Today, the image of a fairy that most readily springs to mind is of a delicate little winged creature like Tinkerbell from J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. However, this was not how our ancestors envisaged fairies.
Through the ages fairies have been through many transformations, shapeshifting via the mouths of storytellers and the quills of playwrights and poets and onto the page, stage, and screen. Every culture has its own story to tell. Here we explore the rich history of fairy lore in English literature in Shakepeare’s era…
This is a special extract from Fairies in Literature in Legend in The Element Encyclopedia of Fairies to celebrate World Poetry Day.
In the Elizabethan age, with the spread of literacy, a new generation of poets and writers came from the country to the town, bringing their own traditions with them. These homegrown country beliefs mixed with ideas from the medieval romances to produce a new breed of small mischievous fairies in literature and on the stage.
Before Shakespeare, John Lyly was one of the first poets to introduce small fairies into drama. In Endimion (1591), fairies make an appearance to pinch the villain black and blue and reprimand him for prying into fairy affairs:
“Pinch him, pinch him, blacke and blue,
Sawcie mortalls must not view
What the Queene of Stars is doing,
Nor pry into our Fairy woing.”
But it was Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (c.1595) that fixed the image of little trooping fairies in the public consciousness. Unlike the larger-than-life fairy beings of legend and romance, Shakepeare’s fairies were “no larger than an agate stone,” as Queen Mab is described in Mercutio’s famous speech in Romeo and Juliet. But, like the fays of romance, Shakepeare’s fairies live in a community, ruled over by the princely Oberon and the fair Titania. And, like mortal monarchs, the fairy ruler has his jester in the form of Puck.
Like the fairies of country folklore, Shakepeare’s fairies enjoy dancing, have a penchant for cleanliness, and are wont to steal human children and leave fairy changelings in their place. They are mischievous and tricksy, and despite their diminutive size, still exercise a degree of power over nature; Oberon and Titania’s quarrels disrupt the seasons and the weather, causing storms that ruin crops and leave a shortage of food for humans.
Once Shakespeare had placed fairies firmly in the limelight, a new fashion in poetry followed. Poets such as Drayton, Herrick, and Browne delighted in describing fairy courts in ever more minute detail. In Michael Drayton’s poem Nimphidia, The Court of Fayrie (1627), fairies are tiny enough to hide inside a cowslip bell. William Browne’s poems were slightly more rooted in folklore, describing underground fairy palaces that could be seen by the traditional method of looking through a “self-bored stone.”
Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock (1717) is often cited as one of the first references to fairies having wings. The poem is a satirical take on Victorian society, based on a petty squabble that ensued when a gentleman cut a lock of hair from the woman of his fancy. The sylphs or fairies Pope describes are similar to the picture-book fairies that we are familiar with today.
Some to the Sun their Insect-Wings unfold,
Waft on the Breeze, or sink in Clouds of Gold,
Transparent Forms, too fine for mortal sight,
Their fluid Bodies half dissolv’d in Light.
Loose to the Wind their airy Garments flew,
Thin glitt’ring Textures of the filmy Dew;
Dipt in the richest tincture of the Skies,
Where light disports in ever-mingling Dies,
While ev’ry Beam new transient Colours flings,
Colours that change when’er they wave their Wings.
The Rape of the Lock, Canto II
While the fashion in the Elizabethan and Jacobean ages was for poets to prettify fairies, making them ever-smaller and often the butt of satirical jokes, William Blake took them seriously, famously saying that he had witnessed a fairy funeral procession in his garden, of creatures resembling the size and color of green and grey grasshoppers, carrying a little body laid out on a rose leaf.
This is an excerpt from Fairies in Literature and Legend, you can read the entire article in The Element Encyclopedia of Fairies.