September 28, 2014

Seeing Fairies, Here and Elsewhere: Books About Fairies

Do you believe in fairies? It's a loaded question, of course. If you were asked during a performance of Peter Pan, you'd respond affirmatively and clap your hands. Otherwise, Tinkerbell will die, and you don't want that on your conscience.

Asked that question in another context, you'd probably hesitate before saying yes, even if you did believe in fairies. After all, you probably don't want people to think you're eccentric! But there are quite a few people who unashamedly believe in fairies and many who claim to have seen them.

One of those people was  Marjorie Johnson (1911 - 2011), an English Spiritualist and Theosophist who was also a member of the Fairy Investigation Society (FIS), a British organization whose mission was apparent from its title. In the 1950s she compiled sightings from members of the FIS and also solicited them from the general public through ads in magazines. The resulting book, Seeing Fairies, is nearly 400 pages long. Although a German edition was published in 2000, it was published for the first time this year in English by Anomalist Books.

Seeing Fairies is probably the largest collection of modern fairy sightings ever compiled. Marjorie Johnson divided her books into chapters with titles like "Nature Spirits in Gardens and the Countryside" or "Fairies in Houses, Fairy Glamour." Each chapter contains multiple accounts of fairy sightings, including the name of the person who encountered the fairies and where they saw them. She doesn't include much overt theory or analysis of the material, but Johnson's interests in Spiritualism and Theosophy determine the overall tone of Seeing Fairies. As the book's editor Simon Young notes, Spiritualism was "more than just table rapping and knocks and 'ether.' It was an attempt, honest in the case of most members of the movement, to open vistas onto a wider world beyond the physical realm. It was only natural that fairies were eventually appropriated by spiritualists as part of this wider spirit land..."

Gustave Moreau, Fairy and Griffon

Because many of the book's accounts came from Marjorie's fellow Spiritualists, the majority of the fairy sightings are of gentle nature spirits. These fairies tend to be small, beautiful and associated with gardens, woods, trees, and flowers. Simon Young calls these the "new traditional fairies." Picture Tinkerbell or even Angelina Jolie as Maleficent and her fellow fairies in the recent Disney film. These beings care for the natural world and sometimes help humans who are in distress.

This is relatively new role for fairies. Up until the 19th century fairies were often viewed as frightening and dangerous, more likely to steal a child or cause illness than to tend a flower bed. Seeing Fairies does contain a few accounts in this vein. For example, a man tells what he saw in a deserted moorland brickyard when he was a boy:

... For some reason I looked over my shoulder, and about a minute's walk away I saw in broad daylight a man about a foot high, dressed in red, running along the path after me, waving his arms in what I took to be a threatening manner. But the impression that has remained with me most clearly over the 23 years or so between now and then is that he looked demented, and his face was shiny and so suffused with color that it was redder than his clothing. Being a timid child, I started running...

A woman in Australia saw the following:

It was coming down backwards from a branchless tree-trunk, and in shape it resembled a large-sized ape. Its body had a dark leaf covering; its neck was short and I saw no hair but a dark green head with a cap-like covering. Its feet were flat with nails like claws; its had had small hooks. ... I was not brave enough to go after it with a torch.

I wouldn't either!

If you are at all interested in fairies I would recommend this book. It's a testament to the enduring power of fairies, whether new traditional or old traditional, and how they still occasionally erupt into our modern rational world.

Simon Young, the book's editor, is a professor of history in Florence, Italy and we have collaborated on some research about pixies which will be published next year. Professor Young also hopes to restart the Fairy Investigation Society and to collect modern fairy sightings through a survey. Stay tuned!

Seeing Fairies includes a few sightings from America, but sadly none are from New England. As I've noted before, fairies aren't seen much in our part of the country. Another Theosophist, Dora Van Gelder Kunz, did see nature spirits and fairies near her home in New Hampshire, but as a trained psychic perhaps she had an advantage over the average New Englander. Her sightings in New Hampshire and elsewhere are recounted in her 1977 book The Real World of Fairies.

Overall, it's slim pickings for New England in modern fairy literature. Another book, Janet Bord's 1997 Fairies: Real Encounters with Little People, gives an excellent overview of the fairy phenomenon and also discusses several theories about what fairies may be. Are they pagan gods? Are they related to UFOs? A few New England encounters are included in Bord's book, including the famous Dover Demon as well as some fairy sightings from Massachusetts that appeared in the 1970s. If I can get more information on the latter I'll blog about them.

If you have ever seen a fairy in New England let me know, or you can wait until the fairy survey appears in the future. Maybe when the survey is published we'll know for sure how many fairies are in New England!

1 comment:

Fairy Investigation Society said...

Very interesting article. However, we wish to clarify that The Fairy Investigation Society you have referred to, is still active and conducting related research. Best regards.