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Between terror and kitsch: fairies in fairy tales

Anthologists must reluctantly exclude. When choosing the stories for Victorian Fairy Tales, there was one story that both I and my editor hesitated over for a long time, before in the end deciding that it was too different from the other works in the book for it to make sense to include it. The tale in question is Arthur Machen’s ‘The White People’. This story may or may not be a fairy tale, though there are certainly fairies in it. However, unlike any of his Victorian forebears or most of his contemporaries, Machen manages to achieve, only a few years before the comfortably kitsch flower fairies of Cicely Mary Barker, the singular feat of rendering fairies terrifying.

With James Hogg’s ‘Confessions of a Justified Sinner’, Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Thrawn Janet’, and several of M. R. James’s marvellous ghost stories, ‘The White People’ is one of only a handful of literary texts that have genuinely unnerved me. Perhaps it is that the fairy-haunted figure is a child; perhaps it is the way that Machen evokes some archetypal terror of lonely woods and country silences.

The fear that Machen summons up with regard to meeting the fairies among the trees was long one of the reasons why rationalist opponents of such tales were so vociferous in wishing them stamped out. Fairy tales were bad for children, because they frightened them. Worse, they were scared by unrealities that could not be, by witches, ogres, dragons, and wicked pixies. A course of no-nonsense realism and facts was the required cure, not a giving over of the self to wild imaginings.

Fairy_passage
Fairy Passage by John Anster Fitzgerald. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Strangely, the terror in fairy stories has become one of the few aspects of the original tales to find favour with contemporary audiences. Those who have seen Angelina Jolie in Maleficent or Kristen Stewart in Snow White and the Huntsman will have seen the violent darkening of the form; in Conor MacPherson’s extraordinary play, The Weir, one of the terrifying stories told in that forlorn Irish pub is one of the uncanny little folk.

At the other extreme, we’re now given over to the saccharine, Barbie-esque world of Tinkerbell and implausibly large-eyed princesses. Contemporary films and stories fall between two elements, embracing violence or resting in kitsch.

For Machen, the fairy was a dark survival from some earlier time, a trace of the occult ancient ways surviving into the rational present. Others have long felt, and some continue to feel, that the fairy story itself is another such atavistic remnant, bringing into our pragmatic contemporary world unsettling forces and unappetising, outmoded social mores.

However, working on the great Victorian fairy tales, secondary and artificial as they undoubtedly were, nonetheless it grows clear how sanely they once held the two poles of fear and prettiness in place, and at bay. Genuine terror is absent from most of the stories, yet they remain hardnosed and realistic about suffering, aware of the pain in life, the tyranny that oppresses, the aggression that wounds. Above all they are capable of being serious, and seriously attentive to qualities of the numinous and the mysterious that can only, it can seem, become present in our own fictions through recourse to the uncanny or cruel.

At the same time, kitsch is rarely found in these stories (as opposed perhaps to the worst Victorian fairy paintings). Instead, some of the great Victorian fairy tales offer us a spirited, playful fun, a readiness to send themselves up without sacrificing the power to move us.

It’s very different in tone, but perhaps only Disney’s Frozen has come a little bit close to the gentle pantomime-like, but nonetheless feeling quality that we find in the stories by William Makepeace Thackeray and Andrew Lang, in Kenneth Grahame or E. Nesbit. As for the beguiling enchantments offered by George MacDonald or Dinah Craik, Mary De Morgan or Laurence Housman, maybe this is one thing that the Victorians simply did better than we do, and reading their works is one way of ensuring the survival of that spirit into the present day.

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