Monday, September 20, 2021

Worldbuilding History and Fairydom

Fairy lore gives us many indications of how people would react to fairies in the Victorian era, as does the literature and art of the Victorian era itself. In 1890, the year that electric traction trains began operating in the then nearly thirty-year-old London underground, that same year a book was published on fairy tales about people's encounters with pixies in Dartmoor. A few years later a woman in Ireland would be murdered for fear that she was a fairy changeling. 

The Victorian era was a complicated time, for science had started to dominate, yet there was still a memory of magic, and perhaps more importantly, a longing for it. People would gather near houses that were supposed to be haunted in hopes of seeing a ghost, they would attend lectures on occultism and seances in drawing rooms. Perhaps most important they would set out to explore the countryside in hopes of gathering information from the ‘folk’ on fairies. Thus, most of the information on fairies we have comes from the Victorian, Edwardian, and Regency periods. Indeed, the most famous collectors of fairy lore such as Grimm, Yeats, Wilde, and more, were all active during these times. 

There were many witches involved with technology and science in the Victorian era. In places like Essex, just a few miles from London, the Cunning Men or Curren (witches) were laborer's who’s magical powers had adapted to the new technology. One family had power over anything with wheels, with a member being a mechanical genius was nick-named ‘wizard’… The tradition is still strong and the youngest member of the family, a child of six, living in London has the ability to repair his broken mechanical toys” (Maple, 1965). 

This adaptation makes sense, given that those with magic in England were often said to have power over horses and wagons, that is, early modes of transportation and farm work. And while belief in such things waned through the 1960s, this adjustment in powers hints at the ability of magic to adapt to the ever changing world. 

Perhaps, most important, for our purposes, however, was the fact that attitudes towards fairies had changed in interesting ways. Fairies had become an important part of Victorian nationalism, in Britain, Scotland, Germany, and certainly Ireland. What’s more fairies acted as a protest against the utilitarianism of the industrial revolution and the dourness of the Victorian sensibilities. Enthusiasm for fairies in art and for being a part of the occult grew. Secret and not so secret societies sprang up to study magic and folklorists traveled out into the country to collect and compile stories about them. 

Era’s of belief 

There were a number of eras of attitude towards fairy belief through the Georgian, Regency, and Victorian eras. These include traditional beliefs before the 1820s, attempts to force skepticism from 1820-1860, and the rise of romantic belief in the 1860s through the 1920s and beyond. 

This shift in belief and attitude towards fairy belief is important for us to understand, because it had more to do with politics and philosophy than with actual belief. Indeed, if one wants, they can see these eras not as eras as belief but as three separate political movements taking hold of England. These different political movements can be used to understand how people in these eras would have interacted with real fairies in a fantasy world. 

The first era (before the 1820s) was conservativism – in which old traditions are respected.  Between 1820 and 1860 this was followed by an attempt by elitists to discredit the masses and conservative political parties (the Tories) that lead to making fun of traditional beliefs and ways of living. This is followed by a rebellion against the strict moral and utilitarian codes of the elitists who had run Victorian era. This lead to a romanticization of fairies and traditional beliefs. 

During this second era, according to Waters “Liberal, Whig, and Radical journalists were particularly enthusiastic disparagers [of magic and fairies], no doubt because witchcraft belief in particular could be used to embarrass their Tory and Anglican opponents.” What’s more newspapers and other periodicals could make themselves appear as founts of knowledge and sobriety by attacking belief in magic between 1820 and 1860. Again, Waters states that;

"An alternative to this reading of the attack on "popular superstition" would be to interpret as a self-serving campaign designed to legitimize the social hierarch. Victorian elites, it has been argued, justified their privileged positions by stigmatizing and slandering their social inferiors with accusations of superstition."

Waters, T. (2015). Magic and the British Middle Classes, 1750–1900. Journal of British Studies, 54(3), 632-653. doi:10.2307/24702123

There are limits to these eras of belief, as Green in "Elf Queens and Holy Friars" points out when discussing Le Goff's model of Fairy Belief and literature in the middle ages and it might be better to think of these eras as additions, in which new ideas are added to the older ones by people with political and social agendas. Nowhere is this more clear than the Early Modern Era when execution's of witches was far more common than most, if not the entire middle ages. Yet fairies were starting to be used by moralists, such that fairies like Puck/Robin Goodfellow actually had poems written about him which instructed women of the era on how to clean and be 'proper.' At the same time poets like Shakespeare were using fairies as a sign of chaos but also for aesthetic beauty. 

All of this points to the fact that, as with everything else, people use fairies for their own political agendas. 

In other words, if in your story or world, no one would dare question the existence of fairies and magic because they are ever present, it might be that the elite are railing against the worship of the local gods of the 'ignorant' uneducated masses, the heroization of trickster beings, the following of ancient gods from times and kingdoms past, contact with wilder spirits and fairies that have yet to be ‘tamed’ or with which the nobility and Queen has no alliance.