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Why we need fairies Our perception of the world has lost all wonder

(Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

(Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)


June 21, 2022   5 mins

Some years ago, when I was a Man Booker judge, I had a running scrap with one of my fellow judges, David Baddiel. David and I got on well (we all did that year; we even went on holiday together) and shared many similar tastes. But where he and I disagreed was on the subject of realism. “It’s fairy tale” was one of David’s most biting criticisms of any novel, to which my riposte was: “And what’s wrong with that?”

This was good-humoured inter-colleague banter but there was a seriousness in my words. Take opera, ballet, classical music, drama, poetry — take almost any medium you like — and you will find unapologetic representations of fairy stories. Engelbert Humperdinck’s opera, Hansel and Gretel, Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle, Stravinsky’s ballet The Firebird, Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker or The Sleeping Beauty, Spenser’s The Fairy Queen, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest, Keats’s La Belle Dame Sans Merci or the many poems about the Sidhe by W. B. Yeats — all admired and respected by adults. So why, then, in the world of novels is it only in children’s literature considered really respectable to speak of fairies or magic?

There are a few allowed exceptions. Lolly Willowes, Sylvia Townsend Warner’s superb novel about a witch has lately come back into fashion, especially among younger readers. Penelope Fitzgerald’s understated novels often have an element of the other-worldly slipped subtly into the fabric of the more quotidian plot; indeed, this is essential to the ending of her masterpiece, The Gate of Angels, where a supranatural element is brilliantly and suddenly invoked. Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, or her still more original Piranesi, have been rightly lauded. But, for the most part, anything to do with witches, wizards, ghosts, spirits and fairies is considered at best whimsy, at worst tosh.

But why? Why is this subject, which former ages embraced as representing time-honoured intangible aspects of life beyond our everyday experience, now ignored or despised?

My first novel, Miss Garnet’s Angel, drew on the very old tale — part-Jewish, part, very likely, Zoroastrian — of Tobias and the Angel, and I wove it into a contemporary drama in which the Archangel Raphael makes a transforming appearance. The fact that the book was set in Venice threw a camouflaging mist over this element. Since then, and throughout my career as a novelist, following many years working as a Jungian analyst, I have deployed the mythical, fabulous and supernatural in my books. But while readers have apparently warmed to this theme, and indeed ask for more, in reviews, even the most favourable, this aspect is overlooked, as if to even mention the subject is to be somehow tainted with the unrespectable.

My latest novel, The Gardener, received praise for its psychological rendering of characters and its treatment of post-referendum Britain, but no single review touched on the fact that the ancient landscape, in which the book is set, appears to be the domain of another world and at the heart of the book there is a scene which depends upon this factor. It was as if by politely ignoring the subject they were doing me a favour, sparing me some unliterary egg on my face.

I believe this loss to fiction is part of a larger loss which is concurrent with the undeniable increase of the reign of those grim twin isms, reductionism and materialism. We once inhabited a world that was animate, in which humans were creatures who not only perceived but were themselves perceived. To live in this world meant to live among vital elements that were beyond our human control, that could not be corralled by human will, or predicted or captured by desire.

Whether or not Shakespeare believed in fairies is irrelevant. He had within his repertoire a living concept of fairies with whom, or through whom, he could dramatise the irreducible folly of humankind. “Lord, what fools these mortals be,” Puck observes. When, in the same play, Duke Theseus superciliously pontificates about the spurious nature of the imagination, a faculty which in his view is allied only with poets and madmen — and which he rubbishes since it “bodies forth the form of things unknown” — he does so to an audience who has just been witnessing, in the form of the fairies, the power of the so-called “unknown” to disrupt, disarray and revitalise human life (the joke, set up by his author is that Theseus himself is a creature of myth).

Earlier cultures were more extrovert than ours, so those invisible realities that we have internalised, and tend to treat as at best poetic metaphors, at worst psychiatric conditions, were habitually expressed as externalised presences, imaginative forms of invisible truths. Shakespeare still lived in a world where “the real” was not confined to the tangible or the testable. A dream, a wish, an impulse, and instinct — these are all “realities” despite their insubstantial nature. We don’t question the reality of a dream — or if we do, we are more likely to be questioning something like the integrity of the reporter of the dream. We might question the dream’s meaning, but that is another matter. Nor do we question the reality of, say, fear, or joy, or embarrassment — we might suggest it is irrational or inappropriate but again, unless the person reporting these emotions is a liar, fear or joy is a potent reality for the subject who experiences it, whatever the cause.

Let us assume, then, that angels, fairies and gods are those traditional aesthetic forms that have traditionally served to stand for the rarer aspects of life that are intuited and are both real and impalpable — reality being only partially confined to what can be empirically verified. The philosopher and psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist persuasively argues for a world in which all matter, together with all the multifarious forms of life, is conscious — consciousness not being substantially comparable in degree or effectiveness (as he puts it, the fact that the mountain behind his house doesn’t shop at Sainsbury’s or drink a beer in the evening does not logically make it less conscious than you or me). But nonetheless, in his view, consciousness runs, to use Wordsworth’s terms, “through all things”.

Whether or not fairies, gods and angels exist is not the point. Fairies, gods, and angels can, and should be, thought of as manifestations of the mysterious untold aspects of a world whose multiple facets are not easily apparent to us but nonetheless have salience, responsiveness and place — an argument made enchantingly by the philosopher and theologian David Bentley Hart, who shares many of McGilchrist’s ideas. To see the world as made up of dimensions other than ours, and possibly more vital and responsive than ours, is not merely a modest but a quite rational perspective.

It seems to me odd that while we accept, for example, the reality of the Higgs Boson, so far radically unavailable to our ordinary perception, we laugh off the reality of these other invisible forms, which have been convincingly attested to and certainly respected, if only as powerful images, by people of acknowledged genius. At the very least, they represent states of intelligence beyond the ordinary order available to our circumscribed and culturally limited perception. A hidden layer, or layers, of the world responsive to us foolish mortals, that may react and respond surprisingly to us, in ways both beneficent and malign.

McGilchrist’s originating thesis is that we have allowed the deconstructing, limiting and over-explanatory left hemisphere to overtake and dominate our culture, which has left us lonely and unwitnessed in a seemingly dead world. His claim is that the brain’s right hemisphere, which uncritically absorbs and intuits experience, which doesn’t dismiss or judge but sees out the corner of the eye rather than with a narrowing squint, has had a diminishing influence in our culture, with the result that the culture has lost its way, and we in it.

So that the world that once, for all its many dolours, seemed in Matthew Arnold’s words “so various, so beautiful, so new” is now also in his words “a darkling plain, swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight”, not because the nature of the world has changed but because the nature of how we perceive it has changed, and so radically and dispiritingly. And with that shift has died a loss of wonder, a loss not simply of religious awe, but, what might be worse, the range of the aesthetic palette. If, as I passionately do, you believe that the arts expand experience and thereby enlarge meaning, then we need a wider range not a narrower one to work with. There may or may not be fairies at the bottom of my own garden. But they may, by the perspicacious, be found at the bottom of my fictional garden, and I don’t apologise for one moment for that.


Salley Vickers is a British novelist. Her most recent book is The Gardener.

SalleyVickers

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polidori redux
polidori redux
2 years ago

“Whether or not Shakespeare believed in fairies is irrelevant.”
He probably did though. We all do, deep down, and tonight is midsummer night.

Nicola Bown
Nicola Bown
2 years ago
Reply to  polidori redux

Actually, it isn’t. Midsummer Eve is the evening before Midsummer Day (as in Christmas Eve), and Midsummer Day is 24th June. It’s not tied to the solstice, but to the Feast of St John the Baptist. It’s one of the old Quarter Days – the others are Christmas Day, Lady Day (Feast of the Annunciation, 25th March), Michaelmas Day (Feast of St Michael and All Angels, 29th September).

polidori redux
polidori redux
2 years ago
Reply to  Nicola Bown

Nicola, thankyou for this.

Andrew Wise
Andrew Wise
2 years ago
Reply to  Nicola Bown

Sufficiently pedantic to imply you don’t believe in fairies either 🙂

stephen archer
stephen archer
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Wise

More informed rather than pedantic, and for Swedes Midsummer day is June 25th this year. That’s pedantic.

Graham Strugnell
Graham Strugnell
2 years ago

The writer forgets the proliferation of magic realism in the 1980s, where novelists like Rushdie, Angela Carter, Jeanette Winterson and Marquez peppered their books with fantastical elements. But she is right, and this is why authors such as Tolkien, Rowling, Pullman and Ursula le Guin were often dismissed or patronised as children’s writers and not proper literature. You will not find fantasy on many literature syllabuses, although such books can be brilliant studies of psychology alternative realities.

Kathleen Stern
Kathleen Stern
2 years ago

In an interview at an Oxford College to be admitted to their teacher training course (many years ago- I am many years retired now) I was asked for my favourite book. When I said Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” – at the university where he taught many years before- I realised I had eliminated myself from any acceptance. Pre- the films generally snobbish tutors despised you for enjoying it!!

N T
N T
2 years ago

And a great, big, giant “Amen”.

J Bryant
J Bryant
2 years ago
Reply to  N T

Amen from me too. The challenge with introducing elements of the supernatural into a story is doing it in a way that doesn’t seem contrived or childish. I’ll check out the recommendations of effective stories with elements of the supernatural the author provides in her article.

Adam Bartlett
Adam Bartlett
2 years ago

An excellent addition to the thousands of arguments on the need to re-enchant the world, made over the centuries since the industrial revolution. Makes me want to check out ‘the Gardener’, looks like it may be a great book to give to any who need some healing after having a bad childhood.
Yet I’m fairly sure the article contains a gross simplification of McGilchrist. It would probably be more correct to say he contends that consciousness is distributed among centres of consciousness (e.g. minds) and all matter – thats a big over simplification too of course. Not for nothing is his latest book almost a million words long!

T Gambit
T Gambit
2 years ago

True wonder can only be positively experienced in life when life is slow, low stress, familiar and secure, in that subtle environment the natural mysteries reveal themselves and spiritual life is possible. Modern life in post industrialised nations is too stressful and unfamiliar, we are buried in gross weight and craving desires for escape.

Last edited 2 years ago by T Gambit
Steve Murray
Steve Murray
2 years ago
Reply to  T Gambit

Your post would be better served if it were prefaced by “For many people, perhaps…”
I personally have no problem experiencing true wonder. And your claim that we crave desires for escape pretty much sums up the need for some to believe in fairies.

T Gambit
T Gambit
2 years ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

It’s a fair representation of the level of the modern cultural conversation, most people in British culture are in a state of complete deluded blindness of the non-material reality that surrounds them inside and out and those that aren’t are silent.

Last edited 2 years ago by T Gambit
Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

Tories, Fairies,
Christian nationalists,
Progressive satirists.

Morning, fairest.
Crispy rashers, t’iz,
No festive sausages
None!
Here, have a bun
It’s a happy one.
In the meantime.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
2 years ago

By invoking a supranatursl presence in the world, and bemoaning its seeming demise, the author declines to consider the possibility that those of us who don’t pay attention to it are so overwhelmed with the beauty and unfolding complexity of the cosmos, both at a micro and macro level, to have much time to consider other potential realities.

She invokes the past as a golden age, but one which was far less able to marvel at the world we can only now perceive since the advent of the microscope, the telescope (including its latest iterations named after Hubble andJames Webb), not to mention the Large Hadron Collider.

I’m all for using our consciouness to its fullest possible extent, and have no problem with accepting the possibility of paranormal phenomena; I simply don’t have enough time within an entire lifetime to take much notice of the subjective imaginative constructs which previously filled a psychological void which no longer exists.

T Gambit
T Gambit
2 years ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

That’s the paradox, the spur to invent such tools as the microscope and telescope inspired the interpretation of what was seen through them. I hear of all this talk, about how ‘wonderous’ science has revealed the universe to be, yet its interpretation is nothing but a conglomeration of particles with no meaning or purpose, turning the true wonder of universal sentience into just a material lego world ripe for corporate determinism to exploit to its, lack of a hearts, content. This physicalist interpretation is highly delusional and dangerous.

Last edited 2 years ago by T Gambit
Steve Murray
Steve Murray
2 years ago
Reply to  T Gambit

As an artist, i’m more than familiar with the dangers of a “physicalist interpretation” which you wrongly ascribe to my post. My point has less to do with physicalism than the unfolding beauty of what is observable, which far transcends what was observable before the invention of the quoted instruments.
What we see – what’s observable – doesn’t require a meaning or purpose imposed upon it, other than it exists. I would claim that the efforts of humanity to impose meaning and purpose (most directly through religion) have had a less than positive effect upon our species, and as such need to be treated with a great deal of caution. That’s not to say there’s been no positive effect, but mainly in the area of controlling populations during periods in our history when it was perhaps necessary. Today, it no longer is; or if an individual feels that it is, that’s a self-imposed psychological straightjacket.
The realms of fairies, goblins, wizards etc. are simply a throwback to a more childlike state. The works of J K Rowling are an example of wallowing in that state, although well done; and rather interesting that the author doesn’t mention JKR when she’s certainly the most popular exponent of the genre.

Last edited 2 years ago by Steve Murray
Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
2 years ago

Reading this, I was reminded of how fearful images of dark powers rising was conjured out of a largely peaceful demonstration and a snake oil preacher, in another article in todays Unherd.

eleanor nightingale
eleanor nightingale
2 years ago

Loved this essay
 I wish Unherd would publish more pieces of this ilk rather than yet another diatribe about the culture wars

sue boatswain
sue boatswain
2 years ago

Thank you. I agree

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
2 years ago

All is not lost? We are now actually living in a macabre Orwellian Kafkaesque internet plagued racism LGBT eco obsessed fairy tale perhaps ironically because so many people most especially in the UK and US have the average intelligence, gullibility, and naivety of the 4 year olds who believe fairy tales…

Badger Cooper
Badger Cooper
2 years ago

I couldn’t agree more with this post. My partner Amrita Mohanty has published a fabulous book this year, A Child of Intention, with a Brit-Indian main character set half in our modern world and half in the world of the Fae. It’s a wonderfully grown up work, with lots to say, it’s such a shame that many consider such subject matter childish.

Vatsmith .
Vatsmith .
2 years ago

“Fairies, gods, and angels can, and should be, thought of as manifestations of the mysterious untold aspects of a world whose multiple facets are not easily apparent to us but nonetheless have salience, responsiveness and place” can I have that in plain English please? 

Emily McBride
Emily McBride
2 years ago
Reply to  Vatsmith .

Fairies, gods and angels represent the mysteries of the world that we know exist but can’t see.

Last edited 2 years ago by Emily McBride
Suzanne 0
Suzanne 0
2 years ago
Reply to  Vatsmith .

There is truth that we physically cannot see. At least that is how I have always thought of it.

AC Harper
AC Harper
2 years ago

I read many science fiction and fantasy novels and enjoy many of them. The ones I find unsatisfactory are the ones where our hero or heroine can do vast magic with just a flick of a finger – the ‘magic’ is too easy and makes it difficult to suspend disbelief.
I feel that there is a danger with the “invisible realities that we have internalised” if we allow any old cobblers to be ‘maybe true’. That’s the way that some religious leaders and political ideologues seize control of peoples’ thoughts. 

Abby Wynne
Abby Wynne
2 years ago

You might like my new novel then – its magical realism semi-autobiographical. Weaving shamanism, psychotherapy and healing into a story of love, self-love and finding your inner magic. I’ve written it as a trilogy -The Inner Compass. First book is called Awakening. I’d love it if you would give it a review, I’d be happy to send you a copy.

Abby Wynne
Abby Wynne
2 years ago
Reply to  Abby Wynne

After that shameless bit of self-promotion I would add that it’s mainstream that’s lost it’s magic – there’s plenty of it everywhere, if you dare to look!

Jane Hewland
Jane Hewland
2 years ago

We don’t need fairies. We need Gods

Joe Donovan
Joe Donovan
2 years ago

The pendulum is in for a hard swing against scientism and materialism. See the philosopher Bernardo Kastrup. See the DMT “elves” or “jesters” who call you out on your own bullshit when you ingest the drug. See what more than 10,000 people at Fatima saw on the last appearance of “Our Lady,” including the spinning of the sun in the sky.
All of this is about to be blown open by the UFO/UAP phenomenon, where the last gasps of US governmental razzmatazz signal an imminent disclosure that will shatter the certainties of both the pious and the impious.
http://jxd.listlessandlisting.com/2021/10/we-shall-all-of-us-be-equal-in-our.html

Philip Burrell
Philip Burrell
2 years ago
Reply to  Joe Donovan

Oh dear. Keep taking the pills.