|fairy from the movie Labyrinth
For many people today the word fairy immediately invokes images like the picture above, of a tiny winged being. In today's post I want to discuss specifically the idea of fairies as tiny, because its so pervasive and yet largely a popculture concept, albeit an early modern one. So, why do we envision fairies as tiny?
The fairies of folklore - historic and modern - are depicted across a wide range of sizes and forms, from about 18 inches tall to well over 13 feet. These beings are known as shapeshifters and their size is often fluid and changeable, or at least human perception of their size isn't constant. Also specific types of beings are known to have particular sizes and appearances, such as the selkies who are human-like on land and seals in the water. In many Irish fairy encounters the beings are described as more or less human sized, a feature we see as well in Scotland. Some specific beings like Leprechauns were known to be about 18 inches to 3 feet tall, depending on the story. As with so many aspects of folklore this subject isn't clear cut or easy to simplify but includes a spectrum of possibilities. However we can say in a very general sense that the idea of tiny, insect sized or smaller fairies isn't common across Western European folklore.
Where we do find tiny fairies is in England, particularly English literature but with possible roots in older folk beliefs. Katherine Briggs discusses several medieval English examples of what she terms 'diminutive fairies' which are described as about as tall as a finger is long; these were either specific types of beings or specific individuals in context, rather than all fairies more generally. The earliest such account comes from Gervase of Tilbury in the 13th century who describes beings he calls 'Portunes' which are between a half inch and a foot tall* (Briggs, 1976). While a foot tall is on the smaller end of fairy sizes within folklore in general it isn't as tiny as we will find later as fairies are refined into the early modern period literature.
The earliest description I have found in writing of tiny fairies comes from Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet, completed in 1597, where he describes the fairy queen Mab as 'In shape no bigger than an agate stone; On the forefinger of an alderman' (Shakespeare, 1980). Mab is not only as tiny as the stone in a finger-ring but is said to travel in a wagon fashioned from insect parts: wheels spoked with spider legs and a wagon cover made of grasshopper wings. This idea is expanded several decades later in Michael Drayton's 1627 'Nymphidia' a poem which describes the English fairy court. In this poem the fairies are firmly established as tiny beings who can fit into flowers and use small natural objects for their construction - spider legs to build walls and bats wings to cover their roofs, for example. This comes to us from English literature (the literate class as opposed to direct folk belief) and is an idea we will see repeated in later works as well, blending the idea of diminutive fairies with Paracelsus's elemental divisions of these beings to create the tiny air and earth fairies that would later take hold in popular imagination. As to why fairies were so far reduced, as Diane Purkiss so aptly says it: "The Elizabethans and even more so the Jacobeans loved the miniature. In their hands, fairies shrank to tininess." and "Reducing the other to miniature scale reduces it to manageability too, making it laughable." (Purkiss, 2000, ps 181 & 182). Despite this diminishment the fairies of this period were still seen as having power and influence, particularly over human dreams, madness, and crops.
|Fairy Hordes Attacking a Bat by John Anster Fitzgerald 1860
The Victorian era is one of the most pivotal points in how popular culture today would come to view fairies, with a surge in interest in romanticized folklore, nature, and entertainment. The fairies of folk belief became subjects of retellings and fairies more generally were rewritten and redefined away from dangerous and powerful beings and into the fodder of children's stories and art. These fairies were firmly rooted as well in the miniaturization that had begun with Shakespeare and persisted through English literature and poetry, finding expression in Pope's 1712 'Rape of the Lock' for example where fairies are definitively small and generally powerless as well as in William Blake's late 18th and early 19th century works which described tiny fairies. Victorian era literature though took these existing ideas and framed them for children, reducing fairies not only in size by favouring the insect comparisons but also infantilizing and moralizing them. As Carole Silver explains it: "As the elfin peoples became staples of children's literature, the perception grew that they themselves were childish....Some of the tales promoted a false set of conventions, one that made, the fairies tiny and harmless - moral guides for children or charming little pets - and a tradition of sentimentalization and idealization developed." (Silver, 1999, p187). Being tiny was then directly connected to both being childlike and being powerless, creating a being that was physically miniature and more decorative than dangerous.
Into the 20th century this idea was further refined in popculture with Cicely Mary Barker's flower fairies and with JM Barrie's Peter Pan taking to the stage. While fairies in art during the Victorian period were often shown as small both of these sources were popular and gained wider traction in the popular imagination and refined fairies down to their essential tweeness. Barker's fairy art featured tiny childlike fairies connected to and often clothed with specific flowers and plants. Her fairies then were small enough that flower petals could form a skirt for one and an acorn the perfectly sized cap for another. Barrie's Tinkerbell in print was both feminine and seductive but on stage transformed into an indistinct ball of light who communicated through the sound of bells, existing largely through Peter Pan's perception and translation (Kruse, 2019). The tiny, glowing, nature-bound fairy may well be understood as the conglomeration of all of these influences into the 20th century.
|The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania, by Joseph Noel Paton, c. 1849
So while tiny fairies can be found in older material, particularly in England, they represented only a small portion of the wider range of fairies. The image above of Oberon and Titania's quarrel in A Midsummer Night's Dream displays this range of sizes and appearances, including both human sized beings as well as tiny ones, rather than the exclusively tiny sized fairies that some modern sources depict. It is also important to understand that tiny fairies are largely coming from English literary traditions rather than folk belief, a point that Silver notes in her book and which we have traced out here. The tiny fairies that are seen and experienced today and which can be found in modern fairylore exist parallel to older folk beliefs, often contradicting them, and represent one unique strand of belief rather than the entirety.
*the text is sometimes given as 'half an inch' but Briggs rightly suggests this is a scribal error as that size is incompatible with the actions described - such as carrying a young frog - within the text. Despite this the error has undoubtedly influenced later perceptions of the size of fairies.
Purkiss, D., (2000) At the Bottom of the Garden: A Dark History of Fairies, Hobgoblins, and Other Troublesome Things
Kruse, J., (2019) "Ray of Light" Tinkerbell and Luminous Fairies', retrieved from https://britishfairies.wordpress.com/2019/01/06/ray-of-light-tinkerbell-and-luminous-fairies/
Shakespeare, W., (1980) Romeo and Juliet. Retrieved from http://shakespeare.mit.edu/romeo_juliet/full.html
Briggs, K., (1976) A Dictionary of Fairies
Silver, C., (1999) Strange & Secret Peoples: Fairies and the Victorian Consciousness