Saturday, December 29, 2018

Where have all the fairies gone?

“Explore Fairy Traditions” by Jeremy Harte is a book about British and Irish fairy lore. Unlike other books on these traditions explored by me lately, Harte (who is a folklorist) takes a skeptical tack on the subject. He simply doesn´t believe in the Other Crowd. They are purely imaginary, in the everyday sense of that word. Fairies are not real, sorry.

Many Irish and British stories about fairies are strikingly similar to tales found in other parts of the world, from ancient Greece to contemporary Korea. There are a lot of recurring motifs: the stolen chalice of gold, the injunction not to eat while away in fairyland, the idea that you can trick a fairy by introducing yourself as “Myself”, etc. A surprisingly large amount of fairy stories are borderline fakelore rather than folklore. The 1976 “Dictionary of Fairies” by Katherine Briggs is considered a solid source by many, but according to Harte, Briggs got much of her information from one Ruth Tongue, who made up scores of “real” fairy stories. Thus, we are not dealing with real tradition but with Tongue´s very own version of fantasy fan fiction. Marie Balfour is another big time forger, this time from the late 19th century. Diffusion of real folklore also causes problems for the collector, as when Irish fairy stories (known from printed books) found their way to 19th century Cornwall and were recorded by folklorists as “real Cornish tradition”. As for fairies being distinctly Celtic, Harte points out that fairy belief was once widespread all across Britain, including the non-Celtic portions inhabited by descendants of Anglo-Saxons, Normans or Scandinavians. Somebody might object that the British Isles were once all-Celtic, but I think the point of the author is to criticize the Celtic national romanticism of Walter Evans-Wentz or W B Yeats, which was expressed through the medium of fairy lore. The non-Celts were just as comfortable with the fairy faith, and nobody really knows where the tales originally come from anyway. 

In Britain, the lore died out in the urban congregations first, was considered entertainment in the more modern parts of the countryside, and taken deadly seriously only in the wilder and more isolated parts. In North America, fairy belief is particularly strong in Newfoundland, where it combines British and Irish traits. Why would real fairies in North America act like a combination of British and Irish ditto? Perhaps because the White settlers came from those parts of the world…

The author wonder why fairies are always connected with places where they can´t possibly live unless you postulate that they are indeed invisible most of the time (such as “fairy forts” in Ireland) whereas large caves are not associated with the fairy folk, despite such locations being a more natural hideout for a race wishing to avoid humanity. It´s as if folklore wants to emphasize the supernatural character of the fairies, while simultaneously also tying them to the world of humans – something impossible if they are said to live in remote caves.

Harte points out that the fairies are strikingly similar to humans, too similar in fact. To the author, “fairies” are really metaphors for human social conventions and restrictions. The belief in changelings is connected to disabled children, who were often killed by their parents. To claim that the child was really a fairy was a way of coping with the psychological (and perhaps legal) burden of infant murder. The author claims that similar legends didn´t exist in pagan Scandinavia, where killing disabled children was socially accepted. (Legends of changelings *do* exist in Scandinavia, too, but I suppose it´s possible they are from Christian times, when infanticide had been declared illegal. From the top of my head, I don´t really know.)

The killing of adults could likewise be justified by claiming that the victim was really a fairy substitute for the real person (courts seldom bought this explanation, however). Fairy women who leave their male husbands strikingly often do so according to local human divorce customs – thus, a fairy wife might take the animals (which as dowry belong to the wife´s kin) while leaving the children (who belong to the husband). Fairies are often said to clean the house and leave it in impeccable condition – a house-owner´s dream…and something his servants never do!

Many stories are obviously warnings to children and teenagers about not going out late at night, avoid the seaside, and so on. Other stories seem to warn the listener not to get entangled with the rich folk, not to put too much trust in money, or not to brag about whatever riches you might have hidden away – all good advice in relatively poor peasant communities. Another example: the local "wise women" were said to know their herb lore "from the fairies", which gave them added authority, although it could also make them liable to literal witch-hunts!

At least sometimes, the social function of the fairy stories was obvious to the locals who pretended to believe in them. The 18th century Irish vigilantes known as the Whiteboys were known as “fairies”, dressed in white garb and carried out their attacks in the dead of night. When horses were mysteriously found extremely tired in the morning, as if ridden during the night, fairies were conveniently blamed. In reality, they had been borrowed by the local smugglers. Sometimes, the line between otherworldly fairy and local vigilante or Viking raider is unclear even in the original stories.

Is there anything real at all underneath all this social and cultural construction? Very little, if Jeremy Harte is to be believed. Stories of actual meetings with the fairies are said to emphasize the fleeting nature of the encounter. This seems to be a common position taken by folklorists. It doesn´t seem to have any support in the actual material, though, which often contains first-person stories of non-fleeting meetings, but this is simply embellishment to the modern scholar. Thus, Harte simply doesn´t believe the elaborate fairy stories collected by Eddie Lenihan and published as “Meeting the Other Crowd”. Interestingly, he does reference Patrick Harpur´s seminal “Daimonic Reality”, which argues that fairies are at the very least “daimonically real”…

Perhaps the Little People still have a few surprises in store for us. I mean, there are many socially constructed stories about humans, animals and planets, too, and yet they are actually out there... 

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