Fairies1 exist in the imagination of the young, innocent, believers and dreamers. They offer a magical world of make-believe: an innocent time of childhood or an escape from the pressures, worries and stress of everyday life.
What a Fairy Looks Like
The description of a fairy varies from person to person. However, the most common portrayal seems to be that of an angelic, though sometimes mischievous, female figure with magical powers - around three to four inches tall, with long flowing hair which may be brown or blonde. What distinguishes the fairy from other imaginary figures is the butterfly-shaped wings on its back, and the garland of flowers on her head. Fairies are usually scantily clothed in pale shades of blue, pink, yellow, green or lilac; this roughly fits the description of the flower fairy.
The Flower Fairy
Amongst the most common fairies is the flower fairy. These are the most dainty and graceful of the fairies. They tend to all blooming flowers and plants, dressed in the same colour as the plants they tend: red for those that tend poppies, yellow for those that tend buttercups, blue for those that tend bluebells, etc. There are also elder fairies, named after elderflowers, that tend and guard herbs.
A Fairy's Home
As any young child will tell you, fairies live at the bottom of your garden. They drink from acorn cups and use mushrooms and toadstools as shelter from the rain and as shade from the sun. They are nature's garden-keepers, looking after the flowers and the insects, playing with the butterflies, and dancing in the fairy rings.
The Tooth Fairy
The fairies who exchange children's baby teeth (which they place under their pillow at bedtime) for a silver coin are known as tooth fairies. The teeth are then put up in the sky as stars. This encourages children to clean their teeth regularly, so that when their baby teeth fall out, and are collected by the tooth fairy, they will make brightly shining stars.
This practice is believed to date back to the ancient Viking times, as a way of ensuring teeth were not left where they could be found by witches and used in witchcraft.
A silver coin is used as this the metal of the moon, the ruling planet of the fairy realm where the tooth fairy lives.
Fairies in Art and Literature
Throughout history fairies have inspired the imagination of artists, novelists and poets, who have portrayed the image of fairies in their own vision.
Arthur Rackham was an English artistic illustrator, mostly of children's books, from the 19th Century. His dreamlike and haunting style of images added enchantment and fantasy to children's literature.
Ida Rentoul Outhwaite was an Australian children's book illustrator from the 19th to the 20th Century. Ida, who was said to be as petite and dainty as the fairies she painted, holds the record for two firsts. She was the first children's book illustrator to have her work printed in lavish full-colour and the first Australian children's book illustrator to achieve world fame.
Linda Ravenscroft is a British 20th Century self-taught watercolour artist whose work has been published in many forms throughout the world. Linda uses her fantasy and fairy paintings as an interpretation of her dreams and thoughts.
Throughout the centuries many poets have been inspired by fairies and their activities to write poems:
If You See A Fairy RingIf you see a fairy ring
In a field of grass,
Very lightly step around,
Tip-Toe as you pass,
Last night Fairies frolicked there
And they're sleeping somewhere near.
If you see a tiny fairy
Lying fast asleep
Shut your eyes
And run away,
Do not stay to peek!
Do not tell
Or you'll break a fairy spell.
Many magical, mysterious and sometimes sinister tales have been told about fairy rings. The truth, however, is a bit more down to earth, as explained in Plants, Fungi and the Underground Internet:
Although we who live above ground are unable to see the intricate connections in the soil, we are nevertheless able to observe the manifestations of this relationship. One of the most common phenomena is the appearance of fairy rings in a field of grass (such fairy circles can reach diameters of up to nine hundred feet, weigh an average of one metric tonne, and may endure for several hundred years). Before the relationship between plants and fungi was established, scientists and the general populace alike puzzled over the mysterious appearances of progressively enlarging circles of dark fertile grass in fields and meadows. Even more mysterious was the occasional appearance of mushrooms at the centre of these circles. The superstitious attributed them to strange or metaphysical force: UFOs landings, fairies linking hands and dancing in the moonlight.
Unfortunately, for wishful thinkers, it is the power of fungi and not Daoine Sidhe at work.
Fairies on Screen and Stage
There are a few well-known fairies from plays, films and television, the best-known ones being found in Walt Disney productions.
Probably the best-known fairy is Tinkerbell from the novel and film Peter Pan. The author of Peter Pan, JM Barrie2, created Tinkerbell as a companion for Peter Pan. Tinkerbell was loyal to Peter; however, she could be mischievous at times.
After Disney released their animated version of Peter Pan in 1953, they adopted Tinkerbell as their mascot. She appears in various commercials, and can be seen at the opening of Disney films, using her magic wand to spread fairy dust.
Cinderella's fairy Godmother uses her magic dust to transform Cinderella to enable her to attend the royal ball and attract the attention of the handsome prince.
The Blue Fairy is the first female that Pinocchio comes into contact with, and she has the rather ambiguous role of being a genteel influence on his rough and tumble world. The Blue Fairy is so impressed with Pinocchio’s efforts to be a 'good boy' that she grants him his greatest desire, to be a real boy.
Later in the story, Pinocchio's general lack of experience of the real world gets him in many dangerous situations; the Blue Fairy reappears and rescues him.
The Cottingley Fairies
In 1917, young cousins Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths thought up an elaborate excuse for being late for high tea. They claimed they were delayed by talking to fairies they had seen in woodland area near their home in Cottingley, Yorkshire. To corroborate this yarn, they later produced realistic-looking photographs. One of them depicted Frances surrounded by six or seven tiny winged figures. Their parents dismissed the photographs as nonsense, and hid the photos away.
The photographs resurfaced a couple of years later and were brought to the attention of Edward Gardner, a devoted British theosophist, and spiritualist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle3. Doyle took the initiative in having the photographs published in the 1920 Christmas edition of the Strand magazine, accompanied by supportive commentary.
Photographic experts examined the photographs; there was much debate on whether they were authentic. It was hard to believe that the young girls had the talent and knowledge required to produce such realistic fake photographs.
The controversy over the photographs continued for 63 years. In February, 1983 Elsie confessed in a letter that the photographs were a hoax. She claimed the fairies were cut-out shapes from books and magazines, which they had fastened to branches or secured to the ground using hatpins. Frances, however, denied this, claiming the fairies were indeed real. Elsie died in April, 1988 and Frances died in July, 1986.
Today these photographs continue to mystify and fascinate the world. And this was with the first photographs that a young girl took.
Where the Experts May Have Failed
The experts were focusing their examinations on the photographs and developing equipment; what they may have failed to consider was the possibility that it was the fairies that were fake, not the photographs.
It was not until the 1980s that a connection was made between the remarkably similar pose of three dancing figures in Princess Mary's Gift Book and one of the Cottingley Fairies photos. Princess Mary's Gift Book was published a few years before the photos were taken. It is reasonable to assume either Elsie or Frances had a copy of it, and cut out and used the figures and added artistically realistic wings to them.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a great believer in and promoter of the Cottingley Fairies. It seems surprising that he did not make the connection with the dancing figures pictured in the Princess Mary’s Gift Book, which he himself had contributed a story to. Comparison can be made of the dancing figures and the fairies, with another hoax he strongly believed, that of the Fox Sisters and their ghosts and séances. Doyle also believed that Houdini had genuine spiritualistic powers, and would not accept that his magic was just trickery.
In 1998 the film Fairy Tale - A True Story was released; it was based on the story of Elsie, Frances and the Cottingley Fairies.