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 Other Little People, which is nothing but Thomas Keightley’s classic Fairy Mythology, first published in 1850 (and thus conveniently out of copyright), warmed up in the publisher’s microwave oven and served with a new title and a pretty Richard Doyle jacket.
A more serious effort along the same lines is A Field Guide to the Little People by Nancy Arrowsmith and George Moore. Its authors have gone back to the original, often nineteenth-century, sources (including Keightley) for their material, and they provide a good bibliography and index. The significant term here, as with the World Guide, is “Little People,” which has overtones of its other meanings. In common discourse the Little People are not usually elves but, semi-facetiously, children; or they are what used to be called before feminism “the Little Man” or “the Man in the Street.” Supernatural power is thus half-consciously claimed for the most powerless among us—children and the anonymous, almost invisible citizen. It is to be found not in great cities, but in out-of-the-way rural locations: in forgotten villages, isolated farmhouses, untidy patches of woods, lonely streams and hills. This is an agreeable fantasy for readers conscious of the concentration of natural power in other places.
Arrowsmith and Moore carry out the “nature guide” charade unevenly. On the one hand, they solemnly list an Identification and a Habitat for each imaginary creature, and nowhere in the book is there the least hint that hobgoblins and nixies and trolls are imaginary. But the arrangement is unscientific—neither geographical, alphabetical, nor by species—and the spooky, sketchy illustrations don’t always match the text. Though the descriptions are entertaining, many of the illustrative folk tales which have been included are overcondensed and rather clumsily retold. Prospective purchasers should also note that the book is full of uncensored sexual and scatological material.
The Field Guide, unlike most current works of pixiology, covers all of Europe, and its haphazard arrangement does point up some interesting differences between the spirits of different countries. Folk tradition, in every nation, seems to produce two classes of supernatural being. In one the national type is idealized, in the other it is mocked or caricatured. So in Ireland we have the heroic fairies, the Daoine Sidhe (theena shee), who may be of human size or larger; they are beautiful, passionate, noble, skilled in warfare, poetry, and music. Alongside them live the cluricaune and the lepracaun, squat little Paddy types who enjoy whiskey, tobacco, singing coarse songs, and hiding their gold. Even the Irish mermen, the merrows, display national characteristics:
[They] appear as fish-men with green teeth and hair and short finny arms. Their eyes are like those of a pig, and they have red noses from perpetual drinking.
The Scandinavian tomte and nisse specialize in agriculture and horseplay; the Italian folletti in the pursuit of women. Identification and mockery of national characteristics is an ancient human pastime, now forbidden everywhere, even in private conversation; perhaps that is why it has emerged, as suppressed topics often do, in “children’s” literature. (Works like the Field Guide, though published as juveniles, are not of course principally intended for or bought for—let alone by—children.)
As even most unbelievers must know, the most recent sacred text of the fairy faith, which has been on the New York Times bestseller list for over a year and is number one, is called Gnomes. It is a very large, handsome picture book, first published in the Netherlands as Leven en Weken de Kabouter, and like the Field Guide presented as juvenile nonfiction. The gnomes’ daily life, houses, dress, diet, crafts, sports, and social structure are described exactly as if they were Indians or Eskimos. Every page is richly illustrated in color by Rien Poortvliet, a well-known Dutch artist; his animals, birds, and plants are accurately and beautifully painted, and his gnomes are amusing. The text, by Wil Huygen, though translated from the Dutch by a group of anonymous, possibly imaginary, beings whose names the publisher does not choose to reveal, is lively and interesting. The translation of “kabouter” by gnome, however, is an error. Gnomes, in folk tradition, live far underground, usually in mountain caves where they mine and guard the treasures of the earth; their natures, appropriately, are flinty and taciturn. (Tolkien’s gnomes are an authentic modern instance.) The kabouter (German “Kobold“) is the equivalent of the English brownie or pixie.1
Most of Gnomes is original rather than based on folklore, which has little to say about the private lives of the solitary or household fairies. Poortvliet and Huygen’s gnomes are domestic and good-natured; they are only about six inches tall (much smaller than the traditional gnome or tomte), and live for 800 years. They build cozy peasant chalets under the roots of oak trees, and spend their days farming, gathering wild foods (they are vegetarians), befriending animals and birds, and practicing simple crafts like basketry, pottery, leather-working, and carpentry. They do folk dances and sing folk songs, drink herbal teas and homemade wine, and practice herbal medicine and acupuncture. They represent, in fact, the counter-cultural life style of the Sixties, now literally gone underground. Instead of dropping out of urban society and moving to the country to set up an ideal self-sufficient community, as members of the previous generation did, the readers of Gnomes fantasize it. The book has a strong ecological moral, which becomes explicit at the end when a wise elderly gnome named Tomte Haroldson who once knew Mozart and Rembrandt visits the author and the illustrator. He tells them that mankind must learn to honor its artists, and stop destroying and polluting the world and live in harmony with nature again as the gnomes do.
All this is harmless and even admirable, probably better for college-age or younger people than Mad Magazine or Spider Man Comics. (Gnomes, unlike the other books reviewed here, is very popular with children.) Unfortunately, the book has a less nice side: it is politically neo-conservative and extraordinarily sexist. Most of the gnomes so charmingly pictured are male, and so are all the interesting gnomic occupations and adventures. Males alone wear the colorful traditional costume and red cap, and all crafts except spinning and weaving are their exclusive province. Male gnomes design and build the houses, practice medicine and farming, and rule the family. The male gnome does the courting; the female, who looks like a fat blond Dutch doll with very large pink breasts (“Plump women-folk, round of form, are the favorites”), waits to be courted. After marriage she stays at home cooking and minding the children. “Mainly because of the gray color of her clothing, the female gnome feels safer indoors”; outside she might be mistaken for a mouse by some predator. In which case, no doubt, it would be her own fault, as is sometimes said of rape victims. Even in her own domain patriarchy is plainly in evidence: the only art works on the walls of the gnome house are portrait sculptures of two famous ancestors—both male.
As for politics, gnomes live in a benevolent monarchy, ruled by a king. Social conformity seems to be universal, and creative expression almost unknown (in spite of Tomte Haroldson’s patronage of Mozart). Most gnome households own only one book, the “Secret Book,” which is read aloud (by the father, naturally) on special occasions. Liberated parents planning to read Gnomes itself aloud are hereby warned.
Perhaps made greedily hasty by the runaway success of Gnomes, its publishers have now rushed into print a companion volume entitled Faeries. This work is not, like its predecessor, a loving and imaginative account of a single species, but yet another hodgepodge compendium of goblins, elves, ogres, etc. The archaic spelling of the title may have been adopted to reassure prospective buyers that the book has nothing to do with deviance—a reassurance which is possibly ill-founded. Unlike Gnomes, Faeries does not celebrate the nuclear patriarchal family but suggests—at least in its remarkable illustrations—a world of haunting and ambiguous sexuality. It is full of leering dwarfs and hags and of naked and lovely barely pubescent or prepubescent winged girls and boys, some without even a helpful butterfly or a scrap of thistledown to cover their private parts.
The watercolors which illustrate Faeries, by the brilliant young English artist Brian Froud and his collaborator Alan Lee, are beautifully done if derivative: a remarkable amalgam of Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac, Richard Dadd, Henry Fuseli, and every other gifted English painter of the supernatural you can, consciously or unconsciously, recall—by turns beautiful, grotesque, comic, and terrifying. The book as a whole, however, seems to have been put together overnight by a committee. There is no apparent order or plan to it, and the text is shamefully derivative. Although no credit is given, most of Faeries appears to have been lifted outright from the works of the eminent British folklorist Katharine Briggs, now in her eighties, principally from The Fairies in Tradition and Literature (1967), The Vanishing People (1978), and her much-praised An Encyclopedia of Fairies (1976). (Since these volumes were compiled from hundreds of sources—most of them obscure and many pre-twentieth century—no doubt the committee would claim that this information was public property.) All the individual Faeries, for instance, appear in one or another of Briggs’s books, and the descriptions of them are only cursorily rewritten, as if to avoid legal difficulties.2
Here are some examples of two consecutive entries in Faeries:
Redcap is one of the most evil of the old Border Goblins. He lives in old ruined towers and castles, particularly those with a history of wickedness. He re-dyes his red cap in human blood.
One of the most malignant of old Border goblins, Redcap lived in old ruined peel towers and castles where wicked deeds had been done, and delighted to re-dye his red cap in human blood….
The Bean-Nighe (Ben-Neeyah) or “Washing Woman” is the type of Banshee who haunts the lonely streams of Scotland and Ireland, washing the blood-stained garments of those about to die. It is said that these spirits are the ghosts of women who died in childbirth and that they are fated to perform their task until the day when they would have normally died.
Bean-nighe (ben-neeyeh), or “the Washing Woman.” She occurs both in Highland and Irish tradition as one of the variants of the Banshee…. She is to be seen by desolate streams washing the blood-stained clothing of those about to die…. It is said that the bean-nighe are the ghosts of women who have died in childbirth and must perform their task until the natural destined time of their death comes….
If “faeries” did exist, as this book pretends, those responsible for its publication would be in serious trouble. The Good Folk, though themselves sometimes light-fingered, dislike thieves; and should certain Abrams executives now be suffering from unaccountable painful twinges and pinching sensations in their arms and legs, or find their material gains (symbolically, perhaps) turned into toadstools and dead leaves, they will know why.
Katharine Briggs’s own compendia of fairy lore are models of responsible scholarship. Her Encyclopedia of Fairies, for instance, is an impressive and also an entrancing book. It includes not only entries for every sort of magical being found in the British Isles but also ones for general topics such as “Changelings” and “Fairy food,” many folktales, and for the best-known writers on the fairies from John Aubrey to W.B. Yeats; it is also well indexed by type and motif according to the standard system used by all folklorists. Her latest work, The Vanishing People, is equally scholarly; it is a study of beliefs about the fairies not only in England and Ireland but on the Continent, Briggs discusses, most entertainingly, such matters as the supernatural passage of time in Fairyland, fairy sports, and theories of the origin of the fairies—both simple and sophisticated. Are they the ghosts of the dead, diminished gods and nature spirits, or memories of an earlier race of small dark people who lived in mound-dwellings (fairy hills) and feared iron? She makes an interesting case for all these theories, pointing out where one explanation is most likely, where another.
Dr. Briggs, a former president of the English Folklore Society and holder of both a D. Phil and D. Litt. from Oxford, probably knows more about hobgoblins, brownies, and bogies than anyone else now living; she is the author of the classic The Anatomy of Puck (1959), which deals with fairy lore in Shakespeare and his contemporaries; and also of a first-rate story for children about a household brownie, Hobberdy Dick (1954), remarkable for its faithfulness to tradition. But her life work is certainly the Dictionary of British Folk Tales in the English Language (1970-1971), a four-volume encyclopedia which reprints or summarizes all the fairy tales, novellas, animal stories, fables, and legends collected in the British Isles—including many hither-to available only in manuscript.3 This monumental work is thoroughly researched, elegantly printed, and completely annotated and indexed. It is a fine source for scholars of many sorts; moreover it is fascinating to read—the perfect bedside book. (The complete set is for expensive bedsides only; but a good one-volume selection appeared in 1977 as British Folktales.) In an ideal world, every household would have one, and there would be similar encyclopedic collections for other countries. Perhaps, inspired by Katharine Briggs, some are even now in preparation.
Contemporary interest in fairies and fairy tales has been accompanied, and influenced, by an increasingly serious attention to the classics of children’s literature. In this country especially people are now writing articles, doing research, and giving MLA papers on topics such as “F.L. Baum and Populism,” “Word-play in Sandburg’s Rootabaga Country,” and “A Possible Source for the Just So Stories.” As this movement expands like the Kudzu vine, covering everything in sight with an often attractive but choking foliage, its own proponents (I among them) feel a little guilty and frightened. Children’s literature is rather like a delightful, hitherto little-known resort—Block Island, say, or Key West; once we have discovered it, we want everybody else except our best friends and the natives (read children) to leave it alone.
Since this now seems unlikely, the best we can hope for is that among all this new criticism there will be some like Roger Sale’s Fairy Tales and After. Sale writes not about children’s literature as a whole, but only about the books he has most enjoyed; his tone is informal—he seems to be addressing not the MLA but an audience of New Yorker or even at times Saturday Review subscribers. His bias is conservative, his preference always for reason and order. 4 Even as a child, he writes, he was “a daylight reader, seeking to live in a daylight world….Perhaps I made a deal with life, that I would accept its pains and sorrows if I did not have to face what I feared and wished for most.” Because his book is so personal, every reader will probably have some quarrel with it: I for instance think he is often wrong about fairy tales, and I do not share his reverence for Freddy the Pig and Babar, or agree with his dismissal of Stevenson, Burnett, and Tolkien as, respectively, uninteresting, sexually repressed, and smug.
When Sale writes about the books he loved as a child, though, he is interesting and very engaging; he is a constructive rather than a destructive—or a deconstructive—critic. In this era of self-conscious and abstruse (often obtuse) textual analysis, his air of wondering and grateful appreciation, his concern for the writer’s intention, and his willingness to use the word “I” seem most attractive. He is especially good on Oz and on Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows: the meaning of the book for its author, its vision of an ideal life. He contrasts Toad and his love for automobiles with Rat and his love for the River. Rat’s enthusiasm is open, able to be shared with others: “Rat is always looking outward…delighting in whatever the river and its banks happen to show him,” Toad’s obsession is greedy and impenetrable: “Inside Toad’s passion there is only Toad.” When Toad steals the motorcar,
We focus first on the car, the handle, the driver’s seat, the ignition; but gradually the car disappears, having succeeded in obliterating everything else in the world: “he was Toad once more, Toad at his best and highest, Toad the terror.” Perhaps the most deceiving aspect of such passions is that they convince us we are most alive, most ourselves, when we are in fact most mastered, most not ourselves.
Sale says of this scene that it “is one of the best moments in the book, Grahame’s version of hell. Like all well-conceived hells, it closely resembles heaven.” Not every reader will share Sale’s suspicion of the Dionysiac, but it is clear that Grahame does, and together they make an eloquent case for the daylight world.
Most of my students at Cornell, even the English majors, have not read more than one or two of the books Roger Sale discusses—some have read none of them. Though they come from expensive suburbs, theirs has been a deprived childhood, providing no better nourishment for their imaginations than the crude comedy and plastic adventure stories of films and TV: Disney and Star Trek instead of Pooh and Treasure Island. They know the classics of children’s literature only in cheap cartoon versions, if at all. When they read Alice in Wonderland, The Jungle Books, and Grimm’s fairy tales for the first time it blows their minds, as one put it.
So in late adolescence such readers take possession of a fantasy world that should have been theirs at eight or ten, with the intellectual enthusiasm, the romantic eagerness—and the purchasing power—of eighteen and twenty. From among them come the mind-blown customers for COME TO MIDDLE EARTH posters and Pooh T-shirts; and of the guides to gnomes and fairies reviewed here. As time passes, some of them will move on to other faiths, including those of their parents; others will continue to find the older belief systems either too exhausted or too exhausting, and continue to prefer fantasy.
Throughout history, when God is dead or sleeping, the elves and bogies come out to play. We welcome them because they are more amusing, and less threatening. They may bring us good and bad luck—make our vegetables flourish, find lost objects, lead us astray in a fog, give us rheumatic twinges or bad dreams; but they will never judge us. Most of them are smaller than we are, and even if their wills are bent on malice, their power is limited to certain places and times. Best of all, they are not responsible for the mess we and our world are in.
March 8, 1979
Possibly the anonymous translating beings were thinking of the plaster “garden gnomes” sold (along with cement cupids and plastic flamingos) in certain highway shops. ↩
There are also occasional errors: Jenny Greenteeth drags careless children down into the river in Yorkshire, not in Lancashire, for instance. ↩
Dr. Briggs is also the editor (with Ruth L. Tongue) of Folktales of England, 1965, a volume in the Folktales of the World Series, published by the University of Chicago Press for scholars. ↩
In spite of Sale’s love of order, and probably to his own chagrin, Fairy Tales and After is execrably proofread, full of the most obvious and awful typos and misspellings. The Harvard University Press, like Abrams, is evidently not what it once was. ↩