Put rather more scientifically one could say that the greatest objection to the ETH is the strongly humanistic aspect that the phenomenon appears to adopt. The UFOs and their occupants act, by and large, in ways that we would expect an alien race to behave. We are all familiar with countless landing reports in which the entities have seemed to gather rock and soil samples. It must be significant that these reports have come in the decade in which a great deal of the efforts of western man has been devoted to obtaining just such samples from the moon. In an earlier essay in the Bulletin I outlined some of the ways that the UFO phenomenon has mirrored scientific development - or, more accurately, the layman's concept of scientific development. Of course we have no right to assume that the denizens of any other planet would have the same scientific preoccupations as us. As ufologists we seem prepared to accept that such matters as UFO propulsion methods, alien physiology and advanced technologies may be so far advanced beyond anything we are able to comprehend that they will appear to us as 'magic'. [MICHEL, Aime. "In Defence of the ETH", Flying Saucer Review, vol. 15, no. 6] Yet paradoxically we also seem prepared to assume that the beings behind such marvels are going to behave exactly like us when we meet them face to face.
This article by John Rimmer appeared in the December 1970 issue of Merseyside UFO Bulletin, ostensibly as a review of Jacques Vallee's recently published Passport to Magonia, and the reprint of Lady Augusta Gregory's classic of Irish fairy-lore Vision and Belief in the West of Ireland. Through articles like this, MUFOB became identified with a 'fairies and folklore' approach to UFO. Later events have shown that the connections are not as simple as perhaps is implied in this article (and in Vallee's book), and in particular we would now emphasise the importance of contemporary cultural imagery above that of folklore in the development of the UFO legend. However, the study of folklore and popular beliefs is a valid way of approaching the UFO mystery.
Since the dawn of the New Ufology in Keel's Operation Trojan Horse and Vallee's Passport to Magonia, the equation between the humanoids of the flying saucers and the elves of folklore has become something of a truism. So accepted is it that the Fortean Times' long-running cartoonist, Hunt Emerson, could mischievously suggest in his Phenomenonix strip that the ufonauts were indeed really fairies, flying about in fake spaceships in order to avoid the humiliation of dressing up in butterfly wings and gossamer as part of their repertoire of haunting, without drawing upon himself the wrath of angry readers outraged at having a cherished belief mocked. (1)
The similarities between the UFO phenomenon and the European, and even extra-European, fairy cult is so strong, especially in the subtexts of sexuality, abduction, rape, and the substitution of otherworldly changelings for human babies, that Peter Rogerson entitled his revisionist history of abductions Fairyland's Hunters. After Keel and Vallee, many, though not all books on ufology examine the connection between the Wee Folk of tradition and their high-technological cousins. The relationship between the two is increasingly examined from the other side as well, as recent books on fairy lore, such as Janet Bord's Fairies - Real Encounters with Little People, (2) also include chapters examining the strange links to the ufonauts. Outside ufology, the European fairy cult is of increasing interest to historians researching the European witch craze. In the view of scholars such as Gustav Henningsen, the fairy cult, as deformed by inquisitorial demonology, supplied the ecstatic experiences and imagery at the heart of European witchcraft. (3) In view of these strong links to a variety of Fortean phenomena, it is worth examining the fairy cult itself, as propagated and amended by the Victorians.
While folk belief about the "Good People" had provided artists, musicians and poets with inspiration and raw material for a variety of works ranging from bucolic idyll to political metaphor since before Shakespeare and Spenser, it was during the Victorian era that fairy lore exploded across the arts in the form recognizable to modern audiences. It was the Victorians, for example, who produced the classic image of the fairy as an ethereal being graced with butterfly wings. Diminutive height had been an established fairy trait in most, but not all, European traditions since the Middle Ages, but they lacked the characteristic wings, instead flying through the aid of spells. This changed under the Victorians and in a process similar to that whereby the angels became graced with their astral pinions, the Wee Folk acquired the insectile airfoils they've sported ever since.
Another powerful, though less tangible, link to the modern fairy cult is the background of the most notable advocate of the Cottingley fairy photographs, Conan Doyle. While it's recognised that Conan Doyle's interest in the photographs arose from his Spiritualist beliefs, few commentators have remarked upon the strange continuity they added to his family history. Both Conan Doyle's father, Charles Altamont Doyle, and his uncle, Richard "Dicky" Doyle, were accomplished and noted painters of fairy scenes. Doyle himself may have created a surrogate father figure of super-rationality in Sherlock Holmes to compensate for his own father's madness, yet nevertheless Doyle pere seems to have bequeathed to his son an interest in the occult and mystical which clouded his judgment on that particular case. It's especially remarkable that the alleged fairies, which even before the confession of one of the sisters to an awful lot of people, appeared to be cardboard cut-outs from a book went unrecognized as such by Doyle. It was his beliefs, not artistic discrimination, which seem to have been passed down the family line. As for the reality of the fairies themselves, like the X-Files' Mulder, Doyle wanted to believe. The result was controversy and ridicule.
The greatest achievement of the Victorians in the realm of fairy lore was simply its preservation and transmission to succeeding generations, in whatever form, during the industrial revolution. As industrialization and mechanization gathered pace, the old English agrarian traditions gradually withered as the populations which had previously supported them moved into the expanding towns. It was against this background of urbanization that the Victorian folklorists moved in their efforts to preserve what they saw as valuable remnants of the old traditions. Especially influential among the books of fairy lore of the period were Crofton Croker's Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland, 1826, whose illustrations by Daniel Maclise effectively launched that artist's career. Thomas Keightley's Fairy Mythology of 1828, Mrs Bray's Legends from the Borders of the Tamar and Tavey, and the Fairy books of Andrew Lang. Beginning with the Blue Fairy Book of 1889, Lang's books re-established the popularity of fairy stories after they had largely been supplanted in popularity by stories of contemporary children's lives and adventures, such as those by Juliana H. Ewing and Mrs Molesworth, and continued in print in various forms until the 1920s, long after the hey-day of the Victorian fairy cult.
These fairy books, much sought after today by collectors, also show the strong links between children's books and the wider artistic milieu. The principal illustrator of the books, Henry J. Ford, was a friend of Edward Burne-Jones, and there is a marked Pre-Raphaelite influence to his illustrations. Like the famous works of the Brotherhood, his colour plates for the books boast vivid, rosy colours, and all his illustrations are strongly detailed, with the "dreamlike air of fantasy which pervades much of [Burne-Jones's] work". (4) Without the renewed interest in folklore and faery engendered by Romanticism, what little British fairy lore would remain after the industrial revolution would be confined largely to the works of Shakespeare, Spenser, and 17th-century authors like Sir Simeon Steward's Description of the King and Queen of Fayrie, their Habit, Fayre, their Abode, Pompe and State of 1633, and Robert Kirk's The Secret Commonwealth, and so of interest primarily to students of literature and history, without any apparent relevance beyond these disciplines. Aside from the pleasure of the stories themselves, the sources for popular historical and Fortean research would have been greatly impoverished.
Ford's relationship with Burne-Jones and the Pre-Raphaelites links him, and fairy painting, to the larger world of continental Symbolism. Fernand Khnopff, the Dutch Symbolist who sported a suitably Decadent amorous fascination with his sister, was strongly influenced by Burne-Jones. It was the Romantics who had first developed the notion of the artist as a rebel against the stifling strictures of society. This alienation became acute when combined with the morbid cast of mind characteristic of Symbolism. "Symbolism was a way of saying "no" to a number of things which were contemporary with itself. In particular, it was a reaction not only against moralism and rationalism but also against the crass materialism which prevailed in the 1880s." (5)
Symbolist art celebrated the sublime dream, the fantastic, the mystical and, occasionally, the horrific, against banal reality. It was a line of escape for aesthetes into other, different, mystical worlds, and a number of the most prominent Symbolists had strong mystical beliefs. Burne-Jones had read theology at Oxford, while the Salon Rose&Croix and the Nabis, prominent French Symbolist groups, had strong links to the demi-monde of occultism and magic. All of these tendencies are exemplified in miniature in the Victorian fairy cult.
As with later continental Symbolism, the British Victorian fairy cult was predominantly a "reaction against the prevailing utilitarianism of the times. It was a celebration of magic in a period predominantly concerned with establishing facts". (6) Darwinism and the rise of materialist science and psychology cast doubts on traditional religious certitudes, at a time when the landscape itself was changing under the impact of mechanisation. Factories and mills sprang up, embodying the new scientism and rationalism of the age. The result was an acute sense of the "loss of an indefinable quality which they had found in the former cultural system, in the values and meanings signified by what we might call its "emblematic order"". (7) As Andrew Lang put it, describing the childhood reading which eventually led to the publication of his books:
I read every fairy tale I could lay my hands on, and knew all the fairies in "A Midsummer Night's Dream", and all the ghosts in Sir Walter Scott, and I hated machinery of every description. (8)
This Romantic revolt was not confined merely to fairies. Gothic Horror forms an important part of it, especially as a studied medievalism also informs Victorian painting. All aspects of the supernatural received a new impetus as part of the Romantic convulsion, including vampires. Dr John Polidori's tale, The Vampyre, anonymously published in 1819 and popularly attributed to his patient, Byron, was translated into French and German, and adapted several times for the stage, most notably in James Robinson's Planche's The Vampire; or The Bride of the Isles, first performed at the English Opera House in August 1820. By 1824 one French critic complained that the reading public was assailed by vampires from every side. Polidori's grisly tale formed the basis for James Malcolm Rymer's epic Varney the Vampire, "without a doubt the best-known of all "penny dreadfuls", after Sweeney Todd, and the most successful vampire tale until Bram Stoker's Dracula". (9)
The trend towards supernatural fantasy penetrated the world of ballet, which had been intimately bound up with the elfin since its ancestry in the Stuart masque. In the 1820s the heavy costumes and high heels of the 18th-century stage were abandoned in favour of gauzy dresses and silk tights. Dancing on points first appeared in 1821, and themes were increasingly taken from legend and fairy tale, such as La Sylphide and Giselle, first performed in 1832 and 1841 respectively. Maria Mercandotti, the 1820s child star, was acclaimed as a "divine little fairy sprite", and Marie Taglioni, who played the leading role in La Sylphide, was described as having a "sylph-like airiness scarcely palpable to human touch". Musicians composed, performed and published innumerable pieces of fairy music. On stage and in art, the favourite subject of the genre, par excellence, was Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Theatrical productions of these became increasingly lavish and spectacular as the century wore on and increasingly impressive stage effects were developed to keep audiences spellbound. Charles Kean's 1856 production of the play was so successful it ran for 150 nights. It's been rightly said that modern science fiction has superseded the fairy tale as the fantasy form of the 20th century. Aliens and robots have replaced previous centuries' elves, ogres and goblins as objects of fear and wonder. Given this literary development, it may be truly said that the 19th-century Shakespearian plays were the Victorian version of big budget SF blockbusters like Star Wars. A tone of atavism seems to be creeping back into the cinema, however. The Cottingley Fairies have formed the basis for one 90s film, and a cinematic adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream is promised fro the autumn. After the technological excesses of this century, fantasy is turning back to its folkloric roots
Much has been made of the debt that George Lucas owed to Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces in delineating the mythic archetypes around which he crafted Star Wars' characters, but this urge to discern common mythological types has never been confined solely to sophisticated 20th-century post-moderns. Fuseli, best known for his eerie and disquieting painting The Nightmare, made clear the strong parallels between Classical mythology and the fairy faith in his lectures at the Royal Academy. "Scylla & the portress of Hell, their Daemons & our spectres, the shade of Patroclus & the ghost of Hamlet, their furies & our witches, differ less in essence than in local, temporary, social modification; their common origin was fancy . . . & the curiosity implanted in us of divining into the invisible." (10) It is a lesson that contemporary SF cineastes have learned well.
Outside of the academies, the Victorian fairy cult represented a democratization of the fantastic in line with the values and attitudes of the new industrial bourgeoisie. In many ways it was a peculiarly British phenomenon. While the German Romantics collected edifying Märchen and wrote poetry about the Lorelei and Kobolde, depicted on canvas by artists such as Moritz Von Schwind, the genre was far less represented in France than in England. England's medieval heritage had survived better than across the channel. Although the Gothic revival was certainly not confined to England, and its greatest British exponent, Augustus Pugin, was an ardent admirer of continental Catholicism, the "insular spirit of the 19th century inspired an image of fairyland in art as an ideal world which existed somewhere in the heart of the British countryside". (11) This, however, did not rule out continental influences. Prince Albert introduced the British public to the art of the German Nazarenes, an intensely Romantic movement infused with nature mysticism whose exact depiction of nature and medievalism also influenced the Pre-Raphaelites. The fairy painters shared this devotion to nature, and their works thus form a fantasticated part of the Romantic landscape tradition. Patriotism played a strong part in promoting the genre, and artistic patrons took a delight in purchasing works based on Shakespeare and other great, national authors. At the same time, the genre's subject matter had a broader, more popular appeal than the traditional subject matter of classical mythology favoured by the aristocracy. It could be readily understood by the new, self-made men of industry, who may not have shared the cultivated backgrounds of the landed gentry.
The genre was also well suited to Victorian notions of domesticity. As "Home Sweet Home" became the quintessential celebration of domestic bliss, and Austrian Biedermeier artists turned to painting the solid values of the home, British fairy artists began portraying the fairy lifestyle as their celebration of homely virtues. The metamorphosis from savage nature spirits to the twee sprites of Victorian fancy was the artistic counterpart of the taming of the wild, natural world by industry and human rationality.
This democratization of the fantastic was given a strong impetus by the vast increase in literacy and improvements in printing technology in the 1830s and 40s. The new steam presses and machine manufactured paper meant that quarto and folio magazines could be produced at a price which the new industrial working class could afford. Although priced at a penny, these new magazines were hardly cheap, costing about a hundredth of the average weekly wage. There was thus intense competition to produce literature which would appeal to the masses. By and large they favoured tales of the gruesome and fantastic as a means of escape from the gruesome realities of their own existence. The result was a plethora of tales of Gothic Horror amongst the early Penny Dreadfuls, though by the 1840s they had been largely superseded by equally grim tales about real criminals, especially highwaymen. In contrast to this, fairy art seems to have survived a little longer, until the 1870s, while the fairy tale itself is still with us, although now mainly the preserve of children's stories. In its adult form, vestiges of the fairy cult lingered on until finally slain by the carnage of the First World War. The reasons for this persistence against the demise of other types of fantastic and supernatural literature are convoluted and instructive.
Firstly, Vampire fiction in the form of the dreadfuls was low-cost, ephemeral sensationalism. Although Varney's influence proved enduring and pervasive, during the 1840s the arena of action in the dreadfuls expanded into more contemporary settings. Grisly tales of true crime, and then stirring tales of adventure in the American West and the Empire provided fresh opportunities for escapist entertainment. There was also a conscious decision by many "dreadful" publishers to take their products upmarket and make them more acceptable to a family readership. Thus, although magazines like The Calendar of Horror and Terrific Tales continued into the 1840s, there also appeared lines of boys' stories, intended to provide good, wholesome fun for the young audience at which they were aimed. Although initially only slightly less gruesome than the horror and crime stories they replaced, these gradually improved until they reflected the values and aggressive patriotism of the more respectable members of society, as expressed in tales like Jack Harkaway in The Transvaal. The darkness and socially subversive nature of Vampire fiction, whose heroes serve as "a measure of hostility to all authority" (12) made the subject entirely unsuitable as children's literature, leaving the field to be explored by horror writers like Le Fanu and poets maudits like Charles Baudelaire.
Fairies, however, were eminently suitable subject matter for children and adults alike. Shakespeare had already invested Queen Mab with the characteristics of the classical Diana and Venus by transforming her into Titania, and the Victorians continued this classicizing process. Paradoxically, while the eroticism in most vampire fiction of the period remained largely suggested, overt eroticism is apparent in the vast majority of 19th-century fairy paintings, which show naked or near naked fairies engaged in amorous adventure. The painters of such pieces were saved from censure, mostly, because of the respectable nature of the genre as a whole. Like scenes from classical antiquity, nudity was permitted while it would have been scandalous in more contemporary settings. Fairies thus provided an acceptable outlet for repressed Victorian sexuality.
They were also far more suitable for children, suitably clad, of course. Reduced to the level of ants and insects, their adventures had a comic and mock-heroic quality, although violence and cruelty were evident in many Victorian paintings and tales, especially Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market. The heroes of many traditional fairy stories were young children, especially boys, giving them a traditional appeal to a young audience. Bruno Bettelheim has stated in his The Uses of Enchantment that these stories contributed greatly to children's mental health and self-confidence as they showed them confronting and triumphing over fearful monsters, which were themselves metaphors for the darker aspects of the human psyche. This, presumably, was after the Grimms and Perrault had cleaned the stories up.
Like the horror stories of working class literature, however, Victorian fairy culture began to wane in the 1870s. The painstaking realism of fairy painters like Maclise and Paton, the latter a close friend of Millais, was part of an urge "to give fairyland yet more tangible and credible form" (13) in the new, technological, positivist age. Fairy painting declined with the rise of spirit photography in the 1870s, which pulled the ideological rug out from under the painters' feet by seeming to provide real, incontrovertible proof of a separate, spiritual realm. Modern art is essentially a reaction to the iconoclasm caused by the instant, objective capture of reality by photography. It is somewhat ironic that the first casualty was the vogue for realistic paintings of the fantastic. Like the lower class fantasies of the "dreadfuls", they also declined in the face of the new social realism which was sweeping painting, and avant garde artistic movements like impressionism. Fairies soon became consigned to the nursery as subjects suitable only for the imagination of the very young.
This process did, however, provide a spur to brilliant children's artists such as Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac, the Robinson Brothers and Kate Greenaway, who ushered in the Golden Age of book illustration. The last traces of the adult cult were annihilated by the mechanized horror of the First World War, before which the refined aestheticism of fairy art and Symbolism was entirely impotent. Cynicism replaced idealism, and a violent reaction set in, expressed in anti-artistic movements such as Dada and Surrealism. The controversy surrounding the Cottingley fairies was the swansong of a Victorian past long since dead.
The Victorian fairy cult has, however, left a powerful legacy. Modern fantasy novels, particularly Tolkien, derive at least in part from the fairy stories of the Romantics. William Morris, for example, wrote several, as well as translating heroic tales from other languages, like Icelandic. As the British countryside and the global ecosystem once more seem under threat, the bucolic idyll of Tolkien's shire against the technological desolation of Sauron's empire has provided a powerful image informing much New Age ecological radicalism, a phenomenon prefigured by Blake and the other Victorian fairy artists against their century's "dark Satanic mills". Aside from Tolkien, fairies have influenced other writers and artists in the SF and fantasy genres. Patrick Woodroffe and Rodney Matthews, two of the most noted fantasy illustrators with strong fan followings, cite Arthur Rackham as an early influence. Woodroffe paints fairy worlds similar to his 19th-century predecessors', while the scenes of insect revelry painted by Matthews for the band Tiger Moth also share some of the themes and style of last century's fairy paintings.
In literature other authors apart from Tolkien have delved into the realm of faerie. Clifford Simak, for example, made fairies the servitor races of an ancient race existing before this universe in his book The Goblin Reservation, while Paul McAuley, a former biologist, made them a transgenic species composed of mixed human and primate genetic material with a consciousness rooted in nanotechnology in his book, In Fairyland. Aside from these technological approaches, other authors have turned to more traditional material. Angela Carter's retelling of old fairy tales had a modern slant, informed as they were by her feminist beliefs. Neil Gaiman, however, adopted a more traditional approach in his treatment of fairy themes in his comic strip The Sandman and later novels. Both Carter and Gaiman display in their tales the raw cruelty evident in much traditional fairy literature, undoubtedly as a reaction against the prettification of the tales after Disney. Gaiman himself started as a music journalist and has strong links to the Goth music scene, which consciously tries to recreate the Symbolist and Decadent milieu for a modern youth audience. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that songs by the Goth band Bauhaus included "Hollow Hills", about fairies and "Bela Lugosi's Dead", about the most celebrated portrayer of Dracula on screen and stage before Christopher Lee. Vampires and fairies have a perennial appeal to an overlapping audience.
The genre and subject also has a more mystical appeal to modern, disenchanted youth. The new Romanticism of the late 20th century has bred a dissatisfaction with consensus reality as defined by the political and scientific establishment. Science fiction articulates fears about science, as much as the desire for technological progress, and there is a strong element of the mystical, even Fortean, in much popular SF. Greg Bear's fantasy, The Infinity Concerto, took its name from the piece of avant-garde music mentioned in the works of Fort as having deprived a number of composers of their ability to write music after hearing it performed. In the hands of Bear, it became the sole weapon of the human prisoners of Sidhedark against their Fairy captors.
The popular comics writer Alan Grant in an interview with the fanzine Dog Breath cited "anything to do with UFOs, alien abductions, New World Order conspiracies, lost civilizations, apocalyptic visions, prophecies and the human mind" (14) as some of his favourite personal reading. 2000 AD's long running strip, Slaine, drew extensively on Celtic legend, including elements of modern Wicca and Theosophy in its portrayal of a science fictional, antediluvial Britain. Mills, the writer of that particular epic, stated in an introduction to the strip that he deliberately gave the domain of the alien villains the name of the Welsh Celtic hell, Cythrawl, and based the diluvial servitor race on one of Blavatsky's Root Races. The fairies took the form of malign and benign extradimensionals. The strip articulated powerful ecofeminist sentiments, and I've personally come across a number of people who have developed an interest in Wicca and modern occultism through reading it. Mills has himself said that one of the things he set out to do in the strip was "to try and correct . . . the insidious lies most of us are still taught about our ancestors . . . you know, the crap about them being woad-covered savages brought the wonderful benefits of "civilisation" by the stern-but-fair proto-Thatcherite Romans with their central heating and their straight roads where the chariots ran on time". (15)
Although far from the bucolic, classicized fantasies of "merrie England" characteristic of Victorian art, the strip nevertheless shares its urge to depict fairyland as a mystical, British ideal world, though in the case of Mills one darkened by real barbarism and violence. It also demonstrates the enormous appeal for an indigenous British mystical tradition separate from classical myth and Christian mysticism. Classical mythology has largely fallen out of favour, although Roman epics still possess a certain popularity on stage and screen. Elements of Christian religious lore, such as angels and the Devil, may permeate low culture such as comics, but the central tenets of the faith itself do not lend themselves to the type of violent entertainment required in modern fantasy. Many Christians would also be unhappy with the portrayal of Christ and the apostles in works of entertainment, while others would no doubt object to the pious didacticism of overtly religious works, at least in certain fields like the comic strip. In postchristian, secular Britain fairyland provides an accessible mystical elsewhere known and recognized to most Britons which can be adapted to serve particular narrative or political roles without incurring the vicious controversy attached to religious debate. The same psychological processes which favoured the democratization of fairy art in the 19th century show themselves equally powerful in the 20th.
It is also perfectly suited to the post-psychedelic exploration of the human subconscious. Fairy art celebrated the sublime dream, expressed in images of Titania sleeping, guarded and watched by Oberon and his armoured retinue, or charging across the brows of recumbent mortals. Fuseli, the Principal Hobgoblin Painter to the Devil, was supposed to eat raw beef at night to give him the strange, otherworldly dreams which provided the raw material for his work. In Surrealism, which also explores the dream and subconscious, painters like Max Walter Svanberg continued to paint fairy ladies not so far removed from their Symbolist predecessors. More technological artists, such as Jurgen Ziewe, use computer graphics and virtual reality to create the "paradises artificiels" of which the Decadents dreamed. Ziewe's art is also informed by Theosophical and mystical beliefs, and his works can therefore be seen as a technological version of the otherworld desired by the fairy painters. Finally, there are the machine elves encountered by Terence McKenna and other explorers of psychedelia in the hallucinogenic world of DMT. Many of the hippies consciously modelled themselves on their forebears in Surrealism and 19th-century Romanticism, citing Thomas De Quincy and the Club de Haschichins as illustrious predecessors.
Fairyland, whether portrayed by dreamy Romantics or the tortured aesthetes of the Ecole Symboliste, offers the attractive prospect of personally encountering the strange inhabitants of the human neurological landscape. In the hands of underground comic artists such as Pete Loveday, the relocation of fairyland to the interior of the human psyche, accessible primarily through drugs, is complete. (16) Tellingly, Millais's Ferdinand Lured by Ariel was rejected by the dealer who commissioned it because of strong reservations over the green colour of the fairies depicted. Was this simply disquiet at a convention of naturalistic fairy pigmentation being broken, or fear that the picture was a reference to the "green fairy" of absinthe, the sinful drink of Baudelaire and the poets maudits?
The desire to escape from this world to a parallel universe of fantasy and delight is constant and pervasive, especially in times of radical change. Fairyland is the quintessential "Land of Heart's Desire", the pleasures of which can be terrible. SF has been described as the literature of change, and so has taken over the role, and frequently the subject matter, of traditional fairy stories, while modern technology tantalisingly offers the possibility of giving these fantasies concrete form. All these modern, technological fears and fantasies were first articulated through fairyland by the Victorians as they entered the first industrial age.
Now, with the disruption of the second, fairyland in its traditional guise and in the technological trappings of aliens and androids, is reaffirming its hold on the human psyche, as expressed in the imagery and themes of otherworld experiences. The Cottingley fairies and subsequent elfin encounters drew extensively on Victorian fairy iconography, as ultimately does much of the Close Encounter phenomenon. As more traditional fairy narratives once again find popularity, perhaps we shall see a resurgence in fairy encounters closer to the Victorian source material, or at least the imagery of the tradition's modern interpreters. Regardless of the precise form, the power of the fairies to shape our modern myths is by no means exhausted. It is perhaps the strongest and least recognized of the Victorians' contribution to the human imagination.
1. Rickard, R. and Sieveking, P., eds, Fortean Times, No. 71, October/November 1993
Society raises its children on tales of the fantastic. Stories of flying carpets, men of steel, and fairy princesses permeate the lives of children, handed to them by loving adults who want the children to be literate and imaginative. At the same time, children are told that they can achieve anything. They could be whatever they want to be, through such things as hard work, determination, hope, and the great intangible known as the "American Dream." In giving our children these ideals, it is also a fact that we also convince them that they can become the impossible. Little girls believe they are princesses and little boys are superheroes. Children wish for what society cannot give them, and someday they must face the reality of broken dreams.
As these children reach adulthood, they approach a point where they must come to terms with their new status in life, free from parental restraint and schooling but caught by the newfound responsibility of work and family. Contemporary writer Douglas Coupland, in a novel about modern youth and the Generation X sub-culture, calls this the "Mid-Twenties Breakdown: A period of mental collapse occurring in one's twenties, often caused by an inability to function outside of school or structured environments coupled with a realization of one's essential aloneness in the world." 1
As the person comes to terms with their new direction in life, they must also take stock of their own beliefs, including dreams and wishes. The song "My Secret Origin" by Ookla the Mok represents an example of this train of thought; it is a lament on the subject of unfulfilled dreams, dreams that are both improbable and far-fetched. The singer tells us a story, of sorts: "There was a boy who knew he could be anything that he wanted to. Everybody told him he had a singular special destiny. Everybody said he'd go far--everybody said he'd be a star. They said he could be anything he wanted to be--then he turned into me." 2 He acknowledges the fact that though something is possible, it is not a certainty. Telling a child they could be president is not the same as telling them they will be president. And then there are the individuals who take their dreams one step further, as the singer does: "Now it seems increasingly unlikely that I'm gonna grow up to be Luke Skywalker--not gonna be Indiana Jones. And after all this time it's probably not gonna turn out that I'm the super-powered heir to a world that isn't there anymore."
Rationally, everyone knows the impossibility of such destinies. The Force is not real, Krypton does not exist, and archeologists do not fight Nazis and drink from the cup of Christ. Adults know better, but try telling a child the truth. It is not something a parent wants to do, any more than they would like to admit Santa Claus is a fictional entity. Admission of a lie changes the way parents look in the eyes of children. Adults lose the respect and are labeled as liars. So society keeps its collective mouth shut, and youth remains ignorant.
Tales of the fantastic are prominent in the fabric of our culture. We read the stories of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves" and "Cinderella" to kindergartners, little boys look at Superman and Spiderman comics in their backyards, Star Wars is one of the most popular movies of all time. These tales appeal to youth most of all. They appeal to youth because children and adolescents can relate to the stories, where the hero is young and inexperienced, the story represents their coming-of-age. Joseph Campbell, a prominent sociologist and scholar, calls it the "hero's journey," citing Star Wars as an example. Luke Skywalker is 18 years old, and living an uneventful life on an isolated farm world. Two droids show up with secret plans, he meets a legendary Jedi master; Luke discovers he has power over a mystical Force that binds together all life in the universe. Luke then goes to rescue the princess, finds out who his father is, saves his friends from an evil crime lord, confronts his father, and in the end the rebellion wins, and Luke realizes what an immense responsibility being a Jedi is. The story is epic, with its highs and lows, and it shows us a single character maturing and becoming a responsible adult. Luke's existence on the farm world of Tatooine is representative of the living situations that many youth find themselves in. Trapped in dull and restrictive lives, adolescents use fantastic literature as escapism, and become Luke Skywalker in spirit. Society has already told them they could become anything they want to, so why not a Jedi Knight?
The setting of Star Wars is a far away place of long ago, distant as Ancient Egypt or the Roman Empire is to the average American. The stories are known, and the realities of the two are clear. Egyptians are real; Corellians and Wookies are not. To hope to be Luke Skywalker then appears to be a foolish dream, since the story is blatantly impossible. This dream serves as an example, an archetype of hope. A more plausible dream to the intelligent child is the superhero myth. Comic books present us with the ordinary transformed. An alien rocket ship crashes, and the pilot dies on impact. Before passing away, he sends his omnipotent green "power ring" forth to find a new owner. It selects Hal Jordan, former test pilot, who with power ring in hand, becomes the new Green Lantern of Earth. He can create any object imaginable using the ring, described by many as "the most powerful weapon in the universe." Of course, he chooses to fight evil and protect the innocent. This "secret origin" is something to identify with: an ordinary man, courageous at heart, chosen to be something special. An extra-terrestrial ship, not implausible in a world where over half the American population believes an alien spacecraft crashed in Roswell, New Mexico one fateful day in 1947. And throughout the world, it is hard to find a true atheist, almost everyone believes in some higher power, their faith holding them to that belief despite lack of tangible proof. From birth, adults tell their children to believe in God despite an obtrusive lack of evidence. They train their children to believe in the impossible.
As young children grow into teenagers, their intelligence and understanding of the world increases, as doesthe inclination to ask questions of what their base of knowledge cannot explain, and later reject it. An outlook of wonder is replaced with cold hard reality; their interest expands to more tangible things, such as the opposite sex. Some ideas remain however, especially hope for the future, a variable that still possesses a grain of reality. The future cannot be discounted since it has not happened yet, and adults and their children still acknowledge that future success is only a possibility. A child could be president, not that they will be. The song acknowledges the existence of the former, and the disappointment a person feels as it takes hold and becomes the reality. This emotional crash can be the mid-twenties breakdown, not dissimilar to the mid-life crisis that older men and women alike may undergo. These young adults question their own beliefs, all their dreams and ambitions. Their capricious expectations are revealed to be but an imaginary story, a fairy tale akin to "The Emperor's New Clothes." The emperor has no clothes, and their dreams have no basis in reality. As a result, their realistic goals may be lost and swept aside as the meaningless trappings of childhood, tossed away like "the baby with the bath water." While in the short term they may find it easier to simply forget the past and all they have worked for, doing so neglects their own natural talents and the years of preparation for a career they no longer want. They begin from scratch, and their disillusionment prevents them from truly rising to greatness.
If fiction is so detrimental, so harmful to an individual, then why are children raised on it? Children are voids, blank slates free of all disbelief, skepticism, and prejudice. Adults see their children as capable of achieving everything they failed at, learning everything they never cultivated. Children represent a new start. Parents like to see their offspring go on to achieve greatness, a form of immortality. The names that live on are the cognomens of writers, painters, and scientists. These professions require a modicum of creativity, imagination. What better to stimulate the fancy of a child than stories of the fantastic, the impossible? The child's only recourse at this point is to recreate the ideas imparted to them, whether through story, art, or even the physical world by the path of science. These are the professions that advance the world technologically and culturally.
A society needs dreamers to better it, to create progress. Yet not everyone can be a scientist or a great writer. These are the children who wish for the impossible, to be the last son of Krypton or a princess in disguise. They are the disappointed adults who toil away in dreary jobs, having misplaced their ambition long ago. In Douglas Coupland's novel Shampoo Planet, a French girl scorns aspiration and desire, asking her optimistic American companion, "which is more fair: to promise your children the moon and then give your children nothing-or promise only a little-be realistic- so when your children become civil servants they are not unhappy? I think your ambition is crooo-el." 3 Whatever the situation in France, across the ocean in the "land of the free and home of the brave," children are taught to reach for the unattainable. Some children fly, forging themselves a remarkable destiny. The others fall. They were never prepared for the reality, and are left with no sense of direction. These individuals are not fated to live uneventful lives; more so they make bad decisions. The singer talks about not spending "another wasted year, cause at the end I bet I'd still be sitting here wasting time and waiting." In waiting for an impossible dream, he accomplished nothing with his life. He accepts the implausibility of those dreams and tells us "Don't count me out of it--my story isn't over yet." He has decided to move on, because "looking back I find it seems I've always had unlikely dreams but I can't let that stop me now, it's time to grow up anyhow." Most individuals reach this point at some time in their lives, where they must cast off the wreckage of dreams and create a reality for themselves. Before then, time is wasted; people live with false hopes that linger their entire life.
In the end, children need to have reality made clear. The difference between could and will, possibility and certainty, they must be made clear to children if they are to be productive individuals. Whether they become scientists or bankers, all children need a good grasp of reality to outline goals for themselves. Myth is not a bad thing, but when the line between fiction and reality is blurred, the fantasy becomes meaningless.
1. Douglas Coupland, Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, (St. Martin's Press, New York: 1991)