The last one hundred years produced at least three authoritative nonfiction texts investigating the remnants of the paganistic tradition of the fairy faith as it existed in Western Europe during 19th and early 20th centuries: W.Y. Evan-Wentz's 'The Faith-Faith in Celtic Countries' (1911), Lady Augusta Gregory and William Butler Yeats' 'Visions & Beliefs in the West of Ireland' (1920) and Margaret Murray's 'The God of the Witches' (1933).
Murray's much-disputed book was a theoretical interpretation of the witch craze of the Middle Ages, the Evan-Wentz volume contained both broad theory and narrative accounts, while the Gregory-Yeats publication, the purest of the three, simply compiled plain-spoken oral accounts of the 'fairy faith' gathered from aging peasants living in County Galway.
Murray's theory was that 'the fairies' were a racial memory of the Picts, an extinct race, generally short of physical stature (and thus 'little people'), that the author believed were driven underground and into the hinterlands by successive waves of ancient invaders.
While the individuals interviewed by Evan-Wentz and Lady Gregory and Yeats held varying beliefs about the fairies, the general consensus was that the fairies coexisted with man in the natural world, "all around us, as thick as the grass," but were invisible to most men almost all of the time. There were many general common beliefs: "the trooping fairies" were thought to be tall, physically attractive, boisterous, pleasure-seeking and sometimes militaristic, while the "solitary fairies" tended to be short, unattractive, antisocial and dangerous to encounter, though all fairies were accepted as capricious by nature.
The peasantry often blamed such common calamities as infant mortality, collapsed houses, poor crops, sick cows and curdled milk on their invisible neighbors. Though most of the interviewees freely admitted they had never seen an pixie, leprechaun or banshee with their own eyes, many thought they had heard one or more such beings at some point of their lives or otherwise been directly affected by them. As a result, most of the Gregory-Yeats accounts tend to be "stories heard" of a "this happened to a friend of a friend of mine" (or FOAF) variety.
Interestingly and perhaps understandably, awe and fear were the most commonly expressed emotions in the Gregory-Yeats collection. For almost all of the storytellers, a physical encounter with a fairy or a group of fairies was typically a terrifying and life-altering event, and also sometimes believed to be a harbinger of a death in the immediate household or neighborhood. It was commonly agreed that 'the good people,' as the fairies were often euphemistically called, were liminal, twilit, 'betwixt and between' beings whose ultimate nature was unknowable.
Following very broadly from the tradition of Shakespeare's 'A Midsummer's Night Dream' (1590-1596) and some of the work of the Romantic poets, in 1923 Cicely Mary Barker published the commercially popular, influential and highly sentimentalized 'Flower Fairies of the Spring,' which depicted fairies as delicate young girls and boys with wings, each of whom mirrors a different kinds of vegetable life---Cornflower, Sweet Pea, Marigold, Yew, Holly---in essentially human form. The book was successful enough to warrant a sequel, and Barker went on to publish an entire series of volumes of fanciful fairy paintings and prose, all in the same greeting card style.
There were dozens of precedents for Barker's work, including the 19th century fairy illustrations of brothers Richard and Charles Doyle, Arthur Rackham's work of the early 20th century, the enormous success of J.M. Barrie's play 'Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up' (1904), its novelization, 'Peter Pan & Wendy' (1911) and the infamous Cottingley fairy photographs scandal of 1917-1920.
However, sober authors of the period, such as Arthur Machen (1863-1947) and Algernon Blackwood (1869-1951), produced popular short stories which more closely reflected the genuine fairy faith of the British peasantry.
Blackwood revered nature almost as much as Machen found it deceptive and repulsive, and their personal biases figured strongly in their work. In Blackwood's 'May Day Eve' (1908), the sophisticated fairies encountered by an errant city dweller appear grotesquely distorted in voice, appearance and manner, while in 'Ancient Lights' (1912), a surveyor is "pixie-led" by a figure wearing "browny green" who resembles a human male one moment but nothing but "shade and foliage" the next.
Machen's 'The Shining Pyramid' and 'The Novel of the Black Seal' (1895) depicted 'the little people' as the remnants of a barbaric pre-human race continuing to exist undetected in the wilderness, while his difficult but oft-praised 'The White People' (1899) portrayed both the fairy faith and witchcraft as archaic practices still secretly operating in collusion on the peripheries of the contemporary world. 'Out of the Earth' (1915) characterized the fairies as murderous, imbecile-like goblins resembling juvenile humans who are "[only] visible, only audible to children and the child-like."
'Seeing Fairies: From the Lost Archives of the Fairy Investigation Society, Authentic Reports of Fairies in Modern Times' (2014) by Marjorie T. Johnson was compiled by the author over a period of half a century and is now being published in English for the first time (though the book was written in English, German and Italian translations have been published).
Unfortunately, the overarching perspective and interpretation of the fairies presented in 'Seeing Fairies' is that of Cicely Mary Barker and what one might expect of the 'well-bred' British upper middle class of the era: many of the informants seem to hold socially respectable positions (a fact Johnson seems keen to underscore), appear to own their own homes, and spend their abundant leisure time socializing, gardening, motoring and traveling abroad. They are unerringly 'nice' people of at least moderate education.
Since every one of the several hundred witnesses apparently thinks, and definitely speaks, in the same gushing, florid manner, the reader is left to question how this identical style of thought and diction could have been possible in each and every case, even when taking into consideration the lack of class distinctions.
Did Johnson, the "Honorary Secretary" of the Fairy Investigation Society, foolishly rewrite or otherwise alter each account so that all have the same identical tone? Or did Johnson, perhaps laboring under a psychological ailment, simply invent all of the witnesses and write all of the accounts herself?
The fairies encountered in 'Seeing Fairies' are not squat, misshapen and unknowable beings, nor are they a tall, proud military 'elite.'
Johnson was a fairy witness herself, and the beings she and her informants generally experience and report upon are remarkably similar to those featured in the more conspicuously faked photographs in the Cottingley series, Barker's quaint flower sprites and the various fairies depicted in Walt Disney's 'Snow White & The Seven Dwarfs' (1937), 'Fantasia' (1940), 'Cinderella' (1950) and 'Peter Pan' (1953). Jane Werner and Garth Williams' 'The Giant Golden Book of Elves and Fairies' (1951), or books like it, also seem to have been an influence.
Noticeably, few, if any, of the Johnson's witnesses are even slightly dismayed by their encounters. In fact, many of the witnesses report that they have been encountering fairies with regularity throughout their lifetimes. For some, seeing sylphs and brownies is just short of an everyday experience.
Mrs. L. F. Small observes "a little gnome" with "a look of extreme annoyance on his face" and later "a lovely gossamer-winged fairy with the sweetest hands gently tending" Mrs. Small's "pink dwarf Canterbury bells on the rockery" in her garden. Later still, while "busy mending in her room," she looks down and sees "two little gnomes, holding between them a queer, flat basket of green tomatoes."
Mrs. Emma S. King of Australia walks into her kitchen to witness "an exquisite fairy, almost a living, breathing extension of the flower and of the same lovely tints and sheen, only more radiant" on a cut dahlia, while Mr. J. Boris Robertson of Queensland reports "a thing not six inches tall, with a Desert Pea flower for a hat, and leaves from the same plant forming the rest of its attire."
Miss Gladys Rowlett of Sussex "saw fairies frequently during her childhood" and, in 1949, "caught a glimpse of one about eight inches long, with long gauzy wings, flying through the garden by harvest moonlight. It was surrounded by a radiant glow and was very lovely."
While visiting Scotland, Mrs. Iris Strick sees "a small brown creature peering over a tree-stump," and later, "a prick-eared elf, eighteen inches or more high" which she believes is "stalking" her.
After "an enjoyable but strenuous walk," Mrs. F. M. A. Southwell happens to notice a "tree swarming with elves," which move "quite easily above, below, and between the branches." A "trained seer" confirms to Johnson that "tree manikins seem quite unaffected by the law of gravity."
Via firsthand experience, Mr. David Thurston Smith of Argyle learns that "lamb-riding was a popular game for gnomes," and Johnson reports that Smith "liked to watch them when dusk was falling." Smith also reports that "the little people...sit on toadstools in the rows during the hot weather, and watch the partridges run by."
"H" of Buckinghamshire testifies that, on one occasion, a fairy accompanied his car as he drove, which he describes as wearing "a frilly tutu, and with big butterfly wings."
Miss Bay Kirkaldy of London notices "a Christmas tree...simply crowded with fairies about the size of dragonflies, perfectly recognizable as to [their] sex." Mrs. A. Commins of Cornwall routinely sees "a working party of elves...tidying up the twigs" and describes their voices as "high-pitched, quick, and very clipped."
Mrs. D. Van der Molen, also of London, who reports working nine hours a day and so believes she has "no room for imagination" when the opposite is probably far more likely, sees "a pixie" in St. Austell, Cornwall, which is "almost two feet in height, very lithe, and chatty. He had abnormally large ears, of a deep brown colour, and between the tops of them, just above the forehead, was a conical growth, which was semi-hard to the touch. This he called his 'lump of knowledge.'"
As a child, Mrs. Mary Walton, "a Buddhist living in Birmingham," saw "little fairies and elves" begin "to dance and jump about to the music of a fairly fiddler who sat astride a swaying dog-rose." Max Heindel of Oceanside, California witnesses a "fairy procession" and notices that "most of the pixies were in smart tunics and their hats were of the same shape as toadstools."
While visiting Hertforshire, Mrs. George E. Rice of Middlesex sees "little brownies...coming out of a hollow tree...and bringing out a Maypole. They have set it up and are dancing round it, inter-twining the ribbons and shouting just as children do."
"A well-known children's psychiatrist" reports that "the little elves" of Ireland "loved the peat-fires," and would "sit cross-legged on the nursery hearth, holding out their tiny hands to the blaze, and chuckling to each other when the sparks flew." The same woman reports on "the Christmas tree fairies, the Easter grotto fairies, the fairies who guided folk through the bog, and the undines who danced in the waterfalls" as well as "the gnomes picking the fruit off the low bushes and quarreling with the birds for the best specimens."
Mrs. C. George of Stapleford, Notts sees "little men...between two and three feet high" "dressed like policeman...smiling and looking very happy" when passing Wollaton Park Gates, while Mrs. G. R. Nicholson of Leicester notices "a figure" on a primrose leaf "like Sir Walter Raleigh in miniature, wearing knee breeches, a short brown jacket, and a brown hat." On another leaf, she then sees "a tiny figure resembling Shakespeare."
The wholly uncritical 'Seeing Fairies,' with its unfortunate "this is not a children's book" cover slogan, goes on with this sort of whimsical nonsense for 363 stultifying pages (the British word 'twee'--"affectedly or excessively dainty, delicate, cute, or quaint" describes the tone of the book perfectly). To suggest that Johnson and her 'witnesses' were delusional or otherwise mentally afflicted gives the volume too much credit, for not a single 'encounter' is plausible on any level--nor are any plausibly presented. Whether the volume rises to the level of 'fakelore' will be for anthropologists and sociologists to determine.
Readers interested in intelligent, scholarly books on the subject should consult the three books referred to in the first paragraph or Patrick Harpur's excellent 'Daimonic Reality: A Field Guide to the Other World' (1995).