Issue 6: Performing Fairy. Guest editors Fay Hield and Kevan Manwaring
Tales about fairies are often thought of as the province of children, popularised by moralising fairy tales and Disney films, yet the success of works such as The Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones and World of Warcraft demonstrate that other tropes that tap into the mythical past hold the power to enthral adult audiences. The Modern Fairies and Loathly Ladies research project explored the porosity of this border by inviting thirteen musicians, writers and visual artists to respond to traditional tales about fairies and collaborate to make new works for contemporary audiences. We frame the artists’ interpretations of fairy lore as acts of (re)mediation. Audiences were involved through work-in-progress sharings and focus groups to capture their responses to the developing work. Here we present three distinct perspectives on the project: the folklore academic, the practice-as-research artist and the audience researcher. The thematic choices the artists made with the open-ended creative brief were at times unexpected, exposing the individual journeys artists made to create personal connections with the material. This resulted in work being produced that represented an individual artistic voice. Audience experience was similarly bound up in deeply personal understandings of fairy folklore, requiring modes of marketing presentation to be fully thought-through if this content is to be commercialised for new target markets. This project exposes the process of mediating folkloric material to make it relevant to contemporary concerns and anxieties. The narratives foreground vital themes of individual identity and self-determination; the vivid dramatisation of timeless and enduring truths about human existence still communicates powerfully with contemporary audiences. With attention to the staging of concepts and mediatised (re)presentation, this project has shown that the ancient, academic and obscure has the potential to become immediate, relevant and vivid.
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This paper presents and contextualises original artistic responses to the site of the Cottingley Fairies hoax produced as part of a practice-based research project exploring the spaces and places of fairies in 21st century post-industrial settings. Both authors (researchers/artist-practitioners) grew up in neighbourhoods close to the original geographical site of the famous Cottingley Fairies photographs: a site which both historically and in the 21st century is layered, complex, and challenging. In 2003, when the A650 dual-carriageway was re-directed to bypass the town of Bingley, the site was cut in two by a flyover and storm drainage system. The now remote and difficult-to-access lower part of the valley, while retaining much of its natural beauty and mystical feel, has become a site for waste and fly-tipping and the forgotten detritus of a post-industrial urban environment. In January 2020, the authors re-visited the site to create a collaborative series of site-specific poetry and photography with a view to exploring the Cottingley Fairy heritage in the context of town planning, waste management, class and the urban gothic. What does fairy mean in the contexts of litter and the underpass? What might it mean to re-discover lost places in the urban gothic and in the age of the anthropocene? This paper and practice presents a range of imagery in documenting the complex site across histories and draws together seemingly disparate representations from urban and waste-management to fairies and childhood memories in nature. The paper draws on psychogeography and urban gothic studies to present social and critical findings emergent from original creative practice and consists of a journal article and an extract of a sequence of poems and photographs.
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Susanna Clarke’s first follow-up to hugely successful Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell was a lavishly illustrated volume of short stories, some of which intertwined with the world of the novel. ‘Mr Simonelli, or the Fairy Widower’ features characters mentioned in the novel, expanding the scope of this already rich alternate history. In the course of the story the titular figure transforms from arrogant scholar to agonized suitor and finally to true fairy. While the information supplied by the fairy John Hollyshoes reveals the truth of his inheritance, Simonelli discovers that he has been performing as fairy all along. What he considered to be a difference of temperament, fueled by his recognition of class difference within the hallowed halls of Cambridge, turns out instead to be part of his non-human nature. Is his performance as human or fairy more convincing? Which is ‘truer’? Almost nothing in the story is what it seems to be, but when truth is uncovered, it is Simonelli’s turn to tell lies, half-truths and misdirect others. In the Butlerian sense, he seizes ‘the reiterative power of discourse’ to sway the narrative and characters to his will. However, revelation of his ‘true’ nature does not entirely switch his orientation from the human to the fairy. He works to save human women from the predations of his relation Hollyshoes—even going so far in later years, we are told, to work for the education of women generally—a sharp contrast to his earlier dismissive misogyny. As Sara Ahmed argues, ‘If orientations point us to the future, to what we are moving toward, then they also keep open the possibility of changing directions, of finding other paths’ (569). Perhaps fairy orientation need not live up to Norrell’s dismissal of the ‘race’ as ‘poisonous’ and ‘inimical to England’ and all human life.
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Is it possible to achieve authenticity in the fictionalisation of a historic figure? To research my novel, The Knowing – a Fantasy, extensive experiential and archival research was undertaken. Having covered the experiential approach elsewhere (2020), here I focus primarily upon the archival. In this palaeographic enquiry I describe the discovery of a possible lost manuscript by the Reverend Robert Kirk – a version of his famous monograph, The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, Fairies (1691). I analyse its provenance and content in a comparative study with extant MSS, contemporary accounts, and scholarship. I situate this enquiry within my own practice-based research undertaken for my PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester (2014-2018) and what this potential discovery means for Kirk scholarship. I draw upon the work of Scott (1815), Lang (1892), Rossi (1957), Sanderson (1976), Stewart (1990), Hunter (2001; 2012) and Warner (2006), as well as more recent scholarship by Maxwell-Stuart (2014), Baker (2014), DeGroot (2015), and Temple (2019). How the archival discoveries revealed secrets of Kirk’s life (through painstaking textual analysis and transcription), and how the context of these discoveries (research libraries; a Scottish castle; a winter’s writing retreat and long-distance summer walks) all fed into the portrayal of Kirk and his world, will be discussed.
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As an artist/participant in the Modern Fairies Project 2018 through the University of Sheffield, I was asked to collaborate and produce new material inspired by the theme of fairies. After initially discovering a WW2 Looney Tunes propaganda video depicting gremlins on an aircraft, I then looked into Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, who had led Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain, whilst also being a member of The Fairy Investigation Society, founded in the 1920s. Using elements of the story of the Devonshire battle between fairies and pixies, I developed a stage performance based upon the characters of Hugh Dowding and the Fairy Kingcentered around the fairies unhappiness at the destruction of their realm by WW2 airfield developments send gremlins up into the RAF’s planes to try and bring about their downfall. This article describes my creative process, including the research which informed the artistic decisions, which helped me to form an understanding of human faith in fairies.
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In 1878 the London Folklore Society (FLS) was founded against the backdrop of the Victorian fascination with fairies, antiquarian enthusiasm, passion for specimen collections and the science of anthropology as set out by Edward Burnett Tylor in Primitive Culture (1871). This group of middle class, mainly metropolitan, amateur scholars set out to collect, categorise and study fairies. These early FLS members attempted to forge a science of fairy origins, a cultural archaeology, using collected folklore and printed folk-tales to reconstruct supposed pre-historic beliefs. Folklorists were determined to present their fairy science as a serious academic discipline with a ridged methodological focus, based on comparative anthropology. Volumes such as David MacRitchie’s Testimony of Tradition (1890), Edwin Sidney Hartland’s The Science of Fairy Tales (1891), Alfred Nutt’s The Voyage of Bran (1895/1897), and John Rhys’ Celtic Folklore, Welsh and Manx (1901) sat against dozens of articles in the FLS’ journal hoping to rationally explain fairies and the origins of fairy belief. However, these academic folklorists often had a complicated relationship with the fairies, struggling to reconcile their historical model of fairy-lore with contemporary supernatural encounters and elite manifestations of fairy-beliefs among spiritualists. Andrew Lang, a folklorist and psychical researcher, fiercely debated with colleague Edward Clodd over ‘Psycho-folklore’ a strand of the discipline which aimed to connect folklore with psychical research. Even in the early 1920s FLS members continued to view contemporary supernatural accounts as problematic resulting in the Society surprisingly ignoring the famous Cottingley fairy photographs and theosophical fairy beliefs. The FLS’ work during this period deprived the fairies of their magical potency, as they were bizarrely called upon as evidence in the dry discussions of anthropological folklore. Nevertheless, by the 1920s the fairies increasingly vanished from folkloric studies; the tiny winged creatures associated with children’s picture books were too embarrassing for serious science.
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Notes on Contributors