Sir Arthur's Little Friends, The Fairies

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

Sir Arthur's Little Friends, The Fairies is an article written by Ishbel M. Ross published in the New-York Tribune on 30 april 1922.

Illustration by Jefferson Machamer.

Sir Arthur's Little Friends, The Fairies

New-York Tribune (30 april 1922, magazine section, p. 1)

When the keen mind that dealt for a generation in the searching materialism of Sherlock Holmes turns to fantasy the inevitable reaction is surprise. Had Sir Arthur Conan Doyle never given the breath of life to the most subtle and cold-blooded of detectives, had he more of the fire of the Celt in his veins, his avowed belief in the existence of fairies might pass unchallenged. As it is the question arises — has his surrender to spiritualism brought with it a belief in the more primitive forms of mythical expression?

For thirty-six years Sir Arthur has studied spiritualism; in the last four years with concentrated energy and belief. He is now a man of sixty-three, lightly frosted gray, hearty and earnest in his exposition of the theories of Sir William Crookes, Sir Oliver Lodge and those evolved by himself. In every lecture delivered since he landed in this country some weeks ago he has sought to defend what he calls the "method in his madness."

Yet in all seriousness he accepts photographs which he says were taken by two little girls near Bradford, Yorkshire, showing exquisite fairies and puckish goblins. While the skeptic may talk of freak camera work, dreams of wax dolls with wings, the fact remains that within a few months Conan Doyle the author of scores of detective stories will publish a book with his findings on the fairy folk. It will be illustrated by these pictures for which he vouches. Is it the strain of Scotch and high blood in Sir Arthur which, running counter to the materialism of years, now expresses itself in this fantastic form?

Belief in the existence of little people in woodland, stream and forest has been peculiarly confined to the more imaginative and romantic races. It runs through ancient mythology. It is the basis of a child's first dreams — his fairy books. The fascination of it lingers through adolescence and maturity. How easy to conjure up a picture of busy little elves and goblins, dancing and playing in the moonlight, finishing the shoemaker's shoes, curdling the cream! Or of the more stately fairy, with crown and ward, touching the sackcloth and ashes of Cinderella and turning them to silk and jewel! The visit of delight opened to the eyes of a child through Hans Anderson and Grimm persists through the years and comes to the surface when a man like Conan Doyle standing six feet high and immovable in his stockiness, says: "I know there are fairies." And since he is logician enough to realise that there must be a reason for everything, he hands you his fairy photographs and says: "See for yourself!"

His earnestness is perhaps the dominant impression conveyed by Sir Arthur. He is so anxious that one should believe; so patient with one's stupidity. He asks just one thing — that he be not ridiculed whether on the subject of fairies or his halcyon paradise where beauty and strength and talent alone persist. Sure of his beliefs, he batters them home with quiet emphasis of the lecturing professor. It is nil so simple to him in the completeness of his faith. We all are angels, he believes, living out our earthly term, and the fairies are simply a lower expression of the spiritual life.

He is not alone in this belief. Maurice Hewlett, another distinguished English author, has as fixed a faith in the existence of fairies as Sir Arthur. He, too, has alleged photographs from the pixie world. Most books of Celtic folklore have a wealth of such material. There is a difference, however, between the fairies Sir Arthur's photographs and these in the books of Irish legend.

There is a startling clarity about the Bradford fairies. A little girl sits in the grass and around her neck and shoulders, like a garland of flowers, troop exquisite figures with gossamer wings, perfect forms and features in miniature. Their floating draperies and pipes of Pan are Grecian in effect. There is none of the vague mistiness and obscurity of outline peculiar to the "spirit photograph" of the conventional picture in books of folklore. They are clear-cut, lifelike, and give the impression of rapid motion. The type is varied by a picture of a saucy littl goblin with a round, fat face and spindly legs. He is perched on the hand of the little girl.

Immediately on looking at the pictures the question arises in one's mind: Is it a trick of the camera? Every one knows the vagaries of super-imposition and the freak effects that can be obtained by accident or design. But even before one completes the thought the level voice of Sir Arthur interrupts with:

"These plates have been carefully examined by expert photographers who vouch for the fact that they are natural photographs and that there is no deception or freak work. The girls had been returning from the woods constantly saying they saw and played with fairies. Their father, a hard-headed electrician, laughed at them. Finally he gave them a camera. They soon came home with a picture of elves, and later returned with the goblin plate. Three years later we brought them together with exactly the same result. They could not work separately, however. As is often the case with psychically endowed persons, they needed work together to create the atmosphere."

Iris and Alice Carpenter, as the girls are fictitiously called, were sixteen and ten years of age at the time the photographs were taken. When Sir Arthur heard of the existence of the pictures he submitted the plates to various photographers, who were loath to admit that they were genuine. One photographer refused to accept them on the ground that one of the elfin figures had an elaborate Parisian coiffure. Another said the background was theatrical. Finally he sent Edward L. Gardner, a member of the executive committee of the Theosophical Society, north to investigate the circumstances surrounding the taking of the pictures. Mr. Gardner reported that he secured the plates and that one was fairly clear, while the other was under-exposed. Neither showed any signs of double exposure. The work appeared to be perfectly straightforward, he said. The plates were enlarged and submitted to expert photographers. One claimed that he could produce the name class of negative by studio work involving painted models. He objected to the background and the size of the toadstools. Mr. Gardner visited the dell where the the pictures were taken and, according to this report, found the background to be exactly the same as that appearing in the prints. The camera was the "Midg" quarter plate and the pictures taken on summer afternoons. Several photographers eventually indorsed them.

The fairies were pastel-tinted, according to the story told Mr. Gardner by the two cousins. Their wings were palest green, pink and mauve, but their bodies were pale, almost white. The gnome appeared to be in black tights, with a reddish brown jersey and a red painted cap. He was swinging his pipes in his left hand.

In order to summon the fairies the children sat passively with their minds quietly focussed on the subject, they told Mr. Gardner. When faint stirrings or movements in the distance heralded their presence the girls would beckon and show that the fairy folk were welcome. If there was not too much rustling in the wood, they claimed they could hear the faint, high notes of their pipes.

"To the objections of photographers that the fairy figures show quite different shadows to those of human being, our answer is that psychoplasm, as the etheric protoplasm has been named, has a faint luminosity of its own which would largely modify the shadows," said Sir Arthur. "I studied the pictures closely under double lens and found that the pipes are the kind associated by the ancients with fauns and naiad. They have an ornamental rim. A second general observation is that the elves are a compound of the human and the butterfly, while the gnome more of a moth. This may be merely the result of under-exposure of the negative and dullness of the weather. Perhaps the little gnome is really of the same tribe, but represents the elderly male, while the elves are the young women.

"These little figures would seem to have an objective reality as we have ourselves, even if their vibrations should prove that it takes either psychic power or a sensitive plate to record them. If they are conventional, it may be that fairies have really been seen in every generation and so some correct description of them has been retained.

"The thought of these little folk who appear to be our neighbors will add a charm to every brook and valley and give romantic interest to every country walk. The recognition of their existence will jolt the material twentieth century mind out of its heavy ruts in the mud and will make it admit that there is a glamour and mystery to life. Having discovered this, the world will not find it so difficult to accept that spiritual message supported by physical facts which has already been so convincingly put before it."

Whatever the theories of this clever write on the subject of fairies, he has ample backing in the pages of Celtic literature and in the allowed beliefs of living Irish mystics. Take Padraic Colum, for instance. He has written extensively on the subject and believes that the fairy life of every race is different and is expressive of the spiritual life of the people. The deserts produced genie, he says, beings full of power and destructive force. From Serbia and Turkey and the blood-soaked countries of Central Europe came the vampires. The highest form of fairy life, he believes, was attained in the dryads and nymphs of ancient Greece. The Irish fairies are of a high type, tall and heroic, in stature because of the spiritual qualities of the race. The placid prettiness of Sir Arthur's fairies he ascribes to the gentle undulations of England, the lack of strife, the even tenor of life. All the Anglo-Saxon fairies are small, he says, while the Celtic type is large and heroic. Pursuing his trend of thought the United States might be expected to have baby Croesuses hiding in its dells, although no one has discovered them yet.

According to their commentators, the fairies are not all the gentle little people of the story books. An old Celtic ballad, entitled "The Fiery Host," pictures them as awe inspiring and terrible, thus:

Pure white the shields their arms upbear,
With silver emblems rare o'ercast;
Amid blue glittering blades they go,
The horns they blow are loud of blast.
In well-instructed ranks of war
Before their Chief they proudly pace;
Coerulean spears o’er every crest—
A curly-tressed, pale-visaged race.
Beneath the flame of their attack,
Bare and black turns every coast;
With such a terror to the fight
Flashes that mighty vengeful host.
Small wonder that their strength is great,
Since royal in estate are all,
Each hero’s head a lion’s fell—
A golden yellow mane lets fall.
Comely and smooth their bodies are,
Their eyes the starry blue eclipse,
The pure white crystal of their teeth
Laughs out beneath their thin red lips.
Good are they at man-slaying feats,
Melodious over meats and ale;
Of woven verse they wield the spell,
At chess-craft they excel the Gael.

When questioned specifically about the fairies of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Mr. Colum said he could see no reason to disbelieve the authenticity of such photographs. The balance of probability is in favor of fairy life, he added.

"If one has any feeling for entities in nature — in the open rivers and wide spaces — one knows that some sort of creature life is bound up with it," said the Irish mystic. "I imagine there are as many grades in the world outside our own as there are races of men.

"The fairies, I imagine, are rather a low form of life. They are elemental beings — you find that most people who know them do not like them. They have no spiritual life, but live the natural life of the elements. Every country has its own elemental life. That is why you get so many different conceptions of fairies — the heroic, the puny, the beneficient, the impish, the sinister and the gentle.

"In Ireland the fairies are called the 'Sidhe' or 'DeDanaan' which means gods as well as fairies. The legend is that they are all fallen angels. They are spoken of as the 'good people,' and it is wise to say little about them. It is remembered that sometimes they take away children and brides. They delight in music, and often they carry off a good fiddler or piper to attend them in their revels under the 'rath' — or fort. Music communicable between fairies and mortals. The lovely dance tune known as 'The Fairy Reel' is believed to have come straight out of the fairy world."

The attitude of the Irish people toward them is summed up, according to Mr. Colum, in this ancient imprecation:

"We accept their protection, and we refuse their removal; their backs to us, their faces from us, through the death and passion of our Savior Jesus Christ."

The Banshee, long associated with woe and death, is described as a tragic figure that walls and "keens" for people of the old Celtic race. Too frequently she is claimed by a family that could not possibly own a Banshee, Mr. Colum says, as she only follows descendants, of the high Milesian race. The story goes that she draws a comb through her hair as she walls.

The Leprechaun is an artisan of the fatries. He is a busy little fellow, stunted and misshapen, who is supposed to spend all his time making shoes. The sound of his hammering can be heard near castle and fort, it is said.

Wandering along the roads In Ireland one day Mr. Colum encountered a blind tramp and put the question to him: "What are the fairies?"

"The fairies?" said the old man, "I will tell you what the fairies are:

"God moved from His seat, and When He turned round Lucifer was in it. Then hell was made in a minute. God moved His hand and swept away thousands of angels, and it was in His mind to sweep away thousands more.

"'O, God Almighty, stop!" the angel Gabriel cried. 'Heaven will be swept clean.'

"'I'll stop,' said God. 'Them that are in heaven, let them remain in heaven, and them that are between heaven and hell, let there remain in the sir.' And these are the fairies!"

This, at any rate, is the legend they tell in Ireland of the coming of the fairies.

They are supposed to dwell in a fort or "rath," generally crowned by some old trees. It is believed that these forts were built by the Danes, but Mr. Colum is of the opinion that "Danes" this connection mean the "De Danaan," the gods of the Irish Celts. Their home is in palaces, where they work and play. Celtic authorities claim that they are an organized people, often called "the army," and that their life corresponds to human life in all particulars. Whirls of dust are caused by the fairy marching army.

In 1907 in the north of Ireland stones were supposed to be flying around a farmer's house. The neighbors said that the fairies caused the phenomenon, as the man had swept his chimney with a bough of holly, and the holly fa "a gentle tree," dear to the fairies.

In Ireland and the West Highlands of Scotland neolithic arrowheads and flint chips are still fairy weapons. They are dipped in water, which is given to ailing cattle and human beings as a sovereign remedy for disease. In Glencoe is a hill where fairy music, vocal and instrumental, is alleged to be heard in still weather. In the highlands of Scotland more interest is taken in second sight than in fairies, while in Ireland the reverse is the case.

There is a theory that the fairies survive in legend from prehistoric memories of a pigmy people dwelling in the subterranean earth-houses, but historians claim that the contents of these do not indicate an age prior to the close of the Roman occupation of Britain, nor are pigmy bones common in neolithic sepulchres.

The belief in a species of feminine fairies, deadly to their human lovers, runs through the folklore of most countries. The Greek sirens of Homer are a form of these deadly fairies, just as the Nereids, oreads and naiads are fairies of wells, mountains and the sea. The fairies who attend the births of children and bestow gifts on them are akin to the human "spae women" or soothsayers of Scotland, who claim they get omens of the child's future from various signs.

The revels of the fairies are supposed to be conducted within the "fairy ring," an open patch of grass where the moonlight can play. Sir Arthur's fairies are not true to type by letting themselves be photographed in broad daylight. Traditional fairies are night owls. Midnight must have struck before they enter the charmed ring!

George Russell, the Irish poet who writes under the initials "A. E.," not only believes in fairies, but declares he has seen there.

"On that many colored earth which is superior to this we know, yet related to us as soul to body, live a divine folk, and I wish to convey so far as words may how some apparitions of that ancient beauty came to me in wood or on hillside or by the shores of the western sea," he says.

"Lying on the hillside with my body eyes half shut, I saw fountains as of luminous mist jetting from some hidden heart of power and shining folk who passed into those fountains, inhaled them and drew life from the magical air. They were, I believe, those who, in the ancient world, gave birth to legends of nymphs and dryads.

"Their perfectness was like the perfectness of a flower which has never been broken by act of the individualized will, which, with us, makes possible, a choice between good and evil and the marring of the mold of natural beauties."