Late-Victorian Folklore: Constructing the Science of Fairies

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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