• Michael Martin

The Vanishing of the Faeries

This is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, Sophia in Exile.

In the early twentieth century, there was a veritable faerie craze, an artifact of which is Peter Pan, a rousing success in both print and in the theatre—not to mention the early silent film version from 1924. Not only Barrie’s work, but the discovery of the Cottingley Faeries who became cause célèbre in 1917—even though most (but not all) of the photographs of faeries captured by two Yorkshire lassies were later admitted to have been faked—contributed to what was by that point a far-reaching cultural phenomenon. A little earlier, in the 1880s, a young William Butler Yeats had combed the libraries of England and the cottages and libraries of Ireland for folk- and fairy-tales of the Irish, later published in Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry (1888) and Irish Fairy Tales (1892), a research project which profoundly impacted his own poetry, as in “The Wanderings of Oisin” or “The Stolen Child” with its tragic and mournful refrain:

Come away, O human child!

To the waters and the wild

With a faery, hand in hand.

For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

In the milieu of burgeoning industrialization and even World War I, the desire to recapture at least some of what was vanishing can clearly be seen in the period’s widespread interest in faeries.

A scholarly dissertation on faeries was even undertaken during the first decade of the twentieth century by a young American, W. Y. Evans-Wentz, while at Oxford, later published in book form in 1911 as The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries. Evans-Wentz’s book is to date the most comprehensive and rigorous exploration of the belief in faeries. Timing is everything, though, as finding a peasantry enmeshed in the world of nature and close to the invisible worlds would have been far easier in the days before the arrival of electricity and the radio, let alone multi-national corporations and the internet. Evans-Wentz collected much of the material for his book from interviewing the peasantry of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, The Isle of Man, Cornwall, and Brittany, and what he found among the disparate cultures had much in common, so much so that he proposes that “the evidence is so clear that little or no comment is necessary.” [1] As he writes further:

Most of the evidence also points so much in one direction that the only verdict which seems reasonable is that the Fairy-Faith belongs to a doctrine of souls; that is to say, that Fairyland is a state or condition, realm or place, very much like, if not the same as, that wherein civilized and uncivilized men alike place the souls of the dead, in company with other invisible beings such as gods, daemons, and all sorts of good and bad spirits. Not only do both educated and uneducated Celtic seers so conceive Fairyland, but they go much further, and say that Fairyland actually exists as an invisible world within which the visible world is immersed like an island in an unexplored ocean, and that it is peopled by more species of living beings than this world, because incomparably more vast and varied in its possibilities.”

Allow me to emphasize: this was at Oxford. Evans-Wentz’s examiners at Oxford were the great Celticist Sir John Rhys and Andrew Lang, the much beloved collector of fairy- and folktales. I imagine he would be hard-pressed to find such congenial professors were he to undertake the project today, unless he could somehow bend his study to the will of theory. Thank God he worked when he did.

A little early 20th century cosplay.

Among the interviews Evans-Wentz features in the book, one is presented as “An Irish Mystic’s Testimony.” We now know this mystic was the poet, artist, and social activist George William Russell, known better under the pseudonym A. E. To Russell’s perception, the faeries, whom he calls by the Irish term the Sidhe or “the shining ones,” exist in a metaxu, “the mid-world,” which lies between the earth-world and the heaven-world. He also believed that these beings do not possess a sense of individuality as humans do. “Theirs is a collective life, so unindividualized and so calm that I might have more varied thoughts in five minutes than they would have in five years; and yet one feels an extraordinary purity and exaltation about their life…. A hive of bees has been described as a single organism with disconnected cells; and some of these tribes of shining beings seem to be little more than one being manifesting itself in many beautiful forms.” [2]

One of the more fascinating studies of the invisible country prior to Evans-Wentz’s magisterial study was the Rev. Robert Kirk’s seventeenth century manuscript The Secret Commonwealth, which Andrew Lang in the introduction to the edition he prepared calls “a kind of metaphysic of the Fairy world.” [3] Kirk’s book, like Evans-Wentz’s, is a scholar’s account, though, like his fellow investigator’s, reflective of the scholarly conventions of his time. He simply collates the extant material pertinent to his research—which was considerable—and does so without condemnation or bias in a very matter-of-fact, methodical manner. Churchmen, especially rural churchmen like Kirk, connected and accustomed to the attitudes and thoughts of the peasantry, have been some of the more interested in these abstruse studies through the centuries; though with the disappearance of the peasantry, increasing urbanization and the, ahem, “sophistication” that comes with it have made such figures rare indeed.

I have often wondered why sightings into the invisible world, or at least interest in such sightings, have all but disappeared from the general cultural imaginary, though they lurk at the margins. When Evans-Wentz interviewed the then seventy-three-year-old Neil Colton of Donegal, the old gentleman remarked on the diminished population of the shining ones, saying, “These races were terribly plentiful a hundred years ago, and they’ll come back again.” [4] Did they? They certainly didn’t go away entirely, as accounts of faerie sighting proliferated throughout the twentieth century, often given by children or by adults recounting experiences from childhood, but plenty of adults reported seeing the shining ones as well, not to mention my own account. [5] Nevertheless, there does seem to be a dearth of faerie sightings during postmodernity. Some would certainly argue that belief in faeries is inconsistent with modernity, let alone postmodernity; but people have also argued religious faith, and Christianity in particular, is inconsistent with modernity. I do not buy into these assumptions.

There are, to be sure, many people who claim to see into the secret commonwealth. Just a simple internet search will lead to dozens, if not hundreds, of links that promise instruction in faerie communication, their language often sounding like the spiritual-but-not-religious version of the hard sell: “Read on, fairy lovers, to learn how to see fairies in the garden and communicate with the Fair Folk of your local area!” I am skeptical of such claims. It’s not that I don’t believe in the existence of the fair folk; it’s just that I have a hard time getting past the cultivated personas (or avatars) that often accompany such promises and the almost requisite alt-spirituality cosplay that goes along with them, replete with flowing skirts, thumb-rings, and scarves. Lots and lots of scarves. This is a far cry from the rustic and unlettered farmers and cottagers with whom Yeats and Evans-Wentz spoke. Not that the cosplayers are without merit: clearly they hunger for something of which our culture deprives them. I understand their hunger for a world re-enchanted. I simply don’t think it requires a costume.

Of course, the disenchantment the faeish cosplayers attempt to remedy is at its core also a lament for the exile of God, of angels, and of the presence of the dead in the era of technocracy and transhumanism. In that, they are not unlike the Romantics who rejected the antiseptic and icy values of the Enlightenment and embraced the possibilities of a more human civilization; and they would without a doubt hope with Yeats that this condition may come to pass and “an age of imagination, of emotion, of moods, of revelation... come in its place.” [6] But the problem the Romantics faced is the same, in essence, that we see in faerie cosplay: the dissipation into Gothic silliness. Enter the Goth vampires and the faeries that look like Barbie dolls. This is what happens with a spirituality not moored by a relationship to Creation and grounded in the Real.

I have often wondered, typically when I’m working in the garden on my farm, how it is that the denizens of the secret commonwealth are so seldom seen when compared to times past. Part of it, as I have noted, is surely due to the disenchantment of modernity. The hubris of modernity seems impervious to self-reflection. All cultures throughout all times save the last two-hundred years have held to the existence of the invisible worlds, and many still do, though that belief in an invisible world is more and more transferred to the magical world of the internet and the more immediate satisfactions to fancy it offers. Paul Devereux relates the story of German cultural anthropologist Christian Rätsch. who in order to understand the lifeway of a Lacandon tribe in southern Mexico entered into it as a participant and not as the “impartial observer” so lauded by Western academic standards. Rätsch learned their language, and the Indians taught him how to hunt, gather, and farm according to their ways. One day, when Rätsch was keeping guard over the village corn crop in order to drive away predators, a bird landed on the branch of a tree nearby which he saw fit for a meal and shot. When he went to retrieve the bird, he was in for a surprise. “There was not the corpse of a bird;” he said, “there was not a single feather! Then I looked up into the tree and there was not even the branch!” When he told the village elder what had happened, the man laughed and told him that such things happened sometimes, and that it was just the jungle spirits teasing him. [7] I’m sure they were.

Despite the epistemological and social conventions of modernity, I also wonder how its paraphernalia itself might be destructive to the secret commonwealth, or at least our ability to perceive it. For one thing, electricity may pose a hindrance, particularly the power grid that almost invisibly strikes its lines over the land. It might negatively impact the invisible realm; and it might also impact our own capacities of perception. And one can only speculate about the impact of 5G towers and the almost numberless satellites constantly filling the air with their silent presence and radiations. This is to say nothing of plastic, the bane of Creation. While finding a stray shard of plastic while weeding my garden, I often wonder if the faeries are allergic to it and that’s why they’ve been disappearing. Plastics only arrived in the early 20th century (I think of the wonderful scene in the motion picture The Graduate when a well-meaning middle-classer has one word to say to the graduate, Benjamin: “Plastics”), and, while correlation doesn’t necessarily imply causation, I have nevertheless wondered how the two phenomena might be related. Plastic has certainly contributed to the disenchantment of the world in other ways. What I offer here is speculation, of course, but I think what I speak here possesses at the very least a poetic truth.

A beautiful take on the classic faerie ballad.

Michael’s latest books are an edition of The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz and Transfiguration: Notes toward a Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything. He can be reached at director@thecenterforsophiologicalstudies.com See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses. Also check out the latest volume of Jesus the Imagination: The Garden.

1. W. Y. Evans-Wentz, The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries (1911; reprt., University Books, 1966), 18.

2. Ibid., 62-63.

3. Andrew Lang, Introduction to Robert Kirk, The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies (1893; reprt. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2008), 15.

4. W. Y. Evans-Wentz, The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries, 73.

5. An exhaustive collection of such reports can be found in Marjorie T. Johnson’s Seeing Fairies: From the Lost Archives of the Fairy Investigation Society, Authentic Reports in Modern Times (San Antonio, TX: Anomalist Books, 2014)

6. William Butler Yeats, “The Body of Father Christian Rosencrux (1895)” in Essays and Introductions (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1961), 197.

7. Paul Devereux, Re-Visioning the Earth: A Guide to Opening eh Healing Channels between Mind and Nature (New York: Fireside/Simon & Schuster, 1996), 29.

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