Braking for Elves

A Field Guide to the Little People

by Nancy Arrowsmith and George Moore
Pocket Books, 296 pp., $3.95


by Wil Huygen, with illustrations by Rien Poortvliet
Abrams, 212 pp., $17.50


described and illustrated by Brian Froud and Alan Lee, edited and designed by David Larkin
Abrams, 208 pp., $17.50

The Fairies in Tradition and Literature

by Katharine Briggs
Routledge and Kegan Paul, 261 pp., $6.50 (paper)

The Vanishing People: Fairy Lore and Legends

by Katharine Briggs
Pantheon, 218 pp., $8.95

An Encyclopedia of Fairies: Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies and Other Supernatural Creatures

by Katharine Briggs
Pantheon, 481 pp., $4.95 (paper)

Fairy Tales and After: From Snow White to E.B. White

by Roger Sale
Harvard University Press, 280 pp., $11.00

Media surveys of contemporary fads and cults always leave one out—although it is widespread today here and in Europe, attracts many more followers than Synanon or Krishna Consciousness, and has been around longer than Sun Myung Moon. I refer, naturally, to the obsession with fairies, elves, gnomes, hobbits, and the like which is now so common and sells so many books, posters, calendars, and T-shirts. Like other cults it attracts mainly young people, often the most privileged and best educated among them: in a recent survey of 350 undergraduates at Brown University, for instance, nearly a hundred declared that they believed in hobbits, while only forty claimed to believe in angels.

It will be objected, of course, that the Brown students were kidding, making a fashionable joke; that none of them is anywhere near as deeply involved as the Moonies or Hari Krishnas, or the unfortunate followers of Mr. Jim Jones. Though they may spraypaint FRODO LIVES on public buildings, or paste bumper stickers reading I BRAKE FOR ELVES on their VWs, you will say, they do not “really believe” in such beings.

In a sense this is quite true. For most of its adherents outside of a small lunatic fringe present-day pixiolatry is not a separatist cult but a conventional, even an establishment, religion in which the members only go through the forms, experiencing in the process a shallow warm glow of good feeling rather than the deep hot tremors of true faith. The college student who owns the complete Authorized Version of Tolkien together with the relevant study guides and concordances, and attends regular meetings of the Fantasy and Sci Fi Club may be no more (and no less) committed than his or her politely agnostic parents, who keep their Bible next to The New York Times Cookbook and attend church or temple only on holidays or for weddings and funerals. In both cases, what matters is not inner conviction but outward observance, which identifies the follower of Frodo or God socially and culturally. (This is not of course to claim that the content of a belief system is unimportant. As John Updike says in his latest novel, The Coup, “What matters in a myth, a belief, is…Does it enable us to live, to keep going?… the crucial question isn’t Can you prove it? but Does it gives us a handle on the reality that otherwise would overwhelm us?”)

That pixiolatry is now on the upswing is clear from the recent appearance and startling sales of handbooks not only to Tolkien but to minor supernatural beings in general. What sets these apart from earlier works on the same subject is that they are presented—sometimes, but not always, with a wink—as nonfiction; they invite their readers to share in the game that goblins and sprites exist, and can be identified on a country walk as if they were mockingbirds or mushrooms. Some of these books are obvious fast-food reprints, like The World Guide to Gnomes, Fairies, Elves, and…

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