+ ~ -
Please report pronunciation problems here. Select and sample other voices. Options Pause Play
Report an Error


THE fairy stories which are the most
delightful, and which the world can least afford
to lose, are those, one need hardly say, which
never were believed. Our pleasantest have
sprung, like Cinderella, from a playful fancy,
and have quickened and enlivened the minds
of thousands without being in any single
instance foes to anything but to stupidity and
ignorance. But the ancestors of these were
tales which, in their day, were firmly believed
by the people, not excepting the most learned,
and which were discussed with much solidity
and gravity. When men went into the woods
they journeyed, not only in bodily but also
in spiritual fear; they expected to meet
robbers, they dreaded to meet wood-spirits
and other ghosts. These were the shadows
of the dark days, not the lights.

All that is most graceful in our fairy lore was
brought to us from the east by the crusaders.
From the south of Europe, too, we may have
learnt some lesson of good humour, for the
kindness of the fairies cited in the old Proven├žal
lays is quite remarkable. They might be vexed
for a season, but they always relented and
made up their quarrels. Take for example
the tale of Lanval, that belonged to South
France in the twelfth or thirteenth century.
An amiable fairy loved the Count Lanval,
but commanded him to be entirely silent
on the subject of her favours. At any hour
of the day, he had only to wish for her and
she was there to make him happy. But it so
happened that king Aotus and his wife
Genevra came to Carduel, where the king at
a tournament caused his wife to be proclaimed
as the most beautiful of women. Lanval
whispered to himself a different opinion, and
was overheard; his contumacy was reported
to the queen, and when he saw that he had
no other hope of saving himself, he confessed
freely what he knew. The jealous queen
caused him to be condemned to death, and he
in vain, while in his prison, called for aid on
the good fairy whose secret he had
traitorously told. His last day came, therefore,
and he was led out to the place of execution,
where he found the queen and the whole
court assembled to behold vengeance done on
the maligner of her majesty's good-looks.
When all was nearly ready a strange lady
sent her dwarf to the king with a request
that, as she desired to be present, he would
be kind enough to postpone the celebration
until her arrival. Soon afterwards she came
in upon her palfrey and all eyes were blinded
by her beauty. She told the king that it
was she of whom Lanval had spoken; and,
to her majesty's extreme disgust, the king
himself, as well as the whole court, declared,
that Lanval had been altogether in the right.
That knight had been leaning against a pillar
near the foot of the throne, touched to the
heart by his fairy's tenderness. She had
forgiven him. When she retired from the
throne, he leapt beside her on the palfrey and
rode with her into fairy-land.

We of the north and west have been more
cloudy in our superstition. We have had no
lack of supernatural acquaintances, in which
our belief was more or less firm and general
until the end of the sixteenth century. There
were spirits of earth, spirits of air, spirits of
fire, and spirits of water. Treatises without
number were written upon them, and they
were described and compared as philosophically,
as we now describe and compare the
races and the languages of Malayan, Papuan,
and other tribes. In addition to men,
Paracelsus taught, four races of beings were
created who have not Adam for their father.
They have all flesh and bone, and reason, and
there is one race for each element. Those
living in the middle of the earth he called
Pigmies and Gnomes; those dwelling in
water, Nymphs and Undines; those in the air,
Sylphs and Melusinas,—they alone are capable
of actually marrying the sons of Adam
and those living in fire he called Volcanoes.
This was a putting of old-fashioned fact, or
belief that went for fact, into a new fashioned
dress of theory.

Every element certainly was peopled by
the superstition of our forefathers, and very
miserably degraded man's life must have
been when people went about with their
souls clad in such stuffs as those of which
I here beg leave to exhibit a few patterns.

First let me unroll a pattern-book of earth
spirits. Gervasius Tilberiensis, who is writing
in the thirteenth century, tells this story in
these words: "There happened in Great
Britain a wonderful event that is sufficiently
notorious. There was in the county of