An online dramaturgical casebook.

Departure of the Fairies

The Cottingley fairies, 1917. By the 20th century, the only fairies appearing in England are hoaxes.

A common theme in the legends of many regions is the disappearance of faires. Storytellers of all generations agree on one particular: There are not as many fairies now as there used to be. A string of creative writers have bemoaned this loss, ironically or otherwise. In the fourteenth century Chaucer’s wife of Bath complained that “no one sees elves any more”. Some three hundred years later the poet Richard Corbet, in his poem “The Fairies’ Farewell,” lamented, “But now, alas, they all are dead, or gone beyond the seas”. In the early years of the twentieth century, if we can believe Rudyard Kipling, there was still one fairy left in England-Puck, of Shakespearian fame, who, as we read in the novel Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906), was unwittingly conjured up by two children playing in a meadow.

… in some instances, human shortcomings are responsible for the fairies departure. For example, the underground people left the town of Hasel in southwestern Germany because of the sinfulness of its inhabitants, and dwarfs abandoned a cave near the town of Nail a in Bavaria because of their human neighbors’ cursing, swearing, and desecration of Sundays.

However, in most recorded instances it is human piety, not human sinfulness, that drives away the fairies. The single most frequently mentioned cause in the fairies’ departure is their abhorrence of church bells. This aversion, documented in countless legends throughout Europe, is based both on the traditional conflict between fairies and the ever-advancing Christianity, as well as their mistrust of sounds foreign to their natural world. Their dislike of the noise of industrialization-steam engines and the like-is also frequently mentioned.

Fairies show more antipathy toward some branches of Christianity than
others. It was widely believed in protestant Europe that Roman Catholicism
was inherently more amenable toward fairies than were the Protestant faiths, leading to the opinion that the Reformation was the leading force in exiling the fairies. Even among Protestants not all denominations were deemed equally responsible. Thus, in nineteenth-century Wales it could be noted: “It is a common remark that the Methodists drove them away”.

Whatever the cause, the fairies left in great masses. In most instances their
route took them at first across a named river or lake, but their final destination is seldom given. Ironically, for all their supernatural power, the fairies often called upon humans for help in starting their exodus, hiring them
as ferrymen or wagon drivers.

From Puck of Pook’s Hill

The bushes parted. In the very spot where Dan had stood as Puck they saw a small, brown, broad-shouldered, pointy-eared person with a snub nose, slanting blue eyes, and a grin that ran right across his freckled face. He shaded his forehead as though he were watching Quince, Snout, Bottom, and the others rehearsing Pyramus and Thisbe, and, in a voice as deep as Three Cows asking to be milked, he began:

     'What hempen homespuns have we swaggering here,
     So near the cradle of the fairy Queen?'

He stopped, hollowed one hand round his ear, and, with a wicked twinkle in his eye, went on:

     'What, a play toward?  I'll be an auditor;
     An actor, too, perhaps, if I see cause.'

The children looked and gasped. The small thing – he was no taller than Dan’s shoulder – stepped quietly into the Ring.

‘I’m rather out of practice,’ said he; ‘but that’s the way my part ought to be played.’

Still the children stared at him – from his dark-blue cap, like a big columbine flower, to his bare, hairy feet. At last he laughed.

‘Please don’t look like that. It isn’t my fault. What else could you expect?’ he said.

‘We didn’t expect any one,’ Dan answered slowly. ‘This is our field.’

‘Is it?’ said their visitor, sitting down. ‘Then what on Human Earth made you act Midsummer Night’s Dream three times over, on Midsummer Eve, in the middle of a Ring, and under – right under one of my oldest hills in Old England? Pook’s Hill – Puck’s Hill – Puck’s Hill – Pook’s Hill! It’s as plain as the nose on my face.’

He pointed to the bare, fern-covered slope of Pook’s Hill that runs up from the far side of the mill-stream to a dark wood. Beyond that wood the ground rises and rises for five hundred feet, till at last you climb out on the bare top of Beacon Hill, to look over the Pevensey Levels and the Channel and half the naked South Downs.

‘By Oak, Ash, and Thorn!’ he cried, still laughing. ‘If this had happened a few hundred years ago you’d have had all the People of the Hills out like bees in June!’

‘We didn’t know it was wrong,’ said Dan.

‘Wrong!’ The little fellow shook with laughter. ‘Indeed, it isn’t wrong. You’ve done something that Kings and Knights and Scholars in old days would have given their crowns and spurs and books to find out. If Merlin himself had helped you, you couldn’t have managed better! You’ve broken the Hills – you’ve broken the Hills! It hasn’t happened in a thousand years.’

‘We – we didn’t mean to,’ said Una.

‘Of course you didn’t! That’s just why you did it. Unluckily the Hills are empty now, and all the People of the Hills are gone. I’m the only one left. I’m Puck, the oldest Old Thing in England, very much at your service if – if you care to have anything to do with me. If you don’t, of course you’ve only to say so, and I’ll go.’

He looked at the children, and the children looked at him for quite half a minute. His eyes did not twinkle any more. They were very kind, and there was the beginning of a good smile on his lips.

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