Column: Eco-fairies – Old or New?

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Today’s offering is from guest contributor John Kruse. Kruse is author of  Faery, recently published by Llewellyn Worldwide, and is also author of the book Victorian Fairy Verse in which the evolution of fairy ideas in Victorian times is fully set out.


In her essay “The Taming of the Fae: Literary and Folkloric Fairies in Modern Paganisms,” found in the recent collection Magic and Witchery in the Modern West, Sabina Magliocco suggests that many of the contemporary conceptions of fairies as planetary guardians and green protectors came not from age-old fairy tradition, but from books like Cicely Mary Barker’s Flower Fairies of the Spring, which adult Pagans had seen and absorbed as children. But is this really true? Is the view of faeries as green champions really so recent and untraditional a development?

In fact, there is a reasonable amount of evidence to indicate that faeries have been connected with nature conservation and environmental causes for a quite long time. For example, there is a widespread popular story of a woodcutter just about to fell a tree who is stopped by the appearance of a fairy being from beneath the ground. This is described as having happened as far apart in Britain as Northamptonshire and Nithsdale in the Scottish Borders.[1]  The idea of faeries as active defenders of the natural world was therefore accepted in folk belief from at least the start of the 19th century, a situation that was reflected in the literature of the time.

A flower fairy by Laura Coombs Hills [public domain]

In his 1810 poem Alice Brand, Sir Walter Scott had the elfin king demand:

“Why sounds yon stroke on the beech and oak,

Our moonlight circle’s screen,

Or who comes here to chase the deer,

Beloved of our Elfin Queen?”

There is evidence of the fairies being seen as friends and protectors of wildlife even so far back as the 17th century. Sir William Browne in Britannia’s Pastorals imagined the fairies

Teaching the little birds to build their nests,

And in their singing how to keepen rests.[2]

The “eco-fairy” as a concept is not new, therefore, even if the label is. An examination of the folklore and literary sources discloses three interrelated functions that the fairies were believed to undertake: they cared for small mammals and birds; they had a special link with certain flowers and trees; and, lastly, they assumed a more general supervisory role over the natural world, keeping it in balance and preventing over-exploitation and pollution.

Fairies’ Furry Friends

Fairies not only lived and played in the countryside – according to Victorian poetry, they talked to the birds, taught them how to sing, and kept their eggs warm in the nest by curling up to sleep beside them.[3]

Verse and popular conceptions went hand in hand, as there are reported encounters with fairies helping birds find berries in the snow and looking after wildlife in wintry weather.  An early Victorian child poet, Annie Isabella Brown, imagined fairies describing how:

“We gathered flannel-mullen leaves,

Against the winter’s cold;

To keep the little dormouse warm,

Within its hedgerow hold.”[4]

Poet Menella Bute Smedley also imagined the fairies “twisting threads of bloom and light” to make butterflies’ wings.[5]

Flower Fairies 

Just as there was active supernatural involvement with the animal kingdom, folk tradition identifies two aspects to the relationship between fairies and plants. They are attracted to certain herbs, whether supernaturally or for merely utilitarian reasons (foxgloves, for example, are called fairy gloves and fairy thimbles) and, secondly, the fairies are said inhabit certain trees, such as oaks, thorns, and elders.  It was a relatively easy transition from these associations to come up with the idea of flower fairies, as popularised by artists Cicely Barker and Margaret Tarrant, but the foundations of this 20th century phenomenon are much deeper and older.[6]

It looks as though the first step towards the flower fairy idea was to emphasise the affinity between fairies and particular flowers.  Next, it was an easy step to conceive of the spirits living in those flowers, and the miniaturisation of the fairies popularised by Shakespeare and his contemporaries assisted with this. Inevitably, too, the fairy character began to be softened by association with bloom, scent and colour.

This change seems to have proceeded from the 17th century, judging by scattered indications in our literature. For instance, William Browne (1588-1643), in his verse The Rose, imagined that “the nimble fairies by the pale-faced moon/ Water’d the root and kissed her pretty shade.”  From the 18th century there is good literary evidence for the idea of fairies taking up residence in flowers. Coleridge, for example, described “Fays/ That sweetly nestle in the foxglove bells.” His contemporary George Darley imagined little fairies with scented wings emerging at night from blossoms and flitting from flower to flower enjoying nectar like wine.[7]

By the late 19th century this idea was exceedingly widespread: American poet Madison Julius Cawein repeatedly housed his fays in toadstools or in blooms, and in his adult fairy tale, Phantastes, Scottish author George MacDonald described how “the flowers die because the fairies go away, not that the fairies disappear because the flowers die.  The flowers seem a sort of house for them, or outer bodies, which they can put on and off when they please… you would see a strange resemblance, almost a oneness between the flower and the fairy… [but] whether all flowers have fairies, I cannot determine.”  When J. M. Barrie adopted these ideas for Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, he was simply making use of an already well-established idea, although the success of his books and plays took it to a much wider audience.[8]

Consequent upon inhabiting flowers, other connections were seen: for example, gardens become an ideal place to see fairies according to the poetry of Philip Bourke Marston and others. It was also during the 19th century that the fairies’ role as conservers of plant life was crystallised. Edwin Arnold had fairies promise to help a love-sick poet because “Thou hast never plucked daisy or heather bell/ From the emerald braes where the fairies dwell.” The fairies’ floral duties are spelled out in detail in The Wounded Daisy by Menella Bate Smedley.[9]  They are to be found at work in the corners of meadows:

“Perhaps you’ll see them…

setting the lilies steady,

Before they begin to grow;

Or getting the rosebuds ready

Before it is time to blow.

A fairy was mending a daisy

Which someone had torn in half…”

According to numerous 19th century poets, the fairies shaped and inspired growth, and even taught the plants how to grow at special schools over the winter.[10]

Finally, Menella Bute Smedley made an important leap by involving humans as partners in the task of caring for the natural world:

“Then pull up the weeds with a will,

And fairies will cherish the flowers.”[11]

There are, then, two conceptions of the exact interrelationship between fairies and the natural world.  The first is that they exist simply as a part of the natural world and its processes.  The second, and more significant, is that they act as “guardians of nature,” actively watching over plants, animals, and the earth as a whole, keeping the intricate systems in balance.

Fairies and the Green Revolution

Many contemporary writers on fairy matters stress how the faes are opposed to intensive agriculture, to overuse of fertilisers, to pollution and to general environmental degradation. It would be easy to imagine that these ideas have been imported into the fairy faith since the 1960s, but the examples given so far make it abundantly clear that they were present in folklore and, thence it would seem, in literature, well before any conception of the harms of over-intensive cultivation even occurred to the scientific community.

Fairies have always been linked more closely to rural and uncultivated locations than to towns, although it would be wrong to suggest that they’re never seen in urban places (and the evidence of the recent Fairy Census and of the witness accounts recorded in Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing Fairies both suggest this is changing anyway). Even in the countryside, though, they’re not a people solely of wild places and woods. They often live and work around human farms (the Hobs and the Brownie type of spirit) and they frequently take advantage of the human environment, using mills and dancing in pastures and meadows at night. There is no antipathy with agriculture as such, therefore.

That said, ideas of fairies as a champion of more traditional, organic, self-sufficient production date back to the mid-19th century at the very latest. For example, folklorist Evans Wentz in the 1900s heard in Scotland that the Highland clearances also drove off the sith. Highlander John Dunbar of Invereen told him that “no one sees them now because every place on this parish where they used to appear has been put into sheep and deer and grouse and shooting.” A vision of them fighting with sheep was seen, in fact, as a premonition of what was to follow.[12]

Conclusion

Works such as Peter Pan and the various Flower Fairies books unquestionably popularised the conception of the fairy as protector and champion of nature, but these ideas had been around since Elizabethan times and had been consolidating during the Victorian period. Such perceptions of the faeries are, arguably, as traditional as notions of them dancing in rings and stealing children. The “green fairy” is not some modern environmentalist creation, grafted on in recent decades, but is a fundamental element of the nature of Faery.


[1] T. Sternberg, The Dialect and Folklore of Northamptonshire, 1851, p.135; W. Wilson, Folklore and Genealogies of Uppermost Nithsdale, 1904, p.73.

[2] Browne, 1613, Book I.

[3] Prince Brightkin, William Allingham; Fairies Again, Hilda Conkling.  See too the illustration ‘A rehearsal in fairy land’ by Richard Doyle in which a tiny girl fairy conducts a chorus of songbirds.

[4] Marjorie Johnson, Seeing Fairies pp.72 & 135-6; Annie Isabella Brown, ‘Fairy May Day Gathering, No.2 The Sylvan Fairies’ Lay,’ in Lyrical Pieces, 1869 (written 1847-49).

[5] The Butterfly and the Fairies.

[6] See Lewis Spence, British Fairy Tradition, pp.178-80.

[7] George Darley (1795-1846), What the Toys do at Night and The Elf Toper.

[8] 1895, chapter III.

[9] Edwin Arnold (1832-1904), The Fairy’s Promise.

[10] Annette Wynne, Beginning to Grow and Fairy School; Madison Cawein, In Solitary Places and There are Faeries.

[11] A Slight Confusion.

[12] Evans Wentz, Fairy Faith, 94.


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