Jason Goodwin

Fear of little men

That Sherlock Holmes’s creator should have been duped by two young girls and their hoax photographs shows his desperation to believe in the ‘Other Side’

When this survey of British fairydom arrived I turned to the chapter on Dorset to read about the little people of my county. After a survey of place names referring to the ‘puca’, which may or not connect with Shakespeare’s Puck, I received the disheartening news that Dorset wasn’t very good for fairies, and that there was even ‘something surprising about the absence of elves’. So I did what I was supposed to have done first, and read the introduction.

Magical Folk is a collection of folklore essays, topographically arranged, and its editors welcome ‘the digitisation of millions of pages of British and Irish newspapers,’ which has allowed researchers to Google fairies from ‘200-year-old pages of ephemera’. They refer to ‘The Fairy Census, the first scholarly survey of contemporary fairy sightings’, and discuss the baleful effect on fairy scholarship of the Cottingley fairy hoax of the 1920s, which took in Arthur Conan Doyle.

Here is Mrs C. Woods, walking on Dartmoor in 1952 when she saw a three-foot tall old man in a smock:

I had no idea at first that he was a little man; I thought rather of some animal until I got much nearer, and then I just stared and said to myself, ‘This is no animal, it is a tiny man in brown.’

This seems to be as good as it gets with modern fairies. Olden day fairies, in various parts of our isles, would steal babies, lure travellers to their boggy doom, bake tiny cakes for hungry husbandmen, attend dances, milk a cow and help or harm country folk according to whim or their just desserts.

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