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On the Origin of Fairies: Victorians, Romantics, and Folk Belief

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 October 2008


In 1846 William John Thoms, who contributed the term “folklore” to the English language, commented in The Athenaeum that “belief in fairies is by no means extinct in England” (Merton 55). Thoms was not alone in his opinion; he merely echoed and endorsed the words of Thomas Keightley, the author of a popular and influential book, The Fairy Mythology. For believers were not limited to gypsies, fisherfolk, rural cottagers, country parsons, and Irish mystics. Antiquarians of the Romantic era had begun the quest for fairies, and throughout Victoria's reign advocates of fairy existence and investigators of elfin origins included numerous scientists, historians, theologians, artists, and writers. By the 1880s such leading folklorists and anthropologists as Sabine Baring-Gould, Joseph Jacobs, Andrew Lang, and Sir John Rhŷs were examining oral testimony on the nature and the customs of the “little folk” and the historical and archaeological remains left by them. At the beginning of the twentieth century eminent authors, among them Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, swelled the ranks of those who held the fairy faith and publicized their findings. In all, in a remarkable “trickle up” of folk belief, a large number of educated Romantics, Victorians, and Edwardians speculated at length on whether fairies did exist or had at least once existed.

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Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1986

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