Everyone—or almost everyone—agrees that there are no such things as fairies nowadays, and probably never were. They seem to belong to the class of mildly amusing, spooky things mentioned in urban fantasies for fun and in antireligious tracts to suggest that believing in God is just as silly. To wonder what fairies are, and what it would mean to “believe in them,” are questions lost in time—relevant if we wish to understand the poet W. B. Yeats, perhaps, but not to a “modern” sensibility. After years of such skepticism, though, it is perhaps time to entertain another view: that banishing the little people from our lives was only a prelude to dispensing with the notions of God and the soul of man. If we cannot believe in fairies, we cannot properly believe in anything at all.
Of course, our fictions and even our serious thinking about the terrestrial past or the astronomical present are full of things like fairies. Once upon a time there were many almost-human species whom our ancestors encountered with mingled fear and wonder. Nowadays we call them Neanderthals, Denisovans, Homo floresiensis, and the like. Our immediate ancestors perhaps remembered them instead as elves, dwarves, giants, goblins, and even (maybe) mermen. According to folk memory, particularly in Europe, dwarves were cunning artificers, while elves liked dance and revelry. Of course, we may be wrong to think that we truly remembered those long-lost almost-humans: Perhaps instead they were only speculative imaginings to explain old bones and arrowheads, fossils and mysterious cave paintings—just as our own stories about Neanderthals are also, mostly, fantasies.
It is also very likely that there are species out there beyond the Sun as sapient as we are. What we imagine about them shows much more about ourselves than about biological possibility. How probable is it that we would recognize intelligence in some utterly alien form when it takes so much effort even to acknowledge that wolves or octopuses or bees have their own lives and thoughts?
Of one thing at least we can be confident: The other human species are no more, and there are probably no galactic visitors here, either. For now, there are only us, and the stories we tell are always of creatures who have long since gone away. Maybe they left England at the Reformation, as one of Rudyard Kipling’s stories suggests? But the same notion is to be found many centuries earlier, in Chaucer or even in Homer. Long ago, perhaps, there were gods as well as fairies walking secretively among us. Nowadays their very essence is to have always gone away, to have hidden themselves in the hills, or in an alongside universe, a fairyland or an imagined afterlife. Fairies obey other rules, and hint that the world is stranger than we think. Even the story of their having gone away is more significant than simply to explain that there aren’t any fairies nowadays, whether they tired of our company, or are straightforwardly deceased. Their very essence is that they aren’t here and now—and so must be somewhere else.
Unraveling the significance of the stories is easier if we distinguish the four layers of interpretation identified in medieval biblical hermeneutics: literal, moral, analogical, and anagogical. On the literal account, the stories simply represent our own and our ancestors’ best guesses about the other species with whom we shared the world (or may share the cosmos). The moral reading, rather, suggests what other axioms and attitudes might be possible to us, or to creatures only a little different from us: Is our enjoyment of the young, our respect for age or for authority, our sexual confusion or religious fervor rooted more in biology or old tradition? Are the “moral mysteries” species-specific (and so not strictly binding on all sapient or rational creatures)? Perhaps—many recent fantasies suggest—the fairies are bound more by honor than by empathy, in a hierarchical society (sociologically, a status society rather than a contract one, and moved by shame much more than guilt). Analogically, “fairy stories” encapsulate metaphysical truths or speculations: Perhaps that there is no necessary “logical” connection between cause and effect, or that the universe is not, after all, homogenous and subject everywhere to the very same natural laws. Maybe we should not ignore the role of intentional action in the state of things. Maybe, on the other hand, there is a question whether everything with an “outer” life also has an “inner” (fairies, after all, in some versions, have no “souls”). But the “anagogical” interpretation is perhaps most useful: Fairies represent forgotten human possibilities and strange philosophies that we might grow to understand, to transcend, or to embrace. What is it that we have dismissed in imagining or insisting on the fairies’ long, drawn-out departure? Are we certain that it wasn’t subterfuge, and that they may not linger still?
The first and obvious thought is that in imagining them away, we are seeking to purify our experience, to come closer to the real world by stripping away emotional projections and hierarchical assumptions. Thomas Sprat, writing in his History of the Royal Society (founded to facilitate new scientific discovery at the end of the seventeenth century), announced the grand expulsion.
The poets of old to make all things look more venerable than they were devised a thousand false Chimaeras; on every Field, River, Grove and Cave they bestowed a Fantasm of their own making: With these they amazed the world. . . . And in the modern Ages these Fantastical Forms were reviv’d and possessed Christendom. . . . All which abuses if those acute Philosophers did not promote, yet they were never able to overcome; nay, not even so much as King Oberon and his invisible Army. But from the time in which the Real Philosophy has appear’d there is scarce any whisper remaining of such horrors. . . . The cours of things goes quietly along, in its own true channel of Natural Causes and Effects. For this we are beholden to Experiments; which though they have not yet completed the discovery of the true world, yet they have already vanquished those wild inhabitants of the false world, that us’d to astonish the minds of men.
According to the “Real Philosophy,” we should find out the truth of things by careful measurement and bold experiments, not reading our own preoccupations and bad habits into the world of nature. The Enlightenment project had its origins in a theological judgment: Both that King Oberon and his army were not to be trusted, and that we should not hope to identify any “final causes” in our investigation of nature. That latter rejection was to lead in the end to Darwin’s insight, that even the organs and practices of living creatures could be explained without a direct appeal to teleology. All we can safely do is describe, in the least moralistic terms, what happens, without expecting to understand why it should. Whether this project is entirely safe, or even entirely helpful for our understanding, is one of the questions raised by rumors of fairies.
Sprat sought to oppose a certain kind of fantasy, but himself fell prey to it. Most of us feel confident that the world is both terrible and beautiful, and even meant to be so. Most feel unnerved by the whisper of woods in solitude, or fascinated by rainbow sparkles in a waterfall. Most feel awe as well as terror in the face of natural marvels. We happily admire an imaginary world more readily than we admire what is called “reality” (especially when we cannot do much to change or improve that “real world”). Sprat himself was moved by a great dream—the dream of building a better world than the old. And such a hope rests on an unproven axiom, that human intelligence can surpass what Nature does. Oddly enough, that axiom—which earlier and more Stoic philosophers reckoned absurd and dangerous—encapsulates exactly that dream of another, better and more malleable world which is otherwise called Fairyland.
The unproven axiom which allowed Sprat to dismiss the old “fantastical forms” was a version of the Christian—and earlier Abrahamic—Gospel: We can purify our thoughts and dedicate our efforts to discovering real truths not dependent on our whim or fancy. Sprat’s words, in fact, echo the words of Athanasius in the fourth century a.d., in his essay on the Incarnation:
In former times every place was full of the fraud of oracles, and the utterances of those at Delphi and Dodona and in Boeotia and Lycia and Libya and Egypt and those of the Kabiri and the Pythoness were considered marvellous by the minds of men. But now since Christ has been proclaimed everywhere, their madness too has ceased, and there is no one left among them to give oracles at all. Then, too, demons used to deceive men’s minds by taking up their abode in springs or rivers or trees or stones and imposing upon simple people by their frauds. But now, since the Divine appearing of the Word, all this fantasy has ceased, for by the sign of the cross, if a man will but use it, he drives out their deceits.
By one account, the demons, the false chimeras, and the rest were real creatures banished by the coming of the Word; by the other, they were fantasms that had existed only in the human imagination, and were now banished by a new philosophy, a better way of seeing. Either way, we were now to deal with all nonhuman things merely as “natural objects” subject to discoverable laws of nature, without supposing that they, as individual entities, had any commands for us, or a meaning to be revered. We were also freed from traditional authority, from the divine right of kings, and from priestly manipulation.
A similar revulsion was recorded even earlier by the imperial Roman poet Virgil, who depicted an episode of the Roman civil wars as a victory of human law and ordinary human beings over “every kind of monstrous god and barking Anubis too.” All that should matter to us is, on the one hand, human society, and on the other, the merely natural context of our actions. So also the Hebrew prophets, demanding that the sacred groves be cut down, and the people of God reject all rival gods. This process of disengagement, of detachment, was a gradual one. The Hebrews were always falling back, they said themselves, into the old idolatry; the Romans continued, mostly, to expect omens in the flight of birds and the state of a sacrificial victim’s entrails, and half-persuaded themselves that their emperor was divine; Christians still suppose that there are nonhuman spirits at work, for good or ill, in all the world around them. Neither Sprat nor (obviously) Athanasius intended to suggest that the created world was not a divinely sanctioned enterprise. But the eventual result of exorcising nature (as it were) was to generate an image of the natural world wholly devoid of value, the mere concatenation of events. Chesterton identified the danger, in the words of a thoroughly sane poet (writing in 1929):
Don’t you see that dreadful dry light shed on things must at last wither up the moral mysteries as illusions, respect for age, respect for property, and that the sanctity of life will be a superstition? The men in the street are only organisms, with their organs more or less displayed. For such a one there is no longer any terror in the touch of human flesh, nor does he see God watching him out of the eyes of a man.
Imagining that there are fairies (elves, dwarves, goblins, giants, and the rest) is an expression of our feeling that the world is indeed both alien and unfamiliar. Our ancestors—to revert to the paleological speculation from which I began this essay—found the European woods creepy because they could see or sense or fantasize the faces that were peering out at them. The woods had their own lives, their own indifference to the ordinary human beings who had begun to explore them. Something was going on in them that had no respect for human lives and values, whose actions made no sense at all in human terms.
Understandably, we want them to have gone away. Folk memory—or speculative fantasy—is full of heroes, often divinely mandated, who cleared away the monsters, both the merely brutal and the mildly mischievous, and who laid the foundations of a peaceable rural landscape as well as of stone cities. Sprat wished to make the world a truly familiar place, one that we could come to understand by common sense and reason if we rejected anything “uncanny.” Yet rather few of us are really inclined to empty the world of its significance, and stop seeing “Books in the running brooks, / Sermons in stones.” Ceremonials, temples, sacred writings testify to the significance, to us and to our ancestors, of things that mattered more than food and shelter. Eliminating kings and priests, we merely assign the titles to ourselves, and imagine ourselves as a royal and priestly people! We drove the fairies away because we preferred an ordinary humanity, not because we wanted to discover the real, “unhuman” truth.
We are like the citizens of Hope Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist (written in the 1920s), who preferred simple bourgeois pleasures to the unnerving sense that something altogether different lay only a few miles away. Domestic lives disguise from us, even now, our recognition that the world itself is older, vaster, more intractable than we can ever imagine. We pretend that romantic comedies or naturalistic thrillers set in the present day are more “realistic” than any that require us to remember that we live between immensities, for no more than a fraction of sidereal time in a world that we did not make.
Alongside the fiction that the world is wholly familiar and safe exists the fear that it is in fact a realm of incomprehensible horror, something wholly beyond the human. H. P. Lovecraft, writer of cosmic horror stories, expressed this idea in a letter to his friend Farnsworth Wright in 1927:
Now all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large. To me there is nothing but puerility in a tale in which the human form—and the local human passions and conditions and standards—are depicted as native to other worlds or other universes. To achieve the essence of real externality, whether of time or space or dimension, one must forget that such things as organic life, good and evil, love and hate, and all such local attributes of a negligible and temporary race called mankind, have any existence at all. Only the human scenes and characters must have human qualities. These must be handled with unsparing realism, (not catch-penny romanticism) but when we cross the line to the boundless and hideous unknown—the shadow-haunted Outside—we must remember to leave our humanity—and terrestrialism—at the threshold.
Nor was this a truly novel insight. Plato warned us long ago that we were living, as it were, in a puddle, or on the margins of the real world, or even trapped in a cave watching a shadow-play. What shall we find if we make our escape from the cave or from the puddle? More of the same, or something weirdly different? Is Fairyland an illusion, or the dream of a wider world? Science-fictional adventures in an imaginary future, among extraterrestrial intelligences or future versions of humanity, are—obviously—not accurate predictions of our future, but have more truth in them than to suppose our current social and biological order is unchanging. And so do fairy stories. We know—if we think about it—that our world is changing all the time, often in ways that may well prove catastrophic. None of our guesses about what will certainly replace our current customs and beliefs are likely to be accurate, but at least we can imagine other times and places best by subverting our own readiest illusions. Perhaps we can begin by wondering if the fairies really have gone far away.
Perhaps instead they are living among us still, and exercise their old glamor. They only pretended to leave, or we only pretended to have expelled them. One story is of some mortal midwife, who is called to attend a fairy birth, and instructed to mark the newborn’s eyes with a particular ointment. Accidentally (or perhaps with curious intent) she marks her own left eye as well, and realizes that what had seemed to her a magnificent palace is in truth a cold and dirty cave. Later, about her own business, she observes the fairy who had summoned her walking through the local market taking—unseen by others—whatever he desired. Realizing that she has seen him, he at once blinds her left eye, so leaving her subject once again to Maya, to illusion. We may occasionally see the real world, and the real powers that move it, but are much happier to live in illusion, in the world of merely human happenings, as the fairies among us define them. To set ourselves to reject the older gods, spirits, fairies is actually to renounce all “moral mysteries” and to claim the same power of radical redescription for ourselves: If Nature no longer offers any obstacle to human projects, no threat of violence against those who slaughter the cattle of the sun or cut down sacred groves, then the world is ours to remake as we will. On the one hand, most of us prefer the domestic world. On the other, there are those who profess to have seen through those illusions, and seek only their own advantage in a world stripped of all meaning. Which is the real illusion?
Athanasius and Thomas Sprat alike had a better hope than either, insisting instead that the truly real world could and should be discovered, if only we stopped imagining that poetic phantoms ruled it and us alike, and that it was something more than an abyss. We would find the truth that mattered, they both thought, by cooperating in the human enterprise. We were no longer to be gulled by current convention, nor terrified by any unhuman powers, because these monsters had indeed been long defeated. Heracles, long before, had cleared away the monsters, and rescued Prometheus from his torment; Christ the Incarnate Word testified that illness and all misfortune existed so to be remedied; Baconian experimentalists claimed a similar vocation, to “torture” Nature into giving up her secrets. Great Pan, the first-century story said, is dead, and the world freed of its despots, so as to permit the building of the New Jerusalem, the new and better world. But perhaps this was too romantic, too optimistic a prediction. Most of us have preferred to live without complaint in our familiar domestic world: Even if there are no sacred groves, no fairy presences, no knowing beasts “out there,” we have little hesitation in thinking that human lives and our local institutions are sacred. Even the gospel of redemption and rebirth becomes, very often, only worship of the current state of things, the resident oracles and spirits, the obviously “successful” businessmen or politicians. And the rejection of current values in its turn easily becomes a merely cynical rejection of all value, the world that fairies see and those “successful” people use.
Is a third possibility a real one, some way of acknowledging the power and value of “fairy” that is not simply to accept either the domestic illusion or the larger and more dreadful nihilistic fantasy? Could there be fairies whose imagination helps to serve the fully humane ideal rather than diminish or deny it? Chesterton himself would have thought so.
Fairy tales are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.
There is also the metaphysical question I sketched before: How can a merely material world ever accommodate our own experience of life? Cartesians—taking the theologically grounded refusal to believe in spirits or worry about the influence of final causes to some sort of plausible limit—believed that “animals” were insentient, and that only humans had goals or thoughts or feelings. The more fundamental doubt thereby gained traction: Maybe even human beings have no real subjective life. Even if, in some sense, I exist, I don’t know what I am—and it turns out, so some modern materialists have begun to argue—that nothing I do or even say and think is more than the motion of material parts (and so subvert even the notion of rational argument itself). No one is really “subjectively conscious,” precisely because no one could identify such subjectivity in others (and so could have no words to describe it in himself), and because there could be no way that evolutionary selection could detect or propagate this purely private “feel.” All that can be ascribed to any natural being is a power to respond “appropriately” to some current state of affairs, without any need to suppose that there is “something it is like to be” such a creature. Oddly, of course, this leaves the modern materialist unable to deny that insects, trees, or prokaryotes may also respond “appropriately,” and therefore be just as “objectively conscious” (which is only to say “observably awake”) as we are ourselves.
Even modern materialists, of course, have difficulty sustaining the strange thesis that they are not themselves conscious in the old, subjective sense, and that their own identity is a cultural illusion or mistake of language. It seems undeniable that something is going on in us —in me and in you, my readers—that is not best described in merely material terms: We have thoughts and feelings denied (or so we mostly suppose) even to the cleverest chess-playing computer program. We do have an “inner” life. Maybe consciousness is an emergent property? But this is only to say that we have no idea how it happens, nor any way of equating the felt reality of our own being with other, measurable features. It is as much as to believe in magic, in the arbitrary conjunction of events. So panpsychism, from being a really bizarre hypothesis, is now being actively considered as a solution to the so-called “hard problem” of how phenomenal, subjective qualities are connected to merely material quantities. Even electrons have an inner life.
And if that is so, we can consider fairies yet again: Everything we encounter has its own inner being, and is busy about its own affairs. Like other products of evolutionary change, we only notice what is likely to matter to us: We experience only a fragment of what is happening in the world. And what is out of our sight and sense is also, mostly, out of mind. Our conscious experience and intention run alongside the merely material happenings in our brains and bodies. Similarly, the presence of “fairies” is not ruled out merely because what happens “naturally” also involves the motion of material parts. Nor is it ruled out by the fact that there are very general “laws” to describe what happens: The laws of nature that we discover are not explanations but very general descriptions—and real explanations, if there are any, may lie in the conscious intention of spirits with their own agendas and inclinations. Martin Buber once remarked:
The tree is no impression, no play of my imagination, no aspect of a mood; it confronts me bodily and has to deal with me as I must deal with it—only differently. One should not try to dilute the meaning of the relation: relation is reciprocity. Does the tree then have consciousness, similar to our own? I have no experience of that. But thinking that you have brought this off in your own case, must you again divide the indivisible? What I encounter is neither the soul of a tree nor a dryad, but the tree itself.
But perhaps that is exactly what encountering “the soul of a tree or a dryad” is like. Something is really there, and we describe it in the terms with which we are most familiar, while also knowing that those familiar terms are strictly inapplicable. Or rather, in applying them to trees or rocks or stars, we may suddenly find that they are unfamiliar terms, and that we hardly know even what other human creatures are. We may find that we are in Fairyland already.
Neanderthals and the rest of our now-vanished cousins may already have run together in our ancestors’ imaginations with the presences they detected in woods and streams and starlight. Neanderthals and the rest are gone away, and we have tried very hard to extinguish fairies and false chimeras. Some such fairies are present still in human thought: They disguise themselves and their more nihilistic threat by letting us see only the domestic and national fantasies. But maybe presences of the older sort can now be properly acknowledged. Fairy tale monsters, of course, were often as frightening as any of Lovecraft’s cosmic horrors. But—like those horrors—they can also be conceived or experienced as something beautiful in their own right. And unlike Lovecraft, fairy tales give us some hope of victory. The world is not to be understood in merely domestic categories, as though nothing existed that lay beyond our local and parochial concerns. Nor is it an unmeaning chaos, from which, to preserve our sanity, we need to avert our eyes. Fairyland is many things, or one thing under many different descriptions. It is the hint of a wilder and wider world than the domestic, from which the bolder of us might bring treasures if we can avoid its perils; a reminder of a world unconstrained by any of our familiar values, and threatening therefore to alienate us from our own; the dream of a world where everything can speak and everything contribute its own beauty to the growing whole.
Stephen R. L. Clark is professor of philosophy emeritus at the University of Liverpool.