Do you Believe in (the Cottingley) Fairies?

Magical Beings, Me and My Small Folk

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)






Jack Frost: The Winter Visitor

Magical Beings, Weird Weather Lore

If you take a look out of our windows today, you’ll be greeted with a true winter wonderland scene.  Despite the glorious sunshine, the overnight frost has outstayed its welcome well into the afternoon, and the grass, paths and rooftops are still blanketed in sparkling white.  You could in fact say that we’ve been visited by Jack Frost…

Most people will be familiar with the name Jack Frost, particularly through literature, films and songs.  My children have come across him as a dashing hero in The Rise of the Guardians, as a naughty baddie in the Rainbow Magic books and as a (frankly terrifying) snowman in the well-meant, but very odd film Jack Frost.  You will have also heard him mentioned about a million times in the last few weeks in The Christmas Song – “…Jack Frost nipping at your nose…”.jack_frost_claire_obrien.jpg

It’s actually quite hard to find reference to the origins of Jack Frost, even though he is so often mentioned in modern culture.  It’s possible that he originates from Norse winter customs, and probably has connections to stories of Old Man Winter who brings with him the ice and snow in the winter months.

Indeed, Jack Frost is a personification of all things chilly!  He’s responsible for all those miserable cold winter mornings when you just want to stay snuggled up in bed.  He frosts up your windows and ices the pavement.  He’s the reason your dad has to scrape ice off the car with such gusto!

Whilst he is often depicted negatively, Jack Frost can also be praised for the beautiful scenes he creates.  From the sparkling white fields and rooftops we’re witnessing today, to the intricate cobweb patterns found upon leaves and hedgerows in late Autumn, Jack Frost really does paint a pretty good picture.

No doubt we will be visited by Jack Frost many more times before Spring finally makes an appearance, so for now I guess we should just enjoy his art, particularly on these days where we don’t have to actually venture out in it.



A Brownie by any other Name would be just as Sweet

Magical Beings

This week, as well as going back to school (hooray says I!), my little girl will be officially starting Brownies.  Her Brownie pack meet every Friday in the local church hall and learn skills, play games and do good deeds for others.  They follow the Brownie Guide Law and are led by some lovely ladies known as Brown Owl and Tawny Owl.  This in itself has it’s roots in weird and wonderful folklore; something which I will certainly explore in the future.

But aside from being a little girl in a yellow and brown uniform, or a yummy chocolate treat, what actually is a Brownie?


A happy little brownie in a funky hat

Brownies are close in looks to the fabulously named hobgoblin.  They live in houses – often in the loft or cellar – and love helping with the chores.  As a busy mum of two, I’d be very happy to share my home with a helpful Brownie; imagine coming home to one washing the dishes!  But proper Brownies are not happy with being seen by humans, and will get awfully cross if you dare to try to pay them.  They’ll scarper if they are so much as rewarded!


Dobby the house elf from the Harry Potter series. Based on a traditional brownie?

Does all of this not ring true of a house elf called Dobby?  I wonder if JK Rowling based him on a traditional Brownie.  Although, Brownies from her native Scotland aren’t as lucky as English ones; they have to live outside in ditches and streams!  Poor things.  Let’s leave Dobby as a house elf, happy in his work.

If you are lucky enough to live with a Brownie (who isn’t your sister) make sure that you leave them well alone and only offer honey, sweets or biscuits as a small thank you for the help they give.  And just think, maybe it’s not really your mum who does all the housework when you’re at school…