What do you think of when you think of fairies? A dead ancestor? A household help? Something tiny in a sparkly pink skirt? Fairies have been all of these, and in this fascinating book Diane Purkiss traces their biography in British culture from their origins as child-eating demons right down to Cicely Mary Barker’s Flower Fairies and little girls’ fancy dresses.
‘Human nature’, writes Purkiss:
seems to abhor a blank space on a map. Where there are no human habitations, no towns, where villages dwindle into farms and farms into woods, mapping stops. Then the imagination rushes to fill the woods with something other than blank darkness: nymphs, satyrs, elves, gnomes, pixies, fairies.
But what exactly are fairies? To answer this, Purkiss advises us to look at what fairies do. Her conclusion is that:
A fairy is someone who appears at and governs one of the big crises of mortal life: birth, childhood and its transitions, adolescence, sexual awakening, pregnancy and childbirth, old age, death. She presides over the borders of our lives, the seams between one phase of life and another. […] She is a gatekeeper, and she guards the entrance to a new realm. Like all gatekeepers, she is Janus-faced, ambiguous: she has a lovely face, a face of promise, and a hideous face, a face of fear.
Broadly speaking, Purkiss’s thesis is that fairies are what we create to fill the dark places during times of transition, anxiety, uncertainty. They are identified with the Other: demons, ghosts, foreigners. And when people talk about fairies, it’s not necessarily because they believe in them but because they offer ways of speaking about the unspeakable.
The origins of fairies, Purkiss proposes, can be found in the ancient cultures of lands bordering the Mediterranean, to the nymphs, Lamiae and Gorgons of Greece, and even further back to Mesopotamian and Egyptian child-killing demons. These are the creatures of nightmare, the explanations for unnatural deaths. Many of them have died prematurely, or are infertile, and are compelled to visit their circumstances on others, slaying the young, sucking the life from babies even as they appear to suckle them. The fairies of mediaeval and early modern Europe continue to be associated with birth, sex and death, and prey on humans – handsome young men and babies especially. But they can offer occult knowledge or gold to those who dare to deal with them, and some fairies – hobs, brownies – will even clean your house if you leave out a dish of milk in payment. I’m still looking for those fairies.
Fairies provide ways of talking about and even justifying infanticide, incest, sexual deviance and sudden death. They also become associated with colonialism. Shakespeare and A Midsummer Night’s Dream get the blame in Purkiss’s eyes for the beginnings of the tiny, ‘cute’ fairy, whose apogee is in the Victorian era. The threat of the fairy dwindles with its size: it becomes possessable rather than possessing, an object to be purchased, consumed. While the scary fairy is more or less squashed by the Enlightenment, the pretty little fairy scampers around the stage in tights and spangles, popping out of trap-doors and flying on wires as theatres embrace new technologies. No longer a seductive revenant dressed in black, the fairy becomes childlike and innocent and Purkiss shows it as contributing to changing ideas about childhood during the nineteenth century. Fairies are linked to nationalism and war at the beginning of the twentieth century and thereafter lose any remaining cultural resonance for the majority of the population. Now that our planet is mapped, Purkiss argues, ‘Aliens are our fairies’.
As you can guess from this very crude outline, this book covers an enormous amount of ground and Diane Purkiss has done an admirable job in creating a clear, coherent ‘biography’ from masses and masses of information including a couple of thousand years of literature, court records including Scottish witch trials, newspapers, folkloric research and philosophy. Because of fairies’ association with the Other, their history becomes a history of attitudes to difference and objects of fear. It is also fun because, while I wouldn’t and couldn’t pick a fight with Purkiss over her scholarship, she is unafraid to reveal her biases and thus invite discussion of her interpretations. And that is an attitude I like, although her wit is often barbed. Cruelly she mocks teeny tiny sparkly fairies, the works of Marion Zimmer Bradley, middle-class mummies, Puck, the now-defunct chain of shops called ‘Past Times’, do-gooders, which is amusing if you’re not included in her scorn, perhaps less so if you are … And she doesn’t have much time for people who do actually believe in fairies. They might want to avoid reading this book.
My copy of Troublesome Things is second-hand. The book is still in print, but like its subject, since its beginnings it’s changed its name (a couple of times: At the Bottom of the Garden: A Dark History of Fairies, Hobgoblins, Nymphs and Other Troublesome Things seems to be its US title and Fairies and Fairy Stories: A History is its current British title) and its appearance: the original cover illustration of a detail of Richard Dadd’s The Fairy Fella’s Master Stroke has been updated to something pink and Flowery Fairyish which I rather think Purkiss must loathe…