Where Have All the Fairies Gone?


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The Victorians were apparently much plagued by fairies. Accounts suggest that these little creatures flitted around the margins of mid and late 19th century life, all skittish and shy and showing up when one least expected them. Painters such as Richard Dadd made a career of depicting these beings of “a middle nature between man and angels;” in 1894 William Butler Yeats famously implored, “Faeries, come take me out of this dull world.” They were most readily spotted in Europe, but were also intermittently active across the Atlantic, some possibly having arrived on these shores as stowaways with Irish immigrants.

Fairies persisted beyond Queen Victoria and even King Edward VII. The noted Cottingley fairies appeared in grainy black and white photographs shot in 1917, which depicted wee, winged fairies gamboling with two young sisters. These became even more famous after Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan Doyle lent his not-inconsiderable credibility to them in 1920. (A surviving sister admitted in the 1980s that the fairies were actually cardboard cutouts, which, not surprisingly, is exactly what they look like in the photos.)

Then, sometime shortly after these photos, fairies seemed to have been brutally, efficiently exterminated. Google Ngram, which tracks how frequently a term appears in millions of books worldwide, reports that fairies were abundant in print until 1926, whereupon they suffered what population ecology types would call an overshoot, followed by a die-off. In other words, we crested “peak fairy.”

So what killed off the little people? No one seems to know for sure, but I’m thinking: it was the automobile.

Not that fairies were run over by careless drivers, then left on the roadsides like limp squirrels. Nor is it that they moved deeper into copses and vales, or wherever it is they flee. (Iron was reputedly their Kryptonite.)

Part of the die-off was no doubt due to the elimination of habitat. Fairies appear to need a quiet landscape, and prefer the sort of terrain for which we have even lost the vocabulary — copse, thicket, holt, boscage.

Additionally, fairies were said to travel along invisible pathways, generally plotted in a straight line, which connected stone outcroppings and mounds and springs. In Great Britain and Germany, country folk made sure not to build structures that would obstruct the way. A story by Dorothy Canfield in a 1909 issue of New England Magazine notes the power of fairy paths, and how those who had the poor luck of building a structure atop one found themselves “facing the strange penalties for living out of harmony with the so little-known currents of the soul’s life.”

One solution was to build your home such that your front door and back door were aligned along the pathway, and then you could leave the doors open at night to ensure fairies could walk their route unobstructed.

Of course, with the rise of interstates and the spread of asphalt, the fairy paths have been severely impacted.

Perhaps more importantly, however, is the speed at which we travel and our predilection for rapidly passing through the world sealed in a steel cocoon. It appears that one must be out on foot, traveling at a walker’s pace, to witness the supernatural. (Hitchhiking dead teenagers excepted.)

Victorians subscribed to a notion that fairies were visible only if you held still and looked unblinkingly ahead. Others thought that you had to hold a four-leaf clover. Neither of which you can do very efficiently in a car. The fairy can be seen only at the right pace, in the right environment, and in the right frame of mind. Once the four-leaf clover was replaced by the cloverleaf, fairies fled.

“Walking is an activity in which one is not cut off, as one is in an aeroplane or when too busy or going to fast or not paying attention to one’s surroundings,” wrote anthropologist and author Alice Legat in 2007. “To walk is to pay close and careful attention to one’s surroundings while thinking of the multitude of stories one has heard.”

Fairies are, of course, stories embodied. (Grimm’s Fairy Tales don’t feature all that many wee people but plenty of “once upon a time.”) And whether or not you’re concerned about the disappearance of the little people, it’s worth being concerned about the loss of local stories. They contain much about us and the land and the relation between them.

Within the small world of fairy studies a popular theory trotted out is that fairies appear during times of cultural conflict. When one era drew to a close and another emerged, sprites surfaced as a sort of guide, bridging the two. In Victorian times, the landscape was fast changing as industry reshaped it and new monstrosities such as steam locomotives recast our relationship with the land. Finding fairies — or at least talking about them and believing in them — allowed one to hold on to the past while trying to comprehend the future.

With information technology leading the upheaval in how we now live our lives and connect with the world around us, you’d think that we’d be amid a new golden age of little people. (Although if fairies feared iron, think how they’d feel about augmented reality apps.) Yes, there’s been a slight uptick in fairy references in the last decade on Google Ngram, and Hobbits were recently found at multiplexes everywhere. And then there’s this. But fairies have been on the far end of the endangered species list since we essentially gave up walking as our daily means of locomotion.

Of course, we don’t utterly abandon stories when we’re driving. We just outsource them to the professionals, like the audiobook narrators and the folks on public radio.

You’ve heard the term “driveway moment”? As defined by the Urban Dictionary, it’s “the inability to leave one’s car after arriving at the destination because of the riveting nature of a story you’re listening to on the radio; especially on NPR.”

The term has bothered me a bit. Part of my antipathy is from its inherent smugness. Also, I may be suffering PTSD from being awoken by overly enthusiastic and verbally inept volunteer announcers during fund drives. They often refer to “driveway moments,” which leads me to believe it’s a focus-group tested bullet-point. Bullet points don’t agree with me. (NPR even has a submission form for recording your own driveway moments — “Be as specific as you can about when and where you heard the story.”)

But, mostly, “driveway moments” make me a little sad. They bring to mind legions of people sitting alone. In their cars. In the suburbs. (City people don’t have driveway moments. City people don’t have driveways.) They’re not traveling the land and looking for stories by foot, but passively consuming stories created for mass consumption.

So, I’m pretty sure cars killed off the fairies and reduced the trove of local stories. And I’m also pretty sure of this: these could be revived if only we got out and about by foot more often, especially where the pavement ends. • 28 March 2014