A Less Than Magical Look at Fairies

December 5, 2008 at 12:55 am 5 comments


By Arthur Rackham, Fairy Illustrator Extraordinaire
In Fairies and Fairy Stories: A History author Diane Purkiss rather apologetically set out to write a scholarly history of fairies, opening her book with “This book is an imperfect and limping creature” and then remarking that “I had always thought of fairies as dull.” One wonders whatever inspired her. Fortunately, she answers that question soon enough and it certainly wasn’t Disney (in fact, Ms. Purkins seems to have a particular aversion to Disney and its purported “magic,” a fact I will return to later). In Fairies Ms. Purkiss was inspired by the “real” fairies as she deems them. These are not the dewey, light-hearted fairies who live in the blossoms of daisies, oh no! Ms. Purkiss’ “real” fairies are primarily nasty-spirited little creatures who humans live more in fear of than in awe of. Her book is spent tracing the history of these wicked creatures from ancient Greece through to the 21st century.

The narrative is undeniably interesting even as it winds through various points in quick and sometimes not quite fully fleshed out succession. The very scholarliness with which the Fae are treated is quite fascinating. Having never encountered an actual scholarly work on fairies, I was endlessly finding new ideas in this book. In fact, new ideas are primarily what this book brings the table. Most often, Ms. Purkiss brings up some fascinating way of looking at something, makes a brief mention of a primary source that backs up her argument and then speedily moves on to her next, probably equally interesting, idea. The book is so chronologically broad so as to not allow her more time to dandy with any one idea and she speeds through centuries and ideas at a sprint. One feels that she might have been better served limiting her time frame or lengthening her text so she could spent plenty of loving time with each new idea. (So perhaps the publisher is to blame in this instance, although her research at places seems a little spotty, so maybe it is Ms. Purkiss after all.)

For me, I (rather unsurprisingly, I’m sure, for loyal readers of the blog) found her brief comments on the imperialism of fairies (and, on a related note, the British nationalism and the use of fairies to that end) to be captivating. Ms. Purkiss, as always briefly, argues that fairies were a sort of home-grown British thing that really resonated with both country folk and urbanites through to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It was then, as the countryside became increasingly known and the world outside of England was ever-expanding, that fairyland up and left England. Rather than being “o’er hill and under dale,” fairies were now living “somewhere in Persia,” because it was unknownable and people felt that distance from London to the exotic East was just as untraversable as the distance from Yorkshire to the seat of the Fairy Queen. There are snippets of thoughts of this caliber and of unfortunate brevity all through Fairies and one hopes that Ms. Purkiss goes back and perhaps expands on even one or two of the arguments put forth in the book.

The other short-coming of Fairies is Ms. Purkiss herself. She undermines her own argument with her firm distaste and disdain for what she deems to be “fake” fairies, those which have accompanied many a twentieth-century childhood. Her constant and fairly plain abhorrence of those fairies which she does not consider “real” does not make her argument stronger. Rather, it only makes the book seem particularly slanted and thoroughly biased against the fairies that anyone off the street would recognize as such. Rather than even discussing these “flimsy” fairies, Ms. Purkiss chooses instead to scoff at them and berate the reader about his or her own misconceptions as she attempts to prove that her fairies are in fact the “real” ones. As another reviewer put it, this argument in and of itself is fatally flawed as there is no one true belief in terms of fairies. That problem aside, Ms. Purkiss’ personal convictions prevent her from truly presenting a full history of fairies.

One can’t help but get the impression of a rather embittered, disgruntled, sci-fan fan and fairy-hater as the author interjects her own (often pretentious, bitter and generally disbelieving) opinions into the text. The final chapter, which deals with fairies in the “new millennium” was a particularly tough pill to swallow as Ms. Purkiss leads the reader through, first, a disparaging attack on what the latter-half of the twentieth century did to fairies in popular culture. (It is at this point that the disdain for Disney that has been quite apparent throughout her book truly hits its zenith. She damningly writes that they have “such strenuous banality that it almost leads the viewer to pick up a sturdy chainsaw at once” before continuing that every Disney fairy “is dull and powerless and unmemorable.” Having been raised on those very fairies, forgive me if I beg to differ that they are any of those three adjectives. Personally, I find them to be quite lovely most of the time, have great powers of suggestion over the imaginations of children and adults alike and to be, as evidenced here, highly memorable.)

After this little jaunt into offending anyone who grew up in the late 1980s and all of the 90s, she then makes some particularly broad statements about how all middle class parents want little girls so much more than little boys (a sentiment I fully support, but the absoluteness of her statement which I do not) and how every good, sensible, intelligent mother feels a cringe of shame when her daughter wants to dress up like a fairy. I could go on about how she then discuses X-Files fan fiction and then Buffy the Vampire Slayer and vampires and then (believe it, people) Elvis, of all people. However, suffice it to say that all the little opinions that seemed out of place and distracting throughout the book bloom in her final chapter. These opinions leave a decidedly foul taste in one’s mouth after a book that has done its best to disarm any pleasant notions of fairies the reader may have been holding onto.

Happily, those of a stout heart and of firm beliefs will have no trouble taking her arguments as interesting, her research as unusual and her tone as perhaps playful (rather than aggravating) and emerge from the other side of this book with some new ways of looking at the literature of fairies, but with their own private murmurings of “I do believe in fairies, I do…I do…” still pleasantly in tact.

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Entry filed under: Non-fiction.

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. KT  |  December 21, 2008 at 6:11 pm

    THAT’S ALICE! :D Sorry, couldn’t help it. And who knew that there were fairy snobs out there? Not I, certainly — I’m fascinated by the imperialism angle, though!

    Reply
  • 2. Corey  |  December 22, 2008 at 5:33 pm

    Who is Alice?! The picture? So confused!

    Indeed, I, too, was unaware of the fairy snobs and, having now had my eyes opened, I can’t say I’m a fan. She was just so disdainful of practically everything! Yeesh!

    Reply
  • 3. KT  |  December 25, 2008 at 8:26 am

    Oh, yeah. Alice of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is in that picture :) And since I’m still writing that freaking paper, I now spot Alice wherever I go — especially since I think she is sitting with the Mock Turtle and the Gryphon?

    Reply
  • […] simply fantastical) story which does not fall victim to the many pitfalls of Victorian fairy tales. As discussed previously in this blog, these were stories written entirely for children, oftentimes taking place in some kind of frilly […]

    Reply
  • […] written by Lord Dunsany and Clarke’s man with the thistledown hair fits perfectly in with the early modern notions of fairies and the dangers of associating with them. It’s a skill I’ve remarked on before, but […]

    Reply

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