Why Everyone (and Especially Christians) Should Believe in Fairies

Why Everyone (and Especially Christians) Should Believe in Fairies

[Note: this has been a widely shared post as I’ve noted here, and I’ve added a little more in part four of a series where I reposted this content on ClassicalU.com.]

As I keep reading and growing older, it seems increasingly obvious to me that we modern people become more and more blind and distracted with each passing year. We are troubled by our atomized lives and by the damage that we are doing to our world’s ecosystems. However, like people trapped in a maze of mirrors, we only chase a host of illusory solutions. Obviously, we also turn to entertainment. One simple and true antidote to this blindness, distraction and isolation is to seriously consider that our places are alive in a variety of ways far beyond our current reduced capacities to see. We have good reason to insist upon a world that is connected by layers of lives beyond our own. For Christians, a living place should be somewhat familiar as our scriptures are filled with skies and rivers that pour forth speech, stars that sing, mountains that clap their hands, an entire cosmos that waits with the groaning of birth pangs for humanity to be revealed as the divine image, and a God in whom we all live and move and have our being.

Although not acted upon consistently by many Christian cultures across various times and places, this living creation nonetheless shows up over and over across Christian history within hymns, prayers and even theological teaching. Theophanes the Branded wrote the hymn “Adam’s Complaint” near the end of his life, after being made Metropolitan of Nicaea in 842. This song is now part of every Orthodox Forgiveness Sunday (the last Sunday before the start of Lent). In this hymn, Adam sits disconsolate outside the gates of Eden and weeps over his banishment. At one point, Adam begs the garden and its plants to pray on his behalf:

O most-honored paradise, . . .beseech the Creator of all, by the tune of the rustling of Your leaves, to open for me the gates that I closed by sin.

While such language is certainly not a direct invocation of fairies (any who might be unusually sympathetic to our human plight), it affirms a living world that participates in the life of God as well as having some concern for our lives. I argue below that we should learn to ask the flowers to pray for us. It clears our vision when we consider as seriously as possible the myriad of long-lived, allusive, and often dreadful lives that share our cosmos or that make our places into a host of wild overlapping worlds. In the many particular human cultures across history, the world of fairies is just one name for several such realms that go about their lives within or alongside ours—sharing our rocks and rivers, our wildflowers and mountains. Every human culture spread across our planet for its entire history has seen a diverse array of creatures such as these and have considered them to be as real and obvious as the soil, the sparrows, the wind, and ourselves. It is only our secular age that has reduced the world to nothing but disconnected material resources. We see only a world of lifeless moving parts for us to control and reassemble so that we can have muscle cars, fast food, social media, and precision-guided munitions.

I’m being facetious to list mostly sad outcomes for the achievements of modern science, and there is nothing wrong with the focused methodologies that have permitted such great effectiveness in recent centuries of scientific research and technological development. However, we have used modern science in ways that are more negative than we generally realize, and the usefully focused methodologies have become a tragically diminished vision of reality. Of course, these are topics for other essays. Here, my point is that any advocacy is long overdo on behalf of the lost worlds of fairies and related beings.

Even if we can never find our way back to a sustained awareness or a communal vision of these overlapping worlds, we can regain some degree of understanding regarding their reality and distinct histories, and the pursuit of this understanding might guide us in our quest to find ways of making human homes together again within the many abandoned and broken places of our modern world. Of course this quest to better know fairies requires something from our lifestyles and daily habits rather than clever slogans or impressive funding options. I’m making the case that everyone who sits impassively on the sidelines or who laughs with derision when they overhear serious talk about the reality of fairies is actively reinforcing our sense that God is the designer of mechanical clockworks that He then simply observes from an imperial or neutral distance. Apathy toward fairies deepens our deadness to creation’s life and toward each other.

Put in the most general terms, this is just a simple plea for all aspects of our world to be acknowledged as alive in some real sense and as therefore participating in the eternal life of God. While my reflections will get far more specific and concrete about fairies, some will prefer to remain the respectful neighbors of such creatures from the distance of only the most sweeping and undeveloped claims. This reserved approach has its merits. Having never seen a fairy or other such creature myself, I can only claim a sustained attempt at giving some quiet attention to my place in this world. This disposition to our place at least allows for some sense of sorrow at the losses that my place sustains along with delights in its often quiet and always dappled majesty, and this simple point is the top item that I would hope for anyone to take away from my reflections here (and my reason for including reflections on the Susquehanna River at the end of this essay). Without declaring any universal rule of life, I will claim that stability with our places across generations is preferable to instability for both the peoples and the places. As we will see below, this intergenerational stability with a specific piece of land was a well-known prerequisite for the second sight (the ability to see the fairy realm). It is also something that is defended beautifully by many authors such as Richard Beck in Hunting Magic Eels: Recovering an Enchanted Faith in a Skeptical Age or in anything by Wendell Berry (with “The Presence of Nature in the Natural World: A Long Conversation” published in 2016 within A Small Porch being his most specifically fairy-related essay).

Human History and the Worlds of Fairy

As someone with a little formal training in history, my favorite approach to this topic is four historical claims. While I don’t have the space to fully defend these claims here, I will briefly do so after this initial outline.

First, every human culture that has existed for millennia in every place on our planet has innumerable oral accounts and written records of fairy-type creatures, and virtually every person before the 1600s would have believed in the existence of such creatures as a simple fact of life. Second, even in the present day, countless accounts of ancient and otherworldly creatures continue to come from those living close to their land and without all of the conveniences of modern life. We have many modern-day accounts of fairy-like creatures remaining as a part of everyday life for such communities worldwide.

Third, modern humans only stopped seeing these creatures on a regular basis only after they had started to colonize all other regions of the earth on a massive and unprecedented scale. This involved the disrupting and relocating of human populations that had been comparably stable for generations as well as the inflicting of massive casualties (through disease, conquest and brutal enslavement) on the local human populations in many parts of the world. Our blindness to a living creation also started only after we began to extract the earth’s resources at exponentially accelerated rates and with increasingly powerful mechanized tools. As a result, we began to depend regularly on resources and food that had been transported from far away parts of the globe.

Fourth, modern humans have had enough time (a period of about five centuries) to fully develop their own shroud of insulating pseudo-mythologies that have proven profoundly effective at protecting them from reality. Unmasking these elaborately-constructed stories would require many books, so I will cite just one simple example from philosopher Stephen R.L. Clark that he calls the most basic “fable” of modern culture:

The story that has most affected recent writers is that our ancestors were enmeshed in superstition, that “the Greeks” invented science to escape, then lost their nerve and succumbed again to “Oriental” fantasies. Popular works on science refer disparagingly to the “Dark Ages” and to “Medieval Superstition.” [1]

Each of these four historical claims would require a sizable pile of books to unpack. Few would disagree with the first point that every human culture (with the single exception of post-Enlightenment modernity) has produced a massive wealth of unique and local folklore. This is easily documented and is an ongoing fascination to folklorists, literary scholars, anthropologists, sociologists and psychologists. [2] However, few of these modern scholars ever stop and wonder why they themselves live in a culture that produces no folk stories (or anything other than increasingly sensational popular entertainment on the one hand and products for boutique markets on the other).

A few might argue that some educated folks in all ancient civilizations would have questioned such superstitions. The reality, however, is that, until only the past 500 years or so, even the most well-educated sages and doctors in all human civilizations clearly tended to take seriously the worlds of fairy-like creatures that surrounded them. [3]

As for my second claim about there being many modern accounts of fairies and other such mythic creatures, it would be easy for me to turn to personal stories (from my own 18 years growing up in a traditional Asian culture as well as from siblings and friends with time spent in many other regions of the world) as well as to numerous documented interviews with people living in communities that still report regular experiences with fairy-like creatures. However, I’ll just cite one example from religion scholar and Orthodox Christian author David Bentley Hart:

Of course mermaids exist. Or, to be more precise, of course water spirits and magical marine beings of every kind are real and numerous and, in certain circumstances, somewhat dangerous. …They also come from everywhere: all of Europe, the Americas, Africa, Polynesia, India, the greater Pacific, the Caribbean, Persia, the Far East, Oceania. Therein lies the real delight of this book. Its selections stretch as far back in time as Babylonian myths about Oannes, the sirens of the Odyssey, a Naga episode from the Bhagavata Purana. …More fascinating yet are the modern reports of real encounters with mermaids or other water-spirits, such as two from Zimbabwe, one from South Africa, three from northeastern India, and so on. They are so ingenuous, well-attested, and credible that only a brute would refuse to believe them. And, of course, there is a real moral imperative in not dismissing such tales as lies or delusions. [4]

When Hart mentions “a real moral imperative in not dismissing such tales,” he means that, if Christians base their entire faith upon the credible eye witness of poor and powerless people, then Christians should be careful not to slander and dismiss the witnesses of other poor and powerless people regarding any number of other realities that do not accord with our modern areas of blindness and prejudice. While we may feel that such witnesses (to the reality of mermaids and other such creatures) are ridiculous and superstitious, there are vast numbers of such witnesses from simple and honest people, and we make fools of ourselves as Christians when we ignore hosts of honest people who have nothing to gain by sharing what they share about the realities that they have known. To be blunt, such Christians reveal only their own inclinations to worship the now-familiar idols of the Enlightenment instead of standing up for God’s abiding truths.

Moving to my third point (about how European Christians stopped seeing fairies only when they started to colonize the world), I will give, again, just a couple favorite examples. Robert Kirk, author of The Secret Commonwealth in 1691 (of which I will share more below), notes that it was widely understood among all those with the second sight (the ability to see and converse with fairies) that they could only see such creatures while on their native soil where their ancestors had lived for generations. This experience accords with an insight from J.R.R. Tolkien that C.S. Lewis shared in a letter to Arthur Greeves (22 June 1930):

Tolkien once remarked to me that the feeling about home must have been quite different in the days when a family had fed on the produce of the same few miles of country for six generations, and that perhaps this was why they saw nymphs in the fountains and dryads in the woods – they were not mistaken for there was in a sense a real (not metaphorical) connection between them and the countryside. What had been earth and air and later corn, and later still bread, really was in them.

We of course who live on a standardised international diet (you may have had Canadian flour, English meat, Scotch oatmeal, African oranges, & Australian wine to day) are really artificial beings and have no connection (save in sentiment) with any place on earth. We are synthetic men, uprooted. The strength of the hills is not ours.

My fourth claim about our modern fables of enlightenment and progress probably takes us the most far afield from my main concerns in this essay, so I will avoid getting distracted. A few paragraphs up (with endnote 3), I’ve already shared three titles that debunk the myth of scientific enlightenment. To those three titles—as starting points in defense of this last historical claim—I would add contemporary classics such as The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis, A Secular Age by Charles Taylor, or The Unsettling of America by Wendell Berry. Finally, I’ll clarify that I do not see the practical goodness of modern science and technology as a necessary impediment to a human life that remains close to and respectful of our places across generations. We simply have not yet found any such ways of life together within the modern world. My hunch is that taking fairies and other such creatures seriously will help us all to find new ways of life together that allow us to dwell in each of this world’s beautiful places as true homes.

Christianity and Fairy Creatures

Interwoven with these four historical claims about secular modernity is the story of Christianity in relation to the world of fairies. Many have accused Christianity of being the primary catalyst for our loss of belief and vision with regard to any living worlds that overlap our own, and this accusation certainly has some truth to it. However, the Christian faith has had a host of different attitudes with regard to fairies, and this story is anything but simple. The world-renowned Christian teacher, Origen of Alexandria, clearly wrote (around 248) that the fairies and various nature spirits of paganism were both real and good:

We indeed also maintain with regard not only to the fruits of the earth, but to every flowing stream and every breath of air that the ground brings forth those things which are said to grow up naturally — that the water springs in fountains, and refreshes the earth with running streams — that the air is kept pure, and supports the life of those who breathe it, only in consequence of the agency and control of certain beings whom we may call invisible husbandmen and guardians; but we deny that those invisible agents are demons. [5]

Origen goes on to say in this same passage that evil powers are also mixed up with the benevolent spirits of creation:

And if we might speak boldly, we would say that if demons have any share at all in these things, to them belong famine, blasting of the vine and fruit trees, pestilence among men and beasts: all these are the proper occupations of demons.

Origen clearly understands there to be a wide variety of creatures at work in creation as “invisible husbandmen and guardians.” However, writing in the same region less than a century later (about 335), Athanasius of Alexandria gives an exclusively negative assessment of these same creatures:

Demons used to deceive men’s minds by taking up their abode in springs or rivers or trees or stones and imposing upon simple people by their frauds. But now, since the divine appearing of the Word, all this fantasy has ceased, for by the sign of the cross, if a man will but use it, he drives out their deceits. [6]

Again, just over a century later, we get a more mixed account from Jerome in the Life of Paul the Hermit (374 or 375). Jerome describes how Saint Anthony was on a journey in the desert to find Saint Paul the Hermit (of Thebes), and he describes Anthony meeting a centaur who Anthony then asks for directions. After struggling for a moment to speak clearly “through his bristling lips,” the centaur “finds a friendly mode of communication” and gives Anthony helpful direction. This creature then disappears across the plain. Jerome speculates a little evasively in conclusion: “whether the devil took this shape to terrify him, or whether it be that the desert which is known to abound in monstrous animals engenders that kind of creature also, we cannot decide.”

However, in the very next passage, Jerome takes a clear and definite position in favor of satyrs being real when he describes another meeting that Anthony has along the way. This second creature says:

“I am a mortal being and one of those inhabitants of the desert whom the Gentiles, deluded by various forms of error, worship under the names of Fauns, Satyrs, and Incubi. I am sent to represent my tribe. We pray you in our behalf to entreat the favor of your Lord and ours, who, we have learnt, came once to save the world, and ‘whose sound has gone forth into all the earth.”

Hearing this confession of faith from a faun, Anthony’s “cheeks streamed with tears, the marks of his deep feeling, which he shed in the fullness of his joy,” and he called out in prayer that humans might follow this example, forsaking their pagan pasts and joining in the worship of the true God. At this the faun, apparently satisfied by the saint’s response, disappears into the wilderness “as if on wings.”

This time, instead of a noncommittal statement about the reality of this creature, Jerome assures his readers at some length that Anthony’s encounter with this repentant faun should be understood in the most matter of fact way:

Let no one scruple to believe this incident; its truth is supported by what took place when Constantine was on the throne, a matter of which the whole world was witness. For a man of that kind was brought alive to Alexandria and shown as a wonderful sight to the people. Afterwards his lifeless body, to prevent its decay through the summer heat, was preserved in salt and brought to Antioch that the Emperor might see it.

While Jerome is heavy-handed and sensational in this conclusion (including his anecdote about the sad case of a satyr preserved in salt), there is no question about his own belief in such creatures and of his desire to convince his reader. While Christians generally used these beliefs in fabulous creatures to engage in their ongoing polemic against paganism, even the most well-educated Christian teachers took seriously the existence of such creatures and considered either that they might be good agents of God or that they might repent and enter into the kingdom of Jesus Christ.

This Christian tendency to embrace and to Christianize the fairy world was even more prominently and positively expressed within the Celtic Christian tradition and the Christianity of the British Isles more generally. Most famously, we have the declaration attributed to the sixth-century saint, Columba of Iona: “My Druid is Christ, the Son of God.” This is from a poem with Columba given as the author within The Yellow Book of Lecan, a composite Middle Irish manuscript written between 1391 and 1401. This declaration comes in the context of the Battle of Cúl Drebne (561) in which Columba had to overcome a “druidic mist” created by the druid of King Diarmaid of Tara to confuse the king’s opponents. [7]

It makes sense, then, that Richard Beck would see “the blending of Christian and druidic influences” in this Celtic Litany of the Creation.[8] This is a prayer for use in church services and makes reference to the Eucharist as well as the more well-known litany called the Broom of Devotion (which is also explicitly Eucharistic). These prayers for use in liturgical services sweep up everything in heaven and earth and place it all in relation to Jesus Christ as the life of God manifested in all of creation:

I beseech the people of heaven with bright-armed Michael; I beseech you by the triad of wind, sun, and moon.
I beseech you by water and the cruel air; I beseech you by fire, I beseech you by earth.
I beseech you by the threesome of the vaulted and fiery zone, I beseech you by the two temperate zones, I beseech you by the two frozen zones.
I beseech you by the compass of the harmonious firmament; I beseech every order dignified in its divisions, the host of the bright stars.
. . .I beseech all mysteries, I beseech the glories of Michael.
I beseech you by every living creature that ever knew death and life; I beseech you by every inanimate creature because of your fair and lovely mystery.
I beseech you by your love, deeper than the ocean; I beseech your very self, O King of the fierce sun.
. . .Every angel, every song, every creature under your power, every saint of fair color, by them I beseech you, O Father. I beseech you.
I beseech you by time with its clear divisions, I beseech you by darkness, I beseech you by light.
I beseech all the elements in heaven and earth that the eternal sweetness may be granted to my soul.
Your infinite pity, your power over battles, your gentleness to your debtors, O beloved and swift King.
To help me out of every conflict, by them I beseech you, O Father. I beseech you. [9]

Seeing all of creation as living and mysterious and involved in the life of God, it is no surprise that these Christians loved stories like that of St. Comhgall of Bangor baptizing a mermaid who then became a saint with her own feast day (listed as January 27 in the 8th or 9th century Irish martyrology Félire Óengusso). This mermaid’s capture is given in the year 558 (The Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland) or 571 (Annals of Ulster) or 565 (Chronicon Scotorum). However, the various popular stories about the mermaid Lí Ban and Saint Muirgein were not brought together most fully until the late 11th or early 12th century within the Aided Echach meic Maireda (“The death of Eochu mac Maireda”).

In another example, we have the life of a late 9th century Bishop Caenchomrac who is said to have spent many hours over multiple years visiting a monastery established by some Christian fairies at the bottom of a local lake. When he disappeared at the end of his life, saddened by the lack of piety in his own monastery, it was never known whether angels took him up to heaven or if he went permanently to live in the fairy monastery where the Christian devotion was more complete. This account of his life (taken from local traditions passed down orally) is called the “Disappearance of Caenchomrac” and is found in five manuscript versions (the earliest being 15th century). It was first printed in 1892 (within Silva Gadelica, edited and translated by Standish Hayes O’Grady). According to the Four Masters, Caenchomrac died in 898. [10]

Origin stories are another important aspect of the relationship between Christianity and fairies. Many consider the pre-Christian origin stories to involve the gods (Tuatha Dé Danann, “the folk of the goddess Danu”) and how these gods underwent a diminishment of their power and stature so that they became the fairy folk. Christian origin stories tend to fall into two categories with fairies being either a kind of mid-level angelic being or with them having human origins. Many of the stories with angelic origins reference material from Genesis and the later Enoch literature where the Archangel Michael advocates on behalf of some angels who have been banished to hell and wins for them the option of inhabiting hidden places upon the earth. In the various accounts of fairy folk having human origins, they are sometimes said to be the spirits of those killed during the flood in Noah’s day. Other accounts (of several varieties) make the fairies into the lost children of Eve. In one version, Eve has hidden some of her children with her as God comes to look for her, and she is too ashamed to reveal all of her children so that some of them become hidden forever. In other accounts, the fairies are the souls of the children killed at Bethlehem by Herod’s order or the souls of other innocents lost before birth or during birth and before being baptized. [11]

C.S. Lewis gives four possibilities regarding the classification of fairies:

  1. “a third rational species distinct from angels and men”
  2. “a special class of angels”
  3. “some special class of the dead”
  4. “fallen angels; in other words, devils” [12]

However, in the same work, Lewis does not declare any of these options to be definitive. Instead, he considers this lack of a clear place or category for fairies to be one of the main gifts offered to us by them and their world:

They are perhaps the only creatures to whom the [medieval Christian] Model does not assign, as it were, an official status. Herein lies their imaginative value. They soften the classic severity of the huge design. They intrude a welcome hint of wildness and uncertainty into a universe that is in danger of being a little too self-explanatory, too luminous.

Lewis also notes the complexity of the Christian relationship to the realm of fairy by pointing out that “within the same island and the same century Spenser could compliment Elizabeth I by identifying her with the Faerie Queene and a woman could be burned at Edinburgh in 1576 for ‘repairing with’ the fairies and the ‘Queen of Elfame.’”

Although there was certainly a fear of fairies rampant in much of the church during the Reformation era, there are clear examples of positive attitudes toward fairies surviving even long into the Reformed and Protestant periods in Scotland. Mentioned above once already, the Rev. Robert Kirk (1644-1692) was a Presbyterian minister and bold defender of Gaelic-speaking Christians who believed in fairies long after the Enlightenment and Reformation had made this unacceptable both theologically and intellectually. A scholar trained at St. Andrews and Edinburgh, Kirk authored the first complete metrical psalter in Gaelic in 1684, oversaw the first printing of a Gaelic Bible in 1690 (along with a glossary of 464 words that became the basis of many future Gaelic dictionaries) and finally his remarkable treatise on The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies in 1691. This book gathers together all that Kirk had learned (largely first-hand from his own parishioners) regarding these creatures of the fairy realm and presents this information in the format of a natural history study:

These Siths, or Fairies, they call Sleagh Maith . . .are said to be of a middle Nature betwixt Man and Angel, as were Dæmons thought to be of old; of intelligent fluidious Spirits, and light changeable Bodies, (like those called Astral,) somewhat of the Nature of a condensed Cloud, and best seen in Twilight.

While Kirk clearly details the capricious and dangerous aspects of fairies within his account, in an even later work from Scotland, we have evidence of fairies being seen in a very positive light. In the songs and stories collected by Alexander Carmichael from the Gaelic-speaking regions of Scotland between 1860 and 1909 and published as Carmina Gadelica, we have two examples of the “fairy bower” being conflated with paradise or heaven. One prayer for peace speaks of the desire to be with Jesus Christ in the dwelling of peace, the paradise of gentleness, “and in the fairy bower of mercy.” A second prayer asks for the “peace of fairy bowers.” This “fairy bower” seems to mean the normal dwelling place of the fairies. For example, one story refers to “the fairy bower beneath the knoll.” [13]

Although the Rev. Robert Kirk and these later Gaelic prayers would be exceptions among Reformed and Protestant Christians with regard to fairies, John Calvin himself has a passage that is remarkably close to the one from Origen cited above:

All creatures are animated by angelic motion: not that there is a conversion of the angel into an ox or a man, but because God exerts and diffuses his energy in a secret manner, so that no creature is content with his own peculiar vigor, but is animated by angels themselves. [14]

Among more recent Christians, C.S. Lewis advocates most famously for the world of fairies. He does this in many places but probably most systematically with his lecture on the “The Longaevi” (quoted above once already) from his course on medieval literature and published as chapter VI in The Discarded Image. Lewis chose the name longaevi (“long-livers”) instead of fairies because popular literature and Walt Disney had so thoroughly destroyed the name fairy. He warns us not “to bring to the subject some ready-made, modern concept of a Fairy” but insists instead that “we must go to the texts with an open mind and learn from them what the word fairy meant to our ancestors.” While many other examples could be given from the writings of Lewis, Prince Caspian is one other that I will note because the entire story revolves around the reenchantment of Narnia after all of the trees had fallen asleep and the few talking animals and magic creatures left alive had all retreated deep into hiding following generations of rule by Enlightened men who did not believe in foolish superstitions.

It is doubtful that Lewis thought such a reenchantment was possible for the modern world, but he clearly would have celebrated it:

When grave persons express their fear that England is relapsing into Paganism, I am tempted to reply, “Would that she were.” For I do not think it at all likely that we shall ever see Parliament opened by the slaughtering of a garlanded white bull in the House of Lords or Cabinet Ministers leaving sandwiches in Hyde Park as an offering for the Dryads. If such a state of affairs came about, then the Christian apologist would have something to work on. [15]

Many other more recent Christian authors could be sighted as well (not least among them G.K. Chesterton and George MacDonald), but J.R.R. Tolkien stands out as a particularly devout Roman Catholic who dedicated much of his life’s work to this lore. While Tolkien was circumspect regarding any of his own beliefs in fairies, there is some indication within a manuscript published after his death that he took fairies to be quite real:

If Fairies really exist—independently of Men—then very few of our ‘Fairy-stories’ have any relation to them: as little, or less than our ghost-stories have to the real events that may befall human personality (or form) after death. If Fairies exist they are bound by the Moral Law as is all the created Universe; but their duties and functions are not ours. They are not spirits of the dead, nor a branch of the human race, nor devils in fair shapes whose chief object is our deception and ruin. . . .They are a quite separate creation living in another mode. They appear to us in human form (with hands, faces, voices and language similar to our own): this may be their real form and their difference reside in something other than form, or it may be (probably is) only the way in which their presence affects us. Rabbits and eagles may be aware of them quite otherwise. For lack of a better word they may be called spirits, daemons: inherent powers of the created world, deriving more directly and ‘earlier’ (in terrestrial history) from the creating will of God, but nonetheless created, subject to Moral Law, capable of good and evil, and possibly (in this fallen world) actually sometimes evil. They are in fact non-incarnate minds (or souls) of a stature and even nature more near to that of Man (in some cases possibly less, in many maybe greater) than any other rational creatures, known or guessed by us. They can take form at will, or they could do so: they have or had a choice.

Thus a tree-fairy (or a dryad) is, or was, a minor spirit in the process of creation who aided as ‘agent’ in the making effective of the divine Tree-idea or some part of it, or of even of some one particular example: some tree. He is therefore now bound by use and love to Trees (or a tree), immortal while the world (and trees) last—never to escape, until the End. It is a dreadful Doom (to human minds if they are wise) in exchange for a splendid power. What fate awaits him beyond the Confines of the World, we cannot know. It is likely that the Fairy does not know himself. It is possible that nothing awaits him—outside the World and the Cycle of Story and of Time. [16]

Finally, I’ll note three living Christian authors who have defended the existence of fairies at some length. David Bentley Hart was already quoted regarding the reality of mermaids and has many other essays posted online related to fairies as well as extensive commentary regarding this topic within his book Roland in Moonlight. Hart’s passion on this question is extraordinary, and he clearly considers belief in fairies to be an essential element of any resistance to secular modernity and its mechanistic diminishment of our cosmos to a lifeless and unreal mirage of meaningless matter in motion or of human life to nothing but the rational pursuit of our own autonomous self-interests. The existence of fairies is not a negotiable question for Hart, and he made the following quip in a 2021 online interview (here with David Armstrong starting at 1:56:25):

It’s something worth devoting yourself to: …militantly resisting any suggestion that Christians have any business not believing in fairies. To be honest, I’m afraid that, right now, belief in fairies has got to be part of orthodoxy. It’s got to go right in the creed, right after “the life of the world to come” with “and in the meantime, aren’t fairies wonderful.”

Two other living Christian authors on this topic are John Milbank [17] and Stephen R.L. Clark [18], but I’m out of space to survey them here.

Of course, there are also many authors from other faiths as well. For example, Henry Corbin’s essay “Mundus Imaginalis or the Imaginary and the Imaginal” provides excellent material from the Islamic tradition. For obvious reasons, virtually every traditional human religion contains a wealth of material related to this topic, and it is a shame that Christians have grown so bad at considering this a gift from which we all can benefit. Finally, in more modern categories, much is available from a Jungian psychological perspective as well.

Overview of Fairy Worlds

Having taken something of a historical survey, I’ll briefly share my own thoughts in summary. Fairies make great sense theologically when all of creation is understood as incarnational—with Jesus Christ and humanity having a nature that is in communion with all else (given that humanity exists as the divine image and that all things are created and sustained by divine life). It also helps to note that there are multiple human and angelic falls recorded in the Old Testament and that no New Testament or early Christian author would have taken issue with there being a wide variety of angelic and human beings with a mix of motives and moral standings. After all, the universal understanding of the Nephilim at the time of Christ and for centuries afterward was that they were the children of humans and angels:

A central tenet of the most influential angelology of the [New Testament] age, derived as it was from the Noachic books of the intertestamental period, that angels had actually sired children—the monstrous nefilim—on human women. It is even arguable that no school of pagan thought, early or late, perhaps not even Platonism, really had a perfectly clear concept of any substance without extension. [19]

At the end of the day, I agree with Lewis that it is a blessing to have fairies as creatures who have no “official status” assigned to them and that they can thereby “intrude a welcome hint of wildness and uncertainty into a universe that is in danger of being a little too self-explanatory.”

Going even a step further, the middle spaces occupied by fairies and other such creatures actually help to make clear the ways in which all of creation is mixed inextricably together and participates in the eternal life of God. In all of the literature, there is a strange combination of independence and dependence when it comes to the world of fairies and our “everyday” human lives. Fairy culture is repeatedly portrayed as free and separate from human life as well as being both positively and negatively affected by our day-to-day decisions and actions. Many have spoken of fairy culture changing or developing alongside the human cultures nearest to them. For example, Hart contrasts the “more Titanic than Olympian” character of the New World faeries with “the winsome charm of their European counterparts” who were “exposed to centuries of Greco-Roman and Christian civilization.” [20] In his 2021 book Roland in Moonlight, Hart mentions that European fairies long ago became happy socialists (no doubt in Hart’s favorite mode of John Ruskin). Understandably, this tracking of fairy cultures alongside human cultures is often taken to be a projection of a colonial mindset. It is better understood, however, as just one example of the way in which all of life is interconnected. Creation goes through multiple ups and downs together, with more than one rise or fall happening at any given time. No doubt, the devastation of modern human lives driven into spiritual isolation and the incessant consumption of manufactured products has had a profoundly negative impact on the worlds of fairies, driving them also to their own kinds of isolation and destruction.

When it comes to understanding how all of this works, one of my favorite phrases is the one above from John Calvin: “God exerts and diffuses his energy in a secret manner, so that no creature is content with his own peculiar vigor, but is animated by angels themselves.” This almost Platonic language emphasizes our intermingled lives. While this is what makes divine communion an ultimate reality, within the topsy-turvy and contingent history of our fallen world, this intermingling shows up in a host of conflicting, inconsistent and even terrible ways.

At the same time, there is also the image of some fairies as simply being able to delight in their own lives, free within creation’s beauty and peace despite all of the misery and destruction. (“There lives the dearest freshness deep down things” as Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, or think of “The Peace of Wild Things” read here by its author Wendell Berry.) C.S. Lewis describes three kinds of fairies in his lecture on “The Longaevi,” and we certainly have a wide variety of not only kinds but of worlds and cultures among such creatures. Some of these kingdoms may be more bound up with our human fall than others, and some kingdoms may have a fallenness of their own to carry for a time. Even in Genesis, the experience of a fall is recounted in several ways and for several kinds of creatures.

Belief in fairies does not, of course, make us better people or more Christian. Among today’s modernized cultures, Iceland likely has one of the highest rates of those believing in fairies. [21] Yet they are a society where “since prenatal screening tests were introduced in Iceland in the early 2000s, the vast majority of women—close to 100 percent—who received a positive test for Down syndrome terminated their pregnancy.” [22]

At a minimum, it might be argued that the first benefit of any kind of belief in fairies is to strengthen our relationship with the world at large. Belief in fairies can slow us down, help us to attend and to be more ready, as Lewis says, to eventually hear about the kingship of Jesus Christ as something relevant to all of creation. Finally, in addition to helping us see and respect the world around us, the world of fairy can also show our fellow humans to us more fully. Tolkien intentionally connected his mythology with our own current history so that there would be the understanding that the human children of the ancient elves still walked our earth. [23] In Meeting the Other Crowd, Eddie Lenihan writes with respect for the Christian tradition while just outside of it, and he uses the idea of “changelings” to consider this idea of seeing our fellow humans as inhabiting the fairy world:

Christianity is clever here. It says that we are to see Christ in our fellow man, that this is how we may see God. But could anyone imagine seeing the fairies in his fellow man? . . .We see the otherworldly in our this-worldly “fallen” fellow man . . .in order to help him become what he really is, or get back to what he once was.

However, whatever the “benefits” might be from any kind of belief in fairies, it is most likely a serious distraction (not to mention pagan worship) to dwell upon them. What I am advocating is simply a respect for the stories and for the ways that our ancestors have lived in closer communion with each other and with their places than we typically do in our modern world. In the end, I do not think that we should seek to “regain” these ways of life and these ways of seeing. However, with patience and quiet respect over generations, we may be able to find new ways of dwelling in our places and of seeing layers of interconnected life within our world. Toward this end, I’ll conclude by sharing one extended example of how I’ve enjoyed dwelling as fully as I can in a particular river valley and come to appreciate something of its life.

The Susquehanna River

Despite my own experience of having moved to new homes over 30 times across three continents and of having spent most of the first 18 years of my life in southern Taiwan before returning to spend most of my adulthood in the northeastern United States, I have been blessed by some sense of place. To a large extent, my own most personal and extensive sense of place has revolved around my neighborhood’s central watercourse, the Susquehanna River. I hope that my account of this provides something of a practical conclusion to my reflections, with everyone being invited to recognize the many obvious and simple applications within their own lives.

The Susquehanna River is among the oldest in the world. At 543 to 248 million years old, there is evidence that this river predates the formation of the Appalachian Mountains and is older than much of the bedrock over which it flows, having long ago carved out its channel in the older rocks beneath the bedrock. In fact, the Susquehanna once flowed in the opposite direction, northward out of the now vanished Taconic Mountains, which the ancient river carried away into a sea out of which new mountains eventually rose. Along the flat bottom of a 40-mile-long gorge near the river’s end are the Susquehanna Deeps: six long and narrow depressions that extend 100 feet downward to well below sea level. This incredible history has inspired many state and local geologists such as Jeri Jones and has consistently landed the Susquehanna on lists of ancient rivers. [24]

Starting at the age of five, I can remember spending two long summer furloughs with my family in Otego, New York just below the Susquehanna’s current headwaters. (As far as I’m concerned, the river flows out of the Ingalls Blueberry Hill and Brewery Ommegang.) My uncles and cousins took me fishing in Briar Creek, and, once when I was closer to ten, some of us followed the creek on foot all the way to the river. During the start of middle school, I lived for a while about a hundred river miles to the south near where the Susquehanna crosses over into Pennsylvania. One Sunday morning, by terrible happenstance, I watched my good friend’s father leap into the river to his death from a highway bridge. He was a medical doctor with cancer and taking medication that caused devastating mental health side effects. For a year after college, I lived beside the Wyalusing Creek and paddled down it to the Susquehanna several times, once leaping from the canoe to foolishly catch a baby wood duck that ended up being swallowed whole by my sister’s dog. Now, decades later, I live near the end of the river’s meandering journey through eastern Pennsylvania and have watched minor league baseball in the stadium on City Island and sat with my wife’s godfather listening to his stories of ancestors who lived and farmed on Shelley Island for generations before the nuclear power plant was built nearby on Three Mile Island forcing them to leave. Multiple summers now, I’ve camped with family and friends on some of the Susquehanna’s many other unnamed islands. While living in York, I have splashed down to the river with my children along Willis Run and Codorus Creek. (Leading to a wonderful walk with medieval literature students as well as they prepared to write speeches in the voice of Willis Run.) While living in Harrisburg, we have likewise found our way to the great water by wandering down Parkway and Spring Creeks. This summer, my father is scheduled to finish the last leg of his kayak trip down the river’s 444 miles to the start of the Chesapeake Bay. For several years now, I’ve also stood in the snow with priests and parishioners from a few local churches as we sang the hymns of Theophany and celebrated Christ’s baptism here in our own river, rejoicing in its union with the holy waters of the Jordan.

The varieties of life along our river contrast in a thousand ways with the slow life of the ancient river itself. Sit quietly and watch the countless blooms (kingcup, bluebell, Jerusalem artichoke, cardinal flower, Joe-Pye weed) growing beside the Susquehanna and its tributaries. Read Andrew Moore about the pawpaws cultivated along its southern valley for generations before the Mayflower landed at Plymouth. Float slowly over some of the countless ancient eel weirs constructed along its riverbed by people with languages that no one has spoken for millennia. (An old capture basket at the end of an eel weir in Maine was carbon-dated to 6,000 years ago or two thousand years before the great pyramids of Egypt.)

When the sunlight dances on the surface of the Susquehanna or a stone rolls slowly over in its current, there is a life on display and a speech pouring forth that is older and slower than my life or the life of the rocks or the flowers or the eels. The Susquehanna is only a passing name for this ancient life spent gathering rainwater, reflecting sunlight, and moving mountains. It is a life with distinct features and yet fully present and participating in each of my moments spent beside it. This life is revealed to me and bound up with me and yet still a life that obviously does not belong to me. It is a life that is devastatingly foreign to mine and yet intimately connected. Whoever the god or goddess of the Susquehanna might be, I have no capacity to see, but I can make some effort to describe the life of this divinity. And I could, of course, also labor to describe the life of every bird and leaf and stone around me or even every cell or mitochondria within my body (as Madeleine L’Engle seeks to do with A Wind in the Door).

While no special visions are guaranteed or should be pursued as such, we should seek help toward some awareness of fairies by our ways of life in our most mundane and daily habits. In close second place, stories and poetry are also a great gift when integrated into our ways of life. Beyond our way of life and our dwelling with stories and poetry, we can also find help in other places. Even the simple findings of modern history, science and psychology can give perspective. Or we can gain categories of thought through the ancient world of metaphysics (see here for example) and even within our lives of prayer and worship and our final hope to be remembered by Christ in his kingdom.


[1] From Ancient Mediterranean Philosophy page 5. See here for more on this book. (Also, in full disclosure, here is a list of all of the top pseudo-mythologies of our own day as I understand them: history’s great turning point being a rational and secular Enlightenment, the scientific revolution as an enemy of religion, the cosmological vision of mechanistic materialism, and the existence of autonomous individuals with libertarian freedoms. Obviously, this list takes us far afield and would require many separate pages of explanation and defense. However, having brought up this topic, I felt that I owed some additional details.)

[2] For example, see Folklore: The Basics by Simon J. Bronner (2016).

[3] Here are a few books that debunk the myth of scientific enlightenment within the ancient world, while remaining positive about science as a practical art: Inventing Superstition: From the Hippocratics to the Christians by Dale B. Martin, Ancient Mediterranean Philosophy: An Introduction by Stephen R.L. Clark, and Flat Earths and Fake Footnotes: The Strange Tale of How the Conflict of Science and Christianity Was Written Into History by Derrick Peterson.

[4] From a review of “Selkies and Nixies: The Penguin Book of Mermaids” for The Lamp: A Catholic Journal of Literature, Science, the Fine Arts, Etc (Issue 2, Assumption 2020, pages 49-50). If you are not familiar with his work, Hart has published a translation of the New Testament with Yale University Press among many other books and academic accomplishments.

[5] From Contra Celsus 8.31.

[6] From On the Incarnation 8.47.

[7] See “‘My druid is Christ.’ The development and transformation of a tradition relating to St. Columba of Iona” by Alexandra Bergholm in North American Journal of Celtic Studies, 3.2, pp. 171-191, Ohio State UP, 2019.

[8] From Hunting Magic Eels: Recovering an Enchanted Faith in a Skeptical Age.

[9] From Celtic Spirituality: Classics of Western Spirituality by Oliver Davies (with Thomas O’ Loughlin) as well as “Texts and Transmissions of the Scúap Chrábaid: An Old-Irish Litany in its Manuscript Context” by Tomás O’Sullivan (Studia Celtica Fennica, No. VII, 2010).

[10] From “‘The Psalter of the Pig,’ an Irish Legend” by Tom Peete Cross in Modern Philology, 18.8, 1920, for details about this story and its five manuscript versions.

[11] See: Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, vol.2, 327; Drever, The Lure of the Kelpie, 1937; Keightley, pages 385-6; Evans Wentz Fairy Faith pp.172, 179 & 183, 147 & 148; and Shaw, History of the Province of Moray, 1775; and Meeting the Other Crowd: The Fairy Stories of Hidden Ireland by Eddie Lenihan and Carolyn Eve Green (2004).

[12] From chapter VI in The Discarded Image, entitled “The Longaevi.”

[13] From vol.3, 177; vol.3, 269; and vol.2. 286 respectively as compiled by John Kruse.

[14] From Calvin’s Commentary on Ezekiel (volume 1, addressing Ezekiel 10:17).

[15] “Is Theism Important? A Reply” from the Socratic Digest, 1952.

[16] From “Manuscript B” that was published posthumously in Tolkien on Fairy-stories (ed. Verlyn Flieger & Douglas A. Anderson, pp. 254-5).

[17] “Stanton Lecture 8: The Surprise of the Imagined” from the 2021 Stanton Lectures at Cambridge (online here).

[18] See “Why We Believe in Fairies” with First Things and “How to Believe in Fairies” (from Inquiry: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy 30.4:337-355, 1987).

[19] From “The Spiritual Was More Substantial Than the Material for the Ancients” by David Bentley Hart (July 2018). Also, Hart wrote in his March 10, 2022 subscription newsletter posting that: “One must cease to think that only the material body possesses extension in any sense; one must learn not to treat words like ‘soul,’ ‘spirit,’ and ‘mind’ as interchangeable terms for one and the same thing; and one must most emphatically not think of soul or spirit or mind as necessarily incorporeal in the absolute sense of lacking all extension or consistency.” And regarding this understanding of spirit by Paul, Hart has said in the same place: “There are all sorts of things in Paul that cannot be directly retained, but that one seems unproblematic.”

[20] From “The Secret Commonwealth” from 2009.

[21] At 62% of the nation according to a 2007 study by the University of Iceland, see here.

[22] Julian Quinones writing in August 2017 for CBS News.

[23] From The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien edited by Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien, Letter 211, (dated 14 October 1958): “I hope the, evidently long but undefined, gap in time between the Fall of Barad-dur and our Days is sufficient for ‘literary credibility’, even for readers acquainted with what is known or surmised of ‘pre-history’. . . .I imagine the gap to be about 6000 years: that is we are now at the end of the Fifth Age, if the Ages were of about the same length as S.A. and T.A. But they have, I think, quickened; and I imagine we are actually at the end of the Sixth Age, or in the Seventh.” Two years after this letter, Tolkien changed this idea and wrote that, instead, we were already in the year 1960 of the Seventh Age. See The Nature of Middle-earth edited by Carl F. Hostetter, “Part One. Time and Ageing: VI. The Awaking of the Quendi”, p. 39.

[24] See these various sources for more material related to information in this paragraph: hereherehereherehere, and here.

An illustration from the works of George MacDonald by Arthur Hughes (“The Beautiful Lady” and “The Wind and the Moon”) and Jessie Willcox Smith (At the Back of the North Wind).