Tutorial Essay: Trinity (Summer) 2012
The Romance of the People: The Folk Revival from 1760 to 1914
I loved this module, reading and writing about fairy tales wasn’t work at all.
What do stories about supernatural beings such as fairies and trolls reveal about the social history of the European peasantry? You may answer with reference to ONE OR MORE countries.
Fairies, as romanticised fantasy creatures, could be said to have little to do with reality, but by looking at the symbolism within stories it is able to discern elements of peasant life, particularly about their worries and ambitions. In Ireland, stories about fairies are common throughout folk culture, and the focus is very specifically on personal experience with the supernatural, giving names, places, and dates, showing how close the stories were to experience in comparison with other folk cultures where the popular tales are of heroic warriors or kings and queens. Ireland is therefore a useful case study when looking at the supernatural in conjunction with social history. Issues such as poverty, illness, loss, and hardship are present throughout the stories, but religion also plays an interesting role. Ireland was for the most part Catholic but the ruling classes were Protestant, creating tensions within the country. In addition, as Ireland was a nation subject to the rule of another, nationalism played a part, particularly in the early nineteenth century when the 1801 Act of Union was new and O’Connell was campaigning for liberation, but also at the end of the century when Celtic revivalism encouraged ideas about independence. It is therefore clear that fantastical stories can teach a lot about societies within a specific historical frame, even if the stories have been handed down orally for years. However, the audience for these stories was actually predominantly the English Victorian middle classes, not the peasantry, who already knew the stories, so the publishing of the tales at this time must also be questioned.
The stories in Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland, collected by Thomas Crofton Croker, focus for the most part on peasants, and although some such as The Confessions of Tom Bourke and The MacCarthy Banshee are about other classes, the fact that the proportion of peasant tales is so high tells us a lot about the relationship between the supernatural and social status. It is immediately apparent that poverty plays a large role in the stories. For example, The Legend of Bottle Hill begins with the protagonist, Mick Purcell, losing his entire crop in a bad harvest and going to market to sell his last means of income, his cow. In exchange for the cow he gains a magic bottle from a mysterious stranger, which restores his wealth, yet when he swaps the bottle with his landlord for a farm he loses everything again. He finds the stranger again and asks for another bottle, but this one brings him misfortune. He then tricks the landlord into exchanging the bottles and all ends well for Mick. This tale highlights the importance of wealth and land to peasant survival, but the fact that magic is required implies that success was conceived as so far removed from reality that supernatural intervention was the only way it could be achieved or explained. In his notes to the story, Croker says that a moral could have been drawn about the management of wealth ‘were the Irish a moralising people.’ This criticism highlights the fact that elites saw peasants as irresponsible, but the omission of a moral could suggest that success and failure, to the peasant, could easily change from one to the other, because they relied so heavily on the crop to succeed. The use of magic in the story demonstrates how a peasant conceived his fate as being out of his hands and in the power of a higher being.
Fairies and peasants often have a lot in common within stories, and therefore the tales often reveal a lot about peasant worries and concerns. Jenkins has described fairies as a ‘society outside society’ with its own leaders, rules, and problems. Their marginality, and the motif of their endangerment caused by modernisation, can be read of as symbolic of the increasing erosion of the peasant way of life due to industrialisation. In addition, peasants are able to relate to the fairies because they share similar needs. The fairies often steal women, children, and cattle to take back to their own parts of the world, and as Jenkins points out, ‘these were the same concerns as those of the peasant family.’ Peasant life was based around the family unit, and the balance had to be right. Women were indispensable to the household economy; their role in childrearing, keeping house, milking cows, making butter, and other important tasks was vital. Children were also important, they were needed to help out with work but too many children could be a huge burden on a peasant family. However, the rate of child mortality also meant that a high birth rate was necessary to counterbalance this. Cattle, of course, provided milk and/or meat, could be used to plough fields, and could be sold at market, and therefore were of high value to peasants. In this way, stories about fairies can be used to show what was important to peasants. However, the problem with this is that it presents a very static picture of peasant life. It is true that there was relatively little change in agricultural techniques and the peasant way of life until industrialisation, but the stories are only representing a generalised and romanticised version of that way of life, even when poverty is apparent.
Therefore, by looking purely at the surface of stories about fairies, it is possible to learn a little about peasant life and social history, but by searching a bit deeper and looking at symbols, some more contextually specific details can be found. Changelings are present in many folk cultures, but in Ireland they are especially well known and can be seen to impact on actual experience. In Fairy Legends there are a whole sequence of stories involving Changelings and ways of getting rid of them, which demonstrates their popularity within Irish folk culture. Eberly has argued that fairy stories are created ‘in answer to some of the more puzzling of life’s mysteries.’ She argues that the similarities ascribed to Changelings, such as their appearance as small, with often distinctive facial features, and unnatural behaviour, can interpreted as the representation of mental or physical disability. She suggests that the perception of these children as part of a different world can be due to their appearance, for example the features of people with Down’s syndrome look more like each other than members of their genetic family. Eberly thus suggests that the Changeling is a direct representation of illness or disease, mainly in babies but also in older children or adults when there has been an abrupt change in behaviour or appearance brought on by illness. For example, in 1895 after a hard winter, Bridget Cleary from Tipperary fell seriously ill, and male family members, doubting her identity, tried cures such as making her swallow herbs boiled in new milk, and eventually burnt her to death. This tragedy, although rare, especially concerning an adult, demonstrates that peasants viewed illness as a result of the supernatural. Misfortune, particularly when it appeared inexplicable, was frequently blamed on the mystical, and as peasant life was fraught with more danger and hardships than other social groups, magical or fantastical tales are more likely to come from them. In The Celtic Twilight, Yeats claimed that, ‘there is hardly a valley or mountainside where they cannot tell you of someone pillaged from amongst them.’ This highlights how widespread belief was, but also implies that loss was a common occurrence.
References to religion in stories about the supernatural are interesting because they demonstrate interactions between organised religion and ‘pagan’ belief which can provide information about genuine folk belief. In The Legend of Bottle Hill we are told that Mick’s wife ‘had as much faith in fairies as she had in the priest’. The coexistence of these two belief systems suggests that peasant belief was pragmatic and did not fully conform to Catholic teaching, although it must be remembered that these were stories often told for amusement, and they should not be taken at face value as evidence of a dualistic belief system. Even so, in folk tales fairies and God are able to exist in the same frame, and have an interesting relationship. Christianity and the fairy folk are often posited in opposition to one another, and the fairy folk are usually portrayed as both more ancient and more earthly. Conflict can be seen in The Legend of Bottle Hill when the mysterious stranger recoils at Mick’s almost throwaway exclamations such as: ‘God grant it!’ and ‘Lord between us and harm.’ Similar themes are present in Master and Man when Billy MacDaniel says ‘God save us’ after he hears a sneeze and he is released from his fairy master’s service. The Christian God is portrayed as more powerful than the mischievous fairy folk, who have limited powers, but the peasants interact more frequently with the fairies. Fairies are presented as a physical presence within the mortal world, whereas God is seen as a distant being, who is appealed to almost coincidentally yet is held in fear by the fairies.
Folk stories can also reveal nationalistic sentiments within the peasantry, and this is particularly present in Fairy Legends which was collected and published two decades after the Act of Union. In The Young Piper, Mick Flanigan and Judy Muldoon, the central couple, are called ‘decent honest people,’ demonstrating conceptions of the peasant as morally upright, just, and respectable. We are told that their three healthy sons are ‘enough to make any Irishman proud of the breed of his countrymen.’ They are blond, strong, and cheerful, whilst their changeling sibling is dark, weedy, and cries all the time, which is indicative of ideas about race and purity, although this should not be taken too far. Nevertheless, the presence of these symbols provides evidence for a sense of pride in ‘Irishness’. Croker claimed that he wrote the stories in the style told by the peasants, so if we take him at his word then we must see the peasants as both having a sense of nationality and being proud of it. The fact that the fairies are a parasitic, different race to the Irish peasant can also be emblematic of this kind of nationalism, as they can be seen to represent the Irish Protestant Ascendancy, who are outsiders yet exert a huge amount of control over the peasant’s life. The fairy stories can therefore be seen as an expression of support for Irish independence.
However, ignoring the writer or the audience would lead to an incomplete examination of the significance of fairies culturally. As Sumpter argues, writers, artists, and readers appropriate tales and make them their own. Primitivism is one important element of the discourse. Writers such as Max Müller and William Wordsworth linked childhood or peasant barbarity with instinctive creativity, which although in some sense is empowering, clearly displays a sense of superiority. Matar argues that ‘the writer’s idealisation focuses on a form of the primitive that has little to do with the ‘realities’ of savage existence.’ If fairy stories are seen as purely idealisation, they therefore cannot inform about social reality. Yeats criticised Croker, saying he ‘could never resist the chance of turning some naive fairy tale into a drunken peasant’s dream.’ However, Yeats himself was a romanticist; in The Celtic Twilight he wrote: ‘I have desired…to create a little world out of the beautiful, pleasant, and significant things of this marred and clumsy world.’ In this way, fairy folk tales can be seen as ‘an idealist fiction born of the needs of the ‘modern’ society.’ Bown argues that Victorians enjoyed fairy literature because it provided them with a form of escapism and enabled them to ‘console themselves for their disquiet’ at their ‘wonderful yet appalling modern world.’ She sees the stories as a ‘genre of lament for the passage of time and the loss of innocence’ after industrialisation. The stories can therefore give more insight into the needs of the bourgeois classes in the nineteenth century, who published and consumed this literature, rather than giving any specific insight into peasant life. The stories themselves, although collected at this point, were older and related to a past time, which still held resonance for peasants, but much more interestingly began to be useful to other social groups. The fairy story had always been a part of peasant life, its appropriation by the bourgeoisie in the nineteenth century is what makes it historically interesting.
Although stories about fairies can tell us a lot about the experience of peasants, their concerns, their relationship with money and land, with illness, religion, and nation, these appear ahistorical in comparison to what the publishing of oral folk culture can tell us about the Victorian middle classes. Peasants, until industrialisation, always farmed land, mixed Christianity and pagan belief in their discourse, and the supernatural was a very real presence and influence on their lives. However, due to the oral nature of the stories, it is hard to tie them down to a specific time, an exception is The MacCarthy Banshee which gives dates, but this is one of the few tales about elites. Even though specific names and places are given, which adds a sense of reality not found in epics such as the Finnish Kalevala, it is hard to locate the stories historically even to one century. In contrast, with modernisation, the formation of nation states, and changing structures, in this case the merging of the Kingdom of Ireland with the Kingdom of Great Britain, created an environment in which folk culture was appropriated by people who were not of the folk, if the folk is conceived of as the peasantry. I would therefore suggest that it would be more useful and interesting to also assess what fairies and the stories about them reveal about the history and needs of the middle classes and elites rather than solely the peasantry.
Angela Bourke, The Burning of Bridget Cleary, (London, 1999)
Nicola Bown, Fairies in Nineteenth Century Art and Literature, (Cambridge, 2001)
Thomas Crofton Croker, Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland, (London, 1825)
Sinead Garrigan Matar, Primitivism, Science, and the Irish Revival, (Oxford, 2004)
Richard Jenkins, ‘Witches and Fairies’ in The Good People: New Fairylore Essays ed. Peter Narvaez (London, 1991)
Susan Schoon Eberly, ‘Fairies and the Folklore of Disability’ in The Good People: New Fairylore Essays ed. Peter Narvaez (London, 1991)
Caroline Sumpter, The Victorian Press and the Fairy Tale, (Basingstoke, 2008)
William B. Yeats, The Celtic Twilight, (Gerrard’s Cross, 1981)