Elf re­spect

Fall­ing un­der the spell of fairy re­search

THE (Times Higher Education) - - FRONT PAGE - Si­mon Young teaches at the Univer­sity of Vir­ginia Pro­gram in Siena. His most re­cent book is Mag­i­cal Folk: Bri­tish & Ir­ish Fairies – 500 AD to the Present, co-edited with Ceri Houl­brook and pub­lished by Gib­son Square.

Ifirst came to fairies af­ter a brush with mor­tal­ity in my mid-thir­ties. I’d been trained as a me­dieval­ist, but un­der the strain of my treat­ment, the Mon­u­menta Ger­ma­niae His­tor­ica lost their charms: the mem­ory of their leather cov­ers, their weight in my hand, their smell, still make me nau­seous al­most a decade later.

I’d like to say that the fairies flew in through the win­dow, but they ac­tu­ally came out of the pages of books read in con­va­les­cence. The ob­ses­sion grew slowly. It started with pen­cil scratches in mar­gins. It turned into a blog. Then it be­came ar­ti­cles: I mapped bog­gart place names while my chil­dren were fall­ing asleep; I tran­scribed for­got­ten frag­ments of 19th-cen­tury fairy­lore as stu­dents took ex­ams. By 2013, it had got se­ri­ous and ex­pen­sive. I was dump­ster-div­ing, try­ing to res­cue the lost man­u­script of a re­cently de­ceased fairy ex­pert (I suc­ceeded even­tu­ally). A year later, I was set­ting up an on­line sur­vey of su­per­nat­u­ral at­ti­tudes and ex­pe­ri­ences, the Fairy Cen­sus. Last sum­mer, I had an Ox­ford grad­u­ate sur­rep­ti­tiously pho­to­graph a cou­ple of thou­sand pages of Ed­war­dian fairy ar­chives in the Bodleian Li­brary. More re­cently, our post­woman de­liv­ered to me a vol­ume that I co-edited with Ceri Houl­brook, an early ca­reer re­searcher at the Univer­sity of Hert­ford­shire, on Bri­tish and Ir­ish fairies. Read­ing the chap­ters again does not, as I had hoped, dim the ob­ses­sion. It only makes it burn a lit­tle brighter, un­der­lin­ing all the new mys­ter­ies to plumb, the new sources to chase.

Ob­ses­sions are sup­posed to bring at least some ben­e­fits. Trainspot­ting gets its ad­her­ents out of the house on Sun­days; Dun­geons and Dragons teaches rudi­men­tary so­cial skills; Tetris hones spa­tial in­tel­li­gence. But what are the ben­e­fits of an ob­ses­sion with fairies? Well, by far the most im­por­tant is that you

come into con­tact with many cu­ri­ous and, fre­quently, won­der­ful peo­ple. In re­cent years, I’ve had mes­sages from scores of men and women who have fairy is­sues in their lives: one re­quested ad­vice on the right hill on which to en­joy a mid­night shamanic fairy meet­ing; an­other told of a kitchen haunted by goblins. And I’m of­ten asked whether

I can see a fairy in this par­tic­u­lar CCTV footage or in that pho­to­graph. My replies to such cor­re­spon­dents tend to be po­lite but nec­es­sar­ily brief.

I also, how­ever, find my­self in con­tact with those who are, in much the same way as I am, fas­ci­nated by the idea of an in­vis­i­ble com­mon­wealth coter­mi­nous with our own world. This is the most en­joy­able con­se­quence of writ­ing and speak­ing about fairies, for there are a sur­pris­ingly large num­ber of fairy lovers (and pro­fes­sional fairy scep­tics) out there. All too pre­dictably, they are of­ten artists, folk­lorists, mys­tics or writ­ers. But there are also ser­vice­men, sci­en­tists and en­gi­neers, mem­bers of think­tanks and even Gulf mil­lion­aires.

Most keep their in­ter­est very quiet be­cause fairy­ism is a love that dare not speak its name. There is a dis­taste to­wards fairies among the chat­ter­ing classes, and that dis­taste is par­tic­u­larly strong among aca­demics. Study witches, ghosts or vam­pires, and you will pass through any Oxbridge din­ner suc­cess­fully. How­ever, fairies are about as wel­come as Heineken at high ta­ble. I teach Ital­ian his­tory in Siena and have long ex­pe­ri­enced a milder ver­sion of this. My col­leagues treat my in­ter­est in fairy­lore and the su­per­nat­u­ral as a for­giv­able but not a lov­able ec­cen­tric­ity. For some­one in­ter­ested in the sub­ject, this stance is frus­trat­ing be­cause fairies have so much to of­fer the re­searcher and teacher. They de­mand a mul­ti­dis­ci­plinary ap­proach, com­bin­ing the likes of an­thro­pol­ogy, art his­tory, com­par­a­tive mythol­ogy, folk­lore, his­tory, lit­er­a­ture, theatre, philol­ogy and ono­mas­tics (the study of proper names). Fairies can be found (with dif­fer­ent la­bels) in most places and pe­ri­ods, invit­ing com­par­a­tive work. And while they may vex pro­fes­sors, they are ob­jects of fas­ci­na­tion in the lec­ture hall: say the word “fairy” and stu­dents look up from their iPhones.

One re­sult of cam­pus fairy­pho­bia is that many of our most tal­ented fairy writ­ers have noth­ing to do with uni­ver­si­ties. In­deed, per­haps half of the best books that we have on fairy­lore in English were writ­ten by au­thors out­side the academy or, in a cou­ple of cases, aca­demics in the process of ex­tri­cat­ing them­selves from it. While edit­ing our book, Ceri and I co­or­di­nated a team of aca­demic and non-aca­demic writ­ers. Reread­ing the book in its pub­lished form, I would say that the three most im­por­tant chap­ters, in a crowded and com­pet­i­tive field, were writ­ten by peo­ple with­out “Dr” in front of their name.

A con­se­quence of be­ing an ex­pert in some­thing that most peo­ple are em­bar­rassed to dis­cuss is hav­ing to han­dle fre­quent me­dia en­quiries. Emails be­gin not with “As an ac­knowl­edged ex­pert…” but rather, “You were the only name we could find…” I have to ad­mit that I gen­er­ally savour these en­coun­ters. Jour­nal­ists are, in my ex­pe­ri­ence, cour­te­ous, in­tel­li­gent and witty. But, as any aca­demic who has ever had en­coun­ters with the press will know, you can find your­self in some bizarre sit­u­a­tions. Tech­ni­cians for Ra­dio New Zealand asked me to do a long-dis­tance in­ter­view sit­ting un­der my desk with a sheet over my head be­cause it was the only way to get the acous­tics right. A Ja­panese TV crew threat­ened to fly to my home in Tus­cany to do a three-minute seg­ment in my liv­ing room (san­ity ul­ti­mately pre­vailed and they in­stead ran off to the English Mid­lands to look for gnomes: fairy shame does not, gen­er­ally speak­ing, ex­tend to East Asia).

I even some­times con­tact the me­dia for my own ends. This can go won­der­fully well. Last year, I gath­ered Not­ting­ham fairy­lore with a co­or­di­nated push in the lo­cal news­pa­pers and on lo­cal ra­dio and tele­vi­sion – sev­eral “don’t-tell-any­one-but” emails re­sulted. Some­times, how­ever, things do not quite turn out as ex­pected. While pub­li­cis­ing my book, what I thought was an in­no­cent press re­lease on

Study witches, ghosts or vam­pires, and you will pass through any Oxbridge din­ner suc­cess­fully. But fairies are about as wel­come as Heineken at high ta­ble

modern fairy sight­ings led to head­lines about fairy sex. So much for tak­ing en­chant­ment se­ri­ously! Hu­man voices wake us and we drown.

There is an ob­vi­ous rea­son why fairies are anath­ema to so many peo­ple – the mis­lead­ingly cutesy im­age of them that we carry around in our heads. As it hap­pens, this kind of fairy is only part of the story. Yes, there are the tiny, smil­ing, tutu-wear­ing fairies of Dis­ney, whose sweat is sac­cha­rine and who burp pixie dust. But there are also the blood­hun­gry, baby-steal­ing, bed-hop­ping fairies of tra­di­tion. The Dis­ney fairy has a fas­ci­nat­ing ge­neal­ogy. She (and it is al­most al­ways a she) be­gan life in Bri­tish art in the late 1700s (although it can be ar­gued that a pro­to­type was float­ing around in the El­iz­a­bethan and Ja­cobean po­ets). She grew stronger in chil­dren’s sto­ry­books in the 1800s. Then she took flight in oc­cult works in the late 1800s and early 1900s, in what be­came in essence the philo­soph­i­cal wing of spir­i­tu­al­ism, theos­o­phy. The Cot­tin­g­ley pho­to­graphs (op­po­site), which ap­pear to show groups of fairies with young girls and which proved to be the apoth­e­o­sis of the modern fairy, were spon­sored by theosophists and brought to pub­lic at­ten­tion by Sir Arthur Co­nan Doyle. And it is re­mark­able how modern fairy films are, un­know­ingly, ve­hi­cles for theo­soph­i­cal ideas about na­ture and the soul. Any­one who watches these films will know that Tin­ker Bell and her sug­arplum co­horts won the war against the tra­di­tional fairy. Like the bat­tle be­tween grey and red squir­rels in

Bri­tish woods, the older species was wiped out by de­grees: in the UK, tra­di­tional fairies sur­vived in very few places past the Great

War, and even in Ire­land, tra­di­tional fairies rarely made it through the Se­cond World War.

The less ob­vi­ous but per­haps fun­da­men­tally more im­por­tant rea­son why fairies are avoided by de­cent so­ci­ety re­lates to con­ven­tions of be­lief. In our so­ci­ety, you can glimpse a ghost or be­lieve that cer­tain peo­ple have mag­i­cal pow­ers and keep your friends; this is not nec­es­sar­ily the case with fairies. Try it for your­self. Turn up at a Christ­mas party and an­nounce that you’ve seen a phan­tom in the car park and you’ll get an in­ter­ested if jokey au­di­ence; claim that you’ve spied a fairy or, for that mat­ter, an an­gel with a flam­ing sword and peo­ple will be­gin to back away. Quite why it should be so­cially ac­cept­able to be­lieve in the spirit of your dead grand­mother but not fairies is un­clear to me. How­ever, in my fairy sur­vey, which col­lected to­gether 500 modern fairy ex­pe­ri­ences from around the English­s­peak­ing world, the sin­gle most com­mon sen­ti­ment is the fear that the re­spon­dent will look fool­ish if their ex­pe­ri­ence is pub­licly as­so­ci­ated with them.

For my part, I have never seen a ghost or a fairy, and I am quite clear in my own mind that my hand­ful of “su­per­nat­u­ral” ex­pe­ri­ences were in­ter­est­ing hal­lu­ci­na­tions. But I find this di­vi­sion very lim­it­ing. One thing that comes out of study­ing dif­fer­ent para­nor­mal en­coun­ters is their unity. Yes, there is a great Ar­chi­pel­ago of the Im­pos­si­ble, which, as well as the Is­land of Fairy, also in­cludes the Is­land of the Un­dead, the Is­land of De­mons, the Is­land of Hairy Ho­minids and the Is­land of Lit­tle Green Men Who Visit Your Bed­room. But, in the end, all these isles are clearly just the peaks of a sin­gle sub­merged con­ti­nent (which the Neo­pla­ton­ist Plot­i­nus long ago mapped). In­deed, one of the most fas­ci­nat­ing points to come out of my fairy re­search is the strug­gle that peo­ple have in de­cid­ing which is­land they should lo­cate their ex­pe­ri­ence upon.

Aque­s­tion that I al­ways ask fairy be­liev­ers – although it could equally be put to be­liev­ers in, say, ghosts or aliens – is how it is that their fairies are so dif­fer­ent from those our great-great-grand­par­ents saw. Here we re­turn to the strange bat­tle be­tween two dif­fer­ent ver­sions of an ap­par­ently sin­gle mag­i­cal be­ing. Modern fairies tend to be in­sect-sized; tra­di­tional fairies tended to be about the height of a 10-year-old. Tink and Co are veg­e­ta­tion spir­its, but tra­di­tional fairies seem to re­late in some ob­scure way to fer­til­ity: you would never have called Shake­speare’s fairy queen, Ti­ta­nia, the spirit of a rose blos­som or of a black­berry bush. Modern fairies have wings. Tra­di­tional fairies didn’t. When, be­tween 1907 and 1909, the Amer­i­can bo­hemian and an­thro­pol­o­gist Wal­ter Evan­sWentz col­lected hun­dreds of fairy ex­pe­ri­ences from the Celtic west, not a sin­gle wing was recorded. In my own fairy sur­vey, con­ducted be­tween 2014 and 2017, wings are ev­ery­where. What is go­ing on here? Well, just as an­i­mals evolve over hun­dreds of thou­sands of years, para­nor­mal en­ti­ties ev­i­dently evolve in our col­lec­tive imag­i­na­tion over decades. On this ev­i­dence, it is not just at­ti­tudes to the su­per­nat­u­ral that are so­cially con­di­tioned but su­per­nat­u­ral vi­sions them­selves.

Those who have fairy ex­pe­ri­ences have a smart an­swer to all this. They point out that fairies are shape-shifters who present them­selves to us as they think we would want to see them. De­bate grinds to a halt there. But with these di­a­logues we come to what is, for me, my only real in­sight into fairy­lore af­ter hun­dreds of hours of re­search into it: namely, that fairy seers are more in­ter­est­ing than fairies.

We have from the Mid­dle Ages de­tailed de­scrip­tions of the ex­pe­ri­ences of men and women who claimed to see fairies. These con­tinue through early modern witch tri­als and then jump into per­sonal ac­counts from the En­light­en­ment on­wards; they ap­pear, today, in on­line fo­rums. Why is it – go­ing now be­yond fairies to in­clude ghosts and other bu­ga­boos – that a given num­ber of the pop­u­la­tion have su­per­nat­u­ral ex­pe­ri­ences? Why is it that a sur­pris­ing num­ber have fre­quent su­per­nat­u­ral ex­pe­ri­ences, per­haps about 5 to 10 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion? What is the na­ture of these in­di­vid­u­als? Are they just an em­bar­rass­ing relic from the Palae­olithic, a so­cial equiv­a­lent of the tail­bone? Or do they per­form an im­por­tant role in re­con­nect­ing dig­i­tal men and women to older in­tu­itions?

I have no idea. But I like to think that study­ing fairy seers would bring div­i­dends in folk­lore, psy­chol­ogy and an­thro­pol­ogy alike. In any case, chew­ing on these ques­tions brings me clos­est to the tran­scen­den­tal fairies that I first glimpsed on my sickbed.

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