Tuesday 17 May 2016

Tiny Fairies

I am not entirely sure why tiny flower fairies are currently regarded by so many adults with such dislike.  Believe me, they are: I was present at a session at the World Fantasy Convention in London in 2013 when a number of high-profile panel members reviled the Victorians for their infantilisation of the fairies. Maybe it’s something to do with the Celtic revival and the perennial desire – which I emphatically share – to get fantasy and fairy tales taken seriously, to present them as fit for grown-up attention. This is often done by emphasising the folk-roots of fairy tales and their relevance to adult concerns such as death and sex.  I do get it.  Frivolous tinselly things with wings hardly cut it in this context. The Flower Fairies, or pixies such as the one I read about as a child in Enid Blyton’s ‘A Story-Party at Green Hedges’, who painted the tips of the daisies pink – I didn't really mind them and I still don't, but how can these compare with the sexy Queen of Elphame?  Well, I want to defend the Victorians. They were not responsible for the invention of the diminutive fairies so deeply unfashionable today. Indeed, my mission in this post is to convince you that tiny fairies are nothing to be ashamed of and that their ancestry is as ancient as that of any other supernatural being.

If you think about it even for a moment it's obvious that miniature fairies have been around for much longer than the Victorians. Our first stop is 1597, when Shakespeare’s Mercutio takes off in his long, exhilarating riff about Queen Mab:

She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes
In shape no bigger than an agate-stone
On the forefinger of an alderman,
Drawn with a team of little atomies
Over men’s noses as they lie asleep.
Her wagon spokes made of long spinners legs,
The cover, of the wings of grasshoppers;
Her traces, of the moonshine’s watery beams,
Her collars, of the smallest spider web,
Her whip, of cricket’s bone, the lash of film,
Her wagoner, a small grey-coated gnat,
Not half so big as a round little worm
Pricked from the lazy finger of a maid.
Her chariot is an empty hazelnut
Made by the joiner squirrel or old grub,
Time out of mind the fairies’ coachmaker...

And that’s not even half of it. Ebullient, unstoppable, Mercutio just keeps on going – telling how Mab tickles, blisters and frightens men and women with dreams, till finally, reverting from literary fancy to folklore, he identifies her with hobgoblins and the Nightmare – and of course, sex:

This is that very Mab
That plaits the manes of horses in the night,
And bakes the elflocks in foul sluttish hairs,
Which once untangled much misfortune bodes,
This is that hag, when maids lie on their backs
That presses them and learns them first to bear,
Making them women of good carriage.

It really is this magnificent flight of fancy which establishes Mercutio’s charisma, and lends such poignancy to his death. 

Shakespeare clearly expected his audiences to be unfazed by tiny Queen Mab, or by the notion that the lesser fairies of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ might ‘creep into acorn-cups’, or that Ariel in ‘The Tempest’ might lie in a cowslip’s bell or ride on a bat’s back. Of course the actors playing such characters were adult-human-sized – although probably at least some of the non-speaking fairies were children, as in many performances today. The point is that Shakespeare asks his audience to imagine that his fairies are tiny, and there would be little point to this if the notion of miniature fairies had been an unfamiliar one.  It wasn’t.  Even in Shakespeare's day, tiny fairies had already been around for a long time.

Twelfth-to-thirteenth century Gervase of Tilbury tells a number of supernatural or fairy tales in his Otia Imperiala written to amuse the Holy Roman Emperor, Otto IV.  One of these is about some tiny English fairy creatures he names ‘Portunes’.  Here is a translation of his account, taken from Thomas Keightley’s ‘The Fairy Mythology’(1828):

It is their nature to embrace the simple life of comfortable farmers, and when on account of their domestic work, they are sitting up at night, when the doors are shut, they warm themselves by the fire, and take little frogs out of their bosom, roast them on the coals and eat them. They have the countenance of old men, with wrinkled cheeks, and they are of a very small stature, not being quite half an inch high.

Half an inch – about one and a quarter centimetres – is startlingly small, and Keightley suggests at this point that by a copyist’s error, pollicis – ‘thumb’ – has been subsituted for pedis –‘foot’. Six inches high would seem much more credible for a creature capable of roasting little frogs.  Gervase continues:

They wear little patched coats, and if anything is to be carried into the house, or any laborious work  is to be done, they lend a hand, and finish it sooner than any man could.  It is their nature to have the power to serve, but not to injure. They have, however, one mode of annoying. When in the uncertain shades of night the English are riding anywhere alone, the Portune sometimes invisibly joins the horseman, and when he has accompanied him a good while, he at last takes the reins, and leads the horse into a neighbouring slough; and when he is fixed and floundering in it, the Portune goes off with a loud laugh, and by sport of this sort he mocks the simplicity of mankind.

This sort of behaviour is just what we expect of Puck or Robin Goodfellow in the 16th century, three hundred years later. House-fairies are generally quite small. An example is the Grimms’ tale of ‘The Elves and the Shoemaker’. In the original German text the tiny shoemakers are ‘zwei kleine niedliche nackte Männlein’, ‘two pretty little naked men’, and the title is ‘Die Wichtelmännchen’, which Margaret Hunt in 1884 chose to translate as ‘The Elves’ – but such creatures more properly belong with the Scots brownies, English boggarts, and the Scandinavian nisses and tomtes.  According to Keightley, the Norwegian Nis is ‘of the size of a one-year-old child, but has the face of an old man.’ Nisses dress in grey, wear pointed red caps, help in house and farmyard, and can be seen in winter jumping about the yard in the moonlight. They are mischievous. The Swedish Tomte can be much smaller:

In Sweden the Tomte is sometimes seen at noon, in summer, slowly and stealthily dragging a straw or an ear of corn.  A farmer, seeing him thus engaged, laughed and said, ‘What difference does it make if you bring that away or nothing?’  The Tomte in displeasure left his farm and went to that of his neighbour; and with him went all prosperity from him who had made light of him, and passed over to the other farmer.

Gervase of Tilbury’s much earlier Portunes seem to be house fairies of this same type. 

In the account of his journey through Wales in 1188, Gerald of Wales tells the story of Elidor, a twelve year-old boy who, hiding from his cruel teacher by a river bank, was rescued by ‘two little men of pygmy stature’ who led him away into a subterranean fairyland inhabited by many other pygmies ‘of the smallest stature, but well-proportioned for their size’ who rode on horses the size of greyhounds.  In another legend related by the 12th century courtier Walter Map, a British king called Herla meets an unnamed, goat-footed pygmy king who dwells in splendid underground halls: ‘a pygmy in his low stature, not above that of a monkey’; and John Bourchier, Lord Berners, translating the French romance ‘Huon of Bordeaux’ in the early 16th century, describes the fairy King Oberon as only three feet high, with a beautiful face.

Shakespeare’s Oberon is apparently of human size – nothing in the text of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ directly suggests otherwise – but Shakespeare may well have read ‘Huon of Bordeaux’, so we cannot be sure: it’s possible he imagined all the fairies to be of less than human stature, varying only in degree. After all, Titania sends her fairies on miniature errands –

Some to kill cankers in the musk-rose buds,
Some war with rere-mice for their leathern wings,
To make my small elves coats…

Then fashion caught on. The folklorist Katherine Briggs writes in her 1959 book ‘The Anatomy of Puck’: ‘In the beginning of the Jacobean times, a little school of friends among the poets, Drayton, Browne, Herrick, and the almost unknown Simon Steward, caught by the deliciousness of Shakespeare’s fairies, and coming from counties where the small fairies belonged to local tradition, [my italics] amused themselves and each other by writing fantasies on littleness.’  In 1625 Robert Herrick (best known for ‘Gather ye rosebuds while ye may’) tells in his poem ‘Oberon’s Feast’ how Oberon sits at a mushroom table and quaffs a dewdrop from a violet:

And now we must imagine, first
The elves present, to quench his thirst,
A pure seed-pearl of infant dew
Brought and besweetened in a blue
And pregnant violet (etc etc…)

And Michael Drayton’s mock-heroic ‘Nimphidia’ (1627) describes the diminutive knight Pigwiggen arming himself with a cockleshell shield, a hornet’s-sting rapier and a beetle’s head helmet, before riding to the fray on a frisky earwig.  In his ‘The Muses Elyzium’, 1630, a fairy wedding gown is composed ‘Of Ransie, Pincke and Primrose leaves’, while Browne has fairies who teach ‘the little birds to build their nests’ and serve up banquets of stuffed grasshoppers, roast ants, soused fleas and chine of dormouse. Enough already! Stop blaming the Victorians.

You might suppose that this kind of whimsy is a consequence of the decline of an actual belief in fairies and it may partly be so: but the whimsy lies more in the treatment than in the size of the creatures.  People still could and did believe in tiny fairies and find them frightening. Katherine Briggs cites several 17th century spells to summon fairies and conjure them into a crystal glass:

An excellent way to gett a Fayrie …
First gett an broad square christall or venus glass in length and breadth 3 inches, then lay that glass or christall in the blood of a white henne 3 wednesdayes or 3 fridayes…


 I.Coniure.thee.Elaby.Gathen.by.these.holy.names.of. God.Saday.Eloy.Iskyros.Adonay. Sabaoth.that thou appear presently.meekly.and mildly.in.this.glasse.without.doeinge.hurt.or. daunger.unto.me.or any other.living. creature. and to this I binde.thee.by.the.whole.power. and.vertue.of.our.Lord.Jesus.Christ…

This particular spell goes on for pages, employing as safeguards every name of God and the Trinity which the magician can think up.  The fairy may have been small, to be conjurable into a crystal glass three inches square, but her conjuror was clearly terrified of her.

I’ve said enough, I hope, to show that the diminutive fairies of late nineteenth and early twentieth century children’s fiction weren’t a Victorian invention.  Tiny fairies have always been with us, and flower fairies appear to have originated with Shakespeare, Herrick and Drayton.  Certainly by late Victorian times, at least for the educated classes, all terror had departed from the word ‘fairy’, and the troupes of little girls who danced in pantomimes dressed as gauzy-winged fairies in frilly dresses were purely decorative.  But even Victorian flower fairies are not always as milk-and-watery as you might suppose. In George MacDonald’s 1858 fantasy novel 'Phantastes' the hero Anodos finds himself in fairyland and strolls at evening though a cottage garden at the edges of an enchanted wood full of beauty and horror. There are flower fairies in the garden, but they are a wild bunch.

The whole garden was like a carnival… From the cups or bells of the tall flowers, as from balconies, some looked down on the masses below, now bursting with laughter, now grave as owls; but, even in their deepest solemnity, seeming only to be waiting for the next laugh.  Some were launched on a little marshy stream at the bottom, on boats chosen from the heaps of last year’s leaves …

Anodos witnesses a fairy funeral procession for a primrose ‘whose death Pocket [one of the other flower fairies] had hastened by biting her stalk’ and then, in true fairy fashion:

The party which had gone towards the house rushed out again, shouting and screaming with laughter. Half of them were on the cat’s back, and half more held on by her fur and tail, or ran beside her; till, more coming to their help, the furious cat was held fast; and they proceeded to pick the sparks out of her with thorns and pins, which they handled like harpoons. 

 MacDonald’s flower fairies are feral, amoral, unpredictable. As Anodos walks deeper into the forest, things become more sinister: the path is lined by glowing flowers:

From the lilies, from the campanulas, from the foxgloves, and every bell-shaped flower, curious little figures  shot up their heads, peeped at me, and drew back.  They seemed to inhabit threm as snails their shells, but I was sure some of them were intruders, and belonged to the gnomes or goblin fairies, who inhabit the ground and earthy creeping plants. From the cups of Arum lilies, creatures with great heads and grotesque faces shot up like Jack-in-the-Box, and made grimaces at me; or rose slowly and slily over the edge of the cup and spouted water at me, slipping suddenly back  … and I heard them saying to each other, evidently intending me to hear … ‘Look at him!  Look at him!  He has begun a story without a beginning, and it wll never have any end. He! he! he! Look at him!’

No wonder Anodos soon finds that ‘a vague sense of discomfort possessed me, as if some evil thing were wandering about in my neighbourhood…’ (Which indeed there is.)

Summing up: tiny fairies shouldn’t be regarded simply as childish, Victorian to modern inventions.  I can’t help thinking that household fairies such as brownies and boggarts and nisses may have descended from the even more ancient household gods – the Latin lares and penates, or the teraphim which Rachel stole from her father Laban without telling her husband Jacob. In one of the more comic episodes of the Bible, Laban pursues and catches the errant family and demands his gods back:

Jacob did not know that Rachel had stolen the gods. So  Laban went into Jacob’s tent, and Leah’s tent and that of the two slave girls, but he found nothing.  When he came out of Leah’s tent, he went into Rachel’s. Now she had taken the household gods and put them in the camel bag and was sitting on them. Laban went through everything in the tent and found nothing.  Rachel said to her father, ‘Do not take it amiss, sir, that I cannot rise in your presence: the common lot of woman is upon me.’ So for all his search, Laban did not find his household gods. [Genesis 31, 33-35]

These gods must have been small and portable, probably small fired-clay images like the ones pictured below.  The other common lot of woman was to cook and clean and bear children: if the household gods could help with that, no wonder Rachel wanted to keep them. (Her sister Leah was probably in on the theft too.) Compared with Jehovah, the little household gods weren’t much, but they were personal, friendly and domestic: as imbued with imagined personality as a child’s teddybear – and as interested in the fortunes of their possessors.

Picture credits:
Fairy Song, Arthur Rackham
Puck and Fairy, Arthur Rackham
Elves and Shoemaker, prob. by George Cruickshank
Fairies Attacking a Bat, John Anster Fitzgerald
The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania, Sir Joseph Noel Paton
Fairy Banquet, John Anster Fitzgerald
Death of a Fairy, John Anster Gitzgerald
Teraphim from Ur, probably similar to those Rachel hid:  http://www.womeninthebible.net/Menstruating_woman_her_world.htm


  1. Thanks for this delightful post! And it's true that Shakespeare had some tiny fairies, although I have to wonder whether they can make themselves big or small because Titania is big enough to seduce Bottom, isn't she? And she has a human changeling. Does she make the boy and Bottom small or does she enlarge herself when necessary? As for Mercutio, I always thought that was just a typical Mercutio bit of whimsy - but it would have been taken from a rural idea of the Good Folk, I suppose...

    I always assumed Rachel was claiming to have her period when she said to excuse her for not getting up? Anyway, an interesting idea about the connection between household gods and small fairies. I think I found something like that years ago when I was researching my first book, about monsters and creatures of the night.

  2. Yes, you're quite right about Rachel! - an unanswerable excuse for remaining firmly seated.

    With regard to the 'true' size of Titania and Oberon, they seem shrink and grow according to the imagery rather as Mr Toad can drive a motor car but fit into Ratty's river-bank hole too. Which I think is charming. 'Such power hath strong imagination'!

  3. Isn't it in Terry Pratchett's Lords & Ladies where Magrat Garlick (otherwise relatively sensible) thinks of fairies as nice and kind and gently, and Nanny Ogg & Granny Weatherwax struggle to convince her otherwise? Margrat soon discovers the truth about fairies and has quite a fight on her hands to keep the kingdom and her husband out of the clutches of a very nasty fairy queen.

    On to a completely different type of fairy: I was brought up on Cicely Mary Barker's flower fairy books. I loved them for the all the detail that you could see in the child fairies' clothing. I once met someone who as a very small boy was one of CMB's models. I gather she made the costumes and dressed the children to look as like the plants as possible. The images are very good at showing lots of tiny details that a child might not otherwise notice in a plant or tree. And I'm sure they taught me a lot. It is a shame that now these books are out of copyright (at least I suppose they must be) there is so much flower fairy tat on offer. The china figurines are particularly "tasteful". We never read the accompanying poetry.

  4. My mother bought me a C.M. Barker Flower Fairy book every year for my birthday. I still own the set, and long before I could appreciate poetry I was enamored of the fairy creatures. I learned the names of flowers and plants that way, and still refer to them as an adult. It's sad that others feel that diminutive, detailed, and dainty is only for children. Great post!

  5. What a wonderful post! Have you read Diane Purkiss's book on fairies (I'm sure you have, I think you've read everything)? She's a small-fairy hater, for the sentimentality rather than the smallness, and Shakespeare, if I remember rightly, gets the blame for that.

    I was completely entranced by the Flower Fairy books as a child; didn't care for the poems but the pictures taught me, like your commenters above, how to identify so many plants. Surely there's room for the charming as well as the wild?

  6. Great post, as ever.
    I knew that the idea of tiny fairies existed long before the Victorians, though I think the size of fairies and 'household gods' such as the Brownies decreased as Christianity gained ground and the old beliefs were disparaged. The 'Billy Blind' or Brownie who 'starts up at the bed's foot,' for instance, doesn't seem to be small.

    What I've always disliked about Victorian fairies is the tweeness, the inky-pinkiness of fairies who tip-toe about painting the tips of daisy petals pink. (Though I appreciate the point made by other posters that this was an excellent way of drawing childrens' attention to the detail of flowers.)

    I once read a Victorian version of the Norse Myths where Freyr was described as the god in charge of the light elves, and who set them to hanging dew-drops on the flowers. Grue!

    Not the immense power of life, death, decay and rebirth - not the power that drives salmon upriver or pumps water thirty feet up an oak-tree - but just tiptoing about doing little decorative jobs. I think this is belittlement; and it's this I dislike.

  7. You always find such beautiful pictures, Kath! Lovely post. Reminds me of my mum telling me dandelion seeds were 'sugar stealers' - a type of fairy pet, obviously!

  8. Georgina - Terry Pratchett is as always wonderful and certainly enjoyed himself with Magrat's sentimental take on his very creepy fairies! I think one can enjoy the Flower Fairies and their like at the appropriate age; but I agree with Susan Price that to rewrite the Norse myths into airy-fairy sweetness isn't on. There's room for all these things. I don't personally like Drayton and his friends' flower fairies all that much: some of the whimsy becomes actually pornographic - but that's another story. My point was that by no means all Victorian flower fairies are twee - Macdonald's mostly aren't - but tastes change. Some day people may look back at current fantasy's fashionable teenage fairies and wonder what on earth we were doing...

  9. Fantastic stuff! You've made me want to write a story about the little magical folk who are still very much believed in in most parts of my native Philippines. I'll add it to my to do list!

  10. I shall look forward very much to that, Candy!

  11. Particularly excellent post - with fascinating Elidor detail. I should have guessed you would be a fellow-fan of George Macdonald. The Richard Dadd paintings v different from tinselly Victoriana... but maybe a spot of parricide stopped that! My feeling is that fairies, like Milton’s Satan, can change size.

  12. Didn't the anti-small-fairy league get its main boost from Tolkien's comments in 'On Fairy-Tales'? It wouldn't surprise me in the case of panellists at the World Fantasy Convention, certainly.

  13. Amanda and Jane, thanks for your comments. No reason why fairies should not be able to change size, but I don't think I know of any folkloric accounts which suggest that - though some, like Puck, many change into other shapes. Literature of course is full of it - in fact in Anodos' first encounter with his fairy great-grandmother, she appears as a tiny little woman before assuming human stature. Jane - maybe you're right!