Wednesday 17 July 2013

Fairies: the British religion?

The historian Ronald Hutton described fairies as ‘the British religion’, and – although I spent the daylight hours agonising about public services – I am very interested in this British religion and what it means. Even so, it is hard to over-estimate just how unfashionable fairies have become in the UK during the 20th century.

They had a good start thanks to the combined Edwardian talents of Arthur Rackham and J. M. Barrie. Peter Pan was first shown to rapturous applause in 1904. In fact, there is some evidence that fairies tend to enjoy their revivals at the turns of centuries (Midsummer Night’s Dream 1595/6, Coleridge’s Song of the Pixies 1793). But something about the whole Tinkerbell thing – the delicate femininity, the questionable childish sexuality – did not mix well with the century to come.

Leaves The World To DarknessWhen Arthur Conan Doyle published the Cottingly fairy photographs in 1921 – the very obvious fakes made by two little girls in Yorkshire – they had the very opposite effect on later generations that he intended. One look at the dancing gnome, or the obvious brassieres, was enough to turn fairies into a laughing stock. Though one of the girls maintained until she died that they had faked the photographs because nobody believed them when they had seen fairies.

Six years later, 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, when I was first interested in these things, 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.

I know one folklorist who spent years trying to write a thesis on belief in the Banshee – a rather noisy aspect of the fairy legend – in contemporary Ireland, but couldn’t find anyone who did believe in it (luckily, the university cleaner happened to mention that she had heard one the night before).

Even so, there is evidence all around us. The recent West End play Jerusalem ends with a tremendous scene as the lead character conjures up the spirits of the woods with the aid of a drum to help him avoid eviction by the planning department.

I wrote a novel for adults about fairies a few years ago, based on the same theory that there are fairy revivals when centuries turn. There was some interest from the big publishers in publishing it, but only on condition that I took out the fairies. Since that was really the whole point, I declined.

Luckily my own story is now published as an ebook by Endeavour Press and starting from this morning – and for a short period – Leaves the World to Darkness (for that is its name) can be downloaded free.

I thoroughly recommend it if you want to learn about the old British religion.

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