In Our TIme - Faeries

From Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time newsletter on the Mythology of Faeries:

Two of the things we missed out this morning might be of interest to you. The first is related from the 13th century chronicle of Gerald of Wales. Gerald of Wales was travelling around Wales preaching the Crusades, and while he did so was chronicling encounters along his way. Fairy mythology tends to track uncertainty, to flare up around times of anxiety, and here it is accompanying the upheaval of the Crusades. Gerald records how on his travels he meets a monk called Eliodorus, who tells him that when he was a child he used to visit the fairies. They were little people (the ones he met were men), vegetarians, and they don’t live the way we do. Gerald is a man who is both very well educated and also extremely proud of this – he is not at all a credulous man, but he relates Eliodorus’ tale in good faith, he doesn’t say ‘I believe in fairies’, but he does accept Eliodorus as an honest educated Christian man relating a true personal experience.

Eliodorus told his mother, who asked him to bring back proof of their existence, to steal something from them and bring it back, so he steals a golden ball from them to take home. The fairies chase him, catch him just before he crosses the boundary to the homestead and steal the golden ball back. They disappear and he never sees them again. This is core tradition for fairy lore – the fairies symbolically are associated with the wild outside, unstructured nature and childhood – they can’t cross his mother’s threshold which represents the structured human adult world, and Eliodorus can’t take the fairy trinket into that world.

Eliodorus says it’s all for the better really that he never saw them again, they had been distracting him from his studies and after this he settled down, concentrated on his studies, and eventually became a monk. Again it is significant that the fairies were distracting him from becoming an adult, from his studies, from serious and sober Christianity.

I was very disappointed not to get round to the Cottingley Fairies. This is a fascinating story which we discussed at some length in the Green Room afterwards. However, the only satisfying way to tell it is to tell it at some length which Nicola Bown told us in preparation for the programme. The Cottingley Fairies concerned a photograph taken during the First World War by a couple of young working class girls. Nicola told me that the original picture was taken in 1917 during the war. There were poems by Rose Fileman published in Punch about fairies, the first with the line ‘there are fairies at the bottom of the garden’, and the next week ‘there used to be fairies in Germany’ – with the implication they had been driven out by the war.

The family of the girls who took the pictures took Punch, so it’s likely the girls were influenced by these. The older girl, Elsie, was working in a photographic studio, so she had the techniques to take the pictures and develop them. She made models on card of fairies and propped them on hatpins and dusted them with chalk to make them seem translucent. They took the photo for their parents, but also because Elsie wanted to take artistic photos, which was common at the time – and that’s where the story should have ended.

About 3 years later Elsie showed an elder woman friend who was a theosophist, who sent the picture to Edmund Gardner, a leading theosophist in London. He took it as proof of his beliefs, took it to a professional trick photographer to authenticate it, and asked him to touch it up for use in a magic lantern show. This is when the perspectives and sizes were changed, and the image we now know came into being. He then took it to Conan Doyle, who had been a spiritualist since his son was killed in WWI. Gardner asked him to publish the picture in The Strand Magazine, where the Holmes stories were published. Conan Doyle agreed, and published them in 1920.

Both men were middle class establishment men, the girls were working class young girls. When Gardner asked the girls for more photos how could they say they made it up? There’s an immediate press furore, the girls are ‘outed’, Elsie loses her job, they spend the rest of their lives tainted by the argument about whether they had attempted to defraud the public. Gardner also made them sign away the copyright on the pictures to him. He was going to be their protector.

In a way the girls have to take the pictures on Gardner’s behalf because of the 19th Century invention of childhood – these stories about innocence, childhood as a special time unsullied by the awful realities of adulthood – so it wouldn’t have worked if the photos had been taken by a middle aged gentleman.

And you might enjoy revisiting a few lines of this by William Allingham, a poem, The Fairies:

Up the airy mountain,
Down the rushy glen,
We daren’t go a-hunting
For fear of little men.
Wee folk, good folk,
Trooping all together;
Green jacket, red cap,
And white owl’s feather!
Down along the rocky shore
Some make their home–
They live on crispy pancakes
Of yellow tide-foam;
Some in the reeds
Of the black mountain-lake,
With frogs for their watch-dogs,
All night awake.

The rest is mystery.