Do you know anyone about whom you would say he or she “…is away with the faeries”? If you’re like most people, you probably thought of at least one or two of your acquaintances who seem to have been bitten by the “New Age” bug, taken leave of their critical faculties and now fill their lives with crystals, mobiles of faeries, sprites, or angels and perhaps even adopted at least one garden “gnome”. “Cute” probably features largely in their conversations interspersed with phrases like ‘the guidance I am receiving is…” or “my spirit guide is telling me…” How could adults take leave of their senses so completely as to accept without proof the existence of things like ‘spirit guides’, devas, nature spirits, etc. whilst at the same time quite rationally rejecting organized religion and other inherited forms of balderdash? Personally, I find the terminally gullible enervating. So many of their statements are unchallengeable – not because the statements are self-evident but for the opposite reason, they are incapable of proof and therefore difficult to debate. Such is the case with adult beliefs about ‘alternative realities’ that harken back to childhood. We all learned somewhere along the line that the tooth faery was a charming tradition not a literal truth, likewise Father Christmas, the Easter Bunny, and faeries in the garden. But what if, just what if, there was something more substantial behind folk beliefs in these invisible characters, something we have overlooked or misinterpreted in our headlong race to embrace a ‘rational, materialist world view’? Could we have ‘thrown the baby out with the bath water’ when we dismissed the entire unseen spectrum? Random House editor Signe Pike had wondered about that since adolescence.
Pike’s upbringing had been dominated by her father, a Cornell professor, intellectual, and enthusiastic jock. Signe and her sister Kirsten had been encouraged – some would say bullied – into accompanying their seemingly tireless father on long, rugged hikes, mountain climbing, cross-country ski jaunts, and every manner of outdoor activity one could think of. He encouraged his daughters’ curiosity about everything in nature and either ignore or belittled (my interpretation) the unseen but felt experience of nature in the form of faeries and other spiritual beings. Elder sister Kirsten abandoned those interests early on but Signe persisted until her father’s rejection became unbearable and ultimately she embraced the outdoor life and became an enthusiastic hiker and climber. But in true faery-tale style, what she rejected came back to haunt her as an adult, particularly in the aftermath of her father’s death. In her grief, memories of her truncated childhood began to surface. Signe had loved her father and craved his approval to the point where it became the pivot around which her world turned. With his passing, much that had been suppressed, denied and ignored demanded to be acknowledged and in this case led to a highly creative resolution: Signe decided to leave her job for a year to write a book. Nothing revolutionary there – except that the subject of the book was to be an investigation of the realm of faery from an adult perspective. What Signe needed to know was whether such things as faeries – given the ubiquity of beliefs in such beings across cultures and aeons – might actually be a life-form that children and animals are capable of perceiving. And if so, then could an adult re-learn that skill and be rewarded with a glimpse of the ‘other world’ that we had rejected as a childhood fantasy?
The Quest Takes Shape
Signe had recently become engaged to her ‘soul-mate’, Eric Liebetrau, and they decided to move out of New York and find a place more conducive to the pursuit of faery lore for Signe’s project. They finished up in Charlotte on the American east coast and had only just moved in when Signe had to leave on the first leg of a research trip that would take her to Mexico, England, Isle of Man, Ireland, and Scotland in search of the truth about faeries: do or do they not exist? I admit I came to this book somewhat reluctantly. Although I could accept the possibility of what we call ‘angels’ being a form of Jungian archetype, faeries seemed to me to have less ‘substance’ somehow. Silly of me, really, but you can blame it on Disney-fication, the obnoxious cult of ‘cute’ that Bowdlerised the life out of tales from the Brothers Grimm and substituted an insultingly watered-down animated version of the stark realities that the old tales had provided to previous generations. The cult of cute is what gave childhood a bad name in my generation and made so many of us curtail it in favour of being ‘grown up’ and ‘putting childish things away’ prematurely.
Good Faeries, Bad Faeries
Outside the ‘cult of cute’, Faeries if they did exist, would necessarily have to be rather robust creatures to have survived the invasion of their planet by us heavy-footed humans as Signe discovers when she encounters a not so nice faery in Mexico and a few more in the land of Celtia. And indeed the stories that have been recorded by writers like Yeats and anthropologists like Evans-Wentz, are only the remnant of the ancient tales long lost to memory. Nevertheless, some of this lore survives even today, primarily in Celtic lands despite the rejection of their vast heritage by ‘modern’ Celts. Despite their protest that “of course, I don’t believe in all that”, inhabitants of areas associated with the realm of faery will nod their heads, or doff their caps, or otherwise express recognition of the fact that they are about to trespass on faery territory and silently ask permission of ‘themselves’ to cross the bridge or leave a token by a faery tree or cave as an expression of good will. Not that modern Celts believe in faeries; “Just indulging the bairns, you understand”… Mmm-hmm.
Coming Full Circle
Signe’s journey is poignant, sincerely sceptical, humbly receptive to the unknown, perpetually questioning, reluctantly accepting, and wonderingly awed and leavened with lots of wit and genuine charm. The odd grammatical errors notwithstanding (tsk, tsk, Signe) the book is an adult tour of lost childhood which leads us into the realm of ambiguity where our questions might not be answered but we have a grand time searching for answers. Highly recommended.
If you’d like to read Faery Tale either on Kindle or in hard copy or order a copy of Brian Froud’s Good Fairy, Bad Fairy, you will find both in Unseen Worlds HERE.
© Delia O’ Riordan 2012