Why do so many people laugh, almost as an unthinking reflex, as soon as fairies are mentioned? This is a question that has intrigued me since I wrote a book about belief in fairies. I have been researching belief in witchcraft, magic and ghosts for many years, and some people question whether there is any point studying such subjects – but I do not encounter hilarity when I mention them. By contrast, I have found that even mentioning fairies makes some people laugh. I find it unlikely that people find fairies intrinsically funny; this is not the laughter of genuine amusement, but rather the laughter of ridicule – the way we might laugh at the stupidity of certain politicians, not so much because we find them funny but because we despair of their idiocy, and laughter seems the appropriate response. For some reason, laughter has become an ingrained cultural response (at least in the UK) to fairies, to belief in fairies, and even to the study of belief in fairies.
Is belief in fairies inherently worthy of laughter? There is nothing particularly amusing about some of the consequences of believing in fairies, such as the awful murder of Bridget Cleary, the Irish woman killed by her husband in 1895 because he was convinced she was a fairy changeling. Indeed, belief in changelings is a deeply distressing phenomenon that gives the researcher little to laugh about. The longer one spends studying fairy belief, the more disturbing it seems. The fairies are profoundly unheimlich: beings who are almost human, but not quite – interdimensional entities who emerge from their reality into ours to prey on us, and particularly on our children. In a sense, internet-generated urban legends like Slenderman, or indeed the modern mythology of extraterrestrials intent on abducting human subjects, comes closer to medieval and early modern fairy belief than contemporary belief in fairies, which often portrays fairies as little more than elusive yet ornamental guardians of the natural world. The fairies of medieval and early modern England were terrifying – creatures that would emerge from the ground to inflict disease and death on children and animals, and to lure humans into their own time-defying dimension. There is nothing funny about fairies.
So, if belief in fairies is not funny, is it simply ridiculous? There will be some people, of course, who will regard all supernatural belief as equally ridiculous. Most of us, however, even if we are not ourselves believers, have a tendency to rank supernatural beliefs by the respect we are willing to accord their adherents. We are likely to treat sincere believers in the great world religions with more respect than we might the adherents of a fringe cult, for example. In the UK in particular, belief in ghosts is part of the cultural mainstream (albeit still widely mocked by many) and reports about ghosts routinely appear in local and national tabloid newspapers. It is hard to imagine similar attention being paid to stories about fairies, but there is no obvious prima facie reason why belief in fairies is any more or less ridiculous than belief in ghosts. In the UK at least, confessing belief in the reality of some ghost sightings is generally socially acceptable in all but the most sceptical of settings. Belief in fairies, on the other hand, is often bracketed with belief in Santa Claus – something so utterly childish that no adult would confess it except in jest.
One reason for this may be that fairies are solely beings of folklore. There is no tradition that seeks to explain historic experiences of fairies in scientific or pseudo-scientific terms, as there is for ghosts. No contemporary parapsychologists (as far as I know) conduct serious research into fairies. The folkloric character of fairies casts them as inhabitants of an earlier, obsolete mental world. Yet unlike belief in a man in a red costume who delivers presents to all the children of the world in a single night, belief in fairies is not a twentieth-century invention for the benefit of children: it is a deep-rooted, organic tradition that is as old as our culture itself. If we accord beliefs respect on the basis of their antiquity and cultural importance, then belief in fairies is certainly a deserving recipient.
I suggest that there are three main reasons why people so often tend to laugh at belief in fairies. The first, and perhaps the most important, is that belief in fairies was an easy target of eighteenth-century Enlightenment rationalism. Unlike other supernatural beliefs, such as belief in witchcraft, belief in fairies required faith in an entire category of beings for which there was no solid sensory evidence. Belief in witchcraft, by contrast, was about interpretations of causality (‘My cow is sick because Mrs So-and-So overlooked it’, etc.) and therefore more difficult to undermine. But it was easy to deploy Ockham’s Razor against fairy belief: was it really necessary to posit an entire category of beings – a whole otherworld – to explain the phenomena that fairies were supposed to cause? Exactly how quickly belief in fairies declined in England, and for what reasons, is an intriguing subject in its own right that I do not have time to discuss here, but those who adopted disbelief in fairies were clear: the fairies could not exist, because there was no evidence for their existence, and no place for them in a disenchanted world.
A second reason why English people are particularly likely to greet any mention of fairies with hilarity and contempt is more political. Between the 1770s and the 1820s a huge debate raged in British and Irish politics about the admission of Catholics – who were predominantly Irish – into full civil and political rights. The debate culminated in 1829 with the emancipation of Catholics in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, which resulted in the influx of Irish Catholic MPs into the House of Commons. Most of the English press consistently opposed emancipation, and one recurring argument was that the Catholic Irish were simply too superstitious to be allowed any say in governing themselves. Irish belief in fairies was often rehearsed as proof that the Irish were childish and incapable of governing themselves. To this day, many English people associate belief in fairies with the Irish, in spite of the fact that much avowed belief in fairies in modern Ireland has more to do with promoting tourism than it does with any genuine convictions. Yet the idea that fairy belief belongs to childish and undeveloped nations (as the British press still, apparently, imagines Ireland to be) is one that seems to have taken root in English culture. With it, all memory of English fairy belief seems to have vanished: many English people are unaware that their country even has fairy traditions, and associate fairies exclusively with the ‘Celtic’ nations of Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Cornwall.
The third and final possible reason why people laugh at any mention of fairies may be the most disturbing of them all. Laughter, as is well known, is one response to fear. There is a long history of reluctance to speak openly about the fairies, including the use of euphemistic names for them. It is possible that some of the folkloric garb in which we dress fairies, and jocular stories associated with them, derives ultimately from our unease about them – in exactly the same way that the devil is frequently treated in a jocular fashion, or portrayed as a gullible fool, in much English folklore. While it seems unlikely that those who laugh at fairies are consciously afraid of them, could it be that laughter is a learnt cultural response whose original purpose was to disarm the power of the fairies themselves?