“Fairies are nature spirits and the guardian angels of the natural world”, declares the blurb of Flavia Kate Peters’ tersely-named Fairies, which promises to “introduce…readers to the mysterious fairy world” and teach them “Where to find fairies and how to communicate with them”. I picked it up in a fit of open-mindedness, and also, if I am honest, childish nostalgia for flower fairies and the like.
A lot of this is actually just repackaged Wicca: Peters covers the Wheel of the Year, the five elements (each linked to a different type of fairy), moon magic and various correspondences, advocates environmental awareness and talks about reconnecting with nature and the landscape. All pretty uncontroversial Wiccan topics, if a little simplistically framed.
It’s the original content that is, uh, unconvincing, to say the least. The following passage is representative:
The Sylphs [fairies of Air] purify the air and so without these fairies we could not exist. They keep us alive. Sadly, they are having to work that much harder as the air is becoming more and more polluted. Before the Industrial Revolution, they had a much easier task, but since then they have had to work tirelessly to clean up pollution from car exhaust and factory fumes, methane gas emissions and even nuclear explosions!
Ohmyword, where to start with this nonsense.
My particular flavour of Neopaganism contains a lot that probably looks like nonsense to non-Pagans; Tarot is an obvious example. What’s different about this text? Does it go beyond the usual problem of religious writing, that it seeks to describe that which is by definition indescribable, and thus will always fall short?
I think Peters’ writing does come into it, thuddingly literal and radically over-simplified as it is. “The fairies work to purify the air” probably makes a lot more sense as an unverbalised concept than it does written down.
But. I mean. I don’t think it’s just a problem of verbalisation. There’s also something profoundly troubling about the text’s misunderstanding of how the earth’s ecosystem works and why we should care? As I said above, environmental awareness is a key theme of the book, and there’s sensible practical advice about what individuals can do. One way to help the sylphs, Peters suggests, is to
Become conscious of any chemicals that you use that might be harming the air, including the ozone layer, and substitute them with more environmentally friendly products. Encourage others to do the same.
But what’s lacking, I think, is systemic awareness: the tenet of interconnectedness that is a hallmark of Paganism. There’s a New Age-y kind of selfishness, or, better, self-absorption, to Fairies. You should look after the earth not because it is beautiful or sacred in itself, but to build a relationship with the fairies, who will in turn reward you with success in love or wealth. (A couple of times, Peters mentions incidents when she feels she’s been rewarded by the fairies: the reward is generally shiny jewellery, which is telling, I think.)
All of this – the writing style, the self-absorption – denies the mystery and magic that has been the province of Fairyland since time immemorial. Peters’ fairies are too relatable, too accessible, too humanised to be taken seriously. They are the worst of all things: they are twee.