The fake beauty of winged creatures

2022-01-09, 3:12pm Columns

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Sudhirendar Sharma

Sudhirendar Sharma

Even today if you give any child a pair of crayons to draw fairies, without fail winged creatures in different hues will erupt on the drawing sheet. Despite fairies being mythical creatures, these are imprinted on the human mind as omniscient and omnipresent beings!  Perhaps the reason for this belief has to do with us being a storytelling animal, thinking in stories rather than hard facts. Our emerging virtual world has only amplified and consolidated our interest in fakes. 

I recall how the Irish story collector Eddie Lenihan was chided by a woman a decade ago for broadcasting his beliefs about fairies, and the gentleman had defended himself by saying that everyone believed in God although no one had ever seen him. Ironically, not only fairies but witches and ghosts too have lived through times, with as many contesting their so-called existence. The famed images of ‘Cottingley Fairies’, the fake photographs that shook the world in 1917, could fetch £20,000 a century later in 2018 is testimony to their unceasing popularity in literature, and in arts.      

Shot in the village of Cottingley in Yorkshire, this famous picture shows a teenage girl looking at the camera as dancing fairies with butterfly wings appear in the foreground. Claiming to have found the winged creatures gamboling near their home, Elsie Wright, 16, and her 9-year old cousin Frances Griffiths could convince the world, including the great rationalist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, with indelible proof of the existence of the supernatural beings. Although the fairies in the pictures looked anything but fake, it took some sixty years before the myth was finally busted. 

Despite fairies being the stuff of fancy, whimsy, and childhood,  researchers have drawn fresh perspectives on the cultural meanings of the unceasing fairy-belief. If Sir Doyle could create the literary myth named Sherlock Holmes, Elsie and Francis complimented it with their unforgettable icon, the Cottingley Fairies. It may seem a strange coincidence but the desire to be taken in by faith of some kind during a war-ravaged period could have been the innate cultural compulsion.    

But why would such a notion persist in the present times? One would imagine that the technological revolution across the hundred years between 1917 and 2017 would have buried the numinous otherness of the fairies for good. Conversely, these continue to persist not only in English, Scottish, or Irish imagination but are part of folklore literally across every continent in the world. Every culture has its stories of fairies or nature spirits, from Ireland to China, South Africa to India, and Canada to Australia. 

We live in the times wherein what the majority believes in becomes the truth by default. Should then it matter whether or not fairies are fake when the world has accepted fake as the new real. Hasn’t the world long believed Kardashians to be real without anybody watching them? Should then the belief in fairies not be reinvented to make sense in the present? The belief in fairies has the power to respiritualize nature, much like what the nature spirits, the Navi, demonstrated in James Cameron’s 2009 film Avatar. If faith in fake can have a real impact, let the fairies prevail. 

Dr. Sudhirendar Sharma is a writer and researcher specialising in development issues. He is based in New Delhi, India.

First published in The Hindu on Jan 9, 2022.