Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Politics and philosophy of Fairy Art

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Politics and Philosophy

Although often seen as simple and cute, Cicely Mary Barker’s series of paintings “Flower Fairies” are more than “beauty for its own sake”. They beckon us to return to a more innocent time, to a purer morality. 

The horror of World War I left people fleeing towards what they hoped would be a brighter future through the parties of the Roaring 20s, jazz, cars, and a changing moral standard. In this flight they found the problems that come with decadence and thoughtless, self-serving behavior; including a rise in crime and many forms of emotional scarring. 

For Cicely M. Barker this must have been a terrifying time. She was, after all, a devout Christian who had donated much of her money to missionaries and had painted post cards of angels for the “Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge”. Thus, when she turned her skills to drawing innocent, cherubic children as fairies she likely hoped to remind people of the purity and wonder of childhood. For her this was likely the path to a better world, a way to counter the hedonism of the 1920s that would eventually lead to the Great Depression.

Fairies, Fantasy and fairytales are frequently used as a part of moral instruction, and for many that meant tying them to religious themes. Indeed, early fantasy art was often about religious themes. Whether it was a painting of “Saint George” battling a dragon or a unicorn which was symbolic of Christian ideals, Krampus who was invented by Christian plays as a punisher of immorality, and the tales of King Arthur.

Perrault wrote down fairytales such as “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Cinderella” in hopes of instructing children on proper morals, altering the fairytales to fit with the lessons he wanted to teach. More recently “The Chronicles of Narnia” channeled old Christian plays which used animals as symbols for Christian moralism, with the lion often symbolizing Christ, in order to pass on Christian ideas through a fantasy story. 

In the world of art, however, few were so inspiring as Barker whose paintings of pure and innocent fairies became the standard that many people thought of fairies. Obviously, she didn’t exist in a vacuum and there had been other fairies that approached this level of innocence before her, but none so famous, and few so perfect in their display of purity. And given the enduring success of these fairies, this was clearly what many people needed from their art. 

More than just morality, fairies and their ilk have long been used by leaders to evoke their right to rule or people to show their right to live on or use a land’s resources. In lore fairies and deities frequently justified building dams, canals, and watermills used to calm and harness the waters and would bless those people who had built these. In other cases, people might rescue fairies, aid them in a war, or negotiate some treaty involving offerings and tributes to them in return for the land, which explained why certain people deserved the right to live on that land. Darwin (2015) points out that noble families frequently told stories about how they had a fairy or other magical ancestral spirits. “Noble families stand to benefit from having such stories told about them: by connecting their ancestry to originary events, they legitimize the rule and prestige which they currently hold, and by connecting themselves to a supernatural ancestor, they encourage the idea that they themselves are exceptional or superhuman.”


Folk tales frequently alluded to fairies’ involvement in human politics. From rulers of fairy and humanity visiting each other, to fairies aiding humans in their wars with each other, or fairies aiding rebels in attempting to overthrow their king and choosing which family should have the right to rule. 


For many during the 19th century the primary divide between belief or disbelief in fairies was more philosophical and political than anything else.  Those who wanted to or did believe in fairies were associated with a desire for romantic beauty and conservative cultural ideals. Those who chose to ridicule the belief in fairies were associated with ideas of liberalism and industrialism. It might very well be that belief in the fairies or unbelief in them had more to do with politics and philosophy than actual belief. 


The three eras of attitude towards fairy belief through the Georgian, Regency, and Victorian eras, reflect political and philosophical ideas. 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. 


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. 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.


These sorts of attacks weren’t limited to England during the Victorian Era, however. We see similar fears manifest in Japanese History, when the Imperial Court and Shogunate tried to rein in many of the beliefs of dangerous peasants by outlawing their belief system and forcing the Shinto temples to all align their beliefs with that of the ruling classes desires. To be clear, the leaders likely believed, at least to a point, in localized kami and similar beings, however they also realized that if local people venerated them over the kami that were related to the Imperial family, it could challenge the status quo.

All the way back in ancient Rome there were mass executions out of fear of people who believed the wrong thing and performed illegal ceremonies. So just as the Victorian era had “a mountain of anxiety about the masses and their potential for delusive disorder..." so too had many people’s in previous times and places. 

During this time too fairies and fairy stories came to be used to evoke nationalism and to represent the true people of a nation by revolutionaries. The Grimm Brothers weren’t collecting fairytales merely for curiosity, they were doing so to help engender national pride so that Germany could unify into a single nation. The Irish philosophers and poets used fairies as inspiration in Ireland’s struggle for freedom from British rule, the Scottish used fairies to evoke their own unique nature, as did the English. 

Romanticism, with its focus on tradition, was heavily involved in nationalistic movements of the 18th and 19th centuries and their interest in the fairies reflected this. Obviously, as already stated, there had been some precedent for fairy involvement in politics and culture, as well as symbols of a region. The Greek city states would print the faces of their local nymphs and the people of ancient Greece often prayed to the nymphs first. These fairies, after all, were the representatives of the morality of their culture and their homeland itself.