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Saturday, 11 July 2020

A Famous Family's Fairies

       A wonderful thing, the internet! So many old books and documents are now online. I first read this story in one of Janet Bord's books, and even she had to rely on a secondary source. However, it took me just an hour one night to run the original source to earth. The information this times comes from a highly respectable source: the Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould (1834 - 1924), clergyman, archaeologist, folklorist, novelist, short story writer, and father of fifteen. These days he is remembered mostly as the author of "Onward, Christian Soldiers" and Curious Myths of the Middle Ages, but in his time he was up there with Andrew Lang, Thomas Carlyle, and other prominent Victorian men of letters. And in 1890 he wrote In Troubadour-Land, a ramble in Provence and Languedoc. The relevant pages are 65 and 66 because he had travelled there both as an adult and as a child, so after describing an area known as the Crau, he introduced a childhood anecdote.
     When I was a child of five years [1839] my father's carriage with post horses was crossing the Crau. It was in summer. I sat on the box with my father and looked at the postilions. Presently I saw a number of little figures of men with peaked caps running about the horses and making attempts to scramble up them. I said something about what I saw, whereupon my father stopped the carriage and put me inside with my mother. The heat of the sun on my head, he concluded, had produced these illusions. For some time I continued to see these dwarfs running among the pebbles of the Crau, jumping over tufts of grass, or careering along the road by the carriage side, making faces at me. But gradually their number decreased, and I failed finally to see any more.
     One June day in the year 1884, one of my boys, then aged eight [most likely Julian, born 1877], was picking gooseberries in the fruit garden at home, when, standing between the bushes, he saw a little man of his own height, with a brown peaked cap, a red jacket, and green breeches. He had black hair and whiskers and beard. He looked angrily at the boy and said something. The child was frightened, ran indoors and told his elder brother [Edward, born 1871] and sister. They brought him to me, and his elder brother repeated the story, but purposely varied the description of the apparition, so as to see whether the lad held to the same account, but the child at once corrected him, and told me his story, which his brother informed me agreed exactly with what in his alarm, he had first told. The little boy was looking white, and frightened. Again a case of sun on the head. 
     Now for another. A lady whom I know very well indeed, and who never deviated from the truth in her life—save when she swore at the altar to honour and obey me—was walking one day, when a girl of thirteen, beside a quickset hedge; her brother was on the other side. I believe they were looking for birds' nests. All at once she saw a little man dressed entirely in green, with jacket, breeches, and high peaked hat, seated in the hedge, staring at her. She was paralysed with terror for a moment, then recovering herself, she called to her brother to come round and see the little green man. When he arrived the dwarf had disappeared. [Grace Baring-Gould née Taylor, 1850 -1916. This would have been at Horbury, West Yorkshire in 1863, the year before she met him.]
     Now these are funny stories, and are to be explained by the fact that the sun was hot on the head. But it does not strike me that the explanation is wholly satisfactory. Why should the sun on the head superinduce visions of kobolds? Is it because other people have suffered from a hot sun, and that the hot sun reproduces year after year the same phenomenon, that the fable of little men, pixies, gnomes, brownies, fairies, leprechauns is to be found everywhere? Or—is it possible that there is such a little creation only visible to man when he is subject to certain influences? Sir Charles Isham, of Lamport, has collected a good deal of evidence of a similar nature. I do not venture to express an opinion one way or another. I can remember still, with vividness, the impression produced on me by what I saw that hot day on the Crau, when but a child of five years; but I cannot for the life of me explain it satisfactorily to myself.
     Needless to say, he had reason to have reservations about the sun hypothesis. Ask the people of California and Florida. Indeed, ask me, because I have lived all but ten of my 71 years in a subtropical capital. The hot sun does not cause you to "see things". And if it did, what you saw would not be limited to the faery realm.
     In any case, here we have a prominent person, with nothing to gain by it, telling a fantastic story. Although he was a clergyman, he saw no religious significance in it. Indeed, it would be more appropriate for someone like Sir Charles Isham, who was a spiritualist, and started the garden gnome craze. Baring-Gould admitted that he did not understand the experience, but he did not make a big deal of it. It was just something sandwiched in the middle of an account of other matters. I can't see any reason to doubt that he was telling the truth as he saw it.
     But we are also presented with two features common to these experiences: they happened to children, but they were remembered vividly as real events when they became adults. Note also that the son was a blood relation of the other two witnessess. Does susceptibility to seeing such otherwise invisible beings run in the family?
     And one wonders how many other such stories are "out there", but remain hidden in more obscure publications.

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