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A Need for Belief: The Victorians and Fairies.  

Written by Megan Crutchely. British folklore has always contained detailed tales of fairies and the otherworld. But how have these beliefs developed and changed, particularly in the Victorian period?

It was during the Romantic Period that there was a rebirth in fairy culture. Due to people’s desire to avert to a simpler and more natural life, they turned to the country folk as an example of how to live. At the same time, the Brothers Grimm were collecting German folk stories, compiling them into their book of fairy tales. The book was a huge success in the Britain, with people turning to their own culture to seek out the same sense of mysticism and wonder the German tales held. There were roots of Celtic folklore still present in places like Cornwall, the Isle of Man and the Scottish Highlands, and the redesigned fairies of Shakespeare were considered part of Britain’s fairy past. People needed something like fairies, a reference to a simpler and more traditional time, in order to manifest their fears for the consequences of a rapidly industrialising Britain.  

Explanations for the fairies varied across those who researched them. Significantly, Sir Walter Scott, Robert Southey, Anna Eliza Bray and Thomas Crofton Croker all began primary research on them in the 1790s. Each came up with different hypotheses. Scott was unable to deny the existence of fairies because he thought that people who believed in any sort of deity could not deny the possible existence of others. Southey linked their existence to that of the druids, who went into hiding from invaders in ancient times, and since had been living in the forests and stealing women and children in order to continue their existence. Bray suggested the beings were linked to the souls of children who died before they were baptised, so they were trapped on earth. And Croker concluded that before Christianity dominated Europe, fairy lore did.  

It was due to these people’s research that the search for fairies became more scientific. The Victorians were meticulous in grounding their beliefs in facts, but their curiosity was also unquenchable, hence their fascination with the concept of other worlds, like that of the dead. Artefacts like arrowheads or small smoking pipes were now attributed to the existence of fairies, and there were high-profile cases of this, like the Fairy Flag at Dunvegan Castle. The story behind this was that while out hunting one day, Iain Cair, the king of the castle, spotted a fairy princess and they both fell in love instantly. However, when they wished to marry, the king of the fairies wouldn’t allow it, as fairies are immortal beings, and the king would eventually grow old and die. Eventually he gave in, on the condition that she could only stay for a year, and then she had to leave and return to the world of the fairies. During this year, the king and the fairy princess wedded and had a son, but when she had to leave, she gave the flag as a gift to her husband. She said that he could use it three times to call for help, and armed men would appear. 

Theories explaining the existence of fairies produced during the Victorian era can be categorised into those believing in Christianity and those not. People struggled to believe in fairies, as it went against Christian teachings, but by basing an explanation for them in Christianity, the guilt lessened. Some believed that they were angels stuck between heaven and hell, or people whose souls were trapped on Earth. Others believed the roots in the belief of fairies were based on pre-Christian ways of life – where Britain was divided into tribes and stories were made up about rivals, in order to justify their fear of them. 

Considering the British fascination with fairies and the idea of another world, it can be understood why people wanted to believe in stunts such as the Cotingley Fairies. The nation was desperate to believe in something outside the realms of the dismal, smoggy and grey reality that was facing them during the industrial revolution.  

Written by Megan Crutchely

Bibliography 

Riley, K., 2014. Romanticism: the Historical Context for Romanticism. [Online]  
Available at: https://fairytalescriticaleditionlu.weebly.com/historical-context-of-romanticism.html 
[Accessed 25 10 2021]. 

Silver, C., 1986. On the Origin of Fairies: Victorians, Romantics and Folk Belief. Browning Institute Studies, 14 (The Victorian Threshold ), pp. 141-156. 

Woolf, J., 2014. The Story Behind the Flag of Dunvegan Castle Scotland. [Online]  
Available at: https://thefairytaletraveler.com/2014/07/31/fairy-flag-of-dunvegan-castle/ 
[Accessed 25 10 2021]. 

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