A Brief History of Fairies

Do you believe in fairies?

As a child, my parents told me that when a tooth fell out, I should place it under the pillow and the tooth fairy would come and take it away.

Not only that, the fairy would leave a shiny five-penny piece in exchange.

How exciting!

That night I dreamt of little people with wings, scampering about and annoying the cat.

Cat among the Fairies by John Anster Christian Fitzgerald (1819 - 1906)
Cat among the Fairies by John Anster Christian Fitzgerald (1819 – 1906)

Lo and behold, the next morning the tooth had gone and there was a shiny five-pence coin in its place.

I felt like Peter Pan: “I do believe in fairies! I do! I do!”

The word “fairy” derives from the Latin fata, meaning “fate”, and Old French faerie, meaning “enchantment”.

No wonder Cinderella is such an enduring and popular story. With a magical spell, her Fairy Godmother transforms Cinderella’s fate from one of drudgery to one of enchantment.

Cinderella and the Fairy Godmother by William Henry Margetson (1861 - 1940)
Cinderella and the Fairy Godmother by William Henry Margetson (1861 – 1940)

Originating in English folklore, the earliest mentions of fairies are in the writings of Gervase of Tilbury, a 12th-century English scholar and canon lawyer.

During his many travels to different kingdoms and provinces, Gervase compiled a compendium of hundreds of stories about the unexplained marvels of the natural world.

Called Recreation for an Emperor (Otia Imperialia), many of the stories had moral lessons about being a good Christian and a good king.

He wrote about enchanted places with animals that had human characteristics, and spirits that were both good and evil—like fairies.

Fairy Twilight by John Anster Christian Fitzgerald, (1819 - 1906)
Fairy Twilight by John Anster Christian Fitzgerald, (1819 – 1906)

When we think of fairies, most of us probably think of the good fairies like those featured in Walt Disney movies.

But there was a time when people genuinely feared fairies.

The Fairy Court by Robert Huskisson (1820 - 1861)
The Fairy Court by Robert Huskisson (1820 – 1861)

Much of the folklore of fairies revolves around protection from their malice.

Back in a time when the world was a much more mysterious place, people feared offending fairies who could cast evil spells or curses on a whim.

In Ireland in particular, such was the fear of upsetting the fairies, that instead of referring to them by name, they were euphemistically called the Little People, the Gentry, or the Neighbors.

Fairy Hordes Attacking a Bat by John Anster Christian Fitzgerald (1819 - 1906)
Fairy Hordes Attacking a Bat by John Anster Christian Fitzgerald (1819 – 1906)

C. S. Lewis, the author of The Chronicles of Narnia, knew of a haunted cottage that was feared more for its reported fairies than its ghosts.

Fairy paths were avoided and digging in fairy hills forbidden. Some homes even had corners removed for fear of blocking the fairy path.

Cottages were sometimes built with the back door directly aligned with the front, both being left open at night whenever it was deemed necessary to let the fairies pass through.

Irish Cottage by Helen Allingham
Irish Cottage by Helen Allingham

In traditional stories and legends, fairies didn’t have wings. Flying varieties grew in popularity much later.

Pixies, Elves, Goblins, Trolls, and Leprechauns were the most common species of folklore.

The Fairy Tree by Richard Doyle, 1865
The Fairy Tree by Richard Doyle, 1865

Most of us can’t see fairies. They live in a parallel universe called the “realm of the fey.”

According to legend, fairies went into hiding to avoid us because … well, we invaded their lands, so what else could they do?

As we modernized the world with electricity, built roads and cities, and cut down trees, the fairies were forced to “go underground” and hide in caves, burrows, underwater fortresses, and finally into the spirit world.

Fairy Glen, Betws-y-Coed by Reginald Aspinwall, 1876
Fairy Glen, Betws-y-Coed by Reginald Aspinwall, 1876
Fairy Arch, Mackinac Island by Henry Chapman Ford, 1874
Fairy Arch, Mackinac Island by Henry Chapman Ford, 1874
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understandWilliam Butler Yeats, 'The Stolen Child'
The Fairy That Disappeared by Theodor Kittelsen, 1857 - 1914)
The Fairy That Disappeared by Theodor Kittelsen, 1857 – 1914)

Shakespeare knew all too well that the best time to see fairies is Midsummer’s Eve.

This is when the invisible veil that separates us from the fairies is thin enough to allow people to see and interact with them.

Hand in hand, with fairy grace,
Will we sing, and bless this place.William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream

Midsummer Eve by Edward Robert Hughes, 1908Midsummer Eve by Edward Robert Hughes, 1908

You might even be lucky enough to watch them dancing. But be patient—you could be waiting hours just for one glimpse.

We the Fairies, blithe and antic,
Of dimensions not gigantic,
Though the moonshine mostly keep us,
Oft in orchards frisk and peep us.Thomas Randolph
Fairy Dance by Hans Zatzka (1859 - 1945)
Fairy Dance by Hans Zatzka (1859 – 1945)

In 1917, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths—two young cousins from Cottingley in West Yorkshire, England—caught some fairies on camera.

Literary giant Sir Arthur Conan Doyle—creator of Sherlock Holmes—believed they were clear evidence of psychic phenomena, setting the public imagination alight.

Here at last, was clear evidence of the existence of fairies.

Cottingley Fairies by Elsie Wright, 1917
Cottingley Fairies by Elsie Wright, 1917

Some 63 years later, Elsie and Frances admitted to using cardboard cutouts copied from a popular children’s book of the time.

But there was a twist to the tale.

Altogether, they had taken five photographs, admitting the first four were fake, but insisting the fifth was real.

Fairies and Their Sun-Bath, the fifth and last photograph taken of the Cottingley Fairies, the one that Frances Griffiths insisted was genuine.
Fairies and Their Sun-Bath, the fifth and last photograph taken of the Cottingley Fairies, the one that Frances Griffiths insisted was genuine.

It was the Victorians and Edwardians who made the present-day notion of flying fairies so popular.

Scottish Novelist James. M. Barrie (1860 – 1937) lost an older brother, David, in an ice-skating accident when he was just 6 years old.

David was his mother’s favorite and James tried to comfort her by pretending to take his brother’s place.

The comfort it gave his mother inspired James to go on to write his most famous work about a free-spirited young boy who could fly, lived on a mystical island called Neverland, and never had to grow up.

[W]hen the first baby laughed for the first time, its laugh broke into a thousand pieces, and they all went skipping about, and that was the beginning of fairies. And now when every new baby is born its first laugh becomes a fairy. So there ought to be one fairy for every boy or girl.James Matthew Barrie, Peter Pan

Peter Pan has spawned blockbuster movies from Disney to Spielberg, and it’s even been speculated that Barrie’s creation inspired J. R. R. Tolkien’s Elves of Middle Earth.

Take the Fair Face of Woman, and Gently Suspending, With Butterflies, Flowers, and Jewels Attending, Thus Your Fairy is Made of Most Beautiful Things by Sophie Gengembre Anderson (1823 - 1903)
Take the Fair Face of Woman, and Gently Suspending, With Butterflies, Flowers, and Jewels Attending, Thus Your Fairy is Made of Most Beautiful Things by Sophie Gengembre Anderson (1823 – 1903)
And you may lead a thousand men
Nor ever draw the rein,
But before you lead the Fairy Queen
‘Twill burst your heart in twain.
Rudyard Kipling
The Fairy King and Queen (Artist Unknown)
The Fairy King and Queen (Artist Unknown)
The Realms of Fairydom by John Anster Christian Fitzgerald, (1819 - 1906)
The Realms of Fairydom by John Anster Christian Fitzgerald, (1819 – 1906)
The Enchanted Forest by John Anster Christian Fitzgerald, (1819 - 1906)
The Enchanted Forest by John Anster Christian Fitzgerald, (1819 – 1906)

So why are we still fascinated with fairies in our modern age?

Could it be we cling to the fairy stories our parents read to us before bed?

The Fairy Tale by James Sant, R.A. (1820 - 1916)
The Fairy Tale by James Sant, R.A. (1820 – 1916)
The fairy tale by Walther Firle, 1929
The fairy tale by Walther Firle, 1929

Or could it be that fairies are real and they steal away our imaginations to a magical place—one that we rather enjoy. A land of adventure, of mystique, of enchantment. A land where we struggle to overcome evil, yet prevail.

And that could be their greatest appeal, for fairy stories usually have a happy ending.

Do you believe in fairies?

The Fairytale Forest by Edvard Munch, 1902
The Fairytale Forest by Edvard Munch, 1902
Faeries, come take me out of this dull world,
For I would ride with you upon the wind,
Run on the top of the dishevelled tide,
And dance upon the mountains like a flame.William Butler Yeats, 'The Land of Heart's Desire,' 1894
The Fairy Tale by William Merritt Chase, 1892
The Fairy Tale by William Merritt Chase, 1892

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References
Fairies: The Myths, Legends, & Lore by Skye Alexander
Wikipedia

David James

David James

I'm an Englishman in Boston. History is a joy—it binds us, it connects us, it guides us. I'm interested in making history more accessible and more fun. Join me on this fantastic voyage through time.

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