Books

When people really believed in fairies

A fairy door in Somerset (Getty)

Fairies: A Dangerous History
by Richard Sugg,
Reaktion Books, 279pp, £9.99/$16.95

Do you believe in fairies? Many of us would say no, then perhaps sigh and say, “But I wish…” Richard Sugg’s book provides dozens of stories of people encountering fairies, or at least accepting their existence as a given. A good number of the accounts are from Ireland, but others are from Cornwall, Wales and Scotland. Many are from the 18th and 19th centuries, but a few are from the 20th.

“Once, people really believed in fairies,” Sugg writes. “By the close of chapter three you should be able to see why, and you should … then find that fairies never look the same to you again.” And that’s because fairies, in folk memory and folklore, aren’t little gossamer-winged creatures dancing prettily in a meadow. Fairies may, on occasion, decide to be helpful to humans; but they have their own agenda. If you cross them, you can be sure they’ll let you know. There are numerous stories here of someone starting to build a house across a fairy path, only to have the foundations collapse over and over again.

Some stories are positive: people seeing or hearing fairies dancing, sometimes describing them in some detail. But others deal with changelings – or rather with the sometimes dreadful result of the belief in changelings: babies put out to die, because the parents have become convinced they’re not their own baby; a woman being beaten to death by her husband because someone has told him she’s a fairy substitute.

What are fairies and where do they come from? One interesting (though as Sugg says, heretical) belief is that “the less guilty of the fallen angels had been cast into earth, air and water as nymphs, fairies, goblins, satyrs and fauns”.

The second half of the book looks at fairies in literature and art: Shakespeare, Keats, Peter Pan, the paintings of Richard Dadd and others – and the famous hoax of the Cottingley fairy photographs, championed by, among others, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who, surprisingly, appears to have believed in fairies.