Was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle really away with the fairies?

27 January 2018

9:00 AM

27 January 2018

9:00 AM

When this survey of British fairydom arrived I turned to the chapter on Dorset to read about the little people of my county. After a survey of place names referring to the ‘puca’, which may or not connect with Shakespeare’s Puck, I received the disheartening news that Dorset wasn’t very good for fairies, and that there was even ‘something surprising about the absence of elves’. So I did what I was supposed to have done first, and read the introduction.

Magical Folk is a collection of folklore essays, topographically arranged, and its editors welcome ‘the digitisation of millions of pages of British and Irish newspapers,’ which has allowed researchers to Google fairies from ‘200-year-old pages of ephemera’. They refer to ‘The Fairy Census, the first scholarly survey of contemporary fairy sightings’, and discuss the baleful effect on fairy scholarship of the Cottingley fairy hoax of the 1920s, which took in Arthur Conan Doyle.

Here is Mrs C. Woods, walking on Dartmoor in 1952 when she saw a three-foot tall old man in a smock:

I had no idea at first that he was a little man; I thought rather of some animal until I got much nearer, and then I just stared and said to myself, ‘This is no animal, it is a tiny man in brown.’

This seems to be as good as it gets with modern fairies. Olden day fairies, in various parts of our isles, would steal babies, lure travellers to their boggy doom, bake tiny cakes for hungry husbandmen, attend dances, milk a cow and help or harm country folk according to whim or their just desserts. They were usually driven away by bells, and indeed country people had many ways to protect themselves: in the Shetlands, crossed straws on the threshold, a black cock crowing, silver coins, or steel.

Folklorists used to try getting something out of all these stories. They might attribute a belief that fairies could be dispersed by iron, which meant children carried a nail in their pockets, to a folk memory of the iron-wielders overcoming the age of bronze; in Ireland especially, the Little People were identified with a vanished or conquered race. But folk-lorists seem shy of drawing conclusions now. Instead, any story that appears and reappears is assigned a number in the list of Migratory Legends, catalogued by a Norwegian folklorist, as in ‘Migratory Legend 6055, “Fairy Cows”’ (p.188). There are, as one of the contributors to this compendium loftily explains, plenty of supernatural stories in a county, and plenty of tellers, but they can’t be ‘collated into a single timeless body of lore. This is not just a fact about fairies, of course. It has been the overall conclusion of folklore studies in the past 50 years.’ To the analytical historian ‘everything is what it was at the time and not part of some larger whole’.

Yet Blake saw the fairies conducting a funeral in Sussex, and Violet Tweedale, a mystic, once saw a little man bouncing up and down on a leaf. Conan Doyle quoted her in his book The Coming of Fairies. The photos of the Cottingley fairies, of which he made so much, were revealed to be a fraud in the 1980s, created almost out of compassion for the famous writer who had lost his son in the war and wanted to believe, as so many then did, in the Other Side. The Cottingley fairies did weave an enchantment through the land, perhaps the world: some thought that in their old age the ladies responsible for the hoax would have done better to have kept quiet. How anyone could have credited the photos for a moment seems extraordinary now; yet fairies follow fashions like everyone else, and those pretty sprites seemed perfectly suited to their age.

That is a good essay; but elsewhere we are stuck with lists. ‘We Need to Talk about Fairies’ is the title of the introduction. Talk is all very well, but as Patrick Harpur explained in his Daemonic Reality, fairy encounters belong to a realm of traditional experience which generally takes place out of the corner of your eye, but can also blow your mind.

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