“Why she was invaluable to me! Who taught me to curl myself inside a buttercup? Iolanthe! Who taught me to swing upon a cobweb? Iolanthe! Who taught me to dive into a dewdrop—to nestle in a nutshell—to gambol upon gossamer? Iolanthe!” (WS Gilbert, Iolanthe, Act I)
As ever, dear readers, welcome.
In 1882, dramatist W.S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan
produced what they called “An Entirely Original Fairy Opera In Two Acts Entitled Iolanthe; or The Peer and the Peri”.
The “Peer” in this case, is the Lord Chancellor,
described in the Wiki article as “the highest-ranking among the Great Officers of State who are appointed regularly in the United Kingdom, nominally outranking the Prime Minister”.
The “Peri”—from the Persian word “pari”, a kind of angelic being and standing in here (for alliterative purposes) for “fairy”—is the title character, Iolanthe.
The person speaking about her in the quotation above is the Queen of the Fairies,
(looking suspiciously like someone escaped from Wagner’s Der Ring Des Nibelungen)
who has banished Iolanthe years before for the crime of marrying a mortal (in fact the man who will become the Lord Chancellor). A running joke in the play is that, although the fairies are meant to be tiny—as in the description above of the activities of the Queen of the Fairies—on stage, they are the same size as the mortals. And this is still true today, of course, when you see a revival.
A second joke is that the Queen, beginning with the original actress, Alice Barnett (in the photograph above), has a deep voice, being a contralto, and is of ample size (Barnett was 5 feet 10 inches—177cm tall).
Gilbert, who was a very subtle man, chose to draw no direct attention to the potential problem of difference in scale, but, to any Victorian who considered it, the joke would have been obvious, as fairies had been thought of as tiny beings since at least Shakespeare’s time, when, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Titania, that Queen of the Fairies’, attendants are named “Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth, and Mustardseed”.
(And perhaps even earlier than Shakespeare, if the 12th-century priest, Giraldus Cambrensis’ , story of the boyhood adventure of the Welsh priest, Elidorus, in his The Itinerary and Description of Wales—it’s in Book I of the Itinerarium Kambriae, in Chapter 8– is referring to fairies. For an English translation of the relevant passage, see:
This tiny tradition was carried on into the 17th century by Michael Drayton (1563-1631)
in his poem, Nymphidia (1627), with passages such as this (lines 41-48, describing the fairy palace):
“The walls of spiders’ legs are made
Well mortised and finely laid;
He was the master of his trade
It curiously had builded;
The windows of the eyes of cats,
And for a roof, instead of slats,
Is covered with the skin of bats,
With moonshine that are gilded.”
(for more, see: http://www.luminarium.org/editions/nymphidia.htm )
In the essay “On Fairy Stories” (1939/1947), Tolkien expresses his intense dislike of this sort of thing:
“Drayton’s Nymphidia is one ancestor of that long line of flower-fairies and fluttering sprites with antennae that I so disliked as a child, and which my children in turn detested.”
And, citing the above passage in particular, he continues:
“Drayton’s Nymphidia is, considered as a fairy-story (a story about fairies), one of the worst ever written.”
JRRT’s very negative reaction comes at the end of a long tradition of the miniaturized world he disliked. The Elizabethan/Jacobean fancies of Shakespeare and Drayton inspired 19th-century English artists from Landseer (1802-1873),
Richard Dadd (1817-1886),
and Robert Huskisson (1820-1861),
to Richard Doyle (1824-1883)—perhaps the most famous fairy painter–
and Arthur Rackham (1867-1939).
And then there were the photographs.
In The Strand Christmas issue for December, 1920, there appeared these two very odd pictures–
Here are larger versions:
These were followed, in time, by three more—
To our 21st century eyes, these look impossibly faked. The children are three-dimensional, but the “fairies” in four of the photos and the “gnome” in the other have the appearance of colored cardboard cut-outs—which is exactly what they are, some actually modeled upon an illustration in a popular book of the period, Princess Mary’s Gift Book (1914).
(Here’s a LINK so that you can have your own copy: https://archive.org/details/princessmarysgif00mary
The illustration, one of several, accompanies a poem, “A Spell for a Fairy” by the once well-known poet, Alfred Noyes (1880-1958) and can be seen on page 102. This is actually quite a remarkable book, seeming to have contributions by every prominent author of the period, in particular adventure writers like the Baroness Orczy and H. Rider Haggard, and even a poem by Rudyard Kipling.)
“Spirit photography” had been around since the 1860s, when a Boston photographer, William Mumler (1832-1884) began to add faint extra exposures to actual portrait photos. If you’re at all familiar with this kind of cheap trickery, you’ll recognize this of Mary Todd Lincoln, the widow of Abraham Lincoln, with a ghostly (literally) President Lincoln behind her.
Mumler was exposed as a fraudster in 1869, but that didn’t stop some from continuing to believe that the spirit world was desperate for a “Kodak moment” with the living. And among those was a surprising figure, the creator of the original sceptical detective,
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930). His name was on that 1920 Strand article and, soon after, Sir Arthur published both The Coming of the Fairies
and The Case for Spirit Photography in 1922. (If you’re interested, here are LINKS to both:
Conan Doyle was already in the “Spiritualist” movement. As early as 1887, he had published an article on a séance (a meeting in which a “medium”—that is, a person supposedly sensitive to the spirit world—and a group of interested people attempt to contact the dead) he had attended. And, in 1917, he delivered his first public lecture on the subject.
He was predisposed, then, to believe what he saw, almost as if he were hearing Holmes, in his head, saying, “Eliminate all other factors, and the one which remains must be the truth.” (The Sign of the Four, 1890)
In fact, considering what was the truth, he should have been hearing:
“Let me run over the principal steps. We approached the case, you remember, with an absolutely blank mind, which is always an advantage. We had formed no theories. We were simply there to observe and to draw inferences from our observations.” (The Adventure of the Cardboard Box, 1893)
But perhaps the same spirit—no pun intended—which keeps us from thinking too hard about the scale of the characters in Iolanthe was behind Conan Doyle’s firm assertion of the veracity of those photographs.
Or, perhaps it was the same impulse which makes us clap when, in the play Peter Pan, Tinkerbell is dying and our clapping will bring her back: a basic need, even for the creator of Sherlock Holmes, to believe in fairies?
Thanks, as always, for reading,
And remember, as always, that there’s
In 1908, Arthur Rackham illustrated perhaps the most beautiful and certainly the most creatively constructed edition of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Here’s a LINK so that you can have your own copy of this impressive work: