Friday, February 19, 2010

Strange and Secret Peoples



I recently finished this book by Carole G. Silver. It's a fascinating read and I highly recommend it to anyone interested. As a student of fairy tales, I admit I knew very little about the fairy beliefs of the people who told the tales, and surprisingly, the role of fairies in lore is very different than that in the tales. Silver describes how the prevailing attitudes of the Victorian age influenced the tales that were told. Chauvenism is seen in the fairy bride tales, which traditionally ended with a fairy bride (or selkie, mermaid, or other superhuman creature) finding her skin and leaving her human husband and children behind. The Victorian versions of these tales portray the fairy bride as wrong for doing this, or perhaps portray her as staying happily with her new family. (Did you know it was legal in Victorian England for husbands to beat their wives, under certain circumstances??)


Silver also has a fascinating section on how early understanding of Darwinian science combined with racism to lead people to believe that dwarves, trolls, and other people from folklore were remnants from earlier, less evolved species. This, sadly, reinforced those beliefs of racism and class superiority.





Silver also discusses the Cottingly Fairy photographs (though commonly acknowledged to have been a hoax, one of the girls on her deathbed claimed that one of the pictures taken was not a fake. Unfortunately, they all look the same, but for those who still want to hope...) and how fairies went from being truly scary and dangerous to being diminuitive and "cute" as we think of them today. Our present ideas of ghosts, vampires, cannibals, the Grim Reaper, etc., were more like the fairy beliefs of people in the Victorian age than Tinker Bell or the little baby Cupid.
It makes me wonder how the fairies in the tales told then differ so much from their supposed beliefs. But at the same time, it reminded me of our current cultural obsession with vampire-as-lover. Most of us know that traditionally, vampires have no sexual interest in humans, only in drinking their blood. I personally think the appeal lies in the fact that an undead admirer is more flattering than a regular man with hormones, because the female must be that much more attractive in order to seduce a blood-thirsty vampire. But this is only personal speculation.

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