little People made great fires the flames shot up and flickered on the hill-top; and were seen by some trembling wandering man astray in the wilds and the darkness. What a tale that man told when he found his way at last to friendlier fires; with the door set fast! And the stories of the fair children taken away to live in the hollow hill by the Little People, of the dark, wizened babes, the changelings, left in their place? Likely enough these things happened.
It is probable, then, that the pre-Celtic inhabitants of these islands may account for a great deal of fairy tradition; but not, I think, for all. The fairies are also gods and goddesses of the old time now diminished in dignity but still potent; and, be it remarked, always, or almost always, evil. About forty years ago I was talking of old ways with an elderly Monmouthshire farmer, and he told me that in his youth people used to put the May blossom on the doorsteps of their houses — to keep the fairies out. So, when I was driving eight years ago in the country near Belfast, my friend, a hard-headed Presbyterian man of business, showed me the mountain-ash trees planted by every house — to keep the fairies out. We have come a long way from the fancies of Shakespeare and Herrick, a long way indeed from the benevolent little beings of the children’s books. In true popular tradition the fairies are always dreaded; partly, perhaps, because they were old gods and goddesses, accursed by the Christian Faith, partly, because they were the little dark people who lived in the hills and stole away the fair Celtic children from the Christian hearth. There, I think, you have the main strands in fairy tradition. But there are others. A fairy is sometimes an ‘elemental,’ a spirit of one of the four elements, according to the ancient theory of elements; air, fire, earth, water. The Sylphs were of the air, the Salamanders of the fire, the Gnomes of the earth, the Undines of the water; and I am sorry to say I do not know how far Paracelsus, who made this classification, was deriving from tradition and how far he was inventing or drawing on his reading in queer, forbidden manuscripts. And I am not clear as to the character of these spirits of the elements. Some servants’ ‘characters’ are obscure, and so it is here. But I do not remember to have heard any particular good of Salamanders, considered, that is, as spirits of flame, and insinuating nothing against a harmless lizard of that name or against a cooking utensil which might be used more than it is. But on the elementals, read ‘Le Comte de Gabalis,’ a singular treatise of the seventeenth century.
Again, you have another kind of fairy; the Robin Goodfellow, Lob-lie-by-the-fire, the Lubber fiend; who would work hard for you at nights and thresh out your corn if you set a great bowl of cream for his refreshment. And last of all there is the Fairy Queen whom mortals sometimes visit, who, as in Walter Map’s tale, makes three hundred years seem but the passing of a single night. Such was the lady to whom Thomas of Ercildoune returned at last. I am not sure whether she is the lady whom Tannhauser knew; the lady Venus; but I am certain that she has nothing to do with the Yorkshire fairy on the photographic plate.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:53