Do you Believe in (the Cottingley) Fairies?

My small folk returned to school today after their two week christmas holiday.  It’s always a bit of a shock to find yourself back in a routine after a fortnight of lazy days spent lounging on the sofa, with the perfect excuse to eat far too much unhealthy food. Sigh!

Fairytale: A True Story (1997)

Before they went back to school, we had one last lazy afternoon crashed out in front of the telly watching Tilly’s film choice, Fairytale: A True Story.  Tilly got the DVD in her stocking this christmas, and though she’d not heard of it before, Fairytale proved to be perfect Bank Holiday viewing for an eight-year-old fairy-believer (and her mum!).

For those unfamiliar with the film, it’s the story of two young cousins who become famous after photographing fairies at the bottom of their garden.  They took the photographs as they wanted to ease the pain of one of the girl’s mothers who was struggling to come to terms with the death of her little boy.  The photographs are discovered and then championed by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (of Sherlock Holmes fame) and Harry Houdini (of bonkers escapology fame).  It’s  loosely based on the true story of the Cottingley fairy photographs taken in 1917 and 1920, but with a bit more glamour and a hunky Mel Gibson making an unexpected appearance at the end!

Frances Griffiths and fairy friends, 1917

Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths took five photographs of fairies near Elsie’s home in Cottingley, West Yorkshire between 1917 and 1920.  Their notoriety came when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle declared them evidence of the existence of fairies.  Sir Arthur – the great novelist and creator of Sherlock Holmes – was a believer in Spiritualism and all things otherworldly.  He believed that mediums could communicate with the spirits of the dead.  When his son died following the Battle of the Somme, Sir Arthur became an even greater advocate of Spiritualism; perhaps desperately needing proof of life beyond the grave.  In his 1922 book, The Coming of the Fairies, Sir Arthur wrote about the magical photographs and how they proved the existence of fairies and spirits.  Some thought he was just plain mad, whilst others became swept along by the idea that maybe fairies do come out to play if we truly believe in them.

The Cottingley fairy photographs kept public interest long after their initial publication. Over the years, many newspaper articles were written about their authenticity. It was only in the 1980s that Elsie and Frances finally admitted that the images were fake and that the fairies had been cut out of a children’s book.

I’ve always been interested in the Cottingley fairies, partly because Cottingley is on the doorstep of my dad’s home city of Bradford, and partly because the girls kept their secret for over 60 years.  Of course, anyone looking at the photographs today can see that they are fake, and that the fairies are beautifully drawn cut-outs.  I doubt that many who saw the originals when they were first published truly believed that they were looking at real fairies, but as the film depicts, the First World War was a time when people needed to believe in magic.  People needed to believe that angels were seen on the battlefield helping us to victory.  People needed to believe that the spirits of their young sons, killed in foreign lands, could be contacted.  People needed to believe that fairies danced for children whose futures were now so uncertain.  It’s a phenomenon that is seen so much in folklore – that the myth becomes the reality.  If you are told you are staying in a building known as the most haunted house in Britain, does that make it more likely you’ll see a ghost?  If you’re living in time of despair, does that make it more likely you’ll find your -otherwise rational – self believing in the existence of fairies and angels?

The final ‘genuine’ photograph, 1920

I love that at the end of her life, Frances Griffiths chose to keep a little of that much-needed myth and mystery going, by claiming that whilst four out of the five fairy photographs were fake, the final photograph was indeed genuine.  In one of her last interviews Frances claimed that. “I saw these fairies building up in the grasses and just aimed the camera and took a photograph.”  Perhaps she understood that, for some, there is always a need to believe and comfort in the idea that the world does contain true magic.

Fairytale: A True Story (1997)
Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore, Simpson & Roud (OUP, 2000)
Wikipedia (Cottingley Fairies)






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