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TROUBLESOME THINGS - A History of Fairies and Fairy Stories

By Diane Purkiss, published by Allen Lane at £20.00. 356pp. ISBN: 0-71-399312-X (Reviewed by Jeremy Harte)

'Whoa, the fairies!', roars out the music-hall chorus, 'Nothing but splendour/ And feminine gender!'. This book is full of fairy splendour, and contains quite a bit of gender studies too. The glitzy world of Victorian fairy pantomime has its place in a chronology that sweeps from the ancient Middle East to Buffy, via witches' familiars, freak shows, Cottingley and Oscar Wilde. Even the pink fairy armadillo makes a guest appearance. In fact, the only fairies left out are those of the standard British folk tales: Katharine Briggs is mentioned once in the introduction, but it's clear that she wasn't invited to the christening.

Purkiss is a social historian with a literary bent, which means that she is not interested in fairies as such, but in the stories of the people who saw them, reported their words, even claimed to have been them. Those wonderful floating sylphs of the stage show turn out, on closer inspection, to be real girls - underpaid, underaged and underdressed. What was it like for them? What was it like to be one of the women caught up in the fairy mythology - Isobel Gowdie, or Bridget Cleary, or Elsie Wright?

A fluent style, combined with extensive research and feminist commitment, is a winning combination, already seen in Purkiss' The Witch in History.. But there have been changes since then, and the pages of Troublesome Things are marked by the fairy footsteps of young Michael and Hermione Purkiss. No-one but a mother who has had to watch it fifteen times could write with such condensed venom about Ferngully: The Last Rainforest.

Fairies, she concludes (shortly after being turned out of a particularly dowdy fairy shop in Sydney) are not what they used to be. From the middle ages until the time of the witchcraft trials, they were real; often really nasty, as well. But today they're fake, and cute with it. Shakespeare seems to have started the rot. His Oberon and Puck have become entertaining rather than frightening; they are quaint little people, forever at play in a rustic Olde England. Actually Oberon kept up a rather more robust career for several years, appearing in the occult rituals of cunning folk, but all they ever asked him was where to find buried gold. With the rise of capitalism, money took over from fairy magic, and made a better job of it. A credit card will turn Cinderella's rags into a ballgown. With Fairy Liquid in your shopping basket, who needs a drudging goblin at home? The modern world has left fairies with very little to do.

But there's always birth, sex and death. Purkiss is at her best when she conjures up the half-formed, fearful hints of the supernatural that surround our moments of initiation, possession or loss. It might seem safer to shun sexuality altogether, but look at what happened to Peter Pan: half-boy, half-fairy, always cheerful whatever may happen to anyone else, and ultimately soulless. It was Peter's youthful bravado that inspired many of the conscripts of 1914, proving that the fey fairies can ask for human blood just as much as their older, demonic cousins.

Fairies were very anxious, in all the old stories, to find out if they had souls and today the boundary between fair Elfland and Heaven is still being contested. New Age seekers have faith, like it or not, in the cute fairies, while pagans make a cult of working with the dark ones, and abductees seem to have created a religion out of being frightened, full stop. Fairies are always conventionally supposed to be vanishing, but I suspect this isn't the last we've heard of them.