“I believe in everything until it’s disproved. So I believe in fairies, the myths, dragons. It all exists, even if it’s in your mind. Who’s to say that dreams and nightmares aren’t as real as the here and now?…” John Lennon
Do you believe in fairies? There’s plenty of folk who do…. How many among us have strapped on our ‘gossamer’ wings, slipped into a tutu, popped a plastic tiara on our heads and pranced around waving a sparkly wand, pretending to be one? Of course, as a child, I hasten to add – to do so as an adult would cause a few raised eyebrows; it would most probably be viewed as a borderline fetish…. But make-believe and fairy tales are as much a part of childhood as Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny….
Thanks to popular children’s authors, such as Enid Blyton – and the wonderful films of Walt Disney – the stereotypical fairy is a firmly fixed image in our minds….
However, the term ‘fairy’ actually covers a large range of supernatural, mythical beings…. Elves, goblins, banshees, pixies, brownies, kelpies, sprites, leprechauns, mermaids, changelings, nymphs, gnomes and seelies, to name but a few, can all be described as fairy folk..
But our modern-day nostalgic, affectionate view of the Tooth Fairy or pantomime fairy godmother – (let’s face it, Cinderella would never have got to the ball without one) – has not always been the case…. Wind the clock back to the Middle Ages and people lived in constant fear of them….
“Fairies, black, grey, green, and white. You moonshine revellers, and shades of night. You orphan heirs of fixed destiny, Attend your office and your quality….” William Shakespeare
Fairy folklore is prevalent in Celtic regions…. There is a belief, by some, that they are an ancient race who have inhabited the Earth since long, long ago and that they are descended from the Tuatha De Danann – the tribe of the High Priestess Dana, one of the most ancient Celtic goddesses…. Fairies are said to be able to see the future; they know all about the secrets of herbs and animals….they perform magic…. Sometimes they are friendly and helpful to humans but at other times they can be evil and troublesome – meddling in human affairs….
In fact – so unpopular were the fairy folk that extremes were taken not to even utter their name – they became referred to as ‘Little People’ or ‘Hidden People’; they were often regarded as ‘fallen angels’ – not quite good enough to be accepted into Heaven but not bad enough to be sent to Hell…. The notion of the fairy goes back long before the advent of Christianity; indeed, Pagan beliefs tell us these little folk live within holly bushes and hawthorn trees…. Later the focus switched to the Christmas tree, from the Pagan celebrations of the Midwinter festival, particularly those of Germany and Scandinavia….
Here in the UK, the first Christmas trees didn’t arrive until the 1830s – when they were introduced to us by Prince Albert. In the beginning a figure or picture of the Baby Jesus was put on top of the tree. In 1841 pictures appeared in newspapers of the tree belonging to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, proudly displaying its angel perched upon the top; naturally the idea caught on…. Since that time most of our trees are adorned with either a star, to represent the Star of Bethlehem as seen by the Wise men – or an angel to symbolise Gabriel from the Nativity….over time many a tree topper evolved from an angel to a fairy….
Although – there is another ‘tongue-in-cheek’ reason as to why we have a fairy adorning the top of so many of our Christmas trees…. It is the tale of a rather ‘bad day at the office’ for a poor, stressed out Santa Claus….
Santa was having a tough time of it; the elves were on strike, demanding more pay – so the toy making schedule was running way behind…. When Santa finally got around to loading the sleigh he found half the reindeer had bolted and the other half were pregnant…. On piling the sacks of presents into the sleigh, a floor board broke – sending toys tumbling in all directions…. At some point in the proceedings, Mrs Claus announced that her mother was coming to stay, which did not improve his humour…. With a sigh of frustration, Santa decided he needed a strong drink – only to find the elves had polished off all his booze. As if all this wasn’t enough, he somehow managed to clumsily drop the empty cider flagon and it smashed in to smithereens at his feet. Now in a somewhat foul mood he fetched the broom to sweep the fragments of broken pottery away, only to find the mice had been chewing at the bristles…. So, he really wasn’t in the best frame of mind when there came a knock on the door. Grumbling and cursing he flung open the door and found a rather sweet fairy standing there holding a Christmas tree…. “Merry Christmas, Santa…. Where would you like me to stick the tree?…”
This story is obviously intended as a bit of fun. Fairies appear in so many of our well-known stories and in even more that have long been forgotten…. Perhaps the oldest record in English literature dates back to the 13th Century and was by historian, lawyer, Churchman, Statesman and writer, Gervase of Tilbury (1150-1220). He, of course, was writing at a time when belief in the Little People was common place. Not having scientific explanations for the many natural phenomenons of the World, supernatural causes took the ‘blame’, not least the fairy folk…. People would go to great lengths to deter fairy visitors; St. John’s wort and yarrow were thought to ward them off….whereas hawthorn, foxgloves and groundsel were all attractive to them. At the time of Hallowe’en offerings would be made in an attempt to keep them sweet….
In the time since Gervase of Tilbury fairies have been a subject explored by writers of all genres…. From verse penned by English poet Edmund Spenser to the writings of French author Charles Perrault.
As children, we were all familiar with the stories by Hans Christian Anderson and J.M. Barrie – who in his Peter Pan could arguably have created one of the most well-known fairy characters of all time – Tinkerbell….
“Fairies have to be one thing or the other, because being so small they unfortunately have room for one feeling at a time….” J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan
Then, as part of our schooling, most of us would have studied the works of Shakespeare in one form or another….possibly coming across Titania, Queen of the fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream or perhaps the mischievous sprite Ariel in the Tempest….
Maybe the musical among us relate more to the Dance of the Sugar Plum fairy….from the Nutcracker – and probably one of the best recognised pieces of ballet music….
The Sugar Plum Fairy was not actually a character who appeared in the original story – ‘The Nutcracker and the Mouse King’ – written in 1816 by E.T.A. Hoffmann and upon which the ballet is based…. Tchaikovsky used some of the original numbers from the ballet to produce his Nutcracker Suite – he wrote ‘The Dance of the Sugar Plum fairy’ for a musical instrument he had excitedly purchased in Paris – the Celestra…. Looking like a small piano it produces a sound resembling tinkling bells…. Nowadays, we often associate this piece of music with Christmas….
For those who would like to believe that fairies really do exist there are obvious signs to look out for…. It is said that the time they are most likely to be seen is around Beltane, when Mother Nature is awakening from her slumber. For many, stumbling across a fairy ring is the only proof needed that they do indeed exist among us.
A fairy ring is a naturally occuring circle of mushrooms or toadstools; it is believed to be a place where fairies dance and sing – and many view it as a dangerous place for humans – it is full of dark magic and best avoided at all costs…. In Germany they are known as ‘witches rings’; in Dutch superstition it is where the Devil churns his milk….
The main part of the fungi that produce these rings is located under the soil; it feeds upon the nutrients it finds there, pushing further and further out in a circular shape, searching for new food – the circle increasing in size as time goes by…. Periodically up pop the toadstools, creating the ring we are familiar with…. Some rings can be hundreds of years old; the largest one ever found is in Belfort, France – it is some 2,000 feet (600 metres) in diameter and about 700 years old…. So, are fairy rings magical? Perhaps not when one pops up in the middle of your well manicured lawn….
As fairies are such a major part of European folklore it’s only fair to say every region, county or even village will have its own tales to tell….not least Dunsfold….
Vaguely, I remembered hearing there was some connection with fairy folk and the village, when we first moved here some twelve or thirteen years ago…. So, I thought a little digging was required….
Turns out the story originates from the building of the church back in the 13th Century…. Saint Mary’s and All Saints is situated about a mile from the centre of the village; in days gone by it would have been a long, wet, muddy walk every Sunday – wellie boots would not have been an option…. It is built on the site of an ancient chapel and close by is a holy well, sacred from very early times and most likely a place of Pagan worship…. It is believed the waters from the well have medicinal properties and are able to cure afflictions of the eye…. There are tales of the Virgin Mary making an appearance there and it has often been a place of pilgrimage for Roman Catholics…. When the time came for a new church to be built in Dunsfold, it is believed many of the villagers wanted it to be located nearer to the centre of the village…. However, traditionalists argued that it should be constructed on the existing sacred site (as was often the case at the beginning of Christianity). Naturally, the truth gets lost over the centuries – but it appears there were altercations between the builders and those who wanted the place of worship to remain at the existing Holy site…. Certain events were blamed upon the ‘Pharisees’….not to be confused with the biblical Pharisees and Sadducees; this is actually the Sussex and Wealden dialect double pluralisation of ‘fairy’…. The mortals wanted the church to be built within the confines of the village – the Pharisees desired it to remain at the sacred site….eventually tradition won….
Feeling a little guilty, that in all the years of living in Dunsfold, I have never once gone in search of this sacred well, I decided I had better go and find it…. So, on Saturday afternoon, accompanied by Jordan (my 17-year-old son) – I did just that…. A chilly, late November afternoon – but blessed with glorious sunshine – we set off on a winter’s stroll….albeit a very short one…. In all honesty I had been expecting a bit of a hike – but the well is only a short distance from the church – down a footpath and situated on a tributary of the River Arun….
There is not a lot to see…. A covered shrine of the Virgin Mary which was dedicated by the Bishop of Guildford on September 29th 1933….
However, it has an air of mystery surrounding it – and I have a feeling it has many more secrets and stories to be uncovered…. Maybe this will be continued….
So….do you believe in fairies? Personally – as a woman – I think I might be one!
“There is a latent fairy in all women, but look how carefully we have to secrete her in order to be taken seriously. And fairies come in all shapes, colours, sizes and types, they don’t have to be fluffy. They can be demanding and furious if they like. They do, however, have to wear a tiara. That much is compulsory….” Dawn French, A Tiny Bit Marvelous
“Don’t mess with the fairies….” David C. Mitchell, The Bone Clocks