31
Oct 05

THE FT TOP 23 STRANGE PHENOMENA No. 6: The Little People

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The little people – wee folk, fairies, faeries, gnomes, piskies et al – aren’t so much an unexplained phenom as an explanatory one, the attributed cause of much lucklessness and minor setbacks. Petty interventions whether positive or negative are the stock in trade of the fairy folk, who interfere in mortal lives according to their own sets of capricious rules. In a fairy encounter, you must be continually on your guard as a tiny breach of etiquette (walking widdershins; muching fairy lunch; etc.) could mean seven years hard labour in the Land of Youth.

The weird laws of Otherworld are a mythic constant – think Persephone and her pomegranate – but they chime exceptionally well with the fairy’s first flowering in the English tradition, as a metaphor for royal power. Spenser’s Faerie Queene, Gloriana, is the super-identity of Elizabeth I, and this skein runs through much 16th century lit – portrayals of fairy queens were naturally positive but the comical and arbitrary behaviours of the surrounding court were surely flirting – safely – with satire.

The little folk made a comeback in Victorian times – this time they were pitched at the nursery, an analogue of the fusses and flights of childhood, plus an excuse to dress huge numbers of small boys and girls up in gauzy and flimsy outfits on heaving 19th century stages. Parallel to this sentimentalised reading of fairyland is a more serious-minded attempt to give fairies a place in folklore – the “fairy tale” is where these strands meet, especially in Rudyard Kipling’s fantastic Puck Of Pook’s Hill.

The last hurrah for Victorian fairydom was surely the Cottingley Fairies – risible cut-outs of fairy pictures placed into photos, whose credibility basically rested on the idea that adolescent girls had neither the will nor skill to deceive in this way. Conan Doyle believed, many didn’t, the jig was pretty much up.

Like most quasi-supernatural entities, faeries (always spelt thus) have evoked some degree of enthusiasm among Goths and their ilk. Their continued popularity on commemorative plates and sideboard ornaments, though, means that no matter how much celtic gravitas their fans try and apply, the little people remain on the naff side of strangeness.

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